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I congratulate John Mann on securing the debate. It is not the first time we have heard from him this evening, but no less the worse for that.
The Government want to improve public confidence in all aspects of our electoral system. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that it is important that the conduct of all elections to this House, and to local authorities and the European Parliament, are beyond reproach. I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that we want elections to be decided through the ballot box and not in the courts, but some remedies should be available to deal with cases of corrupt or illegal practices by candidates or agents. There should be clear and robust mechanisms for challenging the results of elections, and he is right to say that they should include appropriate, proportionate and accessible safeguards. The Government’s view is that that is the case under the Representation of the People Act 1983.
The hon. Gentleman raised several issues of cost, including the overall cost, and made a specific point about a court’s ability to apportion costs. My understanding is that courts have a wide discretion under section 154 of the Act to apportion costs. He raised a specific case that I will endeavour to look at after the debate and consider what he said in the light of it.
The hon. Gentleman also made a point about proportionality. Although there may be technical reasons why a returning officer may have declared a particular result, revoking the election of somebody is a significant step and should not be done lightly. Although the hon. Gentleman suggested cases in which it might be considered only an administrative matter, if we think a little more about it we realise that those of us who have been elected would not want our elections to be overturned by some relatively straightforward process. It should be difficult to overturn an election, and we need to strike a balance in the level of proportionality.
Notwithstanding the relatively recent case of Phil Woolas, it is also worth saying that the election petition device—certainly for parliamentary elections—is rare. There have only been seven petitions issued against the results of UK parliamentary elections since 1997, and only two of those have been successful. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that it would not be healthy if we had regular challenges.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned appeals. The High Court in the Woolas case confirmed that section 144 of the 1983 Act said that decisions of the electoral courts were final insofar as matters of fact were concerned. The hon. Gentleman was right about that, but I do not agree that that was a misconsolidation of the 1983 Act. If he goes back to the 1868 Act—I will not go as far back as the 400 years that he suggested—he will see that it was also clear that matters of fact were final decisions that the election court could take. In the Woolas case, the High Court made it clear that the decisions about the application of the law were judicially reviewable—