With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 3—Voting as some other person—
'A person who votes as some other person at any election held in accordance with provision made by order under section 2 shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term of one month.'.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East, will speak to his new clause 3. I certainly understand why he has tabled it, and I have no problem with it.
Amendment No. 10 would provide that anyone who is convicted of the offence of personation should be disqualified from voting for 10 years, in addition to
any other penalties that the court may impose. The offence is so serious that someone who has been involved in it should not have the right to vote that would normally follow. It seems entirely appropriate that someone who completely abuses the privilege of being an elector by taking part in, and being convicted of, personation should have the right to vote taken away for a substantial period—not for ever, because we believe in this country that people can return to the path of righteousness, having suffered their punishment. We have suggested that they should lose the right to vote for 10 years. We ought to debate this important matter and get the Government's view on the record.
I want to speak to new clause 3. My hon. Friend has made a good argument for his amendment. However, I am worried that it may be contrary to the European convention on human rights and that he could end up in prison for having tabled it.
I may as well be frank. I have a pile of stuff here about which I had hoped to speak. As someone who is not new to Committees, I am worried that we do not have much time left. There are still some terribly important matters to deal with; for example, the Committee will want to discuss new clauses 2 and 4, which have been tabled by the Liberal Democrats. Given that we are short of time, I wonder whether the Minister wants to move a further extension of the timetable, or will I have to rush through my comments to give time to others?
That is what I am hoping to do, Mr. Cook, but I am scared that it will have a horrible impact and stop discussion of things that are terribly important. That should worry us; it is certainly not the fault of Conservatives, as hardly any of them are here. There is a big problem, which I hope we shall face up to.
The first question we must ask is simple: will there be more scope for people to cheat in the pilot schemes than in the existing scheme? The answer must certainly be yes. The Liberal Democrats tabled new clauses 2 and 4, which show that they are trying to identify ways in which cheating could be controlled. Although I appreciate that many hon. Members represent nice residential areas with big houses, in Southend-on-Sea there are many homes in multiple occupation. Some of them are frightening places; I went recently to a six-bedroom house where 16 people were staying. There are many retirement homes in my constituency and a lot of bed-and-breakfast hotels; one on the seafront in Southend is called the Palace hotel, but it is neither a palace nor an hotel. It has lots of rooms on five storeys, and many people live there.
The scope for fiddling will increase dramatically if, instead of people going to vote or applying for a postal vote as they do now, the Post Office brings a flood of papers for all the people living in a place. Even in a
house where only five adults live, there will be five lots of ballot papers.
I appreciate that three quarters of the people will probably not bother to vote in European elections because they think that they do not matter, but some people are fanatical about politics. We would be misleading ourselves if we did not accept that a tiny minority passionately want to vote in European elections and they will have greater scope under the proposed arrangement for cheating by filling in a form and voting for someone else. That should worry us a great deal.
What can we do about it? We can keep the present system, whereby the person concerned is reported and has to appear before nice magistrates, who are decent and honourable people who try to be kind to everyone and like to take all the circumstances into account. They may say that the person cheated because he was old, or had had a drink and so on, so they will try to make provision for him. However, when new arrangements are introduced that will extend the scope for cheating immensely, there should be a firm, decisive, clear penalty that says that people who vote for someone else in any circumstances should go to prison for a month. That will affect their career prospects. Some will say that that is not right, because circumstances vary, but unless the measure is accepted, there will be terrible problems caused by people cheating, as many will come before the courts.
It is not just postal voting that will cause those problems. I wish the Government had time to say something about electronic voting because it is one of the most ridiculous pieces of nonsense there has ever been. I am suspicious of electronic things—computers and so on—and my children say that I should learn more about them. However, the scope for cheating in electronic voting is frightening, and unless something is done to try to stop it, there will be terrible problems.
The organisations that are looking at democracy and voting think electronic voting is nuts, silly and expensive and that it should not happen. The Government, however, will introduce it anyway, along with postal voting.
It is probably my fault. I am trying to rush through the proposal because time is short and there are important issues still to be discussed. I was trying to say that there is far more scope for personation in postal voting, in which ballot papers are delivered in a flood, and in electronic voting. That is why there must be a firm penalty for that offence. Is it unreasonable for it to be a month in prison?
