Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about postal voting at elections.
It is great privilege to present this Bill in the mother of all Parliaments, in one of the world’s great democracies. The representation of the people or postal handling Bill escalates two of Sir Eric Pickles’ recommendations made in his review of electoral fraud, which he undertook as part of his remit as the Government’s anti-corruption champion. There is no threat more insidious to a democratic society than electoral fraud, and it is almost beyond belief that so many allegations of fraudulent behaviour have been made during recent council, mayoral and general elections. It is clear that unscrupulous and devious people are intent on subverting the confidence of the electorate and damaging the sanctity of our ancient democracy. The events that occurred during the 2014 Tower Hamlets mayoral election are mercifully rare, but they show us that our democracy cannot be taken for granted. We need to accept that our trust-based electoral system is susceptible to fraudulent practices. International intergovernmental organisations such as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights have raised their concerns over what they perceive to be vulnerabilities within the United Kingdom’s electoral systems, and it is essential that we act now.
Of course, fighting corruption and electoral fraud has benefits beyond protecting democracy and the suffrage of our citizens. Crime begets crime, and malfeasance and corruption, once they put down roots in an organisation or institution, are very hard to eradicate. An individual who has undermined the democratic process and attained elected office through casuistic means is unlikely to maintain ethical standards in office; they are likely to lapse into recidivistic tendencies, to the detriment of those they represent.
The law currently allows a voter to hand in their own and other peoples completed and sealed postal ballots to a polling station on polling day or to a returning officer on any day before polling day that is deemed to be too close to polling day to ensure that the postal service will be able to execute delivery of the postal ballot in time. The Electoral Commission has introduced a code of conduct that, in essence, states that no political activist should handle another person’s postal ballot papers, but the code is not enshrined in law.
At present, political activists and campaigners are still legally permitted to handle and deliver an unlimited number of postal ballots to polling stations. Although the simple act of handing in another person’s completed and sealed postal ballot could be completely innocuous, I am certain that most Members will at least be familiar with the concept of postal ballot harvesting. That practice involves political activists gathering up postal ballots, sometimes in their hundreds, and delivering them to polling stations on behalf of the local electorate. As these completed ballots are often handed in to polling stations on polling day, there is rarely a chance to ensure that they have not been tampered with or fraudulently completed by another party.
As Sir Eric Pickles noted in his report on electoral fraud, “Securing the ballot”, the lack of a statutory ban on the handling of postal ballots by political activists leaves scope for the integrity of the voting system to be undermined. Frankly, it is impossible to disagree. In recent years, and perhaps cultivated by increasingly partisan politics, there has been an escalation in instances of intimidation and threats against politicians, after greater schisms than ever between political factions, expressed in the basest way. Of course, there have also been increasing concerns about corruption within our electoral system.
The Bill seeks to allay the possibility of postal ballot fraud, but I also hope that it will go some way towards putting the dignity back into democracy. I hope that Members from all parties recognise that the Bill would introduce pragmatic, sensible legislation into the electoral legal canon. Parliamentarians should be at the forefront of electoral reform, helping to ensure that opportunities for malpractice and criminal behaviour are eradicated.
The Bill would implement a ban on the handling of complete, incomplete or blank postal ballot papers by persons seeking to benefit a candidate or a political party, including candidates, agents and their staff, along with political party officers, members, activists and representatives of pressure groups associated with political parties. Furthermore, the Bill would apply to people or organisations campaigning for or against a political candidate at an election, or, indeed, to people or organisations campaigning for or against a particular outcome at a referendum.
The Bill would enforce a reasonable limit on the number of postal ballots that any individual can hand in on behalf of other voters at a polling station or to a returning officer on polling day. Any individual registered to vote at an election would be able to hand in no more than the prescribed number of postal ballots that were not their own. We envisage that regulations made under the enabling power in the Bill would set the maximum at two.
Individuals could exercise their own right to vote or could hand in their own sealed postal ballot in addition to the others they are returning. That is an important element of the Bill, for it is not always possible to identify the aforementioned subterfuge whereby a party affiliate or campaigner is handling postal ballots and delivering them to polling stations or returning officers. It is rare that an individual could be identified as being part of a political group or as an activist, so it is necessary to apply a limit to the number of postal ballots delivered to polling stations or returning officers for absolutely everybody, without exception.
What of the penalties for those who seek to undermine the will of the electorate through fraudulent behaviour? It is imperative that we enforce stringent sanctions that provide a deterrent to anyone considering committing an electoral offence by deviating from the new measures on postal ballot handling. The Bill would introduce a new offence. Individuals who are banned from handling postal ballot papers that belong to someone else—specifically party affiliates or campaigners—and who do not meet the criteria for an exemption would face the following penalties: a prison sentence of up to two years; a fine; or a prison sentence and a fine following conviction or indictment. Alternatively, in the instance of a summary conviction, they would face up to six months’ imprisonment or a fine on summary conviction.
There are of course exceptions and extenuating circumstances. The Bill would include an exemption for those individuals who are political or campaign affiliates but who are acting on behalf of a family member or another voter for whom they are a carer. That is critical. Although the law must seek to impede fraud and malpractice in elections and referendums, it is equally important that no one should feel that they are unable to exercise their democratic right to vote.
We must ensure that regulations provide polling station staff with the means to examine the intentions and provenance of anyone purporting to hand in someone else’s postal ballot papers. The best way to do that is to enable polling station staff to provide the individual in question with a prescribed form that, through a series of basic questions, would allow those staff to determine whether that voter is permitted to hand in or handle another person’s postal ballot papers. Hopefully, the form would provide a certain structure to the process and instances of calumny during innocuous visits to the polling station would be rare. Guidance would be established to ensure that polling station staff were well equipped to deal with the new requirements placed on them by the Bill.
