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Fox: We must restore confidence & integrity to British democracy

Speech in Somerset

"One of the great legacies of the United Kingdom is its role as the 'Mother of all Parliaments', a beacon of democracy and fair play. We should be proud of that heritage, and the foundations of democracy that we have helped build in countries around the world.

But as with so many of our conventions and traditions in this country, they have been undermined by a cynical and scornful Labour administration.

• The integrity and reputation of the Civil Service has been blackened - thanks to spin doctors like Jo Moore and Alastair Campbell.

• The traditional role of the Lord Chancellor as the guardian of the independence of our judges has been weakened.

• England's historic shire counties face the threat of abolition - to make room for John Prescott's unwanted and unaccountable regional assemblies.

Mr Blair once promised 'a new politics'. Yet his obsession with all things new - in this case, so-called 'electoral modernisation' has become the problem, not the solution. Labour have fiddled with election laws, and abandoned cross-party consensus.

• European elections are now by regional party lists that have destroyed the connection between MEPs and their constituents.

• All-postal voting last year was imposed on four regional constituencies, despite warnings from the government's own Electoral Commission - a body it instructed to advise on how such voting should be conducted.

• Despite the clear failure of all-postal voting, Labour still wish to move ahead with abolishing the ballot box in future elections - again, in the face of warnings from across the political spectrum.

Public confidence has been undermined, with a recent MORI survey revealing that over half the electorate now think it has become easier to commit electoral fraud.

As the election commissioner in Birmingham said at the beginning of this month, we have witnessed examples of election fraud that 'would disgrace a banana republic'. This increase in election fraud is not confined to one part of the country, nor, unfortunately to one part of the political spectrum. But as the election judge asserted, the Government are in 'a state not simply of complacency but of denial'.

Britain once occupied the high moral ground that allowed us to castigate corrupt regimes overseas - such as the disgraceful fraud that has been prevalent in Zimbabwe's elections. Yet can we honestly say that we still occupy that high ground - when the integrity of our own general election is now dependent on international observers from the likes of Serbia and the Ukraine ?

The Government's priorities are perverse. We have a Labour Party that it is willing to spray ballot papers across the country like confetti - but, thanks to its changes to rules on service voting, has in this election, intentionally disenfranchised thousands of those from the Armed Forces - these are men and women who put their lives on the line to fight for democracy. The Government's motivations appear to be driven by arbitrary, partisan considerations:- what is best for the Labour Party - rather than what is best for the country.

Liberal Democrats also have perverse priorities - being more interested in giving convicted criminals the right to vote in elections. This is wrong. A jail sentence, by definition a serious punishment, should inherently involve a loss of citizenship rights - including the right to free movement and the right to vote. But then, the only support Liberal Democrats will find for their plans to go soft on crime is by knocking on the doors of Her Majesty's Prisons.

But it is not just Britain's postal voting system that is unsafe and inadequate. Greater scrutiny is also needed of the poor state of Britain's electoral register - on which voting in person and by post depends.

• A Daily Mail investigation found that they were able 'to register a fictitious student called Gus Troobev - an anagram of Bogus Voter - on 31 electoral registers within just a few hours, and to obtain nine further bogus votes in the most marginal seat in Britain'.

• A Sunday Telegraph journalist was able to apply for the ballot papers of 36 voters to be sent to a single address for postal voting, without discovery or investigation by the police or local councils.

• Yesterday, a Sky News investigation managed to falsely obtain multiple votes in two constituencies, without any proofs of identity being required.

• And an Evening Standard journalist was able to apply for postal votes, diverted to bogus addresses, just using application forms downloaded from the internet with no proof of identity required.

• In the tightly fought seat of Bethnal Green & Bow in this election, it has been reported that polling cards are allegedly being stolen, voters are being falsely registered, and bogus election officials are calling on voters.

In our democracy, EU citizens may vote in local and European elections, and Irish Republic and Commonwealth citizens vote in all elections. Thanks to Conservative pressure in the Lords, with cross-party acceptance, election law is explicit that those seeking asylum who do not have leave to remain, are not eligible to vote. Whilst it is right that Britain opens its doors to genuine refugees, the broader right to participate is not an automatic entitlement from just residing in the country.

