[Relevant documents: The 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, the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6647, and 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 amendment considered.
Before Clause 13
Lords amendment: No. 8B
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
The Government’s approach throughout the passage of this Bill has been to seek consensus wherever possible. Indeed, in several areas we have achieved it. For example, in response to issues raised in this House and in another place, we have made amendments to the co-ordinated online record of electors, to the new duties on electoral registration officers, to the position of service voters with the support of my colleagues at the Ministry of Defence, and to anonymous registration and other things.
We have even achieved consensus on measures to address postal voting security. The Bill was introduced with provisions for the piloting of personal identifiers. Those clauses have been replaced by a national system of postal voting identifiers.
Provided that the Bill receives Royal Assent soon, to which I will return later, these tough new security measures will be in place by the elections in 2007. The only remaining area on which we disagree is that of individual registration.
We have set out our reasons for opposing individual registration, at this point, on a number of occasions, and I believe that right hon. and hon. Members are by now fully aware of them. Today, therefore, I shall focus instead on addressing Members’ concerns about the measures we are taking outside individual registration. In previous debates, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who speaks for the official Opposition on this matter, has expressed his view that individual registration will address two issues: the security of electoral registers and potential fraud in polling stations.
On the first point, we should not ignore the significant changes that the Bill already puts in place to make electoral registers more secure. Under the Bill, electoral registration officers will be able to remove ineligible people from the register right up to five days before polling day and, for the first time, people will be able to make public objections to entries on the register that they believe to be inaccurate or fraudulent. An ERO will consider every objection, and can call for evidence and remove people who prove to be wrongly registered. That opportunity, too, will be available up to five days before the close of poll.
This is an important issue. Will the Minister tell the House whether an objection could be seen through to its conclusion, in time for the election? Thus if somebody objected five days before an election and if the objection were sustained, after checking by the relevant authorities, would that name come off the register five days later, on polling day?
I see no reason why that should not be the case. If the ERO receives the information in time, reviews the evidence and believes the person to be falsely on the register, they will have the power to remove the person at that stage. If the process could be delayed, I will let the hon. Gentleman know, but that is my understanding of the purpose of that part of the Bill.
We all know that sometimes contests are tight and that there can occasionally be grudge contests, such as the recent one in the east end of London. Must the ERO always investigate an allegation? One could envisage hundreds of challenges being made at the last minute because people realised that it might make a material difference to the outcome on polling day.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes and the mischief that could be created if that were to happen. But there is the five-day period, so people would not be able to try to disrupt things in that way on polling day. The ERO can take complaints up to five days before polling day. If there were a large number of complaints, he or she would take advice about how to respond—for example, if there was a particular issue in an individual ward.
We are also strengthening the law on the provision of false registration information. Clause 14 will make it an offence to provide false information to a registration officer at any time. In addition, we are making it an offence to provide false information in connection with an application for a postal or proxy vote. At present, the maximum penalty for the existing offence of providing false information is £1,000. The maximum penalty for the new offences under clause 14 will be £5,000, together with up to 51 weeks imprisonment. I am sure the House will agree that that should act as a significant deterrent.
Will the Government take responsibility for a comprehensive canvass, given Dr. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky’s evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life that there were 7 million errors on the register for England and Wales alone? He stated that there were 3.5 million names that should not have been on the register and that 3.5 million people might not have registered at all. Will the Government ensure that that is corrected?
I am aware of that academic’s evidence to the Committee. The EROs with whom I have held discussions do not accept the detail of his evidence, although we are aware from a variety of sources that there are people who should be on the register but are not. Of course, if people are on the register who should not be there, they should be removed. We want a clean and secure register and the provisions in the Bill give the EROs more powers to ensure that that happens. I will look into the evidence in detail when it is publicly available.
The Minister knows that I asked to see the responses to the Government’s consultation paper, “Electoral Administration. A Policy Paper for Discussion”, last October. They were placed in the Library on Monday, eight months later. Why did it take so long?
I am not entirely sure of the relevance of that question to this part of my remarks. It takes some time to analyse properly the responses to consultation and to give them due weight. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman might make a more positive response by accepting that we have made the information available for everyone to see.
As I said, the documents are now available. It can take time to give due weight and to analyse in detail the meaning of such responses and what people are trying to get across to Government. I accept that eight months is a long time and we would have preferred the period not to be that long. There is, however, another aspect over which we have no control: we have to get permission from people to publish their documentation, which can take a long time. I am reminded of discussions with administrators about canvass returns; when we are canvassing people we sometimes need two or three attempts before we get a response. That is probably the biggest reason why it took longer than we wanted to publish those details.
