[Relevant documents: The Tenth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2010-12, on Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration, HC 1463, and the Government’s response, Cm 8245.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Electoral Registration and Administration Bill will tackle electoral fraud by speeding up the introduction of individual electoral registration—that is, requiring electors to register individually rather than by households. In doing so, we will move towards a system in which individuals have to provide information to enable their application to be verified. That will modernise our electoral registration system, facilitate the move to online registration and make it more convenient for people to register to vote. We want to tackle electoral fraud, increase the number of people registered to vote and improve the integrity of the electoral register.
This is a very early intervention, but 23,388 of our fellow citizens living abroad are entitled to vote, while 1,147,401 French citizens will be voting in the French parliamentary elections next month. Why do we deny that core citizenship right to so many of our fellow citizens simply because they do not live within the UK? I am not sure that the situation is within the purview of the Bill, but it represents a shameful denial when other countries are so much better than we are.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. There are about 5 million British citizens overseas, and there is a debate to be had about the length of time—currently 15 years—that one should remain entitled to vote. Of the 5 million citizens overseas, only 30,000 or so are registered to vote, and for those who have been overseas for less than 15 years there is no bar at all on voting.
There are questions to be asked of all of us about why those people do not feel the urge to register and to cast their vote in our elections, but in part 2 of the Bill, which I shall come on to later, we are going to lengthen the period of a general election campaign, making it more practical for overseas voters to receive and to cast a postal vote so that it counts in an election. I hope that that will be helpful.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early in our deliberations. The point about overseas electors bears a great deal of exploration. If they are not going to participate, alongside citizens who are still resident, in the democratic process and in our constituency-based system, will more information be provided to political parties and to independent candidates about how to contact overseas electors? The information that has been on the electoral register up until now would not allow for much discussion or interaction with them.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point—to which we might return in Committee, given that I have not got very far with my speech and want to make a little progress before I take any more interventions.
As I was saying to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), part 2 also contains provisions to improve the administration and conduct of elections, thereby serving to increase voter participation and to make a number of improvements to the running of elections.
Before I explain the rationale behind our proposals, I shall deal briefly with the Opposition’s reasoned amendment and approach.
Before the Minister turns to the burden of his argument, may I congratulate him on how he has involved the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform and the House in the deliberations on the Bill? It is an exemplar of good practice, but he will see from the reasoned amendment that there is still some way to go. May I also put on his agenda the question of fines for people who do not register? They will be introduced under secondary legislation, so at the moment we have no idea whether an effective and proportionate fine will be available. Will he address that in his remarks?
I am grateful to the Committee’s Chairman for what he says, and I hope that by the time I finish my remarks the House will see that I have addressed satisfactorily all the points in the reasoned amendment, at which stage I will of course urge Members on both sides of the House to support the Bill’s Second Reading.
We debated this subject on an Opposition day in January during which I welcomed the tone that the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) adopted. He said, for example, that he welcomed the process that the Government had adopted and how we were acting; he noted that we had had a draft Bill and a White Paper with pre-legislative scrutiny; and he noted that the Deputy Prime Minister and I had said that we would not just listen to concerns, but act on them and make changes accordingly.
At the time I noted that that was a shift from last autumn, when the right hon. Gentleman’s party leader said, in response to our making registration individual rather than household, that the Labour party was going to go out and fight against the change, and when the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), said that our proposals were
“a shameful assault on people’s democratic rights.”
I thought that that was nonsense when she said it. In January, the right hon. Member for Tooting appeared to think so, too, and he adopted a sensible tone that was welcomed not just by me, but by Members on both sides of the House, so I am disappointed that in tabling this reasoned amendment he appears to have reverted to the Labour party’s original approach.
One of the main points in the reasoned amendment that I will not cover later in my speech is the assertion that there was cross-party support for the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. As I said in January’s Opposition day debate, it is true that we supported the proposals in the Act for individual registration, 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 this House, and that is why we voted for a reasoned amendment. In fact, they were not in the Bill when it left the House of Commons, although by that stage the Labour Government had made a commitment to include them. They were, however, introduced in the other place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), now Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, who led for us on the issue, ably assisted by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), 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, and on page 47 of our 2010 manifesto we made a commitment to
“swiftly implement individual voter registration”.
It is not fair and right, or at least it leaves out something quite important, to say that there was complete cross-party consensus on that measure.
Before I set out the Bill’s provisions in detail, let me explain the rationale on how we got to this stage following the draft proposals and the significant amount of pre-legislative scrutiny that has taken place. The move to individual registration was supported by all three main parties in the previous Parliament and was in each of their manifestos. It is supported by the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators and has been called for by a wide range of international observers. We remain one of the few countries in the world to rely on a system of household registration. I believe, as I am sure many Members do, that a system that relies on the rather old-fashioned notion of the head of household, whereby just one person in the house is given the responsibility of dealing with everyone else’s registration to vote, is out of date. It does not engender any personal responsibility for being registered or promote a person’s ownership of their own vote, and it could give that one person the ability to disfranchise others. That is not the approach that we adopt in other areas where people engage with the state.
I welcome what my hon. Friend is endeavouring to do in this Bill, particularly his determination to modernise our system and to get more people registered to vote. Does he share my concern that many people are on the register who should not be, and, in particular, that people who do not have leave to remain in the country are participating in voting? Will that also change under his system?
My hon. Friend is right. There are two aspects to what we are doing. We want to make sure that the register is more complete and that people who are eligible to vote are on it, but it is equally important to make sure that those who are not eligible to vote are not on it. I hope that he will be reassured about that as I set out some of the details. On his specific point, there will be changes to make it clearer for people to identify when they are a Commonwealth citizen and what their immigration status is. We will be piloting some work with the UK Border Agency to see whether we can create a systemic process to check people’s leave to remain so that only those who are entitled to be here are able to vote here. That will be a welcome step forward.
The Minister said that the United Kingdom is one of the few countries that does not have individual registration. Of course, we have had that in Northern Ireland for some 10 years. I think it has been a success, and I therefore warmly welcome his proposals. However, it has led to a drop in the number of people registered, partly for the reasons that he outlined—for example, because some people should not be on the register in the first place. Will he take on board the lesson that we learned in Northern Ireland, which was that resources needed to be put into the Electoral Office to ensure that young people, in particular, got signed up to the register?
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. I should have said that the Bill implements these measures in Great Britain rather than in the United Kingdom. We have learned a great deal in Northern Ireland, for example on implementing a carry-forward provision to reduce the risk of a significant drop-off. Interestingly, the research that we commissioned from the Electoral Commission, which was published last year, demonstrated that although we in this country have had the rather complacent attitude that we did not really have a problem, under the individual registration system in Northern Ireland, the proportion of eligible voters registered to vote is about the same as it is in the rest of Great Britain. We therefore have a lot to learn.
May I first finish responding to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds)?
On the right hon. Gentleman’s second point about young people, I had an opportunity to visit Grosvenor grammar school in Belfast to see an example of what, in engaging with people individually, the Electoral Office does with young people in schools. The interesting thing, and another lesson for us, is that a larger proportion of 16 and 17-year-olds are registered to vote in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain. As well as making sure that we deal with the potential risks, we have an opportunity to do a better job in getting younger people and disabled people, for example, registered to vote.
Does the Minister agree that this is an issue of proportionality? At the moment, approximately 6 million people are not on the electoral register. Does he recognise that the main issue of concern is not spread across the country as a whole but targeted in particular areas and on particular communities, particularly frequent movers? We already know that only one in six of the population who moves frequently is likely to be on the electoral register. Does that not reinforce the need for targeted investment to support individual registration, because otherwise it will be people in inner cities and in the private rented sector who lose out in not finding themselves on the electoral register?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. As she says, the single piece of information that suggests whether someone is on the electoral register is frequency of movement. We recognise that, and several of the steps that we are taking with stakeholders are intended to work out how we can better deal with it. I will set out later how we propose to fund this and ensure that the money reaches local authorities, and if the hon. Lady thinks that I still have not dealt with the issue, I will take another intervention from her.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am going to make some progress, and will perhaps take an intervention from him later. Otherwise I will not get through my speech, and many other Members wish to contribute to the debate.
It is clear that the current system of registration is unacceptably open to electoral fraud. There is widespread concern about that; indeed, a survey carried out at the end of last year found that 36% of people believe that it is a problem. If citizens do not have confidence in the integrity of our electoral register, they will not have confidence in the integrity of the outcome of elections. We need to tackle that. When we came into office, we did not think that the plans for which Labour had legislated, which involved a voluntary process initially running in parallel, were the best way to tackle the problem. We thought that it would lead to confusion and have a very significant cost. That is why we want to speed up the introduction of individual registration so that the register published after the 2015 annual canvass will consist entirely of entries that have been individually verified, with the sole exception of some of those in the armed forces.
The Electoral Commission supports that position. At the beginning of the month, Jenny Watson, chair of the commission, said, when commenting on alleged fraud in the recent London mayoral elections:
“The Electoral Commission wants to see our registration system tightened up and it’s good that the Government plans to introduce new laws to do this which will apply to any of us who want to vote by post before the 2015 General Election.”
There have been a number of cases of fraud, although admittedly not many proven cases. An international observer body, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which is part of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, described the voter registration system in Great Britain as
“the weakest link of the electoral process due to the absence of safeguards against fictitious registrations.”
“Consideration should be given to introducing an identification requirement for voters when applying for registration as a safeguard against fraudulent registration.”
That is very important. As I said, 36% of the public think that our electoral registration system is vulnerable to fraud, and that is clearly a problem.
I welcome this proposal, because during the recent elections in Burnley there were reports of wholesale fraud taking place on an industrial scale through personation and fake postal votes. Is the Minister considering proposals to require photo identification when people turn up to vote to cut out the appalling growth in personation that is taking place in some polling stations? [Interruption.]
That point has been raised with me. At the moment, I do not think that striking the balance between making sure that people who are eligible to vote can vote and preventing those who are not eligible from doing so requires voter ID at polling stations. I heard several Labour Members shout out that that was an illiberal proposition, which is rich coming from people who thought that having compulsory ID cards was a good idea. This Government legislated to get rid of ID cards, and we do not mean to bring them in via the back door.
Last June, we published a White Paper and draft legislation setting out our proposals. We proposed that in 2014, every elector on the register would be invited to make a new application providing personal information that would be verified by comparing it to data held by the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that the applicant was a genuine person. Every elector would have to make a new application and anyone who did not, or whose application was unsuccessful, would be removed from the register published after the 2015 annual canvass.
We held an extensive public consultation on those proposals, which had more than 900 responses. As its Chairman said, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee carried out pre-legislative scrutiny, and there have been a number of debates and questions on the matter in both Houses.
Members may have noted that earlier today, to assist the House in its consideration of the Bill, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House announced in a written ministerial statement that the Bill will be part of a pilot for explanatory statements on amendments. I hope that all hon. Members who plan to table amendments will participate in that pilot, as will the Government.
I sincerely hope that it will be no lower than the population that is registered today, and indeed that it will be higher. One of the interesting things that we learned from the information that was published last year was that the number of people who were registered was not as high as we had hoped. That research, which the Electoral Commission carried out last year, will act as a baseline for the process. I have made a commitment to get the Electoral Commission to carry out the same research after the process, so that people can see how successful it has been. We want the process to be transparent and we have nothing to hide.
I take the Minister’s point about two thirds being the anticipated carry-over to the new register. However, I understand from reading the information from the Electoral Commission that voters who are on the register and who do not reply to the request for individual electoral registration will still be able to vote in the general election of 2015. Is that correct?
Yes, that is correct. I referred to that point in response to the right hon. Member for Belfast North, when I spoke about the carry-forward. There is the important safeguard that if people fail to register to vote individually and there is no reason to think that they are not eligible to vote, there is a carry-forward process to stop the drop-off that we saw in Northern Ireland when it moved to a new system.
If hon. Members will forgive me, if I am to take interventions, I need at least to answer the questions that people have asked before I take another one. I need to balance taking interventions with making some progress, or I will be chastised by Madam Deputy Speaker.
There are six hours.
There are, but I do not think that Members would be very pleased if I took all of them to speak from the Front Bench. Other Members want to participate in the debate.
I will finish answering the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal). If the check with the DWP database, the data matching or other information suggests to the electoral registration officers that a person is not eligible to vote, because they are not a real person or because they do not live at the given address, of course they will remove them from the register. This is about carrying forward people when there is no information to suggest that they are not eligible, and they simply have not registered. We thought, on balance, that it was better to do the carry-forward to avoid the problem that occurred when individual registration was implemented in Northern Ireland. The consultation suggests that we have got that balance right.
Let me make a little more progress, then I will take more interventions.
Although there was widespread support for the principle of individual registration, concerns were raised about how our initial proposals might affect the completeness of the register. We have listened to those points and have made four significant changes to the initial proposals. Those changes are included in the Bill and we are confident that they will safeguard the completeness of the register as we move to the new system.
The first major change is that the Bill enables us to delay the timing of an annual canvass. There were concerns that in the initial proposals the gap between the last canvass under the old system and the start of the transition to individual registration was too long. It was thought to be preferable to carry out a full canvass in 2014, before sending electors individual invitations to register. We do not want to have an extra canvass, as that would be costly and confusing, but we intend to use this power to move the last canvass under the current system from autumn 2013 to spring 2014, so that the register is as up to date as possible before the transition to the new system.
I have already allowed one intervention from the hon. Lady. Let me make some progress and I will take more interventions in a moment.
The second major change in the Bill will enable us to require electoral registration officers, instead of inviting everyone on their register to make a new application, to begin the transition by matching the names and addresses of every elector already on the register against the DWP’s customer information system. Where the name and address match, and the ERO therefore has confidence that a genuine person lives at the address that they say they live at, that person will be confirmed on the register and retained. They will be informed that they do not have to make an individual application to register. That means that we can balance the integrity of the register with not insisting that every voter takes action in the first transition.
Evidence from the data-matching pilots that we carried out last year suggests, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West mentioned, that the details of about two thirds of electors can be verified in that way. Today, I will place in the House of Commons Library the evaluations of the data-matching pilot by the Electoral Commission and my Department. Subject to parliamentary approval, we plan to run further data-matching pilots later this year to refine that method.
When an individual’s information cannot be verified, the electoral registration officer will invite them to register individually. They will be asked to make a new application and to provide their national insurance number and date of birth. As we set out last year, there will be reminders and the extensive use of door-to-door canvassing, as there is now, to encourage applications. If a person does not make a successful individual application, they will still be able to vote in the 2015 general election, as my hon. Friend said. However, any individual who wants to use an absent vote, where the risk is higher, will have to make a successful new application or to have been confirmed and retained on the register. That will ensure that people have greater confidence in the integrity of that election.
We will carry out two sets of data-matching pilots. The first set, for which the orders have been laid before the House, although not yet debated and approved, involves the DWP specifically because it will pilot the pre-confirmation process. The second set, for which we have not yet laid the orders, will use other Departments. We have had conversations with private sector agencies. One problem is that there is some circularity in the process, because one way in which they construct their databases is by using the electoral register. It is therefore arguable how much information we would learn from them. However, we have had conversations with them and we will continue to do so.
I thank the Minister very much for giving way.
On the private sector’s knowledge of electoral registration, two and a half years ago I was informed by Experian that 6.5 million people were missing from the register. When I raised that with the Electoral Commission, it said that the figure was 3.5 million. Six months ago, the Electoral Commission said that, having done its research, the figure was 6 million. The private sector has excellent databases, which we should be utilising to maximise registration.
The hon. Gentleman has made that point before. As I said to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), we are not closing off that option and we will continue to have conversations with those organisations.
Following the 2015 general election, there will be another full household canvass and all potential electors who appear—
If the hon. Lady lets me make the point on the canvass, I will then take her intervention.
All potential electors who appear on the returned canvass form but have not been verified individually will be invited by electoral registration officers to register. That canvass will include reminders and the extensive use of door-to-door canvassers. At the end of the canvass, the EROs will—
No; let me finish this point, then I will take the intervention from the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who got her bid in first.
At the end of the canvass, the EROs will send personally addressed individual electoral registration application forms to individuals who appeared on the electoral register produced at the end of the old-style canvass, who have not been verified individually and whom electoral registration officers do not believe to have moved. That will act as a final check to ensure that individuals who are to be removed from the register understand what will happen if they do not make an individual application. That will be a robust process, because people will have to go out of their way to avoid being registered. The register that will be used for the 2015 boundary review will therefore be robust, complete and accurate. The relevant part of the Opposition’s reasoned amendment does not hold up at all.
Under clause 4, the procedure for the canvass will change. At the moment, if the ERO or their canvasser knocks on a door and finds somebody who is not registered, they fill in the form there and then. Clause 4 states that that can no longer happen, and that the canvasser can only take people’s names and addresses and then send a form to them. Surely the point is that canvassers knock on doors because people have not filled in their forms without assistance.
Canvassers will be able to identify that there are voters at an address, but each voter will have to register individually and provide their information to the local authority so that it can be verified. We will examine the canvass process when we develop the secondary legislation. Because of the nature of the information being collected on the doorstep—not just people’s names and addresses but their national insurance numbers—we need to take data security carefully, as we have at every step of the way. We will continue to have discussions with local authorities and the Information Commissioner about how best we can do that, but we have a robust set of processes in place to ensure that everyone is registered.
Let me make a bit more progress, then I will give way to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who has been bidding to get in for some time.
The use of data matching to confirm existing electors will simplify the transition process for most people in the country. It will create a floor below which registration rates cannot fall, and importantly it will allow registration officers to focus their efforts and resources on electors whose details cannot be confirmed and eligible people who are not on the register.
