[Relevant documents: The Tenth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2010-12, on Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration, HC 1463, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 8245.]
[2nd Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee
[Dawn Primarolo in the Chair]
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Power to amend or abolish the annual canvass
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 24, page 5, line 27, at end insert—
‘(2A) If the Minister considers it appropriate to proceed with the making of an order under subsection (2), the Minister must lay before Parliament—
(a) a draft of the order, and
(b) an explanatory document explaining the proposals.
(2B) Sections 15 to 19 of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 (choosing between negative, affirmative and super-affirmative parliamentary procedure) are to apply in relation to an explanatory document and draft order laid under subsection (2) but as if references to section 14 of that Act were references to subsection (2).’.
Amendment 23, page 5, leave out lines 28 and 29.
Amendment 25, page 5, line 32, after ‘section’, insert
‘with the exception of an order made under subsection (2)’.
Amendment 27, in clause 7, page 6, line 7, leave out ‘give a copy of the report to the Minister’ and insert
‘lay a copy of the report before Parliament’.
Amendment 28, page 6, line 9, leave out subsection (4) and insert—
‘(4) The report must be laid before Parliament no sooner than three months beginning with the day on which the Commission is consulted, and no later than five months beginning with that same day.’.
Amendment 29, in clause 8, page 6, line 28, at end insert—
‘(3A) The Minister may only make a pilot scheme once written approval from the Electoral Commission has been received.
(3B) Any such written approval must be published by the Minister.’.
Amendment 26, in clause 10, page 7, line 34, at end insert
‘, with the exception of an order made under section 6(2)’.
Clause 6 and the amendments to it deal with the possibility of amending or abolishing the annual canvass, and with the arrangements for the accountability relating to any such decision.
It is worth going through, once again, the principles of the annual canvass, which were, to some extent, rehearsed last week in relation to clause 4 when we talked of the importance of proactive methods for encouraging registration, and of the exercise by individuals of the business of re-registering their presence on the electoral register. More often than not, the business of registering to vote is seen as an exercise in democratic participation, and as a right, enshrined in law and hard won over the centuries by many who made huge sacrifices to secure it, but the House should remember that it is also a duty and a responsibility.
We live in a society in which the relationship between the individual and the state is governed by democracy. We have, of course, government by consent, but implied in the concept of democracy and government by consent is the view that vital to the process is majority participation in the most important decision of all—who should govern our nation. That is why Labour Members were so appalled by the Government’s initial proposal that citizens should have the right to opt out of the democratic process, and it is why in turn it is right that there should be a civic penalty for refusing to acknowledge the responsibilities inherent within the concept of government by consent.
Registering to vote, therefore, is an important part of the democratic culture of our country, and I repeat what I said last week: we should always bear in mind the importance of perspective when considering the process of electoral registration. If we consider it important that citizens of this country see registration as an important right and duty, we should ensure that our approach to registration encourages the regular exercise of such a duty and the active involvement of the citizen in the process by way of the regular renewal of that right. That is why we have tabled amendment 22, which, along with amendment 23, would remove the Minister’s right to abolish the annual canvass.
At this point it is interesting to consider what the Minister said about the arrangements for 2014 before he conceded that an annual canvass was required. He said:
“Effectively, what we are going to do is a modified canvass, which focuses the resources exactly where you need to work harder. We will write to everybody individually who is on the 2013 register and ask them to register individually. Where we have any households where there is nobody on the register, they will receive the household form in the usual way. They will send it back. You will then approach each of the people on that form individually to register. Where electoral registration offices have information that people have moved, so for example from the day-to-day, already-used council tax records, housing benefit records, they will write to people directly to see who is at the household and then chase them up.”
It is clear that the Minister was planning what he refers to as a “modified canvass” in 2014 based on the 2013 register—compiled, of course, from a full annual canvass in October of the latter year.
