[1st Allocated Day]
Considered in Committee
[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 30, in clause 25, page 14, line 17, at end insert—
‘(1A) Before making an order under subsection 1, the Secretary of State must seek the views of the Electoral Commission as to whether the establishment of an electoral register made up solely of electors who have registered individually would help or hinder the achievement of the registration objectives.
(1B) For these purposes the registration objectives are to secure, so far as is reasonably practicable—
(a) that persons who are entitled to be registered in a register are registered in it,
(b) that persons who are not entitled to be registered in a register are not registered in it, and
(c) that none of the information relating to a registered person that appears in a register or other record kept by a registration officer is false.
(1C) The Commission must submit its assessment, with a recommendation, in a report to the Secretary of State, which must be laid before Parliament as soon as possible by the Secretary of State.
(a) the recommendation in the Electoral Commission’s report is that the establishment of an electoral register made up solely of electors who have registered individually would help the achievement of the registration objectives, and
(b) the recommendation is approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament,
the Secretary of State may make an order bringing Parts 1 and 2 of this Act into force.
(1E) The Secretary of State may not make such an order if those conditions are not met.
(a) the Electoral Commission’s report does not contain a recommendation to proceed to establish an electoral register made up solely of electors who have registered individually, or
(b) the report does contain such a recommendation, but it is not approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament,
within 12 months after the day on which the report is submitted by the Electoral Commission (in the case mentioned in paragraph (a)) or disapproved in Parliament (in the case mentioned in paragraph (b)), the Secretary of State must require the Commission to submit, by a specified date, a further report under this section containing the terms mentioned in subsection (1A).
(1G) For the purposes of subsection (1F)—
(a) a report is disapproved in Parliament when either House decided against resolving to approve the report (or, if both Houses so decide on different days, when the first of them so decides);
(b) the date specified by the Secretary of State must be at least one year, but no more than two years, after the day on which the requirement under that subsection is imposed.’.
Amendment 31, page 14, line 17, at end insert
‘with the exception of Schedule 5, Part 2, which shall come into force by order only once—
(a) the data matching pilots for pre-verification purposes established by the Electoral Registration Data Schemes Order 2012 have been completed,
(b) the Electoral Commission has reported on these schemes as under the terms of that Order, and
(c) the Electoral Commission believes that the completeness of the register will not be negatively affected.’.
Labour Members support the principle of individual electoral registration, as we indicated on Second Reading; indeed, we legislated for it in the last Parliament. We believe that it is desirable to have a complete and accurate electoral register. We also believe that IER is a system that is compatible with modern society, and we recognise that it is outdated to rely on the head of the household. However, we have genuine concerns, and the amendments we have tabled reflect them.
Clause 1 will amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 to enable local registration officers to add individuals to the electoral register under the new system. Let me make it clear that we accept the need for clear guidance to be given during the early stages of the new system’s implementation, but we are extremely concerned about the huge power that the Bill will give to Ministers. It would be better for the Secretary of State to issue guidance, under section 52 of that Act, and for action to be taken following a recommendation from the Electoral Commission to follow certain guidance. We fully accept that that would not involve parliamentary scrutiny, but it would take us beyond the five years stipulated in the clause.
The mention of five years brings me to my next point. The Bill’s explanatory notes state in relation to clause 1(5):
“Subsection (5) provides that the requirement for registration officers to have regard to guidance about determining applications to register will cease 5 years after coming into force. This provision is included because after five years the new registration system, and the process for determining applications, is likely to have reached a steady state and guidance will no longer be necessary.”
I want to emphasise the word “likely” in that second sentence; there is no certainty about this. It involves a possibility, or perhaps a probability. This is “likely” to happen. Furthermore, the explanatory notes use the term “steady state”. I recall the captain of the Costa Concordia suggesting that his ship was in a steady state as it lurched on to its side before being beached. Is that similar to the state of this legislation? In view of the lack of clarity in the explanatory notes, we feel that it would be far better if the Electoral Commission were to determine whether the system was working effectively.
Has my hon. Friend had any indication from the Government that they would be willing to consider a system in which the Electoral Commission could step in, and perhaps use a traffic light system to determine whether each area could proceed effectively under the terms of the Bill? Surely that would be better than having a five-year cut-off, which is likely to leave some authorities’ registration processes behind?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. One of our general concerns about the Government’s approach to this legislation involves the way in which the Electoral Commission’s role has been undermined. The commission is an apolitical statutory body, operating outside the political system, with responsibility for electoral matters, and, as our amendments suggest, we believe that it would be far better if the commission were allowed to reach objective decisions on many of these issues.
There seems to be quite a lot of concern about the role of the Electoral Commission, in relation to the Westminster Government and the Holyrood Government. Does my hon. Friend know of any reason why those Governments should not encourage the involvement of the commission in discussions and debates on these matters, as such involvement would only strengthen the legislation introduced in either place and make it better?
I can think of no good reason for the Governments here and in Holyrood not to set much greater store by the use of the expert advice and guidance provided by the Electoral Commission. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) will answer that question later.
Amendments 30 and 31 to clause 25 also relate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) has, in a sense, already suggested, to the role of the Electoral Commission. Amendment 30 makes it clear that we believe that it would be a good idea if the Electoral Commission were to make an objective assessment
“as to whether the establishment of an electoral register made up solely of electors who have registered individually would help or hinder the achievement of the registration objectives”
set out by the Government, with which we concur. This quite long amendment also states:
“The Commission must submit its assessment”
of the progress of the recommendation
“in a report to the Secretary of State, which must be laid before Parliament as soon as possible by the Secretary of State.”
That is important for the recognition of the Electoral Commission’s role, as well as of the close relationship that should exist between the Secretary of State and the commission. Critically, too, it recognises that Parliament should have a crucial role in monitoring the progress or otherwise that we make on the new system.
For the sake of clarity, how, under amendment 30, could the Electoral Commission make a report about whether the new registration system had achieved its objectives or not before the Act came into force? I do not understand the timing. The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest in the amendment that before the Act comes into force, the Electoral Commission has to make a report about whether the effects of the Act have achieved the goals or not. How could that happen when the Act, and therefore the new system, has not come into force?
We are, of course, talking about a transition period, which is catered for in the Bill. As the Government have correctly argued, the new system is not going to be introduced on a big bang basis, but on an incremental one. As our deliberations on the Bill continue, the hon. Lady will see that we have tabled a number of other amendments that intervene progressively on the transition arrangements. This amendment essentially reinforces, as I said, the role of the Electoral Commission, the relationship between it and the Secretary of State, and the involvement of Parliament as we move as quickly as possible towards a complete electoral register. The amendment goes on to say that the recommendation should be approved
“by a resolution of each House of Parliament”.
That is very important because at the end of the day we are talking about a fundamental change in our democratic process—arguably the most important change since the achievement of the universal franchise. We believe therefore that it is essential that Parliament is fully involved at every step of the way as we move towards the new and path-breaking system.
Amendment 31 relates to the important issue of data matching. Let me provide a little background. In 2011, the Government introduced 22 pilot projects in a range of local authorities in England and Scotland. These pilots were based on a range of national datasets and the Electoral Commission carried out a statutory evaluation of the pilots to assess the extent to which such schemes could help electoral registration officers improve the completeness and accuracy of their registers.
The Government, and particularly the Minister, have said on a number of occasions that these projects went very well indeed, and that the pilot schemes showed that 60% of the current electors should be carried forward. However, in contradistinction, the Electoral Commission is quite scathing in its assessment of the schemes. According to the key findings and conclusions of the Electoral Commission’s evaluation report,
“Our main conclusion is that these pilot schemes do not provide sufficient evidence to judge the effectiveness of data matching as a method for improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers.”
That is a pretty damning indictment of pilot schemes which were intended to point the way to a fundamentally important revision of our electoral process, and it contrasts sharply with what the Government have said—rather complacently, in my view.
Because of that criticism, the Government agreed to conduct further data- matching exercises, and a delegated legislation Committee will meet tomorrow morning to discuss a statutory instrument to introduce the second tranche of data-matching pilots. Obviously we do not know what those further pilots will show, but they may reveal the likelihood of a problem with the new electoral register in the short term. The Government’s own assessments indicate, or at least hint at, that distinct possibility. According to the impact assessment which the Minister himself signed on 8 May this year,
“It is not yet certain what the short term impact on the accuracy of the electoral register will be because there is no clear evidence on the accuracy of electors that are placed on the 2014/15 electoral roll through data-matching. The government is running a second round of pilots to understand the precise impact on completeness”.
That is certainly delicately worded, but even our fantastic civil servants are unable to help the Government much. What they are basically saying is “No evidence is available. The pilot projects that we have organised so far have not shown that the evidence is there. We will organise more pilot projects, but we do not know exactly what they will show. We will proceed on a wing and a prayer.”
My hon. Friend is encouraging me to go way beyond my brief, as you probably agree, Mr Evans, so with all due deference to his incisive comment, I had better return to my original text.
Given the uncertainty that exists, it would surely be sensible to wait for the results of the second pilots, but, for reasons best known to themselves, the Government are intent on introducing a new individual electoral-registration-based register by December 2015. That date may be of significance to some Members. Coincidentally, some would say, it is when the next boundary review will take place. It could be a coincidence, of course: who am I to say otherwise? I am sure that the Minister will give a clear explanation, and that he will give it without smiling. No doubt he will tell us that there is a specific reason, which everyone except him has missed, for the fact that the pilot projects must be assessed after the legislation has reached the statute book.
I want the legislation to succeed—as I have said, we are in favour of individual electoral registration in principle—so it would be common sense and far better if we waited a few months for the certainty provided by the evidence from the second set of pilot schemes. That would also give the Government an opportunity to propose new measures if the schemes raise questions. At the end of the day, what all of us, as democrats, want is as many people who are entitled to be on the register to be on it. That is our objective, and we must ensure that everything possible is done to make that happen. It disturbs me slightly that the suggestion—made not just by Opposition Members, but by the Electoral Commission and many others—that the sensible thing to do would be to wait a few more months to ensure that as many people as possible are on our electoral register has not been taken up.
The hon. Gentleman is right to set out an aspiration on behalf of us all that everyone who is entitled to be on the register should be on it. Does he also agree that those who are not entitled to be on the register should not be on it?
Yes, absolutely, and we will discuss that in more detail later. I am happy to say that people who are not entitled to be on the electoral register should not be on it, but I am very concerned that many people who are entitled to be on the electoral register might not be on it.
I am glad that the Government have moved away from their original, outrageous position of saying that the decision about whether to be on the electoral register will be a lifestyle choice, and that they have recognised that that is, after all, a civic duty and civic responsibility. The crucial point, however, is that being on the register is not an end in itself; it gives people in a democracy the chance to exercise, whether they want to or not, their right to vote. That is why it is so important that everybody has the opportunity to be on the register so that they can make the choice, when the time is right, whether or not to exercise their vote.
I recently met the chair of the Electoral Commission to discuss the under-representation of black and Asian people on the electoral register. Does my hon. Friend believe that the proposed measure would enable that very important issue to be looked at? My fear is that, unless we get this right, there will be gross under-representation on the register.
I agree that there is concern that many groups in our society—so-called hard-to-reach groups, for example—might be excluded from the electoral register. A more reasonable time scale for the completion of the new electoral register would certainly give opportunities to many of the people mentioned by my right hon. Friend to be included on the register. One of the noticeable aspects during the long, pre-legislative consultation—I pay tribute to the Government for that—is that a high proportion of those who have participated and made concrete suggestions and proposals are from the groups mentioned by my right hon. Friend. It is vital that their voices are listened to carefully during this crucial stage of the Bill’s passage.
Is not the real concern that, while we used to think that 2 million people were missing from the register, recent research by the Electoral Commission shows that the figure is almost certainly double that? Moreover, if we consider the Northern Ireland example, it would appear that a further 15% of people may fall off the register. How far will we allow registration to drop before action is taken?
My hon. Friend is correct. It is vital that various steps are taken to ensure that as many people as possible are on the register. I would not belabour the comparison with Northern Ireland, which is very different. However, individual electoral registration was introduced there and the evidence shows, as has been confirmed again by the Government, that when the new register was introduced a lamentably low number of the potential electors—the entitled electors—were actually on it. That reinforces our concern about what the situation will be in December 2015 if we proceed according to the time scale indicated in the Bill. That is why we have tabled the amendments. We hope that the Minister will feel able to respond positively to our concerns.
I shall speak briefly on this group of amendments, which we broadly support, on the role of the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission is, of course, strongly in favour of individual electoral registration as a means of fighting electoral fraud, and I commend it for taking that position. However, the commission’s role needs to be used as a safeguard to ensure that IER will work as intended—this should be prior to its introduction —and for continued monitoring afterwards.
Amendment 30 particularly interests me because of the proposal for registration objectives in the Bill. As hon. Members will know from my contributions to the Opposition day debate on this subject and on Second Reading, my primary concern is for the inclusion of as many eligible registrations as possible on the electoral roll. I am sure that that aim is shared by all hon. Members. The Electoral Commission’s most recent estimate was that about 6 million eligible adults were missing and that registers were between 85% and 87% complete. Therefore, these changes, which we can expect will further diminish the completeness of the electoral register, and which as we saw when IER was introduced in Northern Ireland, may well be counter-productive in terms of including people on the electoral register.
I would like to see a duty on the Electoral Commission and on individual electoral registration officers for their principal aim to be that registers are as complete as possible and that there is a presumption in favour of inclusion on the roll, rather than deletion. As we have discussed previously, there is the opportunity for electoral fraud, but the number of convictions for that offence has been small. That is not to say that there is not a problem, but I believe it is more important that we get people on to the electoral register and entitled to vote. That is especially the case now, given the equalisation of constituency electoral rolls being introduced for Westminster elections and the new proposals from the Secretary of State for Wales for boundary reforms for elections to the National Assembly for Wales. No change is not an option now in terms of the National Assembly for Wales; even if we retain the 40:20 split, there will be new, equal-sized constituencies for the 40 seats.
Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill should clearly not be brought into force until IER has been trialled, and until the Electoral Commission is convinced that any adverse impacts will be as limited as they can be and that the completeness of the register will not be affected.