One of the strengths of our society in Britain has been the strength of our democracy and the fact that very few people try to cheat in voting, but we know that it happens. In Northern Ireland, where there are
very strong feelings about politics, some of the most terrible things go on. If we are to stop them, we must have a firm, clear and precise penalty. Does the Minister agree with that principle for someone who personates someone else under the new arrangements, which offer scope for many exciting methods? I appreciate that, in European elections, it does not matter so much because most people are not at all interested. We accept that, but those who care about those elections—a number of people for all kinds of strange reasons want to vote in them—must be deterred from personation. The only way to deter them is to have a firm, clear penalty.
The other problem, from which there is no point hiding, is whether we would have enough prisons if lots of people were to go to prison because of this penalty. That is a much wider issue, but the Government are well aware—
Order. That is such a blatant breach of what we are supposed to be discussing that I am surprised that I even have to draw it to the hon. Gentleman's attention. Let us stick to the point at issue please, not discuss the size or number of prisons or anything else. We are talking about the elections.
I hope you appreciate, Mr. Cook, that this measure could mean that lots and lots of people go to prison. There are not many people who cheat in Britain now but, with the new system, there will be a lot of scope for cheating. If my new clause were accepted, many people could go to prison. My point was that some people might say that, because the prisons are already overfull—we know that they are, which is a great worry—there is no point accepting the new clause.
My hon. Friend suggests that offenders should go to prison for a month. Might we meet his concerns by reserving some cells for 12 months and having a waiting list? People could then take it in turns to go to prison for a month.
That is to treat the matter with light-heartedness when it is not a light-hearted issue. It is a very serious one.
We could help the prisons and help democracy by having a month's penalty. Everyone would know what would happen to them, no matter how they committed the offence and voted in place of someone else. If people knew that it would be month, they might be deterred. That is the whole point of my new clause. I am trying to deter people from personating someone else and going to vote in their place. The prospect of a month in prison could deter them.
My hon. Friend suggested that people could wait for 12 months before serving a month's sentence. Perhaps that is an example of the modernising that is to be part of all new Conservative party policies, and it is an exciting idea. However, it would not solve the problem of deterrence. It might be modern, and I appreciate that some party members are in favour of modern policies, but I want to deter. I do not want to try to make the situation worse. I want to prevent people from committing this crime.
Is the crime serious? Does it matter? People might say that the European Parliament is such a joke that it does not really matter who is elected—Joe Bloggs or anyone else. However, it matters in a democracy if people vote twice or three times. That is not right or proper. We hold elections to our British Parliament and although our powers have been greatly reduced because of our membership of the EU, we still have some powers. Local government still has some powers. We have an army of politicians now because of the regional departments that we are going to set up, and we must preserve the basis of our democracy—that one votes for oneself and not on behalf of anyone else. We must have a strong deterrent and tell people, ''You mustn't cheat and vote for anyone else. Even if someone is not very well, you mustn't do it. They must vote for themselves.''
The new clause is sensible. It would prevent the horrible new problem of cheating that will emerge from the new system that the Government are introducing at great expense. They have said that it will cost millions of pounds. It would be far better if we had not started in the first place. However, we have started, and we cannot discuss that issue now. If we are going ahead with the new pilot system, we should ensure that we preserve the basis of our democracy, which means a person voting on their own behalf, with no personation. The penalty for personation should be a month in prison. The new clause is sensible; it will preserve rather than undermine our democracy. I hope that the Committee will support it.
I have listened with great care to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East. His comment about limited time is fair, but it was not the Opposition who sought to limit the time—we could continue tomorrow or next week if the Government were so minded. We should not ignore important points because someone wants to reach something further down the menu. The Government hope that we will ignore things on which they would rather we did not concentrate.
I believe that clause 6 and the amendments raise some fundamental issues. The Committee are not divided on the principle that we must be careful not to do anything to discredit the current election process. Compared with that of other democracies throughout the world, our electoral system is second to none. I am sure that there are loopholes, and things happen that we would prefer did not. However, compared with what I have seen as an electoral observer elsewhere in the world, and what I know and have read about other systems, we have a system of which we can be immensely proud. We have been able to take our system to the rest of the world and say, ''If you do it this way, whatever the outcome, you can trust the system.''
My hon. Friend said that he has seen elections in many parts of the world. What penalties are imposed for people who cheat and personate others in those countries? Do any of them have a one-month rule, which I believe to be the ideal solution, or do they use other penalties?
I have a suspicion that the penalties in some of the countries I have visited were quite ghoulish, and I am not sure that I would like to introduce them in the UK. However, I will return to that point.