The Minister said that there would not be transitional arrangements for people who have a postal vote. Does he understand that people who have applied for a postal vote in the past now assume that they are going to get one at every election? There could be a real problem with the Government’s proposals, because, in 2015, people who assume that they are going to get a postal vote will not get one as the lists will have been scrapped. That could have an adverse affect on turnout, because postal voters are more likely to vote, and it could effectively discriminate against the elderly and people with disabilities, who are proportionately more likely to have a postal vote.
The two thirds of voters whose details are confirmed automatically will be moved over to the new register once their information has been verified. If they are absent voters, their absent vote will automatically be carried forward as well. [Interruption.] That is what will happen. Absent voters whose details are confirmed and who are moved on to the register will be able to use their absent vote. However, people whose information has not been verified and who do not make an individual application will not be able to have an absent vote. Of course, local authorities know who those people are, and we are working with them and with the Electoral Commission to ensure that everyone with an absent vote is contacted so that they know that if they want to continue having an absent vote they need to register individually. We are confident that local authorities will do that. In a moment, I will set out how we will ensure that local authorities get the funding needed to ensure that that takes place.
The third major change that we have made is removing the opt-out provision from the Bill. The original intention was very simple: to enable EROs to focus their resources on people who wanted to register to vote, rather than having to keep chasing individuals who had no intention of registering. However, we have listened to the arguments made by Members of the House, the Electoral Commission and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. We want the maximum number of eligible people to be registered to vote, so we have decided to remove that provision.
The final major change we have made to our proposals is that we will enable electoral registration officers to issue a civil penalty when an individual who has been required to make an application fails to do so. Over the past few months, there have been discussions about whether an offence should be attached to an individual form. At the moment, it is not an offence not to be registered, which will not change, but there is a criminal offence of not returning the household canvass form. That, too, will remain, because by not doing so somebody can disfranchise other people.
We were faced with the question whether we should create a new criminal offence to be applied to the individual application form. We did not think it appropriate to criminalise people who simply did not register to vote. After careful consideration with key stakeholders, and after listening to Members, we believe it is appropriate to create a civil penalty—akin to a parking fine—for individuals who, after being required to make an application by a certain date, fail to do so.
The Minister will know that I am very pleased by that announcement, for which I have lobbied. I am grateful for the Bill and the changes the Government have made to it.
To maximise the number of people registered and get people to understand the penalty if they do not respond, will the Minister ensure that local authorities, social landlords, schools, colleges, sixth forms, the high commissions of Commonwealth countries and the Irish embassy play their full part in getting the system known among those with whom they regularly deal?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and he has indeed been greatly involved in making points on the matter in the House, for which I am grateful. In his constituency there is significant voter turnover each year, which presents challenges to his local registration officer. We are already working with groups that represent some of the categories that he mentions, but he also mentions a couple that we had not previously considered, such as high commissions. We will certainly bear them in mind, and I will discuss the matter with my officials.
I will finish my point about the civil penalty, then I will take an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson).
The Bill provides that after a registration officer has followed any specified steps and an individual has not made an application, he can require them to do so. If at that stage they fail to do so, he can impose a civil penalty. The intention is that only those who refuse repeatedly can be fined. We do not think it would be particularly helpful to democracy if we fined hundreds of thousands of people, so we expect the number of fines levied to be similar to the number of prosecutions at present. Nor do we want to create a financial incentive for local authorities to use fines as a revenue-raising measure, so any moneys collected—[Interruption.] I hear one of my hon. Friends chuckling, but one or two local authorities have been known to do such things, so any moneys collected will be paid back to the Exchequer through the Consolidated Fund.
I agree with the compromises that my hon. Friend has made on the opt-out and the civil penalty. I am sure he agrees that people’s propensity to register for elections is a function of societal change as much as anything else. The Electoral Commission has stated:
“Recent social, economic and political changes appear to have resulted in a declining motivation to register to vote among specific social groups.”
That is associated with
“changes in the approach to the annual canvass…as well as matters of individual choice and circumstances (such as a decline in interest in politics).”
Surely we need to concede that some people do not want to register because they are not interested in the process.
We do. The main impact on an individual who does not register to vote is the rather obvious one that they lose their opportunity to vote and have their say in how their country is governed, but there are also some public policy reasons why we want people to register to vote. One reason is to ensure that there is a complete register for the purpose of boundary changes, and another is that the electoral register is used as the pool for jury service. We therefore want to ensure that it is as accurate as possible.
My hon. Friend is right that is up to Members and to people involved in politics of all descriptions to motivate people to register to vote and then use their vote. The use of the vote will, of course, remain sanction-free. It will be entirely up to people whether they use their vote.
Not at this point.
I shall set out how we intend to fund the transition to individual registration. We have allocated £108 million over the spending review period to do so, including by meeting local authorities’ costs over and above the current cost of electoral registration. I can confirm today—this is new information—that we will fund local authorities in England and Wales directly through grants under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003. Those will be allocated grants for the purpose of paying for the transition, not just money buried in the revenue support grant. In Scotland, electoral registration is carried out for the most part by EROs who, barring two exceptions, in the city of Dundee and in Fife, are independent of each local authority. There, the additional costs of implementing the new system will be paid directly to them.
The Parliamentary Secretary talked a lot about the canvass. Does he accept that the quality of the canvass is important, and that some local authorities are much better than others? I welcome his comments on the extra money, but will he ensure that it will be spent on that and not just ferreted away somewhere else?
Local authorities will have legal obligations to deliver those measures, and I will consult them over the summer about the precise details of the timing of and approach to grant allocations so that they get the money to pay for transition when they need it, and ensure that there is clear accountability, showing that they are taking the steps required by law to prepare for the transition to the new system.
Section 31 grants are specific grants, and the hon. Gentleman needs to be aware of an interesting point: local authorities already fund about one third of the cost of electoral reform, so if we insisted on a specific amount being spent on electoral registration, it would be easy for local authorities that wanted to do so to evade that. They could use the money that we gave them to pay for their business-as-usual electoral registration and not do any of the things that we want them to do. We will give them money directly; we will consult about the mechanism so that we have some accountability; we will recognise that some local authorities have bigger challenges than others so that all the money is not dished out in the first place—we want local authorities that face the biggest challenges to be able to bid for extra funding—and we will try to ensure that we have a workable system that is not too bureaucratic. I am confident that local authorities and electoral registration officers will welcome our announcement about not allowing the money to be swallowed up in the overall revenue support grant by paying direct grants under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003. They will have the confidence that they have the money to deliver the programme.
We consulted widely on our proposals for individual registration, which have undergone pre-legislative scrutiny. We have worked closely with the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and groups of front-line staff on our plans. We will begin publishing draft secondary legislation for IER in June, and we will continue to add to the package as the summer progresses, aiming to conclude publication before Parliament returns in the autumn. We will talk to those key groups about the detail of the proposals as we go along.
There will be some matters for which we do not intend to publish draft legislation—for example, those for which we have no current plans to use the powers. There will be other matters on which we want to seek stakeholders’ views about the approach. In the amendment, Labour Members deplore our not publishing secondary legislation and it is therefore worth saying that, for two similar measures—the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, both of which contain significant powers to be made by regulation—no secondary legislation of any description was published at any stage during their passage. It was all made and published after the Bills had received Royal Assent. On that issue, therefore, the Labour party is very much in the mode of “Do as we say, not as we do.”
The Government’s approach is to treat the House much more seriously, to publish Bills in draft, to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny, and to publish draft legislation while the measure is still going through the House. May I pick up the point that the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee made? Members can see what is proposed while the Bill is undergoing its parliamentary passage. I will take no lectures on that from anyone on the Labour Benches.
So far, I have discussed the measures that we are taking to mitigate the risk of the transition to the new system. There are also several opportunities to do better. The Bill will facilitate online registration, whereby an individual will complete the end-to-end process without having to fill in a paper form. That will make it more convenient for individuals to register to vote, more accessible for, for example, people with visual impairments, and more accessible for young people. It is our intention that the online system will be fully operational when the transition to individual registration begins. As I said yesterday during Deputy Prime Minister’s questions, that is a genuine opportunity, certainly for disabled people.
For example, Scope said that it
“supports the change to a system of IER, and warmly welcomes the Government’s commitment to ensure that disabled people’s needs are taken into account”.
It agrees with our assessment that
“the introduction of IER should improve access for voters with disabilities. The current arrangements do not adequately allow for disabled people’s access needs to be taken into account”,
and that the introduction of IER offers an ideal opportunity to put in place a more accessible system. We intend to do that.
I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for sharing the information about the online system with some of us last week. He will know that one of the concerns that some of us have is about access to national insurance numbers as a means of taking part in that system. There is some difficulty in that people do not readily have access to their national insurance numbers. What suggestions has he for improving that?
Order. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary is trying to be extremely helpful to the House, and he has taken lots of interventions. However, perhaps he will bear it in mind that he has been speaking for more than 40 minutes, that many Members wish to participate in the debate, and that there will be winding-up speeches.
I know that one of my faults is that I am generous to a fault, and I will do my best to rein in that generosity. I will respond to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) and then I will finish my speech without taking further interventions. I am grateful for your direction, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am sure that other hon. Members will realise that I am simply following wise advice rather than being ungenerous.
The hon. Gentleman made a good point about national insurance numbers. We have done quite a lot of work on that. The vast majority of members of the public have ready access to their national insurance numbers. When polled, 95% of people did not feel that it would be a problem. Of course, we will ensure that, on the online system, as on the paper-based system, we give people advice if they do not have a national insurance number about the process that they have to follow to get one. There will be an alternative mechanism for the small number of people who do not have a national insurance number to demonstrate their identity to the ERO. However, we do not want to allow that to be a get-out for everybody else. If the hon. Gentleman has anything further to say on the matter, I am obviously happy to discuss that with him.
I believe that the changes that I have outlined on individual registration will ensure the completeness of the register. I think that the Government have listened, learned and improved the Bill.
Let me consider briefly the clauses in part 2 about the administration and conduct of elections, which are intended to improve the way in which elections are run. They address issues that parliamentarians and electoral stakeholders have raised, and make several practical and sensible changes. I will not go through them all, just the most significant.
First, let me consider the provision that extends the electoral timetable for UK parliamentary elections from 17 to 25 days. That will benefit voters, particularly overseas voters and service voters based abroad, enabling them to have more time to receive and return a postal vote. It also makes it easier to combine general elections with other polls.
The Bill also provides for assisting postal voters—I hope that that is of assistance to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East—whose votes are rejected at elections because their postal vote identifiers do not match those stored on records. For example, someone’s signature may have changed or they put down the wrong date—for instance, not their date of birth but the date of the election. Around 150,000 postal votes are rejected at elections. Regulations will make EROs have a duty, after the elections, to inform voters that their identifiers have not matched. [Laughter.] I do not know why the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) is laughing. The provision is included so that the identifiers can be updated and that, instead of those voters losing their votes at every subsequent election, they can ensure that their votes count in future. At the moment, there is no duty to inform them. While the right hon. Gentleman’s party was in government, hundreds of thousands of postal votes were rejected at elections and nothing was done. Rather than laughing at the sensible provisions, I would hope that he supported them.
Alongside that provision, the Government plan to introduce secondary legislation to make it a requirement that 100% of postal vote identifiers are checked at elections. At the moment, legislation provides for only 20% of postal votes to be checked. Ensuring that 100% have to be checked will strengthen the integrity of the process.
There are also provisions to allow the Secretary of State to withhold or reduce a returning officer’s fee for poor performance, but with the important check that there must be a recommendation by the independent Electoral Commission. That is to ensure that returning officers are more accountable. That provision was implemented on a test basis in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011—it was a power that the chief counting officer had. It worked well and we are therefore taking it forward.
The final shape of the proposals demonstrates the value that pre-legislative scrutiny adds to the development of legislation. I hope most hon. Members will see that the Government have taken a careful, thoughtful and measured approach in developing our policy. The Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), is not sitting in his usual place as he has been upgraded to the Opposition Front Bench, but he said in January that
“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.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 508.]
The Government have since accepted more such proposals. In that spirit, I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“this House, whilst affirming its support for a complete and accurate electoral register and a move to a system of individual electoral registration (IER), declines to give a Second Reading to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill because whilst the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 received cross-party support, establishing an orderly move to IER with a strong independent role for the Electoral Commission in guarding against a sharp fall in registration numbers, the Bill speeds up the introduction of IER, and downgrades the Electoral Commission’s role, with the result that there will be no independent arbitrator with the power to halt the process if it is deemed to have resulted in a sharp drop in registration levels; notes that the 2015 parliamentary boundary changes will be based on the new electoral register which will potentially be inaccurate, risking illegitimate new constituency boundaries; believes the proposals would mean the young, the poor, ethnic minorities and disabled people would face an increased risk of being unregistered and thus excluded from a range of social and civic functions; further regards the proposals as flawed as they risk making the list from which juries are drawn less representative; concludes that because the evaluation of the second round of data-matching pilots will not be published until early 2013 an assessment of the likely completeness of the register is in effect prevented; and deplores the fact that the Government has not published secondary legislation and an implementation plan for the introduction of IER.”
As the Minister has said, the Bill is essentially in two parts, the second of which concerns the minutiae of the administration and conduct of elections. Much of it contains relatively uncontentious proposals, but other matters ought to be addressed, particularly the need to ensure that there are no more queues at polling stations. One proposal might well raise a few eyebrows—to allow a candidate who is supported by two or more political parties to use the emblem of one of them. The Minister has said previously that the measure addresses an anomaly and permits Labour and Co-operative candidates to use those emblems. It is kind of him to be helpful to the Labour party, but I must tell Conservative Back Benchers to be afraid—be very afraid. It could well be the thin end of the wedge. Who knows what it could lead to?
The first part of the Bill demands far greater attention because it focuses on electoral registration. The Opposition’s view is that individual electoral registration is a sound principle. It places an appropriate responsibility on individuals to register to vote and is in tune with modern society. It can no longer be sensible for voter registration to be in the hands of the head of household. Individual elector registration is also an effective way in which to ensure the completeness and accuracy of voter registration. That is why the Labour Government secured legislation for individual elector registration in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Last autumn, the Government introduced their draft Bill and White Paper on IER. Understandably, their proposals at the time created consternation among a wide range of opinion. Much attention focused on their suggestion that there should be a virtual opt-out for individuals who do not wish to be reminded about registration by an electoral registration officer. The second proposal that understandably left many aghast was the suggestion in the White Paper that voter registration ought to be a lifestyle choice, and that no fines should be imposed for non-registration. I welcome the fact that the Government have reconsidered both those proposals and others, but we should be clear that a draft Bill and prior consultation are relatively innovative for this Government—there was no draft Bill or prior consultation on two previous pieces of important constitutional legislation, namely the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. I am glad that they are changing their ways. The opt-out has been dropped and civil penalties will be introduced, as suggested by the Opposition. I am also pleased that the Government have listened and that many electors on the old registers will be carried over. Similarly, the annual canvass planned in 2013 will now occur in 2014. As far as that is concerned, so far, so good.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that the population and electoral registration turnover in parts of the country, particularly London and the inner cities, is 30%? Having a canvass a full year before an election means that we risk going into the election with a third of the population unregistered. The Minister said that there will be a national expectation that the total number of people not on the register will fall, which is fine, but if we do not recognise the variance between communities and the pressures on cities, that national expectation will not be much comfort to people such as me.
That is a good point, and I shall refer to it later in my speech.
As I was saying, the Government have made positive concessions, but they have not listened on other matters—indeed, they have refused to listen to those who have expressed legitimate concerns about the Bill. Foremost among the Opposition’s concerns and those of many outside the House is the Government’s intention to press ahead with individual elector registration at a breakneck speed. The concern that there will be no carry-over for many postal and proxy votes in the move to a new register has been expressed by a range of disability charities, including Mencap, Sense, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Scope.
I have read the Scope briefing and share that concern, but is the hon. Gentleman not reassured by what the Minister has said? He said that a very small group of people will not be carried over and that there will be a carry-over of existing absent voters to the new list.
I am not entirely reassured by what the Minister has said. In fact, I found his comments contradictory and confusing. It is a straightforward matter, and I hope that he provides in his winding-up speech the clarification that the Opposition and organisations such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People want.
There is also a worry that moneys for EROs to support transition have not been adequately ring-fenced. I listened carefully to the Minister. He provided more clarity, but has specifically not stated that the money will be ring-fenced so that it is spent on the purpose for which it is intended, which was a key Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommendation; I pay warm tribute to the Committee’s work.
Many other concerns are referred to in the reasoned amendment, one of which is the power that the Bill gives to Ministers to cancel annual canvasses. The Government’s argument is that we might at some point no longer need annual canvasses, when registers are complete. The Opposition argue that an annual canvass is needed even if we eventually have high registration levels, because we must always guard against, and be diligent about, any deterioration of the electoral roll.
The Government have made much of their U-turn on civil penalties. I do not want to belittle their volte face, but before the House can make an assessment of the civil penalty that the Government propose, it needs to know exactly how much the penalty will be. The Minister has said in other exchanges that the penalty will be like a parking fine, but the size of parking fines varies enormously across the country. Here in Westminster, they can be as high as £130, but in Rhondda Cynon Taff in south Wales, they can be as low as £25. Nobody wishes large numbers of fines to be issued, but if fines are to be an incentive for people to register, they need to be fixed at a reasonable level, and yet we do not know what that will be.
When I was a Conservative party agent way back in the 1980s—[Interruption.]—people were forced to pay a fixed fine of £50 for non-registration, but does the hon. Gentleman know how many people were forced to pay it?
