With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the judgment in respect of the allegations of postal voting fraud in the Birmingham wards of Bordesley Green and Aston, which was announced yesterday. The judge declared both elections void.
May I apologise to both Opposition spokesman for the fact that I was unable to let them have early sight of the statement? I hope that they will understand that I have returned, post haste, from a train taking me north, so that I can make this statement. That is why it was not possible to have the statement prepared earlier.
We unreservedly condemn the abuses of postal voting in Birmingham. With a general election having been announced today, we are taking further steps to reinforce the safeguards against any potential fraud, and we are determined that the fraud in those cases in Birmingham will not undermine public confidence in the electoral system.
Hon. Members will be aware that there are tough penalties already in place for electoral fraud: on conviction, those found guilty are liable to up to two years in prison and an unlimited fine, as well as disqualification from voting and standing for office. In general, the electoral system in the UK has been secure and commanded public confidence. We have no history of widespread electoral fraud. In fact, evidence suggests that it is rare. Since 1998, there have been only four recorded prosecutions for electoral fraud.
Contrary to suggestions that have been made, the Government are not complacent. Our top priority is to safeguard the integrity of the ballot, and to ensure that the system stays safe and secure we have put in place the following measures. The Electoral Commission has already published, on
Following the judgment, we have now written to all returning officers to stress the importance of taking counter-measures against electoral fraud. The Electoral Commission, together with ACPO, will shortly publish guidance specifically for returning officers and local police forces on fraud prevention and investigation. It is vital that all organisations work together to protect the integrity of the electoral process.
To back those efforts, we have provided additional funding for the forthcoming general election above that given in 2001. About £10 million of that extra money will support the administration of the elections. That will help to support returning officers in dealing with additional requests for postal votes and putting in place measures that maintain the integrity of the electoral process.
As the Birmingham cases have related very specifically to postal voting, it is important to put in context the full implication of postal voting opportunities in the UK. Postal voting has been available in one form or another since 1918, initially for service personnel. It was subsequently extended to cover those physically incapable of going in person to the poll and those who were absent because of their occupation, change of address or holiday. Five years ago, the Representation of the People Act 2000 extended the option of postal voting, following the recommendation of the all-party working party on electoral procedures. The system whereby anyone can apply for a postal vote has been in place since that date, and the proportion of people taking advantage has increased substantially.
At the 2001 general election, the number of postal votes almost doubled on the 1997 election to approximately 4 per cent. In the 2002 local elections, 7.7 per cent. of the electorate had postal votes. At the 2004 European and local elections, outside the four all-postal regions, approximately 8.3 per cent. of the electorate had postal votes. That trend reflects the popularity and convenience of voting by post, something which has also been evidenced in the series of all-postal voting pilots conducted in local authority elections since the year 2000.
Postal voting provides an easy and accessible way for many people to participate in the democratic process. People should have the right to a postal vote if that is what they want. Having said that, it is essential to maintain the integrity of the electoral process, and we are taking the measures that I have outlined to ensure that. The Electoral Commission, which has rejected any question of withdrawing postal ballots, has also recommended in its report "Voting for change" a number of measures to improve security. The Government published their response to that report in December 2004, and accepted the large majority of the recommendations. We will put those measures into statute when parliamentary time allows.
The commission's chief executive said this morning:
"There is enough awareness of the risks. Enough steps are being taken to make sure that postal voting at the moment can be run successfully."
The Government share that view. We are determined that the election that we are about to have will be secure and fair.
I thank the Minister for his statement, but am sorry that he felt that making a statement was a late decision. Surely it was obvious, given the judge's remarks, that a statement was required. Although we are all in favour of encouraging voting, surely that should not be at the expense of encouraging fraud in elections.
The findings of the judge in the Birmingham case highlight extensive abuse of the current system. Does the Minister agree with the judge that this was not
"the work of a few hothead activists working behind the backs of the candidates and their party . . . but . . . part of a Birmingham wide campaign by the Labour party to try, by the use of bogus postal votes, to counter the adverse effect of the Iraq war"?
If so, what action will the Prime Minister take against those who so damaged the integrity of the system?
Does the Minister see the need for further guidelines to be issued in respect of Birmingham to ensure fair play with postal votes? Will the Government actually follow the advice of the Electoral Commission this time, because on previous occasions they have failed to accept the recommendations of the commission that they set up? Almost a year ago, individuals from across the political divide, including some from the Labour party, called for a Government rethink on the new system of postal votes. Why did that not happen?
The judge went on to say that the Government's statement—the Minister repeated it today—that
"The systems already in place to deal with allegations of electoral fraud are clearly working" was complacent and surprising to
"Anybody who has sat through the case I have just tried and listened to evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic".