The Minister needs to answer these key questions. Is what I have just mentioned the kind of arrangement that he envisages for the future under clause 6(1) and which he plans to introduce via the provisions in clause 6? If that is the case, the Committee would appreciate some detail about when he thinks the arrangement might be introduced. Are we talking about 2015 or 2016? Does he have plans to mix and match the approaches so that there are modified canvasses, with a full canvass perhaps every five years? The Committee would like to know before making its mind up about clause 6, given that it gives the Minister the right to make those changes.
If the Minister is considering a mixed approach, it stands to reason that he would be conceding the Opposition argument that the abolition of the annual canvass was likely to lead to a long-term drop-off in the numbers registered. Moreover, it is also likely to lead to distortions in the accuracy of the register. An annual canvass is a good way of spot-checking that the assumed stability of a given majority on any register is based on sound continuing evidence.
Finally, I draw attention to the views of the Electoral Commission. It is urging the Minister to confirm the commencement date for the new individual registration provisions, and it is recommending that the date be 1 July 2014. That begs a few questions. If we commence individual registration on 1 July 2014 with the modified canvass arrangements outlined by the Minister, which I cited earlier, when will the full canvass, which most Members have assumed will take place, commence? Are we looking at February that year? If not, when exactly are we going to move into the transition phase? What period will elapse before the Government move to the first phase of individual electoral registration in transition and the use of the carry-over provisions? All those questions are worthy of answers and underline how crucial it is for the Government to get on with the job of publishing an implementation plan.
The Opposition believe that commencement should take place only when the Electoral Commission indicates that completeness is at such a level that we can feel secure about participation at the ballot box. It is therefore doubly important that we get that information on the Floor of the House sooner rather than later. To go back to the main point of the discussion, are we going to get a full canvass, as we understand it under the old system, at all in 2014, or is the Minister intending to proceed only on the basis of a modified canvass? I look forward to his response on those points.
The annual canvass has an important role to play in our democracy, and Labour Members believe that it is crucial that registration should be brought regularly to the attention of the people. However, we are not the only ones who believe that. Take the comments made by the Deputy Prime Minister himself, alongside the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), in “Liberal Democrat Voice” in November 2010, when they said to Lib Dem members:
“In the light of today’s news that 3.5 million voters are missing from the electoral register, and in view of the forthcoming boundary changes based on the number of voters on the electoral roll as it stands next month, a timely e-mail reminder today to Liberal Democrat members from Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes:
I’m sure you will agree that we as Liberal Democrats need to play our part in helping to ensure that everybody who should have the right to vote is in a position to exercise that right come next May.”
They went on to say:
“Once you have made sure your form is safely completed please take a moment to check family and friends have filled out theirs too. Getting half a dozen of your friends signed up to vote could make the difference in a tight election next May.
Making democracy work is something all politicians should be committed to, and we are proud to encourage Liberal Democrats to play our part.”
It is therefore absolutely apparent that Liberal Democrat Members do place faith in the annual canvass and see that it has an important role to play in maximising completeness of the register.
Amendments 22 and 23 lie at the heart of Labour’s belief that we need a proactive approach to citizenship and a belt-and-braces approach to electoral registration. We believe, too, that there is no need for major concern over the potential cost and efficiency of the annual canvass. It has been mooted by the Minister that the cost of an annual canvass, if it is based on a form being filled in by the head of the household followed by invitations to register being sent to every household member listed on every form, would be in the region of £50 million. However, as we move away from paper-based approaches to this activity, it is entirely feasible for the annual check on registration to take place online. I am confident that Members believe that, in the long term, electoral registration processes should be moved online once it is secure and safe to do so. In those circumstances, a full annual canvass of the electoral register would not be an expensive or inefficient process to undertake. Just as at the moment individuals get regular reminders online about various important matters such as the need to renew insurance or TV licences, then equally it should be possible to make provision for annual online reminders to renew registration of the right to vote. That, surely, is where we all want to get to in order to ensure that the resources provided for registration can be concentrated on the hard to reach. The key point is that the possibility of cheap and efficient online processes would make the annual canvass easier to maintain in terms of cost and administration.