I turn to the issue of fraud in polling stations. I accept that there have been allegations in Coventry recently, and they are being investigated and dealt with in the proper way. However, we must ensure that our response is proportionate. As the Electoral Commission said in previous briefings on the Bill:
“There is currently little evidence of personation in polling stations, and equally, little perception of risk attaching to voting in polling stations among voters.”
In addition, the Bill includes a measure to tighten the rules about polling stations, by providing that in future people must sign for their ballot paper. That provision will mean that there is a better audit trail and it should also provide additional confidence in the system.
Signing in polling stations was piloted in three local authorities at the recent elections, including in my authority. Initial indications are that voters broadly welcomed the new measure, and we are aware of no allegations of fraud. The Electoral Commission will evaluate the pilots and we look forward to receiving its report.
The Bill includes a number of important changes to the way registration and elections will be run and we are confident that it will meet our objectives. However, as I have said before, the Department will keep the impact of the legislation under review and we will share the results of our evaluation with the House.
I want to say a little about implementation, and about the timing pressures being created by this parliamentary ping-pong.
Will the Minister give the House a little more information about the review? Does she envisage it taking place a year hence, or perhaps two or three years hence? What time scale needs to elapse before a worthwhile review could be undertaken?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I think that we should allow for a variety of elections to take place so that we can have a fairly comprehensive view of the reaction to all the measures. I would not like to put a specific time on that, but I would like examples from a number of elections so that we can make a proper evaluation of the effect of the Bill.
I shall return to my remarks on timing. We hope to implement the postal vote identifier at the next elections in 2007. That includes elections in England and Wales, and indeed in Scotland. About 12 to 15 per cent. of people now vote by post, so we are talking about a major administrative challenge and it will take some time and a great deal of effort to get it right. We want to give the administrators and the electoral returning officers the best possible opportunity to get it right and therefore we are working to a strict deadline.
If Parliament is serious about addressing postal voting issues by the next elections, the Bill needs to be passed soon, without any further delays. Neither the personal identifier scheme, nor the Bill’s other important measures—such as the increased powers to secure a complete register and all the amendments on loans to political parties, which achieve transparency in party funding and which the whole House wants to see in order to regain the confidence of the electorate—will be in place until, at the very earliest, the elections in 2008 if the Bill is not passed by this House and in the other place in the very near future.
If the Bill were to be passed in the near future—I share the Minister’s wish that it is—but with the Lords amendment included, can the Minister confirm that that would not delay the implementation and that we could still use it for next year’s elections?
I am not sure that I can give that confirmation. As I mentioned in reference to the postal vote identifier, which will cover 12 to 15 per cent. of the electorate, the work that has to be done by the EROs and the administrators in order to get things up and going is quite enormous as it is. I am not confident that they feel that they would be able to do that in time for the 2007 elections if there was a blanket personal identifier measure. That is why I ask the House to oppose the Lords amendment. We have an excellent Bill and everyone has added to it in some way. It would be a great tragedy for those important measures to be lost on the basis of a single point.
I congratulate Baroness Hanham on her success in prevailing again in the other place. The background to our first debate in October was the widespread electoral fraud in Birmingham, which had led a judge to say that the systematic fraud there
“would disgrace a banana republic”.
I am usually reluctant to intervene on the hon. Gentleman in his opening remarks, but that is the second time in this debate that he has used the banana republic example. That was the 2004 election and, after that, we put in place a number of measures to secure the system. Birmingham responded to that excellently. He ought to stop using old evidence relating to a system that no longer exists.
The hon. Lady is right to say that there have been some improvements and there are some improvements in the Bill, but the overwhelming voice of opinion—from people other than her and a few of her colleagues—is against what she is saying and in favour of individual voter registration and personal identifiers. It is extremely worrying and sad that the Government will not accept that. Even she has to admit that it is alleged that people who were in Pakistan voted in the local elections in Coventry. That is an obvious allegation of impersonation. It really is not good enough for her to say complacently, “Oh well, we’ve solved the problem” when the fact of the matter is that the allegations continue. As I said last time we debated the issue, there are eight election petitions currently ongoing. The Electoral Commission argued in its document “Voting for Change” that it was necessary to have individual voter registration and individual identifiers such as signatures and dates of birth. Its advice—it is an independent body, set up by the Government for that purpose—was pretty clear.
