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In making his powerful address, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton got to the nub of the issue for those involved in the campaign. The eldest of these men is 90, and the youngest is 68. They should not have to wait five years for the release of these documents.

The SNP supports the decision taken in the House in January 2014. I want to emphasise the result of the vote: there were 120 votes in favour of releasing the documents, and three against. Many of us are concerned that national security is being used as a reason not to release the documents. Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, has said:

“It is time to end this 40-year conspiracy of silence and release all the government documents relating to the Shrewsbury 24. There is something deeply wrong in this country when a 21st century government uses national security to withhold documents about ordinary working people who tried to improve their working conditions four decades ago. We believe the Tories are desperately trying to hide the stench of a great miscarriage of justice and we urge fair minded MPs to back our campaign to release all the government papers on the Shrewsbury 24.”

Alex Deane, a Conservative public affairs consultant, wrote on the ConservativeHome website in January 2014,

“whilst deeply unsympathetic to their cause, I find it simply impossible to conjure up what the national security concerned might be in hiding the decisions taken by officials and elected persons relating to the prosecution of builders in Shropshire 40 years ago. What technique of surveillance or undercover work might possibly justify non-disclosure after this passage of time? Any technique will be outdated or universally known about. Any individual involved in undercover work can have his or her name redacted from the papers which might otherwise be released. Consideration of the wider disclosures rightly made in recent times of papers relating to Northern Ireland, where on any view those concerned were more dangerous, makes a mockery of any such claim to national security concerns.”

We believe a great injustice has been done, and hope that the Minister will confirm today that he will release the papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. I am about to call the shadow Home Secretary. Although I think there will be plenty of time for both Front-Bench spokesmen, I ask them to bear in mind the fact that Steve Rotheram has the right to a few minutes at the very end. I hope that they will make sure that he gets them.

3.21 pm

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): I want to congratulate my great friend: my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) made a powerful and persuasive speech. I also thank my many Opposition colleagues for being here today and for their show of solidarity with the Shrewsbury 24. Given that it is nearly Christmas, I even thank the Scottish National party for being here to lend support to our campaign. It is good to have it.

The Government deserve credit for the willingness that they have shown in facing up to the historical injustices of Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough and child sexual exploitation. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton has said, something that many people consider an outrageous injustice—a case that goes to the heart of how we were governed and policed in the previous century—is still shrouded in secrecy today. In the previous Parliament, following a debate called by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), the House voted overwhelmingly for

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the full truth about Shrewsbury finally to be told, but in October the Minister for the Cabinet Office ruled that the Government papers would continue to be withheld.

The purpose of today’s debate is to challenge that decision, and I will do so by revealing a series of documents that shed new light on the whole issue. Before I do that, I want to pay tribute, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton did, to Eileen Turnbull, the researcher to the Shrewsbury 24 campaign, whose diligence and utter dedication to the cause has brought the documents to light. I have her dossier here today, and it reveals three things: first, how the trial was politically driven by the then Home Secretary, from the gathering of evidence to the commencement of proceedings; secondly, how there was an abuse of process by police in the taking of statements; and thirdly, how there was an attempt at the highest levels of Government, supported by the security services, to influence the outcome of the trial.

There is also a crucial piece of context, which other hon. Members have mentioned, and I ask that it be borne in mind at all times. On the day in question, 6 September 1972, no pickets were arrested, nor were any cautions issued. That brings me to the first document, a letter dated 20 September 1972—some two weeks later—from the press officer of the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, to regional secretaries. It is headed “Intimidation Dossier” and it says:

“You will be aware that we are compiling a dossier on incidents of intimidation and violence during the recent wage dispute. The intention is to pass this document to the Home Secretary for his consideration with a view to tightening up the law on picketing in industrial disputes.”

It calls for details of any incidents, statements from eyewitnesses and photographs. So at the outset that establishes that there was an evidence-gathering exercise on the strike involving the Home Office at the highest level.

Confirmation of the political interest in legal proceedings comes from the second document that I have: a page from the case file of the Director of Public Prosecutions on the Shrewsbury pickets. An entry on 29 December 1972 reads as follows:

“The Home Secretary is interested in this case. 2 counsel to be nominated.”

That, by the way, was no passing interest from the Home Secretary, as the third document will show. I have here a letter dated 25 January 1973 about the Shrewsbury case from the then Attorney General Peter Rawlinson to the then Home Secretary Robert Carr. Its contents are extraordinary. It begins:

“The building worker’s strike last summer produced instances of intimidation of varying degrees of seriousness...A number of instances consisted of threatening words and in which there was no evidence against any particular person of violence or damage to property. In these circumstances Treasury Counsel, took the view that the prospects”—

of a conviction—

“were very uncertain, and in the result I agreed with him and the Director that proceedings should not be instituted.”

That letter is talking about proceedings against the Shrewsbury pickets. It goes on to warn of the risks of jury trial, saying that

“juries tend to treat mere words more leniently than actual violence”.

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There it is—an admission that they were talking about “mere words”. Two conclusions can be drawn. First, the Home Secretary of the day was advised by the Attorney General and the DPP that no proceedings should be brought against the Shrewsbury pickets. Secondly, it is made clear and explicit that there was no evidence of violence or damage to property. “Mere words” were the only things that were thrown.

We do not have documents revealing the subsequent decision-making process within Government, but we do have the first page of a confidential memo sent by the Home Secretary to the Prime Minister the week after the letter was sent. It reads:

“Thank you for your minute of 29 January about picketing. I have taken a close personal interest in this problem since I came to the Home Office and I have myself discussed it with the chief officers of those police forces which have had to deal with the most serious picketing. I believe that chief constables are now fully aware of the importance we attach to the matter”.

From that there is no doubt at all that the Home Secretary was heavily interfering in operational police matters, and just over a week after his memo was sent to the Prime Minister the Shrewsbury pickets were picked up by police and charged—a full five months after the strike had ended. That series of documents puts beyond any reasonable doubt the fact that the Shrewsbury trial was politically driven by the Home Secretary of the day.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am sorry I have not been able to attend the debate so far, but I was attending to my staff in the run-up to the Christmas period. The shadow Home Secretary makes a big play of the fact that the Home Secretary was involved. The right hon. Gentleman was not around at the time, and I was. I recall the case and, indeed, had a letter about it published in The Times. If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Home Secretary should not have been concerned about the case, I think he is making a mistake. The Home Secretary should have been concerned.

At that time, the nation was bedevilled by strikes. We had not had the legislation that Margaret Thatcher introduced. If the case that the right hon. Gentleman is making is that the Home Secretary should not have been involved, that is a fundamental misreading of the situation that applied at the time. The Home Secretary was right to be concerned because the British people were concerned at the way trade unions were running rampant across the country.

Andy Burnham: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have been here at the start of the debate to hear the whole case. He has just revealed that it was a political campaign against the trade unions. That is what he just said, and that is the point. He has revealed his hand to this entire gathering. It was a political campaign that Mrs Thatcher sorted out. That is the point here. There was a campaign driven from the top of Government, as I have revealed. We do not live in a country where politicians can put people on trial. I do not want to live in a country like that. These should be independent matters for the police and the legal authorities. The hon. Gentleman has heard evidence today of politicians putting people on trial; if he is not concerned about that, well, I am, and that is why we are holding this debate.

The next document that I have shows that due process was not followed in the aftermath of the political pressure. On 17 September 1973, a conference between police investigating the case and the chief Crown prosecutor,

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Mr Drake, was held at Mr Drake’s home. I have here a note of that conference. Let me quote the key passage in paragraph 16, which records an explanation from police officers about the gathering of statements:

“So that Counsel would be aware it was mentioned that not all original hand-written statements were still in existence, some having been destroyed after a fresh statement had been obtained. In most cases the first statement was taken before photographs were available for witnesses and before the Officers taking the statements knew what we were trying to prove.”

Let me read that again for the benefit of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), so that he can hear it without any confusion. [Interruption.]

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. Before the shadow Home Secretary does that, I should say that I understand that emotions are running high for those observing this case, particularly in the light of some of the things that have been said. However, the debate should be heard in silence.

Andy Burnham: Let me read from the note quietly and carefully so that no one is under any doubt. It says: “before the Officers”—the police officers—

“taking the statements knew what we were trying to prove.”

I put it to the House that that document, which has not been made public before, is the smoking gun in the Shrewsbury case. It is clear that the police felt it incumbent on them to investigate propelled by a prosecutorial narrative, rather than by an even-handed investigation of events. I was led to believe that the Conservative party believed in the Peelian principles of policing, but they were not followed in this case. Transcripts of the trial reveal that the court and the jury were never informed of the destruction of those original witness statements. That fact alone raises major questions about the conduct of the trial and the safety of the convictions.

I turn to the trial itself and the Government attempts to influence it. “Red Under the Bed” was a television programme made by Woodrow Wyatt for Anglia Television. Its aim was to reveal communist infiltration of the trade unions and the Labour party, but it was also clearly intended to influence the trial. Wyatt’s controversial commentary was interspersed with footage of John Carpenter and Des Warren and pictures of Shrewsbury Crown court. The programme was first broadcast across ITV regions on 13 November 1973, the day the prosecution closed its case. We know that the judge watched a video of the programme in his room just after it was broadcast. It is inconceivable that the programme did not influence the trial, and unthinkable in this day and age that a television programme prejudicial to a major trial could have been aired during that trial. But it was.

I will now reveal the full back story about how the programme was made. I have here a memo, headed “SECRET”, to a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official from the head of the Information Research Department, a covert propaganda unit operating within the FCO. It says:

“Mr. Woodrow Wyatt’s television programme, ‘Red under the Bed’, was shown nationally on commercial television on Tuesday, 13 November, at 10.30 p.m…We had a discreet but considerable hand in this programme…In February Mr. Wyatt approached us direct for help. We consulted the Department of Employment and the Security Service through Mr. Conrad Heron’s group…With their agreement, Mr. Wyatt was given a large dossier of our own background material. It is clear from internal evidence in the programme that he drew extensively on this”.

