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Electoral Law

11 am

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these matters. I shall focus on events that took place in my constituency and raise wider issues relating to the role of the Electoral Commission, the law as it relates to sitting Members of Parliament before an election is called and the role of the internet and of well-funded extremist groups attempting to unseat Members of Parliament.

First, let me quote from an article from my local newspaper, the Ilford Recorder, of 14 June. Under the headline "Police halt poll protest", it states:

That was not the first problem that I had encountered in the campaign. The preceding Saturday, 2 June, we had been campaigning in Ilford Lane, one of our main shopping centres. Some of my Labour supporters, who were carrying leaflets and balloons, were harangued and harassed by a group of young men as we walked down the street. It got so difficult that I called the police—I feared that some of the elderly people in our group were in danger of being physically attacked. The police came and the situation was calmed to some extent, but the group continued to follow us up and down the street for two hours, shouting such things as, "Racist", "Murderer", and "How many children have you killed today?"

That evening I received a telephone call from a local business man who runs a restaurant. He had been enthusiastic when he saw us on the street and had given food and water—it was an incredibly hot day—to some of the campaigners. That evening, members of the group that had been involved in the previous incident went into his shop, threatened him saying, "We know where you live," and ripped down the posters that he had put up in support of my candidature.

The following morning, Sunday 3 June, we were out leafleting in Loxford, a ward with a very mixed community. I have in my constituency many different

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people from many different backgrounds. We live harmoniously. In a typical road in Loxford ward, one finds Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and atheists all living as neighbours. First languages spoken include Punjabi, Urdu, Gujarati, Hindi and Tamil. A whole variety of people of different backgrounds live as near neighbours without any problems. However, as we were leafleting in Loxford ward, a man arrived with a mobile phone. Within 10 minutes, five other people arrived and followed us down the streets. They chanted "Racist" and "Murderer" as I put leaflets through doors. I ignored it and for more than an hour we continued our leafleting campaign.

When all this began, I resolved not to be intimidated or prevented from carrying out my democratic duty as a candidate and contacting my electors. The incidents came as no great surprise to me. Their origin goes back some months. Toward the end of 2000, with the situation in the middle east becoming tense and the new intifada, I received telephone calls and e-mails from a few individuals who wanted me to "explain my views" to the Muslim community. My views are clear and on the record. I have a website. I have always advocated a two-state solution. I have advocated compromise and peace. I visited Gaza in 1995 and met Arafat. None the less, to those individuals, the fact that I was an officer of the Parliamentary Labour Friends of Israel somehow made me unacceptable.

They began sending questionnaires requiring yes or no answers. Then, they insisted that I should meet them to discuss whether my views were acceptable. An e-mail from Mr. Zulfiqar Bukhari was the first of many. His brother, Mr. Asghar Bukhari, whom I shall mention again later, also started to e-mail me. I said that I would be happy to meet and speak to Muslim constituents at any time. I have always been approachable and accepted such invitations to meet my constituents, so that was not a problem. However, I then tried to make arrangements. I told the general secretary of the mosque that some young people wanted to hold a meeting with me and I started to make the arrangements to have the meeting at the mosque. It was then that the mood of the group changed.

On 14 November, I got an e-mail from Asghar Bukhari that said:

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The group concerned decided that it did not like the way in which I was appealing directly to my constituents. At the end of January and the beginning of February, I started to receive e-mails from another young man, Mr. Inayat Bunglawala, who originally styled himself "Representative of the Islamic Society of Britain Ilford Branch". He wrote:

I refused to go along with the game and as a result, at the end of February, I was informed that a leaflet would be produced. It was duly printed. The first of four leaflets that were put out against me in the period from the beginning of March to the general election, it was headed: "Mike Gapes, No Friend of the Muslims". There was no imprint, just a mobile telephone number printed on the bottom of the leaflet. It was produced not by the organisation that I thought Mr. Bungalawala represented, but under a nom de convenience—a name used for political reasons: the Association of Ilford Muslims. However, I know that it was produced by Mr. Bungalawala because the text was identical to his e-mail to me. It included statements such as,

After the selective quotes, the concluding paragraph of the leaflet states:

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Mr. Inayat Bunglawala was quoted as saying that 10,000 leaflets had been distributed by 10 May 2001. He had informed us that a second version was being printed in colour. That first appeared on Friday 13 April and was distributed outside mosques and put on cars in a street near my home. It had almost, but not quite, the same text. It states:

A fourth leaflet then started to appear. A scrappy document, it gave the contact name of Asghar and a mobile telephone number. It stated:

In addition, most Saturdays for several months the Labour party had had a street stall. My Conservative opponent was also out with his "Save the pound" campaign and petition. The group decided to position themselves next to the Labour stall and handed out its leaflets to people who came to the Labour stall. On one

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occasion, someone took a Labour leaflet and tore it up. Whenever they thought that someone was a Muslim––they were not good at recognising them, because Sikh and Hindu friends of mine were approached––they would go up to them and say, "Do you know that that is Mike Gapes? He is a terrible man, responsible for awful things." I have photographs of some of the slogans, which included:

