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Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 61:

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 61 would require that voters are given the option of voting at polling stations—in other words, that voting is not an all-postal ballot. I suspect that the Minister may tell me that this is not the place to address the issue, but it is a current concern. I do not think it right to fail to take the opportunity to highlight in a few words the fact that fraud in postal voting has not been cracked.

Many of us have suspected minor levels of fraud. One has always had a concern, for instance, when—and I make no particular accusations—a nursing home asks for all the ballot forms to be sent to a particular address and says that it will make sure that they are completed. That relatively minor, though still serious, fraud seems to have become, in some places, systematic, large scale and, at its worst, intimidatory. We have tabled the amendment because it seems to us that a polling station is the only place where a secret ballot can be assured. I hope that the Minister can use this opportunity to reassure us about protecting the sanctity—I put it that high—of the secret ballot. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham: I support the amendment. There are worries about the other methods of voting. There is a serious question as to whether all-postal voting is satisfactorily scrutinised to ensure that no fraud takes

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place. Polling stations must be available to people so that they can cast their vote in secret, bearing in mind that a lot of voting will be done electronically as well as by post.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I support this very important amendment. I believe that if we want to increase people's interest in voting in elections for local and national government, this collective act of going to the polling station is very important. They see that other people are interested in voting for those who are going to govern them, locally or nationally. That encourages them to vote on that and on other occasions, because they know that other people believe it to be important. That cannot be done on the telephone—people cannot be told by telephone or on the Internet that they should vote.

The postal vote system is open not so much to fraud, although that is possible, but to misuse. It has been misused not only in local elections in some parts of the country but also in trade unions. I was a member of the old ETU, so I know how postal votes can be manipulated to suit a particular candidate.

If we want people to become interested in voting and in government, we must go back to the people. We need to tell people that we are interested in hearing their wishes by going to visit them at election times and having meetings where they can question candidates. In other words, we should go back to democratic electioneering, in which not only the candidates but the people are involved.

This is an important amendment, and I would hope that a Labour Minister, of all people, would accept it.

Baroness Blatch: I wish to add one rider to all this. I understand that the department is thinking about how to increase involvement in voting. In principle, no one has any argument with that, but it seems that methods such as electronic and text voting, as well as postal voting, could become the norm.

One thing that is paramount in that regard, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is that one must have confidence in the outcome of any kind of election. Whether one is on the winning or losing side, one must have confidence that the election was run properly and that there was no level of fraud or double voting. It is vital to give people at least the option to appear in person in all elections. I support the amendment.

Lord Rooker: I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for spelling out that the purpose of the amendment is to outlaw the holding of all-postal ballots. That is the bare bones of the amendment. However, it is not as though nothing were known about this matter. There is currently a well-announced programme of piloting postal ballots in local government elections for learning purposes. The amendment is something of a pre-emptive strike, as it would rule out the possibility of postal ballots in primary legislation before we had any evidence from the pilots. That would not be sensible.

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We said in the White Paper that we intended that referendums on elected assemblies should be capable of being held by all-postal voting or by traditional ballot. No decision has yet been taken about the voting arrangements that should apply. We want to leave the option open. This is part of the programme to increase turnout. I ask Members of the Committee to consider the facts. We may have our prejudices about the beauty and tranquillity of the perfect systems that we have all used in the past. However, on the evidence of the 13 pilot areas last May, the average turnout was 47 per cent compared with 32 per cent in the rest of the country. We do not make a big claim about that, but it is a hell of a gap. Turnout was almost doubled in a couple of places—in Crawley and South Tyneside.

We are not basing our opinion on one small pilot. Thirty pilots were run last May and, for May this year, a further 33 all-postal ballot pilots will be conducted. We will build on the lessons of that. The Electoral Commission evaluation report published last August concluded that the pilots successfully increased the opportunity for voting and secured a significant increase in turnout and that the process was well managed by local authorities. The commission found no evidence of fraud, although there were significant public anxieties.

Everyone should be concerned about the possibilities of fraud. The present system is hardly perfect. Turning up in person to vote is all very well, but it is a bit of a rum do if someone has already been in person to vote on that person's behalf. We know about these issues, but there are few cases in this country of electoral fraud, as we can tell from the prosecutions. The numbers may not be insignificant, but we have no evidence that electoral fraud is widespread.

I am also aware, because I can hear the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, speaking in sotto voce in front of me—

Baroness Blatch: Will the Minister give way?

Lord Rooker: Oh, she is literally in front of me. I do apologise for not noticing the noble Baroness earlier.

Baroness Blatch: Will the Minister respond to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee? I share her misgivings. A great deal of coercion takes place, which cannot be proven as fraud. People are intimidated into postal voting. Among some ethnic minorities, it is difficult for people to be brave enough to admit that they were coerced into voting. As long as that kind of thing goes on, which cannot be proven in court, people's confidence in the outcome of elections will be destroyed.

Lord Rooker: I agree with the noble Baroness. I will not share my own experiences of the matter, but there have been allegations in recent years of electoral fraud on postal ballots. The police continue to investigate allegations made after last year's local elections. I do

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not want to comment on that, and it would be unfair to read out the areas concerned, but it is a matter of public knowledge that people have made complaints.

I accept that it is difficult to get evidence and to persuade people to stand up in court. One reason for running a pilot programme is to learn the lessons about the benefits and disadvantages of postal ballots. Members of the Committee have used the word "intimidation", but that is probably too strong a word. It would probably not be classed as intimidation for people to go around to collect the ballots for posting to help their fellow neighbours and the community. "That's the way we do it," they might say, "but don't bother to mark your ballot paper because we'll make sure that it is done for you". We are not stupid about that. Some of us who have come through the electoral process—not necessarily a parliamentary one—live in the real world and know that such things happen. We need to learn the lessons and be on our guard.

The security in the all-postal ballot proposals for this year's postal applications is important, and local authorities are co-operating in that respect. Special ballot papers, watermarks, inks and other measures are used to prevent fraud. It is very important to ensure that ballot papers are delivered securely and that the envelopes are well designed so that they are less likely to be confused with junk mail. We also need to target problem areas such as property in multiple occupation to ensure proper delivery of postal ballots. We will also have to contact in person a sample of electors during and after the election to discover what happened and how the process worked. We also need to publicise ways of reporting fraud and attempted fraud and make dedicated telephone numbers available to those who feel unhappy about what is happening in their area. We have placed a provision in all of the statutory orders to give legal effect to schemes that place a requirement on election officials to report all instances of fraud to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. Some of those measures have been put in place this year for pilots in the 30 areas where there will be all-postal voting.

Do not get me wrong; we are not saying that postal voting is the be all and end all of voting. However, as we are going through a systematic and nationally organised pilot programme to test the effect of postal ballots, I think that it would be wrong to rule out the possibility of postal voting in the referendums. If the pilots do not seem to be working and there are loads of snags, it would be foolhardy to proceed with them elsewhere. However, we are pre-empting that by approving this proposal. On the basis of that positive answer, I hope that the noble Baroness will not press the amendment.

7.30 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness: The noble Lord said that no decision has been made on what form of ballot will be held. Can he tell the Committee who will make that decision? Will it be Parliament, the Secretary of State or the Electoral Commission? If it is the Secretary of

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State or the Electoral Commission, will Parliament have any input into the decision at all other than this debate?

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