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What an extraordinary thing for a Government official to be writing in a memo to a senior civil servant!

It gets worse. In the next paragraph, the head of the unit says this:

“In our estimation this was a hard-hitting, interesting and effective exposure of Communist and Trotskyist techniques of industrial subversion. But Mr. Wyatt’s concluding message, that the CPBG’s”—

the Communist Party of Great Britain’s—

“main aim is to take over the Labour Party by fair means or foul—an opinion which is almost incontrovertible—offended the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s standards of objectivity, as they interpret the Statute…This difference of opinion held up the showing of the film”.

This is senior civil servants talking about the infiltration of the Labour party—a spurious claim that they were trying to make through a television programme that they were directly involved in making. It is astonishing that it came to that.

Knowledge of what was going on went right to the very top. The Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary put in a handwritten note to Mr Heath. It says:

“Prime Minister…You may like to glance through this transcript of Woodrow Wyatt’s ‘Red Under The Bed’ TV programme.”

The reply came back from the Prime Minister:

“We want as much as possible of this”.

On the back of that, the PPS wrote a further confidential memo to Sir John Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary. It says:

“The Prime Minister has seen the transcript of Woodrow Wyatt’s television programme…He has commented that we want as much as possible of this sort of thing. He hopes that the new Unit is now in being and actively producing.”

The “new Unit”.

Rob Marris: What new unit?

Andy Burnham: Yes, we can only wonder what that was. In a reply headed “Secret” and copied to the Prime Minister, Mr Hunt writes:

“I confirm that the new Unit is in being and is actively producing material. Use of the service”—

the Security Service—

“is being kept under continual review between the Lord Privy Seal and Mr Heron.”

So there we have it: the security services were helping to make not only a television programme that was nakedly political in its aim of damaging the Labour party but, in the case of the Shrewsbury 24, a programme that was prejudicial to their trial and that went out in the middle of their trial. The Government were complicit in making that happen.

The documents that I have revealed today lead us to only one conclusion: the Shrewsbury 24 were the convenient scapegoats of a Government campaign to undermine the trade unions. They were the victims of a politically orchestrated show trial. These revelations cast serious doubt on the safety of their convictions. Let us remember: this was a domestic industrial dispute led by one of the less powerful trade unions of the day, involving industrial action in and around a number of small market towns in England and, on the day in question, no arrests were made.

How on earth, 43 years on, can material relating to it be withheld under national security provisions? I put it to the Minister that the continuing failure to disclose will lead people to conclude that the issue has less to do

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with national security and more to do with the potential for political embarrassment if what was going on at the time were widely known.

We need from the Minister today a guarantee that all the papers identified as important by the Shrewsbury campaign are released to the National Archives. That is vital. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton said, the individuals concerned are not getting any younger. They have a right, even now, to a fair trial, and it is only when all the documents are released that we will know whether they received one.

But in the end, the issue is about more than 24 individuals. There is a modern-day relevance to today’s debate, with a Trade Union Bill going through Parliament that requires police supervision of the activities of trade unions. In the light of what I have revealed today, perhaps the public will understand more why the trade union movement objects so much to that Bill, and why the Bill has sinister echoes of the past. It also comes at a time when the Government are asking for our support for an extension of the investigatory powers of the police and security services.

As I have said before, I am prepared to support them on that. But if the Government want to build trust, they must be honest about the past. It is only by learning from this country’s past mistakes that we will be able to build the right safeguards into the new legislation and prevent future abuses by the state. I do not make my support conditional on that; I am asking the Government to help to build trust so that we can help them get the legislation right.

In the end, the Shrewsbury case is about how we were governed and policed in the second half of the last century. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, I see clear parallels between Shrewsbury and Orgreave, where trumped-up charges against miners were thrown out of court—and, of course, with Hillsborough, where statements were altered to fit the narrative the authorities wanted. In all three cases, the establishment tried to demonise ordinary people.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the final, successful resolution of the Hillsborough case shows that it is never too late to overturn a miscarriage of justice?

Andy Burnham: I started by praising the Government for their work there, but they need to show the same openness and transparency here. In all three cases there was a pattern: the establishment tried to demonise ordinary people. Only when we know the full truth about the past century will we, as a new generation of lawmakers, be able to make this country fairer and more equal. This is the people’s history, and I demand their right to know it.

3.40 pm

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the shadow Home Secretary on producing those documents today, which, frankly, I and, I would suggest, many of us in this room have never seen before. I also congratulate his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing the debate.

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I was 14 in 1972—two years before I joined the Army; I am not as young as the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens)—but I do remember this event, not least because later on in life my father desperately tried to get me to stay in the building industry. My father and I come from a family of small builders, so it was very much there. There was a lot of talk about how we could make sites safer and make sure people on sites were paying their tax—this was when we brought the 715s in and all that—so I do know a little about this.

As the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) indicated, I am a worker, still today, and I come from a trade union background—the Fire Brigades Union, which I understand has rejoined the Labour party. I was a member of a trade union when I was a lifeguard for the local authority, but I cannot remember which one it was—it would have ended up in Unison by now, but I think it went through several versions—so of all the Ministers who could have been standing here today, I have empathy, and I have always tried to have empathy, particularly when I work with the shadow Homes Secretary and particularly on Hillsborough.

It is very easy for us to assume that the Chamber—either this one or the main Chamber—could be a court of appeal, but it is not. There is a process going on now with the CCRC—an independent body, set up by the Government of the day—as to whether, in its opinion, there has been a miscarriage of justice that could be referred to the courts. That is the legal system we have in this country, and it is not for right hon. and hon. Gentlemen here to come to a conclusion. Most of us would agree that we have that sort of judicial system.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mike Penning: I am the Minister for Policing; I would love to be the Home Secretary.

Debbie Abrahams: I am sorry that I promoted the Minister inadvertently. The evidence may be fresh to him and this Chamber may not be a court of appeal, but does he accept that, to shed some light on the matter, he needs to publish the documents that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) spoke about, which will help us come to some sort of conclusion? Does he accept that and will he do all in his power to ensure that happens?

Mike Penning: I will come to where the documents should go, who should see them and what should happen, and ask the question, as general response, as to whether the CCRC has seen the documents and whether they have been submitted to it. If the right hon. Member for Leigh knows, perhaps he will let me know during the debate.

Andy Burnham: My understanding is that the CCRC has not seen the documents that the Shrewsbury campaign considers to be important. They are far more extensive than the small number of documents that the Ministry of Justice identified. The important thing is for the campaign to identify which documents it believes to be important. They should then be put into the archive at Kew and the relevant documents should be given to the CCRC. That is the process we are asking for.

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Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. As far as I am aware, there are no criminal or appeal proceedings pending; in which case, no sub judice rule applies to this debate. It is a matter for debate. I want to Minister to understand that.

Mike Penning: I apologise if I inadvertently indicated that there anything was sub judice. Clearly there is not. The CCRC is there, before we get back into the courts, to independently look at what was going on.

Before I answer the question that the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) asked me, let me say that 1972 is a long time ago. There have been many Governments, of two different persuasions, in power during that time.

Rob Marris: Three.

Mike Penning: Yes, three if we count the last one. For this to be a Tory conspiracy, whenever we are in government, I just do not understand as to why—[Interruption.] Bear with me. I do not understand why this has not been addressed before now. That is the point I am trying to make. It is all too easy to say, “You nasty, horrible guys. You’ve been in government for a long time, and you’ve not done this.” As the right hon. Member for Leigh said, we have done an awful lot, particularly on Hillsborough.

Mr Hanson: I know that the Minister is a decent guy and that he is trying to do his best, but could he tell us why my ex-right hon. Friend, the then Member for Blackburn, agreed that the documents would be released in 2012, but the current Ministers took a decision not to release them when they were asked in 2012?

Mike Penning: The same question—why was it not done before?—could be put to the right hon. Member for Leigh, who was in the Home Office too. I do not know the answer to that question.

Mr Hanson: Well you should do.

Mike Penning: I do not. There was a decision made by Jack Straw at the time. Previous Labour Home Secretaries had not done it. I accept the evidence that I have not seen before today, but if we really want to get to the truth, Labour Members cannot just say, “We were in government for 13 years and did absolutely nothing about it, and it is now suddenly your fault because you happen to be in government today.” I just do not accept that.

Rob Marris: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: No, I am going to try to answer the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth in as straight and honest a way as I possibly can.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), looked at the documents carefully and said to the House that he will not reveal them, and that stands. He and the Cabinet Secretary—not a Tory politician—looked at the documents and

“both came to the firm conclusion that they do not relate in any way to the question of the safety of the conviction of the Shrewsbury 24”—[Official Report, 21 October 2015; Vol. 54, c. 940.]

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Andy Burnham: I just want to pick up a point that the Minister made. He said, “You were in government, and you didn’t do it.” First, he is well aware, as an experienced Government Minister, that when one party is in government, there is a custom that it does not release papers relating to another party. He knows that, but the point is worth making. Secondly, to clear some of this up, why does he not meet some of the campaigners to discuss these issues? Let us try to move things forward, focus on what we are asking for today and see whether we can bring resolution to this whole issue.

Mike Penning: The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am generally very fair about these sorts of things, and I would have come to that point in my speech, but I just felt—perhaps wrongly—that there was something that one of the Labour Administrations since 1972 could have done to address the concerns of the Shrewsbury 24. I think that must be a fair assumption by any description.

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) introduced some compelling information and evidence. Will the Minister make a judgment on what he has heard today?

Mike Penning: As the right hon. Member for Leigh said, I have been in many Departments, and I do not make instant judgments. I will look carefully at it.