That is not much of an argument. We need an indication from the Government, which they have failed to provide, of the level at which the fixed fine will be set. There is no question of varying the fixed fine, of course; it will be a uniform fixed fine. We simply want to know what it should be. The Observer suggested that it might be £100. There have been other suggestions, too. I am simply saying that given that the Government are making a big thing of having listened to the opinions of many people outside the House and are committed to a civil penalty in principle, we need to know what they judge an effective figure to be.
My hon. Friend puts it very well.
The Minister told us that details of the civil penalty would be set out in secondary legislation, which brings me to a broader point. With this legislation, perhaps more than any other, the devil is in the detail, but the detail is tucked away in secondary legislation and we cannot see it. Last November, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister, from the Dispatch Box, whether the Government would publish their secondary legislation at the same time as the primary legislation. That was six months ago. Additional information has been forthcoming, including today, but six months later we still cannot properly assess these proposals, simply because we do not know—we have not been told—the detail.
One of the main reasons we have continuing concerns about the Bill relates to the Government’s timetable for implementation. Under the last Labour Government, the Electoral Commission was to play a key role in monitoring and assessing the progress towards a new register. Sadly, that role has been diminished and downgraded. Instead, the Government are rushing pell-mell into a new system of electoral registration that ought to provide the cornerstone of our democratic process. We understand from the Government that they are undertaking a second round of data matching. That is to be welcomed and will show how complete the new register is at the end of 2015. The pilots will indicate whether the new register will be depleted. In all reasonableness, I think that the House should be aware of the conclusion of the pilots before it decides on the Government’s implementation timetable, yet the results of the data-matching pilots will not be available until early next year.
Why are the Government hell-bent on introducing this radical change at breakneck speed? It has been suggested that they are determined to end the carry-over arrangements before 1 December 2015 for reasons of Conservative party self-interest.
I recall that we first discussed individual electoral registration in the House seven years ago, since when it has been implemented in Northern Ireland—effectively a pilot scheme for the rest of the UK—and it has been looked at over the past two or more years in great detail. How can that possibly be described as breakneck speed?
It is breakneck speed. This is the first piece of legislation in the Queen’s Speech to be introduced. The Electoral Commission and many others have said that we must first complete the data-matching exercises. The Government have deliberately introduced this legislation as quickly as possible in their legislative programme to circumvent the evidence coming forward that might highlight weaknesses in the process.
The hon. Gentleman has a problem. He is a good guy and, like me, wants a good Bill. The Government came up with proposals, have hugely improved on them having listened to him, me and many others, including people outside, and they now want to implement a system that his Government never implemented, despite saying that they would—and this Government will do it as quickly as possible, and they are building in the safeguards. On this occasion, then, he ought to accept that the Government have done a good job. Why does he not simply thank the Government for having listened?
With all due respect, I say to the Liberal Democrats that, yes, concessions have been made, but there is still a long, long way to go. As I hope the Liberal Democrats come to realise before the end of the passage of the Bill, some measures in it might well work against their interests. The advantage will be with the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats might pay a very high price for acquiescing in the policies of their Conservative masters.
What is the significance of 1 December 2015? It is when the next parliamentary boundary review takes place. As we should all be aware, under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, if, for whatever reasons, there is a decline in the number of electors in certain constituencies, the parliamentary boundaries must be redrawn. It would be most unfortunate for the Government to give the impression that they were seeking political advantage by introducing IER at the end of the transitional period, when the size of the electorate could be temporarily diminished. It could be that the new data-matching pilots will indicate that December 2015 is precisely the time when electoral numbers are likely to be at their lowest.
I do not think it is mere coincidence. It is possible to look at the dates and come to certain conclusions. I only wish that the Liberal Democrats would do the same and recognise that there is a lot in what I say.
That concern has been identified by many others. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has raised it, as has the Electoral Reform Society, which pointed out that a depleted register could lead to the reduction of inner-city constituencies, while leaving
“thousands of…citizens who will not be accounted for or considered in many key decisions that affect their lives, yet will still look to MPs to serve them as local constituents.”
I ask the Government, therefore, to dispel any impression that their agenda is partisan. To do that, all they need to do is adopt a more reasonable time scale for the introduction of IER that goes beyond December 2015.
It is because the Government have so far been unable to acknowledge our concerns or act on our proposals that we have tabled our reasoned amendment. If the amendment is unsuccessful, we will oppose the Bill’s Second Reading. That is not a course of action that we want to take, but we feel it absolutely necessary to uphold the integrity of the electoral system while ensuring that our democratic system is built on firm foundations.
I like the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), but I fear that spending too many evenings in parliamentary Labour party meetings has made him quite paranoid, given that the previous Government advanced the same substantive proposals for individual electoral registration in Northern Ireland and that the consultation document that was published in 2005 was followed by the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006, which gave rise to individual electoral registration in Northern Ireland. Neither we nor anyone else accused those measures of being rushed through. The hon. Gentleman must be the first Front Bencher to argue against the substantive proposals of the previous Government. The bigger question is why the integrity, autonomy and authority of the electoral register should be more important in Northern Ireland than in England, Wales and Scotland.
I would have made this point to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), had he shown the generosity of spirit that I did. Given his complaints about the diminishing register and the risks involved, would my hon. Friend like to consider why the Electoral Commission’s research showed that in 2000, under the previous Government, 3 million people were missing from the electoral register and that by 2010, just after they had left office, the figure had risen to 6 million? If there is a party in the House that has shown itself to be a past master at driving people off the electoral register, it is not the party on the Government Benches; it is the party opposite.
The Minister makes an astute point. In 2001, the year in which the hon. Member for Caerphilly entered the House, the English electorate numbered 37.3 million. By the end of Labour’s second term, in 2005, the figure was 37.1 million. So Labour did not push up registration rates in an increasing population either.
I take with a pinch of salt Labour’s protestations and faux outrage. We have argued for many years that overseas voters should also have the right to be registered, and that active steps should be taken to achieve that. That point has also been made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly’s erstwhile right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane). However, that did not happen during the 13 years of the previous Government. Indeed, they more or less ignored services voters, despite many people from military constituencies saying that that was an outrageous and egregious oversight.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, who has great experience in the House.
The Bill is absolutely right, in that its central aims are to tackle electoral fraud, improve the integrity of our electoral system, particularly the electoral register, and modernise the electoral registration system, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) says, is most important. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) was gracious in paying tribute to the Minister and the Department for engaging in an open and wide-ranging debate during the pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation, and for producing the White Paper and a detailed, comprehensive Government response in February 2012. It is far from the truth that this is some kind of rushed, gerrymandering Bill. It has attracted a lot of support, including from organisations such as the Electoral Commission. There is consensus around the Bill.
The proposals in the Bill featured not only in the Conservative manifesto of May 2010 but in the coalition agreement, so we certainly have a mandate for carrying out this policy. If the hon. Member for Caerphilly were more generous of spirit, he would perhaps admit that the previous Government wanted to proceed in a similar way when they were in power. Reference has been made to the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 in that regard.
Will the hon. Gentleman answer a question that has so far remained unanswered? The 2009 Act was passed as a result of consensus across the Chamber, and its provisions were to start in 2015. Why is it so important to bring them back by one year? Why could we not have retained all-party consensus by keeping the date at 2015?
Because we see this as in the best interest of the body politic generally. There is a plethora of evidence to show that cumulative cases of electoral fraud—I will come on to discuss this issue later both for my own constituency and across the country—have grievously damaged the faith and trust people have in the electoral process. The Minister is quite right that we have all been complacent in assuming that we live in a society where transparency, openness and fairness exist above all in the electoral process. I did not think I would ever encounter a case in which a judge would describe a British electoral result—in this case, for Birmingham city council—as comparable to one of a banana republic, yet that happened in 2004 under the watch of the Government whom the hon. Member for Caerphilly supported.
Important parts of the Bill are uncontentious, but I will bring some concerns to the House’s attention later. Of course individual electoral registration has been broadly supported across the House over a number of years. Some elements, such as the review of polling places, are innocuous and will not be contentious, as I said.
On civil penalties, I mentioned earlier that we must be cognisant of the fact that some people are not interested in the political process. We cannot force people to register on the basis of a criminal sanction—it is not right to do so—if they genuinely do not feel part of the process. That is a function not of a political process, but of societal change over many years. International comparisons are important for understanding how to get people to register. Australia is an interesting example. The level of civic engagement in schools and colleges there and the amount of publicity given to financial education, for example, has led to school children and young people understanding the importance of being involved in the system. I think that is a much better way of proceeding than having criminal sanctions and a penalty. Our society is much changed.
We will not meander down the path of compulsory voting, which is a completely separate issue, and even the benign Deputy Speaker might rule me out of order if I did that. I think it is better to persuade than to threaten and cajole people. That is why I am not particularly concerned one way or the other about the opt-out proposals. Had they remained in the Bill and not been amended, I would still have been happy to support it. We can argue about civil penalties, but I think amounts of £60, £80 or £100 send out a powerful enough message. After all, no one wants to get a parking ticket and be fined £60. We are talking about civic engagement with something that is important for the future of our country, and people understand that they should be part of it.
An important corollary of the changes is the reduction in the potential for financial fraud. Essentially, the capacity to commit fraud is often given via a place on the electoral register. Figures produced over the last year or so in the Cabinet Office impact assessment by the Metropolitan Police Service and the National Fraud Initiative under the auspices of Operation Amberhill showed that of 29,000 information strands collated, 13,214—almost 46%—showed data matches with the electoral register that were fraudulent or counterfeit. In other words, the documents were often generated as a result of someone’s being on the electoral register, but were nevertheless fraudulent or counterfeit.
The Minister made the simple point that ours is one of the few countries in the world that still operates a household registration system. The system is backward-looking, and it disfranchises people, particularly women, in communities in which the heads of households take full responsibility for women’s registration and postal vote. We should do something about that. We have a duty to ensure that those women’s votes are not being stolen by people who should not have access to them, because we have a universal franchise based on free and fair access to democracy for every man and every woman, which is what has put us here today.
At present, only a person’s name, address and nationality need to be supplied for that person to appear on the electoral register. As the Minister made clear, this is one of the least robust systems in the world. Let me share with the House our experience in Peterborough. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who I know has been in the House for a long time, was very relaxed and insouciant, perhaps even complacent, about postal votes and the transfer to the individual electoral registration system. However, on 27 April the Peterborough Evening Telegraph reported that 16% of postal votes applied for in the central ward of Peterborough had been thrown out because they were fraudulent or forged.
That is happening now, and it can be extrapolated to different communities and different wards in urban areas throughout the country, including Greater London. However, Members need not rely on me for speculation, because there have already been serious cases of electoral fraud involving postal votes in Slough, Pendle, Birmingham, West Yorkshire and, in particular, Peterborough. I shall say more about that later.
I certainly would not tolerate the fraudulent registration of even one postal vote, but how can it be right to reduce access to postal votes for the many because of a few examples of fraud? No investigation, including those by the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers, has discovered extensive fraud. We know that it happens, and we know that it happens in particular places, but surely the job of the police is to find out where it happens and make specific proposals to deal with it, not to disfranchise the many.
We are making specific proposals. I think that the hon. Lady is tarrying with the wrong person. I saw the huge resources that were devoted to investigation of postal vote fraud by the Cambridgeshire constabulary—who, as far as I know, received little if any help from the Government of whom the hon. Lady was a member—between 2004 and 2008. It took four years for Operation Hooper to complete its investigation, which resulted in the imprisonment of, I believe, five individuals—two of them Conservative and three Labour, as it happens—following the European and city council elections in the central ward of Peterborough in June 2004.
We cannot say that we should not bother about this because we have no proof that it happens. It does happen, it is costly, it undermines the very basis of democracy in this country, and we should ensure—as I believe the Bill does—that the correct procedures operate to ensure that it does not happen in the future. The hon. Lady may wish to reconsider her rather lackadaisical approach to the integrity of our electoral system.
One proposal with which I strongly agree, although I do not think that the Government have gone far enough, is the proposal in clause 19 to allow police community support officers into polling stations. I think that if there is a missed opportunity in the Bill, it is our failure to consider the serious problem of personation and intimidation at polling stations. We saw that in Tower Hamlets earlier this month, and we have seen it too often in Peterborough. I must not major on Peterborough’s central ward, but it is the one that I know best. In that ward we have four polling stations. About half a dozen members of the Cambridgeshire constabulary and mobile CCTV are required at each of them because of the issue of personation, of which there have been cases in Peterborough.
We are not going far enough in looking again at the Representation of the People Act 1983, because the power of the presiding officer inside the polling station remains extremely limited. If the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden were to go into a polling station in Mitcham and Morden and say she was Elvis Presley and that name was on the electoral register, the polling clerk would have very little power to say, “Actually, you’re not Elvis Presley. You’re our esteemed local Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden.” That is not satisfactory. The legal test for proving that the hon. Lady is her good self, rather than Elvis Presley, is very difficult. We have missed an opportunity to look again at that issue.
In closing—which is what the Whips are imploring me to do—may I make two quick points? I have concerns about the removal of the co-ordinated online record of electors—CORE—database. I have no interest in promoting national ID databases—I voted against identity cards—but the Minister must tell us how successful he has been in removing the difficulties of duplication, which have frequently arisen. CORE ameliorated that, but it is no longer in place.
On a slightly mischievous note, this morning on the ConservativeHome website my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns) made a point about clause 18 and allowing a parliamentary candidate standing on behalf of two or more parties to use a registered emblem of one or more parties. Can the Minister assure me that there is no hidden agenda in that, and that it is just a helpful way to assist Labour and Co-operative party representatives to get elected in their seats?
I am happy to be able to give my hon. Friend that assurance. There will not be coalition candidates at the next election; there will be separate Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates. I must say, too, that the attitude of Labour Members is a bit depressing. The only reason why we are making this change is that when the Labour party was in office it could not draft legislation properly and inadvertently “cocked it up”, to quote the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Because of that, and because we are fixing what is largely a problem for Labour and Co-operative Members, one would think they could be slightly less churlish.
Finally, let me say that the data-matching projects are very useful, but in Peterborough’s case they resulted in merely a 54.7% matching rate. More work needs to be done in the second tranche, and sufficient resources must be allocated, as this will be the bedrock of individual electoral registration.
I thank the Minister for his detailed and comprehensive remarks. The Bill is excellent. It restores integrity, honesty and transparency to the electoral system. That is long overdue. The previous Government should have done this, but it has been our new Government who have taken this courageous step, in order to make sure we can all have faith and trust in the system that puts us here and puts councillors in their seats. That adds to British democracy.
First, let me say that the principle of individual registration is unarguably right; indeed, I have supported it for some time. Excellent work has been done by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in this Parliament, but I have read again the recommendations of 2004-05, when a Joint Committee of the Committees of Constitutional Affairs and the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister looked at this issue. We supported the principle of individual registration, and looked at a number of ways in which that could have been done. However, neither of the main political parties chose to look at a proposal I thought might be appropriate: a common household form that individuals signed, so that people registered individually on a single form.
At that time, we discussed the possible consequences of individual registration not being done properly, and that issue has been part of the general argument ever since. As the introduction of these new measures is now being speeded up, I ask the Minister what will happen if our worst fears are realised and there is a significant fall in the number of people on the register. What will the Government’s answer be at that point? Is there a plan B? Are measures in place to address that eventuality, or will Ministers simply wring their hands and say, “Oh dear, we didn’t really intend that. It shouldn’t have happened, but it has happened and there’s nothing we can do about it”? It is reasonable and right that we raise those concerns at this point and ask Ministers to respond to them.
Back in 2004-05, we looked at data matching, which is key if we are to get this process right. It is an integral part of the system, and it is absolutely right that electoral registration officers have access to a whole range of data from private and public bodies—the utilities, postal services, universities and colleges, local authority housing associations, local authority schools, academies and universities. I congratulate the Government on going ahead with their pilots, which is the correct way to proceed. The problem is that, as we know—the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) just mentioned it—the pilots were not terribly informative. They did not convince anyone that the process was in place for data matching to deliver significant improvements to the register at this stage. The Electoral Commission said that the analysis lacked a common methodological framework—in other words, there was no common assessment of the benefits of the different pilots.
I welcome the Government saying that there should be a second round of pilots, but we have not reached the point where we can conclude that there will be significant benefits to the register. Pushing ahead with the new regime of individual registration when we do not really know what the best forms of data matching are and how they will work is a major concern. It is not that I am against the principle of individual registration; however, we are not yet certain that we have the schemes in place really to improve registration through the data-matching process.
The hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) finally got there, did he not? If we had an ID card system in place, we would have everything we need—we would not need to worry about data matching because we would have the basis for a comprehensive electoral registration system with individual registration. We would not have to duplicate it or provide lots of information to different local organisations. This issue is often missed out in these discussions, but the hon. Gentleman got there in the end—two years late. Perhaps some of his colleagues might do so as well.
I am in favour of complete reform of the electoral registration process. Before the Select Committee produced its report, it went to Australia to see what happens there. They described their system to us, and we described ours to them, and they looked at us with a slight degree of amazement when we explained that the main part of our process was to write each year to every household to try to get a response. The people who responded were those who normally respond, and they were often the households that stay the same year in, year out. In other words, we concentrated all our resources on writing at the same time of year to people whose circumstances had not changed. That is a very inefficient and ineffective system, because it does not target the groups who do not respond or the people whose circumstances have changed.