In November, I asked the Minister whether she would let me see the actual responses the Government’s consultation, “Electoral Administration: A Policy Paper For Discussion”. The responses were placed in the Library this Monday and they make interesting reading. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) said that he felt
“particularly strongly that registration should be verified by personal signature.”
The London borough of Merton—at that time Labour—said that the introduction of individual identifiers
“has to be supported by anyone wishing to ensure that the security and confidence in the electoral system is maintained and enhanced.”
The metropolitan borough of Bury—Labour—said:
“The introduction of individual registration, with the provision for electors to supply a signature and a date of birth would be fundamental in reducing electoral fraud.”
The borough of Telford and Wrekin—Labour—said:
“We support the use of signatures and dates of birth as individual identifiers”.
Adam Gray, a former Labour councillor and the Labour party’s election agent in the London borough of Wandsworth said:
“In respect of identifiers I strongly favour one rule for all electors so if postal voters are required to have an identifier, there is no reason why polling station voters should not be required to have one as well. While you”—
that is, the Government—
“say that there is no evidence to suggest that personation at polling stations is a significant problem, it is of course the case that the overwhelming majority of electoral fraud instances have pertained to personation at polling stations, NOT postal vote personation”.
The people whom the hon. Gentleman represents would register to vote in October, I imagine, as others do. At the moment, they do not have to provide a signature at that point; in future, they would. When they voted, they would also have to provide a signature, because that is what the Bill says in the schedule. I do not think that there is any problem. Most people can sign their name.
Yes. I was not sure whether the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) was suggesting that some of his constituents cannot sign their names, because clearly there would need to be provision for that, which is what we have suggested.
I will continue with the long list. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith)—Labour—supported individual voter registration with identifiers. The hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell)—a Minister—said:
“I would support the use of individual identifiers such as signatures and dates of birth”.
Redcar and Cleveland council gave its support, saying:
“individual registration would provide a more accurate canvass.”
The Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), will have to explain herself to her council. The council where Labour was accused by the judge of systemic electoral fraud was Birmingham, which the Minister has already mentioned. The council's evidence supports collecting individual identifiers and calls that a “useful safeguard”. The respected commentator Peter Riddell in The Times has described the Minister’s arguments as “false”. He says:
“There need not be a choice between fighting fraud and maximizing registration and turnout. They are parallel, not conflicting, issues.”
He described our case as “overwhelming”—and rightly so.
I could continue, but instead perhaps I should say to the Minister that all the political parties support the case that I am making—yes, even the Labour party. I will quote from the official Labour party response to the Department for Constitutional Affairs policy paper. The head of the constitutional and legal unit said, on behalf of his party:
“We agree with the collection of individual identifiers when people register to vote as a welcome improvement in enhancing the security of the electoral process.”
So, it is not just Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe observers, the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Reform Society, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the other parties, Cross Benchers and the other place who agree, but even the Labour party.
Is not that marvellous? One Member from another party supports the Minister. She must be proud—she can stand tall.
The Labour party is serially incompetent. Its treasurer did not know about the main source of funds for the election, and the Minister is contradicting her party’s stated policy. It is time that the Government stopped looking ridiculous and made the concession. Such measures have worked where they have been tried and are an obvious protection. The measures in the amendment are supported by every Opposition Member who has examined them—with one exception. It is time that the Minister learned the lesson from the other place and abandoned her foolish motion.
This debate comes round again. Some of us are serving on a Joint Committee of both Houses that is examining the conventions of the House of Lords. Whatever we discover they are, or are not, one thing that incidentally comes into our discussions is a consideration of rules that might be more sensible than those that we have at the moment. An idea that is clearly up for discussion and has a lot of support is the suggestion that once a Bill has moved up and down the corridor between the Commons and the Lords a few times, there might be wisdom in establishing a Joint Committee of both Houses so that the people who know what they are talking about can sit down and try to reach an agreement. However, we cannot yet do that, so we are involved in the annual, occasional—it is not terribly frequent—and important process of finding out whether we can reach a compromise after hearing what both Houses have said.