On the shadow Home Secretary’s point, I am more than happy to meet the campaigners. I know that the Minister for Security—probably the more relevant person for the documents we are referring to—is also more than happy to do that. If there are other Ministers in Government who it would be pertinent for the campaigners to meet—I am probably putting my foot in it again, as usual—I cannot see any reason why they should not be able to do so. That is a way we can move forward.

Rob Marris: I welcome that statement. I say to the Minister, in all humility and as a lawyer, that my hon. and right hon. Friends and I are not saying that the Shrewsbury 24 were innocent of criminal offences. That is not for us to say. What we are saying is that, on the evidence, particularly that produced today, there appears to have been a major injustice done—that those individuals were denied a fair trial to decide whether they were guilty or not. We want the Government to address the injustice of the apparent suppression and destruction of documents that would have aided the defence of the Shrewsbury 24 to make their case in a fair trial. They did not get that fair trial. That is the injustice that we want addressed. We are not saying today that they are innocent; we cannot do so as legislators.

Mike Penning: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am not a lawyer, and it is actually quite useful in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice not to be a lawyer, because I can look at things in a slightly different way.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission did not exist in the ’70s—it was not put in place until 1997. It is absolutely imperative that the documents that the shadow Home Secretary has put before the House today are presented to the CCRC, so that it can do exactly what it says on the tin and impartially and independently look

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at the case. I know that other evidence has been submitted to the CCRC by the campaigners that we have not heard today, and it is imperative that we let the CCRC do its job.

Rob Marris: With the full documents.

Mike Penning: With the documents, as we are saying. The CCRC has had access to any documents of any description that it requires and has asked to see. Those are exactly its powers.

I want I give the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton an opportunity to respond. I want to be as helpful as I possibly can. If meetings need to take place, they should take place. We are examining documents within the Home Office now to see whether they are relevant and if they are, we will do everything that we possibly can. However, there has been a decision—not my decision, but a decision made by the Cabinet Secretary, who I would think is fairly independent on such things, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—that the documents that they have withheld have no relevance to the case of the Shrewsbury 24, and the Government are standing by their decision not to release those documents on the basis of national security. I know that that is perhaps not the answer that Opposition Members wanted from me, but that is the position of Her Majesty’s Government.

I will do everything that I can to assist the campaign as much as possible. If I was a constituency MP for the campaigners, I would be sitting there today, as hon. and right hon. Gentlemen and Ladies know, because that is the way I am. I passionately believe in the trade union movement. I was a member of it for long enough and have stood on picket lines myself. I believe in natural justice, which is what the CCRC is there for.

3.52 pm

Steve Rotheram: I first need to thank all hon. and right hon. Members who spoke in what I believe to be a particularly powerful debate. Most reasonable people watching today’s proceedings will come to the conclusion that the case has been overwhelmingly made for the release of the documents. It is for the campaigners to decide what documents they believe to be relevant and for the Government to release them to be lodged at Kew. Those documents should then be referred to the CCRC. That would be a just and equitable outcome from this afternoon.

I have to say that I hope that the real face of the Tories is the Minister who wound up and responded to the points that we raised and not the hon. Member for

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Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), who, despite the rhetoric of compassionate Conservatism, proved beyond reasonable doubt that the nasty party is alive and kicking.

Sir Gerald Howarth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I understand the passions that are aroused, but this country was seriously under threat at the time from trade unions that did not have the level of constraint that applies today. In 1979, 30 million days were lost to strike action—[Interruption.] It is no good shouting me down; this is the House of Commons. Last year, the number of days lost was 788,000. Industrial relations have been transformed since those unhappy days of which the hon. Gentleman speaks.

Steve Rotheram: I am just trying to get my head around what the hon. Gentleman just said. He believes that because there was industrial action that lost the country days, it was okay for the state to stitch up 24 people and imprison them. Is that the point that he was making? I think people will come to their own conclusions.

Sir Gerald Howarth rose—

Steve Rotheram: The hon. Gentleman has had two goes and I think he is digging himself a deeper and deeper hole.

The Minister, who is an honourable man, tried to defend his position, but I think he tried to defend the indefensible on this occasion. He tried to muddy the waters around the release of the documents, but this is about a miscarriage of justice. That is what is central to today’s debate: a miscarriage of justice. The current Government have the opportunity—it is in their gift—to put right a wrong of 43 years. That is all that the campaigners have asked for over the decades. I hope that the Minister will listen to their concerns and to the arguments of Opposition Members. I hope that he will act with honesty and integrity and meet the campaigners and then go back and fight their cause to get the documents released.

Question put and agreed to.


That the House has considered the Home Office and the case of the Shrewsbury 24.

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): There is a Division in the House. If there is more than one Division, we will resume after 25 minutes or as soon as we all get back.

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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Anti-TNF Drugs

4.10 pm

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered prescription of anti-TNF drugs.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about NHS prescription of anti-tumour necrosis factor drugs, a subject on which I have become somewhat familiar since I was contacted more than two months ago by my constituent, Samara Ullmann.

Before I move on to why I requested the debate and to define what anti-TNF drugs are and their uses, it may be helpful to give you, Mrs Main, the Minister and other Members present the background as to why this specialist medication will make such a difference to my constituent and so many others.

Samara Ullmann, who is now 29 years old, was born in my constituency in 1986. At the early age of just two, her parents noticed that she was walking with a limp. Worried about her clear inability to walk without pain, her parents took her to her local GP, who referred her to Leeds general infirmary where she was diagnosed with a condition known as juvenile idiopathic arthritis. The terrible condition affected both of little Samara’s legs, her wrists, her ankles and her knees. Her parents were told by the hospital that it was likely that she would have to be in a wheelchair by the time she reached the age of 10. From the age of two and until she was six, she had to wear splints on both her legs.

Professor Anne Chamberlain supervised Samara’s treatment over the next few years. During Samara’s visits to Leeds general infirmary every three to four weeks she was given hydrotherapy, physiotherapy and a cocktail of drugs. Her parents were told that little else could be done for her, which was confirmed by some of the country’s top rheumatologists.

From the age of six, Samara started having problems with both her eyes, which developed uveitis, a common effect of JIA. By the time she was seven, a cataract had developed in her left eye and was removed, but it was left considerably weakened so that, by the time she reached the age of 11, she had completely lost the sight in that eye. Fortunately, her right eye continued to function normally, although when she reached the age of 14 she needed laser treatment on that good eye and was understandably frightened that she would be left completely blind.

The JIA improved considerably by the time Samara reached 17, but sadly her left eye had to be removed because it was both blind and painful. After three months, she was fitted with a prosthetic glass eye, which fortunately is able to move to a limited extent with her functioning eye. The Minister may be able to imagine the terrible effect that all of that had on a teenage girl growing up in the early part of this century. Her self-confidence was badly damaged, too.

As the arthritis gradually abated, Samara was left with a common consequence of the condition, refractory uveitis, which often causes blindness even with the best treatments currently available. Her right eye—her only eye—is now severely affected. So far, despite a paralysed

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iris, a stuck-down pupil and a developing cataract in her remaining eye, her sight has been partially protected by the use of a drug called mycophenolate, which together with methotrexate is commonly used to treat uveitis.

Those drugs impair the white blood cells that promote the inflammation that causes uveitis. However, despite treatment with those drugs over the past eight years, the vision in Samara’s only eye continues to deteriorate. That is why her eye specialist at Calderdale Royal hospital in Halifax, Mr Teifi James, believes that in order to save her sight, she needs to be prescribed an anti-TNF drug such as Humira—adalimumab.

An anti-TNF drug is a monoclonal antibody that specifically targets tumour necrosis factor alpha. Because of the way in which it is manufactured, it is called a biologic. TNF is involved in causing inflammation in a number of autoimmune and immune-mediated disorders. Those diseases probably cause too much TNF to be produced, modifying the body’s immune response and causing inflammation. Anti-TNF drugs reduce the amount of TNF in the body. They are expensive and may have side effects that could be severe, but, with appropriate monitoring and care, such effects are rare. In fact, they are much less common than the many problematic side effects of corticosteroids.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue to Westminster Hall. The Minister will be seeking to improve the success rate of anti-TNF drugs. Many universities across the United Kingdom are looking at how to improve medication for those with eye ailments. We have two in Northern Ireland, which are Queen’s University Belfast and, in particular, Ulster University—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. Will the hon. Gentleman keep his intervention brief, please?

Jim Shannon: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is a good idea?

Fabian Hamilton: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right. The more studies carried out across the country at university level, the better it will be for patients suffering from refractory uveitis.

The anti-TNF drugs switch off the molecule that creates the inflammation in the first place and are therefore far more effective than corticosteroids in cases such as Samara’s. I am sure that Queen’s University Belfast and many others can confirm that.

Last year, Samara married her fiancé, Ben, and the couple now want to start a family. However, it is not at all advisable for her to become pregnant while taking mycophenolate, because it may well cause a miscarriage or birth defects. An anti-TNF drug could allow her to retain her eyesight and probably to conceive safely and be able to see her child grow up.

Let me move on to why adalimumab or infliximab should be available immediately on NHS prescription for adults with sight-threatening uveitis. I am aware that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is about to conduct a multiple-technology appraisal of adalimumab and infliximab and that responses to the draft must be received by 16 December—this time next week. From my conversations with Teifi James, one of the country’s leading eye surgeons, and from my research

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into that treatment it would seem that drugs such as Humira are highly effective in the treatment of uveitis, so much so that researchers in the Sycamore trial in Bristol, to which the Minister referred in his letter to me of 4 November, have stopped recruiting to it because the children being treated are doing so well on the drug. However, NHS England did not take that into account when it made its most recent decision on the use of adalimumab and infliximab for the treatment of adult uveitis alone.

