I beg to move,
That this House has considered electoral integrity and absent votes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), to his place.
In this country, we pride ourselves on having free, fair, open and honest elections, but we are wrong. In too many parts of the UK, electoral fraud means that honest people’s votes are potentially invalidated by crooked votes. Our whole democratic system is being undermined and the votes of thousands of women of all ages are being regularly stolen by their menfolk. We are turning a blind eye, in effect, to regular breaches of section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 in respect of undue influence.
In May’s general election, 9,372,449 postal votes were sent via Royal Mail. These issues are not new, and the Electoral Commission and Government know about them, but so far we have had very little by way of concerted action to tackle them. This subject has been raised in the media, most notably and compellingly by Radio 4’s “File on 4” investigation programme in March 2014, which focused on electoral fraud in Pendle, Woking and Derby. It was also brought up by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson). With great courage and foresight, he raised the matter directly with Ministers on the Floor of the House three years ago during a debate on the Bill that became the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013.
Who can forget the words of the election commissioner and presiding judge Richard Mawrey, QC, after hearing the most well-known electoral fraud case in Birmingham in 2005—following events in 2004—which resulted in the conviction of five men? His written judgment referred to
“evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic”.
Is my hon. Friend aware that of course there are the open, overt, straight-down-the-line fraudsters at work, collecting ballots that are not their own, but even where that does not happen, within the individual household the privacy of the ballot is lost where voting slips are sent to the household and no one can keep their voting intentions to themselves?
My right hon. Friend makes a very apposite point, which I will elucidate on and develop later in my remarks. I thank him for his intervention.
Have things really changed in the past 11 years? Mr Justice Mawrey was quoted last year as saying that our present procedures are “wide open to fraud” and that
“serious fraud is inevitably going to continue”,
enabling the manufacture of votes on an industrial scale. He also stated just before this year’s general election:
“The law must be applied fairly and equally to everyone. Otherwise we are lost.”
We await the details of the review commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on electoral fraud in the light of the appalling scandals uncovered in Tower Hamlets following the failure particularly of the Metropolitan Police Service to take timely and robust action. That fell instead to a number of courageous and concerned citizens, including my old friend Councillor Peter Golds CBE, via a petition to the High Court. The long overdue review is being undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles). It was announced in August and, as I understand it, will be published in the new year in order that we can look at what further options are available to address this continuing and, as I will make clear later, endemic and institutionalised abuse and illegality. I will touch on Tower Hamlets in particular.
For the record, I have not called this debate in the light of the Oldham West and Royton by-election result, nor even of the comments of the leader of the UK Independence party, but in his media comments in the wake of the by-election he did touch on some issues that I will raise today.
Of the 1,086 cases of electoral fraud reported to police in England between 2008 and 2013, 58% originated in just 10 of England’s 39 police areas. I speak as the Member of Parliament for Peterborough, a local authority that has featured for a number of years on the Electoral Commission’s watch list of local council areas with a high risk of electoral fraud. Regrettably, Peterborough has a recent history of criminal convictions as a result of electoral malpractice and fraud. Most recently, in 2008, there was the conviction of six men—three Labour activists and three Conservatives—for postal vote fraud arising out of the June 2004 local elections. My local authority has also had problems with personation and, to an extent, voter intimidation.
I accept that there are other serious areas of concern, which will most likely be the subject of my right hon. Friend’s review and report, that are of major import. One is the lack of a requirement for proper, valid voter identification when presenting oneself as a voter at a UK polling station. That is unprecedented and undoubtedly anomalous in a modern democracy, and there is clearly a major risk of personation. Another issue is the limit on the powers to challenge alleged personation in the confines of a polling place for presiding officers, even if they know that a person is not who they say they are. The other issue is the failure to put in place legislation to curtail voter intimidation in the environs of a polling station, which we have seen in many places across the country, including Peterborough, but which was systematic in Tower Hamlets.
I will not try the patience of the House, but Tower Hamlets was but the most egregious example of many troubling themes around abuses in our electoral system. They merely coalesced in one London borough as the most extreme and shocking example. In Tower Hamlets, supervision of the corrupt 2014 elections was led by Commander Graham McNulty, who previously had been the investigating officer on the Levy and Blair cash-for-peerages allegations and was later the officer harassed—that is the word—by the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) to investigate, erroneously, the late Lord Brittan. Despite Lutfur Rahman and his agent being found guilty of seven different counts of corrupt practice after the longest election petition before a court in more than a century, nobody has been charged, including supporters of Rahman named and shamed for multiple election fraud. Why is that? Perhaps the Minister will touch on that.