When the election had been called, telephone calls started and people rang me to say that they had received a telephone call at home from people saying, "Don't vote for Mike Gapes. He's an Islamophobe. He is anti-Muslim. He is against our religion." I cannot say how many calls were made, but judging by my constituents' reaction, there was a considerable number. Interestingly, the phoning was not very accurate either. A lady with the surname Chaudhry wrote me a very nice letter pointing out that although she was a Christian, it had been assumed that she was a Muslim because of her surname, and her father, who had converted to Christianity, had been somewhat shocked to receive a phone call telling him that, as a good Muslim, he should reject me. I also had calls from Muslims who were upset and offended by the allegations, and I encountered—this is where the poison started—people with genuine concerns who had seen the leaflet but did not know my real position. I spent a lot of time talking to constituents either directly or over the telephone in response to the allegations.

Then, another variation of the campaign started. Earlier this year, a group called VoteSmart set up a website linked to the Muslim Council of Britain. Asking "Will your MP support Muslim issues in the next Parliament?", they gave us ratings of zero to plus five and zero to minus five. Needless to say, I appeared with a minus five rating. Interestingly, the person responsible for the Muslim Council of Britain's website has the e-mail address: inayat——Inayat Bunglawala, who is on the media committee of the Muslim Council of Britain. He is also my constituent and is responsible for the leaflets against me.

That website did not merely list my name with those of other MPs who had been given various ratings. It has a whole special section on "Mike Gapes MP: 'No Friend of the Muslims' ", which reproduces one of the original leaflets. It is accessible through both the Muslim Council of Britain's website and through VoteSmart. I subsequently found out that it was available on websites all over the world. An American website called Islam for Today mentions:

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I had been demonised and turned into a hate figure because I refused to be intimidated by such stuff. I found the reaction interesting. I received an e-mail from a man called Faisal Bodi who said that he was a freelance journalist and would like to interview me about the campaign that was being run in my constituency. He wrote:

Mr. Bodi was perfectly pleasant when he interviewed me. He was late, but I rearranged my time and came all the way into Westminster, even though Parliament was in its Easter recess. For about half an hour, we discussed a range of questions, including Muslim schools, unemployment, the Lawrence report, ethnic minority recruitment to the public services and police, discrimination legislation and the situation in Bahrain, where women have recently got the vote. However, my comments about none of those issues appeared in "The World Tonight". What did appear was an unbalanced piece: my opponents were allowed to say, without being challenged, that I am an Islamophobe and, to use Mr. Bodi's phrase, a "proven enemy of Muslims".

I wrote to the BBC to challenge it about the piece being unbalanced. After I did the interview, I discovered that Mr. Bodi is not really a journalist: he is a polemicist for extreme Islamic causes. Although the BBC did not accept that the programme was unbalanced, it admitted in a letter sent by Miss Prue Keely, that

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As the BBC decided for its own reasons that it did not want Mr. Bodi to make programmes of that nature again, he decided to write a two-page attack on the subject which was published in The Guardian during the election campaign. My picture was featured in the article, in which I was singled out as the man responsible for Faisal Bodi being banned by the BBC. As I pointed out in a letter printed in The Guardian on May 23, there was nothing shadowy about my position, which I made clear on my website. My complaint was that Mr. Bodi had misrepresented me in his unbalanced piece and that the BBC was broadcasting material during the run-up to an election that could be interpreted as encouraging people in my constituency not to vote for me. That is the nub of the electoral law issue. I have provided a lengthy account of the background, but it is important to get such matters on record.

I wrote to the BBC about the programme. The joint editor of the piece wrote back saying:

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The other side of the issue relates to electoral expenses. I have some concerns about on whose election expenses return such election material will appear. The people in the Association of Ilford Muslims were not only telling people not to vote for me but telling them to vote for my Conservative opponent, Mr. Suresh Kumar. That was confirmed by Faisal Bodi's articles. Let me quote from a magazine called Jerusalem File, May 2001, Vol. III, no. 5. Under a headline, "Voters target pro-Israel MPs", an article stated:

It is clear that such matters affect election expenses. As a result, my agent decided to raise the matter with the Conservative full-time agent in my borough, Mr. Alan Doran. He wrote asking for clarification on whether the Conservative party's candidate or any of its members had had any associations or discussions with the Association of Ilford Muslims. We received a reply not from the agent but from the Conservative candidate, who was acting as his own agent—which is legal, but unusual. Mr. Kumar made it clear that he had had discussions with the Association of Ilford Muslims, but did not answer any of our questions. I shall go no further than that at the moment, because there are still a few more days before election expenses returns have to be lodged. I am waiting to see the returns lodged in my constituency to determine whether any of the material is included within the expenditure of any of the other candidates, or whether AIM has submitted a statement to the Electoral Commission about its expenditure during the campaign.