According to Mr James, approximately 120 patients with sight-threatening uveitis are waiting for anti-TNF treatments in England, whereas patients in Scotland currently have access to adalimumab and infliximab. Treatment using Humira costs just under £10,000 a year per patient, which means that approval of the use of this drug for treating refractory uveitis alone would cost no more than £1.2 million a year.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I commend the argument that my hon. Friend is making on behalf of his constituents. I too have been contacted by a constituent about this issue, who points to the excellent work being done by the Olivia’s Vision charity, which my hon. Friend may have heard of. My constituent says:

“My daughter currently suffers from Uveitis and is receiving Infliximab to treat the condition, so far successfully. I would like to live in the hope that this would be available to her in the future should her conditions change, and indeed others to whom this could be a sight saving drug.”

Is it not important that patients such as my constituent’s daughter have that assurance?

Fabian Hamilton: I agree with my right hon. Friend. In fact, the Olivia’s Vision charity has been in touch with me and offered its full support for this debate and any future effects of it, which will hopefully include a decision from the Government that both infliximab and adalimumab will be available on the NHS. Those anti-TNF drugs are clearly completely effective in the treatment of refractory uveitis alone. I will talk a bit about the effects of anti-TNF drugs on other conditions.

Dr Tania Mathias (Twickenham) (Con): I greatly appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving me time to speak. For information, I am an eye doctor. Does he agree that what is important with severe conditions such as refractory uveitis is the principle that it must be up to the senior clinician—no one else; not NHS England and not a Minister—to decide if and when these treatments should be prescribed, and that the clinician must not be prevented from doing so?

Fabian Hamilton: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution, especially given her expert knowledge in the field. I agree 100% with her; it should be for clinicians to make such judgments and decisions, provided the drug is deemed safe. Enough testing and evaluation has so far been done to show that these drugs are not only safe but highly effective.

The point I was going to make, before those helpful interventions, was that it would cost no more than £1.2 million per year for all the patients in England to be treated with adalimumab or infliximab. To put that in context, I ask this question of the Minister: what would be the cost of paying benefits to all the young

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adults—most of the sufferers are young, working adults—who will suffer from sight-threatening uveitis for the rest of their lives if they lost their remaining sight for lack of a sight-saving drug that has already proven highly effective, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) said? Surely the taxes that they pay now and will pay in the future would more than outweigh the cost of allowing the use of this medication, never mind the additional cost of paying benefits to blind people who can no longer be as economically productive.

Teifi James is one of about 50 eye surgeons in England who specialise in the management and treatment of uveitis, out of a total of around 1,200 eye consultants in the country. He and his colleagues know from their work and the clinical evidence that adalimumab and infliximab work well, yet they are being denied the opportunity to prescribe that sight-saving treatment. Members may be forgiven for assuming that the use of biologic drugs such as adalimumab is a novel step, but that is not so. Teifi James first used Campath, one of the original monoclonal antibody therapies, to treat ocular disease as long ago as 1997. Uveitis specialists had been effectively using infliximab and adalimumab in appropriate cases for over a decade since 2000, until the NHS reorganisations changed the commissioning regulations. English uveitis specialists are frustrated that the treatments they had been using have become inaccessible as a consequence of recent changes to NHS commissioning.

If Samara or any of the other 120 young adult sufferers of uveitis were suffering from another condition as well, such as Crohn’s disease or arthritis, they could be prescribed these drugs, which would prevent the further development of uveitis. Sadly, however, without multiple conditions, uveitis alone cannot be treated with Humira or similar anti-TNF medication. I hope the Minister and anyone else listening to this debate will agree that that is highly unfair and just plain wrong.

As I have said, Samara’s remaining vision in her right eye is now failing. Mr James can operate on her eye to remove the cataract and correct the problems she is currently experiencing, but he is reluctant to do so unless she is established on treatment with Humira. He feels that the risks are too great on her present medication.

I hope the Minister will answer the following questions when he responds. First, does he acknowledge that time is of the essence and that young adults in danger of losing their eye sight cannot wait for sight-saving treatment much longer? Secondly, will he use the points I have made today to persuade NICE to speed up its review? Thirdly, will he offer my constituent, Samara Ullmann, and the 120 other patients like her the hope that a treatment senior clinicians say is highly effective can be used for their benefit without further delay? Finally, does he agree that Samara should have the chance to have a family and to see her children grow up, just like every other parent in the country?

4.25 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences (George Freeman): May I start by thanking and congratulating the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on securing the debate? I am grateful to him for giving me advance notice of the issues he has raised. We serve our constituents best in debates such as this when there is a spirit of non-partisan co-operation, and he is the very embodiment of that.

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The hon. Gentleman spoke incredibly fluently on behalf of his constituent, Samara Ullmann. He and I have discussed this issue, and he has raised it with the Department in recent months. I pay tribute to his work on his constituent’s behalf and, most of all, to Samara and all of those who suffer with this condition. One of my privileges in this ministerial role is to see the extraordinary patience, fortitude, courage and force of life spirit with which so many people with ill-met or unmet conditions survive. It drives me on in my work to try to accelerate the landscape and get innovate medicines and treatments to those people more quickly.

I will say something about the condition and then try to address the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. As most Members here will perhaps know, uveitis, or inflammation of the uveal tract, is the term used to describe inflammation of any structure within the eye that, when very severe, may cause visual loss. It can lead to blindness through either direct damage to the light-sensitive retina or secondary complications such as glaucoma. Uveitis is uncommon. It is estimated that two to five in every 10,000 people will be affected by it in the UK every year. It usually affects people aged 20 to 59, but can also occur in children. Despite being uncommon, it is a leading cause of visual impairment in the UK.

Dr Mathias: Just for information, the other problem with uveitis, apart from blindness, is intense pain.

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Patients experience a whole range of associated conditions.

In severe cases, treatment to try to prevent sight loss requires drugs that suppress immune cells. The drugs in standard use across the world include prednisolone and immunosuppressant drugs, which work in over 60% of patients. For the remainder, the drugs do not work or the patients suffer serious side effects that prevent the drugs from being used to their full potential. The next step in treatment is the use of a group of drugs known as biologics. As the hon. Member for Leeds North East said, those drugs are very specialised and designed to focus on specific molecules released during inflammation from cells, suppressing the inflammation in doing so.

TNF inhibitors are biologic drugs that suppress the physiologic response to tumour necrosis factor, which is part of the inflammatory response. Humira and Remicade are two anti-TNF alpha treatments that are licensed and NICE-approved for the treatment of adults with a range of conditions, including rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and inflammatory bowel diseases, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. In terms of the latter, I understand that the hon. Gentleman has been supporting his constituents by raising awareness for those living with a debilitating bowel disease by supporting Crohn’s and colitis awareness week, which has just ended. NICE has not yet appraised any anti-TNF drugs for the treatment of uveitis. I shall say more about that in a moment.

Decisions about funding for new treatments and drugs that are for rarer conditions, such as uveitis, and which have not been considered by NICE are made by NHS England as part of its specialised commissioning function. NHS England operates a horizon-scanning process to identify new treatments, and its clinical reference groups advise on the development of services for patients and

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keep published evidence under review. When NICE is not considering a therapy, NHS England can examine the evidence base and may propose commissioning treatments through its commissioning policy development process.

Turning to clinical experts, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias)made a really important point. Much as I would like to be able to pull a lever and accelerate treatments in response to very eloquent advocacy in this House, it is completely appropriate—I can see the hon. Member for Leeds North East nodding—that such decisions are made by the patients, clinicians and clinical experts, advised by NICE on the basis of the very best evidence available. Sometimes the collection of that evidence and the processing of those appraisals can be frustratingly slow, not least for the patients, but it is important that the process is done well.

The clinical experts at NHS England have considered the use of Humira and Remicade as treatment options for adult patients with severe refractory uveitis. NHS England concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the routine commissioning of those treatments. NHS England is, however, awaiting publication of the Visual clinical trial report in order to consider revising its commissioning policy in the light of the study’s outcomes. The trial report is expected to be published in a peer review journal in early 2016, at which stage NHS England will consider submitting a revised policy as an in-year service development.

The use of Remicade for children with severe refractory uveitis has also been considered by NHS England. Again, NHS England concluded that there was, as yet, insufficient evidence to support its routine commissioning at this time. That decision will be reviewed in April 2017.

On 11 November, NHS England published an interim clinical commissioning policy on the use of Humira for children with severe refractory uveitis with onset in childhood. Its use is recommended in children aged two to 18 who meet the clinical criteria set out in the policy. The policy, which has been developed by NHS England’s clinical reference group for specialised ophthalmology services with support from clinicians and patient representatives, will benefit children whose sight is threatened by the condition, and for whom other treatments have proven ineffective. That is on an interim basis pending further evidence from the Sycamore clinical trial. The interim policy will be reviewed in 2016, once the full Sycamore trial data have been published. Humira for severe refractory uveitis in children is being commissioned and funded by NHS England through specialist regional centres.

I want to mention individual funding requests, which are important in this context. All treatments for uveitis up to and including the use of immunosuppressants remain funded by clinical commissioning groups. As hon. Members know, the NHS is legally required to fund treatments recommended in NICE technology appraisal guidance. In the absence of such guidance, any funding decisions should be made by NHS commissioners, including NHS England in respect of specialised services, based on an assessment of all the available evidence and an individual patient’s clinical circumstances.

Oliver Dowden (Hertsmere) (Con): The Minister talks about need. In a similar vein to other Members, I would like to highlight the need of a constituent of mine—a

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young lady called Olivia, aged 15, who is totally reliant on self-funded anti-TNF treatments to retain her eyesight. She is very concerned that when she reaches adulthood, she may no longer have access to that, which is why her parents, also constituents, have created a charity called Olivia’s Vision. Again, I ask—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. Interventions must be brief. I call the Minister.

George Freeman: My hon. Friend has eloquently raised his point. I am happy to look into that with him afterwards.

