'Curb postal votes to cut fraud'

Bicester Advertiser: Postal voting should be restricted to cut down on fraud, an MP has said Postal voting should be restricted to cut down on fraud, an MP has said

Postal voting should be scrapped unless applicants can prove they have a "genuine need", a Tory MP has said amid claims that the system is open to fraud.

Andrew Stephenson said there is "real fraud going on", echoing concerns raised by a senior judge and a returning officer following a report by the Electoral Commission which identified 16 local authority areas in England a s being at greater risk of complaints of alleged vote-rigging.

Judge Richard Mawrey said the system was open to abuse on a scale that meant electoral fraud was "a possibility and indeed in some areas a probability".

The commission said it was essential that electoral registration officers, returning officers and police forces in those areas put in place measures to protect the integrity of the vote before the next set of local and European elections in May.

The at-risk areas include Birmingham, the scene of a notorious ballot-rigging case in a 2004 contest which the presiding judge Mr Mawrey said would "disgrace a banana republic".

Others on the list are Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford, Burnley, Calderedale, Coventry, Derby, Hyndburn, Kirklees, Oldham, Pendle, Peterborough, Slough, Tower Hamlets, Walsall, and Woking.

Mr Stephenson, MP for Pendle in Lancashire, told BBC Radio 4's File On 4: "I want us to scrap on-demand postal voting and go back to the system that we had before this got loosened up.

"Now when you actually look in the UK and look at what's going on in Pendle... there is real fraud going on.

"The Government should really look at this issue and really look at going back to only allowing postal votes to people who have a genuine need for a postal vote.

"Everybody else should turn up at the polling station, like they always used to have to, in order to cast their vote."

Mr Mawrey told the programme: "Postal voting on demand, however many safeguards you build into it, is wide open to fraud... And it's open to fraud on a scale that will make election rigging a possibility and indeed in some areas a probability."

Woking Borough Council chief executive and returning officer Ray Morgan said: "I don't think any election that I've personally officiated over since 2006 has been totally fair and honest."

Cabinet Office Minister Greg Clark said problems in a "small number of cases" should not prevent the majority of law-abiding people having a postal vote.

"Postal voting has proved very important in making sure that people can access the franchise," he said.

"I think it particularly important that a relatively small number of cases of abuse, which need to be addressed and clamped down very firmly, don't prevent other people - the vast majority of people - using it in a law-abiding way."

In its final report of electoral fraud in the UK, published in January, the Electoral Commission rejected calls to restrict access to postal voting, saying it would prevent many innocent people from casting their vote.

However it said the existing code of conduct needed to be strengthened to ensure campaigners do not handle postal votes or voting application forms. It warned that it would seek legislation if the problem was not resolved voluntarily.

It also called for legislation to be in place by 2019 at the latest requiring voters in England, Scotland and Wales to produce proof of identity before they are issued with a ballot paper at a polling station, bringing them in line with Northern Ireland.

Overall, the commission found that electoral fraud was not widespread and was unlikely to have been attempted in no more than a ''handful'' of wards in any particular local authority area.

The commission has launched a study into concerns that some s outh Asian communities - notably those with roots in parts of Pakistan and Bangladesh - were particularly susceptible to electoral fraud.

But i t also said it would be a ''mistake'' to suggest that it was confined to s outh Asian communities - with people from white British and other European backgrounds also involved.

Mr Mawrey told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that postal voting allows fraud to be carried out on an "industrial scale".

He said: "What has worried me about this for some time is the ease with which is it possible to commit postal vote fraud and the scale on which it can be committed.

"In the past when you had personal voting, that is to say voting at polling stations, there was fraud but, frankly, it was minuscule. But postal voting on demand has enabled fraud to be carried out on what, in one case, I described as an industrial scale."

But Electoral Commission chairwoman Jenny Watson told Today: "In terms of postal voting... we have identified 16 local authorities out of around 400 where, in some wards, there are persistent allegations about postal voting.

"I would not say that a proportionate response to that would be to get rid of it altogether."

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