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Electoral Registration

Volume 177: debated on Monday 23 July 1990

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1.25 am

In discussing electoral registration, I should first make it clear that we in Britain have a right to vote but that that right is heavily qualified by the need to register. I think that it is generally accepted that about 7 per cent. of those eligible to be registered to vote are not registered. That may not sound very many, but in fact 2 million potential voters are missing from the register. In addition, the bureaucratic barriers erected when people move mean that a further substantial number are effectively ruled out and cannot exercise their right to vote.

I shall concentrate not so much on that aspect as on registration itself. I shall refer to some of the problems of electoral registration in the hope that a more positive attitude can be taken—not so much by the Home Office as by the electoral registration officers and the local authorities whose responsibility electoral registration is.

It is in the interest of our democracy that we should take a positive attitude to voter registration. It is a political as well as an administrative exercise. That point cannot be reinforced too strongly. As I have said, registration is carried out by local government and it seems that some areas of the country are still in the age of the quill pen in this respect, as an electoral registration officer who has moved out of the age of the quill pen pointed out to me.

The record on electoral registration is in contrast to the efforts put in by local and central government in respect of poll tax registration. There has been a massive investment in computers, staff training and grading, and resources generally. The exercise has been seen as a political activity simply because central Government grant to local authorities depends on the numbers on the register. More people on the register equals more Government grant equals less poll tax. That gives local authorities a great incentive to register as many people as possible. As a result, in many local authority areas, substantially more people are registered for poll tax than are registered to vote. The most famous case—if famous is the right word —is the city of Leeds, where I understand there are 20,000 more people on the poll tax register than on the electoral register.

The electoral register which is to come into force in February 1991, and which will reflect registration at 10 October this year, will be the most important electoral register for a decade. It will almost certainly be the register on which the next general election is fought and—in some ways, more important—it is the register upon which the next parliamentary boundary review will be based. Anyone who is aware of the fact that since the date of the last register, on which the present boundaries are based, 2·7 million more electors have registered in the English shire counties and 2·7 million fewer in the urban areas will understand how crucial the electoral register that is to be put together this October will be.

Some extensive and impressive research has been carried out over the years by the social survey division of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. I cite in particular the work of Jean Todd in a paper produced with Bob Butcher comparing registration in 1981 with the results of the census of the same year. It was an interesting exercise. Jean Todd carried out similar work with Jack Eldridge on the electoral registration problems in inner cities in the mid-1980s.

Research has highlighted many of the shortcomings of our electoral registration system. With poll tax registration and the introduction of the poll tax, I and others detect fertile ground for the introduction of improvements to the system. First, however, I wish to outline some of the categories of eligible people who are likely not to be on the register.

My researches of the past few days have shown that there is a difficulty with service personnel. The problem relates as much to their spouses as to them. Electoral registration officers themselves have mentioned this problem. Houses in multiple occupation are a nightmare in virtually every part of the country, although they are primarily an urban problem. In some areas, shared letter boxes are a positive disaster for registration officers, as the research shows. Any dwelling converted into flats, bedsits or rooms is more likely to be missed out than non-converted dwellings.

Lodgers or friends of the family who live in larger households are also at risk, as I know from personal constituency experience. Some of these people, having lived in such households for three or four years, can still be missed off the register and not sent a form. I know of three or four examples of that from last year.

Youngsters between the ages of 16-plus and 18 whose 18th birthday falls at the end of the registration period also risk being missed. For instance, youngsters over the age of 16 years and eight months in October this year must be entered on the register, as they will be 18 before the end of the registration period in February 1992. So an accident of birthday can lead to many youngsters being missed off the electoral roll.

Other categories of eligible people who may be missed are equally worrying. Tenants of privately rented accommodation, by contrast with tenants of local authority accommodation or owner occupiers, stand a greater chance of being missed off the register. Members of households in which the head of the household is unemployed are in the same position.

The last problem is public apathy. I recently discovered that 50 paid-up members of my local constituency Labour party were not registered, even though they had lived at their addresses for well over 12 months. I believe that that matter will be raised in detail on another occasion, so I shall not pursue it now.

Studies have shown that as many as 30 per cent. of young people aged from late 16 through to 19 can be missed off the electoral register. Many 20 to 29-year-olds are also missing. One study that the Minister will know found that more than 20 per cent. of people aged between 20 and 29 were missing from the register in four of six study areas. It is strange that people in that age range seem to have such a propensity to be missed. That same study or the inner-city study found that 20 per cent. or more of the electors in households in which the head was of working age but not working were missing from the register. More than 20 per cent. represents a substantial number of people.

