We are introducing a range of new measures at the May 2007 local elections that are designed to strengthen the security of postal voting. They will build on the measures successfully introduced in May 2006, including the introduction of personal identifiers for postal voters, which will help to ensure that postal voting is both safe and secure.
The Minister knows that I am not a big fan of head of household registration. Does she agree that postal voting for all can lead to head of household voting? There is a concern, especially among certain minority communities, that people are coerced into voting for particular candidates through hierarchical pressures. Will she consider restricting access to postal votes, to make sure that all votes are cast fairly and freely?
The identifiers introduced in the postal voting system this year will show that everyone can vote as they wish. I am interested to hear that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the way postal votes are handled in a household. I notice that in the 2005 general election, which he won with a majority of 422, 9,392 postal votes were returned. I wonder how many of those he considers were handled purely by the head of household.
I call Mr. Bellingham. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman was a little slow; I call Mr. Betts.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Does my hon. Friend accept that although the verifiers of signature and date of birth are probably about right as guarantees, there is a concern that many people who genuinely need a postal vote may not fill in the forms that have been provided because it is another form and they do not like bureaucracy, or they simply do not get round to it? Will she therefore commend the electoral registration officer in Sheffield, who has not merely sent out one form, but has sent a second form as a reminder to those who have not returned the first one? Will she encourage all registration officers to do that, and even to go beyond that and send out a third and fourth form, if necessary, to ensure that people who need a postal vote do not lose out?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. It is good to see that electoral registration officers are being proactive in encouraging people not just to register—the register has gone up this year by some 500,000 or thereabouts—but to take part in postal voting, particularly where people were used to being on the postal vote register in the past. We have had to start with a clean new register and I hope other electoral returning officers will follow Sheffield’s example.
Given that a staggering one in seven postal votes in last year’s local elections in Tower Hamlets may have been fraudulent, does the Minister support Sir Alistair Graham’s call for the Government to abandon next May’s internet and telephone voting trials? Are not Ministers ignoring one hard truth: once ballot papers are allowed to leave polling stations, the opportunities for fraud multiply and the secrecy of the ballot is compromised? Is it any wonder that the Council of Europe, better known for investigating elections in Belarus and Albania, is threatening to send monitors to the UK?
The hon. Gentleman is usually such a charming man. I can see that he was having difficulty trying to manufacture anger in his question. May I say two things to him? No, I do not agree with Sir Alistair Graham that we should stop doing pilots. The whole point of piloting is to ensure that we get the system right. Secondly, I am disappointed that the Council of Europe motion, concocted mostly by some of the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends, took no account of the action that we had already taken and the strengthening of the security of postal voting that is in place.