Clause 37 - Undue influence

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 1:45 pm ar 17 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

The brief points that I want to make apply to clauses 37 and 38, as we have now moved on to the subject of offences related to voting. In a survey of Conservative agents their response to the clauses was that the police often do not seriously deal with violations of electoral law. One agent was told by a senior police officer that enforcing election law is not a priority; another maintained that the police do not understand election law. Another, who originally thought the police were doing a fairly good job, came back and said there were problems. That is an important point.

We can address election law and the penalties for breaking it, but ultimately the police have to buy in to the process. I would be interested to hear to what extent, if at all, the Government, in connection with the Electoral Commission, propose to have an educational programme with the police so that we move forward on the important issues together.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Llafur, Sheffield, Attercliffe

I shall not try your patience, Mr. Conway. I am sure that I   would be picked up fairly quickly if I, in any way, gave the impression of moving a starred amendment.

I want to try to raise an issue of concern that Ministers can consider, which may well be appropriate for the code of guidance and has been drawn to my attention by Sense on behalf of a number of charities and other bodies that represent disabled people. They believe that undue influence can also apply to the actions of a presiding officer. The concern is that someone might present themselves at a polling station who has a disability—maybe cerebral palsy, a mental illness or deafness that causes them to speak in a slurred way that is difficult to understand—and it might lead a presiding officer to decide that they do not have the capacity to cast a vote.

Those groups are concerned about such an occurrence, and initially wanted an amendment to the Bill that would prevent that. Maybe Ministers could reflect on that. They might be prepared to consider representations from the organisations and to consider whether it would be possible to give some guidance to presiding officers to ensure that that potential was removed and anyone with such a disability was not, at first appearance, deemed incapable of casting their vote and therefore excluded from the voting process.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Huntingdon for initiating this brief stand part debate. Had he not done so, I would have, because it is important that we have albeit a brief discussion of the clause to put on the record some important matters.

I said explicitly in my Second Reading speech and again on the Floor of the House—the same point has been made over and over again by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State—that we will express zero tolerance of any attempt to fraudulently influence the outcome of an election or unduly influence it by any threats or attempts to interfere with someone's free and democratic right to cast a vote in any way that he or she wishes. The next couple of clauses explicitly spell out what we will not tolerate as part of the electoral process.

We have all accepted the commission's findings and the Government have accepted that if there has been any diminution in public trust and confidence in the electoral system, we need to actively restore it. We need to send a clear signal during the passage of the Bill to show that we are taking active steps to deal with that.

The clause revises the offence of undue influence set out at section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to enable the offence to be effective where an attempt is unsuccessful. It is a corrupt practice, and so an electoral offence, to exercise undue influence on another in the process of voting. The definition of undue influence is necessarily wide but essentially covers persons using a variety of methods, including making threats or using force, to cause a person to vote in a particular way or to refrain from voting.

The introduction of postal voting on demand has undoubtedly proved popular, although it is recognised that the extension of postal voting has led to greater opportunities for undue influence to be exercised on   voters. There are concerns that unscrupulous people may attempt to exert pressure on electors to apply for postal votes and vote in a particular way. There are also fears about the possibility of family members or influential members of the community exerting undue influence on the votes of others. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that elderly people in residential care or nursing homes are vulnerable to undue influence on postal voting.

The Electoral Commission previously recommended in its ''Voting for change'' report that the drafting of the law on undue influence should be revised to clarify the nature of the offence and to ensure that it is effective in relation to postal voting. We did not consider that the existing law on undue influence was deficient. Although the law may use terms that are not in everyday use, their meaning is clear and they cover areas including intimidation and undue influence on the part of family members. However, in the policy paper issued by my right hon. and learned Friend at the general election in May, we indicated that we were willing to consider the matter further and welcomed comments. We held further discussions with stakeholders, including the police. That addresses the point that the hon. Member for Huntingdon raised, to which I shall return later.

The police were consulted before we brought forward this measure, as were the Crown Prosecution Service and the Electoral Commission. We are still of the view that the offence of undue influence does not need to be redefined because it is sufficient for its current purpose. However, we concluded that the current formulation of the offence limits its application, and that the offence should be widened. We are, therefore, proposing to amend the offence of undue influence to include acts of influence that do not result in action. That means that it will be an offence to attempt to exert such influence, even when that does not result in action on the part of the victim. The penalties for those found guilty of the offence of undue influence will remain unchanged. A person will be guilty of a corrupt practice and could be liable to an unlimited fine or go to prison for up to one year, or both. A person found guilty will be barred from holding elective office for five years.

The Committee will realise the seriousness with which the Government are treating this matter. We are extending the offence beyond the question of whether it can be proven that someone unduly influenced an individual with the result that the victim voted in a particular way. Even the attempt to do that will be punishable in a severe way. That sends the message to anyone who is minded even to attempt to exert undue influence that it will not be tolerated and will be an offence.

I have gone part of the way to answer the question of the hon. Member for Huntingdon on engagement with the police. The Department and the Electoral Commission are engaging actively with the police. There is an integrity round table and the commission is issuing guidance to police forces and to constables to assist them in dealing with electoral offences. As the hon. Gentleman quite rightly said, the police must   enforce these offences and we must listen to what they say in order to better enable them to do so.

The valid and entirely proper point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) was not dissimilar to points made during the Second Reading debate about individuals with learning difficulties, especially on signing for the ballot paper. We must deal with that matter with the utmost sensitivity. Clear guidance must be given, and we are seeking to introduce national performance standards. That issue can be addressed as part of those national performance standards, but we cannot be too sensitive in dealing with individuals. It was genuinely distressing to hear the examples that my hon. Friend cited. That is not tolerable in the 21st century. However, we can deal with that with the general advice and performance standards that we seek to produce as a result of the Bill. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the matter to our attention.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Llafur, Sheffield, Attercliffe

Is my hon. Friend therefore prepared to receive specific representations from the groups in question to see how they can help shape the guidance on those matters?

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

Absolutely, yes. I am happy to give that assurance. We have already given an assurance, which I made in the House, that we would deal with organisations concerned with access to polling stations for people with physical disabilities. I am happy to extend that assurance to my hon. Friend.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.