The amendments relate to clauses 7, 8 and 10, as well as clause 6, and are all designed to strengthen the role of Parliament in scrutinising any proposal by the Minister to amend the annual canvass. For the reasons I have outlined, we believe that it is important that any decisions taken are exposed to the strongest possible scrutiny by Parliament. Moreover, we believe that the Minister should be able to proceed with pilot schemes related to changes in canvassing arrangements only with the written approval of the Electoral Commission, hence amendment 29 to clause 8. This is a matter of major concern to the Committee. Labour Members expect the Minister to make a full and considered response to the points made in the debate.
I concur with many of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), but as regards her quoting of the Deputy Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), I think that the aspirations they alluded to are shared by everybody in the Committee.
As the Minister and others will be aware from the Liberal Democrat submission to the consultation on this issue, we believe that the annual canvass is important and that it should continue. I want to ask the Minister about his reasoning for the discussions that have taken place so far and what tests or standards will have to be passed before the annual canvass is abolished. I understand the point in the explanatory notes that in years to come the annual canvass may no longer be needed because of the online opportunities for registration, to which the hon. Lady alluded. I am a bit more of a sceptic about that because I represent a rural area where the internet is not universally available. It will also be difficult to deem the register perfect at any point as it is constantly changing. What test would have to be passed to deem the annual canvass no longer useful?
The Bill gives electoral registration officers a new duty to maintain the all-important accuracy and completeness, which I welcome. How will they fulfil that duty without a canvass? In other words, how will the Minister ensure that that duty on electoral registration officers is tested?
The Bill provides for the Electoral Commission to be consulted if the annual canvass is to be abolished. That is clear. However, I understand that the Electoral Commission has concerns about why it would not be consulted if the annual canvass were to be reinstated. The Government have said that it is conceivable that that might have to be undertaken in a short time frame. However, the Electoral Commission has said that it has often been required to respond to Cabinet Office consultations in a limited time frame and that it does not believe that the requirement to consult would delay the process unduly. More importantly, it is essential that there is a mechanism for external scrutiny of any step that is taken in a short time frame.
On Second Reading, I expressed concerns about the abolition of the canvass. I noticed my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House wincing slightly when I made that point. He said that there is an obligation, if it is necessary, to reinstate the canvass. That reassured me, but I am concerned about the mechanisms by which such a reinstatement would have the consent of the Electoral Commission. I also have questions about why the annual canvass may need to be abolished.
I am heartened by what Ministers have said about the data-matching pilots and by the aspiration for online voting. However, we have a long way to go and, in the interim, I believe that we still need the annual canvass.
The annual canvass has been, and for the moment still is, the principal method by which we keep the electoral register up to date and accurate, in so far as it is up to date and accurate. I do not think that anyone believes that the current situation is satisfactory, but what we want is improvement, not reduction.
My constituency is rather strange in nature, not simply because it has elected me in eight successive elections, but because it has a huge electorate. It numbered some 87,000 people at the last general election and I understand from the registration officer that the total is now 94,000 electors. That gives me 26,000 more electors than the Deputy Prime Minister and, remarkably, 26,000 more than the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper).
Equally different is the turnover of electors, which in my constituency is phenomenal. It has always been high, partly because of the large number of students and young people in the area. People arrive and get a job, and then they decide that they would be better off doing the same job in Lincoln, Scunthorpe or Bolton, usually because the cost of renting or buying a house would be much lower.
We have a massive turnover all the time, and the Government’s proposed housing benefit changes, which will be introduced at the same time as proposals in the Bill, will also lead to an increased movement of people—they will certainly move out of the area, but I am not sure whether they will come in—so the coalition’s social cleansing policies will have an effect on the need for the canvass. The Prime Minister’s latest essay—he wants to knock off housing benefit given to anyone under 25—is also likely to increase turnover in my area.
It is worth reporting that, last year, for the whole of Camden, the annual canvass added 27,000 electors, but also deducted 27,000 electors, which reflects the massive turnover in both my constituency and the Hampstead and Kilburn constituency. It also indicates that the annual canvass is important from the point of view not just of numbers, but of accuracy—it is the principal means by which people who are no longer entitled to vote disappear off the register. The Government and some outside the House who are fanatical about their proposals seem to ignore that.
