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Heald: Restoring confidence, integrity and accountability to British democracy

Excerpts from speech to the House of Commons

"The United Kingdom has traditionally held a reputation as a beacon of democracy and fair play, the mother of all Parliaments. We have led the way in building foundations for democracy across the world. We have tended as a country to occupy the moral high ground and even to lecture other parts of the world on democracy. But the integrity of our own recent general election was dependent on overseas observers for the first time, from places like Serbia and the Ukraine.

Although Ministers insist that there was no widespread evidence of systematic election fraud, public perception has changed over recent months and years. It is clear that the Government's modernisation programme in this area has resulted in a collapse in public confidence and compromised the perceived integrity of the British electoral system. As the right hon. and hon. Members who are shaking their heads will know, a MORI poll in March this year found that 54 per cent of the public think that postal voting has made it easier to commit election fraud, and an even higher proportion are concerned about fraud with electronic voting.

After the 2003 local election all-postal voting pilots, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives warned the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich

"there is increasing concern about electoral fraud . . . we consider that the current position runs the risk of the whole electoral process being discredited. Confusion already exists among electoral practitioners and election agents, and a major scandal could bring representative democracy into disrepute."

The Government simply ignored its strongly worded warnings.

In the June 2004 elections, the Government imposed widespread all-postal voting in the face of cross-party and Electoral Commission opposition, choosing pilot regions on the basis of partisan advantage. The elections descended into such administrative chaos that even in the Deputy Prime Minister's own area, Hull, the election court had to annul a decision.

A judge recently highlighted the inherent risks in the current rules on postal voting, attacking Ministers for being in a state of not simple complacency, but denial:

"that there are no systems to deal realistically with fraud . . . would disgrace a banana republic".

New Labour should reflect carefully on those comments.

In 2004, the Labour party official postal-voting handbook called for Labour activists to build their own ballot boxes to take to voters' doors:

"You could even have a ballot box for people to put their votes in which you can then deliver to the returning officer before close of poll. If your volunteers are wearing Labour stickers or rosettes it is unlikely that supporters of other parties will give you their votes."

Public confidence in the electoral system continued to decline in the 2005 election, as evidenced by the extraordinary scenes in Bethnal Green and Bow. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow has told me that he is on tour in the north of England and cannot speak in this debate, but when he gave evidence to the London Assembly, he discussed

"a major operation to bloat the electoral register with non-existent electors as part of a dirty tricks operation.",

and accused new Labour of

"ruthlessly using bullying, blackmail, postal votes operations—all the black arts you could imagine."

The Government's decision to introduce the long-delayed electoral administration Bill is welcome. I also welcome the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister has been stripped of his responsibility for elections and postal voting, which is a long overdue vote of no confidence. Early-day motion 202 makes it clear that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are heaving a huge sigh of relief that he is no longer involved.

Although we support many of the provisions in the recent consultation paper, the proposed legislation does not go far enough.

Forced all-postal voting has been condemned by the Electoral Commission in two major reports and the public have no confidence in it. Is the Minister really unable to make the commitment that we have seen the end of it? Many Members of all parties are old-fashioned enough to think that there is something special about the traditional method of voting using the properly controlled polling station and the ballot box, and that if somebody wishes to use postal voting, that should be their choice, not something that is forced upon them. Even those who support it want it to be properly controlled.

Conservative Members also have concerns about the future use of other pilot methods, including remote electronic voting. We believe that the technology for e-voting is very insecure and that all the problems that one gets with postal votes would apply to the issuing of PIN numbers. One would end up with a double danger, not just a single one.

Let me say a few words about pilot schemes. It has got to the point where pilot schemes are becoming the norm in some elections, and greater scrutiny is required. The law needs to be amended so that secondary legislation is required to ratify a pilot scheme. It is not acceptable that powers that were originally intended to allow for trial and experimentation in very tight circumstances should now be used to make near-permanent changes to the system.

It is not only the postal voting system that is unsafe and inadequate. Perhaps most important, the registers on which we depend for our system are in a poor state. Last year, a Daily Mail investigation found that the paper could register a fictitious student called Gus Troobev, an anagram of "bogus voter" on 31 electoral registers in a few hours. In Cheadle, one of the most marginal constituencies in Britain, the paper was able to obtain nine further bogus votes. The Conservative candidate and former Member of Parliament, Stephen Day, had to contact Stockport's Liberal Democrat council, after obtaining the names from the Daily Mail, so that they could be removed from the register.