In the private rented sector research has identified omissions of more than 30 per cent. There are many reasons for such omissions, such as mail being addressed to the landlord or to "The Occupier" rather than to a named person. As I have said, shared letter boxes also cause difficulties. Some of those factors, though not all, relate to inner-city areas.

Nationally, non-registration is estimated at 7 per cent., which means 2 million people. A study in inner London found that 14 per cent. of people who should have been on the electoral register were not. There is a big difference between the figures for Wales and Scotland. More than 9 per cent. are missing from the electoral register in Wales, while in Scotland the figure is 5 per cent. That is a substantial difference. In the west midlands, the average is 7 per cent., while in the east midlands it is 5 per cent. All in all, more than 2 million people are losing the right to vote. That is democratically unacceptable.

I do not have solutions for all the difficulties. but in some areas further effort and activity could improve matters. Britain is supposed to be a mature democracy but evidently we must look at voter registration and make people more conscious of it. It must be taken seriously, both politically and administratively. Those who do not consider it seriously will lose votes.

As the Minister will remind the House, most of these matters relate to the actions of electoral registration officers and the local authorities who operate the system at the point of sale. Local authorities know the date of birth of school pupils. That information could be transferred on a pupil's 16th birthday to the electoral registration officer, who could then send a letter to that pupil and to his parents informing them of the age at which people need to enrol on the electoral register. People could be told that a son or daughter needed to register at the next 10 October registration.

Drab notices on school notice boards or an announcement by the headmaster at the first assembly in the final school year are insufficient. That happens in some areas, but much more positive action is required. I was in Scotland in early 1988 to listen to the director of finance of Lothian, and the electoral registration officer who is also the poll tax registration officer—he has a different title from the one used in England. Those two officers told me that for electoral registration and poll tax purposes there is a positive attempt to transfer information about the dates of birth of school leavers. That means positive contact with young people and their families. I have not yet come across any local authorities which have taken the same positive stance in respect of electoral registration, although they may have done it for poll tax registration. Yet it can be done, and it is well within the law.

Likewise, all local authorities should have details of dwellings in multiple occupation in their locality. That information is important for many reasons—not least for housing benefit and for health and safety inspection. Local authorities should therefore know all such addresses. That information could be given to the electoral registration officer without difficulty to assist in the canvassing of electoral registration.

Details of bed-and-breakfast accommodation should also be passed to the electoral registration officer, particularly where information is known as a result of the operation of the housing benefit system. Local authorities also have information on hostels and refuges, especially for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. The problem here is that the addresses of such places are not usually advertised, mainly because the women—99 per cent. of cases are women—are there for safety. That should not deprive them of the right to vote, but it does.

Under poll tax law, people who are in fear of physical violence or other danger can have their names removed from the public extract of the poll tax register, but there is no such provision under electoral law. If a person is not registered by name with an address, that person is not given a vote. People who want the right to vote but at the time of registration are living in a battered wives' refuge have to consider using a false name to register. I am told that so long as they disclose the fact to the electoral registration officer, using a false name could be acceptable. I should like a response on that from the Minister because there is a particularly difficult problem here.

The House has made provision under poll tax law for people to keep their names and addresses out of the public extract so that they cannot be found. We must ensure that they do not lose the right to vote through fear of being traced. There must be a way round the problem. Electoral registration is the only chance to use one's right to vote. We must do something. Thousands of people throughout the country live in hostels on the night of registration. I have checked some addresses. I know the addresses of some such hostels—and I have found only the name of the warden in the electoral register. No other people were registered there. The idea that a husband who beat up his wife so much that she had to fling the children from their home will put her on the register at the matrimonial home is ludicrous. I do not accept that argument.

To claim that the system could be abused is no excuse for ignoring the problem. A problem has been identified. We have a high rate of family break-ups not all of which result in violence. There is massive pressure in families and there is more violence in the family than there used to be. Action must be taken to ensure that women affected by domestic violence—it is mainly women who are affected —do not lose the right to vote. Some procedure must be made available to them.

Cardboard city also needs to be registered. It cannot be ignored. Cardboard city is a reality in some cities, particularly the capital city, although it has not yet come to Birmingham. Why should people lose their right to vote? If the tents at Greenham common, a ditch used regularly by a traditional tramp, or a patch of ground occupied by a fairground on the annual visit to a locality are legally acceptable addresses from which people can be registered for electoral purposes, cardboard city must have equal treatment. It is tragic that they should be necessary, but there must be equal treatment. That may institutionalise cardboard city, but until we seriously tackle the problems of the homeless and the rootless, we cannot pass by and say of such people, "It is their fault that they are unemployed and homeless, and now it is their fault that they have no right to vote." I hope that this year those who regularly inhabit cardboard city will obtain and complete a form, and if need be will pursue their right through the courts.