The annual canvass is the bedrock of the current system—it is not peripheral; it is at the heart of it. Any other means that the Government propose to improve electoral registration, both so that the 6 million people who are entitled to be on the register get on it, and so that the register is accurate, must be introduced only to augment the annual canvass. The canvass still does an important task, and is likely—this is my opinion, and no more—to carry it out more effectively than the proposals.
It seems totally improper to suggest that the annual canvass could disappear before we know the overall effects of all the new changes. Even if the Opposition have tabled no amendment to that effect in Committee, we should perhaps table one on Report. I would hope all hon. Members agree that an annual canvass must be carried out if the numbers come down as a result of the changes, and that we cannot accept a reduction in the number of people on the registers.
Government Members have once or twice quoted judges who have said that registration is currently like something we might find in a banana republic. I suspect that most banana republics would like to give a Minister, without parliamentary approval, the right to end an annual canvass. Nothing should be left to the Minister’s discretion. If anything, the decision should come straight to the House from the Electoral Commission.
Any hon. Member who has played the role of election observer in different parts of the world will know that electoral observation organisations apply themselves to one key thing: ensuring the accuracy of the electoral register. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) said, the canvass is an integral part of the electoral system, not only to ensure that there is no fraud—cases in certain communities have been highlighted—but to ensure that the register is as accurate and up to date as possible. As an ex-local councillor and an MP, I think it would give the person elected at a local council or other election confidence if they knew that the majority of electors were registered to vote. I accept that the annual canvass is more difficult to undertake in certain parts of the country than in others, but it will concentrate people’s minds on ensuring that they are on the electoral register.
On leaving it to the individual, having had many years’ experience as a local councillor, a Member of Parliament and an election agent, I know that modern life is busy and that people ignore forms when they arrive. It might come as a big surprise to many hon. Members to learn that most of our electors do not sit around waiting for their electoral registration form; they do not see it as important. Likewise, it is not top of people’s list of things to do when they move house, along with the electricity and everything else.
In the communities described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras, there is a massive turnover in the electorate, but even in rural constituencies such as mine there are areas of huge turnover, owing to demographics and the type of housing. In parts of Stanley, in my constituency, which has many private sector landlords, the housing turnover is remarkable—it can change two or three times a year. I do not have his general problem with massive turnovers, but we have pockets of high turnover, and ensuring that they are on the electoral register is not the first thing people do when they move from one social landlord to another.
That leads to another issue. Unfortunately, some of those private sector tenants are in the poorest parts of my constituency, and are the people who need representation the most. They need to ensure that they cast their democratic vote at the parish, town or, in the case of Durham, county council election, and for their MP at a general election. It is important that we hear their voices. I am not sure whether this is the Conservative party’s thinking, but I fear that the areas most disadvantaged by there not being an annual canvass will be among the poorest in the country. That will have a knock-on effect on the redrawing of constituency boundaries and the nonsense we will have to go through every five years because of this coalition Government’s proposals. It is just as important, however, that the redrawing of local county, district and town council boundaries provides an adequate indication of the local electorate.
I support my hon. Friend’s emphasis on the annual canvass. I used to work as agent for my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), and I well remember the fluid population and our efforts to support voting, electoral registration and the annual canvass—efficient though the canvass, organised by Camden council, was. Does he agree that it is important to work with the private sector, particularly in these fast-changing times, to support data matching, particularly in respect of records that could support electoral registration? Such data matching could only boost electoral registration and get more people involved in the democratic process.
I agree with my hon. Friend, although data matching has its limitations, given the turnover in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras and in pockets of my constituency. We cannot leave it entirely to data matching, which is a useful tool but it will not get over the key problem of ensuring that the local register is as accurate as possible.