There has been no great delay so far. The Bill was introduced into Parliament in November 2005. It came out of the Lords only on 7 June. We considered it on 13 June, it went back to the Lords for consideration on 20 June, and it is back with us today. Only two weeks have passed since this House first had the chance to consider the great volume of work done by the Lords, to which we pay tribute. As the Minister indicated, nearly all of it was consensual. All of us are clear that we are considering a significantly good Bill that will allow us to make a lot of good progress, yet we are left with one remaining disputed issue.
When the time comes, which will be no more than an hour from when we started by virtue of the guillotine, my colleagues and I will vote to uphold the decision that the House of Lords took the other day. We will do so for several reasons. As you know from your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, and as we all do from ours, we have to get the balance right on maximising turnout and minimising fraud, both of which we want to do. I have checked the Library note to find out the turnout at the last general election. For reasons about which we could be mischievous, although I will not, the Northern Irish always have the best turnout. West Tyrone won, with over 80 per cent. of those who were registered voting—they must be congratulated. Indeed, the four constituencies in the UK with the highest turnout were all in Northern Ireland. The constituency on the mainland of the United Kingdom with the highest turnout was West Dorset, at 76 per cent.
However, sadly, there was a different situation in the constituencies at the bottom end of the league table. The turnout in Liverpool, Riverside was 41 per cent. The figure in Manchester, Central was 43 per cent. and it was 43.3 per cent. in Salford. The turnout in Glasgow, Central was 44 per cent., as it was in Liverpool, Walton. Two Hull seats—Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle, and Kingston upon Hull, East—both had a turnout of 45 per cent. The figure in Glasgow, North-East was 45.9 per cent, as it was in Manchester, Gorton, and the turnout in Leeds, Central was 46.2 per cent. I cite those figures entirely objectively without commenting on the Members for those constituencies or their parties, but people can obviously check what sort of seats they are. Those figures are not good. According to the Library note, the turnout in the recent local elections in England was 37 per cent., but there were huge variations. In my borough, turnout ranged from 25 per cent. to over 50 per cent. Since our debates began, we have also had the Power report to examine the way in which we can deal with both maximising turnout and minimising fraud.
Two bits of objective advice have been given to us, the first of which was from the Electoral Commission, which is the statutory body that has been set up to advise us. The Electoral Commission is in favour of personal identifiers for not only postal votes, but votes cast in person. If a body that we set up is meant to have authority, it seems to me that we should take it seriously and presume that its proposal is the right one, unless there is a good argument against that.
Secondly, we have advice from the relevant Select Committee. “Electoral Registration”, the first joint report of Session 2004-05 of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee, said:
“We agree with the Electoral Commission that it would not be necessary to include provision of a National Insurance number as a requirement of registration in Great Britain.”
It also said:
“We believe that the inclusion of a signature in the list of required identifiers is the correct approach.”
The history of our debate shows that the Conservative party started by saying that national insurance numbers should be used, which we opposed. The joint Select Committee suggested that there should be a system that was halfway between what we have now and that more extreme proposal—having a signature.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that I still think that national insurance numbers would be an extremely useful safeguard. It is only because I have not been able to garner sufficient support from other parties that that proposal is not still before us at this stage. That is why I am compromising.
Of course. I was not trying to misrepresent the position of the hon. Gentleman or his party. However, we are in a period of compromise. I observe in passing that that idea might have been slightly discredited by the revelation that emerged recently, although some of us knew about it a long time ago, that a person does not need a legal status in this country to get a national insurance number. That somewhat weakened the argument for a national insurance number being adopted as one of the things that a person must prove.
The Lords amendment says that there should be two personal identifiers: the signature and date of birth. The joint Select Committee talked about one—the signature. Although we can debate the matter today only on the basis of those two identifiers, my constructive suggestion to the Minister is that we could reach an acceptable compromise in this Bill for this year—before we break for the summer recess, thus providing the time for the Bill to become law and take effect before next year’s important elections in Scotland, Wales and England—by agreeing to have the signature alone as the identifier this time. My colleagues in the Lords will talk with Conservatives and Cross Benchers, as well as Labour Members and Ministers, and I hope that we may be able to use that suggestion as the basis for an agreement. However, such a measure is not an option for us today because we have to have a final go to determine the position of this House.