In Australia, they adopt the data-matching approach. They have an existing register, and they make changes when they get information about a change in circumstances—for example, that new people have moved in and others have moved out, or that someone has become eligible to vote because they are now older. They get such information from schools, universities and so on. Their system is based on targeting resources on people who move or whose circumstances in some way change, making sure that they are followed up so that the register can be altered accordingly.
At the time of the report, we recommended that when the system is comprehensively reformed, the annual canvass be dropped and replaced with a three-year audit to check that the register is accurate as a result of the data matching. That is an ideal ultimate position to reach; the problem is that we do not know which data-matching systems will work, and until we do, it is very dangerous to take away other parts of the system that are currently important in ensuring that we get as comprehensive a register as possible. We all know from the excellent work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that our register is not very accurate, so we must be very concerned about anything that might worsen it.
On the Government’s approach to people who do not register, I welcome their decision to introduce a civil penalty, as it is the right approach. People have a responsibility to register, and the Government’s change in position on that is welcome. They have clearly listened to the evidence, information and views put to them, and responded appropriately. However, I would go further on the requirements.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) raised this next matter in a meeting I was at a few weeks ago. If people are going to need services or benefits from the state that require them to give an address—this is in addition to data being obtained from various parts of government to inform electoral registration officers of the state of play on their register and individuals’ addresses—I do not see any reason why they should not be required to show that they are registered at that address. If someone is going to claim benefits or services from the state, they also have a responsibility to act as a citizen. As a citizen, they should be required to do jury duty and not pass that requirement on to others. Why should they not be required to be eligible for jury duty and therefore to have to register?
I am certainly prepared to support that Bill.
This is not just about jury service; it is also about the fact that the registers are used to draw up boundaries. If some people decide that they want to opt out of registration, they are, in effect, undermining and reducing the level of electoral representation in their area, by making the constituency they live in have a larger number of residents. That is because the boundaries will be made on the basis not of the number of residents, but the number of people registered to vote in areas. Again, it is a matter of civic responsibility that people should be registering. If they take services and benefits from the state, they should give something back in return.
The other issue I briefly wish to address is how we go about forming a national regime for improving registration. We have to examine the powers that the Electoral Commission has and those it is asking for. As a localist, I think we are currently too prescriptive about the means of getting a comprehensive register. I have mentioned that we may not require the annual canvass in future. The Electoral Commission should give electoral registration officers a general requirement to ensure that as high a percentage of people in an area register as possible. The Electoral Commission should give guidelines and examples of good practice as to how that should be achieved. If EROs then do not carry out their functions—if we clearly see that in some areas the process is failing, whereas in others it is succeeding—the Electoral Commission should have powers not merely to monitor and shame those officers who are not performing in their duties, but to intervene. Those powers are lacking in this Bill. The commission has asked for them—people from the commission mention them every time we meet—and we ought to examine them. We need less prescription about how this is done; a clear requirement for EROs to maximise registration; a clear requirement for the commission to give guidelines and examples of good practice; and powers for the commission then to intervene if there is a failure in particular areas.
I say to the Minister that I have been partly reassured on postal votes. It is very important that people who have long-term postal votes, not for any fraudulent reason, but because they simply need them—perhaps because they are elderly, they are disabled or they work away from home a lot—should not be disadvantaged in any way. As we saw, turnouts in the recent local elections were not high, but turnouts among postal voters, certainly in my constituency, where there have been no allegations of electoral fraud that I am aware of, were much higher. If we do anything to discourage legitimate postal voting, we will reduce turnout, and it is important that we keep that in mind.
I shall conclude now, as I am aware that other hon. Members wish to contribute. I just say to the Minister that the reasoned amendment is just that—it is a reasoned amendment. Many—perhaps all—Labour Members are not against the principle of individual registration; we are merely concerned about an undue rush to implement it, which could damage the number of people registering. Such damage would not be intended by Ministers but, if it were to occur, it would be very damaging to the whole democratic process in this country.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate and I broadly welcome the content of the Bill. There is much to commend it, especially individual electoral registration, which is long overdue. Regardless of what official statistics say, the simple fact is that in parts of Britain electoral fraud is widespread and has led to fraudulent election results. That is a disgrace and should be tackled immediately or at least as soon as is practicably possible, not in 2014 or 2015—or even later, as the Opposition suggest.
I shall come on to that exact point. There are a range of reasons why electoral fraud is not reported, the police do not have the resources to follow it up and the culprits are not brought to justice. Dozens of MPs have majorities in two or three figures and I have real concerns about the integrity of the ballot and its impact on recent elections as well as future ones.
My Labour predecessor in this House, Gordon Prentice, was a vocal supporter of individual voter registration, particularly in April 2008 when he found out that our Lib Dem opponent for the last general election had 27 registered voters living in his house and a household of 44 people. I know that some Members will raise their eyebrows at that, and it was indeed an exceptional case, but I can assure them that in parts of my constituency it is not uncommon for seven, eight or more voters to be registered as living in a terraced house and no one makes any checks on that.
We have also seen a sharp rise in the number of eastern European names appearing on the electoral roll, including those of Polish, Lithuanian or Czech citizens, but few are correctly marked as being unable to vote in UK parliamentary elections or referendums. During my time in Parliament, the names of virtually every illegal immigrant or illegal overstayer with whom I have dealt has appeared on the electoral roll. We know from Operation Amberhill, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), that almost half of all forged or counterfeit documents were positive matches on the electoral register.
Surely all that would lead anyone to support individual electoral registration—and I do—but we need to ensure that it is properly scrutinised for fraud and that the returns are accurate. Scrutiny costs money and it will take a significant amount of time and effort to check people’s citizenship or residency status, in particular, so I welcome the Minister’s comments about extra money for the project.
The nub of the issue of electoral fraud is on-demand postal voting, on which I believe, sadly, that the Bill should go further. It was introduced by the previous Government and my concerns are widely shared by a number of Members and by many of my constituents. In a letter to the Electoral Commission’s Jenny Watson last summer, Pendle borough council’s chief executive, Stephen Barnes, described how
“allegations and perceptions of malpractice around”
“are seriously undermining public confidence in the whole electoral process”,
and expressed his own view that those concerns were fully justified, citing examples of probable malpractice and difficulties for the council in taking action.
In a motion last year, Pendle borough council resolved that practices related to postal votes
“affected the result of the election in some wards”.
Just last week, five councillors in Pendle from the three main parties came together to form a taskforce on tackling postal vote fraud. One of those five, Conservative Councillor Linda Crossley, said:
“People used to have to be really ill, virtually bed-ridden, to get a proxy or postal vote, now anybody can get a postal vote”.
To put that into context and explain how it happens, I shall refer to one ward, Reedley, where the scale and impact of postal voting has been dramatic. I should declare an interest. Reedley was for many years a safe Conservative ward and perhaps it still is, without on-demand postal voting. Until last year all three councillors were Conservative; now there is only one. In 2010, 800 postal votes were issued in Reedley in an election in which 3,049 people voted. The Conservative candidate secured 49% of the vote and was easily elected. In 2011, Reedley saw a 25% increase in postal votes, and this year a further increase of almost 25%. In two years an extra 479 voters felt the need to vote by post. Virtually all were from the British Pakistani community and virtually all were signed up for postal votes by the Labour party. Not coincidentally, Labour was elected on both occasions. The Conservative vote did not collapse. The Labour victory was not on trend across the constituency. Nevertheless, in this ward its support rocketed.
Certainly not. I am suggesting that certain parties can abuse the system of on-demand postal voting, and all parties have a vested interest in signing up their voters for postal votes in order to increase the turnout of their voters. I believe that that can skew election results. A return to the old system, where voters had to have a reason to have a postal vote, is the way that we should go.
I accept that in the Reedley ward it is theoretically possible that local support for Labour did sky-rocket. However, I have no doubt that the 45% increase in the Labour vote in 2011, against the backdrop of an 18% drop in turnout, was down to the huge increase in postal votes that year, as well as individual reports of party activists walking into polling stations with piles of up to 50 postal votes at a time. It is not so much that the numbers do not add up; rather, that they do. As the new council leader of Pendle, Councillor Joe Cooney, recently said:
“If we lose an election we want to lose it fairly, we don’t want to see councillors losing seats where it is not a level playing field.”
I accept, as I said, that while the rules remain as they are, all political parties will compete to sign up as many people as possible on to postal votes. Everyone in the Chamber knows that electors with postal votes are more likely to use their vote, so all political parties have a vested interest in doing that. However, as we all know, the temptation for some political activists to create fictitious voters and sign them up for postal votes has proved irresistible in places such as Slough, Birmingham and east London.
It is also clear, yes, that there is a cultural element. That has been endorsed by independent organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Trust. Even if the electoral roll is accurate, as the Bill hopes to ensure, the current on-demand postal voting regime actively disfranchises women and young people by allowing family voting to occur. By family voting, I mean the head of a household pledging the entire family’s votes to a particular political party. He can then ensure that all those votes go to that political party by watching family members complete their postal ballots, completing the ballots himself, or indeed completing them with an activist from the said political party.
I entirely concur with my hon. Friend’s comments. What we have found in Peterborough from time to time is that the head of the household will fill in both the signature and the date of birth of predominantly women members of the family. It is time-consuming and resource-intensive for the local authority and the electoral registration officer to cross-reference and match those. It is only in that way that the practice is found out, but often it is not. That is uncomfortable and unpalatable, but nevertheless true.
This is a particular issue in the south Asian community. I have met Asian women in my constituency who have told me they have no idea who they voted for because their husband did it. Needless to say, because of the close family ties and bonds of loyalty, this is not going to be reported to the police or investigated by anyone. I imagine Emmeline Pankhurst will be turning in her grave.
Apart from electoral fraud taking place and women and young people in some households losing their right to vote, such goings-on play into a narrative that gives impetus to groups such as the British National party and the English Defence League. As someone who played an active role in helping an excellent Conservative candidate unseat a BNP councillor in Pendle this year, I say that we cannot allow electoral fraud, or the suspicion of it, to continue to be used as a reason for undermining community cohesion.
In my view, the only sensible conclusion is to suspend postal voting by demand and revert to a system in which postal and proxy votes are available only to people who genuinely need them and can provide a compelling reason why they cannot vote on the day. That would save a significant amount of money, which could be invested in better scrutiny of individual voter registration, as outlined in the Bill, and would address the biggest area of fraud in our electoral system. We would disfranchise nobody and could restore confidence in our democracy. Alongside individual registration, an immediate end to postal voting on demand would lead to electoral fraud, and allegations of it, once again becoming exceptional.
I welcome the Bill’s Second Reading but urge the Government to go much further by ending postal voting on demand. That would end almost all electoral fraud, re-empower women and young people, remove a hobby-horse issue from the far right, bring our democracy in line with international standards and restore true confidence in our electoral system.
If I may issue a challenge or wager to the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), it is that there will be proportionately fewer young people on the electoral register in December 2015 than there are today. I support household registration because I believe that the most effective electoral registration officer in my constituency is mum. It is mum who fills in the form and includes her young sons—it is principally young sons, but also young daughters. It is not about people being excluded because of a bullying dad or other figures in the household. The young men I saw queuing up at the polling station at the last general election were there and able to vote because their mums assisted them in that. My concern about individual registration is not about party preference or who wins and loses, but about the disfranchisement of those groups who, for the good of us all and the protection of our society, must be included in the system.
Those listening to the debate would be forgiven for thinking that all sorts of fraud goes on all the time and that there is plenty of evidence for it, but actually the contrary is true. The report produced by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission in March 2012 identified remarkably low levels of offences relating to voter registration, stating that the offences usually concern financial benefit or identity fraud, which can be investigated separately, rather than electoral fraud. Surely we have all met mums in our constituency advice surgeries whose single person discount has been removed from their council tax bill because the council found that the electoral register recorded adult sons or daughters as living with them, even though they had moved out. That is the problem. It is not about people wanting to go on to the electoral register.
Is the hon. Lady really telling the intelligent and articulate Pakistani women in my constituency that they are not intelligent enough or cannot be trusted to fill in their own individual electoral registration forms and that they have to trust their mums, aunties, dads or uncles to do so, because I do not think that that is about women’s empowerment? It is patronising, backward-looking and potentially extremely fraudulent.
I think that that intervention is the result of the hon. Gentleman’s embarrassment at some of his earlier contributions on people who should not be on the electoral register—that gets to the nub of it.
I accept that I am out of step and that individual registration is going to happen. Given that it is, what can we do to make sure that as many people as possible are on the register?
Our democracy depends on the fullest electoral register, and that is why I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) referred, and which suggests that anybody who receives a service from the state, gets a library ticket and a driving licence or claims a benefit should have to be on the register. It would be a social contract, whereby the state—the Government—had a connection with people, who were able to vote if they chose to do so. In that way, we would also bring about a connection that people understood—that there was not something called Government money, but an individual’s money, which they gave to the Government or the state to spend.
The police are not against a comprehensive electoral register, because it is one of the country’s most effective crime databases, so their job will be made much harder if the register becomes less complete. Banks and credit companies will find it harder to tackle fraud, and councils will also find it harder to investigate benefit fraud.
If millions drop off the register because individual registration is introduced too rapidly and with too few safeguards, there will be trouble ahead. The Government have made some concessions, but, as the Bill stands, the number of people on the electoral roll and electoral participation will decline.
The hon. Lady may be aware that people gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on this topic, but not a single one of the organisations that she mentions raised the concerns that she mentions, so will she explain the basis of the evidence on which she makes her point?
I am not sure that I understand the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but the Association of Chief Police Officers and the police are concerned about the problems of under-registration because they use the electoral register, and many people are concerned about what is going to happen. If he looks throughout the world, and at America, where about one in six under-25-year-olds is not registered and one in six people who earn less than $20,000 a year is not registered, he will find plenty of evidence, quite apart from that provided by those who I am sure gave very good evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.
I am worried about the position of those individually registered people who would still be allowed to vote by post or by proxy in 2015, but I am not concerned for my own electoral benefit, because in the London borough of Merton far more postal voters vote Tory than vote Labour. I am defending the opposition’s vote, rather than my own, but it is the right of people who are unwell, disabled, work away or find it easier to vote by post to have the chance to do so.
If anybody here went to sign a postal vote today, they would be asked to tick a box, and they would be able to choose to have a postal vote indefinitely—not until December 2015, but indefinitely. That is the contract which, at the moment, the Bill is going to break. According to ACPO and the Electoral Commission, no electoral result has ever been affected by over-registration, but if postal voters lose their vote en masse that will be a very different matter.
I am concerned that people will not register. The detail of the measure—the fact that we are asking every person in a household to fill in their own form and to put in their own NI number and date of birth—is, practically, an extraordinarily difficult process to go through. As I said when I intervened on the Minister, I am concerned that when the person from the council canvasses they will not be able to fill in the form there and then, even if the individual is able to provide their NI number and date of birth. If the canvasser could do so, that would cut out a lot of bureaucracy.
I hope that my party will allow me to sit on the Public Bill Committee, because I am interested in allowing people to participate and to become involved. If 20% of the electorate can fall off the register in Northern Ireland when individual registration is introduced, then in a constituency such as mine, where a third of voters move every year and there are highly disadvantaged and disfranchised groups, the number who may fall off the register is absolutely huge, and that is in no party’s interest.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made a thoughtful speech, although I disagree with some of what she said. Unlike her, I think that we are going in the right direction with individual voter registration, and most Members’ comments seem to reflect that view. When we last debated this matter in January, in Opposition time, I covered two issues, and because I always strive for consistency in what I do in this House, I will do so again.
The first issue is people who are fortunate enough to own multiple properties and therefore find themselves able to register to vote in two or more places. The council in Cornwall has started to take action that the former district councils did not in challenging some of the registrations by second home owners in Cornwall. I have supported that publicly and have therefore been in receipt of letters from all parts of the United Kingdom from people who have property in north Cornwall; many choose to do so. Second home ownership is a serious issue in terms of property prices, the property market, and so on. I have been at pains to say that I do not believe that all second home owners are a drain on the local area’s services or that they do not contribute to local charities and other organisations.
Voter registration, however, is a different issue. As I said in the previous debate, I have heard that several people have come across political campaigning in certain elections that targets the second home vote, which is unhealthy. As I said, I have received letters from other parts of the country from people whom Cornwall council has decided to remove from the register on the grounds that they are not resident in Cornwall, and I see trotted out phrases such as “No taxation without representation”. However, I view their property ownership in a similar vein to that of those who operate a business in a constituency but do not live there. Business rate payers have not had the vote for some time. It is the same with other forms of land ownership.
The accuracy of the register is important, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) pointed out, although he worries that people should be on it but are not, whereas I worry that people are on it but should not be.
The Government have stated their intention to offer further opportunities for local people to influence decisions in their local area through referendums about, for example, council tax setting or development and neighbourhood plans. A referendum could be held to see whether people want to endorse or to think again about a development framework for a local community. My concern on that score is about places where there is a dire need for affordable housing. It will undoubtedly be in the interests of the people who live in the area for that affordable housing to be built—they might have relatives who are in desperate need of it—but it will probably not be in the interests of those who have second homes there. I therefore suspect—call me cynical if you will, Mr Deputy Speaker—that those who own property in the area, but do not have an interest in whether the community is a living, thriving one, will take a different view on whether a new affordable housing development should be built, particularly in a coastal or village community. Those are crucial questions that we need to get right.
As I said, the first issue is whether people who have multiple properties should be on the register in multiple locations. If we are moving towards an individual electoral registration system, it ought to be just that: each individual should be on the register in one place and should state where that place is. We could have a discussion about what options there are for determining where somebody should register. I would be happy for a person to opt for which place they use. Another school of thought says that it should be based on the amount of time they spend in each area. There are data, such as those that have been used in the data-matching pilots, that show where a person spends most of their time. That information would be useful for a local authority in determining whether a person is resident in its area.
