[Relevant document: The Tenth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration, HC 1463.]
I beg to move,
That this House recognises that according to the Electoral Commission there are currently up to 8.5 million electors missing from the UK electoral register and that the shift to individual registration is the biggest change to electoral matters since the introduction of the universal franchise; notes that there was cross-party support for the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, which proposed a phased five-year timetable for its introduction with safeguards to protect against a drop in registration levels, but that the Government proposes speeding up the timetable, removing some of these safeguards and eroding the civic duty on registering to vote by not applying the legal obligation to respond to an electoral registration officer’s request for information as exists for the household registration; further notes that, according to the Electoral Commission, if these proposed changes are not implemented properly there could be a reduction in registration of up to 65 per cent. in some areas, potentially leaving over 10 million unregistered voters, and that this would have a negative impact on the list from which jurors are drawn; believes that the 2015 boundary review process risks being discredited as a result of the unregistered millions; and calls on the Government to reconsider its current proposals that will lead to large-scale under-registration.
The move to individual electoral registration is the greatest shift in our electoral system since the introduction of the universal franchise. As a result, there is the highest imperative on us to get this right. There is wide support for the move to individual registration and an acceptance that the current system of household registration is neither fit for the modern world nor suitably robust against the perils of electoral fraud. The move is supported by the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Reform Society and the main political parties in the House. Our concerns are not about the ultimate objective of individual electoral registration but about some of the proposed means of achieving it.
I would like to make a point that I have made a number of times before about the importance of trying to get cross-party support for constitutional change. I am afraid that I do not agree with the wording in the coalition agreement on individual electoral registration—I will come to that later—but I welcome the process that the Government have adopted and how they are acting on this matter. We have had a draft Bill and a White Paper with pre-legislative scrutiny, and the Deputy Prime Minister has said twice on the Floor of the House that the Government are willing to listen to concerns—so too, when giving evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, did the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who has responsibility for political and constitutional reform and whom I welcome to his place. They appear to be keen to reach consensus before the Bill is finally published.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that when individual voter registration was introduced in Northern Ireland there was a dramatic fall in the level of registration? What will be put in place to ensure that that does not happen this time?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right to remind the House that in 2002, when individual electoral registration was introduced in Northern Ireland, there was a huge fall of 11% in the number of people on the register. I hope that this Government, like the previous Government, have learned the lessons of those changes. I shall come to that point shortly, if he will allow me.
This is a genuine inquiry: will the right hon. Gentleman inform the House whether a significant proportion of that 11% subsequently rejoined the register, or whether very few did, which would suggest that the 11% were not entirely genuine in the first place?
As ever, the hon. Gentleman raises a good question. The evidence from the experts is that of the 11% who were taken off the register about 5% should not have been on there. There has been increased integrity in the Northern Irish system but there has also been continued instability. Those who were originally taken off but should not have been have not come back on as quickly as we would have hoped. One reason for that was that there was not the carry forward—but I shall come to later.
To be fair to the Deputy Prime Minister, he has already confirmed one concession—that the Government are minded not to pursue the so-called opt-out, which would have allowed people effectively to exclude themselves permanently from the electoral register. We welcome that and are looking for more movement from the Government. In that spirit, we have called this debate—so that the Government can hear, at a relatively early stage in the process, some of the concerns that experienced colleagues on both sides of the House have about the Bill.
I remind the House that it was the previous Labour Government who legislated to introduce individual voter registration, with cross-party support. The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 made provision for the phased introduction of a system of voluntary individual registration up to 2015 and compulsory registration thereafter. The full and final move to an individual voter registration system would not take place until after 2015, the intention being to pace the transition, allowing the Electoral Commission to monitor registration levels adequately and guarding against any adverse decline in the size of the roll. There was genuine cause for a cautious, phased introduction. My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) has already referred to the Northern Irish experience, but when Northern Ireland shifted to individual voter registration in 2002, there was an 11% drop in the size of the electoral roll. In the aftermath of that dip, lessons were learned from Northern Ireland’s experiences which were built into our phased approach, complete with safeguards.
The 2009 Act received cross-party support. The individual voter registration provisions—in particular, the timetable and the phased introduction—came in for particular praise. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who now sits on the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, but who was then the Conservative shadow Minister, said:
“I am very pleased to have the opportunity to put it on the record once and for all that we agree with the Government that the accuracy, comprehensiveness and integrity of the register and…the system is paramount. That is one of the reasons why we will not oppose the timetable the Minister has suggested this evening…the Electoral Commission, electoral registration officers and others who will be involved in the implementation of the Government’s current plans are concerned that this should not be rushed, but taken step by step to ensure that the integrity of the system is protected”.
She also made a commitment that
“any future Conservative Government would never take risks with the democratic process. They would take absolutely no risks with the integrity or comprehensiveness of the register or with its accuracy.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 108-109.]
The then Lib Dem spokesperson, the former Member for Cambridge, David Howarth, said:
“I do not think that anybody was suggesting that the timetable be artificially shortened, or that any risk be taken with the comprehensiveness of the register.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 112.]
I am afraid that some of this Government’s proposals renege on the cross-party support for the 2009 legislation, raising suspicions—fairly or unfairly—about the motives behind the shift in policy. Somehow, during that frenzied period of coalition building in 2010, the coalition agreement conjured up a specific commitment on individual voter registration, saying:
“We will reduce electoral fraud by speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration.”
That expediting of the process was new, having been in neither of the coalition parties’ manifestos.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of electoral fraud, which we must all do our best to fight. I think there were five or six prosecutions in the recent period, which is not at the same level as Northern Ireland, for example, before the changes made there.
In view of the moderate and measured tone of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments thus far, does he regret telling The Guardian on 13 October 2010 that
“10 million people could lose the right to vote”,
an assertion that has been specifically rejected by the Electoral Commission’s chair, Jenny Watson?
I welcome the fact that the shadow Secretary of State is endeavouring to be so constructive; I think that we all want to work together to improve the system in the national interest. Does he agree that the present system is not fit for purpose in the 21st century, and that we should therefore make progress and not let the matter drift for too long?
I would not disagree with a word of what the hon. Gentleman has just said; the system is not fit for purpose in the 21st century. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) has already mentioned electoral fraud, which is a live issue. We are also keen to ensure that the register is complete as well as accurate, and I will come to those matters shortly.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with electoral registers is that while some local authorities are very good at getting people on to the register, others get only about 80% of their local population? Does he also agree that the situation could get even worse as a result of cuts in local government spending?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. To be fair to the Parliamentary Secretary, he recognised that fact when he gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and acknowledged the concerns about constrained resources. Given that local authority resources are not ring-fenced, an obvious area in which to make cuts would be in the work of the electoral registration officer’s team, often at a time when that work is needed the most. There are examples of excellent practice around the country, but there are also examples of comparable constituencies with very low electoral registration levels.
The right hon. Gentleman has talked about electoral fraud, but does he acknowledge the view expressed by the Metropolitan police service that there have been more than 13,000 incidents of financial fraud in which fake entries on the electoral register have been linked to the use of false documents for financial purposes?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The credit reference agencies and the police also remind us that it is important to have an accurate and complete register, because the register is often used for credit checks, as well as by the police and local authorities in the fight against fraud. We want the electoral register to be complete and accurate; if it is not, that can lead to all sorts of problems.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an accurate and complete register is important not only for an effective and fully functioning democracy, but for ensuring that other parts of our Government are working well, including the selection of juries?
This is my first chance to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) to her place in the House. She has had the most recent experience of fighting an election, and will be aware of the dangers of not having an accurate electoral register. She mentioned one of the important civil functions of the electoral register. She will be aware that the disadvantage for people of deciding not to be on the register is that they will not be able to serve on a jury, which can lead to the make-up of juries becoming skewed. Instead of being tried by one’s peers, a person can end up being tried only by those who are on the electoral register, rather than by a jury reflecting all those who are eligible to be on it.
The original justification for the proposals was not to save money, but that has now been put forward as a reason for speeding up the shift to individual electoral registration. This and the partisan nature of some of the Government’s other constitutional proposals, including the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, make some people suspicious of the motivation behind the Government’s proposals. Adding to the suspicion is the speeded-up timetable in the draft Bill, which is the meat of the motion before us. The draft Bill also proposes the removal of safeguards previously agreed by all the parties.
We are concerned about proposed changes to the civic duty involved in registering to vote. Under the household registration system, failure to comply with the request by an electoral registration officer to complete a registration form could result in a £1,000 fine. Despite few prosecutions, the threat of a fine has itself had a positive impact on registration levels, as has been confirmed by electoral registration officers around the country. The warning, written in a bold large font on the front of the letter from the electoral registration officer, served as a genuine motivation to respond. Our fear, which is shared by others, is that removing the threat of a fine will have a negative impact on registration levels.
My right hon. Friend has referred to local authorities that have successfully used the threat of the £1,000 fine to increase registration rates. May I point to the example of Rhyl West, where 2,500 people were registered? The council had a crackdown, which involved placing a warning on the registration form stating that people would be fined £1,000 if they did not fill it in. It explained that failure to fill in the form would result in the chief executive sending a letter to the non-registered person and turning the matter over to his legal department. The level of voter registration went up from 2,500 to 3,500 in one year as a result.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have seen evidence for what he mentions, and the local authority has confirmed that it increased registration rates from 2,500 to 3,500 because of the use of that threat and a rigorous approach. As my hon. Friend suggests, the removal of the fine will diminish the ability of electoral registration officers to do their job effectively, risking damaging consequences for our democracy and society. Although the penalty for not fulfilling the current legal duty is not often imposed, it is not without effect, as has been said. It contributes to a general sense that registering to vote is a civic duty—a responsibility—and not merely an individual right or a lifestyle choice.
The Parliamentary Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister have both declared from the Dispatch Box that the threat of the £1,000 fine is not being removed, since under their new proposals the offence of failing to respond remains for a household canvass. However, the House needs to understand the proposed changes in detail. There will indeed continue to be a form for the head of the household to complete, which is called a “household enquiry form” or HEF, and a £1,000 fine will remain for failing to comply with the request of the electoral registration officer to complete that form. Whereas completing the household registration form as it stands currently leads to those listed being registered to vote by the local authority on the processing of the form, under the new system the HEF is simply a way of capturing data on who might be eligible to vote in a property. That data will then be used by the local authority to follow up each of the named individuals with a personal approach containing a voter registration form. However, there is no legal duty to comply with a local authority request to complete an individual registration form and there is no threat of a £1,000 fine for not responding. We believe that that is a dangerous anomaly in the proposed legislation, which we fear could have a damaging effect on registration levels.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that although some people purposely do not want to be on the register, large numbers might be excluded from it because they have not been helped? I am thinking particularly of those with learning disabilities. Often, those who might be helping people with learning difficulties have a strange view about whether they should be allowed to vote. It is crucial that everyone in our society be enfranchised and that no one is ruled out because they are not given the support that they should receive to ensure that they are properly registered.
My hon. Friend makes her point far better than I would have made it. She will be aware of the representations made by Scope and others. There could be confusion at an early stage when somebody completing the household form assumes, as in the past, that they are automatically on the register, without realising that the individual form they receive also needs to be completed. If we take into account the fact that many people have learning difficulties, that for others English is not their first language and that that these changes are being contemplated at a time when the register arguably needs to be at its most accurate, the position becomes very worrying—even more so if we reflect on the diminution of resources to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) referred.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, let me make the point that 19 hon. Members are seeking to speak in the debate. If I am to have any chance of accommodating that level of interest, self-restraint—in respect of Front-Bench speeches and the length of interventions—will be essential.
I am mindful of your admonition, Mr Speaker.
I am puzzled by the right hon. Gentleman’s views on household registration, given that the Electoral Commission has said that
“The ‘household’ registration system means there is no personal ownership by citizens of a fundamental aspect of their participation in our democracy—their right to vote”.
Is he saying that he is in favour of household registration, whose removal is at the centre of these reforms, or not?
I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands his own position. The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 was quite clear, as some Conservative Members have said. We believe in individual voter registration. What we do not agree with is having an incomplete or inaccurate register, and some of the currently proposed changes could lead to just that.
The absence of the threat of a fine also undermines the data-matching pilots launched recently, which we also welcome. We support attempts to discover the names of those who are not on the register by using other datasets held by the public sector, but the same obstacle occurs—those individuals will at most receive a personalised approach by the local authorities to register to vote but there will be no legal ramifications if they fail to comply with the local authority request. The Minister has previously said at the Dispatch Box words to the effect that he did not want there to be a threat of criminal conviction for failure to respond to a registration form from an electoral registration officer. Let me address that point. We are open to discussion of whether a system of fixed penalty notices for those who fail to complete their registration form might be more appropriate. The Electoral Commission is also in favour of a system of civil penalties as well as a range of incentives to encourage registration. The Minister will be aware that in Northern Ireland, which already has individual electoral registration, the offence for failing to respond to a request from an electoral registration officer has been maintained. Either way, there needs to be some kind of motivation, backed up with the threat of a sanction, if we are to keep registration levels high.
The implications of the coalition Government’s proposals concern us. Although they might lead to a more accurate electoral register in the sense that people who should not be on it will not be on it, they are also likely to lead to a considerably less comprehensive electoral roll. Recent research by the Electoral Commission shows that up to 8.5 million eligible voters currently are not registered to vote—5 million more than previously thought—and it has warned of a risk of a slump in registration levels from more than 90% to 65%. That equates to more than 10 million eligible voters who should be on the register not being on it.
The issue here is the correlation between the likelihood of a person’s registering on the electoral register and their being in the private rented sector, is it not? The rapid growth of private rented accommodation places people at the highest risk of not having the information necessary to be on the register. Would my right hon. Friend support discussion with the Government about how resources could be directed particularly towards the local authorities with the largest private rented sectors to help to target that problem?
My hon. Friend is right to make that point and her view is shared not only by those who represent areas such as those she has mentioned but by the Association of Electoral Administrators, which believes there could be a 10% to 15% drop in suburban areas and a drop of up to 35% in the areas she has mentioned. The Minister said some very encouraging words when he gave evidence to the Select Committee and I look forward to hearing what he says in his response about resources and how he can target the finite resources he has on the areas that need them the most. Experts are as concerned as my hon. Friend that young people, students and people with learning disabilities and other forms of disability, as well as those living in areas of high social deprivation, are less likely to be registered. Some of those groups are already the most marginalised in society.
Many of us will have experienced examples of stretched electoral registration officers and limited resources, and there is a real concern about the impact of cuts to local authorities and budget pressures on the Electoral Commission at a time when they are needed the most. Those concerns are compounded by the fact that the 2015 boundary change enshrined in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 will take place on the new register composed of individual registrations. Although the draft legislation contains a safeguard—an effort to ensure the 2015 general election is not undermined by a significant decline in registered electors—which we welcome, there is no such safeguard for the boundary review, which will take place later in the same year. Given that the general election and the boundary review are due to take place in 2015, it seems odd to choose 2014-15 as the period for introducing individual electoral registration. It would make more sense to begin the process later or at least to extend the period of its implementation. Alternatively, registration under the current system could be carried forward for the boundary review, as is proposed for the 2015 general election. None of those options should cost any more than the Government’s current plans.
