[Relevant documents: First Joint Report from the Constitutional Affairs and ODPM: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committees, Session 2004-05, HC 243, on Electoral Registration; and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6647. Oral and Written Evidence, taken by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, on Electoral Administration, HC 640-i and 640-ii, and on Party Funding, HC 1060-i.]
Lords amendments considered.
Lords amendment: No. 7, before clause 13, to insert a new clause—Absent voting: personal identifiers.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
I have placed in the Vote Office an explanatory note on these Lords amendments that, I hope, will help hon. Members to wade through the 130-odd Lords amendments before us this evening. They simply explain what the amendments will do, rather than give any detailed background to them, but I hope that they will help us to move through the course of the debate.
I ask the House to agree with the Lords in amendments Nos. 7, 9 to 15, 47 to 49, 59, 60, 79 to 81, 89 to 93, 95, 102, and 131, but to disagree with the Lords in amendment No. 8.
Lords amendment No. 7 was tabled by Lord Elder and built upon by the Government. Taken together, the series of Lords amendments are designed to enhance the security of postal voting by establishing a scheme that provides for the use of identifiers by postal voters at elections. The amendments had support from all sides in the other place. They provide for the collection of personal identifiers from persons applying to vote by post or proxy. Postal and proxy vote applicants will be required to provide their date of birth and signature on application forms. The amendments provide for the retention of identifiers by electoral registration officers and set out the purposes for which they may be used.
At elections, postal voters will be required to provide their signature and date of birth on the postal voting statement that they must complete and return with their postal vote ballot paper. All postal voters, including proxy postal voters, will be subject to that requirement. A postal ballot paper will not be deemed valid if the postal voting statement does not include both a signature and a date of birth. Furthermore, returning officers will be required to take steps to verify the signature and date of birth on that statement, which will involve checking that the identifiers provided on the postal voting statement correspond with those previously provided on the postal vote application. If they do not correspond, the ballot paper will be rejected. The detailed arrangements for checking postal voting statements will be set out in regulations. Under the amendments, there will be no change to the current voter registration arrangements. The amendments therefore remove from the Bill the provisions that would have allowed personal identifiers to be piloted and rolled out as part of the voter registration system.
On Lords amendment No. 8, we have said previously that we accept the principle behind individual registration. We have also accepted the practical value that the use of personal identifiers might have in combating fraud. However, it is also an important principle that everyone who is entitled to register to vote is registered. Under-registration disfranchises individuals and skews the map of political representation. Northern Ireland is often cited on both sides of the debate. The main Opposition party has frequently called for us to introduce into Great Britain the tried and tested system of individual registration. Individual registration in Northern Ireland has had some benefits, especially for the perceived security of the process, but it is not true that the experience in Northern Ireland is an argument for that system to be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom.
When individual registration was first introduced in Northern Ireland, 120,000 entries dropped off the register—a decrease of some 10 per cent. in those on the register. The 1,192,136 entries in August 2002 had decreased to 1,072,425 by December of that year. At the next canvass, the total number of entries fell slightly further to 1,069,160. The Government have taken steps to address that decline, first by reintroducing a period of one year’s grace before entries are removed from the register, and secondly by introducing new primary legislation.
If the hon. Lady went to Northern Ireland and talked the matter through with its electoral registration officer, she would find that, as she says, there was a dip. However, as a result of active canvassing, within a matter of months, 92 per cent. of those on the census were registered to vote in Northern Ireland, which was described by the Northern Ireland Office at the time as an outstanding success. How can she try to wriggle out of what is the obvious solution?
The rigorous canvassing did increase registration, which had suffered an extreme dip, but has not increased it to anything near the original figure of 1,190,000. As I said, new primary legislation has been required to try to rectify some of those issues. Therefore, we believe that individual registration is not yet ready to be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom.
With regard to the Northern Ireland statistics showing that registration dipped as low as 82 per cent. and then increased to 92 per cent., a registration rate of 92 per cent. on the UK mainland would not be acceptable. We want 100 per cent. registration. Anything that decreases registration should not go ahead.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which he has raised with me and with other Ministers. It is essential for us to do all we can to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote is on the register and we should therefore not introduce unnecessary blocks to prevent that. Such action would constitute as much of an insult to democracy as some of the other actions that we are discussing.
The commission supports individual voter registration. We in Government disagree with the commission, as I have explained. We have said that we agree with the principle and we are implementing it in relation to postal votes because of the particular problems that have arisen in that regard.
If the hon. Lady leaves all the bogus entries on the register, such as Hooty McBoob, Michael Mouse and Gus Troubev, which is an anagram of “bogus voter”, and there is active canvassing of new people who should be on the register, registration could be as high as 110 per cent.
As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, although that is an amusing suggestion, we shall not be implementing it. We have included a variety of processes for the canvass. Electoral registration officers can take a number of strong measures to ensure that the register is accurate, ensuring that those who should not be on the register are not on it and that those who should be on it are.
The Minister appears complacent. Is she aware of the position in my part of the world? In Bradford, election results have been called into question because of concern about voter fraud. There has also been concern about the police time taken up in investigation of all the fraud accusations. Does she accept that the amendments provide a simple way of addressing many of the worries in Bradford and in the country as a whole?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman intervened. The amendments that I am asking the House to support will indeed address the points that he raised in relation to Bradford and elsewhere.
I mentioned the Northern Ireland example. We are also concerned about the drafting of Lords amendment No. 8. It makes several references to the role to be played by the Chief Electoral Officer. Outside Northern Ireland, there is no such officer; the role is played by local electoral registration officers. That would create a serious flaw in the operation of the proposed scheme.
Individual registration has potential benefits for the security of postal voting, particularly through the collection of personal identifiers such as signature and date of birth. That is why we included it in the Bill. We wanted to test the use of personal identifiers. Because the provisions have not yet gained the confidence of Parliament, we have adopted the alternative compromise proposed by my noble Friend Lord Elder. As I have explained, the proposal targets the use of personal identifiers primarily at postal voting. It meets the security concerns about postal ballots, and deals with concerns about the impact of personal registration on the number of people registered to vote.
In the interests of absolute clarity, is the Government’s reason for resisting the Lords amendment based solely on the perceived likely reduction in the level of registration? If it can be demonstrated that individual registration is far and away the best means of protecting against fraud, will the Government reconsider whether there are alternatives for tackling the slightly lower levels of registration that might result?
I said at the outset that, in principle, we accept individual registration; we do not have a principled objection to it. However, it is clear that there are two issues that should be considered, the first of which is that the term of punishment for any offence relating to false registration will be increased from six months to 51 weeks. Some 3 million people are not on the register who should be on it, and if there were a 10 per cent. drop in registration in Great Britain, that would add another 4 million people to that figure. A register that has up to 7.5 per cent. of its eligible electors missing does not make a good register.
The Bill includes a number of important changes to the way in which registration and elections will be run, and the Government are confident that they will meet our objectives. However, we will keep the impact of this legislation under review and share the results of our evaluation with the House. This may also be an appropriate issue for the Constitutional Affairs Committee to consider, and we would welcome any such further scrutiny from it.
We will also consider whether further evaluation may be appropriate once the Law Commission has concluded its report on the use of a formal process of post-legislative scrutiny. The Government believe that this is the appropriate way forward, and I therefore hope that Members will reject the amendment.
We in this House must do everything that we can to tackle electoral fraud. Faith in our democratic process has been undermined by recent allegations. A judge has said that our system is wide open to fraud and similar to that of a “banana republic”. Only last week, election results in Coventry were questioned when it was found that people who were in Pakistan on the day of the vote somehow managed to vote in person at the polling station. I understand that there are currently no fewer than eight petitions in the High Court alleging electoral fraud in the recent local elections.
Parliament cannot ignore this problem, especially as we have always taken great pride in our democracy. We used to lecture the world about parliamentary democracy; now, we are in the dock, accused of complacency. Our system is criticised not only by the Electoral Commission—that is an important fact—and by judges; it was also criticised by international election observers at the last general election, including those from Ukraine and Serbia. A few years ago, we would not have expected to have to take lectures from such countries about our system. That says a lot about how our stock has fallen.
My hon. Friend mentioned that there are eight outstanding electoral petitions. Does he accept that, if the hurdle to tabling electoral petitions was not set so high in financial terms and in other ways, there would be many more of them? A number of petitions that barristers said would certainly have succeeded have not gone forward because of those financial and other barriers. The House should act to remove them.
It is an expensive, time-consuming and difficult process, and the fact that there are as many as eight petitions says something, because that is a substantial number.
Every authority that has examined this question has called for individual voter registration and personal identifiers. I strongly support Lords amendment No. 8, and I pay tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Hanham. The amendment simply requires a signature and a date of birth for everyone going on to the voting register. I am disappointed that the Government continue to drag their feet on this issue. I have always said that I prefer the system used in Northern Ireland, where national insurance numbers are used to verify registration. That is an excellent example to follow, and the Government have crowed about that system as an outstanding success story. A consensus must be reached, and it could be reached around Lords amendment No. 8.
The Government have already accepted that voters who apply for postal votes should have to give their date of birth and signature. That was a welcome concession, made in Lords amendment No. 7. However, if that is all right for postal votes, why cannot it be done more generally? Given that it is already accepted that two forms of identification are required for a postal ballot, why is not that an acceptable approach that could be used for identifying voters more widely? The amendment would require a signature and date of birth to be included in all voters’ registration, not only in that of postal voters. I would still like to see national insurance numbers added as a personal identifier for voter registration—indeed, I have argued myself into the ground about it—but in the interests of trying to achieve a consensus, I am prepared to leave it until another opportunity arises to get it on the statute book. I hope that that will not be as a result of another scandal of the sort that we have seen in recent months. We have to secure personal identifiers for voter registration generally.
Hon. Members will be aware of the Electoral Commission’s campaign for individual voter registration and personal identifiers. From the outset of proceedings on the Bill, it has called for personal identifiers. The Government have gone some way towards that, and we all welcome Lords amendment No. 7. However, in the commission’s briefing for this debate it says:
“The Commission is delighted that the House of Lords has voted to accept an amendment tabled by Baroness Hanham requiring applicants to provide signatures and dates of birth when registering to vote.”
The amendment introducing personal identifiers for postal voting was introduced by the Lord Elder, a Labour peer, and it had the support of my noble Friend Baroness Hanham and of Lord Rennard, so we managed to reach agreement across the parties, which all—apart from Labour—wanted to make further progress. The recent alleged fraud in Coventry was the background to the debate in the other place and spurred them on. They did not want to see such things happening again. The Coventry example is just one in a long line of cases where identity has allegedly been impersonated at the polling station. The use of personal identifiers would go a long way towards protecting individuals from that kind of fraud.
The Minister in the other place spoke in support of the principle time and time again. In Committee, she stated:
“collecting personal identifiers has the potential to improve security and integrity in the electoral process”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2006; Vol. 679, c. GC593.]
At that stage she also expressed her strong views about making sure that forms requesting information from people should be simple and straightforward.
Schedule 1 requires voters to sign for their ballot paper at the polling station. The amendment would therefore introduce a useful check against fraud. Those registering to vote would provide a signature that would go on the register, which would then provide a check of whether the person signing for the vote was the same person who had registered. In circumstances such as those that allegedly occurred in Coventry, that would be extremely useful. I do not see how the provision of a signature at the polling station will be much use if there is no register of the original signature in the first place. What is more, our amendment would save voters the worry of finding a legitimate counterfoil to prove their signature in any fraud investigation.
There can be few legal forms that entitle one to do something but do not involve a signature and the provision of simple details, such as date of birth. It is suggested by some that it would be so difficult that it would put people off registering to vote. However, those of us who take a close interest in these matters know that people fill in forms for almost every activity in life and that they almost always have to sign their name and give their date of birth. How difficult is it for people to sign their names? That question shows how pathetic it is that this important change is not being made by all-party agreement.
During the Bill’s passage through the House, the Government accepted that a person’s signature and date of birth should be used for postal voting, so how can it be said that the same requirement is too hard to be used elsewhere? My voter registration form from the London borough of Lambeth says that any change of details must be backed up by a signature and a date of birth. Lord Rennard made the same point in the other place. Lambeth is an example of a Labour council already doing something that I am calling for.
Under the current system, people do not have to give their signature. Last September’s Electoral Commission report on under-registration found that between 4 million and 4.5 million people were not registered to vote. Any requirement to supply a signature and therefore make filling in the form more difficult would cause the under-registration figure to increase to 5 million people.
I do not see why the hon. Gentleman should think that that would happen. For how many things in life are people required to sign their names? The answer is that they have to do so for almost anything. People have learned how to sign their names, even under the Labour education system. Even under Labour, they know when they were born. It is not too much to ask for such simple information.
Personally, I do not think that there is much harm in asking for a national insurance number, but I have given way on that because I want to achieve consensus. What the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said is old-fashioned. Not only does he clearly believe in the patrician system, with the head of the household filling in the form for everyone else, but he fails to realise what the real problem is. What happens when a registration form goes out to a flat or a house in multiple occupation? The person whose name appears on the form may well throw it in the bin. What happens if it goes to a father who thinks that the women in the house should not vote? The form may not even have those women listed.
The range of possibilities is wide because the current process works against the grain of modern society. People see themselves as individuals with rights. It is true that our society is consumerist in its thinking, but people do not believe that the head of a household should organise how that household’s members should vote. This is the 21st century, when we believe in one person, one vote.
It is about time that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd came up to date. Individual voter registration is proposed by the Electoral Commission, the body of independent experts set up by his Labour Government to advise on this very matter. Yet the Government have such utter contempt for its recommendations that they say that they are going to pick and choose between them. What a disgrace.
At present, between 4 million and 4.5 million people are not registered to vote. Last September’s report from the Electoral Commission found that, in the main, they were unemployed, on low pay and living in council or social housing. They also included a lot of young people and people from the black and ethnic minorities. Is the hon. Gentleman so unconcerned about under-registration simply because people from those groups do not vote Conservative? If they lived in Acacia gardens as opposed to Corporation close, would he pay more attention to under-registration?
I am worried that the hon. Gentleman is letting his blind political prejudices get in the way of the obvious facts. People are not obliged to vote in our society if they do not want to, but getting them to register to vote requires a lot of hard work. People need to go out and canvass those homes, door to door. We used to do that in the old days, but we have made cutbacks and stopped doing that. That is what is needed—active campaigning to get people to register to vote.
We need to bear it in mind that people live in households as individuals and not necessarily with a—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd is harking back to a patrician world where the head of the household—the father of the family—filled the form in for everyone. The world is not like that any more. He needs to get up to date.
The hon. Gentleman talks about campaigning to get people to register, but his political party did not deliver a single leaflet in my constituency during the local elections. Does he accept that a large percentage of the 4 million to 4.5 million people who are not registered are young people? It is an interesting fact that, among young people, the rate of registration decreases as they enter their 20s, primarily because when they live at home the head of the household registers them, whereas when they move out they tend not to register. There is a real problem and until we sort it out, the effect of his amendment—although I have some sympathy with it in principle—will be to increase under-registration among young people.
The hon. Gentleman misunderstands my point. I was not talking about political parties canvassing, although I think that that is vital to our system. I was talking about council officers—the electoral registration officer and his team—canvassing door to door to encourage registration. He might not have come across that, but it used to happen: large numbers of people were employed to go out and canvass for registration. I did it myself before becoming politically active.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s other point, part of the reason why people living in student accommodation and others in that age group do not register is that we—or the Government—stubbornly, or perhaps blindly, insist that the head of the household should be responsible for registration, so the authorities send the form only to the first person of whom they are aware living at that address. It may well be that, when the form arrives, it is simply tossed and four of the five people who are sharing the flat never hear anything about it. That is a problem that active canvassing—really going after those people and encouraging registration—could help to solve. That is why I welcome later amendments in which we insist that electoral registration officers make a real effort.
