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Electoral System

Volume 457: debated on Monday 26 February 2007

I inform hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has chosen the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. Please will hon. Members who are not staying for the debate leave the Chamber quickly and quietly?

I beg to move,

That this House believes that all electors are entitled to a free, fair and secure vote; notes that in its Eleventh Report the Committee on Standards in Public Life found evidence of a continuing threat of fraud in the electoral system and called for the implementation of secure individual voter registration and other measures to protect integrity; regrets the unwillingness of the Government to adopt such a system in Great Britain despite calls from the Committee, the Electoral Commission and many others; welcomes the investigation by the Council of Europe into electoral fraud in the United Kingdom and the visit to London today of two rapporteurs; expresses concern at Government attempts to introduce electronic voting until such time as adequate security measures are available; and believes that urgent steps are needed to restore public confidence and integrity in the electoral system, starting with individual voter registration.

The debate has been prompted by the continuing concern about the risk of fraud in our electoral system and particularly by the recent report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the visit, starting today, of two rapporteurs from the Council of Europe, who are examining the risk of electoral fraud in the United Kingdom and an initial monitoring process for elections. Who would ever have thought that it would come to this? [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland says that is typical of Europe, but I thought that his party was in favour of Europe, certainly the Council of Europe.

All electors are entitled to a free, fair and secure vote, and the United Kingdom has prided itself since the Victorian period on having systems in place to provide it. In fact, the author of the modern polling station, H. S. Chapman, even has a society named after him, manned by electoral lawyers and administrators. Before Labour was elected, Labour Members took that seriously. They talked about restoring trust in Government and the importance of the political process. However, since coming to office, Labour has tinkered with the electoral system and repeatedly ignored cross-party warnings, and has thereby damaged the integrity of our electoral system.

The Government wanted to increase the ease and convenience of voting. That is fair enough—it is a perfectly laudable aim—but they have not provided the parallel measures needed to minimise the risk of fraud. That is where they have failed. There is a case for modernising the electoral system to reflect new realities in the way people live their lives—friends sharing homes, more people living alone and the changed standing of women in our society—but none of that has been done. The Government’s modernisation programme has been ill thought through and has resulted in a collapse of public confidence. Even though the Government introduced a Bill last Session, now the Electoral Administration Act 2006, they have consistently ducked the main recommendation of the cross-party alliance calling for change: the introduction of individual voter registration.

The extent to which public opinion has been touched by the Government’s antics is shown by the MORI poll that found that 54 per cent. of the public think that postal voting has made it easier to commit fraud. The introduction of postal voting on demand without adequate security measures to combat the increased risk of fraud was the major turning point.

The hon. Gentleman refers, rightly, to the turning point being in 2000, when postal votes on demand first became part of the British system, but is not it correct that his own party—indeed, all parties—welcomed and supported the introduction of postal voting on demand as a worthwhile step to broaden participation in the electoral process?

The hon. Gentleman may have missed the point that I made just a moment ago, which is that the aim of increasing ease of access to voting is laudable and we would all agree with it, but it is wrong if the Government do not take the parallel measures that are necessary to secure the protection of the system. That is what we have been saying—not just the Conservatives; I include the Liberal Democrats. We have made that point from the outset.

Ministers were warned. After the 2003 local election all-postal voting pilots, SOLACE—the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers—wrote to the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), saying that

“there is increasing concern about electoral fraud…we consider that the current position runs the risk of the whole process being discredited.”

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I know that many Members want to speak, but I invite him to consider the fact that we, as political parties, have a responsibility to ensure that voters are not misled. I invite him to consider what he would do if he discovered that after the electoral returning officer had secured the signatures of postal voters as required, in the proper way, a prospective candidate for the local elections wrote to all postal voters, informing them that all current postal votes had been cancelled and that they should apply to him if they did not get a further application to register. If I told him that it was a Liberal Democrat prospective candidate for the council, would he be surprised by the double standards that the Liberal Democrats apply?

The right hon. Lady has obviously struck a chord in the House. I noticed many hon. Members saying that they would not be at all surprised. Perhaps I would not be either. If I am really fair about this for a moment—[Interruption.] I think I should be. The point that we are making is that if there are loopholes in the system and glaring omissions in security, there will always be people who are so desperate to be elected to whatever post that they will defraud the system. That is why we need the protections that we are talking about.

In Bradford, there have unfortunately been quite a number of complaints about electoral fraud, and Bradford council is one of the councils that are keen to have individual registration, because it knows how big a difference that would make. In west Yorkshire the police, who should be spending a lot of time investigating proper crimes that affect people in our communities, are having to spend an awful lot of time investigating either genuine or malicious complaints of electoral fraud because of the lax system. Does my hon. Friend agree that the police need to spend time on other crimes, rather than wasting time on electoral fraud?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. When the Committee on Standards in Public Life examined the issue, it found more than 300 cases of electoral malpractice and it recommended—I shall come to this later in my remarks—that the Government should be doing the research to find out the current level of fraud. I invite the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), to commit herself, when she replies, to making the results of such research available, because it is very important.

Not for a moment.

In June 2004, the Government imposed all-postal voting in the face of cross-party and Electoral Commission opposition. There was chaos. One result was even annulled by an election court in the responsible Cabinet Minister’s backyard of Hull. The Labour party should not be too smug about the question of fraud, because the Labour campaign manual advised activists to build their own ballot boxes and go around collecting postal votes. It said:

“You could even have a ballot box for people to put their votes in which you can then deliver to the returning officer.”

People were being misled into thinking that Labour party workers were something to do with the electoral system.

Meanwhile, in Parliament, concern was rising. I took the issue up with the then Leader of the House on several occasions, and a former colleague, Dame Marion Roe, identified just how inaccurate the electoral registers had become. In an important debate in Westminster Hall, she made the point that

“an accurate electoral register is the cornerstone of any democracy.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 5 May 2004; Vol. 420, c. 441WH.]

She had noticed ineligible people appearing on the register in her constituency, started to make inquiries and discovered that no proper checks were being made. She was shocked that, through parliamentary questions, she was able to uncover that when a “cleaning exercise” took place and the names of the people on the register were checked to see whether they lived at the addresses that were given, literally thousands of names had to be taken off the register. She gave the worst examples. Some 15,486 individuals, or 18.6 per cent. of the register, were removed in Brentford and Isleworth and 11,210, or 14.5 per cent., were removed in Portsmouth, South. She gave other examples that showed that there was a major problem. One example that she gave was that of a journalist who had been able to get himself registered in 31 constituencies using the name “Gus Troovbev”, which is actually an anagram of “bogus voter”.

In April 2005, an election court found Labour councillors in Birmingham guilty and the commissioner Richard Mawrey described fraud that

“could disgrace a banana republic.”

In the general election of 2005, for the first time, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe sent election observers from Ukraine and Serbia to police our elections. In their report, they raised concerns about security.

On 22 June 2005, I led a debate on the integrity of the process, pointing out the need for individual voter registration and security measures such as those introduced in Northern Ireland in 2002. Despite the support of most parties in the House for individual voter registration, the Government have persistently refused to introduce such a system. They prefer to leave in place the system in which the head of the household fills in the form for all those in the home. Not only is this very old fashioned, looking back to the days before the equality of women was recognised, but it fails to recognise the way in which people now live their lives. In homes in multiple occupation, one wonders how many forms are simply thrown away by one housemate, unwittingly depriving the others of their voter registration. The right to vote is an individual right and it should be individually registered and exercised.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has pursued this matter assiduously and has rightly said that it is foolish to make party political points—[Interruption.] No: Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Democratic Unionist and British National party members have been convicted of electoral fraud in this decade. I therefore hope that we will not make silly and pointless allegations.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the way to remedy a Government failure to implement what the Electoral Commission kept on telling us was needed is to have a procedure whereby the commission’s recommendations are automatically laid—perhaps by a member of the Speaker’s Committee—before Parliament so that they do not depend on the partisan view of the Government of the day?

The recommendation that Sir Alistair Graham has made is that we should actually get together and talk about how we introduce individual voter registration. I hope that the Minister will invite us to a meeting so that we can do exactly that.

No, I think the hon. Gentleman has had a good go.

The Electoral Commission said in May 2005 that household registration should be replaced with a system of individual voter registration, and repeated that point again during the course of the debates on the Electoral Administration Bill. In its briefing for this debate, it says that

“the Commission remains concerned that its recommendation for a system of individual voter registration to underpin the security of the voting system has not been adopted”.

It is not the only voice. There is cross-party support, and in its recent report on the Electoral Commission, the Graham committee looked at this issue. It pointed to the success of individual voter registration in Northern Ireland, which has the most accurate and comprehensive register in the UK. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East, scoffs, but the Government themselves have described individual registration as

“central to enhancing the accuracy of, and confidence in, the electoral register in Northern Ireland.”

Both the current electoral registration officer for Northern Ireland, Douglas Bain, and his predecessor, Denis Stanley, have told me that they are confident that those who are on the register are those entitled to vote. Indeed, in previous debates hon. Members from Northern Ireland have confirmed that. The Graham committee recommends implementation of individual voter registration and that the political parties should start discussions now. It is now over to the Minister; let us get on and do this. It is even said now that the Leader of the House expressed sympathy with that view in a meeting with Lobby journalists last week.

The Graham committee compiled evidence of 342 cases of electoral malpractice and criticised the lack of central monitoring. It pointed to three main risks: fraudulent registration, impersonation at the polling station and misuse of postal votes. It highlighted the “perennial difficulty” of detecting fraud and called for the research to which I have referred.

On impersonation at the polling station, the Minister’s answer in the Electoral Administration Act was that someone should sign for their ballot paper when they attend the polling station. Unfortunately, the measure was so badly drafted in the Act that she is not able to implement it, so will she explain how she now intends to proceed? The Committee on Standards in Public Life described the measure as “not remotely strong”, but now we have nothing at all.

On postal voting, in addition to individual voter registration, the committee suggests “an objective identifier”. Has the Minister had any further thoughts on this, or is she saying that we have to wait for the identity cards database, as some of the consultation documents suggest? We believe that the national insurance number, as in Northern Ireland, is best suited to the purpose, without any of the lengths of intrusion or expense of ID cards.

Important elections take place in May. No proper checks are being made on the accuracy of the register. It is still possible for the so-called head of household to fill in names on the register and there is no simple way of checking that they even exist. The measures to protect voting at the polling station with signatures for ballot papers cannot be implemented. We are told by the Graham committee that only 20 per cent. of postal votes are proposed to be checked for the correct signature and date of birth, and the extra requirements of a signature and date of birth cannot be checked electronically. We cannot be satisfied that these votes will be secure.

The Government are going even further and, despite all the reservations of experts in the field who say that it is dangerous, they are moving ahead with their idea of e-voting. The Foundation for Information Policy Research said that the only way to allow electronic voting is

“through machines controlled by election officials that produce an auditable paper trail. Anything else is an invitation for fraud to hackers and virus writers”.

However, that is what the Minister thinks we should have in this country; that is what she is doing with her pilots.

The Council of Europe, which has sent its rapporteurs here, has noted in a recent resolution

“a growing body of evidence that widespread absent vote fraud is taking place in the UK”.

