I beg to move,
That this House
believes that the Government should rule out future use of all-postal voting and that any pilot schemes should be subject to explicit parliamentary ratification;
regrets the unwillingness of the Government to adopt in mainland Britain the tried and tested Northern Ireland system of individual voter registration;
condemns the Government's constitutional changes which have undermined democratic accountability, such as the introduction of proportional representation;
and further believes that urgent steps are needed to restore public confidence and integrity in the electoral system and to increase the accountability of government.
The United Kingdom has held a reputation—[Interruption.]
Order. May I say to hon. Members who want to pursue conversations that this is not in order? We are trying to proceed with the debate. May I please have quiet in the House?
The United Kingdom has traditionally held a reputation as a beacon of democracy and fair play, the mother of Parliaments. We have led the way in building foundations for democracy across the world. We have tended as a country to occupy the moral high ground and even to lecture other parts of the world on democracy. But the integrity of our own recent general election was dependent on overseas observers for the first time, from places like Serbia and the Ukraine.
Although Ministers insist that there was no widespread evidence of systematic election fraud, public perception has changed over recent months and years. It is clear that the Government's modernisation programme in this area has resulted in a collapse in public confidence and compromised the perceived integrity of the British electoral system. As the right hon. and hon. Members who are shaking their heads will know, a MORI poll in March this year found that 54 per cent. of the public think that postal voting has made it easier to commit election fraud, and an even higher proportion are concerned about fraud with electronic voting.
"there is increasing concern about electoral fraud . . . we consider that the current position runs the risk of the whole electoral process being discredited. Confusion already exists among electoral practitioners and election agents, and a major scandal could bring representative democracy into disrepute."
The Government simply ignored its strongly worded warnings.
In the June 2004 elections, the Government imposed widespread all-postal voting in the face of cross-party and Electoral Commission opposition, choosing pilot regions on the basis of partisan advantage. The elections descended into such administrative chaos that even in the Deputy Prime Minister's own area, Hull, the election court had to annul a decision.
A judge recently highlighted the inherent risks in the current rules on postal voting, attacking Ministers for being in a state of not simple complacency, but denial:
"that there are no systems to deal realistically with fraud . . . would disgrace a banana republic".
New Labour should reflect carefully on those comments.
In 2004, the Labour party official postal voting handbook called for Labour activists to build their own ballot boxes to take to voters' doors:
"You could even have a ballot box for people to put their votes in which you can then deliver to the returning officer before close of poll. If your volunteers are wearing Labour stickers or rosettes it is unlikely that supporters of other parties will give you their votes."
Public confidence in the electoral system continued to decline in the 2005 election, as evidenced by the extraordinary scenes in Bethnal Green and Bow. Mr. Galloway has told me that he is on tour in the north of England and cannot speak in this debate, but when he gave evidence to the London Assembly, he discussed
"a major operation to bloat the electoral register with non-existent electors as part of a dirty tricks operation," and accused new Labour of
"ruthlessly using bullying, blackmail, postal votes operations—all the black arts you could imagine."
At least 100 of my constituents wish they had had postal votes, because they were refused access to a polling station because of huge queues and insufficient clerks to cope with demand. I have made representations to Sam Younger to ensure that local authorities have extra people available to allocate to areas of heavy demand. Does he believe that people like to go to polling stations to vote, which is a view that I have heard expressed on the doorstep?
It is a serious matter if people queue up around the block but cannot vote. I hope that the Electoral Commission examines that issue and takes account of my hon. Friend's idea.
The Government's decision to introduce the long-delayed electoral administration Bill is welcome. I also welcome the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister has been stripped of his responsibility for elections and postal voting, which is a long overdue vote of no confidence. Early-day motion 202 makes it clear that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are heaving a huge sigh of relief that he is no longer involved.
Although we support many of the provisions in the recent consultation paper, the proposed legislation does not go far enough.
I do not want the hon. Gentleman to move too far away from his friend, Mr. Galloway. When he spoke to that hon. Gentleman, did he discuss the fact that, uniquely in modern history, he was elected with the support of only 18.4 per cent. of the electorate in his constituency? Does the hon. Gentleman believe that that is a genuine reflection of the political views of the people of Bethnal Green and Bow?
That is the sort of point that one might wish to address in a serious way had it come from any other part of the House, but it is rich coming from the Liberal Democrats, who believe in proportional representation, which can lead to extremist parties getting elected with only 5 per cent. of the vote.
Forced all-postal voting has been condemned by the Electoral Commission in two major reports and the public have no confidence in it. Is the Minister really unable to make a commitment to the effect that we have seen the end of it? Many Members of all parties are old-fashioned enough to think that there is something special about the traditional method of voting using the properly controlled polling station and the ballot box, and that if somebody wishes to use postal voting, that should be their choice, not something that is forced upon them. Even those who support it want it to be properly controlled.
Conservative Members also have concerns about the future use of other pilot methods, including remote electronic voting. We believe that the technology for e-voting is very insecure and that all the problems that one gets with postal votes would apply to the issuing of PIN numbers. One would end up with a double danger, not just a single one.
Given the hon. Gentleman's concerns about postal voting, how many votes does he calculate the Tory party secured during the general election as a direct result of the mailshots from the Leader of the Opposition requesting individuals to fill in a postal ballot form, and, if they could not do it themselves, to find a friend to do it? Does he think that is a strange strategy to employ in relation to a system to which he is so opposed?
It would be surprising had we not said consistently, from the beginning, that we are not against postal voting—we are against ill-regulated postal voting that is not properly controlled. That is why today, as before, we propose that there should be proper safeguards, which even now the Government are not prepared to introduce.
One would have thought that Steve McCabe would be much more concerned about representing a local authority area that was described as a banana republic in the recent judge's report on the activities that had taken place.
I am encouraged by our stand on how we want the process tightened. Does my hon. Friend have more to say about the electoral court, which will look at some of the general election results with regard to postal voting fraud? What does he think we should do about that?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I cannot make a close examination of those cases at present because of the sub judice rules, which we all respect in this place. However, there is no doubt that there are considerable risks and that judges have made serious condemnations of how the Government have handled the whole matter.
Let me say a few words about pilot schemes. It has got to the point where pilot schemes are becoming the norm in some elections, and greater scrutiny is required. The law needs to be amended so that secondary legislation is required to ratify a pilot scheme. It is not acceptable that powers that were originally intended to allow for trial and experimentation in very tight circumstances should now be used to make near-permanent changes to the system.
It is not only the postal voting system that is unsafe and inadequate. Perhaps most important, the registers on which we depend for our system are in a poor state. Last year, a Daily Mail investigation found that the paper could register a fictitious student called Gus Troobev, an anagram of "bogus voter" on 31 electoral registers in a few hours. In Cheadle, one of the most marginal constituencies in Britain, the paper was able to obtain nine further bogus votes. The Conservative candidate and former Member of Parliament, Stephen Day, had to contact Stockport's Liberal Democrat council, after obtaining the names from the Daily Mail, so that they could be removed from the register.
A journalist from The Sunday Telegraph was able to apply for the postal ballot papers of 36 voters to be sent to one address. The Evening Standard was able to apply for postal votes diverted to bogus addresses simply by using an application form from the internet. A Sky News investigation managed falsely to obtain multiple votes in two constituencies with no proof of identity and, more than a year ago, Marion Roe, who was then a Member of Parliament, produced evidence in a debate in Westminster Hall that electoral registers were up to 10 per cent. inaccurate, containing thousands of names of voters who were not truly entitled to vote.
Democratic legitimacy derives from individual citizens' belief that their system is fair and secure. Although the Government's proposals to collect signatures and dates of birth would be an improvement, there remains no independent verification of the existence of those on the electoral register.
The hon. Gentleman criticises the electoral process in this country. We have recently had the biggest test of electoral opinion through a general election, yet so far he has given the House only one example, from Mr. Galloway, of alleged irregularities in that constituency. If the problem is so widespread, I presume that he can give us a list of other constituencies about which he has anxieties. Has the Conservative party lodged an election petition against the result in any constituency?
I cannot go into the details of electoral petitions any more than the hon. Gentleman, because of the rules of this place. If he is satisfied that there is no risk, given the events in the local elections of 2004, he is one of a small number of people.
I am sorry that Mr. Raynsford has left to answer his telephone, because when the Birmingham scandal was announced by the judge, Richard Mawtrey, the right hon. Gentleman made a statement. He said that, when individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland, the register got smaller. Why did he believe that there were fewer people than before on the register in Northern Ireland under an individual registration system? I am glad that he has now finished his telephone call.
My hon. Friend gets to the nub of an important point. The Northern Ireland Office stated:
"the Government is satisfied that these measures have been extremely successful in substantially improving the accuracy of the electoral register in Northern Ireland."
Yet right hon. Members tried to suggest that there was something wrong with what happened in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland now has an honest register.
Does my hon. Friend accept that false entries on the electoral register are not made simply to influence membership here or on councils or to entertain tabloid journalists, since registration is a prerequisite of establishing a credit rating? The problem goes far wider than electoral fraud.
That is true. Examples of individuals who were not entitled to vote came up during the election campaign, but they had tried to register not in order to vote but in order to apply for credit. I do not mind if they want a platinum card, but I mind that the risk exists.