We have a system of which we can be immensely proud, and people—not just party politicians—are saying that we must be careful, because the proposals could undermine our current system. The Electoral Reform Society and others have made it clear that, in principle, there are grounds for concern. I am not pointing fingers at anyone or saying that the system has been undermined, but I am suggesting that that could happen. One thing of which we can be sure is that if there are means of cheating, sooner or later someone will succumb to the temptation. I therefore think that we should take steps to deal with such eventualities.
I am surprised and disappointed that the only reference to personation comes in clause 6, and is short to boot. All it does is to make it an arrestable offence that can be pursued elsewhere. I therefore have no difficulty in supporting, in principle, both the amendment and the new clause, because we should go beyond saying, ''We can arrest you.'' As I understand it—and if I have misunderstood it, there are enough lawyers in the Committee to correct me—the penalties for an arrestable offence are more severe than those for a non-arrestable offence. Since none of those lawyers are leaping to their feet, I think it is reasonable to assume that I have understood that correctly. The Bill extends the provisions on places in which someone can be arrested—but that is not good enough.
I want to hear what the Government have to say about amendment No. 10. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath made it clear that he was suggesting that a person would be disqualified if they committed one of those offences.
Some people argue that there is an absolute right to vote, and that that should apply even to people in prison, who are currently disqualified from voting. However, the provisions give yet another reason why someone might be disqualified, so that issue needs justification and further thought.
We must ensure that our electoral system safeguards our democracy, which is particularly precious. To argue that it is an absolute right of every rogue and villain to participate in elections is not a route down which I would wish to go. The opportunity to vote is a privilege that is not shared by the majority of people on the planet, and therefore we should not be afraid to speak up for it as a privilege and as something that we should protect.
If participation in an election were an absolute human right, it would be wrong to disqualify foreigners who happened to be in the country on an election day. It is well established that it is permissible to disqualify certain people from voting in one of our elections. Some people outside of the Committee will say that to deny someone the vote is an abuse of human rights. Voting is a privilege, and if someone demonstrates that they cannot accept that privilege
and use it properly, it should be taken away. That is an argument that I am content to support.
On new clause 3, I wonder whether one month is right. An awful lot of people, myself included, would be horrified to spend an hour as a convicted prisoner.
The Opposition does not keep the Minister here; Government Members keep him here because he has to ensure that there is a majority, otherwise we will defeat him again. He is imprisoning himself and I do not apologise for that.
There are two ways of considering whether a month is suitable. For the overwhelming majority of people, being convicted and sent to prison for an hour or a day is enough to strike horror and terror into them. There are those who could not care less about a month in prison, because it would amount to only two weeks after remission.
If one were to use prison as a deterrent and a punishment to somebody who would be deterred and understood punishment, a month is too short by a significant amount of time. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East who says that it should be a month, but I have no difficulty with the principle.
To be able to vote is a privilege that we can take away. If it is abused, punishment is appropriate. I am sorry that the Government have said only that they will make something else an arrestable offence. I wish that they would come forward with more safeguards to meet the objections raised by independent people who know what they are talking about.
Although it is important that we debate matters at length, I regret the fact that it has taken the Opposition half an hour to make what is a fairly simple point. It is a perfectly reasonable point to make, but it need not have taken up so much time. When the public read Hansard they will able to judge for themselves the tactics employed by the Opposition.
No, I will not.
It is perfectly reasonable for hon. Members to be concerned about electoral fraud and the need to strengthen measures to fight it. As I have said before, there is no significant evidence to suggest that local electoral pilots are more prone to fraud. Having said that, we should not be complacent about such matters, and I accept that sentencing can have a deterrent effect. That is why we have included two extra clauses to extend the offence of personation to apply outside polling stations and to extend the time limit for prosecutions.
The commission suggested the provisions that we have included. It was important to include them, albeit on the basis of the pilots only. They flow from its report entitled ''Voting for change—An electoral law modernisation programme.'' The commission did not propose increasing the penalty for personation. If we
were to amend any of the penalties, it would be more appropriate to do so in an electoral reform Bill. We will certainly consider whether higher penalties would serve a useful purpose with respect to the suggestion in amendment No. 10.
May I bring the Minister back to his penultimate point? He is introducing an extension of the power of arrest only for the purposes of the pilots. It seems a little perverse not to amend the Representation of the People Act 2000 in order to provide for the same extension for other pilots or electronic ballots held on the same basis. Can he explain why he is only doing that for the purposes of this specific pilot?