It is the Government’s and indeed Parliament’s intention to equalise the size of parliamentary constituencies. Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that if the changes to those electorates as a result of individual voter registration were, even entirely properly, to be in any way unequal across different locations, that could result in the creation of unequal constituencies and in the Government’s failing to meet that objective?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. In seats where there is a large number of students there could be a bigger slump than in areas where there is a large number of owner-occupiers. There could be a second major boundary change in five years, if there is a big slump in those on the register. Bearing in mind that the register is used to determine boundaries, the changes could lead to some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman alluded to. If the formation of new boundaries goes ahead, with 10 million missing voters—not my figures but those of independent experts—it risks another substantial upheaval of parliamentary constituency boundaries to deal with that large loss of voters.
We should not forget that the electoral roll is not used simply for election purposes and for drawing boundaries; the register also performs an important civil function.
The shadow Minister was making a point about the impact of the changes on the next boundary review. Has he been able to estimate the consequences of under-registration on this side of the water? The measures will not apply to Northern Ireland, which has already taken its hit and is recovering, but they could lead to an increased number of seats being allocated to Northern Ireland under the constituency formula, in turn inflating the size of the Assembly, which is based on parliamentary constituencies.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Members laughed during his intervention, but he is right to remind us indirectly of the formula by which seats are divided up. I am sure that when the Minister responds he will address the hon. Gentleman’s point, because an unintended consequence of reducing the number of voters is that the formula may lead to the changes he mentioned.
It will be more difficult for people who are absent from the roll to get credit checks, undermining their ability to apply for loans or mortgages, and it will be more difficult for those trying to prevent money laundering to check identities. The lists from which juries are drawn would be compromised. One of the fundamentals of our justice system—that defendants should be subject to trial by their peers—would be threatened. If individuals are given the right to opt out of registering to vote, by implication they could opt out of jury service, which currently is rightly deemed a civic duty.
On the point about people being denied a loan or a mortgage if they are not on the electoral register as a result of the changes, is not the simple answer that they can register? The changes would not prevent anybody from getting a mortgage, but they will prevent people from getting a mortgage illegally.
That is one of the benefits of an accurate and complete register, but the changes could lead to debtors, or the police or councils, not being able to chase people because they are not on the register. Council tax benefit and housing benefit fraud is often caught when people are seen on the register. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is individual choice and that consequences flow from that, but he fails to recognise the civil functions and the benefits to society of a complete and accurate register.
The electoral register is used by local authorities, and sometimes Departments, to help them in their duties related to security, law enforcement and crime prevention—for example, checking entitlement to council tax discount or housing benefit. The register is also used to ensure that political parties and candidates can contact electors to try to persuade them to vote or—dare I say it—to get involved in party politics. The Government’s current proposals could lead to a number of unintended consequences that no one wants to materialise.
The concerns are not just coming from the Opposition; the Electoral Reform Society is unhappy that registration is simply a matter of take it or leave it for individuals. The cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has produced an excellent report, for which I thank the Committee, that calls for it to be an offence to fail to complete a voter registration form, although perhaps only for a period of time during the transition. Like the Electoral Commission, the Committee has rightly called for a full household canvass in 2014, and echoes our concerns about the 2015 boundary changes. We welcome some of the Committee’s other main recommendations.
We recognise that there is a problem with the current electoral register, both of accuracy and completeness, and I genuinely look forward to working with the Government to safeguard the integrity of our electoral system and to improve registration levels in the move to individual voter registration. I hope the motion will be debated in a spirit of consensus and that it will be supported on both sides of the House.
It is good to be having this debate at, I think, the third time of asking. Before I explain the rationale for our proposals and deal with the motion, I want to thank the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) for the tone in which he has engaged with the debate. I have certainly engaged with it in such a way, and I do not think that he will mind if I point out that his party did not adopt that approach from the beginning. Last autumn, the right hon. Gentleman’s party leader said that we were making registration individual rather than household, and that the Labour party was going to go out and fight against that change, stating:
“One of the most basic decent human rights…is the right to vote.”
I absolutely agree, but I do not know why he wanted to campaign against our proposals.
The shadow Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), said at the Labour conference that our proposals were
“a shameful assault on people’s democratic rights”,
and that Labour would expose and campaign against them. I thought that that was nonsense at the time. Clearly, the right hon. Member for Tooting thought so, although he could not say so, and he has adopted a much more sensible tone.
Finally in that vein, in an article on the Labour Uncut website, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), said that the Conservative-led Government had taken the Labour Government’s proposals—these are his words, not mine—and
“infused them with its own distinctive venom.”
I have been accused of many things, but never that.
People got carried away with those remarks, which were rather absurd, and I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has returned to a more sensible tone whereby we can debate these sensible proposals. There is a lot of agreement on the move to individual registration, which will improve our system, and we can consider our specific proposals and the response that we make to the Select Committee report. I am happy to conduct the debate in that spirit.
In view of the fact that the Electoral Commission is saying that there may already be as many as 8 million people who are entitled to be on the register but are not on it, is it not, shall we say, counter-intuitive for any of us to discuss proposals that are likely to reduce the number of people on the register? Surely the objective of the Electoral Commission and the rest of us should be to maximise the number of people who are entitled to take part in our democracy legitimately. Individual registration is not likely to achieve that, particularly as it is in response, apparently, to just six prosecutions for electoral fraud.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s conclusion, which is that we should try to maximise the number of eligible voters—obviously, people who are on the register are entitled to vote—but I do not agree that individual registration is likely to reduce that number. To return to the matter of Northern Ireland—I shall expand on this later—given what we now know about the register in Great Britain, which is that about 85% of voters are registered, that register is in no better shape than that in Northern Ireland, where individual registration has already been introduced, as have a number of measures on continuous registration, such as data matching, which we propose to have at the same time. There is good evidence that if individual voter registration is introduced properly, with some of those other measures, a register may be achieved that is both more accurate and more complete than the one we have today.
In general, I am happy with my hon. Friend’s proposals, but the one thing in the Opposition motion that strikes me is the abolition of the sanction if people do not register. We do not believe in compulsory voting, but up to now we have always believed in compulsory registration. Will he reassure us on that specific point?
Let me come to that point in a moment, because I want to spend a little time on it, if I may. If my hon. Friend does not think that I have addressed it, I shall be happy to take another intervention from him.
Let me run through one or two parts of the motion that are defective, and which lead me to urge my hon. Friends to oppose it. I hope that I shall do so with the same tone with which the right hon. Member for Tooting introduced it. It is true that we supported the proposals for individual registration in the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, but it is worth reminding the House that the previous Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to include them. They were not in the Bill when it was introduced in the House of Commons, which is why we voted for a reasoned amendment. In fact, they were not in the Bill at all when it left the House of Commons, although by that stage the Labour Government had made a commitment to include them, and they were introduced in the other place.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), who was leading for us on the issue at the time, said:
“I am glad that at the eleventh hour the Government have, at last, agreed to move ahead with individual voter registration, albeit in what still seems to be a lamentably leisurely time scale. They committed to the principle of individual voter registration many years ago, but a bit like St. Augustine, they seem to be saying, ‘Make me chaste, but not yet.’”—[Official Report, 2 March 2009; Vol. 488, c. 695.]
My right hon. Friend made it clear that we approved of the decision to proceed with individual registration, which we thought could be accomplished earlier. We said that it would be our intention to do so, but that is not what the right hon. Gentleman said. On page 47 of our 2010 manifesto we made a commitment to
“swiftly implement individual voter registration”.
It is not fair—or, at least, it leaves out something quite important—to say that there was complete cross-party consensus on that measure.
I was one of those who did not want the previous Government to introduce the measure, but consensus was gained and it was introduced. That consensus has now been destroyed for the sake of a single year. The Government have shattered that consensus across the country—not just in Parliament but outside, too. Why do so just for one year? Is it anything to do with the 2015 election and the boundary freeze date of 1 December 2015?
No, it is not. If the hon. Gentleman will listen, we have introduced proposals having learned from the experience of Northern Ireland, for example in the carry-forward, to make sure that we minimise the risk of any drop in the registered electorate before the 2015 election. Between that election and the drawing up of registers for the next boundary review, there will be another full household canvass. There are therefore good safeguards in the system to make sure that the general election and the 2015 boundary review are held on the most accurate and complete registers possible. I shall say a little more about that later.
I do not think that it is correct to say that the Government have eroded the civic duty of registering to vote. It is not an offence—this comes back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made—not to be registered to vote. It is an offence to refuse to provide information to an electoral registration officer on the household canvass form when required to do so. We do not propose to change that, but I must note that there is some doubt about how effective that is, given that about 15% of electors are not registered to vote. I shall say a little more about that later.
I accept that the way in which we phrased our original proposals, with regard to the opt-out and some of the language that we used—I said this when I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform—could have led people to think that we wanted to weaken the extent to which we felt citizens had an obligation to register to vote. The Deputy Prime Minister and I have both said that we are minded to change that provision when we introduce our Bill. To be fair, the right hon. Member for Tooting acknowledged that.
We are retaining the offence of not responding to the household form. The logic is that if someone does not respond, they affect not just themselves but perhaps other people’s right to vote. That is why we have kept that proposal. We then faced the question, in the returning of the invitation to register, of whether we really wanted to create a criminal offence and criminalise people for not registering to vote. First, I start from the position of thinking that that would not be effective. The evidence at best, if I am being generous, is very mixed about whether that is effective. Secondly, we do not want to clog up the court system with a huge number of these cases. In Northern Ireland, where someone correctly said the offence of not returning the individual form exists, the provision has in effect become meaningless because when it was used in court and someone was prosecuted, the court gave them a slap on the wrist with a fine of 1p. The provision has effectively become unusable.
The evidence that I gave earlier from Rhyl in my constituency was that in the poorest ward in the whole of Wales—there are 1,900 sub-wards in Wales and this is the poorest—registration went up 2,500 to 3,500 in one year because of the threat of the fine. If the Minister does not want to make failure to register a criminal offence, how about a fixed penalty notice of £70 or £80? If people are determined to stay off the register, that is up to them, but they would face a £70 fine. If that happens time and again, perhaps he would consider making it a criminal offence after two or three times. How about that?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that. He made exactly that point at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions on 15 November and my right hon. Friend said that we would look into it. Indeed, I did. Although the numbers did broadly increase as the hon. Gentleman says, they did not do so over a year. The increase in the electorate in Rhyl West from 2,474 to 3,531 took place over a period of nine years—[Interruption.] I am sorry, I have the number of electors registered in front of me. I will not bore the House by reading them out, but the increase took place over a period of eight years, so I am afraid I do not think he has got his facts quite right.
I implore the Minister to look again at this. Clearly, if failing to send back the annual survey is to incur a penalty, it seems illogical not to insist that failing to send back the individual form should also incur a penalty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said, some sort of fine that is clearly expressed to people, rather than hidden away in the small print, is a tremendous incentive to return the form. The absence of a penalty seems like a missed opportunity.
Let me skip ahead to a quotation a little later in my remarks, which is relevant. There is a purpose in doing as the hon. Lady suggests only if it is effective. The evidence from the Information Society Alliance, for example, in its survey shows that compulsory registration —in other words, saying that people have to register or there will be a penalty—does not
“yield registration rates notably above those achieved in countries without compulsory registration.”
So it is not particularly effective. If I were persuaded that it was, I might look at it again. I certainly do not want to criminalise millions of people.
The current system, where failure to respond on the household registration form carries a penalty, is not noticeably effective because, as we now know, 15% of electors are missing. The single biggest reason why people are not registered to vote is that they move house frequently. One of the things that we need to do, which I will come on to, is to look at ways in which we can track people more quickly when they move house and get them registered to vote.
From the perspective of individuals in households, I am concerned about what appears to be duplication under the new system. There is a household form and an individual voter registration form. This seems to go against the red tape challenge and from an individual’s point of view seems over-bureaucratic. I am worried that that will confuse people.
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point, and I will come on to it when I speak about the modified canvass in 2014. Registration officers made the same point about why it was not a good idea to do a full household canvass in the traditional way in 2014 and then immediately write to everybody with an invitation to register. Their view was that as well as being costly, that would end up confusing people, which is why we set out a modified canvass, on which people also have strong views. I shall deal with that in more detail later.
I am grateful for the tone of the debate so far. I have a constituency in Southwark where we probably have about a 25% turnover of electorate every year. I am therefore very clear in my view that it ought not to be a criminal offence if people do not send back the form, but that there ought to be an incentive to do so and failure to do so should be subject to an administrative penalty. That changes the culture and means that everybody understands that the obligation is to register—not to vote, but to register and give themselves the right to vote when the time comes. I am clear that we need that culture shift.
I have listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the turnover of electors in his constituency. I am very clear that we want a consistent outcome from the process and for as many people as possible to be registered, but in order for that to be effective we might need to allow electoral registration officers to adapt their approach, depending on the nature of the constituency. In areas such as his constituency, or Tower Hamlets, which I have visited, where the turnover is 40%, a completely different methodology is adopted, for example by visiting every household in the first instance, rather than sending out forms. Such an approach would not be adopted in constituencies where there was much less turnover. We must allow electoral registration officers that flexibility in order to get a consistent outcome.
I have two more points to make on the motion before saying a little more about our proposals. The right hon. Member for Tooting referred to 10 million people being removed from the electoral register. He originally used that figure in a piece in the comment section of The Guardian on 13 October 2010. The Electoral Commission responded and made it clear that it did not state that 10 million people could lose the right to vote as a result of our proposals. I simply do not think that his claim is a realistic assessment based on any kind of evidence at all. I also gently point out that there is a mistake in the motion when it states that registration rates could fall by 65%. I think that it meant to say that registration rates could fall to 65%, because that is the number that some people have bandied about, but that is not what it says.
The motion relates to the 2015 boundary review, by which I mean the boundary review that will start in 2015 and use the 2015 register. As I have said, after the next general election there will be a full household canvass in 2015, at which those who have moved house since the previous registration will be invited to register. I think there is a good process in place to ensure that that register is as full and accurate as possible.
On the Minister’s point about the views of the Electoral Commission, did not the chair of the commission say on 15 September:
“It is logical to suggest that those that do not vote in elections will not see the point of registering to vote and it is possible that the register may therefore go from a 90 per cent completeness that we currently have to 60-65 per cent”?
She did, but she was talking about our proposal to allow voters to opt out by having a simple tick box on the form. We listened carefully to what the chair of the commission said, as did others, and the Deputy Prime Minister and I have confirmed that we are minded to change those parts of our provisions. The thing that she was concerned about that might have a direct effect, because people might tick the box, could also send out the message that we were less interested in people registering to vote. We have already accepted that that could have those consequences, which is why we have said that we will change it, and I think that that acknowledgment has been welcomed by the commission and its chair.
My final point on the motion is about the way it finishes by simply stating as a fact that moving to a system of individual registration
“will lead to large-scale under-registration.”