I was moved to make that point by a concerned constituent. On 29 June I was visited at one of my regular Friday surgeries by Mr. Robert Forrester of Hurlingham road. I am not aware of having met him previously, but many years ago his daughter, an animal welfare campaigner, was one of my regular correspondents. Mr. Forrester contrasted the Government's efforts to register people who had gone abroad for up to 20 years—tax exiles, if you like—with the plight of the homeless. He told me, "In a democracy, it is not right that the homeless miss the chance to vote while people who have been abroad for up to 20 years do not."

In my more than 16 years as a Member of Parliament holding a constituency surgery every Friday and some Saturdays, Mr. Forrester was the first person at the head of a surgery queue to see me on a non-personal issue. As right hon. and hon. Members know, most surgery cases concern family difficulties or personal problems—the kind of things that we deal with day in and day out. Sometimes, a constituent will come into the surgery during the course of the evening and say, "I don't have a problem, but I want to bend your ear about something on which I hold strong views." Mr. Forrester had queued for about three hours, and I was both astonished and proud to receive from the first constituent in the queue representations on a fundamental democratic issue. Although I had been minded to raise the question of problems associated with election law and administration in a wider context, when I drew up the main points of my speech, those made by Mr. Forrester when he visited my surgery were among those uppermost in my mind.

As the Minister is aware—he was the Government Whip at the time—I served on the Committee which dealt with the poll tax legislation. I emphasise that maximum use must be made of the information available from the poll tax register. If there are 20,000 more on the poll tax register for Leeds than on the electoral register, I expect to see a change in electoral registration in respect of that city. The resources invested in the one must have a spin-off for the other.

It was once thought that people would lose the right to vote because they would fail to be added either to the poll tax register or to the electoral register, but it has not worked out like that. The resources and political activity devoted to poll tax registration have resulted in a situation that no one forecast when the legislation passed through the House. This may strike horror into the hearts of some electoral registration officers, but I would like to see a continuous electoral register. The poll tax register provides a daily record. It may not serve its intended purpose, because poll tax will not work, but if a person moves from one area to another the change is immediately reflected in the poll tax register.

The fact that this country does not have a fixed-term Parliament makes it even more difficult. In Europe, the Netherlands, Austria, West Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Belgium—New Zealand has crept on to my list somehow—all have fixed-term Parliaments with continuously updated electoral registers. Italy, France, Finland, Portugal and Sweden have annual electoral registers and fixed-term Parliaments. We are in the minority in not having a fixed-term Parliament. The fact that we do not have a fixed-term Parliament, combined with our system of registration, is bound to lead to people missing out on the right to vote. I believe that it was last week that the Prime Minister said that she would call the next election only when she was certain of victory. How can one be certain of victory in a democracy?

Let us consider the barriers to registration. There are 2 million people missed off the electoral register. There are administrative and bureaucratic hurdles for people trying to maintain the right to vote when they move around the country and do not have warning of elections. Those factors, combined with a Prime Minister who says that she will name the date only when she is certain of victory, are very worrying. I hope that the Minister will condemn that sort of attitude from a fellow Minister, albeit a senior fellow Minister, who talks about the certainty of victory.

Expenditure is not a problem. I do not know what the overall figure is, but the cost of electoral registration is infinitesimal compared with Home Office budgets and local government expenditure. There is certainly a case for upgrading staff in some areas. That is exactly what has happened with the poll tax register. Some electoral registration departments are still in the world of the quill pen—backwaters with low-grade staff. That is not conducive to an efficient up-to-date register, with a pro-active set of officers going out to ensure that everyone is registered.

There is an overwhelming case for expensive, effective publicity by local authorities and the Home Office. I do not mean the drab, public notice information with which we are so familiar. We need the slick, effective advertising associated with the Government's discredited privatisation programme. The programme may be discredited, but the advertising did the trick—it got the message across to people. Different advertising techniques have been employed by central Government for the privatisation programme, and for the Department of Trade and Industry's enterprise programme—Lord Young's legacy for 1992. That was a totally different form of central Government advertising—a heavy programme designed to put across a policy and a message, explaining to people the rights for which Parliament has legislated. That is absolutely right. I want a little of that to spin off so that voter registration is also taken seriously.

I have always told people that it is an offence not to register—this may be a learning process for all of us—but in fact it is not. It is an offence not to respond to the electoral registration officer's request for information. I do not know whether anyone takes that law seriously. I have not been able to find out whether an electoral registration officer has ever taken someone to court, or has tried to put the law into effect if people have flatly refused to return the forms after repeated invitations to do so. A breach of the law is involved, and possibly that matter will need to be looked into. It may be necessary to make examples of some people.

