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I want to quote some survey data in support of this amendment from the Armed Services Association. It carried out a survey that was published in July 2008. It surveyed a large sample of the Army personnel—8,719—and therefore I believe that the findings have veracity. It found that only 69 per cent of service personnel were registered to vote; only 62 per cent of armed service respondents reported that they were registered. Most worryingly, only 43 per cent of overseas personnel were registered to vote. Some 31 per cent of personnel who were not registered to vote said that they did not receive an electoral registration form. Seventy per cent of units had still not held a service electoral registration day, informing personnel how to register to vote. Local authority electoral registration officers are keen to ensure that service personnel continue to have the option of being registered as ordinary electors rather than returning to the pre-2001 mandatory service-personnel registration system administered by the Ministry of Defence. That is why we have tabled this amendment.

The proposed course of action in the Political Parties and Elections Bill is to amend the Representation of the People Act, specifically Section 15, to include a service declaration. Subsection (2)(a) of that section is removed, but it provides for the electoral registration officer to determine after a 12-month period whether or not a person is entitled to be registered. The effect of the above changes in the new clause would be to allow service personnel to continue to decide whether they would wish to be registered as individual electors or as service voters. Where an individual decided to register as a service voter, there would be an obligation on the Ministry of Defence to co-ordinate with local authority registration officers on the information that they maintain to ensure that service personnel are registered. I beg to move.

Lord Rennard: We clearly agree in principle with this amendment. The arguments were well put by the noble Lord, Lord Bates. The cause was championed frequently by the late and much missed Lord Garden from the Liberal Democrat Benches. The Minister will have to make a very strong case as to why we may not agree with it.

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Lord Bach: The new clause makes amendments to Section 15 of the 1983 Act. Subsection (2) of the new clause would remove the fixed period provided by the

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1983 Act after which a person registered in pursuance of a service declaration will cease to be registered. Subsection (3) of the new clause would remove the provisions which give the Secretary of State the power to make an order varying the period. That power was exercised in the Service Voters’ Registration Period Order 2006, which set the period for which a service voter could remain registered under a single service declaration at three years.

As an alternative to service registration, service voters can register as ordinary electors when they are eligible to do so by virtue of their residence. The practical result of these provisions would be that those persons registered in pursuance of service declaration will remain registered as electors until the registration officer has reason to think they are no longer entitled to be registered, they cancel the declaration or they register elsewhere.

On the surface, this amendment might appear to address concerns about under-registration among service personnel. However, registering service personnel to vote in one place for an indefinite period previously created inaccuracies in the electoral register, which led to the introduction of a 12-month limitation on service voter registrations in the 2000 Act. In practice this amendment would simply re-introduce the same inaccuracies to the electoral register, so that we have high registration rates, but low participation levels during elections because of the inaccuracies.

I reassure the Committee that we are serious about increasing registration rates among service voters. I remember with affection Lord Garden—we were opposite each other for a number of years in the defence field—arguing that there was too little registration among the Armed Forces. He did so with passion and effect.

Since 2005 the MOD has been working with the Electoral Commission to address under-registration among members of the Armed Forces. Bimonthly meetings are held to develop information campaigns with MoJ officials also in attendance. Each year a campaign is run around the same time as the annual canvass to provide information to Armed Forces personnel and their families about methods of registration, with particular focus being placed on the service declaration facility. The 2008 information campaign was run between October and November, and activities included sending a combined service voter registration leaflet and application form to service personnel in 5,000 military units across the world; holding registration days in each unit led by a dedicated unit registration officer; advertisements in service broadcast and print media; placing information on the Electoral Commission and MoD's websites; and providing additional guidance and tools, such as promotional posters and resource CDs to all units.

The MoD is not in favour of this amendment; it has serious concerns about it. It believes that if service personnel were registered indefinitely, they would continue their very mobile careers expecting to be automatically

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re-registered in any new UK constituency in which they may come to be resident, and as a result they would fail to re-register when moving constituencies. It is the MoD’s view that this will lead to personnel being disenfranchised because their registration details will be out of date.

We think that the three-year period strikes the right balance between encouraging service personnel to register and maintaining an accurate register. That is not the only reason for maintaining the current position; the existing regime allows that period to be varied by order if the view is reached, on consideration of the evidence, that a longer or shorter period would be beneficial. We think that retaining that flexibility is important. Furthermore, the annual information campaign run by the EC and MoD is encouraging members of the Armed Forces to register to vote or update their registration details where they have moved and the choice of registering as an ordinary elector or service voter is helping to maximise registration rates in the forces. The Government do not want to undo this good work.