For the avoidance of doubt, I think that it is incumbent on Ministers to respond in a timely way to the specific recommendations made recently by the Electoral Commission on the need for photo ID at polling stations on the Northern Ireland model—I see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his place. To be fair, the Electoral Commission has raised these issues over a number of years and progress has been made, albeit slowly and by increment, on issues such as register stuffing with “ghost” voters, which individual electoral registration will mostly deal with, and the most egregious postal vote fraud methods, via the need for a signature and date of birth, but that will only half deal with the substantive issue to which I will refer later. I accept that there will always be a trade-off between accessibility to the voting system and electoral integrity. It will never be easy or simple to get that balance right.
The Electoral Commission has at least monitored trends and collected data on electoral fraud and has commissioned specialist academic research—more of that later—with an issues paper being published in 2013 and a further comprehensive and detailed report being issued in January 2014. It is a matter of regret and disappointment that the previous, coalition Government—I absolve the Minister of responsibility for this—failed adequately to address the recommendations in that report.
Where I part company with the Electoral Commission and, to an extent, Ministers is on what I see as a degree of complacency in their responses. Of course I commend the extra money for fraud prevention in high-risk areas, but I am disappointed by the blanket rejection of at least considering returning to the pre-2001 regime for postal votes and by the rather anodyne revised code of conduct for campaigners, which is frankly superfluous and lacks any real sanction in law for miscreants and those inclined to unethical or criminal behaviour—a point raised in the “File on 4” documentary.
There is much to be done to tackle electoral fraud in all its forms, but for the purposes of our debate, I will focus on absent or postal votes. It might be worth examining, by way of background, how we came to be where we are now. Postal voting was first used in 1918 for armed forces personnel serving overseas. It was reintroduced in 1945 in similar circumstances, and 1948 saw postal voting extended to certain groups of civilians including those who were physically incapacitated, those unable to vote without making a journey by sea or air or because of the nature of their occupation, and those who were no longer residing at their qualifying address.
Following recommendations made by the Select Committee on Home Affairs in 1983, the Government extended the right to apply for an absent vote in 1985, and the rules were further refined in 1989. The exception was Northern Ireland, where there was already widespread concern about electoral abuse. In 1999, a parliamentary working group chaired by the then Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), recommended that postal voting applications should be simplified and allowed on demand to all voters. The Government legislated in 2000 to implement those changes, which came into effect in 2001.
In its reports on the all-postal vote elections, the Electoral Commission drew back from its earlier recommendation for all-postal voting as standard. Its research showed that a large minority of people wanted to retain the option of voting at a polling station. The Commission, therefore—thankfully—recommended the development of a new model that involved multiple voting methods, including postal voting, rather than proceeding with elections run entirely by all-postal voting.
Suffice it to say that the process for exercising one’s right to vote by post or proxy is no less complex now than it was in 1999, and turnout for general elections has fallen from 71% in 1997 to 59%—a post-war low—in 2001, rising to 66% earlier this year. That serves to refute the idea, held by those who are worried about voter disengagement, of absent voting as a panacea. Our collective obsession with electoral turnout has, surely, for too long obscured the focus on clean, honest and fair elections as the absolute priority, and that is unacceptable.
The Electoral Commission’s response to the Pickles review is detailed, thought-provoking and helpful. It will allow Ministers to access important academic research supporting a key question—perhaps the most controversial aspect of my remarks—at the heart of this debate: the reasons for the growing evidence of criminal electoral malpractice, centred on postal vote fraud, in the British Bangladeshi and British Pakistani communities and diaspora. The debate is not party political; no party has a monopoly on virtue, and all major parties have been party to fraudulent electoral activities over the last 15 years or so. We are talking not about stigmatising a particular group or community, but about protecting our democracy and the precious faith and trust that people have in the voting system.
I am grateful for the work of academics such as Stuart Wilks-Heeg, who published a paper in 2008, on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, on “Purity of Elections in the UK: Causes for Concern”; and Eleanor Hill, of the Bradford University school of historical studies, who published a paper in 2012 entitled “Ethnicity and Democracy: A Study into Biraderi”, which has laid the groundwork for more recent empirical studies.