Recently, The People—that great organ—conducted an analysis of the electoral roll. It uncovered names such as Donald Duck and Jesus H. Christ. Perhaps they are genuine, but I suspect that the entries at a student address in Southampton, including Hooty McBoob and Gailord Focker, while not evidence of sinister malpractice, are not. One does suspect that these people do not exist.
Mainland Britain needs the Northern Ireland system of individual registration. In the Province, voters need to provide a signature, a date of birth and a national insurance number to register. The national insurance number is used to check that the elector exists. Such identifiers are then used to verify postal votes. Ministers were initially reluctant to use national insurance numbers, but there was considerable debate on the issue in the other place. I pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Glentoran in that regard. The Minister in the other place, Lord Williams of Mostyn—whom we all miss and who was a very good spokesman for Labour in the other place—accepted the argument that there was no independent method of verification. He insisted that national insurance numbers should be used, which was the right thing to do.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the system has suddenly become as he is describing it, or that it has always been that way? In fact, the method of registration has been as it now is since the Ballot Act 1872. Is he suggesting that the proposed system would fundamentally change a system that has always been subject to the problems that he has outlined, or does he believe that these problems have suddenly started to occur in the past two years?
It is hard to tell whether the situation has got worse or whether it has always been bad, but that is not the point. The point is that, if the Government are going to introduce a system of mass postal voting and want to leave open the option of all-postal voting, as the Minister does, we must have a register on which we can rely. At the moment, we do not have one, which is why we want to implement certain changes.
I want to make some progress.
If we adopted the Northern Ireland system in this country, we would have a much more effective control. Furthermore, non-UK voters should have to provide proof of citizenship. Points have been made about asylum seekers and other people from overseas who live in our country, but we must do something to tackle the problem of people who sign up to the register simply for consumer credit purposes when they are not entitled to vote.
If we had a tighter system of registration, we would feel much more confident in the electoral system. The general election also brought into focus wider problems in the electoral system.
My hon. Friend touched on the subject of people who are entitled to vote in European elections finding themselves with polling cards at the general election. That caused those people great discomfort, because they felt that the Government and the local authority should not encourage them to vote in that way. My local authority conducted compulsory postal voting for the local elections, and a great number of my constituents wanted to know why there could not be ballot boxes as well. Will my hon. Friend say something about that?
I believe that it is a fundamental right to be able to choose to vote in the traditional way.
At the general election, the Conservative party scored more votes than Labour in England, but won 93 fewer seats, but that is not an argument for proportional representation, as The Independent has claimed. The use of PR in Britain has already undermined democratic accountability, without bringing about any increase in electoral turnout. It also prevents voters from removing an Administration, since it creates perpetual coalition Government. An unpopular Administration can be kept in office by a minor party, despite the desire of the people to kick the rascals out.
Proportional representation also leads to a highly disproportionate relationship between the number of votes cast and the share of Executive power, by making minority parties the power brokers in Government. It also destroys the constituency link between the elected representative and their voters. Under first past the post, each voter can identify the person responsible for looking after their interests. Under PR systems, either constituencies are massive, with multiple members, or there is a group of representatives selected from a party list, accountable primarily to their political party. PR systems can allow candidates to be elected with as little as 5 to 8 per cent. of the vote, opening the door to extremists. A ridiculous situation can arise in which the most popular local politician is not elected and no one's vote counts for anything, because every vote is simply a mandate for negotiation.
I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman said about PR, but he obviously wants to put more obstacles in the way of participation in voting. Does he accept that we must do something about the hundreds of thousands of people who are not on the register? Should we not encourage them to get on it?
I am in favour of proper campaigns to ensure that as many people as possible who are entitled to vote register to do so. If the changes that I suggest were introduced, it might be a good thing for an extra effort to be made to find those people and ensure that they register. It might even be a good idea to canvass twice during the year. What I do not accept is that people who are not entitled to vote should be able to register. It is completely unacceptable for registers to be inaccurate by as much as 10 per cent.
In the 2005 general election, across England, the average electorate in constituencies that elected Labour MPs was 67,500, while in Conservative constituencies the figure was 73,000. Boundary Commission regulations should be amended to ensure that maintaining an equal quota has primacy over other considerations, and they should allow county boundaries to be crossed. There should be more up-to-date information about the size of electorates towards the end of the boundary review process to avoid the drawing up of constituencies on the basis of data from the start of the review that subsequently becomes out-of-date. That would be a fairer system, as it would ensure that each elector had the same level of parliamentary representation.
That is an important point. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that the standard quota should extend not just across England but across the United Kingdom? Is he aware that, of the 10 largest seats in this Parliament, all are in England and all but two are represented by Conservative Members, whereas, of the 10 smallest seats, none is in England and none is represented by a Conservative?
I am aware of that and I agree that we should have a quota that is fair and equal across the United Kingdom, although in the Isle of Wight and one or two other constituencies where it is geographically difficult to achieve an exact electoral quota, special arrangements may be needed.
In my constituency, just under 10,000 electors are missing from the census, and 6,000 have disappeared over the past six years. Is that not a major contributory factor in the difference in size between electorates? Does the hon. Gentleman accept that conducting two canvasses rather than one is simply not adequate to the need in that context?
I think the hon. Gentleman and I agree that we need a much more active campaign to ensure that people who are entitled to vote are registered to do so. What is not acceptable is a situation in which, typically, there are inner-city seats with 51,000 electors, and county and rural areas where the average is 73,000 or 74,000. That is not equality between electors. Each elector should have the same level of parliamentary representation.
It has become clear that the Government's obsession with electoral modernisation has compromised Britain's traditional reputation for free and fair elections, and undermined the integrity of the system and public confidence in it. We were proud in this country to put behind us the electoral practices in the rotten boroughs of the 18th and 19th centuries—the intimidation, fraud and risk. I for one would be very sad, and I am sure that this view is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, if that became the hallmark of the 21st century. That is why it is time for the Government to stop fiddling with our constitution for partisan advantage. It is time to protect people's right to vote in person and in secret. It is time to restore confidence, integrity and accountability to British democracy.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to end, and insert:
"believes that the General and local elections were safe and secure, and produced results that were fair and accurate;
recognises that public confidence in the electoral process is paramount;
and believes that the Government's constitutional changes have strengthened democratic accountability, bringing our institutions closer to the people."
Although I regret the tone of the speech of Mr. Heald and take issue with many of the swingeing, unsupported and unsubstantiated assertions that he made, I welcome the subject that the Opposition have chosen for today's debate. It is timely, coming barely a month after the general election, and it is an opportunity for me to set out our approach. We will draw on the great experience in the House and beyond. We will be guided by the principles that I believe we all share. We will found our proposals on evidence and proceed by way of consultation.
The right hon. and learned Lady says that she will found her proposals on evidence, but the Government do not collect the evidence that is necessary to identify a problem. People get disfranchised because they have a postal vote that they do not receive, they turn up to vote on the day of the election and are told by the presiding officer that they have to go away and are not entitled to vote. No record is kept of that. The Government keep no record of how many times that has happened, as I learned after I tabled a written question. There is an underlying problem when the Government are not collecting the evidence in the first instance.
I welcome the comments and information, drawn from the hon. Gentleman's own experience, that he has already given us. We are genuinely interested in hearing what the concerns are and hearing evidence. We are taking action and consulting on proposals that we hope will deal with those matters. It is true that not enough evidence is routinely collected about the problems in the system. I accept that point.
Is the Minister aware that, in Birmingham at the last general election, 185 people turned up at the 90 polling stations in the city saying that they wished to vote and were told that they were on the postal vote list? Is she also aware that the chief returning officer of Birmingham city council instructed her staff at the polling stations to keep a list of all those people? I am surprised that John Hemming did not know that, seeing that his administration was running the city council during the elections.
My hon. Friend makes an important point and we must consider all those issues. I look forward to hearing speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. As I said, we will found our proposals on evidence, wherever we receive it, and proceed by way of consultation. Our objectives are to ensure that we take action to tackle the scandal of the possibly millions of people who are entitled to be on the electoral register but are not and so are not able to vote; to ensure that we will have more secure voting; and to ensure that we increase the turnout.
I will, but I do not want to make too lengthy a speech. If there could be fewer interventions, or at least if I could answer them more quickly, I would be able to get on with my speech.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving way again, but does she share the concern of many people that, while it has been easy for large sections of the population to get on the register, it has not been easy for members of the armed forces? Given that members of the armed forces are serving around the world, carrying out the instructions and will of her Government, is it not shameful that so many of them were left off the electoral roll and were unable to vote in the last election?
I agree with the substance of the hon. Gentleman's point about service personnel, which I will deal with in due course. If I may, I should like to make some progress. I anticipate that my speech will deal with many of the points that Members want to make.
So our three objectives are getting people who are entitled to vote on to the register, establishing a voting process that is more secure, and increasing turnout. The legitimacy of our system depends on making progress in all those areas. There is a great wealth of election experience in all parts of the House. I am by no means the longest serving Member of this House, but I have been returned in seven elections, and the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend Bridget Prentice, who will respond to this debate, has been a candidate in five general elections and in many local elections. There is a wealth of experience in this House, but also beyond it. We need to draw on the experience of our colleagues in local government, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the European Parliament and the political parties—not just the organisers, but the vast army of volunteers who do so much to make the electoral system work.
