Postal Voting

– in the House of Lords at 3:35 pm on 5th April 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 3:35 pm, 5th April 2005

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend Mr Nick Raynsford. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on postal voting fraud, in the Birmingham wards of Bordesley Green and Aston. The judgment was announced yesterday. The judge declared both elections void.

"We unreservedly condemn the abuses of postal voting in Birmingham. With a general election having been announced today, we are taking further steps to reinforce the safeguards against any potential fraud and we are determined that the fraud in these cases in Birmingham does not undermine public confidence in the electoral system.

"Honourable Members may be aware that there are tough penalties already in place for electoral fraud: on conviction, those found guilty are liable to two years in prison and an unlimited fine, as well as disqualification from voting and standing for office.

"In general the system in the UK has been secure and commanded public confidence. We have no history of widespread electoral fraud and there is no reason to believe that electoral fraud has become widespread. In fact, evidence suggests that it is very rare. Since 1998 there have been only four recorded prosecutions for electoral fraud.

"Contrary to suggestions that have been made, the Government are not complacent. Our top priority is to safeguard the integrity of the ballot. To ensure that the system stays safe and secure we have put in place the following. The Electoral Commission has already published on 29 March 2005 a code of conduct for political parties, candidates and canvassers on the handling of postal vote applications and postal ballot papers. We expect all political parties and candidates to confirm their commitment to this code.

"We will pursue new initiatives with the police to ensure that offenders are brought to justice. I have spoken this morning to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary who has confirmed he will be discussing this with the Association of Chief Police Officers tomorrow.

"Following the judgment, we have now written to all returning officers, stressing the importance of taking counter measures against electoral fraud. The Electoral Commission, together with the Association of Chief Police Officers, will shortly publish guidance specifically for returning officers and local police forces on fraud prevention and investigation. It is vital that all organisations work together to protect the integrity of the electoral process.

"To back these renewed efforts we have provided additional funding for the forthcoming general election above that given in 2001. Around £10 million of that extra money is to support the administration of the elections. This will help support returning officers dealing with additional requests for postal votes and put in place measures that maintain the integrity of the electoral process.

"As the Birmingham cases have related very specifically to postal voting, I believe that it is important to put in context the full implication of postal voting opportunities in the UK. Postal voting has been available in one form or another since 1918, initially for service personnel and subsequently extended to cover those physically incapable of going in person to the poll, or absent because of their occupation, change of address, or holiday. Five years ago, the Representation of the People Act extended the option of postal voting, following the recommendation of an all-party working party on electoral procedures.

"The system whereby anyone can apply for a postal vote has now been in place since that date. The proportion of people taking advantage has increased substantially. At the 2001 general election, the number of postal votes almost doubled from the 1997 election level to approximately 4 per cent. In the 2002 local elections, 7.7 per cent of the electorate had postal votes. At the 2004 European elections outside the four all-postal regions, approximately 8.3 per cent of the electorate had postal votes. This trend reflects the popularity and convenience of voting by post, something which has also been evidenced in the series of all-postal voting pilots conducted in local authority elections since 2000. Postal voting provides an easy and accessible way for many people to participate in the democratic process. People should have the right to a postal vote if that is what they want.

"Having said that, it is essential to maintain the integrity of the electoral process and we are taking the measures that I have outlined to ensure this. The Electoral Commission, which has rejected any question of withdrawing postal ballots, has also recommended, in its report Voting for change, a number of measures to improve security. The Government published their response to this report in December 2004, accepting the large majority of the recommendations. We will put these measures into statute when parliamentary time allows.

"The commission's chief executive said this morning:

'There is enough awareness of the risks, enough steps are being taken to make sure that postal voting at the moment can be run successfully'.

The Government share that view. We are determined that the elections we are about to have will be secure and fair".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Spokespersons In the Lords, Local and Devolved Government Affairs, Whip, Whips 3:41 pm, 5th April 2005

My Lords, I apologise for having missed the first part of the Statement; the screen upstairs flipped over slightly before I expected it to. I have of course read the Statement and apologise for not being here. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement in this House. It really cannot have been very happy reading—though perhaps, as she has not taken part in all the other discussions we have had on postal voting, it may have been less of a burden than it would be to other Ministers who have enjoyed our long discussions. Whatever the case, it simply will not do.