I simply do not think that there is any evidence to support that proposition. The motion is not quite in the spirit and tone with which the right hon. Gentleman introduced it. When the debate finishes, I urge my hon. Friends to oppose the motion, but to do so in the same constructive spirit with which he introduced it.
Let me say a little more about our proposals. I am happy to take interventions, but I will try to be mindful of your point, Mr Speaker, about the number of Members who wish to speak. I am pleased that the overall shift to individual registration is supported by all parties in the House—it was in all three main parties’ manifestos. The Electoral Commission supports it, as do the Association of Electoral Administrators, a wide range of international observers and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, whose Chair was present for the earlier part of the debate. There is much cross-party agreement on the principle and I recognise that we are effectively arguing over the detail.
The old, or current, system, involving the old-fashioned notion of a head of household who registers everyone else, is a little out of date and, as Members on both sides of the House have acknowledged, gives one person the ability to affect other people’s registration. We do not adopt that approach in other areas where people interact with the state, and the Electoral Commission has stated very clearly that the
“‘Household’ registration system means there is no personal ownership by citizens of a fundamental aspect of their participation in our democracy—their right to vote. This is too important to be left for anybody other than the individual”.
The Government agree, and I could not have put it better myself.
There is also a risk of fraud. The issue is not just about the fraud that actually takes place, but the risk of it, and even international observers, when they come and look at our system, note that we are very lucky to have a relatively low level of fraud. That is not because of our system, it is despite our system, and we would not be doing our jobs properly if we left in place a system that was open to fraud, even if we have been fortunate enough not to have had a huge amount of it to date that we know about.
I do not necessarily accept the proposition that fraud is a major issue in Britain, but the reason for making the suggested changes within this time scale—that they were so important that they had to be speeded up—does not get away from the fraud that can be perpetrated, for example, by someone simply turning up at a polling station and saying that they are somebody else. In a flat-share situation, somebody may not have registered, but, if somebody else has and they have moved away, the former can turn up and say, “I’m Joe Bloggs, and here I am.” As long as they are the right gender, they are able to vote, so if fraud is such a major issue should we not look at what happens when people turn up at the polling station?
That point has been made, and I looked at it when I visited Northern Ireland, which, for historical reasons and for the reasons it introduced the system ahead of us, requires people to have a form of photo ID when they vote. When that was introduced, it meant that many people were not able to vote, but it is now working smoothly. It has been suggested to us that we should adopt that system. The Government have decided not to do so, but we will listen to the evidence, as it certainly happens in one part of the United Kingdom. As far as I understand—I stand to be corrected—it currently works pretty smoothly, and for those electors who do not have their own form of photo ID, such as a passport or driving licence, there is a specific and very simple electoral ID card, with no database behind it, which they can use to prove their identity—and their age, for all sorts of other interesting purposes that to young people are probably more attractive than being able to vote.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and there was a certain amount of fraud in the early 2000s. That is why the previous Government, to be fair and to their credit, tightened up postal voting and introduced the system of requiring identifiers, whereby an individual has to have their date of birth and provide a signature. We can at least be sure that the person who requested the postal vote is the person casting it, but of course it does not give us any confidence in that person being the real, genuine person who lives in that house, as someone may have created a fictitious identity. We can be sure that the person who requested the postal vote is the person casting it, but they could do so on the basis of a completely fictitious identity. Postal voting has been tightened up, and that is good. It is something that we supported and which the previous Government did.
Another reason for speeding up the system is that running parallel systems—the current system and the new system—was likely to be rather confusing and was, I have to say, going to cost a significant amount. We are investing a significant sum in getting this right—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) just lets me finish, we are going to spend £108 million on moving to the system of registration, so we are fully funding the move, and by not trying to run it in parallel with the current system we have saved £74 million, which, given the state of the economy and the public finances that we inherited, a point that I will not labour, is not an insubstantial factor to bear in mind. But it is not at the expense of ensuring that we have a secure and accurate register.
The reason for the carry-forward was to ensure that people who had been registered to vote but had not registered once under the new system did not suddenly discover that they were not able to vote at the general election. The carry-forward was a check. In an ideal world, one would introduce a new system and not bother having the carry-forward. It was a safety net.
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), although postal voters provide identifiers, those do not provide any confidence or evidence that the voter is a real person. They provide confidence that the person casting the postal vote is the person who applied for the postal vote, but they do not get around the problem of people being able to create fictional identities and carry out postal vote fraud. We therefore did not think that it was sensible to extend the carry-forward to postal votes. There will still be carry-forward on the register, so people will still be able to vote, but we will not carry forward people’s absent vote. We do not think that that is likely to cause an enormous problem. The hon. Member for Caerphilly should wait for us to respond to the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the not-too-distant future, because I think he will be reassured by our answers.
As I made clear to the House in my statement last September, we are focused as much on completeness as accuracy. We instigated and funded the independent research by the Electoral Commission to see what state the current registration system was in. That should make us pause to reflect. When we have discussed this matter previously, there has been a complacent view that everything is fine, that there are not many problems, and that we are at risk of tampering with the system and causing a problem. The fact is that the current system is not as good as people thought it was.
I made the point that in Northern Ireland, where individual registration was introduced and where it now has a number of continuous registration mechanisms, such as putting back the carry-forward and using data matching, the system is now as complete as and more accurate than that in the rest of the United Kingdom. That demonstrates that if we do this well, learning the lessons from Northern Ireland, looking at things such as data matching and carrying out the proposal sensibly by having pre-legislative scrutiny and listening to what people have to say, we will not damage the registration system, as the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd said, but have a more accurate and complete register over time than the one we have today.
For people such as me who are unaware of events in Northern Ireland, will the Minister inform the House how long equalisation took to take place?
What the research has shown about the drop in the register in Northern Ireland is interesting. Some of the drop was expected because, after all, part of the point of introducing the system early in Northern Ireland was that it was understood that a number of people on the register there did not exist and we wanted to get rid of them. However, it is not clear that the drop in Northern Ireland was any larger than that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, there may well have been a drop in those who were eligible to vote because they did not go through the slightly increased bureaucracy. However, most of that seems to have been fixed by reintroducing the carry-forward, so that people who did not register the first time around are not penalised. We have learned from that. Having had Northern Ireland go first and having learned the lessons from what it has done, we can be reasonably confident that we will not run into the same problems.
I am also pleased that, as the right hon. Member for Tooting said, we have gone about this in a conciliatory way. We published a White Paper last year. We then published draft legislation, consulted on it and asked the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to do full pre-legislative scrutiny on it. The Committee has taken evidence from a wide range of stakeholders, including me. It has raised a number of concerns, some of which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. The Government will respond shortly to the Committee’s report. I urge all hon. Members, particularly those who are interested in this subject, to look at our response because it will address a number of the issues that were raised. Hon. Members can be confident that we will not run into those difficulties. For example, we have already mentioned the carry-forward, and we will not require people to re-register all their details every year if they do not move house. They will simply have to confirm that they have not moved. In Northern Ireland, people have to go through the whole process every year.
I have referred a few times to data matching. We have examined other public databases in a number of local authorities to see how successful we can be in finding people who are not registered to vote. We are in the process of finalising our assessment of that programme, and the Electoral Commission will also be doing so having worked closely with us. I am confident that it will demonstrate that we can use those extra data, as happens in Northern Ireland, to improve the register.
Younger people have been mentioned, and we want to ensure that we allow people to register online in a secure way, which will particularly help younger people. To pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), it will potentially also help people who are disabled and find it easier to use electronic methods. I absolutely agree with her that people with learning disabilities are entitled to register to vote and to cast their vote. From my experience of working with Scope and attending its reception immediately after the election, and of talking to people with learning disabilities, particularly younger people, I know that they are just as able as anybody else to understand the issues involved and make decisions, and nobody should tell them that they should not. I wanted to put that on the record in strong support of what the hon. Lady said.
As the head of a household almost filled with very young people, it seems to me that the key to getting an understanding of who should be voting is the head of household registration form. When that form is filled out, it gives the key to who is living in the household, and then we can ensure that they are voting. I hope that that will be very much part of the system in future.
Order. Just before the Minister responds, may I very gently remind him—I am sure he is bearing this in mind—that a very large number of Members want to speak in this debate? I am already going to reduce their time limit to eight minutes, so I hope that he may be reaching the point of being about to conclude.
I think, Madam Deputy Speaker, that is your rather clever way of telling me not to take so many interventions and not to be quite so generous to colleagues, so I will listen to you very carefully and move on. However, I confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) that we will continue to use the household registration form.
I wish to give an example of how I believe we can improve things. On my visit to Northern Ireland, I visited Grosvenor grammar school in the Belfast East constituency and met the excellent head teacher, Mr McLoughlin, together with the head of the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. I had a look at one of the outreach exercises there, in which people go into schools and work with 16 and 17-year-olds to get them on the register in time, so that when they turn 18 they can vote. I saw 164 16 and 17-year-olds get registered to vote. Interestingly, Northern Ireland now has a higher rate of attainers—16 and 17-year-old soon-to-be voters—being registered on its system than we do in Great Britain. The lesson of that is that if we allow electoral registration officers to be more innovative and sign up voters directly, rather than relying on the head of the household, we can do better than we do today. I hope that will reassure the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, notwithstanding the fact that he is not in favour of the procedure. I have already mentioned that we have said that we will change the opt-out provision.
The final point that I wish to put on the record is about the transitional arrangements for 2014-15. I have said that we will undertake a modified canvass in 2014, and I explained in response to an intervention some of the rationale behind that. I have explained why we do not want to run a full canvass and then write to everybody shortly afterwards. The clear advice that we received from administrators was that that would be confusing and not very effective, as well as coming with a very large bill.
I believe that given what I have said, and given what will be in our response to the Select Committee’s report, which Members will see in the not-too-distant future, they will be reassured about how we are addressing the issue. Today, they can do what I asked them to do at the beginning of my remarks and vote against the motion in a constructive spirit and with confidence that we are listening carefully to the concerns that have been raised.
Order. Before we continue the debate, I point out to all hon. Members that the time limit now in operation for Back-Bench speakers will be eight minutes. I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind in respect of the frequency with which they take interventions, because with an eight-minute limit, we will still not get all speakers in, and I am keen to do so if at all possible.
The Electoral Commission has said that the current proposals would be the biggest changes in registration since 1832. That reference to the 19th century is apt. In the 19th century, electoral change enfranchised men—much of it was geared around property ownership, but it was nevertheless progress. In the 20th century—I believe it was in 1920—the vote was extended to women. The 20th century will be remembered for that. The 21st century, however, could be remembered as the time when the Liberals and the Conservatives kept or chased 16 million British voters off the electoral register.
I have got the message, and I understand it: the message is about political gain. The Minister is right that his proposals should be judged on the impact they have on registration rates. We will hold him to that and I am glad he said it. He said his proposals would lead to a more accurate and more comprehensive register. We will be watching every step of the way.
I should also point out how the previous Labour Administration operated on crucial constitutional and electoral issues in their 13 years and beyond in office.
No, I will not.
The previous Administration operated in a consensual, co-operative, non-partisan way. I shall give three examples. We had a sufficient majority to foist first past the post on the devolved Assemblies and Parliament, but we did not do things the way Labour might have wanted. We were consensual and adopted proportional representation. In around 2000, Labour introduced PR for European elections. That meant Wales went from having five seats to one seat. Labour introduced PR for local government in Scotland. That was against Labour’s electoral best wishes, but we introduced it. We were consensual.
On registration, in 2001 Labour introduced a rule that took thousands if not millions off the register. We said, “If you don’t sign the register two years in a row, you go off it, even if we know you are still in that house.” We did that so that we could have an accurate register.
In 2009, we gained consensus on individual registration. I am in favour of individual registration if we have a comprehensive register to start with. Anything less than that will result in a greater and faster fall in the number of people who are registered. This Parliament has a reputation—it is known around the world as the mother of Parliaments—but if this coalition Government introduce legislation that ends up with 16 million people off the register, we will be laughed at around the world.
In 2009, when Labour introduced individual registration, we learned the lessons from Northern Ireland. We realised that there were 3.5 million off the register. The time scale that we came up with—a five or six-year period up to 2015—was sufficient to increase the number of registered voters. There was consensus and agreement on that. In the meantime, we improved data matches, commissioned more research and had stricter electoral registration officer invigilation. In 2010, we put an extra 400,000 people on the register.
We can compare and contrast that with what the Conservative-Liberal coalition has done. It has brought that date forward from 2015 to 2014, pushed back the date of the next election to 2015, introduced an opt-out, and changed the wording from “civic duty” to “lifestyle choice”. This is not happenstance: the Conservatives have a bigger and bolder vision. They failed with the poll tax in the 1990s to drive millions of poorer people off the register, but they are taking a second bite at the cherry. The Liberal Democrats should watch out. They might think they are doing well out of this, but the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) had one of the lowest registration rates in Wales, with 54% registration rates in Bronglais ward. It is an issue that affects Liberal Democrats as well as Labour, so they should be warned.
The Electoral Commission dropped two bombshells. One was that the number of unregistered people in the UK was not 3.5 million but 6 million, which will rise to 8.5 million. That was no bombshell to me, because I had met Experian 18 months previously and was told it was6 million. I gave that information to the Electoral Commission and people there almost laughed at it. They have commissioned research and they say that my 6 million is not the same 6 million as theirs. That means it could be even more, but the fact remains there were 6 million in December 2010, rising to 8.5 million by April 2011. The profile of those unregistered people is black and ethnic, young people living in houses in multiple occupation, the low paid and the unemployed. There are 6 million missing now, and potentially an additional 10 million if these proposals go ahead.
The proposed legislation will have unintended—or perhaps intended—consequences. I ask the Minister, who is jabbering away, what consultation he has had with the police on these issues, because much of the reduction in registration that will result from his legislation will be in areas with high levels of crime. I know that the Association of Chief Police Officers and the police are not happy with the proposals. What consultations has the Minister had with the judiciary? These proposals will have a direct impact on jury service, as juries are selected from the electoral register. People will not be judged by a jury of their peers, but by a jury of some of their peers—often richer peers. The credit reference agencies use the electoral register, and the changes might push people towards loan sharks. Charities and fund-raising organisations are also concerned.
The freeze date for the next Boundary Commission review is December 2015. There will be a carry-over to the general election in May 2015, but there will be no carry-over to the 1 December deadline so we could see a reduction from 90% registration rates to 60%—an extra 10 million of the poorest people not on the register. If we think the boundary review is bad this time, it will be 10 times as bad in December 2015. I warn the Liberal Democrats again: they have bitten off more than they can chew and should think carefully.
I ask the Minister to listen not to me—he probably thinks I am biased—but to the Electoral Commission, and to the Electoral Reform Society which has described these measures as “catastrophic”. I ask him to listen to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and the academics. All those bodies and people have massive reservations about these proposals.
