HL Deb 04 July 1995 vol 565 cc999-1000

2.50 p.m.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will review electoral law with particular reference to the disqualifying of unfranked ballot papers.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, all ballot papers found not to have the official mark are declared void. There are no plans to review this system.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, on a day when ballot papers, franked or unfranked, have assumed a new importance, particularly to the government party, is the noble Baroness aware that since 1968 in Great Britain there have been a number of court cases, the most recent two in Scotland—one in the sheriff court in Falkirk and one in Jedburgh three weeks ago—in which the courts ruled that unfranked ballot papers are a mistake made not by the elector but by the returning officer's staff and therefore should not be disqualified and that those elections should be re-run? Will the Minister accept that I fully understand the risk attached to the forgery of ballot papers—and that that is the reason for franking? Nevertheless, will she further accept that, against the background of those court decisions, there is now a need to look at electoral law to see whether some method can he found whereby ballot papers that are not franked are not disqualified?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is almost impossible to have a totally foolproof system. Even though there are the cases cited by the noble Lord, it is a very, very rare occurrence. Where it has happened and where it has been contested, the courts have quite rightly taken the view that the ballot should be re-run, particularly with regard to the recent cases in Scotland. If an unfranked ballot paper comes out of the ballot box, it is not possible for a returning officer or anyone else to know whether it is there by fraudulent means or by dint of a mistake by someone presiding over the election at that time. Because there is a doubt about that, the fairest thing is to re-run the ballot. In every case that has been petitioned, that is what has happened.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, has a very important point? It would be much better to put this beyond any shadow of a doubt. I have monitored elections in four central European countries and I know that there are always dangers in saying that the courts should decide in rare cases. Would it not he better to keep the courts out of this matter and say instead that any unfranked ballot paper will be invalid?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, any ballot paper that is not franked is void. In the two Scottish examples the elections were won by one vote. In each of those elections there were two unfranked ballot papers. In fairness to those who lost those elections by dint of what might have been either a fraudulent act or a mistake by someone presiding over the elections, a judgment was made that the ballots should be re-run. The only people who can take that decision are the courts.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that fraud would be made much easier if the man who was supposed to mark the ballot paper had strong views and did not mark the ballot paper? Is she further aware that 50 years ago tomorrow I had 84 such unfranked ballot papers in my favour and the only thing that stopped me protesting was that they had a big majority?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the credentials of the noble Viscount are so beyond doubt that it is absolutely characteristic of him to take that view. However, if one applied a Machiavellian mind to this, if there were an automatic assumption that an unfranked ballot paper was discounted, it might be in the interests of someone overseeing a ballot to ensure that some ballot papers were not franked—in favour or disfavour of a candidate. In that situation it would be absolutely right that the courts should have the last word.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is there not a case for looking at a number of areas of electoral law, particularly where there is a deliberate attempt to deceive the electorate by, for example, calling oneself a "Literal Democrat"? What is being done about that?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that my department is actively considering that point at the moment. It is in dialogue with the political parties. Indeed, I think it is the noble Lord's noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who in the course of a debate in this House said that he had some practical suggestions to make. He has now written to the department and those practical suggestions are being considered. I have to say that a solution is not without its problems, but we are giving active consideration to this phenomenon, which is a vexed issue for all parties.