This House will have been amazed, first of all, at the lack of any apology from the party opposite. It is responsible to the people of Birmingham for this unparalleled electoral corruption. Indeed, if you had read the Statement alone, you would think that the Labour Party, or members of it, had absolutely nothing to do with what has happened. Further, this omission was compounded by an attack on Judge Mawrey by the Minister in another place—a judge who has listened very carefully to all the evidence and come to a very firm conclusion.

If the Statement is anything to go by, the judge was right to criticise the Government's complacency on this matter. And that is where the responsibility lies. The Government have been obsessed, as with so many other areas of the constitution and its processes, with change for change's sake. They have been so convinced that postal ballots are to their electoral advantage that they have refused to listen to any warnings about the integrity of large-scale postal balloting.

The Government ignored advice from the Electoral Commission, they ignored advice from other parties, and they ignored the advice of this House. Five times this House tried to overthrow the legislation to prevent a ban on casting a secret ballot at a polling station. The Government were absolutely determined that it should happen. They absolutely refused to accept the huge concerns which were expressed over and over again during the passage of two major pieces of legislation, that the process was open to abuse. Experience after experience was quoted in this place, but all of it was pushed to one side. Now it is high time for the Government to listen and to eat a little bit of humble pie.

When the Government came to power there was not a shred of doubt about the integrity of our voting system, based on the norm of a secret ballot cast in person and on the limited availability of postal voting for those who would otherwise be unable to vote at all. On figures in the Statement alone, well over 90 per cent of people still prefer the tried and trusted system that millions fought and died for—of going to a polling station and placing their votes in person.

Since 1918, postal ballots have rightly been allowed to those who need them. It was only five years ago that the Government opened the floodgates to bucket-shop balloting. Only since then have doubts about the integrity of the electoral system grown and have opportunities existed for those who believe that the only criterion is to win in any circumstances. The Government's fiddling and tampering has given comfort to them. Public confidence has been undermined—not just by this shocking fraud but also by the confused mishmash of voting systems that have been introduced. That did not happen by accident; it was the result of deliberate legislation by this Government. Again, one would expect some acceptance of responsibility and some hint of apology—but there has been none.

I believe, and I know that most people in this House believe, that casting a vote in person and in secret wherever possible is how we should conduct our electoral system. Does the Minister share that view?

The Statement made a great deal of the need to increase participation in elections. We all favour that, and we have endlessly discussed in this House the ways that would benefit that end. But lack of confidence in the electoral system is not going to improve that situation. The Statement said that postal voting offered an easy and accessible way to participate. The trouble is that, as set up by the Government, the system is now completely tarnished. Few things will discourage participation more than if people think that their honest vote can be swamped by dishonest ones. So, how can the Minister assure the House that voting in the forthcoming election will be secure?

The Statement did not offer any guarantee of that. Indeed, as Judge Mawrey rightly said, it could not do so, given past complacency by the Government. All that has been offered are yet more guidelines to returning officers and police on how to cope with the consequences of the Government's ill thought-out laws. But what are those guidelines? Will there be any changes to the delivery and collection of postal votes and to the verification of true signatures on the forms? Perhaps noble Lords saw the programme on BBC last night where two signatures on the same form were compared. Without a shred of doubt, they looked entirely different.

An extra £l0 million of taxpayers' money has been allotted to help police a system that the Labour Party itself has helped to discredit. But what is that £10 million going to do? Perhaps the Minister can tell us.

The judge said that our electoral system—thanks to this Government's legislation—was open to,

"electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic".

I cannot think that there is any pride to be taken from that. Is it not astonishing that, in a cradle of democracy, we have come to that?

