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General Election: Electoral Malpractice

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the comments by the Electoral Commission about the risk of possible incidents of electoral malpractice at the forthcoming general election.

My Lords, we welcome the recent report by the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers which confirms that the recent downward trend in the scale and volume of allegations of electoral malpractice continued at the June 2009 elections. However, the Government strongly agree with the commission that all those involved in the conduct of elections must remain vigilant at the forthcoming general election.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I declare a couple of interests. I have been asked to be an agent for a parliamentary candidate in the forthcoming general election and I have accepted. Also, on page 52 of the report there is a table of outstanding cases, including one with the Crown Prosecution Service which I instigated.

Page 41 of the report points out that this coming year will be a particular challenge because there are local elections in the main cities and in London, which are the places,

“where the most significant allegations and cases of electoral malpractice have originated”.

There will also be a general election and the report refers to,

“the unique logistical issues associated with a UK Parliamentary general election”.

It is highly likely that these elections will be on the same day. Does the Minister understand that it is vital that there are not significant allegations of malpractice in marginal constituencies in some of these cities which could put the result of a close general election at risk?

I cannot possibly comment on whether the elections might be on the same day, as the noble Lord will know. I have already said that we and all those involved with the elections this year need to be vigilant. However, it is important that the report brought out by the Electoral Commission and ACPO last week made it clear that we in Great Britain are free from major allegations of electoral fraud and it saw a recent downward trend in the scale and volume of allegations of fraud. The noble Lord knows that many measures have been taken during the past few years to try to make sure that fraud is lessened.

My Lords, in an earlier answer, the noble Lord told us that personation was a major problem in electoral fraud. Is he really saying that it is a worse problem than the fraud that we have in postal voting?

The number of cases where fraud is alleged in elections is incredibly small, and was even smaller in 2009 than in previous years. Of that very small number of complaints made, a considerable proportion was about personation.

I was going to make the same point during the previous Question, having spoken on it on many occasions in your Lordships' House. As we approach a general election, is there any hope of reasoned consideration, and should not the altering of electoral arrangements be left until another Government —or the same Government—are in charge of the country? It is a very important question which is not to be trivialised.

I think that I agree with the noble Lord. I argue strongly that this would be the wrong time to start mucking around with our electoral arrangements and timetable. I would argue that it is common sense; I am delighted that the noble Lord agrees.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that Nick Brown, the government Chief Whip in the other House, has apparently expressed a view that he is against next-day counts at the general election on the grounds that he does not trust the local returning officer, his staff and the police to provide sufficient security to prevent tampering at the ballot box. Is that government policy?

My Lords, I think that it has been said on many occasions that it is much more exciting and much more in our traditions to have counts on the Thursday night of a general election if that can possibly be arranged.

My Lords, I have listened to the exchanges so far and am aware that change cannot happen before the general election this year. However, does my noble friend not agree that it really is time that we investigated secure electronic voting in this country before the following general election takes place?

Significant work has been done on e-voting, and the change to electoral arrangements that that would entail would be considerable. It would obviously require very careful consideration as well as primary legislation. We certainly cannot consider it for now, but it is obvious that we shall have to consider it for the election after next and the one after that.

My Lords, is the Minister not being complacent about the recent report from the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers, which showed many cases of electoral fraud through postal voting in the elections last year? As it is the duty of returning officers to verify 20 per cent of postal voters, why should that percentage not be increased before the next election to 50 per cent or 75 per cent?

I do not think I was being complacent. As I understand it, the number of cases and allegations of electoral malpractice recorded by police forces in Great Britain for last year’s elections were 48 cases involving 107 allegations. This compares with the scale of participation in those elections with 22 million votes cast across the United Kingdom. The noble Lord asked a very interesting question about the checking of return postal votes. We support the principle that 100 per cent of return postal votes should be checked and funding has been provided to allow this to take place in practice. We will look to mandate 100 per cent checking when it is appropriate and safe to do so, in particular when all local authorities and parliamentary constituencies are able to fully comply with that requirement.

When my noble friend says “when it is appropriate to do so”, does he mean that certain seats will then be targeted for that level of checking?

No, I do not believe that that is what I meant. I am attempting to say that although 100 per cent of return postal votes ought to be checked, there may be constituencies and local authorities which, because of their administration, are unable to do that for this year’s elections.

It seems to me that all constituencies and local authorities should be treated the same as far as this is concerned. We are looking for 100 per cent of return postal votes to be checked where possible.