He went on to say that the Government were not only complacent, but in denial.
Is the Minister seriously saying that the Government have only just become aware of the risks of electoral fraud in the new system? In February 2004, a journalist using an anagram of "bogus voter" as his name managed to register on 31 electoral registers in a few hours, and to obtain nine votes in just one constituency. In the compulsory all-postal ballots for the European elections, there were numerous allegations of irregularities, and in September last year, the Electoral Commission came out against the future use of all-postal ballots. Why did the Government simply ignore that advice?
My hon. Friend Dame Marion Roe, who is retiring after 22 years of excellent service to the House, her constituents and the country, pointed out in an Adjournment debate—held, presciently, on
The Electoral Commission, the official Opposition and others on both sides of the House have pointed out that we need the protection that individual voter registration—as used in Northern Ireland—would give, but the Government have done nothing. We have called for an end to mass postal voting from a single address without proper checks, yet the Government have done nothing. While we have been talking about protections for postal voting, the Government have been insisting on going yet further with e-voting, text voting and the like. Is it not time that they returned to the real world?
When Labour was first elected, the Minister will recall that it pledged to
"restore trust in Government and the political process".
Is not the truth that it cannot be trusted, and that Britain does not need another five years of being let down by Labour?
I shall come on to those points in a moment.
This was not a question of the Government being slow to make a statement, but a question of which Minister should make it. I was not expecting to do so, which was why I came back from a visit elsewhere to make the statement, and was not able to give the hon. Gentleman an advance copy, for which I apologised.
I do not accept the judge's claim that there was a Birmingham-wide campaign by the Labour party. I have read the transcript of the case carefully, and the evidence relates to two wards in Birmingham. I have made it clear that we have no hesitation in unreservedly condemning the malpractice in those two wards, but that is different from concluding, without supporting evidence, that there was a city-wide conspiracy, as has been implied.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether further guidelines are being issued. I made it clear in my statement that further guidelines will be prepared, and will apply everywhere in the country, not just Birmingham.
The hon. Gentleman asks why we do not always accept the advice of the Electoral Commission. Let me remind him that in response to the summer 2003 electoral pilots, the commission recommended—this was less than two years ago—that we should move to all-postal ballots as a norm in all local government elections. Had we accepted that recommendation, the hon. Gentleman would be criticising us for having done so. It is inevitable that from time to time the Government have to differ if they believe that a recommendation has not been fully thought through. In that case, the Electoral Commission, which has subsequently changed its position, would accept that its original recommendation was not right. It is not the case that we should be bound always to accept such recommendations—but overwhelmingly, we listen to the commission and support its work.
As for the judge's comments, may I specifically focus on the allegation that the Government were guilty
"not simply of complacency but of denial"?
That was made on the basis of a statement from the Department for Constitutional Affairs that the judge cited, which said:
"There are no proposals to change the rules governing election procedures for the next election, including those for postal voting. The systems already in place to deal with allegations of electoral fraud are clearly working."
That statement appeared in The Times, but in the same passage of the newspaper, it continued with the following sentence, which, curiously, did not appear in the judgment:
"However, we are not being complacent about this issue and are planning to introduce a number of further safeguards into the electoral process to combat any possible fraud."
That is what was on the record, and I have to say that it makes for a rather different interpretation—
Order. We are on the statement. Points of order can be made after the statement.
That sentence casts a somewhat different light on the particular observation. In terms of the weakness—[Interruption.]
Order. The Minister has had the courtesy to come to the House to make a statement. It is only fair that he be listened to, and there should be no heckling of him.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
On the system of electoral registration, Mr. Heald and other hon. Members will know that the recommendation for individual registration was made by the Electoral Commission. In our response, we made it clear that we were sympathetic to that principle, but that there were fundamental difficulties. The experience in Northern Ireland, where individual registration has been introduced, was that the total number of people on the register fell by about 10 per cent. Real fears have been expressed, not least by the Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Planning, Local Government and the Regions, which have examined the matter carefully, that moving towards individual registration could result in the register becoming less comprehensive and accurate. We thus indicated to the commission that we intended to proceed with the objective of individual identification in a way that we hoped would mitigate the adverse consequences to which I referred.
The idea that we should now abandon all pilots of other voting methods, such as electronic voting, is an unwise proposition, given the clear evidence of interest in them on the part of many sections of the population that do not necessarily participate to the extent that hon. Members of all parties would like. It is our commitment to continue to explore pilots that will test the ability of different systems of voting to enable people to vote with absolute security. The integrity of the voting system is fundamental, which is why pilots are conducted. They are carried out to test whether they work. If there is evidence that they lead to a substantial increase in turnout without associated fraud, which was the evidence from the overwhelming majority of electoral pilots, it is obviously sensible to use that evidence. It is our commitment to continue to work to assist people to vote by means that are safe but convenient, and, as I have already stressed, to ensure that we maintain the integrity of the ballot as our top priority.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. May I make it clear to him that the good news coming out of Birmingham is that the people who tried to cheat got caught? We must emphasise that. Lots of crimes are relatively easy for people to commit, but the crucial thing is that they get caught.
