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the promotion or distribution of any literature associated with election candidates, political parties or associated organisations...the use of audio equipment, whether stationary or mobile, for the propagation of messages relating to an election; or...oral communication for the purpose of eliciting voting intentions or influencing the casting of a vote.
That was all. If someone contravened that provision, they would be fined up to £5,000. The Government said no to the Bill; I was trying to be helpful, but the Government did not want the Bill to proceed to Second Reading.
When I first became involved in politics, there was a clear unwritten convention that on polling day one did not take a loudspeaker anywhere near a polling station. One did not hand out literature at the entrances to polling stations. All that tellers did was take numbers. Indeed, when I was first a teller, party political allegiances were not printed on ballot papers, yet if an elector asked which candidate was which, I could not tell them. I had to tell them to go and speak to the polling clerk.
I accept that that might still apply in certain leafy parts of the country. Indeed, it might even apply in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister, in areas such as Blackheath, St. Margarets, Hither Green, Manor Lee, St. Mildreds, Whitefoot and Downham. There probably is no such campaigning on polling day in those areas, but it does happen in inner-city Birmingham.
What is the problem and why do I keep raising it? I have previously referred to the debate in Westminster Hall initiated almost six years ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). They both highlighted the way in which supporters of various parties congregated outside polling station entrances to apply pressure to, intimidate, and attempt to confuse, voters, especially those who had only limited knowledge of the English language. Tellingly, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East concluded:
I hope that the Minister will ask his staff or the Electoral Commission to look at tightening the law, especially on harassment and intimidation of voters who are trying to get into a polling station. I realise that it is difficult...However, people can be kept away from the entrance to the polling station.
the appropriate way to pursue allegations of illegal and possibly criminal practices is through the law. [ Official Report, Westminster Hall, 4 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 102-9WH.]
He also made a powerful case about extending the rights of arrest outside polling stations, and I can assure him that we are genuinely consulting on that.[ Official Report, 22 June 2005; Vol. 435, c. 911.]
I cannot understand why the problems have not been resolved. Anyone who knows inner-city, multicultural areas knows that that old conventions no longer exist. My Bill had the boring title, Polling Stations (Regulation) Bill, but it could have been called the Let People Vote in Peace Bill. I cannot see why the Government would not allow it to receive a Second Reading. Better still, they could make their own proposals, perhaps for a pilot scheme. Why do electors in my constituency and in other areas of Birmingham, and in other multicultural areas, have to go through a cacophony of sound, intimidation, pressure and harassment just to get into the polling station? That is completely unnecessary.
Of course, the Bill was not discussed on Friday, but I can imagine some of the objections to it that would be raised by the civil service. First, people would argue that there is not a problem. There is a problem; otherwise the matter would not keep being raised. Then they would say, Well, if there is a problem, all that your Bill would do is transfer it somewhere elsein other words, their policy would be to acknowledge that there is a problem but they would not want to say anything about it. Then they would say that the Bill is unnecessary because current law allows the police to deal with the problem, but that is not so. No doubt another argument would be that it would be unenforceable, or that it would cost more money. Why would it, given that more and more police are currently having to be deployed to react to incidents?
Those civil servants then might say that the Bill would interfere with traditional campaigning. It would notthere would still be an election with five weeks of campaigning, and there could still be campaigning on the day, except within 250 yards of a polling station. Not one single elector of mine has said, Mr. Godsiffdont take away my right to have my door knocked on time and again during the day because I live within 250 yards of a polling station. That is a non-argument.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I hope that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) will have a further opportunity to introduce his Bill, which sounded interesting. I can imagine that it would gain considerable support on both sides of the Chamber, although the Government side is rather thinly spread at the moment.
Given the importance of the subject, I was disappointed by the Ministers speech, in the course of which she said that the electoral system was as secure as it is possible to be. That is demonstrably untrue and will remain so while we have household registration, which no other
country in the world has, apart from Zimbabwe. We should move towards individual registration with personal identifiers. Until then, it will not be as secure as it is possible to be, and the Minister was incredibly complacent to assert that.