I believe that we all share a commitment to a system that allows everyone the right to vote and is secure against fraud. While there should be no party difference on that point, the constituencies that we represent are very diverse—a fact that affects Members' approach to these issues. For example, more than a third of my constituents were not born in the United Kingdom. My constituency, which has a high population turnover and many people struggling on low incomes, is very different from that of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. It also differs from the constituency of Mr. Heath, where, the electoral system must work for a population which, although stable, is very widely scattered. In some constituencies, the issue of student voting is very important; in others, the issue is the ability of servicemen and women to vote. The essential principles of our electoral system must be applied in all constituencies, not just some.
The different concerns of Members in all parts of the House arise principally from the differences in the constituencies that we represent. We must acknowledge and respect those differences. Those in whose constituencies there is proven fraud should acknowledge that that is not the case everywhere. Those in whose constituencies fraud does not exist should not deny the need for robust anti-fraud systems. Those whose constituencies have no problem with under-registration should not deny that it is a huge problem in others. As I have said, probably more than 1 million people who are entitled to vote are not registered. The point is that both security and access to voting matter. Measures to tackle both issues must be adopted, and they must be proportionate and sensible.
We will proceed on the basis of considering the evidence. We will respond to headlines, but only because we recognise that when they overstate the problem of fraud, we need to do what we can to reassure the public and to sustain confidence. We will not be complacent but nor will we panic, and we will proceed by way of consultation. We issued a policy paper last month and we are consulting on it. We are still considering the responses, so I have no further announcements to make today. However, I intend to listen carefully to this debate. I want to hear the speeches not only of Front Benchers, but of all Members in all parts of the House, so I will stay for the whole debate. We have also consulted by way of meetings and discussions with Members from all parties. I want to thank all those Members who have written to me and taken the time to give me their views in meetings. I believe that I am the only person to have invited the new Conservative Members to a meeting who is not also running for the Tory party leadership.
We will continue to consult. We must have a system that ensures that all have the right to vote, which is not currently the case. As I said, there are probably more than a million who cannot vote because they are not on the register. That not only affects individuals who lose their right to vote, but undermines the basis on which the boundary commission does its work. That is why it is so important.
I hope that the Minister recognises, as did two Committees in the last Parliament, that if we go for individual registration, for which there is a very powerful case, it will be essential to adopt various forms of data sharing to ensure that people are not left off the register. At least some of those who were left off the register in Northern Ireland were probably not on it fraudulently in the first place.
I pay tribute to the report produced by the right hon. Gentleman's Select Committee. It covers many important areas and we shall shortly be responding to it. It pulls together a great deal of information that had previously not been brought together as a basis for discussions and debates in the House.
Following what Mr. Beith said, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, having successfully fought even one more general election—albeit including a by-election—than she did, I like many others, have considerable experience in these matters? I have to say that the state of the electoral register for the last general election was the worst I have known it throughout my entire period in Parliament. We must place a much greater onus of responsibility on electoral registration officers to be proactive—including data sharing, where necessary. They must keep the registers up to date, accurate and correct in every respect, and they must report on the extent to which the registers are correct. Does the Minister have some proposals to deal with that matter, about which I have written to her?
May I thank my hon. Friend for his letter and say that his point is echoed in the Select Committee report. I have asked officials in my Department and the Electoral Commission to look further into how data cross-checks could both ensure that gaps on the register are filled and be a vehicle for detecting fraud.
When the Minister follows up the matters raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Robinson, will she also look into another problem of which many hon. Members, particularly those in Coventry, are aware? I refer to the reduction in the number of polling stations. Has it been done to make savings or is it geared up to encourage more people to vote? It has led to problems in Coventry, particularly for ethnic minorities. In the last election, many ethnic minority women had to walk very long distances to vote. I hope that the Minister will respond and do something about that.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about access to polling stations. There is also the problem of access to the electoral register. The Select Committee report mentioned that the latest estimate of the number of new Commonwealth citizens not registered is 36.6 per cent.
We will all have experienced visiting a polling station on election day and being told by a constituent, "I have come down to vote, but they won't let me. Can you please do something about it?" We check the register and say, "Sorry, but the person is not on the register."
We are then told, "But the council has just sent me a bill for my council tax. How can I not be on the register?" There is a real prospect for data sharing to provide more complete registers and to check fraud. The exercise that one has to go through to get child benefit or a driving licence is much tougher than anything even the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is suggesting for tightening up the electoral register.
Many of the questions that the Minister is trying to answer are covered in "Securing the Vote"—the Electoral Commission report of May this year. It suggests 11 main points as a way forward and I wonder whether the Minister's Department has had time to look at and assimilate those points. If so, does she intend to enact any of them?
Yes, we have looked at and assimilated them. The hon. Gentleman will see that some of them are reflected in the policy document that we sent him and all other hon. Members. He is welcome to contact me again, either in person or in writing, to tell me what he thinks of the Electoral Commission's views. The Electoral Commission has important information to supply and plays a very important role, but at the end of the day, Members of Parliament have to decide on the law and how to operate it.
My right hon. and learned Friend has spoken eloquently about the democratic deficit caused by the million or so people missing from the register. Before she considers erecting any more hurdles for people wanting to join that register, will she use the evidence that she has cited to ensure that the measures do not put more people off?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We need to achieve a more secure voting system and get more people on the register. It is not a matter of one or the other: we need to approach both problems on the same basis.
Once again, the Opposition have renewed their attack on all-postal voting. As the House knows, the Government are consulting on action for greater security for postal votes. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire does not need to urge us to look at that matter, as we have already agreed to do so, but we must do all we can to ensure higher turnouts. So far, all-postal voting has produced higher turnouts.
In the light of concerns that we all have about falling turnouts, we will not change the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which allow the Secretary of State to agree to applications for all-postal voting in areas that want it. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire asked for such applications to be allowed only under secondary legislation. I can tell him that today I have been considering an application from King's Lynn, where a parish council by-election is due to be held. In the past, the parish concerned has had some by-elections that involved all-postal voting, and some that did not. No complaints have been made about all-postal voting, which has led to turnouts of 33 per cent. By contrast, by-elections there that have not involved all-postal voting have achieved turnouts of only 11 per cent. Given that the parish is asking to be allowed to hold an all-postal vote, we should not tie up those responsible for holding the election with parliamentary problems. We should be satisfied that there is a consensus among people in that little area in favour of all-postal voting, and that it would be a bit heavy-handed of us to deny them the opportunity.
The Government set up the Electoral Commission to provide advice on these matters. Why will the right hon. and learned Lady not accept its recommendations on all-postal voting and individual voter registration? Why will she not do what the Government conceded was the right thing in Northern Ireland?
Advisers have the responsibility to advise, and we welcome and respect their advice. It is the responsibility of the Government to bring proposals to this House, and it is the responsibility of this House to decide.
The Tory motion attacks our introduction of proportional voting systems in the devolved Administrations for "undermining democratic accountability". I confess that I am slightly baffled. In his speech, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire mounted full-blooded onslaughts on both proportional representation and the first-past-the-post system. I am therefore baffled as to what he proposes—
The hon. Gentleman says he loves the first-past-the-post system, but I am sure that he does not love the result of the general election.
My officials are examining the data relating to the new voting systems for the devolved Administrations. Of course it makes sense to review our experience of different electoral systems, as well as looking at the experience abroad. However, I cannot help reflecting that it is curious for the Conservative party to say that proportional voting in the devolved Administrations undermines accountability and leads to extremism.
If the Scottish Parliament were elected on the first-past-the-post basis, the Conservatives would have only three seats, whereas the proportional system has given them 18. In Wales, the Conservatives would have only one member of the Assembly under the first-past-the-post system, whereas the proportional system has given them 11. Without proportional representation, even the leader of the Conservatives in Wales would not be in the Welsh Assembly.
One effect of the proportional voting system in Scotland and Wales has been greater Conservative representation. Is that what the Opposition mean by "undermining accountability"?
The right hon. and learned Lady finds such things strange, but we take a principled position that, if a system is wrong, we should not abide by it, even if it benefits us. She said that one of the effects was that the Conservatives won more seats. Another effect is that the Liberals, who come third and fourth in such elections, get into government. Those are wholly disproportionate results.
As I have said, we are reviewing the data on how the new systems that we have introduced operate in the devolved Assemblies.
Whenever anyone debates politics and elections in this country, they talk about trust—trust in politicians, trust in the system of government and trust in the voting system. No single policy or Minister can transform the self-evident problems that all of us, of whatever party, face in that regard, but we need to ensure that the system of voting—from the compilation of the electoral register and the distribution of postal votes to the counting and declaration of results—enjoys the fullest possible respect and trust in the nation.
The Government are considering a range of measures—not just in my Department, but across government—to ensure that citizens are more engaged in our political processes and the decisions that affect their lives. Britain rightly takes pride in our democratic traditions based on fairness, the secret ballot and universal suffrage. This Labour Government take an equal pride in our longstanding dedication to democracy and will do everything to protect those fundamental principles.