It is important to recognise that the measures in the Bill have been carefully considered. It is essential that polling station staff do not look askance at voters who enter polling stations and voting booths on polling day, but the Bill would enable greater scrutiny of possible electoral misdeeds. Abstention from voting has often been too high in the United Kingdom, but voter turnout at last year’s general election was the highest in 25 years. I am certain that we parliamentarians can further encourage political engagement from a sometimes “vote shy” public, while examining the ways and means to make elections and referendums as fair and free as possible. Indeed, I hope that the Bill will be part of a wider movement of electoral transparency, decorum in campaigning and public engagement with our democracy. Perhaps most crucial of all is the right for all people to engage in political campaigning without intimidation and the threat of violence.
The Bill would introduce basic changes that would go some way towards addressing perceptions of wrongdoing, with a view to securing a fairer electoral system. I hope that my parliamentary colleagues will consider it with the candour and thoughtfulness that I have come to expect from them. I commend the Bill to the House.
I rise to speak against the Bill and its contents. First, though, before I am misrepresented, let me be absolutely clear that electoral fraud is a serious crime and should be taken seriously. It is important that police forces throughout the country have the resources necessary to bring about prosecutions when such fraud takes place. Along with my Opposition colleagues, I of course condemn any actions that seek to undermine the integrity of our democratic process.
As well intentioned as the Bill may be, regulation aimed at party campaigners through criminal law is not the answer. Moreover, the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) overestimate the scale of the problem. The proposals in his Bill are an overreaction. Unfortunately, some Conservative Members have talked down our democracy with scaremongering stories of voter fraud. Stories of widespread voter abuse have been parroted by Tory MPs, not least by the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham), whom I made aware that I would refer to him. On more than one occasion, he has attested to having evidence of multiple voting by students, but he has been unable to produce the evidence when it was requested of him.
Such stories have been used by the Conservative party to justify the piloting of restrictive identification requirements at the local government elections in May. The requirements will disproportionately affect communities with large numbers of old and disabled people and people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Other regulations are being introduced for future metro mayor elections.
Voters across Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Woking and Watford will be required to produce ID when they next go to cast their ballot. They will need a piece of photo ID, a piece of non-photo ID and their polling card—all that before being issued with a ballot paper. Those without the necessary ID will not be able to participate in the local elections. They will be denied their democratic entitlement.
One would think we were in the midst of an epidemic of widespread voter fraud, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Conservative party says that electoral fraud through voter impersonation doubled nationally between 2014 and 2016. Although the number of alleged cases of voter impersonation rose from a meagre 21 to a whopping 44, the total number of votes cast in those years rose from 29 million to 64 million in 2016.
The question is whether we need new laws to regulate how we and political parties campaign. I firmly believe that the answer is no. First, such matters are best handled by the Electoral Commission’s code of conduct for campaigners. The Electoral Commission is clear that campaigners should not be involved in the process of assisting other people to complete postal or proxy vote applications or handling postal ballot packs. The Labour party makes that very clear to our activists, and we have incorporated it into our existing code of conduct and disciplinary processes.
In a small number of instances, accessibility is improved by individual campaigners assisting people by returning their voting packs directly to the returning officer or to a polling station. That is particularly true for disabled and elderly voters, who are not provided with public assistance to complete absent votes and face low levels of access to polling stations. Indeed, according to Scope, at the 2010 general election, two thirds of polling stations had
“one or more significant access barriers”
to disabled voters. Leonard Cheshire Disability found that a quarter of the people with disabilities it surveyed found it difficult to vote in person at polling stations at the 2015 general election. My fear is that regulation would criminalise the helpful and prohibit assistance that is otherwise unavailable to those voters who need it.
Regulation of the sort suggested in the Bill would be difficult to enforce and breaches would be almost impossible to detect. It would put off honest campaigners without deterring the dishonest ones. That is not just my view, but a view shared by Alan Mabbutt, a current Conservative party board member, who said that regulations targeted at campaigners
“would do little to help. If a person is prepared to ignore the law on fraud and undue influence they would ignore laws here.”
Timothy Straker QC, a barrister who acts for the Electoral Commission, questioned the need for a criminal offence. He said that regulation would be
“unenforceable and would bring the law and the process into disrepute”.
The Electoral Commission has rightly raised the question of how we define “campaigner”. For instance, if I assist my neighbour in taking their postal vote to a polling station, am I suddenly subjected to the law that the hon. Member for Southport wishes to introduce? There is no accepted definition of “campaigner”. I understand why he wishes to codify that in his Bill, but there will always be exceptions and unanswered questions.
The Bill has many regulatory holes and too many unresolved questions. Although I do not intend to force a Division, I want my opposition and that of many of my colleagues to be formally recorded. The hon. Gentleman talked about new forms for polling staff. Like me, he has been a local authority councillor and will know that the people who man polling stations on polling day are of the highest quality and do not need a form to determine whether they understand when voter fraud is taking place. We are best leaving it to the Electoral Commission and the judgment of those staff who make those decisions on the day.
Question put and agreed to.
That Damien Moore, Mr Simon Clarke, Vicky Ford, Eddie Hughes, Andrew Bowie, Giles Watling, Julia Lopez and Lee Rowley present the Bill.
Damien Moore accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the first time; to be read a second time on Friday 15 June, and to be printed (Bill 166).