The Minister accused the Opposition of scaremongering. My former colleague, Dame Marion Roe, investigated this issue on her own initiative and revealed, after a lot of painstaking research, that 18 per cent. of the people on the register in Brentford and Isleworth were not eligible to be on ita huge proportion of the electorate. Was she scaremongering? Is Michael Pinto-Duschinsky a scaremonger? He is a senior lecturer in politics at Brunel university, and he recently wrote an article in The Times pointing out that according to the research that he has carried out, with no help from the Government, there have been 390 cases of alleged electoral fraud in the past seven years. There have also been eight cases of councillors and others being put in prison as a result of electoral fraud. As the Minister said, some of those cases may not involve the kind of electoral fraud that we are talking about, but some willshe simply does not know. He has been digging away independently and trying to get at the facts, as we all are. For the Minister to accuse us of scaremongering is demeaning to the debate; we are merely trying to get at the facts, and the Government have played little part in doing that.
Why has electoral fraud happened? First, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said in his admirable opening speech, the Government have pushed voter participation at all costs, particularly in relation to postal voting, and they have taken risks. As the Electoral Commission pointed out repeatedly, it is admirable to push up voter registration and participationwe all want thatbut proper safeguards must be put in, and the Government failed to do that. We need individual voter registration or more personal identifiers. The Government always cite the fact that there was an 11 per cent. drop in voter registration when individual voter registration was implemented in Northern Ireland. However, as the Committee on Standards in Public Life pointed out, the major reason for that was the simultaneous abolition of the carry-forward provisions whereby if someone did not re-register, their registration was carried forward for 12 months. That practice was dropped. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life pointed out, the abolition of the carry forward was the major reason why there was a sudden diminution in the number of people registering in Northern Ireland. It was nothing to do with the imposition of individual registration.
Mr. Wilshire: Just because voting goes down when we check up on these things, it does not automatically mean that we are stopping those who would otherwise vote from doing so. It might just mean that we have got rid of the fraudsters. Does my hon. Friend agree?
Mr. Horam: Indeed. That is the important point. The primacy of fraud should be recognised. It is very important to increase voter participation, but it is even more important to prevent fraud. That is the fundamental point at issue here. As long as the Government do not agree, we will not make progress on dealing with fraud.
It is also the case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) pointed out, that the electoral registration officers have too much to do and too few resources to do it with. That is a simple matter of fact. People put forward their name for the electoral register, but there is really no check on whether they are eligible to be on it. In many cases, as my former colleague, Dame Marion Roe, pointed out, they simply are on the register when they should not be therea disgraceful situation, which needs to be checked out more thoroughly.
The Government have not handled such issues well. Moreover, they are still attempting to increase voter participation while at the same time taking risks. They are, for example, proceeding with an experiment, which is being trialled in various places, to increase electronic voting. That means that the Electoral Commission, which has a statutory responsibility to monitor all those experiments, has even more work to do in dealing with issues of research, fraud and so forth. That is what the Government are trying to do: at every turn, they are putting their desire to increase voter participation first, while putting the need to tackle fraud second. In my view, they should be at least be treated equally.
Philip Davies: Does my hon. Friend agree that the all-postal voting trial caused considerable damage to the electoral system in the eyes of the public, particularly in Bradford? Is he as disappointed as I am at the fact that the Government will not rule out having all-postal vote trials in the future?
Mr. Horam: I am sorry to hear that they will not rule it out. Frankly, it was a fiasco, which shows once again that the Government are not prepared to put in the necessary safeguards. They are taking needless risks with fraud.
The Labour party gains a huge advantage from the present parliamentary boundary system. It won 93 more MPs in England at the last general election, yet the Conservative party got more votes. That is the fact of the matter. The Labour party has that huge advantage and is now trying to pile on top of that a further advantage derived from the nature of electoral registration. Is it so lacking in confidence about its prospects under the current Chancellor at the next general election that it has to try to rig the system outrageously in favour of its own side? What this Labour party is up to is truly astonishing.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Could my hon. Friend put a question to the Government for me? Is it more important to have an election result that is true and can be trusted or one that could have been subject to massive fraud? Which is more important: an electoral register that is correct or a system whereby postal voting can be massively abused, as has been the case in a number of constituencies such as some in Birmingham?
What can be done about the problem? All would agreeperhaps even the Minister would agreethat we need some proper research to find out the extent of fraud. I have no doubt that that is what we really need,
and I am pleased to see that the Minister seems to be mouthing a yes. The Electoral Commission is putting in hand research to investigate the extent of fraud and I commend it for doing so. So far, however, we have had precious little information on the subject. It is a difficult matter, but I believe that the Electoral Commission should undertake that research as soon as possible. If it does not do so, we would be unlikely to accept the explanation that there are too many difficulties standing in the way of that research.