The rapporteurs are investigating, and I understand that the Minister and I are to meet them tomorrow, although separately. Will she finally give us the good news that the Government will concede individual voter registration? Is she really not prepared to accept the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and start a dialogue? The committee has already rubbished half the job that the Government gave to the Electoral Commission, but on the other half, the central point that the commission, which the Government set up, is making is that the missing piece in the jigsaw is individual voter registration in a country where the individual has the right to vote. Is she really happy for this country to continue to be embarrassed and shamed at home and abroad by not having the sort of free, fair and secure electoral system that is our birthright in Britain, which has the mother of all Parliaments?

I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

“believes that the Government has introduced a range of sensible and proportionate measures to ensure that elections are safe and secure; recognises that public confidence in the electoral process is paramount; believes that the Government is taking an appropriate and sensible approach in testing and trialling e-voting before making any decision to introduce it or not; supports the action being taken by the Government to ensure that electoral registers are comprehensive and accurate; and notes that these issues were debated during the passage of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 through Parliament.”

I welcome the chance to debate again the issues that we covered during the debates on the Electoral Administration Bill some eight months ago. It is a good opportunity to repeat an account of the actions that the Government have taken to protect the integrity of the electoral system. Let me begin by emphasising my profound belief that we—parliamentarians, politicians and members of political parties, and others who speak on the issue—must do everything that we can to support people’s ability to participate in our elections. That is as crucial to the legitimacy of our democracy as anything else. If someone is not on the register, they cannot vote, even if they want to, and if they cannot vote, they have no say in who governs them and who decides on their taxes, their health service, their transport, or even, looking back to the earlier debate today, their navy—nothing. They are excluded and silenced.

I notice that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) did not refer to this point when he talked about the electoral register, but we are led to believe that there are something in the region of 3.5 million people in this country who are not on the register, but who are entitled to vote. That is 3.5 million people who are excluded and silenced. That is the equivalent of between 30 and 40 parliamentary constituencies. Soon, we will be looking at the boundary commission’s recommendations on parliamentary constituencies. I hope that hon. Members will consider that there are 30 to 40 parliamentary constituencies that are not being represented because people are excluded from the register. We have a duty to encourage registration and participation.

Did the Government ever give consideration to my suggestion—some people thought that it was slightly eccentric—of rewarding people for going on the electoral register? Perhaps they could be given tax breaks, or additions to benefits if they are in receipt of a pension or other benefit entitlements.

We always consider my hon. Friend’s suggestions carefully, although we have not, as yet, decided to follow any of them through. I am sure that we can have another look at them. I am always keen to hear what he has to say on these matters, if not any others.

The Minister seems to be implying that the new system of postal voting will help those 3 million people to vote, but in my constituency, a lot of service personnel who are abroad still did not get their postal votes, despite the new system, and were unable to vote.

I have not mentioned postal votes yet, but the hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue about service personnel. With the Electoral Commission and the Ministry of Defence, a lot of work is being done, as we speak, to ensure that service personnel abroad are given all the information that they need about registering to vote. As I understand it, the Electoral Commission says that if service personnel send back that information as soon as they get it, all of that will be taken on board. We are monitoring that situation carefully to ensure that service personnel are not disfranchised while they are serving our country.

Alongside the duty to get more people on to the register, we have a duty not to undermine the system by scaremongering about the level of fraud. That brings me to what the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire had to say. Disproportionate attacks are as much to blame for driving down confidence in our system, elections, politicians and Parliament as anything else. He mentioned a poll that showed that people believe that there is fraud in the system. The Electoral Commission commissioned a poll and more than half of the people who thought that fraud was a problem said that it was because they had read about it in the newspapers. So, it was not because they had experienced fraud themselves, but because they had been influenced by what the media were saying. On that basis, the hon. Gentleman must be careful about spreading further rumours.

It is not just me; it is the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the most senior body in this country charged with maintaining standards and investigating organisations such as the Electoral Commission. I am saying what the committee said. Is the Minister accusing Sir Alistair Graham and that important committee of scaremongering?

I was going to come to the Committee on Standards in Public Life later, but I will come to it now. Sir Alistair and the committee have produced a useful report, much of which we agree with and, no doubt at some point, given time, will implement. However, the hon. Gentleman said that the Committee on Standards in Public Life had demanded that the Government conduct research into fraud. Actually, the committee did not say that. It recommended that the Electoral Commission conduct research into fraud, and the Electoral Commission is already doing that.

I turn to the point that the hon. Gentleman raises when he waves about the 342 cases of electoral malpractice. The Electoral Commission is looking at those files at the moment. Having discussed the matter with electoral administrators this morning, I know that they are of the belief that the vast majority of those cases involve not electoral fraud, but people not filling in their nomination papers properly, there not being imprints on the leaflets that go out and all the other issues that those of us who campaign in elections know are fraught with danger. That is what the majority of the cases involve. I hope that he will not continue to repeat them as if to imply that fraud is endemic in this country.

The Minister rightly points out that the vast bulk of allegations of electoral malpractice do not involve flaws with the voting process itself. Will she confirm that, in the last nationwide elections 10 months ago, which involved 176 local authorities and thousands of wards, there were just 16 electoral petitions in relation to the process, four of which—three in Tower Hamlets and one in Coventry—involved fraud? All four were either dismissed or withdrawn. Is that not the fact?

My hon. Friend makes the point extremely well. In the last six years, there have been 25,000-plus elections throughout the country, but, as he points out, there have been only a handful of cases in which electoral fraud was alleged—never mind cases that were taken up by the Crown Prosecution Service and seen through to conviction.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life lists examples of the sorts of cases it is talking about. They include personation, forgery, postal votes being forged, fraudulent voting, forged postal and proxy votes and forging documents. Is the Minister seriously saying that those are minor matters of electoral malpractice?

I am most certainly not—unlike the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who seemed to think that we should not bother getting the police to pursue electoral offences. The police should pursue those offences. The Electoral Commission is looking at all those files and we will all be better placed to discuss them once the commission has analysed them. It will publicise those results.

I did not say that the police should not investigate electoral fraud. My point was that they should not have to investigate all those accusations, and would not have to do so if there were a robust process of individual registration in place. It is not that the police should not investigate, but that they should not have to investigate this level of complaints.

The police should have to investigate any criminal activity wherever they find it. That applies whether it is electoral fraud, robbery, violence or whatever. That is the job of the police, and a very good job they do too.

Postal voting on demand was introduced in 2001, with all-party support. Clearly, it was a popular decision with the electorate, because in the 2005 general election 12 per cent. of the electorate opted to have a postal ballot, and such votes accounted for some 15 per cent. of all votes cast. We must continue to make sure that postal voting is available, because of the changes in lifestyle that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire mentioned. However, I recognise that any electoral fraud is serious. It must be prevented. If it does occur, it must be detected, and those who are found guilty must be punished accordingly. That was why we ensured that additional offences were added through the Electoral Administration Act 2006.

I really would like to move on because several Back Benchers wish to speak and the debate has been curtailed already.

The 2006 Act introduced the new offence of falsely applying for postal votes, and extended the offence of undue influence so that it became an offence even to attempt to exercise undue influence. It also created the offence of providing false information to a registration officer at any time and gave the police extra time before prosecutions needed to be brought forward. I know that the police were keen to see that, and they have welcomed the measure.

There are new regulations in place to tighten the security of postal voting further. Administrators are now required to send confirmation letters to applicants for postal votes. Any postal voter who wants a vote to be redirected must give a reason why that should happen. Other measures include new secrecy warnings on election stationery and the introduction of a marked register for postal votes returned, which will help to detect fraudulent postal votes. Registration officers have the power to cross-match with other records held. Those new measures demonstrate that we have taken every allegation of electoral fraud seriously and that we are absolutely determined to prevent any future incidents of fraud, as far as we can, while ensuring that the anti-fraud measures are proportionate to the scale of the problem.

I first ran an election as an agent in 1966. Electoral registration officers were an important part of the process and, indeed, were very skilled and stayed around for a very long time. I ran 11 elections in all, so I have some experience of this matter. Does the Minister recognise that the Government have placed massive additional burdens on those officers without providing them with the resources to undertake those responsibilities properly? Will she tell us what she might do to improve the situation, which lies right at the heart of the problems about which she is talking?

I am delighted to respond to the hon. Gentleman, who has much experience of dealing with elections. I am sure that he will be equally delighted to hear that we have put in place an extra £21 million to deal with the extra duties that we introduced through the 2006 Act. We have given a direct grant to address other aspects of that Act. There are now performance targets that are overseen by the Electoral Commission, and, in the next month or so, we will be introducing beacon status in the system so that local authorities that conduct their elections very well will be able to disseminate their good practice among others. I agree wholeheartedly that we are doing a great deal, but we are putting the money in place, too.

I will not give way again.

We have been working with the Electoral Commission and the police to raise awareness of fraud and to ensure that systems are in place to tackle it. I commend to the House the updated guidance that the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission have produced on fraud prevention and detection for use at this year’s elections. The guidance includes an outline of election procedures and recommended actions, guidance to the police on producing a police threat assessment and control strategy, and a list of electoral offences and the maximum penalty for each offence. It also includes a revised code for political parties, candidates and canvassers on the handling of postal vote applications and postal ballot papers, which has been agreed by all three main political parties and the Electoral Commission. My right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) might wish to take up the matter that she raised earlier with the Electoral Commission.

We have discovered in Liverpool a quite deliberate attempt by a Liberal Democrat councillor, Councillor Graham Hulme, who held his ward last year by only 13 votes, to mislead postal voters into believing that their postal vote had been cancelled and that the best way to get it back was to contact him personally. It is deeply dishonourable, if not fraudulent, for a politician to behave in such a way, and those involved should hang their heads in shame.

I agree with my right hon. Friend. I do not wish to be partisan during this debate because I believe absolutely and profoundly that everyone should be encouraged to vote, regardless of the party for which they are going to vote. However, the description that she has given the House suggests to me that such an activity is outwith the guidance to which the Electoral Commission, the police and the main political parties have agreed. I suggest that she might wish to direct the Electoral Commission and the returning officer to that candidate so that the matter can be dealt with appropriately.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire talked about personal identifiers. The Government have no objection in principle to personal identifiers. He was a little flexible in his description of what the Electoral Commission wanted and what the Conservative party wanted. One of the reasons why we went down the road on postal vote identifiers that we did in the 2006 Act was because that was the only way in which we could get cross-party consensus. The Conservative party did not want the same thing as the Electoral Commission wanted and we could not get consensus across the House, which was why we accepted the compromise on postal vote identifiers that was incorporated in the Act.

Let me turn to the Council of Europe and its motion on the United Kingdom’s electoral system. The observers to whom the hon. Gentleman referred were here at our invitation. We invited them to come along and observe—[Interruption.] Yes, indeed. We encourage people to come, and we put it in the Act that we would invite people to come and observe our elections. The Council of Europe motion was agreed by a large number of Conservative Members and members of the European Democrat Group. Of course, I look forward to meeting the rapporteurs tomorrow and discussing all the measures that we have put in place to make our system more secure since 2004. However, I will also say to them that we believe that we have made the system as secure as possible and that the 2006 Act demonstrates not only that we welcome observers from all countries and organisations, but that this particular investigation is unwarranted.

