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The Integrity of the Electoral System


22nd June 2005

The integrity of an electoral system is essential to give legitimacy to any Parliament.

Intoduction

We have had an interesting and varied debate. It has been a debate that goes beyond party politics and encompasses the very heart our democratic system. The integrity of an electoral system is essential to give legitimacy to any Parliament. It governs the public's one opportunity to dictate how and by whom the country should be run. If the public has no confidence in the electoral system, the entire democratic system is called into question - and the state becomes nothing more than a banana republic. And yet that was the description given to our democratic system by Richard Mawrey QC when judging on the recent cases of electoral fraud in Birmingham. The integrity of our electoral system is not only in question, it is in grave danger.

This evening we have heard various examples of the malaise that has hit our electoral system. We have heard of fraud, administrative incompetence, [underfunding], wildly unequal constituency sizes, over representation of urban areas and, in the recent General Election, a number of Labour Members voted into office out of all proportion to their votes received. Clearly, something must be done to remedy this situation. Indeed, the Electoral Commission has warned of the need for reform since 2002, and yet the Government did not listen. If it had done, we could have avoided the numerous instances of fraud that we are seeing across the country. In the infamous case of the councillors in Birmingham in 2004, the judge accused the Government of being not only complacent but "in denial" .

Finally, the Government have woken up to reality and are proposing some long overdue reforms to our ailing electoral system. We have heard widespread support for many of the proposals in its May 2005 Policy Paper, most of which were recommended by the Electoral Commission and should have been implemented long ago. These include:
•The introduction of stronger offences and wider police powers in relation to electoral fraud;
•The use of a marked register and formal acknowledgement for postal votes received; and
•Improving security markings on ballot papers.

Although the Conservative Opposition welcomes these and other of the Government's proposals, we maintain that it is too little, too late. Even were those proposals to go ahead, several deficiencies in the electoral system would remain. I would like to focus on two main categories: postal voting and electoral quotas.

Postal voting

The Government have, finally, admitted that postal voting needs an overhaul. The number of reported instances of suspected fraud relating to postal votes is alarming. For example, following the recent General Election, police are reportedly investigating claims of vote tampering in Stoke-on-Trent and 252 cases of alleged electoral fraud in Bradford . It begs the question of how much electoral fraud has taken place with postal votes, which has not been reported or suspected. After hearing the evidence of the councillors' fraud in the Birmingham 2004 elections, Richard Mawrey QC stated that "short of writing "Steal Me" on the envelopes, it is hard to see what more could be done to ensure their coming into the wrong hands ". It is a damning condemnation of the system.

Even where fraud does not occur, the all-postal voting pilots were a disaster. The Electoral Commission reported printing and production errors in the postal ballot packs, the late delivery of votes and the absence of any checks on the identity of the voters . Postal voting does not have the supervision of polling stations; and we believe that safeguards are essential to ensure personation does not occur and the postal voting system recovers its integrity. The Conservative Opposition maintains that postal voting reforms must go further than those listed in the Government's recent policy paper.

(a)Individual registration should be introduced to safeguard the secrecy and security of postal voting, as has been advocated by the Electoral Commission for several years. The demography of our society has changed radically since household registration was first introduced. The family home is no longer the norm. Houses are divided into flat-shares or multiple occupancy residences - for students, the elderly or the disabled.

Individual registration is now used in Northern Ireland to prevent one person registering several times in one constituency - an exercise that journalists have proved is all too easy to achieve in England. The Government have expressed concerns that this system may reduce participation, as was the experience in Northern Ireland. However, we believe that this concern is misplaced. It takes time for a community to accept a new system and so initial statistics may be misleading. In any case, is it really advantageous to have greater participation in a system littered with fraud? Can such an election truly be a fairer representation of the people? Indeed, the reduced participation could be explained by the fact that each individual could only register once, instead of the multiple registrations that were prevalent in the past.

(b)Another innovation of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 [which was begrudgingly accepted by the Government] was the introduction of individual identifiers to guard against fraud. As we have heard, when registering to vote, Northern Irish citizens must give their National Insurance number and date of birth. [The Chief Election Officer can check these against records at the Social Security Agency.] This safeguards against illegitimate multiple registration by citizens and improper registration by non-citizens. [Procedures are in place to allow for where a person has no National Insurance number.]

