Clause 38 - Offences relating to applications for

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 David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office 2:00, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I do not wish to detain the Committee any longer than necessary. However, it is important not to allow the clause to slip by without remark because it introduces one of the 10 offences that were outlined earlier. The clause deals with some of the issues that have been raised recently about the integrity of postal voting in a couple of wards. For obvious reasons, I will not comment on the individual cases. In clause 38, we introduce a new electoral offence of falsely applying for a postal vote. It will be both a corrupt practice and a criminal offence to apply for a postal or proxy vote with the intention of stealing another person's vote or gaining a vote to which the applicant is not entitled.

The provisions implement recommendations made by the Electoral Commission. As members of the Committee know, there are a number of offences relating to fraud and corrupt practices at elections, but there is no specific electoral offence of fraudulently applying for a postal or proxy vote, and we wish to rectify that. A specific offence of fraudulently applying for a postal vote will make it easier to bring   prosecutions and will demonstrate that the House is taking the matter seriously.

The new offence provisions will cover the following activities: applying for a postal or proxy vote as some other person, including a fictitious or dead person; otherwise making a false statement in an absent vote application; inducing the returning officer to send a postal ballot paper or any communication relating to a postal vote to an address that has not been agreed by the person entitled to the vote; and causing a communication relating to a postal or proxy vote or a postal ballot paper not to be delivered to the intended recipient.

The clause specifies that the intention that must be proved is that the person intended to deprive another of the opportunity to vote, or intended to gain a vote to which he was not entitled, or intended to make a gain of money or property.

A person convicted will be guilty of a corrupt practice, and could face up to two years in prison, an unlimited fine, and being prevented from being registered to vote or stand as a candidate for five years. I believe that the clause sends the clearest possible signal that the House will not tolerate any attempt to interfere with postal or proxy voting by an attempt to steal or deprive another person of their vote.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I welcome what the Minister has said. It is helpful that he has been as explicit as he has. However—I will say this within the confines of the Committee—he overstates a little the impact of what is being proposed, because I believe that those are already corrupt practices. None the less, I accept the fact that making that matter explicit means that no one can be under any illusion that to commit such acts, which we all rightly wish to stamp out, is unacceptable. I entirely support the Minister's view that we should have zero tolerance for that sort of practice, both in national and party political terms. If any of our parties have members within them who are engaging in practices of that kind, there should be no doubt whatever that they will be reported to the authorities and action will be taken. There should be no attempt to hide what is going on. I hope that all party representatives in this House will assert clearly that they will not tolerate activities of that kind.

I make one minor point. If someone were to obtain the services of others in trying to commit such offences, presumably there is an appropriate conspiracy offence that would be applicable. It would be perverse if people who were hoping for a gain of money or property in response to an inducement made by some other person in order to farm votes, or something of that kind, were prosecuted under proposed new section 62A(1)(b), but if the person who was doing the organising was not committing an offence by so doing. I am not absolutely clear that, under the strict terms of the clause, the person doing the organising would be committing an offence, but I believe that there are other ways of achieving a satisfactory prosecution. Can the Minister confirm that?  

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

I regret that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the explicit confirmation that he seeks. If I can do so in writing, I will. We agree with the broad thrust of what he said and we are sending out the clearest possible signal that we will pursue anybody minded to attempt to get around the provision in any way. I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the explicit assurance that he seeks.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.