We have to think laterally. Why can we not positively reward people for going on the electoral register? We could adjust the tax code of people in work, adjust the state pension of retired people, or tweak the benefits of people who receive them. We could give people a lottery ticket for registering. Why can we not do that to encourage people to register?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should work out the details of that suggestion and propose a scheme. We should consider all reasonable options to encourage people to register to vote. I am not sure how the lottery ticket idea would work, but incentivising people to register might be possible.
We should make a serious effort to get those who are not currently registered on to the register, but we should always bear it in mind that it is wrong to deal with matters such as the size of constituencies based on some back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many people may be entitled to vote in a certain area. The registration system must be what we rely on and I would like it to be much better in our country than it is now. The Government have accepted a requirement for a signature and date of birth for postal voting and it seems to me illogical that they will not go the whole way, especially given that the Bill requires people to sign for their vote at the polling station.
Door-to-door canvassing is an important part of electoral registration practice, and we need to improve what we do in that respect. I believe that a reason for the decline in the quality of our electoral registration system over the past 20 years is that local authorities have cut back in that respect. Certainly, they have felt squeezed and obliged to deal with other matters. Local authorities need to be able actively to canvass to achieve the best possible result. There is a great deal of disquiet about the potential for electoral fraud. It has grown significantly over the last few years. The Electoral Commission was set up to give independent advice on that issue. The House of Lords—the other place; not the democratic Chamber—has said that this measure is necessary in the interests of democracy. The Government should not contemptuously ignore the Lords.
I agree with an awful lot of that. There are dozens of MPs in the Commons who have majorities in three figures. I wonder about the integrity of the ballot and I have done for years. I think that there is a huge amount of fiddling and cheating going on. I am disappointed that the Government are resisting Lords amendment No. 8. The Minister drew our attention to some flaws in the amendment: there is no chief electoral officer in Great Britain, although there is in Northern Ireland. It is unfortunate that the Lords did not pick up on that point. I am heartened that she accepts the principle behind individual voter registration. It is clearly just the practicalities that the Government are concerned about, not the principle, which she has conceded. We have an Electoral Commission and its job is to police the electoral system. If it thinks that there is fraud and malpractice, it should blow the whistle and the rest of us should stand to attention when we hear it.
I thought that I would sit here and agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said, but I disagree with what he said about the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission is not there to police; it is there to advise and to set out what the law is. It will not get involved in any way in policing accusations of fraud or questions that have been raised. That is for individual returning officers. The system falls down because there is no way of controlling the actions of an errant, or even corrupt, electoral returning officer. That is where we need to strengthen matters.
I understand that.
The Electoral Commission takes a view on the electoral system. As I said a few moments ago, if it believes that the system needs improving in some way, it will make recommendations. It made specific recommendations in the case of individual voter registration. The Government have moved towards that in part, but not entirely. I was left reflecting on what the response of the Electoral Commission should be. The Electoral Commission has been turned over by the Government before, when its recommendations have been put to one side. My view is that if the Electoral Commission thinks that this matter is important enough, its members ought to resign—or Sam Younger ought to resign. That would make us all pay attention. If members of the Electoral Commission were to resign en masse, there would not be a dozen or two dozen people in the Chamber; it would be packed to the gunnels to discuss the issue.
The Government’s position turns on the whole business of increasing voter turnout. I believe, as I said a few moments ago, that we need to think laterally about that. I would reward people. There is an alternative, put forward by our colleague, Lord Kinnock: compulsory voting. I am not in favour of compulsory voting, but that is one way forward. I prefer to reward people for going on the electoral register and to recognise that they are participating in a civic process, which should be rewarded in some way by the state. That has never been done here, and a lot of people probably think that the idea is zany and a bit eccentric. However, we must consider such solutions if we are to address the point that my friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) constantly makes about the number of young people and people from ethnic minorities and other groups who are not represented on the electoral register.
I take the point made by the Conservative Front Bench spokesman about international observers. I want international observers to police—if I may use that word—our domestic elections in the United Kingdom, but it is a sad state of affairs that I think that that is necessary.
If the Electoral Commission and international observers are recommending that, and given that the Government accept the principle, but will not embrace the system for practical reasons, the argument is made.
I rely on my own experiences on this matter, as I do on many other issues. At the time of the last general election, my Liberal Democrat opponent, Shazad Anwar, had two sisters and a brother registered at his home in Pendle, although the election literature referred to only Shazad Anwar and his wife, Raisa. We checked the electoral registers for Pendle and next-door Burnley, where Shazad Anwar’s father lived. The same two sisters and the brother were also registered in Burnley. Exactly the same thing had happened the year before: two sisters and a brother were registered at Kibble grove in Brierfield and the same two sisters and a brother were registered in Burnley.
When the matter was drawn to the attention of my Liberal Democrat opponent, he told the Nelson Leader, just a few days before the general election on 29 April 2005:
“It was a mistake. My father must have returned the Burnley forms without omitting their names. My two sisters and brother live with my wife and I.”
How one can send off a registration form without realising that it records people who do not actually live in a house beats me.
That situation brings me back to a point made by the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) with which I agree 100 per cent. In the 21st century, we should not be relying on the quaint 19th-century concept of heads of household. It is absolutely absurd in this day and age that we expect one person who is designated as the head of household to certify that other people in the house should be on the electoral register. I am disappointed that the Government and the Minister have taken such a view on Lords amendment No. 8, because we are missing a great opportunity to clean up our electoral system.
We are having an important debate that has carried on up and down the corridors of this building since the Bill was introduced. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who is in the Chamber. He started looking after the Bill on behalf of the Liberal Democrats and will continue to help me today as part of his other responsibilities. He and our colleagues at the other end of the building have been extremely diligent in working with Members of other parties to try to ensure that we get this matter and—as far as possible—electoral law right.
Although I picked up the baton on the Bill, I had an interest in it before and kept a watching brief. I pay tribute to the three Ministers involved in the passage of the Bill, who have been assiduous in ensuring that we all at least understand what we are trying to achieve, even if we sometimes disagree: the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who is in the Chamber; the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is my neighbour; and Baroness Ashton of Upholland, who looked after the Bill in the Lords.
The controversial aspect of the group of amendments is the fact that the Government wish to persuade the House to disagree with the Lords in Lords amendment No. 8. I will set down our position immediately. We will vote with those on the Conservative Front Bench and, I anticipate, some Labour Members to uphold what the Lords did when they voted by a majority of 23 for the principle of individual voter registration not just for postal votes, but for other votes as well. My noble Friend Lord Rennard set out why we would do that. We have adopted that as a party policy position and it would be impossible not to support it when it comes before us as a proposition in law. So we will vote to keep the Bill as the Lords amended it and will vote against the Government.
I understand the issue acutely. I want the hon. Member for Ruabon—
I am indeed, and I have been there often. I just could not remember the latest title of the hon. Gentleman’s important constituency.
I understand the issue that exercises the hon. Gentleman, as it exercised the Minister of State and as it exercises me. There is still something rotten—not functioning—in the state of electoral registration in Britain and in the state of our democracy. One option is compulsory registration. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) alluded to it, and it is an argument that people have made. I have resisted it. I do not agree with it, and nor do my colleagues. However, even that would not be perfect because we could have compulsory registration in theory, but not everyone who was meant to register would do so. Let us not delude ourselves. It would not mean that every person who was entitled to a vote was registered, let alone voted. In theory, however, we would get a bigger turnout.
Part of the reason why compulsory registration is not a good system is that it conceals the positive or negative response to the electoral process. Turnout goes up in close or important elections, and we can see that. If politicians are not responding to the electorate well, turnout goes down. In the local elections in our borough of Southwark last month, the turnout varied from something in the order of 25 per cent. in one ward to more than 50 per cent. in another. It depends on local circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the local elections last month. He has an enlightened view on maximising electoral registration. What would he say to the leading Liberal Democrat on Islington council who, when asked for his group’s support for an electoral registration drive before those elections, said that it would not support it, and that is how it wins elections?
I do not know the quote and would want to check it, out of loyalty to my friend. If that is what he said, it is not my view. I am on the record as saying to the Minister of State, across the Floor of the House, that we need much more effective ways of getting people on to the list. I will suggest two.
I share the view of the hon. Member for Pendle. There is serious merit in considering the idea that we might give somebody a discount on their council tax for being on the electoral register. I take the view, as hon. Members would expect me to, that we have moved on from the patrician days when somebody registers on behalf of the household. We need individual responsibility, with people registering at the age of 18. However, we need to do many other things to get people on the list. First, as people cross the threshold into voting age—my party takes the view that that should be 16, not 18—they should be automatically registered from the beginning by the institution, college or school that they attend.
Secondly, from the moment that they are on the register, there could be an incentive of a discount on council tax. It would be small, but worth having, like the vouchers for computers for schools. Vouchers for small amounts are worth having and we redeem them. I got some in the paper the other day to give me free editions of World cup posters, supplements and so on. It is 40p off and worth having.
Thirdly, and most importantly, as I have told Ministers before, the only way in which we can achieve a significant increase in annual registration is to conduct an annual campaign. In February, which is usually 28 days long, but is 29 days long every fourth year, we should count down through newspaper, radio and television adverts to “democracy day” on 1 March. During that period, campaigners sign up voters at bus stops, and outside railway stations, supermarkets, pubs and football grounds in a huge effort to increase registration. Such a campaign should happen regularly because, with the best will in the world, canvassers are never entirely successful in their efforts at registration. When I was in the Minister’s constituency on the day of the marathon, canvassers were struggling to find addresses in Blackheath. I remember canvassing in the Northfield by-election and trying hard to find addresses—it took me 20 minutes to go round the back of a block of flats, up a ladder and over a roof before I found Nos. 63 to 92 Bristol road south. It is sometimes difficult to find addresses but, when one does so, lots of people are not in, as more and more individuals do not keep conventional hours.
Or they are travelling on EasyJet. They are certainly not in, even if they are not working. They may be in bed and not answering the door, because they think that the caller is someone else.
Trying to encourage people to register is a serious issue. In my constituency, there is a serious problem of under-registration. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) is right, as is the Minister of State, that the poor and less well educated, the young and people from black and minority ethnic communities are usually significantly under-represented.
The hon. Gentleman could add to those under-registered groups people who live in houses in multiple occupation, which are common in my constituency, many other seaside towns and inner-city areas. How will a proposal for individual registration assist efforts to put such people on the register?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Blackpool is an obvious example, as are many student towns and cities. Hon. Members may not be aware of the fact, but every year in my constituency, which is a couple of miles from the House, a quarter of the electorate move house. They do not all move out of the constituency—
They are trying to get away from the hon. Gentleman.
In case that is reported in Hansard, I must explain that they are not doing that—usually, they want to stay and upgrade. About 25 per cent. of people in my constituency move because they want a bigger place or choose to live somewhere else. We must therefore make it easier for them to re-register, and we should not rely on a canvass officer bumping into them on their doorstep, as that does not usually happen. The chance of their being in when the officer comes round so that they can fill in the form is very small indeed.
The hon. Gentleman appears to be speaking against the proposition that he supports. People are required to return their electoral registration form, but we do not implement that requirement, so compulsion is not the answer. However, to take up the point that he has just made, people who canvass my constituency, where more than 9,000 people are missing from the register, say that, for various reasons, it is increasingly difficult to contact electors. My electoral registration officer says that if individual voter registration is introduced, it will decimate the register. Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to accept the fact that the 9,000 people missing from my register will increase to 18,000? I suspect that the increase will be even higher in his constituency.
I am sure the numbers are significant, but by definition one does not know what they are. Of course I do not want the number of registered voters reduced. I share the concern about what we should do, and I have suggested various ways of increasing registration.
The other side of the argument is how we avoid fraud and the abuse of the system. Every year when I look at my electoral register, I know for a fact that names are repeated and that the names of people who have moved or who have died still appear. It is not an up-to-date list that records the position at the beginning of the electoral year. Again, that is more often the case in urban than in rural areas.
On balance, the argument should be that people must take, and know that they have to take, personal responsibility. The starting point should be that they register either once or annually, and that they register in their own name. The question is whether the proposal that the Lords have passed into law and which is included in the Bill will have a significant downward effect on voting. The fact that the form goes in with the person’s signature and date of birth substantially reduces the likelihood of that. If there were no other circumstances, my judgment is that voting would not be affected much, if at all, for the reason given by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and others.
On any official form people generally expect to sign their name and, although I am not in favour of data being collected unnecessarily, often give their date of birth. For people who have come from the developing world and may not know their date of birth, it is traditional that they give as their date of birth 1 January of the year in which they were born. That convention is generally accepted. There is no problem with people who do not know their specific date of birth, or who have come as refugees and do not have their birth certificates.
We need to watch closely what happens. The Northern Ireland experience is relevant, but not entirely parallel. We are trying to overcome all the shortcomings and defects with a single piece of legislation. We want a better campaign to recruit people on to the list. We want to give them incentives to go on the list. We want to make it easy for young voters to go on for the first time. We may also want to do one other thing, which is where the difficulty has arisen.
At present, electoral registration officers have the choice whether to keep somebody on the list at the end of the year or take them off if they cannot check their eligibility. We need a better system to ensure that people can confirm that they are where they used to be, without necessarily having to go through the rigmarole of filling in the form, signing it and providing their date of birth. Suppose someone is away when the form arrives. A business man in my constituency, for example, went to India the other day. He may want to vote, always votes, but was not at home at the time. He needs an easy way of checking whether he is on the list. There is a package of things that we need to do, but we must avoid what most brings the system into disrepute—fraud and abuse of the system.
The hon. Gentleman said that he supported the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) of worthwhile incentives for people to register, but he will not want to ignore the significant cost that would be associated with that. Even the worthwhile sum of, say, £10 per registration would mean £750,000 in a typical constituency, and £2 million in a London borough containing two and a half constituencies. Ought that not to be funded centrally, because it is in the national interest that we have the highest level of registration possible?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Has he not exposed the problem with individual registration in his remarks about electoral registration officers and how they deal with voters who cannot be contacted? He is right to say that some keep them on and some keep them off. We are entirely dependent on the degree of registration and participation, and on the commitment of individual electoral registration officers to the process. Unless the House is prepared to set minimum standards, that situation will be made even worse by individual registration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome has watched the Bill closely from the beginning, and he says that it will help with that matter. Nobody is pretending that we will get a perfect system after the Bill is enacted, but a lot of the proposals which come from the Electoral Commission, the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and other places concern that process.
We should do much better in modern Britain, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire has said. For example, why do we not have lots of people out on the streets in towns such as Blackpool in February, which I have been told is the last month in which it is manageable to conduct such activities in time for a May election? We may not get people to fill in forms at midnight on a Friday, but it is possible to catch them at the bus stop on their way to work. We must try very hard by, for example, visiting FE colleges, guesthouses and businesses. We should also use technology by asking people for their e-mail addresses in order to check annually whether we have got their residential addresses right, which might be more convenient for them.
We also need to keep the system under review. After next year’s local elections in England and the elections in Scotland and Wales, the local elections and London elections in the following year and the European elections across the United Kingdom in the year after that—there will probably be a general election in that period, too—we should be able to see whether the proposals have had the effect that we all want or whether we are still failing. If we are still failing, we may need to do other things, but we should start from the basis that people should have to start the ball rolling themselves by signing and submitting a form.
We need to agree a convenient system for keeping people on the register. The process should be led by the customer—the voter—rather than by bureaucracy.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in countries in which the register is more accurate such as Australia and, indeed, Northern Ireland, it has not proved necessary to re-examine the register every year, because it is possible to maintain an accurate register by using the methods that he has discussed? Data matching is another way to use technology. A lot of councils have got plenty of information about the people who are not registered, and data matching across the council’s information is a useful way to ensure that as many people as possible are registered.