We could go further than the data that were authorised for use in the pilots. Many of the cases will relate to the ownership of property. Although pay-as-you-earn information was on the list, registration for capital gains tax purposes was not. In the past, we have heard celebrated examples of people changing the designation of their properties for capital gains tax purposes, depending on which property they were about to sell. If somebody opts to say that a place is their main residence for tax purposes, should they not also say that it is their main residence for electoral registration purposes? That is another form of data that could be useful, but it was not used in the data matching pilots.
Earlier this week, we discussed the council tax discount. There is still a 10% discount for second homes even in councils that have chosen to make second home owners pay as much council tax as possible. Although my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) was reflecting the opinion of the electorate in Cornwall and other parts of the country in supporting the abolition of the discount, it will present a problem. At the moment, there is an incentive to register a property as a second home, because to get the 10% discount one has to notify the council. That is useful for data mapping and for resolving the registration issues to which I am referring. If the 10% discount goes, we will lose that option. Other methods will therefore have to be used to ensure that the register is accurate.
Putting the new systems in place presents a huge opportunity, whether paper forms or computer systems are used. I appreciate that the Government do not want to be in the business of deciding what system a local authority should use and exactly how the forms should look. There will inevitably be differences. Having lived in different parts of the country, I know that different councils have different ways of doing things, but we could specify in regulations certain items of data that must be captured. I would welcome a view from the Minister on this point.
I would like people who are completing the form to be asked whether they have another property that they might consider registering at and, if so, where that property is. We could discuss those sorts of questions in Committee. The form will provide an opportunity for such cross-referencing. At the moment, it would be incredibly difficult for an electoral registration officer to check whether somebody who was registered in two places had voted in both places in a general election. They would have to know where the other property was, get access to the marked register and compare it with their own marked register. For areas such as north Cornwall that have a large number of second homes, that would be very time consuming. If we could capture that information at the point of registration, it would be hugely reassuring.
I will move on briefly to the second point that I want to cover. The Bill does not include the issue of the edited register. I know that there is a range of views on this matter. I am pleased that the Government do not propose to change the status quo and abolish the edited register. I hope that they will cling to that position, because many organisations rely on the edited register, including charities, those who seek to unite family members who have been separated, credit referencing organisations and those who are seeking to catch up with people who are trying to avoid their responsibilities—for instance, by not paying their bills. The edited register is a useful and valuable resource. I am pleased that the Government have not included its abolition in the Bill, despite the view of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I hope that the Government will stick to that view and that we will not have to revisit the issue.
The first time I heard of the proposal for individual registration, I expressed my opposition to the idea. I remain of that opinion, like my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh).
The Bill is unique in the history of all changes to electoral law over the past 180 years. All the others added citizens to the electoral register; this one, as we all know, will do the reverse. Individual registration will reduce the number of people on the electoral roll. Those who support the Bill say that its object is to reduce the scope for electoral fraud, but whatever the intentions behind it, its main effect will be to reduce the number of people entitled to vote. That number will be reduced not by keeping swindlers off the electoral roll but because it will become more inconvenient, complicated and difficult for the law-abiding majority to get on to it.
The right to vote is the birthright of every British citizen and the most important right granted to those who become British citizens. It is a symbol of our democracy. Over the centuries, British people have struggled, fought and in some cases died for the right to vote. In the last century, women had to battle for it. This afternoon, we are being asked to vote to make it harder for many of our fellow citizens to exercise that democratic right.
I am rather surprised that the hon. Gentleman gives the example of Northern Ireland, because he cannot deny that there was a massive drop in registration immediately after individual registration was introduced. I see no reason to believe that the people of Northern Ireland are inferior to any other people.
No one can deny that there have been examples of electoral fraud, which are deplorable. We know that, because people have been successfully prosecuted. However, the number of fraudsters is small, otherwise there would be more prosecutions. The most glaring scandal of our electoral system is not that some have swindled their way on to the electoral roll but that as many as 9 million of our fellow citizens have been left off it. That is the scandal that we should be addressing. Instead, the Government want to add to the number of their fellow citizens who will be denied their birthright.
We are being asked to pass a law to make life more inconvenient and difficult for the law-abiding many, in response to the law-breaking of the wrongdoing few. Instead, we should be targeting more effort, and much more effective effort, at whenever and wherever electoral fraud is suspected.
I am thinking about the figure of 9 million that the right hon. Gentleman gave. Is it not the case that at present, those 9 million people, if there are 9 million—I think there are 3 million—have to go through their “head of household”, whatever that might mean, to register to vote? When the Bill becomes law, they will be able to register individually in their own right, which will give them a power that they do not have at the moment.
I do not think that is what will happen in practice. I admit that it may happen in some cases, but in a very large number of cases, particularly in inner-city areas such as my constituency where people live in houses in multiple occupation, it will be more difficult for people to get on the register. Virtually everyone in the Chamber accepts that that is likely to happen, but apparently regards that reduction as a bit of collateral damage in the headlong pursuit of individual registration.
The right hon. Gentleman is mistaken about houses in multiple occupation. At the moment, people in houses in multiple occupation get one form and depend on someone to whom they are not even related to put them on the electoral register. Under our proposals, they will all be written to and all get the chance to register individually. That is a step forward, not backwards.
The measures are proposed for areas where there is about a 30% to a 33% turnover of population each year. To whom will the electoral lot write if people have moved on? The proposals do not reflect the practicalities, problems and inconveniences that arise.
The Bill reminds me of when the police tried to counter football hooliganism by inconveniencing the majority of law-abiding football fans by treating all football fans as hooligans. It did not stop hooliganism. It was only when the police started to identify and target the trouble-making few that widespread hooliganism was stopped and the law-abiding many felt safe again. If we want to deal with the fraud, we need to target the potential fraudsters much better.
By all means we should ensure that no one votes who should not vote, but surely a far more important task is ensuring that everyone who is entitled to do so can cast their vote. The whole approach is simply back to front. Our first priority should be to get on the register the 6 million people who are not on it—I do not know whether by a slip of the tongue I said 9 million. Even the benighted Electoral Commission admits that the figure is about 6 million. The Bill proposes all sorts of cross-checking of official records, but largely with the object of getting people off the electoral roll. We should cross-check official records and private databases with the object of adding people to the register. The Bill’s object is wrong. Getting more people on the roll should be the main task of all involved in the electoral system: registration officers, the Electoral Commission, the Boundary Commission, civil servants, Ministers, holders of private sector data and political parties.
The Bill is back to front, dealing with a minor problem compared with the glaring scandal that 6 million of our fellow citizens are not on the electoral roll. Even if there are 10,000 fraudsters—I do not accept that there are—we are paying far more attention to them than to the absence of 6 million people who should be on the electoral register. The whole damn thing is back to front and it is about time we took our duties seriously and discharged our obligations in the way in which my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and for Mitcham and Morden suggest. We should go out there, day in, day out, using every possible method we can devise to get on the register people who could legitimately be on the electoral register. The Bill has a cock-eyed priority.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), because I totally disagree with everything that he has just said, so perhaps we can have a real debate about the amendment and the party political difference on the matter.
The Bill will improve the electoral register’s comprehensiveness and accuracy. It is long overdue. It is absurd that, in the 21st century, a person’s right to vote depends on the head of household filling in a form. Each individual member of our society should be responsible for registering themselves to vote and should have the vote that they deserve. I have never understood why the Labour party—it is in opposition now, but the situation was the same when it was in government—has been so reluctant for the last two Parliaments to go ahead with that obvious modernisation of our electoral administration system.
Labour Members now want that modernisation to be delayed. I understand their objection a little better having listened to the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras, but the arguments of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) simply do not hold water. The Government are not, as he said, rushing pell-mell. The proposals have been discussed in the Chamber and other places for seven years, and this Government have taken two years and two weeks to introduce the Bill. That is not “breakneck speed”.
The Opposition amendment is ridiculous. They state that
“the proposals would mean the young, the poor, ethnic minorities and disabled people would face an increased risk of being unregistered and thus excluded from a range of social and civic functions”.
I entirely take the point that measures must be in place to help people who are disabled or elderly, and there is a duty on local authorities to provide such help. The Government are as concerned as the previous one, and Government Back Benchers are as concerned as Opposition Back Benchers to ensure that people who are elderly or disabled get help to register to vote if they need it.
How many hon. Members as candidates in elections or as election managers knock on somebody’s door, find that they are not registered, get them a form and ensure that they register? How many of us knock on a door and find an elderly person who might find it difficult to get to the polling station and offer to arrange them a lift? All Members on both sides of the House do that. We sometimes help if we think the person might vote for our candidate rather than someone else’s, which is fair enough, but there is every likelihood that someone from all political parties will knock on that door. Somebody will help that person to get to the polling station or have a form sent to someone by the local authority to ensure they are registered to vote. We all do it because it is in our interests.
However, I am amazed that the Opposition say ethnic minorities will be less likely to register to vote under the Bill, because the opposite is the case. I am thinking particularly about women in certain ethnic minorities who have their right to vote, or indeed to participate in wider public life, restricted by a head of household who exercises the power of a head of household. In this Bill we are giving greater rights to women in those ethnic minorities.
My greatest concern is the idea that young people will not register to vote if their mother or father does not fill in the form for them. What absolute nonsense! I shall go further: if a young person cannot organise the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they do not deserve the right to vote—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I thought that might be controversial, but I do not mind.
That argument smacks of the Conservative’s attitude towards the poor in general—the undeserving poor and the deserving poor, the undeserving voters and the deserving voters. In whose political interest is it? It is in the Tory party’s political interest to keep those poor voters off the register.
Not in my constituency, it is not, where a large majority of them vote Tory. I want them on the register. This is simply not a reasonable argument. If someone is responsible enough to exercise their right to vote to decide the Government of this country, or at any level of local government, they should be responsible enough to register to vote.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Labour party should have learnt its lesson from the Bradford West by-election result? It relied on community voting and this kind of backward-looking, pernicious and frankly slightly sleazy and corrupt approach to registration and campaigning. It bit Labour on the backside and it lost by 10,000 votes. It is over.
Members who do not think that young people will register are being overly pessimistic. When I visited Northern Ireland, I noted that, with IER, electoral registration officers could interact directly with young people. They go to schools and get more young people registered to vote than we do in Great Britain. Members have a huge opportunity to engage with young people in our schools. We know that often young people are more engaged in politics than their parents.
I agree entirely with the Minister. Of course, it is relatively easy for electoral registration officers to find young people, because up until 16 they are at school or college, and at that point can be approached, educated, given a form and encouraged to register to vote when they reach their 18th birthday.
The Opposition’s argument simply does not hold water. The Bill will give more individual power to every person in this country, particularly the 3 million—I am glad the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras agreed the figure was not 9 million—who should be on the register but are not. It will be far, far easier for them to register on their own behalf, rather than having to do so through a head of household.
Sadly, I do not have time. I am sorry.
Government Members are pleased that the Minister has listened to the consultation. Speaking on behalf of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I am particularly pleased that he has taken account of some of the points raised during the pre-legislative scrutiny. Once again, the Bill is a good example of how pre-legislative scrutiny works to the advantage of Parliament and the democratic system. In particular, I think of the data matching with the Department for Work and Pensions, keeping people on the register during the transition, and recognising that registering is a civic duty and maintaining a penalty for not doing so. In those areas, the Government deserve to be congratulated on having amended the draft Bill. I also welcome the funding formula for local authorities under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003, and I am glad that the Minister will be consulting on accountability.
That brings me to the second half of the Bill, which we have not really debated yet, concerning the powers of electoral registration officers and returning officers. At present, returning officers are accountable to no one. We need a structure whereby they can be ordered to carry out instructions, possibly by the Electoral Commission. We saw during the 2010 general election that the Electoral Commission had no power to direct. On the matter of counting votes at the close of poll, I tabled an amendment, which was supported by the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and subsequently became law. Returning officers had to be directed by an amendment to primary legislation to count the votes at the close of poll. That is not the right way to do it; there should be a much better structure, and I therefore welcome clause 17.
I suggest, however, that the Minister might wish to go further. Something else happened in 2010 that has not been addressed in the Bill. It involved people who were waiting to vote at the close of poll. Eligible electors who are present at a polling station at that time should be allowed to vote if they are within the precincts of the polling station. I appreciate that this matter needs to be carefully defined, but I suggest that the Bill gives the Government an opportunity to introduce rules that would give the presiding officer at a polling station the authority to designate the end of a queue, for example, or the area—not necessarily in the polling station itself—in which people must be present before 10 o’clock in order to vote at 10 o’clock. On the night of the 2010 general election, there was unfair criticism of the Electoral Commission, which did not have the power that the media thought it had to tell electoral registration officers what to do. I hope that the Minister will consider amending the Bill in this respect.
No—that is completely wrong. My point is that if someone is just outside the polling station—in the school playground, perhaps, or the car park of the village hall—but there is not sufficient space for them to get in through the door, the presiding officer should have the power to designate the end of the queue, so that those people can move forward and vote.
The Government did listen, and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee agreed with our view that
“careful planning and allocation of resources are likely to be more effective in ensuring all those who are eligible can access their vote without resorting to legislation.”
That was our view, the Committee agreed with us, and that is the position at which I think we will remain.
I appreciate the Minister’s position, but perhaps that is something we can look at as the Bill passes through the House.
There is nothing in the Bill that will give party political advantage to any political party. It is a simple, straightforward modernisation of electoral administration. It is vastly overdue, and it will give more rights, not fewer, to the electors of this country. The amendment before us is based on nonsense, and it should be rejected. The House should support the Bill.
I should like to speak in support of the reasoned amendment tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends, but before I make my points, I should like to comment on some of the issues that have been raised in the debate. I do not recognise the picture of electoral fraud being painted by some Members on the Government Benches. I have worked on elections for 30 years or more, and that is a world that I do not know. That is not to say that electoral fraud does not happen, and when it does, it should be tackled aggressively by the police and the authorities. The number of prosecutions is small, however, and it is perhaps stretching the truth to suggest it constitutes the general behaviour during elections.
I have sympathy with what my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said about heads of households, and about mums signing up for their families. We will lose that practice, which happens in a lot of places. Also, people already have the right to register individually; they do not have to register on a form filled in by the head of the household.
My final introductory comment relates to what the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) said. Thank goodness postal voting on a specific issue is not going to return. The first time I applied for a postal vote was when I was expecting my second child. Although my baby was due in the week of an election, because I was active politically, I still wanted to vote. What a palaver it was getting that postal vote, so thank goodness the Bill does not include postal vote provisions.
Let me proceed to my main arguments. I speak from my personal experience of elections and on the basis of talking to the people who run elections in Sunderland—my local authority, the electoral registration officer and the elections officers. To put Sunderland in context, it has a fairly static population, not one that churns very quickly. We also have a high percentage of postal votes, partly as a result of the postal vote experiment of 2004, I think, when we had all-out postal vote elections. Many people have retained the right to their postal votes because they like voting that way; they find it convenient. The key to any election is not just having an accurate electoral register, but making it as easy as possible for people to cast the vote to which they are entitled.
Sunderland delivers its counts very quickly—something of which I am proud—and this is based on organisation relating to the whole electoral process. Bill Crawford and Lindsay Dixon, who run our elections office, take great pride in the finest detail of their work. Efficient counts and efficient election days come from the compiling of the electoral register and the planning that goes into running elections.
I have moved to support individual voter registration in principle, albeit with some reservations, as I have outlined that there have been problems with accuracy and the completeness of the register in the past. That is why, when in government, Labour introduced the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. I welcome the Government’s moving of the annual canvass to 2014, which I think will be a help, but I still have some very serious concerns.
First, on the data-matching exercise, the accuracy of Department for Work and Pensions records is a problem. As an MP, I regularly get casework relating to that inaccuracy. Numbers are flagged to the wrong people. People are usually made aware that their national insurance records are flagged to the wrong person only when they apply for something like a maternity benefit or whatever. The first time they apply for something, the problem arises. Although we can easily get those problems sorted out as MPs, it does highlight the inaccuracy of DWP records. I have also experienced problems surrounding the recording of multiple births. The DWP is not that good, in my experience, at issuing the correct national insurance numbers. Sometimes people simply do not know their national insurance number. Issues about accuracy are evident.
One of the Department’s pilot schemes involved a ward in my constituency. Having discussed this with the people running the elections in Sunderland and compiling the electoral register, I found that only about half the people data-matched to DWP records. Given that I mentioned that Sunderland has a fairly static population, that is quite a worrying statistic. If we are talking only about half the people in my constituency, I suggest that the proportion might be significantly higher in a constituency with a higher churn. Another problem is that electoral registration records tend to be property-based, whereas DWP records tend to be name-based. Overall, the data-matching process is going to be time consuming and costly to administer. The Department needs to take note of that.
My second concern relates to postal and proxy votes during the transitional arrangements. The annual canvass will happen in 2014, when the data-matching exercise will be going on. My main concern relates to households in which people remain on the register. People who remain on the register because they are on the household and DWP records will automatically retain their postal votes if they have applied for indefinite ones. However, if authorities are satisfied that they live at those addresses because they have checked their own housing benefit or council tax records, those people will remain on the register but their indefinite postal votes will fall, and they will have to reapply. I think that some confusion will be caused when one member of a household retains a postal vote and another does not. Some of the charities that represent people with disabilities fear that such people may be disfranchised.