We must, and can, do far better than this complacent Statement. I am glad to say that, with the announcement of the election today, it may not be for this Government to make the decisions, it will be for us to make them. We will be making far better ones than these.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 3:48 pm, 5th April 2005

My Lords, let us not forget that, a year ago, we were assured by Ministers in this House and in another place that the sort of problems that we now know occurred in Birmingham with postal voting could not occur. I believe that the country owes a great debt of gratitude to Judge Mawrey for helping to expose what he called a,

"massive, systematic and organised fraud".

A debt of gratitude is also owed to Mr John Hemming for his perseverance in pursuing this issue. As the judge in the case said yesterday:

"when all that is said and done, Mr Hemming was right and his critics were wrong. He said that there was a massive, Birmingham-wide electoral fraud by the Labour Party and there was in fact a massive, Birmingham-wide electoral fraud by the Labour Party".

Mr Hemming, he said,

"emerges from the case with credit which is more than can be said for those police officers who treated his complaints as no more than Operation Gripe".

The case in Birmingham highlights how wrong Ministers were to give us those assurances a year ago. I see from the Statement today that the Minister is suggesting that new measures are being taken to toughen up on procedures, but is she aware that the new commission guidelines, to which she referred, while perhaps being more realistic, are softer than the guidelines that applied a year ago when this fraud took place.

We have been assured that there will be tough action by police against fraud in such matters. We were assured of that a year ago, before the June elections in which fraud took place. When people in Birmingham were concerned about that huge fraud, the initial police reaction was to dismiss it entirely as sour grapes. What greater assurance can we have now that the police will take instances of alleged fraud more seriously in this general election?

The case has shown how hard it is under the present rules to detect and assess the level of fraud in postal voting; how reluctant hard-pressed police officers can be to pursue fraud that may cheat people of their democratic rights; and how widespread fraud is perfectly possible under the system. All parties agree that postal voting should be a legitimate option for voters, but we must as a matter of urgency reform the process thoroughly after the general election.

In the mean time, there are a number of steps that could be taken, if all parties agreed on them, before this general election—if there was sufficient goodwill. First, we could have the postal votes counted separately in the general election. That would help us to see more obviously whether something was amiss in the system. Secondly, the forms by which people apply for a postal vote could be publicly available in the same way as are the declarations of identity that accompany the ballot papers when they are returned. It is possible for parties to scrutinise those declarations of identity to satisfy themselves afterwards about who has signed the declaration. The parties should also be able to see the forms by which people apply for postal votes.

From the Birmingham case, we have seen how difficult it is to gather such evidence in time, at great expense, to pursue the case. The period for launching an election petition should be changed from 21 days to, perhaps, two months, to allow sufficient time for people to gather the evidence necessary for an investigation into potential fraud, if that is the only option open to them.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, a requirement could be made on presiding officers to maintain a list of all those people who turn up to polling stations only to find that someone has previously claimed a postal vote in their name. At present, they are denied a vote. At the moment, if they turn up to a polling station and they have not registered for a postal vote, but someone has previously claimed their vote by turning up to a polling station, they can be given a further ballot paper. If it may be significant to the result, that ballot paper may be counted. But if you go to a polling station to find that someone in your name has claimed a postal vote on your behalf, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. That would be a sensible reform to the process that could be easily and speedily introduced.

Finally, the Government—and all parties—should show their support for upholding democratic principles by saying clearly before the election and in time for voters to judge their statement that they rule out any further extension of postal voting until the major sources of abuse have been removed.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 3:53 pm, 5th April 2005

My Lords, first, I completely understand why the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, was unable to be here for the beginning of the Statement. I take very seriously what has happened in Birmingham and I condemn completely and utterly the actions of those who have been found wanting, to put it at its mildest, in what they have done. I treasure our democracy, as I know that every Member of your Lordships' House does—although we find ourselves in a slightly odd position in that—and I take it very seriously.

It is fair to say that in his remarks the judge made it clear that he attributed no blame to the national Labour Party. He was very clear about where he placed that blame, which is right and proper. So although I very much regret what happened in Birmingham, it is not something for which the national Labour Party takes responsibility, in that sense. Our responsibility is to ensure that these matters are dealt with properly. Noble Lords will have read the statements issued by the Labour Party about ensuring that we work closely with those in Birmingham to ensure that elections are now run properly.