The Minister mentioned developing countries. If we saw a developing country trying to shift a third of its poorest voters off the electoral register, we would send in observers in a heartbeat. We will become the laughing stock of the world if the Minister and his coalition partners introduce the legislation as proposed.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate and I also welcome the aim of Members on both sides of the House to improve the system of electoral registration. It is important that everybody who is eligible to vote is on the electoral register, but I believe that the motion is misguided and, in parts, wrong. We all want the most accurate and up-to-date register of electors possible, with a system that is fit for the 21st century and offers better protection against fraud. We need, however, to be moderate and constructive in our tone and approach. I do not want to follow the direction taken by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), although I admire the tenacity shown in his speech.
I welcome the speech given by the shadow Secretary of State. It was moderate, much better than the motion, constructive and a determined attempt to breach the gulf that the motion suggests can be found in the House. I strongly support the comments made by my hon. Friend the Minister, who was constructive, positive and extremely moderate.
I believe that we should support all the principles behind individual elector registration. First, giving individuals control of their electoral registration is an important extension of the right to vote, individual responsibility and participatory democracy. Secondly, requiring electors to provide proof of identity will be an effective way of preventing fraud and anomalies in elections. Thirdly, we must prevent people from being added to the electoral roll who do not have the right to vote. Those are key questions that we are endeavouring to address through this reform.
I have concerns about the current system, which is outdated and potentially open to great abuse. The number of people who are not registered to vote is a worry. Millions of people across the country supposedly do not register to vote, either through choice or because they have not been adequately pursued by the electoral registration officers to return their forms by the deadline, and the Electoral Commission has given us a list of figures that shows how many millions are missing from the register.
Other issues distort the completeness of the register. I know that some people are left on the register when they have not returned a form, which is also a real concern. I have seen many cases of people being added to the register for a property they have moved into without the previous residents being crossed off. I regularly canvass across my constituency and I find at each session that many households in each road and block of flats are not on the register. An increasing number of people contact my office who are not on the electoral roll and that is unacceptable, as we want people to be on the roll so that we maximise their opportunities to participate.
I do not think that enough is done to pursue those who do not register to vote and I believe that that is detrimental to the democratic process. If people do not register, they are wasting their opportunity to vote and be part of the democratic process. If, ultimately, they do not want to turn out on election day and vote, that is their democratic right and choice. Although some councils are good at pursuing unregistered households, or those that have not returned their form, many others are not, and that needs to improve.
The next issue I want to raise is the potential abuse of the system. At present, there is no requirement for people to provide any evidence of their identity to register to vote, which leaves the system open to potential fraud. I am anxious about the number of people who are on the register but should not be, such as those who have been added by the head of the household. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the issue of proof of identity when someone goes to the polling station, which he mentioned in his excellent speech, and the need to ensure that the person who is entitled to vote is the person who has turned up claiming to be eligible.
I believe that under the current system insufficient checks are made to ensure that those who do not have the right to vote are not registered. I know of examples of that from across my borough. Some visitors, temporary residents and those who are here illegally are on the register. It has also been suggested that in urban areas, some landlords are the only person on the register for properties they rent out. That is unfair and wrong.
I am grateful for that comment. It is a fair point, and I note it and agree with it.
Giving individuals control of their own electoral registration is an important extension of the right to vote. We had a detailed history lesson from the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd about when people got the vote, in what century and so forth. I think, though, that it is people’s responsibility to make the effort to ensure that they are on the register and that they participate. The current system is undoubtedly outdated, as my hon. Friend the Minister said, and dependent on somebody completing a form on behalf of everyone in the household. In this day and age, that cannot be acceptable. People should have the individual right to register.
I welcome the constructive comments that we have heard today about how to improve the proposals from my hon. Friend the Minister. I am sure that he will listen to and take many of them on board and implement the change to the betterment of our democracy, which is the whole point of this approach. The Electoral Commission has been calling for the introduction of IER since 2003 in order to reduce fraud and give individuals
“clear ownership of their right to vote”.
Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, executive director of Democratic Audit, said: “I welcome the proposals”. He thought that the change was long overdue.
The evidence suggests that electoral legislation will improve the completeness and accuracy of the electoral roll. I passionately believe that it will. We heard about Northern Ireland. Of course, there was a drop-off in the initial stages, but since getting under way it has returned to a reasonable registration level—and probably a better one than we have experienced here.
It is true that there is a huge turnover in rented properties. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider whether housing associations can be more helpful and involved in the promotion of IER. They have a role and could help to ensure that the register is more accurate. I am thinking, in particular, about literature and encouraging people to participate by getting themselves on the register.
I hope that the Government will assure us that there are sufficient resources for electoral registration officers to publicise the change and undertake the tasks. Maladministration should not get in the way of democracy. I also encourage the Minister to look at the necessary legislation and encourage councils, where possible, to improve data sharing between departments. The accuracy of the electoral register would improve if social services and council tax departments could advise their electoral registration departments of any changes so that the latter can pursue them with the relevant households.
My own council, Bexley council, is considering a “tell us once” policy in respect of all administrative changes, and I urge other councils to try to do the same. It would certainly help if people, when they move or have social services changes, can inform the council once, rather than having to contact endless numbers of departments. I believe that that would improve the electoral register.
I welcome the Government’s conciliatory, constructive and moderate approach to this issue and the commitment from my hon. Friend the Minister that care will be taken to introduce the new system without losing voters from the register. I welcome the sensible change that will take place over the year and the fact that, we hope, there will be more people on the register and more people wanting to vote. It is part of our job to encourage people to participate more in the democratic system, so we need not just to get them on the register but to get them out and voting. I hope that changing to individual registration might be one way forward.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the introduction of individual voter registration provides an opportunity to work in schools to get young people on the electoral register earlier, even if they still have to wait until 18 for the vote, so that they have the opportunity to practise registering twice before it really matters?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Education is very important. When I visit schools, I try to encourage everyone in the sixth form to participate, get on the register and vote when the time comes.
Today’s motion does not do justice to the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). We are looking to improve the system and I welcome the Government’s proposals to do just that.
I rise not to oppose individual registration but to ask Members from all parts of the House not to throw away household registration without understanding the benefits it brings. No system brings perfection, but in the words of the great Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”
I would suggest that in my constituency and other urban areas such as south London under-representation on the register among young people will be made worse by the quick introduction of individual registration. That was brought home to me at the last election. As I walked through Mitcham town centre on election day 2010, large numbers of young people came up to me and said, “Oh, hi Siobhain! I just wanted to say that we’ve been out to vote.” I thought, “Great!”—I did not ask who they had voted for; the point was that they had been out to vote. It made me think about mums as electoral registration officers as often it is the head of the household who puts those young people on the register, and getting those young people to sign a form to get on the register, which requires their name, address, date of birth and national insurance number, will be a difficult feat that will take several years.
I ask the House not to despise our experience of actual elections. Who was it who told us that the Child Support Agency did not work, if not our individual voters and constituents? We all know how difficult it is to get people to register and to vote. We also know the practical difficulties with all the mail that we receive in our households every day, where somebody can come along, pick it up and throw it in the bin. Where there are four, five or six electoral registration forms, how successfully do we really believe each one will actually be completed?
Much mention has been made of the 11% reduction in the electoral register in Northern Ireland, but Northern Ireland as a community is so far removed from my constituency as to be another continent. We have a different turnover of people on the electoral register; we have a different, multi-ethnic make-up. Who is it who does not vote? It is, yes, young people and people with private tenancies or in houses in multiple occupation; but it is also some—but not all—ethnic minorities. If we look at America, which has individual electoral registration, as well as a difficult history of voter representation among some communities, we see that registration among the under-25s is about 58.5%, while six in 10 of those who rent privately are not on the register. Conversely, 80% of those with an income of over $100,000 a year are registered. Therefore, those who are rich are two thirds more likely to be on the electoral register than those who are poor.
We get rid of the annual canvass at our peril. At the moment, with one electoral form per household, only 65% of people in even a wealthy borough such as Merton in my constituency return their forms without the canvass. That figure later goes up, to 97%, because of the canvass and the encouragement, and also because of the threat of fines. That is what gets those forms returned and gets the canvass up, and at the moment we are asking for one form from every household. We are not asking for multiple forms.
Data matching is presented as the holy grail that will sort this issue out. However, as we have discovered from the investigation done by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the electoral register is the most accurate of all our databases. Electoral registration officers have told us that when they cross-reference with the Department for Work and Pensions register, it tells them what they already know. It does not tell them what they do not know. Indeed, each of the Government’s six pilots to look at individual registration has faced increased costs, of between 50% and 100%, for electoral registration officers. I ask all Members here this evening: how likely are their councils to increase their funding by that amount, at a time when they are reducing spending on social services, education and all the things that our constituents come to see us about?
There is talk of fraud in electoral registration, but I would suggest that our problem is not an inflated electoral register but one whose figures are too low. My anxiety is not related to party considerations. I will fight in my constituency to win as many votes as I can get; like most Members, I love elections. I love the fight, and the arguments about the issues. That is what encourages us to get involved, and it is our role to get as many people as possible on to the register. However, if we do anything to alienate those groups in our society that are already alienated, we will bear the brunt of that action. The riots that we saw last summer will be repeated if more people begin to believe that they have nothing invested in the system.
I believe that registering and voting involve a social contract. People register to become part of the system and, in return, they can claim the benefits that they are entitled to, and they can get a library card, a driving licence or whatever. If we undo that social contract, we will find it very difficult to put that genie back in the bottle and get more electors on to the register. Individual registration is fine, but the Government should not get rid of household registration until they are absolutely sure that the young men and women of 18, 19 and 20 in constituencies such as mine will register to vote without the benefit of their mum registering them.
I welcome this debate, and the consensual approach that has been taken by those on both Front Benches. That approach was not taken by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who is no longer in his place, but I pay tribute to him for speaking with great passion on these matters. He genuinely cares about them, and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of just about all the 1,900 electoral districts in Wales. He is attempting to set up an all-party group on this subject, which I think will attract widespread support in the House.
I hope that the debate will encourage the Government to take all the necessary measures to ensure that we have a register that is as complete as possible, that leaves us less open to fraud, and that, critically, enfranchises those who have not had ownership of their vote in recent years. I know that that is the Government’s intention, but we are all mindful of the recent report from the Electoral Commission, which showed that at least 6 million people who were eligible were not registered in December 2010. That figure could grow significantly if this matter is not handled with care.
We have heard concerns expressed over the potential for fraud. There is consensus over individual electoral registration, and it is important to reiterate that IER is not about a choice between integrity and completeness; if it is done in the correct way, it can be a means of achieving both. During the consultation on IER last year, my noble Friend Lord Tyler and I—on behalf of the Liberal Democrat Back-Bench committee on these matters—reiterated our party’s support for individual electoral registration, but we also highlighted our concerns over implementation, and we continue to do so. In particular, we believe that the legal requirement to register should remain.
I was pleased to hear last autumn that the Government will be looking again at the opt-out suggestion, and that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has reiterated that intention. I hope that the Government will continue in that vein and reflect on the legal requirement to register. I commend to the House the debate in the House of Lords that my noble Friend Lord Rennard conducted last Thursday, in which he observed that one of the main strengths of the existing registration system was that it was based on a legal requirement to register. That is also the view of electoral registration officers.
Prosecutions under the current offence are of course minimal; there were only 144 in the past year. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned the civic duty to register, and I would suggest that that is strengthened by phrases being included on the registration form. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd also mentioned this, giving an example of people being told that they had to register every year by law, and being informed of the penalties for not doing so. I am not suggesting that we should extend the £1,000 penalty, but having a fixed-term penalty is a suggestion worth reflecting on. Without it, we run the risk of thousands of people not bothering to register. Whether those on the list choose to exercise the franchise is quite another matter and not what we are discussing today. I do not believe that there is a consensus on removing the legal requirement. The Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform—I see in his place its Chairman, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen)—made that point very strongly.
The Government could be described as making—I hesitate to say this—a liberal argument for removing any sense of compulsion, but I feel that this duty is more of a burden to the state and the local authorities that have to chase the data than to any individual. There is little feeling now that compulsory registration is a burden for householders. I do not believe it would be a burden for individuals, but what we risk doing is undermining an important civic duty that, critically, will have knock-on implications in areas where we rely on electoral registration data, such as for jury service, as the newly elected hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) was the first to point out. Jury service was not even considered as part of the Government’s impact assessment.
The key point, I feel, is that the worst possible time to remove the legal requirement is when we are changing the system we use. Individual electoral registration can be adopted without removing a legal requirement to register; indeed, it can be enhanced. In that spirit, I agree with the Select Committee’s recommendation of making it an offence to fail to complete the voter registration form, which could then be reviewed at the end of five years.
The second area of potential contention is the annual canvass—a canvass that will, if anything, be even more important in 2014. We must ensure that the changes to the system of registration are communicated and that, as usual, as many people are added to the register as possible. I would like to hear more from the Minister about what he means by the amended canvass. He has talked about putting in place a new system under which every voter will be contacted, but there is something special about the full household canvass. In particular, how will the Minister get to those hard-to-reach groups? He has indicated a willingness to look further at the issue of the 2014 canvass, but I want to reiterate how important this is for those hard-to-reach groups. It is important for them to have the ability not just to vote, but, as we have heard, to access credit. One of the first items checked by credit references companies is whether someone is on the electoral register.
I have mentioned and commended the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd who has on many occasions highlighted the example of one ward in my constituency. This ward combines the huge challenge—the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), like me, a former student of Aberystwyth university will understand this—of comprising a large student community, a huge number of houses in multiple occupancy and areas that are designated “deprived”. [Interruption.] I apologise, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) is another who will know this for the same reason. IER will fail those constituents if they are not given the chance—indeed, the incentive—to register.
Without reopening the whole issue of the redrawing of constituency boundaries, with which my colleagues with Welsh constituencies are coming to terms, I have to say that the spectre of the system of voter registration—not a move in the population or a decline in the population determining the size of a constituency—remains a big concern. Our Back-Bench committee also has concerns about ending the transitional stage in 2015. Clearly, given the importance of a complete register to the 2015 boundary review, it would also make sense for the transitional phase to encompass both that review and elections to the devolved Administrations and local authorities in 2016.
I think there is a growing consensus on those concerns, but I commend the Government for their work on data-matching pilots and I am encouraged by what we have heard about the experience of Northern Ireland in respect of schools. We need to use the enrolment process in universities to sign up students. The Government are undertaking a welter of other schemes, involving the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Passport Office. I believe that the Government are in listening mode. They have listened to date and have taken heed of many of the concerns we have raised. I hope that that will continue. We will support the Government tonight, but on the basis that the listening approach will continue.
I want to raise two specific concerns, the first of which is that although some of the changes are welcome, they are characteristic of a Government who are too frequently looking through the wrong end of the microscope and thus finding the wrong solutions to the wrong problems. The second concern is about making major changes to electoral registration while substantial changes are to take place as a result of boundary reorganisation. No part of the UK will be hit worse by this than my country, Wales.