I want to raise several points with the Minister. I am sorry that the background has been so detailed, but such matters are complicated. The Association of Ilford Muslims told people to vote Conservative and put out material saying that getting rid of Mike Gapes would be a great thing. I understand that expenses incurred for a candidate before their adoption as a candidate can count as election expenses, but putting out material against a sitting Member of Parliament, implicitly or even directly on behalf of another candidate, does not. I would be grateful for clarification on that point. When one puts out material before an election, if one is running a legitimate campaign, one has a stop point and carefully ensures that none of it is put out after the election is called; otherwise it counts towards one's election expenses. The people campaigning against me carried on beyond that point. They were reprinting the leaflet on 10 May for an election campaign that had been announced before then, with Parliament having been dissolved shortly thereafter. Those are serious matters.

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Another issue is the harassment and intimidation of electors. In addition, under section 75 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, the question of expenditure arises if more than £500 was spent on a concerted plan of action against me—and I would argue that it was certainly concerted, planned and involved action. There was no printer's imprint on the material that was produced. A wider issue is that of websites that reproduced the material in its entirety, again without an imprint—with a mobile phone number and nothing else—and carrying the name of the Muslim Council of Britain, which is the legitimate umbrella group for Islamic organisations in this country. Are the people involved aware of the requirements of the 1983 Act?

This is not just a matter for me. I was re-elected on 7 June with a majority of 13,997 on a much lower turnout than in 1997. There was a swing to Labour of 2.75 per cent., when all the neighbouring seats in east London, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham), had small, in her case, or larger swings against Labour. My constituents rejected the extremists' campaign. Muslim voters rejected the politics of mass hate; they rejected those involved and what they stand for. That is the best message that can go out from Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews in my constituency. We work together, live together and go to school together. We are an harmonious community and we reject the politics of hate and attempts to introduce them into our community.

I have a big majority now, although when I was elected in 1992, it was 402. I could take on the association's campaign with the reasonable assurance that, whether or not it worked, I would still be re-elected. However, colleagues in all parties who have small majorities could be subject to such campaigns orchestrated not only by the AIM but by other groups and on other issues. The magazine Q News published a hit list of Members of Parliament who were to be removed because of their views on the middle east. It included Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour and, incidentally, Ulster Unionist Members—I am not sure how many Muslim voters there are in Belfast, South, but the constituency featured in the list none the less. We need to think through the role of third-party campaigning. We need to be clear about election law on such matters.

I appreciate the opportunity that the House has given me to raise these matters. The Government should, at an early stage, examine the operation of election law and take lessons from the most recent election campaign so that the behaviour that I have described is not repeated with near impunity in local government elections next year or in other elections. I will be sending a copy of my speech to the Electoral Commission, which I understand is producing a report on the election; it is already at the printers and is due out soon. Clearly, that will be too early to deal with the question of election expenses: it will be printed before the relevant deadlines and before a lot of information has become available. That is unfortunate. I hope that it will be an interim report and that the commission will produce a comprehensive report based on the experiences of those of us who were involved in the election.

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Several hon. Members rose

Mr. John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. Quite a few hon. Members have indicated that they want to speak, and other hon. Members should bear that in mind when making their speeches.

11.42 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): My contribution will be brief.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) on giving us the opportunity to discuss electoral law. His very full contribution was something of an eye-opener to me. I represent a part of the world that is proud to have a robust tradition of political debate, but what the hon. Gentleman described goes well beyond that. When we hear tales of intimidation and victimisation, alarm bells should ring in the ears of all of us who consider ourselves to be democrats—whether Liberal or not. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take some comfort from his return to Parliament. Whatever tactics some of his constituents might have employed, the vast bulk of them are clearly of a different mindset.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on drafting the topic for debate sufficiently widely to allow me to take a completely different tack. I want to bring a brief point to the Minister's attention, although he might already be aware of it because I wrote to his Department on 21 June. A professional lady who has lived and worked in Orkney for a number of years is a constituent of mine and a Dutch national. For some years, she was allowed to vote in elections to the local authority—Orkney Islands council—and to the European Parliament. She has never been allowed to cast her ballot in elections to this House. That has been the case for as long as she has lived here. I would not necessarily agree with that position, but it had a logical consistency in the distinction between a national Parliament and other bodies.

Will the Minister deal with a point that my constituent raised with me—that, since the operation of the Scotland Act 1998, she is now allowed to vote for her Member of the Scottish Parliament? She pays her taxes to Westminster and is able to have a say in how taxes are spent on health, education and other devolved matters, but she cannot have a say in how the remaining 50 per cent. of taxation, which relates to Departments responsible to this House, is determined. Since the Scotland Act 1998, that position is no longer defensible and requires reform.

We are members of the European Union, which is based on the principle of freedom of movement of goods and labour. There is little sense in allowing free movement of labour if people who have moved within the EU are taxed but allowed no say in how their taxation is spent. I realise that the Government have a full legislative timetable for this Parliament, but I hope that the matter might find its way into the category of legislation that, as I recall from my previous career as a lawyer, falls under the title of "Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Acts". I invite the Minister to clarify the Government's position.