When voting at the polling station, the Returning Officer can ask for any suspicious voter's personal identifiers, which can be checked against their registration. Most critically, for the non-supervised postal votes, National Insurance numbers must be submitted with the ballot papers, which combats the fraud that is evidently rife in the area. The Government have proposed a signature and date of birth as individual identifiers. We believe this will not be sufficient to eradicate fraud. Dates of birth and signatures are widely available and easy to replicate. By contrast, National Insurance numbers are not in wide circulation and would provide the necessary safeguards to protect the security, and so integrity, of our postal voting system.

(c)Postal votes, when secure, are clearly desirable to facilitate voting for the widest possible cross section of the Community. They ensure that those abroad, infirm, disabled or with inflexible working schedules can vote. However, we strongly oppose all-postal voting. It is vital that British citizens have a choice about the method of voting. The public has little opportunity to directly influence the future policy of our country; it is essential that it feels confident, on exercising that democratic right, that its voice will be heard.

Postal voting is too remote and uncertain for a measurable proportion of our society. There was strong criticism and a clear lack of public confidence regarding the 2004 all-postal pilots . Also, the Electoral Commission has called for an end to all-postal voting in both its 2004 and 2005 reports . And yet the Government refuse to rule out the use of all-postal voting in the future. British citizens value their right to go to a polling station and vote in person. The Conservative Opposition will fight for that right and oppose the possibility of any future all-postal elections.

Electoral quotas

The second crucial area demanding reform is that of electoral quotas. Unless each constituency is made up of a comparable number of British citizens, representation will be unequal and Parliament will be a distorted reflection of society. That was certainly the case in the recent General Election, where this Government came into power with only 35% of the vote. [We have heard this evening that] it took just 26,000 votes to elect a Labour MP and yet 40,000 votes to elect a Conservative. In England we won 57,000 more votes and yet have 93 less seats in this Place . This is not the hallmark of a truly representative democracy - it reeks of an electoral system that lacks integrity.

We have heard support for proportional representation to remedy the imbalance. The Conservative Opposition maintain that this is not the answer. Proportional representation is unduly complex and brings about weak Government that is difficult to change. It also allows for minority extremist parties to be elected on a small share of the vote. At our first PR elections, the last ones for the European Parliament, turnout was abysmal and many people deeply resented having to vote for a party list rather than an individual - who will be responsible and answerable to the people rather than the party machine. "First past the post" is a simple and transparent system that allows for strong links between MPs and their constituents. It promotes accountability and provides for a stable and effective Government. It also is truly representative of society so long as we have an equal quota in each constituency.

The Boundary Commission review proposes constituencies of fantastically different sizes, varying from just over 50,000 to over 150,000 voters. This is unacceptable and allows for excessive over representation in urban areas. Indeed, it can be argued that the British public is over-represented in general, which is why, at the last election, the Conservative party promoted reducing the number of MPs in this Place by one fifth. Whether or not this trimming down is achieved, we do believe that we should adopt a fixed electoral quota for constituencies. This would ensure that all British citizens are equally represented no matter where they live; and that Parliament is a true expression of the electorate's democratic mandate.

[Similarly, the West Lothian Question must finally be answered. We can not continue to accept Scottish MPs' votes to legislate on purely English matters. I remind you, Mr Speaker, that English - and Scottish - MPs do not have the right to vote on any corresponding issues devolved to Holyrood. The lack of reciprocity is alarming, particularly as purely English matters do not affect Scottish MPs' constituents. The West Lothian Question was first posed by Mr Dalyell in 1977 - given that the Scottish Parliament has been exercising its devolved powers for over five years, when will we hear a satisfactory answer from this Government?]

Conclusion

The integrity of an electoral system is essential to the credibility of any democratic system. The British electoral system is in danger of losing its credibility, which we need to appreciate would ultimately threaten the legitimacy of our actions and decisions made in this Place. It is vital that we respond now by introducing a fixed electoral quota and individual registration, backed up by viable individual identifiers. Also, we need assurances that all-postal voting will not be used in any future election. Will the Government give us those assurances? Or will our Parliament be confirmed as a banana republic - moving from a role model in the history books to a laughing stock in the modern world.



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