HC Deb 14 July 2004 vol 423 cc1411-4 12.30 pm
Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the voting arrangements for regional assemblies' referendums. I cannot recall a day when there has been greater media and public interest in what is going on in this House, and I am sure that I am not alone in realising that that is because people understand the importance of the issues contained in this Bill.

I am introducing this Bill because the experiments with all-postal voting in the elections in June did not give people the confidence that genuine free and fair elections demand. The Government have made it clear that they want to hold all-postal referendums for the regional assemblies, but I believe that before we continue down that path, the House must be given the opportunity to debate how those referendums should be held.

There is a real concern that the Government are only pressing ahead with all-postal voting in the regional assemblies referendums to ensure that there is not a derisory level of voting, partly, at least, because people are simply not persuaded by the case in favour of those assemblies. The Government's concern is that a poor turnout would deprive the proposed assemblies of their democratic legitimacy. In that, they are undoubtedly right, but the solution must therefore lie in the nature of the proposed assemblies, not in the nature of the electoral system.

The report by the Electoral Commission on the experiment with all-postal elections will be published in September, and I am glad that the Government have conceded that they will at least not go ahead with all-postal referendums if the commission concludes that they are unsafe. But there are fundamental reasons why we should decide now not to go down the route of all-postal ballots.

A few minutes ago, the Prime Minister spoke of the increase in turnout in the European elections. The turnout did indeed rise, but only marginally more in those areas in which there was universal postal voting than in areas in which traditional voting methods were used. Other factors that may have influenced turnout, such as a particular dislike of the EU constitution, were ignored.

First, there are logistical issues. The recent European elections have highlighted the fact that there are serious logistical issues that need to be addressed before we even consider more all-postal ballots. In Bolton, 6,000 ballot papers were never delivered, which resulted in emergency polling booths being opened. In Gateshead, boxes were placed in 18 libraries due to the late delivery of ballot papers: nearly 600,000 packs in Tyneside were delivered late. In Cheshire, in Vale Royal, a polling station had to be opened, as more than 700 electors did not receive packs. In Wigan, more than 1,000 voters had to go to the town hall to get their packs due to a breakdown in the delivery system. In Kingston upon Hull, a group of independent councillors are taking legal advice after many homes did not, receive ballot papers and the United Kingdom Independence party won that seat by only seven votes.

Those issues have not yet been resolved, and the postal voting experiment should not be extended until we can be certain that such problems would not arise again. We cannot have that certainty in time for the regional assemblies referendums this November. If we are to go down the route of universal postal voting, safeguards need to be introduced to ensure that 100 per cent. of eligible voters receive one, and only one, ballot paper. As the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee has called for, there should be a requirement for Postcomm, the postal services regulator, to assess and set targets for 100 per cent. secure and accurate delivery of postal ballot papers.

We should, however, be worried about not just the logistical failures but the scope for fraud. Universal postal voting needs much stronger checks and balances if fraud is to be prevented. As the ODPM Committee's report suggests, there should be individual electoral registration; but again, we all know that that is not possible before the referendums to be held this autumn. The police should have additional powers of search and arrest to investigate claims of fraud, and there should be a new offence of intending to apply fraudulently for a postal or proxy vote.

Implementation of the Committee's recommendations would reduce the possibility of fraud. They need to be implemented immediately to maintain the integrity of elections, and the belief among the electorate that elections are genuinely free and fair. Without them, universal postal voting will continue to be subjected to widespread abuse and fraud.