The Electoral Commission commissioned research from the University of Liverpool and the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at the University of Manchester, as well as from the social research centre NatCen. In January this year, they published two excellent, compelling and detailed qualitative studies entitled, respectively, “Understanding electoral fraud vulnerability in Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin communities in England” and “Elections, voting and electoral fraud: An exploratory study focusing on British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis”. The findings supported the Electoral Commission’s stated belief that, inter alia,
“electoral fraud is more likely to be committed by or in support of candidates standing for election in areas which are largely or predominately populated by…those with roots in parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh.”
The commissioned studies suggested that
“extended family and community networks may have been mobilised to secure the support of large numbers of electors in some areas, effectively constituting a ‘block vote’”
“the wider availability of postal voting in Great Britain since 2001 may have increased the risk of electoral fraud associated with this approach, as the greater safeguards of secrecy provided by polling stations have been removed.”
The academic research focused on interviews with political activists and non-political local residents in those high-risk areas, and it pinpointed the following cultural and structural trends. The reciprocal, hierarchical and patriarchal nature of kinship networks may mean that pressure is put on people to vote for particular candidates or parties, especially within family groups, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has made clear. Individuals may be made to feel as though they have no choice in the matter, or they may, in fact, have no choice. That applies particularly to young women and older women, many of whom are economically disadvantaged. It their 2014 study, academics from Manchester University found that, for instance, Pakistani women are more likely to have their registration forms filled in by the male head of the household than to fill in the forms themselves.
Other problems in those communities are: low levels of public awareness about what is acceptable campaigning and what constitutes fraud; low levels of awareness about how to report electoral fraud; low levels of literacy and lack of English skills, which exacerbate those problems; and reduced political activity, or complete lack of activity, by mainstream parties in too many areas, which gives so-called community leaders free rein to claim propriety over large numbers of families, whose votes they can marshal and direct as they think fit. That is the regrettable flipside of an understandable collective need for ethnic mobilisation and solidarity, but it gives rise to practices that are inimical to our democratic values.
In too many communities, it is regarded as quite normal for political activists to engage in “farming” of postal votes on the doorstep, or even to fill in the ballots at home once signatures and dates of birth have been added, before transporting them to the town hall or polling station. That is regarded as part of the process; it is well understood and not seen as irregular. The University of Manchester reported that the biraderi networks
“may undermine the principle of voters’ individual and free choice through a range of social pressures such as respect for the decision of the elders at its mildest extreme, through to undue influence where in some instances access to individual ballots of women and adult children can be refused by the elders.”
Mainstream tolerance of such block voting is nothing new, although that makes it no less reprehensible. Lord Hattersley wrote in his 2003 biography of his polling day experience in the February 1974 general election:
“I won with an increased majority...the well organised and invariably loyal Kashmiris had cast their disciplined vote early in the day.”
The reports produced for the Electoral Commission highlighted the insufficiency of safeguards for voting procedures. One report found that respondents believed that there was a
“lack of law enforcement around fraudulent applications for postal votes…undue influence and intimidation both when filling out the vote at home with others present, and during the handling of the vote by party activists, community members and candidates themselves”.
Much more research must be done into those issues by the Electoral Commission and others. We cannot know for certain the scale of the problem and how it impacts on elections in our country at every level.
In the interim, I suggest the following measures. Ministers must, as a matter of urgency, consider and respond to the Electoral Commission’s 2014 report and to the findings of the Pickles review. Existing polling station voting vulnerabilities around ID, personation, intimidation and the flaws in the Representation of the People Act 1983 must be addressed soon. There must be a proper review of individual electoral registration to ensure its efficacy in respect of electoral register stuffing. Funds must be set aside for local authorities in high-risk areas to bid for money to work with their local police to investigate properly allegations of electoral fraud, which are often time consuming and costly to investigate. Guidance must be issued to the Crown Prosecution Service and the police to ensure that they take a much more proactive and robust approach to investigating electoral fraud, and that they are seen to be doing so. Finally, new legislative sanctions must be established by means of criminal law in respect of compulsion and intimidation of someone to apply for a postal or proxy vote, alteration of another person’s postal vote application form and the transit of another person’s postal vote documentation. It should be a criminal offence for anyone other than an authorised person to open or alter a completed postal ballot pack—either the ballot paper or the postal voting statement—before it has been received by the proper returning officer.
Ultimately, I believe that none of those measures alone will substantially reduce electoral fraud in our postal votes regime, and that serious thought must be given to returning to the tried and tested system of application in the case of illness, infirmity, military service or work commitments. That system gave us, with the universal franchise, a turnout of 84% in the 1950 general election, and 78% as recently as 1992. Our present system has been summed up perfectly: voting, once a “private act in public”, is now, owing to postal vote fraud, a “public act in private.”
