Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Hanham: It might, but it might not. I shall be very quick; I can see the Minister looking impatient with me already. In the European elections the principal local authority will probably be relevant, but everyone will have voted. Whether the councils are town, county or parish councils, everyone will have voted in the European elections. They may not absolutely have had a role in organising them, but they will have a view on how they have gone. In the running of local elections, how the pilot works is still important. In that instance, I agree that the relevant council may not be the parish council but more the principal one. However, all local authorities will have something to say.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: I hope that I can manage to convince the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for his very helpful contribution, in which he anticipated a good part of my reply. This group of amendments increases the obligation on the Electoral Commission regarding its report on the pilot. It seeks to oblige the commission to consult all local authorities. If I work through each amendment separately, our position will become clear.

Amendment No. 31 seeks to remove the Electoral Commission's ability to make a judgment about which local authorities it consults by removing "such relevant" and replacing it with "all", as we have heard. On the face of it, it could seem that the commission could avoid consulting authorities that it did not deem relevant. However, the word "relevant" is a link to Clause 9, which deals with interpretation of the terms used. In Clause 9 "relevant local authority" is defined in terms of local authorities—both parish and

29 Jan 2004 : Column GC202

principal area authorities—which would have local authority elections under the orders. So no discretion is given to the commission here about what is a relevant local authority.

Similarly, Amendment No. 34 seeks to remove the word "relevant", which applies to the obligation of local authorities to give the commission assistance in its evaluation. Again, that use of the word "relevant" needs to stay for the purposes of interpretation.

Amendment No. 33 adds a constraint to the commission, removing discretion about whom to consult. In this case there is no linkage with the interpretation clause, Clause 9. However, we and the commission believe that the commission needs some discretion; otherwise it might have to consult every parish council holding elections. That would be very resource intensive—which I suspect is jargon for "expensive"—and add little to what it could achieve by consulting more selectively.

To give some idea of the numbers involved, 49 parish elections are to be held in the East Midlands region alone. I am sure that Members of the Committee with much experience of local government will understand that it is not fruitful to require the commission to undertake consultation that will not add anything to the report and could hinder the commission in completing its work in time.

The commission's officials have a great deal of experience in reporting on pilots and will, I am sure, ensure that they consult as necessary to produce a comprehensive and effective report. I am aware that they always seek to consult all returning officers, if possible, in any event. I think that this is something we can leave to their considered judgment without imposing constraints. For those reasons, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, will withdraw her amendment.

Lord Norton of Louth: Perhaps I can intervene to suggest a compromise on wording, and we can see how it goes with the Minister and with my noble friend in the light of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. What if it were to read: "The Electoral Commission must consult principal authorities and such other relevant authorities in the region as they consider appropriate"?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: We would be more than happy to consider that very constructive suggestion.

Baroness Hanham: I said yesterday in speaking to the planning Bill that I would quit while I was winning. After this perhaps I should say that I should quit doing anything. The Bill needs to contain further provision. If my noble friend's suggestion satisfies that need, we will not return to it; if it does not, we will. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 not moved.]

29 Jan 2004 : Column GC203

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 36:


    Page 3, line 18, at end insert—


"(c) making arrangements for the inspection of ballot papers to ascertain whether there is evidence (even where no allegation has been made to that effect) of personation or other electoral offences or malpractice."

The noble Earl said: This amendment focuses on personation and electoral malpractice. It builds upon the difficulties identified by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. These are obviously a grave concern in the Bill because the methods being piloted are innovative and designed to generate evidence on the efficacy and security of these new methods. We welcome the extension of the powers of arrest on personation that Clause 6 proposes. This would remove the present restriction on arrest for personation at polling stations only and would therefore allow arrest for personation at other locations.

We support this provision, recommended as it was by the Electoral Commission and the police. It is certainly a greater safeguard and, coupled with the Clause 7 provisions on the time limit for prosecution, it shows that the Government have to some extent carefully considered the issues surrounding electoral malpractice in pilot elections. However, I hope that the Minister will not rely exclusively on Clauses 6 and 7. We do not think that the clauses currently provide enough protection against electoral malpractice when viewed against the potential abuses in an all-postal ballot in a whole region or several regions which have been highlighted throughout our debates in Committee.

Our amendment tries to bring the issue of personation and electoral practice into Clause 4 more explicitly. Currently, Clause 4(6)(c) states that the Electoral Commission's report,


    "must also include an assessment of the extent to which the manner in which the elections were conducted and the different provision . . . affected the incidence of personation or other electoral offences or malpractice".

Our amendment would add a positive obligation on the local authority under Clause 4(4) to provide assistance. This would include making arrangements for the inspection of ballot papers to ascertain whether there is evidence of personation—even when no allegation has been made to that effect—or of other electoral offences or malpractice.

Under subsection (6)(c), the Electoral Commission may simply ask the local authority if any instances of electoral malpractice had been reported to it. More than likely the answer would be "No". We want to go further. We believe that a lot of electoral malpractice takes place behind closed doors, as the Committee has already discussed.