I should say at the beginning that I was slightly surprised that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) said that the Opposition were in favour of individual registration, as I could have sworn that on Second Reading they not only tabled a reasoned amendment, but voted against the Second Reading of the Bill. That was strange; it is difficult to see how they are in support of it. If they had only voted for the reasoned amendment, I could have accepted it as a principle, but it seems to me that they are opposed to our fundamental position.
I wish to make one or two points that I hope are helpful to the Committee. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the lengthy period of pre-legislative scrutiny we have had. Not only did we have that, but, as I think he has acknowledged, we made a number of significant changes to our approach as a result. All I say to the Committee is that I hope the progress of the Bill reflects that considerable pre-legislative scrutiny. It is probably also worth saying that, as the Committee may have noticed, we deliberately decided not to use knives in the programme motion for the first two days of debate in order to enable it to focus on points that hon. Members thought were important. I hope that the flexibility that that gives the Committee is used properly and that we make reasonable progress that focuses on where the Committee thinks the important issues are.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) for the amendments that they have led on. They have participated very well in the experiment that the Procedure Committee has asked us to undertake. This Bill is an example of it, because all hon. Members tabling amendments were asked to include explanatory statements to enable hon. Members to understand better the nature of the amendments. I am pleased that they have done so, as it is very helpful to the House. It is just a shame that the official Opposition appear to have ignored the fact that we are conducting that experiment and have not taken that opportunity. I am sure that the Procedure Committee will draw the appropriate conclusion.
I thank the Minister for expressing his gratitude. Does it occur to him that the official Opposition might not have wished to publish explanatory statements to support their amendments as they do not want to explain their effects because they are trying to have their cake and eat it by opposing the Bill while saying that they do not oppose it? The more smoke and mirrors that are involved and the less clarity there is about their amendments, the better it is for their purpose.
I am more than happy to provide an explanation. Resources are extremely limited for Opposition Members and the Minister will have noticed how many amendments we have tabled. That shows our concern about the fine detail of the Bill. However, we thought it was far better to follow the time-honoured practice of tabling amendments and using the facility of being at the Dispatch Box to explain our points and that is precisely what we are doing.
I am sure that the Committee will thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I simply observe that my hon. Friends the Members for Epping Forest and for The Cotswolds do not have the benefit of £6 million or so of Short money to provide resources, but they seem to have been able to draft very good explanatory statements for the benefit of the House.
I said on Second Reading that I intended to publish secondary legislation in draft for the House to consider. I was criticised by Opposition Members—indeed, I think that it was in their reasoned amendment—for the fact that we had not done so by Second Reading. I said that we would do so while the Bill was in Committee and I drew the House’s attention to the fact that the Opposition were responsible in government for two similar Bills, but they published no draft secondary legislation before those Bills received Royal Assent. I can confirm that I have placed in the Library of the House the first tranche of draft secondary legislation, which will be available on the Cabinet Office website tomorrow morning, for Members to consider while the Bill is in Committee. We have published the first tranche of documentation and will publish it all while the Bill is still going through Parliament and by the time the House returns in the autumn. I hope that that is helpful and it is a useful example of something that the Opposition did not do at any point when they were in government.
I hope that the Minister will explain—after all, that is the Government’s job. If there is to be full and proper scrutiny, there is no point in publishing some of the draft legislation—we do not know which pieces—in the middle of our consideration in Committee. I raised this matter as long ago as last November and surely it would have been better for secondary legislation to have been prepared so that we could have proper parliamentary scrutiny in Committee; the Electoral Commission made the same point. It is no good producing part of the secondary legislation halfway through when we do not even know which legislation it is.
The first tranche was published before we started our consideration this afternoon—on day one, not halfway through. As I said, with two similar pieces of legislation, both of which delegated significant powers to Ministers, the Labour party published no draft secondary legislation at any point during the passage of either Bill through either House of Parliament. It was all published after the Bill had received Royal Assent. I accept that this Government might not be perfect, but on this issue we have made enormous progress compared with the Labour party.
Is it not a bit rich for the Front-Bench spokesman of the Labour party to make a fuss about this issue? When the Opposition were in government, I remember spending hours and hours in the House while they virtually rewrote entire Bills, not only by rafts of amendments as late as Report stage, but sometimes by secondary legislation after Report? I congratulate my hon. Friend on attempting to improve the procedures of the House.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that point to the attention of the Committee. As I said, I think we made a useful step forward with pre-legislative scrutiny. We have been publishing the secondary legislation in draft so that people can read it and look at the Bill in the light of it, and I think that is a step forward. We may not be perfect yet, but we are getting there. We are getting an awful lot better.
Prior to the general election, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) moved his legislation introducing individual electoral registration, he made every effort to achieve cross-party agreement. That does not seem to be the case with the present Government.
I am sorry, but that is a rewriting of history. If I get any details wrong, I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest will correct me. When that Bill was introduced in the House, it did not contain any provisions about individual registration, which is why we tabled a reasoned amendment and voted against the Bill. Those clauses were not in the Bill when it left the House. They were added in the other place under enormous pressure from the Conservative Members there, so this House did not even get a chance to debate them until we considered Lords amendments. I am afraid that Bill was not an example of good parliamentary practice.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s recollection of the history of a couple of years ago. The Bill to which he refers was massively changed and we had very little time in this Chamber to discuss the provisions. They were ill thought out and it is fortunate that this Minister has managed to make sense of the previous provisions introduced by the Labour Government.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point.
Before I come to the amendments, let me say something about the tone adopted by the hon. Member for Caerphilly, a point to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) drew attention. One of the things that I have been very clear about all the way through is that the Government are as focused on completeness as they are on accuracy, but both of those—getting on to the register everyone entitled to be on the register, and also making sure that no one is on the register who is not entitled to be on the register—are equally important. One is not more important than the other. The hon. Gentleman’s amendments, in this grouping and elsewhere, all seem to be focused on completeness, with no sense that accuracy is equally important.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) went further than that and explicitly said that he was not particularly bothered about accuracy; it was all about getting people on to the register. Getting people on to the register who are not entitled to be there is a problem. That is why 36% of the public think there is a problem with electoral fraud. It is also why, when the groups from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe come and inspect British elections, they say that if we have low levels of electoral fraud, it is not because of our electoral system, but in spite of it. That is not good enough, and it is why we need to fix the system. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall is right: we should be as focused on completeness as on accuracy. That has informed the proposals that the Government have put forward, and that is why they were well received during pre-legislative scrutiny and why we made the changes that we have.
The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) asked when it would be right to take steps if the number of people on the register fell precipitously. We do not think that that would be the effect of our proposals. I will set out a little more about our proposal for confirmation and say why we think we can successfully move two thirds of electors over to a new register. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that it was under the previous Government that 3 million people ceased to be on the electoral register, and we know that from the research that this Government commissioned. The previous Government were unaware of that fact because they commissioned no research and did not know what was going on. As a result, they took no action at all. So Government Members will not be lectured about large numbers of people falling off the electoral register, because it happened under the previous Government and no action was taken in response.
To return to the previous point on accuracy, amendment 30 suggests that the Electoral Commission’s report, if it was drawn up,
“would help the achievement of the registration objectives”,
one of which is accuracy, so the amendment would take care of that point.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right in one respect. There are two objectives: one is to get everyone on the register who is entitled to be on it; and the other is to ensure that no one is on it who should not be. Both are central to, and inform, everything we are doing. That is partly why we put the carry-forward proposals in place. If anything, they do a little of what the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr suggested, which is to ensure that for the 2015 general election—the first for which the new register will be used—people do not inadvertently fall off the register and become unable to vote. I think that that is a sensible proposal.
Amendment 2, tabled by the hon. Member for Caerphilly, proposes that we should not be able to commence with these provisions if the Electoral Commission does not say that the new electoral system is operating effectively. It relates to the guidance issued by the Secretary of State. The reason we thought it appropriate to have guidance issued by the Secretary of State is that there will be important operational details that registration officers will have to think about, particularly on how the new IT service for verifying applications will operate. We therefore thought that the transitional period should effectively switch off after five years.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly tried to make a big hoo-ha about the use of the word “likely” and the choice of five years. It seemed to me to be a sensible period of time. I could have written “certain”, but then he would have criticised by arguing that I could not possibly know the future. It is a sensible set of proposals. We are working closely with the Electoral Commission on all these matters, and it is represented on the programme board. We worked closely with it during pre-legislative scrutiny and listened carefully to its advice, but I am clear that, ultimately, Ministers are responsible for the implementation of the system—they have the advantage of being accountable to Parliament—which I think is right.
Amendment 30, which the hon. Member for Edmonton spoke to earlier, would ask the Electoral Commission to pronounce on the state of the register or the proposal. My first point on that is that the chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson, has welcomed our move and, indeed, the timetable. She said:
“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.”
I see no great value in the commission producing a report on the basis set out in the amendment. It refers to
“an electoral register made up solely of electors who have registered individually”,
but one of the things we have learned from the experience in Northern Ireland, to which the hon. Member for Caerphilly referred, is that the register used for the 2015 general election will not entirely consist of people who have registered individually because we have a carry-forward proposal to ensure that those who are on the previous register and failed to register individually do not drop off the register and miss out on their opportunity to vote. That is an important safeguard, and one that we inserted, having learned from the experience in Northern Ireland, and it has been generally welcomed outside the House. When Northern Ireland Members have commented on that, they have also welcomed the fact that we have learned from it. I do not think that amendment 30 is justified by the evidence.
Finally, let me turn to amendment 31. It appears implicitly to support the Electoral Registration Data Schemes Order and the pilots it will set up, so I look forward to the support of the hon. Member for Caerphilly for the order tomorrow in Committee. Again, I think that the use of that order is very sensible. When we did our first set of pilots, more than 2 million records were matched against Department for Work and Pensions data. That showed us that we could check the accuracy of the information against the DWP database and, therefore, be confident that those people really existed and lived at those addresses. Therefore, that is a good way for moving two thirds of the electors on to the new register, thereby reducing the risk and enabling electoral registration officers to focus on the remaining third of electors. The Electoral Commission said that because we had drawn those conclusions from pilots where that had not been the intention of the pilots—they had been about using data matching to look at increasing the number of people on the register and at people who had not previously been registered—it felt that we should run a further set of pilots with that specific objective in order to be absolutely certain that confirmation would work.
We are very confident that confirmation will work, and we think that what the Electoral Commission said was very sensible, which is why the order we will be debating tomorrow will enable us to run that set of pilots. That will do two things: first, it will confirm to our satisfaction and that of the Electoral Commission that confirmation will work; and secondly, it will enable us to refine the process so that we make the process as efficient as possible for electoral registration officers. I think that is very sensible.
The hon. Gentleman asks some very good questions. The pilots will run this year and then be assessed not just by the Government—we will of course assess them—but by the Electoral Commission, as the previous set of pilots was. We will then publish our assessment, and the commission will publish its assessment, so we will be very transparent about the process and Members will be able to see what has happened.
Based on the pilots that we have already run, we are pretty confident—I am not going to say “certain”, because that would be complacent—that the process will work and that confirmation will enable us to move a significant number of electors on to the new register in a way that is much less risky, increases confidence and, very importantly, enables EROs not only to focus their efforts on the electors they cannot confirm, but to do some work with electors who may not be on the register—people who perhaps move more frequently. That is important, and that is how we have set up the funding mechanism. We have been very transparent about the process, which will be published, and it will enable us to take sensible decisions.
The Bill strikes the right balance between completeness and accuracy, both of which are very important, but the amendments would tilt that balance in an unhelpful direction.
The Government seem in something of a rush to bring all that in by December 2015, so I ask the question that was asked earlier: why the rush? Is there not room for flexibility should it prove not to be as easy to register people as the Government currently presume?
I am not really sure that there is an enormous rush. The Electoral Commission likes to point out that it has been calling for individual registration since 2003—nine years ago. We made it very clear that, as the hon. Gentleman now knows from what I and my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest said, when his Government were legislating for individual registration, having been forced to do so because of pressure from, among others, my hon. Friend, we said that we thought they were going incredibly slowly and we could speed them up. Indeed, it was a commitment in our manifesto.
We have not suddenly speeded up the process. We said from the beginning—in the previous Parliament—that we thought it could be done much more quickly. That is important, because—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that we did not object, but actually we did. When the proposal was finally included in the Bill in the other House, my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest gracefully accepted that the Government had moved, and it would have been a bit churlish if, having got the stuff on the statute book, she had then started cavilling about it.
We made it very clear at the outset, however, that the proposal should have been in the Bill from the beginning, but it was not, which is why we voted against the Bill by way of a reasoned amendment. The proposal was inserted in the other place only at the eleventh hour. We have been very consistent; we think that the provision should have been introduced some time ago, and the Electoral Commission has been calling for it for the best part of a decade. No one can really accuse us of going at break-neck speed.
With all due respect, the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) is wrong about what my party did in opposition. I happened to be speaking for the Opposition on this issue, so I know what we did. What the Minister has said is absolutely correct.
We accepted the last Government’s proposals because they were better than nothing, but we always said that the matter should be dealt with more quickly and that the relevant measures could be implemented more quickly than the last Government wanted. We always said that we would have a view not only to the accuracy but to the comprehensiveness of the register, and that we would proceed at the right pace. The fact that this Government are very much more efficient than the last one in implementing a necessary policy is a matter on which to congratulate the Government and the Minister in particular, not criticise them.
I have not yet finished answering my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, but of course I will give way before I ask the Opposition to withdraw their amendments.
On pace, I should say that we have hardly rushed this matter. In September 2010, I made an announcement at this Dispatch Box about our proposals. We then published draft legislation. We have conducted pre-legislative scrutiny, which I think even the hon. Member for Caerphilly admitted has gone at a reasonably leisurely pace. We have hardly been bounding through. Unlike the previous Government, we have not at the drop of a hat introduced Bills that no one had ever seen and then rammed them through the House. We have conducted ourselves in a thoughtful way, and we have hardly been rushing.
In 2009, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) said:
“That is one of the reasons why we will not oppose the timetable the Minister has suggested this evening…the Electoral Commission…and others who will be involved in the implementation of the Government’s current plans are concerned that this should not be rushed, but taken step by step to ensure that the integrity of the system is protected—and not only protected, but seen to be protected”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 108.]
Will the Minister explain the change in point of view?
There has not been a change in point of view. I did not want to bother the Committee with this again, but I am going to have to now. On Second Reading of the previous legislation in 2009, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude) made it clear that we approved of the decision to proceed with individual registration, but we thought that it could be accomplished earlier. We said at the time that it could be done earlier, and on page 47 of our 2010 manifesto we made a commitment to implement it swiftly. This is not new news.
