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Elections: Signatures

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 26 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Further to the statement that they intend to bring forward primary legislation to require signatures in polling stations, when such legislation will be introduced.

My Lords, the Government intend to bring forward primary legislation to provide a clear requirement for electors in polling stations to sign for their ballot paper and for the ballot paper to be withheld should an elector refuse to sign. We will do this when parliamentary time allows.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that half-helpful reply. Does he agree that the Government have created the most astonishing muddle over this matter, first, by introducing measures in the Electoral Administration Act to require voters to provide a signature in polling stations and, secondly, by having to rescind them because those measures were inadequately drafted? As the Official Opposition have made it clear that they will support short legislation to rectify this situation, can the Minister explain why there is not more urgency behind the statement he has made?

My Lords, we discussed this in Grand Committee. The noble Baroness described it as,

“a fiasco of the greatest order … I cannot overstate the fact that this is a monumental blunder”.—[Official Report, 20/3/07; col. GC 158.]

In Grand Committee, on behalf of the Government, I apologised three times for the fact that this had happened. It was an error, which we wish to rectify as soon as possible. It has to be done by primary legislation. I do not know when that will be because I cannot predict what will be in the Queen’s Speech in the next Session.

As the noble Baroness said, we tried to tag it on to a Bill which was going through, but that was not possible because the scope was different. We are aware of the problem, we recognise that we have made a mistake and we want to rectify it as soon as possible, which we will do. But I am afraid that I cannot give an absolute timetable at the moment.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the fast introduction of compulsory ID cards would make this legislation irrelevant? We would then be able to produce an ID card when we vote. As the ID card will be a smart card, it will allow for the safe introduction of electronic voting in a variety of places and thus increase the number of people taking part in democracy.

My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says, but I do not wish to reopen the issue of identity cards today. During next week’s local authority elections, the Electoral Commission will conduct several pilot schemes on electronic voting and will monitor the results carefully.

My Lords, why did the Minister say that this would have to wait for the Queen’s Speech? Surely, it is in the Government’s power to introduce a Bill at the stroke of a pen, which some people are unable to do at the polling station.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, but I gather that it is very difficult to get legislative time, whichever Government are in power. Everyone recognises the importance of this and we will get legislative time as soon as possible to rectify this error.

My Lords, when the primary legislation is introduced, will the Minister undertake to include provisions for tightening up postal voting? I ask this in view of the widespread fraud that already takes place and will no doubt again take place next week.

My Lords, I cannot give that undertaking at the moment because I do not accept that there is widespread fraud in postal voting. There are indications of some forms of fraud being monitored very carefully by the Electoral Commission, and obviously the matter we are talking about today would be an important factor in helping to prevent it. However, while the evidence we have indicates that fraud is an issue, it is not a serious one at the moment.

My Lords, will the system we intend to introduce be based on the collection of original signatures by canvassers in order to check off against signatures taken in polling stations? If that is the case, are we satisfied that the Electoral Commission is taking into account the fact that those canvassers who have to go into the more violent parts of our inner cities to collect those signatures will be undertaking very dangerous work?

My Lords, I am not able to comment on the attitude of the Electoral Commission to this. As I understand it, we are talking about signatures being collected at polling stations. If there is any suspicion—and there are various ways of checking whether something is wrong—a ballot paper is not given to the person who wishes to vote.

My Lords, the Electoral Commission has just produced a report saying that personation is in fact the most common way of committing electoral fraud. The Minister and others have referred to the elections taking place next week and the Minister also mentioned some experiments to be conducted in those elections. But what action is being taken to ensure that there is not much personation in polling stations during these elections?

My Lords, the evidence we have shows that during the period 2000-06, the Crown Prosecution Service looked at 91 files containing allegations of voting offences, and of those, 40 related to personation problems. So although it is a small problem, it is a problem. Even though voters will not be signing for their ballot papers next week, if the presiding officer has any suspicions, he may ask the elector two questions. If the presiding officer is not satisfied with the answers, he has the power to ensure that a ballot paper is not handed over. Protections are in place, but I think we would all agree that if signatures were necessary, that would be even more effective.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that as well as local elections next week, there are also elections to the Scottish Parliament? Will he join me in encouraging the people of Scotland, particularly unionists of all colours, to come out and vote in those elections in the kind of numbers we have just seen in France so that we can avoid the break-up of Britain?

My Lords, every Member of this House would be very happy if our voting percentage rose to 84 per cent next week both in the local and the Scottish elections. I agree with my noble friend. Yesterday, an extraordinary full-page advertisement signed by some very distinguished people was taken out in the Scotsman saying that the union must stay intact. I have every hope that that will happen.