Will my right hon. Friend emphasise that during the general election it is essential that electoral registration officers seek out anyone attempting to break the law and make sure that such people are prosecuted, so that we can establish the integrity of our electoral system? In the long term, however, will he introduce a system of individual registration and data matching with other organisations, so that the register comprises 100 per cent. of the people who are entitled to vote?
I very much agree that every step should be taken to ensure that those who are guilty of attempting to pervert electoral processes are apprehended and brought to justice. I also agree that it is a satisfactory outcome that the malpractices in Birmingham were identified and action was taken against them. As I said earlier, I strongly endorse my hon. Friend's view of the benefits of moving towards individual registration, albeit without the potential adverse consequences that the Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which he chairs, identified in the course of its thoughtful report on the issue. That is very much our objective. A letter from me and the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Leslie, has been issued to all returning officers highlighting the importance of their putting measures in place and making use of the additional funding that we have made available to them to ensure that any additional demand for postal voting is processed in a way that safeguards the integrity of the ballot.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the House today and accept his assurances regarding his inability to provide the written statement to Opposition spokesmen beforehand. It is not his usual practice and we accept his apology.
The right hon. Gentleman cannot brush aside the judge's ruling yesterday. Is he not prepared to accept the judgment of Sir Richard Mawrey QC, in an historic ruling, that the postal voting system introduced by the Labour Government is
"an open invitation to fraud"?
Does the Minister not realise that the judge's statement that the Government are complacent refers to potential fraud during the coming general election? That was the point. Does he realise that on the day the general election is called, his main concern should be not the embarrassment of the Labour party, but his duty to the British people to protect the legitimacy of the democratic process? How can he hope to restore trust in politics when voters cannot have trust in the postal voting system that the present Government devised?
When an election commissioner describes Britain's postal voting system as "hopelessly insecure", will the Minister really dismiss that judgment? The case was one of "massive, systematic and organised" electoral fraud. Today, rather than give excuses or fail to take responsibility, why do the Government not undertake to do far more than he has announced? Thanks to the Government's foot-dragging, it is too late for primary legislation to implement the Electoral Commission's recommendations, but there are things that can be done so that in the coming weeks we can restore confidence in our democratic system.
Why does the Minister not try to build a cross-party consensus on the emergency measures needed to protect the coming election from fraud? Why does he not, for example, ask the Electoral Commission to produce plans to monitor closely the operation of the postal voting system during the election? Why cannot Parliament ask the commission to undertake an information campaign to ensure that voters know how best to protect their postal votes from theft? Is it really not possible in the time left to this Parliament to pass orders to implement more protections for the forthcoming ballot? Why can we not legislate by statutory instrument to ensure that postal votes are counted separately, making it easier to identify fraud?
Why can we not allow parties to check postal vote application forms after the election? Why can we not extend the period for petitioning against an election result to two months, so that such checks can be made? Why can we not enable presiding election officers at polling stations to draw up a list of people who turn up to vote in person and are surprised to be told that they have had a postal vote issued, and allow such voters to submit a tendered pink ballot paper instead, in case the postal vote is not used or is found to have been stolen?
I wish that we had not reached this point of crisis. Time and again, the Liberal Democrats warned about the shortcomings of the Government's postal voting system. Now, the Labour Government have one last chance to stop fraud and to prevent a general election result from becoming tainted. If Ministers do not act, the stench of this shoddy affair might be the one issue that drives them from office.
Several of the hon. Gentleman's proposed measures were highlighted by the Electoral Commission in its report "Voting for change", which the Government have accepted, and we shall introduce those measures. Although some depend on legislation, which is not possible this side of the general election, we are committed to introducing legislation that gives effect to the commission's recommendations. Some of the measures are administrative, and I made it clear in my statement and previous answers that we are taking steps. We have written to returning officers and are in contact with the Electoral Commission. In my statement, I noted that the chief executive of the Electoral Commission said only this morning that
"there is enough . . . awareness of the risks, enough steps are being taken . . . to make sure that the postal voting at the moment can be run successfully".
I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that steps are, rightly, being taken to protect the integrity of the poll. It is in everyone's interests that all political parties sign up to the code that the commission has circulated and to the good practice measures that returning officers will put in place to ensure that the poll proceeds with confidence, as we all want it to.