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11.46 am

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I come to this debate from a slightly different direction from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), but I want to make some serious observations about the 7 June election. I am concerned about the harassment of voters at the entrance to polling stations.

My election agent and I approached the chief returning officer in Bolton, who is also the chief executive of Bolton metropolitan council, several weeks before the election and requested that police be provided at five key polling stations in my constituency. Police used to be present at all polling stations during nearly all elections, especially general elections. We made our request following reports from our party workers about the local elections of May 2000. Our request was not met, and in my constituency on 7 June I saw little evidence of any overt police observation of the electoral process.

Our request was reasonable and the Government should take up these matters with chief returning officers. It is odd that we send our own Members of Parliament to observe electoral processes in many other countries to ensure fair play, yet we do not ensure fair play in our own country.

I knew that our Tory opponent was unlikely to play fair when he started to fabricate letters from his London fax machine to the Bolton Evening News. The local and national press took up the issue. I shall not go into all the details, except to say that the contents of those letters led me to make an official complaint to the Commission for Racial Equality. During the campaign, the Tory candidate made a verbal attack on my wife at a public meeting, even though she was not present. There was flyposting, which is illegal in Bolton, and a leaflet was sent out for a meeting at which the principal speaker was Stephen Norris, but it had no imprint and the name of the printer was not mentioned.

Altogether, we made five official complaints to our chief returning officer before polling day about the behaviour of my Tory opponent. At this stage, I should perhaps say that my Tory opponent was a Muslim of Kashmiri heritage and he openly campaigned as the Muslim candidate. I recognise that that is not illegal, but greatly regret the introduction of sectarian politics on to the political scene in my town. That was the first time that I have seen any evidence of that. I have many friends and supporters in all Muslim communities in Bolton, including from the Kashmiri community. They gave me their support as usual, for which I have thanked them. For obvious reasons, rumours were spread among the Muslim communities that my name is Jewish and that I am a strong supporter of Israeli politics. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth; I am treasurer of the Britain-Palestine group.

On polling day, we decided to put Gujarati and Urdu-speaking number-snatchers at our five key polling stations, mainly to observe my Tory opponent's tactics. From early morning, we received reports on the situation from our number-snatchers, so I went out with my agent to see exactly what was going on. Immediately outside each of those five key polling stations, cars or vans carried my Tory opponent's helpers and displayed his posters. From what we saw of their activities, the supporters were obviously there to influence the voters

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as they approached the polling stations. Right outside the entrance to St. Phillip's church hall polling station was a large van, not only covered in Tory posters but carrying on its back a large blown-up version of the ballot paper, showing people how to vote for the Tory candidate—in box No. 4.

We have photographic evidence of all that I am reporting today. As the day advanced, we saw as many as five number-snatchers inside the polling stations blatantly telling people, usually in Gujarati, whom to vote for.

The worst scenes were observed at the Emmanuel church hall polling station in Derby ward. The entrance to the polling room was to the rear of the hall, and voters had to pass the gable end of the hall down a narrow walkway with a low fence on the other side. All day, a car containing a Tory helper sat at the entrance to the polling station. As the afternoon passed, the Tory candidate's supporters lined the fence, in my view to intimidate and harass Muslim voters. As mid-afternoon approached two Imam priests appeared, and even greater intimidation was apparent. Young boys tried to stick Conservative lapel badges on everyone who approached the polling station. One or two voters who turned up in cars got straight back in and left without voting.

An adjacent former medical centre was plastered in Tory posters, and stands carrying Tory posters were placed along the public footpath leading to the hall. We complained several times during the day to the chief returning officer and his staff and, to try and force the hand of either the police or the chief returning officer or both, my supporters were allowed to join the Tory supporters after 4 pm at the Emmanuel church hall polling station, but it made no difference. Two policemen merely came and went again without removing either my supporters or the Tory supporters, although we had asked them to remove everybody.

It was mayhem. In more than 30 years' campaigning in politics, I have never seen anything like what I saw at the Emmanuel church hall. Rules were blatantly abused, but the chief returning officer told me that he could take no action unless a voter complained. Many have, but only after the day and by letter. I forwarded the letters to the chief returning officer and have arranged to meet him in the next few days to discuss those matters further.

Voters should be allowed to approach and enter a polling station without being harassed by supporters of any political party. The key to that is to ensure a police presence all day—preferably at all polling stations and especially at general elections—to ensure that elections are conducted in as peaceful a manner as possible. The polling clerks are just too busy to be aware of what goes on outside their polling stations or even in the entrances. A code of conduct should be given to the candidates as well as the agents, so that they are all aware of which procedures are illegal and which are not. There is a grey area of the law to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South referred.