I note that the Electoral Commission is also undertaking research into the performance standards of electoral registration officers. The fact is that those standards vary greatly. In some local authorities, for example, only 60 per cent. of those eligible to vote are on the register, while in other areas, the figure is 90 per cent. Why is there such a huge discrepancy? If the Minister really wanted to do something to increase voter participation and prevent fraudto be fair to her, she has done so to a certain extent by allocating £21 million moreshe could help electoral registration officers to do their job more diligently. If we do not have people on the ground floor carrying out proper checks on what is going on, we shall not have a proper trusted system.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that electoral registration officers are a law unto themselves? Their interpretation of the law and the Electoral Commission rules cannot be challenged by the police, the courts or anyone else. Is it not time that we had consistency in the way in which EROs accept the expert advice of the Electoral Commission and apply election law, so that they can be held to account?
Mr. Horam: My hon. Friend makes a very sound point. Indeed, that matter has been seized by the Electoral Commission, which is appointing regional officers to look after the country. I welcome the fact that there will therefore be more standardisation under that system.
Perhaps I may suggest a further task for the Electoral Commission. It has been pointed out not only by academics, politicians and other observers but by the four boundary commissions that we need to look at the rules governing the review of parliamentary boundaries. Under the present legislation, it is the duty of the Electoral Commission to look into that. It is capable of grasping that duty, and it should do so.
The Electoral Commission was set up by the present Government, and I commend them for that. It is vital that we have an independent body to look into all these matters in a non-partisan way. However, the Government should then follow the matters through and accept the findings and research of the Electoral Commission. They have not done so, and that is a complete disgrace.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con):
It might help the few of us who are here if I explain my involvement in this issue. I happen to be one of the Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe who represents the British Parliament. As I said to the Minister a while ago, I also happen to be the Member of that Assembly who tabled the motion that has
resulted in the formal investigation by the Council of Europe that is referred to in todays motion. It is not often that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe finds its way on to the Floor of this House, which is a pity, because it does a lot of important work, despite what some of my colleagues sometimes say. It does important work, and it happens not to be the European Union. That enables me to prove that I am a good European without having to enthuse about the European Union.
Let me explain how the investigation came about, because it is relevant to the debate and highlights the depths to which the Government have allowed us to sink, when it comes to an outside body coming in to investigate us. On 20 March 1952, the United Kingdom signed the first protocol of the European convention on human rights. Despite what some people think, the convention is a Council of Europe matter, not a European Union matter. Article 3 of the protocol places signatories of the protocol under an obligation to hold
free elections...which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.
Having signed that, all was fine so far as the United Kingdom was concernedso far as I can judgeuntil 2001, when the Government decided to introduce postal voting on demand. They did that irrespective of a huge amount of anxiety and concern on the part of all political parties, and of voters and academics. Indeed, everybody said, If you want to encourage people to apply for a postal vote and therefore find it easier to participate, okay, but dont do it like this. Those expressions of concern predicted that the result of what the Government were doing and how they were doing it would be a huge risk of fraud. Predictably and inevitably, that is precisely what happened, which is what triggered action from the Electoral Commission.
In June 2003, the Electoral Commission called for robust scrutiny arrangements. The Government promptly ignored it. In August 2004, it repeated its call and the Government repeated their decision to ignore it. Again, in April 2005, the Electoral Commission repeated its call. That time, the Government were shamed into action. The result of that action was the Electoral Administration Act 2006. It was too little, too late. As others have said, it ignored the fundamental recommendation of individual voter registration.
All the legislation does is require a voter to provide a signature and his date of birth if he wants a postal vote. It is still ridiculously easy to get a postal vote fraudulently. Let me give the House an example. Immediately after Christmas, I moved house. I applied to be added to the electoral register in the new constituency. By February, I had been added. I was not asked to prove who I was. No check was made on where I had come from. No questions were asked about my entitlement to vote. I was simply told that I had been added to the register.
I promptly applied for a postal vote, and it has been agreed to. No checks have been made on me. It suddenly occurred to me that if I had put down three other names when I announced that I had arrived at my address, I would be the proud possessor of four postal votes. It is crazily, stupidly easy to defraud the
system because the Government will not do the one thing that will stop that. Despite the Electoral Commissions urging and despite the growing evidence, the Government still refuse to act properly.
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