The scope of the Bill clearly concerns the pilots, which is one of the reasons why we have been focused on the issue of which offences are extended. We are doing that because we are taking that next step by scaling up the all-postal pilot, and people have concerns about fraud. I do not believe that they are necessarily legitimate concerns, but in order to pre-empt and placate those worries, we have included provisions in relation to the pilots. That is not to say that we will not take the opportunity in future to extend the arrangements permanently and on a wider basis. We need to consider that, but we should do things step by step.
I will be brief; I have not used a lot of the Committee's time this afternoon. I understand what the Minister says about the scope of the Bill, but it does seem perverse that the next all-postal ballot that will take place under the Representation of the People Act 2000 will not include the power of arrest, unless he does something via primary legislation. Does he agree that that is a perverse consequence of what he proposes?
Who is to say what legislation and proposals may come forward in the future? It is not our job to pre-empt the Queen's Speech, and who knows what will be in that? The Government will consider the matter, and should we feel the need to legislate, we shall try our best to do so.
The five-year disqualification that already exists is a severe penalty and is significant. There is no immediate need to increase it in line with the suggestion in amendment No. 10. We shall see how it works with the measures that we are introducing on personation. New clause 3, proposed by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East, would reduce rather than increase the maximum sentence for personation. The current maximum penalty on summary convictions is six months' imprisonment, a maximum fine of £5,000 or both. The penalties are even higher for conviction on indictment—two years, an unlimited fine or both.
Although I recognise the spirit of the new clause, as explained by the hon. Gentleman in his significant contribution, I do not think that it would have the effect he seeks. I believe that significant penalties are already on the statute book.
I want to make two points. First, the Minister quite rightly said that the present law is proper in the sense that someone can spend six months in prison and receive a huge fine. I would suggest that
it is not as clear a deterrent as it would be if, in every case, that person went to prison for a month. That would make a huge difference. The present law is not a deterrent. How many people are aware of the extent of the penalty? I would suggest that if we had a major publicity campaign when the pilots are introduced, making clear the standard penalty that would apply in all cases, it would be a deterrent. The current law is not.
Secondly, does the Minister not accept that there will be far greater scope for personation during the new pilots? He has not discussed that issue, and I think that it is unfortunate that the Government are not facing up to it. I genuinely think that if they do not accept the new clause, they will live to regret it because there will be an increase in personation, which is bad for democracy.
I very much endorse what my hon. Friend has just said. As he is aware, the Electoral Reform Society share his concern and mine that personation will inevitably increase during the pilots. I agree that the Government are not taking that sufficiently seriously.
It has been valuable, however, to get some of the Minister's comments on record. I accept that he said that some of the issues raised may be part of a future electoral reform Bill. What he did not say was whether the Government have plans to introduce such a Bill. Without that commitment, the concerns expressed by us, and the Electoral Reform Society, remain. The penalties are not sufficient and it would have been wiser if the Government had accepted some of the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East. When our debate is considered in the other place, my hon. Friend's worries may be given greater weight than the Minister has given them this afternoon. He suggested that we were not raising important points, but I suspect that they will be taken more seriously in the other place than they have been today.
Nevertheless, because some useful points have been put on the record, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
As the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East said in the previous debate, we are dealing with personation and how to avoid an increase in personation in the electoral pilots. The clause deals with the power of arrest and ensuring that a postal ballot or an electronic ballot that takes place away from the polling station comes within the ambit of that which can be construed as an arrestable offence, to provide a deterrent.
I want the Minister to deal with how to avoid the offence taking place in the first instance. There is ample evidence that we need a verifiable identification system in a postal ballot. There is not one at present and the Minister gave no assurances on Second Reading that such a system would be introduced. I
posited the suggestion that a form of acknowledgment might act specifically as a deterrent for those who might take advantage of houses in multiple occupation, a matter that was raised by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East. It would ensure that people were aware that their votes were being used without their permission and would enable them to make a complaint that would then be the subject of the offence under clause 6. That is a sensible suggestion.
There is a more serious issue around electronic voting. As was amply demonstrated on Second Reading by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), no audit systems are in place at present. To establish the evidential basis for taking a case under clause 6, the returning officer, the investigating officer, the police or the procurator fiscal in Scotland would have an extraordinary difficult task to convince a court to its satisfaction that there was evidence that someone had voted in place of another person. In the absence of a form of electronic audit trail, the electronic voting system, which seems to have a marginal advantage given the pilots that have already taken place, is a matter of considerable concern. The Minister needs to deal with such issues before suggesting a pilot on the scale of a whole European region for the use of electronic voting.