I am sure that I speak for all my Birmingham Labour parliamentary colleagues when I utterly condemn the disgraceful and fraudulent behaviour in two wards in Birmingham. I welcome the safeguards that my right hon. Friend has announced today—[Hon. Members: "What safeguards?"]—and the future safeguards that he has also announced.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would indeed be a sad day for democracy and for all the parties represented in this House if one of the effects of misleading statements about the case were to frighten elderly, sick or disabled people out of exercising their legal right to have a postal ballot in the forthcoming election? Should we not bear that in mind when we talk about what happened in two out of 41 wards in Birmingham?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend in condemning the malpractice that occurred in two wards in Birmingham. I also agree that it would be most unfortunate if misleading and, in some cases, slightly exaggerated statements made on the basis of those two cases led people who might otherwise not vote to fail to apply for the postal vote for which they have a right to apply.
Will the Minister confirm that there is no evidence that such practices took place only in two wards? The information is not available. Will he also confirm that the Government have brought in a system for postal votes in which registrations to vote by overseas service personnel are far lower than in the past and registrations of overseas voters are even lower, and that what has driven the Government and the Labour party is their own self-interest, not democracy's?
No, I wholeheartedly reject that unwarranted comment. It is slightly odd to assume that malpractice has occurred if one cannot find evidence that it has not. The point made by my hon. Friend Mr. McCabe and by me is that there is evidence of fraud in two wards in Birmingham, which we condemn unreservedly; it was wrong and improper. However, in our view, it is not to correct to infer from that the whole electoral system is tainted, either in Birmingham as a whole or throughout the country.
We are discussing individual cases. As I said in my statement, a few cases requiring prosecution arose in the previous seven years. By international comparisons, such an incidence does not imply a serious problem, but we are not complacent. We are well aware of the concerns that have been voiced and we are taking practical steps to ensure both that people can continue to enjoy the benefits of postal voting, which has made it possible for many people who would otherwise be unable to do so to exercise their democratic rights, and that there are proper safeguards against the type of fraud that took place in Birmingham.
It would be unfortunate if people who want to use their postal vote legally were unable to do so, but does my right hon. Friend agree that this deplorable case raises genuine concerns about the operation of postal voting? Is it not essential that an incoming Government take the measures necessary to safeguard the integrity of the voting system—first and foremost, the postal voting system—so that there is no doubt in anyone's mind that we live in a democracy in which people's votes are counted in the proper way, as we all want?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is vital that there be confidence in the integrity of the voting system. Measures, including legislation, should be taken after the general election to implement some of the safeguards which, to an increasing extent, are identified as appropriate.
This is where the issue of individual registration is so important. If we had proceeded immediately with individual registration, as the Electoral Commission recommended, without thinking about some of the potential downsides, we could well have been presented with an electoral register, as in Northern Ireland, 10 per cent. below the previous level. That in turn would have led to major criticisms about disfranchising people who should be entitled to vote. It is important to have the safeguard through individual identifiers, which are necessary to enable verification and checking, and to ensure that that is done in a way that does not deter those who should be on the register and who are entitled to be on the register to register. This is an extremely important issue about preserving the integrity of the entire voting system but at the same time ensuring that those people who are entitled to vote are not excluded from the register.
What assurance can the Minister give us that in the realities of the election electoral staff will have the opportunity to deal with fraud? Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind the fact that when a large number of postal vote applications come pouring in, a very small staff will not have time to check whether they are coming in multiples and whether they have had previous applications from the same address? What support and additional help can be given to ensure that the staff have the opportunity that they need to check against fraud, and that presiding officers at polling stations have some powers that they can use to deal with a person who discovers that somebody else has voted for him?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely fair and valid point. As I made clear in my statement, we have provided an additional £10 million to support administration. I have written, together with the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Leslie, to all returning officers throughout the country to highlight the importance of measures being in place and the importance of liaison with the police. I also referred in my statement to discussions that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be having with the Association of Chief Police Officers tomorrow on this very issue. Measures are being taken specifically to ensure that fears, suspicions and allegations of malpractice are carefully examined and that procedures are in place to deal with such problems.
I believe in voting in secret at a polling station wherever possible. That may sound quaint and old-fashioned, but that is my position.
Local authorities can decide for themselves how many polling stations there are and where these stations are located. Is there not a case for the Government to issue advice to local authorities encouraging them to have polling stations in as many places as possible throughout every constituency in the land?