There is surely consensus that the preferred outcome is that all adults who are entitled to vote should be registered. Everyone should be on the electoral roll and have the opportunity to cast their vote at elections. The principle of individual electoral registration is positive—that electors should take upon themselves the responsibility to register to vote in their own right rather than under the aegis of a household. All relevant people should be willing and able to register and should have the same opportunity to do so. However, there might be a disconnect between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome in that although relevant people may register, they might not all actually do so. The Minister said that the Government hoped to learn lessons from Northern Ireland, and I look forward to seeing some of the resulting changes in the Bill. However, I believe that when the changes were introduced in Northern Ireland in 2002—the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) might wish to correct me—there was a fall of 11% in registered electors, and it has taken more than 10 years to rebuild the figures.
According to the White Paper, an estimated 3.5 million people of voting age across England and Wales were not on the electoral roll at the most recent estimate. The Electoral Commission reported in December 2010 that 6 million people were not registered across the UK. It is unclear to me how IER, which creates a greater barrier to registration, will achieve a closer parity to ensure that as many people as possible are on the electoral roll.
If the White Paper is to be believed, then fear of electoral fraud is the major reason for a change to individual electoral registration and for this happening before the next Westminster election. The White Paper refers to the findings of an Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe report regarding the recommendation of an identification requirement to safeguard against fraudulent registration. However, the OSCE was informed of that problem by representatives of political parties when they gave evidence, so this is a circular argument. We tell the OSCE there is a problem, it writes a report saying that we have identified a problem and then we use its report to justify action. That is not evidence-based decision making.
From the testimony provided in the White Paper, it seems that fear of fraud rather than actual fraud is the problem. The attitudinal survey quoted in the White Paper is evidence not that the current system is not working but merely that media stories have raised awareness of the possibility of fraud. Those are two very different things. Perhaps for my party more than anything else I am concerned that the proposals, which aim to tackle what appears to be limited electoral fraud, might lead to unintended consequences.
Electoral registration has greater relevance than ever following the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which the Minister drove through last year. The Act will create constituencies designed to have voter numbers within 5% of a UK constituency mean that is predicated upon the number of electors on the electoral roll rather than in the actual adult population. That is the key point. As we have consistently said in our criticisms, the formation of these new constituencies ignores community, historical and geographical links. We saw that last week in Wales, where some of the proposed constituencies are not very practical.
We are also worried by the size of some of the proposed mega-constituencies in Wales of more than 1,500 square miles, which is an incredible size. Apart from that, to be fair, the Boundary Commission for Wales has done a good job, especially in Carmarthenshire. My point, though, is that non-registration becomes crucial because not only are non-registered people disfranchised and unable to vote but their non-registration increases the actual population of the constituency. Full registration must therefore be the principal aim of any change in registration, and it is very unclear from the Government’s proposals to date how the changes will bring that about.
The same is true of suggestions that a voluntary registration scheme should be introduced. The Electoral Commission estimates that a voluntary registration scheme, as suggested in paragraph 74 of the White Paper, may see a significant drop in the number of relevant adults on the electoral register, from around 90% to as low as 65%. That would clearly not assist in full registration, and given the introduction of the new population link for constituency boundaries, the impact of the change would be significant and would require the electoral map to be wholly redrawn once again to reflect the changes and ignore those we might describe as the non-people, as well as potentially disfranchising more than a third of our adult population. As we already know, electoral participation is skewed towards particular parts of society and to lose the participation of those who are more transitory or migratory, and less interested in politics, would have a strong impact on our society and our politics.
I have been very good by butchering my speech to keep it within eight minutes. I conclude by noting that I hold deep reservations that the measures proposed in the White Paper will not assist in increasing the number of adults on the electoral register, and may have negative unintended consequences on voter registration and constituencies. Electoral registration is an issue that must have cross-party consensus and I hope that that can be achieved before any changes are introduced.
We have heard a lot this afternoon about lack of registration, but I am particularly keen to talk about the number of fraudulent applications on electoral registers. As a consequence, I welcome the Government’s plans for an overhaul of the electoral registration process.
Ever since the introduction of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which allowed postal voting on demand, we have witnessed abuses across the country. Under election law, anyone from a Commonwealth country can vote in a general election if they are resident in the UK, but names can be added to the electoral roll and people can become eligible for a postal vote without anyone checking their identities or whether they are actually in the country. At the last election, the Metropolitan police examined 28 claims of major abuses across 12 London boroughs against accusations that political activists were packing the electoral roll at the last minute with the names of relatives living overseas, or were simply inventing phantom voters.
During my election campaign in 2010, we saw an increase in the number of postal vote applications from homes in multiple occupation. It was certainly a contrast to the number of voters in single-family homes. I have also received many anecdotal comments from constituents who witnessed the fact that there were duplicate names and mass entries on the register from houses and flats with a small number of bedrooms. I have discussed the issue with my local authority, which has confirmed its active interest in such irregularities.
I stress that I have no criticism of the professionalism of the electoral returning officer and her staff. They find themselves in a position where they have to follow the registration process, which includes sending two forms to households and if no response is received following that up with a canvasser. In some cases, local authorities remove the names, but Barnet allows names to roll over to the following year. The Government’s proposals will remove that uncertainty and we shall know exactly who is in the property and when.
In September last year, I raised with the Leader of the House the problem of individuals who make multiple applications at different addresses by registering at a property they own but at which they do not reside. He said in his response:
“It is an offence to provide false information to electoral returning officers, and if that happens I hope they would pursue it. As my hon. Friend will know, we are introducing individual electoral registration, which will reduce the opportunity for fraud because people will have to provide some evidence of identity before they are added to the register.—[Official Report, 8 September 2011; Vol. 532, c.561-2.]
The Government can say that, but I can only speak on behalf of my constituents; we have found evidence to the contrary.
I have reported some of my suspicions to the Metropolitan police but their response was a scratching of their collective head. I reported the accusations to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan- Howe and received a response from Detective Chief Superintendent Richard Martin of the specialist crime directorate who advised me:
“As you correctly state it is within the will of the Police to investigate issues relating to Electoral Offences…In exercising this discretion the Commissioner must take into account the public interest in pursuing a criminal investigation.”
The list cited by DCS Martin for lack of action by the police included
“whether an alternative remedy is available, whether an investigation has been undertaken by a regulatory body or governing profession, whether civil as opposed to criminal proceedings would lead to a more appropriate solution, whether the matters have become stale, the extent to which criminal proceedings may amount to an abuse of the legal process, the proportionality of instigating a police investigation having regard to the stigma which attaches to a criminal conviction”.
All those mean that the police will not take any action.
The Government say that, in addition to trust and security, ensuring that the electoral register is as complete as possible is central to the credibility of our electoral system and the basis of our democratic process, and we all agree on that here today, but the current system for registering to vote relies on trust that those who register are indeed eligible.
As Labour Front Benchers have tabled the motion, they need to answer some questions, particularly about a candidate in the Greater London authority elections who resides in Westminster, in Westbourne Grove, and registers himself on the electoral register with his girlfriend at his permanent residence, but has continued to allow himself to be registered at a second property he owns in the London borough of Barnet that is inhabited by his tenant. If that is not legally wrong, it is certainly morally wrong, and it is dishonest to mislead voters into presuming that the candidate lives locally.
Where would Labour Front Benchers say that that person lived? For sure, many Members of the House have access to two properties, and the law states that people who have two homes are allowed to register at both addresses, but it is an offence to vote more than once in a general election, although such people may vote in both areas at local elections. The Representation of the People Act also states that the person may register only at an address where they are freely able to return. That means people such as students living at their parents’ home, or even MPs returning to a family home in their constituency who have a property in London. It does not include landlords who rent out their properties and then decide that it may be electorally advantageous to them to maintain their entry on a second electoral register elsewhere from their permanent residence.
I shall vote against the Opposition motion—not solely on partisan lines, but because the measures outlined by the Government will address concerns of which I have experience. The proposal that every elector will have to register individually and provide identifying information that will be used to verify their entitlement to be included on the electoral register is vital. Only once their application has been verified can a person be added to the register.
In addition, the Government’s proposal to change electoral registration legislation to put in place a framework that reflects more closely how people choose to engage with the Government and create flexibility for the system to keep pace with technological developments is another initiative that I welcome. That will help to make registration easier, more convenient and more efficient, opening the way for other methods of registration, such as telephone and online. Those are all areas that younger people are particularly keen on. The idea of completing a paper form that comes through the door each autumn or when people move house is as antiquated as electoral law itself.
These measures will help to restore trust in the electoral system, which has been eroded in the past decade by legislation that was perhaps well meaning, but which was wide open to abuse. I believe that that is what most of us here want, so I shall support the Government on the issue.
I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House for necessarily being out of the Chamber at about 4 o’clock. I apologise in particular to the Minister, who is always most courteous in such circumstances.
If the House has any sacred duty, and that is arguable, it is that we should ensure that the British people are able to elect those of us who come to this Chamber. That is one of the most important things that any of us in the House can stand up for and fight for. Today, we have a chance to do that, but we need to consider one other thing. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr Offord) was right to talk about abuse of the electoral registration system, but the biggest abuse of that system is not the five or six cases nationwide that went to court on fraud charges, but the fact that all of us in the Chamber have at least 10,000 people in our constituency who are not on the register to vote. That is the biggest abuse, and it is the most important thing to put right when we look at individual voter registration.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in the ICM poll for the Electoral Commission, which has been cited as the basis for much of the legislation, barely 2% of people thought that registering to vote was very unsafe, and that 20 times as many people were satisfied with the way in which they registered to vote as the number who were dissatisfied?
My hon. Friend makes her case eloquently, and she is a great champion of ensuring that members of the public in her constituency and elsewhere are on the register. We need to support that sentiment, and only we in the Chamber can do so.
We do that partly through the activities of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which I am fortunate to chair. It is an active Committee, and some of its members are in the Chamber: my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths). I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who spoke on behalf of the Committee when I was absent due to ill health when this matter was last debated.
We have worked together, and we have worked with the Government, to try to make the proposal better. Given the exchanges that have taken place, the House is in severe danger of doing the job that members of the public elected it to do. The Government have submitted a pre-legislative proposal to the Select Committee, which is how things should happen. The Select Committee responded with non-partisan efforts to determine a better Bill and to make better proposals, some of which have already been heard by the Government. Today, we are having a measured debate. There may not be a great drama if we tend to agree on a number of the issues, but that is what the House should do when proposed legislation is introduced, so that we end up with better legislation.
My hon. Friend is making a good speech and an important contribution to the debate. Will he comment on the concerns, particularly in urban areas, about the change to individual registration without safeguards? Those of us who represent such areas will have far more people to represent, often with far greater problems.
My hon. Friend, as always, is well ahead of me, and I shall come on to those points.
Something that unites everyone in the House is the feeling that individual voter registration is right. We have heard concern from Members from all parts of the House that unless the measure is implemented effectively we could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I do not think that anyone wants that to happen. Listening to us in the House and making sure that this is done properly will ensure that the measure—what the Electoral Commission called the “biggest change” in the franchise since the introduction of universal suffrage—is implemented effectively so that everyone can benefit, rather than partially or going off at half-cock and getting it all wrong.
Our anxiety in the Select Committee fell into several parts. The blockbuster came when we heard from the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators about the fact that if we did not do this right, not only might 10,000 people on average in every constituency not appear on the register, as only 90% of people would register, but that that figure could drop by a third, making the situation even worse, perhaps going down to 60%. That was a shock to the Select Committee and to members of all parties represented on it. I know that that is not the Minister’s intention, and that he will keep listening to ensure that as many people as possible are on the register.
Our anxieties—I shall put them to the Minister again—covered a number of areas. First, I pay tribute to him and to his colleagues for listening to what we had to say on the opt-out: the tick box saying “Don’t bother me any more. I don’t want to be registered. Leave me alone.” The fact that the Government listened to those representations very early bodes well for future amendments.
Secondly, on the issue of registration and whether non-registration should be an offence, I ask the Government to think again. We heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said about the evidence from Rhyl. He made a compelling case that there may well be a better way to deal with the matter. Perhaps it is not by means of a £1,000 fine or by taking up half the space of the form with bold red capitals, but maybe it is. I ask the Government to take the matter away and think again. There are people who need a little encouragement, a little nudge to register, and across the House we should consider the best way to do that.
My third point concerns the full household canvass. I do not know whether the Minister said anything about that, but I hope he is keeping an open mind as the process develops. One of the particular concerns of the Committee were the areas that already have high rates of under-registration. We need to consider whether there is something we can do across the board or in those specific circumstances to ensure that something is done in areas that are brought to our attention as having a large unregistered population. I hope the Minister will look at that.
Another point that came up repeatedly was the funding of electoral registration officers. I will not get into the subject of local government expenditure and reductions, but we cannot put a price on democracy. If additional resources are needed or existing resources ought to be ring-fenced, we would all commend the Government for thinking further about that. I say no more than that. I do not offer a magic solution. I do not propose any more than was suggested in Committee, but I hope that electoral registration and returning officers locally are given the sort of support that will enable thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands of people to participate in our democracy, as is their right.
I guess colleagues have very much in mind yet another redistribution of parliamentary seats and boundary changes. If there is a catastrophic fall in the numbers of people on the registers, all of us, regardless of party, nation or region within the United Kingdom, will again face the merry-go-round of boundary redistribution. All I will say to the Minister is that if this debate is an exemplar of the way we can conduct our business in the House and reach as close to consensus as we can, perhaps the way in which previous Bills have been dealt with is an example of how not to do it. Let us not inadvertently have a rerun of the boundary changes under which we are all labouring now, with the accidental reduction of a register causing yet another boundary change. I hope that lesson can be learned, otherwise Members in the House will be representing numbers rather than places and people.
Finally, I commend the Government and my Front-Bench team for the way we have managed through the parliamentary process—of course there have been the ding-dongs, the public exchange of insults and so on—to make a better proposal than we started with. I hope very much that the Government, who have listened, will continue to listen and that we will have a piece of legislation that we can be proud of and that introduces individual voter registration in a way that we would all want.
I would like to cover a couple of elements connected with the prospective legislation though perhaps not the main business. The Minister makes eye contact with me, so I am sure he can imagine what one of those elements will be. First, I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and his Committee for the work that they have done, although I take issue with one aspect of that, to which I shall return as the second of my two points.
My first point relates to multiple property owners. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr Offord) referred to this issue, but it has a particular resonance in constituencies such as mine where many properties are second or holiday homes. I pay tribute to a local campaigner, Mr Angus Lamond, who stood as an independent candidate for Cornwall council in the first elections to that new authority in 2009. He stood in a coastal ward with a high number of such properties and noticed that their owners were being targeted in a particular way to get them out to vote. According to the Electoral Commission’s guidance, it seems that many of them should not have been on the local electoral register, because we are talking not about people who divide their time relatively equally between two places, but about those who spend a few weekends or a few weeks in the summer in their properties and who are, according to my definition, in no way resident in the community. Some of those people have had second homes for many years and play an active role in the community, for example by fundraising for the local lifeboat, but as a general principle it ought to be the people who live in the community who get to vote, particularly in local authority elections.