I recognise the criticisms that the judge made and accept that it was right and proper for him to make them. However, it is also right to say that the remarks attributed by the judge to the Department for Constitutional Affairs left off the end of the statement. We stated:

"However, we are not being complacent about the issue and are planning to issue a number of further safeguards into the electoral process to combat any possible fraud".

It is important to recognise that the Government take that extremely seriously.

As the noble Baroness said, a large number of people prefer not to use postal voting and that is right and proper. But, as noble Lords will know from the history of postal voting, many people for one reason or another find it impossible to go to the polling station at the appropriate time and it is right and proper that we offer them alternative ways to exercise their democratic right.

I, for one, am keen that as we move into a new era of technology we exploit all opportunities to encourage people to exercise their democratic right, provided—I accept this point—that we can maintain safety and security in so doing. It is wrong, as I fear that the noble Baroness was suggesting, simply to say that we stick with one method, not recognising that some people in our society find it physically difficult, because of disability and other reasons, to go to a polling station. I can remember that as a young mum with small children it was pretty difficult to get to the polling station in the rain—although of course I always made it. It is always important to think carefully about the opportunities that we give people.

However, I agree about the central point of ensuring that people can vote in safety and secrecy and know that their ballot is counted. I do not accept that this is complete tarnishing, by any stretch of the imagination. I repeat that it is important to recognise that these are isolated incidents. They raise important and difficult issues, but they are not tantamount to widespread fraud in this country. That is completely wrong. We have 6,000 wards, and only four wards are in question. For many reasons, but not least to ensure that our public message is clear, we must be clear about the integrity of our system.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said that the new guidelines are softer. That is interesting, but they have not yet been circulated, so he knows more than I do. Perhaps he could supply me with a copy of them. They are currently being considered through the Electoral Commission. I do not believe that they will be softer; they are meant to be clearer and more certain. I recognise the noble Lord's great experience in all matters concerning elections and his comments on the judgment relating to the police. As I said, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Home Affairs will meet the Association of Chief Police Officers tomorrow. Very much on his mind will be discussions on how we protect the ballot appropriately for the general and other elections.

We will consider the particular issues raised by the noble Lord. It is important to pick up suggestions that are made. I shall not try to do so now, but will do so properly. He will recognise that, having accepted many of the recommendations in Voting for change, we need to bring forward primary legislation to make the changes. Not long ago in your Lordships' House, I answered questions from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who I see is not in his place today, on observers at elections. We need primary legislation to alter who can be at a count: something that we are looking to do.

We have an additional £20 million for the 2005 elections, compared to 2001; £10 million of that is to cover the extra cost of the increased demand for postal votes. It will cover costs of staffing, and so on. We have written to all returning officers asking them to think proactively about what they can do; that will be followed up. I trust that that money will be wisely spent to ensure that we deal with all the issues raised.

Much has been made of the four areas where we had all-postal ballots. None of the allegations reflects on them in any way—there were allegations, but there have been no convictions in any of those areas.

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Deputy Chief Whip, Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs

My Lords, this Statement is timely and urgent. The Minister referred to the absence of my noble friend Lord Greaves. He could have added a lot about the fact that incidents are not restricted to Birmingham and there have been problems elsewhere, including his part of east Lancashire.

The Statement is urgent in that there will be a perception in the next few days that at least 80 per cent of those with a postal ballot are likely to vote, compared with 60 per cent or less of those without one. Therefore, many in the political process will hope to get more postal ballots in the next two or three weeks, for the understandable reason that they believe that 80 per cent or more of those with a postal ballot will vote.