We are not doing this for no purpose. I know of the sensitivities among Government Back Benchers—I have heard them. Some of the Minister’s colleagues are troubled. I would be troubled if I thought that the measure would put off from voting people whom we particularly want to encourage. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has been assiduous in trying to make the point, on our behalf, that it is a pretty unpleasant argument to suggest that the people who at the moment are not voting—the young, the elderly, those in areas of economic deprivation and those from our black and minority communities—are not doing so because they cannot write their signature or, if date of birth were included, because they cannot remember and fill in their date of birth. That is a patronising view. There are many reasons for young people not voting, but I have not yet heard anyone saying that it is because they cannot sign or will not sign. Indeed, I have seen research to the contrary. I have seen no evidence that an inability to sign is a reason for not voting in any of the other categories that are under-represented in the turnout.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the patronising nature of those comments, but he would agree, I am sure, that the amendment that the other place has been sensible enough to send us makes provision for the electoral officer to dispense with requirements if somebody is disabled or has a problem.
Absolutely, and indeed there are a few people who cannot write, and who normally put a cross or make a mark. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out.
We can have a more robust system, and we ought to do so. That would allow some cross-checking if there were suspicions about people registering. The Northern Ireland experience does not suggest that we will suddenly lose unjustifiable numbers of people from the register. What we will lose are the names of people who appear twice, those who stay on the register when they should not, those who remain on the register after they die and, as the hon. Gentleman reminded us, the occasional Mickey Mouse names, which people put down for a joke to see whether they will get into the system. There may be a temporary dip, but if the other good things in the Bill happen, hopefully the number still start to rise again and we will end up with increased registration. That is what we all want, and I and others have made specific suggestions to the Minister about how we can achieve it.
I end with a compliment to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). He has been assiduous in pressing for submissions to be placed in the Library, and they have now arrived. The coup in his research—“research” may be overstating the case; he made investigations—is that he was ahead of me in discovering that Labour Members have made submissions entirely contradictory to that of the Government. That is not unusual, but it is a helpful addition to the panoply of arguments. I hope that after we have debated the matter, and the Liberal Democrats have voted with others to sustain the Lords amendment and keep identification for voting in person, we can get a sensible outcome in the House of Lords so that we have to deal with the matter only once more, it can go on its way and we will have a better system in place ready for next year.
We have made a good deal of progress, and over the last few months there have been many things that those of us who care about these issues have been able to support. We are to have a much more secure system. The Government’s support for individual registration for postal votes is a good move; some of our greatest concern about recent cases has been to do with postal votes. It is just a pity that the Government will not take one more step and support individual registration for those who vote in person.
There are concerns out there. There are many blocks of flats and houses in multiple occupation where piles of cards go through the door and sometimes disappear. We all have examples of people who have turned up to the polling station to find that they are not registered, and they get angry. But people get really angry when they are registered, but find when they go to vote that somehow somebody has voted for them. In my years of politics I have known that happen, not very often but on the odd occasion, and if we can do something about it, we ought to.
I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about national insurance numbers. About 2 million or 3 million have been issued on a multiple basis. This is one of the least secure means of personal identification. I understand that we do not have an ideal identification method at the moment, but a system using signature and date of birth is sensible and will be easy to operate. Most electoral registration officers whom I run into are capable people, and I am sure that it is not beyond their wit to introduce that system for 2007.
If there were a problem and the Government were concerned, it would not be the end of the world if they agreed to the amendment and delayed the measure a little until they could introduce the system. They have already said that they are keeping the situation under review. We have heard from the evidence already given that there is widespread support throughout the political parties, and the question is when. Why not now? If the Government were to agree to the amendment, it would be a good thing because it would show them joining in the general consensus across the parties—except for the Scottish National party.
The Lords have considered the issue and given us an opportunity: they have given the Government an opportunity to think again. We should stick with the measure, because we all know that it is the right thing to do. Why not do it now rather than putting it off for a few more years, by which time there will be other examples of fraud which will annoy voters?
I welcome the Bill; it contains some worthy measures. I congratulate the Minister on the way in which she has taken it through the House, and particularly on accepting a number of changes.
I fail to understand the Government’s rationale in resisting the amendment on personal identifiers for individual registration. It is perfectly normal for official or civic forms to require a signature; that is part of the normal requirements of modern life. The Government’s own electoral advice body, the Electoral Commission, gave clear advice that a signature and date of birth are essential, so I cannot understand the Government’s position. It would be extraordinary not to require a signature or mark—it defies common sense.
It is extraordinary that the Government feel that requiring a simple signature and date of birth as personal identifiers will be in some way obstructive, even though they plan to roll out the first identity cards, with three forms of biometrics, in 2008 and to make that work using a massive IT infrastructure.