It is for those reasons that we think that this extremely well meant amendment should be withdrawn.

Lord Bates: I am grateful for the support that the amendment has received from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. The campaign fought very diligently by Lord Garden is something that we take very seriously. He was a champion of this cause, which should increase the weight that these concerns are given.

The briefing for the Minister’s response sounds as if the Ministry of Defence has contributed to that, but the evidence seems to dispute it. The Minister cites the action which was taken in 2008. I was citing service evidence from July 2008 that said that 70 per cent of units had still not held a service electoral registration day informing personnel how to register to vote, a commitment that was given. I am disappointed that the Ministry of Defence should regard it as an administrative burden. Surely all members of the Armed Forces ought to be encouraged to take an active part in the democratic systems and processes of this country. Whatever the administrative burden may be, it would be worth while.

There is a suggestion of a modification for those who are most mobile which I would like the Minister to consider. A form could be sent around on an annual basis asking people if they had changed their place of residence or address in the UK. Failure to receive the form back would be an indication that they had not. That might also provide some additional reassurance that the electoral register is kept up to date.

Given the Minister’s position, I will obviously withdraw the amendment, but I ask him to seriously consider this before Report. We will consider returning to the subject on Report to see if it is possible to get a more positive response.

Amendment 130 withdrawn.

Amendments 131 and 132 not moved.

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Amendment 132A

Moved by Lord Greaves

132A: After Clause 23, insert the following new Clause—

“Absent voting

(1) Schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000 (c. 2) is amended as follows.

(2) For sub-paragraphs (1), (2) and (3) of paragraph 3 there is substituted—

“(1) Where a person applies to the registration officer to vote by post or proxy at parliamentary elections, at local government elections or at both (whether for an indefinite period or for a particular period specified in his application), the registration officer shall grant the application if—

(a) he is satisfied that the applicant is eligible to vote by post or proxy at elections to which the application relates,

(b) he is satisfied that the applicant is or will be registered in the register of parliamentary electors, local government electors or both (as the case may be), and

(c) the application meets the prescribed requirements.

(2) For the purposes of this paragraph a person is eligible to vote by post or proxy at parliamentary or local government elections—

(a) if he is or will be registered as a service voter,

(b) if he cannot reasonably be expected—

(i) to go in person to the polling station allotted or likely to be allotted to him under the appropriate rules, or

(ii) to vote unaided there,

by reason of blindness or other physical incapacity,

(c) if he cannot reasonably be expected to go in person to that polling station by reason of the general nature of his occupation, service or employment or that of his spouse, or by reason of his attendance on a course provided by an educational institution or that of his spouse, or

(d) if he cannot go in person from his qualifying address to that polling station without making a journey by air or sea,

and a person is also eligible to vote by proxy at parliamentary elections if he is or will be registered in pursuance of an overseas elector’s declaration.

(3) For sub-paragraphs (1) and (2) of paragraph 4 there is substituted—

“(1) Where a person applies to the registration officer to vote by post or proxy at a particular parliamentary or local government election the registration office shall grant the application if—

(a) he is satisfied that the applicant’s circumstances on the date of the poll will be or are likely to be such that he cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station allotted or likely to be allotted to him under the appropriate rules,

(b) he is satisfied that the applicant is or will be registered in the register of parliamentary electors, local government electors or both (as the case may be), and

(c) the application meets the prescribed requirements.”

Lord Greaves: This is a distinctly Back-Bench amendment. I will be interested to know what my Front-Bench colleagues think about it. It would introduce a new clause amending Schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000.The aim is to return the postal voting system, in general terms, to that which existed before 2000 by putting postal and proxy votes on the same basis. The Minister may tell me that the amendment is not exactly right in purely technical terms. I do not

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know if it is or not; I have done my best. Clearly, it has been tabled to instigate a general debate on postal voting and is similar in intention, although not at all in wording, to an amendment tabled in the House of Commons by Mr Douglas Hogg which was unfortunately not debated.