As regards the legislation, the die is cast. But between now and Friday all the political parties could sign up to a code of conduct on what their helpers should be doing, and certainly what they should not be doing, when handling postal votes in the general election. If the parties signed up, people would know where they stood and what they should not get up to. Giving people a piece of paper and saying, "If you want a postal vote, sign that" is one thing, but it is an entirely different matter when the vote itself returns. It is important that the parties lay down from the centre what they believe is the right and proper approach, and that all parties sign up to it.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I have to respond to each noble Lord in turn, but I shall be brief.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, that the code of conduct is very important; I have a copy of it before me. I do not know whether it will be signed up to by Friday, as there are probably logistical issues. I think that the Statement said that it is very important that we send out from the centre the message that people must follow the code of conduct and sign up to it as candidates, canvassers and participants, and that we want a proper, democratic election to take place on 5 May. I am sure that all noble Lords would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, on that point.

Photo of Lord Biffen Lord Biffen Conservative

My Lords, would an alteration in the law be required to enable postal votes to be collected and counted separately?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I am not sure whether it would, but I shall endeavour to answer the noble Lord's question in the next few minutes. Most of the recommendations in Voting for Change, which suggested along similar lines different ways of approaching the voting system, would require primary legislation because the current legislation is very specific about what can be done. It would therefore not surprise me if it were required.

Photo of Baroness Knight of Collingtree Baroness Knight of Collingtree Conservative

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that there have been many more instances than were reported of what went on in Birmingham? For instance, an ex-constituent of mine, a little old lady, was terrorised by four huge men coming to her door and demanding to have her postal vote so that they could fill it out. Bearing in mind those and other factors that have been reported, will the noble Baroness assure the House that, so long as she is in any position to decide on those matters, universal postal voting will not be enforced in any area?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, it has already been made clear in your Lordships' House that there is no plan for further all-postal ballots at this stage. I never say "never" because, as I said earlier, it is important to think carefully about the opportunities that we give people to vote. The traditional method of voting is important, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has already said; I take nothing away from that. But we must provide more opportunities for people, particularly as they work longer or different hours, away from home and so on, by giving them alternative methods. I am not ruling out alternative methods. The noble Baroness will probably be pleased enough to hear that at this stage there are no plans to have all-postal voting.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, is it not true that in 99 per cent of the United Kingdom postal balloting is totally trouble-free, and that in reality the problem is in small pockets? Can we target the resources being allocated at areas where it is more likely that postal balloting fraud will take place?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I appreciate what my noble friend says. Allegations have certainly been made in a number of places, but, as I have indicated, there have been very few convictions. We need to look very carefully at those. But it cannot always be assumed that fraud will take place in any particular place. One might target resources where allegations have been made before, but if the allegations were unfounded we might be failing to do what is required. It is critical that, through the available money and the work that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will do with the Association of Chief Police Officers and returning officers, we focus carefully on making fraud impossible.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, ballot papers must be mixed before they are counted, so they could not be counted separately without primary legislation.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, do the Government accept or reject the conclusions of the learned judge who determined that the system introduced by Labour in 2001 is,

"farcical, hopelessly insecure and contains no effective safeguards and is an invitation to fraud"?

Do they accept, as the judge undoubtedly thought, that so long as the rules introduced by Labour in 2001 remain in force, there will be massive fraud? If the Government do not accept that, why not, and what good is a code of conduct if the system has no built-in safeguards?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I have read the summary of the judge's verdict very carefully. I have the 192-page document, but I have not yet read it in detail. I do not recall any specific reference to the legislation introduced in 2001 in the executive summary but perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, can correct me.

The judge pointed to a series of problems in Birmingham, about which he felt very strongly. I take great care to consider the applicability of what the judge has said across the whole system. It is very important that we work closely with the Electoral Commission to see what further must be done to prevent fraud. I am not complacent about what the judge has said. He has made known his views very strongly; it is right and proper for him to do so. We are looking at the judgment. It is our responsibility to try to ensure via codes of conduct—they are an important part because parties need carefully to send out a signal—and our work with returning officers, individual parties and the police that fraud cannot happen again.

Unquestionably, the judge has very clearly signalled what he believes is a real problem. It is for us to ensure that in the forthcoming election we address it. My point is that in the vast majority of cases in this country postal voting works extremely well. I would be reluctant to imply that we needed to do more than take those points seriously and address them.