As I said, when the Bill for which the Labour party was responsible left the House, it contained no provisions about individual electoral registration; they were inserted in the other place. When the Bill came back, it seemed to me that, having got the Government at least to move on that issue, it would have been churlish to have started cavilling about it.
I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene once again.
I do not understand why the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) thinks she is making a clever point by quoting what I said three years ago from where she is now sitting. My position has not changed; I have been perfectly consistent. The fact is that the last Government put obstacles in the way of bringing this important legislation into practice. The current Government have rightly concluded that it can be accomplished more quickly than the last Government said—they were saying that they would do it, but looking for every reason to delay doing it. That is the point. There is no point in the hon. Lady’s trying to assert that I have changed my position or said anything wrong. I have been perfectly consistent; it is her Government who were wrong.
I gave the hon. Lady a lot of latitude to correct the record, but she needs to do that only once.
My hon. Friend has corrected the record and put the matter straight. I heard the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) talking from a sedentary position, so let me say that we are working very closely with the Electoral Commission on this matter. It is represented on the programme board, as are the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Association of Electoral Administrators.
No, I will not. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman several times, and I am concluding my remarks.
The Government are responsible for delivering this proposal. It is better that such things be the responsibility of Ministers, who are accountable to Parliament and to Members of Parliament, than to give the responsibility to bodies that, yes, are statutory, but are not really accountable to this House in that way. I urge the hon. Member for Caerphilly to withdraw his amendment and to support clause 1 standing part of the Bill.
I have listened with great care to what the Minister has said, and I have to say that I am not reassured. Much of the discussion that we have had during the past 10 minutes concerned the past; I am concerned about the future. We can all argue about what the previous Labour Government did or did not do and who said or did not say certain things, but what is important is that the Minister has totally failed to come forward with any justification or explanation or reason why the Government have adopted the timetable that they have.
Our starting point is that we support individual elector registration because we want as many people legitimately on the electoral register as possible and to see a modern, streamlined system. We believe that all the evidence from the experience of Northern Ireland and from what may happen with the pilot schemes indicates that there may well be a difficulty when the new system starts properly in December 2015. We therefore respectfully suggest that, in all common sense, we should have a more effective timetable that would ensure the probability of more people being on the electoral register than is the case at the moment.
I am therefore unable to withdraw the amendment. I understand that there will be votes later on amendments 30 and 31, but we would like to press amendment 2 to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an aspect of overseas voter registration. I also draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that I have tabled new clause 3 on an associated matter—to eliminate the cut-off for overseas voting. On this matter, I urge the Minister to bring forward secondary legislation, under clause 1(3), relating to regulations to introduce improvements to the registration system, which could result in a far higher number of participants in our elections at a time when the number of registered voters is falling.
At present, some 5.6 million British subjects live abroad, of which it is estimated that some 4.3 million are of voting age. But in December 2011 a mere 23,388 overseas voters were registered to vote, according to the Office for National Statistics.
My hon. Friend heard me correctly, but for the sake of clarity and emphasis, I shall repeat the figures: there are estimated to be about 4.3 million overseas citizens of voting age, a mere 23,388 of whom, in December 2011, were registered to vote, according to the ONS electoral statistics.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, but actually it is more dramatic than that. The French gave away two Members of Parliament, in Paris of all places, who are now specifically responsible for all French overseas voters. I am not going anything like as far as that, but I want my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the regulations in the way I will set out.
It is certainly not that British people living overseas have no interest in taking part in our elections, so the figures I have now quoted twice surely suggest that the system for registering overseas voters actively deters voters from registering. Otherwise, would not more of them want to register? If I explain to the House the rather protracted process for becoming an overseas voter, perhaps my point will become clear.
To apply to become an overseas voter, a person must obtain and complete a registration form, and send it to the electoral registration office for the area in which they were last registered to vote. So they have to find out where they were last registered to vote and precisely which district council and registration officer to send their form to. To confirm that the person is a British citizen and that they are not living in the UK when they apply, the application must be witnessed by another British citizen living abroad, who can be hard to find, particularly if the person lives in a rural area.
Here, then, is the first of my sensible suggestions to the Minister: an alternative would be to use a person’s passport number as proof of identity. The current system is potentially time consuming and undoubtedly puts people off registering to vote in the United Kingdom. Instead, a simple system for overseas voters involving the help of, and co-operation with, the Home Office and Foreign Office could be implemented. All potential overseas voters hold a British passport, details of which are held by the Identity and Passport Service, which is part of the Home Office. Passports do not contain addresses, although the IPS holds a delivery address for the passport when last issued. Where these people live is immaterial, however; what counts is their known UK address before moving abroad, because that determines the constituency in which they are entitled to be registered.
Does my hon. Friend recognise the stark difference between the situation in the UK and that in the United States of America, where they have the principle of “forever an American and forever an interest in the country of your birth”? Both the Democrats and Republicans run successful outreach schemes that get a huge uptake in the UK and across the world.
My hon. Friend anticipates me and makes a sound point. As hon. Members have mentioned, the USA, France and Germany have much better systems for their overseas voters.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office encourages British citizens living overseas to register with its LOCATE database. Even more should be done, however. Although the database’s primary objective is to facilitate the identification of and contact with British citizens living overseas in the event of a natural, political or other disaster, LOCATE’s resources could also be used to harness the cause of overseas voter registration. One could imagine a simple, streamlined overseas voter registration system based on data-matching and functioning in the following manner: when giving a non-UK address in applying for a passport, British citizens living overseas could be asked on their application form to state whether they wish their application to be treated simultaneously as an application for overseas electoral registration and, if so, to give the address of their last UK residence. Questions could then be added to the LOCATE online questionnaire to ascertain whether applicants wish their application to be treated as an application for overseas electoral registration and, if so, to ascertain their last UK residence.
I hesitated before giving way to the right hon. Gentleman. I thought it would be a frivolous intervention, and indeed it was.
When it comes to registering to vote each year, a security- protected e-mail could be sent to each voter containing their registration forms—perhaps bar-coded—which would then be returned by post in the normal way. Were this or a similar system implemented, I have no doubt that we would significantly increase the participation of overseas voters in our elections.
According to research by the Institute for Public Policy Research, 55% of British emigrants who left the country in 2008 did so for professional reasons. Many of those who left the UK to work abroad—for British businesses, international organisations, and UK Departments and agencies—play an important and active part, bolstering the UK’s position internationally. Many others retire abroad, but nevertheless have a close interest in UK political matters.
Perhaps my hon. Friend would consider adding to the list those who work for charities or churches and missionaries? Many cannot necessarily afford to retain a property back here in the UK or even have a proxy vote. They are completely disfranchised by the current system, so we must urge the Government to have a simpler registration process for them.
My hon. Friend is right. Again, if there are categories of people who live abroad but do not qualify to vote in this country, they, too, should be included in the system.
In answer to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) asked, when people fill in their voter registration form, they should be asked whether they want their details kept on the database, thereby opting in for permanent overseas voting until they opt out of it. That is the way of dealing with the system that he mentioned.
I think we should recognise the loyalty of many of these subjects who live abroad—bearing in mind that there may be 4.3 million of them—and ensure that they are not disfranchised by the voting system, but are able to take an active part in our democratic elections. It was the complication of the system for voters in the armed forces that led to the situation in the 2010 election whereby—these figures are also startling—only 564 votes were received from British military personnel in Afghanistan, even though nearly 10,000 were able to vote. Many people regard that as a national scandal. These brave people risk their lives on a daily basis in Afghanistan and elsewhere to protect this country’s interest and the international norms of behaviour. Surely the least we can do in this Parliament is ensure that they are able to participate in our elections in the United Kingdom.
Is my hon. Friend aware that many of us asked the last Government over and over again whether they would take steps to ensure that our armed forces, especially those serving in Afghanistan, could be given the opportunity to vote in the 2010 election? However, the last Government took no action until late 2009, by which time it was too late. Indeed, the figures that he has just quoted prove that they let down our armed forces in a very serious way.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not want to alienate Opposition Members, because I want their support on this matter, but she raises a serious issue. Indeed, it is, I would say, frankly a moral issue that we should do something to amend the system, so that what I have described can never happen again. I know that the Minister is aware of this issue, and, in light of what I have said today, I hope that he will consider bringing forward regulations under proposed new section 10ZC(3) of the 1983 Act to improve the system of registering overseas voters. There was method in my madness when I intervened on the Minister, in response to an intervention from the Opposition spokesman, to urge him to bring forward regulations and to praise him for doing so swiftly under this Bill. I know that my hon. Friend perspicaciously knew what I was going to say today, so I will close by urging him to publish the secondary legislation as soon as possible.
I have been prompted by the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) to speak briefly in the debate. I understand his aspiration to encourage participation in political life by those who are temporarily abroad for good reasons. A couple of points have occurred to me, which I am sure the Minister will have considered. Our first-past-the-post system— which we seem likely to retain for some time, and of which the Conservative party is a great supporter—is based on electorates in individual constituencies. It is therefore important for the individual voter to have a relationship and an affinity with the geographical location concerned, and the communities within it—boundary changes notwithstanding. If an overseas voter is voting in a US presidential election, for example—or perhaps in congressional elections, which are closer to our parliamentary ones—they are voting on issues that affect the whole of their country. Their ties with a particular small locality might be less important in those circumstances.
My hon. Friend is right. Our whole system is predicated on the basis of the voter having a connection with the place in which they last registered. I would point out to him that, although parliamentary boundaries are changing, those for district and municipal councils—where the electoral registration officers sit—will probably not do so.
That is probably true, but I am thinking about the relationship that Members of Parliament would have with their overseas constituents. If they are electors, they are in a sense also constituents. I question how the relationship would work in relation to overseas voters, especially if there were a large number of them compared with the local electors who have a more traditional relationship with their Member of Parliament.
The other point that occurred to me is that, given the importance of encouraging all candidates at every election to engage with the people in their voter base, it is much harder to do that if those voters are overseas. We cannot go and knock on their doors, and we sometimes do not even know where they are. We need to resolve that issue if this proposal is to be introduced. We will need information to tell all the candidates seeking election exactly where those electors are. That does not always happen at the moment.
Perhaps we could learn something from Australia, which operates a constituency-based system. I believe that Australia House in London is the largest single Australian polling station, and anyone who goes along there on polling day will see a plethora of candidate information being given out.
I would argue that, in an election campaign, one would hope to have more engagement with the voters before polling day. If we are to have a more meaningful discussion with the electorate, the candidates will need to know where their electors are, so that they can send them literature or perhaps telephone them.
Is the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s argument that he is happy for the system of overseas voting to remain intact when only a relatively small number of overseas electors is involved, but that if that number became so large that it could make a profound difference to particular results, he would be more concerned about the proposal put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)?
I can see why the hon. Gentleman might think that, but no—this has been a source of frustration to me when I have been a candidate at local and national elections and it has not been easy to engage the overseas electors. It would be even more of a problem if their numbers were much greater. This is more about the principle than the number, however, although in some constituencies—and certainly in some local council elections—the majority involved could be very small indeed. Those numbers could affect the outcome in those circumstances. I hope that we can find a process whereby those voters’ addresses could be provided, if the proposal is adopted.
The proposal could also affect electoral spending limits. For example, the hon. Gentleman’s constituency might well contain many people who are involved in finance and travel all over the world. Similarly, the military garrison town represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) will contain much greater numbers of overseas voters. That might need to be taken into account when the limit on election spending is being set.
Has my hon. Friend had any thoughts about the role of the internet? He talks about getting information to the elector, and all candidates now have web pages, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, so it is much easier to communicate with people overseas now than it was a few years ago.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If that sort of information were provided to candidates, it might help to overcome the situation. In the recent past, another group of people emigrating, shall we say later on in their years, would have been less likely to have access to those facilities. Nowadays, however, with grandchildren and great grandchildren wanting to contact them through Skype or whatever, they will be encouraged to make contact in that way.
May I say two things to the hon. Gentleman? First, on changes to the number of overseas voters, in view of the opt-in I mentioned, making people fairly permanently registered as overseas voters—depending on the cut-off time that may or not be negotiated through the Bill—there would not be the churn problem. Secondly, people would be registered at the beginning of each calendar year, so there would be plenty of time before an election to get hold of them by electronic means or even by postal means. The difference between overseas voters and postal voters is that the former are more permanently registered.
My question to the Minister is: if such a process is to be extended and codified in a new way, can we ensure that we provide information to candidates about how to contact those electors through whatever means is appropriate? It is important to examine the question of how a constituency MP or even a local councillor is to represent people in this category who have elected them. It is not just a question of the election alone, as the role of representing such individual people is also important.
I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). We all know the history—that the first Thatcher Government implemented legislation, which was then watered down in the wash-up, as a result of which overseas voting has never really taken off. For the reasons already set out, it has seemed to be too difficult and too complicated. Given that there are a potential 4.3 million people abroad who could vote, yet only 23,000 are registered, we ought to be ashamed of the fact that we are not engaging with so many of our citizens.
We live in a global economy. Our future lies in exports and in our companies going abroad. We all know that in getting and undertaking export contracts, we have people in the middle east and elsewhere working for British interests sometimes for years. It is totally wrong if people without a home in the UK who are nevertheless working for British interests abroad do not have the opportunity to vote. Let us not forget that even those who retire to the Costa Blanca or other areas in Spain will have spent a lifetime in the UK working and paying taxes. They will often have family in the UK and still take an interest in what goes on here. Many get British pensions and some in the Costa Blanca even get winter fuel allowance. We seem to be able to pay benefits to retired people abroad, but we have not given enough priority to making a few simple changes in order to empower them by giving them the right to vote.
My hon. Friend argued powerfully about overseas voters registering their last address in the UK, but I am rather attracted to the French system of putting them all into one category and perhaps having an MP at large to represent certain areas abroad. That would make life somewhat easier than the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) having to e-mail 25 people in Alicante. It is better if the MP represented these people’s concerns, as it might be necessary for the MP to make representations to Spanish local government about what it is doing to the health service.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if all 4.3 million overseas electors were to be registered, it would be a matter of some concern that some 7,000 electors would be added to each and every constituency in the UK? Going down the route of designated MPs might well be the right model, as there will be a trigger point somewhere between the current 23,000 and the 4.3 million.