In my constituency, there is currently a mini-canvass in February. People are sent a letter telling them either that they are on the register or that they are not, and that they do or do not have postal votes. They are asked to respond to the letter for the purpose of accuracy, and very few do not do so; it receives a massive response. I think that that is a good model to follow and that adopting it would mop up some of the problems with postal votes, particularly in the early years of the transition. I hope that the Government will consider providing funds for it. The mini-canvass ensures that there are very few problems on election day, because if time has been taken to get the register and the postal vote records right, not many people turn up wanting to vote and finding that they are unable to do so.
My third concern relates to online registration. I have already mentioned problems involving national insurance numbers. Not everyone knows their national insurance number. We saw a demonstration last week, and it was clear that if people did not have their national insurance numbers, the system would stop. We raised the issue, and it is possible that it will be investigated.
I asked an outside computer expert at the demonstration what would happen when people did not have their national insurance numbers. I was told “We are working on that.” We know what has been said and what has happened in the past. Computer programs costing hundreds of millions of pounds have been put in place, and they have not worked. We need to get this one right.
I could not agree more. It is not that I am opposed to online registration—we must move with the times, and people do more and more things online—but getting it right is very important. I have read about secondary ID involving passports and driving licences, but we should bear in mind that not everyone has a passport or a driving licence.
The Government need to listen to the experts who have been involved in the pilots and who run elections and compile registers, because they are the people who really understand the details. The Government also need to ring-fence enough money. I welcomed what the Minister said about section 31 funding, but the provision of enough money is the key, particularly in the early years. The way in which the money will be distributed or bid for is not yet clear; that needs to be considered carefully and spelt out to us before the next stage of the process.
A serious look should be taken at the rules governing postal voting. As we all know, in the world of cuts upon cuts in which we are currently living, local authorities’ finances are very tight. My own authority has experienced and is still experiencing massive cuts. However, I think that the Government should put money into ensuring that the system works, because otherwise the results could be disastrous.
I think that the proposal to use the 2014 canvass for the next round of boundary reviews is a dangerous one with massive implications. It is possible that we will not end up with the best register that we have ever had at the first attempt: as everyone knows, when something is done for the first time there are teething problems. It is not the best way of ensuring democracy in this country, and I think that it is a very negative step.
We get things right in Sunderland because we are organised, and because we provide proper resources for elections and electoral registers. If we get the register right to start with, we can get the postal and proxy votes right, and if there are enough people doing the job on the ground, the elections themselves will be run properly.
I hope the Government listen to the concerns I have raised. I have been as un-party political as possible, because this is too important to get wrong. Members on both sides of the House have concerns, and this needs to be done properly.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott). She approached this subject in a constructive manner, and I hope to do the same while offering some suggestions as to how the process could be improved.
It would be churlish not to celebrate the differences between the current proposals and the Government’s original announcements in the White Paper and the documents that went to the Select Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny. That demonstrates that the Government have taken account of the consultation and have listened to what representatives from a range of organisations have said. They have made a lot of significant changes to the Bill as a result. Among the most welcome are the changes to ensure that we get as full an electoral register as possible. The negativity of Opposition Members astounds me. This should be an opportunity to enhance the electoral list, and build a bigger list. I am shocked by some of the comments I have heard.
Many of the issues raised in Labour’s Opposition day debate have been addressed. The opt-out provision has been removed from the form. There was a great deal of controversy about that, but the Government listened and responded. The Government have also yielded on the civil penalty issue, and there has been action on the question of the canvass in 2014. As the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said, the new individual voter registration scheme enables individuals to register and be responsible for their own vote, rightly taking responsibility away from the head of the household for registering everybody in the household, which was an outdated notion. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) about the importance and significance of mothers, but we must all reach a point in our lives when we can make a judgment on these matters ourselves.
Registering to vote is a civic duty, and having a penalty for those who fail to do so serves to reflect that. That has been in place for almost 100 years, since 1918, when the last Liberal-Conservative coalition introduced a £20 fine, a sum that is equivalent to about £3,500 in today’s money. Since then, with all-party agreement, the House has agreed to maximum fines of £50 in 1969, £100 in 1983, £400 in 1986 and £1,000 in 2001. I welcome the fact that the Government are moving along those lines in respect of civil penalties for individuals. Having no offence would also have meant there was no incentive for local authorities to follow up on hard-to-reach voters, who have as much right to be enfranchised as anyone else.
The Government have also listened to the concerns about the boundary changes, and concessions have been made. The Government are as keen as anyone that we should have a complete and responsive electoral list.
The Opposition have been wallowing in conspiracy theories in this regard. The Government have made a huge number of concessions in order to ensure we have a complete electoral list on which to base the new boundaries. The Government have responded to the concerns expressed about the use of the register for the jury service pool, and about credit check companies and mortgage providers using it to check an individual’s background. Again, those considerations have been reflected in the changes made by the Government.
I look forward to hearing more from the Government about the level of the penalties that will be set. I share the impatience of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) in that regard, but the Government have assured us that during the Bill’s passage, we will have the relevant draft secondary legislation. The hon. Gentleman is right: we need to hear what penalties the Government have in mind and what discussions have taken place on this issue. I will welcome the speedy emergence of that draft secondary legislation.
I am also pleased that the Bill states that the money raised will go to the Treasury, so that local authorities cannot be accused of using the failure to register as a money-making venture. I wonder whether the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), can say whether the fine will be on the scale of a parking fine, for example. Will it operate in a similar way—I hesitate to use that example; there are many disreputable car-parking companies in our constituencies—and will the fine increase if payment is not received within two weeks, as happens with some parking fines? If, after one month, the person fined still has not taken any action to register, will the fine be repeated? These are legitimate questions, and we look forward to the speediest possible emergence of that information.
I am very glad that the Government have decided to move the annual canvass from 2013 to 2014, so that the gap between it and mass mailing is shorter. Hopefully, there will therefore be fewer significant changes. I remain a little concerned, however—in the spirit of consensus, this is perhaps another area of agreement between me and the hon. Member for Caerphilly—that clause 6 allows the relevant Minister to abolish the annual canvass. I have heard the rationale behind this provision—that future data matching will be sufficiently developed to ensure that an annual canvass is not necessary—and in that regard the example of Northern Ireland is often cited. I would like clarification of that rationale, but I do note that clause 6 also gives the Minister the power to reinstate the annual canvass.
I am pleased that there will be the opportunity to register online, a positive step that will appeal to a lot of young people. Like the hon. Member for Sunderland Central, I saw the presentation, which was impressive; however, there is a great deal of work to be done. The point has been made—I made it myself in an intervention—about the ease or otherwise with which people can access their own national insurance number. I was surprised to hear the Minister say that only 5% of people could not readily access their NI number. A quick survey of my office in this place revealed that I was the only one out of four people who knew their NI number. I doubt whether most of our constituents study their NI number on their payslips; perhaps they are more inclined to look at the other numbers. We need clarity here, and to develop seamless ways in which people can access their NI number.
As I have said before in this House, it is all very well talking about accessing Government services on the internet in parts of the country where it is easy to do so: for those in west Wales—Ceredigion, for example—the situation is very different. I am afraid that at the moment, 20% of my constituents cannot access anything on the internet—the Government do have the worthy aspiration to roll out broadband across the country—so there are limitations. That is why the traditional method of the annual canvass is so significant in the registration of voters.
I was pleased to learn from the Government that funding will be set aside for each local authority to implement the changes associated with IVR, and that extra money will be available through bidding. We can all envisage places in our constituencies where that extra money would be put to good use.
Ceredigion may not be characterised in the same way that inner-city constituencies have been, but I represent two universities. Students are traditionally hard-to-get-at voters at election time and before. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) speaks from a sedentary position; I have no difficulty in speaking to my student voters, but registering these people is challenging. I am well used to seeing the piles of electoral registration forms heaped up in student pigeonholes in halls of residence and in houses in multiple occupation, of which there are a huge number in my constituency. Huge numbers of forms sit there untended as the months go by. They will require extra resources but, again, the Government have made those resources available and intimated that they will be available.
I reinforce what the Minister said about the value of education. I used to be a teacher, and I believe there is great merit in using the education system, as we have heard has happened in Northern Ireland, to promote the registration of voters from sixth forms. That is a practical way of engaging people in citizenship and assisting local authorities in registering new voters.
I would also like to hear a little more about the dissemination of best practice and the standardisation of electoral registration forms across the country. As the Minister knows, some very good examples are available. We have heard about Sunderland Central’s good record in these matters. In order to please the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), I wish to mention the example of Denbighshire, which has sent out some extremely effective forms and follow-up forms. We need to disseminate the practice from Denbighshire across other areas of the country. Crucially, such forms need to be bilingual in Wales.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) is concerned about the issue of second homes and the prominence of items on electoral registration forms for people who own two residences. I want the civil penalty and the possible penalties that may be levied to have real prominence on those forms.
I also wish to highlight the concerns voiced by Scope, and I await the response from our Front-Bench team on the issue of the carry-over of voters from 2014 to 2015, and on whether all postal and proxy voters have to re-register. I was heartened by what the Minister said about this applying only to those people who have not yet been dealt with through the data-matching pilots. If that is not the case, the prospect of so many people who have been used to having a postal or proxy vote for so many years, election after election, not being included is very alarming. That needs to be addressed.
I sum up by saying that this Government have made huge progress on this Bill. There are still matters that need to be ironed out and that we need to reflect on in Committee, but compared with where we were at the time of the Labour Opposition motion before, the Bill is vastly improved. That is why Government Members will be supporting it tonight.
It is a pleasure and an honour to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who has been a staunch campaigner on these issues for many years, ever since I informed him that his Bronglais ward had the worst registration rate in the whole of Wales, at just 56%.
I wish to touch on a number of issues. I have had a big interest in this subject for 10 years, and I have tabled about 300 parliamentary questions and spoken many times in Parliament on it. We all thought that there were 3 million to 3.5 million people missing off the register. Two or two and a half years ago, I had a meeting with people from Experian, who told me that the real figure was nearer 6 million to 6.5 million. I took that figure to the Electoral Commission, which said that it was not true. It then undertook its own research and, lo and behold, it said last November that 6 million to 6.5 million people were missing off the register—but they were not the same as Experian’s missing 6 million, so even more people may be missing off the register. I mentioned in an intervention that I think that the private sector has a role to play in helping us to improve the registers. It has the detail already and we should be listening to it.
The profiles of the missing 6 million people include, in the main, the poor, those living in social or council housing, those on the minimum wage, the unemployed, black and ethnic minority people and young people. At the moment, 6 million people fitting those profiles are off the register and had the changes gone ahead as originally proposed, the Electoral Commission—not Chris Ruane, Labour MP—said that that figure would have gone up to 16 million. We would have been left without a properly functioning democracy. I give credit to the Government for listening to many calls from Members on both sides of the House and from civic society, but the Electoral Commission has stated that the registration rates could go down as low as 65%.
I want to contrast the previous Labour Government’s attitude to constitutional issues with that of the Conservative and Liberal Government over the past two years right up until very recently. We never treated the issues as party political, but pursued them in the interests of democracy. In 2001, Labour instituted a rule that took people—often quite poor people—off the register if they failed to sign their electoral registration form for two years on the trot, as we wanted an accurate register. Millions disappeared, mainly Labour voters. We did not do that for party political reasons, as it worked against us.
In 1998, we proposed proportional representation for European elections. We did not have to do that, but we did because it was the right thing to do, and Labour suffered in Wales, going from four MEPs to one. We had a Scottish consensus on Scottish devolution that lasted for three or four years, and we introduced PR knowing that Labour would not get full control.
It was the right thing to do. I personally did not think that that was the right thing to do, but my Government did and they overrode my voice from the Back Benches.
When PR for local government was introduced in Scotland, it worked against the Labour Government. Labour delivered individual electoral registration in 2009. Throughout our period in office, we operated consensually and for a better functioning democracy.
What happened under the previous Conservative Government? The poll tax was pursued as a means of pushing people off the register and Dame Shirley Porter undertook social cleansing in Westminster to secure party political advantage. This Government’s original proposals sent a shiver down my spine, much like that recently experienced by Ms Lagarde. The agreed date for individual electoral registration, on which there was consensus, was brought back from 2015 to 2014 and the date of the next election was put back to the last possible date of 2015. Either the Deputy Leader of the House or the Parliamentary Secretary can intervene at this point, as we still have not had a satisfactory answer on the reason for the decisions. Was it happenstance or accident, or was there a political agenda?
It is very simple. We put through the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 because we thought that it was sensible and that the Prime Minister’s right to pick an election date at a time of his choosing to suit his party political convenience was wrong. We took that power away and that was a step forward.
The Minister has given me half the answer, but why did the Government bring the agreed date of 2015 for IER forward to 2014?
The Tories have mainly acted on such issues with a party political advantage as the main thing that they want to pursue. The equalisation of seats should not have gone ahead with 6 million people missing from the register. I do not want to be too curmudgeonly, however.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument on party political advantage, but is he actually suggesting that someone who is likely to vote Labour is more likely to fail in their civic duty to register to vote than someone who is likely to vote Conservative?
I am saying that the Electoral Commission’s research into who has been left off the register shows that in the main they are unemployed or low paid; live in social or council housing; are black or ethnic minority people; or are young students. The hon. Lady can draw her own conclusions about which way they would vote, but I do not think they would vote Tory.
I want to get on to a more positive agenda and give those on the Front Bench some praise for what they have done. That have listened, to some degree, and there are four aspects that I shall highlight. I want also to praise the Labour Front-Bench team, the shadow Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), and my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), who has pursued the issue like a dog with a bone. We would not have had the concessions from the Government without his doggedness; I use that word guardedly.
Civic society has rallied on the issue. Two groups in particular answered the clarion call two years ago, when the proposals were announced—the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy. They have helped take the issue out to wider society, to civic society, and made people aware of it—the judiciary, the police, Operation Black Vote, Scope and other organisations. I pay tribute to all those and to the academics who provided us with research. The progress that has been made is good, as far as it goes. From being a lifestyle choice, which in my view was obscene, the right to register has become a civic duty. I thank Ministers for that.
The annual canvass, which was not in place previously, will be in place for 2014. That is progress. The fixed penalty notice is probably the biggest progress that we have had. Again, I thank the Front-Bench team for that. I hate to say it, but threats and fines work. The hon. Member for Ceredigion referred to Denbighshire county council’s electoral registration form. In the middle of that form, in big bold letters, is a message: “If you do not fill in this form, you are liable to a £1,000 fine.” People will be visited and told three times that they are liable to this fine. The local chief executive, Mohammed Mehmet, will write to the individual—I have the letters and the forms, if anybody wants a copy—saying, “My electoral registration officers have been to your household three times. You have refused to return the form. We are now turning this over to our legal department.” If standardisation is to come about—another aspect that I welcome—I urge the Front-Bench team to look at best practice in Denbighshire.
I am pleased with the carry-over from the old register to the general election in May 2015, but why could it not be carried over to 1 December, the freeze date for the next boundary review? It is only six months further down the line. Opposition Members feel that it is a boundary review stitch-up, done in the knowledge that the electoral registration rates will go down by 10% in that critical period. That will leave 10% of probably the poorest people in the country off the register. That could be avoided. The Minister could come to the Dispatch Box and say, “Right, we will carry it over an extra six months,” and he would have cross-party consensus on taking these matters forward.
I am concerned about downgrading the role of the Electoral Commission. I have been a fierce critic of the Electoral Commission over the years. The changes that Labour introduced in 2005-06 took too long to implement. We did not insist on electoral registration officers doing the job that they were being paid to do, but in the past year or so the Electoral Commission has been a star turn. It has highlighted what the impact would be if the original proposals had gone ahead, again saying that electoral registration rates would have gone down to 65%. The commission may have been punished for its effectiveness over the past year.
As the secondary legislation unfolds, a lot more political flack may be coming. We need an independent arbiter who can give a straight-down-the-line view. If we downgrade the role of the Electoral Commission, we are taking away a valuable element providing that independent view.
I understand the Government’s predicament on fixed penalty notices. They do not want to create a system whereby local authorities can go out and fire those notices left, right and centre and get lots of money for themselves, which would be wrong, but the local authorities that will spend the most money will often be the poorest in the country. There will be cuts to social services and education. They will be forced to decide whether to prioritise electoral registration, and canvassing is something they are required to do by law, knocking on the doors of non-responders three times, which is costly. Those local authorities need financing for that work. I ask for that to be considered so that some of the money from the Treasury can be given back to the authorities with the biggest work load.
We need the details of the secondary legislation to be published concurrently so that we can judge exactly what the impact will be. I am afraid that trust will not do on this one; we tried trust two years ago and got only an element of it back in the past couple of weeks.
I mentioned online registration in an intervention. I went to see a demonstration of it in the Jubilee Room, and when I asked what happens for those who do not have their number, it was like throwing a spanner in the works. I was told that no one had yet got on top of it. The Minister said that 5% of people will be unable to find their registration number or their national insurance number. What happens to the ethnic minorities who do not have a good understanding of the English language? What happens to people who are functionally illiterate? We will send them letters telling them to go here or there, apply for a form, then fill it in and put it online, but that will not happen. Again, it will tend to be the poorest in society who will be punished as a result.
We need precise details on how the £108 million of funding will be ring-fenced and spent. If it is allocated for registration, it should be spent on registration. We saw in the emergency Budget in June 2010 that the first thing the Government slashed was the participation fund for increasing registration, which was £2 million over three years. It was not a priority then, but I hope it will be in future.
The Government point to Labour and say that we did nothing for 13 years and had 6 million people off the register. There is a golden opportunity to change that, but the Minister said at the outset that after all is done and dusted and all these changes have been implemented they hope to have 6 million people—perhaps a different 6 million—still off the register. I do not think that that is good enough.