No, I was the person who tabled it. The Council of Europe has decided that there is a prima facie case that the Government are conniving with regard to postal vote fraud and are thus in breach of the obligations to which they are signed up. When will the Minister take those obligations seriously?

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I take my obligations seriously. The Council of Europe has not done such a thing. A sub-committee has come up with a motion, which will have to go back for debate in the Council of Europe. When we meet the rapporteurs, I hope that they will see that the measures that we have put in place make our system very secure. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said, our experience in all the elections that have taken place over the past few years makes it quite clear that our elections are fair, free and secure. We must take a proportionate view of the problems that we are discussing.

I agree with the part of the Opposition’s motion that says that we should not introduce e-voting unless adequate security measures are available, and that is exactly how we are proceeding. We are taking an appropriate and sensible approach by testing e-voting to ensure that if there are benefits to it, they are realised, and to ensure that the issues are addressed effectively. We will do that before we make any decision on whether to introduce it. We are not taking a knee-jerk approach; that accusation might be made against people in some other places, where new technologies have been introduced with results that have caused concern.

Our electoral modernisation programme is about testing innovations to find out whether they might be beneficial—whether, for example, they improve access for people who are unable to attend a traditional polling station on election day, people with disabilities and people who do not have English as a first language. We do that by piloting, as that is the appropriate way of testing those innovations. I know that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is not as keen on piloting as we are, because he said so to the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Ultimately, the issue is about public confidence in our democracy. It is important to keep matters in perspective; otherwise, we may well do more harm than good. There is also the risk that action to tackle perceived electoral fraud will depress levels of participation, so we must be careful to test all the schemes that we try to put in place. The legislative measures that we have already introduced tighten up anti-fraud measures and demonstrate that our system is now much more secure. They were brought in primarily, but not exclusively, to bolster the security of the postal vote process. The measures that we introduced are sensible and proportionate, and they respond to the concerns that people have raised. On that basis, I commend our amendment to the House.

I welcome this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) on taking the initiative and tabling the motion. As you may have worked out from the fact that my colleagues and I have not tabled an amendment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we will support the motion without reservation. We think that the debate is timely as we are in the run-up to the local elections, and because it follows a clear view having been expressed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. A persistently clear view has been expressed by the Electoral Commission, too, in both the previous and the current Parliament.

The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has always been willing to engage in debate on the subject, and she is concerned to make sure that the Government respond to it appropriately. The debate is about three things in general, although there is a list of agenda items, as it were, in the motion. It is about maximising the registration of people who are eligible to vote. I share the Minister’s view that we are nowhere near to doing so yet; I will come back to that point. Clearly, there are many people who should have the right to vote who do not. Some of them, when the time comes, discover that they have not got that right, and are very angry to discover it. We have all seen people come into polling stations insisting that they are eligible to vote, but finding that, for one reason or another, they are not on the electoral roll.

Secondly, the debate is about maximising turnout at elections. No matter what party we are in, it is in our interests that there should be a much better turnout. There used to be much better turnout, but it declined. It has just begun to increase again, thank goodness, but turnout is nothing like what it should be. It must be in the interests of healthy politics for people to participate in choosing their local council, London Assembly members, a mayor—in the places that have one—Members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, whose elections are coming up, Members of the United Kingdom Parliament, and Members of the European Parliament. That is clearly an objective.

The third objective of the debate must be maximum accuracy. If we are to ensure maximum integrity of the voting system, it is important to ensure maximum accuracy of the electoral register. That is the issue before us today. We all have stories to tell—the Minister, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and I, and many other hon. Members of all parties have told such stories—about how, after looking at electoral registers, it has been blindingly obvious that there are people on it who should not be, and people who are not on it who should be.

The armed services are the most significant general category, and my hon. Friends and I have made that point, in support of Conservative colleagues, who, to be fair, have also been persistent in arguing that case. There are also people who appear twice on the electoral register, as there are people who died a long time ago and whose names should not have remained on the list.

I want to pay tribute to four groups, because it is easy to be critical without saying thank you. First, I pay tribute to the Electoral Commission, which has had an unfairly critical press. Since it was set up, it has been absolutely clear about what it thought was needed. In particular, on the issue of individual registration, as opposed to head-of-household registration, it has said what it thinks time and again, and in every report that it made to Parliament. It was not its fault that Parliament did not follow up on what it recommended. We set the commission up, rightly, some years ago, and it has done an independent, non-partisan job. It kept on saying that individual registration was a better system. Last month, in an article in The Times, Peter Riddell said:

“The commission can be faulted for not being vigorous enough in pursuing and highlighting abuses, though that partly reflects weaknesses in its original remit. But it is hard to see what it could have done when ministers insisted on pressing ahead with postal voting on demand.”

The Electoral Commission was criticised too much by the Committee on Standards in Public Life on that issue, and that was unfair, given how consistent the commission has been.

I pay tribute to the people who do the work out in the field every day. The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) has been involved in more elections than I have, and he started when I was very young indeed.

He may have lost; I am not sure. The hon. Member for Northampton, South made the point that the people on the ground often think that they do not have enough resources. It is important that local government officers who do the job have the resources, not just in cash, but in personnel and support. The Minister has said that there is now more on the table, and that is welcome. Those officers often do a good job, but that job is not always given priority, year in and year out, outside election time, by the political leadership. I am clear about the fact that we need to make sure that that small group of people—often there is a handful of full-time employees, but sometimes there are just one or two full-time employees, who recruit extra people—have a much more secure basis in local councils than they do at the moment.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although the Minister mentioned that the Government had allocated an extra £21 million, that equates to £30,000 per constituency? Does he also agree that that does not nearly cover the additional burden that has been placed on electoral registration officers over the past five years? More particularly, that money is not ring-fenced, so we do not even know whether it will be spent on that purpose.

I have not done the maths, so I do not know exactly what the figures are, but it sounds to me as though £30,000 per local authority will not go very far. That will pay for a member of staff, to put it bluntly, and not a very senior member of staff, either. Certainly, it is no good giving the money if it is not ring-fenced for the purpose. There ought to be a real assessment of the cost of putting in place enough people in every local authority, so that we can deliver the electoral system that we all want. At the end of the debate, perhaps the Minister can tell us whether there has been such an assessment.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I live in his constituency, and I am impressed by the local electoral registration officer. I get two letters, a personal visit, and a final letter telling me that if I do not register and fill in the appropriate documents, I will be fined £1,000. I have gone back to Scotland and used that model.

I am grateful for that, and I am happy to have the hon. Gentleman in my constituency, as he knows; he is very welcome. If I may say so, he has already made a good contribution in the House. I do not mean to patronise him in any way. He has done extremely well on certain issues. He is right: in recent years my local authority has tried hard to do that job well, and to do it better. I think that it is doing so, and the Minister’s borough next door—Lewisham—is trying to do so, too. Good practice yields dividends, because other local authorities can emulate it.

My hon. Friend understands the importance of that work. When the Select Committees on Constitutional Affairs and on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister jointly looked at the issue of individual registration it became clear that, important as individual registration is, it could well result in a significant fall in the number of people registered. It must therefore be accompanied by measures to increase the registration of people who ought to be on the register.

That is absolutely true. In Northern Ireland, the figures went down a little when the new systems were implemented, but they started to go up. [Interruption.] The Minister says that they are going down again, which is sad news. Certainly, it is difficult to track down every resident in every household. A Member of Parliament may have a vote in London because they are here in the middle of week. Other people may do business in the area, but they may not be in. It may be hard to find someone at home if they did not fill in their form, especially if they leave at 7 am and return at midnight, or whatever time the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) gets in. Seriously, however, many people are rarely at home during normal working hours, so we need the resources to reach them.

May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who chairs the Constitutional Affairs Committee, as it is important that that Select Committee holds the Government to account? May I pay tribute, too, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, which makes sure that we have a regular opportunity to keep these matters on the agenda? The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) has left the Chamber, but I wanted to recommend to the Minister what might be confusingly called the Prentice proposal on maximum registration—it might be better to call it the Pendle proposal. We would do well to think more carefully about providing a very small financial or other incentive so that people add their name to the electoral register. There is merit in such a proposal. Of course, it should happen automatically, and there is a legal obligation to register, but in reality, some people need a push. I am not suggesting that it is the whole answer, but it would be worth looking at.

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, whose constituency borders mine and that of the Under-Secretary, was positive about something which, given the shortness of time, I shall call the Hughes proposal. [Interruption.] No, I submitted it, and the right hon. and learned Lady said that the Department for Constitutional Affairs would look at it. We need a certain period every year—February is the logical month—in which there is a countdown to democracy, and a big registration day on, say, 28 February. It would be easy to remember that date, as it would be the same every year. There would be a big push on radio and television, and in the newspapers and in railway, tube and bus stations, outside schools and colleges—

Seriously, it could take place everywhere. [Interruption.] I heard that mischievous suggestion on the Back Benches. There should be an annual round of public encouragement. There is a good biblical precedent for such a practice, as people took part in the census 2,000 years ago. We should get into the habit of doing something similar. I remind the Minister that 31 January is embedded in many people’s minds as the date on which they must submit their tax self-assessment. It is a simple date to remember, because it comes at the end of the month. In the final hours of 31 January this year, as in many previous years, people were running to the tax office near where I live to hand in their forms. People know the score, and the same would apply to electoral registration.

I thought that I heard the hon. Gentleman say that he was in favour of financial inducements to vote. If so, how would he deal with someone seeking re-election who said, “I made sure you received some money for registering; now you had better vote for me.”

I was saying that there might be a statutory form of inducement to register to vote, but it would not be legal to offer a financial inducement to vote.

We are all engaged in the debate about citizenship and the way in which we maximise participation in the political process—the Power report and others have made it clear that we are not doing very well at that. Such a measure would complete its passage through the House only if it commanded consensus, but we must maximise incentives to encourage people to participate in the process. We have discussed with the Minister other means of doing so, but the issue ought to be on the agenda. I shall not say more than another sentence about maximising turnout. Until and unless every vote counts equally, we will not maximise turnout, because many places are electoral deserts, given the nature of the contest. I urge Ministers not to forget the commitments that the Labour Government made in 1997, which they have not yet honoured.

My final substantive point concerns the maximising of accuracy. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) was indeed a signatory to the Council of Europe report, which was prompted by the request from the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) for an inquiry. It is perfectly reasonable that we should be held to account internationally, as opposed to nationally, but we must not misrepresent the position. Although there have been many allegations, the number of instances of proven electoral abuse—anyone can see them, as they are on the record in the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life—is, as the Minister rightly suggested, small. The Committee sets out all the cases of which it is aware from 2001 to 2006; it does not pretend that it is a comprehensive record, as statistics are not collected centrally. The five parties that I have mentioned—all three major parties and two others—are involved and there appear to be 11 occasions on which there was a prosecution and a conviction. There appear to be four occasions on which there was no prosecution, although there was an investigation. When the report was published at the turn of the year, another five cases were recorded as under investigation. The numbers are not great, but several cases involved more than one person.