The important point concerns avoiding fraud in order to maintain and rebuild public confidence in our precious electoral system and democracy. The hon. Gentleman speaks for the Liberal party, but there is cross-party support for the concept that all fraud, particularly where it involves a candidate or agent, should always be investigated by the police and referred to the courts by the Director of Public Prosecutions. That is the only way in which we can rebuild confidence in our electoral system in this country, which is sadly lacking at the moment.
That is one area in which zero tolerance is appropriate. People should know that if they abuse the system by which we run our democracy, they are at risk of prosecution, conviction and, potentially, serious and exemplary punishment. If the person involved is locally elected or holds office in the community, one would expect an exemplary punishment to be imposed.
There are currently eight petitions on that point, but that may be the tip of the iceberg, because it is difficult to launch an electoral petition. I am sure that there are many other places in which the electoral register and those who voted did not accurately reflect who turned out on election day.
There is as much concern about fraud among Labour Members as among any other Members, but certain balancing factors must be taken into account. I want to issue a health warning in relation to the siren voices that use Australia as a comparison, as it has compulsory voting. The situation in Northern Ireland is apposite, because it has a settled population, whereas London does not. If an equivalent decline in the number of people registered in Northern Ireland occurred in a non-settled population such as that of London, that would be catastrophic.
As the hon. Gentleman and all of us in urban constituencies well know, we must be realistic about who is sent out to do any of these jobs. I am sure he, like me, knows pretty well at what times the automatic door entry systems open and close, and where to find every address barring those that have just come on to the register. If a couple of people are recruited for a month to carry out the electoral canvass, there is only a small probability of their knowing where all the entrances are and what is the best time to find people in, even with the best advice in the world. We need people who are part of the community and really know what is going on, even though they may have other jobs at other times of the year.
Another group of people who come into the community with entitlements to vote comprises those who become citizens. We now have citizenship ceremonies. People who are Irish, Commonwealth or European Union citizens with the right to vote here, depending on which kind of election it is, should be given the forms at that moment. If they are not already on the electoral register, they should not leave the town hall until they have been asked to sign up to become part of the electorate. We have to consider every possible proactive way of ensuring that every adult from all our communities who is entitled to vote is on the list.
The Lords amendment is logical. It has some risks, but those can be compensated for by taking all the other necessary steps. We have a huge shared duty to ensure that we do much better than we have in the recent past.
I fully agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) that Labour Members are as concerned as any others about electoral fraud, but we need to get things in perspective. When I tabled parliamentary questions on the number of cases of electoral fraud at local and parliamentary level, I was told that there were one or two a year out of an adult population of 45 million. That is one or two too many. On the other side of the balance, 4.5 million are currently not registered to vote. That is without having put in place any barriers whatsoever—no date of birth, no signature and no national insurance number. Every additional barrier that one puts in front of the registration process will result in additional people not being registered.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Electoral Commission looked at this and found that he is completely wrong. In previous debates, Members from Northern Ireland have explained that the system was subject to fraud in Northern Ireland and that the effect of the changes was to clean up the registers. How can he go on, time after time, saying something that is incorrect?
It is correct. Registration in Northern Ireland dipped to a percentage in the low 80s, and after a registration drive it went up to 92 per cent.
In the UK, with 4.5 million people missing from the register, the figure is 92 per cent., so we are starting from the base that Northern Ireland is currently at. Any additional barriers put in place will reduce that percentage. In Northern Ireland, 92 per cent. is an average. In many of the Belfast seats, which probably include the poorest communities in the whole of the UK, registration is at 70 per cent. In my constituency, the poorest registration area is central Denbigh, at 76 per cent. Some wards in Aberystwyth have 50 per cent. registration. That is completely unacceptable. We need to get those people on to the register. If we start to introduce barriers such as signatures, dates of birth and national insurance numbers, we will keep on adding to the number of people who are unregistered. We might go from 4.5 million to 7.5 million unregistered people, who will be concentrated in the poorest communities in the UK. We do not have a fully functioning democracy if 7.5 million of the most dispossessed people are off the register.
We have already established that we all want maximum registration, but I am deeply worried by what Labour Back Benchers are saying. Yesterday, we were told by a Labour Back Bencher that people on council estates had a higher propensity to commit crime; now, the hon. Gentleman is making the deeply patronising assumption that because someone lives in a deprived area, they cannot sign their name in order to get a vote. I do not accept for one moment that that is a barrier, and if he insists that it is, he is basing his entire premise on a fiction.
They are not my opinions but those of the Electoral Commission, which is put on a pedestal by the hon. Gentleman. When it carried out detailed research on unregistered people—its findings were reported last September—it found that most unregistered people are unemployed, low-paid, in council housing, black or ethnic, or young. That matches my experience. When I ask for a breakdown of the electoral registration percentages in my wards, I find that the poorest wards are those most affected, and that the poorest streets in those wards have the greatest under-registration. We need to get those people back on to the register. It might suit the political advantage of the Conservatives, or indeed the Liberal Democrats, to keep 7.5 million people off the electoral register—
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the remark that I quoted earlier. When one of the leading Liberal councillors on Islington council was asked to support an electoral registration drive before this year’s local elections, he said, “We will not support it—that’s how we win elections.”
I will not accept that until the hon. Gentleman provides proof. Undoubtedly, people in the most deprived areas are least liable to register, for a variety of reasons. For instance, they often move more frequently because they are more likely to live in houses in multiple occupation. That is a reason to target those areas for increased registration drives, but to say that such people would be inhibited by having to provide a signature is deeply patronising and frankly incorrect.
Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the core reasons why a substantial number of people are not registered is alienation from the political process, not difficulty in registering, which is simple? If parallel extra effort went into the registration process, would he be happier with the proposal from the other place about incorporating individual registration as an additional barrier?
No, I would not be happy with that. I revert to my original point that any additional barrier will lead to greater voter under-registration. It is great if we can have party unity about the Bill, but it is not essential. Our proposal for getting 4.5 million people back on the register should be viewed in the same light as male emancipation in the 19th century and female emancipation in the 20th century. The Bill is in the great tradition of emancipating people and getting them on the register. It should be perceived in that way.
Some political parties will not want 4.5 million poorer people on the register because it is not in their political interest. That is probably why a leading Liberal Democrat councillor in Islington said what he did. The leader of such a council is on £50,000 a year and cabinet members are on £17,000 to £20,000 a year. Is it in their interests to have 10,000 extra poor people on the register who may not vote Liberal Democrat or Conservative—
My hon. Friend, in his description of what happens in constituencies, has brought an air of practical, down-to-earth reality to the implications of the Lords proposal. Does he agree that, in the areas that he describes as deficient in voter registration, there has often not been a great push by local electoral registration officers and that, until we have the minimum standards that have been mentioned, it would be dangerous to follow a suck-it-and-see route only to find, too late, that 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. of an already small electorate had been lost?
I agree. Local authorities’ allocation of resources needs to be examined carefully. I tabled a parliamentary question which asked for the amounts of money spent by each local authority in England on electoral registration to be specified. The answer stated that the figures are not collected centrally. I asked my Labour Assembly colleague in Wales to table the same question. The information is collected centrally in Wales and, of the 22 authorities, lo and behold, those that spent the most per capita on registration had the best registration rates and those that spent least had the worst rates.
The Bill allocates an extra £17 million of resources to electoral registration. I ask the Under-Secretary to consider the matter carefully, because that extra money has not been ring-fenced but will be given as part of a local government settlement. I believe that, if £17 million of a budget of, for example, £120 billion is not ring-fenced, local authorities, perhaps of a different political persuasion, that have no interest in electoral registration, could cream it off. I therefore ask the Under-Secretary to look into that because registration is not only for local government elections but for European and parliamentary elections. The money should be ring-fenced.
Some members of political parties throughout the country will try to preserve their positions—as council leaders, cabinet members and so on—in a local authority and will not want more poorer people on the register who may threaten their incomes and livelihoods. We need to deal with local authorities that are dogmatic about the matter. When we say, “These are our new standards,” but they say, “We won’t obey them,” and when we say, “Here is the money,” but they say, “We won’t spend it,” we need a last resort. We need to tell truculent, politically motivated authorities, “We’ve given you the resources. Here are the new guidelines. If you don’t use them, we’ll give you one of three options. Because electoral registration is so poor, we’ll take the responsibility from you and give it either to a neighbouring authority or to the Electoral Commission, or we’ll privatise it.” We need to be as blunt as that with local authorities that refuse to implement the proposed legislation.
I am looking to the future. I have already mentioned one such authority—Islington, where a leading Liberal Democrat said that he would not support an electoral registration drive because of the way in which the party wins elections. I have therefore given one firm example—there will be others. However, I am also looking to the future. If we implement the Bill, introduce all the benchmarks and provide additional funding, and a politically motivated local authority pays them no heed because it is not in its political or financial interest to do so, there must be a last resort whereby we can say, “We’ve given you the tools to finish the job. You’ve refused, so we’re taking that responsibility from you.”
As somebody who represents a larger proportion of council tenants than any other Member of Parliament in England, who has campaigned for better registration, and who had a Labour council that did not do nearly enough but has done more in the past few years, let me say that we could all make party political points, but it is not helpful. A better, non-partisan point would be that local authorities should be given an incentive based on percentage of increase of validly registered electors. That could be reflected in some form of adjusted settlement so that, whatever the party and administration, an incentive exists to do a much better job.
Incentives are welcome but as well as a carrot, we need a stick to beat local authorities that refuse to obey legislation that the House has endorsed.
I oppose Lords amendment No. 8. The Bill is long overdue and will result in getting a good proportion of those 4.5 million citizens back on the electoral register and participating fully in democratic life in this country.
We have got on to a bit of a rollercoaster with postal voting. Like many hon. Members, when I first became involved in politics I found that we made a fetish of making it almost impossible for people to get a postal vote for an election, because by the time one had got around to trying to register someone, the date had passed.
I have therefore welcomed the general trend of making it easier for people to obtain postal votes. However, the Government clearly went too fast, in the teeth of opposition by the Electoral Commission. There have been several incidents of fraud, and public confidence has been knocked to the point where one or two people whom I know have been put off voting by post because they feel that the system is not as robust and trusted as it once was. I therefore welcome amendment No. 7 and the Government’s acceptance of it, because it is sensible to move to a system whereby people have to give their date of birth and signature.
I wish to raise some technical points. Under our system, we always involve political parties. As we all know, at the count, several ballots are questionable, and at the end, the returning officer calls the agents or candidates over and they go through the 20, 30, 50 or 100 that are not entirely clear. Although the final decision rests with the returning officer, whether something is counted or not depends on nods and assent from the political parties. The Under-Secretary said in her opening remarks that returning officers would check the ballots against their records and that rejection of ballots would be up to them. I presume that the political parties will still be included in the process.
At the end of the process of verifying postal votes, the handwriting on some will raise questions,—we all receive things through the post that are not entirely clear, and they are put in a pile. If the returning officer intends to reject something, the political parties are included at that point. Of 8,000 postal votes, there may be a genuine concern about the accuracy of a signature on 200 of them. In such cases, I personally would like the agents or the candidates to be involved in the process so that they can see how the returning officer is making decisions. So if there were widespread fraud or concerns about a number of the ballots, the political parties could be very much part of the process of dealing with that, and would not then be surprised if someone jumped up at the end of it to say, “I’ve rejected 1,000 ballots.” They would have been able to see the process taking place, which is important.
It is a pity that the Government will not accept Lords amendment No. 8, because individual registration is the way to go. We have talked in the debate about benefit, and there are benefits involved in being registered. Anyone who goes into Dixon’s or Curry’s and tries to get credit will know that one of the ways of judging whether they are worthy of getting credit to buy a hi-fi system or a TV is whether their name and address pop up in a search of the electoral register. However, I accept the argument that if we make the registration process more complicated, we might put people off. That is why, if we accepted Lords amendment No. 8, we should also have to have a package of measures to encourage people to register under the new system.
We have all had experience of electoral registration departments. They are usually underfunded and overworked. They have some very good-quality people working in them, but this issue is hardly the highest priority of most local authorities, which are struggling to deal with money and personnel and consequently have other priorities. One of the most productive things that we, as politicians across the House, could do would be to ensure that registration offices were better funded. Sometimes, when I look at the glossy brochures produced by the Electoral Commission, I think that some of that money would be better spent on registering voters at the sharp end.
I am attracted to the idea put forward by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). Why not give people some benefit for registering, beyond the one that I have just mentioned with regard to obtaining credit? It could be a lottery ticket, premium bonds or whatever. That could form part of a successful national campaign. It is in the national interest to get people to register.
That would be a useful way of proceeding.
The suggestions in the Lords amendments on postal votes are sensible, as are their suggestions on ordinary registration for voting. If those proposals were combined with a package of measures to provide people with an incentive to register, and if investment went into electoral registration, we could all support that.
Houses in multiple occupation were mentioned earlier, and we know that when polling cards are delivered to a building containing 40 or 50 flats and end up in the postal area in the basement, there are occasions on which they disappear. People then turn up at the polling station to discover that someone else has voted in their place.
I agree with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that these proposals are not a panacea, but they represent a small step forward. They will make those who want to commit fraud think again, because they will slightly increase the prospect of their getting caught and prosecuted. In particular, a system of registration for ordinary voters that involved the checking of a person’s date of birth in the polling station would provide a much better chance of catching people who are voting when they should not be. That would add integrity to the process. It would be a step forward, and it is a pity that the Government are not going to accept Lords amendment No. 8. That proposal, combined with the package of measures that Members on both sides accept would be necessary to implement it, would create a better and more robust system.
The hon. Gentleman made the point that electoral registration officers need the necessary resources to do their job effectively, and that they must not be prey to the whims of their political masters in county or city halls. The Bill will achieve that objective by placing clear duties on electoral registration officers and providing a clear requirement for them to have the necessary funding to perform their duties. There are also reserve powers in the Bill to ensure that that requirement is consistently applied across the country. So we can be assured that the situation will improve if the Bill is passed into law.
We can all welcome that. We are making progress. There will be some votes this evening, as we do not agree on everything, but in electoral terms, we are going in the right direction. Lords amendment No. 7 would certainly help people to feel better about the integrity of the postal voting system. It is a pity that Lords amendment No. 8 will not be accepted, but I suspect that this argument will run and run.
In many senses, this amendment goes to the heart of a real dilemma. There is general agreement on both sides of the House about where we want to get to on these issues. In principle, everyone is in favour of a safer and more secure voting system and, they say, of a higher level of voter registration. The fundamental problem is how we achieve that. I am not accusing Conservative Members of wanting under-registration. Equally, I hope that they will not accuse Labour Members who vote with the Government on this issue of being complacent or of wanting to see voter fraud continue.
We need to identify the fundamental problem with our electoral registration system. From all the data that we have—thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane)—we can conclude that the scale of under-registration is the fundamental problem. There are 4.5 million people who ought to be on our electoral registers but who are not. Given that attempts to improve that situation are at the heart of the Bill, we must think very carefully about any proposals that would make it worse, and probably draw back from them at this stage.
Everyone agrees with the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that there should be no question of bringing in measures that would result in real people disappearing from a register. Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that although the introduction of certain measures to cut out fraud would result in a reduction of the number of people on a register, they would not be real people? They would be bogus people, and bogus people cannot make up for real people who are not registering.
Obviously, I am not in favour of bogus people being on any register. However, I am concerned that the present system allows for a massive amount of under-registration of real people, and that even more people might not register if we pursue the issue of personal identifiers and personal individual registration in the present circumstances. I want to see the most secure voting system possible, and I am in favour in principle of individual registration. I want us to get there in due course, but I want that to happen at a time when the level of registration is much higher, when more of the real people who are currently missing from the register are on it.