NHS England will consider individual funding requests for treatments not recommended by NICE to treat individuals whose clinician can demonstrate clinical exception. The NHS constitution states that patients have the right to expect local decisions on the funding of drugs and treatments

“to be made rationally following a proper consideration of the evidence.”

If an NHS commissioner decides not to fund a drug, it has a duty to explain that decision to the constituents of the hon. Member for Leeds North East and others.

I want to turn quickly to the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions and then deal with a couple of questions that really sit under this whole debate. Let me respond to his four questions. I completely agree that time is of the essence to anyone in danger of losing their eyesight and, yes, people should have the chance to have a family and we need to make sure that we are supporting patients in the appropriate way. We are working to speed up the process, so that effective medicines get to patients much more quickly, but we need to know that they work and to make sure that the benefits they bring to patients are commensurate with their cost to the NHS, which is why we have NICE, a world-leading expert in health economics.

I must clarify that NICE is not currently appraising either adalimumab or infliximab for uveitis. However, it is consulting stakeholders on a proposal to include adalimumab within the scope of the technology appraisal guidance that it is developing on its two other drugs for the treatment of uveitis. A final decision on referral will be taken once NICE has concluded that consultation.

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I am aware that evidence is emerging on the use of these drugs on the treatment of uveitis in adults. When the full evidence is available, both NICE and NHS England will be able to take that into account when considering whether anti-TNF treatments should be made routinely available on the NHS.

In the remaining moments, I want to touch on the underlying issues that this debate has helpfully flagged up. The pace of change in the biomedical space, the rate at which new drugs are being discovered and the power of genomics and informatics, giving us a new insight into diagnosis and treatment, is putting pressure on our traditional methods of assessing drugs. Traditionally, NICE has worked on a one-size-fits-all, health benefit, “yes or no”, quality-adjusted life-year basis. I have launched the accelerated access review partly to look at how we can better use the genomics and informatics in our health system and give NICE more freedoms to be able to fast-track treatments to the patients who we know will benefit.

That touches on the question of off-label use of drugs. When there is a proven benefit outside of an on-label indication, we need to be much better at getting that information to clinicians, so that they can prescribe drugs in an off-label indication more quickly. The burden of proof needs to be not only right, but appropriately set, so that where there is clear evidence, the system can respond more quickly.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the cost of benefits. The system at the moment is not great at measuring the full cost of a condition downstream, which is partly why we are putting such efforts into the digitalisation of the health service and into being able to measure the cost of treatment and a disease condition. When we have a benchmark of what the cost is to society after a diagnosis, we will have a much better benchmark for rewarding innovation.

I will happily deal with any other questions offline. We have had a very short amount of time, but I hope I have tackled the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. I am grateful to him for raising the issue, and I hope I have given some signal as to where in the coming weeks and months we may be able to expect some helpful progress.

Question put and agreed to.

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Electoral Integrity and Absent Votes

4.38 pm

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered electoral integrity and absent votes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), to his place.

In this country, we pride ourselves on having free, fair, open and honest elections, but we are wrong. In too many parts of the UK, electoral fraud means that honest people’s votes are potentially invalidated by crooked votes. Our whole democratic system is being undermined and the votes of thousands of women of all ages are being regularly stolen by their menfolk. We are turning a blind eye, in effect, to regular breaches of section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 in respect of undue influence.

In May’s general election, 9,372,449 postal votes were sent via Royal Mail. These issues are not new, and the Electoral Commission and Government know about them, but so far we have had very little by way of concerted action to tackle them. This subject has been raised in the media, most notably and compellingly by Radio 4’s “File on 4” investigation programme in March 2014, which focused on electoral fraud in Pendle, Woking and Derby. It was also brought up by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson). With great courage and foresight, he raised the matter directly with Ministers on the Floor of the House three years ago during debate on the Bill that became the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013.

Who can forget the words of the election commissioner and presiding judge Richard Mawrey, QC, after hearing the most well-known electoral fraud case in Birmingham in 2005—following events in 2004—which resulted in the conviction of five men? His written judgment referred to

“evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic”.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that of course there are the open, overt, straight-down-the line fraudsters at work, collecting ballots that are not their own, but even where that does not happen, within the individual household the privacy of the ballot is lost where voting slips are sent to the household and no one can keep their voting intentions to themselves?

Mr Jackson: My right hon. Friend makes a very apposite point, which I will elucidate on and develop later in my remarks. I thank him for his intervention.

Have things really changed in the past 11 years? Mr Justice Mawrey was quoted last year as saying that our present procedures are “wide open to fraud” and that

“serious fraud is inevitably going to continue”,

enabling the manufacture of votes on an industrial scale. He also stated just before this year’s general election:

“The law must be applied fairly and equally to everyone. Otherwise we are lost.”

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We await the details of the review commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on electoral fraud in the light of the appalling scandals uncovered in Tower Hamlets following the failure particularly of the Metropolitan Police Service to take timely and robust action. That fell instead to a number of courageous and concerned citizens, including my old friend Councillor Peter Golds CBE, via a petition to the High Court. The long overdue review is being undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles). It was announced in August and, as I understand it, will be published in the new year in order that we can look at what further options are available to address this continuing and, as I will make clear later, endemic and institutionalised abuse and illegality. I will touch on Tower Hamlets in particular.

For the record, I have not called this debate in the light of the Oldham West and Royton by-election result, nor even of the comments of the leader of the UK Independence party, but in his media comments in the wake of the by-election he did touch on some issues that I will raise today.

Of the 1,086 cases of electoral fraud reported to police in England between 2008 and 2013, 58% originated in just 10 of England’s 39 police areas. I speak as the Member of Parliament for Peterborough, a local authority that has featured for a number of years on the Electoral Commission’s watch list of local council areas with a high risk of electoral fraud. Regrettably, Peterborough has a recent history of criminal convictions as a result of electoral malpractice and fraud. Most recently, in 2008, there was the conviction of six men—three Labour activists and three Conservatives—for postal vote fraud arising out of the June 2004 local elections. My local authority has also had problems with personation and, to an extent, voter intimidation.

I accept that there are other serious areas of concern, which will most likely be the subject of my right hon. Friend’s review and report, that are of major import. One is the lack of a requirement for proper, valid voter identification when presenting oneself as a voter at a UK polling station. That is unprecedented and undoubtedly anomalous in a modern democracy, and there is clearly a major risk of personation. Another issue is the limit on the powers to challenge alleged personation in the confines of a polling place for presiding officers, even if they know that a person is not who they say they are. The other issue is the failure to put in place legislation to curtail voter intimidation in the environs of a polling station, which we have seen in many places across the country, including Peterborough, but which was systematic in Tower Hamlets.

I will not try the patience of the House, but Tower Hamlets was but the most egregious example of many troubling themes around abuses in our electoral system. They merely coalesced in one London borough as the most extreme and shocking example. In Tower Hamlets, supervision of the corrupt 2014 elections was led by Commander Graham McNulty, who previously had been the investigating officer on the Levy and Blair cash-for-peerages allegations and was later the officer harassed—that is the word—by the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) to investigate, erroneously, the late Lord Brittan. Despite Lutfur Rahman and his agent being found guilty of seven different counts of corrupt practice after the longest election

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petition before a court in more than a century, nobody has been charged, including supporters of Rahman named and shamed for multiple election fraud. Why is that? Perhaps the Minister will touch on that.

For the avoidance of doubt, I think that it is incumbent on Ministers to respond in a timely way to the specific recommendations made recently by the Electoral Commission on the need for photo ID at polling stations on the Northern Ireland model—I see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his place. To be fair, the Electoral Commission has raised these issues over a number of years and progress has been made, albeit slowly and by increment, on issues such as register stuffing with “ghost” voters, which individual electoral registration will mostly deal with, and the most egregious postal vote fraud methods, via the need for a signature and date of birth, but that will only half deal with the substantive issue to which I will refer later. I accept that there will always be a trade-off between accessibility to the voting system and electoral integrity. It will never be easy or simple to get that balance right.

The Electoral Commission has at least monitored trends and collected data on electoral fraud and has commissioned specialist academic research—more of that later—with an issues paper being published in 2013 and a further comprehensive and detailed report being issued in January 2014. It is a matter of regret and disappointment that the previous, coalition Government—I absolve the Minister of responsibility for this—failed adequately to address the recommendations in that report.

Where I part company with the Electoral Commission and, to an extent, Ministers is on what I see as a degree of complacency in their responses. Of course I commend the extra money for fraud prevention in high-risk areas, but I am disappointed by the blanket rejection of at least considering returning to the pre-2001 regime for postal votes and by the rather anodyne revised code of conduct for campaigners, which is frankly superfluous and lacks any real sanction in law for miscreants and those inclined to unethical or criminal behaviour—a point raised in the “File on 4” documentary.

There is much to be done to tackle electoral fraud in all its forms, but for the purposes of our debate, I will focus on absent or postal votes. It might be worth examining, by way of background, how we came to be where we are now. Postal voting was first used in 1918 for armed forces personnel serving overseas. It was reintroduced in 1945 in similar circumstances, and 1948 saw postal voting extended to certain groups of civilians including those who were physically incapacitated, those unable to vote without making a journey by sea or air or because of the nature of their occupation, and those who were no longer residing at their qualifying address.

Following recommendations made by the Select Committee on Home Affairs in 1983, the Government extended the right to apply for an absent vote in 1985, and the rules were further refined in 1989. The exception was Northern Ireland, where there was already widespread concern about electoral abuse. In 1999, a parliamentary working group chaired by the then Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), recommended that postal voting applications should be simplified and allowed on demand to all voters. The Government legislated in 2000 to implement those changes, which came into effect in 2001.