Our amendments would make it the duty of the local authority, in assisting the Electoral Commission, to carry out a spot check inspection to find out if any electoral malpractice or personation has taken place. It does not rely only on an allegation. This would go beyond the situation of complaints being made. It

29 Jan 2004 : Column GC204

would place a duty on the local authority to double-check in order to have a clearer picture of whether the new methods of voting encouraged electoral malpractice. I beg to move.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: It has been made clear through the process of the Bill that the Government regard the security problem and the fraud problem as major issues. We intend to do everything that we can to minimise and extinguish malpractice in these areas.

Amendment No. 36 would add a provision that local authorities may assist the commission by making ballot papers available for inspection for consideration of fraud. In any event, it is the duty of the returning officers to deal with issues of fraud and to be responsible for the ballot papers, both during the proceedings and afterwards. Once the ballot papers have been counted, an order for their inspection can be made only by the election court. The returning officers are responsible and they are best placed to deal with issues of fraud as they process the papers in the course of the poll.

However, it is worth noting that under current regulations the Electoral Commission can attend the verification of ballot paper accounts, counting of votes, and proceedings on opening of postal ballot papers. These provisions will remain in principle in the pilot order, amended as necessary to take into account the all-postal nature of the ballot.

In addition, the Commission will report on specific issues of fraud if it identifies cause to do so, and it is obliged in the Bill to assess the extent to which postal voting affected the incidence of personation or other electoral offence or malpractice. Fraud is an issue that has been raised in general with regard to remote voting. Given the nature of these elections, it is clear that the Electoral Commission will concentrate on this issue and give it most careful consideration.

We are doing a number of things to combat fraud. We recognise that that is a major concern and are taking many actions; for example, to assist the Electoral Commission in its duty to report on fraud, the Bill provides that local authorities must report to the commission any allegations of personation or other electoral offences or malpractice.

An important additional measure for the pilots that has not existed previously is the extension of the offence of personation to make it arrestable outside a polling station in pilot regions. That measure has been informed by the Electoral Commission's recommendations on the future of postal voting. We hope that it will provide an important safeguard.

The maximum penalties for personation are, on summary conviction, either a maximum fine at level 5—5,000—or six months' imprisonment or both, and on conviction on indictment, either a maximum of two years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine or both. In addition, the Bill provides that the magistrates' court is given a power to allow, in exceptional circumstances, an extension of time for prosecution to

29 Jan 2004 : Column GC205

be commenced, up to a maximum of 24 months after the date of the offence. Current legislation allows only 12 months.

Taken together, those steps will produce a more secure environment for the pilots to succeed. Other measures to help reinforce security and secrecy will be included in the pilot order. As I have said on several occasions, Members of the Committee will have an opportunity to look at them, and any further suggestions will be warmly welcomed.

The detailed policy on reducing the risk of fraud in the pilots is being developed in partnership with the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders. I have given a commitment—a moment ago—to give Members of the Committee early sight of the policy. I have a list of issues that we are looking into with the Electoral Commission. The matters that currently we are looking into include: comparing signatures on security statements with signatures on file; checks to be made with a sample of people marked as having returned a ballot paper to ensure that they did send in the papers and were not coerced in the process of completing and returning them; inclusion of secrecy warnings on voting; warnings as to the penalties for fraud; and extending the scope of the secrecy rules to cover all postal provisions to require those serving in a delivery place, those providing assistance, and observers to abide by secrecy rules.

We are taking the matter extraordinarily seriously. We will welcome any comments from Members of the Committee that will help us to give maximum effect to extinguishing fraud. Although we cannot accept the amendment, I hope that I have been able to give some reassurance about our plans on security, and that, therefore, the amendment can be withdrawn.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Greaves: The noble Lord's amendment refers to inspection of documents. It actually refers to ballot papers, but, usefully, it could refer to other documents as well. The Minister referred to Clause 7, which refers to a possible extension of the time available to commence a prosecution of fraud, impersonation, and so forth, from 12 months to 24 months. At the moment the deadline is 12 months.

Two other deadlines seem to be related to that. The first is the ability to inspect those documents that are inspectable—that does not include the ballot papers because they are sealed. If I remember correctly, at present there is a six-month deadline on that—I should remember because I carried out that task last year. Secondly, if my memory serves me, there is a 12-month deadline for destroying documents. Documents must be kept for 12 months but may be destroyed at any time after that, although sometimes they are kept for longer if a case is being pursued.

Are the Government considering extending those two deadlines—perhaps to 12 months and two years—to correspond with the extension of the other deadline? People seem to be shaking their heads. Will the Government consider extending those deadlines,

29 Jan 2004 : Column GC206

because they seem relevant? There is no point in being able to commence a prosecution within 24 months if, for the second half of that time, all the documents involved have been incinerated.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page