I make no apology for detaining the House on this issue at this time of the morning, because it is central to the core of democracy in this country. We are a democracy, and what we do not protect, we lose—it is as simple as that —so we have to look after it and nurture it. If democracy starts to wither, we have to do something about it. We keep preaching to the rest of Europe that we are the oldest sovereign Parliament in Europe—the Prime Minister keeps saying that that is what she tells her Common Market colleagues—but we have royal prerogative, Orders in Council, a Whip system, an unfair electoral system and, to boot, at least 2 million people with the right to vote are missed off the electoral register. We cannot boast about the way we run our democracy unless we are prepared to take voter registration seriously. That is why I have raised the subject.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively. I have the highest regard for him and I know that he considers this an extremely serious matter. This is not a party issue. If people do not register, they lose their right to vote. Our job as legislators is to look after our democracy and to ensure that the maximum number of people have the right to vote. I hope that the Minister and I will join together on that central issue.

1.54 am

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has raised a particularly important matter. I am sure that the House is grateful to him for having raised it, for it crosses the party divide. My hon. Friend invited the Minister to denounce the Prime Minister for having said that she would call the election only when she was confident of victory. Even though the junior ministerial reshuffle has been completed and the Minister has remained unscathed, or alternatively has been condemned to another 12 months at the Home Office, I am sure that he will not accept that invitation.

My hon. Friend made the important point that many people miss out on the right to vote. I am happy to support a number of his proposals—in particular, his proposal that there should be a continuous register. It has a great deal of merit.

I hope that the Minister will examine the different methods used by different electoral registration officers when they compile their registers. One finds different practices in different parts of the country. I believe that the Home Office is studying the different methods and is to report upon them in the fairly near future. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about the study and about when he thinks that he will be able to report to the House. Some electoral registration officers prefer the door-to-door method; others rely on the postal return; others wait until it becomes apparent that someone is no longer on the register. All these schemes may have advantages, but there is something to be said for learning from the best practice.

My hon. Friend's remarks about the homeless are also important. I represent an area where there is a large number of homeless people. Something needs to be done about getting them registered. It is not because they are unwilling to be registered or because they do not have somewhere to live. Many of them have no fixed abode because there is no fixed abode in which they can live. Generally they live in the same area.

There is not just the one ditch to which the tramp could point in the case that my hon. Friend had in mind. These people certainly live in the same general area, but they have no one place where they can be sure that they will be able to sleep on any particular occasion, or anything else that would establish their residence at one address. The Home Office ought to address that growing problem. That does not mean that I do not urge the Minister's colleagues in other Departments to address the question of removing the problem of homelessness, which is, of course, a far greater problem, once and for all.

I agree, too, with my hon. Friend's suggestion that imaginative publicity ought to be applied to electoral registration. It is an exceptionally good suggestion. The Government are prepared to spend large sums of taxpayers' money on selling the things that they think are worth while. In particular, the privatisation programmes show that imaginative publicity has been used to convince members of the public that industries that hitherto they had been told were useless and inefficient are now very efficient, and that they ought to buy what they already own.

I must give the Minister and his colleagues some credit for that campaign; it had some limited success, at least at the start. It shows how imaginative publicity can be well used. As it appears from yesterday's announcement that PowerGen is to be sold privately, the money that was earmarked for that pre-sale publicity will no doubt be available for the purpose of getting people elected. That is a constructive suggestion that I am more than happy to make to the Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr made an important point when he said that in many parts of the country the poll tax register has more names on it than the electoral register. That is not the case uniformly, but it is true in some parts of the country. In Scotland, where we are in the second year of the poll tax, the poll tax register is undoubtedly much longer than the electoral register in some districts.

There is undoubtedly evidence that some people have wrongly decided that they can opt out of the poll tax by opting out of the electoral register. It must be emphasised to such people that the only way to defeat the poll tax is not to remove one's name from the register, but to get on to the register so that, at the next available opportunity, it is possible to vote the Government out of office. When people come off the register, it is a gift to those who support the poll tax.

I hope that those who think that, by coming off the electoral register, they are achieving something in the battle to defeat the poll tax will realise that that tactic is misguided and they merely run the risk of ensuring that the poll tax remains in place. I hope that people who have taken that course will realise that they have made a mistake and will ensure that their names are included on the electoral register this autumn.

Another point arising from what my hon. Friend said is the need for a substantial advertising campaign. It must be not merely a few advertisements in public libraries or an advertisement in a newspaper, but a television campaign, of which the public are made aware in the run-up to October. It is not too late for the Home Office to start planning it, if it has not already done so. The need for a national advertising campaign is exceptionally important, because it is in the national interest that as many people as possible are registered to vote at any election.