In simple terms, the amendment would abolish postal voting on demand. If I had more time to consider matters carefully, I would want to restrict postal voting further than that. I hope that the country will look seriously at advanced voting systems as an alternative to postal voting, of the kind that we discovered to our surprise are pretty widespread in the United States, which restricts postal voting to grounds of infirmity and illness. However, that is not what the amendment would do. It would abolish postal voting on demand, which was introduced in 2000 with the best of intentions. It has proved to be a system that is wide open to electoral fraud, corruption and fiddling, and is a thoroughly bad thing.

In the previous debate but one, the Minister talked about the importance of the “convenience” of voting. I am interested that he is still using that word because it was almost predominant when we were talking about the old postal voting pilots that the Government used when were talking about the then Electoral Administration Bill in 2006, when I was ploughing the same furrow. They talked about convenience and increasing turnout. Unfortunately, there are unintended consequences, many of which I believe are unavoidable.

I was looking back through the huge piles of material on postal voting that I have received over the past few years, and I again picked up the Electoral Commission’s report of August 2004, following the last European election, called Delivering Democracy? The Future of Postal Voting. The commission has carried out various surveys about whether people find that system of voting convenient and so on, and the Government have relied on that information. The report has a very interesting Table 1 entitled “People’s priorities for voting arrangements”, and it was written back in 2004, before a lot of the publicity about postal voting fraud had come out. The question posed was:

“Thinking generally about elections, which one of the following would you say is most important to you when you vote?”.

The result for all adults was as follows: “My vote being private”, 33 per cent; “My vote being safe from fraud or abuse”, 30 per cent; “Voting being convenient”, 20 per cent; “Voting being easy to use”, 15 per cent; and “Don’t know”, 1 per cent. In the over-55 age group, the proportion that thought that voting being either convenient or easy to use was important was down to a combined figure of 24 per cent. I thought that that was quite interesting.

My suspicion is that a similar survey would now be more biased towards voting being private and not open to fraud. As a result of the publicity in the local press to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, referred and also in the national press, and as a result of the national scandals that have occurred—notably the case in Birmingham, various cases in East Lancashire and the recent case in Slough—I think that the

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Government have to take account of what is an increasing perception. A prosecuting lawyer clearly overstates the case many times. Again, I quote the Daily Mail of 2 May—my favourite reading:

“Charles Miskin, prosecuting, told the court on Friday the action of the convicted vote-riggers was like a virus that needed to be eradicated. ‘This week the newspapers are full of what has been called the swine fever pandemic, but there has been another epidemic that has been working its way across the United Kingdom in recent years’, he said. ‘Not of course a threat to life and limb but one that attacks, effects”,—

I think that that should be “affects”—

He quoted the famous, or infamous, comments of Richard Mawrey QC, following the Birmingham case, about banana republics and so on. He went on to say:

“The systems to deal with fraud are not working well, they are not working badly—the fact is there are no real systems. Until there are, fraud will continue unabated. The system for voting would disgrace a banana republic”.

There is an increasing perception in this country, which I believe is accurate, that the incidence of voting fraud is on the increase. It may be said that it happens only in a few cases, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said this afternoon that it occurs in only a few places. However, I think that it happens in more than a few places. I have a big lever-arch file full of these cases, which I add to over the years, particularly when we have debates here, and it is getting bigger and bigger. It does not happen in the majority of cases and it is not endemic throughout the country, but it does not occur in only a small number of places and it is not a small number of cases. In my judgment, the number of incidents that get to court are a fairly small proportion—I would even say a tiny proportion—of the total.

The problem with postal voting is that it is not secure. I have entertained people previously with quotes from debates on the Ballot Act 1872 and I have quoted Mr Gladstone saying why he was converted to the idea of secret ballots. In that debate, a Mr J Lowther proposed that postal votes should be allowed, that the returning officer should be allowed to distribute votes to people at their addresses and that they could return them to the town hall or wherever. There were warnings in that debate about the evils of proxies and canvassers going about armed with voting papers. Some of us have observed this in the streets; it is happening in this country today. The Ballot Act was introduced to abolish the appalling amount of fraud and bribery which existed before then, when votes were open and people knew how people were voting. If you do not know how someone has voted, all the bribery or intimidation in the world will not work because people can say, “Yes, we have done what you told us to do”. In the privacy of the polling booths, people can do what they want.

7.15 pm

More and more safeguards and complications will be required if postal voting on demand is continued. That will result in more postal voters losing their votes because the more complications that are brought in the more people will fail to meet the tasks. The figures

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of 5 per cent and 10 per cent which I quoted earlier in two town council by-elections are serious. People are being encouraged to vote by post and some of the votes are being ruled out because they have not fulfilled the obligations.

