HL Deb 03 July 2000 vol 614 cc1275-7

Lord Greaves asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they intend to take to deal with the widespread abuse of proxy voting in elections.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, we recently issued a circular to all electoral registration officers, returning officers and acting returning officers reminding them of some of the steps that can be taken to ensure the integrity of the proxy vote procedure. Regulations to be made under the Representation of the People Act 2000 will require electoral administrators to confirm to each elector who has appointed a proxy the name of that proxy and the duration of the appointment.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, the circular that was issued was certainly welcome and may have helped to tighten up the system a little this year. But is it not the case that the amount of electoral abuse—the amount of vote stealing—that is going on is on the increase? This applies to bogus applications for proxy votes; it applies to fiddling postal votes; and it appears to apply to an increasing amount of impersonation that is taking over quite a widespread area, including Bradford, Burnley and Pendle, and in Birmingham. Therefore, as far as concerns proxy votes, would it not be a good idea to revert to the previous system in which proxy vote applications were approved only if the elector was not going to be present within the United Kingdom on polling day?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am aware that there are a number of outstanding cases about which concern has been expressed and in respect of which police investigations have been undertaken—for example, in Pendle, Burnley and Hackney, to name but a few. However, I am not aware that there is necessarily an increase in fraud or in abuse; indeed, statistics do not indicate that one way or the other. However, I share the noble Lord's concern that vote stealing and fiddling is entirely reprehensible. All parties should share in a common desire to reveal those abuses and prosecute them wherever possible. I take the noble Lord's point. That is why I gave a certain undertaking when we debated the Representation of the People Bill. We shall issue a circular later in the year that will, I believe, introduce a procedure that should, in large measure, prevent vote stealing of the sort described by the noble Lord.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will the noble Lord accede to the suggestion that proxy votes should be accorded only to those who are without the United Kingdom? I declare an interest, although it is not a registerable one. My wife is blind, and I have a proxy vote for her.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is for precisely those reasons that proxy votes exist. When the recent working party on electoral procedures met, it was not convinced that arrangements should he further liberalised. The working party understood and fully acknowledged the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, and others, in this Chamber. I believe that the procedures we have put in place should begin to tackle any of those outstanding abuses. However, I take the point that proxy votes should be used as a last resort only, especially as we are now making it much easier for people to obtain postal votes on demand.

Lord Laird

My Lords, is the Minister prepared to accept that there are some people in Northern Ireland with particular expertise in voting on behalf of other people? Would the noble Lord be prepared to make Northern Ireland a special case and consider the concept of registering on a list the date of birth of the voter which then has to be related back by the person concerned at the time of voting? Would it also be possible to allow the presiding officer to challenge the possible proxy voter, instead of requiring a party member to do so? Further, could such measures be implemented in time for the next general election?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I know that interesting things happen in elections in Northern Ireland. But the procedures that will he put in place should enable returning officers, acting returning officers, and so on, to be more challenging in their approach to proxy voters where they think that there may be fraud or abuse. I understand that returning officers welcomed the circular that was issued before the recent local elections and that they made widespread use of it. We must pursue those aims. There is great merit in enabling people to use proxy votes in the very circumstances where it is extremely difficult for them to get the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, while opportunities for abuse of the system should be eliminated, does not the Minister agree that voting by proxy is important for members of the Armed Forces and for others in occupations that take them abroad or require them to move at very short notice? Does the noble Lord also agree that early registration—that is, well before an election—is advisable?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I entirely agree with the latter observation of the noble Lord. I share his commitment to the value of the proxy vote for people who are in business or for those who are serving in the Armed Forces, and so on. That is why the system has been retained. However, like the noble Lord, I am concerned that we should do all that we can to minimise abuse of the proxy voting system.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, as my noble friend is concerned that people who are legitimately working abroad should be able to have a proxy vote, will he take steps to review legislation for which he is responsible in this House that might remove such a right to vote from people who are currently working in European Union institutions and who might well be doing so for a period exceeding 10 years?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I understand the point that the noble Lord has made. In the past he has made that point publicly and privately. We are open to suggestions and compromise on that issue. The noble Lord is actively pursuing such a compromise, on which I congratulate him.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if abuse were to remain constant while turn-out declines, the likelihood that abuse will alter the result of an election must increase?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I can only say "yes".

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does the Minister recall that I live in the constituency of Glasgow Govan? Does he share my doubts that a communication informing people that it is illegal to misuse proxy or postal voting will not do much to change the situation because they already know that it is illegal and that is why they are misusing these votes in an underhand way? Does not the Minister think that firmer steps will need to be taken to prevent the abuse of proxy and postal voting? I refer to the experiment to extend postal and proxy voting to everyone. Is there evidence that this abuse has increased in those places where the experiment was conducted last May?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a number of questions. I remind the noble Lord that we are not extending proxy voting. We are trying to extend and provide a wider facility for postal voting. That has been broadly welcomed. I think that the noble Lord accepts that there has been increased turn-out in those areas where it has been made easier for people to obtain a postal vote or where there has been universal postal voting. I believe that the letter in regard to the regulations that we shall introduce later in the year will greatly assist people. Many of the allegations with regard to proxy voting concern those cases where people have turned up at the polling station expecting to exercise a proxy vote on someone's behalf but have discovered that their vote has been "stolen". I know that the noble Lord agrees that those are reprehensible circumstances. To put proxy voters, or those who will use a proxy vote, on notice puts in place a careful check.

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