I hope that the Minister will ask his staff or the Electoral Commission to look at tightening the law, especially on harassment and intimidation of voters who are trying to get into a polling station. I realise that it is difficult. How can a householder be prevented from putting up a political party's posters in a window

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immediately opposite a polling station? That is impossible. However, people can be kept away from the entrance to the polling station. Fortunately, I have a large majority and I was never in any danger of losing my seat. Imagine what would have happened had it been a marginal.

11.55 am

Norman Baker (Lewes): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) on securing the debate. In the immediate aftermath of the election it is right to review the conduct of that election in a constructive and non-partisan way. Like my colleagues I deplore the intimidation and harassment of voters wherever it occurs. As the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) rightly pointed out, we should also deplore any drift towards sectarianism in this country. Like other hon. Members I have been to Northern Ireland. We do not want the sort of system wherein people vote according to their religion, rather than according to the policies advocated by the candidates.

Compared with Bolton, South-East and Ilford, South, although perhaps not Orkney and Shetland, the campaign in Lewes was genteel and well behaved. I cannot produce reams of complaints about how candidates undertook the campaign. However, I should like to raise two issues arising from my constituency. The first—a pale shadow of the one in Ilford, South—is the campaign initiated by the Democracy Movement. That campaign was not unique to my constituency, but it was a strong campaign to denigrate my views on the pound and the euro. Surprising as it may be, my views were misrepresented; more to the point, they were misrepresented by means of a tabloid newspaper and other leaflets that were distributed during the election in a free newspaper. It was a high-quality insert and I have no doubt that the cost of producing and distributing that leaflet by means of piggybacking an existing newspaper will have been well in excess of £500.

The newspaper's objective was to help the Conservative candidate, although I do not think that the Conservatives had anything to do with it, or that the Conservative candidate knew about it or approved of it. Nevertheless, the objective was to return a Conservative rather than a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. Mine was a marginal seat, but I am happy to say that my majority has significantly increased. However, had the issue of the euro taken off, that leaflet, which was reproduced in constituencies—especially ones represented by Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament—across the country could have been used to swing the results. Indeed, that was the intention.

We must look carefully at the rules that allow people outside political parties to produce literature that is designed to affect the result of an election. Political parties, by and large, stick to the rules on election expenses and everything else. People outside political parties, however, take a far more cavalier approach to such matters. The Government need to address that issue in the aftermath of the election.

The second issue is a minor one. My Conservative opponent and his agent tended to plaster county council verges with large Conservative posters. Occasionally,

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they put up posters without the permission of the householder, but that is another matter. I do not blame the Conservatives for trying it on. However, when people complained, East Sussex county council took the view that it did not want to get involved and that it was a matter for the political parties—it was quite happy for its verges to be covered by political posters. In the end the problem became so absurd that it had to get involved and one day it cleared them all away. That was completely the wrong tack for the council to adopt. It should have insisted from day one that any posters erected on its property be removed; instead, the posters were allowed to fester for weeks before action was taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) raised some important points, in the exceedingly quick time of only four minutes. He left no room for anything other than a clear interpretation of his remarks and I hope that we get an answer to the vital issue that he raised.

I turn to the important issue of postal voting, which has not so far been mentioned. I welcome the Government's introduction of sensible measures to encourage people to vote by making it easier to do so by post. It was particularly sensible and useful to reduce the deadline to only six days before polling day, from the absurdly long period that had applied before. However, I am concerned that unless preventive measures measures are adopted, the new rules will allow exploitation and, dare I say, fraud of the electoral system. It is legitimate to ask, after the election, how robust and secure our electoral system is.

I was concerned by a report on the "Today" programme during the election campaign, which hon. Members may have heard. The reporter Andrew Gilligan undertook a project in Torbay, which at the 1997 election was carried with a Liberal Democrat majority of 12 votes. He looked up the names of deceased voters in the back issues of the Torbay local paper, the Herald Express and, using an internet site, checked whether their names were still on the electoral roll. He made applications for votes to be delivered to the addresses of various "Today" programme staff around the country—an application for a postal vote need not be sent to the address where a voter is registered. By Monday, he had received seven ballot papers, which would have been enough to have changed the 1997 result had all those voters voted for the Conservative candidate. The same logic obviously applies to other seats and other parties.

I also draw the Minister's attention to an article in The Guardian written by Nick Davies, who happens to be a constituent of mine—some erudite people live in Lewes. The article drew attention to the issue of ghost voters and commented that there were no ghostbusters to deal with them. Nick Davies said that he had evidence that those who wanted to rig elections could find a derelict building, add a couple of extra houses to a street or use the addresses of a hostel or anyone else with a transitory population, adding false names and creating false votes.

The Minister should know about an incident that took place in Cornwall, in the constituency held by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). A Conservative supporter—on that occasion—helped 17 elderly electors fill in a form to apply for postal votes and then collected the forms to take to the council. That was

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fine on the face of it, but without their knowledge the 17 elderly voters ended up applying for proxy votes, naming various people who were to vote on their behalf, all of whom turned out to be Conservative party workers. Some of those workers expressed astonishment when they were told the story; they had been in ignorance of the activity. That shows that the system of proxy voting is also open to abuse.