Order. This debate has to finish at 7 o’clock. In order to fit in everybody who has been in the Chamber waiting patiently to speak, I regret that it is necessary for me to reduce the time limit to nine minutes, from the next speaker. Interventions should occur only if they are absolutely necessary and truly interventions, because otherwise we will not even get those Members in.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate and, indeed, to follow the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). The electoral process is something that we all have experience of, but it is clear from the contribution we have heard today that we have encountered it in a number of different forms. If it varies between the good, the bad and the ugly, I am afraid that I have seen at first hand its downright ugly form. The central purpose of the Bill is to ensure that individual voters retain ownership and control of their vote right up to the moment when, either by post or in person, their vote is cast, which is absolutely crucial.
I realise that to many that is simply a statement of the very obvious. The idea that the voter retains control of their vote until it is cast is anticipated almost with certainty at every election, but unfortunately, owing to the actions of a relatively small number of individuals in one part of my constituency, it represents a change that is essential and, sadly, long overdue.
For some years in the Savile Town area of my constituency, annual elections have gone hand in hand with annual allegations of voter fraud and intimidation. In 2010, I saw the intimidation for myself. I witnessed groups of young men outside a polling station, whispering, spitting, gesturing, milling around and pushing in front of me. Having to leave a group of people to guard cars should not be a part of polling day, nor should warnings to stay away or to leave.
I have spoken to the police officers who have to deal with the situation, and I have heard the accounts of those manning the polling stations. When I saw that the Bill contained provisions for police community support officers to enter polling stations, my first reaction was that it was to allow reinforcements to be called, not that they would operate as an alternative to police constables.
I have no doubt that the enthusiasm of a small number of people to try to ensure victory for their side continues to result in behaviour that is not only inappropriate, but unlawful. Persistent rumours and allegations of postal vote fraud accompany that intimidatory behaviour. This year, the local authority raised concerns with the police about the similarity of the handwriting on a large number of postal votes; and some people turned up to vote only to be told that, according to the register, they already had done so by post, when they clearly had not or, at least, had not done so themselves. I do not know whether the result of the election was affected, but that really is the point: I do not know.
You may wonder, Madam Deputy Speaker, why that behaviour has been going on for so long. Why have the police not investigated it? Why has no one got to the bottom of the repeated allegations of postal fraud which, if untrue, represent a dreadful slur on the community concerned? According to local people, including those affected, the answer is said to involve that word: community.
When asked to take this year’s allegations seriously, the police, so the complaint goes, referred to “community sensitivities” and showed a reluctance to engage which has defined their response in previous years. Why is that? It is because all those who are said to be involved are from Savile Town’s Asian community, a minority of individuals who appear to insist that they know best and who take it upon themselves to ensure that someone else’s vote is cast however they think fit.
It is hugely insulting to the vast majority of Savile Town’s community that the police appear reluctant to act. That is so, whether the police are prepared to regard sensitivities as more important than the democratic process, or whether the police think it appropriate to make an allowance due, as they put it, to a
“lack of understanding of the process.”
The former is to ignore the legitimate sensitivities of the vast majority, who must resent this issue being the local headline every time there is a ballot, and who no doubt want it resolved once and for all. The latter is to make condescending allowances that excuse deliberate criminal activity—and is offensive in the assumption that, somehow for some people in Savile Town, it is all too difficult.
I thought it appropriate to raise with the chief constable of West Yorkshire my intention to refer to this topic and my observations regarding the attitude of the police. I did so not least because he might seek to challenge the assertion that the issue is being held at arm’s length, or is regarded as too difficult, because of the matter of race. I know that the chief constable of West Yorkshire is a busy man—to be fair, so is the Member for Dewsbury—but the message left on my telephone by his assistant, informing me that the chief constable had been busy on Monday, was travelling on Tuesday to Manchester for a conference and, therefore, could not speak to me, might seem to confirm the reticence repeatedly complained of by the vast majority, who are the decent citizens of Savile Town and who have rightly bemoaned the lack of proactive investigation. It also does little to silence those who would try to incite hatred in Dewsbury by saying that people in Savile Town are somehow treated differently by the police. The lesson of the recent trial arising from the dreadful abuse in Rochdale is that all communities must be treated equally where there is evidence to suggest that police investigation is required.
Perhaps the most important right is the right to vote. Perhaps the most important responsibility is to exercise that right in accordance with the law. If the Bill encourages and facilitates that right and assists in the exercise of that responsibility, it will be a step in the right direction.
The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell) made guarded and thoughtful remarks, but I am concerned about the undertones of some Government Members’ speeches. To my knowledge, in the city of Sheffield, which is a large and multicultural city, only one person has ever been convicted of electoral fraud—fairly widespread electoral fraud—and he was a member of our white community and, indeed, a member of one of the coalition parties.
I will tell you later.
I want to express my concern about how this Bill will profoundly undermine our democracy by reference to two groups in my constituency, the first of which is those in urban areas. Let me compare my constituency with that of my political neighbour, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg). My constituency is at the heart of Sheffield. It is an inner-city, multicultural area with large council estates, two universities, and a high level of electoral turnover. As a result, 17% of households already have nobody on the electoral register. The Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency consists of our leafy suburbs; it is monocultural with large areas of comfortable owner-occupation, a stable population, and only 4% of households with nobody on the register. There is therefore already a huge disparity between the number of people we represent and the number of registered voters. Assuming, on the basis of current boundaries, that we both have an average of 74,000 registered voters, the Deputy Prime Minister is representing an adult population of about 77,000 while I am representing about 89,000 people.
That situation will be exacerbated in 2020 if the 2015 boundary review is based on the register that many people fear. If we do have 60% registration levels, a redrawn Sheffield Central after the 2015 boundary review will have an adult population of up to 123,000—some 50% more than in Sheffield, Hallam. I recognise that the level may not be 60%, but we should consider seriously that significant imbalance in a depleted inner-city constituency. It is certainly not democratic and certainly not right.
Many of the people who will be excluded from the register are precisely those who form a huge proportion of our casework, and their voice in this Parliament will be reduced. Together with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, the Bill is leading us towards a US-style democracy that excludes the disadvantaged and disengaged at election times and instead focuses on the needs of the more privileged, thereby poisoning our politics. The Deputy Prime Minister has rather grandly compared his ambitions for our democracy with those of the Great Reform Act of 1832. [Interruption.] I understand the reason for the laughter. The Great Reform Act increased representation for our cities, whereas this measure, together with the boundary review and the other reforms, will reduce the voice of our cities.
The other issue I want to talk about is young people, particularly students. Not all students are young, but the vast majority are, and will increasingly be so as a result of this Government’s policies, with reports this week revealing a drop in the number of mature students. Many of those young people are worryingly disillusioned with democratic politics. The Liberal Democrats’ broken pledge on tuition fees has not only damaged their party but damaged the trust in politics of a whole generation of young people. When I talk to students on the doorstep, they are clear that that experience of raised expectations and broken hope has led them to not want to participate in the system.
Both Sheffield’s great universities are in my constituency and 31,800 students live in it. Some of them live there for 31 weeks a year and many for 52. It is their main place of residence and they contribute to the economy and life of the city. They have a right to have their voice heard in elections.
The university of Sheffield, in common with many universities across the country, has a system of block registration for all eligible students in university accommodation. That will end with this Bill. I assume that the Government do not think that our universities are guilty of electoral fraud, so why is there a need to outlaw block registration?
The students union finance officer, Harry Horton, explained the impact to me:
“When students first arrive at University and live in halls, amongst all the other things that are going on, registering to vote often isn’t a priority and it is comforting to know that it’s often done automatically. If this is changed then it would become another form to fill in during the whirlwind first few weeks away from home and some students, particularly those not engaged in democracy, will not be registered”.
Crucially, students will be particularly under-registered in the first term of each academic year. The students unions of both the universities in my constituency run vigorous electoral registration campaigns in the run-up to elections—in February, March and April—and those campaigns work.
The Bill will effectively exclude tens of thousands of students—my constituents—from the electoral roll in December 2015, and therefore from consideration when the boundaries are redrawn, denying them an effective voice.
Surely the hon. Gentleman is vastly underestimating the ability of the average student to fill in a form. We are talking about people who have three A-levels and who, in most cases, are going to get a difficult degree. They can fill in a form to allow themselves to vote.
I am simply reflecting the views that have been expressed to me by the elected representatives of the students, and I take their concerns seriously.
The students at the university of Sheffield have tried hard, but unsuccessfully, to meet their other constituency MP, the Deputy Prime Minister, who represents a smaller number of them, albeit still several thousand. I understand why he is less keen to meet students now than he was during the general election campaign, when he worked the two campuses relentlessly with his party’s unequivocal promise on tuition fees. I challenge him today—I ask the Minister to convey this to him—to agree, finally, to meet the representatives of students in his constituency to discuss their concerns.
There is no good reason to accelerate the timetable for introducing individual electoral registration, other than to have the system in place for the 2015 boundary review in the knowledge of what impact that will have on the 2020 general election. The Minister rightly talked in his opening remarks about the importance of the integrity of the electoral system and of people’s confidence in its integrity. However, the Government’s plans, taken with the 2011 Act, will understandably be seen to be some of the most outrageous gerrymandering seen in this country. That will undermine confidence in the system. The Government are riding roughshod over democracy in the interests of party advantage. I urge them to think again.
I have taken a degree of interest in the Bill, but unlike the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) I cannot say that I have had a 10-year interest in the matter, as I am a new Member of Parliament.
This debate has thrown up a wide range of issues. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell), because he highlighted some important issues. That is why I support the Bill and the commitment of the Government to reduce electoral fraud, to restore confidence in the electoral register and to rebuild trust in politics. I say that as a newish MP. It is clear that over the past decade trust in the political process and political parties has seriously declined. Let us face it, no party has been immune from scandals or sleaze allegations. The Bill is a welcome step in the right direction.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury and other Members highlighted some appalling incidents of electoral fraud. Large numbers of voters have appeared in a single property, or political activists have harvested postal votes. The Bill is vital because it will uphold the integrity of the electoral system and reinforce the fundamental principle of one person, one vote. It will make it more difficult for people to attempt to manipulate elections by abusing the electoral register.
A lot of Members who have come to the House since 2010 have had various experiences of elections, such as local elections, European elections and their own general election campaigns. They bring to the House fresh, live examples of what they have seen in their constituencies.
The Electoral Commission has since 2003 advocated the introduction of individual electoral registration. We had a startling reminder of the need for the change in the build-up to this year’s London elections. I am sure right hon. and hon. Members will recall that during the mayoral election campaign, one newspaper—I wish I had brought it with me—had front-page stories week after week about reports and allegations of the electoral system being abused in Tower Hamlets. Appallingly, we heard of ghost voting in a by-election in that borough, with some flats containing eight people who were registered to vote and political activists going around the homes of vulnerable voters harvesting their blank postal vote ballot papers. There was apparently also a huge proliferation in the number of people applying for postal votes. Thankfully, a police investigation is now taking place, but my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury highlighted the fact that he had a difficult time in getting the police engaged with some of the problems in his constituency.
The failure of election officials to pick up on problems such as a large number of people in a small dwelling being registered to vote reflects badly on our democracy. That is why this is absolutely the right Bill. It will support individuals’ right to secure their place on the electoral register, and it will reduce the chance of people being able to abuse the electoral process in such a way.
It is essential that robust action is taken against election officials and authorities that fail to take reasonable and proactive steps to stamp out illegal practice. My hon. Friend the Minister highlighted the good deal of thought that has gone into the Bill. Many constructive steps are being taken, such as resources going to local authorities and data-matching pilots. I hope that all local authorities will embrace those measures and be proactive in resolving problems and considering electoral registration.
I also welcome the extension of the election timetable to 25 working days, particularly because it will help British citizens overseas and members of our armed forces deployed abroad. Our forces are stationed in some of the most dangerous places in the world, and they risk their lives every day. In the general election, they were effectively disfranchised. The changes in the Bill will give them more time to receive and return their ballot paper.
Up the road from my constituency is the neighbouring constituency of Colchester. My constituents are immensely proud of the courage and bravery that those at Colchester garrison show, and of what they do in peacekeeping operations and in battle. Everything possible should be done to guarantee that they can vote, and the measures in the Bill will help them to do so.
I wish briefly to touch on voting as a civic duty. As a relatively new Member of Parliament, as I go around my constituency, I am impressed and feel optimistic about young people when I visit schools. When I talk to them about elections, the electoral process and democracy, they look at the system with a great deal of hope, and they want to participate. School elections go on all the time—for school councils, for example. A great deal of positive work can be done, and the Bill is a welcome step forward.
I will raise one highly topical issue, with which the Parliamentary Secretary is familiar. I seek reassurance from him that the Bill will not be used as a vehicle to enable prisoners to receive the right to vote. We have heard the latest position, and the Prime Minister spoke about the matter today. It is a serious issue, and I trust that the Parliamentary Secretary will give an assurance in his winding-up speech that the Bill will not be used in that way.
I welcome the Bill, which is a good step in the right direction. It should not be considered through a party political lens.
I want to use the opportunity this afternoon to repeat the concerns that I first raised in January in an Opposition day debate on the subject.
First, I am concerned that, although the proposals have a worthy goal, we are ignoring the difficulties posed by the dual aims of ensuring the highest number of registrations on the electoral roll, while at the same time solving the problem of electoral fraud. Secondly, and especially given the experience of an 11% drop in electoral registration in Northern Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the introduction of IER, I am concerned that the proposals are being introduced at the same time as other major changes, such as the equalisation of constituency sizes, based on the electoral roll. There is surely consensus that the preferred outcome is that all adults who should be registered on the electoral roll are registered, and that they participate in elections. Everybody should be on the electoral roll and have the opportunity to cast their vote.
The principle of individual electoral registration is positive, in that electors should take upon themselves the responsibility to register to vote in their own right, rather than its being done under the aegis of a household. All relevant people should be willing and able to register, and have the same opportunity to do so. However, there may be a disconnect between the equality of opportunity to register, where all relevant people may do so, and the equality of outcome, where all relevant people do so.
The Electoral Commission reported in December 2010 that 6 million people were not registered across the UK, with register completion rates of between 85% to 87%. It is unclear to me how IER, which creates a greater barrier to registration, will ensure that as many people as possible are on the electoral roll. While accepting that it is always a worry, the number of cases of electoral fraud that have been uncovered are minimal compared with the need to get those 6 million people on to the electoral register. We therefore welcome the decision to drop the idea of voluntary registration, which was raised in the White Paper, and to maintain the civic duty.
Electoral registration has a greater relevance than ever following the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which will create constituencies that are designed to have a number of voters within 5% of a UK constituency mean, predicated on the number of electors on the electoral roll, rather than the actual adult population.
Many people are particularly concerned about registration among certain socio-economic and age groups, including more transient populations, such as young people, who move house frequently, and those who are already disconnected from civic society, and may not make the effort to register.
When IER was first introduced in the north of Ireland, the number on the roll dropped initially by 11% and has only gradually been rebuilt over time, in part, one might say, because of the strong community links that exist in the Six Counties. We must avoid that drop in registration occurring in the first place.
The Government have already announced a process of data-matching pilots and we shall watch their progress keenly. We welcome the moving of the autumn 2013 canvass back to spring 2014 to prevent significant deterioration of the registers before the introduction of IER, although that will presumably mean an 18-month gap and deterioration in the registers from this year’s canvass until spring 2014. How will that affect EROs and preparation of registers for the European elections of June 2014, and the Scottish independence referendum, which is due to be held later that year?
The effects of the Bill moved a little closer to home for me this week, with the publication of a Green Paper on future electoral arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales by the Secretary of State for Wales. I do not intend to discuss that very interesting Green Paper in detail during the debate, but in short the Secretary of State highlighted options for constituency size in Wales, based on the same principle as that for equalisation of numbers on the electoral roll for Westminster constituencies: whether we have 30 or 40 Assembly constituency seats. That means that the concerns I have raised about the effect of electoral registration matter regardless. Members will know that during the progress of that 2011 Act, I consistently criticised the principle of ignoring community, historical and geographical links in the formation of new constituencies. Non-registration therefore becomes crucial in both Assembly and Westminster elections. Not only is a non-registered person unable to vote and disfranchised, but the population of the constituency decreases, because those “non-people” are not counted.
Of similar importance is the length of time for which registration is carried forward under IER as we move to the new system. The Minister can correct me if I have misunderstood this, but it is generally considered that most people who are moved forward will be registered in 2015 for the Westminster elections, but will not be carried forward for a second year, which would take us up to the National Assembly for Wales elections in 2016. The Electoral Commission makes specific reference to those with postal or proxy votes and the possibility of adverse impacts on participation after the introduction of IER. It will be a tragedy if, owing to administrative changes, electors in Wales find themselves unable to vote in their national elections. I hope that, in his winding-up speech, the Minister outlines how he will prevent that nightmare scenario.
Clause 14 repeals section 16 of the Representation of the People Act 1985, which is on holding community council elections in Wales. Will the Minister confirm the process by which that decision was reached in respect of Wales, and whether the power to determine election dates for such elections lies with the UK Government or the Welsh Government?
I conclude by repeating my key argument. The main aim of electoral registration is to ensure the completion and accuracy of the register. With so much change taking place in electoral administration as a result of the 2011 Act, I am concerned that we might inadvertently end up disfranchising electors and skewing the electoral system.