Absolutely, but we would be winning even if got a few hundred thousand registered to vote. What we need from the Government are assurances that they will not only look at the law, but have a long-term campaign to keep those leaving registered and to re-register those abroad. People abroad buy British newspapers, watch Sky television and take an interest in what goes on. I believe that they still have beliefs in what is right for their country. We could argue about modern democracy, electoral reform and proportional representation, but it ill behoves a party that has argued for PR to deny 4.3 million people abroad their vote.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on leading this debate. To have 10,000 service personnel in Afghanistan who were either not registered or unable to cast their vote at the last election was a disgrace—one for which we should all apologise. Rather than wait for this Bill to pass and for the regulations to be laid, we should ask Defence Ministers to make it the responsibility of adjutants in every unit to ensure that people are registered and to make arrangements so that voting papers get to them in time.
I am on record as saying that the move to individual registration is not necessarily such a brilliant idea. We know from Northern Ireland that it helped to reduce the inflation on the electoral roll, but we do not know how many of those who should have registered did not do so under the new system—but I do not want to go into that now, as it requires separate legislation.
The last time I spoke on voting I said that we have a responsibility to ensure that people in prison are registered to vote, but whether or not they can will depend on future decisions in the House. However, I would be interested to hear whether, if the law is changed, the Bill will allow for the registration of people in prison. If so, would that be done through individual registration, or would there be a responsibility on the Prison Service or the Ministry of Justice to make the arrangements?
The major group of people referred to by my hon. Friend are the more than 4 million people abroad who are not registered but should be. We must make sure not only that they can be, but that they are, registered to vote. That brings up another of my campaigns—that we need to get rid of the anomaly whereby half of our overseas pensioners do not get increases in their state pension while the other half do. The ones who do not receive it are probably the ones who need it most. We need to understand the effect of registering overseas people to vote, and it is right to ensure that people are not excluded.
One of the newer democracies is Tunisia—I have been there twice, first for its constituent elections and then to help with training for parliamentary activities. Tunisia has overseas voters and Members of Parliament representing Tunisians overseas. Whether we choose to follow that approach or to get people to vote in their existing UK constituencies is a matter for debate and decision. What is certainly not a matter of debate and decision is the fact that if we leave 4 million people—roughly 10% of those who should be eligible to vote—off our voting list, we will have failed. It does not bother me whether people are abroad because they have retired, because they are working there or simply for enjoyment. The fact is that they should be entitled to vote; it is our job to make sure that they can be registered. Having done that, it is then our responsibility to make sure that they use their registration and cast their votes.
I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) said. It seems to me—and, I think, to him—that it requires no change in the law for the Army or the Ministry of Defence to take the necessary administrative steps to make sure that our troops serving abroad get on the electoral register. No change in the law is needed; it just needs some action by those in a position to do something about the problem.
One further complication might arise. I strongly support the view that anyone registered abroad should be registered in a particular constituency. Because of the youth of a large number of men and women serving in the services abroad, some will not have previously been registered anywhere, as they would not have been old enough to do so. If we need a change in the law to help with service registration, it would be on that sort of issue. Generally speaking, however, certain people taking electoral registration for servicemen and women seriously ought to be enough to sort it out without Parliament being required to do anything.
The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and a number of others raised a point about service personnel. About 75% of our service personnel are registered to vote. I will not be quite as harsh to Labour Members as one or two of my hon. Friends were, because, admittedly, their Government made some progress, on that as on many other issues involved in the Bill. Some of my hon. Friends took every opportunity to harry Labour Members, but they did make progress, although, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who has now left the Chamber, they did so only at the last possible moment. At the time of the most recent general election, they made specific arrangements to enable our service personnel stationed in Afghanistan to vote.
One of the problems involves the electoral timetable, which, for general elections, is quite tight. I will not go into that in detail now, because we will deal with it when we reach clause 13, but one of our reasons for wanting to extend the timetable is our wish to ensure that overseas voters, both service personnel and others, have a much more realistic chance of casting a vote themselves, by post, rather than having to rely on appointing a proxy. I think that if they could vote by post and had an opportunity to make their votes count, more of them would feel incentivised to do so. When our troops are deployed overseas in significant locations, we will repeat the exercise that the Labour Government organised for the general election and we organised for the referendum on the alternative vote, and take specific steps to enable our service personnel to participate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), I am very pleased that we are retaining the first-past-the-post system for the foreseeable future.
Is not one of the good by-products of five-year fixed Parliaments the fact that everyone will know the most likely date of a general election well in advance? That will make electoral registration for central and local government, and the build-up to it, much easier to deal with.
Yes, that will make a difference. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) gave some statistics. In the December 2010 register, which followed the most recent general election, 32,000 electors were registered to vote overseas—which, admittedly, is not a huge number in comparison with the 4.3 million cited by my hon. Friend—but by the following year, the figure had fallen to 23,000. It appears that the incentive of the general election is a spur to registration, as it is for domestically residing voters. I think that knowing when an election will take place will help both registration officers and people living overseas.
My hon. Friend referred to the attestation requirements involved in the registration process. I know that they can pose difficulties, especially in countries where there are not many other British citizens. We are trying to establish whether there is anything that we could do. If we need to alter the requirements, we can do so by changing secondary legislation. We are also considering a trial of online registration, which I think could help not just voters living in the United Kingdom, but those living overseas.
That brings me to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall about communication. The Government are currently trialling—without universal approbation from Members on both sides of the House—a website featuring statements from all the candidates for the police and crime commissioner elections, which will then be promoted by the Electoral Commission and in the material that goes to voters. We may consider a similar procedure for a general election, with an eye on overseas voters.
I should also say to my hon. Friend that overseas voters can vote only in parliamentary elections. That makes their relationship with their local councillors slightly less consequential, but it also means that their votes are not just about who their Member of Parliament will be but about what flows from that, namely who will govern their country—and they are, of course interested in that.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds made the important point that most British citizens overseas are working there, winning orders for Britain and working for British companies that bring wealth into this country. It is important for them to have an opportunity to contribute to the decision on who will govern the country.
That is a good point. One of the ways in which we can grow our economy is to win orders abroad. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke of those who work hard for many of our companies overseas. That means basing British citizens abroad, sometimes temporarily but often permanently, so that they can work with companies to win orders and install and support equipment, and it is very important for them not to be disfranchised.
My hon. Friend has heard the fairly strong opinions held by, at least, Conservative Members. He has said, adeptly, that the attestation requirements could be changed by means of secondary legislation, but he has not said whether they would be changed by that means. Will he give us some idea of the action that he will take following the debate?
My hon. Friend has anticipated my closing remark. As he knows, we have been considering the matter. Along with my officials, I am continuing to think about ways in which we could replace the attestation process with a process involving appropriate levels of security—my hon. Friend’s thoughtful proposals touched on that—and also making it much easier for people to register. I will add my hon. Friend’s well thought through model to my current thinking. I have listened carefully to the thoughts that have been expressed in the House. If we decide to make changes, which I hope to be able to do, the House will have to vote on them in the usual way. I hope that that reassures him.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Register of electors: alterations and removal
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 20, page 27, line 44, schedule 5, leave out ‘second’ and insert ‘third’.
Amendment 18, page 31, line 6, leave out ‘first’ and insert ‘second’.
Amendment 19, page 31, line 19, leave out ‘first’ and insert ‘second’.
Schedule 1 deals with the number of electors on the register, and amendment 3 relates to an appeals process. I should like some clarification from the Minister. Section 10A(3) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and regulations made in 2001 set out a clear appeals process for those who are not included in the register and think that they should be. We believe that people who are excluded under the new system should have a legitimate right to appeal against the decision made by the electoral registration officer.
We are also concerned about the implications for human rights. The ability to cast a vote is a fundamental human right: it is important not just in the context of domestic legislation, but in the context of the European convention on human rights. We are not convinced that the Bill in its current form will provide adequate recourse for those who feel aggrieved. I should like to hear what appeals process exists—if, indeed, there is any such process—for individuals who feel that they have not been dealt with properly.
Yes. It is important to put this amendment and the point that I am making in that context. As things stand, there is a clear appeals process. It is possible that a significant number of people—not too many, we hope—will be excluded from the electoral register and that some of them will feel aggrieved by the process to which they have been subjected. It is right, therefore, to consider the issue, because there are bound at least to be teething problems with such complex proposed legislation, especially when its introduction is based on pilot projects that have not been fully evaluated. There are bound to be problems and difficulties, and individuals must be reassured that the Government will be able to consider and address their concerns.
We are asking for a formal appeals process. The relevant legislative base is sufficient for the current system, but we are looking to the future and would like things to be spelled out crystal clearly so that the Bill explains the Government’s desired process.
Amendment 20 highlights our concern about the carry-over arrangements, to which we have already referred. The amendment would maintain the carry-over arrangements that the Government proposed initially and would delay the introduction of the fully fledged new register beyond December 2015. That is important because, as has been mentioned, we are concerned about the impact that a depleted register would have on the parliamentary boundary review. We are all aware of the legislation that resulted in the current boundary review, that a boundary review will take place every five years, and that the 2015 review will be conducted on the basis of the new electoral register.
The Opposition and many others, including a number of academics, have expressed concerns. Moreover, the Electoral Reform Society recently circulated a briefing expressing concern to all Members. It is very important from a democratic point of view that the parliamentary boundaries have the greatest possible support among all sections of the electorate. That can happen only if those boundaries are based on the largest possible number of electors being on the register so that the process is entirely legitimate. It would be nothing short of a negation of democracy if boundary reviews were conducted and boundaries redrawn when significant numbers of individuals who thought that they were entitled to vote were kept off the electoral register. Various estimates have been made of how that might affect the political geography of the country. On the basis of all the evidence provided, we could well see a shift towards more parliamentary representation for rural areas at the expense of inner-city areas. It is important that a simple principle is maintained.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that certain sections of the community, such as the student community, are relevant in this regard? I think we will discuss them in relation to later amendments. I represent a constituency with up to 12,000 students and it is essential that we get the arrangements right.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is right that we will come on to discuss provisions for students in detail. It is important to follow the principle with which both he and I agree, namely that everyone who is entitled to be on the electoral register should be on it. We should have in place means to make sure that that principle is upheld. Legitimacy and accuracy are important, but so is completeness. One of my overarching concerns about the Bill as drafted is that it does not make it easy for people to be on the electoral register. In fact, all too often it provides hurdle after hurdle, which I am sure will have a detrimental effect on those who are on the electoral register, particularly those who will be on it at the end of 2015 under the new system of individual electoral registration. Amendment 20 would, therefore, ensure carry-over arrangements and a greater chance for a complete register under the new system, which would be introduced at a slighter later date.
Amendments 18 and 19 relate to postal and proxy votes, on which the Bill is far from clear. We have concerns—again, they are shared by many—that the justification for what is essentially a byzantine arrangement is very shallow indeed. Judging by the Minister’s remarks on Second Reading, and certainly judging by the remarks of many a Government Back Bencher, the primary reason for having this different system for postal and proxy votes relates to concern about fraud. Let me be clear: we stand full-square on the need to take the greatest possible measures to ensure that no individual is on the electoral register if they should not be, and, most definitely, that no individual should cast a vote in a parliamentary or other election if they are not entitled to do so. It is also important, however, to keep the issue of fraud in perspective.
Following the contributions made by several Members on Second Reading, I asked the House of Commons Library to prepare some information for me, outlining objectively how big a problem fraudulent action is. The Library provided, in its usual efficient way, a comprehensive summary of recent electoral offences in this country. The paper refers in particular to the report by the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers, published in March 2012. I have to say that even I, who originally thought that some Members had somewhat exaggerated the situation, was surprised to see in black and white just how small scale is the issue of electoral fraud.
The 2012 report notes that, in the majority of reported cases in 2011, the allegation of fraud had not been substantiated. Moreover, although there was an increase in the number of cases involving offences during electoral campaigns in 2011, they related, by and large, to the conduct of elections, not to how votes had been cast. Indeed, the report mentions specifically that there has been
“a decrease in the proportion of alleged voting offences”,
and that such alleged offences accounted for 16%— 35 cases—of all reported cases in 2011, compared with 38% in 2010 and 40% in 2009. It is important that we see the facts for what they are. Although electoral fraud is, of course, absolutely wrong and should be rooted out, we should not blow the situation out of all proportion and use it as a spurious justification for taking other measures when a far stronger case for them should be put forward—if, indeed, there is a case. The chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson, put it well:
“The evidence suggests that proven cases of electoral fraud are rare. But this is a serious issue and nobody should be complacent: more can and should be done to prevent electoral malpractice.
We welcome Government plans to introduce individual electoral registration in Great Britain. This will strengthen our electoral system and reduce the risk of fraud. We also want the Government to make progress in reviewing whether voters should provide identification at polling stations.”
That is another issue, but I will not deal with it now.
My hon. Friend puts it very well. This is not a question of right or wrong; this is not black and white, because it is a question of balance. I said that Jenny Watson rightly has a balanced approach towards the issue. My concern is that this legislation does not recognise the reality; the Government construct Aunt Sallies and then knock them down, without coming forward with a legitimate basis on which to make their proposals. So I think that postal votes and proxy votes are important issues.
The hon. Gentleman makes a specific point about knocking down arguments and Aunt Sallies. I have found from my experience as a constituency MP that many black and minority ethnic communities, particularly migrant communities, came to this country because they wanted to live in an environment in which there was a belief in a robust democracy. Although this issue of highlighted cases of electoral fraud is important, the impression is being given that there is a laxity on this issue and that there is a question about how robust the system is. By putting forward this argument, the hon. Gentleman is undermining a lot of the faith and belief that we have in the robustness of the current electoral system.
With respect, I do not believe I am doing that. I am trying to present a case that is, above all else, accurate. I am not denying that electoral fraud takes place and that it is a problem; all I am saying is that the problem is not on the scale that many Conservative Members and elements in the Government seem to believe it is. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) said, we have to take a balanced approach to this issue. If public perceptions are that widespread fraud is occurring in certain areas, we have a duty to tell things as they are, to spell out the truth and to respond accordingly. In a modest way, that is what I am trying to do.
Indeed, and that is one of the things to which I alluded earlier, as have ACPO and the Electoral Commission. Many people make complaints, be it in the heat of the moment or otherwise, but are then unable to substantiate their allegations, which often fall by the wayside, completely unproven.