As my hon. Friend will know, a great deal of advice has already been given over the years to returning officers on such matters. It is right that they should continue to look at these issues. My hon. Friend must be aware that there are an increasing number of people for whom the requirement to vote in person at a particular polling station is impossible because of their physical condition or because of their job, or because of other factors, or because it is not part of their lifestyle today. People do not necessarily work in the area in which they live. They may have children in another area. They may have responsibilities that take them away at times when it would be convenient to vote. Such people may find it more convenient to vote by post. That convenience is the reason why there has been a significant increase over recent years since the all-party group recommended that we should move to postal voting on demand. That is why the take-up has been consistently increasing.
I do not believe that we can simply ignore the convenience of the public, providing—this is an important proviso—that there are in place appropriate safeguards to guard against malpractice.
Could the right hon. Gentleman do two things? First, recognising that the judiciary can be criticised only on a substantive motion, would he withdraw the remarks that he made to my hon. Friend Mr. Heald, the shadow Leader of the House? Secondly, will he ask all electoral registration officers to check the validity of those who appear to have applied for postal votes by writing to them?
My only comments on the judgment related to two particular instances where inferences were made. There was one particular inference about the Government's position. Secondly, there was a particular inference about the extent of fraud throughout Birmingham. In my view neither of those inferences was supported by evidence. The quotation from The Times to which I referred made it clear that the Government were not in any way complacent and were intending to introduce measures to deal with the very issues that the judge highlighted. There was the wider implication that there was widespread fraud throughout Birmingham, for which evidence was not provided. I stand by my two comments.
As for advice to returning officers, we have made it clear in the letter that my hon. Friend and I have written that we expect them to be taking measures to ensure that they are satisfied that postal votes are operating on a proper basis. It is not our view that we should instruct in detail exactly how they should exercise that function. They have their own responsibilities as returning officers. It is important that they should seek to ensure the integrity of the ballot and should take the measures that they regard as appropriate to check anything that they regard as potentially fraudulent.
I echo the comment made by my hon. Friend Mr. McCabe, that every Labour Member for Birmingham condemns completely and utterly the wrongdoing in two Birmingham wards. I add my welcome to the Labour party for suspending the individuals concerned, for implementing a disciplinary procedure and for guarding against any allegation that there is any complacency by dispatching to Birmingham a senior member of the National Executive Committee to oversee future campaigning.
So that there should be no complacency in any part of the House, I invite other political parties to take equally seriously the issue of postal voting and the organisation that sometimes goes on around postal voting.
Finally, while it is right that we should consider tightening the regulations, I support the idea of individual registration. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the objective should be to encourage legitimate engagement with the democratic process and not to discourage it?
I agree with my hon. Friend that, first, we unreservedly condemn the malpractice that has been found in Birmingham. I also agree that it is incumbent on all political parties to do their utmost to ensure that all their candidates and supporters act in an entirely proper and scrupulous way in the forthcoming election. It is in everyone's interest that we ensure that the ballots that will take place on
Is the Minister aware that there is a certain grim satisfaction on the Opposition Benches that although the entire British democratic process has been tarnished by what happened in Birmingham, the principal short-term victim of the Government's ill-judged dash to favour postal voting is the Labour party itself, particularly in Birmingham—"As you sow, so shall you reap"?
May I refer the Minister to the wise words of the Birmingham Post editorial this morning, which read:
"If emergency action is not taken to change the system in time for the General Election—insisting on postal votes being checked and counted separately at the very least—the Government will leave itself open to the allegation that it is reluctant to act because its real intention is to deliver corrupt votes to Labour MPs."?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to try to inject a party political note in that way. I remind him of a letter that has been sent out to many people in the country. It says:
"In the run-up to the next General Election . . . I need your help. There are three things you can do: Step 1 Apply for a postal vote today. Everyone is now entitled to vote by post without having to give a reason."
The letter continues:
"We've enclosed two forms. If one is blank, please pass it on to another supporter. If you need any more, please phone"— a number is given—
"or go to www.conservatives" etc.
It is a bit rich for the Conservative party, which is clearly seeking to extend postal voting to the greatest possible degree, to condemn the Government for acting on an all-party recommendation to make postal voting available on demand. We did that. We have said repeatedly that it is right that there should be safeguards. There is a whiff of hypocrisy about criticism of the Government from those who are clearly themselves seeking to maximise the number of postal votes.
Further to that point, will my right hon. Friend consider issuing further guidelines on the encouragement of multiple applications? I have here a letter that was sent to me by a constituent. It had been sent out in the constituency of Folkestone and Hythe by Mr. Howard, and it states:
"I am sending you a form to make it easier for you to register for a postal vote. I also enclose a spare form for you to pass on to another member of your family or a friend."
If we are going to get this right, the sending round of postal vote applications in this way should be stopped. We need to clean up this act, so as to prevent the despicable attempts at fraud that occur on occasions through the use of postal votes.