We can all go out and see, sometimes in local authorities of our own political persuasion, that the effort put into electoral registration amounts only to sending out two forms to households. In many cases, the forms do not get returned, but the system then gives up on those individuals. There are local authorities across the country that do not think that this is a priority. They do not put money into it, and most councillors are not awfully interested. All right, they have other things to do—they have education and social services systems to run and the environment to look after. Those are very big issues. The councillors concerned get lots of letters from their constituents about them, and they quite rightly respond to them.
Electoral registration often comes quite far down the list and, provided that there is no specific requirement for it to be put on the agenda and for electoral registration officers to carry out specific duties that can be monitored and scrutinised by the local council and the Electoral Commission, we shall continue to have the system that we have today. I accept that the Bill takes us forward in regard to trying to get the levels of registration up.
I hope that the Minister will give us reassurance on a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd. If we are putting extra money into the system, how can we be sure that it will be spent on the system? Some local authorities will take the grant and use it for other purposes. How can we be sure that the £17 million—and there will be questions as to whether that is enough—is spent on improving the system?
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed their concern whether, even if we improve the level of canvassing, it will really catch the people whom we are worried about, who do not fill in or send back the forms. It is that much harder when we are dealing with people living in houses in multiple occupation.
On targeting people who are the most difficult to get to register, will my hon. Friend reflect on a suggestion from Wales? Public or voluntary bodies that target socially excluded people on council estates, such as black and ethnic minorities or people on low pay, could ask, “And how about registration?” while carrying out their other work. Different bodies that are already active and have gained the trust of people in the community could also help with registration.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Electoral registration officers should be imaginative in how they go about encouraging registration. Let us increase the canvass as well, although that will not do anything like 100 per cent. of the job. We have to deal with trying to get data and information from other sources, and that is in the Bill. When the data protection people gave evidence to the Select Committee hearings, they were not worried about cross-matching data provided that it was clear from the initial collection what purpose it would be used for—that is the issue.
There is a genuine concern not only that electoral registration officers are not currently cross-matching data to which they have access within the local authority, but that they may need to access data outside the authority. In some cases, local authorities wanting to obtain data on young people becoming 18 can go to their own schools. In my constituency, most young people becoming 18 are based in the college, which is outside the local authority, rather than a school within it. How can we stop the problem of bias in the system, which means that data can be captured in some authorities but not in others?
Stock transfers of houses are another problem. Local authorities can access data on their own council tenants before such a transfer, but I am not sure whether they can afterwards. I do not know, but the question has to be answered. Housing associations are sometimes set up to take over stock transfer properties and they take over documentation and data about tenants with them. Those are the sort of problems that have to be dealt with. How can we ensure that access to data and cross-matching goes wider than the local authority, into the rest of the public sector and probably outside it into organisations such as the utilities and the Post Office?
I now come to the crucial point. I believe that the Bill is a halfway house in a number of senses. Eventually, we want to get to individual registration, but we want to do so with a much fuller registration system in which we can be certain of getting the registration percentage into the higher 90s just like the Australians, who reach 98 per cent. They do not rely on canvassing as the primary means of drawing up the register; rather, they rely on data from a range of sources. They rely on the utilities, postal services, local authorities and other bodies to give information to electoral registration officers—in Australia there is an electoral commission for each state. All the information from those bodies is used to establish when people have moved in or out of properties, when people have become 18 or died and so forth. They check whether the information is correct and draw up the data on that basis.
The Australians ask why, in this country, we bother with annual registration when we get forms back, by and large, from people who have lived in a property for 20 years, rather than capturing data from people who change their property regularly, sometimes annually, particularly in the private rented sector. The Australians concentrate on households where the information has changed from one year to the next. They follow that up closely and ensure that it benefits the registration process. Better use is made of registration officers’ time because their efforts are spread throughout the year rather than for three or four months with little concentration of effort for the rest of the year.
We have a lopsided system that, to use the currently in-vogue jargon, is not fit for purpose. The Bill is a great step forward in giving more powers and responsibilities to electoral registration officers, but it takes us only part of the way there. I would like us to think about consulting on a new Bill, perhaps in three or four years’ time, which deals with how best to move towards the Australian system, while tightening up the security of the voting system by taking individual registration into account.
The hon. Gentleman has outlined some very good ideas, but I hope that he accepts that there are good things that electoral officers and their teams could do now. Forms could be placed with estate agents or solicitors who do the conveyancing or sent out with Inland Revenue or social security material, or sent with all the other items delivered through our letterboxes. It just requires some lateral thinking about how to reach people as they move, arrive or connect in various ways with the authorities.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. I am all in favour of every imaginative way possible to try to improve registration and put registration forms in front of people, but we must consider the fact that we are trying to improve a system that is not the best fundamental system for registration purposes.
Will my hon. Friend consider the situation in my constituency, where 6,000 voters in purpose-built student accommodation are block registered by their landlords, who never consult the students concerned? This year, the registrar of the university of Newcastle refused, on data protection grounds, to register 3,000 students in their own accommodation. The electoral registration officers, seeing 3,000 voters disappearing off the register, prevailed on him to block register the students again. At no stage in the process was a single student consulted about whether he or she wanted to be on the register.
The reality is, of course, that there is a legal requirement for people to register, so I am not sure whether consulting people on whether they want to register is the legal position. I am in favour of universities co-operating in the business of registration. In some cities, one university co-operates and another does not. That creates an imbalance in the figures. I am in favour of electoral registration officers being able to gain access to information from universities. Co-operating in a process that involves a legal requirement to register should be encouraged. Electoral registration officers should have access to that information, and universities and others ought to have a responsibility to provide it.
I am sure that my final point will not receive any agreement from Opposition Members. We can make improvements with the Bill, but not necessarily reach the ideal position. When we come to the further Bill, which I hope will come about in three or four years’ time, we will be developing a form of registration that will be ideal for the purpose—it goes with the creation of the identity card scheme. That will eventually provide the basis on which we can create an accurate register—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members are concerned about voter fraud and people trying to register twice or three times, they should consider the fact that a national identity card register, with only one identity for every individual, is a sure-fire way to get 99.9 per cent. registration on the most secure basis possible. I hope that Opposition Members will eventually understand that point.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) latterly proposed, perhaps not wholly seriously, a rather imaginative idea for advancing his cause. I agreed with much of his speech, frankly, especially on the need to improve our data, and he has some imaginative ideas about how to do so. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) made similar points in saying that many people are not on the electoral register.
I understand where Labour Members are coming from, but do they not recognise that, in effect, we politicians are bound, to some extent, to be biased on this issue one way or another. My hon. Friends and I are perhaps more concerned about fraud; Labour Members are perhaps more concerned about under-representation. However, the fact is that the Government contracted out such things to the Electoral Commission, which is an independent body, and it came up with a view of how we should look at our electoral system. It made suggestions and recommendations—for example, on individual registration and using personal identifiers on a larger scale—and the Government were willing to accept them.
The Government found a way out of such problems by using an independently established body, which can take an objective view. That body has existed for five or six years. The problem with the proposals from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe is that, once again, they kick things further and further into the future. Do we want to go on for ever trying to improve or change what we have got? Are we no longer prepared to listen to a perfectly respectable independent body, which the Government set up? It seems a great pity that the Government are not prepared to accept its advice and suggestions.
This has been an excellent debate, which, as expected, has reflected the strong views held on both sides of the House.
On the question of fraud, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) mentioned yet again the judge who referred to our system as being like that of a banana republic. I remind him that that unfortunate and terrible phrase was used about the situation before 2004, and a number of measures have been put in place since then. On the whole, therefore, the elections this year reflect that we have tightened up on the abuses that took place in Birmingham.
I hope that every Member of the House believes in zero tolerance in response to anyone who abuses the system through fraudulent registration or voting. That is why the Bill increases the penalties for such behaviour. Several Members referred earlier to the registration form being sent to the head of household. In fact, it is not sent to the head of household—we do not use such Victorian terms—but to the occupier.
On the issue of fraud versus the register, which seemed to be a theme throughout the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) referred to petitions. At present, eight petitions are before the courts, four of which are about election fraud, while the other four are about other election issues. The Coventry petition relates to about 10 electors, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd rightly pointed out, should be compared with the 3.5 million to 4 million people who are not on the register. Therefore, while we all agree that fraud is bad and dangerous, we should look at it from the perspective of the number of elections that took place this year, the number of people involved in those elections, and the fact that a huge number of people are not yet on the register. That is why we have approached the issue as we have done. We have tried to be proportionate and to strike a balance, which is why we have accepted the Lords amendments on identifiers for postal votes.
I agreed with virtually everything that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, apart from his comments about personal identifiers. As he and I represent inner-London seats, we know exactly the problems that people face in getting on the register. It is not a case, as his hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, of being patronising about those living on council estates or in houses in multiple occupation, the unemployed, young people and black and ethnic minorities. Their disfranchisement, as we know, relates not just to the register but to a variety of issues, and their disfranchisement from the register arises in a sense from all of those. It is therefore important that we try to get those people on to the register, as well as doing all the other things on the Government’s social exclusion agenda.
To correct the record, I made it absolutely plain that it was not remotely patronising to point out that such groups are under-registered and that there is a real need to address that under-registration. I said that it was patronising to suggest that asking those particular people for a signature would significantly deter them from voting, whereas it would not deter the rest of the population. I hold to that view.
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, entitled to his view, and I think that he is wrong.
The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey made several positive points about the variety of ways in which we can and should encourage people to vote. I agree with the idea of a democracy day. I hope that after the Bill is passed by the House and the other place, we can engage in some cross-party lateral thinking about the creative methods that can be used to get people to register and to participate actively in citizenship.
On data sharing, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) is right that returning officers already have at their disposal a huge variety of ways of using that. Sadly, a number of them do not take advantage of those. Perhaps obstacles are put in their way by other organisations that could be more positive. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey alluded to a possible role for estate agents, solicitors’ offices and so on. Of course, when people move into an area and register for council tax, there is no reason whatever why the local authority should not send out a registration form with its council tax bill.
On the issue of the canvass, the Bill includes measures on physical canvassing. I suspect that I am no different from many Members in that when the canvasser comes around, I am not in—I might be out canvassing myself. In the 15 years that I have lived in my current house, I have only been in once when a canvasser has knocked on the door, on a Sunday afternoon. My local authority allows me to register by telephone, which is another way in which people can ensure that they are on the register.
On funding, I had a lot of sympathy with what several colleagues said. We have been relatively generous in relation to funding—around £21 million will be provided to cover the costs of the Bill. All the returning officers and electoral administrators with whom I have had conversations feel that that money, if it reaches them, would cover their costs. The funding is not ring-fenced, however, and they are aware, like a number of my colleagues, that local authorities sometimes use the money for other items. As has been pointed out, the Bill also introduces performance standards that will be overseen by the Electoral Commission. We will also ask for accounts showing the amount of money spent on the election process. I hope that those measures will help to counter any temptation by local authorities to spend the money on something other than electoral registration and so on.
The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) was concerned about errant returning officers. The Representation of the People Acts include provisions to prosecute returning officers if they breach their duty. As I said, the Bill also includes performance standards, which will be set by the Electoral Commission. That will help to improve the standard of electoral administration.
The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who made a thoughtful speech, asked about the verification of postal votes. I assure him that candidates can be present at the checking of disputed postal votes. Details of that will be included in the regulations. He also welcomed the fact that the Government are moving in the right direction, as did a number of other colleagues. That is true—the Bill moves us forward both by tightening up the system to counter any possibility of fraud and by tackling under-representation in this country. I hope that Members will support the Bill in that respect.
I realise that the Minister is approaching the end of her speech, but may I ask her to consult on another matter? People become very frustrated when, having turned up at a polling station, they discover that they are not on the register. At that moment, they ought to be given a form and asked to fill it in and leave it there, or at least given a form to take away. If we could make people’s bad experiences at polling stations far less frequent, gradually over the years there would be a more positive response from those who currently feel that they are not wanted.
Again, the hon. Gentleman has made an important point. I hope that, in further discussions with the Electoral Commission and in cross-party discussions, we shall be able to consider the practicality of some of his proposals. I believe that we should make it as easy as possible for people who should be on the register to be on it. That means—in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice)—thinking laterally. Perhaps there should be incentives; who knows?
I reiterate that the Government do not feel ready, at this stage, to accept personal identifiers across the board. We do think that they are appropriate for postal votes, and I therefore commend the Lords amendments on postal vote identifiers, which received cross-party consensus. I hope that we can make progress on the rest of the Bill in a consensual way, but I ask Members to reject Lords amendment No 8 when it is put to the House.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendment: No. 8.
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.—[Bridget Prentice.]
Lords amendment disagreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 9 to 15 agreed to.
Political Party Descriptions
Lords amendment: No. 61.
With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 62 to 75, 103, 110 to 122, and 126 to 129.
Amendments Nos. 61 to 63 were introduced following pressure from both Houses for an increase in the number of descriptions that a party can register with the Electoral Commission. The original number was five, which was the number recommended by the Electoral Commission. That would allow, for example, one description for each of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and one for the United Kingdom as a whole. The Liberal Democrats introduced the amendments in another place. They sought to increase the number of descriptions to 12 because that equals the number of nations and regions in the United Kingdom, and so that parties could register descriptions such as “London Liberal Democrats”, “East Anglian Conservatives”, or “Yorkshire and Humberside Labour”. I therefore recommend that the House accept those amendments.
Amendments Nos. 64 to 72 fulfil the commitment made by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland on Third Reading in this House. Members may recall that amendments moved then became clause 59, and that they removed the need for duplication in reporting of donations, but for MPs only.
By way of brief background, schedule 7 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sets out, among other things, the requirement that “holders of elective office” should report the donations that they have received to the Electoral Commission, which then publishes them. That has the effect that MPs, MEPs, Members of devolved Administrations and local councillors throughout the UK have to report donations both to the Electoral Commission and to the relevant register of members’ interests of the body of which they are a member. The Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, chaired by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young)—to whom I express my gratitude for his help in this matter—expressed concern about the duplication, referring to it in a report published on 20 July 2005.
Lords amendments Nos. 64 to 72 remove the requirement of dual reporting for holders of relevant elective office. That means that holders of the relevant elected office would not have to report any donations received to the Electoral Commission, whether the donations were received in their role as the relevant elected officer or in their role as a member of a registered political party. Of course, as with the provisions already included in clause 58, the Electoral Commission will retain the obligation to record any details it receives from the relevant registers of members’ interests. The commission will continue to supervise compliance with the regulatory system as set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
The House should note that this provision can be commenced only once the Electoral Commission is content that the relevant authorities have arrangements in place to ensure that the commission is still able to maintain an accurate register. I hope that hon. Members will see that as an appropriate balance between requiring transparency and removing bureaucratic duplication. The amendments are supported by the Electoral Commission, as well as relevant bodies, including the Scottish Executive and the Standards Board for England.
Lords amendments Nos. 73 to 75, 103, 110 to 122 and 126 to 129, on the reporting regime for loans, fulfil the commitment that I made to the House on 20 March that the Government would table amendments to the Bill to make it compulsory for political parties to disclose any loans that they receive. There are issues relating to the funding of political parties that go beyond the disclosure of loans and the review by Sir Hayden Phillips will deal with those. We have tabled these amendments now because there is broad agreement between the political parties and the Electoral Commission as to what should be done. This Bill presented us with an opportunity to act immediately in seeking to deliver the same openness for loans as currently exists for donations. I was heartened by the consensus on the principles of seeking to achieve greater openness and transparency in relation to significant loans afforded to political parties, individual members, members associations and holders of relevant elective office.
The amendments take the form of a new part 4A of, and schedule 6A to, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—PPERA.
My hon. Friend is right. All hon. Members need to take some responsibility for this, and the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire recognised that on behalf of the Standards and Privileges Committee. That is one reason why we have had such openness and consensus on the issue.