I remember being in a radio studio for “Beyond Westminster”, where I heard a young lady of Pakistani descent talking about the amount of courage she needed to go live on radio to discuss this issue. She said that many dozens of her relatives would like to speak about this issue and how they had been pressured on voting, but did not wish to raise it because they felt it was too controversial and doing so would cause their communities harm. I heard her give that interview on radio.
I do not doubt what the hon. Gentleman says for a moment; all I am saying is that it is unwise to take a particular incident and extrapolate way beyond it, as hon. Members have done all too often, including on Second Reading. Speaker after speaker attempted to justify individual electoral registration and the particular procedure with regard to postal vote and proxy vote carry-overs on the basis that there was widespread electoral fraud. I simply do not think that that is a legitimate argument that can be substantiated.
Is it not also true that the Electoral Commission can deal only with the issues brought before it? The hon. Gentleman says that there is no proof, but in Northern Ireland when postal votes were being carried by post office individuals to homes, certain parties followed the postman and people never received them. Why was there no proof? Those people were too afraid to provide it.
I have been careful to keep my remarks particular to Great Britain and not refer to Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] With all due respect, it is not covered by this Bill. I think that the situation in Northern Ireland is different. I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but, again, it would be wrong to extrapolate from what is happening or what has happened in Northern Ireland to what is happening in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I have concerns, because my objective is simple: to ensure that as many people as are entitled to be on the electoral register are on the electoral register. All hon. Members will uphold that simple democratic principle. My concern about the detail of this Bill—and we have not seen the secondary legislation yet—is that it provides all kinds of unreasonable hurdles to individuals to prevent them from exercising their legitimate decision when the time comes to vote or not to vote. That is worrying, and it is part of the motivation behind our amendments.
Let me develop my argument about postal votes. One welcome thing that we have seen in the past few years is that more people are finding it convenient to be on the register and have a postal vote. However, many people, particularly those who are elderly or disabled, are concerned about the Bill. That is why all hon. Members have received representations from a range of different organisations spelling out in detail their concern; for example, a circular has been distributed by organisations that have come together to speak with a collective voice. These organisations include disability charities, Scope, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Mencap and Sense. They all expressed concerns about the transitional arrangements for postal and proxy votes because they believe that the effect will be to disfranchise many disabled people who are entitled to be on the register.
I raised concerns about that point on Second Reading, as did the hon. Gentleman. Does he take some comfort from the fact that the same organisations he mentions—Mencap, the RNIB, Scope and Sense—have also welcomed the Government’s constructive approach to engagement on these proposals? They have recognised that the Government are talking and are listening to the concerns that I think he is about to raise.
Earlier, I made a point of saying that I congratulated the Government and commended them, as the Minister acknowledged, on their pre-legislative consultation and on their rethink on a number of key issues. However, with all due respect to the Government, that is not enough. There are still real concerns and I hope that the Government have listened not so much to the Opposition but to the legitimate concerns expressed by people outside this place, with whom they have been engaged for some weeks and months. Those people still have concerns, which I have expressed. Let me quote specifically what they said in one of their circulars:
“The need to ensure that the requirement for absent voters to be registered under the new system does not inadvertently disenfranchise disabled voters who rely on postal voting to mitigate the inaccessibility of polling stations”.
That is from the response from Mencap, the RNIB, Scope and Sense to the publication of the draft Bill in May 2012.
Objective comments on the proposals have been made by such organisations and by outside academics, but a Select Committee of this House also gave a trenchant criticism of the Government’s proposals. The Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform’s report on IER states:
“We recommend that the Government look closely at applying the same carry-forward arrangements for the 2015 General Election to postal and proxy registrations as to other registrations, to avoid inadvertently disenfranchising vulnerable electors.”
That is a succinct and apt way of putting that very important point.
The Government made legitimate changes to their position—I do not like to use the word “concessions”—before the final draft Bill was published and I hope that they will listen to the cacophony of reasonable opinion expressed beyond the confines of the Palace of Westminster and change the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is that many people will be on the register as it carries forward and they will have become accustomed in recent years to postal votes being sent to them every time, which they might not have been in the past? They will therefore assume that the same will happen the first time this provision comes into effect, which will presumably be at the next general election, only to discover that they are unable to vote.
Yes, that is the concern, in essence. The Minister has confidently predicted that the carry-over will be 66%, but I have yet to hear on what he bases that figure. The Electoral Commission is bemused, too. I mentioned that earlier and I will be interested to hear whether he reiterates the totally unsubstantiated figure of 66% for postal and proxy votes.
I am sure that my hon. Friend has had many conversations with Government Members about the Bill. Will he enlighten us about what will happen if the figure in areas such as mine falls drastically below 66%, as I expect it will? Are the Government proposing any safety net?
It is for the Government to speak for themselves about their proposals. The Electoral Commission has said that it is concerned about that potential problem and believes it should be tackled through the allocation of resources. We will consider the matter when we discuss the provisions that fall much later in the Bill, but I do not think that the Government are taking the question of addressing the problem at all seriously. If they were, the simplest thing would be to do what the Select Committee recommended and ensure that the same carry-over arrangements apply to proxy and postal voters as to everybody else. The case has not been made for treating postal and proxy votes differently.
How will this impact on local government? We might see a significant fall in registration in certain wards, so would that lead to boundary changes? What will happen to the boundary changes at local government level that are implemented before we see individual voter registration?
That is a big issue. One of the concerns I expressed earlier was about the impact a depleted register could have on the next boundary review in December 2015. From a democratic point of view, if many people who are entitled to be on the register are not, that will have a knock-on effect on how the new boundaries are drawn up. That will have an impact on other boundaries, too, as it will be taken into account in one way or another.
The objective analysis of likely voter depletion shows that there is unlikely to be uniformity throughout the county. We are likely to see a marked contrast between the rural and urban areas, as I said earlier. If my hon. Friend wants to break it down to regions, I think that there will be a great contrast between the number of electors who will be able to vote in the north-east of England and the number in the south-east of England. That reflects the differences in movement, in demographic trends and in the social and class structure. A particular concern has been expressed about London. Greater London has the greatest amount of movement of individuals and is thus likely to be the area where the greatest number of people who are entitled to vote are not on the electoral register. I would contend that the greatest contrast is likely to be between Greater London and more affluent parts of the south-east of England; let us be blunt about that.
One thing that concerns many of us regards the fact that it is already perfectly possible for electors who wish to register for postal votes to do so for just one election. Is there not therefore a presumption that people who want the long-term postal vote for reasons of sickness, old age or working away will want it more permanently? Surely the presumption is already there, so it is bizarre that the Government are even thinking of changing it.
That is an excellent point. The presumption among many people—indeed, dare I say it, among most people—is that once a person is on the electoral register, they are there not for one or two elections but permanently. Most people in this country will not have a clue about this profound change in the nature of the electoral registration system. We need only to consider the lack of press interest and coverage on the subject for months to see that. Given that the Bill was one of the key pieces of legislation in the Queen’s Speech, there has been virtually no press coverage of it, and it is from the press that most people get their information. There is indeed a potential problem here.
We will discuss financing in greater detail later, but when the responsibility is placed very much on the shoulders of local authorities and electoral registration officers, and the resources that are likely to be allocated will not be ring-fenced and will be pretty small anyhow, the concern is that local authorities will not have the capacity to make the superhuman effort needed to chase up those people who they manage to detect have not re-registered under the new system, even though they are entitled to be on the register. There is a host of interconnected problems before us and I thank Members for their interventions. In their different ways, they have highlighted the complexities and the potential problems that lie ahead. The way forward for postal vote carry-overs was clearly set out by the all-party Select Committee, and I very much hope the Government will have second thoughts.
I shall speak briefly to amendment 20, which would increase the length of time that those on the current electoral register remained on the revised register after the introduction of individual electoral registration. The current proposal from the UK Government is that existing registrations will be removed at the end of the second new canvass if people have not provided the required data for individual electoral registration. The effect will be that concerns about a cliff-edge drop in the completeness of the registers, as we saw when they dropped by 11% in Northern Ireland, will be postponed until after the 2015 Westminster general election. This means that the first elections to be held without the roll-on from the pre-IER electoral roll will be the National Assembly for Wales elections in May 2016.
Although I recognise that one election must, at some point, be the first election to be held wholly under IER, I am concerned that the elections to the National Assembly for Wales will be the guinea pig, particularly because if the proposals in the Green Paper on electoral arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales are implemented, the electoral roll arrangements will be used as the basis for determining constituencies. I shall give my opinion on that very interesting Green Paper on another occasion.
The change-over from the current system to IER is fraught with difficulties, and the length of time for the change-over should be as long as necessary to ensure that there are no adverse effects, and certainly should not be rushed. As I say, I am particularly concerned about the possible effects on the National Assembly elections in 2016, and I hope the Government will take this opportunity to push back the final date for the removal of all pre-IER registrations to ensure that the handover is as smooth as possible, without the cliff-edge drop in registration that we fear.
The hon. Gentleman is clearly as concerned about his area and the effect on voter registration as I am about mine. Does he think that his local authority will have the resources to deal effectively with the problems that will arise and to keep on the electoral register as many people as possible who are entitled to vote?
That is an interesting point. On the way down on the train this morning, I was reading a report on the experience in Northern Ireland. It said that it was difficult to envisage the changes being pushed through uniformly in a short period. A longer period of introduction would therefore be better for all concerned.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark.
I shall speak briefly, mainly to underline the importance of getting the change right. Given that there is cross-party consensus on the introduction of individual voter registration, it ought to be possible to carry it out in a way that minimises and manages risk, avoiding the negative consequences that we can foresee. The debate has made it clear that one of the foreseeable consequences of getting it wrong is that fewer people will be on the register, although they are still eligible. The change must be managed to take account of people who are not sufficiently on the ball to get their registration in place.
I do not see what the rush is. It is better to implement the change carefully and with consideration and get it right than rush it and find the numbers on the register falling off a cliff edge, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) said. If we get it wrong, the number of people participating in very significant future elections will drop substantially. Any significant drop would be a travesty of our democracy. We therefore need to work together to prevent such a drop.
I am especially concerned about the risks involved in the arrangements currently in place for dealing with absent voters by means of postal and proxy votes. The difficulties were well set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) from the Front Bench. It is important that we get the changes right and that they are handled in a way that protects people. There is a real danger that people who have been signed up as postal voters or proxy voters for some time will not be alert to the changes that are taking place and will not realise that those changes have taken place until it is too late.
In previous elections all of us have had the experience of knocking on doors and finding that people have a perception that they have a postal vote, although in fact they do not. They may have signed up for just one election. That will happen in greater volume if the proposals go ahead. There is significant risk in postal and proxy votes not being transferred for the 2015 elections. Carrying them forward would mitigate the risk considerably, although as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr said, that transfers the risk to another time. The longer we have to deal with the transfer, the more able we collectively, and electoral registration officers in particular, will be to get it right. We rush at our peril.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly, I welcome the modifications that have been made along the road by the Government. That is a good thing and there is further opportunity for modifications in order to get the change right. If the desire is to rush pell-mell, we will get things wrong. The situation of absent and proxy voters would benefit from more risk minimisation and less haste.
Although there is apparently a consensus on moving to individual electoral registration, I declare that I do not subscribe to that consensus. I think I had been in the Commons for about a month when there was a vote on which both Front-Bench teams were agreed on some principle. Bernard Braine, an old Tory MP, said to me, “Come on, let’s vote against, because when both Front Benches are in agreement, somebody is being swindled out of their rights.” There is a real danger that in implementing the general proposal, many people will be swindled out of their rights.
We should bear it in mind that estimates of the number of people currently entitled to be on the register but who are not on the register vary between 3 million and 6 million, but no one queries the fact that at least 3 million of our fellow citizens who are entitled to vote are not at present on the electoral register. We are now contemplating a change that will make it more difficult to register. Logically, it would appear that the 3 million will be added to, rather than reduced. We are also talking about the non-carry-over of many postal votes. The people who are on that list are not exclusively disabled and disadvantaged, but many of those who have a postal vote for several elections, which as far as they are concerned is indefinite, are among the most disabled and disadvantaged. It is difficult to see how we can be complacent about knocking them off the register or the list of postal voters, particularly when there are doubts about the appeal arrangements, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) said. The Government, on behalf of the House of Commons, need to address those points, because so far that has not been done.
Another point I will make for Tory Members is that their party has always been the best, by miles, at getting people postal votes, so there is every possibility that once in a while it will be quite a lot of Tory voters who lose the right to a postal vote. I urge Government Members, in their own self-interest, to consider whether that is a good or a bad idea.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly also talked about the application of the new arrangements to the electoral register which will be used for the next round of boundary changes. I must admit that I am opposed to the whole approach to boundaries at the moment. Members used to represent a locality, but in future they will represent an anonymous agglomeration of people and there will be little sense that they represent a particular area. Indeed, we could reasonably start talking about constituency No. 10 or constituency No. 245 rather than the place they allegedly represent, because it will no longer be a place; it will be just a group of people. I think that there is a real danger—in fact, almost a certainty—that the introduction of individual electoral registration will mean that the boundary changes that will be considered after the next general election will be mean a smaller number of voters than were on the register at the previous general election.
Apart from a very limited number of people who are paid to support what is proposed, I have yet to meet anyone who does not admit in private conversation that the likely consequence of introducing individual electoral registration is a reduction in the number of people who are registered. We need to get things in perspective. If between 3 million and 6 million people are entitled to be on the register but are not on it, knocking some people off because there might have been a limited amount of fraud seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse.
I can reassure the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) that he can simultaneously support his party and oppose individual registration, because it says it is in favour of it but then votes against the Bill, so he can have his cake and eat it. To pick up on the central thrust of his remarks, I simply do not accept his proposition on the number of people who will be on the register. In Northern Ireland, where individual electoral registration was introduced, what went wrong—after all, it was introduced by the Government of whom he was a member—was its introduction overnight with no carry-forward process, which caused a number of people who were eligible to be registered to drop off the register. That was recognised and the carry-forward process was reinstituted. We have learned from that. If we look at the status quo, the register is more accurate in Northern Ireland than it is in Great Britain; fewer people who are not entitled to vote are on the register and it is at least as complete as it is in Great Britain. In other words, there are at least as many people who are entitled to vote on the register under individual registration. I am not going to start comparing people who live in different parts of the United Kingdom, but if in Northern Ireland they can manage to register under an individual electoral registration system and have a register that is both as complete and more accurate, it should be perfectly possible for citizens in the rest of the United Kingdom to manage that, too.