I have to say to my right hon. Friend that it is right that we should continue to make postal voting available to those people who find the facility convenient and who might not be able to exercise their democratic right without it. I take issue only with those who condemn the Government for making postal voting available but who are themselves engaged in encouraging exactly that process.
The Minister's criticism of the judge would seem to imply that the Government are still in denial. The Minister has said several times that he and the Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs had written to returning officers asking them to exercise their powers. The Minister is well aware, however, that anyone resident in the United Kingdom can place their name on the electoral register and vote, and that the multiple system that gives people permission to vote in local government elections, European elections and parliamentary elections means that there are people on the register who can quite properly vote in one election but might not be allowed to vote in another. There is no control whatever over that. The Minister has sought to place the blame everywhere except where it lies, namely, with his own Department. He has written to returning officers and told them to act. What action does he propose that they take?
The hon. Gentleman was obviously not listening to my statement, in which I outlined a number of measures that we have taken, including making substantial additional financial provision to enable the administration of the whole process to be conducted more efficiently. I should like to quote from the letter that I have written to the returning officers:
"The Electoral Commission, together with ACPO and ACPO Scotland, will also shortly publish guidance to returning officers and local police forces on fraud prevention and investigation. If you have not already done so, you should make immediate contact with your local police force in preparation for the forthcoming elections. It is vital that all organisations work together to protect the integrity of the electoral process."
I have mentioned the discussion that I had with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in which he said that he would talk to ACPO about this issue tomorrow. The Government are acting; we are playing our part and we are encouraging returning officers to do their best. It is right that all parties should work together to ensure that people can continue to benefit from the opportunity of being able to vote by post if it is not convenient for them to vote in person. At the same time, however, we must maintain the integrity of the ballot.
My constituency sits cheek by jowl with the two wards in which these disgraceful acts took place. I would like some reassurance from the Minister on three important points. First, will he reassure the 12 Labour councillors in my constituency, who are people of honour and integrity—mainly women, in fact—and who work hard for the local community? They were elected in clean elections following clean campaigns, and they are decent people doing a good job. Will the Minister reassure them that their reputations, their integrity and their ability to hold their heads up in our community will not be sullied by this judgment, whose suggestion that the corruption was city wide went beyond its remit and beyond the available evidence? Such a reassurance from the Minister would be very welcome in those quarters.
Secondly, will the Minister reassure my constituents from ethnic minority communities that this problem is not confined to any one community, and that it is not about race, as some parties would have us believe? This is a problem of people breaking the law and doing bad things, and in Birmingham, those people have been caught, tried and found guilty. This is not a race issue—
I would say to my hon. Friend that the vast majority of local councillors act with great integrity and propriety, and it is quite wrong that they should feel threatened or stigmatised as a result of the malpractice of a small number of people who have clearly behaved in a deplorable way. That distinction is very important, and I hope that I made clear my views on that earlier. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. It would also be quite inappropriate to draw any conclusions about race from these incidents. It is right to condemn malpractice, whoever is responsible for it. We must maintain our vigilance and be absolutely rigorous in making it clear that such malpractice is unacceptable. There are no exceptions to that; it applies to everyone in this country, whatever their background.
Is it not entirely possible that a significant number of seats in the House will be won in the forthcoming election by a majority that is smaller than the number of postal votes available in the constituency? Is it not also the case that, according to the rules under which the election will take place, votes will be treated as an electoral commodity? Is it not essential that votes should be individual and secret? That is at the heart of our representative democracy.
Will the Minister also try not to be too deluded by Northern Ireland? Is it not more important that everyone who votes should be entitled to do so, rather than bending the rules so that some people who cannot be bothered to register should be encouraged to do so?
The right hon. Gentleman will know from the figures that I gave the House earlier that, at the last general election, approximately 4 per cent. of the electorate were entitled to postal votes. A number of hon. Members were elected with a majority of less than 4 per cent. It is inevitable that the possibility of that happening should exist. The vast majority of people use their postal vote entirely properly, and the important thing is that action should be taken to ensure that the integrity of the postal voting system continues. It is right that the vote should be individual and secret, and it is important that measures should be in place to protect that in respect of postal voting. The guidance that the Electoral Commission has issued recently—which all parties have seen in advance and which I hope they will all be fully committed to—will help us to achieve that objective.