That may be so. I do not wish to underplay the problem, but I am trying to make sure that we get the balance right. Clearly, there is fraud, and there are many reasons for being concerned about that, but there are not hundreds of thousands of cases every year. Prosecution is difficult, I accept, because the evidence may be difficult to collect.

In conclusion, may I urge the Minister to accept the committee’s recommendations? Some of them are proposals to Government, but others are of a different nature. She knows that we support individual registration. We tried to secure it during the passage of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 between the Commons and the Lords, but we did not do so, and the Government got their way. The committee makes eight proposals, including three to the Electoral Commission. First, it suggests that the commission

“undertake detailed research into the scale of…fraud”.

The Minister told us that the commission has started to do so, which is welcome. Secondly, the committee suggests that the commission should include in its statutory reports on this year’s elections in Scotland, Wales and England

“a specific section dealing with the impact of, and any problems encountered in the implementation of the new measures on postal voting. In light of this report the Government should consider similar measures in relation to registering immediately before an election as have been put in place for Northern Ireland”.

The third recommendation is that the Electoral Commission implementation plan should include a focus on measures to minimise under-registration. That is the commission’s business, and as far as I know, it is working on all three proposals, although one of them will come back to the Government.

There are four proposals specifically addressed to the Government, as well as three to the political parties, one of which is that we start discussions now in order to reach agreement on the precise form that the new system of registration may take and the measures needed to assure comprehensiveness and accuracy. Will the Minister announce at the end of the debate that the Government will invite Opposition parties to take part in those talks now, so that we can start the process as soon as possible? That would be a good sign.

The second recommendation to political parties is the same as that made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire—that the Government accept, as the Opposition parties do, that individual registration should be implemented and should include at least one objective identifier. The hon. Gentleman suggested the national insurance number, but I do not think that that is the right one. In addition to signature, address and date of birth, or signature and date of birth, we need to find another identifier. The problem with national insurance is that many people do not know their numbers, and one can get a number off the shelf, as it were. That is not an infallible system.

The last recommendation for political parties is that if the new arrangements in Northern Ireland, including the abolition of the annual canvass, are successful, they should be adopted as part of the system of registration in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Government are asked to do two further things—first, to make it a requirement that the Electoral Commission’s views on proposed primary and secondary legislation on electoral issues should accompany any such draft legislation. That is similar to the proposal that I made. There must be a means of allowing the House to see what the independent body recommends, so that Government cannot try to put an alternative proposal, suggesting that theirs has greater merit.

Finally and crucially, the Committee recommends that a decision should be made and legislation should be developed to implement a system of individual voter registration immediately following the next general election, or by 2010 at the latest. The time frame is “within one year”, meaning that that should be agreed and the necessary legislation passed within one year of the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

I hope that Ministers will say that they are now willing to accept that there is one other important body that supports the Electoral Commission, the Opposition parties, some though not all Labour Members, and many bodies outside. If we are to achieve maximum accuracy of electoral registers, we need to move to individual registration within a year of the report. I hope that Ministers will be positive about that. I know that it is difficult and I know that there is some opposition on the Labour Back Benches, but I hope that we will see some movement so that we get maximum effectiveness, maximum accuracy, maximum turnout and maximum participation in elections, which after all is the only way that people can feel that the democracy that we claim is theirs as well.

Order. I remind the House that there is a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which applies from now on.

The integrity of the electoral system is the cornerstone of a properly functioning democracy. Prior to the Birmingham judgment, I raised in the House what happened in Birmingham when we had postal voting on demand. I pointed out rather graphically that in one ward the number of people applying for a postal vote out of 20,000 electors started at 690, and five weeks later stood at 9,600. I am glad the Minister and the Department have produced proposals to address these matters, and in general I welcome them, although in my opinion individual voter registration must be the way forward. I hope that in due course that will happen.

Postal voting has been discussed this evening, but as has been pointed out, only 12 per cent. of voters apply for or participate in postal voting. The vast majority still prefer the traditional way of casting their vote. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said that it is not unreasonable to expect that in a democracy there should be free, fair, secure elections and that voters should have confidence in them. He is right, but I would add that people who choose not to cast postal votes ought to be able to go along to a polling station without harassment, peer pressure or intimidation, or misinformation being given out when they arrive there.

It is fortuitous that the debate is taking place tonight. I tabled a private Member’s Bill, which was down for Second Reading last Friday, to try and address the issue that I intend to raise now. Unfortunately, after five hours of excellent debate on the benefits of respite care, that Bill was talked out and mine was never reached. I am sure the Minister would have been delighted if we had had a proper debate on it. Although it was only a two-clause Bill, the Government objected to it receiving a Second Reading.

The Bill suggested that people should not be allowed to campaign within 250 yd of a polling station on election day. The definition of campaigning was

“the promotion or distribution of any literature associated with election candidates, political parties or associated organisations…the use of audio equipment, whether stationary or mobile, for the propagation of messages relating to an election; or…oral communication for the purpose of eliciting voting intentions or influencing the casting of a vote.”

That was all. If someone contravened that provision, they would be fined up to £5,000. The Government said no to the Bill; I was trying to be helpful, but the Government did not want the Bill to proceed to Second Reading.

When I first became involved in politics, there was a clear unwritten convention that on polling day one did not take a loudspeaker anywhere near a polling station. One did not hand out literature at the entrances to polling stations. All that tellers did was take numbers. Indeed, when I was first a teller, party political allegiances were not printed on ballot papers, yet if an elector asked which candidate was which, I could not tell them. I had to tell them to go and speak to the polling clerk.

I accept that that might still apply in certain leafy parts of the country. Indeed, it might even apply in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister, in areas such as Blackheath, St. Margaret’s, Hither Green, Manor Lee, St. Mildred’s, Whitefoot and Downham. There probably is no such campaigning on polling day in those areas, but it does happen in inner-city Birmingham.

What is the problem and why do I keep raising it? I have previously referred to the debate in Westminster Hall initiated almost six years ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). They both highlighted the way in which supporters of various parties congregated outside polling station entrances to apply pressure to, intimidate, and attempt to confuse, voters, especially those who had only limited knowledge of the English language. Tellingly, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East concluded:

“I hope that the Minister will ask his staff or the Electoral Commission to look at tightening the law, especially on harassment and intimidation of voters who are trying to get into a polling station. I realise that it is difficult…However, people can be kept away from the entrance to the polling station.”

That is exactly what my Bill was intended to do.

The response from the Minister was to say that

“the appropriate way to pursue allegations of illegal and possibly criminal practices is through the law.” —[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 4 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 102-9WH.]

That was it. He then went on to talk about the virtues of postal voting on demand and there the matter rested.

I raised the issue again in a debate on the integrity of the electoral system in June 2005. In response, the Minister said:

“He also made a powerful case about extending the rights of arrest outside polling stations, and I can assure him that we are genuinely consulting on that.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2005; Vol. 435, c. 911.]

Twenty months later, nothing has happened. We still have the same problems that I have identified time and again.

I cannot understand why the problems have not been resolved. Anyone who knows inner-city, multicultural areas knows that that old conventions no longer exist. My Bill had the boring title, Polling Stations (Regulation) Bill, but it could have been called the “Let People Vote in Peace Bill”. I cannot see why the Government would not allow it to receive a Second Reading. Better still, they could make their own proposals, perhaps for a pilot scheme. Why do electors in my constituency and in other areas of Birmingham, and in other multicultural areas, have to go through a cacophony of sound, intimidation, pressure and harassment just to get into the polling station? That is completely unnecessary.

Of course, the Bill was not discussed on Friday, but I can imagine some of the objections to it that would be raised by the civil service. First, people would argue that there is not a problem. There is a problem; otherwise the matter would not keep being raised. Then they would say, “Well, if there is a problem, all that your Bill would do is transfer it somewhere else”—in other words, their policy would be to acknowledge that there is a problem but they would not want to say anything about it. Then they would say that the Bill is unnecessary because current law allows the police to deal with the problem, but that is not so. No doubt another argument would be that it would be unenforceable, or that it would cost more money. Why would it, given that more and more police are currently having to be deployed to react to incidents?

Those civil servants then might say that the Bill would interfere with traditional campaigning. It would not—there would still be an election with five weeks of campaigning, and there could still be campaigning on the day, except within 250 yards of a polling station. Not one single elector of mine has said, “Mr. Godsiff—don’t take away my right to have my door knocked on time and again during the day because I live within 250 yards of a polling station.” That is a non-argument.

Some might argue that the Bill would interfere with the traditional role of tellers. It is interesting that the Electoral Commission, which has not been helpful over this—

I hope that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) will have a further opportunity to introduce his Bill, which sounded interesting. I can imagine that it would gain considerable support on both sides of the Chamber, although the Government side is rather thinly spread at the moment.

Given the importance of the subject, I was disappointed by the Minister’s speech, in the course of which she said that the electoral system was as secure as it is possible to be. That is demonstrably untrue and will remain so while we have household registration, which no other country in the world has, apart from Zimbabwe. We should move towards individual registration with personal identifiers. Until then, it will not be as secure as it is possible to be, and the Minister was incredibly complacent to assert that.

The Minister accused the Opposition of scaremongering. My former colleague, Dame Marion Roe, investigated this issue on her own initiative and revealed, after a lot of painstaking research, that 18 per cent. of the people on the register in Brentford and Isleworth were not eligible to be on it—a huge proportion of the electorate. Was she scaremongering? Is Michael Pinto-Duschinsky a scaremonger? He is a senior lecturer in politics at Brunel university, and he recently wrote an article in The Times pointing out that according to the research that he has carried out, with no help from the Government, there have been 390 cases of alleged electoral fraud in the past seven years. There have also been eight cases of councillors and others being put in prison as a result of electoral fraud. As the Minister said, some of those cases may not involve the kind of electoral fraud that we are talking about, but some will—she simply does not know. He has been digging away independently and trying to get at the facts, as we all are. For the Minister to accuse us of scaremongering is demeaning to the debate; we are merely trying to get at the facts, and the Government have played little part in doing that.

Why has electoral fraud happened? First, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said in his admirable opening speech, the Government have pushed voter participation at all costs, particularly in relation to postal voting, and they have taken risks. As the Electoral Commission pointed out repeatedly, it is admirable to push up voter registration and participation—we all want that—but proper safeguards must be put in, and the Government failed to do that. We need individual voter registration or more personal identifiers. The Government always cite the fact that there was an 11 per cent. drop in voter registration when individual voter registration was implemented in Northern Ireland. However, as the Committee on Standards in Public Life pointed out, the major reason for that was the simultaneous abolition of the carry-forward provisions whereby if someone did not re-register, their registration was carried forward for 12 months. That practice was dropped. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life pointed out, the abolition of the carry forward was the major reason why there was a sudden diminution in the number of people registering in Northern Ireland. It was nothing to do with the imposition of individual registration.