I have been told that it is perfectly legal for people to be registered in a number of places and to vote in other local elections on the same day by postal vote. I would like us to consider whether that is right, because by allowing that we are effectively saying that those who are fortunate enough to own more than one property can have more of a say in what goes on in this country than those who are not, and I find that very difficult. If we are to have a system that recognised that some people genuinely live in two parts of the country for different parts of the year, whether because of their business lives, family circumstances or studies, I do not have a problem with making them specify which home they regard as their primary address. If one is talking to our great friends in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for capital gains purposes—famously, some former Members might have juggled the property they registered with HMRC as their normal residence—one should have to specify where and in which community ones lives.
If we are to have an electoral system based on constituency mandate—I, of course, favour a more proportional system—that mandate is very important and should be the same for local and national elections. Is there really a problem otherwise? Two of the constituencies in Cornwall were decided at the last general election by small majorities: one changed hands with a majority of 66 and the other was won by fewer than 500 votes. I am in no way criticising the duly elected Members of Parliament for those constituencies, who I am sure won fair and square; I am merely making the point that we are talking about sometimes very narrow margins of victory.
I am not convinced that the current proposals will address the problem that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. I wonder what his view is of the coalition Government’s decision not to go ahead with the system proposed by the previous Government, which would have enabled such cross-checking. Under the current proposals, so long as an elector provides their local electoral registration officer with their identifier, they could still register in more than one place, which I think is what he believes to be a problem.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I have discussed this with the Minister informally and in meetings, including one that involved the constituent I mentioned earlier. I am seeking to urge the Minister to do all he can to provide local electoral registration officers with the tools they need for cross-checking so that they can be confident that the people who are presented to them are resident in the community. In the best-case scenario, we have people who are on the register and who scrupulously ensure that they vote in two places only in local elections and only in one place in general elections. Of course, some of them might vote in both places in a general election, or even in three or four places. Realistically, what electoral registration officer will have the wherewithal to indentify where an elector’s other properties are and to get hold of the marked register for those places in order to perform that cross-checking? I am genuinely concerned about that and hope that the Minister will take my comments on board and look at what can be done.
There are further connected issues. If we as a Government are moving towards more consultative referendums locally on planning and local plans, I can see a slight diversion of interest in an area between those who have a second home and those who are trying desperately to secure an affordable home when it comes to what the local plan says about, for example, the provision of affordable housing and where it might be located.
The same thing might be said of a referendum under the Localism Act 2011 to vary council tax upwards in order to provide local services, with local authorities quite rightly having to make the case to the electorate on such issues. People who are not so involved in the services in an area may still have a view on having to pay for them. The flipside of that argument is no taxation without representation, but that does not apply to council tax. With business rates, people have a big stake in a local community, but they have not had the opportunity to vote in local elections for a long time, and we should see people who have the luxury of a second property as being more in line with people who operate a business in that area, rather than as a resident paying council tax. I urge the Minister to ensure that that question is addressed as we move forward.
My second point, on which I disagree slightly with the report by the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, is about the edited register, which does a huge amount of good for business. We have heard already about tackling credit card fraud, and the agencies that pursue it often use the edited register. The Salvation Army and others do fantastic work in reuniting separated families, and it has told me how much it relies on the edited register to do so. Many other practitioners in the field reunite people who have been adopted with their birth parents, and other family members who have lost contact with each other.
Work is undertaken on dormant assets and matters of probate, and the people involved all make use of the edited register, so I hope that when the Minister comes to legislate he will think carefully about how that aspect of the register is treated. I accept that for reasons of safety people should be able to opt out, and we have that safeguard in place already, but when the edited register meets so many demands in society it ought to be a provision that we retain. Charity fundraisers, a category that I did not mention, also make great use of the register, so before we throw it out we should look at what it achieves.
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on the importance of a canvass in the run-up to a general election, and many have made the point that a 2014 canvass would help a great deal with preparations for the next general election. So, although I shall happily support the Government tonight, I urge the Minister to consider carefully the key issues of the edited register and second-home voters.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate, which gives us the chance to consider what sort of democracy we want in this country. There is, as several Members have said, a distinct choice when it comes to how we see voting: it is either a civic duty or, at the other end of the spectrum, a consumer choice. The current system is clearly based on the principle of civic duty, but I note the Minister’s earlier description of the second form as an invitation to register, and the Government’s proposals move us significantly towards the consumer choice end of the spectrum.
Notwithstanding the Government’s back-pedalling on the opt-out, which I welcome, there remains substantial concern across the board about the impact of their proposals on the number of people who will be knocked off the electoral register. We know who those people are: they are those who are more mobile, younger people, those from black and minority ethnic communities, and those who are poorer.
I recognise the case for individual voter registration, but I am not convinced that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, particularly if it is implemented in the way the Government plan. Household registration is effectively a census. It is a statement of all those who live in a house and are eligible to vote. Individual registration, without the efforts to secure the registration of every individual being substantially enhanced, is an unambiguous move towards consumer choice. Far from strengthening registration efforts, the Government’s plans will weaken them.
Let me share a tale of two constituencies—mine and that of my neighbour, the Deputy Prime Minister. Mine is in the heart of the city, it is multicultural, and it has large council estates, houses in multiple occupation and two universities. Already, 17% of households have nobody on the register. The Deputy Prime Minister’s seat consists largely of Sheffield’s leafy suburbs and is the only traditionally Conservative seat in south Yorkshire. It has only 4% of households with nobody on the register. Assuming that we both had an average constituency of 74,000 registered voters, the Deputy Prime Minister would represent 77,000 people and I would represent 89,000. If we sank to a level of 60% registration and the boundaries were redrawn, I would represent 123,000 people —nearly twice as many.
Taken with the boundary changes, the effect of this system is clear: in 2015, people in seats such as mine will be substantially under-represented and people in seats such as the Deputy Prime Minister’s will be over-represented. That will be exacerbated in 2020. The Deputy Prime Minister has, rather extravagantly, compared his ambitions for our democracy with the Great Reform Act of 1832. However, this is the Great Reform Act in reverse. That Act increased representation in our cities. The drift of the Government’s agenda for our democracy will reduce representation in our cities.
I will mention one particular sector of voters, young people, who were also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). In many households that I canvassed in the lead-up to the general election, it was clear that there were young people on the register who would not have been on it if it had not been for mum and dad putting them there. Because they were on it, they said, after discussion, that they would vote, although not necessarily for me.
One section of young people that has raised its concerns directly with me is students. I understand why the Deputy Prime Minister might not be keen on students voting in quite the same numbers at the next general election as at the last. At the university of Sheffield, there is block registration of all eligible students in university accommodation. That will end with the proposed legislation. One student officer at the university, Harry Horton, made a strong case that he asked me to raise. He pointed out that students often move houses on an annual basis, and sometimes even more regularly. Students also often live in houses in multiple occupancy. When registering to vote, any member of the household can fill in the form on behalf of the whole group and register everyone together. That makes a difficult process much easier and ultimately increases turnout in elections. It is easier to convince one person to do a job than eight.
The same sort of case can be made for all the groups that are likely to lose out as a result of the Government’s measures. I do not have the time to go through them. I say simply that if the Government do not think again, it will be no wonder if the legislation is seen by many as gerrymandering—putting party advantage before democratic benefit.
May I add my plaudits to those of hon. Members who have gone before? I do not wish to play Yoko to the John of the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) in this love-in. However, I congratulate the Minister on the way in which he has brought forward this proposal. As a newly elected Member of Parliament, I think this is exactly the way in which legislation should be introduced and discussed. It should be done in a considered way in order to develop legislation that works for people. The reason we are here is to have legislation that improves the lot of our country.
The Minister has been generous with his time. There has been a huge amount of pre-legislative scrutiny in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and he has been incredibly generous in discussing the issues that we have raised with him in a number of grillings. Not only that, he has gone away and thought about the issues and come back to the Committee with changes and amendments. That has helped the work of the Committee. I also pay tribute to our Chairman, the hon. Member for Nottingham North. He has managed to unite a group of MPs with wide-ranging views on this issue in the report. I commend it to all colleagues.
It is interesting that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), in the kind of speech that we have become accustomed to expect from him, prayed in aid the Electoral Commission in saying that this policy was a throwback to ancient times and a terrible thing. The reality is that in all the deliberations and discussions of the Committee and among all the people who gave evidence to us, not one person said that they did not believe that individual elector registration was the right thing to do. We should bear that in mind.
I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who made a considered and conciliatory argument. I appreciated the tone of his speech. The constituents who are avidly watching this debate in Burton and across the country will appreciate that this is an incredibly important issue. It is to our credit that we are conducting this debate in the way that we are.
In the few minutes that I have, I want to talk first about the principle. It cannot be right that in 2012 we are clinging to a patriarchal or matriarchal system in which the head of the household is responsible for whether people are registered to vote in general elections. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who is no longer in her place, talked about the relationship between people and the Government as a contract. She went on to say that the relationship was not between a person and the Government, but between their mum and the Government, because it was their mum who had registered them.
Opposition Members have talked about the increasing number of people who are not registered to vote. I gently point out that it was under 13 years of Labour Administration and under the current system that those numbers increased. I argue that individual voter registration —giving people a connection with, a right to and responsibility for their vote—could, if it is used properly, connect with people at an early age and encourage them to take an interest in whether they should vote.
I urge the Minister to take on board the potential of new technology. I recently registered to change the photograph on my driving licence. The 18 months or so since I had become an MP had taken a toll and I needed to change the picture. The Government gateway was an amazing tool. I went on, registered and gave some basic information, and three days later my new photo driving licence arrived with my photograph and my signature. That kind of technology could be hugely helpful in getting people to register to vote.
One issue is people registering on the electoral register to commit fraud. I point, of course, to the recent report by the Metropolitan Police Service, which analysed 29,000 pieces of information that had been found on forged and counterfeit documents. Forty-five per cent. of the addresses were on the electoral register fraudulently. It is clear that people are using the ease with which one can get on the electoral register to commit fraud.
I urge the Minister to continue to listen. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is grateful for his changes to the tick-box system, but we have some concerns about the roll-over in 2014. We ask that he consider the recommendations in our report on the use of specific, targeted resources in areas where there is low registration, to ensure that everybody has the right to vote.
Under the Government’s proposals as they stand, people who do not register individually by the end of autumn 2015 will find themselves removed from the register, and therefore ineligible to vote. That will have a particular effect in Wales, because the Welsh Assembly Government elections and all-out council elections will both take place in 2016. What happens in the autumn of 2015 is therefore crucial, and taking liberties with experimentation at that time does not seem the best way forward. However, given that the Government propose that programme, I should like to suggest some ways in which matters could be improved.
It is obviously very important that every effort is made to ensure that individual registration is carried out effectively and does not result in a drop in registration from 90% to 65%, which is what the Electoral Commission has suggested may happen. We are proud of our reputation as a well respected democracy, and we should ensure that our voter registration percentage is as high as possible.
I certainly welcome the use of cross-referencing, with the use of information from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, for example, to help identify those who have not registered. However, we need far more than that to make a success of the reform. As the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has stated:
“The Government should publish a detailed implementation plan alongside the introduction of legislation”
for individual elector registration, so that electoral registration officers and the Electoral Commission can comment on its feasibility. We need to know what measures the Government will take and what resources they will use to maximise voter registration and ensure that some of the most vulnerable groups in the most deprived areas are not disfranchised.
It seems very confusing that the household will send back the household survey form, and then people will also have to return individual forms. A lot of people will think that they have already registered, and there will be plenty of complaints about both the bureaucracy and cost of the process.
How will the Government maximise registration and prevent a dramatic drop in registration rates? We need both sanctions and incentives. Several Members have mentioned sanctions, and there is no doubt that without a proper sanction, whatever form it might take—my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) suggested a fixed penalty system—there will not be sufficient incentive to register to vote.
I am horrified by the proposal to do away with the annual canvass. The Government should be doing precisely the opposite and providing funding for councils to do extra work and a thorough job. Such funding needs to be ring-fenced, particularly in the difficult economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. If the money is not ring-fenced, it will clearly not be used for that purpose. Furthermore, additional funds need to be allocated to councils with a large number of difficult-to-register people, for instance in wards with transient populations or with large numbers of people from groups among whom voter registration is known to be low.
We want to know what plans the Government have to make a success of individual voter registration. The Minister mentioned school visits, but we will need much more than that. Such visits may be a way to encompass 16 to 18-year-olds, but when we talk about young people we can mean those up to the age of 30 or so, many of whom are not registered to vote. We need a raft of awareness-raising measures and a proper, professional advertising campaign. We need to use every single means that there is—the internet, television and so on—and be really determined. It is no good having a half-hearted campaign.
We need people to have a lot of opportunities to register, whether at the supermarket or where they buy their lottery tickets. The Government need to put some thought into where people can register to vote. We need online registration, obviously, but also online advertising. We also need a painstaking door-to-door canvass, because the canvassers will have to return to houses again and again to get all the individual forms. They may meet mum on the doorstep, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, but mum will say, “Well, I’ve got to fill in all these forms, and I’ve got to find so-and-so, and I’ve got to find his national insurance number.” She will have to fill in all the forms, and maybe she will have to ring a couple of her children to find out their NI numbers—I am sure she will remember their dates of birth. The extra process may mean canvassers going back more than once to collect forms. We therefore need the input of an annual canvass.
Councils themselves also need incentives and sanctions to a certain degree. It is very odd, therefore, that there will not be any monitoring of overall registration levels by the Electoral Commission. There is no doubt that such reporting provides councils with an incentive to improve and people with an opportunity to ask electoral registration officers why the registration percentages are not very good in their area. It is very disappointing that that will not take place.
I hope that the Minister will work towards better implementation, getting plans out very early and ensuring that there are sufficient resources; £104 million is only 50p per person, which is hardly the cost of posting a couple of items, never mind people going around and knocking on doors. The matter needs some attention paid to it, and I hope that he will take that on board.
This is probably the first Opposition day debate that I have attended in which the Opposition substantially agree with the Government. That is quite strange, but I am not responsible for the Opposition’s debate selection.
The Minister is a talented, urbane and civilised chap, if I may say so, and he is far too polite to point out the confusion on the Labour Benches. Members will remember that not long ago we heard the comments of the deputy leader of the Labour party at the party conference. With her customary exaggeration and hyperbole, she said that the Government’s proposals would
“push people off the electoral register—deny them their vote, deny them their voice. The numbers are going to be huge”.
That was palpably nonsense, because that was never the point of the change.
The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) got to the nub of the issue by showing the Labour party’s proprietorial approach towards certain groups of voters—“We know what’s best for you. You’re our voters, and we think the proposals will unnecessarily affect your exercise of the franchise.” That is simply not the case. Today, from some speakers we are hearing politics over principle. It ill behoves them to take that approach, given that when their party was in government it absolutely refused to do anything about the under-registration of military personnel or overseas voters, for example, despite months and years of protestations from Conservative Members. Those are both groups of people who are legitimately entitled to vote in elections. Let us not, in our rush to a consensus, ignore the reality of the 13 years of the Labour Government and their record of under-registration. Hon. Members will know that in 2008 one national newspaper managed to register the name Gus Troobev, an anagram of “bogus voter”, on 31 different electoral rolls in one day.