I welcome the debate and the contribution made by the Minister of State. I have said before, but I will say it again, that it is high time that we had in this House a Minister of her seniority from that Department and that the Department for Constitutional Affairs had repatriated to itself responsibility for these matters, rather than their being spread across other Departments. Both those things are welcome, as was the tenor of the right hon. and learned Lady's speech.
I was not quite so happy with tenor of the response given by the Prime Minister during Prime Minister's questions earlier today, when in an overdose of either bombast or complacency—it was hard to tell—he appeared to suggest that the governance of Britain was a low priority for his Government. The mechanisms of the governance of Britain are absolutely integral to everything that we do in the House and everything that the Government do.
We should be extremely concerned about the consequences of the last election, which have provoked comments, from a highly regarded national broadsheet paper that it was a "subversion of democracy"; from the Electoral Reform Society that it was "the worst election ever"; and that
"In some parts of the country there is a real feeling of alienation, of reluctance to participate in our democracy", which came from the Leader of the House. So there is a real issue to be faced.
Just let me get my introduction over and done with, and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
There is an unfortunate degree of complacency. The assumption is that because, happily, this country was the birthplace of modern democracy, our systems are necessarily robust and right. Those of us who have represented Parliament in monitoring elections abroad—Mr. Heald made this point—know that what we look for in an adequate electoral system are things such as a registration system that neither under-registers people who are entitled to vote nor over-registers those who are not entitled to do so and a robust and replicable identification system for voters. We look for the opportunities for fraud that the system offers. We look for abuses of the rules by political parties and others. We consider whether there is an independent electoral commission of which that country's Government take proper notice and whether the voting system properly reflects the views of the electorate. Judged on those criteria, it is hard to see how this country could pass such a test at present.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of the sensationalist headlines that he has just read out do not mirror the facts? For example, the Electoral Commission's report on postal voting found little wrong with the system in terms of fraud—except, obviously, in Birmingham. We should not get carried away by the headlines; we should look at the facts.
I agree, and had I carried on a little longer before taking the hon. Gentleman's intervention I would have said that actually—miraculously, given the openness of our system to fraud and malpractice—most of our electoral practice is correct and proper. People respect the rules. But we are very foolish and myopic indeed if we do not realise that we are laying ourselves open both to the charge that our system lacks integrity and to the reality that if people want to abuse the system they can do so with relative impunity, notwithstanding the high profile cases that have done such a great disservice to the confidence of the public in our system.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that we should look at other countries. Perhaps we should look at Australia, which has a legal requirement that people take part in elections and where there are turnouts of well over 90 per cent. Any attempt at fraud is lessened because there is such a huge turnout.
There has been a longstanding argument about whether we should have compulsory voting. I am not persuaded, and although I agree that it increases turnout because people are fined if they do not vote, it does nothing to maintain the integrity of the system unless other factors are in place.
Notwithstanding the contribution of the Minister's and the fact that she clearly intends to introduce legislation, which I hope we shall all be able to welcome, I have one major criticism of the Government's position: they did not do much for public confidence in the system, or indeed the integrity of the system, by their conduct during the passage of the European Parliamentary and Local Election (Pilots) Act 2004, on which I represented my party. The Government's attitude was characterised by the fact that they ignored the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and the clear advice of parties in this and the other place. The Government went ahead with what they had intended to do in the first place, which left them open to the charge that they had acted for partisan purposes rather than having the integrity of the system as their main objective.
May I return to the list of factors that the hon. Gentleman suggested we look for when observing elections in another country? I am happy to say that I agree with all of them, but I noticed that he did not include intimidation, which we should almost certainly be looking at in those circumstances. Does he accept that it is important, and indeed beholden on all of us in this place, to make sure that when we are describing fraud or malpractice we do not exaggerate it? We should not distort the evidence or use newspaper headlines for political advantage. If we do, we intimidate elderly people into not taking up their legal democratic right to a postal vote, as some people fear happened during the recent election. It certainly happened in Birmingham, owing to the disproportionate attention to what happened in two local government wards.
The hon. Gentleman should take care about using the word "disproportionate" to describe convictions that were properly made in Birmingham and the facts revealed in a court. It is proper that such matters should be correctly reported and described. In other senses, however, I agree with him. Intimidation is a factor that we need to deal with, and later in my remarks I shall set out what all political parties should be doing about it.
Will my hon. Friend accept that Birmingham is perhaps unique in its commitment to dealing with electoral fraud, rather than unique as a place where electoral fraud occurs? Does he agree that there is evidence that electoral reform increases turnout by 20 per cent. in G8 countries and on average by 10 per cent. in other countries? If the Government were really committed to increasing turnout, they would introduce electoral reform.
I agree with my hon. Friend and shall return to that point in a moment. Three things are essential to voters when they cast their ballots in elections. First, they must know that their votes are counted properly. Secondly, they must know that their votes will count, which relates to the point made by my hon. Friend. Thirdly, they must know that the person whom they elect counts and that a proper representative democracy is able to do its job in this place—although the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire perhaps elided that point.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, may I refer him back to a couple of interventions that he took from Labour Members? They did not seem to dispute his point that the system is wide open to fraud, but simply tried to say that not many cases of that fraud had yet been discovered. When designing an electoral system, surely the point is that it should not be open to fraud and that it should not be incumbent on us to do the work of detectives to determine whether fraud is being committed. The point is that if fraud can take place, it might be committed without us knowing about it, so we should close the loopholes.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman up to a point, although we live in the real world, so we would not be able to devise a system that would be wholly impossible to defraud. However, we must make it as difficult as possible to commit fraud, which is why the Electoral Commission's recommendations on individual voter identification and strictures on all-postal voting are extremely sensible. I regret those strictures because we have had a successful all-postal vote in my constituency, but clearly the system has not worked satisfactorily in all parts of the country. We should bring in additional anti-fraud measures. We all face the problem that if the system is open to malpractice, as sure as eggs is eggs, someone will attempt to abuse it.
We currently do not know the extent of electoral fraud because until now we have taken the fairly Pollyanna-ish view that this is Britain and such things do not happen here. There is now evidence that such things do happen here, although we do not know to what extent because we do not have the mechanisms or audit systems to find out. I hope the thrust of the legislation that the Minister of State will bring forward will be to put appropriate systems in place and that all parties will be able to support her proposals. However, when that happens, all political parties will have the further requirement to take the matter seriously. I say all political parties because there is not one single political party that is not open to such abuse. Indeed, I suspect that there is not one party in which there has not been an incident of a person abusing the system.
Part of a discussion that I had with the Minister of State the other day was the point that parties should have zero tolerance of such abuse. If people bend the rules, we need to make it clear that they no longer represent our party, the Conservative party, the Labour party, or any other party for which the democratic process is important. I am not only talking about the postal vote rigging that we have heard about, because we as politicians know that all sorts of abuses are possible. Incidents of votes being farmed in old people's homes have been reported over the years and it is time that that stopped. If anyone knows that it is happening, it is time for them to report it to the appropriate officers and for appropriate action to be taken in the relevant political party. People might receive an extra polling card and have the simple temptation to run down the street with it to get an extra vote, but it is not good enough to say that on the fringes that will not make a difference to the result, because it will—every single vote counts, so every single vote must be a properly registered vote.
We need to examine some of the rules—this is the last point I shall make about constituency elections—that are still very lax. It might be said that my party would say that. We have funding limits for expenditure in elections in constituencies. We all laboriously complete forms after an election declaring what we have spent. We have to register every penny. We do that while other national parties put huge expenditure into a limited number of marginal constituencies across the country. That expenditure is vastly out of proportion to anything that is spent locally. How is that anything other than an abuse of the system and of the rules that we have in place?
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong for a party to put out four letters by its national leader targeted to more than 50 per cent. of the voters, to put about a leaflet hand delivered and paid-for-delivery throughout the campaign and to put two advertisements in local newspapers, all purporting to be part of the national campaign, which have not had to be accounted for as part of local expenditure? This is a trend. I am not naming only one party. It is a trend among all parties. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a distortion of the process?
I think that it is a distortion. I think that the three parties represented in the Chamber at present are guilty of it to differing degrees because we have different assets to our names. Nevertheless, we are guilty of it and it is time it stopped. It is also time the rules reflected that.
I shall move on quickly because I know that many Members wish to speak. I am aware that I have taken many interventions.
There is the issue about making votes count. Perhaps I might be expected to say this, but I am provoked to say it by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire putting into his motion—and therefore making it one that I am incapable of supporting—adverse comments on proportional representation. We have just had a general election where the turnout was 61 per cent. The Labour party, which formed a Government, achieved a 67-seat majority on 36 per cent. of the popular vote, representing just 22 per cent. of the electorate. That is the lowest figure since the Great Reform Act of 1832. That is a preposterous result for anyone who considers it sensibly.
The hon. Gentleman was complaining about the fact that the result did not reflect the fact that the Conservatives had a majority of the votes in England. He is right to complain, but he cannot see the elephant invading his bedroom, which is that the answer is to have a system that properly reflects the weight of votes cast rather than the first-past-the-post system. There was a majority of the popular vote for the Conservatives in England yet the Conservatives have no representation in any of our great metropolises outside London.