My key point is that the absence of a requirement for a signature or mark and date of birth would invite further public distrust of the electoral system, and that would be a very serious matter. I urge the Minister to continue with the good progress that she has made in accepting decent changes to the Bill by accepting this decent change.
I apologise to the House for the fact that I was unable to be here at the beginning of the debate; unfortunately, I was caught in a meeting, but that in no way diminishes my belief in the importance of this debate and the issue that we are deciding on this afternoon.
It is worth emphasising continually that everyone in the House accepts that, in principle and in a perfect world, it would be better to move to individual registration. I suspect that it would be better if we could have all sorts of other identifiers to ensure that everyone who voted in an election was the person who was meant to be voting. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, so we must balance contending pressures. On the one hand, we must ensure that electoral fraud does not take place, but on the other hand, we must facilitate the registration of the maximum number of people so that they can take part in elections. That is the essence of our debate.
May I say at the outset that I am concerned about fraud and the cases that have been heard in court? However, at every election, whether for local, regional or national Government—I am sure that all hon. Members have had the same experience—many people come to my headquarters to say, “I’ve just discovered that I’m not on the register, and I can’t take part in the election.” We have made it easier in the past few years for people to register almost up to election day, but if I counted up all the people in that position, they would vastly outnumber the total cases of fraud brought to court. I do not wish to minimise legitimate concerns about fraud, but we must look at the overall context, because we would be concerned if people could not exercise their democratic right to vote in elections.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, and I shall come to the question of an annual canvass. I shall draw on my own experience in my local authority—it is probably reflected in other parts of the country—as I have concerns that I wish to share with the House.
An enormous number of potential electors simply cannot exercise their democratic right because they are not registered when elections take place. I shall not go into the figures in detail, but everyone who has participated in our debates will know that about 4 million people are missing from registers nationwide, and that on average 8 per cent. of voters are missing from each electoral register. Of course, there are some registers from which few people are missing, but that is not the case in my Greater London borough. Some 20 per cent. of people are missing from registers in many parts of London, and it appears that we cannot do anything to improve the position and increase the number of people who register. That is the backdrop to Labour Members’ concern that any further hurdles facing people who wish to register will only make the situation much more difficult.
I am not sure of the provenance of the figure of 4 million for unregistered voters, but does my hon. Friend not accept that the main reason for the lack of votes in ballot boxes is the fact that people who are on the register formally abstain from voting? Some 40 per cent. of the national electorate—16 million or 17 million potential voters—do not vote. Is it not even more important to address people’s alienation from the political process, as it is a great cause for concern? I support individual registration and the annual canvass, but we must tackle alienation more effectively, because it is at the heart of the problem.
That is a big topic, and you would call me to order, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I went off at a tangent to discuss that interesting and critical subject. I will resist the temptation to do so, although I acknowledge the importance of my hon. Friend’s contribution.
Every time we debate this issue, the subject of electoral registration in Northern Ireland comes up. The figures show that there was a significant drop in registration following the introduction of additional identifiers in Northern Ireland, but it was partially reversed when a comprehensive canvass of electors was carried out. That suggests that the identifiers had a negative impact on registration in Northern Ireland, which, I emphasise, has a settled community. In a community with significant churn—for example, London—those difficulties are intensified. We can therefore say with some confidence that additional identifiers will dramatically reduce the number of people on the electoral register in cities such as London, as well as all major urban areas throughout the country.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I sympathise with the aim of ensuring that more people are put on the register, and I believe that there are different ways of achieving that. Does he accept that the evidence from Northern Ireland suggests that the names that were removed were largely those of people who should not have been on the register, or who had died? Consequently, was not the drop in registration a positive, not a negative?
I accept that there were individuals in those categories who were taken off the register. However, I emphasise the point that after the numbers declined following the introduction of the identifiers, they began to grow once the comprehensive canvass took place, so, rather than the case described by the hon. Gentleman, a significant number of people must have been removed from the register because the identifiers presented a hurdle. It is that problem that concerns people more than anything else.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. Is he aware of any academic research that compares the names that disappeared when individual registration was introduced with the names that reappeared? If there is a considerable correlation, there is substance to the theory that individual registration deters some people from submitting their names. Has any such research been done? It would be fairly easy to conduct, as the register is computerised.
Research may well have been carried out, but I am more interested in the practical realities of the situation in Northern Ireland. A graph showing the number of people who are registered—this is the reality, as opposed to limited academic research—demonstrates that the numbers grew significantly when a comprehensive canvass was carried out, which suggests that many people had been omitted from the register. That is the reality.