In marginal constituencies, such abuses can swing the result. The opportunity exists for Britain to get the reputation that America temporarily acquired after the presidential count in Florida. There should be a clamp-down on the use of proxy votes—indeed, now that we have better access to postal votes, I question whether proxy votes are necessary. We also need to ensure that postal votes are sent to the address where the voter is registered and not to any address that someone happens to pick out. We need checks to ensure that the register is accurate and does not contain ghosts, so that when people die they are removed from the register as soon as possible. Someone should be given the task of doing that to ensure that dead people's names cannot be used by someone else to vote. Much more has to be done in that respect.

I am also concerned about the arrangements at polling stations—not those to which the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East referred, although I accept that there is also a problem in that respect. I accept that it is possible—indeed, it happens frequently—for a person to give his name and address at a polling station, say that he has forgotten his polling card and to be given a vote none the less. The elector may or may not be known to the polling clerk; a person may have identified someone who never votes—a Jehovah's Witness, for example—and used that person's name and address to cast a vote unbeknownst to the person whose name and addressed has been used. We must clamp down on such practices: people who cannot produce their polling card at the polling station should be required, as they are not required at present, to show some other form of identification to verify their entitlement to vote under the name and address given. We in this country are in danger of becoming complacent about our system being free from exploitation and fraud. It is not.

On the matter of postal votes, I refer to a letter from constituents in Seaford who applied for a postal vote. The ballot was sent by the deputy returning officer in Lewes by first-class post on 25 May, but, according to a neighbour, it did not arrive until two days after my constituents went on holiday on 29 May, with the result that they lost their vote. How an election envelope that has to travel only nine miles by first-class post can take more than seven days to arrive is a matter for the Post Office to investigate.

There were postal strikes in some parts of the country and people who followed the procedures, who could reasonably expect to have voted, were disfranchised by the action or inaction of Post Office employees. It should be illegal to withhold postal ballot forms; if these are sent by post, it should be an absolute requirement on the Post Office to deliver them in a manner that is equivalent to recorded delivery to ensure that they arrive on time. If we encourage postal voting, it must not depend on the efficiency or inefficiency of a sorting office or a postman. The matter must be sorted out. People who apply for

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postal votes are entitled to expect them to arrive in good time to be able to vote, but that was not what happened last month.

The robust and secure nature of our electoral system is in question. We can be confident that it works better than most in the world, but there are opportunities for fraud, exploitation and abuse. I hope that the Government will consider, on a non-partisan basis, hon. Members' suggestions about how the system can be improved.

12.7 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) on securing the debate. He expressed a great deal of frustration, which we can all understand. A leaflet that did not bear an imprint and that dealt with my views on hunting was distributed in my constituency. It is frustrating that legitimate candidates have limits on their expenditure and we are paranoid about breaking those limits: when people attack candidates or misrepresent their views, the first response is to produce a leaflet to refute what has been said, or to make telephone calls to that effect. However, if candidates are near to their expenditure limit, they cannot do that.

Another frustration is that if someone breaks the law, or comes close to doing so, there is precious little that can be done until the votes have been cast and the election is over. The most frustrating thing is that returning officers do not have much power and, as evidence cited in the debate shows, the Electoral Commission appears to be rather slow to respond. All parties should think about how such problems can be rectified far more quickly, because in a highly marginal seat they make a difference. It could even affect which party governs the country, although not at present, given the Government's majority. We are waiting for the Electoral Commission's report, when we shall no doubt have a fuller debate.

We were all disappointed with the turnout, but that is a political rather than a mechanical problem. There have been a number of experiments with local government, Sunday voting, postal votes for all and voting in supermarkets, but none has been a tremendous success. It is up to political parties to enthuse people to go to the polls. If we have more postal voting or proceed with voting by e-mail, the risk of fraud will be greater. I have always believed that it is good that people have to take the time to go to a polling station to cast their vote.

In general, I welcome the relaxation of the rules on postal voting, which seemed rather tightly drawn, given that the moment the election campaign started, people could not apply for votes. People can now apply towards the end of a campaign, and they generally received their postal ballot before election day, although there was concern about whether some received their ballots in time. The returning officer in Poole sent out a number of postal votes. Those who had registered early received their ballots early, and later applications were processed accordingly, which meant endless telephone calls from people saying that they were about to go away but had not received their ballot and asking when it would arrive. A provision in electoral law allows people to go back to a returning officer within four days of polling day and have

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a ballot re-issued, but if people are not sure what is going on and things are somewhat chaotic, that is bound to cause difficulty.

I agree with the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that there is considerable scope for fraud. Inevitably, the system must be based on trust, but if BBC journalists go to Torbay looking for a story, they will probably find one. We probably cannot afford a copper-bottomed system whereby every postal vote is investigated. Nevertheless, as a nation, perhaps we should invest more in our democratic services and give local authorities a little more money to ensure that registers are up to date and the names of people who have died are removed from them as soon as possible.

