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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 Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls , Teignbridge 4:45 pm, 10th February 1988

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) stated fairly that we had debated this point at length in Committee. We have also debated it at some length this afternoon. He said that postal balloting cannot be said to be inherently more democratic than workplace balloting, and of course he is right. How hon. Members vote on this clause will depend on whether they believe that the turnout is the most important consideration.

It was obvious from the debates in Committee and from what we have heard from many hon. Members today that many of them believe that turnout is the most important point. I can understand the sincerity with which hon. Members make that point, but the Government do not accept that turnout must be the final criterion. If we had to pick the most important point, we believe that it would be the ability of a person to vote knowing that he is voting secretly and in a system that offers the best chance—not a guarantee, because there is no such thing—of being able to vote in a secure, safe, free and secret manner. That must be the best criterion.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West referred to the evidence and to the example given in paragraph 5.13 of the Green Paper. Many references have been made to that in our deliberations. Paragraph 5.13 refers to the election of the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. All credit should go to the TGWU for having that matter investigated. I remember that well. The press campaign that preceded the union's decision to act in that way was considerable. Whatever else we might try to accuse the hon. Member for Oldham, West of, I fully believe that he is as appalled about rigging in union elections as any Conservative Member. I hope that he will accept that from me. There is no monopoly on outrage about those matters.

Opposition Members have said that there were irregularities in only eight branches out of 9,500. Only 12 branches were investigated. When it becomes evident that some 799 votes out of 800 were signed by the same hand and the remaining paper was spoilt, there can be no doubt about the abuse. Indeed, The Observer—which is not an uncritical organ of the Conservative party — was prompted to say about that election that it had interviewed a trade union official who complained of having writer's cramp. I am as appalled about what happened as the hon. Member for Oldham, West.

However, we must tackle the fact that such a vice can occur within the system. I accept fully that the hon. Member for Oldham, West and his hon. Friends feel as badly about that abuse as Conservative Members. Therefore, the House must ask whether it is possible to devise a method that will ensure that those abuses do not happen.