Photo of Lord Garden Lord Garden Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is ironic that she reminded us that postal voting was generated to help servicemen, when there is now such a shambles over postal voting for service people? The Electoral Commission distributed leaflets that have arrived too late to be of any use. They say something that is completely counter to the Queen's Regulations for the Army about overseas postal voting. At the moment, the services will be the one group disenfranchised at the election on 5 May.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, it would be a terrible pity if there were any disenfranchisement at any election in this country. I will look carefully at those comments, as I have neither ministerial responsibility for this area nor the ability to answer the noble Lord properly. However, it is a very important point.

Photo of Viscount Bledisloe Viscount Bledisloe Crossbench

My Lords, as I understand the noble Baroness, she said that this was the fault, not of the Labour Party, but of the Birmingham Labour Party. Is that not rather like the Ministry of Defence saying that abuse of Iraqi prisoners is not its fault but only the fault of the regiment in which it happened?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I do not think that it has anything like the significance of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

My point was that, if the Labour Party nationally had been held to account by the judge, I would be the first to come to your Lordships' House and apologise: it was not. Responsibility was put at the door of what were seen to be particular practices that were inappropriate at best, and corrupt at worst. I am sorry that it happened, and I think that it is important that the Labour Party takes its responsibilities seriously, but I would not for one moment suggest anything other than that this party believes absolutely 100 per cent in democracy. That is critical.

Photo of Lord Carlisle of Bucklow Lord Carlisle of Bucklow Conservative

My Lords, does the answer that the Minister has just given mean that the Labour Party does not accept responsibility for the actions of its candidates? Surely, that is nonsense.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I did not say that. If the noble Lord reads the statement put out by the Labour Party, he will see that we have already suspended the six councillors and that they will be subject to party discipline. We have appointed a senior member of the executive committee to oversee the election in Birmingham, and we have made it clear that that must include making sure that the code of conduct is adhered to. Every member of the Labour Party in Birmingham will be written to by that person—Mike Griffiths—and the letter will include a copy of the code of conduct.

We take our responsibilities very seriously, but the fraud was not conducted by the national Labour Party; it was particular to the Labour Party in Birmingham. As the noble Lord will know from his experience in his own party, one must be clear about the difference between, on the one hand, taking responsibility and taking action—that is right and proper—and, on the other, saying that something is rotten or wrong in the Labour Party itself.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

My Lords, the Minister said that voters had welcomed the convenience of postal votes and had indicated that they were popular. Unfortunately, postal votes also afford convenience to and enjoy popularity among fraudsters. In preparing for this afternoon's Statement, has the noble Baroness reread the answers given by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, to similar questions last summer? He expressed overwhelming confidence in the integrity of the postal voting arrangements, a confidence that has been serially proved wrong by events.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I have not read all the answers that my noble friend gave, but I am sure that I would have agreed with him about the need to make things clear. There has been fraud and corruption in two out of 6,000 wards. It has been discovered and dealt with by a judge, and there may or may not be other proceedings. It is important to recognise that.

We should protect and sustain postal voting or other forms of voting that give voters the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights in ways that are convenient for them for whatever reason, and we should make sure that they can happen. I take seriously what was said in the judgment. With the Electoral Commission, we must consider carefully what safeguards can be put in place. I have also said that we plan to use primary legislation when time allows in the new Parliament—whoever is standing here—to make sure that we can do all of that. We are not complacent, but I do not wish to get the matter out of perspective.

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, may we hear from my noble friend Lady Lockwood?

Photo of Baroness Lockwood Baroness Lockwood Labour

My Lords, we must consider the difference between the Government and the Labour Party. The parties are responsible for organisation in the constituency parties. I am sure that active members of parties will not be able to do other than agree with me that all parties have, since the postal voting system was extended under, I think, the Representation of the People Act 1948, been anxious to maximise their vote.

I have been a Labour Party agent, and I have had conversations with Conservative Party agents and with Liberal agents. All of us have worked to a similar pattern. Up until the previous election, there have been no problems. It is unfortunate that, in the previous European and local elections, there was this incident in what is, if we take into account the electorate as a whole, a small area of the country.