We are currently condoning the theft of thousands of votes of our fellow citizens, many of whom are women—a situation that would shame Emmeline Pankhurst and make a third-world despot blush. We need to ask: what price honesty and fair play, and what price our reputation at home and abroad as the beacon of parliamentary democracy?
I thank the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) for setting the scene on the subject of electoral registration. He mentioned Northern Ireland a couple of times and I want to add some of my thoughts. I expected more people to contribute to the debate. None the less, it is always a pleasure to do so.
The issue is important in Northern Ireland, and we have taken some substantial steps forward. The shadow Minister and particularly the Minister will probably give some detailed information about what is happening in Northern Ireland. If I were to put forward just one thought in this debate, it would be this: look to Northern Ireland, the changes we have made and the steps that we have taken. That should be the precedent for the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in addressing the issue.
In this day and age, surely we should have a flawless electoral system and elections that are completely free of any fraud or deceit. Following the recent by-election—this is an observation and nothing more—according to The Daily Telegraph:
“Police could be called in to investigate alleged fraud at the…Oldham by-election after council staff said some voters in polling booths ‘had no idea what they were doing there’”.
I do not know how true that is but it is a quotation from the paper, and it puts a question mark over how the system works. An unprecedented 100% of postal votes went to one party and, although it cannot be confirmed that there were any anomalies, eyebrows must surely be raised at such a staggering statistic. Many ask that question. It is not a reflection on those who vote, because they vote in the way that they wish to, but it strikes a question mark in many minds. I do not seek to make any accusations, but the fact that there is even the possibility of electoral fraud or deceit in this day and age should ring alarm bells for all of us.
In Northern Ireland in 2010, a parliamentary constituency—Fermanagh and South Tyrone—was decided by four votes. The decision was taken to court so that the honesty of the system could be looked at and verified. Three of the votes were removed, as the Minister, who is nodding his head, knows. The reality is that, technically speaking, that election was won by one vote. I am not saying that there was any fraud—people can make their minds up—but a court decision was taken, which changed the voting margin. It was a truly exceptional example.
With elections being run so tight, we need a flawless system to ensure that those who take their time to inform themselves and vote are doing so as equals with an equal weight to their vote, confident that the rest of the electorate will vote honestly and fairly. The Daily Telegraph also uncovered that a number of complaints were filed, with the police alleging electoral fraud at the general election in May and in the European and council elections in the previous May.
The professionals at the Electoral Commission do their very best to ensure electoral integrity, but there are still examples of the system not working and being open to deceit and fraud. More needs to be done, as the hon. Member for Peterborough said. We have the resources and the technology to make voter fraud a thing of the past, and we should be taking steps as a matter of urgency. The former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), said:
“Within Whitehall as a minister, I found a complete reluctance by officials to take action on the warnings from local councillors and journalists of systematic corruption in the mayoral administration in Tower Hamlets. I would argue that state officialdom is in denial over the real state of electoral fraud in 21st-century Britain. The new Conservative government is no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to Britain’s modern-day rotten boroughs.”
As the Minister is nodding, I would expect that the steps to change that will be made. We should look to such examples of people who have opened their eyes to electoral fraud and are getting on with the business of eradicating it as a matter of urgency.
In Northern Ireland, we have taken steps forward on the electoral system, the regulations and the registration. One of the first things that happens in an individual registration is that someone calls to check who lives in the house; that means that we can confirm that there are so many people in the house. Those people are checked individually. Physical inability to attend polling stations in person is confirmed by doctors. If people go on holiday, they have to provide travel documentation to prove that they are away. There are real meaty conditions to ensure that those things happen.
Many years ago, it is rumoured—although many would say that it is factual—that there were those who voted from beyond the grave, which is quite a talent: quite impossible, if we are truthful. Changes were put in place to ensure that that did not happen. There were also houses from which a number of people were able to vote, but the only “people” who could access those houses had four legs and a tail. It was quite obvious that no human being could vote from those houses, so significant and direct measures and systems were put in place to ensure that that did not happen.