Let us consider the rural shires. In Cumbria, the Conservatives were the most popular party, with 38.2 per cent. of the vote, yet they had only one seat to show for it at the end. There were four seats for the Labour party and one seat—it was an excellent win—which was gained by my hon. Friend Tim Farron. That is hardly a reflection of the Conservative vote in Cumbria.
In Cornwall 82,543 people voted Conservative. That was 31.8 per cent. of the electorate. The Liberal Democrats took five seats out of five and the Conservatives had no representation in Cornwall. In Cambridgeshire, 74,521 people voted for Labour. That was 24.7 per cent. of the electorate. There is no Labour representation in Cambridgeshire. In Surrey, 148,620 people voted Liberal Democrat. That was 28.4 per cent. of the electorate. We have not one seat in Surrey. There are 11 Conservatives out of 11. That cannot be defended in any circumstances as a fair outcome.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the bias in the system is mostly accounted for by variations in size between constituencies throughout the United Kingdom? If we had an equal electoral quota that was properly implemented throughout the country so that constituencies were the same size, we would have a much more proportional system and one that did not have that bias within it?
That is arithmetical nonsense. The hon. Gentleman is saying that because the average Conservative electorate consists of 73,004, people his party is badly treated. My electorate consists of 77,000 people, and I do not feel badly treated. Making the highland seats any bigger would make them virtually the same size as a small country, and that is not a sensible form of representation.
Equalisation raises a number of issues, including the time at which we take the figures. I hesitate to mention another reason for the inequalities because I am worried about the consequences, but in the shire authorities we rely on the county boundaries to be coterminous with the sum total of the constituency. We have large constituencies in Somerset simply because in the present administrative county we do not yet merit the sixth constituency that we would otherwise deserve.
I have tempted Mr. Liddell-Grainger by mentioning Somerset, but he should bear it in mind that if he wishes to intervene he will take more time from colleagues.
The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point. As he knows, the boundary commission report has made it much more difficult in Somerset to secure that sixth seat. Does he agree that the position is iniquitous for Somerset and other counties and it is time that the boundary commission reformed itself?
There is an absurdly small variation to the boundary between the Somerset and Frome and Yeovil seats. It has not resulted in a change in the net population or, as far as I can see, its political propensity, so it is utterly pointless.
I appreciate the demands on our time, so I shall conclude by referring to the need for accountability. If we want people to be interested in elections they must believe that they are electing someone who will do a satisfactory job for them, and will have the opportunity to represent them properly and scrutinise the Government. The House is failing in that duty, and both it and the House of Lords need to be reformed. We must look at the two issues in the round, and get on with the reform programme. I welcome the review of electoral systems by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, although I have doubts and regrets about the Cabinet Sub-Committee and its chairman, as I fear that they may obstruct sensible arrangements. I look forward eagerly to the electoral administration Bill.
I do not support the Conservative motion, because of the rush of blood to the head that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire experienced halfway through his speech, when he became peevish about proportional representation. I do not support the Government amendment, which is the most complacent amendment I have ever seen and appears to suggest that everything is rosy when clearly it is not. We shall take great pleasure in voting against both.
There is much that I would like to say, but time is limited for all of us, so I ask the House to forgive me if I pass over some matters.
In the debate on
There are three issues that I shall touch on briefly. First, how do we prevent the electoral process from being corrupted by fraudulent use of postal votes? I am not in favour of all-postal voting, particularly when that system is imposed on people against their will. I agree with the Opposition spokesperson who referred to the dangers of gimmicky e-voting. It is fraught with dangers and if it is brought in, it will cause even more problems than have occurred with postal voting. But there is no doubt that many people like the opportunity to vote by post, so we must devise a system that is as foolproof as possible.
To go on the electoral register, a person should have to sign. Whether they sign individually or sign a form that comes to the house, there must be a signature. If that person applies for a postal vote, the signature on the application must be checked against the signature provided to go on the register. As a final safeguard, when the person fills in the postal vote and sends it back with the declaration of secrecy, that signature must also be checked. Those are positive steps that can be taken and would make a real impact. I know that it would cost money and there would be arguments against such a system, but what is the price of democracy? I strongly urge my right hon. and learned Friend to consider that seriously as part of legislation.
Secondly, we should revisit the argument about obligatory voting. Some people call it compulsory voting, but it is not. It just obliges somebody as a citizen in a democratic society to go to a polling station or to get a postal vote. What they do with the ballot paper afterwards is entirely a matter for them. All right hon. and hon. Members will have gone through the salutary experience on election night of watching the disputed votes and seeing what some of our electors think of us. I have no problem with that. People are exercising their democratic right. I would not object if there was a place on the ballot paper where a voter could write "None of the above" or write in the name of a candidate for whom they did want to vote.
We are allowing a cop-out from the democratic system. If we want higher turnout, we should move towards the Australian system of obligatory voting. It is far better than going in for various gimmicky ways of trying to increase the turnout which are fraught with dangers, as has been found with postal votes.
The final point concerns a problem that occurs in an area such as mine, which I hope my right hon. and learned Friend will take on board in legislation. What happens on election day in a constituency such as mine is not how elections used to be fought. Traditionally, at the polling station there would be a representative of each of the parties, the number taker, and there would be a great deal of conviviality and sharing of information.
That does not exist in areas such as mine. On election day groups of people congregate at the entrance to polling stations. They hand out leaflets and talk to people, particularly in areas where English is not the first language and where the number on the ballot paper is even more important than the name. They give out a great deal of misinformation. During the day the numbers at each polling station build up so that by early evening, as happened in my constituency at the recent election, there are 50 or 60 people at the gates.
The police are there and struggle to prevent violence breaking out. In the background there is the cacophony of cars parked outside the polling station with recorded messages from the candidates on a repetitive reel, so that goes on throughout the day. All the traditional conventions that most of us may remember, whereby a loudspeaker was not allowed anywhere near a polling station and there was no campaigning on polling day, have gone by the board. Somebody who wants to vote from the early evening onwards has to go through a cacophony of sound, intimidation, harassment and misinformation, and that is only to get into the polling station. It is no good turning round and saying, "Well, the police have powers to deal with that." As we have learned in the west midlands, the police do not have such powers. New legislation is needed to prevent campaigning within a certain area around a polling station, because the police do not have a hope at the moment. I have shared my views with hon. Members, but I am mindful of the fact that time is limited.
I welcome the Government's intention to introduce legislation. I also welcome the fact that both the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary have fought many elections and are therefore experienced. I am sure that their boss in the Department also has long experience of fighting elections, and I hope that they share their experiences with him in drawing up the legislation.
I urge Ministers to take on board my remarks this evening, which are a genuine attempt to address the issues. When I referred to what happens on polling day, my hon. Friend Steve McCabe and others nodded vigorously, and if the issue is not addressed, the situation will get worse.
Although I have probably experienced more elections than most hon. Members, my experience is not as extensive as that of Mr. Godsiff.
The Electoral Commission should fund closed circuit television supervision of what goes on outside polling stations, which would allow the police and others to take action after an election, because the certainty of action will stop people from engaging in an activity that is undesirable and should be unlawful. Voting without intimidation matters in a family, outside a polling station and inside a polling station.
In approximately 1997, I first raised the question of allowing outside observers into polling stations. If I go as an observer to El Salvador, South Africa or anywhere else, I expect to go into a polling station. I expect authorised observers following our elections to be able to do the same thing here, and I hope that there will not be another national election in which that cannot happen.
The Electoral Commission should be given funds to allow it, rather than local authorities, to provide money to electoral returning officers. I have not seen complaints from electoral returning officers about the allocation of funds within local authorities, but that temptation should be avoided.
I demand that the Government make sure that every service voter is registered by the time of the next national election, which is a point that applies to both local and general elections. It is scandalous that the Government made changes that made it less likely that service voters would be on the electoral register, and all their words before the last election were inadequate. We should not spend too long going over the past, but Ministers—not only Defence Ministers, but Ministers with responsibility for electoral registration and, preferably, the Prime Minister, too—must make sure that a service voter's ability to vote is maintained by their service unit and the Government.
A similar point applies to overseas voters in general. When I visited Mallorca, I met potential voters, and the British Government expend very little effort on people who are eligible to vote from overseas countries. The high commission or embassy website might refer to registration, but nothing is released in the British community stating, "This is the easy way to register to vote—and you should do so." I want to see all-party work on that point, and perhaps the opportunity to send out members on balanced delegations should be extended to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to try to encourage that process. If people like such trips, why not take them for a good cause that helps democracy?
If we were to introduce voting at 16, one advantage would be that people could automatically move from the child benefit register to the voting register. As a growing number of families receive child benefit until children are 18, the transfer should become automatic. The measure should not entail a breach of data confidentiality, so let us take that simple, practical step.
Let us try to ensure that we get the co-operation of mobile phone services, because most people coming up to the age of 18 and eligible to be registered to vote should be able to send a public service message to do so, if that is allowed by this House, as that goes beyond ordinary data protection issues. A whole series of those simple things could happen, in addition of course to the council tax payer being automatically expected to be on the electoral register.
