HC Deb 21 May 1997 vol 294 cc670-6 12.30 pm
Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I welcome you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Chair. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to the Treasury Bench. I am sure that he will illuminate our debates with distinction.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise the issue of the conduct of elections, because, unhappily, electoral fraud and deceit are increasing. One form of fraud consists of candidates deliberately confusing the electorate by assigning titles to themselves on the ballot paper that are calculated to deceive voters.

In my own constituency, a man called Terry Betts referred to himself at the general election as the "New Labour" candidate. He was listed first on the ballot paper, whereas I—the official Labour candidate—was listed ninth. On election night, Betts apologised to me for—as he put it—"what happened today". I did not accept his apology, because I had not been the victim. The victims were the 2,000 electors who, because of the deliberate confusion caused by Betts, were denied the democratic right to vote for the candidate of their choice.

Betts described himself on the ballot paper as New Labour, so that voters would believe that he was the official Labour candidate and was supported by Tony Blair. The truth is that Betts was not a member of the Labour party and that he has never been a member of the Labour party. He was not supported by Tony Blair, and Tony Blair has never heard of Terry Betts.

On polling day, Mr. Betts was supported by Councillor Isaac Leibowitz—a man known to the Home Office—who drove around in a car with an audio system, shouting, "Vote Labour. Vote Betts." Last year, Councillor Leibowitz was expelled from the Labour party by Tony Blair.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. When the hon. Gentleman mentions another hon. Member, he should refer to him as "the Prime Minister", for example, or as the hon. Member for a specific constituency.

Mr. Sedgemore

Mr. Deputy Speaker, the problem is that I am explaining events that occurred during the general election, when the Prime Minister was neither the Leader of the Opposition nor the Prime Minister-he was Mr. Tony Blair.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

He is now, however, the Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman has sufficient experience in the House to know exactly how to deal with such matters.

Mr. Sedgemore

I will attempt to apply my brain to meeting your wishes, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Electoral fraud comes easily to Isaac Leibowitz. He is, indeed, a persistent electoral fraudster. Neither Hackney council nor its chief executive, however, has ever even admonished him for bringing the council into disrepute, contrary to the national code of conduct for local government councillors.

In 1994, in a local government election in the Northfields ward, Leibowitz engaged in a proxy voting scam. Although he was a Labour councillor, the scam was designed to help in the election of three Tory councillors and to prevent the election of a Labour Jewish woman named Denise Robson. There is incontrovertible evidence that, in that election, some people who voted were under age, that others voted twice and from different addresses, and that foreigners who were not entitled to vote did vote.

In 1996, in a by-election in South Defoe, Leibowitz set up a new political party, which, to deceive the electorate, he called the "Labor party". He fraudulently persuaded electors to sign his candidate's nomination papers, because electors believed that his candidate was the official Labour party candidate. Leibowitz then went "granny farming" for votes, by obtaining proxy votes from very elderly, housebound people who had lost their critical faculties and were incapable of exercising a choice. Only three weeks ago, he participated in the general election, in which he exercised his corrupt talents. In a press release, the so-called New Labour candidate said that he had the support of a group of local councillors, who masquerade under the title of Hackney New Labour. Last year, each and every one of those councillors was expelled from the Labour party by the Prime Minister. They have nothing to do with new Labour.

Hackney New Labour is led by an embittered, shambolic 76-year-old man named Gerry Ross. That so-called New Labour man is a former communist who supported Joe Stalin. From the beginning of his subsequent membership of the Labour party until his expulsion from it, he consistently proved to be a wrecker. In 1977, he was expelled from Hackney council's Labour group. Two years ago, he was forced out of the chairmanship of a Londonwide body, the London Committee for Accessible Transport, because no one could tolerate his behaviour. Last year, he was expelled from the Labour party by the Prime Minister. He now leads a group of political and electoral cheats, who are attempting to corrupt the democratic process in Hackney.

