Saturday, June 25, 2005

Commons debate on electoral integrity

I suggested the other day that I might post something on last Wednesday's debate, so here are some highlights. The links below will take you to the relevant column in Hansard, but I shall reproduce the most relevant extracts here too. The whole debate is worth reading - it begins here - in a way that the great occasions in the Commons seldom are.

First an intervention from Eric Pickles and reply by Oliver Heald that, taken together, are both amusing and informative:
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that false entries on the electoral register are not made simply to influence membership here or on councils or to entertain tabloid journalists but that registration is a prerequisite of establishing a credit rating? The problem is on a much wider scale than electoral fraud. 
Mr. Heald: That is true. Examples of individuals who were not entitled to vote came up during the election campaign, but they had tried to register not in order to vote but to apply for credit. I do not mind if they want a platinum card, but I mind that the risk exists. 
Recently, The People - that great organ - conducted an analysis of the electoral roll. It uncovered names such as Donald Duck and Jesus H. Christ. Perhaps they are genuine, but I suspect that the entries at a student address in Southampton, including Hooty McBoob and Gailord Focker, while not evidence of sinister malpractice, are not. One does suspect, however, that these people do not exist.
According to Heald the name Gus Troobev (an anagram of "bogus voter") also appears a worrying number of times around the country.

Next comes Roger Godsiff on the realities of polling day in an inner-city constituency:
What happens on election day in a constituency such as mine is not how elections used to be fought. Traditionally, at the polling station there would be a representative of each of the parties, the number taker, and there would be a great deal of conviviality and sharing of information. 
That does not exist in areas such as mine. On election day groups of people congregate at the entrance to polling stations. They hand out leaflets and talk to people, particularly in areas where English is not the first language and where the number on the ballot paper is even more important than the name. They give out a great deal of misinformation. 
During the day the numbers at each polling station build up so that by early evening, as happened in my constituency at the recent election, there are 50 or 60 people at the gates. 
The police are there and struggle to prevent violence breaking out. In the background there is the cacophony of cars parked outside the polling station with recorded messages from the candidates on a repetitive reel, so that goes on throughout the day, 
 All the traditional conventions that most of us may remember, whereby a loudspeaker was not allowed anywhere near a polling station and there was no campaigning on polling day, have gone by the board. Somebody who wants to vote from the early evening onwards has to go through a cacophony of sound, intimidation, harassment and misinformation, and that is only to get into the polling station. 
It is no good turning round and saying, "Well, the police have powers to deal with that." As we have learned in the west midlands, the police do not have such powers. New legislation is needed to prevent campaigning within a certain area around a polling station, because the police do not have a hope at the moment.
I have a seen a little of this in Leicester elections, and the problem Godsiff identifies is a serious one. I have acquired from somewhere the idea that the returning officer has almost unlimited powers over "the precincts of the polling station" - and the power to define where those precincts begin - but it seems that this is not, or is no longer, the case.

Finally, a diatribe against the list system from Peter Bottomley:
If we want to start talking about electoral systems, let us have a proper debate on getting rid of the worst scandal in our system at the moment - the closed list system for the European Assembly elections. If the electorate cannot pick out someone they particularly want and get them elected or pick out someone they particularly do not want and get them disappointed, we shall have a system that is not democracy.
Bottomley is right, and the blame for the list system lies with Jack Straw. Obliged to introduce some form of Proportional Representation (PR) for the European elections, he chose the worst possible form in an attempt to discredit the whole concept and make it less likely that it will be used more widely.

The Conservatives today are torn between their hatred of PR and their outrage that they polled more votes than Labour in England but won many fewer seats - as a result, as Bridget Prentice pointed out, Oliver Heald's speech contained ringing denunciations of both PR and First Past the Post.

In the debate Tory MPs attempted to square this circle by blaming the unfair drawing of parliamentary constituencies for this odd result, but they did not convince. I do believe, however, that their sense of grievance may encourage them to explore English Nationalism. This idea which may well attract wider political interest in the near future as devolution to Scotland and Wales has given rise to all sorts of anomalies over the funding of services and the power of MPs, and there appears to be little enthusiasm for devolution to the English regions, which some present as a way of resolving these.

For the Liberal Democrats, David Heath made a good speech and is an impressive Commons performer these days. He is helped to sound authoritative on Home Office matters because he resembles the best sort of village policeman. It was also notable that John Hemming had not allowed is current travails to prevent him being in the House for this debate on one of his pet issues.

We cannot end without a reference to our old friend SiƓn Simon. He still needs a haircut and he still compulsively strokes his chin. ("If you don't leave that alone," said Nanny, "it will drop off one of these days".) It was not possible to judge whether he still has that silly way of speaking as, though he jumped up and down throughout the more substantial speeches, no one would give way to him.

He did make one contribution, and I reproduce it in full here:
Mr. Simon: My city of Birmingham has been repeatedly traduced by Opposition Members borrowing cheap soundbites from a headline-hungry judge- 
Hon. Members: Withdraw! 
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that temperance and moderation in parliamentary language are important. 
Peter Bottomley: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is there any way in which the remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) can be struck from the record? They are in themselves publicity seeking. 
Madam Deputy Speaker: I remind the hon. Gentleman that all Members take responsibility for anything that they say in the House. 
Mr. Heald: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is not it out of order to make an insulting remark about a judge? 
Several hon. Members rose- 
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman's point of order. Criticism of a judge during a debate is out of order; it would have to be done by means of a substantive motion.

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