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Electoral Registration

Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2009

The Government have committed to ensuring that the electoral register is both comprehensive and accurate and that we do everything possible to tackle electoral fraud. We have introduced new and strengthened penalties for electoral fraud for that reason and new requirements for personal identification for voting. Also for that reason, the Electoral Administration Act 2006 imposed a new duty on electoral registration officers to take all necessary steps to ensure that there is a comprehensive register. That has helped to increase voter registration for parliamentary elections by nearly 800,000 over the past three years. We recognise, however, that there is more that can be done in all those areas, and we will do it.

I am grateful to the Minister, but is he aware that the integrity of the electoral register can be maintained only if the people who are eligible to be on it are the only ones who can register? What can be done to prevent people who do not have indefinite leave to remain in this country from registering and voting? Does he believe that it is unsatisfactory for someone facing a deportation order not only to have registered to vote but to have actually voted in the 2005 general election in Chelmsford? When the electoral registration officer took the matter up with the Home Office—

If the hon. Gentleman has individual circumstances in his constituency that he wants me to follow up, of course I shall do so. His general point about the integrity of the register is absolutely right. We have already taken many measures to deal with that, and we are going to take further measures. That is why, for example, we are going to bring in a process of individual voter registration beginning next year.

Will the Minister look at how the security of the postal voting system might be improved? Before each election, I am contacted by electors who say that they have not received the postal ballot paper that they have applied for, and when I ask the electoral registration office to issue them with a duplicate, it says that it is not allowed to do that because its records show that the ballot paper has been dispatched. That elector loses their vote, and nobody knows what has happened to it. Similarly, when completed ballot papers are returned to the electoral registration office, they are very often not received. Is there some way in which the security of that process can be tightened?

Again, I am very happy to look at any individual circumstances that the hon. Lady may want to bring to my attention. Of course, we are constantly looking at how we can improve the procedures. That is why we have brought forward measures in the past few years and will continue to bring them forward as needed. If she wants to write to me or come and see me about individual circumstances, I am always happy for her to do so.

Opposition Members rightly mention election fraud, which is serious. Does my right hon. Friend agree that an equally serious issue is the 3.5 million UK residents who are missing from the register? Measures introduced in Northern Ireland some years ago resulted in 13 local authorities there having the lowest registration rates in the whole country. What lessons has he drawn from the Northern Ireland experience?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of maintaining the comprehensive nature of the register as well as its integrity. Those two things are fundamental principles for the electoral registration system in this country, which is the foundation of our democracy. Of course it is right that we must ensure that the integrity of the system is upheld and enhanced at every moment, but we must also ensure that the register is kept as comprehensive as possible. That is why we are bringing in new measures in the Political Parties and Elections Bill, which is currently going to the other place. It is why we brought in measures that have already driven up registration by hundreds of thousands of votes in the past three years and why I can assure my hon. Friend that the lessons of Northern Ireland will be taken on board. We will continue to do everything possible to ensure that the register is comprehensive.

Perhaps the Minister will agree that the single most effective measure to prevent fraud is individual registration. In that context, does he understand that many of us believe that the 2015 introduction date is too leisurely and should be brought forward?

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that individual registration is very important in ensuring the integrity of the register. That is why we are bringing it forward. However, I hope he will agree with me that it is very important that the introduction of that historic shift in how voters are registered in this country is not botched. By “botched” I mean large numbers of voters falling off the register who would otherwise be eligible to vote. I hope he agrees that that would be a blow to our democracy. We must ensure that the comprehensive nature of the register is maintained as we move with all due speed and caution towards a system of individual voter registration. We have discussed the matter at length during the progress of the Political Parties and Elections Bill through this House, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be well aware of the reasons why the 2015 introduction date has been chosen.

Surely the lesson from Northern Ireland is that, when new security measures were introduced, not only did numbers on the electoral register fall but they stayed low, stubbornly resistant to increase. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that, before any steps are taken, we need to ensure that we have a comprehensive and robust system of electoral registration?

I do agree, and my hon. Friend is right. We need to ensure that the register is comprehensive before we can move to a system, which, all the evidence suggests, could lead to many voters who are otherwise eligible to vote not being able to do so because they are not on the register. We must proceed with two principles firmly in mind and locked together: the comprehensive nature of the electoral registration system and its integrity.

I agreed with everything the Minister said until his last point. Of course comprehensiveness of the register is vital, but electoral fraud undermines democracy. We have called for individual voter registration and all the other measures for more than five years. If the Minister now recognises that that is necessary, he must also recognise that it is urgent. Between now and 2015, at least 13 important sets of elections will take place without individual registration and the other measures that he mentioned. If he genuinely wants to protect the integrity of the ballot, will he convert his new-found enthusiasm for the principle into action? He should give the reforms the urgency that they deserve: 2015 is too late.

I have great respect for the hon. Lady, and many of the points that she makes are true. However, I caution her against undue haste.

If any of us proceed with undue haste, the matter could be botched and many voters, who are eligible to vote, will fall off the register because of the problems. Let us consider, for example, people who are functionally illiterate—an estimate suggests that one in five of the population are functionally illiterate. I very much hope that Conservative Members are not proposing a deliberate policy of disfranchising such marginal and vulnerable voters—[Interruption.] I think they are suggesting they are not, in which case I hope they agree that it is necessary to proceed with caution to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is registered and can do so. That is important.

The hon. Lady suggests that proceeding to individual registration is the only way of tackling fraud. It is an important method, but not the only one. We have produced many measures, and studies by the Electoral Commission suggest that, certainly in the past three or four years, incidence of fraud is declining, not increasing.