Just because voting goes down when we check up on these things, it does not automatically mean that we are stopping those who would otherwise vote from doing so. It might just mean that we have got rid of the fraudsters. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Indeed. That is the important point. The primacy of fraud should be recognised. It is very important to increase voter participation, but it is even more important to prevent fraud. That is the fundamental point at issue here. As long as the Government do not agree, we will not make progress on dealing with fraud.

It is also the case, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) pointed out, that the electoral registration officers have too much to do and too few resources to do it with. That is a simple matter of fact. People put forward their name for the electoral register, but there is really no check on whether they are eligible to be on it. In many cases, as my former colleague, Dame Marion Roe, pointed out, they simply are on the register when they should not be there—a disgraceful situation, which needs to be checked out more thoroughly.

The Government have not handled such issues well. Moreover, they are still attempting to increase voter participation while at the same time taking risks. They are, for example, proceeding with an experiment, which is being trialled in various places, to increase electronic voting. That means that the Electoral Commission, which has a statutory responsibility to monitor all those experiments, has even more work to do in dealing with issues of research, fraud and so forth. That is what the Government are trying to do: at every turn, they are putting their desire to increase voter participation first, while putting the need to tackle fraud second. In my view, they should be at least be treated equally.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the all-postal voting trial caused considerable damage to the electoral system in the eyes of the public, particularly in Bradford? Is he as disappointed as I am at the fact that the Government will not rule out having all-postal vote trials in the future?

I am sorry to hear that they will not rule it out. Frankly, it was a fiasco, which shows once again that the Government are not prepared to put in the necessary safeguards. They are taking needless risks with fraud.

The Labour party gains a huge advantage from the present parliamentary boundary system. It won 93 more MPs in England at the last general election, yet the Conservative party got more votes. That is the fact of the matter. The Labour party has that huge advantage and is now trying to pile on top of that a further advantage derived from the nature of electoral registration. Is it so lacking in confidence about its prospects under the current Chancellor at the next general election that it has to try to rig the system outrageously in favour of its own side? What this Labour party is up to is truly astonishing.

Could my hon. Friend put a question to the Government for me? Is it more important to have an election result that is true and can be trusted or one that could have been subject to massive fraud? Which is more important: an electoral register that is correct or a system whereby postal voting can be massively abused, as has been the case in a number of constituencies such as some in Birmingham?

Perhaps the Minister will respond to that question when he winds up the debate.

What can be done about the problem? All would agree—perhaps even the Minister would agree—that we need some proper research to find out the extent of fraud. I have no doubt that that is what we really need, and I am pleased to see that the Minister seems to be mouthing a yes. The Electoral Commission is putting in hand research to investigate the extent of fraud and I commend it for doing so. So far, however, we have had precious little information on the subject. It is a difficult matter, but I believe that the Electoral Commission should undertake that research as soon as possible. If it does not do so, we would be unlikely to accept the explanation that there are too many difficulties standing in the way of that research.

I note that the Electoral Commission is also undertaking research into the performance standards of electoral registration officers. The fact is that those standards vary greatly. In some local authorities, for example, only 60 per cent. of those eligible to vote are on the register, while in other areas, the figure is 90 per cent. Why is there such a huge discrepancy? If the Minister really wanted to do something to increase voter participation and prevent fraud—to be fair to her, she has done so to a certain extent by allocating £21 million more—she could help electoral registration officers to do their job more diligently. If we do not have people on the ground floor carrying out proper checks on what is going on, we shall not have a proper trusted system.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that electoral registration officers are a law unto themselves? Their interpretation of the law and the Electoral Commission rules cannot be challenged by the police, the courts or anyone else. Is it not time that we had consistency in the way in which EROs accept the expert advice of the Electoral Commission and apply election law, so that they can be held to account?

My hon. Friend makes a very sound point. Indeed, that matter has been seized by the Electoral Commission, which is appointing regional officers to look after the country. I welcome the fact that there will therefore be more standardisation under that system.

Perhaps I may suggest a further task for the Electoral Commission. It has been pointed out not only by academics, politicians and other observers but by the four boundary commissions that we need to look at the rules governing the review of parliamentary boundaries. Under the present legislation, it is the duty of the Electoral Commission to look into that. It is capable of grasping that duty, and it should do so.

The Electoral Commission was set up by the present Government, and I commend them for that. It is vital that we have an independent body to look into all these matters in a non-partisan way. However, the Government should then follow the matters through and accept the findings and research of the Electoral Commission. They have not done so, and that is a complete disgrace.

It might help the few of us who are here if I explain my involvement in this issue. I happen to be one of the Members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe who represents the British Parliament. As I said to the Minister a while ago, I also happen to be the Member of that Assembly who tabled the motion that has resulted in the formal investigation by the Council of Europe that is referred to in today’s motion. It is not often that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe finds its way on to the Floor of this House, which is a pity, because it does a lot of important work, despite what some of my colleagues sometimes say. It does important work, and it happens not to be the European Union. That enables me to prove that I am a good European without having to enthuse about the European Union.

Let me explain how the investigation came about, because it is relevant to the debate and highlights the depths to which the Government have allowed us to sink, when it comes to an outside body coming in to investigate us. On 20 March 1952, the United Kingdom signed the first protocol of the European convention on human rights. Despite what some people think, the convention is a Council of Europe matter, not a European Union matter. Article 3 of the protocol places signatories of the protocol under an obligation to hold

“free elections…which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”

Having signed that, all was fine so far as the United Kingdom was concerned—so far as I can judge—until 2001, when the Government decided to introduce postal voting on demand. They did that irrespective of a huge amount of anxiety and concern on the part of all political parties, and of voters and academics. Indeed, everybody said, “If you want to encourage people to apply for a postal vote and therefore find it easier to participate, okay, but don’t do it like this.” Those expressions of concern predicted that the result of what the Government were doing and how they were doing it would be a huge risk of fraud. Predictably and inevitably, that is precisely what happened, which is what triggered action from the Electoral Commission.

In June 2003, the Electoral Commission called for robust scrutiny arrangements. The Government promptly ignored it. In August 2004, it repeated its call and the Government repeated their decision to ignore it. Again, in April 2005, the Electoral Commission repeated its call. That time, the Government were shamed into action. The result of that action was the Electoral Administration Act 2006. It was too little, too late. As others have said, it ignored the fundamental recommendation of individual voter registration.

All the legislation does is require a voter to provide a signature and his date of birth if he wants a postal vote. It is still ridiculously easy to get a postal vote fraudulently. Let me give the House an example. Immediately after Christmas, I moved house. I applied to be added to the electoral register in the new constituency. By February, I had been added. I was not asked to prove who I was. No check was made on where I had come from. No questions were asked about my entitlement to vote. I was simply told that I had been added to the register.

I promptly applied for a postal vote, and it has been agreed to. No checks have been made on me. It suddenly occurred to me that if I had put down three other names when I announced that I had arrived at my address, I would be the proud possessor of four postal votes. It is crazily, stupidly easy to defraud the system because the Government will not do the one thing that will stop that. Despite the Electoral Commission’s urging and despite the growing evidence, the Government still refuse to act properly.

In a 10-minute speech, I cannot begin to list the evidence that is accumulating, although I can give a couple of examples. In April 2005, when declaring two ward results invalid, a judge said:

“The systems to deal with fraud are not working well. They are not working badly. The fact is that there are no systems to deal realistically with fraud and there never have been. Until there are, fraud will continue unabated.”

In the same month, another judge, when dealing with a case, said that the evidence of electoral fraud would “disgrace a banana republic”. That is the depth to which the Government have brought us. Also in April that year, a Blackburn councillor was convicted of stealing 233 postal votes. Since then, the police have launched a huge number of investigations. The Minister complacently said that that does not amount to much. If she is right, why have the Council of Europe rapporteurs received invitations from the Metropolitan police and the Crown Prosecution Service to meet them so that they can pass on what they have discovered in their inquiries in this country?

Along with many other Members of the House, I have done my best through the normal channels to persuade the Government to act properly, but they have not done so. In the end, I decided that I had to try to find other ways to do something about this. I turned my mind to that and quickly realised that the Council of Europe offered an opportunity. I did not go down that route lightly, and criticising one’s own country in an international forum is not something that I relish, but I believe passionately in democracy. I also believe that I have a duty to help to stamp it out. [Interruption.] A slip of the tongue at this time of night is perhaps excusable. That is before my supper, I hasten to add.

Let me make it absolutely clear that I believe that it is crucial that I, with everybody else, do my best to stamp out fraud wherever we find it. That is why I am one of two Council of Europe rapporteurs monitoring the development of democracy in Albania. How on earth could I, in all conscience, go to Albania, talk to Albanian parliamentarians and politicians and urge them to tackle fraud in their own country when there is fraud here? I would be a hypocrite if I ignored fraud here and then talked to the Albanians about it, so I make no apologies for using the route that I did.

That is why tonight, in this country, a former German Social Democrat justice Minister and a Polish Christian Democrat Senator—who, interestingly, was born and brought up in the north of England and so knows our systems inside out and upside down—are both conducting a formal investigation into the British electoral system, with particular reference to postal vote fraud. It takes some doing for a member state of the Council of Europe to be brought to that level; it puts us in the same sort of category as basket cases such as Belarus. Is that where the Government want us to be?

In case people still doubt the validity of the Council of Europe, I should say that I—and I hope anybody else who takes democracy seriously—hope that the presence of those two parliamentarians from two other countries proves that this really is a serious matter for this country. Even if the Government do not, I welcome their inquiries and am pleased that they are prepared to help us. If the Government will not help us, we must get help from anywhere and from anybody who will do their best to stop us being worse than a banana republic. The Government probably could not be bothered, or do not know how to rescue us, so I welcome help from wherever we can get it.

Like the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), I wish that I had more than 10 minutes, because much needs to be said. Complacency is a fatal flaw in politics, yet it has been the hallmark of the Government’s approach this evening—and, indeed, during all previous discussions and debates on this subject.

Listening to the Minister tonight, one would not think that in addition to welcoming Polish plumbers, builders, bus drivers and vegetable pickers, we should now be forced to welcome a Polish parliamentarian to investigate large-scale voting fraud here, in the mother of all Parliaments. There is no time for me to cover all the issues that I would like to deal with, so I shall stick to postal voting if I may. By introducing lifelong postal voting on demand, the Government have fundamentally undermined one of the key democratic rights fought for and won in this country during the past 150 years: the right to cast the vote in secret. That was a central demand of the Chartists, forerunners of the Labour party, precisely to put an end to the bribery, corruption and intimidation of voters by the rich and powerful.

When, hard on the heels of the Second Reform Act of 1867, Gladstone introduced the Ballot Act 1872 to enshrine that right in law, that was a vital step forward for democracy in Britain, but it is being recklessly tossed aside. The claimed justification for the changes to the postal voting system is that they will increase voter participation. Of that there is not one jot of evidence, but there is plenty of evidence of how wide open to corruption they have made the political system.

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that a better way to improve voter participation would be to reintroduce integrity to the Government?

I shall not go down that road, because the Conservative party started the deterioration of Government integrity in this country. I would not want it to be thought that I am in any way sympathetic to Conservatives just because I shall be voting with them this evening.