When it comes to addressing these issues, I suggest that we look to Northern Ireland—at how the electoral commissioner has addressed the issue there, and how we have taken the steps to ensure that electoral fraud is a thing of the past and that postal votes are registered and used by the person they are given to. I believe we have the system of a fair, equal, honest and integral vote, in whatever election it may be. Everybody who votes—and they expect their vote to be the one that will change things—has the ability to change the person and the party. We have set that precedent. I urge the House, the Minister and the shadow Minister to reply accordingly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this important debate. I wish to expand on just a couple of points in the time allowed. First, I congratulate the Government on holding firm on individual electoral registration and the timescales in which that is to be introduced. That is an important step forward in combating potential fraud.
Secondly, I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) who spoke about the steps that have been taken over time to secure the sanctity of the ballot in Northern Ireland. Yet we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough that there are troubles now in England, particularly in some of our major cities. It is time that the Government took seriously the fraud issues that are, unfortunately, taking place in some of our towns and cities and considered very carefully whether we should not be introducing some of the safeguards that were introduced in Northern Ireland some time ago.
I am personally coming around to the idea of showing some form of ID at the polling station. My hon. Friend talked at length about the postal ballot and I am interested in the Minister’s reply. In respect of potential impersonation at the polling station, nothing can be more frustrating for a resident citizen of our country than to turn up at the polling station and be told, as happens in a few cases in every election, “I’m sorry—supposedly you’ve already voted.” Requiring no form of ID to be shown at a polling station remains a loophole for those who want to commit fraud.
We need to gather more data. After elections there is always anecdotal talk of people turning up at polling stations and being told that their vote has already been cast. We need to know the scale of that problem to know whether the remedy is worse than the disease.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough that British democracy should be sacrosanct. People should know that the result of a ballot, whether it be in local, national or European elections—or indeed in elections to our devolved Parliaments—is absolutely correct. That becomes even more important on those occasions when the margin is four votes or one vote. Any fraud can change the result of our elections under a first-past-the-post system.
This intervention will be swift. We took those steps on identification in Northern Ireland, and the steps were sometimes hard. There are many forms of identification—driving licences, bus passes, passports, firearms certificates and benefits cards—and so long as they contain a photograph, they prove who people are. Yes, it might sometimes be an inconvenience, but it is a good idea because it works.
The hon. Gentleman makes that point extremely powerfully. All that someone needs to commit electoral fraud under our system is a really good telling regime at the polling station; to knock out the postal voters; then, in the dying hours of polling, they can send people along to impersonate those people who the system shows have not already voted. That is exactly what used to happen in too many towns in Northern Ireland, I am afraid. We do not know for sure to what extent it might be happening here.
As I said earlier, after every single election, whether it is a nationwide election or a large set of local elections, there are always people who go to their local paper—the hon. Gentleman can look through the cuttings—or who complain to the returning officer, “I went to the polling station to vote, but I was told that my vote had already been cast.”
The evidence is not strong in the way that perhaps it was in Northern Ireland, but it is a loophole in our system. As the hon. Member for Strangford says, it does not have to be a passport or driving licence, but requiring any picture ID, at the very least, would make it incredibly difficult to perpetrate a major fraud, because people who wanted to do so would have to forge lots of bus passes or similar items. I would be interested if the Minister gave us some feedback on that issue, as well as on postal voting, which was comprehensively covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough.
It is interesting that we are having this debate as we begin to celebrate international Human Rights Day, because article 25 of the 1948 declaration of human rights called on nation states to provide free and fair elections on the basis of universal and equal suffrage. I do not mean to suggest complacency or to get into self-congratulatory backslapping but, from a global perspective, we have reason to be proud of the systems that we have in this country and of the level of respect that we have for the democratic process. That is not to say that there are not concerns or that there should not be changes. I will talk about some of those in a minute, but overall our democracy, and our electoral democracy, is in reasonable shape.
As I have previously suggested in similar Westminster Hall debates, the Scottish referendum last year was an exemplar of how to do things right, but I remind Members that probably the greatest compromised election in recent times also happened in Scotland. At the 2007 Scottish general election, fully 7% of the votes cast were rejected. That happened for two reasons, neither of which has to do with deliberate fraud or mal-intent. The first was that, because the local council elections took place on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections—the latter of which involved two different ballot papers—there was an unprecedented degree of confusion among the electorate, and an awful lot of people simply did not know how to exercise their right to vote. The second reason, which I am glad to say we have dispensed with, was that the then Scottish Government invested rather too much public money in a number of electronic counting machines that simply were not fit for purpose and seemed unable to do the job for which they were bought.
I am pleased to say that we have won the argument with the Government, because they did not rule out holding the EU referendum on the day of another election until the House clearly and explicitly decided that that should not happen. One of the procedures that we should use to protect our democratic process is to make sure that, each and every time a question is asked, it is a specific question that cannot be confused with anything else.