A journalist from The Sunday Telegraph was able to apply for the postal ballot papers of 36 voters to be sent to one address. The Evening Standard was able to apply for postal votes diverted to bogus addresses simply by using an application form from the internet. A Sky News investigation managed falsely to obtain multiple votes in two constituencies with no proof of identity and, more than a year ago, Marion Roe, who was then a Member of Parliament, produced evidence in a debate in Westminster Hall that electoral registers were up to 10 per cent. inaccurate, containing thousands of names of voters who were not truly entitled to vote.

Democratic legitimacy derives from individual citizens' belief that their system is fair and secure. Although the Government's proposals to collect signatures and dates of birth would be an improvement, there remains no independent verification of the existence of those on the electoral register.

The Northern Ireland Office stated:

"the Government is satisfied that these measures have been extremely successful in substantially improving the accuracy of the electoral register in Northern Ireland."

Yet right hon. Members tried to suggest that there was something wrong with what happened in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland now has an honest register.

Recently, The People—that great organ—conducted an analysis of the electoral roll. It uncovered names such as Donald Duck and Jesus H. Christ. Perhaps they are genuine, but I suspect that the entries at a student address in Southampton, including Hooty McBoob and Gailord Focker, while not evidence of sinister malpractice, are not. One does suspect, however, that these people do not exist.

Mainland Britain needs the Northern Ireland system of individual registration. In the Province, voters need to provide a signature, a date of birth and a national insurance number to register. The national insurance number is used to check that the elector exists. Such identifiers are then used to verify postal votes. Ministers were initially reluctant to use national insurance numbers, but there was considerable debate on the issue in the other place. I pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Glentoran in that regard. The Minister in the other place, Lord Williams of Mostyn—whom we all miss and who was a very good spokesman for Labour in the other place—accepted the argument that there was no independent method of verification. He insisted that national insurance numbers should be used, which was the right thing to do.

If we adopted the Northern Ireland system in this country, we would have a much more effective control. Furthermore, non-UK voters should have to provide proof of citizenship. Points have been made about asylum seekers and other people from overseas who live in our country, but we must do something to tackle the problem of people who sign up to the register simply for consumer credit purposes when they are not entitled to vote.

If we had a tighter system of registration, we would feel much more confident in the electoral system. The general election also brought into focus wider problems in the electoral system.

I believe that it is a fundamental right to be able to choose to vote in the traditional way.

At the general election, the Conservative party scored more votes than Labour in England, but won 93 fewer seats, but that is not an argument for proportional representation, as The Independent has claimed. The use of PR in Britain has already undermined democratic accountability, without bringing about any increase in electoral turnout. It also prevents voters from removing an Administration, in that it creates perpetual coalition Government. An unpopular Administration can be kept in office by a minor party, despite the desire of the people to kick the rascals out.

Proportional representation also leads to a highly disproportionate relationship between the number of votes cast and the share of Executive power by making minority parties the power brokers in Government. It also destroys the constituency link between the elected representative and their voters. Under first past the post, each voter can identify the person responsible for looking after their interests. Under PR systems, either constituencies are massive with multiple members or there is a group of representatives selected from a party list, accountable primarily to their political party. PR systems can allow candidates to be elected with as little as 5 to 8 per cent. of the vote, opening the door to extremists. A ridiculous situation can arise in which the most popular local politician is not elected and no one's vote counts for anything, because every vote is simply a mandate for negotiation.

In the 2005 general election, across England, the average electorate in constituencies that elected Labour MPs was 67,500, while in Conservative constituencies the figure was 73,000. Boundary Commission regulations should be amended to ensure that maintaining an equal quota has primacy over other considerations, and they should allow county boundaries to be crossed. There should be more up-to-date information about the size of electorates towards the end of the boundary review process to avoid the drawing up of constituencies on the basis of data from the start of the review that subsequently becomes out of date. That would be a fairer system, as it would ensure that each elector had the same level of parliamentary representation.

I am aware of that and I agree that we should have a quota that is fair and equal across the United Kingdom, although in the Isle of Wight and one or two other constituencies where it is geographically difficult to achieve an exact electoral quota, special arrangements may be needed.

What is not acceptable is a situation in which, typically, there are inner-city seats with 51,000 electors, and county and rural areas where the average is 73,000 or 74,000. That is not equality between electors. Each elector should have the same level of parliamentary representation.

It has become clear that the Government's obsession with electoral modernisation has compromised Britain's traditional reputation for free and fair elections, and undermined the integrity of the system and public confidence in it. We were proud in this country to put behind us the electoral practices in the rotten boroughs of the 18th and 19th centuries—the intimidation, fraud and risk.

I for one would be very sad, and I am sure that this view is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, if that became the hallmark of the 21st century. That is why it is time for the Government to stop fiddling with our constitution for partisan advantage. It is time to protect people's right to vote in person and in secret. It is time to restore confidence, integrity and accountability to British democracy."

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