There are several problems with a rolling register. It is fine as a concept, although it creates much more work for political parties in updating their registers and computers. Some local authorities are very quick to remove people from the register. During the campaign, we heard about people who were taken off the register immediately after they had written to their authority to say that they were moving and no longer paying council tax in the area, but before they were registered at their new address. Such people missed out at both ends, whereas under the former system the register was current and based on being in place in October. If people were not on the register for their new address, they could return to their former address and vote there, so some people are missing out with a rolling register.

I also want to mention the telephone preference service. In the previous Parliament, the Government tightened up on telephone canvassing, mainly because of people becoming annoyed with double-glazing salesmen. The Conservative party assures me that we stuck to the TPS rules and telephoned no one, although some of my colleagues said that they were not sure whether the Labour party followed suit. Perhaps the Minister will ensure that, if there are TPS rules—the Electoral Commission may have a view on that—they are rigidly enforced and all parties do the same thing.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South referred to the internet, which is fairly important. There are problems with controlling the internet, and the trading of votes is another issue. As we all know, an election agent must authorise expenditure. If some expenditure is not authorised and unfairness is involved, we will have to consider that. We should carry out a general review. We need to take another look at postal voting, because there is concern about possible fraud. In particular, we need to ensure that, if there is a later deadline, the Post Office has the resources to get the votes out and people are able to cast their vote. We are still learning with the rolling register, and a little more money may need to be invested to ensure its accuracy.

The hon. Gentleman made another very relevant point: third-party campaigns started because of animal rights or because people have taken a dislike to a Member of Parliament may be more of a feature in future. That is not a party political point: all parties and all MPs may at some point face that problem. The hon. Member for Ilford, South has done the House a service by raising the issue. It must be investigated seriously to ensure that attempts to skew election results by unfair means are not allowed. Our democracy must operate on the basis of fair

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and understandable rules so that we as political parties know what we are doing. The activities of third parties, particularly if they have a vendetta against an individual, must be nipped in the bud. We need a means of dealing with them when they are happening, not after an hon. Member has lost his constituency. Once the vote is counted and an hon. Member is returned it is far too late. We need some means of taking more immediate action or holding people responsible. It may mean having rather more draconian fines or perhaps disqualifying those who break the rules from voting.

12.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) on securing the debate. He made an intelligent and helpful speech. All contributions this morning were positive and assisted mature consideration of the lessons that we can learn from the election to ensure that our democracy works well. My hon. Friend clearly had particular reasons for raising the debate and he set them out forcefully. I would like to draw the debate to a close by referring to some wider issues, a number of which have been discussed this morning.

All who, like us, submit themselves periodically to the electoral process have an interest in the way in which that process operates. All hon. Members probably have stories of the electoral trail and the problems that have arisen. It is important for the health of democracy that we keep matters under review and resolve any problems. As hon. Members have said it is important to get things right before elections take place, rather than having to look at a result that has sadly gone awry. Each general election gives us an opportunity to examine its workings and to come up with ideas for improvement. Today's debate is a useful contribution to that process.

United Kingdom elections are generally pretty free and fair. That has not always been the case. I am reminded of the Sandwich election of 1881, when the two parties taking part sequestered no fewer than 160 public houses as committee rooms and the beer flowed freely throughout. Indeed, an enterprising early Thatcherite who was a bill poster in the town managed to obtain work for both parties: he put up posters up for one party during the day, tore them down at night and put up posters for the other party the following day and so on throughout the election. I am also reminded of the Southampton election in 1895, when the Conservative candidate, Sir Tankerville Chamberlayne, delighted electors by proceeding from the bottom of town to Southampton common in a cart drawn by six sturdy townsmen, throwing sovereigns out as he went.

We have advanced a little from such practices, but I do not want make light of what my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, South and for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) have told us this morning. I am concerned by what I have heard of the campaign in Ilford, South and the incidents in Bolton, South-East. I condemn any dirty tricks in election campaigns. If hon. Members have been subjected to intimidation or unfair practices in the election, it is not acceptable.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South will forgive me if I do not go into the details of his allegations. First, I do not know enough about it to do so

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sensibly. Secondly, the appropriate way to pursue allegations of illegal and possibly criminal practices is through the law. I note that he intends to continue his investigation and to pursue those responsible. In such circumstances, it would not be right of me to comment further at this stage, but I would be interested to learn of any conclusion to those inquiries. As he emphasised, whatever went on in the campaign in Ilford, South, it had no effect on the outcome—indeed, he was returned with a swing towards him that was greater than that in my constituency, where I did not have to face the tactics that he faced. One could say that his result demonstrates the backfiring of those tactics. People should draw a moral from that.