It is not my noble friend who should answer for the Labour Party; the Labour Party has already answered for itself by taking disciplinary action against members who have undertaken illegal action in the name of the party. That is exactly what any other political party would have done in the circumstances.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, my noble friend has great experience of the issues, and I agree with her that all political parties have sought to maximise the opportunities provided by postal voting.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, what has happened to the concept of accountability in government? This issue has arisen not because of what happened in 1948 but because the Government chose to change the rules in the teeth of opposition in this House and from the Electoral Commission. How can the Minister say that the Labour Party has no responsibility? The Labour Party is the Government, and the Government did this. I greatly admire the Minister, but I do not understand why the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is not here to deal with the matter, which is of the utmost seriousness.

While we are on the subject of accountability, I ask why no Minister or no representative of the Electoral Commission was available to speak on the "Today" programme and other programmes this morning, when the whole nation was appalled by what had happened in Birmingham. The commission seems to bombard us with paper every day of the week, so why was there silence on this subject? Are the Government hoping to sweep it under the carpet because it is embarrassing? The embarrassment comes from the failure of the Government to listen to advice and their determination to do everything possible to get their vote out in the face of the disillusion among their supporters.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, sometimes I cannot win. Yesterday, it was clear to me that we should make a Statement on the matter, and I felt that it was right and proper to make the Statement to Parliament, rather than on the "Today" programme. I also think that it was important to have the full judgment before us—as I said, I have not had a chance to read the 192-page judgment in detail, although I shall—to make sure that we did not in any way say anything that was not appropriate. I make no apology for coming to the House first; that is right and proper.

The thing that I find difficult about the debate is that much of the opposition to which noble Lords have referred and the famous ping-pong related to the all-postal voting pilots. They are nothing to do with these votes, which were run on traditional lines, as it were. The point that I was making was that it was important to consider the issue in the context of our national voting system and the way in which postal votes are used.

I accept responsibility and accountability in the sense that it is important that the Government act now with the Association of Chief Police Officers, returning officers and the Electoral Commission to deal with the issues properly. When I said that I did not believe that it was a national Labour Party issue, I was referring to the fact that the judge was not suggesting that the national Labour Party was fraudulent or corrupt in any way—quite the opposite. The judge was saying that it was clear that the issue had arisen in the Birmingham Labour Party and therefore the responsibility of the national Labour Party is to deal with that. The party has taken the action that I mentioned.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Spokesperson in the Lords, International Development, Spokesperson in the Lords, Welsh Affairs

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Garden mentioned the injustice that might be done to military personnel in the coming general election. We know that postal votes will possibly be posted out in the constituencies by, say, 23 or 24 April. How can we be certain that, wherever troops who are eligible to vote by post are, they will receive those votes in time to complete them and return them for inclusion in the count in their constituency? What assurance can the Minister give us on that?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, the noble Lord will be unsurprised to hear that I cannot give him details about voting by military personnel at this stage. It is not in the brief that I have because it is not part of my ministerial responsibility. I commit to responding properly to the noble Lord and to the noble Lord, Lord Garden, and I will put a copy of the letter in the Library, so that the noble Lord is fully satisfied. I shall ask my ministerial colleagues to be in touch with him, if he has any further questions in that area.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in another place I had the privilege of having three recounts for 179 and three recounts for 142, but I had the confidence that the postal vote was valid and secure? I recognise that the Minister has said some brave words today which are full of good intent. If we are to have a code of conduct, one thing that could be done is to ensure that the returning officer has the strength and the power to reject any postal vote that he believes to be suspect. At present he does not have that right, but, in the current circumstances, he certainly needs it.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, all those recounts must have been exciting. I agree with the noble Lord. It is very important that in the work now done with returning officers—which is under way, as a letter went out this morning—we ensure that they have the ability to deal with those issues in the right way. As the noble Lord knows from answers that I have already given, there are issues that can be dealt with without primary legislation, which, in this area, for good reason, are very specific. It is our intention to tighten legislation where necessary to ensure that we deal with those issues properly in order to give precisely what the noble Lord wants; namely, confidence in the coming election.