I turn to individual registration, which was one of the issues discussed by the Electoral Commission and by the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs combined with the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister just before the election. Although there are arguments for individual registration, they are not so overwhelming that an electoral register should require an individual signature. Students in halls of residence would not register in great numbers if that were the requirement. It is preferable that one person in a household should be able to nominate people on the register. Perhaps then, if the electoral registration system requires something to go out to individual potentially registered voters, they can sign up for a postal vote or any other method of voting, and that can be checked. The initial movement towards the register should come from the householder or pseudo-householder, whether they be the warden of a students' hall of residence, a landlord, the manager of a residential home for the elderly, or someone like me with a household that is occasionally full of children eligible to vote.
A whole series of other issues matter, but given that attendance has been quite good and that colleagues on both sides of the House still want to speak, all I want to say is: "Don't let this discussion be totally distorted by arguments for proportional representation, because that has been shown to be a last-past-the-post system on too many occasions." If we want to start talking about electoral systems, let us have a proper debate on getting rid of the worst scandal in our system at the moment—the closed list system for the European Parliament elections. If the electorate cannot pick out someone they particularly want and get them elected or pick out someone they particularly do not want and get them disappointed, we shall have a system that is not democracy.
I apologise for having a slight sore throat, which means that I might not be quite as voluble as normal; some Members may of course welcome that.
I welcome the all-postal voting pilots but, having had the chance to learn from them, we should not pursue all-postal voting in future. I say that for two reasons: first, they deny the individual the choice of whether they vote by post or go to the polling station, and secondly, we should develop, as the Electoral Commission wants to, one standard method for all elections so that voters may be certain whether they will be voting by post or at the polling station, or a mixture of the two, which is the option that I favour. Voters should be able to decide whether they want to vote by post or at the polling station and tick a box on the electoral registration form—it should be as simple as that. Some authorities are already taking that route.
Generally speaking, our electoral system is secure. There have been one or two high-profile cases, mostly involving postal votes—not all-postal votes, but postal votes per se. Those have been much highlighted in the press and are to be deplored. However, the Electoral Commission and the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister undertook investigations and proposed several serious, important and welcome suggestions as to how we can make the system even safer, including the introduction of new offences surrounding postal votes.
The real problem with the current system is the appallingly low level of voter registration—that is the challenge that we have on our hands. By and large, it is not evenly spread across the country. In areas where people are socially and economically excluded, those people are becoming politically excluded as well. That should be a serious worry for us.
The annexe to the report produced by the Select Committees on Constitutional Affairs and on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister contains an interview that I did with the electoral registration officer in Sheffield. It was interesting to learn that the initial canvass of voter registration in the city produced a 90 per cent. return of electoral registration forms in the leafy suburbs of Hallam. In the poorer parts of the inner city in Sheffield, Central, it was just over 50 per cent. That is telling.
Different electoral registration officers conduct different practices. For example, some electoral registration officers will remove a household from the register if a form is not returned for two consecutive years, whereas others will leave it on. Some will leave the household on if they can find other evidence, such as council tax registration, which shows that people still live in the property. Different systems operate. Whatever system we adopt nationally, electoral registration officers locally must follow a clear code of practice, meaning that the same system and rules operate throughout the country.
I recognise and accept that we must move towards individual registration, with a signature. That is sensible from a security point of view. However, we have to learn from what happened in Northern Ireland, where the number of people who registered fell dramatically. People may claim that that was because some people were doubly registered, but the fall went on after the first year. It continued after the so-called clean-up of the register. There is a genuine problem of not registering, and if we do nothing but introduce individual registration, it will get worse. That will apply especially to groups who are socially and economically excluded. The registration officer in Sheffield said to me, "If you're going to change the system, change it fundamentally. Don't try to build bits on to the existing system, which clearly doesn't work properly."
Some members of the Select Committee went to Australia. We appeared in one or two national newspapers for our pains and learned some interesting things about the system there. First, we were asked what we did. When we said that we began by writing to every household every year, we received blank looks and were asked, "What? Why do you write every year to households that haven't changed? The same people live in a house for 15, 20 or 25 years—nothing changes—but you write them? If they don't write back, you write to them again, and if they don't reply for two years running, you take them off the list? Is that a way of trying to encourage people to register? Are you putting your resources into the right activities? You do that for four months of the year and nothing for the other eight? What is the point?"
The Australian system is simple. There is a register, which remains in place unless people change. There are various ways of notifying changes of address or age or deaths. Of course people can write with the information, but there is also a requirement on the Post Office, the utilities, the driving licence people and local authorities to provide information. Schools and colleges get paid a bonus for giving information. Such information can also be gleaned from the register of births and deaths. That enables the registration officers and the relevant authorities to concentrate on the changes, follow them up and ensure that the information is accurate and goes on the register.
There is therefore no annual audit or review in Australia, although the possibility of conducting a review every three years was considered. We could conduct a three-yearly audit on a rolling basis here, so that electoral registration officers were not obliged to put all their resources into a four-month period every year. It could be spread out over a longer time to verify the accuracy of the register but concentrate on instances where change had occurred.
I will not take interventions because other hon. Members want to speak.
Eventually, this country will have the most comprehensive database of individuals and where they live, drawn up for the national identity card scheme. Why do not we have a direct read-across? If people want a secure, comprehensive system with integrity, there we have it. We would save resources at local authority level. There would be no need for all the canvassing, verification and checking that currently occurs. Local authorities could pay the national register for the information. That would contribute towards the cost of the register. It would save central Government and local authorities money and be a comprehensive system with integrity and security. We should consider it seriously. It would be a dramatic step forward, which will give us a register that is 99 per cent. accurate. If that is what everyone wants as a basis for our electoral system, the Government should consider it seriously.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr. Betts. I commiserate with him on the state of his voice and hope that he finds a lozenge soon. I agree about the importance of the electoral registration system being open and welcoming. It also needs to be transparent and, above all, to inspire confidence.
Much to my surprise, it is nearly 40 years since I joined a political party. I recall that, in the late 1960s, no one really questioned the honesty of the British electoral system. It was taken for granted that it was run correctly, but that is no longer the case. People doubt the integrity of the ballot box. This was my fourth general election in Brentwood and Ongar—this seems to be confession time, with me telling the House how many times I have fought an election—and I think that I also fought four elections as a district councillor. This is the first time I can remember people coming up to me to express their worries about the safety of their postal vote because of what had appeared in the newspapers.
The expression of such worries was not confined to those in political parties. The electoral registration officer for Brentwood borough council, Mr. Jim Stevens—a man of considerable experience in the conduct of elections, both in this country and overseas—reported to me an unprecedented number of telephone calls from people seeking reassurance that their postal vote would be safe. Even in a quiet place such as Brentwood, we have one election fraud case pending.
In my old area of Bradford, the returning officer, Mr. Philip Robinson, has called for
"urgent reviews of electoral registration and postal voting on demand . . . in advance of the next elections in 2006."
I have known Philip for the best part of 25 years, and I worked closely with him for 12. He is not a man who moves with the whim of fashion. He is not an excitable man; he is a dedicated, loyal public servant who would not have called for such reviews had he not been shocked enough to feel that some probity should be brought back into the electoral system. Probity is important. Of course, there will be unscrupulous people who try to cut corners, but we must build into the system a degree of probity. It is with some regret that I say that the Government have, unintentionally, built probity out of the system, rather than building it in.
The Minister of State does us a great courtesy by remaining in the Chamber for the whole of our debate. She asked for suggestions on how to improve the situation, and I shall give her three. I could give more, but because of the time limit I shall let these three speak for all of them.
The document issued by the Department for Constitutional Affairs suggests allowing people to register to vote after an election has been called, up to 11 days before the poll. Under the current law, there is a five-day period of objection. That would mean that there would be just six days before the election to check people entering the register at that point. The chances of fraud or multi-registration would be much greater. If the present March deadline allows vote factories to operate, how much greater would that problem be with an 11-day deadline? Such a deadline would provide little or no chance to check that the voter had been removed from their previous address, and in most cases, such voters would have the opportunity to vote in another electoral district.
It has also been proposed to replace the serial numbers on ballot papers with barcodes. That might sound sensible because it would increase transparency, but it is probably the best example of the Government's determination to increase postal voting at the expense of the polling station and ignores the reality on the ground. The Government's argument that the measure would increase safety and improve anonymity is wrong-headed, because, at present, only a court can open ballot papers and check them against the numbers provided. The use of numbers is of immense importance because they can be used by the polling clerk and the returning officer to reconcile information, first to ensure that the right number of ballot papers have been issued in the right order and, secondly, to ensure that the same number of ballot papers that leave a polling station arrive at the other end. If barcodes replaced the numbering system, we would not know whether any ballot papers had gone missing on the route between polling station and counting station. Something that would be handy for the purposes of postal votes would undermine the whole process of voting in person.
Mr. Godsiff made a point about signatures. The document suggests that people should be able to apply for postal votes at the same time as applying for registration. Many authorities have invested in software that identifies signatures. If a person makes both applications at the same time, it will be impossible to check for fraud. That is wholly wrong. I agree with him that signatures should be integral: when people go into the polling station, they should sign the register.