I was unaware of what the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) was going to say in this debate, but I note his concerns, which fall into two parts. One is the question of deliberate electoral fraud, in which people, either individually or by conspiring with others, deliberately abuse the process to cheat. We are in a good position because, in a competitive, multi-party democracy, there is an opportunity for parties to keep tabs on each other and to monitor the process. There is also a degree of good will and sincerity among our electoral registration officers, who are very vigilant and aware of the possibility of fraud and the need to do something about it. In my experience, the police, and others with responsibility for taking action, take electoral fraud very seriously. Again, that is a healthy development.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the problem of familial pressure being applied in some communities, particularly to influence women’s votes. I do not deny that that happens, but I am unsure of what action the state or the public authorities can take to prevent it from happening, apart from some of the things that we are doing through individual electoral registration and, of course, the education campaign to encourage everyone to recognise that their vote is a precious thing that relates to them, and to them alone, and that they should not be influenced by anyone else.
I know Members are concerned about the dramatic increase in postal votes, and we are clearly now in a situation where the ability to vote by post is a choice—people do not have to fulfil many criteria to exercise a postal vote. I see that as a positive development because it encourages people to participate in the election process. There are lots of people for whom it is more convenient to exercise their vote by post. If we are going to look at restricting that by putting hurdles in the way of people who seek to vote by post, we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
We are talking about electoral integrity, and I will finish by putting the issue in a slightly wider context. There are things that we can do. The Scottish referendum was an exemplar, with 97% of the people who were entitled to register being registered to vote and 85% of them turning out to vote. There were a number of reasons for that. One was that we widened the franchise and included 16 and 17-year-olds. I know that the House has rejected that model for the EU referendum, but plenty has been said about it by all parties and we will have to consider it again before this Parliament is over.
I will finish with this point. We also need to consider making voting easier, simpler and more contemporary. We really need to consider electronic voting in our processes. People trust the ability of the internet—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Main.
I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this important debate. All of us who are democrats and who believe in the efficacy of elections also believe that those elections must be above board and entirely fair, and that all the participants in those elections must respect their integrity. That is important in itself, but it is also important that elections are seen widely in a democracy to be fair and beyond reproach.
The various issues that the hon. Member for Peterborough has brought to our attention have to be taken very seriously. He mentioned the Electoral Commission. Indeed, the Electoral Commission, among other bodies, has taken the allegations and examples of corruption and fraud very seriously, and it has presented to the Government’s anti-corruption champion—the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock)—detailed measures about how the electoral system can be tightened up. Those are very positive measures.
The Electoral Commission has suggested four measures, and I would like the Minister to respond to those recommendations. Before that, however, it is worth noting that it is not simply what we have in terms of regulations and electoral law that matters. A fact that needs to be highlighted is that a lot depends on the political parties themselves to make sure that they police their own candidates, to ensure that those candidates and their supporters are aware of the law and fully respect it. That is very important. Responsibility rests not only with the Government, the Electoral Commission and others, but with the political parties themselves and the individuals concerned.
As has been mentioned, we are seeing the introduction of individual electoral registration. It is to be welcomed in principle, because one of the key aspects underlying IER is the new emphasis placed on individuals rather than the head of a household, which accurately reflects society’s changing nature. IER is more modern and also puts greater responsibility on the individual in recognising the importance of the electoral process as a whole and their role within it, although we all regret—at least, Labour Members certainly regret—that its introduction has been rushed. We have our own reasons to believe why that was the case.
The essential point I want to make is that although all of us are united in total condemnation of electoral fraud, it is important to keep such fraud in perspective. The perception among many sections of the electorate is that electoral fraud is quite widespread, which is damaging to democracy. However, it is important to make the point that that perception is not based on concrete fact. As the Electoral Commission said in the evidence it submitted to the Government’s anti-corruption champion:
“The evidence currently available to us does not support the conclusion that electoral fraud is widespread in the UK.”
The hon. Gentleman is making his remarks in a typically eloquent way, but is it not a matter of regret that the chief executive of Woking Borough Council and the electoral returning officer for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) said on “File on 4”, the programme I referred to in my remarks, that in 12 years he had never presided over a wholly clean election in that borough? I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said, but surely that is a lamentable state of affairs.