Part 4 of and schedule 6 to PPERA provide a system for the regulation of donations to political parties. That regime requires all donations over £5,000 to a political party to be reported to the Electoral Commission, and ensures that donations can be made only by individuals or organisations with a sufficient connection to the United Kingdom. It has been accepted that those requirements have brought transparency and openness to the making of donations, which is why we have chosen the same regime for loans. Indeed the new provisions deviate from the requirements for donations only where necessary to reflect the difference between a loan and a donation. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that it makes sense to build on the success of the existing regime to try to achieve the same level of openness regarding loans.
Before coming to the more detailed aspects of the regime as set out in the new sections and schedule, it might be useful to remind the House of the four main features. First, the reporting requirement is triggered when a loan exceeds the initial reporting threshold of £5,000 or the subsequent reporting threshold of £1,000. Such loans, whether made on commercial or less than commercial terms, will have to be reported to the Electoral Commission. That will be at quarterly intervals, and at weekly intervals during a general election period. Secondly, all loans extant on the day that the provisions come into force would have to be disclosed, and any taken out thereafter. Thirdly, a party would be permitted to take out a loan only from the same sources from which it is permitted to receive donations, although existing loans will not be subject to that permissibility requirement. Fourthly, the regime would cover not only loans, but all credit facilities and the provision by third parties of guarantees and securities.
On 20 March, the Lord Chancellor wrote to all the parties represented at Westminster and he has since held meetings with many of them. Each has shared our concern that we should act quickly and recognised that a scheme similar to that now well established for donations would be a proportionate response to the need for transparency. We have also taken the views of Sam Younger, chairman of the Electoral Commission, who has welcomed the proposals, and consulted the British Banking Association.
I appreciate, as I am sure do hon. Members on both sides of the House, the efforts that have been made to secure consensus on this point. Is there anything to prohibit foreign nationals or others making large donations to campaigning organisations that are not registered as political parties, such as the Countryside Alliance or the League Against Cruel Sports?
If a loan already exists and is ongoing, it will not have to be reported, but any loan made subsequently will be reported. I will cover issues such as capitalisation later. It is a complex and technical part of the Bill, but I hope that I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question as I continue.
The scope of the regime is not merely restricted to straightforward loans. The regime also includes credit facilities, such as overdrafts, and arrangements where a third party offers a guarantee or security in respect of the liabilities of a political party. If security agreements were not included in the new regime, a wealthy backer could offer guarantees to all of a party’s commercial suppliers, and enable the party to obtain anything that it might need at any given time, even though the party’s own credit rating would mean that it could not otherwise do so.
One of the key issues in deciding whether a regulated transaction has to be disclosed will be its value. Disclosure will not be required for loans of £5,000 or under, unless the combined lending from the same authorised participant exceeds £5,000 during the course of a reporting year, and the regime does not apply at all to loans of £200 or under.
New section 71G specifies that the value of a loan is the total amount to be lent––that is, the “interest charged” is not included. For a credit facility, the valuation is the maximum amount that may be borrowed under the arrangement. For an arrangement involving any form of security, it will be the contingent liability assumed by the person who gives the security.
A question arose in the other place about loans that contain capitalisation provisions—that is, a facility for outstanding interest to be rolled up into the total sum of the loan. These amendments provide that, where a regulated transaction provides for capitalisation at the outset, the potential for capitalisation is not considered in the valuation of a loan. That would be a matter of particular importance in the case of loans whose face value is just below the reporting threshold and which contain capitalisation provisions that might cause the initial value of the loan to exceed the reporting threshold.
We have intentionally steered away from imposing on political parties the rather inexact science of having to ascertain whether capitalisation provisions might cause a loan to cross the reporting threshold. However, where the face value of the loan crosses the reporting requirement, the existence of capitalisation provisions would have to be recorded in the report to the Electoral Commission. We believe that that approach strikes the right balance between practicability and transparency.
Proposed new section 71H deals with the important question of permissibility. We believe that, as happens with donations, a lender should be either an individual whose name is on the electoral roll or an organisation with a sufficient connection to the UK. Proposed new section 71H prevents a party from entering into a regulated transaction with anyone other than authorised participants, the latter being defined by reference to the existing list of permissible donors in section 54(2) of PPERA. The restriction will not apply to regulated transactions entered into before the new provision commences.
The permissibility requirement is enforced by a range of criminal offences. For example, when a party takes out loans with unauthorised participants, the party and its treasurer may commit criminal offences.
The hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), was invited to meet the Lord Chancellor and put his views on that matter, which he did robustly. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about not having representation in the other place, but I am not the person with whom he needs to raise that matter. However, I can reassure him that his hon. Friend put his case to the Lord Chancellor very forcefully.
My point is not about my party having representation in the House of Lords. It is about installing a mechanism to ensure that Parliament is beyond reproach with loans and donations to political parties, and that the people who make that money available do not find themselves in the House of Lords soon afterwards.
I hope that the amendments from the other place will reassure the hon. Gentleman. As far as possible, we have tried to duplicate the donations regime and apply it to loans, although I have set out the technical reasons for any differences. The amendments should reassure hon. Members and the public that the process will be transparent, and that a robust reporting regime will apply.
As I said, those who do not follow the rules set out in the Bill could be found guilty of criminal offences. We have also made provision to ensure that, where a party has entered into a regulated transaction with an unauthorised participant, it should be required to repay the moneys or benefits that it derives from the transaction as soon as they come to light.
If the party refuses to repay the loan, a broad power is conferred on the courts, exercisable on application by the Electoral Commission, to restore the parties to the position that they were in before the transaction was entered into, if that is possible. That mirrors a similar provision of PPERA that allows the Electoral Commission to apply to the court for the forfeiture of impermissible donations. The same principles will apply in the case of a guarantee or security given by an unauthorised participant, again with some necessary adjustments.
I turn now to the reporting requirements, which follow the same structure as those for donations. Proposed new section 71M requires regulated transactions to be reported on a quarterly basis to the Electoral Commission. The requirement to report a regulated transaction is triggered when the value of that transaction exceeds £5,000—either in its own right, or taken together with the value of other transactions with the same authorised participant. Thereafter, transactions exceeding £1,000 with the same participant must be reported.
What happens where a person makes a loan of £5,000 and a donation of £5,000? The principle that we have adopted is that any combination of loans and donations that exceed the reporting requirements of £5,000 and £1,000 should be disclosed. The approach that we have taken is that it should not matter whether a donation, a regulated transaction, or a combination of donations and regulated transactions, is made. If the aggregate value of any combination of relevant benefits exceeds the initial reporting threshold of £5,000 or the subsequent reporting threshold of £1,000, then the requirement to report is triggered.
Weekly reports are required in the period immediately before general elections, just as happens with donations. The Electoral Commission will maintain a register of regulated transactions so reported, and it will be made available to the public.
As I have said, the events of a few months ago showed that we needed transparency. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) pointed out that there was a loophole that no one in this House recognised. Our discussions with the various parties represented here have led us to come up with what we think are sensible, coherent and transparent proposals. I shall not comment on any Metropolitan police investigation that may be under way, but I believe that the amendments will reassure the House and the general public about how political parties will be funded.
The Minister said that no one in this House recognised the loophole that existed. Does that mean that the then chairman of the Labour party and the Prime Minister—as well as Lord Levy, who I accept is not a Member of this House—did not recognise the loophole?
As I said in my statement of 20 March—and I have said it again at least twice this evening—no one was aware that the donations regime did not apply in the same way to loans. The result was that loans were not as transparent as donations. We are rectifying that now. Everyone in this House recognises that the new regime should apply to every party in this House and that we all have to take some responsibility for making the position as transparent as possible.
The particulars that need to be reported about regulated transactions will be different. We think that transparency requires that the principal features of the transaction should be required to be reported and disclosed to the public. New schedule 6A requires the identity of the participants to be reported, as well as the nature and value of the transaction, details of the rate of interest, if any, to be paid on any sums lent, the length of the loan, and other particulars. Provision is made for the particulars to be varied should it become apparent that transparency requires different or additional matters to be reported about regulated transactions.
The Minister refers to loopholes, but is not the biggest loophole of all still wide open—the one that allows someone to give a substantial amount of money to a political party and then to pass through that very loophole into the legislature, this Parliament?
Let me make it absolutely clear that no one who gives money to a political party is given some sort of favour, either in this House or in the other place. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that. I am disappointed that he does not understand that no one who has supported a political party, whether my party, the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrats, should be accused in the House of such behaviour.
If I can make a little progress, I shall deal with the question of third-party loans.
The other major difference that requires a different approach is the continuing nature of a regulated transaction. Because regulated transactions involve an ongoing relationship, it is necessary to require the reporting of variations in the terms of the transaction. We have done that in new section 71N. Whenever one of the particulars that are required initially to be reported about a regulated transaction is varied, the party is obliged to record the change in the next transaction report. We believe that that will ensure proper transparency. Otherwise, regulated transactions could, for example, be varied to permit the making of further advances or be put on a zero-interest basis in a way that would not be apparent. We have also imposed a requirement to report when a regulated transaction finally comes to an end.
As for third-party loans, third parties are already covered during a general election and we have an order-making power in the Bill to deal with third-party loans and donations outside that period. I hope that that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) is satisfied that such matters are covered by the amendments.
Given the Minister’s earlier comments, I wanted to point out that the House should not give the impression that someone who gives money to a political party should be barred from going to the other place. That, too, would be wrong.
We want transparency. Does the hon. Lady agree that, if we are not careful, soft money or issue money could be lent or given, which would have the same effect, but would not have to be declared?
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman that someone who donates to a political party should not as a result be barred from being in the other House. That would clearly be nonsense. People have the right to express their political views in their own way and there is no bar on appointing a donor to the other place. People are appointed to the other place on merit. I hope that hon. Members in this place accept that. [Interruption.] Noises off from the Liberal Democrats ought to be kept a lot quieter, given their own situation. They have no right to pretend to be any better than any other party in the House in dealing with these matters.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned his concern about soft money, which is something that we have to look at. Later, I shall speak about issues relating to candidates’ expenses, where such money sometimes appears. We have views on how we might make progress in that respect.
The new regime will apply not only to the political parties, but to individual members of political parties, their associations and holders of relevant elective office. The amendments also make provision for an order-making power to extend the loans regime to third parties during national election campaigns, permitted participants at referendums and election candidates in parliamentary, local government and London assembly elections. An order-making power to extend the loans regime to Gibraltar during European elections has also been provided for, mirroring once again the approach taken in respect of donations.
We have also considered in the amendments the most appropriate means of extending the provisions to Northern Ireland. The House will know that the donations regime has been disapplied in Northern Ireland since 2000 by orders made under PPERA. However, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill that has recently been debated in this place and is now before the House of Lords contains provisions that mean that the disapplication of the regime will expire on 31 October 2007. Thereafter, the donations regime will apply in Northern Ireland, with both temporary and permanent modifications. An order-making power will allow the loans regime to be modified as it applies in Northern Ireland in a way that allows it to mirror the approach to be adopted in relation to donations as provided for in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.
The measures also bring about a number of consequential amendments to PPERA to reflect the introduction of the new regime for regulated transactions and to tie the two regimes together. The changes include an amendment to section 3 of PPERA so that those people who have made loans to political parties are excluded from being eligible to be electoral commissioners, reflecting the regime that currently applies to donations. Similarly, the amendments establish that an electoral commissioner shall cease to hold office if he is named as a participant in the register of recordable transactions—that is, if he gives a loan or other donation to a political party.
In accordance with the commitment that I gave the House 20 March, the amendments represent a comprehensive package of measures to make it compulsory for political parties to disclose any loans that they receive. Our intention has been to achieve as great a transparency for loans made to political parties as applies to donations. We believe that the measures now provide a robust and workable framework to ensure greater transparency in respect of significant financial benefits afforded to political parties, members of political parties and holders of relevant elective office. I commend them to the House.
Openness and transparency are important. If someone makes what amounts to a gift to a political party, or even improves its financial position, that should be known. If it is not known that a person has given a large amount of money or other substantial financial benefit to a political party and that person then becomes a peer, there will be grounds for suspicion about why that has happened. I shall say nothing about the circumstances that brought the subject to light recently, but it is a fair principle that when people give money or other financial benefits to political parties, that should be known when the sums involved are substantial.
The hon. Gentleman was in no way responsible, so my question is not personal, but why was there no disclosure prior to 1997? When the Committee on Standards in Public Life—originally known as the Nolan Committee—was set up, John Major made it perfectly clear that political donations and contributions would be excluded from its remit.
Let me just make a bit of progress.
The point that I was going to make is that, from the moment that this issue became important—in recent months—we have co-operated fully with the Government and we agree with the proposals that the Government outlined in the other place and again this evening. We are also contributing to the Phillips review, which we welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) has put forward what we call a green paper, which sets out a whole range of protections that would take matters forward.
It is true that when the legislation was going through the House in 1999 and 2000, following the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, it was thought that an element of giving or providing a financial advantage to a political party should be the trigger for reporting. It was thought that it was reasonable to exempt loans on commercial terms because they were commercial transactions, where a profit was to be made by the company. There was not that element of a gift or donation. However, as we know, that has turned out to be something of a grey area and so we accept that the law should be changed. We welcome the various proposals that the Minister has outlined and we will support them today.
I broadly welcome the amendments in this group. I am a little disappointed that the Leader of the House is not here, because this area is specifically one of his responsibilities. That is one of the reasons why I retain responsibility from the Liberal Democrat Benches for the issue. However, he is not here. No doubt we will have an opportunity to discuss the matter with him in the future.
May I deal first with amendments Nos. 61 to 63, which were moved in another place by Lord Goodhart? This is a perfectly sensible compromise—or a proportionate response to what had become an issue. The figure 12 was not simply plucked out of the air. It accords with the nations and regions of the United Kingdom and enables the political parties to describe themselves as they wish and as they feel is appropriate. The previous figure of five was arbitrary and was perhaps over-restrictive. I am grateful to the Government for recognising that there was some strength in that argument and for accepting the fact that what was proposed was a sensible move.
I also entirely welcome amendments Nos. 64 to 72, which build on the point that I originally made on Second Reading about the dual reporting procedure that applied to Members of this House. That gave rise to inconsistencies and additional bureaucracy—to no end in terms of better transparency or regularity. The Government accepted the principle and I share the Minister’s view that a critical part of that process involved the deliberations of the Standards and Privileges Committee, of which I used to be a member, and the contribution to the debate of its Chairman, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). The fact that the Government have been able to go to the Scottish Parliament, the European Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and come up with positions that are consonant with what is being proposed for Members of this House seems entirely rational and right. I welcome those amendments.
We are dealing with the issue of the funding of political parties. We should not forget the genesis of these proposals. They were born out of a certain degree of panic at the very adverse comments in the press when it came to light that various parties were indulging in the practice of taking loans. The clear link in the public mind—I make no comment at this stage about whether it is a real position or a perception—between the provision of loans and the acquisition of preferment and particularly entrance to our legislature in the upper House, is something that we simply cannot afford to allow to continue. It is right that, as far as we can, we should reach a consensus between the political parties to ensure that that perception is no longer allowed to prevail.
Transparency International has said that Parliament must be beyond reproach and be seen to be beyond reproach. Unfortunately, it has not given Westminster a clean bill of health. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as yet, nothing has appeared, especially in the Bill, that will put this Parliament beyond reproach and give it a clean bill of health?
I agree to an extent with the hon. Gentleman. It is still incumbent on us to break that connection. I have a simple way of breaking the connection: having Members of the upper House up for election in a democratic process. However, given that there is a view—
There is a perfectly respectable unicameralist view; it is not one that I share, but it has its own logic, although this House would have to do a much better job of scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account if we were to move to a single Chamber. What is surely unacceptable is to have a wholly appointed House when it is so clearly prey to the whims of individuals in high office and the perception that there is a connection between providing funds for political parties and entering the legislature. We simply must not accept that in the British Parliament, and we must be absolutely clear that we will not accept it.