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In its reports on the all-postal vote elections, the Electoral Commission drew back from its earlier recommendation for all-postal voting as standard. Its research showed that a large minority of people wanted to retain the option of voting at a polling station. The Commission, therefore—thankfully—recommended the development of a new model that involved multiple voting methods, including postal voting, rather than proceeding with elections run entirely by all-postal voting.

Suffice it to say that the process for exercising one’s right to vote by post or proxy is no less complex now than it was in 1999, and turnout for general elections has fallen from 71% in 1997 to 59%—a post-war low—in 2001, rising to 66% earlier this year. That serves to refute the idea, held by those who are worried about voter disengagement, of absent voting as a panacea. Our collective obsession with electoral turnout has, surely, for too long obscured the focus on clean, honest and fair elections as the absolute priority, and that is unacceptable.

The Electoral Commission’s response to the Pickles review is detailed, thought-provoking and helpful. It will allow Ministers to access important academic research supporting a key question—perhaps the most controversial aspect of my remarks—at the heart of this debate: the reasons for the growing evidence of criminal electoral malpractice, centred on postal vote fraud, in the British Bangladeshi and British Pakistani communities and diaspora. The debate is not party political; no party has a monopoly on virtue, and all major parties have been party to fraudulent electoral activities over the last 15 years or so. We are talking not about stigmatising a particular group or community, but about protecting our democracy and the precious faith and trust that people have in the voting system.

I am grateful for the work of academics such as Stuart Wilks-Heeg, who published a paper in 2008, on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, on “Purity of Elections in the UK: Causes for Concern”; and Eleanor Hill, of the Bradford University school of historical studies, who published a paper in 2012 entitled “Ethnicity and Democracy: A Study into Biraderi”, which has laid the groundwork for more recent empirical studies.

The Electoral Commission commissioned research from the University of Liverpool and the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at the University of Manchester, as well as from the social research centre NatCen. In January this year, they published two excellent, compelling and detailed qualitative studies entitled, respectively, “Understanding electoral fraud vulnerability in Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin communities in England” and “Elections, voting and electoral fraud: An exploratory study focusing on British Pakistanis and Bangladeshis”. The findings supported the Electoral Commission’s stated belief that, inter alia,

“electoral fraud is more likely to be committed by or in support of candidates standing for election in areas which are largely or predominately populated by…those with roots in parts of Pakistan or Bangladesh.”

The commissioned studies suggested that

“extended family and community networks may have been mobilised to secure the support of large numbers of electors in some areas, effectively constituting a ‘block vote’”

and that

“the wider availability of postal voting in Great Britain since 2001 may have increased the risk of electoral fraud associated with this approach, as the greater safeguards of secrecy provided by polling stations have been removed.”

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The academic research focused on interviews with political activists and non-political local residents in those high-risk areas, and it pinpointed the following cultural and structural trends. The reciprocal, hierarchical and patriarchal nature of kinship networks may mean that pressure is put on people to vote for particular candidates or parties, especially within family groups, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has made clear. Individuals may be made to feel as though they have no choice in the matter, or they may, in fact, have no choice. That applies particularly to young women and older women, many of whom are economically disadvantaged. It their 2014 study, academics from Manchester University found that, for instance, Pakistani women are more likely to have their registration forms filled in by the male head of the household than to fill in the forms themselves.

Other problems in those communities are: low levels of public awareness about what is acceptable campaigning and what constitutes fraud; low levels of awareness about how to report electoral fraud; low levels of literacy and lack of English skills, which exacerbate those problems; and reduced political activity, or complete lack of activity, by mainstream parties in too many areas, which gives so-called community leaders free rein to claim propriety over large numbers of families, whose votes they can marshal and direct as they think fit. That is the regrettable flipside of an understandable collective need for ethnic mobilisation and solidarity, but it gives rise to practices that are inimical to our democratic values.

In too many communities, it is regarded as quite normal for political activists to engage in “farming” of postal votes on the doorstep, or even to fill in the ballots at home once signatures and dates of birth have been added, before transporting them to the town hall or polling station. That is regarded as part of the process; it is well understood and not seen as irregular. The University of Manchester reported that the biraderi networks

“may undermine the principle of voters’ individual and free choice through a range of social pressures such as respect for the decision of the elders at its mildest extreme, through to undue influence where in some instances access to individual ballots of women and adult children can be refused by the elders.”

Mainstream tolerance of such block voting is nothing new, although that makes it no less reprehensible. Lord Hattersley wrote in his 2003 biography of his polling day experience in the February 1974 general election:

“I won with an increased majority...the well organised and invariably loyal Kashmiris had cast their disciplined vote early in the day.”

The reports produced for the Electoral Commission highlighted the insufficiency of safeguards for voting procedures. One report found that respondents believed that there was a

“lack of law enforcement around fraudulent applications for postal votes…undue influence and intimidation both when filling out the vote at home with others present, and during the handling of the vote by party activists, community members and candidates themselves”.

Much more research must be done into those issues by the Electoral Commission and others. We cannot know for certain the scale of the problem and how it impacts on elections in our country at every level.

In the interim, I suggest the following measures. Ministers must, as a matter of urgency, consider and respond to the Electoral Commission’s 2014 report and to the findings of the Pickles review. Existing polling

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station voting vulnerabilities around ID, personation, intimidation and the flaws in the Representation of the People Act 1983 must be addressed soon. There must be a proper review of individual electoral registration to ensure its efficacy in respect of electoral register stuffing. Funds must be set aside for local authorities in high-risk areas to bid for money to work with their local police to investigate properly allegations of electoral fraud, which are often time consuming and costly to investigate. Guidance must be issued to the Crown Prosecution Service and the police to ensure that they take a much more proactive and robust approach to investigating electoral fraud, and that they are seen to be doing so. Finally, new legislative sanctions must be established by means of criminal law in respect of compulsion and intimidation of someone to apply for a postal or proxy vote, alteration of another person’s postal vote application form and the transit of another person’s postal vote documentation. It should be a criminal offence for anyone other than an authorised person to open or alter a completed postal ballot pack—either the ballot paper or the postal voting statement—before it has been received by the proper returning officer.

Ultimately, I believe that none of those measures alone will substantially reduce electoral fraud in our postal votes regime, and that serious thought must be given to returning to the tried and tested system of application in the case of illness, infirmity, military service or work commitments. That system gave us, with the universal franchise, a turnout of 84% in the 1950 general election, and 78% as recently as 1992. Our present system has been summed up perfectly: voting, once a “private act in public”, is now, owing to postal vote fraud, a “public act in private.”

We are currently condoning the theft of thousands of votes of our fellow citizens, many of whom are women—a situation that would shame Emmeline Pankhurst and make a third-world despot blush. We need to ask: what price honesty and fair play, and what price our reputation at home and abroad as the beacon of parliamentary democracy?

5 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) for setting the scene on the subject of electoral registration. He mentioned Northern Ireland a couple of times and I want to add some of my thoughts. I expected more people to contribute to the debate. None the less, it is always a pleasure to do so.

The issue is important in Northern Ireland, and we have taken some substantial steps forward. The shadow Minister and particularly the Minister will probably give some detailed information about what is happening in Northern Ireland. If I were to put forward just one thought in this debate, it would be this: look to Northern Ireland, the changes we have made and the steps that we have taken. That should be the precedent for the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in addressing the issue.

In this day and age, surely we should have a flawless electoral system and elections that are completely free of any fraud or deceit. Following the recent by-election—this is an observation and nothing more—according to The Daily Telegraph:

“Police could be called in to investigate alleged fraud at the…Oldham by-election after council staff said some voters in polling booths ‘had no idea what they were doing there’”.

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I do not know how true that is but it is a quotation from the paper, and it puts a question mark over how the system works. An unprecedented 100% of postal votes went to one party and, although it cannot be confirmed that there were any anomalies, eyebrows must surely be raised at such a staggering statistic. Many ask that question. It is not a reflection on those who vote, because they vote in the way that they wish to, but it strikes a question mark in many minds. I do not seek to make any accusations, but the fact that there is even the possibility of electoral fraud or deceit in this day and age should ring alarm bells for all of us.

In Northern Ireland in 2010, a parliamentary constituency—Fermanagh and South Tyrone—was decided by four votes. The decision was taken to court so that the honesty of the system could be looked at and verified. Three of the votes were removed, as the Minister, who is nodding his head, knows. The reality is that, technically speaking, that election was won by one vote. I am not saying that there was any fraud—people can make their minds up—but a court decision was taken, which changed the voting margin. It was a truly exceptional example.

With elections being run so tight, we need a flawless system to ensure that those who take their time to inform themselves and vote are doing so as equals with an equal weight to their vote, confident that the rest of the electorate will vote honestly and fairly. The Daily Telegraph also uncovered that a number of complaints were filed, with the police alleging electoral fraud at the general election in May and in the European and council elections in the previous May.

The professionals at the Electoral Commission do their very best to ensure electoral integrity, but there are still examples of the system not working and being open to deceit and fraud. More needs to be done, as the hon. Member for Peterborough said. We have the resources and the technology to make voter fraud a thing of the past, and we should be taking steps as a matter of urgency. The former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), said:

“Within Whitehall as a minister, I found a complete reluctance by officials to take action on the warnings from local councillors and journalists of systematic corruption in the mayoral administration in Tower Hamlets. I would argue that state officialdom is in denial over the real state of electoral fraud in 21st-century Britain. The new Conservative government is no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to Britain’s modern-day rotten boroughs.”

As the Minister is nodding, I would expect that the steps to change that will be made. We should look to such examples of people who have opened their eyes to electoral fraud and are getting on with the business of eradicating it as a matter of urgency.

In Northern Ireland, we have taken steps forward on the electoral system, the regulations and the registration. One of the first things that happens in an individual registration is that someone calls to check who lives in the house; that means that we can confirm that there are so many people in the house. Those people are checked individually. Physical inability to attend polling stations in person is confirmed by doctors. If people go on holiday, they have to provide travel documentation to prove that they are away. There are real meaty conditions to ensure that those things happen.