I wish to move on, as other Members wish to contribute to our debate. I am concerned about the registration process and, more importantly, about whether we can return to the halcyon days when electoral registration was a relatively foolproof method of putting people on the register. First, there is a funding problem. The Bill will provide significant additional funds, but many Members have asked for reassurance that the money will be spent on the electoral process. I accept the point made by the Minister, but it is 10 years since my local authority increased the amount of funding for electoral registration, thus causing a significant deterioration in the quality of registration. It has had a direct impact, too, on the pay of canvassers.
I have been told by several canvassers about the hostility they experience on the doorstep from people who do not want to be bothered by someone asking them to sign up to the electoral register, the importance of which they may or may not fully understand. The consequence is that many canvassers no longer carry out the job, because they are not paid enough to put up with the hostility. Indeed, there is a direct relationship between places where canvassers are put off and areas of low registration. Areas with 98 or 99 per cent. registration have canvassers, and it is in areas with 70 per cent. registration that canvassers cannot be found. When canvassers cannot be found, letters are sent out, but if a canvasser has failed in one or two visits—the number of visits is consequent on the level of funding—it is very unlikely that a letter will trigger registration. We must increase funding, ensure safety and provide support to enable the canvassing process to be carried out properly.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) has left, because we have been unfair to the Scottish National party, which said in its response to the Department for Constitutional Affairs that it supports the individual registration of voters in order to decrease the chance of fraud. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is not the impression that we have been given?
That is certainly not the impression that I have been given. I support the thrust of the remarks by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) about the need for a comprehensive registration process. Although part of my argument is that we need to bolster the electoral registration process, I would not want hon. Members to think that I believe that we can get back to some halcyon day, and that that process by itself will lead to mass registration. It certainly will not lead to mass registration in my area of London, and I doubt whether it will in other areas up and down the country.
We must look more closely at registration. Although I do not normally cite Australia as the perfect example—it has compulsory registration and compulsory voting, which would not be appropriate at this point in the United Kingdom—the fact that more than 98 per cent. of people there are registered to vote is instructive.
Will my hon. Friend state the circumstances in which compulsory registration would be appropriate?
It is already a requirement that people should return an electoral registration form. Interestingly, the law does not state that they are required to fill it in, or to provide accurate information, although the registration form asks for accurate information. If we were to move towards compulsion in this country in relation to elections, it should involve registration in the first instance, and if that were to work, we could perhaps consider compulsory voting.
Is not the problem in this country, as opposed to what happens in Australia, that most experts think that about 3.5 million people are not registered who should be, and a similar number of people are registered who should not be? It would be impossible to introduce a system like the Australian system without cleaning up the registers, but how does the hon. Gentleman propose to do that?
I am not sure whether I accept that so many people are on the register who should not be, although there is undoubtedly significant double counting. The issue involves not only putting people on the register, but ensuring that the register accurately reflects the people who have the right to vote in a particular election. Nevertheless, I take the point, which is important.
In a modern context, registration should involve more than someone knocking on the door. The registration process should involve tapping into all the available information, because we do not make use of the available information from utilities and the postal service. Local authorities have enormous amounts of information, such as council tax records, that could be useful in ensuring that the register is accurate.
We do not need to concentrate on registering everyone. Many people return the form annually, which gives no difficulty in the compilation of an accurate register. However, research shows that groups such as young people, people who live in council accommodation, the unemployed and people from black and ethnic minority groups are vastly underrepresented, and we should focus our resources on them. At the end of the day, the objective is to ensure that everyone can cast their democratic vote, which is surely what we are all about. If we can clean up the register in the process and make it more accurate, that would be welcome.
I welcome the Government’s rejection of the Lords amendment and hope that this House will support them.
I reiterate that I hope that the House will oppose the Lords in the said amendment.
It being one hour after the commencement of proceedings, Madam Deputy Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [13 June].
Question put, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment:—
Lords amendment disagreed to.
Committee appointed to draw up a Reason to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendment No. 8B to the Bill: Mr. Michael Foster, Mr. Oliver Heald, Simon Hughes, Martin Linton and Bridget Prentice; Bridget Prentice to be the Chairman of the Committee; Three to be the quorum of the Committee.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]
To withdraw immediately.
Reasons for disagreeing to the Lords amendment reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.