On Northern Ireland, the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that the issue of individual registration relates to whether some members of the community would bother to register if the onus were on them to do so. We all have experience of families in which, if the mother or father did not put their youngsters' names on the register, the youngsters might not bother to do it for themselves. We are seeking to ensure that the register is as comprehensive and full as possible, and that no one is left out accidentally. In the course of an election, we all encounter people who complain that they would have liked to vote but were not on the register. We should not, therefore, go too quickly down a route that might increase the number of people who are excluded from the register, without carefully considering how to move towards individual identification of electors while avoiding the potential downsides that the Select Committee—which looked very carefully at this issue—identified.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has come to the House with this statement today. I am also pleased—although I do not want to be vindictive—that the full weight of the law is to be brought to bear on those people in Birmingham who have committed electoral fraud. This might deter certain persons in my constituency who were scurrying round harvesting ballot papers last May. Those people were from all three major parties. They were not candidates, agents or members of any party, but they were supporters of the three main candidates. I hope that the actions of the criminal justice system in Birmingham will deter such activity in Keighley in the forthcoming general election. I received numerous complaints from my constituents last year, and the same sort of thing also happened in two of the Bradford constituencies. As yet, no criminal proceedings have been brought against any of the people involved, and it is sad that certain people in those constituencies were not prepared to stand up and be counted in the criminal courts.
I share my hon. Friend's concern about malpractice. All political parties have a common interest in acting to stamp it out. It is right that the full force of the law should apply when malpractice has occurred and we are keen that there should be a clear understanding between returning officers and the police about effective action to deal with allegations of malpractice. That is essential if the message is to go out loud and clear from the House—as it should—that malpractice, the abuse of postal voting or any other electoral fraud is unacceptable and unreservedly condemned by all parties.
Since the right hon. Gentleman and I first began debating postal voting last year, his responses to The Times campaign—which should be commended—and to criticisms by the Liberal Democrats and Labour Back Benchers have consistently been characterised by complacency about a system that the judge described as
"farcical . . . hopelessly insecure . . . contains no effective safeguards and is an invitation to fraud".
A code of conduct is not law and carries no legal sanction or penalty. The Government are guilty of playing fast and loose with our democratic system and it will redound to the right hon. Gentleman's eternal discredit that he let down the voters of this country.
I do not accept that, because we have always made it clear that our objective was to facilitate the opportunity for people to exercise their democratic rights by voting. It is a cause of concern to us all if people are prevented from exercising their right to vote because they cannot get to the polling station. It is right that they should have the opportunity to vote. If the hon. Gentleman takes the view that the current system of postal voting is farcical and an invitation to fraud, why are letters from his party leader going out to people in his constituency, urging them to take advantage of the opportunity of a postal vote? Will he condemn that? If not, his words will be perceived as hollow rhetoric.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is an important principle that anyone who wants a postal vote for the coming general election can have one. Does he accept that we must move as quickly as possible to a system of individual registration? That would make more secure not only postal voting but voting at polling stations. To ensure that we do not suffer the problems that happened in Northern Ireland, we should change our registration system to one similar to that in Australia, where there is a fixed register with a three-year audit. The system then concentrates its resources on getting on to the register those who move or who do not register in the first place and it includes the use of data transfer from other organisations to achieve that. If we moved towards that, we could have a more accurate register and a safer voting system.
My hon. Friend is a member of the Select Committee, which examined the issues thoroughly and carefully. He has highlighted one option. He knows from the Select Committee's analysis that there are complexities and difficulties and that, in moving forward towards a system that allows more precise individual identification of electors to secure the integrity of the ballot, it is vital that we do not discourage people from registering. The Government have said that we are entirely sympathetic to the principle of individual registration. We want to move in that direction, but in a way that maintains a comprehensive register and does not deter people from registering to vote.
After a damning verdict by the judge, does the Minister agree that it is now extremely unlikely that any vote in a referendum on the European constitution should take place as an all-postal ballot? When the people of this country vote on that critical document, does he agree that they should have the opportunity to vote on it through a ballot box in a polling station in the traditional British way?
That is not in my remit and I do not know the precise arrangements that will be proposed. However, I know of no plan to conduct such a referendum as an all-postal ballot. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the last all-postal referendum was on regional government in the north-east of England and produced a result with which his party was entirely satisfied. There were no allegations of malpractice and a turnout of almost 50 per cent., which is far higher than would otherwise have been expected. He will therefore appreciate that some benefits derive from postal voting and that our task must be to move ahead in a way that retains them while ensuring proper safeguards against the sort of unacceptable abuse that occurred in Birmingham.
Will my right hon. Friend, in putting the concerns in response to the judgment in proportion, accept reassurances in two parts? First, Sam Younger and the Metropolitan police special branch said, in evidence to the Select Committee, that there was no evidence of widespread abuse of postal voting in this country. Secondly, evidence from the Australian electoral commission showed widespread confidence in postal voting on demand in that country on the back, as my hon. Friend Mr. Betts said, of individual registration, and a system whereby electronic images of signatures can be used to verify the source of a postal vote before the security envelope is opened. In that way, we could move forwards to a convenient, multi-channel, 21st-century form of voting rather than backwards to stubby pencils.