The matter of loans is a small sideshow in the process that we must now undertake to cleanse the Augean stables of party political funding, but it is necessary and I welcome it. The Minister said in her opening remarks that none of us perceived the loophole when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was going through. That is absolutely right. None of us did. But somebody certainly did subsequently. It was clearly subsequently noticed that this was a way in which political parties could acquire funds without that being properly reported. There is anecdotal evidence that people were pressed to change their intended gift into a loan. We can only guess at what the motive for such a change might be.
Is it not the case that the ingenious and the unprincipled will always try to evade frameworks, even though they may be a sideshow? Should not the real focus be on things such as the period during which donations and loans can be registered—not just restricting it to the election period? For instance, in the final few months prior to the last general election, in four constituencies—Lancaster and Wyre, Welwyn Hatfield, The Wrekin, and Northampton, South—substantial amounts of money were spent following donations from rich individuals and organisations, which duly secured sizeable swings in those constituencies, which went from Labour to Conservative. Is it not there that we ought to have tighter controls that will give a fair impression to the electorate at large?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Having been subject to some of that increased spending, perhaps on a slightly smaller scale, from donors outside my immediate constituency—certainly a large amount of money was spent by central parties and one particular party in trying to wrest the seat from me—I recognise that that is a real difficulty. I said so on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report in this House. He may recall that I tabled amendments to try to regularise the position. To some extent, the Bill moves to deal with that issue, but my suspicion is that it does not go far enough and that we need to do more to prevent what is clearly an abuse in terms of large amounts of money being spent in particular constituencies that are identified as marginal. That is out of all proportion to the limits on election spending that are properly applied to those constituencies. However, I would be digressing too far from the Lords amendments if I were to explore that to any great extent.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the only thing worse than having political parties that are dependent on a few rich individuals is having political parties that are dependent on one rich individual? I am not speaking about his party when I say that. Does he also accept that the Government have set up the review that is being undertaken by Sir Hayden Phillips? Many of the concerns that he and others have raised should be dealt with by that review, as should many of the points that party members from the nations and regions continue to press upon us. There should be all-party agreement on the matter, and, hopefully, we can clean up the act.
I sincerely hope so, although Sir Hayden Phillips will find it enormously difficult to bring together the different strands.
The problem is that when political parties, at a senior level, accept donations from individuals, the efforts of hon. Members are tarnished. I suspect that not a single Member in the Chamber has anything to do with large donations that are received by our respective parties. Volunteer workers in our parties get tarred with the same brush. The whole political process will be tarnished until we get the system right, which is why we need as much transparency and reporting as possible and, frankly, clear limits on both the donations and expenditure that are appropriate. Donations and expenditure are not divorced from each other. One cannot have limits on donation, yet unlimited expenditure, or vice versa. Clear limits are needed to restore the faith of the British people in our political system.
The hon. Gentleman says that we need clear limits and, of course, I agree with his sentiments. Will he tell us when the Liberal party intends to come forward with its package of comprehensive proposals for the reform of party funding?
I am not sure that it is entirely right to say that we have not done so already. I accept that we have not put our proposals together as the hon. Gentleman has done, for which I commend him. However, I hope that he acknowledges that his proposal for a £50,000 cap has been our policy for some time. We have been clear about the need for both that and transparent reporting. I have made speeches in which I have made our broad attitude clear. We will be giving evidence and working with others in the context of Sir Hayden Phillips’s review, and I hope that we will be able to reach a consensus. However, I foresee that there will be difficulties, owing to the differing perspectives and sources of income of the parties represented in the House. Some difficulties may be reconcilable, but perhaps some will be irreconcilable. We should strive seriously to find a consensus because if we do not, the whole of our political and democratic process will be cheapened by our lack of ability to find a common view.
There is merit in the proposals on the reporting and admissibility of loans. I wish that such provisions had been in place some time ago. It would have been better if we had realised the possibility of adopting them when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was passed, but it is easy to be wise after the event and not to realise the ingenuity of those who wish to circumvent any system that is put in place.
I am especially grateful to the Minister for acknowledging the strength of an argument put forward by Lord Goodhart in another place. He made the point that cumulative payments could be part loan and part donation, and that several separate loans, or a mixture of loans and payments, could reach the threshold. The Government tabled appropriate amendments to take account of that. I am also grateful to the Minister for explaining capitalisation in relatively simple terms and outlining her proposals in that respect. I know that her colleague in the other place struggled to make sense of the proposals, but I think that we understand what is being suggested.
The Minister will know that we disagree with the Government on one aspect of the proposals, although we have not tabled amendments to reflect that at this stage because reaching consensus is more important than getting absolutely everything. However, there is a strange anomaly that if a loan is made before the commencement of the relevant part of the Bill by a donor who proves to be non-permissible, it will be allowed to be maintained as a loan, despite the fact that if it had been made after the commencement, it would be unlawful. In such circumstances, it would be appropriate not to criminalise the loan and retrospectively make unlawful something that was quite lawful, but to require the loan to be repaid after an appropriate period of time so that the situation could be regularised. Such an approach would be logical and consistent with what the Minister said would happen if a loan was taken in good faith after the commencement of the legislation, but it was proved, after further reflection, that the donor was non-permissible. In such circumstances, the loan would have to be returned—there is no suggestion that that should not be the case—so, to put it mildly, there is a certain lack of logic behind the Government’s proposals.
As far as we are aware, from the evidence that we have been given, there would not be a significant quantity of outstanding loans. Of course, a party would be able to make a full repayment before the commencement of the provisions, so even reporting would not be necessary because the matter would become a closed book. Some parties will wish to take advantage of that ability in respect of donations that come from overseas sources, while others will not have such loans to report. Others might take the view that they would have to make the identity of the donor public under the requirements of the legislation if the loan was still outstanding, at which point they could maintain the loan, and that would be an equally satisfactory outcome in terms of transparency. However, a difficulty would arise if the identity of a donor became known and it was quite clear that that person should not have made a donation under the terms of the Bill.
I do not understand the Government’s position on the matter. They should have thought again, but I acknowledge that when we made such points in another place, two parties did not agree with our position. They might have had their reasons for that, although I do not think that those reasons were based on logic, but I accept that as we were unlikely to secure a majority in the other place, we were certainly not going to secure a majority here, which is I why I have not tabled amendments on the matter today.
That is precisely so. We are talking about a loan made before the relevant time—the commencement of this part of the Bill—which is still outstanding when the Bill becomes law and is from a non-permissible donor who would not have been able to make it after the event. The right and sensible way to deal with that is to require the political party in question to repay the loan not on day one—let us live in the real world—but over a sensible period. In that way, the matter is cleared up and settled, and no one will have benefited from what would subsequently be an unlawful donation in kind.
I do not need to prolong our debate. The proposals are welcome. I do not think anyone is suggesting that they go far enough to deal with the problems of party funding, but they are a welcome first step. What is particularly welcome is that we have managed to achieve a degree of consensus in a relatively short time. I hope that that consensus will be maintained.
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s words. I, too, hope that the consensus continues. I am grateful to him for saying that we have achieved a great deal in a relatively short period. I apologise to the House on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who cannot be here for this part of the debate because of a previous engagement.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s position on pre-existing loans. We did not think that it would be appropriate to invalidate arrangements that were lawful when they were made. That is not the purpose of the amendments. We did not intend to wreak havoc in the finances of different political parties. However, he alluded to the fact that any loan that is outstanding when the Bill becomes law will need to be reported, and people will be able to see whether loans were given by those who have become non-permissible. People can make their own judgments as a result. The Labour party has made clear where all its existing loans have come from. I recommend that position to all parties.
The House will have noted my emphasis throughout on explaining what the new provisions will achieve to bring greater openness to the activities of political parties in relation to loans and similar transactions. They set out a comprehensive regime, benefiting as it does from the precedent of the donations regime. I hope that as a result we will be able to have a fuller debate at a later stage on some of the issues arising from that. As I said, Sir Hayden Phillips will look at other aspects of party political funding. No doubt we will return to the subject in another form at a later stage.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 62 to 75 agreed to.
Use of CORE information
Lords amendment: No. 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 5, Lords amendment No. 6 and amendments (a) and (b) thereto, and Lords amendments Nos. 78, 82, 83, 87, 94, 105, 107 to 109 and 124.
The amendments relate to the registration system. Amendments Nos. 1 to 4 relate to the co-ordinated online record of electors. Amendment No. 5 relates to the new duty on registration officers to maximise levels of registration. Given the earlier debate, I do not wish to pursue the arguments on registration further at this stage. The House has reached another consensus on the importance of increasing registration. The amendments will ensure that registration officers do their bit in making sure that the registers are as comprehensive as possible.
Amendment No. 1 was made in response to concerns that the regulations governing the publication and supply of information kept on CORE to bodies such as political parties might differ greatly from those which apply to electoral returning officers at a local level. As Ministers made clear in another place, CORE will not change the information that is held on electoral registers, or the records that EROs are required by law to keep, or the persons and organisations to whom information may be supplied. It simply acts as a central point of access.
Some flexibility is needed, however. For example, the CORE keeper will not be required to keep a copy of the full register available for public inspection. There is also flexibility because the amendment more clearly sets in law the principle that the regulations governing access to information held in CORE will be the same as those that apply to EROs.
Amendments Nos. 2 to 4 were also made in response to the concern in another place that, as originally drafted, some of the security measures included in the CORE provisions might call legitimate acts into question, rather than focusing on fraudulent activity. An example of that is the potential for large households with a number of postal voters, such as student halls, to be flagged up as potentially fraudulent. Amendments Nos. 2 and 4 tighten up the Bill’s drafting so that CORE will instead focus on instances where large numbers of postal votes have been redirected to an alternative address, as that is a circumstance in which fraud may be involved.
There was also a concern that the Bill’s existing provisions would flag up legitimate instances of a person voting as another elector’s proxy—in a sense, the reverse of the earlier concern. Amendment No. 3 responds to that by focusing again on fraudulent acts of double voting.
The new duty on EROs is set out in amendment No. 5. The new duty is to ensure that the electoral register is complete and comprehensive. Clause 9 sets that out as a new duty and includes certain minimum steps that EROs must take to maintain their registers. As drafted, clause 9 includes
“making on more than one occasion house to house inquiries”.
Under amendment No. 5, EROs would instead be required to make such inquiries on “one or more occasions”. The purpose of the amendment is to clarify that there is no need for electoral officers to make more than one visit if the first visit gives them the comprehensive information that they need.
On amendment No. 5, the experience of my electoral staff is that because of a shortage of people to knock on doors, they are knocking only once. They then send a letter directly to the address. As a consequence, there is massive under-registration. Should not the Bill recognise the need for more than one call to be made if the officers fail to find anyone in?
Amendment No. 5 addresses my hon. Friend’s concerns. He is right that one call is often not enough. Giving EROs the duty to ensure that they have a comprehensive register, and taking on board earlier points about the variety of ways in which it is possible to gather that canvass, he is right to say that it may be necessary in some cases for the canvasser to call more than once at a particular household.
Lords amendment No. 6 deals with service registration, which was raised on Second Reading and in subsequent discussions, and we have responded, I hope, to the points that were made in the House and elsewhere. The amendment includes two key provisions. First, it creates an order-making power to allow the Government to extend the duration of registrations made via a service declaration to up to five years. Current rules require declarations to be reconfirmed annually, so the extension would make the registration process more convenient for service personnel, particularly personnel serving overseas. To provide a proper opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny, any order made under the amendment would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. If the power were used, it would affect only service personnel and their spouses or civil partners. It would not affect other persons eligible to register through a service qualification, such as Crown servants based overseas. Traditionally, it is much easier for Crown servants to register than it is for service personnel to do so, so we want to address the problem experienced by service personnel. In addition, the amendment does not require members of the armed forces to register solely through a service declaration. Servicemen and women can still register as ordinary electors if they choose to do so.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we certainly are minded to lay the appropriate measure before the House.
Secondly, the amendment places a duty on the Ministry of Defence to keep a record of the electoral registration details of service personnel that can be used both as a prompt to the individual to update registration details with the local electoral registration officer, particularly the address to which postal votes should be sent, and as a focus for efforts to encourage service personnel to register. The record will provide statistical information that will allow continuous monitoring, and it will facilitate communication between unit registration officers and the local electoral registration officer about the numbers registered, to assist in future registration campaigns.
Will the Minister explain the objection in principle to reverting to the system that was used before the Representation of the People Act 2000? The procedure that she has outlined is extremely complicated, but our forces are far more involved in front-line action now than they were then, so it is strange that they cannot be registered once and for all by their units, as used to be the case.
I do not accept the premise that this is a complicated measure—it is a practical and straightforward method of ensuring that service personnel have the opportunity to register. The previous regime was changed because it did not work effectively. The all-party group that looked at the system concluded that it was characterised by low registration. There are concerns in the House about relatively low registration among service personnel, so I am pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), is in the Chamber, as he has worked closely to find a way forward. The all-party group pointed out that it was difficult for EROs to identify and communicate with service personnel. The amendment makes that process much easier and clearer, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes it.
I am not happy with the level of registration among service personnel. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman attended our debate about registration in general, but the vast majority of people who fail to register are young men, who are notoriously poor at registering. We have tried to ensure that they register, and that they are encouraged to do so by their unit registration officers.
If hon. Members will allow me to complete my explanation of the amendment, they may be reassured that it is a much more progressive and positive way forward. It is part of a package of measures to aid the registration of service personnel that includes closer co-operation between the officer in each unit responsible for electoral registration and the ERO. The MOD will issue every new entrant to the armed forces with an electoral registration form, and it will run campaigns during the annual canvass for service personnel whose service declaration is about to expire. Members of the armed forces will receive reminders in their payslips about the need to register to vote and information such as website addresses and so on. Access to service accommodation will be granted to electoral registration officers. Pilot schemes for on-site polling stations at two separate military establishments took place in this year’s local elections in Rushmoor and Westminster. Future campaigns will include a service “Registration Day”, which will act as a focal point. Unit registration officers will be proactively using all appropriate measures to remind and inform service personnel and their families both of the requirement to register to vote and of the way in which they can do so.
Does the hon. Lady accept that the position of a soldier or sailor at a shore base in Britain is very different from the position of a solider on operations in Helmand province or in Basra? [Interruption.] She will not receive any solace from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, because he does not know. The situation of the soldier on operations is miles away from what she has discussed. The MOD and the Electoral Commission, which does not know any better, must introduce a system with a mechanism to enable personnel in all three services training at home bases in the United Kingdom and on operations to register. Inevitably, it will be at the back of the queue for personnel who are on operations, but a great deal more work needs to be done so that it works for our gravely diminished armed forces, many of whom are on operations overseas. Unless we do so, the proposal will not make any difference at all.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but the amendments deal with the issue. For the first time, the Ministry of Defence will keep a record of which personnel have registered and which have not done so, so we can see where the gaps are. Of course, he is right that registration is more difficult for service personnel serving overseas, but we have put in place measures that will help to achieve his aim. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary wrote to me saying that he wanted to work with my Department and the Electoral Commission
“to consider what further improvements we can make to the quality of information available to Service personnel.”
A number of service personnel elect to register as ordinary voters, and that option will still be available to them.
A moment ago, the Minister said that the old system of registration was inadequate. Of course that is true. It was inadequate in the sense that people were left on the register after they had left the Army. That was the primary problem—not, as she implied, that service personnel who should have been registered were not registered. As far as I am aware, and I would be grateful if she could confirm this, registration among service personnel under the old scheme was comparable to that among the civilian population. Has she made any estimate of the level of registration that would result from the scheme that she has proposed tonight?
I do not believe that substantially more service personnel were registered under the old scheme. There were problems of under-registration similar to those that we recognise now among the young men and women in our armed forces. The record that the Ministry of Defence will keep will enable us to target registration gaps.