The money that has been allocated to encourage those overseas to register makes it obvious that no effort had been spared by the Government. I know that there is a caveat, in that it is impossible to compare the numbers of people living in a country and the amount of money allocated in an advertising campaign, because the relative costs are different. The Home Office estimates that there are 1,500 overseas electors in Jamaica, and the sum of £15,050 has been allocated for an advertising campaign, which means that there is about £10 for every elector. Perhaps such a figure per person would be a bit ambitious in this country, but there are other examples.

The Home Office thinks that there are two people in Romania who are eligible to vote as overseas electors, yet £10 has been allocated. Even with the increased charges for British Telecom calls, I should have thought that it would be possible to telephone both those people for substantially less than £10. In Guatemala, 20 people are estimated to be eligible to vote, and £100 is being spent. I do not know the cost of advertising in the Guatemalan press or television, but I should be surprised if such expenditure per capita could be justified, especially when one considers that in Canada, where there are well over 1 million overseas electors, £45,805 has allocated.

Someone in the Home Office has consciously sat down, worked out the number of people in overseas countries and allocated specific budgets, which are not always round figures. In Australia, £32,486—a specific figure—has been allocated, although I admit that, in Angola, £30 has been allocated, which is a round sum. If such figures can be worked out for recruiting overseas electors, they can also be worked out for recruiting electors to the register in the United Kingdom.

I hope that the Minister will concede the need for a substantial national advertising campaign to get people on the register so that they may have the right to vote at the next election, whether local or general.

2.3 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) on securing this debate and I am glad to have the opportunity to reply to some of the points that he and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) have raised.

I know that the hon. Member for Perry Barr has taken a close and serious interest in this subject for a considerable time, not just because of his distressing experience—particularly for a Member for Parliament—of finding so many of his executive committee unregistered. I agree with a great deal of what he said—certainly his analysis of the problem and a number of his recommendations.

I share the concern expressed by the hon. Members for Perry Barr and for Edinburgh, Central about current levels of registration, which are lower than any of us would wish. For several years, increases in the number of registered electors have not kept pace with increases in the population. Figures produced by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys suggest—in the nature of the statistical exercise, it can be no more than a suggestion —that the decline set in after 1984 and has become more marked over the past three years.

That decline should be put in perspective. The proportion registering fell from 97·7 per cent. in 1984 to 96 per cent. in 1989. My figures differ from those given by the hon. Member for Perry Barr, but I have taken mine from the OPCS report. To put it in further perspective, the hon. Gentleman rightly said that, although the percentage is small, it adds up to many people—far more than we want to see not on the register. I believe that the 1990 figures, which will be published in full by the OPCS later this month, will show that the decline is levelling off.

As the hon. Member for Perry Barr said, we do not have a national system of electoral registration in this country, nor do we have a comprehensive register of the population of voting age in any form. Electoral registration is the responsibility of electoral registration officers, who have a statutory duty to prepare and publish each year a register of parliamentary and local government electors in the area for which they act. They do so, in the words of the Representation of the People Act 1983, by means of a
"house-to-house or other sufficient inquiry."
This leaves the choice of methodology, to which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central referred, very much to electoral registration officers and the strategy that they adopt. In most cases, they distribute, by post or using personal canvassers, electoral form A, which requires householders to supply details of those eligible to be electors.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr is sceptical of the quality of some EROs, or at least of the work that they do. They are almost always chief executives of their local authorities and they usually appoint their own deputies. The Home Office cannot directly intervene to maintain or improve standards, confiscate the quill pen or substitute the information technology that the hon. Gentleman would like to see. In the last analysis, electoral registration officers, although they are local authority employees, are responsible not to the Home Office or their local authority but to the law. The courts decide whether the electoral officer is fulfilling his duties properly.

The Home Office is responsible for the statutory basis on which the registration system works, and we issue guidance to and provide a code of practice for registration officers in England and Wales, about which I shall say more in a moment. We also conduct an annual advertising and publicity campaign to encourage people to complete and return the registration form.

There are several possible reasons for the relative decline in electoral registration, including some mentioned by the hon. Member for Perry Barr, such as failure to register because of apathy or hostility to the electoral system or to what is seen as authority or bureaucracy in general, or because no general election is imminent. There is also, and it is surprisingly high, simple ignorance of the system, particularly among young people, which is why it is so important to reach them in the ways suggested by the hon. Gentleman. Changes in practice by registration officers, such as quicker or more thorough removal from the register of those who have died or moved away, can also have a marked effect.

