Skip to main content

Elections: Observers

Volume 698: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they plan to invite a larger number of observers from other states to observe the next United Kingdom parliamentary elections to demonstrate that the principle of reciprocity applies to international oversight of election procedures.

My Lords, the Government welcome observers at all elections in the UK. There are no limits on the number of persons and organisations that may apply to be accredited. We invite the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to send election observers to UK general elections. It is a matter for it to decide how many observers to send.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. May I encourage the Government to take more active measures in this respect? We are all now conscious that a number of Governments around the world, from Russia to Kenya, claim that we expect to be able to inspect their elections but do not want them to inspect ours. We need to make absolutely sure that, as often as possible, that excuse is not available to them. We should recognise that our election procedures are not always entirely without the occasional blemish and we should therefore do all that we can to invite others to come and watch our elections.

My Lords, the short answer is that I agree with everything that the noble Lord said. We make observers welcome. We changed the law in 2006 at the request of the organisation to ensure that it was absolutely clear that observers could attend all elements of the election process. I understand that for the 2005 election the OSCE sent 11 experts and we would welcome more. On the overall assessment, the OSCE had some very useful observations to make about the UK election process and said that:

“The United Kingdom has a long-standing tradition of democratic elections and the May 2005 general election was conducted in keeping with this tradition”.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of any Government who have hampered or banned observers alleging that we have not shown reciprocity? Does a formal invitation imply an obligation, in his judgment, to pay for such observers? Should not the role of government be to facilitate visas where appropriate and to liaise with international organisations—not only the OSCE but the Council of Europe, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which are active in this area?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. In addition to the organisation I mentioned, as he says, the Commonwealth and the European Union send observers to many countries. The UK has a very proud record of contributing large numbers of people and observers. I agree with the tenet of the original Question that it is very important that we welcome observers from other countries. We do that and we will do everything that we can to encourage that.

My Lords, might not inviting international advisers be a way of getting some free advice on the conduct of elections? Does the Minister think that the current costs of the Electoral Commission, which are running at £24 million per year, represent value for money for taxpayers?

My Lords, I do think that the current costs of the Electoral Commission represent value for money for taxpayers. I pay tribute to the work of the commission. On elections in this country, the assessment in 2005 raised some very interesting points. The Electoral Commission has advised the Government on changes. Note has been taken of that advice and, where defects have been identified, there have been improvements. Surely, that is a very sensible approach to ensuring the integrity of the electoral system.

My Lords, the principle of reciprocity, enunciated by my noble friend, is the key to this Question. Will the Minister do what he can, together with his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to ensure that our citizens who go on these observer missions abroad—as they did in Kenya on both the EU and Commonwealth missions—get access to the final count compilation, which they did not have on that occasion, and that they do not go to elections that are fatally flawed because the electoral commission in that country is not independent of the Government? Those are key questions. We need to raise the standard of elections internationally and presumably the Government are in a good position to help to do that.

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks from a great deal of experience. I agree with what he says. The UK Government are very active in seeking to do that. The number of UK experts who have gone as observers shows that the UK is making a very good contribution to this. The fact that we open our doors and listen to external assessments puts us in a very good position to be able to help other countries.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I was an observer at as well as a participant in the recent elections to the Scottish Parliament, where there was a large number of spoiled ballot papers? One factor was the two crazy systems of proportional representation: one for local government and one for the Scottish Parliament. Will he give an absolute assurance, on behalf of the Government, that as long as we are in power no form of PR will be introduced for elections to the House of Commons?

My Lords, yet again my noble friend asks a helpful question. He, of course, is living proof of the success of the Scottish election system, as he was elected.

Of course, there were some issues with the recent Scottish elections. The Gould commission has reported to the Secretary of State for Scotland with important recommendations for improvements. On proportional representation, we have an Oral Question tomorrow to debate the recent paper issued by my department on voting systems. I can speak only for myself on proportional representation when I say that I have a great deal of sympathy with what my noble friend says.

My Lords, as an elected Peer—arcanely, I accept—may I ask whether, if there were observers, the Government would be surprised if it was pointed out to them that the system of postal voting is very much open to abuse in this country?

My Lords, postal voting has been encouraged as part of encouraging more people to take part in the democratic system. I do not apologise at all for the Government’s efforts to increase the number of postal voters. We know that postal voters tend to vote more frequently—

Well, my Lords, when I stood for election in Sparkbrook, we voted early and voted often. We know that increasing postal voting increases voting in elections. Surely that is right, to enhance the democratic system. Where there are problems with postal voting, we have taken the advice of the Electoral Commission in many instances. The latest report shows that some of the problems to which the noble Earl refers have very much decreased as a result of the actions taken.

My Lords, it is all very well to congratulate oneself on more people voting, but when they are not doing so legitimately it cannot be a matter of great satisfaction. Is the Minister not aware that some appalling incidents occurred in Birmingham only a few years ago? Police action had to follow. It is easy to cheat with postal votes.

My Lords, of course I am well aware of the Birmingham case and the electoral court which sat there, where much of the evidence was brought to bear. However, the Government took action as a result, including on the use of personal identifiers by postal voters. There is now a requirement for electors to provide personal identifiers if they wish to have a postal vote. New offences are being brought in. There is every indication that many of the problems then identified have been dealt with.

My Lords, in collating the views of those observers who have attended our elections, does the Electoral Commission investigate how turnout scores in the high 90s are achieved in many countries? Is the commission prepared to look carefully at these situations, without, of course, of necessity, following the practices that lead to such results in some countries?

My Lords, that is an interesting question. The OSCE report to the UK was on the 2005 general election. It did not discuss turnout, but made some helpful recommendations. It is clear that we, as politicians, must do everything we can to encourage greater turnout and enhance the democratic process. Postal voting is one way to do that.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one way of increasing turnout and getting a safer means of voting would be the early introduction of identity cards and switching to electronic voting to ensure that everyone can participate in a range of different places?

My Lords, that is an interesting and constructive suggestion to which the Government are giving every consideration.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that a much simpler way of dealing with the fraud to which reference has been made would be to introduce individual registration, as recommended by the Electoral Commission, rather than household registration?

Yes, my Lords. The Government understand the arguments for individual registration and we are looking very carefully at it at the moment. The concern there is whether it would reduce the number of people registered. That matter also has to be considered in coming to a conclusion about individual registration. The last thing we would want as a result of that initiative is to reduce the number of people on the electoral registration list.

My Lords, if the motive is to increase the level of voting, rather than staying with the system we now have, which is obviously open to some kind of fraud, would it not be better for the Government to consider introducing a system of compulsory voting with an abstention involved which would encourage more people to vote and at the same time would not be open to fraud?

My Lords, the Government do not have any plans at the moment to introduce compulsory voting. However, I say to my noble friend that although there are instances of irregularities and fraud in our elections, they are a very small minority. I again turn to the overall assessment of the OSCE in the 2005 general election which endorsed the integrity of the system as a whole. It is very important that we recognise that our system is fair and is run with integrity. There are very few areas where there are problems and offences.