My hon. Friend, who is also a member of the Select Committee, has examined the issue carefully and his comments are informed by his study. I agree that we are considering complex issues but that it is important to move forward in a way that ensures the safeguards that individual identification provides and a mechanism for checking the validity of postal voting, without rejecting the option that enhances convenience and, as much evidence shows, increases the number of participants in our democratic process.
I served on the Committee that considered the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. It provided for changes to Northern Ireland legislation that were necessary because, in constituencies where Sinn Fein was especially strong, there were up to 10 times the number of postal and proxy votes found elsewhere. We had to protect against systematic abuse. I fear that we do not have the same protection for postal voting under the law in England and we now have a party that was involved in systematic abuse. It happens to be the Minister's party and it sits ill for him to deal with a disaster for confidence in the electoral system by criticising the judge by implication when the Government have had lessons from Northern Ireland about how to protect the system for many years.
The experience of Northern Ireland is important and we intend to examine it closely. However, one of the downsides, which I have highlighted, is the reduction in the number of people registered in Northern Ireland. That is an equal cause of concern. As I have said to several other hon. Members, the evidence of the past seven years shows that cases of abuse have been relatively few. They have covered all parties, so there is no association between abuse and one party. I hope that he will accept what I have made clear: although I wholeheartedly condemn the abuse and thoroughly support the judgment in that respect, I do not agree with inferences, in the absence of detailed evidence, of widespread fraud, on the basis of two specific areas where such fraud undoubtedly occurred. That is the critical issue and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give it more thought, because no one does any service to the electorate's confidence in the voting system by spreading fears about widespread malpractice when the vast majority of the evidence in recent years shows that there is no widespread malpractice.
Last year, a council by-election was held in Valentines ward in Redbridge in my constituency. The successfully elected candidate won by nine votes and there were 474 proxy votes in the ward out of about 2,000 votes cast in total. Many of those proxy votes were cast by people living 50 or 100 miles away from the constituency and many were cast by white active Conservatives on behalf of elderly Asian ladies. Can we deal with the question of proxy voting, too, which was abused by the Conservatives in Redbridge last year?
I repeat to my hon. Friend what I said to Mr. Blunt. The evidence of malpractice does not apply to any one party and it behoves all of us to condemn malpractice, whoever is responsible. We do not approach this matter in a partisan spirit but in a spirit of wanting to ensure that the electoral system makes it possible for all those who should have an entitlement to vote to do so, and to do so at their convenience, but at the same time to do so in a way that maintains the integrity of the voting system and public confidence in that. That should be our overriding priority.
May I counsel the Minister that shooting the messenger is rarely a good idea? His criticisms of the judge demean him, not the judge. The judge spoke about open invitations to fraud in a banana republic when we are talking about the mother of Parliaments, of which I am proud to be a Member. This is a big issue. Can we have fewer fine words and more action? I note from the Minister's statement that there have been only four prosecutions since 1998 for electoral fraud. Will the six Labour councillors now be barred from office and their assistants be prosecuted? What is the Home Office doing about that? While the Home Office and police are having discussions, what action will police be required to take on allegations of fraud—which will arise—from electoral registration officers?
As the hon. Gentleman will understand, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on individual cases, but I have no doubt that the circumstances of this case will be considered by the authorities concerned, with a view to the possibility of a prosecution. In so far as he criticises fine words, most people would share his view about the integrity of this Parliament and the fact that the voting system that has brought all of us here has generally been fair. We should therefore be careful about inferring that the standards of conduct are analogous to those of a banana republic. It behoves all of us to take the necessary steps to ensure that any malpractice, in whatever form, is stamped on where we see it.
Certainly, the Government accept fully their responsibility to ensure that all those involved are given support, help and guidance to do their best. That is why I have written to returning officers encouraging them to co-operate with the police on measures to stamp out any malpractice that might occur in the forthcoming election. That is the spirit in which we should move forward, with a view to defending the integrity of the electoral system and the good standing of this Parliament. I hope that all Members can agree on that.
The Minister will have heard mention in an earlier question of the European referendum. I hope that any difficulties with the voting system will not be used as an excuse to delay the European referendum. Does he agree that the sooner that we have it, the better? Bring it on, I say. I digress, however. Does he accept that a discussion of postal voting involves a variety of elements, one of which is registration? Does he agree that it is essential that we take further steps to try to outlaw, where possible, the use of false, spurious or convenience addresses by voters?
As my hon. Friend knows, I have no responsibility in respect of the referendum on the European constitution and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that today. People registering at spurious addresses is obviously a concern and I hope that all returning officers will examine that as part of the general approach to which I referred and which I encourage them to pursue in the coming election.