At any one time, there are people on the register who should not be. The most recent major study into levels of electoral registration, following on from the 1981 census —the study to which the hon. Gentleman referred—found that the number involved was about equal to the number of eligible people who were left off. If registration officers decide to direct their attention to weeding out ineligible or dead people from the register, without increasing the number of eligible people who are coming on, obviously the figures will decrease.

That has happened in several constituencies, where the lists have been radically checked without the additional effort needed to get people who are entitled to register to do so. Changes in legitimate dual registration, for example, by students and second home owners, can also have an effect. Often, these people are on neither register.

Some hon. Members have made much of their belief—it was conspicuous that it was not expressed as it was in debates in which I have taken part—that the introduction of the community charge is the main cause for the relative decline in levels of electoral registration. I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity of those who argue in that way—although they are usually people who never miss an opportunity to state their hostility to the idea of the community charge—and I would not deny that the introduction of the community charge may have had an effect on registration levels, due to people keeping themselves off the electoral register in the mistaken belief that, by doing so, they will avoid paying the charge. I was glad that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central made that point. It is a pity if people keep themselves off the register for that reason, as it removes their opportunity to vote in elections which affect what the charge level may be. The fact that they have none the less found themselves on the community charge list should have cured that misapprehension.

In practice, any such apparent "community charge effect" cannot be quantified, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest that it is a major factor. In many parts of the country it is difficult for people to avoid registration or to get off the register once they are on it. Research carried out on our behalf by the OPCS suggests that nearly 90 per cent. of local authorities in England and Wales carry names forward from one electoral register to the next, regardless of whether a response has been received from the householder, for at least one year. Around 25 per cent. carry names forward for two years or more. There will, therefore, tend to be a gap of at least one year, and sometimes longer, before the effect of any alleged disincentive to register shows up in the figures.

Looking at the trends in electoral registration with this consideration in mind, it is difficult to discern any direct correlation between decreases in registration and the introduction of the community charge in either Scotland or, a year later, in England and Wales. The downward trend clearly predates the introduction of the charge in both parts of Great Britain. As the OPCS observes in its recent publication "Population Trends 60", if the community charge has had an effect, the impact does not appear to be straightforward.

I am not sure that I am in a position to disagree with the Minister's general conclusions. I think that he would agree that it is a bit early yet, certainly in England and Wales, to conclude that people are not coming off the register because of the poll tax. There is some evidence that people are coming off the register in some parts of Scotland, which is in the second year of the poll tax. Equally, there is evidence in other areas that people are not coming off the register. At present, there is a mixed picture, although I reiterate the point that people who come off the register to avoid paying the poll tax are, first, making a mistake—because one day the authorities will catch up with them—and, secondly and more important, forfeiting the right to vote.

I do not have the figures written down, but I think that there has been an increase in the past year in the overall figures for Scotland. I expect that the figures for England and Wales will be published shortly. The signs are that the decline in England has dropped and in Wales the figures have increased. As the OPCS stated, if the community charge has had an effect, it is not particularly clear.

Whatever the cause of declining registration, the trend is very much a matter of concern, which is why I am grateful to the hon. Member for Perry Barr for raising this subject. The Government want the trend to be arrested and reversed. We are therefore extending and updating our advice to electoral registration officers with a series of practice notes. The first two, on performance indicators and publicity, have been well received.

Last year, in addition to our annual newspaper advertising campaign, we conducted a pilot television advertising campaign in Devon and Cornwall, the results of which were quite promising. Funds are not available—nor has the creative approach to these problems been sufficiently worked out—for television advertising this year. In answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central, we plan a non-television campaign for the autumn. I believe that that will be much more effective than the press campaigns that we have run in the past. Television, of course, remains a possibility for the future.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central referred to overseas advertising. We are spending some £750,000 on overseas advertising directed at potential electors—people who may be eligible to go on to the register. That is not a large sum, given the long list of countries that I believe the hon. Gentleman found in an answer from the Home Secretary; and, as was shown by the examples that he gave, the sum per country is also quite small. Let me make two points, however. First, this is one off; I think that it would be very wrong—Parliament having decided that the right to vote should be extended—if we did not make some effort to inform potential electors overseas. Secondly, we are advertising in this country, and, although the sum involved is smaller—just over £500,000—every potential elector here should have the registration form through his letter box, unlike overseas electors.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the £10 spent in Romania. I suspect that that relates not to advertising as such but to leaflets or posters. I also think that the hon. Gentleman has the argument the wrong way round. He seemed to think that the number of potential electors was put down and the money divided between them. I think that the odd sums that he gave stemmed directly from the cost of the media that we use in each country, but the cost varies from country to country. The "spend per head ratio" differs, because in each country we wanted to select at least the minimum possible media coverage in our efforts to reach people who might be eligible.