Trade unions affiliated to new Labour sent out postal vote application forms by the hundreds of thousands to their members and others, and asked them to return the forms not to the town hall charged with managing the election, but to their trade union headquarters, to a post office box hundreds of miles away from the person filling in the form. There was no good reason for that, but there are plenty of bad reasons on which one could speculate. It is but a short step from that manipulation of the electoral process, which is none the less legal, to the fraudulent application for postal votes by people other than the voters themselves, with the instruction that the vote should be sent to an address other than the registered address of the voter.

In Tower Hamlets last May, we witnessed the most corrupt election held in Britain since 1872. Hundreds of votes were purloined by crooks applying for postal votes and getting them redirected to an address sometimes just doors away from the registered address of the voter. Whole blocks of flats woke up to discover that every one of their residents had applied for a postal vote to be redirected to another address without their knowledge. Some 2,800 postal vote applications were delivered to the town hall in Tower Hamlets in the last hours of the last day, and many were brought in by sitting councillors. A total of 18,732 postal votes were registered in Tower Hamlets: a vast increase on the vast increase that had occurred at the general election the year before. Almost 15 per cent. of those were delivered on the last afternoon. A total of 946 postal votes were redirected to addresses that were not the registered address of the voter, with considerably more as a percentage in the wards where new Labour councillors were under pressure.

For the entertainment of the Chamber, let me say that, despite all this, our party defeated the Labour mayor, the Labour deputy mayor, the Labour leader, the Labour deputy leader, the Labour housing convenor, the Labour deputy housing convenor—I could go on, but the House would lose patience. In one ward, new Labour Councillor Bill Turner, who won by just 38 votes, himself had postal votes redirected to the address at which he said that he was living. The system is so utterly without basic democratic protection that it is virtually impossible to detect fraud with a sufficient degree of proof to bring the matter successfully before an election court, where, as might not be known, one must demonstrate that the fraud would have changed the result of the election. Fraud can therefore be demonstrated on a significant scale, but if it is not enough to change the course of the election, the matter is simply thrown out.

Two petitions were accepted, and were prayed in aid by Labour Members. But we were only allowed to have the postal votes for the winning Labour candidate examined, and the only check that we could carry out was a forensic examination and comparison of the signature. None the less, the handwriting expert agreed by all sides in the petition identified 30 per cent. of the postal votes as questionable, and believed that the signatures were probably from different hands in almost half those votes—and that was just sampling 300 postal votes out of almost 19,000.

On top of that—this is where the issue of complacency arises—a major police investigation into voting fraud in Tower Hamlets is ongoing, and has engaged four police officers full-time for the past 10 months. No charges have yet been brought—I do not know if they will be, as it is so easy to subvert the system—but Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman has already commented, on the basis of that investigation, that postal votes are particularly susceptible to fraud. Despite all the talk of there not being many prosecutions, the Crown Prosecution Service has confirmed that 390 cases of alleged electoral offences have occurred over the past seven years, and not all in inner cities. In Reading, only two of 46 postal vote applications examined were found to be authentic. Richard Mawrey QC, who has been much quoted this evening, looked at ballots in the Birmingham city wards of Aston and nearby Bordesley Green. He said that there were at least 1,000 forged votes in Aston and 1,500 to 2,000 in Bordesley Green. The system of postal voting on demand is leading to a banana republic perception.

Like the Minister, I am a former Labour party official. I have been fighting elections for almost 40 years, almost always on the winning side. I know about elections. Now, for the first time in my political life, people ask me, “How do we know that they are counting these votes fairly? How do we know they are not rigging the election?” I am not saying that that is happening, but there is a systematic undermining of confidence in the electoral process, caused largely by postal vote fraud.

Councils share the responsibility with Government. Richard Mawrey QC considered our two petitions—the only two that we could get in front of the election court. I hope that the Minister, who is laughing, will listen to what he said about a new Labour council just a few miles from Westminster, held by one seat that was secured only by this type of corruption. In response to our petitions, Richard Mawrey QC declared that the evidence that we presented showed “disturbing” and “suspicious” signs of “classic postal voting fraud”. He went on to say that a regime that allows electors to acquire postal voting ballots “on demand” has been

“an open invitation to fraud”,

which has proved to be “distressingly easy”.

Yet in the wake of those comments by a Queen’s counsel, Tower Hamlets council, with its Labour majority of one, issued a press release that was such a falsification that Andrew Gilligan—remember him? The Minister shakes her head. He was the only journalist to tell us the truth about the Government’s lies on Iraq. He said in the Evening Standard that the council’s press release was a pack of lies. Who presided over all this? A woman called Christine Gilbert, whose intimate connections to new Labour are so personal that I would not like to go down that route. Suffice it to say that her reward for presiding over the tower of corruption in Tower Hamlets was to be made the chief inspector of schools at Ofsted. God save our children. God save the integrity of their examination results.

Much has been said about fraud, but the other problem is when constituents are unaware of their rights and they are prevented from casting their postal votes by things that are not specifically fraud. Let me give the Minister one example—probably the most frustrating case that I encountered in Shrewsbury during the 2005 general election.

A lovely elderly lady who lives in Hanwood, a village south of Shrewsbury, had voted in every election for the past 70 years and she was looking forward to voting for me in 2005—she had a large “Vote Conservative” poster in her garden. She had received her postal ballot for the county council elections, but not for the general election, and with one day to go when I met her, it was too late for her to reapply to obtain another postal vote. She did not realise that, because she had applied for a postal vote, she could not go to the polling booth to cast her vote. She was not the only one affected by that frustrating problem: many other constituents in the village of Hanwood did not receive their postal votes. I am not saying that that was the result of deliberate fraud—it was perhaps the result of an error by the Post Office—but those people did not receive their postal ballots, and in the present system they could not simply go to the polling booth to cast their vote.

Shrewsbury is to pilot various electronic voting processes, and I hope that the Minister will tell us how much she will give Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council for piloting those schemes. I very much hope that the Government will pay for them, rather than the local Shrewsbury taxpayer.

Our borough council is excellent and is doing an excellent job. I have confidence in the chief executive, Robin Hooper, as a good returning officer; he is accountable to my local council and is part of our community. The one problem with the Government trying to force unitary status on us is that we will no longer have just one council and one electoral officer. One person will cover the whole of Shropshire and could have to deal with four or five constituencies on one night. No chief executive can properly manage on one night an election involving four or five constituencies—that is absolutely ludicrous. One chief executive of one borough council should be the electoral officer on the night in question.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) secured this debate, because there are a couple of related issues that I feel passionately about that I want to raise. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) mentioned his passion for democracy, and, I, too, came into politics because of my genuine passion for democracy. There have been allegations in Shrewsbury against certain Labour councillors who work in our local post office; indeed, I have received these allegations myself repeatedly. What can I do if they are anonymous? However, the situation is imprinted on one’s mind. One ultimately thinks, “Yes, they work in the post office. They could, as Labour party activists, play some role in manipulating postal votes.” What is the Minister going to do to ensure that Members of Parliament such as I can have confidence in the process?

Now, I find out that the Labour parliamentary candidate selected to stand against me also works in the sorting office at Shrewsbury post office.

Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear what he is suggesting? He appears to be suggesting that these post office workers, for whom there is a clear disciplinary procedure, could be stealing letters. That is a very serious allegation to make.

Yes, but if the hon. Gentleman reads tomorrow’s Hansard, he will realise that I have not made such an allegation. I am saying that I have received these allegations—some anonymously and others not—from people who say that they work at the post office. This is what my constituents who work for the post office are telling me about Labour councillors who work at the post office. I am not saying this—my constituents are—but what am I meant to think? I am obviously concerned if my constituents are making such allegations against Labour councillors.

Now I find, as I said, that the Labour party has selected somebody who works at Shrewsbury sorting office to stand against me. I am starting to get allegations that he, when he stood to be a councillor, was also implicated in various fraudulent practices. I am not saying that; my constituents are.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. As MPs, we get confidential information all the time about criminal activity in our constituencies. I have always reported such information directly to the police and asked them to investigate. Has the hon. Gentleman done the same?

At this stage, I have not; I am still compiling the evidence, and if anything can be proved, I shall do so. Of course, if such people remain anonymous, it is very difficult to prove anything, as I was trying to say.

I have respectfully asked the Minister what guidance she will give to such people, if they work in post offices, to show that they should not in any way be involved even in touching postal ballots. She sent me a rather inappropriate reply. She said that I should not be raising these matters because I have no evidence. However, I want the Minister to tell me what guidance the Government are giving to Labour candidates who work for the Post Office. Will she give me an assurance that during a general election such candidates will not be able to touch postal ballots and that they will be excluded from the post office?

Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent a broad community, which includes post offices, and I think that his comments are inappropriate. The only way to deal with such matters is to do as I have always done, which is to use the Post Office complaints procedure. I have never received such complaints made on a party political basis, but any allegation that a postal worker has done something wrong should go through the proper complaints structure. The hon. Gentleman should use that process, and only if some real substance is found should he bring the matter here.

I wholly disagree. The House of Commons is our Chamber where we should discuss such issues and where Members can receive reassurances from Ministers. I stand by my comments to the Minister. I want her to tell me what guidance the Government are giving. She mentioned at our meeting that only a few people working in sorting offices would stand as parliamentary candidates, but I do not care whether there are a lot or a few—I want guidance from the Government. What will those people be told?

At my meeting with the hon. Gentleman I explained in considerable detail what should be done. As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) said, if serious allegations have been made, there are appropriate channels for dealing with them. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) is making serious allegations and they should be put through that process. It is not for him to find the evidence—that is the job of the police. It is for him to ask those who have made the allegations, whether anonymously or giving their name, to go to the police and to be prepared to make a statement. At our meeting, and in a subsequent letter, I told the hon. Gentleman that guidance was available, through the Electoral Commission, on how all candidates—not just Labour candidates—should conduct themselves during elections.

I understand what the Minister says, but she has still not explained the Government’s policy on post office workers.

May I suggest that my hon. Friend put this question to the Minister—is she satisfied with the security of the postal vote system? Sadly, I have not been in the Chamber for the whole debate, but I have been here for quite a percentage of it and it appears to me that grave reservations have been expressed on both sides of the House about the security of the postal vote system. That concern is shared by the Electoral Commission. If my hon. Friend put that question to the Minister, he would, I hope, receive a response.

I wholly agree. Postal voting has given rise to serious issues and the Government are being far too flippant about them.

I shall finish by speaking about the armed forces. In an intervention, I mentioned that many soldiers, families of soldiers and service personnel based at Copthorne—a major Army barracks in Shrewsbury—told me after the general election that they had hoped to vote for me, and for the Conservative party, but regrettably they had not received their postal ballot papers. It is important that our armed forces, wherever in the world they are serving, have the right to vote and to take part in general elections. I very much hope that when the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland sums up he will give us an indication of what the Government are doing to ensure that the large number of service personnel who could not vote at the last election can do so at the next one.

I had not intended to speak, but I have been moved by a number of the speeches made during this short debate. My few remarks will be directed at the fraud that is clearly taking place in postal voting.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) represents an area that I know well from a past career in business in Birmingham in the west midlands. He expressed very grave concerns and the Minister must take them seriously. Members on both sides, including Opposition Members who are not members of the Conservative and Unionist party or even the Liberal Democrat party, have put forward to the House clear evidence that fraud is taking place.

