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Five years ago, in the 2004 elections, I led the opposition in this House to what I called compulsory postal voting when the Government extended what they called pilots and introduced all-postal voting in the northern half of England for the European and local elections. I did so when this House defeated the other place on five occasions, an almost unprecedented number. I said in argument that it was wrong to have compulsory postal voting and that people should have a choice as to whether to vote by post or at a polling
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Lord Bach: The amendment seeks to amend provisions in the 2000 Act concerning absent voting in Great Britain in order to remove the current availability of postal voting on demand. Instead, postal voting would be available in limited cases only and electors wishing to have a postal vote would be required to demonstrate that they are unable to get to the polling station to vote in person. It is an attempt to move the clock back to what the law was before 2000, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was, as always, completely frank about that.
As I said earlier, the greater availability of postal voting has generally proved popular, with many voters finding it convenient to cast their vote in a way that fits in with their busy lives. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred to the all-postal ballots that took place in some parts of Great Britain during the 2004 European elections. Whatever faults there may or may not have been in that, certainly the number of people who voted went up compared to the election before it. However, we are not talking about all-postal votes but the system of postal votes that has pertained since the passing of the 2000 Act. Postal voting gives greater choice to electors and I am concerned that the amendment, if carried, would deny many people the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights.
Of course there have been justifiable concerns about security and we have put in place a number of measures to safeguard the security of postal voting. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, mentioned the 2006 Act and the associated secondary legislation. Measures include the requirement for electors to provide some personal identifiers. If they wish to have a postal vote, identifiers must be replicated by electors when they cast their postal votes and are cross-checked. We have provided for new secrecy warnings on postal and proxy voting papers to do our best to deter any attempt unlawfully to influence another persons vote. Further, after every election, a marked register of those who voted by post is published, which will enable individuals to check that their postal vote was received. In an investigation, the police would be able to check with any individual whether they actually voted by post or whether their vote was stolen from them.
In addition, we have supported the work of the police and the Electoral Commission in improving police awareness of and response to allegations of electoral fraud, including the production of guidance on the detection and prevention of fraud. This has resulted in much more effective working between returning officers and local police.
The Slough case, the most recent, shows that persons who attempt to carry out electoral fraud will face serious consequences. The separate evaluation reports produced by the Electoral Commission on the 2007 and 2008 elections have concluded that the action we
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I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will be surprised to hear that we do not plan to restrict the availability of postal voting. However, I emphasise that we are not complacent about this issue and that we will keep postal voting under review to ensure that our electoral system remains secure. Inasmuch as the noble Lord wants to see it secure, we are absolutely with him. I hope on the basis of what I have said, the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
Lord Greaves: I will in a minute. Whether or not the Government keep this matter under review, I shall keep harassing them over it and producing all the evidence that I can at all times. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, said that my system would be a burden on electoral registration officers. Well, it is just going back to the old system, which was not thought to be burden and would actually remove a much larger burden: the volume of postal votes that now come in. If they all have to be 100 per cent checked, which they do, then that would be the bigger burden.
The Minister referred to the increase in turnout at the last European election due to postal votes. He is quite right: there was a general increase in turnout. However, that part which was a result of the old postal votes was about 5 per cent. Let us get that in perspective: there was an increase, but it was not very much.
I hear what my noble friend Lord Rennard said. I am tempted to say that all political parties have a vested interest in the present postal voting system because they all use it to increase their stock of postal voters. The real point about postal voter turnout is that in normal elections the turnout of people who do have postal votes is usually significantly higher than those who do not. We all know that. It might be as much as 70 per cent to 40 per cent, or 60 per cent to 30 per cent, depending on the circumstances. So it is currently in the interests of all the political parties to get as many of their firm voters signed up on postal votes as they possibly can. I would argue that those are probably people who would vote anyway. Even so, the parties do it. My noble friend is certainly very good at it. There is nothing wrong with it under the present system.
It is quite true that there is a marked list of postal votes received. I was one of those who helped to persuade the Government that it was necessary. However, it does not tell people whether their vote was rejected because of the personal identifiers, which is the point that I was making earlier. They will find out that their vote was received, but will not know if it was counted or not. The Minister has already said that he will look at that.
The Slough case does not show that everything is working wonderfully. It was one of the rare exceptions that managed to get as far as court and a conviction, due to the real persistence of the Labour candidate who lost her seat as a result of the vote-rigging. I pay tribute to her, because you really do have to stick at it and it is not always very easy or pleasant. She did it then, and people from other parties have done it on other occasions.