I am amazed by the Minister’s comments. When I looked into the matter in 2004, prior to the last election, I discovered that in the year before the introduction of the new scheme, registration was over 87 per cent. in a ward in my constituency where there were almost exclusively service personnel, and that after the introduction of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 registration had fallen to 42 or 43 per cent. I would be very surprised if that or a similar situation were not replicated right across the United Kingdom, in view of the Government’s own survey, which shows a drop and an appallingly low level of service personnel participation in the election.
I want to try to reassure the hon. Gentleman, because I know how concerned he is. He has raised the issue on a number of occasions. Under the old scheme, as he rightly points out, the declaration remained valid for five years. That sometimes had the effect of people being registered at an address that was no longer theirs, which distorted the register. There has historically been under-registration. I am grateful to my friends at the MOD for undertaking to be proactive in registering people wherever it is appropriate for them to be registered. There are service personnel who will continue to register to vote as ordinary electors, if they so wish. We would not wish to prevent them from doing so.
May I pursue the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)? Will we be able to see, year by year, the percentage of people registered in each of the three services, and be able to tell whether those serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Cyprus and elsewhere are also registering in sufficiently high numbers? Unless we have that information, we will not be able to ensure that those who are the most unlikely to do it have the right that they deserve at least as much as anyone else, if not more than most.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve and I have some sympathy with that. I am not sure that any system would allow us to do that. People move from one posting to another. We might get a snapshot of the situation, but I cannot guarantee that we could get a comprehensive result from studying overseas postings. In the discussions with colleagues in the MOD, we will consider how comprehensive the information is that we can give, in order to reassure the House that as many service personnel as possible are registered.
It might be helpful to examine one or two specific examples, such as the Marines, who have a base in my patch. If asked, the Marines might agree to do a check. We know how many Marines there are, though of course they move around the world. We could see whether the registration figure was 50 per cent., 80 per cent. or whatever, and that would give us some idea. It is those who are most mobile who should concern us most.
Yes, I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. To some extent we will be able to do that, to see whether there is an increase or a decrease in registration year on year in each of the services. That might go some way to meeting the point that he makes.
The Minister has been extremely generous in giving way. I am puzzled by the fact that she does not seem to be aware of the survey that was published only last week by the Government’s own Defence Analytical Services Agency, which went to the heart of the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), that when we are speaking about servicemen based at home it is an entirely different kettle of fish from servicemen based overseas, often on active service. The survey showed that only 34 per cent. of UK personnel serving overseas were registered, compared with 64 per cent. of those based in the UK. That is a massive disparity, and no amount of tinkering with the new system can bridge that gap.
I am indeed aware of that survey. One of the reasons why it was published last week was to inform this very debate. The Ministry of Defence wanted hon. Members to understand the present situation. In its co-operation with me and with my Department on the Bill, the MOD has given a very positive steer on the work that should be done. The figure of 34 per cent., which none of us would say is high enough, does not take account of the fact that some service personnel are registered at home. When we bandy about statistics, we must make sure that we cover all the options. I am not satisfied with the number of service personnel who are registered, and neither are my colleagues in the MOD, which is why we have tabled the amendments. However, I do not believe that the position is much worse than pre-2002.
I hope that I have responded comprehensively on the subject of service personnel registration. We have made huge strides in that regard, and I hope that the House will welcome and endorse the amendments. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for his continuing support.
The hon. Lady is extremely generous. She is making a magnificent job of a sow’s ear. Does she accept that what is so galling is not that the Ministry of Defence is trying to put the situation right, as we know it is? There is considerable merit in some of the points that she makes. Prior to the last election, my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and I, when I was shadow Secretary of State for Defence, and many others pointed out repeatedly that registration was not being properly carried out. We heard that from everywhere. It is galling that it was so dismally badly done. In order to remedy the problem, the hon. Lady will have to deal more specifically with the point that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East made about servicemen serving overseas. It is more important that they know of their right and their chance to vote than it is for people sitting comfortably at home.
Indeed, on operations, and sometimes, as we know, in extremely dangerous life-threatening situations. I am grateful to my colleagues in the MOD for the positive and supportive way in which they have responded to the issue. We will do everything that we can to register those people, because it is not acceptable to send them to represent our country abroad in very dangerous situations without giving them every opportunity to vote in any of our elections.
Amendments Nos. 78, 87, 94, 105, 107 to 109 and 124 were introduced in the House of Lords by Lord Rix and Lord Carter with support from the Government. They deal with the abolition of common law incapacity and relate to assistance for people with disabilities. The other amendments in the group are consequential, and they change the terms “physical cause”, “physical incapacity” and “incapacity” to “disability”.
Amendment No. 78 abolishes any common law rule that links a person’s capacity to vote to their mental state. That is what currently ties the language of “idiots” and “lunatics” to electoral legislation, and it has led to disabled people being denied the right to vote. That link is derived from outmoded concepts and terminology found in 14th-century statute law and 18th-century cases. It has led to election officials making unjustified assumptions about the mental capacity of disabled people, and it has no place in modern law and our modern democracy. Amendment No. 78, which has been developed in conjunction with organisations such as Scope and Sense, will allow disabled people to be subject to exactly the same eligibility criteria as everyone else.
Other amendments in the group clarify the language used about disabled people in election law, replacing the word “incapacity” with the word “disability”, which is a much more appropriate term for the purposes of election law, because it encompasses all forms of disability and does not simply imply mental incapacity. I am proud that the Government have eradicated that language and the behaviour that it encourages from electoral law.
Amendments Nos. 82 and 83 relate to anonymous registration and the names of electors allocated to polling stations. As it stands, the returning officer would have no obligation to provide the parts of the register that contain entries relating to those who are anonymously registered. The amendments correct that by substituting “names of” in rule 29(3)(c) for “entries relating to”, and similar consequential changes are already included at other points within the Bill.
Amendment No. 83 makes a small change to the provisions relating to anonymously registered electors. Paragraph 15(7) of schedule 1 allows the electoral number of an anonymous entry to be included in the edited version of the register, which is available for general sale. Although an anonymously registered person’s name and address will not appear on the edited register, we believe that the inclusion of even the elector’s number creates a small potential risk, particularly in registers that cover a small area where undue attention could be drawn to an anonymous entry. The risk is small, but it could be avoided altogether if the edited register were not to include anonymous entries.
Conservative amendments (a) and (b) would create a system in which the relevant Department would have to register service personnel and Crown servants, unless those people chose to opt out, and they would have significant resource implications. Apart from setting up the system, the Department would be obliged to check with the relevant electoral registration officer that the relevant person was actually registered to vote, which would be extremely time-consuming and costly. In addition, the amendments cover all Departments, which seems unnecessary because, with the exception of service personnel, about whom I have already spoken at length, we have no evidence to suggest that there is a problem with electoral registration among employees of other Departments. I therefore ask the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) to withdraw the amendment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and other Conservative Members have pressed the Government hard to tackle the problems that have arisen for service voters since the 2000 Act. Although the 2000 Act gave service voters various ways to register, the fact that only 46 per cent. of servicemen and women, and just 28 per cent. of those based overseas, voted in the last general election indicates the serious nature of the problem. Those concerns prompted the MOD to conduct the survey, which showed that only 60 per cent. of service personnel were registered to vote at the last general election. The Army had a significantly lower registration rate than either the Navy or the RAF. Furthermore, only 34 per cent. of those serving overseas were registered, compared with 64 per cent. of those based in the UK, which is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made a moment ago.
Those findings are disappointing and show that urgent action is needed to address the problem. However, the actual registration figures are probably worse than the MOD figures suggest. The overall response rate to the survey was only 45 per cent, but in the key category of other ranks in the Army based overseas only 26 per cent. bothered to return the survey, of whom only one third were registered. The report accepts that personnel who did not respond may well have different voting and registration experiences from those who did. It makes sense that those who returned the survey were a self-selected group and were therefore much more likely to include those who were registered to vote. In my view, those who failed to return the survey will almost certainly be people who tend to fail to return electoral registration forms, and I think that that means that significantly less than 34 per cent. of servicemen and women serving overseas are registered.
The current situation is very concerning. Of those who responded to the survey, 61 per cent. were unaware that they had to re-register every year, and that percentage increased to 71 per cent. among those overseas. The Constitutional Affairs Committee has called on the MOD to look into that issue. Amendment No. 6 does not go very far, because it simply encourages the MOD to register its personnel rather than making it a requirement or duty. One therefore has to ask whether working for the MOD, serving as a soldier in dangerous circumstances, is just like any other job, or whether it imposes some greater duty on the employer compared with the position of a student or other person on civvy street. The Army pamphlet, “Basically fair: equality and diversity in the British Army”, says:
“As a soldier you are expected to put the needs of the Service first and to forgo some of the rights enjoyed in civilian life. In return you can at all times expect to be treated fairly, and to be valued and respected as an individual.”
In other words, a soldier does not have the full rights of civilian life and is expected to put the needs of the service first. In many cases, as we know, soldiers give much more than others—indeed, they give their lives. In those circumstances, surely the MOD can do as well as a university.
Just for clarification, is the hon. Gentleman asking us to oblige all our service personnel to vote; and if so, could he tell us what other employer obliges its employees to register?
Given that we are talking about such a crucial issue as people serving overseas being denied their democratic rights in the last general election, it is sad that the Minister did not even trouble to read our amendment, which makes it perfectly clear that any serviceman would have an absolute right to opt out. The duty would be on the MOD to register a person to vote
“unless under the provision of subsection (3AA) they decline to do so”.
Of course it is a matter of personal choice for the person who is serving as to whether they want to be registered. If the Minister had been here earlier, he would have heard our debate about registration generally, with Members giving examples of universities registering their students and households where the father registers the rest of the family. Servicemen are not in that position. They are in places such as Helmand, where the situation is extremely difficult and this will not be the first thing on their minds. Many of my hon. Friends and other Members think it important that our servicemen should always have the right to vote. If that means a little extra trouble for the MOD, so be it.
It is certainly a way forward. I just want to ensure that the MOD has a duty placed on it to do something about this. I do not know so much about the Army—we will hear from Members who do—but I would guess that if it is a requirement and a duty, the Army will do it, but if it is a matter of guidance or discretion, it is very much up in the air. The figures suggest that it is not happening at the moment.
Does my hon. Friend think it bizarre that the Government earlier rejected a sensible proposal to introduce the use of national insurance numbers to prevent fraud because it would lead to a drop in registration, yet they will not take this step, which would guarantee increased registration among servicemen? Why do the Government seem not to care about the registration levels of people in our armed forces?
That is a good question. It is sad that the MOD is not prepared to do this for our servicemen. The special circumstances of the armed forces mean that we should err on the side of preserving their right to vote, and any inertia should operate in favour of democracy.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to subsection (2) of amendment No. 6, which says:
“Arrangements must be made by the appropriate government department”.
We are enforcing a duty on the Ministry of Defence in that respect. I should have thought that he would at least recognise that and be slightly more consensual about the way forward.
As the Under-Secretary knows, I believe that amendment No. 6 is better than nothing and I congratulate all those, including my noble Friend Baroness Hanham, who managed to wring it out of the Ministry of Defence. However, if she reads further, she will realise that the Ministry of Defence is required to secure
“(so far as circumstances permit) an effective opportunity of exercising from time to time as occasion may require the rights”
to register and to vote. That is not the same as requiring the Ministry of Defence to effect the registration of servicemen. I want that to happen. There is a difference between us and I hope that I have made the point clearly. We do not agree and I would therefore like to press amendment (a) to a Division, because our servicemen deserve it.
Before I come on to the substantive debate about service personnel, I emphasise that we support all the other amendments and I am grateful to the Government for accepting them. Some of them were tabled by Opposition Members, including colleagues of mine. Lord Greaves and others pressed some and I am grateful that they have been accepted.
The main debate is about Lords amendment No. 6 and amendment (a), which the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) tabled. I hope that we are all united in our view that we must deal with a severe problem. The hon. Gentleman read out the figures, which my noble Friend Lord Garden cited in the debate in the Lords. They show that there has been a considerable drop in the number of registered service personnel and the number of service personnel who vote, and a worse drop in the number of service personnel overseas who vote. That is evident from the facts. We are grateful for the figures, but even they may hide the reality.
What should be done? I hope that I do not inappropriately betray confidences when I say that I know that the Department for Constitutional Affairs has been keen for some time to press the Ministry of Defence to make a set of commitments. It has also been keen for the proposal that has now come from the Lords to be agreed. I believe that it is generally known that the Ministry of Defence did not sign up to that until the recent reshuffle. The Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who is present, made it clear that they shared the view of the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I pay tribute to them for making their views clear and for the fact that, at last, there was an end to the differences between the two Departments.
Lord Garden, who was a Chief of the Defence Staff in a previous life, knows about such matters. He sensed that there was resistance in the Ministry of Defence and said so. He made it clear that the resistance was unacceptable. The Government have now accepted the amendment that my noble Friend originally tabled, which was supported by the Opposition parties and others. It is now before us, with Government support. There is a remaining difference, which is not big, between the Government position, for which we voted in the House of Lords, and amendment (a). My colleagues and I are sympathetic to its objective but, given that Lords amendment No. 6 is the proposal—indeed, the exact words—that we tabled, it would be unfair to say to the Government, “Thank you very much. You’ve tabled what we were tabling, but we’re going to vote against it.” In all logic and honesty, we must be consistent about that.
I am always willing to be tempted but I shall have to show some discipline to the troops who will emerge at the appropriate moment. [Interruption.] They keep coming to ask me when they will be required and I have told them that it will not be before half-time in the Brazil v. Croatia game.
Let me get back to the serious matter before us. I hope that a combination of the proposal before us, as agreed by the other place, and all the undertakings that the Ministry of Defence has given, will be put in place. Speaking bluntly, it will be a disgrace if they are not. We have had an undertaking that there will be registration campaigns and visits to barracks and service quarters, and that people will be given an opportunity to register when they sign up and regularly thereafter. We have also been assured that they will be able to stay on the register for three, four or five years rather than just one. In that way, they will not have to worry about registering each year if they are deployed away from home, which is clearly an improvement. The MOD will have to ensure that it provides the facilities and regular opportunities for service personnel at home and for those going around the world to be on the list, so that they can exercise their right to vote, whether in person, by post or by proxy.
It is reasonable to stop at that point now, however, because it would change the nature of the relationship if we made the Ministry of Defence unique in being the only employer to have to do this for its personnel. I can see the argument for doing that and I am sympathetic to where the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and his Conservative colleagues are coming from on this matter, but it would be slightly inconsistent to do so. There are diplomatic personnel, civil servants and people in the private sector, as well as other people in public services who are sent out round the world. It would be slightly illogical to place a unique duty on the MOD to do this for its own people if a similar obligation did not exist for, say, a university sending some of its staff abroad, or for the House sending some of our Clerks to a conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union or the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
We will judge the results of these measures by what we see. If numbers are not restored to their former levels or better, we shall have to go further—either in practice or in legislation. But I hope that the message has been sent out loud and clear by Ministers to the Chief of the Defence Staff, and I hope that it will be clear as soon as the provision becomes law that people will be expected to comply with it. I hope that it will be reviewed regularly, not only by the Electoral Commission and the Government, but by all colleagues in all parties in the House.
I end by echoing what has been said by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and others. Like them, I have many constituents who have served abroad. One of my staff has just come back from serving with the Marines in Iraq, and colleagues of mine have family members who have served all over the world. The reality is that, of all people who have an entitlement to vote and who should have the opportunity to do so, those who put their lives on the line for their country deserve that opportunity the most. It should be made as easy for them as possible to achieve that, and this provision represents a good step forward. If it is insufficient, we will go further. Given that we argued for this and that the Government have delivered, we will support them in the Lobby tonight. However, I hope that they and the MOD understand that this time they have to deliver. There must be no fudging; otherwise, they will certainly be hearing a lot more from us.