I believe in our democratic system. However, I also believe that the Government have moved far too soon towards granting postal votes on a “When you want it” basis and before there was any really secure system to ensure that the voting system could not be massively abused. In the north of England, the west midlands and London the postal vote system has clearly been abused.

I intervened to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) whether he would prefer a system in which everyone had total trust in the election result or one that facilitated more and more people taking a postal vote when the postal vote system could be abused. I hope that, in his winding-up speech, the Minister will reply to that point. I am sure that he should say to the House that he would prefer a democratic decision that is respected and trusted and that is not the result of abuse, rather than an electoral system that is subject to abuse.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Does he agree that for most of our lives we lived in a country where almost everybody we spoke to took it for granted that we had an uncorrupt system? Indeed, we were proud when people said to us that this country had one of the best election systems in the world. Yet, now this Government have brought that system into disrepute.

I am trying to be balanced and responsible. I am concerned about the House and ensuring that those elected to it from all the political parties are elected by votes that can be trusted. People must believe that there is a true result to an election and that councillors in Birmingham, the north-west and London have not been elected by votes that are the result of fraud. The Government must admit that a number of cases have brought the whole electoral process, particularly that for postal votes, into disrepute. We must ensure that we have a system that is trusted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) talked about those who had applied for a postal vote and had not received it. Clearly at the last election, there were many problems with those responsible for the postal vote system. In my constituency of Macclesfield, we had severe problems and a number of people had to have votes delivered to them by the borough council. [Interruption.] I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham that I am well aware of the time that the contributions from Back Benchers are supposed to end in order to allow time for the Government to respond. I do not need to be reminded.

I do not need to be reminded even by the Opposition Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). He is a good friend and a man for whom I have immense respect.

I hope that the Minister will accept that Opposition Members want an electoral system that can be relied upon, that is trusted and that people believe in. Currently, the postal vote system does not meet those criteria. People are unhappy, and that point has been expressed by Members on both sides. Will the Minister indicate that the Government understand the concerns of the Electoral Commission, let alone Members on both sides, that action needs to be taken if the postal vote system is to be secure and trusted? Democracy is important, but it must be based on sound values and sound procedures. As I said, the Government have advanced the postal vote system without the security that is necessary. Can the Minister assure us that that point will be dealt with and that security will be 100 per cent. in the future?

Today’s has been an important debate that has addressed perhaps the most basic and fundamental issues underpinning our democratic system: the integrity of the system’s mechanics and its methods of avoiding fraud. We recognise and welcome the Liberal Democrats’ support for our motion. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said much that we agree with, until he got to proportional representation. We are debating the system that governs the public’s one opportunity to dictate how and by whom their country or their local authority should be run. Free, fair and secure elections underpin the foundations of our democratic society.

The Minister of State said on Second Reading of the Electoral Administration Bill in 2005:

“all is not well with our democracy.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2005; Vol. 438, c. 193.]

But despite the Electoral Administration Act 2006, a new range of well-publicised examples of fraud have hit our electoral system. It is becoming increasingly evident that the concept of the great British democracy is under threat and that all is still not well in our democracy. That is of great concern to the Conservative party. The Electoral Commission has warned since 2002 of the need for reform, but it has become clear that the actions taken by the Government have failed to tackle the problem robustly. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has shown that, since 2001, some 342 cases of electoral malpractice have been reported by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) was correct to note that it was simply unrealistic of the Minister to accuse us of scaremongering, although I agree that more research on fraud is needed.

Yet again the figure of 342 is bandied around. Do not the great majority of the cases relate to electoral imprints on communications, campaign methods in the election concerned and allegations about the level of expenditure undertaken by candidates? A relatively small number of cases—they need to be investigated—relate to actual fraud. Is that not the case?

The Minister and her Back Benchers are too complacent on this issue. [Interruption.] Yes. Looking at Tower Hamlets, Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman said that it is the view of the Scotland Yard special prosecution unit

“that widespread use of postal votes has opened up a whole new area to be exploited by the fraudster, and the opportunity has been taken.”

We must not be complacent in that regard. It is a fundamental tenet of our democratic society that the public should have confidence in the electoral system. However, since the introduction of postal voting on demand there has been a growing perception—expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton)—that the British electoral system, a previously exemplary model in which electoral fraud was virtually non-existent, is now considered dangerously susceptible to attack.

I quoted the figures from the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the latest figures that we have authenticated are those in that report and that there are fewer than 20 investigations in total, either completed or under way? There is a problem, but exaggeration does not help anybody.

The hon. Gentleman and I stated different figures. There are figures and there is a serious problem. The Government are making light of the problem, whatever those figures may be.

Although we have been supportive of many of the measures so far implemented by the Government—in particular, the new offences created to deter electoral fraud—as the facts stand it is becoming clear that those measures will still fall far short of the mark. The Government have even messed up the implementation of their inadequate legislation. In response to a question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), the Minister admitted, as she did this evening, that the key provisions in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 on the requirement for signatures as verifiers in polling stations had, in effect, been put on ice because, apparently, the Act did not provide for a clear sanction of withholding a ballot paper. Yes, the Act provides for the piloting of personal identifiers, but we have seen a half-hearted approach to enforcement by a Government who are failing to realise, or at least admit to, their fundamental errors with regard to protecting democracy in this country.

Evidence gathered by the Committee on Standards in Public Life shows that the system in place is seriously flawed and that it will still fail to protect the arrangements for postal voting from fraud. For example, information on registration forms provided to electoral registration officers is taken at face value. There is little or no checking of completed registration forms to ensure their authenticity, and there are virtually no checks to establish people’s identities at polling stations. Despite the new checks that are being introduced for postal voting, the committee’s report states:

“determined fraudsters can easily sidestep these by registering false identities on the electoral register.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) explained those weaknesses succinctly in his speech.

There are thus renewed calls from the Electoral Commission for the introduction of individual registration. That has long been the position of the Conservative party, so I am pleased to note that we are supported by the Liberal Democrats, and that a Labour Member such as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) accepts that it is necessary. The Electoral Commission and most electoral administrators believe that individual registration is, in principle, a more accurate means of registering eligible voters and thus the preferred way forward. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has also concluded that the new system of registration should be complemented by an additional objective verifier and that changes should be made immediately.

I am sure that other safety measures could be reviewed, not least regarding non-canvassing near polling stations, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath mentioned. I noted the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. I can tell him only that we stopped using freepost in the 1990s in London after finding much of our freepost dumped in dustbins throughout the borough. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield also made apt comments in that regard.

The sad fact remains that the Government have repeatedly resisted calls to implement measures that would remedy the situation. The Minister talked about instituting all-postal voting in 2001, but she failed to mention the fact that the Electoral Commission withdrew its support for such voting in 2004 because of the Government’s failure to implement the necessary safeguards to increase the security of postal voting and individual registration. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) made a strong case against postal votes on demand. Whether or not one supports that, the need to avoid fraud is vital. We have clearly seen in Tower Hamlets a prime example of how our system has gone very badly wrong.

The Government have consistently chosen to overlook suggestions that they consider the experiences of electoral reform in Northern Ireland. The main measures implemented through the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 included the introduction of individual registration and the use of national insurance numbers as personal identifiers. The latter measure safeguards against illegitimate multiple registration by citizens and improper registration by non-citizens. In addition, a returning officer at a polling station can ask for any suspicious voter’s personal identifiers, which can then be checked against the registration. Most critically, for the non-supervised postal votes, national insurance numbers must be submitted with the ballot papers, which combats the fraud that was evidently rife. Previously, Northern Ireland struggled with the prevalent perception that fraud was widespread. However, since the introduction of the measures in 2002, they have been judged by the electorate and the political parties to be successful in both combating fraud and decreasing the perception of fraud. Some 72 per cent. of respondents declared that they thought that the measures would reduce electoral fraud. In the combined elections in 2005, there were no reported incidents of fraudulent activity.

The position is very different in England. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne pointed out, it is so different that we are now to be investigated by the Council of Europe—I congratulate him on his initiative in that regard. One cannot say that the situation is news to the Government. In a Westminster Hall debate on 22 June 2005, I spoke about the inadequacy of the Government’s proposal to use only a signature and a date of birth as individual identifiers. On 5 July 2005, when questioned about the benefits of using national insurance numbers as personal identifiers, the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, conceded that they were an effective method of cross-checking information to establish a person’s existence.

On Second Reading of the Government’s Electoral Administration Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire warned that the measures proposed represented a “damp lettuce leaf” rather than the “strong sword” that was required to defend our democracy. Despite that, the Government have consistently pushed forward policies that ignore the grave danger of electoral fraud in favour of increasing turnout at the polls, and they are doing so again today. I once again ask how much longer will it be, and how many more debates will it take, until the Government act.

We accept that it is important that as many eligible people as possible participate in the democratic process, but that should never be at the expense of the integrity of that process. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, correctly said that the legitimacy of our democracy depends on three things: everyone having the right to vote, everyone wanting to vote, and no one fiddling the vote. However, she has consistently failed to appreciate the relative significance of those issues. They do not, as she suggested, represent three equal legs of a stool. We believe that it is not a question of creating an exact balance between the security of the poll and encouraging voting, important though encouraging participation may be, as the integrity of the electoral process is at the heart of the democratic system. It is the fundamental issue; if there is no confidence in the system, fewer, not more, people will vote. That point was made strongly by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington.

The point that the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), made earlier about non-registration is simply a red herring. She mentioned encouraging registration, but she will know that people are obliged to register by statute. When I asked her in a written question how many people had been prosecuted for non-registration, she answered that, so far as she knew, none had been. Why is that the case? Again, the answer is Government inaction. Will she abandon what my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington and the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow called her complacency, and say whether the Government intend to take the action recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which said that the Electoral Commission’s role of increasing participation in the democratic process does not support or fit with its core regulatory task? Should we not be spending our time urgently reviewing the commission’s powers to stop fraud? May we please have a clear answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns), in his response?

Unbelievably, even now, the issue dominating Department for Constitutional Affairs press releases is not the need to crack down on electoral fraud but the extension of all-postal voting, and the trialling of internet and telephone voting. Earlier, the Minister called that a sensible step, but we say that if we do not have the appropriate controls, such measures would, if anything, increase the incidence of fraud. As the Foundation for Information Policy Research remarked,

“It’s always a bad idea to look for technical fixes to social problems.”

All the signs show that the Government have lost their way, and have lost all sight of the priority issue.

Could there be a murkier reason for Labour’s inaction? On 5 February 2007, in an article, Sir Alistair Graham was quoted as saying that Ministers did not adopt personal identifiers because there were fears that the Labour vote would suffer. He said:

“It is worrying if people are taking a partisan approach to this.”

What a sad indictment of new Labour if our great democracy has come to that. The Government should wake up, as the British electoral system is in serious danger of losing its credibility. As my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne pointed out, what was once the model for democracies in civilisations across the world has sunk to being investigated alongside emerging states and toppled dictatorships. In light of the recommendations of the 11th report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, we urge the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to admit plainly that it is time urgently to address the issues, before it is too late, and to support our motion.