I think that it would be possible to introduce several reforms to encourage turnout without compromising the integrity of the ballot paper. The Government suggest that applications for postal votes should be made 11 days before the polling date rather than six, which would allow for fraud checks to be made. The drawback is that many people would not be able to vote, and many would object at the polling station. If a proxy vote could be issued six days, or three days, in advance—that, after all, relies on the issuing of a single paper—the Government's sensible suggestion might be workable, and people would still be able to vote.
Those who want to increase voter participation and want more people to go to the polling station should think about the powers of local government. If all decisions are made in a remote region, people will not see the point of going out to vote. If power is given to local authorities, people will vote.
This has turned out to be a thoughtful debate, but unfortunately the motion does not seem to be as thoughtful as the speeches made by Members in all parts of the House. It appears to concentrate on just one aspect of what I consider to be the triple responsibility that we all have for the legitimacy of our system. Our three responsibilities are to ensure that the franchise is accessible and that people have access to it, to ensure that people can use the franchise and vote, and to ensure that when people have voted they believe they have voted fairly, safely and securely and that the result is therefore legitimate. Those three legs supporting the system's legitimacy are integral to its operation. If we pull them apart or concentrate on just one, the system itself will not have the integrity that we would wish it to have.
Our electoral process has always been open to determined fraud and abuse. As Mr. Heath observed, it is miraculous that, over the years, it has not been systematically abused as it might have been through personation, false registration, ballot purchase and so forth. It is certainly true that the system can be attacked. It is also true that it is failing almost completely in some parts of the country. I refer to the first leg of the system's legitimacy—the question of who registers to vote.
My hon. Friend Mr. Betts mentioned the difficulty of registering, or regaining registration, in different parts of Sheffield. The figures show startling differences in different seats. They range from registration levels of under 70 per cent. of the census figure in some parts of the country to 105 per cent. of the census figure in other parts. It will not be difficult for hon. Members to guess which parts of the country represent which end of the scale. In inner-city areas, in large conurbations and, interestingly, in seaside towns, registration is very bad. Conversely, in some rural and semi-rural areas, particularly in parts of my county of Hampshire, not only is registration up with the census but it continues to build on the census—every person who could conceivably be registered every year in terms of the census extrapolation becomes registered.
If we extrapolated that and compared the population of constituencies with the size of the population on the register, we would find that the constituencies were rather similar in size, but that our system is gradually distorting through boundary revisions to build under-registration into our system. That does not seem to represent well the leg of legitimacy that I emphasised earlier.
The decline in trust in our society may have begun to lead, as Mr. Pickles mentioned, to the questioning veracity in the electoral system. We always have accepted essentially that people are who they say they are when they register, that they are who they say they are when they go to vote and that they put in the ballot box the ballot that they have been given by the returning officer between the table and the box in which the ballot is placed.
There have at all stages been electoral petitions and various actions to challenge each of those processes. There have not been fundamental changes in the way in which we have conducted those various processes, even though those challenges have been made, there have been election petitions and the charges have been upheld on occasion.
It is interesting that every change in how our electoral system works has been accompanied by substantial charges that the change was essentially fraudulent, that everything would go to pot and that it would not work. When the Ballot Act 1872 came in, there were widespread charges concerning the so-called Tasmanian dodge. People said that there would be electoral officers standing outside the polling booth giving the first voter a blank piece of paper, that they would go in, put the blank piece of paper in, take the vote out, take the money for the vote, give it to a second person who was corrupted and that would continue during the day. No evidence was ever found that the Tasmanian dodge ever happened but the system of watermarking perforation on ballot papers was introduced as a result of fears of the Tasmanian dodge.
Notwithstanding the seriousness of the cases that have come to light about elements of fraud with the ballot system and postal ballot system, the postal ballot is important in terms of how people vote as their lives change and in increasing participation in elections, one of the legs of legitimacy that I mentioned. The idea that a system, if organised well, can be completely secure is something that perhaps we will come to see as similar to the Tasmanian dodge.
It is essential that we ensure that we have integrity in our electoral system, and I commend the Green Paper for discussion. I hope that it will come substantially into legislation to ensure that that integrity is enhanced, but we have to be clear in our minds that, if we tilt in one direction so much in making sure that there are no possible ways in which fraud could ever conceivably enter into our electoral system, we will do so at the expense of most people's access to the ballot in the first place. That will be the end of legitimacy in a different direction.
The Conservative candidate in Southampton was seen giving money to electors both in the city centre and later on at a public meeting on the edge of the city. Obviously, that was deplorable but fortunately the electors of Southampton have not let the results of the 1895 election in Southampton, which resulted in the arrest of the Conservative candidate and his disbarment on the election petition, undermine the integrity of the system. We should be vigilant against fraud in the electoral system, but we must also ensure that that system is open and democratic and capable of being exercised by those who vote in Britain.
I want briefly to deal with four issues: proportional representation; turnout; the experience of the trade unions; and, in a rather more whimsical vein, the Labour party. PR is commonly regarded as an abbreviation for "proportional representation", but I have always believed that it stands for something else: "permanent rule"—by the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats constantly say that there is massive under-representation in seats when one compares seats won with votes cast. But what really matters to a Government in an election—be it a Government in Wales, in Scotland or in the United Kingdom—is not how many seats a particular party gets, but whether that party gets into government.
Under PR, the party that comes third—or fourth, as the Liberal Democrats have on more than one occasion in Scotland and in Wales, let alone in the United Kingdom—holds the balance of power. So on the basis of the smallest share of the vote, it gets into government and, indeed, chooses which of the other two parties will form that Government. That is a much greater distortion of the election result than the artificial exaggeration of seats. Power in this House, for example, is not in proportion to the number of seats held by each party. That power goes to the party that has the overall majority, and it makes very little difference whether that majority is 50 or 150.
Turnout is constantly regarded as the paradigm of whether a new system is working. It is a misleading paradigm.
It strikes me that one of the most significant developments in British democracy was the secret ballot, which was introduced in 1872. In the light of the various points that have been made, does my hon. Friend agree that the continuing use of the ballot box—in which people can physically cast their vote securely, free from coercion, intimidation and observation—is important?
It is important, and I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point which has not been mentioned today, but which was referred to before the general election, when these issues were being discussed. It is understandable that we have postal ballots for people who might not be able to get to the ballot box. We take the risk that their privacy—their right to vote in a polling booth in secret—might be affected. However, we should remember that when people vote in private at a polling station, they may well vote differently from how they would vote at home, where they might come under pressure. People have often said to me on the doorstep, "I will vote for you but my other half won't." How often will that be allowed to happen when people have to vote at home?
Oddly enough, I had intended to raise the issue of the secret ballot myself. I represent a local government ward as well as a parliamentary constituency, and in that capacity I share part of the Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath constituency. It is true that there is substantial intimidation in the streets from time to time. The Labour party leaflet on getting out the postal vote describes everybody's house as a polling station. The big question is, where is the presiding officer?
I pay tribute to the work that the old Liberal party and the current Liberal Democrats have done over many years on secure postal ballots and the avoidance of intimidation and fraud.
Some 20 years ago, I worked with a cross-party group of Social Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives and Labour peers to amend the Trade Union Act 1984 to make postal ballots compulsory for trade union elections. That worked because the papers being distributed were under the control and verification of the Electoral Reform Society. Postal ballots can be a blessing when they are properly controlled; they can be a curse when, as in the electrical trade union scandals of the early 1960s, they are not properly controlled.
My final, more whimsical, remarks relate to the Labour party. The Labour candidate who stood against me in the general election turned out, after the event, to be a senior figure in an organisation called tacticalvoter.net. He sabotaged his own campaign—he did not even issue an electoral address—in his attempt to help the Liberals beat me. It appeared later that the reason why he, rather than a local candidate wanting to fight a straightforward campaign for Labour, was nominated was that Labour selects its candidates partly by postal balloting. He went round many people in the local Labour party and got their postal votes. Did he tell them that he was going to sabotage his own campaign? I doubt it. If the Minister is to clean up postal voting for the country, she should think about cleaning up postal balloting in the Labour party.
We have had a short, but important, debate this afternoon. If the public has no confidence in the electoral system, that system will be called into question and it will ultimately become nothing more than a banana republic. That is exactly the description given to our democratic system by the judge in the recent electoral fraud case in Birmingham.
I am afraid time does not allow it.
As my hon. Friend Peter Bottomley pointed out in a thoughtful speech, even banana republics allow outside observers. The integrity of our electoral system is not just in question, but in danger.
We have heard various examples this afternoon of the malaise that has hit our electoral system. We have heard about fraud, poor registration procedures, administrative incompetence, wildly unequal constituency sizes and over-representation in urban areas. Clearly, something must be done to remedy the situation. Indeed, the Electoral Commission has been warning since 2002 of the need for reform but the Government did not listen. If they had, we might have avoided some of the many instances of fraud that have happened across the country.
In the infamous case of the Birmingham councillors in 2004, the judge accused the Government of being not only complacent, but "in denial".
