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General Election: International Observers

Volume 670: debated on Thursday 17 March 2005

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11.16 a.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What arrangements will be made for the appointment of international observers during the next general election campaign.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs
(Baroness Ashton of apholland)

My Lords, it has not been the practice of the UK Government formally to appoint observers at UK elections, However, we are aware that observers, for example, from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, have been invited to be present to observe previous election campaigns in the past. We intend to extend a similar invitation when the next election is called.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that fairly helpful Answer—perhaps a very helpful Answer. In considering advice that might be given to the OSCE and any other observers, will the Minister bear in mind the dramatic increases in the number of complaints and allegations about voting fraud, particularly but not only connected with postal voting, which have been made in the past few years?

Is the noble Baroness aware that only a fortnight ago a former councillor in Blackburn pleaded guilty at Preston Crown Court to such offences in 2002; and that this is only the tip of the iceberg of what is going on? Will she give advice to such observers that they might concentrate their attention on those places and in those areas where such allegations are made?

My Lords, I am not sure it is for me to give advice to observers. I think it is for the observers to determine where best they can use their skills and expertise and to look at the elections. There is no evidence of widespread postal voting fraud or that postal voting is inherently less secure. We have cases that are currently sub judice. When they are resolved, we will of course examine any issues that arise because it is important to protect the integrity of all our voting systems.

My Lords, is there not a case for welcoming observers from the emerging democracies, such as Iraq, who have a lot to learn in Britain?

My Lords, indeed. We have a good track record in the UK of observers going out to other countries. I think it is absolutely right and proper that we should invite people to observe how we proceed here.

My Lords, the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, were both thinking of observers coming to learn from us. In the new circumstances, to which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, draws attention, of the higher possibilities of fraud and so on from the changes, perhaps we have something to learn from other people as well.

My Lords, in my Answer, I specifically was not referring to observers coming to learn from us. Indeed, I said that observers should determine where they could best use their skills. I accept that it is important that observers come to see how we demonstrate our democracy through the ballot box, but also to support us in ensuring that at all times there is integrity in the system.

My Lords, in response to the supplementary question from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was not the Minister a trifle complacent about the widespread concern in the north west about electoral fraud and malpractice? It is one thing simply to talk about where convictions have been obtained, it is another completely to disregard the widely held view and concern of those involved in the political process that something has been going seriously awry for some time.

My Lords, there was nothing complacent in my answer. I said that there was no evidence of a widespread problem and that when the cases, which are now sub judice, are resolved, we will look carefully at what comes out of them to ensure that we addressed any issues that arose about the security of the system. I am very concerned that we should not give the impression without evidence that somehow we have a problem with our voting system, which has stood us in very good stead for a long time.

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, will the Government consult the Commonwealth Secretariat about the possibility that it might put together an observer mission that would include some representatives from African countries?

My Lords, that is a very interesting idea. I shall certainly pass it on to my ministerial colleagues.

My Lords, without accusing the Minister of complacency, is there not a danger that, in the desire to turn around the decline in turnout in our elections in recent years, we may put at risk the integrity of our system? Are there plans properly to evaluate the new voting system? An increase based just on making voting ever easier does not increase the quality of our democracy. We need democrats to make democracy work and we need better education, especially of the young, in the civic responsibility in a society such as ours to exercise their vote.

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with what the noble Lord said about the need to educate people. We need to ensure that people understand the importance and value of voting—how incredibly important it is to exercise your right to vote—but, alongside that, to recognise the way in which our young people, in particular, operate and find different ways to enable them to exercise that right. The Internet and technology generally is involved. We must be clear that those go hand in hand with integrity in the system.

My Lords, every Member of your Lordships' House and every political party in this country demand the best integrity in all of our elections. Noble Lords have spoken about widely held views that there is corruption or a lack of integrity in elections. Is my noble friend aware that that itself casts doubt on the election process? Just before an election, it sounds as though people are crying foul before they have even heard the result.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that we must take great care in what we say. We must be sure that where allegations are made, they are investigated; and that where things are discovered that need to be put right, they are put right; but we should be very cautious of suggesting that things are badly wrong when they are clearly not.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a major international dimension to this? The Russian Government are complaining about observers from the West always going to observe elections in eastern Europe and not having proper mutuality. Is it not therefore very much in our interest to ensure that we encourage observers from other countries to come here?

My Lords, I cannot comment on the Russian Government, but it is very important that we offer the opportunity to discuss with colleagues in emerging and fully fledged democracies the ways in which we exercise our democracy. That is a healthy debate and an important opportunity that elections provide and I am sure that that will be much welcomed.