I have no doubt that in at least one of those by-elections some of those votes were fraudulent votes—I know they were. You can tell what postal votes look like when you have been around a bit. They all look different: people use different pens and some people tick or put things in different places. I am absolutely convinced that some of those votes in that by-election had been filled in by people other than the electors. I have seen them before and I know what they look like. Some of them were not stolen; some of them were ruled out because people simply had not coped with the bureaucratic system. The more postal votes you have and the more safeguards you have, the more that will be a problem.

Those who want to fiddle the votes will find more and more ingenious ways of getting round the rules. After the Birmingham case, I think voting warehouses will no longer be possible but there are other ways. There is no point pretending that the main problem is not in the south Asian community. I refer to the report published by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in 2008, Purity of Elections: Causes of Concern by Stuart Wilks-Heeg of the University of Liverpool. He confirms that:

“Greater use of postal voting has made UK elections far more vulnerable to fraud and resulted in several instances of large-scale fraud. ... Public confidence in the electoral process in the UK was the lowest in Western Europe in 1997, and has almost certainly declined further as a result of the extension of postal voting. The benefits of postal and electronic voting have been exaggerated”.

An interesting part of the report is the section on political and social geography of electoral malpractice. The combination of extended families with a fairly strict hierarchy and links to villages, where the village politics come in, and the biraderi clan system results in people not being able to vote as they want to.

My final quote from this report is not from a political ally of mine but from Salma Yaqoob, the Respect councillor in Birmingham, who talks about how votes are taken away from women in Asian families. That happens all the time. She says in the report that:

“Women in particular have been disenfranchised. Postal votes are filled out in the ‘privacy’ of one’s own home. But it is not private when family members, candidates or supporters, can influence subtly or otherwise, the way you complete your vote. Community leaders may claim to be able to yield significant voter blocs, but no one can interfere with the secrecy of the polling station”.

Many young Asian women have complained to me that they are no longer allowed to go to the polling station, where they can vote how like, whether it is for my party or any other. I continue the quote:

“A secret ballot means that loyalties to families and friends can be maintained in public, but political arguments can still win out in the real privacy of the voting booth”.

Those are exactly the same arguments that Mr Gladstone made in 1872 in relation to bribery. That is why postal voting on demand has had appalling, unintended consequences. I beg to move.

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Lord Campbell-Savours: We have 25 minutes left to complete this stage of the Bill. All I can say is that I completely support what the noble Lord has said.

Lord Bates: The noble Lord has rehearsed a number of the arguments that were raised in relation to the previous group. There is no question that concern is felt about the misuse of postal ballots, but our view is that the answer to that is right use, which is what we proposed though our amendments on personal identification and how it can be secured. There are two issues here: first, the Electoral Commission, whose comments we all take seriously, says that it continues to support the availability of postal voting on demand in Great Britain, but that changes to improve security and reliability of postal voting are none the less essential. We agree with that. It is a question of mechanism. Secondly, the noble Lord’s proposed new clause would place an extraordinary burden on the returning officers, who would be forced to adjudicate as to who is eligible and who is not.

My final point is an anecdote. One of my first jobs, while still a student, was as a voter registration officer and accounting clerk in European, local and general elections in the late 1970s. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke about one particular community; I was the electoral registration officer in a pretty tough area of Gateshead. One of the problems that we had was husbands coming in with their wives to vote, peering around the corner to see who their wives were voting for and in some cases tearing up the ballot paper. Arguments would often ensue. So it is a problem that is faced by all communities, which is why we need integrity in the system and protection for everybody.

Lord Rennard: I am sorry if I slightly disappoint my noble friend by saying simply that the problem with his amendment is that it tries to put the genie back into the bottle, which, nine years after it was let out, is rather hard. I confessed earlier that we made a mistake in 2000 in allowing the extension of postal voting on demand without the proper safeguards that we should have insisted on at the time. Having done that, our real priority now is to make as rapid progress as possible with a system of personal identifiers to avoid some of the potential for abuse which is clear in the system now. We made some significant progress on this issue with the Electoral Administration Act 2006: we now insist, for example, on the signature and the date of birth accompanying the application to vote by post, and we have got rid of the witness signature form, which was sometimes an even bigger barrier to people being able to vote by post than the problems which my noble friend has indicated so far.

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