There have nevertheless been some developments. Mr. Godsiff mentioned the priority given to counter-fraud in Birmingham during the election, which is welcome. Other Members have spoken about other developments and the Minister noted that the Government have woken up to the reality and are proposing some long-overdue reforms to our system. She supported the proposals in the Government's policy paper of May 2005, most of which were recommended by the Electoral Commission and should have been implemented long ago. Today, however, the Minister spoke as if many of these were new issues in relation to which action suddenly needs to be taken. Although the Conservative Opposition welcome the proposals, we maintain that they are too little, too late. Even if the proposals go ahead—we hope they do—several deficiencies in the electoral system will remain.
I would like to focus on two key issues: postal voting and electoral quotas.
The number of reported instances of suspected fraud relating to postal votes is alarming. For example, following the recent general election, the police have reportedly investigated dozens of claims of vote tampering. That gives rise to the question of how much electoral fraud over postal votes has taken place without being reported. After hearing evidence of the councillors' fraud in Birmingham, the judge said:
"Short of writing 'Steal Me' on the envelopes, it is hard to see what more could be done to ensure their coming into the wrong hands".
We maintain that there has been widespread fraud and that it has to be dealt with.
Even where fraud did not occur, the all-postal pilots were a disaster. The Electoral Commission reported printing and production errors in the postal ballot packs, the late delivery of votes and the absence of any checks on the identity of voters. As postal voting—and, even more dangerously, e-voting—does not have the supervision of polling stations, we believe that safeguards are essential to ensure that personation does not occur and that the postal voting system recovers its integrity. Mr. Betts made that point strongly.
Several hon. Members, of all parties, supported the introduction of individual registration to safeguard the secrecy and security of postal voting. The Electoral Commission has advocated that for several years. The demography of our society has changed radically. The family home is no longer the norm, and houses are often divided into flat shares or multiple occupancy residences.
Individual registration is now used in Northern Ireland to prevent a person from registering several times in one constituency—something that journalists have proved is all too easy to achieve in England. The Government have expressed concerns that the system may reduce participation, but is it really advantageous to have greater participation in a system littered with fraud? Can such an election truly be a fairer representation of the people?
My hon. Friend Mr. Robathan said that reduced participation could be explained by the fact that each voter could register only once, instead of making the multiple registrations that were prevalent in the past. My hon. Friend Mr. Pickles expanded on that point by showing how other forms of fraud could emanate from that. My hon. Friends the Members for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) and for Worthing, West showed that where the Government should be aiding registration—for example, in the armed services—they have so failed to do so.
Another innovation in Northern Ireland was the introduction of individual identifiers to guard against fraud. As we have heard, Northern Irish citizens must give their national insurance number and date of birth when they register to vote. That offers safeguards against illegitimate multiple registration by citizens, and improper registration by non-citizens.
Most critically for non-supervised postal votes, national insurance numbers must be submitted with the ballot papers to combat the fraud that is evidently rife. The Government, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath, proposed that a person's signature and date of birth should be used as individual identifiers. However, we believe that that will not be sufficient to eradicate fraud, as dates of birth and signatures are widely available and easy to replicate. By contrast, national insurance numbers are not widely in circulation.
When secure, postal votes are clearly desirable to facilitate voting for the widest possible cross section of the community. Postal voting also ensures that people who live abroad or who are infirm, disabled or caught up in inflexible working schedules can vote. However, we strongly oppose all-postal voting. It is vital that British citizens should have a choice about the method of voting.
I am afraid that time does not allow me to.
My hon. Friend Mr. Evans was right to say that postal voting is too remote and uncertain for a measurable proportion of our society. The Minister of State was vague on that point. She said that she would review postal voting, but then went on to refuse to rule out the use of all-postal voting in the future. As my hon. Friends the Members for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) and for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) noted, British citizens value their right to go to a polling station and vote in person.
Several hon. Members supported compulsory voting. I believe that that would increase turnout, but not necessarily the quality of the system. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe had some useful ideas in respect of a rolling audit process.
The second crucial area in which reform is demanded is electoral quotas. Representation will be unequal unless each constituency is made up of a comparable number of citizens, and my hon. Friend Mr. Turner showed clearly that Parliament would offer only a distorted reflection of society as a result. That was certainly the case with the recent general election.
Support was expressed—especially by our Liberal colleagues—for proportional representation to remedy the balance. The Conservative Opposition maintain that that is not the answer, and my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis made the reason for that very clear.
Turnout was abysmal in our first PR elections for the European Parliament. Many people deeply resented having to vote for a party list rather than for an individual who would be responsible and answerable to the people and not to his or her party machine.
The Minister of State questioned our commitment to the first-past-the-post system, but I can reaffirm that now. That system promotes accountability and provides for a stable and effective Government. What the Minister should be considering is the boundary commission review that proposes constituencies of fantastically different sizes, varying from just over 50,000 to 150,000 voters. That is unacceptable and allows excessive over-representation in urban areas.
Whether or not trimming down the number of MPs is achieved—something that the Conservative party believed should have happened for the last election—the change that we want would represent the weight of votes cast, as expressed by Mr. Heath, thus ensuring that all British citizens are equally represented no matter where they live. The integrity of an electoral system is essential to the credibility of any democratic system. The British electoral system is now in danger of losing its credibility, and we need to appreciate that that would ultimately threaten the legitimacy of the actions and decisions made in the House. I urge hon. Members to support the motion.
I rise with some trepidation to speak in the debate, because I have not made a speech in the House for two years, unless hon. Members count saying, "I beg to move that this House do now adjourn" as amounting to a speech.
This has been a very interesting debate on a subject that is close to the hearts of all hon. Members. My right hon. and learned Friend expressed in her opening remarks a wish to use the expertise of all hon. Members to increase voter participation and engagement in the electoral process, and I want to echo that this evening. Clearly, there has been cross-party consensus on some of the fundamental issues. Few Members have argued against a system whereby it is easy and straightforward for people to register and vote or against one that is safe and secure.
I agree with Mr. Heath that we need a robust system, and I hope that he would agree with us that part of the fundamental problem with bias is the under-representation in some areas of the country, and that we must work hard to ensure that the register is improved. That is the essence of our democratic society.
We have heard a number of useful contributions from hon. Members. My hon. Friend Mr. Godsiff made a number of important points and, indeed, has already responded to the consultation exercise. He made a particularly good point about the practical work that is already being undertaken in his constituency under the present system. That is something on which we want to build. 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.
Peter Bottomley made a very considered speech, with a number of positive points, and I want to tell him, too, that we are consulting on whether to allow observers into polling stations and that we completely take his point about service personnel. The idea that those people from our country who are doing the ultimate duty as citizens, as members of our forces, should in some way be denied the fundamental right of citizenship is not one that any hon. Member could support. We will consider very carefully building on the issues that we included in the Representation of the People Act 2000, to increase the opportunities for service personnel, and we will work with our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence on that issue.
Again, we agree very much with my hon. Friend Mr. Betts in deploring the few cases of fraud. It is a pity that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen spent so much time on that issue, rather than on discussing under-representation and the lack of representation in some areas of the country.
Order. I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman's point of order. Criticism of a judge during a debate is out of order; it would have to be done by means of a substantive motion.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I say to my hon. Friend Mr. Simon that much has been said about what happened in Birmingham and he is right to point out that those claims were exaggerated. We need to look at the facts.
I remind the House that the recent general election, like the last one, the one before that and many before that, was run successfully, safely and securely. That is a fact.
I am sorry, I do not have time to give way. I really must press on.
Of course, we need to boost public confidence in the system. Everyone in the House condemns any attempt to undermine it. In the House, there are people with experience of between 1,500 and 2,000 elections, whether local or general—who better equipped to comment on the electoral process?
Mr. Djanogly seemed to be saying that the whole electoral system was riddled with fraud. Is he saying that that is happening everywhere in the country except Huntingdon? We should not exaggerate.
My hon. Friend Dr. Whitehead made several useful points about making the franchise accessible, easy to use and secure. He outlined the disparities in registration and drew parallels with the census. He made an important point about the balance between security and accessibility and said that if we push the balance too far in one direction, we may undermine the system.
Points were made about postal voting, which has received cross-party support. Every party believes that the use of the postal vote is an improvement to the system. Indeed, the public like postal voting; it offers them a choice, and all the evidence shows that people who request a postal vote are more likely to exercise it. None of us could disagree with that.
As my right hon. and learned Friend said at the start of the debate, we had hoped to find cross-party consensus on many of the issues under discussion today. However, after listening to what both Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen said about proportional representation, I fear that we will find it difficult to bridge that particular gap.
We have responded to the Electoral Commission's reports by accepting many of its recommendations on improving access and participation. We have said that we will legislate when parliamentary time allows. That is why my right hon. and learned Friend has undertaken an important consultation to form part of our thinking before we bring a Bill before the House. She has already met many hon. Members, both old and new, from across the House and several have already commented on the policy paper.
The debate had all the promise of an opportunity for the people probably most expert in the conduct of elections to come together to discuss in a serious and considered manner how best to engage more people in the election process. It was an opportunity to have an informed discussion about how we engage citizens in our democracy. I was sorry that the Opposition Front Bench did not engage in that discussion—
Question accordingly agreed to.
Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House believes that the General and local elections were safe and secure, and produced results that were fair and accurate; recognises that public confidence in the electoral process is paramount; and believes that the Government's constitutional changes have strengthened democratic accountability, bringing our institutions closer to the people.