The information comes from a very good piece of work that we commissioned the Electoral Commission to do, so that we had a clear understanding of the electoral registration system’s starting position before we introduced individual electoral registration. We mean to carry out that piece of work after we have introduced the system so that we can demonstrate that the right hon. Gentleman’s fears are groundless. As I have said, the system is working very well in one part of the United Kingdom, and without all of these problems. We have learnt from Northern Ireland’s transitional experience so that we do not repeat the mistakes—mistakes that were introduced under the Government of whom he was a member. I think that he really exaggerates the fears.
Following the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), in the piece of work the Minister says the Electoral Commission has done, how many people were excluded from the register or were not on it? Was it 3 million or 6 million? What was the figure?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman, although I am not pleased to, that the figure was 6 million. I can confirm, therefore, that under the previous Government 3 million people disappeared from the register, so I will take no lectures from the Opposition on that. I am confident that, under the proposals we have set out, we will not see the problems that they have suggested there will be. The brutal truth is that when they were in government they commissioned no research to help them understand the position post-2000 and so they did not know what was going on. Having commissioned that work and had the Electoral Commission carry it out, we now know that the problem actually got worse and the previous Government did nothing about it. We are confident that our proposals are robust, and I will set some of them out and respond to the amendments in a moment. We know that the system works well because it works perfectly well in Northern Ireland and we have learnt from the problems that occurred during the transitional process.
The Minister says that he is confident about his proposals, but the sure way to test whether his confidence is well placed would be to delay the introduction of the process until the second tranche of pilot schemes have been assessed. Why does he not allow that assessment to take place before deciding, because then he would see whether or not his confidence is well placed?
We have hardly rushed in the way we have conducted this legislation. I announced our decision in September 2010 and we then published the legislation with the pre-legislative scrutiny. We have been doing this in a very deliberate and careful way, as I think most people would accept.
The Minister has referred to the experience in Northern Ireland, but does he accept that the dip that took place there was not just a temporary blip after which the numbers were immediately recovered following one step, because it took some time to recover? Does he also accept that there is something qualitatively different about the current proposal because for the first time individual electoral registration will be used to determine a boundary review? That is an overnight use of a new system.
There are two points there. I accept that there was a problem and that it took some years to get the register back after that drop, and that is precisely why having learnt from the experience we have put the carry-forward process in place—so that we do not get the drop in the first place. That point is quite right. I will address the hon. Gentleman’s second point directly when I refer to amendments 20, 18 and 19. If he does not think that I have done so, he can come back to it.
On amendment 3, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) talked about the appeals system and asked very perceptively whether the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David)was trying to keep in place the existing system or to put in place a new one. I think that the answer, which the hon. Gentleman obfuscated, is that he is after keeping in place the existing system, and I can confirm that sections 56 and 57 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 already make provision for appeals against the decisions of registration officers in Great Britain, including those to remove people from the register.
Paragraph 17 of schedule 4 to the Bill makes the necessary amendments to ensure that that provision continues to apply under the new system, and I refer hon. Members in particular to the proposed insertion of paragraphs (azd) and (aa) in section 56(1) of the 1983 Act, which would deal with appeals against decisions under proposed section 10ZE.
That sounds very complicated, but basically it means that the existing appeals system will continue as now but under the new system. It is quite complicated and not easy to follow because this Bill amends the 1983 Act, but I hope that, with that reassurance, at least on amendment 3 the hon. Gentleman will not feel the need to press it to a Division.
Electoral fraud came up in the debate, and I now have in front of me the quotation from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Its office for democratic institutions and human rights undertook an election assessment mission report in 2010, on page 11 of which it describes the voter registration system in Great Britain as
“the weakest link of the electoral process due to the absence of safeguards against fictitious registrations.”
So there is a real problem, and about 36% of voters think that there is a real problem with electoral fraud. Indeed, the problem is with not just electoral fraud, but the use of the electoral register, which has been identified as an important stage in identity fraud and financial crime.
I remind the Minister that I have reported to the House on two occasions, last year and this year, that from a random sample of 100 people who came to my constituency and had no entitlement to vote, more than 20% were found on the electoral roll—for a number of reasons, I concede, which backs up my hon. Friend’s point.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Let me continue with my point about fraud.
A recent Metropolitan police and national fraud initiative analysis, looking at 29,000 strands of identity data found on forged and counterfeit documents, showed that 45.6% matched electoral registration data, and a lack of any robust verification process is a tool that criminals use for creating fictitious identities to be used not in voting fraud but for financial crime, so we need to deal with that as well.
When police have electoral fraud drawn to their attention, and it is the responsibility of the police given that electoral fraud is a crime, they take such matters seriously. I recently met the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead on the issue and have discussed it with the Electoral Commission, and, if colleagues think that there is electoral fraud and report it to the police, the police will certainly take it seriously, but colleagues will be expected to stand up the accusations they make and be prepared to swear statements and to enable the police to take action. There is both a perception of a problem and a real problem with, in particular, financial fraud.
In amendments 20, 18 and 19, the hon. Member for Caerphilly sets out his concerns about our proposals. Amendment 20, which would extend the transition to individual registration by extending the carry-forward, focuses only on completeness, not on accuracy, and one problem with his suggestion is that, if we did what he wanted, by the time of the publication of the registers after the 2015 canvass, it might have been almost two years since EROs had actually heard from people—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Ms Clark.
The danger for the hon. Member for Caerphilly is that, in his proposals, he urges us to deal with completeness, but, if we accept his argument that they would increase completeness, and I am not sure that they would, we find that they may do so at the expense of accuracy. They would leave on the register people who were not likely to be at the address in question any more, because they would not have responded to an electoral registration officer for some time.
There is a very clear answer: the register’s use in the election will be its first use, and we know that at the time of a general election people will be very focused on it. By the time of the publication of the registers in 2015, individuals who have not been confirmed automatically at the start of the transition will have had more than one year to register individually, had more than two canvasses, been contacted a number of times by the electoral registration officer and between canvasses had a general election, a time when awareness of politics and voting is at its highest.
Our intention remains that EROs will write to individuals who have neither registered nor been confirmed towards the end of the 2015 canvass to inform them that they will be removed and to offer them one further chance to apply. It seems to me that, for somebody to be eligible to be registered, at their property and not to have registered individually for the 2015 register, they will almost have had to go out of their way to avoid being contacted by an ERO, and almost deliberately have not registered. The steps that we have put in place are very robust.
Reflecting on the Northern Ireland experience again, does the Minister not recognise that one problem in Northern Ireland was that people thought, because they had voted in a recent election, that they were already registered automatically for future purposes? The amount of information actually created confusion and an assumption that if someone had a vote they were on the register in future.
It is worth pointing out that, after the general election in 2015, there will be another full canvass of households to ensure that we get people on the register. The danger with just carrying everybody forward for ever and a day is that we just perpetuate inaccuracy; we might get completeness but it would be at the expense of ensuring that the data were accurate.
Let me make some progress, because otherwise I will not be able to deal with the amendments that the hon. Member for Caerphilly tabled. I will see how things have moved on at the end.
We have announced that about two thirds of voters will be confirmed automatically, but the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who is no longer in her place, said that the figure will not be uniform throughout the country, and that is quite right—I confirmed it on Second Reading. She also referred to funding, and we propose to deal with the issue by ensuring that better support for funding is available to areas with bigger challenges. In the summer, I will publish our proposals on how we allocate funding in order to receive feedback from electoral registration officers throughout the country so that they feel that the funding mechanism is sufficiently robust.
Amendment 18 and 19 are about the carry-forward of absent votes. If we were undertaking this process is a purist way, we would not bother having the carry-forward at all; we would just have individual registration and then test it out. But we have learned from Northern Ireland, so we are introducing the carry-forward to stop people dropping off the register.
We do not propose to extend the canvass to those who have an absent vote, because there is a risk in the system with absent voters: if registrations are fictitious in the first place, the checks and balances on identifiers for absent votes will not really add any security to the system. If someone can make up an identity, they can make up the identifiers, so we think that there is more risk involved in that process.
To deal with risk, however, we propose, first, to use data matching to undertake confirmation, meaning that two thirds of voters will be moved over automatically on the register, including two thirds on average of those who have an absent vote.
Secondly, as colleagues on both sides of the House will know, people with postal votes have postal identifiers, their date of birth and their signature, which they have to refresh every five years because signatures can change and deteriorate over time. We are therefore going to delay the postal vote identifier refresh in 2014 and bring forward the refresh from 2015, so all electors using postal voting methods whose identifiers are due to be refreshed in those two years will be asked to provide them as well as to register. Those whose entries on the register have automatically been confirmed will be asked to provide their refreshed identifiers when they get their letter. EROs will be communicating to anyone with an absent vote who is invited to register under the new system, to make it quite clear what happens if they do not register. If they do not register, they will be written to again and informed that they have lost their absent vote but given another opportunity. All the steps that we propose will make things very clear and it will be difficult for someone inadvertently to lose their absent vote.
The final point is about disabled voters. As I said on Second Reading, we are also going to look at having an online registration system; moving away from a paper-based system to one in which people can register electronically is a way of getting more disabled people registered.
The Minister stated that concern about carrying forward the postal vote is to do with fictitious people. However, he appears to be happy to carry over other people, who might equally be fictitious. If a fictitious person is on the roll at the moment and carried over, come the general election someone using that identity could go to the polling station and vote; we do not check identity as people vote. If large numbers of people using fictitious identities are trying to vote, they can do that. Why is it thought that there is a greater problem with postal voting, for which at least some additional safeguards are in place?
Those safeguards work only if the person with the postal vote is legitimate in the first place. The postal vote identifiers are very good for checking that the postal vote cast is the one for the person who has registered; there is a good check in that part of the system. That is not helpful, however, if the person who has registered has created a fictitious identity. We know that it is easier for somebody to set up a fictitious identity and cast a postal vote than vote in person using that identity. The hon. Lady seems to be arguing in favour of having ID cards before one votes, but the Government do not plan to introduce those.
I urge the Opposition to withdraw amendment 3 on appeals and not to press their remaining three amendments. The steps that I set out are robust. We are providing proper funding in the system for electoral registration officers to be able to communicate with voters and make sure that the system is sufficiently flexible. In parts of the country where there is a bigger challenge, for whatever reason, EROs will have access to more funding.
I thank the Minister for his snotty response. Oddly enough, I was simply seeking information. The Minister confirmed—I am glad that he did—that the current appeals machinery will cover people being knocked off the electoral register. Will that also apply to people being taken off the list of postal voters? If so, will they be informed in time to appeal?
The provision for appeal against the decisions of registration officers are against the decisions of registration officers. If those decisions are made because a rule laid in statute is being followed, the appeal will not get very far. As I said, we will make sure that EROs contact people who are registered with an absent vote a number of times to encourage them to register individually. If they do not register individually, EROs will explain to them on a number of occasions the consequence for their absent vote, so that people are given the opportunity.
One would have to be trying hard to avoid knowing what was going on and avoid registering individually. Part of the reason for the confirmation process is to get the on average two thirds of voters moved to a new system, to enable electoral registration officers to focus on those who do not, to target resources better, to use public money more efficiently and to have a more efficient, complete and accurate register.
I hope that the Opposition will withdraw their amendment and let the schedule stand part.
I hear what the Minister said about amendment 3 and I am pleased that his reassurances are clear. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) said, we are talking about a new system and it might not be possible simply to use the current system for a new system. I urge the Government to keep the issue under review, bearing in mind that, as has been said, more people might want to appeal against an ERO’s decision than have until now.
I am minded not to press amendment 3 to a vote, but we shall press amendments 20 and 18 at the appropriate time. We will leave amendment 19 to one side. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Applications for registration and verification of entitlement etc
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark.
Members who followed the discussion on Second Reading and in the Opposition day debate on individual electoral registration that we had some time ago will not be surprised to hear me talk about voting and electoral registration among those fortunate enough to own multiple properties.
I welcome the concept behind the Bill, as do Members across the House, except the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), who is no longer in his place but has been outed as a sceptic on individual electoral registration. However, it is absolutely right for us to take every opportunity to strive for accuracy and look at any ways in which we can generally improve the process. It strikes me that while we have the Bill in front of us, there is an opportunity to consider the issue of multiple registration by individuals.
If we are to have a system based on one elector, one vote, and a system that allows them to register for that vote, we need to resolve the position whereby people are entitled to more than one vote. If they are so entitled, we should look carefully at the reasons for that and make sure that the electoral administrators, who have to decide whether someone should be added to the register, have all the information to hand.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I shall come to that point a little later.
We have a residential qualification. Many who own property in my constituency, elsewhere in Cornwall and the south-west and in other rural areas will have other property as well. The same may apply in urban areas such as Tower Hamlets—around the Isle of Dogs, a large number of properties will be owned by those in the financial sector who occupy them in the week and return to their families at the weekends—so this issue covers many parts of the country.
People who own multiple properties have been writing to me saying, “No taxation without representation”—a great rallying cry. However, we do not have such a voting system. Those who pay business rates in my constituency but do not live there are not entitled to vote; they were once, but that was scrapped a long time ago. Those people writing to me have a nice soundbite, but it does not apply in this case. Our electoral system is based on people’s residency in a particular area, their affiliation to the community and their desire to have a say in its future and that of the wider country through their registration on the local electoral register.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said, it is right that we give electoral administrators the tools to do the job. When they are called in, as they increasingly are, to adjudicate on whether a person should be on the electoral roll, they need to have a basis on which to make that decision other than just the determination of that person to be admitted on to the roll. The data-matching exercises that the Government have undertaken offer one route to this. As I said on Second Reading, there may be other sources of data that have not been looked at, such as someone’s registration for tax purposes with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to determine which is their principal residence. We have famously seen some examples of people who have sought to move, or flip, that qualification around a little. If someone is registered for tax purposes with a particular place as their main residence, and is thus saying that that is their main residence as regards the state, then that is the place where they should be voting.
This will affect not only people with multiple residences but students, who live in one place when at college but have what they would regard as their main home somewhere else. What is the hon. Gentleman’s view on what the main residence would be in those circumstances?