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Many years ago, it is rumoured—although many would say that it is factual—that there were those who voted from beyond the grave, which is quite a talent: quite impossible, if we are truthful. Changes were put in place to ensure that that did not happen. There were also houses from which a number of people were able to vote, but the only “people” who could access those houses had four legs and a tail. It was quite obvious that no human being could vote from those houses, so significant and direct measures and systems were put in place to ensure that that did not happen.

When it comes to addressing these issues, I suggest that we look to Northern Ireland—at how the electoral commissioner has addressed the issue there, and how we have taken the steps to ensure that electoral fraud is a thing of the past and that postal votes are registered and used by the person they are given to. I believe we have the system of a fair, equal, honest and integral vote, in whatever election it may be. Everybody who votes—and they expect their vote to be the one that will change things—has the ability to change the person and the party. We have set that precedent. I urge the House, the Minister and the shadow Minister to reply accordingly.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Before I call Mr Lord, I remind Members that the wind-ups will start no later than 5.20 pm.

5.7 pm

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this important debate. I wish to expand on just a couple of points in the time allowed. First, I congratulate the Government on holding firm on individual electoral registration and the timescales in which that is to be introduced. That is an important step forward in combating potential fraud.

Secondly, I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) who spoke about the steps that have been taken over time to secure the sanctity of the ballot in Northern Ireland. Yet we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough that there are troubles now in England, particularly in some of our major cities. It is time that the Government took seriously the fraud issues that are, unfortunately, taking place in some of our towns and cities and considered very carefully whether we should not be introducing some of the safeguards that were introduced in Northern Ireland some time ago.

I am personally coming around to the idea of showing some form of ID at the polling station. My hon. Friend talked at length about the postal ballot and I am interested in the Minister’s reply. In respect of potential impersonation at the polling station, nothing can be more frustrating for a resident citizen of our country than to turn up at the polling station and be told, as happens in a few cases in every election, “I’m sorry—supposedly you’ve already voted.” Requiring no form of ID to be shown at a polling station remains a loophole for those who want to commit fraud.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): What is the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the level of impersonation at polling stations that would necessitate people’s bringing ID with them when they go to vote?

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Jonathan Lord: We need to gather more data. After elections there is always anecdotal talk of people turning up at polling stations and being told that their vote has already been cast. We need to know the scale of that problem to know whether the remedy is worse than the cure.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough that British democracy should be sacrosanct. People should know that the result of a ballot, whether it be in local, national or European elections—or indeed in elections to our devolved Parliaments—is absolutely correct. That becomes even more important on those occasions when the margin is four votes or one vote. Any fraud can change the result of our elections under a first-past-the-post system.

Jim Shannon: This intervention will be swift. We took those steps on identification in Northern Ireland, and the steps were sometimes hard. There are many forms of identification—driving licences, bus passes, passports, firearms certificates and benefits cards—and so long as they contain a photograph, they prove who people are. Yes, it might sometimes be an inconvenience, but it is a good idea because it works.

Jonathan Lord: The hon. Gentleman makes that point extremely powerfully. All that someone needs to commit electoral fraud under our system is a really good telling regime at the polling station to knock out the postal voters; then, in the dying hours of polling, they can send people along to impersonate those people who the system shows have not already voted. That is exactly what used to happen in too many towns in Northern Ireland, I am afraid. We do not know for sure to what extent it might be happening here.

Nick Smith: The hon. Gentleman is making a serious accusation that vote rigging might be taking place in some parts of the country. Does he have any concrete examples to back up his case?

Jonathan Lord: As I said earlier, after every single election, whether it is a nationwide election or a large set of local elections, there are always people who go to their local paper—the hon. Gentleman can look through the cuttings—or who complain to the returning officer, “I went to the polling station to vote, but I was told that my vote had already been cast.”

The evidence is not strong in the way that perhaps it was in Northern Ireland, but it is a loophole in our system. As the hon. Member for Strangford says, it does not have to be a passport or driving licence, but requiring any picture ID, at the very least, would make it incredibly difficult to perpetrate a major fraud, because people who wanted to do so would have to forge lots of bus passes or similar items. I would be interested if the Minister gave us some feedback on that issue, as well as on postal voting, which was comprehensively covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough.

5.14 pm

Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP): It is interesting that we are having this debate as we begin to celebrate international Human Rights Day, because article 25 of the 1948 declaration of human rights called on nation states to provide free and fair elections on the basis of universal and equal suffrage. I do not mean to suggest

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complacency or to get into self-congratulatory backslapping but, from a global perspective, we have reason to be proud of the systems that we have in this country and of the level of respect that we have for the democratic process. That is not to say that there are not concerns or that there should not be changes. I will talk about some of those in a minute, but overall our democracy, and our electoral democracy, is in reasonable shape.

As I have previously suggested in similar Westminster Hall debates, the Scottish referendum last year was an exemplar of how to do things right, but I remind Members that probably the greatest compromised election in recent times also happened in Scotland. At the 2007 Scottish general election, fully 7% of the votes cast were rejected. That happened for two reasons, neither of which has to do with deliberate fraud or mal-intent. The first was that, because the local council elections took place on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections—the latter of which involved two different ballot papers—there was an unprecedented degree of confusion among the electorate, and an awful lot of people simply did not know how to exercise their right to vote. The second reason, which I am glad to say we have dispensed with, was that the then Scottish Government invested rather too much public money in a number of electronic counting machines that simply were not fit for purpose and seemed unable to do the job for which they were bought.

I am pleased to say that we have won the argument with the Government, because they did not rule out holding the EU referendum on the day of another election until the House clearly and explicitly decided that that should not happen. One of the procedures that we should use to protect our democratic process is to make sure that, each and every time a question is asked, it is a specific question that cannot be confused with anything else.

I was unaware of what the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) was going to say in this debate, but I note his concerns, which fall into two parts. One is the question of deliberate electoral fraud, in which people, either individually or by conspiring with others, deliberately abuse the process to cheat. We are in a good position because, in a competitive, multi-party democracy, there is an opportunity for parties to keep tabs on each other and to monitor the process. There is also a degree of good will and sincerity among our electoral registration officers, who are very vigilant and aware of the possibility of fraud and the need to do something about it. In my experience, the police, and others with responsibility for taking action, take electoral fraud very seriously. Again, that is a healthy development.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the problem of familial pressure being applied in some communities, particularly to influence women’s votes. I do not deny that that happens, but I am unsure of what action the state or the public authorities can take to prevent it from happening, apart from some of the things that we are doing through individual electoral registration and, of course, the education campaign to encourage everyone to recognise that their vote is a precious thing that relates to them, and to them alone, and that they should not be influenced by anyone else.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a good idea that we should make it more difficult to obtain a postal vote?

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Tommy Sheppard: I know Members are concerned about the dramatic increase in postal votes, and we are clearly now in a situation where the ability to vote by post is a choice—people do not have to fulfil many criteria to exercise a postal vote. I see that as a positive development because it encourages people to participate in the election process. There are lots of people for whom it is more convenient to exercise their vote by post. If we are going to look at restricting that by putting hurdles in the way of people who seek to vote by post, we need to be careful not the throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We are talking about electoral integrity, and I will finish by putting the issue in a slightly wider context. There are things that we can do. The Scottish referendum was an exemplar, with 97% of the people who were entitled to register being registered to vote and 85% of them turning out to vote. There were a number of reasons for that. One was that we widened the franchise and included 16 and 17-year-olds. I know that the House has rejected that model for the EU referendum, but plenty has been said about it by all parties and we will have to consider it again before this Parliament is over.

I will finish with this point. We also need to consider making voting easier, simpler and more contemporary. We really need to consider electronic voting in our processes. People trust the ability of the internet—

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): Order. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that this debate is about electoral integrity and absent votes, not alternative forms of voting, so I hope he will just close his remarks.

Tommy Sheppard: I am sorry, Mrs Main. I just wanted to say that if looked at increasing ways for people to participate and vote, that would do a lot to improve the integrity of the system and the regard in which it is held by the public.

5.20 pm

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Main.

I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this important debate. All of us who are democrats and who believe in the efficacy of elections also believe that those elections must be above board and entirely fair, and that all the participants in those elections must respect their integrity. That is important in itself, but it is also important that elections are seen widely in a democracy to be fair and beyond reproach.

The various issues that the hon. Member for Peterborough has brought to our attention have to be taken very seriously. He mentioned the Electoral Commission. Indeed, the Electoral Commission, among other bodies, has taken the allegations and examples of corruption and fraud very seriously, and it has presented to the Government’s anti-corruption champion—the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock)—detailed measures about how the electoral system can be tightened up. Those are very positive measures.

The Electoral Commission has suggested four measures, and I would like the Minister to respond to those recommendations. Before that, however, it is worth noting that it is not simply what we have in terms of

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regulations and electoral law that matters. A fact that needs to be highlighted is that a lot depends on the political parties themselves to make sure that they police their own candidates, to ensure that those candidates and their supporters are aware of the law and fully respect it. That is very important. Responsibility rests not only with the Government, the Electoral Commission and others, but with the political parties themselves and the individuals concerned.

As has been mentioned, we are seeing the introduction of individual electoral registration. It is to be welcomed in principle, because one of the key aspects underlying IER is the new emphasis placed on individuals rather than the head of a household, which accurately reflects society’s changing nature. IER is more modern and also puts greater responsibility on the individual in recognising the importance of the electoral process as a whole and their role within it, although we all regret—at least, Labour Members certainly regret—that its introduction has been rushed. We have our own reasons to believe why that was the case.