In Peterborough, for reasons that Members may know, we have had a close acquaintance with electoral fraud, and I draw the Minister’s attention to the issue of personation. In one ward in Peterborough, we now have four separate CCTV cameras in four polling districts because of the threat of personation. In particular, I draw his attention to the Representation of the People Act 1983 and subsequent legislation, which prescribe the actions that presiding officers can take in polling stations if they fear a case of personation. That does not touch directly on the current change, but it is nevertheless a very important issue, and we have had serious problems with it.
The Minister will know that Operation Hooper, the investigation that took place into postal vote fraud at the June 2004 local elections, took four years to be resolved and resulted in the imprisonment of six individuals, three Labour and three Conservative. It cost Cambridgeshire constabulary a huge amount of money, and the cost to an ordinary voter of electoral fraud is another issue to consider.
If the proposals are some sort of wicked Tory plot, which they are to the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, who is rather excitable but passionate, it is a strange plot, because it involves substantial consensus among the academic community, including Dr Toby James of Swansea university, Stuart Wilks-Heeg of Liverpool university, who has been mentioned, and others. The proposals have involved much consultation; flexibility and pragmatism; the data-matching pilots, of which Peterborough city council is one example; transitional arrangements; an exhaustive and detailed Select Committee investigation; and the promise of funding. In addition, the Government have admitted that certain proposals needed to be nuanced, such as the opt-in, opt-out proposals.
Let us remember that in 2008 the Council of Europe stated:
“It does not take an experienced election observer, or election fraudster, to see that the combination of the household registration system without personal identifiers and the postal vote on demand arrangements make the election system in Great Britain very vulnerable to electoral fraud.”
At the time of the 2009 legislation, even Peter Facey, of Unlock Democracy, said:
“We still have 19th-century regulations for a 21st-century situation.”
It is vital that we have eventually reached a consensus, despite references in the debate to the boundary changes. Those references were erroneous because effectively all that matters in respect of the boundary changes is the electorate on the enumeration date of 1 December 2010. Those changes are irrelevant to the substance of this debate.
There is a consensus on voter registration. It should have been brought about many months if not years ago, but I am glad that Labour Front Benchers have had a damascene conversion and understand that the Government’s proposals are about clarity and integrity and, to be fair, the fact that people can choose not to vote, which we must respect. The Government have listened and are going in the right direction, and I look forward to the details of the legislation.
The fight for the franchise and the struggle for citizens to exercise a democratic voice through the ballot box stretch deep into our history. Before and beyond Magna Carta, there has been a battle to establish a just and fair settlement. From the Chartists and the suffragettes to the lowering of the voting age of 18—there are now arguments for votes at 16—there has been an ongoing struggle to ensure that everyone in this country has an equal voice at the ballot box, whatever their class, gender, age, ethnicity or creed. That struggle continues throughout the world, to the far reaches of the planet. The events of last year’s Arab spring remind us—as other events in the world have and will again—how the right to a voice and the right to vote are hard won.
The principle of individual voter registration, therefore, is one that all hon. Members can support; the issue is how the principle is translated into action. The Government suggesting that there should no longer be compulsory registration was a breathtaking departure. I am pleased that the Minister today echoed the Deputy Prime Minister by saying that he is minded to move away from that approach, but if he is so minded, why does he not just say that he is moving away from it and spell out how he will do so?
The removal of any enforcement coupled with a speeded up timetable will result in fewer people registering to vote. According to the Government’s impact assessment, the transition to individual voter registration could result in 7 million or 20% of voters disappearing from the register.
It is good that the Government plan to use HMRC and DVLA data to boost registration, but does my hon. Friend agree that the private sector could be helpful too? For instance, credit reference agencies, which help people to get mortgages, could help to identify voters for registration who might otherwise be missed?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I shall touch on later in my speech.
The danger is that younger voters, poorer voters, voters from ethnic minorities and mobile city dwellers are the most likely to fall through the net. The register is used not only for credit referencing but for jury service, local government and other public service finance settlements, and future constituency boundaries. It is important in our civic society, not just for voting. It is therefore crucial to this Government’s legitimacy and credibility that a measure as sensitive as individual electoral registration is progressed carefully and in a way that does not disfranchise individuals.
There is cross-party agreement on the principle, but delivery needs to be cross-party and consensual too. Transitional arrangements need to be put in place that will not cause significant upset. For example, voters who currently have postal votes should not be compelled to register for those votes on a tight time scale if they do not immediately move to individual registration. Proper transitional arrangements should be put in place to support people rather than coerce them.
The move to IER should be seen as an opportunity to extend the franchise, not to limit it. Indeed, I think the Minister was taking that line in his opening remarks. Any change to IER should be accompanied by an intensive campaign to ensure that the register is as near complete as possible. Such a campaign will require innovative approaches, such as the automatic addition to the register of people who pay council tax or are council tenants, and those who are in receipt of benefits or who have driving licences. Information from credit referencing agencies could be used, and perhaps students could be registered at the age of 16 by schools and colleges. The Minister helpfully drew attention to best practice in Northern Ireland, which needs to be built on in other parts of the UK. What about the use of election day registration, as happens in an increasing number of US states? The Minister shakes his head, but we are talking about making the register as complete as possible, and the opportunity to vote throughout an election period would significantly widen the franchise at the point of its greatest relevance to citizens. It is therefore worthy of consideration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) drew attention in her passionate contribution to the importance of the annual canvass in ensuring that members of the public are properly registered. Jean Basell, a constituent of mine, has done excellent work over many years as a canvasser in north Lincolnshire. She says that without the annual canvass, there will be a significant fall in the number of people registered, and she is somebody with experience of going from door to door in all weathers to lead the canvass.
The Electoral Reform Society was established in 1884. The words of Sir John Lubbock, its founder, should ring in our ears as we contemplate the changes. He said:
“I trust that Great Britain, the mother of Parliaments, may once more take the lead among the great nations of the world by securing for herself a House of Commons which shall really represent the nation.”
We have a duty individually and collectively to move forward in a way that preserves that ambition and integrity.
This debate, which is on voting in this country, is one that is naturally at the heart of our democratic process. In the past, electoral fraud was a small, minor problem, and few people worried about it, but in my view that has changed. The prevailing view is now that electoral fraud is much more widespread than it once was. The numbers being investigated and convicted show that we are certainly going downhill at a rate of knots when it comes to accountability.
In the past, the electoral register was accurate, and fraud was not a major problem. Anyone committing fraud would have needed the bravery to appear at least twice, and perhaps even three times, at the polling booth before they were caught. From what we can tell, that did not happen very often. Today, as a result of postal votes on demand, people can vote without ever having to see anyone. That has led to an unknown number of people listing fictitious residents at their properties and voting by post on their behalf.
I am speaking from personal experience. I have stood in three seaside resorts and have come across situations—including in the 2010 election—in which voters have died six months prior to their votes being cast.
Listing fictitious residents has led to an unknown number of people—
This has led to an unknown number of people listing fictitious residents at their properties and voting by post on their behalf. The vital failsafe in our system—namely, going to the ballot box in person—has been removed. This means we need a new failsafe, and I think that that is agreed on both sides of the House. There are various ways we can do this and I know the last Government saw ID cards as the answer. I do not.
I support fully the proposal to have individual voter registration. It is simple, cheap to administer—unlike ID cards—and fits in with the existing system, because it works on the same principle. Individual voter registration requires very few changes to our system, and we know from Northern Ireland that it works. But in today’s debate, some hon. Members have got two different issues muddled up. One is the issue of fraud that IER seeks to address, and the other is how we encourage more people to go to the ballot box. Making fraud easier will undoubtedly boost turnout, but it will not encourage more real people to vote. People do not bother to put themselves on the electoral register because they do not feel engaged, and do not want to vote. Similarly, there are millions of people on the register who do not want to vote. We need to make those people feel that their votes count.
It is not surprising that people cannot be bothered when 70% of our laws are edicts from an unelected Government in Brussels. People feel as if they cannot make a difference whichever way they vote, and that is the issue that we need to address. I really believe that repatriation of powers from Brussels, devolving more decisions to local councils and electing more police commissioners will help to engage people in the democratic process, but this has nothing to do with individual voter registration.
Individual voter registration is about reducing fraud and building confidence in the system. Today, once again, we see that electoral fraud and confidence in the system seem to be an entirely secondary considerations. They must be our central considerations, not least because people will have less confidence in the system if they feel they will be outvoted by electoral fraudsters. How many people will bother trudging to the ballot box when they rightly or wrongly believe that their views will be overridden by the fraudsters?
Maintaining the status quo will continue to undermine our system, so we do need to encourage more people to the ballot box, but the way to do this is with greater democracy. We need to stop electoral fraud, and the way to do this is to make people register individually.
I want to address one or two issues that have not yet been fully addressed. Reference has been made to the use of data matching to find out where people are so that letters can be sent to get them to register. It is very important that we assess how effective that is, and I hope that the Minister is minded to bring forward the reports on that at the earliest possible opportunity and that we have access to that information when we debate the proposed Bill.
Data matching will not be easy. It is said glibly, “We will have data matching”, but the Select Committee was told that some of the exercises have proved to be a lot more difficult than people anticipated. In Southwark, for example, 25% of Department for Work and Pensions records could not be reconciled with the records held by the local authority. That does not surprise me, especially in a place with a lot of flats and tenements. Addresses in Edinburgh, for example, can be recorded in a number of weird and wonderful ways. Traditional approaches, such as numbering each flat 1, 2, 3 and so on, have been replaced by abbreviations such as PF1, PF2 and so on. Someone might apply for a benefit and put their address as 3/1, but another person might record that address as PF2. Data matching is not, therefore, a magic implement, and we must have the opportunity to assess whether it has worked.
The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) suggested that the issue of the boundaries is irrelevant because the register has been set for the current boundary review. Indeed it has, but the problem will arise in 2015, when the register used for the boundary review will not be the one used in the preceding general election. The Committee has suggested that it would be sensible to use the register as it stands at the general election earlier that year, because it contains the carry-over. That approach would run the least possible risk of our ending up with another set of boundary changes based on a low level of registration. While a low level of registration is not inevitable if we really work at it, the Northern Ireland experience tells us that it is likely to happen at least in the first instance. Whatever happens in the more distant future, I hope that the Government accept that particular recommendation.
Northern Ireland has had more frequent and relatively positive mentions in this debate than in any other debate in which no Northern Ireland Member has sought to catch the Speaker’s eye. In respect of the snakes and ladders experience that Northern Ireland had with individual electoral registration, I encourage Members to note that registration efforts post-election tended to be especially difficult. The Minister has said that he will rely on a canvass in 2015 after the general election, but registration post-election often means that people assume that because they voted at the election they do not need to register. That is one of the lessons that need to be learned.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which supports the point that I was trying to make.
I am also concerned about the issue of postal voters. I am not suggesting that the system is perfect because voters already have to overcome certain hurdles. The signature issue clearly causes problems, especially when signatures change, and people’s votes have been discounted for that reason, but people—especially older people—have been used to getting a postal vote regularly for some time. I am sure that coalition Members have gone door-knocking and have encountered people who say, “I think I have a postal vote, but I’m not sure.” We are usually very reassuring, saying, “Don’t worry, it will come.” During an election campaign, we might say that they are coming out next week. The problem is that many people in that situation will not appreciate that to get their postal vote they will have to go through the individual registration process. Yes, they will be left on the register, at least until May 2015, but they will lose their postal vote. If they lost their postal vote, many of them will simply not be able to register their vote, and that is a very important point.
Given that we have certain safeguards in place for postal voting, and we are allowing the general carry-over, I do not see it as such a big change to suggest that we carry over the postal voting aspect of people’s registration at that stage. As the system beds in, that will probably become less necessary, but at this initial stage there is a great risk that people will discover that they are unable to vote in the next general election—not to mention the boundary issue.
What we really need to do on registration—and no one has done it well enough, although some local authorities are better than others—is to look at imaginative ways to get more people registered. Registration differs so much across cities—even across a ward. I was out door-knocking only yesterday and in one street of terraced houses almost everybody was on the register. Just around the corner, I found a block of six flats where only two households were registered. The two places are not fantastically different sociologically, but flats tend to have higher turnover, and that is the important difference. If we crack that problem, it will make a tremendous difference, but individual voter registration alone will not do it. In fact, the opposite is true, because it will be difficult to get people in multiply occupied flats to register.
The best electoral registration is where local authorities put a lot of resources into doing it and target, not necessarily everybody—a universal door-knocking exercise is not necessary—but those places where there are known to be deficiencies. We know where they are, and that would build up registration, which should be the priority at the moment. On top of that, I hope that the Government accept the recommendations made by the Select Committee on the proposed Bill.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak, particularly because this has been a debate between experts. I am not suggesting that Members are not experts in the subjects of other debates, but we have all won elections so we should know what they are about.
As other Members have said, the tone was set correctly at the beginning of the debate by the shadow Secretary of State and by my hon. Friend the Minister, who engaged in a constructive dialogue on the principle on which we are all agreed of individual voter registration.
I want to take a different approach from other hon. Members, although I support much of what they have said and have listened to the practical comments about the definition of a public duty and so on. I fully understand that, but it must be right in this day and age when we rely so much on democracy and the individual voter casting their own vote in secret that we should expect that that voter takes—and learns—responsibility by registering. I take a certain degree of umbrage at what was said by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), although I know where she is coming from. She talked about mums doing the registering, whereas in other cases fathers do it and in others those whom everyone calls the heads of household do it. As an ex-teacher, I would ask how someone learns—
I will, if the hon. Lady will let me finish. How will someone learn that voting is important and that it is the responsible thing to do if someone else starts the process and puts them on the register? How will they feel that it is important? I am sure that we have all stood outside polling stations doing important things during elections and have seen that a significant number of people who are registered to vote do not have a clue about what to do, what to tick or cross or where to do it. I take on board the points made by the Minister about Northern Ireland and the education system. Perhaps we should debate on another day what we should do in our education system. As an ex-history teacher I might suggest that part of the problem is the fact that narrative history has gone, which means that many of our children have no idea about the amount of effort that went into getting the right to vote. Where do we start to instil the sense of responsibility? I agree that we should start with registration.
I said I would give way to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden.
I am always willing to have a chat afterwards, particularly with the hon. Lady.
My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), talked about fraud. I know that Labour Members have said that there are only one or two examples, but I have a suggestion for the Minister. I know that he is a listening Minister, as has been proven by this debate, on certain points. There are higher allegations of fraud in particular areas. There is not a massive amount of proof but, according to the polls, a third of the population believe that there is something dodgy about the way we vote. I commend the Minister for saying that we must try to prove to people that this system is as safe as we can get it and that individuals must therefore be responsible for registering, so that they cannot say that somebody else filled in the form for them. That message is vital. I think that somewhere there are draft proposals that people who act as proxies should by definition be registered voters. I fully support that, but I urge the Minister to go back to the old system for proxies.
With proxies, there has always been the allegation that something dodgy is involved because somebody has someone else’s vote. Before 2000, when certain laws were made a little more lax, when someone went to get a proxy they had to have a witness. Once we dropped the witness from those forms, anybody could allege anything because the party worker or candidate could get a proxy off someone and nobody else would know. It was a complicated process and the neighbour was usually the witness, but at least a third party was involved in what was seen as the most tricky element of the system. I urge the Minister to consider reintroducing that.
