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Electoral Fraud

Volume 782: debated on Wednesday 29 March 2017


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to prevent electoral fraud in the local elections on 4 May.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Greaves, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Government will continue to provide support to returning officers, who have responsibility for ensuring the integrity of 2017 polls, with a view to preventing electoral fraud. This support has previously included providing funding to the 17 authorities most at risk of fraud allegations to develop best practice that can be applied at subsequent elections. We will work closely with our partners to support the successful conduct of 2017 polls, to ensure a secure democracy.

I thank the Minister for his response. Would he agree that postal-vote harvesting and fraud are the most serious threats to the integrity of the ballot? What steps are the Government intending to take to ensure that postal votes are completed by the individual in whose name they are acquired and not organised and collected by families and political activists?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her question. On her final point, there is already guidance stating that postal votes should not be harvested by campaigners or activists. We are considering whether we should introduce a ban on handling of postal votes by specified people or groups, which would tackle the inappropriate conduct that she referred to.

The Pickles review considered postal voting and came up with a number of recommendations, one of which is that the offence prescribed for when people vote in person—namely, that it should be in secret and there should be no undue influence—should also be applied to people who vote by post, which it does not at the moment. We are considering how that might best be done. There were other recommendations about postal voting, one of which was that it should not last for ever: it should be renewed every three years. We understand the concern and a number of measures are in train to address it.

My Lords, what discussions have taken place between the parties, the Electoral Commission and the police in the 18 areas identified by the review carried out by Sir Eric Pickles with regard to the measures that should be in place for the local elections where those specified areas have local elections this May, prior to the ID pilot scheme coming into force in May 2018?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. The Electoral Commission is concentrating resources on those local authorities where there is seen to be an undue risk of fraud. It is in touch with the single point of contact, which is a police contact in that area, to ensure that it has all the necessary information and, where appropriate, it holds additional training courses. Resources are being applied to the 18 areas identified as at risk by the Electoral Commission to minimise the risk of fraud.

My Lords, when I was standing where my noble friend is now standing—he is doing such a fantastic job—I remember talking about pilot schemes that we planned, which I feel would help us decide the way to go. Can he reassure me that they will still take place?

My noble friend is much missed at the Dispatch Box when questions are asked about electoral matters. We plan to go ahead in 2018 with a number of pilots to test voter identification. This is a recommendation made several times by the Electoral Commission: that when you vote, there should be some evidence that you are you say you are. We plan to pilot that next year and hope that some of the local authorities which have been identified as being at risk will apply to be part of that pilot.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the work that Estonia has done with the two-step verification process, which it has used with electronic and online voting, dramatically reducing fraud? Someone has to show that they have voted but can also check that the vote is their vote—it is an unusual system. With a population of just 3 million, it seems to me that this would be an effective pilot system, similar to use in a local election?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I am not familiar with the electoral system in Estonia. When we pilot a number of projects next year, we will be looking at various means by which the voter can identify themselves at the polling station. This might be a bus pass, a bank card or an NUS card, but in order not to exclude those who do not have those forms of identification, we are also looking at non-photographic identification. I will see that the helpful information that the noble Baroness has given us about proceedings in Estonia is fed into the options.

I wonder whether the excellent Minister will reflect on a practice which involves freepost by a political party, encouraging those who have signed a postal vote to send it back to the party’s local headquarters. Does he feel that that is totally inappropriate, as I believe it was in the 2015 general election, practised on behalf of the former Deputy Prime Minister?

Without getting involved in Sheffield politics, it is certainly inappropriate for postal votes to be handled in that way. As I said in response to an earlier question, that practice is already discouraged in guidance from the Electoral Commission. There have been recommendations that it should be banned for precisely the reason that the noble Lord explained, and the Government are deciding how best to take that forward when legislative opportunities present themselves.

My Lords, could the Government ensure that the police take sufficiently seriously examples of electoral malpractice during elections, both local and the 2015 general election? In Bradford, there were a number of allegations during the last campaign across the parties about gatherings of young men outside polling stations and about party workers going into polling stations. The police did not follow these up as fully as perhaps they should have done. Can the Government make sure that the police are aware, for local as well as general elections, that these are serious offences?

The noble Lord is quite right. This was one of the problems identified by Sir Eric Pickles in his review; he recommended that there should be a sort of cordon sanitaire around polling stations to prevent the intimidation to which the noble Lord refers. My understanding is that the Electoral Commission has taken that recommendation forward in guidance to stop intimidation in polling stations for the reason that the noble Lord has given.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that our first past the post system in local and national elections ensures that their results are democratically fraudulent?

We do not have first past the post in many local elections. If the noble Lord is familiar with the election of the Mayor of London, for example, he will recognise that there are alternative systems—and likewise for some of the other elections. As for moving away from first past the post, it has been discussed several times, certainly down the other end. Indeed, I think that we had a referendum on the matter, and the country decided that it wanted to remain with first past the post.