We have had an interesting, lively and at times informed debate on an important topic. Hon. Members have drawn on wisdom accumulated from decades of experience—and that was just the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley)—which would compound into centuries of campaigning experience. Concern has properly been expressed about the paramount need to ensure the integrity of the electoral system and protect it from those who would seek to pervert it and distort the democratic process for profoundly undemocratic ends. Scores have been settled in this evening’s debate—on both sides of the House, it must be admitted—and allegations have been aired. There have been a few disgraceful slurs, and I hope that those who made them will reflect on them.

It has been alleged that the present system is advantageous for the Labour party, but I have checked whether people who come to my surgery have registered to vote. Sometimes, as many as 40 per cent. on them are not on the register. Many people who left the register when the poll tax was introduced by the Conservatives were our supporters.

My hon. Friend is correct that it was alleged that the current system benefits Labour, but that allegation was made in relation to the boundary changes, and seemed to suggest that the boundary commissioners were biased towards Labour, which is a disgraceful attack on the integrity and the independence of the boundary commissions. I hope that the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), who made that allegation, will reflect on it.

I see that he has done so. I shall accept his intervention in a second. The party that waxed lyrical about the evils of pilots and our obsession with them piloted the poll tax in our native land, and did not give two hoots about it.

I merely pointed out the fact that there were 93 more Labour Members in England, even though the Conservatives received more votes. I am not implying that the Government arranged that—of course they did not—but they seek to add to that fact further advantage from electoral registration.

Why is it advantageous to the Labour party to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote is on the register? It is advantageous to the health of our democracy for everyone who is entitled to vote to be on the register. That is not a party political point, and it is amazing that the hon. Gentleman should construe it as such. Of course the Government take allegations of fraud seriously, but we take seriously, too, the significant under-representation on the electoral register of people who are entitled to vote.

In her opening speech, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), set out in great detail the many steps that we have taken—most recently, in the Electoral Administration Act 2006—to counter threats to the electoral process. Many examples of fraud—and many examples were not even fraud—that were cited predate the measures introduced in that Act, and little credit was given to the fact that we have made progress in that measure. To imply that we have not done anything at all since allegations of fraud and of operations worthy of a banana republic were made is to ignore the entire Act, which is extremely unwise.

The tenor of our debate suggested that electoral maladministration has occurred only since the increased opportunity for postal voting. I should be grateful if the Minister placed in the Library information about election courts that were convened prior to the Act. Like the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway), I have worked for the Labour party for a number of years, and I can think of many examples of fraud that occurred before the Act, so the notion that it has all happened now is simply wrong.

From memory, I believe that 49 allegations were made in 2000, before the extension of postal voting, which proves my hon. Friend’s point. [Interruption.] If that figure is wrong, I will correct it, but my hon. Friend is quite right that fraud is not connected exclusively to the extension of postal voting. I shall come on to that in a second.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, not least because I have not been able to attend the whole debate. Will he comment on a situation that has arisen in my constituency? A Labour councillor has died, and in the normal course of events it would be for the Labour group to decide when to hold the by-election. It would make perfect sense to hold it on the same day as the Assembly elections at the beginning of May, but Plaid Cymru has insisted that it be held earlier, despite the fact that the by-election on 29 March will be held under one system of postal voting and the elections, only a month later, will be held under a completely different system. Does that not show that some political parties want to sow confusion in the electors’ minds?

That sounds a particularly bonkers state of affairs that Plaid Cymru has managed to engineer in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but he affords me the opportunity to mention that new measures will come into place for local elections that specifically address some of the concerns that have been raised this evening. There will be a new way of operating postal votes and postal vote applications.

In his opening speech, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) revisited many of the discussions that we had at the time of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 in relation to individual voter registration and individual personal identifiers for voter registration. We had the debate at inordinate length during the passage of the Act, but we were not able to reach a consensus. There was a variety of views. The hon. Gentleman went well beyond what the Electoral Commission advocated. He wanted national insurance numbers to serve as the personal identifier. The Electoral Commission specifically ruled that out.

The position of the Liberal Democrats was more consistent with the position of the Electoral Commission. We said that we did not oppose in principle the idea of personal identifiers or individual registration, but legitimate concern was expressed not just by those on the Labour Benches—it was echoed this evening by the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman—that any extension of that could have a detrimental effect on the numbers of people registered to vote. Hon. Members on my side were speaking of catastrophic impacts. That is why we put forward the compromise proposal that we would pilot the idea to get some evidence upon which to base a national extension of the scheme. I regret that that compromise was not accepted on all sides, so we adopted a second compromise for individual identifiers in relation to postal voting.

That has not calmed the argument about postal voting. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire says that there is a problem with fraudulent registration, which he says is ridiculously easy. He argues that we need personal identifiers in relation to the register. We are bringing in personal identifiers—signature and date of birth—for postal voting, but he says that that is not enough and will not solve the problem. There is a fundamental inconsistency in the Opposition’s approach.

The central allegation being made is that the Government are soft on fraud. They are ignoring the advice of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Even where they have introduced the measure requiring signature and date of birth for postal voting, they propose that only 20 per cent. of the votes will be checked. That is nowhere near enough to tackle the problem. The Government’s measure for polling stations, was so ineptly drafted that it is not being introduced at all.

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that 20 per cent. is a minimum figure and that in some areas far more than that, up to 100 per cent. of votes, will be checked. He cannot argue that individual identifiers—signature and date of birth—solve the problem for the register and then say that they do not come near solving the problem for postal voting. That is fundamentally inconsistent.

I hope that the Minister is about to say that in view of the clear recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life to the Government, they will accept and implement them within the time scale required by the committee.

I intended to deal with that when I responded to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. We have only just received the report and we are still considering it. We will consider carefully the recommendations that it contains, and we will issue our response to that in due course.

At no point in the speech from the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire did he express the slightest concern about the 3.5 million missing voters. He did not begin to recognise that there is an issue in constituencies where 80 per cent. of people who are entitled to vote are registered to vote. In some constituencies fewer than 80 per cent. are registered to vote. In my constituency the figure is 84 per cent. That is unacceptable.

I will not give way.

We took steps in the Act to maximise the register. We gave additional resources to returning officers. The hon. Gentleman is right that we should ensure that they are given the proper status in councils. We have given them resources and we have given them duties and the extra assistance to maximise the registers. We take that seriously, even if he does not.

The hon. Gentleman and other Members mentioned that Council of Europe rapporteurs were in the country investigating allegations of electoral fraud. I hope they might investigate some allegations about selection votes in Conservative constituencies, where I understand that there are ongoing allegations of electoral fraud. There was a 15 to 14 vote in a meeting of 27 people. Perhaps if the rapporteurs are at a loose end, they might take a little detour to South Staffordshire, where I am sure that they would get ample evidence to inform their report.

I wrote in my notes that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) had taken a slightly more enlightened view on these matters than his predecessor, but the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has now planted himself on the Front Bench. I shall say it anyway. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey takes a more enlightened view than his predecessor, who did not grasp sufficiently the struggle in inner-city constituencies to get people on the register, or why we thought that some of the measures that were proposed could have a detrimental effect on that. We did not say that they would have, just that they could have, which is why we proposed the compromise of piloting the suggestion. However, he joined the Tories in opposing that compromise. That was a shame, because we do not now have the evidence base that would allow us to make a decision about whether such measures would be appropriate throughout the country—

No, I only have a few minutes left.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey mentioned the important idea of a democracy day, which has some merit. I understand that the Electoral Commission is considering having a big registration week in March and it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that everyone in our constituency who is entitled to be on the register is put on it.

The hon. Gentleman made the bizarre point—I have heard Liberal Democrats make it before—that we have a lower turnout because we do not have proportional representation. Well, we have three different models for voting in Scotland—first past the post for Westminster elections, an additional member system for the Scottish Parliament and a very proportional system for the European Parliament elections. If the hon. Gentleman’s thesis were correct, the highest vote would be in the European elections, the second highest in the Scottish Parliament elections and the lowest in the Westminster elections. But of course the reality is that the turnouts are the other way around. The first-past-the-post election has the most voters. The hon. Gentleman should adopt an evidence-based approach to his assertions.

Allegations have been made—I take them seriously—that the Government do not take the Electoral Commission’s report or recommendations seriously. We do. Indeed, more than 80 per cent. of the measures in the Bill that became the Electoral Administration Act 2006 came from the Electoral Commission, including some of those to do with the threshold at which parties lost their deposit. We put those measures into the Bill because the commission recommended them, but the House rejected them. So we do take the commission seriously.

Let us be clear: it is the role of the Electoral Commission to make recommendations to the House, but it is the role of the House to make decisions on those recommendations. The House made decisions about individual registration and personal identifiers. The other place overturned those decisions, and they were brought back here, but the House made its views clear again. We have reservations about extending these matters, because we are concerned about the impact that they will have on registration levels. Unfortunately, those concerns are not shared on both sides of the House.

We have heard hon. Members on both sides, but especially on the Conservative Benches, speaking about their great love of democracy, which brought them into politics in the first place. But the integrity of the electoral system is about more than ensuring that there is no postal voting fraud or eliminating errors in registration. Those things are necessary, but they are not sufficient to ensure a vibrant democracy. That can be delivered only by a Government who are committed to devolving power and extending democratic participation. The Opposition denied the people of Scotland and Wales their own devolved Government, left London bereft of strategic leadership in an act of supreme political spite, fought tooth and nail when Labour introduced devolution for Scotland and Wales and tried to oppose the return of a directly elected Mayor for London, so they have no credibility whatever when it comes to protecting and enhancing our nation’s democracy. That is why the House will reject, and will be right to do so, the motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. The House will be right to support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):—

Mr. Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House believes that the Government has introduced a range of sensible and proportionate measures to ensure that elections are safe and secure; recognises that public confidence in the electoral process is paramount; believes that the Government is taking an appropriate and sensible approach in testing and trialling e-voting before making any decision to introduce it or not; supports the action being taken by the Government to ensure that electoral registers are comprehensive and accurate; and notes that these issues were debated during the passage of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 through Parliament.


Queen’s recommendation having been signified—


That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Sustainable Communities Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of—

(a) any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by a Minister of the Crown or government department, and

(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other Act.—[Mr. Woolas.]


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),

Northern Ireland

That the draft District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2006, which was laid before this House on 30th November, be approved.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),

Social Security

That the draft Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations 2007, which were laid before this House on 22nd January, be approved.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

European Enforcement Order and the Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners

That this House takes notes of European Union Document No. 13080/06, Draft Council Framework Decision on the application of the principle of mutual recognition to judgments in criminal matters imposing custodial sentences or measures involving deprivation of liberty for the purpose of their enforcement in the European Union; and supports the Government’s intention to secure adoption of this agreement.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

Question agreed to.



That Grant Shapps be discharged from the Public Administration Committee and Mr Charles Walker be added.––[Rosemary McKenna, on behalf of the Committee of Selection].