As the hon. Gentleman knows from a new clause that we have tabled, but which sadly we may not reach, we strongly agree with him about electronic voting. For reasons that I entirely understand, he could not be with us earlier when I put on the record all the Electoral Reform Society's worries about e-voting and houses in multiple occupation. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is raising such points now because, when I did so this morning, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said that I was going on too long and that she did not consider it necessary to put the concerns of the Electoral Reform Society on the record.
I will certainly not decry my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole if she said that the hon. Gentleman had gone on too long about anything. My experience of our proceedings suggests that he almost certainly had gone on too long, as do his hon. Friends. However, that does not alter the fact that such points are extremely important, as I made clear on Second Reading. They have not been dealt with adequately and we shall have to return to them on Report. They are entirely relevant to the personation offence that is discussed in the clause. Surely we want to prevent personation. First, we want to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to prevent personation. Secondly, measures should be in place to deter personation. Thirdly, measures should be in place to ensure that the evidence is there for the arrest, indictment and successful prosecution of those who indulge in personation. I have no confidence at present that those measures are in place.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Can he think of any way in which one could provide evidence that someone had personated another voter through electronic voting? It is possible
to get evidence in other cases, but how could one provide evidence with electronic voting?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. First, there are deterrent means to prevent personation by issuing a verifiable identification system, including a password known only to the recipient.
Indeed, that is one of my major criticisms. Even if one had such a system, to provide the evidence of personation one has to witness someone using that password, incorrectly, on behalf of another person. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is difficult. It is a little easier if one has an effective electronic audit system; at least then one can establish the place and time that the vote was cast. If one can prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person who claimed to be voting at that place at that time was elsewhere, it is clear that an offence of personation has taken place. In the absence of verification or audit, providing the evidence for a successful prosecution will be extremely difficult.
I want to allow the Minister enough time to respond to one of the most important points in the Bill. Sadly, debate has been compressed and the points will not be fully considered in the context of the later clauses. How will he advise the House on the measures that will be taken to prevent personation in postal and particularly in electronic ballots? Those who wish these pilot schemes well want to ensure that the integrity of the British voting system is not in any way impaired by what is suggested.
The clause is important because it represents a significant improvement in the antifraud measures that should help to allay worries about malpractice and fraud occurring. There is not significant evidence that postal voting at a local level or in general is more prone to fraud. The Electoral Commission has carried out studies and reports on this, and it has not concluded that it is any more prone to fraud than conventional voting. We should defer to its judgment on that issue. The clause extends the power of arrest without warrant beyond the polling station. That is clearly helpful where remote voting is widely in use.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome questioned the system for verifying that a ballot paper had been received. While there is nothing to stop an elector checking with the returning officer that their ballot has been received, we do not have a system of receipts at present although I understand that that has been investigated in some local pilots. While we should keep an open mind on the issue,
I am also conscious that we need to strike a balance between ensuring that fraud is deterred and having an efficient and cost-effective means of running elections. There is no evidence of a need for a receipt system, which would be extremely costly to operate, but I shall
keep an open mind and listen to what the Electoral Commission says about that issue.
One of my small criticisms of the Electoral Commission—I do not have many—is that it has not been asked to, or certainly has not implemented, a system of review of postal votes other than on the basis of complaints received. That is one of the problems. Of course one does not find evidence of fraud if one does not go looking for it. If one concludes from the fact that there is a relatively low number of complaints that everything is hunky-dory, one might be deluding oneself.
In the debate earlier, when the hon. Gentleman was not here, I rebutted at some length the misapprehension that somehow the Government did not undertake proactive checks to consider whether the electoral systems were prone to infiltration or fraud. We do not rely on reports or wait for allegations to surface. I said that the ability exists to contact a sample of people who appear to have voted on a marked register to ask them whether they actually did so. We can also compare a sample of signatures on declarations of identity, and review logs produced by electronic voting arrangements. I do not want to rehearse my explanation, as I felt I dealt with that comprehensively this morning. I also dealt with the idea that there was no auditing of electronic voting. Government information security specialists, who are credit expert assessors, undertake rigorous quality assurance of the software used in electronic voting, and of the wider electoral processes involved in the pilots.
Sufficient powers are available to the Government and to the courts so that prosecutions for personation can successfully take place, and that is a deterrent. Extending those arrangements in clause 6 is important, and I hope that the clause stands part of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.