On the use of the private sector, let me provide the example of the new Durham county council. Before the formation of the unitary county council three years ago, seven district councils were responsible for electoral registration in County Durham. I have to say that their performance was patchy—some were good and some were bad. One benefit of the new county council taking responsibility for the register is a uniformity of approach. The county council put in extra effort when it was formed and contracted a company to do a full canvass to ensure that the register was as accurate as possible. That process—credit to the county council for doing it—put an extra 12,000 people on to the electoral register. I must thank the council, as that affected the size and the distributions when the parliamentary constituency boundaries and the new county council wards were redrawn. With 12,000 added through an intensive canvass, it shows what can be done in a rural county such as County Durham. I am not sure what would happen if that were not done in a constituency such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras, for example. As I say, this has proved to be useful for the process.
The county council went down the road of ensuring as full a canvass as possible for another reason. I and others had noticed that entire streets or parts of them were missing altogether from the register. Was it that people living there suddenly decided in sequential order that they were not going to register? I do not think so. It was the consequence of errors made in the data inputting, so the canvass helped to identify the streets affected. I was aware of the problem and so were councils, and I believe that the gaps were raised by all political parties. The annual canvass is important for areas such as mine that have elections only every four years. Political parties out canvassing can sometimes spot mistakes and draw them to the attention of the electoral returning officer. Having an annual canvass becomes more important where elections are not annual, when these problems are likely to be less visible to the various political parties that are standing.
An annual canvass is important, too, for care homes and residential homes, some of which, alas, have quite a large turnover, with residents coming in and out of respite care and, unfortunately, with people dying during the year. If we are not careful, the register will get badly out of shape in respect of people living in residential and sheltered accommodation and in care homes. It might be said that it affects only 30 or 40 people at a time in each care home, but if we add that up across County Durham, it means a lot of individuals. I am not criticising any individuals running care homes and similar organisations, but when a resident unfortunately dies it is not the top priority to write to the electoral registration officer to say that someone has passed on and that they are going to re-register the new individual living there. This is another example, therefore, of where an annual canvass helps. In my experience, the residential care manager or owner can be quite helpful in ensuring that the information provided is as accurate as possible. It is obviously not nice for any political party to send direct mail, as we all do, to homes where people are deceased, so an annual canvass could be an effective way of helping to ensure that that is prevented.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras Friend touched on the issue of students. My constituency does not contain a large student population, but the city of Durham certainly does, and any Member whose constituency contains a large number of students will know that there is quite a high turnover. I am thinking not just of the halls of residence that exist in parts of Newcastle that I know very well, and in parts of Durham, but of the fact that students move around and may not stay in the same house for two or three years. Members of that large population—who, I hasten to add, are using local services—are not reflected in any of the data, not only in terms of voting but in terms of electoral boundaries. They are nowhere to be seen. I think that the annual canvass has helped in that regard. Durham county council undertook an exercise to ensure that its register was as up to date as possible, and found that the number of voters in the city of Durham had increased by nearly 4,500. I suspect that most of them were students.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned welfare benefit changes. People with an extra bedroom are to lose their right to a proportion of their housing benefit, which I expect to increase the amount of movement, certainly in my constituency. I do not know what will happen in parts of London, where people are on a kind of merry-go-round, moving constantly from one type of social housing to another. That increase in movement will make the annual canvass more important. In parts of my constituency, such as Stanley and Chester-le-Street, there is a large concentration of private sector landlords. Once the benefit changes come into effect, people will move, because they will no longer be able to afford to live in their homes. How can we reflect that in the register?
What I am going to say now may sound strange, but it is a fact. In the north-east of England, the legacy of those infamous old days of the poll tax remains. People used not to register because they thought that that would be a way of getting out of paying the tax. In parts of my constituency that thinking remains, and people still refer to council tax as “the poll tax” . That did a lot of damage to people’s awareness of the civic duty to register, which I have always found to be very strong among older members of the population. They tend always to send in the forms and to vote, but that poll tax legacy is still there. I suspect that the only way of tackling it is to knock on people’s doors and ask them who lives in their houses.