I have been involved in this issue for the past 30 years, having trained to be a Conservative party agent in Wanstead and Woodford, which was next door to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). That was a most interesting time. If the gentlemen who trained me were alive today, he would be somewhat horrified that I am involved in the debate, because he had been Winston Churchill’s agent for the last year of his parliamentary career.
It is interesting to be involved in this debate with the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who was in the Chamber recently, for the simple reason that, for 10 years, I was the Tory party agent in that constituency, where I worked for Angela Rumbold, who was a very distinguished politician—she was not only an Education Minister but a Home Office Minister.
I am keen to support the Bill because it is about ensuring that individuals take responsibility for their own lives and decide whether or not they want to be on the electoral register. We must do everything we can to encourage those people to ensure that they are registered. My hon. Friend the Minister has included a number of measures in the Bill that will help in that respect.
Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is—surprise, surprise—the home of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines, 3 Commando Brigade and 29 Commando. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) mentioned the university in his city. Plymouth is also a university city; it has the third largest university in the country. It is also a dispersal centre for asylum seekers.
I am curious as to why Labour Members have been critical of the individual registration measures in the Bill, because the previous Labour Government decided that it was no longer possible for the commanding officers at 29 Commando, the Royal Navy base or Stonehouse barracks to hand over a list of people serving in their units. The then Government decided that everyone had to make a service declaration, and that has had a devastating effect on the number of service personnel registering. We must do everything possible to encourage them. It would be unfortunate were we to say that service personnel were lesser people who did not need the opportunity to register and vote. It is vital that electoral registration officers in Plymouth and other garrison towns should be forced to hold registration surgeries, speak to the commanding officers and ensure that those people register.
The story is similar for universities. Whenever I go knocking on doors in my constituency, I find that the previous occupants—students who gave up a year or two before—have moved on and that the new occupants have not registered. Many houses in my constituency are multi-occupancy. We need to address that issue. Electoral registration officers should also have stands at freshers’ fairs to ensure that people are registered.
As mentioned, there is also an issue with bad registration. Some people who should not be here are on the electoral register. That is a key issue. It would be helpful were the Government willing to share information on asylum seekers with local authorities to ensure that those people are not included on the register. The risk is that they get lost in the whole thing. As hon. Members might know, candidates can ask the police to ask two questions of any voter. The first is: are they the person on the electoral register? The second is: are they the person residing at this address? I think there should be a third question: are they qualified to vote? It is important that we crack down on people voting in this country who are not entitled to do so.
I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) explain why Sunderland nearly always gets its count done first, whereas in Edinburgh we tend to be propping our eyelids open at 5 am, waiting for our results. It is about having the resources—in that case, the resources to get the count done, but in this case the resources to get registration done and so on. Those resources will be important when we implement the proposal.
Unlike a couple of my hon. Friends, I am not saying that individual voter registration should not be happening, and, to be fair, that is not Labour’s position either. After all, Labour introduced legislation on this in the previous Parliament. We are asking, however, why it is necessary, in effect, to re-legislate. There was already a proposal and timetable for individual voter registration. Having heard the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), my colleague on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I have to ask why she has apparently changed her mind about the timetable. When the original legislation was going through, she supported that timetable and said how important it was that it be done carefully and step by step. She now expresses her concern, however, that a further two years have elapsed to get to this point. That was partly because her Government have chosen to re-legislate. If the original timetable had been adhered to, we would have been making the step-by-step progress she appeared to think would be good.
I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to answer her question. I have not changed my mind. During the last Parliament, I said that it was equally important to ensure that we improved the accuracy and the comprehensiveness of the register, but that we wished to do it more quickly than the then Government—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) is shaking her head, but I know what I said. I said that those provisions could be brought in more quickly, if it was done carefully and in a measured way, and I have always adhered to that view, because that would bring benefits to the voting people of this country.
I thank the hon. Lady for clarifying the position, although I still think, given the comments that she made previously, that she had been prepared to support the previous timetable.
The process of pre-legislative scrutiny has been helpful, and the Government have clearly listened to the issues that were raised by the Select Committee, the Electoral Commission and others. That has been an important part of the process. It is an important part of the process for any legislation, and the Select Committee takes it very seriously. We make this comment frequently, and we made it quite vociferously when the opportunity was not given to scrutinise some of the early constitutional legislation in this Parliament. I believe that my fellow Select Committee members agree that that was detrimental to that legislation. The process has been valuable in this case. Even if some of the issues remain unresolved, we nevertheless got a response to the process. I hope that we will see much more of this kind of scrutiny for other legislation. The more debate, discussion and detailed scrutiny we have, the better. That kind of scrutiny is not always possible in Committee, whether on the Floor of the House or upstairs, as time is often limited. The Select Committee process has therefore been helpful.
We all go out and about, and we know just how variable registration can be. That is one of my major concerns about the Bill. When I walk down a street of bungalows and villas in my constituency, I can be sure that I will knock on every door in that street, because all the people living there are on the electoral register. Equally, in other parts of the constituency, the number of registered households can be as low as two or three of the 10 or 12 on a stair in a tenement. Edinburgh is a city of tenements. There are modern flats and also traditional tenements, and many people living in them are not registered.
Perhaps I misunderstood, but the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) seemed to suggest that the fall in the numbers of people registered during the past year was somehow to be placed at the door of the previous Government because they wanted registration to fall. What has actually happened is a substantial change in certain types of housing tenure.
In Edinburgh, the proportion of people living in the private sector was between 6% and 7% in the late 1990s, but it is now 20%-plus and, in some areas, between 30% and 40%. That is important, because the time spent by people living in that form of tenure is shorter. Most private lets are shorter; people have to move on. In that situation, perhaps they do not form the same commitment to their community, and sometimes they have no sooner registered themselves than they are moving on. Not all the tenements have lifts, especially the old-style ones. I think that the highest such building in my constituency is five storeys high—or six, if we are using the British naming of floors. Having puffed my way up to the top, I often find that the people who were registered as living there have moved on, and that the new tenants have not yet registered. It is a particular issue in certain areas.
It is important that the additional money promised by the Government is spent on the process of ensuring that registration happens properly. Even the data matching will be quite differential. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central touched on that, explaining that in some areas the data-matching pilots had shown only a 55% match—not the two thirds that the Government have mentioned.
Why is that important for the size of the register? If the aim is to move people over as a result of data matching—that was not its original purpose, although I accept that it has considerable benefit, helping to ensure that people do not find themselves off the register—areas such as Edinburgh, which has many varied styles of description for tenement flats, help to explain why data-matching will not work. For example, the way in which flats are referred to within tenements is often quite variable. Some flats are referred to in some records as “stair 9/1, stair 9/2, stair 9/3” and so forth, whereas they are called something quite different in other registers for the same address—perhaps strange things like “1F1, 1F2, 2F2” or something rather peculiar like “PF1”, which puzzled me for a long time, as I thought it might refer to a platform, but it refers, in fact, to the ground floor.
It strikes me that my hon. Friend is advancing the point that individual electoral registration officers and returning officers are well placed to understand their local communities, if given the appropriate level of resources for the challenging set of circumstances in which they have to do their job.
That is exactly my point. It is not just about the levels of population within an area, as variability is also important. Far more work will have to be done in areas with such difficulties, as the data matching will simply not happen in the circumstances I was describing. It is not because people do not exist or are in any way phantoms on the register, but simply because there are two sets of data identifying the same property in a very different way. That difficulty will be thrown up in the process. In those circumstances, certain areas will require more resources to ensure that people are registered.
The decline in registration is worrying, and it is worrying that in some parts of our communities so few people are taking even the first step towards registration to vote. Being registered to vote is, of course, no guarantee that people will vote, but if they are not registered, they certainly cannot vote.
Finally, I would like to hear more from the Minister about the extent to which the Government want to encourage somewhat more innovative ways of getting people to register—not just through the canvass and other traditional ways. Would it be possible, as happens in some countries and as some commentators have suggested, to offer people the opportunity to register when they are involved in other transactions with the state? If, for example, people were applying for a driving licence—that is particularly appropriate for young people—could they not be offered the opportunity to register? We cannot make them register, but that would provide the opportunity to do so.
Perhaps even more valuable for the future, would it not be possible, given all the systems we have, to allow people both to register and to vote at the same time? Most people are of course most interested in voting when an election campaign is going on. We have all encountered people suddenly realising that they are not able to vote at the point when they want to do so. Allowing people to register and to vote at the same time might be difficult, but it certainly happens in many states in America. I urge the Government to look at as many different ways of getting people to register as possible.
I apologise to the House for having been absent for some 90 minutes. I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr Speaker.
I entirely support the direction and aims of the Bill, but as the Minister will know from some of our earlier conversations, I want to press him on one or two matters and ask him for his thoughts. I should like him perhaps to go a little bit further.
Let us start from the premise that in many boroughs and districts throughout the country it is harder to obtain a library card than to exercise one’s franchise, which is a state of affairs that has left us open to the possibility of fraudulent use of that franchise by people who are on the electoral register when they are not entitled to be. Indeed, people are sometimes encouraged to act in that way. A council employee may simply knock on people’s doors between certain months of the year and take their details without requiring them to prove their qualification or identification.
A major problem at present is that the previous occupants of the home may be on the electoral register along with the current occupants—and, if they themselves have moved again, a third set of occupants. That problem has never been dealt with, but the Bill will remedy it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has anticipated a point that I shall be making later if time permits.
There has been a suggestion that there is limited evidence of fraud, and some Opposition Members have suggested that there is no such evidence. I remind the House that last year I took a random sample of 100 people who had been to my constituency seeking leave to remain, and who had absolutely no right to vote in this country. Of those people, 21 were on the electoral roll. I repeated the exercise this year, and it produced a similar result.
Might not this be one of the reasons: a piece of paper comes through the door, it looks official and people feel that they should reply? They think that they are being incredibly good and behaving themselves, but in reality they are filling in a form when they should not be doing so in the first place.
My hon. Friend has far more experience of these matters than I have. I believe that there are a multitude of reasons, including that one. I do not believe that it is all about fraudulent intent, but it can lead to the exercise of a franchise by someone who has absolutely no right to do so. It is clear—and it has been raised—that some people deliberately seek to get on to the electoral register when they have no right to do so, perhaps to improve their chances of obtaining credit. The fact is, however, that the door is open for them to do so, and we must slam it shut.
I have not had such an experience myself. I am shocked to hear of the hon. Gentleman’s experience, but not surprised. I am grateful to him for drawing it to my attention.
Our system currently depends on trust, and unsurprisingly that trust can and will be broken. The proposals for the use of national insurance numbers and individual registration are therefore a massive step forward, and I hope that they will be implemented as soon as possible. I shall deal shortly with the question of timing, but I should like first to raise four points with the Minister. I would be grateful if he responded to them, or at least considered them and then responded at some future date.
First, the co-ordinated online record of electors presents the possibility that people can move and remain on a multitude of registers. As we have heard, the population is increasingly transient, so there will be ever more such instances. I am not a great fan of the “database state”, but I would like to know how the Minister proposes do deal with this problem, because without a record, there will be no central mechanism.
Under the current electoral system, signing up for a postal vote, and therefore being able to exercise the vote without going to the polling station, is easier, and there is potential for the use of false names. There will be some improvement in that regard, but we must consider the timetabling of the Bill, and the fact that many key elements, such as individual registration, will not be put in place until 2014, given the two years it will take for individuals to drop off the register. Therefore, the 2014 general election will be fought using fundamentally the same register as before, but with an increased possibility that it will not be as clean a register as we would like. I fail to understand why we are not trying to focus on the 2015 election. I realise that Ministers have been criticised for introducing these measures too swiftly, but I am trying to understand what trade-off has been agreed so that we are not seeking to put the changes in place for the next general election.
Like many other Members, I welcome the extension of the election period to 25 days. However, if I have read the proposals correctly, it will be possible to apply for a postal vote up to six days before the general election. Does that not present some demanding challenges for electoral returning officers—I am happy to be able to say that we in Enfield have one of the best—in verifying those records, and if there were some organised fraud in postal voting, would that not present an even tougher challenge?
The Bill’s provisions deal with fraudulent entries on the electoral register, but very little is being done to deal with the growing problem of personation—the act of turning up at the polling station and using someone else’s details to get a ballot paper. We have already heard that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) could appear as Elvis Presley. That scenario was entertainingly described by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson). The reality is that, however implausible that might be, it is highly possible if the name “Elvis Presley” is on the register.
I therefore ask the Minister to expand further on the reasons for not requiring some form of voter identification at the polling station. Predictably, Opposition Members said the answer to the problem was to introduce their identity card scheme. As we know, that is not necessary, as illustrated in Northern Ireland, where perfectly acceptable methods of identification are available.
I was delighted that the chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson, who has been calling for voter identification at polling stations since 2010, has urged for such a change in the law to be considered, to
“help us all be sure our voting system is safe.”
I am confused as to why the Government will not pursue this matter further. I understand that one objection might be that such a change is a step change too far, and may threaten voter turnout. However, within two years of its being introduced in Northern Ireland, the turnout was up to 62.9%, which was slightly higher than the average for a UK general election. I ask the Minister to share his thoughts with us.
Let me be clear, however, that I consider this Bill to be long overdue and extremely welcome. It has my full support, but I will be very grateful if I am able to offer it even greater support, with consideration being given to some of these proposed changes, so we can have full confidence in the register of voters.
I am extremely grateful for being given the opportunity to speak in this debate. On Second Reading, we have the opportunity to debate the principle behind the Bill, and Opposition Front Benchers were right to point out that although we can support the underlying principle, there are areas that give cause for concern, and I am sure those will determine how we divide the House this evening.
Some of the comments made today in discussing the principle behind the Bill have concerned me. We have thrown around terms such as “the integrity of the register” as though that were a one-sided issue. The root of integrity is the absence of flaws. I completely support the efforts we made when in government to introduce individual voter registration, and which we have continued to support under the current Administration. However, my concern is that a register that excludes people who otherwise may wish to vote and who are perfectly entitled to do so, and that seeks to reduce the number of voters from certain key groups—those who are less likely to be able to register in this way—is fundamentally flawed. Many Opposition Members and, if we are being honest, Members across the House, would identify those key groups as young people, people from ethnic minority and poorer backgrounds, and those who live in inner cities.
Two issues have come to light during the debate that will govern how we will debate the Bill as it proceeds through Parliament. The first is the number of anecdotal examples of alleged voter fraud, and of convictions for such fraud. I detected an underlying tone in many Members’ contributions; it suggested that, even where convictions were not secured, the fact that questions were raised was evidence of a problem that must be solved. However, we should be better than that, especially when the underlying assumption about the background of the people involved in such activity—it is an assumption made by a number of Members during today’s debate—relates to their ethnicity, religion or faith. If we want to make assertions based on anecdotal evidence, we should be extremely careful about the type of groups we characterise in that way. The onus of proof is clearly on us, as Members.
My second concern is the underlying assumption, which we heard from Government Members, that if people cannot complete a more complex and demanding process in order to register and are unable to return the form—the issue that is at the heart of the Bill—they should, quite rightly, lose their right to vote. No one should lose their right to vote. There are questions to be asked about what the most efficient process is to ensure the integrity of the register. As I said at the start of my speech, if we truly want a register with integrity, we need to consider not just those who should not be on the register, but those who are not on it. There is this idea that we have an undeserving group of people. The example was rightly given—perhaps in jest, but there is some truth in it—of younger voters, such as students. It may surprise Members to hear that, not so long ago, I was a student. Even though I am a disciplined, efficient and “together” Member of Parliament now—[Interruption.] Thank you. I think Hansard may record that as “interruption”. However, there were perhaps times when a form or essay sat on my desk that I fully intended to hand in, but my approach was not as efficient as the one I would adopt now that I am in my fourth decade. It is important not to put hurdles in the way before we have seen the evidence on the effects; only then should we undergo the transition to a whole new process.
The hon. Gentleman is making a passionate speech, as well as a self-congratulatory one. He is congratulatory about himself, but he is dismissive of the qualities of our young people. One of the transitions that they have to make is from childhood to adulthood. Students in this country are perfectly capable of recognising their duty and the requirements to register to vote. The suggestion that they or people in ethnic minorities somehow have a likelihood of being incapable of doing that is one that I find offensive to them, and I ask him to retract any such suggestion.
We have debated this matter for the past five hours, but does the hon. Gentleman not accept that if a person cannot exercise the personal responsibility of filling in a simple form online in order to register to vote, it is upon their own head that they lose their right to vote?
The hon. Lady has moderated her language since she made her speech earlier, in which she clearly said that those people did not “deserve” to vote. She can look at Hansard to see that. I appreciate that she has moved her position, but her substantive point remains that there are those people who deserve to vote and those who do not. I, for one, do not want to see a system where we start talking about the electorate in that way.
The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that they will not be the electorate then, but in this place we should be better than that.
When we consider foreign policy, for example, we often examine how we set a timetable. There are two ways of setting a timetable for change. The first is by way of a conditions-based response, where we say that there are certain milestones to be hit—certain points at which we consider that the integrity of the process has been governed and understood by all, and the progress that has been made has been secured. The other route is by way of a purely date-led timetable. In the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, the previous Government set out a position where two parallel processes would happen at the same time: the existing register would continue in the way that it had, while we looked at and tried to understand how individual electoral registration affected the details of those people on the register. That strikes me as a wholly appropriate approach, and many Government Members, as they are now, supported those moves. Why for the sake of a year’s change or difference are we now going to cause ourselves trouble and store it up for the future?
We have heard a lot from the Minister about the data-matching trials, which are obviously important in order for us to see whether this shift has a measurable and discernible effect on how the register is produced. He has placed det