That is a very good point. Students will spend roughly six months a year in each of those two locations. They will probably have a strong affinity with the place where they grew up, particularly in the case of those who have recently left school. Their family may still reside in the area and they may ultimately look to return to it and therefore want to have a say there. They may spend all their time working there during their vacations. Students often take an active position in the community by volunteering, and perhaps interacting with the local political scene as well. If our approach is to be based on this principle, which is currently in place, we need to get it right and make sure that the information is available for electoral returning officers. We must determine the basis on which registration in more than one place is legitimate and where there is a case for it. Students may be an example of a group for which such a case can strongly be made.
The current position is based on whether the person applying to go on the register can demonstrate equal residence. That is what Cornwall council is using as the qualification, having decided to take action on the issue. It is writing to people to say that if they are seeking to be on the register in more than one place for a property in Cornwall and a property elsewhere—usually the one at which they spend most of their time—they will need to demonstrate some sort of equal residence. They may be in the process of moving to Cornwall for their retirement and have bought the property in advance of that, and are spending time there getting it ready and gradually making the transition. In many cases, however, we find that people are spending only a few weeks, or perhaps a month at most, a year at the property, and for the rest of the time they are renting it out as a commercial let, particularly in the winter, or as a holiday let in peak season. In those circumstances, it is a source of frustration to people who live in communities such as mine that their votes have equal standing with somebody who is on the register for that purpose.
There is another dimension to this. At the moment, if circumstances allow somebody to be on two registers at once, and if electoral officers are happy with that, it is permissible for them to vote in local elections in the two places, even if those elections are on the same day, because they are seen as separate elections. However, they are not allowed to vote in two places on the same day in a general election, nor would they be able to do so in a European election or a referendum on a national question. However, postal votes are readily available now, and it is entirely possible that someone could cast a vote based on one address in the run-up to the election and still vote in person on the basis of the other. Of course, people will say that we can check that.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that although it is not possible to vote in two constituencies in a general election, if there are by-elections in two constituencies on the same day it is entirely legal for someone who is registered in both places to vote in both by-elections? In January 1986 in Northern Ireland, people who were registered in more than one constituency were free to vote in as many by-elections as they were registered for.
While the hon. Gentleman was speaking, it clicked into view that the period he was talking about was that of the Anglo-Irish agreement. I was not aware of that, but I am now. I thank him for his intervention, which was helpful to me in giving the example another scenario in which this is legitimate.
Obviously voting twice in the same election is illegal, and the number of people who are thought to have done it must be very small. Can the hon. Gentleman explain whether a Member of Parliament from, say, Devon, who spent four or five nights a week in London and three nights a week in Devon for 34 weeks of the year would be required under his system to say that London was their main home, not the place that they represented?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman credits me with having a system—a grand plan—but I do not, as yet. My amendment relates to specific issues that I will deal with soon, Ms Clark, because I know that you will want me to move on. He is right to observe that there will be Members of this House who are on the register in two separate places, as indeed I was for a while. I stay in hotels in this fine city when I am up here now, so that no longer arises. Some of the people who have written to me feel that the short amount of time they spend in Cornwall entitles them to be on the register because they happen to own the property, and I have pointed out that I probably spend more time in hotels in Westminster than they do in Cornwall, and that I should perhaps be petitioning to get on the register on that basis as it is not a property qualification.
How do we check that someone who is on the register in two places is not voting in the same election on the same day in two locations or, as that would be pretty hard to do if they are some miles apart, postal voting in one location in the run-up to the election and voting in person in the other? First, one would have to find out the other location at which the person is registered. Subsequent to the election, one would have to get hold of a copy of the marked-up register for both locations in order to check, and then one might be able to put a case together that the person had voted in two elections. I am sure that, as the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) suggested, people will say that this is a very rare occurrence, but that does not matter—the problem is that there is no way for anybody to check and challenge it. Whether it involves one vote, 10 votes or a few hundred votes across the country, it could still have an effect in some locations. I would venture to say that in some parts of the country where second homes are clustered, it will have more of an effect than in other areas, and it might therefore have an effect on an election result.
The hon. Gentleman says that it is difficult to determine where this happens. I had a case in my constituency in which a couple of constituents were registered at two places. I had them registered as Labour party supporters on the basis of my own canvass. We checked the marked-up register and noted that they had voted in both places. We took the issue to the police but it was not followed up. There was no prosecution and not even an official caution—apparently just a word was had and that was it. What could we do?
What action happens when the police and the courts get hold of this is a secondary point, but a fair one. The hon. Gentleman is talking about people who were registered at two locations in his constituency, and presumably he looked for them in another location because he had suspected that that might be the case. However, when the second property is at the other end of the country it is on a completely different electoral roll, and there is no way that one would know which Mr Tom Smith one was looking for unless, at the point of registration, they were asked to declare the other properties at which they were seeking to be on the electoral roll. That is what my amendment would do. Electoral officers would be able to check that, and members of the public who wished to challenge whether someone had done this at another election would also have a basis on which to check. Both electoral registers are public documents; my amendment would merely tally the two up.
There would be pressure to make a declaration at that point. My amendment would tighten up the system a little. I am not saying that it is foolproof, but I think that it would improve matters.
As I am sure that the Minister is aware, this is a probing amendment to raise the subject again. We had a briefing from the Electoral Commission saying that it understands that the Government may be about to reconsider the issue and respond in some way through regulation, which I would certainly welcome. The point that I am seeking to make, which I have made before, is that given that electoral officers in some parts of the country are seeking to be tougher on this matter and to question people’s right to register in a certain location, we need to provide them with the tools to ensure that the electoral register is accurate. As I have also remarked before, if we are moving to a system of holding local referendums on matters such as setting a higher council tax rate or establishing a neighbourhood or community planning document, it is important that it is the people who live in the community who vote. That is not to say that people who own property, businesses or agricultural land in the area may not venture a view or be part of the consultation, but voting is a very different thing.
The amendment seeks to ensure that the individual has a legal duty to declare where their other property is, so that the electoral officer can make a judgment and perhaps enter into a brief discussion with the electoral officer in the other location to ensure that they are not seeking to be on the electoral register illegitimately. For those who can make a case that they are doing so legitimately, it will be absolutely fine. They will go on the register and will be able to vote in local elections as normal. If there is a suspicion that somebody is voting in two places, for whatever reason, it will be much easier for the marked register to be checked and for any problem to be addressed.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about stopping duplicate entrants on the electoral register. Has he given any thought to the impact of the amendment on the process of creating new constituencies with the same number of electors, in particular in constituencies such as Ceredigion, where there is a large student population?
The amendment may well make a difference to the size of the electorate in places such as Ceredigion. It would also make a difference in Cornwall, which is being told that it must have five and a half seats, instead of the five that it used to have or the six that it currently enjoys. There will be a seat across the border between Cornwall and north-west Devon. The large number of second homes in north-west Devon and north Cornwall may have a bearing on the size of that constituency, so the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point.
As I said, this is a probing amendment, so I will draw my remarks to a close. I hope that the Government act on this issue, if not in this primary legislation, then in secondary legislation or the guidance for local authorities when they are designing the forms that people will fill in, to make people aware of its importance. Although it is more acute in areas such as mine than in other parts of the country, only through a joined-up approach can we get the information that is needed to resolve the situation. If the Government cannot respond positively today, I hope that they will indicate that they will look at it in the future.
I will say a few words about the process of verification, because clause 2 gives significant powers to the Secretary of State to make secondary legislation; to determine what evidence should be on an application form for registration; to determine the form of those application forms; over the role and functions of electoral registration officers; and over local authorities and the Electoral Commission.
One of the most significant issues is the evidence of identity that individuals will have to provide. Paragraph 19 of the explanatory notes says of subsection (3):
“The required evidence may be specified in regulations or be determined by the Secretary of State, and such evidence may for example include a person’s date of birth and national insurance number.”
My concern is about the lack of specificity in the words “may for example include”. My understanding was that the Government had all but decided that a person’s date of birth and NI number would be the two specific pieces of information that would be required. I am therefore worried that the Bill will give the Secretary of State the power to make broader decisions on other information.
I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about national insurance numbers. As he will be aware, at the briefing that he attended in which we talked about online registration, we advanced the debate beyond that matter because we were concerned about the access issue over people obtaining their national insurance numbers.
I recall that briefing. That is an interesting point. I am sure that there will be an opportunity later in the Committee to talk about how online technology may be effective in some areas and problematic in others.
Returning to our reservations, the amendment proposes that there be specific references to the date of birth and the national insurance number, and that the extensive power for the Secretary of State to come forward with secondary legislation be removed.
My concerns about verification increased a little while ago when I read the Cabinet Office publication, “Individual Electoral Registration: Privacy Impact Assessment Report”, which indicated what information a potential elector will be asked to provide by the local electoral registration officer. If Members will bear with me, I will go through what it says. An individual will be asked to provide:
“Full name (first name, middle name or initial(s), Family name)”,
“Full residential address including postcode”,
their nationality, and a
“Declaration of truth—declaration that all information provided is true and correct.”
That is the same as at the moment. They will then be required to provide their date of birth and their national insurance number “where possible”, which are new requirements. There would also be new requirements to provide their
“Immigration status—if non-British or non-EU citizen”,
“Declaration as to whether they are/have been registered elsewhere in the last 12 months”,
as well as any
“Previous address where registered in the last 12 months (new requirement – currently requested but not mandatory on annual canvass forms)”.
What is envisaged goes far beyond the bold headline, which states that there should be a requirement for the date of birth and the national insurance number.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reading out that list, because I am magnificently reassured about the lengths to which we are going to secure the integrity of our electoral register. Is he suggesting that he does not welcome the proposals because of that? It is surely a good thing.
I am certainly not saying that those stipulations are inappropriate and should not be asked for. I simply think that it is worth pointing out that more information will be required than was suggested earlier. Already, we are talking not simply about a date of birth and a national insurance number, but about other items of information. If the Secretary of State were given powers to circumvent the democratic process in Parliament to request other information, it would be worrying. The word “balance” was used in an earlier debate, and a balance has to be struck between asking for information that ensures that a person’s request to be on the register is legitimate and asking for information that makes the whole process too burdensome and onerous for a person to bother with.
I intervene not to cause mischief but simply to say that I find the idea of asking people to submit their immigration status quite attractive for a number of reasons. One is that many forms come through people’s doors, and I have seen evidence that some people who come from other countries see a form and understandably feel that it must be filled out and returned, because of the heavy hand of the state in wherever they came from. It is not unreasonable to check their immigration status to ensure that no inadvertent mistakes are made.
I am not making a case against that. I am saying that it would enhance our democratic process if all the details that will be requested were itemised in the Bill. Parliament itself should decide on that, not the Secretary of State. We are talking primarily about elections to the most exalted democratic place in the country, namely this House of Commons, and the House should have the say on what information is required from potential electors.
We are talking about registration for a multiplicity of types of elections, be they European, local government or general elections. Different statuses entitle people to vote in those different elections. My constituency experience is that a large number of people from eastern Europe get on the electoral register even though they are not British citizens and are not qualified to vote in our general elections. Because they do not understand that, they inadvertently get on the full register, and then there has to be a process for challenging them. Requesting someone’s date of birth is also extremely helpful, because it identifies when someone reaches voting age and also enables people to be removed from the list of those who can serve on juries.
The hon. Gentleman makes a couple of valid points. One reason I am in favour of individual electoral registration in principle is that it allows us to identify which elections individuals are allowed to vote in. He is absolutely right that simply being on the electoral register does not give an individual carte blanche to vote in every election. It depends on which elections they are. However, at the risk of boring the Committee, I repeat that these matters are so central to the IER process that they should be specified in the Bill. That is why we have tabled amendment 4.
I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to my points, and whether there is any concern in Government circles about the burden on the individual becoming too onerous for us to get a reasonable level of response. Are we making a reasonable ask of potential electors?
I will not take much of the Committee’s time, because of the interventions that I have had the opportunity to make.
Clause 2 provides the Secretary of State with a wide range of powers that may lead to secondary legislation. I welcome this opportunity to oppose amendment 4, which would effectively bind the Secretary of State’s hands by being over-prescriptive. The Bill allows him to specify key information that needs to be made available to electoral registration officers. As we have found, that could include people’s nationality or immigration status, even for non-EU Commonwealth citizens. In the spirit of the debate, I ask the Minister what proposals the Government intend to bring forward in that regard. Those proposals may be in the Library without my having seen any of them, but the Committee would welcome confirmation of that.
I am wary of over-prescriptive legislation with too much set out in the Bill, simply because circumstances change. If the amendment were accepted, in three, four or five years’ time, or much longer, we could still be having to make adaptations to the Bill. My objection to the amendment is based on the need to leave flexibility when there will be no great democratic threat as a result. I hope I do not sound glib in saying that to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David).
In the context of amendment 4, may I ask the Minister what information and database access electoral registration officers will have to determine whether someone has put down their correct nationality? If someone says they are British, how will EROs be able to check whether that is correct? I am no doubt joining the Minister when I recommend opposing the amendment.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) said, amendment 1 is largely a probing amendment. It concerns an important issue, and as I said to him when we exchanged words on the subject previously, it is of course right that people who are eligible to vote in more than one location because they genuinely reside there should be able to exercise their rights. We do not have any plans to change what elections someone can vote in once they are registered to vote. If they are on the register legitimately, they will be able to vote in those elections.
In the amendment, my hon. Friend probes whether registration officers should be able to ask people whether they are registered to vote elsewhere. I can confirm that the draft secondary legislation that I have published today, which is available in the Library, contains a provision to be made under the powers in clause 2 requiring that an application form for registration must ask for other addresses at which the applicant is resident. That will mean that registration officers can then perform checks to ensure that the applicant is genuinely resident there. It is not about owning property there; it is about being resident there. If they are, they should be able to be registered to vote there in accordance with the law and not otherwise.
We will need to design the paper forms carefully so that we do not make them too complicated and user-unfriendly, and the Electoral Commission will do so. I feel sure that my hon. Friend will be reassured if he examines the draft secondary legislation in the Library. Given that he said amendment 1 was a probing amendment, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw it.
The Minister may have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), but the issue that I raised was what happens when someone votes twice. The Minister suggested that ACPO took that seriously, but why does ACPO decide how seriously electoral fraud should be taken, and what can we do to see that there is proper enforcement when illegal behaviour has clearly taken place?