The issue of fraud was raised with me at the last general election. It did not affect my seat, but, in a certain seat, somebody said that they had gone to vote but somebody had already voted for them, so they came back and rang the different parties in desperation. My party advised them to go along and ask for a tendered ballot. Interestingly, the polling station did not have tendered ballots and some of the polling officers did not even know what one was. I have spoken to a number of people involved in elections who do not know what tendered ballots are and I suggest that we need some education on that. If anyone who believed that someone else had voted for them was automatically given a tendered ballot—I think they are pink, for some reason—those ballots could be stacked up and would provide proof in the polling stations of the level of accusations about fraud in that area.
As I understand it, there is a lack of information for parties, electoral officers in polling stations and the electorate about the ability to ask for a tendered ballot. That is one small practical suggestion that might deal with accusations and counter-accusations of fraud. We could then ask electoral registration officers to add up the number of tendered ballots in various areas, which would give us a better idea of where police investigations were needed and of the extent to which it was believed that fraud was going on. I shall vote against the Opposition motion this evening, because we need as soon as possible to get individual registration and responsibility for the most important act in a democracy—that of voting.
I apologise to the House, the Minister and my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for not being in the Chamber for the opening speeches. I had made Mr Speaker aware of that.
Today’s debate goes to the heart of our democracy, because it is about people going to a polling station and casting their vote. We need to strike a balance between protecting against electoral fraud and not further disfranchising large sections of society from the formal political process. I have three concerns about the Government’s proposals: the rapid timetable for change; the erosion of the civic duty to register; and the long-term deterioration in the accuracy of the register.
We have already heard from numerous colleagues the astonishing figures for the number of people missing from registers, generally made up of the most vulnerable in our society. The Electoral Commission has raised serious concerns about the effect of the rapid timetable for the introduction of individual voter registration on the completeness of the electoral register. Its dire warning is that under voluntary individual voter registration, the electoral register could go from its current level of completeness down to as low as 60% or 65%. That would mean an astonishing 10 million plus voters falling off the register. We have seen what happened initially in Northern Ireland.
I fear that social divisions could widen, but that does not need to be the case. Individual voter registration could, without the haste with which the Government are seeking to introduce it, take away that threat. I am concerned that, despite the previous agreement of all political parties that the previous Government’s timetable was a sensible approach, the draft legislation proposes to remove the safeguards and simply to bring individual voter registration into force by 2014.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) wants to make a speech, so let me merely say that the principle of voter registration as a method of preventing electoral fraud and providing proper safeguards is what most of us are looking for, but the Government proposals are unfair and unforgiveable and need to be rethought.
We know that some 5 million people who are eligible to vote have not registered to do so, and the Government’s proposed reform will allow another 5 million-odd people to be knocked off the register. These reforms, plus the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, are a blatant example of gerrymandering of the type that the former leader of Westminster city council, who is now a fugitive from justice living in Israel and who was knighted for her dishonourable action, carried out on a magnificent scale in Westminster.
Some 10 million people will not be on the register because of a number of the Government’s proposals. If the Minister makes the following promises, my party will be able to support him: first, that the signing of the electoral register will not be optional; secondly, that door-to-door canvassing of properties that fail to reply to the electoral register will take place in 2014; thirdly, that postal and proxy voters who do not provide new personal information or send back new forms will be allowed to vote in 2015—as we know, the majority of such voters tend to be elderly—and, fourthly, that anyone who does not fill in the form properly, or who opts out, will be included in the 2015 boundary review.
The Labour party proposed that IER should be introduced in 2020, but only after the Electoral Commission has established the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the register. The Government should not abolish the Electoral Commission’s role, and the changes should not go live in 2015. The current proposal will reduce the numbers on the electoral register to as little as 65% of the population. That is the prediction of the independent Electoral Commission. As a result, millions of people will be disfranchised.
Those who will lose the ability to vote are likely to be the young, those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, the disabled and those in social and private rented accommodation. This is a partisan move, and if the Government have their way, for the first time in its history the electoral register will become unrepresentative of the population as a whole. It is imperative that people beyond Parliament recognise just how insidious these proposals are: never before has the very fabric of our democracy been at risk. Every democrat has a duty to defend it.
Today’s debate has been a good one, with contributions from about 20 Members, and no one has spoken against the principle of individual electoral registration. Some Members are entirely happy with the Government’s proposals—I am thinking of the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Burton (Andrew Griffiths)—but a number of Members on both sides of the House have expressed reservations. They include my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), among many others.
Significantly, Members’ concerns are reflected in the opinions of many others outside the House who share our belief in the importance of representative democracy. The Electoral Commission, in particular, has made trenchant but very constructive criticisms, and the worries that Members have expressed today are increasingly expressed by those who recognise that the devil is in the detail of the Government’s proposals. As Members have said, we are discussing a huge change to our voting system. This is an issue that deserves to be understood and widely debated the length and breadth of our country. It is far too important to be the preserve of academics and political anoraks.
The Opposition believe that there is a very strong case for individual electoral registration in principle: it can reduce electoral fraud and is in tune with the modern structure of today’s families. Indeed, the previous Labour Government,’s proposals for the introduction of IER commanded a cross-party consensus. Unfortunately, the Government have ended any idea of a bipartisan approach towards constitutional reform, and their plans for IER have placed a question mark over the future integrity of the electoral register.
In the Government’s IER White Paper, electoral registration is seen no longer as an individual’s civic duty but as
“a matter of choice for the individual”.
At present, if the head of a household fails to co-operate with an electoral registration officer and does not return a completed electoral registration form, they can be fined £1,000. The Government say that that will remain—indeed it will—but crucially the obligation will not apply to individuals, yet this is all about individual electoral registration. Instead, individuals will now be invited to join the electoral register if they are so inclined.
We can easily visualise an ERO—if, indeed, there are EROs in the future—knocking on the door of someone’s home. A busy young mum comes to the door in the middle of making her children’s tea. The registration officer asks that young mum if she would like to fill in a form to be on the electoral register by writing down her date of birth and national insurance number. The busy mum explains that she is in the middle of making the kids’ tea and asks the ERO whether she really has to fill in the form. The ERO says, “No, it’s a matter of personal choice.” The predictable reply is, “Fine, in that case I won’t bother. I have to make the kids’ tea. Goodbye.”
Come the general election, that young mum believes that she has an opportunity to shape the country that her children are growing up in. She wants her children to have the best possible education and to have jobs when they grow up, and she wants her family to live in a safe community. She has taken the trouble to read all the parties’ manifestos and she has given careful thought to how she is going to cast her vote. She then goes along to her polling station on election day, but when she gets there she is told that she cannot vote because she is not on the electoral register.
Our fear is that millions of young mums will be excluded from the democratic process because they are not on the electoral register. All the evidence suggests that the young, the disabled, members of the black and ethnic minority communities, those who frequently move and people living in private rented and public housing will be the people most likely not to be on the electoral register under the Government’s proposals. These are the people who are threatened with disfranchisement.
The impartial Electoral Commission has predicted that if the Government do not change their plans, in some areas the number of people on the electoral register could be as low as 60% of the population. The number of people on the electoral register also determines the shape and size of our parliamentary constituencies. Members do not need reminding that we are going through a parliamentary boundary review. In 2015, there will be another boundary review, and if the electorate has been significantly reduced in certain areas, we will see further boundary changes that will have a big impact on inner-city and less prosperous areas of the country.
The electoral register is a foundation on which our representative democracy is built, so it is wrong that it is being put in danger by these proposals, but, as Members have highlighted, it is important for other reasons too, and I will refer briefly to two. First, credit rating agencies regularly refer to the electoral register when deciding whether to provide a loan or mortgage to an individual or family. If someone is not on the electoral register, their chances of securing a loan are diminished. Secondly, in our legal system, juries are drawn from the electoral register. If our electoral register comprises a disproportionately large number of white, middle-aged, elderly and middle-class people, the likelihood is that our juries will reflect that. At a time when it is so important that we build trust in our criminal justice system and the rule of law, it is imperative that we have juries in which people can have faith and confidence.
I welcome the Government’s confirmation that they intend to drop their permanent opt-out option—that is one less drop of venom—but we will look carefully at what the Government actually propose in their Bill, and I have to say that they will need to make many more changes before their plans are acceptable. Before they publish their IER Bill, I urge them to stop and listen to the many informed voices now urging them to change their proposals. In particular, I urge them to heed the advice of the Electoral Commission, which has argued that there should be a full household canvass in 2014. It is right about that.
At the same time, the Government should use the opportunity to explain to electors that the system is changing and publish a detailed implementation plan when they introduce their primary legislation. Moreover, they should ensure that a consistent electoral service is provided to all parts of the country and that sufficient resources are provided to guarantee that as many people as possible are on the electoral register.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has produced an excellent report on IER. I congratulate the Committee on its work and its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), on his first-rate speech this evening. I now urge the Government to act upon the Committee’s eminently sensible proposals, and I would like to refer to one of those proposals in particular. As well as broadly supporting the Electoral Commission’s views, the Committee has recommended that the Government allow postal and proxy voting to be carried forward to the 2015 general election. I think that makes sense, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Finally, above all else I urge the Government to recognise that being on the electoral register is a civic duty and not a lifestyle choice. Surely every Member in this House believes that our parliamentary democracy needs the active participation of the people of this country in the democratic process. Surely we should do all we can to have as many people as possible on the electoral register. The essential point is that people can choose whether or not to exercise their right to vote only if they are on the electoral register. I therefore urge the Government to listen to the genuine voices of concern and ensure that their Bill reinforces our democracy, rather than undermine it.
I, too, welcome the opportunity to have today’s debate and, generally, the tone of the debate. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) and the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David)—I think: he was a bit recidivist in places—for, generally speaking, the way they approached the issue.
I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, for his comments. As he set out, what has happened in this case is, to some extent, the model of how we ought to approach legislation, where the Government put forward their proposals, ask for detailed consideration, ask experts and those in the House with a particular interest to make their comments, and then respond, positively wherever possible, to those suggestions. That seems to me to be the iterative process that we have followed in this instance. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman was supported in that view by other members of his Committee, such as the hon. Members for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) and for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore).
Let me deal with one issue that the hon. Member for Nottingham North raised. The Government will very soon issue a detailed response to the points raised by his Committee. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who has responsibility for constitutional reform, has agreed to look again at whether there is any way of improving the proposal for the 2014 canvass, noting that the Electoral Commission has suggested moving the 2013 canvass to early 2014. Again, that is a recommendation that he will consider carefully.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East, asked how the effectiveness of data matching will be assessed. That I absolutely agree that the information should be brought forward for the benefit of the House when it considers the proposals in detail, which will include not only the Government’s assessment, but the Electoral Commission’s assessment, which it is preparing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) made one of the most important points in this debate when he said that the choice is not between integrity and completeness. That is absolutely right: we need both. Indeed, that is where the Government have continually placed the emphasis in this matter. It is right that we should move to a system of individual registration. Our current system is outdated and far too vulnerable to electoral fraud—the point raised by the hon. Members for Hendon (Mr Offord), for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw).
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) talked about international election observation missions. I have been on many such missions in other countries—indeed, I have led them—and have consistently found it embarrassing to point out that we have none of the safeguards that we insist upon for other countries to keep our system free from fraud. There is a genuine threat to what we have in this country. I am therefore grateful that there is, or appears to be, general support for the move to individual registration. I accept that concerns have been raised about the detail of some of the proposals—many hon. Members have touched on those points—but the encouraging tone of this debate and the general agreement on the value of individual electoral registration are to be welcomed.
The message obviously did not quite get through to some colleagues on the Opposition Benches—whether their text messaging went awry, I do not know. Clearly the hon. Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane)––whose speech I have heard many times now––for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) do not entirely accept that principle. So be it. They are entitled to disagree with the manifesto on which they stood, if they wish.
Let me address some of the other points that were raised. The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) said that some councils do a much better job of electoral registration than others. Perhaps we ought to look more at why some councils fail in that task, whereas others do not. He thinks that there are insufficient checks on personation, which that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is looking at.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion talked about the position in areas with lots of students and people in houses in multiple occupation. It is interesting that the research shows that the biggest determinant of incompleteness in the register is actually length of residence. The completeness rate is only 26% among those who have been resident for less than a year, compared with 91% among those who have lived in their properties for over five years. That is where we need to concentrate our efforts.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) talked about second home owners. The important thing in this instance is that electoral registration officers should actually apply the law. Very often the problem is not that the law is incomplete, but that people do not apply the law as it stands.
One point that has been raised repeatedly is about the civic duty to vote. Let us be absolutely clear: the Government believe that there is a civic duty to vote, and there is no change—[Interruption.] I do apologise: to register, rather. Let us be clear: the Government believe that there is a civic duty to register—in fact, there is a civic duty to vote as well, but the point today is about the civic duty to register. It is because we have listened to the points that have been made that, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary repeated, we are thinking again about the so-called opt-out provision, which the hon. Member for Sheffield Central described as back-pedalling. It is not back-pedalling to put forward a proposition, listen to the response and then adapt proposals to meet those responses. We will never have a grown-up Parliament if we cannot do that without people criticising the process.
The hon. Member for Scunthorpe is normally very moderate in the way he presents his case to the House, but I am afraid that today he was a little edgy on this issue. He simultaneously said that we should learn from Northern Ireland, where there is no canvass, and then talked about the crucial importance of the canvass—a slight inconsistency. Of course we must learn the lessons from Northern Ireland, because there are important lessons to be learned. Indeed, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) raised one of them in an intervention, when he talked about the canvass immediately after an election.
The overall position of right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate is that they want individual electoral registration, but not at the expense of the completeness of the register. We understand that, which is why we are determined to do everything we can not only to maintain the register’s completeness, but to go further and ensure that we reach those parts that have not been reached before. That is why my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is working overtime to look at ways to address that issue and ensure that councils that are perhaps not as assiduous or competent in reaching the electors in their areas are encouraged to do so.
We must be careful when we talk about this issue not only to avoid plucking figures from the air or assuming that we can quote any old figure and it will be believed, but so as not to be as patronising as I felt some contributions today were to some of our electorate, by assuming that young people simply will not register if their mums do not tell them to do so. That has not my experience when talking to young people in our schools and colleges, and it has not been the experience of the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean in Northern Ireland, where this system is already in place and where there is a higher level of registration among young people attaining the age at which they can register than there is in Great Britain.
I am optimistic that we can get this right. We must continue to listen, and to bring forward our proposals. I hope that the legislation will go ahead and be successfully implemented, and that we will then continue to monitor it to see whether it is effective. That is what the hon. Member for Nottingham North was talking about, and that is the way in which the process ought to work, particularly in areas as crucial as voter registration and the electoral system in this country. I ask hon. Members to reject the motion before us today, but I ask them, as my hon. Friend the Minister did, to do so in the right spirit, and to take a constructive view of how we can move forward together to get this right.