The OPCS is also carrying out, on our behalf, annual research into the methods used by registration officers. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central mentioned that. The results of the research will assist us in the preparation of future guidance: I cannot tell him now on what date it will be ready, but I hope that that date is not many months away.

Most important is our intention that the introduction of the community charge should actually benefit electoral registration. The hon. Members for Edinburgh, Central and for Perry Barr both remarked that the lists for the community charge were very much fuller. Our third practice note, which we expect to issue later this summer, will give registration officers guidance on how to make the most effective use of their statutory right of access to the community charge register: the hon. Member for Perry Barr was, I believe, particularly anxious for that to happen. In most cases, the community charge register will be much more accurate and up to date than the electoral register as a source of information about people who may be eligible to vote but are not registered as electors.

Far from keeping people off the register, the community charge will in the longer run prove to be the means of getting them on to it. The Leeds figures mentioned by the hon. Member for Perry Barr provide an excellent example of where such work could start.

We take every opportunity to put across the message that, by staying off the electoral register, people merely deprive themselves of the right to vote. What is more—as any who have deliberately refrained from registering for this reason are no doubt discovering—it does not, in practice, enable them to avoid having to pay the charge. However, it certainly prevents them from voting in local elections—which affect the level at which the charge is set—and in parliamentary elections, in which the future of the system is determined.

The Minister said that £760,000 has been allocated to overseas voters. In the same answer, the Home Secretary said that £334,696 has not yet been allocated. Would the Minister consider using some or all of that sum to enhance the campaign in this country? He mentioned the Devon and Cornwall experiment on television. I appreciate that £300,000 will not buy much television time, but I do not think that newspaper campaigns alone are enough.

We do not intend to campaign only in newspapers, but we will not be using television. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that £300,000 or so will not go very far. I am not certain where that £300,000 was to be allocated, but I suspect that it has already been allocated. When the question was answered, it probably had not been dedicated to any particular medium in any particular country. However, I will let the hon. Gentleman know.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr asked about several specific points and I shall deal with them in turn. He mentioned the registration of spouses of service men. I know from my constituency that there is occasionally a difficulty about the registration of service men, and they do not always get themselves registered. However, I was not aware of the difficulties involving their spouses, as they can register in the normal way in the area in which they live. If the hon. Gentleman can follow that up, I shall look into it further.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned multi-occupancy. I agree that that is a real problem, particularly as the residents in large multi-occupied dwellings are often young. They tend to be mobile and are just the sort of people who do not register. Things are made worse by shared letter boxes and registration forms getting lost. However, as he said, I suspect that the best way of tackling the problem must be locally, by those with some local knowledge. Thought needs to be given to it, because I suspect that many people would be happy to be on the register—some are not—if the form turned up.

The problem of bed and breakfast is similar to that which I have already mentioned, and I have partly dealt with the problem of young people. The hon. Member for Perry Barr mentioned the 1981 study, which showed that a large proportion of young people do not come on to the register. Electoral registration officers are aware of that. Many of them are making efforts through the schools—I believe that that is the case in Birmingham—with some good results. Leaflets are available for use in schools if electoral registration officers wish to use them. The form that goes to every household emphasises the need to put 16 and 17-year-olds on the register. The advertising we will be introducing particularly addresses the young. I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's idea for a letter to every schoolchild or every household—I am not sure which. Experiments such as that, conducted by electoral registration officers, could prove valuable, especially if the results could be made generally known.

The local authorities know the age of pupils coming up to school leaving age. The crucial time for registration is about 16 years and seven or eight months, depending on the date of birth. The electoral registration officer could write to the family and the 16-year-old and say, "If your date of birth means that you are 16 years and eight months you need to be on this year's register when it comes." It is a proactive campaign to get to the young, rather than having to rely on the head of a school.

I know what happens in schools. A drab notice that nobody reads will go up or in September at the first assembly for the final year and the head may say, "By the way, some of you may need to get yourselves on the electoral register." If that was announced in the first assembly for the final year, together with everything else, it would go in one ear and out the other. There must be a more proactive approach, and the mechanism already exists for such an approach.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and I should be interested to learn whether he is trying to persuade the authorities in Birmingham to use that approach.

I understood the point that the hon. Member for Perry Barr made about battered wives. I appreciate the fear felt by women who have suffered violence from their husbands or other members of their families at the prospect that they might be discovered if they have sought to escape such violence. However, there is no evidence that the register is used to pursue people. It is difficult to look through registers to find a name that one recognises. However, I understand that the fear exists and I would be interested to hear from the hon. Gentleman if he has an example of the register being used in that way.