I listened to my hon. Friend very carefully. I obviously do not know the circumstances of the case that he mentioned, but I can give an example of why the police may not have pursued the case beyond simply giving advice. The constituent in question may have voted more than once inadvertently, not understanding the rules. I do not know what the circumstances were, but that is entirely possible. For example, after the last election I received several letters from colleagues writing on behalf of constituents who were not British nationals or Commonwealth citizens, so were not legitimately able to participate in our general election but who had been erroneously registered as such. They had found that the electoral registration officer had been a bit more diligent and had suddenly told them that they could not vote in our general elections. They were writing because they were outraged, and one did not like to put it to them that they had actually been breaking the law for the past few years in casting a vote. If those cases were raised with the police, they might consider that the law had been broken, but they might also consider that the appropriate mechanism would be to explain matters to the person rather than pursue them.
If my hon. Friend has in mind a specific case, I suggest that he speak to the Crown Prosecution Service and ask why it did not pursue the case. There are two tests of course, one being an evidential one and the other whether a prosecution is in the public interest. I suggest that in this specific case it may be worth his doing that. If he does not get anywhere with the police or the CPS, I would be obliged if he would get back to me and I would be happy to take it up for him.
Amendment 4 would require details of the information that we would require to be put in the Bill. That would not be helpful for two reasons. First, the draft legislation that I published earlier today sets out the requirements and the information that individuals will need to provide. It is worth saying that although regulations are made by Ministers, all the regulations under this Bill are affirmative and will have to be debated and voted for by both Houses of Parliament. It is not a power only for Ministers—there is parliamentary control over it. We will ask for that information as set out in the draft legislation.
Secondly, as well as being unnecessary, the amendment would be unhelpful. Putting the details on the face of the legislation would make it difficult to change if it became preferable to use different evidence in the future. Although we expect the national insurance number and date of birth to be the standard information for the vast majority of the population, we have said that if there are people—it will be only a small number—who do not have an NI number, it should be possible for them to provide alternative evidence so that they may register to vote. Given that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) wants to be assured that no eligible elector would be disfranchised, putting the specific details in the Bill and not allowing any exceptions would be unhelpful.
An example might be if someone did not have an NI number but had other evidence of identity. A citizen from another Commonwealth country who had never worked or claimed benefits in the UK, and did not have an NI number, might be able to use their passport. It is about providing a range of evidence that fulfils the accuracy test so that we can be confident about someone’s identity in that small number of cases in which people are not able to provide NI numbers. When the hon. Gentleman looks at the draft secondary legislation, he will see that it sets out that information in detail.
The hon. Gentleman read out the information in the privacy impact assessment, and my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) also picked up that point. The first piece of information will obviously have been provided already. It is worth saying that none of the extra information requested will be published or added to the electoral register. It will be used to confirm someone’s eligibility to vote—for example, the reason for asking for immigration status if someone is not a British or EU citizen is that Commonwealth citizens are eligible to vote in our elections only if they do not need, or have, leave to remain. At the moment, it is not clear in many of the forms that people have to fill in that that information is required, which may be one reason why people vote genuinely not understanding that they are not entitled to do so.
Nor is immigration status checked on any systematic basis. It is checked in Northern Ireland, where it is one of the checks that the electoral officer does. In answer to my hon. Friend, we are working with the Border Agency to se whether—in a scalable way, given that Northern Ireland has a much smaller population—that information can be checked systematically so that only those people eligible to vote can go on the electoral register. I know that will reassure him and others.
For the sake of completeness, the reason for asking people about their previous address—some electoral registration officers already ask for this—is so that we can ensure that we clean up duplicate registrations. If someone moves, the new electoral registration officer will ask where they previously lived and can then inform the previous electoral registration officer so that the person can be deleted from the old register. That sometimes happens now, but it is not done systematically. We received feedback during pre-legislative scrutiny that it would be good to ensure that we no longer had lots of duplicate registrations. It was one of the arguments made for a national register. We did not like that idea because we did not want to create a national database, but this is a way to deal with the problem without creating such a database.
Yes. This is about people who have moved. People who legitimately reside in more than one place, which may well include students, are entitled to be registered in either or both of those places. It is up to them to choose. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, we will also ask people if there are other locations where they reside and where they are registered or intend to be registered. That will not drive anyone away, but will help electoral registration officers to make sure that the register is more accurate.
I hope that with those assurances my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I am delighted to hear what the Minister has to say and it was remiss of me not to have checked in the Library before I spoke. I am grateful to him for his remarks and for how he has listened over the past couple of years to me and my constituent Mr Angus Lamond, with whom he has corresponded on several occasions. My constituent was an independent council candidate in the elections and was incensed because he felt that second-home voters were being targeted and mobilised in some way. I am delighted that the Government are taking this issue seriously and dealing with it proportionately. I look forward to seeing the proposals that the Minister has put in the Library today come into effect, and I beg to seek leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
I just have a query on my amendment. The Minister was slightly cavalier in comparing primary legislation, and matters on the face of the Bill, with secondary legislation. Yes, both have to go through the House as part of the parliamentary process, but there is a world of difference. I would not like to think that the Minister was undervaluing primary legislation.
I do not undervalue primary legislation. Indeed, it is because I recognise that the Bill contains significant secondary legislative powers that we have published the first tranche in draft today, and I have committed to doing so while the Bill is still in this House. It is important that colleagues on both sides are able to look at what we are intending to use those powers for and what we are intending to bring forward for approval. It is not sensible, however, to put all that detail in the Bill, because it would mean that every time we wanted to change something we would have to produce a Bill and take it through all its processes. On these important issues, it is right to have affirmative legislation so that it has to be debated and voted on in both Houses of Parliament. That gets the balance right between proper parliamentary control and the flexibility to change with changing times.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Sharing and checking information etc
I beg to move amendment 5, page 18, line 27, at end insert—
‘(4A) In section 53 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (power to make regulations as to registration, etc), after subsection (1) insert—
( ) Provisions shall be made by regulations requiring local authorities to share data with a registration officer in Great Britain for the purpose of—
(a) verifying information relating to a person who is registered in a register maintained by the officer or who is named in an application for registration in, or alteration of, a register,
(b) ascertaining the names and addresses of people who are not registered but who are entitled to be registered, or
(c) identifying those people who are registered but who are not entitled to be registered.
( ) Registration officers in Great Britain are to be under an obligation to utilise such information for these purposes.”.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 9, in clause 4, page 4, line 13, at end insert—
‘(5A) All higher and further education institutions must cooperate with local officers in providing a comprehensive list of students in all forms of residential accommodation.
(5B) Such lists must be provided at the start of each academic year.
(5C) Local authority officers must write individually to all students with an electoral registration form.’.
Amendment 10, page 4, line 13, at end insert—
‘(5D) In all forms of sheltered accommodation the person with responsibility for managing an individual premises must provide a list on an annual basis of individual residents to the local authority officer.
(5E) The local authority officer must write individually to all residents whose names have been provided on such lists.’.
Amendment 11, page 4, line 13, at end insert—
‘(5F) All private landlords must provide the relevant local authority on an annual basis with a list of all individuals to whom they rent residential accommodation. The local authority officer must write individually to all residents whose names have been provided on such lists.’.
Before I move to the amendments, I want to reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), when he said that the Opposition support the principle of individual registration—it is important to keep repeating that—but that we think it can be improved. To some extent, then, our amendments seek to test the Minister’s thinking on information sharing.
Schedule 2 deals with information sharing and checking, and provides a clearing-house approach, so to speak, to verifying applications to join the register and to ascertaining the correct information for those who have not applied or those who are registered but not entitled to be so. The schedule provides for an important role, allowing the Secretary of State to establish the boundaries of the process for collecting, processing and disposing of data once used for the purposes for which it was released.
The schedule also makes it clear that criminal penalties will be levied for disclosing information in breach of regulations yet to be laid. Paragraph 93 of the explanatory notes makes it clear that the Secretary of State may require the Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner and any other person he or she thinks appropriate to play a part in establishing the provision, and
“may also require the Commission to prepare a report on how data sharing arrangements have worked by a specified date.”
Furthermore, if a report is provided, it must be published by the Secretary of State concerned.
We consider that the right arrangement. We have laws relating to data sharing, which obviously is a sensitive issue, and those laws are rightly the law of the land. Nevertheless, we have some important questions. The Minister has committed in the legislation to funding the above provision. Will he commit to funding the provision properly, so that the work can be done efficiently and promptly? Will he share his thoughts about establishing the mechanism? Who will staff the new provision? Will it be another quango? Will it be another public body? If so, to whom would it be accountable? Who will oversee its work? And, importantly, will service-level standards be laid down in regulations? The last thing we want is for the right to register to be delayed unnecessarily because of backlogs or because data provided by applicants has not been verified by this new public body—if that is what it is.
Amendment 5, on data sharing, is slightly different: it is not about data sharing between one public body and another but about data sharing within a local authority. We want the Bill to oblige electoral registration officers, within local authorities, to use the data already available to him or her to verify as many applications as possible. We mostly know what those data are. The council tax database is one of the quickest and most effective means of verifying, in particular, the addresses of applicants. We also have council tenant lists and school rolls. All these databases, owned by every local authority in the land, can be used to help identify applicants.
There is no need, then, for the clearing-house mechanism in schedule 2 in relation to the data already held by a local authority. There is a clear distinction to make. A clearing-house mechanism is required, for example, when comparing Department for Work and Pensions data with the data supplied by applicants, but that is not the case within local authorities. That is an efficient use of public money. Many good electoral registration officers already follow this practice and make use of council tax databases to identify those who fail to register, but we need to strengthen that practice by obliging them to do it as a matter of routine.
Amendments 9 to 11 relate to clause 4 but have been grouped under schedule 2. We will come to clause 4 later in proceedings, but suffice it to say that the amendments relate to data sharing. A relatively superficial level of data could be shared by organisations such as universities, sheltered housing providers and private landlords.
Not necessarily, if we believe in the principle of the annual canvass, which covers whoever is in the accommodation at a given point in time. That is the key point.
Amendments 9 to 11 would be a common-sense approach to maximising the completeness of the electoral register under individual registration. They would require institutions such as universities, sheltered housing providers and private landlords to share with the ERO information on those resident in their premises—in other words, university residential accommodation, sheltered housing and homes rented out by private landlords. In two of those cases, the data would be simple addresses. Those addresses should be available via the council tax database, but nevertheless it would be a useful addition to the many strings that EROs need to do their job properly.
Schedule 2 also deals with much more serious data-sharing issues relating to more sensitive information, such as dates of birth, national insurance numbers, possibly passport numbers and information, and so on. There is a clear distinction, then, between clause 4, to which we will come and under which amendments 9 to 11 fall, and clause 2.
As I have said, amendment 9 relates to a requirement, which we think ought to be laid on universities, to pass over information relating to the students in their residential accommodation. The key point relates to an issue that was raised on Second Reading, when some Members clearly thought it ridiculous to suggest that students are somehow incapable of getting themselves registered once they go to university. However, the key point is that many students often assume that their parents register them at their home address—in other words, where they have come from to study. As the Minister said a few moments ago, however, most students are entitled to register at both—their home address and their university address—so it is important to do what we can to enable and encourage them to make use of that entitlement, so that they can choose where they exercise their right to vote.
Indeed, the response that the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) earlier this year illustrates the point perfectly. She asked the Minister:
“what assessment he has made of the effect that the introduction of individual electoral registration will have on levels of student registration.”
His response was:
“Research is currently being undertaken into the barriers young people face in registering to vote. This research will inform the development of our proposals for individual electoral registration …and in particular our approach to making the transition for students as simple and accessible as possible. In addition, we are working with organisations which represent students to establish the most effective methods of engaging students throughout the transition to IER. The Government will also be conducting further work to explore the potential of data matching for encouraging students to register.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 530.]
I think we would all be interested to hear this evening what progress is being made on that work. It sounds to me as though the Minister is at least sympathetic to the principles behind our amendments, which would make it necessary for those involved with the enrolment of students in an institution to make it as easy as possible for them to register.
The importance of this issue cannot be overestimated. Constituencies such as Sheffield Central, which is my neighbouring constituency, have more than 30,000 students potentially eligible to register to vote. Indeed, constituencies up and down the country, in places such as Cambridge, York, Oxford and Manchester, will, I would have thought, have similar numbers of students potentially eligible to vote—they include Manchester, Withington and Leeds North West. I am absolutely convinced that the Members in most of those constituencies will be very exercised about ensuring that the maximum number of students register to vote in those areas. Indeed, I am sure that the students there will be determined to exercise their right to vote in 2015 and that the Members there will want to facilitate that.
The other key point to make before I move on is that students do not pay council tax. That means that the information about the residents of an area that is usually available to the local authority is not available for students, which perhaps makes amendment 9 more important than the other two amendments in this group, when it comes to the Government dealing with this issue and making it easier for students to register to vote.
Amendment 10 deals with sheltered housing. The point here is surely that, as things stand, the local authority will have to write to every unit—if Members will forgive my using that term—of housing within a scheme to establish who lives in those properties before issuing an invitation to apply to register. In a way, most of the residents of sheltered housing schemes will be living either on their own or, perhaps, as part of an elderly couple, so a great deal of duplication could be avoided by giving the provider of sheltered housing the responsibility for ensuring that the invitations to register are sent out accurately, by providing information on who is resident in the properties in the first place. The information is available on the council tax database, but all in all, amendment 10 would make the whole process easier to implement and should improve the accuracy of the scheme. The other point is that many elderly disabled people live in sheltered housing. For them, it is important that someone—either the warden of a scheme, where we have them nowadays, or the person in charge of it—should take responsibility for ensuring that the names of all the people in that accommodation are passed on to the ERO.
As far as private landlords are concerned, the point to make is the one that the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards)—who is no longer in his place—made earlier. There are frequent changes of accommodation in private rented housing, with a great deal of transience. Many people take on rented property in the private rented sector while waiting to buy a house. They might be temporarily resident in an area for a job, and they might be in the property for only six months to a year. It is therefore important that we use the information available to private landlords to ensure accuracy on this point as well. There is a great deal of transience in private rented accommodation, with people moving on to owner-occupier status or local authority rented housing, or to a job elsewhere in the country. It is therefore important to maximise our checks on the accuracy of who is living in those properties, by placing an obligation on private rented landlords to provide that information annually.
I will not detain the Committee any longer. There is a great deal of business to get through, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.