In broadening the debate, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) made a specific and succinct point about the status of voters who are European Union citizens but cannot vote in UK elections. The fact that the voter whom he mentioned may vote in Scottish parliamentary elections underlines his point, but the Scottish Parliament is not a national parliament in the same way as those represented in the EU. There is a reciprocal agreement among EU member that states who may vote in national elections: citizens of each country may vote in their own but not other countries' national elections. A change to that agreement would be required for that position to be altered and, as far as I understand, there are no plans to make such a change. Any change would have to apply throughout the EU.

Perhaps the most important recent change on elections was the establishment last November of the Electoral Commission. I should make it clear that the commission cannot mount prosecutions for illegal actions; those are a matter for the police. Local police also decide staffing levels at polling stations, and hon. Members will know that in several parts of the country the police take an active interest in ensuring that the polling stations are free and accessible to all citizens. It is a fundamental prerequisite of our election system that people should be able to go to the polling station and cast their vote without harassment.

The commission has several duties relating to electoral practices, party funding and the conduct of any future referendums. It is also responsible for keeping electoral law under review and promoting understanding of electoral and political matters. Internet campaigning and voting, and postal voting are topics that the commission might consider in the future. It is able to produce reports at the request of the Secretary of State. One of the commission's main duties is to prepare reports on elections and its report on this year's general election is being prepared, as hon. Members have mentioned. I understand that the report will be published in late July, and I am sure that we all look forward to seeing it. It is for the commission to decide what goes into its report, but I am sure that it will want to examine how recent election legislation has operated. Its recommendations remain to be seen, but I assure hon. Members that we will consider them carefully. We will also try to ensure that hon. Members have every opportunity to contribute their views once the report has been published.

Until the report is published, data that could inform the debate remain unavailable, but we can draw a few wider conclusions on how recent changes to electoral law have operated. More changes have been made to the law

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in the past year than have been made for decades, with two major pieces of electoral legislation going through the House recently: the Representation of the People Act 2000 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The former introduced a number of changes, including rolling registration, provisions to help people who are unable to register to vote––for example, the homeless and those without a fixed address––postal voting on demand and provisions to help disabled voters. The latter focused more on party funding, but it established the Electoral Commission whose report we await.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) made a number of specific points on how those changes in electoral law work and whether there is cause for concern about rolling registration, the widening scope of postal voting and the security of the voting system as a whole. I concur with the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) who said that the British electoral system works on the basis of trust and that people who are determined to get round the system will occasionally be able to do so. However, there is no overwhelming evidence of systematic breaches of electoral law although occasional lurid radio and television programmes have suggested that there is.

Considerable safeguards for rolling registration are in place. Accusations have been made that the new system makes it too easy to register and that people can be registered twice. However, electoral registration officers have the power to check applications carefully and to require more information if they have any suspicions before adding someone's name to the register. The application form asks for information about voters' previous addresses so that they can be removed from the register there. Voters can be registered in two places at once, particularly if there is a delay in passing information back to the electoral registrtion officer, but it remains an offence to vote twice and voters cannot be certain that they have not been removed from the old register.

In the run-up to the election, there was much publicity about postal voting and the potential for fraud. Much of that publicity was unhelpful, but it is important to consider our reaction to concerns, given that the increase in postal voting was one of the minor successes of the recent election. Many people took the opportunity of having a postal vote without having to provide a reason, and that helped them to cast their votes.

Mr. Syms : Is there likely to be any assessment of the number of postal votes that arrived after polling day? That would be useful information.

Dr. Whitehead : I am not sure whether the data upon which such an investigation could be mounted are available, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and let him known whether such data are available and, if so, what conclusions might be drawn.

In some areas, 30 per cent. of the electorate applied for a postal vote, and there were increases of between 5 and 10 per cent. in the number of people with a postal vote in several constituencies. That shows that we are giving the electorate what is wanted. Postal voting is popular and suits modern life styles. I am not sure that we could easily place too many additional safeguards on postal voting in the way described by the hon. Member for Lewes without

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undermining a number of the gains that have resulted from postal voting. For example, it is difficult to require that postal votes must go to a specific named address or the home address of postal voters because part of the reason for people wanting postal votes is that they are away from home. Allowance must be made for the nomination of an address when the postal vote is sent out.

However, there are considerable safeguards surrounding postal votes, which have been available for a long time. Postal votes are not new; the current issue is that the number of postal votes is increasing. Voters cannot obtain postal votes unless they are registered to vote in the area in which they apply. They can return to a polling station in the constituency if they wish, but cannot, having been sent a postal vote, obtain another postal vote and so vote twice. It is always possible for someone to pretend to be a deceased person and obtain a vote. That has always been an incipient problem with the postal voting system, but there is no evidence that that is a widespread fraud. Of course, it is always important to be vigilant.

All Members of Parliament who are concerned about the operation of electoral law and the smooth running of elections should ensure that we are vigilant about how the system works. We have seen enormous changes in that system in the last few months and it is time for us to pause for a moment to take stock. We can do that with the advice of the Electoral Commission when its report is published.

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