I will not go into the details now. However, I have learnt from the electoral registration officer in Birmingham and from discussions with EROs elsewhere that, because the poll tax allows women the right not to be named on that register, those women want to know why they cannot have the same right with respect to the electoral register. They are losing their rights to vote because they do not register as they are afraid of being found.

If someone knows roughly the area in which someone else moves around, it is quite easy to trawl through the electoral register. It is not as difficult as we might imagine. It is different if someone is moving from one authority to another, but within small areas, people can have a rough idea where other people may have gone. The poll tax operation is causing women in hostels to ask why, as they can be missed off that register, they cannot be missed off the electoral roll, as that would protect their right to vote. Those women are losing the right to vote. The Minister can check that by getting his staff to visit some refuges and battered wives hostels. He should check how many of those names appear on the electoral registers. He can bet his bottom dollar that those people were living in those places on 10 October last year.

Well, as I have said, we have no evidence of that. If the hon. Gentleman can supply some, I should he interested to see it. I understand that the fear exists, and I can understand why those wives would want to know why they should be visible on the electoral register when they do not have to be so on the community charge register. However, the two documents have different purposes. The electoral register is a public document showing all those who may vote. It is easier to pursue someone if that person's name is visible on the community charge register, because that register is set out in a different way. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I am afraid that there is no easy solution to that problem.

I noted the hon. Gentleman's point about the adoption of other names for the register. He asked whether that was legal. It would not be illegal to use a maiden name, but the hon. Gentleman and the woman concerned would not consider that a particularly good cover. I am pretty certain that it is not lawful to register under a false name by which the individual is never otherwise known. There is a problem there. However, I would be interested in any evidence that the hon. Gentleman can supply about that. I have no such evidence, but I have heard the point made many times without the evidence.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to homelessness, to Mr. Forrester and cardboard city, and he said that being homeless should not preclude registration. Well, it does not. The courts are the final authority in the matter. They require some degree of permanence, and that degree is for the courts to determine. Greenham Common, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, is an example where permanence was sufficient for those people to come on to the register. In the first place, it is for the ERO to judge. However, if an indvidual believes that he or she should be on the register, that person should apply to be on it. If that is refused, the final judge is not the ERO or me; it is the courts.

The hon. Gentleman made two more points, one of which was about the rolling register. It is an attractive idea. He will understand that, like the EROs whom he mentioned, I remain sceptical of its practicability. There are several problems. First, it would make the individual rather than the ERO responsible for getting on to the register. The hon. Gentleman might think that that was a small shift in responsibility that was more theoretical than real, but it would be a substantial change in the way in which the law is organised. Secondly—the Home Affairs Select Committee had this point in mind when it rejected the idea at some time in the mid 1980s—it might tempt some people to register in a marginal constituency shortly before an election in order to influence the result. It is an interesting idea.

With the development of the community charge register and with local experience of keeping it running, attitudes to the practicability of the rolling register may change. It certainly would be an additional expense, and it would certainly be administratively difficult. We would have to keep the two registers separate, because the duty to pay the community charge and the right to vote are not synonymous, and that distinction needs to be kept. There is a real and particular problem in pursuing such an idea now, but of course something may be learned over the next few years in keeping registers that may be to the hon. Gentleman's advantage—or rather, to the advantage of his idea.

I am grateful for the way in which the Minister is responding to that point. He must appreciate that it is more important in a country that does not have a fixed-term Parliament to have a mechanism whereby the register is as up to date as possible, as opposed to the system in countries in which there are fixed-term Parliaments. The whole democratic and political process is geared to those dates. In Germany, a register is available for the 15th or 20th day for a final check before the election. When there is not a fixed-term Parliament, the idea is more attractive. The poll tax operation begins to make it look like a practical proposition. That is why it is a fertile time to put that view forward.

It may be a fertile time or a good time to signal additional interest. It is not a practical possibility for the near future, but I can see the advantages that the hon. Gentleman paints for such a scheme if it proved to be practical. Administratively, it would be considerable. I have often heard from the Opposition how impossible it is to keep up the community charge list. Perhaps it is not as difficult as all that, but it is quite an exercise for local authorities, as they are not slow to remind us.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the law. It is an offence not to fill in and return the form, and the penalty is £400. I am not sure whether some prosecutions to make an example of somebody who does not fill in the form would be a useful way of persuading people that it was sensible and right and a public duty to vote. Indeed, I suspect—

It is a public duty to register. I know that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting it, but, while I have been taking an interest in these subjects, it has stuck in my mind that some of those who do not register believe that it is their right, or should be their right, not to register, and certainly their right to vote for nobody at all if they wish.