Elections have to be clean, of course, but quite often there is a fine dividing line between the rough and tumble of electoral politics and actual electoral fraud. When we talk about fraudulent activity, we have to rely on evidence and hard facts being presented. If in that programme and elsewhere there have been actual examples of fraud and clear evidence of it, then it is right that an investigation is made and action taken. However, I return to my central point. Yes, there is plenty of tittle-tattle, plenty of suggestions and plenty of accusations, but all too often there is very little hard and fast evidence, and we have to go on evidence.
It is important to keep our debate in perspective. Of course that must not be used as an excuse not to do anything, and of course the system must be tightened up, but at the same time let us recognise that our democracy is one of the finest in the world, and we must do everything to defend it, while at the same time making sure that it is as watertight as possible.
Finally, as we move to a system of IER, it is important that we have, above all else, the desire to encourage and to make as easy as possible the participation of our voters in the electoral system. There is a fine dividing line, but we have a system that is open and fair, and that encourages people to vote and facilitates their involvement in the democratic process, and at the same time our system must be monitored and policed effectively.
Surely none of us would want to see a system in place that was as onerous as some Members have perhaps suggested, which would be a disincentive to people to go along and cast their vote. If we made the system too cumbersome, that would undermine the democratic process itself. Therefore, in the interests of democracy and democratic participation, we always have to strike a balance between what is reasonable to do in order to encourage as many people as possible to engage, while at the same time having a system that is above reproach and that is based on fairness and integrity.
It is a pleasure to have you looking after us this afternoon, Mrs Main; it is good to see you in the Chair.
Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this debate on a tremendously important issue, which is perhaps slightly more topical than when he originally tried to secure it. However, that just shows his foresight and that he has his finger on the pulse of the popular mood. I think all of us here agree that this is a very important issue, but we tend to blithely assume that things are all right because historically this country has had a democracy to be proud of. Of course, it is up to us as the current incumbents in that democracy to ensure that we continue to be alive to any threat to it, and therefore it is important that we continue to address this issue regularly.
May I also remind all present and anybody who analyses this debate in future that the right way to deal with allegations of electoral fraud of any kind is to take them to the police? That is absolutely essential. The police are the investigating authority, and they are the people who have the skills and the resources to investigate properly. It is essential for the health of our democracy that any concerns are reported properly, so that the police can get to work and get their teeth into anything that looks suspicious.
During the last four years, we have had a steady flow—not a huge rush, but a steady flow—of electoral fraud cases. There were 268 in 2011, 408 in 2012, 178 in 2013 and 272 in 2014. That is not a deluge, but it is not zero either, and there is some concern that there may be other cases that are not being properly reported and may be going under the radar, which I think is one of the reasons why my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough secured this debate.
If anyone present or anyone looking at this debate afterwards has any concerns and, specifically, any detailed recommendations about how the system could be improved—we have heard a number of suggestions from all quarters during the debate—I would encourage them to mention them without delay to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough. My right hon. Friend is in the process of finalising his report and has collected recommendations on how to deal with electoral fraud. The Government will be waiting for that report to come to us. We will react to it once it is in our hands and we have had a chance to study it and consider its implications. It is an opportunity for anyone with concerns and, in particular, specific recommendations about how the system can be improved—goodness knows, no system is ever perfect—to strike now. The iron is, if not yet hot, then certainly getting pretty warm, and it will be hot shortly. Now is the moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough also rightly mentioned that 9 million postal votes were cast. Concerns are regularly voiced—albeit not always necessarily evidenced beyond the 200 to 300 or so cases each year—about undue influence when postal votes are in the hands of the voter, particularly within families with a strong tradition of patriarchy. It is hard to prove whether that is happening, but the suspicions none the less persist. All of us in this room will no doubt have heard those suspicions voiced to us by colleagues in Parliament and by constituents.
It is absolutely right—I hope all of us here would sign up to this principle—that we should not assume that there is a necessary contradiction or choice between having an electoral system that allows any eligible elector who wants to cast their vote to do so cleanly, conveniently and easily, so that turnout is maximised to the greatest possible extent, and the notion that there should be reasonable checks to ensure that the person casting the vote is eligible, is the person they say they are and is not subject to unfair pressure or influence in any way. Those two principles are equally vital. If we start saying that one is subservient to the other, we are on an extremely slippery slope, democratically speaking. Both principles apply and are important, and anyone who tries to pretend that we need to compromise one at the expense of the other is on dangerous ground indeed.