I am sure that the Minister anticipates one of the points that is worrying me—my fear that, in 1998, that bogus organisation, Hackney New Labour, will attempt to corrupt and pervert local elections in London and Hackney. I believe that action must be taken to stop that happening.

After the general election, I received reports of people suffering distress at every polling station because of confusion over who was the official Labour candidate—it was me. At one polling situation, an old lady burst into tears and had to be consoled by my ex-wife after she realised her mistake. That old lady gets a vote only once every five years, and her day had been ruined. A man at another polling station, after realising his mistake, rushed back into the polling booth and called out: "Stop voting, everyone. You are voting for the wrong person." At that, three voters left the polling station, with their ballot papers, to ask people outside who was the official Labour candidate—all of which, obviously, was unlawful.

An old lady at yet another polling station, who realised that she had mistakenly put her cross against Betts's name, ate her ballot paper rather than placing it into the ballot box. In a long political career, people have done many things to come to my defence, but none of them had been so heroic as to eat their ballot paper.

After the general election, we have received hundreds of telephone calls from voters who felt that they had been deceived. Many people have asked me why the chief executive—Tony Elliston, who was the returning officer in charge—did not take action. That is a good question, because, on 17 April 1997—during the general election campaign—the Labour party's lawyers faxed Elliston a copy of a judgment in a similar case, in which a candidate who called himself a New Labour candidate was not the official Labour candidate. In that case, the judge ruled that what had occurred was a fraudulent device or contrivance which was intended to impede or prevent the free exercise of the franchise of electors within section 115(2)(b)". Some senior and respected councillors have told me that they fear that the chief executive's indifference to electoral fraud may arise from questionably close relationships with the bogus members of Hackney New Labour. I will not comment on that, but it is something that Ministers may like to mull over.

What I can say with certainty—for a moment, I thought that I was on the wrong side of the Chamber—is that, when my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) complained to the chief executive about the appalling delay in sending out poll cards, he responded superciliously, saying: "We don't want to get them out too early, do we?" That was not the view of the electorate, thousands of whom did not receive their poll cards until the day before the election.

Whatever the truth about the bogus "New Labour" candidate Betts, Councillor Leibowitz, the chief executive and Hackney New Labour, the Minister will agree, I am sure, that working men and women fought long and hard to obtain the vote. Politicians and administrators should respect their right to vote for the candidate of their choice—indeed, they have a duty to do so. I fear that things will not be sorted out without the intervention of Home Office Ministers, and I look forward to a sympathetic reply from my hon. Friend the Minister.

12.40 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) in congratulating you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on filling that Chair. I know from experience that it is a job that you will do admirably and to the benefit of the whole House.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for initiating this debate on a number of aspects of the conduct of parliamentary elections. I am especially grateful that he has raised the matter so soon after the general election. My hon. Friend has raised a number of points, the first of which is the cynical and misleading descriptions of some candidates on nomination papers and ballot papers, and the consequences that that has had in his constituency and elsewhere. The second point is the possibility of abuse of the absent voter arrangements.

Those are both important issues. Whatever other expertise we may have, the conduct of elections is dear to the hearts of all hon. Members. As the general election is so recent, it is even dearer than usual.

Both issues are important. I recognise that my hon. Friend has eloquently and wittily explained the problems that arise because candidates misdescribe themselves, using party titles to which they have no right. That is indeed important. I am also pleased that the debate provides an opportunity to discuss spoiling tactics, which were not successful in my hon. Friend's constituency. In Knowsley, we have had long experience of candidates describing themselves as Labour candidates when they were not entitled to do so. My hon. Friend is right to say that it is far easier to cause confusion with such titles in local elections than it is in general elections.

I turn now to misleading descriptions on ballot papers. The provision that allows every candidate to include a description on his or her nomination paper is set out in the parliamentary election rules in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. No candidate is required to provide a description on the nomination paper, but, where he or she does so, the description as set out on the nomination paper is automatically transferred to the ballot paper.