The Government have dismissed claims of any widespread election fraud, but the evidence suggests otherwise. We should look at some of the examples of alleged fraud in the most recent elections. In Bradford, the city council has confirmed that 12 separate allegations to the police concerning undue influence and electoral irregularities are being investigated. In Burnley, Lancashire police are questioning 60 people about more than 100 suspicious postal vote applications. In Liverpool, a postman was mugged for ballot papers. The Manchester Evening News reported that the Greater Manchester police were snowed under with allegations of electoral fraud. In Oldham, a Liberal Democrat candidate was arrested on suspicion of stealing postal papers. Sadly, none of the Liberal Democrats are present to hear that. In Birmingham there were widespread allegations of fraud, although Birmingham was not a trial area.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff)—who, I am pleased to say, is a sponsor of the Bill—spoke eloquently about the situation in Birmingham in his recent speech during a debate on the electoral system. He spoke of people being bullied to vote one way or another. He spoke of bribes being offered for ballot papers: a postman was offered £500 for a sack of them. He spoke of a councillor sorting through ballot papers in a back-street car park at midnight. Even Albert Bore, until June the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, said: At present, in relation to the handling of postal ballot papers, the law is so general that almost anything is legal". Even he called for a rethink of postal voting after a candidate was found with a bag of completed ballot papers.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

Another Liberal Democrat.

Charles Hendry

Further evidence of the abuse has been highlighted during the current campaigning in Leicester, South. A Liberal Democrat canvasser—

Mr. Bellingham


Charles Hendry

A Liberal Democrat canvasser targeted a home for people with learning disabilities.

Mr. Bellingham

Another Liberal Democrat

Charles Hendry

According to The Mail on Sunday, he bullied the owners of the care home, Mr. and Mrs. Tweddle, to try to gain access to residents.

Mr. Bellingham


Charles Hendry

The canvasser also claimed that the care home owners could vote on behalf of their residents as their appointee, which is untrue. Mr. and Mrs. Tweddle say that his use of the correct jargon made them fear that he had received formal training before approaching their care home to persuade them to use their residents' postal votes.

Mr. Bellingham

Liberal Democrat training.

Charles Hendry

We all know that under common law, people with mental disabilities are unable to vote if on polling day they are incapable of making a reasoned judgment, but universal postal voting removes that safeguard, and leaves people with learning disabilities open to abuse.

Mr. Bellingham

By the Liberal Democrats.

Charles Hendry

The integrity of the vote is further undermined by electoral registers not being accurate. Following a recent initiative to clean up the electoral register, the number of people on the register in Portsmouth, South dropped by 14.5 per cent. In Edinburgh, South it dropped by 11 per cent. and in Brent by 12 per cent. Only limited proof is required for someone to get on to the register. The Daily Mail registered Mr. Gus Troobev—an anagram of "bogus voter" on 31 registers within a few hours. A Sunday Telegraph journalist had the ballot papers of 36 voters sent to the same address. We also know that people's names can often stay on the register long after they have left or died. That is why, to make registers more accurate, there should be individual registration, with positive identification rather than head-of-household registration. Until the register is cleaned up, postal voting will only increase people's opportunities to vote fraudulently.

The House should consider the wider democratic implications of all-postal voting, which are as important as the integrity of the voting system. Most people return their postal votes soon after they receive them, so they cannot take account of the full facts and issues in the whole election campaign. That changes the results in a way that none of us would consider democratically correct. In the forthcoming referendums, it is essential that the electorate hear all the arguments and make an informed decision, rather than being encouraged to vote before being made aware of the full implications of setting up the regional assemblies.

These changes are essentially undemocratic and give an unfair advantage to the Government of the day, who control the timetable and much of the agenda in a campaign. The Government have chosen the dates for the referendums according to when they think they have the best chance of winning them. The all-postal system reduces the opportunity to convince the electorate of the problems associated with regional assemblies and the arguments against them.

The Bill has cross-party support and I urge the House to support it, to ensure, that the voting process, which is central to our democracy, is not changed without proper consultation and consideration by this House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Charles Hendry. Mr. Graham Brady, Mr. Nigel Evans, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Roger Godsiff, Mr. Stephen O'Brien, Mr. George Osborne, Mr. Graham Stringer, Miss Anne McIntosh and Mr. Tim Collins.