One of the only points on which I respectfully disagree with my hon. Friend was where he mentioned some turnout figures for successive general elections. He is absolutely right that general election turnouts have been higher in the past. I fear that factors other than the availability of postal votes may be involved in that. I suspect those factors are particularly to do with public attitudes to politics, public attitudes to politicians, dare I say it, and general levels of societal democratic engagement. There are probably more things going on than just the availability of postal votes, although I am sure he is absolutely right to point out that that is a factor.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) expressed some concerns about voting in person and impersonation. He asked whether there should be polling station checks. Again, that will be covered by the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar. I mention in passing that some recent photos appeared in the press of President Obama turning up to cast his vote in the American presidential elections—no prizes for guessing who he was voting for—and I was struck by the fact that he had to sign for his ballot paper when he got there. That is a different system from the one that applies in Northern Ireland that was referenced by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). None the less, there are models elsewhere in the world that we could look at, always with an eye to the fact that we do not want to discourage legitimate voters from turning out.
The Minister makes a good point about another way of doing things. Of course, we sign for our postal votes, and that is checked. There are 9 million postal voters, with 15% to 20% of the electorate now choosing to vote by post. If that 20% is being checked, why should the signature and validity of the ballot at the polling station not be checked?
The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) has rightly outlined examples of voter fraud that, if true, should be addressed with the full force of the law. Does the Minister agree that any future electoral law should have the right mix of safeguards and things to encourage voter participation? Will he please look into the possibility of credit reference agencies providing extra data to boost voter registration?
The hon. Gentleman mentioned this issue to me in oral questions earlier today. I encouraged him then and encourage him now to provide me with further details of his proposal. I am very interested at looking into that matter. It is potentially useful. There are many other sources of data that can be used to verify registrations, and we want to look at them all if we can. In the modern digital world, it seems a sensible avenue to explore.
At the root of the debate, we have a contradiction. We have modest levels of electoral fraud cases—I have already given everyone the figures for the past three or four years—but we can all see that, in principle, our processes and controls are pretty light-touch. We can all think of theoretical ways in which someone might be able to indulge in electoral fraud, were they so minded. In all our minds, there will always be a nagging concern that even though there may not be that many electoral fraud cases, there could be a cohort of people that we are not aware of taking advantage of this relatively trust-based system. That is the concern behind this debate and the ongoing public debate. To summarise it in a sentence, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. That is our concern.
I therefore want to reassure everyone that there is no complacency in the Government on this tremendously important issue. A number of people have mentioned in the course of the debate that there is some self-policing, because political rivals will naturally keep an eye on each other. That is good, but we have also heard examples of loopholes or potential flaws in the process that would allow some things to go unremarked, even where there is a strong political culture of rivalry. We should clearly consider applying the precautionary principle here, provided that we can do so with the satisfactory light touch.
What have we done so far? There has been the introduction of individual elector registration. ID is therefore verified and it makes inventing people a great deal harder. It also makes family influence and patriarchy less important. We have also made postal votes a great deal more controlled. People now have to put a signature on a postal vote, and every single signature is matched up when that postal vote is opened. There was an initial problem in Scotland, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) mentioned, but the system is now running much more smoothly. There is much greater security around polling stations too, which is essential, particularly when one reads some of the judgments about what was happening in Tower Hamlets.
Finally, I want to back up the point that a number of colleagues made about voter education. One of the most fundamental ways of guarding against undue influence, whether spiritual, familial or any other form, is to educate people from the earliest moment that their vote is genuinely secret and that they are absolutely entitled to tell anyone, whether they are a family member, religious leader or politician, to take a hike if they want to find out how someone voted or to influence the way they are planning to vote. That is an attitude of robust independence that we need to inculcate in all our young people and, if necessary, all adults too. With that, I will sit down to let my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough have a final word. I reiterate that if anyone wants to make any further comments to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, his door is open.
I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. I support the direction of travel. The Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission are going in the right direction, but I do not think light-touch will do any more. We need more academic research and more legal sanctions. In particular, we need a proper response to the Electoral Commission’s report from last year.
I have two extra things to say. First, we perhaps need to think about disaggregating ward results in general elections. In the United States, that allows people to see obvious examples of electoral fraud. We have never done that in this country, but there has never been a reason not to, because we have ward results in local elections. Secondly, I would like an undertaking from the Minister that when the Pickles review is produced for the Prime Minister, we will have, if not a debate, then at least a statement in the House, so that we can ventilate all these important issues that we are all committed to tackling. With that, I appreciate the opportunity to raise such vital issues.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered electoral integrity and absent votes.