The essential point I want to make is that although all of us are united in total condemnation of electoral fraud, it is important to keep such fraud in perspective. The perception among many sections of the electorate is that electoral fraud is quite widespread, which is damaging to democracy. However, it is important to make the point that that perception is not based on concrete fact. As the Electoral Commission said in the evidence it submitted to the Government’s anti-corruption champion:

“The evidence currently available to us does not support the conclusion that electoral fraud is widespread in the UK.”

Mr Jackson: The hon. Gentleman is making his remarks in a typically eloquent way, but is it not a matter of regret that the chief executive of Woking Borough Council and the electoral returning officer for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) said on “File on 4”, the programme I referred to in my remarks, that in 12 years he had never presided over a wholly clean election in that borough? I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said, but surely that is a lamentable state of affairs.

Wayne David: Elections have to be clean, of course, but quite often there is a fine dividing line between the rough and tumble of electoral politics and actual electoral fraud. When we talk about fraudulent activity, we have to rely on evidence and hard facts being presented. If in that programme and elsewhere there have been actual examples of fraud and clear evidence of it, then it is right that an investigation is made and action taken. However, I return to my central point. Yes, there is plenty of tittle-tattle, plenty of suggestions and plenty of accusations, but all too often there is very little hard and fast evidence, and we have to go on evidence.

It is important to keep our debate in perspective. Of course that must not be used as an excuse not to do anything, and of course the system must be tightened up, but at the same time let us recognise that our democracy is one of the finest in the world, and we must do everything to defend it, while at the same time making sure that it is as watertight as possible.

Finally, as we move to a system of IER, it is important that we have, above all else, the desire to encourage and to make as easy as possible the participation of our

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voters in the electoral system. There is a fine dividing line, but we have a system that is open and fair, and that encourages people to vote and facilitates their involvement in the democratic process, and at the same time our system must be monitored and policed effectively.

Surely none of us would want to see a system in place that was as onerous as some Members have perhaps suggested, which would be a disincentive to people to go along and cast their vote. If we made the system too cumbersome, that would undermine the democratic process itself. Therefore, in the interests of democracy and democratic participation, we always have to strike a balance between what is reasonable to do in order to encourage as many people as possible to engage, while at the same time having a system that is above reproach and that is based on fairness and integrity.

5.27 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (John Penrose): It is a pleasure to have you looking after us this afternoon, Mrs Main; it is good to see you in the Chair.

Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on securing this debate on a tremendously important issue, which is perhaps slightly more topical than when he originally tried to secure it. However, that just shows his foresight and that he has his finger on the pulse of the popular mood. I think all of us here agree that this is a very important issue, but we tend to blithely assume that things are all right because historically this country has had a democracy to be proud of. Of course, it is up to us as the current incumbents in that democracy to ensure that we continue to be alive to any threat to it, and therefore it is important that we continue to address this issue regularly.

May I also remind all present and anybody who analyses this debate in future that the right way to deal with allegations of electoral fraud of any kind is to take them to the police? That is absolutely essential. The police are the investigating authority, and they are the people who have the skills and the resources to investigate properly. It is essential for the health of our democracy that any concerns are reported properly, so that the police can get to work and get their teeth into anything that looks suspicious.

During the last four years, we have had a steady flow—not a huge rush, but a steady flow—of electoral fraud cases. There were 268 in 2011, 408 in 2012, 178 in 2013 and 272 in 2014. That is not a deluge, but it is not zero either, and there is some concern that there may be other cases that are not being properly reported and may be going under the radar, which I think is one of the reasons why my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough secured this debate.

If anyone present or anyone looking at this debate afterwards has any concerns and, specifically, any detailed recommendations about how the system could be improved—we have heard a number of suggestions from all quarters during the debate—I would encourage them to mention them without delay to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough. My right hon. Friend is in the process of finalising his report and has collected recommendations on how to deal with electoral fraud.

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The Government will be waiting for that report to come to us. We will react to it once it is in our hands and we have had a chance to study it and consider its implications. It is an opportunity for anyone with concerns and, in particular, specific recommendations about how the system can be improved—goodness knows, no system is ever perfect—to strike now. The iron is, if not yet hot, then certainly getting pretty warm, and it will be hot shortly. Now is the moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough also rightly mentioned that 9 million postal votes were cast. Concerns are regularly voiced—albeit not always necessarily evidenced beyond the 200 to 300 or so cases each year—about undue influence when postal votes are in the hands of the voter, particularly within families with a strong tradition of patriarchy. It is hard to prove whether that is happening, but the suspicions none the less persist. All of us in this room will no doubt have heard those suspicions voiced to us by colleagues in Parliament and by constituents.

It is absolutely right—I hope all of us here would sign up to this principle—that we should not assume that there is a necessary contradiction or choice between having an electoral system that allows any eligible elector who wants to cast their vote to do so cleanly, conveniently and easily, so that turnout is maximised to the greatest possible extent, and the notion that there should be reasonable checks to ensure that the person casting the vote is eligible, is the person they say they are and is not subject to unfair pressure or influence in any way. Those two principles are equally vital. If we start saying that one is subservient to the other, we are on an extremely slippery slope, democratically speaking. Both principles apply and are important, and anyone who tries to pretend that we need to compromise one at the expense of the other is on dangerous ground indeed.

One of the only points on which I respectfully disagree with my hon. Friend was where he mentioned some turnout figures for successive general elections. He is absolutely right that general election turnouts have been higher in the past. I fear that factors other than the availability of postal votes may be involved in that. I suspect those factors are particularly to do with public attitudes to politics, public attitudes to politicians, dare I say it, and general levels of societal democratic engagement. There are probably more things going on than just the availability of postal votes, although I am sure he is absolutely right to point out that that is a factor.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) expressed some concerns about voting in person and impersonation. He asked whether there should be polling station checks. Again, that will be covered by the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar. I mention in passing that some recent photos appeared in the press of President Obama turning up to cast his vote in the American presidential elections—no prizes for guessing who he was voting for—and I was struck by the fact that he had to sign for his ballot paper when he got there. That is a different system from the one that applies in Northern Ireland that was referenced by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). None the less, there are models elsewhere in the world that we could look at, always with an eye to the fact that we do not want to discourage legitimate voters from turning out.

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Jonathan Lord: The Minister makes a good point about another way of doing things. Of course, we sign for our postal votes, and that is checked. There are 9 million postal voters, with 15% to 20% of the electorate now choosing to vote by post. If that 20% is being checked, why should the signature and validity of the ballot at the polling station not be checked?

John Penrose: We should take that as a further submission to the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar.

Nick Smith: Will the Minister give way?

John Penrose: Very briefly, but then I must try to finish.

Nick Smith: The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson)has rightly outlined examples of voter fraud that, if true, should be addressed with the full force of the law. Does the Minister agree that any future electoral law should have the right mix of safeguards and things to encourage voter participation? Will he please look into the possibility of credit reference agencies providing extra data to boost voter registration?

John Penrose: The hon. Gentleman mentioned this issue to me in oral questions earlier today. I encouraged him then and encourage him now to provide me with further details of his proposal. I am very interested at looking into that matter. It is potentially useful. There are many other sources of data that can be used to verify registrations, and we want to look at them all if we can. In the modern digital world, it seems a sensible avenue to explore.

At the root of the debate, we have a contradiction. We have modest levels of electoral fraud cases—I have already given everyone the figures for the past three or four years—but we can all see that, in principle, our processes and controls are pretty light-touch. We can all think of theoretical ways in which someone might be able to indulge in electoral fraud, were they so minded. In all our minds, there will always be a nagging concern that even though there may not be that many electoral fraud cases, there could be a cohort of people that we are not aware of taking advantage of this relatively trust-based system. That is the concern behind this debate and the ongoing public debate. To summarise it in a sentence, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. That is our concern.

I therefore want to reassure everyone that there is no complacency in the Government on this tremendously important issue. A number of people have mentioned in the course of the debate that there is some self-policing, because political rivals will naturally keep an eye on each other. That is good, but we have also heard examples of loopholes or potential flaws in the process that would allow some things to go unremarked, even where there is a strong political culture of rivalry. We should clearly consider applying the precautionary principle here, provided that we can do so with the satisfactory light touch.

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What have we done so far? There has been the introduction of individual elector registration. ID is therefore verified and it makes inventing people a great deal harder. It also makes family influence and patriarchy less important. We have also made postal votes a great deal more controlled. People now have to put a signature on a postal vote, and every single signature is matched up when that postal vote is opened. There was an initial problem in Scotland, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) mentioned, but the system is now running much more smoothly. There is much greater security around polling stations too, which is essential, particularly when one reads some of the judgments about what was happening in Tower Hamlets.

Finally, I want to back up the point that a number of colleagues made about voter education. One of the most fundamental ways of guarding against undue influence, whether spiritual, familial or any other form, is to educate people from the earliest moment that their vote is genuinely secret and that they are absolutely entitled to tell anyone, whether they are a family member, religious leader or politician, to take a hike if they want to find out how someone voted or to influence the way they are planning to vote. That is an attitude of robust independence that we need to inculcate in all our young people and, if necessary, all adults too. With that, I will sit down to let my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough have a final word. I reiterate that if anyone wants to make any further comments to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, his door is open.

5.38 pm

Mr Jackson: I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. I support the direction of travel. The Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission are going in the right direction, but I do not think light-touch will do any more. We need more academic research and more legal sanctions. In particular, we need a proper response to the Electoral Commission’s report from last year.

I have two extra things to say. First, we perhaps need to think about disaggregating ward results in general elections. In the United States, that allows people to see obvious examples of electoral fraud. We have never done that in this country, but there has never been a reason not to, because we have ward results in local elections. Secondly, I would like an undertaking from the Minister that when the Pickles review is produced for the Prime Minister, we will have, if not a debate, then at least a statement in the House, so that we can ventilate all these important issues that we are all committed to tackling. With that, I appreciate the opportunity to raise such vital issues.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered electoral integrity and absent votes.

5.39 pm

Sitting adjourned.