Few of us in the House can resist the blandishments of the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), except perhaps on fox hunting. She is regarded on this side of the House as being eminently sound. There is no one here tonight who would not applaud what the MOD is trying to do. I accept that, but I rise to support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and by the new shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox).
There are servicemen and women who do not want to vote. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who was an instructor at Sandhurst, will be well aware that many officers, in particular, who wear the Queen’s uniform feel that it is improper to vote and do not want to do so. Indeed, that was often the case in my own regiment. However, they amount to a minuscule number.
The reason why the figures were so bad at the last election was that so many of our troops were away on operations. The shaming thing is that the Army is worse than anyone else at arranging for its staff to vote, and that is why the amendment is so important. The Navy has been going away regularly for ever and ever, and the naval family service is much the best of the three services’ family organisations, so the Navy will have in place some form of proxy voting, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) suggested. It will be custom-made, and the Navy takes the trouble to make sure that its people can vote. The Royal Air Force is a particularly fluffy service—and rightly—in respect of its personnel and it has always taken more trouble over its people, but historically, the Army has never taken enough trouble. The majority of service personnel working overseas are, of course, soldiers. That is why the figures were particularly bad, which makes it even more important for the Ministry of Defence to get it right.
I welcome the steps that are being taken. I also welcome the Under-Secretary to his new position and wish him the best of luck serving what is without doubt the most fascinating and challenging Department in Whitehall. I particularly want him to understand that getting the Ministry of Defence to do anything is like plucking teeth out of a chicken. It is extremely difficult. It means playing to a number of audiences that have all got to do the same thing.
In order to get these provisions to work in respect of operations overseas, we need to look not to the civilian staff, but to the chain of command and the hierarchy. When it comes to dealing with a divisional or brigade headquarters, we could think of Brigadier Butler of the 16th Air Assault Brigade being given a rocket about voting problems in the middle of trying to sort out Helmand province—a ridiculous thought. There has to be a joined-up, coherent, sensible, grown-up, practical and common-sense system in place to enable soldiers to be told exactly what their rights are before they deploy. They must know that they have the right to vote and that if they wish to exercise it, arrangements will be made for them to do so.
It is very important for the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs to understand that, if she is going to make it work by ensuring that the services make it work, it will require an effort of will from the chain of command in all the services, but particularly in the Army, to get those arrangements made. Not to do so would be inexcusable. The Ministry of Defence did very badly at the last election. We called it to account for what was happening several times in parliamentary questions and the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces was either very badly informed or given less than frank answers by officials. The position in respect of service voting was deplorable and even though it is, as I say, difficult to organise, it should have been done a great deal better than it was. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who hung on like a terrier throughout.
I welcome the amendment and commend the Minister for his approach. I applaud the fact that the Ministry of Defence is going to implement this, but it will require an effort of will by the Minister to see it through to fruition.
I rise to support amendments (a) and (b) and in so doing, I seek to honour a pledge to a group of men and women from whose company I have recently returned. Under the auspices of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, it was my privilege earlier this month to spend a few days on HMS Bulwark in the Gulf. That ship, with its men and women of the Royal Navy, its Royal Marine commandos and naval aviators, will have been on deployment for seven months by the time she returns to home waters. During that time, the most recent elections—the local government elections, gently to correct my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—took place.
Ordinarily, when MPs visit military establishments, whether they be floating or shore-based, they expect to hear complaints about pay and conditions and all sorts of things. However, for the first time ever on my visits to military establishments—I remind the House that I have been Parliamentary Private Secretary to two Ministers of State, so I have visited many—I heard military men and women complain about the right to vote, or, more exactly, being denied it.
Those people discovered during the local government elections that they were effectively disfranchised, and it mattered to them because they also felt that they should not have to pay council tax when they are away for such a long time. That is adding insult to injury, when they not only have to pay the council tax, but are unable to vote in council elections, and it was a cause of considerable irritation to them.
When people are deployed away from home and their families for as long as those men and women have been away, these issues matter. When they are in the teeth of danger—as they were in the Gulf, as they are now in the Red sea and as they will be until they return home safely, we hope, in two or three months’ time—they feel very strongly that we, their elected representatives, are letting them down.
To come specifically to amendments (a) and (b), I wish to support them because I believe that they will strengthen the measures contained in Lords amendment No. 6. The Minister said that one of the reasons for resisting those amendments was that there were—I quote exactly—“resource implications”. I suggest to the hon. Lady that there are very considerable resource implications for the men and women who are prepared to put their lives on the line for this country. Frankly, if we cannot provide those boys and girls—that is what they are in many cases—with the resources to enable them to take part in the democratic process, we bring shame upon ourselves and do no justice to them.
I hope and believe that the Minister will think again, look at those two modest amendments and recognise that what my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and their other signatories have sought to do is not to undermine the Government’s position, but to strengthen that of our armed forces and to send out a very clear message to those men and women who serve in extremely difficult and dangerous places overseas: “We respect you. We admire you. We understand your needs. We recognise your democratic rights.” And in the House of Commons, we are prepared to vote for them tonight.
We heard the best possible justification inadvertently made by the Liberal spokesman for a scheme designed uniquely for servicemen, when the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) tried to draw a comparison between sending Commons Clerks on an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference and sending servicemen to Helmand province. That seems to be a different order of responsibility and risk. It is clear from that example that there is a case for devising a scheme specifically for servicemen in their unique circumstances.
I am very grateful to hon. Members for referring to the campaign that I ran before the last general election—in fact, it started in 2004—to try to draw attention to the issue. This is one of the great scandals—the other is postal voting—that came out of the 2005 general election, and neither of them have yet been adequately addressed. However, we have made some progress on this issue at least, and I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who certainly had her heart in the right place on the issue, and I strongly suspect that the Minister does too.
We have made progress in several ways. First, I had to press the Government for a survey, but we managed to get one in the end. Although it is faulty, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) pointed out a moment ago, it tells us none the less some of the information that we need to know. It tells us that much more work is still to be done and that a lot of servicemen are not registered.
We have also made progress because we have a Government proposal. It is the product of extensive horse-trading and tension between the two Departments represented on the Front Bench now. The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice) and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) look as though they are getting on fine at the moment—I am sure that, as Ministers, they are—but I have been briefed by members of their Departments about the to-ing and fro-ing that has been going on behind the scenes, and it has been substantial at times.
The Government’s proposal is to extend registration for up to five years—that is a step forward—but the second part, which is more problematic, is to place a duty on the Ministry of Defence to keep a record of the registration of service personnel. The Minister rather gave the game away when she said that the record would be used to act as a prompt to encourage registration. That is well short of the requirement that we need. The Minister said that she had been encouraged by assurances about the way in which the MOD would run the scheme, and that those assurances would enable the problem to be resolved. We cannot, however, keep relying on assurances from the MOD. The MOD understandably has different priorities. It does not want to act as a registration officer; it never did. It would rather not have such an administrative responsibility, and it was happy to see the back of the old scheme with the introduction of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. That is why I worry that underlying the Government’s proposals will be a dependence on a level of will in the MOD to make them work. That may not always be sufficient. That is why I want the provisions bolstered.
I am sorry that the Liberal Democrats will not join us in the Lobby tonight, as they tabled an inadequate amendment in the House of Lords and do not want to vote against their own proposals. We should support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, which will place a duty on the MOD to make sure that all reasonable steps are taken to get service personnel back on the register. On many occasions, I have outlined in the House why that is essential. It is not too much to ask of the MOD, and it is particularly important at this time, when we have service personnel, putting their lives at risk to bring democracy to other countries, who have themselves recently been left disfranchised, and who may yet, even as a result of this measure, find themselves still disfranchised. That will not do.
I promised my party’s business managers that were I fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would make an exceedingly brief speech. Fulfilling that promise has been made much easier by the outstanding contributions of my four hon. Friends who have spoken before me, and by the outstanding generosity of the Minister in allowing me to make many of my points in interventions.
Earlier this afternoon, I listened avidly to that section of the proceedings dealing with the argument about whether simply being required to give a specimen signature, as well as one or two other minor matters, might be a deterrent to people to register. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) described how such simple, little hurdles had been enough to reduce registration in those parts of the country where they had been incorporated into electoral law. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), after I intervened on him to point out that the reason for those reductions might be that the names on the list were those of non-existent people rather than of genuine people who felt that they could no longer be troubled to register, replied that even if that might be true in some cases, it was more important to get the genuine people on to the list, even if the price to be paid was that some bogus names were kept on the list.
If having to give a national insurance number or signature, or having to register individually in some way, has such a depressing effect on the numbers of people who register to vote, might not roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, snipers and all the other threats to life and limb that our servicemen and women face every day on active service conceivably have an effect on their willingness, year after year—no matter how strongly urged by conscientious, democracy-loving MOD civil servants—to sit down and fill in their forms dutifully? We have seen from the survey the massive differential between the numbers who register to vote when overseas and the numbers, even of servicemen and women, who do so when based at home. We have only heard one real argument against the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald): that advanced by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the idea that civil servants, diplomats and, heaven help us, Members of Parliament will feel aggrieved because when they go abroad they will not be registered automatically, unlike front-line soldiers, sailors and airmen, is something that I would have expected to hear from him on April fools day rather than during a serious debate.
I see no intellectual argument against what my hon. Friend proposes, and I see every moral argument in favour of it. It will be a shame indeed if and when the amendment is defeated by the Government and the Liberal Democrats tonight.
I declare an interest. For many years I taught the armed forces, and I married a commanding officer, who under the old Army was responsible for the registration of her military personnel.
Unlike the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), I support amendments (a) and (b). Many reasons could be given for claiming that members of the emergency services frequently risk their lives and do things that are beyond the norm, but I think that most Members would agree that the armed forces are different, in that they have unlimited liability. They do not work shifts; they can be mobilised literally within an hour, be at Brize Norton and, increasingly, be sent off on overseas operations.
Fifteen years ago, before the collapse of the Warsaw pact, the armed forces were largely stationary. They were based either in this country or in Germany, and the Ministry of Defence had a paternalistic attitude towards them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) suggested, many of them may not have wanted to vote for one reason or another. However, I believe that circumstances have changed. I think that our military personnel should be treated differently, first because of the nature and tempo of operations, secondly because many Members in all parties have received complaints not just from military personnel but from their families—there was considerable foot-dragging on the Government’s part before the general election—and thirdly because the tempo of elections has speeded up. We are seeing more frequent elections at local, national and European level.
I also feel strongly that the MOD and its personnel should be given an opportunity to have the right to vote. I suggest, particularly to the Minister responsible for the armed forces, that denying them that opportunity will increase the likelihood of an inclination towards some form of military federation. Sadly, as we know, many members of the armed forces have begun to view the chain of command with considerable suspicion. I suggest to the MOD that one way in which Ministers can show that they are in touch with the armed forces is to go the whole hog and support amendments (a) and (b).
We have had a very good debate. I noted and understood the passion with which Members made their case. I hope that Members in all parts of the House will recognise that Ministers in both the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Ministry of Defence have tried to deal with the concerns raised here—particularly by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie)—and in the other place. I hope that Opposition Members will read the Lords amendment in detail. It may not go as far as they would like, but it gives the Secretary of State for Defence an obligation to encourage registration. I also hope that they do not continue to make a mistake that has been made in some contributions to the debate, which is to mix up registration with deciding to vote; there is a difference between being on the register and then making the conscious decision to go out and vote.
I remind Members that there are other amendments in this group—affecting people with disabilities, and so on—that I hope they can support. I ask them to support the amendments from the House of Lords, I also ask them to oppose amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 6.
Lords Amendment agreed to.
Lords Amendments Nos. 2 to 5 agreed to.
Lords amendment: No. 6, after clause 12, to insert a new clause—Registration in pursuance of service declaration.
Amendment proposed to the Lords amendment: (a)—[Mr. Heald.]
Question put, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made:—
Lords amendment agreed to.
Review of polling places
Lords amendment: No. 16.
Amendment No. 16 is a technical amendment that relates to the dividing of electoral wards in Scotland into polling districts. As originally drafted, clause 20 defines an electoral ward in Scotland by reference to section 5 of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994, but the definition in section 5 is to be repealed and replaced by a definition set out in section 1 of the Local Governance (Scotland) Act 2004, which will come into force in November this year. The amendment therefore ensures that the Bill refers to the correct statute.
On the face of it, it seems that we are simply replacing the reference to the UK statute with a reference to the Scottish Parliament statute. My hon. Friend will know that this Parliament determines the electoral laws for elections to the Scottish Parliament, but the Scottish Parliament determines the electoral laws for elections to local councils in Scotland. There has been a lot of concern about the management of the elections that are to take place in May 2007. Many would argue that the arrangements are a dog’s breakfast—indeed, it has been suggested that some places will need two polling stations and people will have to go to both to cast their votes in the two elections. I understand that that might not be necessary, but can my hon. Friend assure us that the amendment will not facilitate its happening in future?
I can most certainly give the hon. Gentleman that solace. There will be only one polling station.
Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 relate to false statements at nomination. They are consequential on the removal of what was clause 23 of the Bill. An independent candidate in his consent to nomination would have been required to
“state that he has not been selected or authorised to stand in the name or on behalf of any registered party, organisation or other person.”
Clause 27(3) makes it an offence to make a false statement to that effect. However, as that statement is no longer required to be made, there is no need to create another offence. I know that Liberal Democrat Members will be particularly pleased that we are not creating any further offences.
Amendments Nos. 19 to 26 and Amendment No. 88 relate to the provision for candidates’ expenses. Hon. Members might recall that we had a vigorous debate on that issue—led by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns)—on Report in the Commons. [Interruption.] Indeed, it was led very ably. Several issues were raised and the Government took on board the views of hon. Members and resolved to work through them in another place. The key concern that we were trying to address by introducing the four-month period for candidates’ election expenses was about unregulated spending taking place in advance of the elections expenses period beginning. We touched on that in an earlier debate this evening. The amendments that we are considering today will return us to the present situation in respect of the length of a candidate’s elections expenses period. A candidate’s election expenses will count against his or her statutory expenditure limit from the point at which they become a candidate. In the case of a candidate at a general election, that will be the period between the Dissolution of Parliament and polling day. In local elections, it is the period from the last date of publication of the notice of election up until polling day.
For the record, I should point out that these amendments will not affect the very useful provisions in clauses 29 and 31, which clarify the scope of activity by unauthorised third parties under section 75 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and what counts as election expenses for candidates. I recognise that the Bill will not now address the problem of unregulated amounts of money being spent by candidates in the months or weeks leading up to the point at which the general election is called. As I am sure that we are all aware, political campaigning techniques are becoming more sophisticated and more time, effort, and money is being invested in campaigning in marginal seats in particular. The issue is about money being spent at a local level—sometimes quite large amounts—and not counting as candidates’ election expenses because it is spent before the Dissolution of Parliament.
Labour Members have already expressed their concerns about the way in which that has affected results, particularly in the last general election, and I am sorry that we have been unable to come up with an early solution to the problem. However, along with working towards a consensus on this issue with the parties and peers in another place, we have talked to Sir Hayden Phillips and asked him whether he will extend his review to look at the issue of expenses of parties and candidates during the election period. This approach will make sense, because it means that all facets of party funding and election spending will be examined across the piece. I am sure that a comprehensive approach can then be achieved. I know that Sir Hayden will welcome any input that hon. Members care to make to that review on this and related matters.
I understand the reasons for the withdrawal of the four-month rule, particularly because of the difficulty of finding out what exactly a four-month rule constitutes as far an election is concerned. However, it is a great pity—my hon. Friend is reflecting on this—that something like it could not have been included in the Bill. That is particularly the case given that the abuse—that is what it is—not only took place before the last election, but is going on now, and was going on as soon as the last election was completed. It seems essential that early action be taken. When my hon. Friend replies to