My Lords, my reference to “specific complaints” referred to paragraph 2.58 of the Electoral Commission’s report on the administration of the 2010 UK general election, which says:
“Because many of the cases of alleged malpractice are still under active investigation by police forces, it is not possible at this time to give any definitive figures for the number of cases which relate to the 2010 UK general election”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In essence, the noble Lord has confirmed that these cases have now been referred to the police, which is absolutely the correct procedure. However, in October, it was stated in the BBC “Newsnight” programme that two of the constituencies concerned were in Halifax and Oldham. I understand that the police are now quite properly involved, but can the noble Lord confirm the BBC’s claim? Many people are in a state of perplexity and extremely worried because they do not know what the situation is.
I would not want to verify or otherwise many of the claims that are made by “Newsnight”. I can say that the police are investigating and that, as the noble Baroness rightly says, the Electoral Commission will report in January. We have to be patient. It may be difficult for the individuals concerned in the constituencies where complaints have been made, but the due process has to be gone through and we just have to be patient.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that as only around one in 20 of the crimes committed in this country is thought to be reported to the police, there is probably far greater prevalence of electoral fraud than we are generally aware of? Does he further agree that if many more people were aware of how easy it is to commit fraud under the present system, it would be even more prevalent? Could he indicate what steps the Government may be taking with the parties and the Electoral Commission to reduce the possibility of such fraud?
I am not sure that I agree entirely with my noble friend. Most of the inquiries about the conduct of our elections show a good performance in complying with the law. Many colleagues in this House must feel, as I do, that we went through most of the 20th century with the integrity of our voting system unquestioned. We were very confident about it. It is only in the past 10, or perhaps 20, years that we have become concerned about it. We are bringing in various measures to make it more difficult to perpetrate fraud in our elections, as did the previous Government. We have made it clear that, whatever the party, anybody who commits fraud will be prosecuted and may well face jail for that fraud.
In answer to my noble friend Lady Royall on 5 October, the Minister said:
“The Government do not have information and neither is this the Government’s direct responsibility in these matters”.
Then, in answer to my noble friend Lord Hughes, he said:
“As far as I understand it, specific complaints have been made in a range of constituencies and are being investigated”.—[Official Report, 5/10/10; col. 10.]
At that time, did the Government have information—yes or no? I refer the noble Lord to the Ministerial Code. Part 1.2(d) says:
“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”.
Why is it not in the public interest to tell Parliament if there is an investigation into fraud?
I think that is straining things a little. What I said was that I am not directly involved: the police and the Electoral Commission are involved. There would be a lot more questions from that side of the House, and probably from this side too, if Ministers were directly involved in investigating electoral fraud.
Noble Lords: Oh!
It is a matter for the Electoral Commission; it is going to produce a report in January, and my recommendation, as an elector and a citizen—never mind being a Minister—is that all three political parties study that report very carefully and then see if we can come together to try to tighten it up still further. Nothing I said either the last time or today suggests any impropriety as far as I am concerned. I am leaving it to the Electoral Commission, the police and the returning officers in the constituencies concerned, which is exactly as it should be.
Is my noble friend aware that he is absolutely right in the position he takes—not least as someone who has sat through a fair number of recounts? However, is he not also correct in saying that, when the police have investigated, they do report? We have the case of Bristol East, where the newly elected Labour Member has been cautioned by the police for the use she made of—it is reported— the postal votes on her Twitter, and, rightly, that is fraud under Section 63 of the Elections Act 1983.
Would the Minister agree that probably everybody in this House would acknowledge that Ministers should not investigate electoral fraud? However, is there not a responsibility on the part of Ministers and, indeed, all of us, to acknowledge that we should not be fanning the flames and making wild accusations as has happened in the past?
I agree with that, but after a general election, when there are close fights—we have all been through this—comments are made. What is important is that all parties co-operate in ensuring that the machinery we put in place works. Let us see what the Electoral Commission recommends, and then, if further action is needed, further action will be taken.