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Requirement of Postal Ballot for Certain Ballots and Elections

Part of Orders of the Day — Employment Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 10th February 1988.

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Photo of Mr Robert Clay Mr Robert Clay , Sunderland North 4:45 pm, 10th February 1988

One of the colleagues of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman), who is on the Standing Committee, had a different job every time he stood up to speak. Apart from his job here, he has been a management consultant for a building firm, like the one just referred to, and he had some other job. Goodness knows what sort of balloting went on there. The hon. Member for Stroud never spoke in Committee, to my recollection, so we never had the opportunity to raise those matters with him until tonight. I do not know whether he wants to respond to the question my hon. Friend has asked me—I cannot give the answer. He is sitting down; he obviously has something to hide. Postal votes certainly do not take place in Lloyds underwriters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) several time used the words "as in the general election" when referring to postal votes. When she described her activities as NUPE's branch secretary, she described how postal votes are distributed.

Last Monday and again today, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) made a point about how we take votes in this House. He described it as the Longbridge method. However, we must consider the votes that elect Members to this place. The general election is more like a workplace ballot than a postal ballot. What would happen if we conducted parliamentary elections by postal ballot?

I ask hon. Members on both sides of the House to speculate on the outcry that would occur if there was one story of a house-owner—man, woman, mother or father—who said to a child who might be 18, 19, or 20 years old and still living at home, "I'm not having any Tory voters in this house. You had better show me that ballot paper before you submit it; otherwise you are out of the house." What a hoo-hah there would be if that sort of thing happened in a general election. However, that cannot happen because the general election is not conducted by postal ballot.

5.30 pm

We are not simply concerned about trade union officers delivering ballot papers. As the clause is drafted at present, there will be remedies—although they are not very reliable — and procedures that may ensure that ballot papers are sent out properly. However, not even this Government could conceive of a law that would regulate the way in which the ballot papers were returned. Someone must collect those papers. Even if the papers are supposed to be posted back through the Post Office, nothing will stop the practice that happens during a general election with postal votes. That procedure involves someone visiting a house and telling the occupant, "If you have not put in your paper yet, I'll put it in for you."

We are not just concerned about influencing how people vote. We do not know whether postal votes will even be submitted. At least in a general election one can check the register to discover whether a person with a polling number has submitted a postal vote. That cannot happen in trade union elections unless the Government have even more hidden agendas in mind in terms of registers of trade union members available for public inspection. We would not need blacklists any more; employers would have a national register of union members. The only way in which we can prevent the abuse of postal ballots is by creating even greater abuses.

As late as the 1960s, I can remember canvassing in a by-election not in a wild rural area, but in mid-Bedfordshire. I remember farm workers in tied cottages telling me that they believed that the farmer who owned the cottages knew how they voted. I remember how difficult it was to persuade people that the ballot was secret. My goodness, if there had been a postal ballot, those farm workers in tied cottages would have said that the owner came round and made them show him their ballot papers.

Conservative Members must explain why it has never been seriously suggested that hon. Members should be elected to this place on a postal ballot except where voters are infirm or blind or suffer some other disability. I stress that a postal ballot is not secret. If a method of voting by going out and recording a vote in a ballot box in a designated place which can be properly scrutinised is good enough for electing Members to this place, why is it not good enough for trade unionists? We are not even asking for that: We are simply asking that trade unionists should have that option if they believe that that is best.