Record numbers of postal votes have been registered in Birmingham for the General Election - a 382 per cent increase since the 2001 parliamentary poll.

Council elections officials are sending out 59,190 ballot papers compared with 16,366 four years ago.

The sharp increase, which is reflected across the West Midlands, was triggered by a Government decision to abolish restrictions on postal voting in 2000.

In the Warwick and Leamington constituency, a Labour-held marginal, the number of postal ballots applied for exceeded 10,000 - a 350 per cent increase.

More than 12,000 people in Rugby and Kenilworth, also a Labour-held marginal, will vote by post compared with 3,600 last time.

The largest increase in Birmingham was in Sparkbrook and Small Heath, which saw a more than ten-fold rise from 739 applications in 2001 to 7,742 this year. The safe Labour seat is being defended by Roger Godsiff.

Ladywood, another safe Labour seat being defended by Clare Short, has had 5,645 applications - 5,034 more than last time around while Hodge Hill has seen nearly a four-fold increase from 1,042 to 4,145.

The sharp rise has prompted concern, particularly since Ladywood and Hodge Hill contain the council wards of Aston and Bordesley Green where an election court judge found "widespread and systematic" vote-rigging by Labour councillors.

Birmingham City Council and West Midlands Police announced a series of measures aimed at reducing postal voting fraud following the judge's ruling that the abuse was such that it would " disgrace a banana republic".

The action includes visiting addresses from where requests have been made to determine whether applications are authentic.

Council chief executive Lin Homer has also written to more than 50,000 people on the postal vote register to check that their applications are genuine.

John Hemming, the deputy leader of Birmingham City Council, whose application for a judicial review to force the Government to introduce postal voting safeguards failed, said he was confident there would be no repeat of the widespread corruption seen at the 2004 local authority elections.

He pointed out that although almost 60,000 postal votes will be issued in Birmingham for the General Election, the figure is down from the 70,000 issued at the 2004 council elections.

Coun Hemming (Lib Dem South Yardley), who praised police efforts to combat malpractice, said: "I think most of them are legitimate. It appears that we have frightened off mass fraud."

In Warwick and Leamington, where the Conservatives require only a small swing to take the seat from Labour, almost 13 per cent of the electorate has registered to vote by post at the General Election and Warwickshire County Council elections.

Gill Friar, electoral administration officer at Warwick District Council, said: "It has been a very busy time for us. We have drafted in additional staff from across the council to help out.

"I think the national publicity and ease of access to the application forms we sent out with the register have all contributed. Our aim in this is to increase the total turnout."

Warwick Council is putting into place special measures to detect fraud.

Ms Friar added: "Security is also an issue, given certain regional and national concerns. In line with the national advice from the Electoral Commission, the council's own auditors will be carrying out a random survey of postal votes cast.

"This includes verification of signatures, and checking of other security measures."