The rules provide only that the description must not exceed six words and must be sufficient, with the candidate's other particulars, to identify him or her. Rightly, the description may not contravene the ordinary law of the land. It must not, for example, be obscene or racist, or act as an incitement to crime.

My hon. Friend has rightly said that responsibility for these matters rests with the returning officer. The 1983 Act places responsibility for the conduct of parliamentary elections on acting returning officers in each constituency. Acting returning officers, however, do not have the power to amend a candidate's nomination paper, and may reject a nomination only in two very particular circumstances. Those are that the candidate is disqualified because he or she is currently serving a sentence of imprisonment, or that the nomination paper is not as required by law and is not subscribed in due form.

The effect of the second part of the rules is that the acting returning officer can rule only on the validity of the nomination paper, and not on the validity of the person's nomination. It is here that the problem arises. The reason for limiting the acting returning officer's authority in this way is clear. Successive Governments have taken it as a first priority that acting returning officers should not be drawn into making decisions that might be considered political or party political. Every hon. Member will see the common sense in that.

I recognise my hon. Friend's concern that the use of misleading party names is a problem. The returns from the general election have still to be brought together, but I accept that the use of potentially misleading party names on ballot papers is likely to have increased from 1992. I am certain that, when we have a chance to analyse those returns, we shall see that that is the case.

Fortunately for the House and for my hon. Friend, the spoiling tactics used in his constituency did not have the desired outcome. Indeed, my hon. Friend is here today to tell us the story. As far as we know, the problem of misleading descriptions has not affected the outcome in any constituency in the general election. I know, however, that there is a strong argument that, in the 1994 European elections, the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) was affected. On a subsequent occasion, the hon. Member may raise that issue. In that election, the title "Literal Democrat" was used.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

indicated assent.

Mr. Howarth

I say to the hon. Member for Torbay—[HON. MEMBERS: "He is not here."]

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) is not here; I hope that the Minister is not under a misapprehension. He is right in asserting that there was a serious problem in the European election. The issue went to court, but was not resolved in the way that we would have hoped.

Mr. Howarth

I made a mistake. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) was nodding so vigorously that I assumed that he was the hon. Member for Torbay. Obviously, he has been seduced by the power of my oratory, which was the cause of the problem. Clearly, a problem arose in the European election, and it is a matter that must be looked at in future.

Hon. Members will recognise that the problem of the attempted misdirection of the electorate has been with us for a long time. Descriptions were introduced specifically to address that problem. Many hon. Members will recall the days when there was no description on the ballot paper; I remember that being the case within my political lifetime. Descriptions were introduced to try to address the problem, but they clearly have not been as effective as we would have wished.

There are a number of options that do not require party registration, an issue to which I shall turn in a moment, and which have been looked at by Home Office officials. The various options include the use of party logos on ballot papers, the strengthening of the 1983 Act to provide a specific offence of using a description intended to mislead, and the introduction of a challenge process to be heard before a High Court judge. I know that the Liberal Democrats, in various submissions, have supported that.

There are difficulties with all three proposals, which need to be scrutinised in much greater detail. At this stage, I would not like to make a commitment to any of them. However, now that the election is over, discussion of the issues between the political parties will go ahead. I hope that we can examine them again to see whether there is any prospect of moving ahead, although I must add the qualification that there are problems with all three proposals that I have mentioned.

I should like to say a few words on political party registration, which offers us better prospects for dealing with the problems. The principal problem with the use of party names as candidate descriptions is that political parties are not recognised in electoral law. The lack of any means by which a political party can register its name for electoral purposes is the starting point for the difficulties that my hon. Friend has described.

From that stems the problem of a candidate being able to describe himself as new Labour when he has nothing to do with the Labour party or as a Literal Democrat when he has nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats, or, as has happened in my constituency, simply to use the confusing title "Labour", spelled properly. We have never been able to challenge that.

If she were free to do so, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) could wax lyrical for at least 15 minutes on the confusion that often exists at elections in Liverpool, where various candidates use all kinds of different descriptions, trying to pretend that they are Labour party candidates when they are not.