There is another issue, which does not affect my constituency. I was very saddened by the way in which the last Government reacted to the Daily Mail agenda. Mine was one of the few constituencies that experimented with all-postal ballots, which were very successful. According to the Electoral Commission’s report, there was, overall, a very small amount of fraud, and the fraud that did occur was concentrated mainly in certain types of community in such places as Birmingham and Bradford. In one county council by-election in my constituency there was a 67% turnout under the postal ballot system. Sadly, however, the last Government and the Electoral Commission took fright following headlines that focused—rightly—on fraud that had taken place in some inner-city, mainly Asian, communities.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. The key is finding a way of increasing turnout. If turnout increases, fraud becomes far more difficult, because it is not so easy to influence the result. Low turnouts, and low registration, make fraud easier.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I was about to make the following observation: if we want to clamp down on fraud, we must ensure that the register is as accurate as possible. The only way of doing that is by knocking on doors and actually talking to people in the communities concerned. If we have a more accurate register, that will lead to less electoral fraud.
I do not understand why this measure has been proposed. I will support any step that helps to ensure the register is up to date, such as data matching, but the annual canvass should be our fall-back position. Whatever system we use—telephone calls, data matching or even door knocking —will we never achieve 100% elector registration, but the canvass will help us spot homes that are being used for electoral fraud.
We sometimes find that there are children as young as five or six on the electoral register, because parents have misunderstood the form and entered their names on it. [Interruption.] Well, I am sure they do vote in some places, but knocking on doors and conducting the annual canvass is a way of preventing that. I therefore do not understand why the annual canvass is not seen as an exercise that should be welcomed. From speaking to the individuals who carry it out, it appears to be difficult to do, however. Indeed, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras it must at times be near-impossible to keep track, and to gain access to some of the properties.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to maintain the annual canvass because although a local authority might know who the council tax payers are within a household, there might also be lodgers living there? If the annual canvass is abolished, such people may well not get on to the electoral register.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point.
I do not think I have a single high-rise block in my constituency—the highest buildings are about four storeys—but there are such blocks in the part of Newcastle I used to represent, and the turnover of residents was often very high. Finding out who pays the council tax gives an idea of who is living in any given household, however. We must also recognise that modern-day families and lives can be very complicated.
We all know from our experiences of canvassing for our political parties that even getting into some tower blocks can be difficult. One advantage councils have is that they can gain access, so they can get inside and talk to people, but that can be done only if we have an annual canvass.
Some people say we should use the telephone for canvassing, but in certain parts of my constituency telephone ownership is still quite low. Ownership of mobile phones is sometimes higher than use of static lines with numbers that people can declare in their local telephone directory. That presents a problem, too.
I want to end where I began. We in this country pride ourselves on having the mother of Parliaments and a long democratic tradition, and any Member who has performed election monitoring duties around the world will know that one of the key points we always emphasise is the importance of the accuracy of the register. Any step that leads to our register not being as accurate as possible will damage both our electoral processes locally and the international reputation of our country as being somewhere where we ensure elections are free and fair and everyone has their democratic right to vote.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Primarolo, and to return to what is a very important Bill. We have reached clause 6, and it is important for Members who have not had the opportunity to study the Bill in as much detail as they might like to realise that the clause is qualified by those that follow, so they need to be read together.
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) has tabled a series of amendments this afternoon, none of which has an explanatory memorandum. Back-Bench Members—for example, the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord)—could manage an explanatory memorandum but apparently the official Opposition could not. That is a great shame, given what the Procedure Committee has asked us to do, but never mind—let us address the issues.
A casual observer of this debate would believe that the Government are proceeding willy-nilly with the abolition of the annual canvass and that the Labour party has a principled opposition to abolition, whereas in fact, neither of those propositions is correct. First, we have made it abundantly clear that we do not intend to get rid of the annual canvass, certainly in the immediate future. In fact, only one Government have abolished the annual canvass: the last Labour Government, who abolished it in 2006 for Northern Ireland. So, we are talking about the canvass for Great Britain only, not for the whole of the United Kingdom, because Labour did not feel that all these pressing arguments in favour of the annual canvass applied when they peremptorily removed it in Northern Ireland’s case. We must therefore listen to their arguments in that context.
I am not taking any lessons from the Liberal Democrats, who, frankly, promised a lot of things and then voted against them in this place. Come on—the Minister knows why that was done in Northern Ireland: it was a question of the practicalities of doing the canvass. To draw an analogy between that and today’s proposal is absolute nonsense.