The famous Birmingham case with Richard Mawrey was not brought to court by the police. If I remember correctly, it was the result of an election petition and the court case was a private prosecution. I think that I am right in saying that; I will check it. However, the local police in Birmingham were certainly extremely reluctant to bring that case. On the two registration cases that I reported last May, the local police thought that we had a cut and dried case of people who had been put on the electoral register over the years, despite warnings, who should not have been. I pursued it because it was the home of a Labour candidate. The police thought that we would get a prosecution. In the end it fell because the local police and the Crown Prosecution Service did not proceed quickly enough and ran out of time.
My experience is that election matters are not always regarded as a high priority by the police. They are better now than they were a few years ago, but those matters are still not always given the highest priority. In the infamous Pendle case seven years ago, the police admitted that they wanted to pursue all this evidence I had given them about votes being sent off to wrong addresses, but there had been murders in Rossendale and things like that, which had to take priority. I understand that, but it means that electoral allegations are not always taken as seriously as they could be.
Having said that, the Government are still being complacent. I will tell Members of the Committee what will happen to really put a bomb under the whole thing: when it becomes clear that one, two or three parliamentary constituencies have been rigged at a general election. Who knows when it may be? It may be at the next general election, or two or three down the road. However, it will happen sooner or later and, when it does, I am afraid that the system will have to be radically changed. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Bach: These are minor consequential government amendments required to give effect to Clause 17, which was inserted into the Bill following a free vote on an amendment tabled by the honourable Member for New Forest East in the other place. That clause amends the parliamentary election rules found in Schedule 1 to the 1983 Act to allow candidates at a parliamentary election to choose whether or not their home address appears on the ballot paper and other election documents that are open to the public.
As I made clear, the Government have no view on this issue, and it is our intention that there should be a free vote on that provision in this House, as there was in the other place. However, we must ensure that the legislation is technically correct. The amendments are necessary to ensure that if Clause 17 does stand part of the Bill following completion of the parliamentary stages, the legislation it amends works properly and is clear to those who use it.
The consequential amendments are required to apply the provisions contained in Clause 17 to the specimen form of ballot paper and the directions for printing. In practice, the changes will allow for either the candidates address or constituency to appear on the ballot paper depending on the choice the candidate has made on the home address form. Aside from the issue of the candidates addresses, the Government intend to work with the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and other stakeholders to review whether any further changes are required to the specimen ballot paper. Any changes will be made under the regulations provided for under Rule 19 of the Parliamentary Elections Rules. That is all the amendments do. I beg to move.
Lord Tyler: I certainly shall not repeat all the arguments that we had about Clause 17. However, I want to take up one point. The Minister reiterated the Governments intention to have a free vote on this issue. In the previous discussion in Grand Committee, I raised a question on that issue and the Ministers noble friend did not respond. I want to get this absolutely clear. If we do not discuss this in our House, the issue will never be debated. The amendment was not even moved in the other place; it was not even one of the group of amendments before the House at that stage. I do not understand why the Government feel that it is necessary to have a free vote in your Lordships House simply because it was a free vote in the other place.
Having said that, I will take this opportunity to say how grateful my noble friends and I are for the way in which the Minister and his team have assisted the
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Lord Bates: I associate myself with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, towards the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the team, who have usually provided information in a timely waywith the slight exception of individual voter registration. We will, I am sure, have a vigorous debate again about Clause 17. The position of the Official Opposition is that this is a matter for a free vote. This matter has been decided by a voteif not a debatein the other place. It particularly relates to those who stand for elected office. Therefore, as the unelected House, we should not seek to impose our view on this issue. As a result, these are consequential amendments. Dealing with consequential amendments on such a contentious provision at five minutes before midnight in the time that we have available was a bit of a chance on the Ministers part, but I hope that we can wind up now and support them.
Lord Bach: Yes, it was a bit of a chancethe noble Lord is rightbut I hope that I have just about got away with it. I thank all noble Lords, particularly Front Benchers, who have taken part in Committee. It looked at one stage as though it would never end, but it is very close to ending now and we have got through a lot of good work. We look forwardsome with more anticipation than othersto the joys of Report in the Chamber.
(b) in the Form of Front of Ballot Paper, for the address after Richard Edgbaston there is substituted
(address in the Birmingham Northfield Constituency);
(c) in the directions as to printing the ballot paper, in paragraph 3(b), after address there is inserted (or the constituency in which that address is situated).
( ) section (Report by Electoral Commission on provision of identifying information)(6),
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