We have to make progress on this. The lack of statutory registration of political parties has consequences for party funding. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House mentioned our commitment to look into that. The registration of political parties would have to be part of any mechanism for bringing party funding under control. If we have any kind of proportional system—an issue that will be considered, and should be the subject of a referendum, during this Parliament—we shall have to consider party registration.

My hon. Friend is aware of our manifesto commitment to examine ways of regulating and reforming the funding of political parties—a commitment that we take seriously. We also have a clear manifesto commitment to put to the Scottish and Welsh people proposals for the devolution of powers to representative bodies elected by proportional representation.

The Government are considering how best to take forward those commitments. The answer will, without doubt, involve a measure for the registration of political parties, although it is too early to be able to say yet what that may involve. Any measures to register political parties would provide an opportunity for action on the statutory recognition of political party names. We shall certainly have to examine that issue.

My hon. Friend also talked about granny farming—the first time that I have come across the term. That is not a bizarre agricultural practice, as it might sound, but a specific problem to do with proxy votes. The Government take seriously any allegations of widespread and systematic abuse of the procedure for absent voting. If it becomes necessary, we are prepared to legislate.

There is no recent evidence that the abuse of proxy voting is systematic or widespread. Application forms for absent votes were amended in 1994, after well-publicised examples of elderly people being deliberately misled into believing that they were applying for a postal ballot paper, which would have allowed them to cast their own vote, rather than a proxy to vote on their behalf. Electors now have to indicate clearly whether they are applying to vote by post or by proxy. All appointments of a proxy must be signed by the elector or by the proxy.

Under the Representation of the People Act 1985, an elector who is unable to vote in person at the polling station may apply to vote by post or by proxy. Those wishing to vote by proxy are required to give the name and address of the person appointed as proxy, and must sign the proxy appointment or arrange for it to be signed by the proxy.

The review of electoral law and practice set up after the 1992 general election considered whether changes should be made to the absent voting system and to the application forms, to reduce the opportunity for abuse of the system and to make it more accessible to voters. Various suggestions were considered, including the redesign of the form, the need for the elector to sign in person, the wording on the ballot papers and the inclusion of the level of fines. The application forms were amended in 1994.

In the past five years, there have been allegations of absent voting irregularities in St. Ives in 1992, in Brighton in 1993, in Burnley in 1994 and in Cynon Valley in 1995. Various actions resulted from those allegations, some of which were upheld. The offences in Cynon Valley led to a member of Plaid Cymru being tried in Cardiff Crown court and sentenced to two months in prison.

There have been no reports, either officially from an acting returning officer or from newspapers, of abuses in connection with absent vote applications at the 1997 election, although I am sure that my hon. Friend's speech will remedy that defect. Any allegations of malpractice regarding the absent voting system should be reported to the police, whose job it is to investigate.

A person who votes as some other person—in person or by means of a postal or proxy vote—commits an offence of personation, which is a corrupt practice under the Representation of the People Acts. A person is also guilty of a corrupt practice if by abduction, duress, or any fraudulent device or contrivance he impedes or prevents the free exercise of the franchise of an elector. I am not sure how that applies to swallowing a ballot paper, but we should investigate that.

A person who makes a false statement in an application for an absent vote, or who attests an application that he knows to contain a false statement, also commits an offence, as does anybody attesting an application when not qualified to do so. Electoral abuse is a serious matter. There are strict penalties for those found guilty, with a maximum fine of £5,000.

My hon. Friend has raised some important issues, and I congratulate him. It is right that such issues should be aired as early as possible in the electoral cycle, so that we have time to review and consider them and take any necessary action. If I have missed any points from my hon. Friend's speech, I shall pick them up and communicate with him.

Part of the task that the Government have set themselves is to clean up politics in this country. The issues raised today fall within the scope of that aim. Subject to proper consultation, we shall act to clean up politics and to make the electoral system as free of defects as possible.