I am afraid that it is simply incorrect to say that the argument was about anything other than the introduction of individual electoral registration. That was the argument and the reason why the previous Government acted as they did, and they made no attempt to bring the provision back.
Setting aside that argument, we have also had assertions that Ministers intend to remove, by decree, the annual canvass. However, anyone who actually reads the legislation can see clearly that the procedure as set out first requires a report of the Electoral Commission—uniquely—and affirmative resolution. Therefore, it is Parliament, not Ministers, who would decide whether it was appropriate to take such action, an important safeguard that the House really should not ignore.
There is no need for us to justify anything in this regard. Through our amendment, we are saying that we believe that the super-affirmative and regulatory reform procedures should be deployed if there is any plan to abolish the annual canvass. In the end, there is a provision in clause 6 to abolish the annual canvass. All we are asking for is the strongest possible scrutiny of any such decision—a reasonable thing for any Opposition to ask for—and that any report made by the Electoral Commission be laid before Parliament and not just sent to the Minister.
I wish that that was what the hon. Lady had put forward in her amendments, but she goes rather further than that. On that specific issue, a super-affirmative procedure is set out in the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006—it is rarely used in this jurisdiction—and the reason for it is to make sure that proper consultation takes place on a proposal, so that Parliament is in the best possible position to make up its mind on an issue. That is set out clearly in the Bill, because before any order can be brought forward there has to be a report from the Electoral Commission. So a form of super-affirmative procedure is set out in this proposal. It allows Parliament—both Houses of Parliament—to take a decision, having had the evidence placed before it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) made an important point in supporting what we are proposing when he said that the annual canvass serves a valuable purpose. I believe that too, as do the Government. He accepts that there may be circumstances in which we would want to change, but he wants to know what hurdle the House and the Government would wish there to be. I have to say to him clearly that the only argument for abolishing the annual canvass—this is unlike what happened in Northern Ireland under the previous Government, where it was peremptorily done—is because we believe, with evidence to back this up from the Electoral Commission and from others, that other arrangements, which have been trialled through pilot schemes, are more effective, or certainly no less effective, than the annual canvass in ensuring both the accuracy and the completeness of the register. That is the Government’s intention, as it has been throughout this legislation. We are aiming to ensure both completeness and accuracy. We often do not hear about the second point from the Opposition, although I accept that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who has a lot of experience in this field, rightly mentioned it. So often we hear a lot about completeness from the Labour Front Benchers, but little about accuracy.
The Minister is yet to answer the key points we raised in tabling these amendments and speaking to them. First, if the Government are so confident of their arrangements for making a change to individual registration, why do they not publish the implementation plan and put it in the Bill? Secondly, given previous comments made by the Deputy Leader of the House and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), it would be good to hear exactly what the Government mean by “annual canvass”. Labour Members take that to mean the usual, traditional approach, which involves writing to every household and then, under individual registration, invitations to register on the basis of the members of any household whose details are returned to the electoral registration officer. What exactly will the annual canvass in 2014 consist of?
I am not exactly clear what the hon. Lady even means by her first question. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I do not know what an “implementation plan” is in the context of primary legislation. The Bill is clear about what we are proposing. The implementation of that is not a matter that is normally set out in primary legislation—the intent and the outcome is what is there. She mentions the canvass, and I would have thought that it was abundantly clear what we mean: there is the basis of the canvass, with which we are all familiar, but it will have additional purposes and additional mechanisms under what we are proposing—in order to improve its accuracy and its completeness—which we have already set out. So additional data matching will take place—the sort of thing that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) was talking about. It will inform the canvass and ensure that the right questions are asked to the right people in the right places, to make sure that as many people as possible who are entitled to vote are put on the register.
The Minister is being generous with his time. May I therefore press the point? Will the annual canvass promised in 2014, on which the general election in 2015 will be based with the carry-over provisions that have been made available, be carried out in the traditional way understood by every Member of this House?