Last year, my colleague, Marion Roe, an experienced international election observer, warned that foreign nationals - not eligible to vote - may be able to get onto the electoral register without scrutiny.

Our electoral registration system is not sufficiently robust to check whether a 'John Smith' is a Briton, a Canadian or an American. For example, the Radio 4 PM programme has recently highlighted how two Portuguese people resident here have unwittingly voted by post in this general election. In ethnically diverse communities and areas with houses in multiple occupation, verification of voters is often more difficult.

Marion Roe asked whether Returning Officers could make basic checks on those, who on paper, could be foreign nationals. The Electoral Commission replied that such checks could be deemed to be racist and in breach of the law. I disagree. It is not racist to enforce the rules fairly - to ensure that only those who are eligible to vote, can vote.

The Government were advised last year by the Electoral Commission that action was needed to improve electoral security. Yet thanks to a turf war in Whitehall between John Prescott - in charge of local elections - and Lord Falconer - in charge of national elections and referendums, nothing has happened. This mayhem is the result of Mr Blair's restructuring of Whitehall to give jobs to Tony's cronies.

An Electoral Administration Reform Bill, which has been drawn up by officials, is gathering dust on a shelf in Whitehall. Even months ago, it was not too late to improve the law. Indeed, in 2001, the Government passed two different Acts of Parliament changing election rules, just weeks before the election.

A Conservative Government will take the measures needed to restore integrity to our electoral system. Three principles must be adopted to make it secure:

• First, we must create an accurate electoral register.

• Second, we must ensure that every individual can be identified.

• Third, we will require proof of identify to vote by post or in person.

The inadequacy of the electoral register has been visible for some time. Britain relies on a system of household registration - with the head of the household signing down all those who supposedly have the right to vote. The Conservative Party, MPs from other parties and the Electoral Commission have been calling for individual registration for some time, following its encouraging introduction in Northern Ireland.

Fraud was well documented in the Province. But now, voters need to register individually, listing not only their date of birth but also, thanks to Conservative amendments in the House of Lords, their National Insurance number. Both pieces of information are again required when voting by post. This provides key ways of verifying that a voter exists and has authorised their vote. The National Insurance number, cross-referenced with the Social Security Agency, ensures that the person actually exists, and further checks are also made if people are registered at more than one address.

Individual registration should be backed up by requiring proof of the citizenship for non-UK voters, such as their passport if they do not have a National Insurance number.

Yet the Government has refused to legislate on the mainland, arguing that it may discourage some people from registering. Yet if the system is good enough to elect one part of the United Kingdom Parliament on 5th May, shouldn't it be extended to all of it ?

But individual registration is not enough in itself, given the lack of checks at polling stations and the insecurity of polling cards posted to voters. No proof of identity of any kind is required to vote. When election laws are revised after this election - which they must - Parliament must consider making some form of written identification a requirement at polling stations - for example, a driving licence, a signature on a credit card or existing photo ID.

Democratic legitimacy derives from individual citizens believing that the system used to elect their representatives is fair and secure.

It is clear that Mr Blair's reckless fiddling with the electoral system has raised widespread public concern about the integrity of Britain's electoral system. The electoral practices of the 18th and early 19th Centuries, such as intimidation and fraud, risk becoming the hallmark of the 21st. If the laws are not tightened, Britain risks a Florida-style deadlock that could derail any tightly-fought election.

To those who have had enough of our democracy being undermined by Mr Blair and his cronies, our message is clear.

You don't have to settle for the lack of accountability, the chaos and the dishonesty which are the hallmark of New Labour. The Conservatives are making a stand for fair play, integrity and honesty.

You have a choice, between Mr Blair - fiddling with our constitution for partisan advantage - and the Conservatives - who will protect people's right to vote in person and in secret, and who will restore confidence, integrity and accountability to British democracy."

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