Yes. The canvass that would have been carried out in 2013, which we have moved to early 2014, will be done in the traditional way. The hon. Lady knows that we are taking advice from the various political parties and others about the exact date that will be most effective. That will be a full household canvass and during 2014, after the European elections, we will move on to the other components of the proposals so that we have the use of all available material and can, as I have repeatedly said, make the register as complete and accurate as possible.
I seem to attract snotty remarks from those on the Government Front Bench. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I have been snotted at by better men than him.
If the Government are so confident that the new methods of putting all this together, which they described in their evidence to the House of Lords as providing a more efficient means of obtaining information rather than a more effective one, and believe that the system will result in registers exceeding the numbers presently arrived at by the household canvass, will they guarantee not to proceed until they have the registers up to the level that the previous household canvass produced?
I repeat again to the right hon. Gentleman that we are not getting rid of the household canvass and it is very difficult to answer his question, which is based on the premise that we are removing it, when we are not doing so. Incidentally, were the circumstances to occur in which this part of the Bill was used to remove the duty for an annual canvass—as I have said, that would happen only if we, the Electoral Commission and both Houses of Parliament were satisfied that other mechanisms were in place that would be as effective or more effective than the annual canvass—the situation would continue to be monitored. If, despite the advice of the Electoral Commission and the best intentions of Ministers and this House, it unexpectedly proved that the proportion of the population that registered was substantially reduced, there is provision within the Bill to reinstate the canvass. Unfortunately, amendment 23, tabled by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, would remove that power. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) asked a specific question and I can give him an absolute assurance that the power to reinstate the canvass is in the Bill, should it be needed.
I do not think that Parliament is normally required to do anything, and this will be a power for Parliament, not for Ministers. We would be treading a strange constitutional path if this Parliament were to require any future Parliament to make any enactment. The power is there to reinstate the canvass without the need for further primary legislation in order to enable the then Government, whoever they are, to react promptly and effectively if necessary. I honestly do not believe that will apply because there are no circumstances in which the annual canvass would be removed without its being absolutely clear, from all the information to hand, that it would not have a detrimental effect on the completeness and the effectiveness of the register.
The effect of a more efficient method may be different in different areas. In my more rural static communities, the result of removing the annual canvass might not be a greater drop in accuracy than in my right hon. Friend’s Holborn and St Pancras constituency. The Liberal Democrats seem to vote through whatever this coalition Government want, but what would the Minister say if a future Government received an indication that registration dropped in constituencies held by their opponents? There would be no onus on the Government of the day or on Parliament to insist on the annual canvass being reinstated in a certain constituency.
I repeat: this is a power for Parliament and I expect Parliament to use it sensibly because I believe—contrary to all the evidence—that most Members of Parliament want our democratic system to work as effectively as possible. Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right that there are differences between constituencies. The electorate in my constituency is almost the same as the electorate in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras, but demographically the two are very different and a comparison between them would be almost meaningless in those terms. The right mechanism in his constituency might be completely wrong for mine and there may be better and more effective measures we can deploy—as long as we are clear that our intention is to have in every constituency a register that is as complete and as accurate as we can manage.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so graciously. Earlier, he said, “We would not move forward unless we—no, not just we: the Electoral Commission and both Houses—were satisfied.” Let us imagine that on one side there was the Government and both Houses—one of them, this place, in an unholy alliance and the other stuffed with Liberal and Conservative peers—and on the other side the Electoral Commission saying, “No, things are not right.” Who would win?
I do not remember any Government of any complexion introducing proposals on electoral law on which there was not a measure of agreement with the Electoral Commission, but the whole purpose of the Bill is to ensure that the first word—not the last word—lies with the Electoral Commission. The commission has the duty in the first instance to assess any proposal and to do so in the light of the evidence from pilot schemes run in the interim. It is inconceivable to me that a Minister would put forward a proposal using the mechanism in the Bill that did not have the full approval of the Electoral Commission. A future Government could decide to write their own primary legislation and abolish the canvass overnight—that is exactly what the Labour Government the hon. Gentleman supported did—but we do not intend to do that, because we think there is a better mechanism, based on evidence and on the views of the Electoral Commission, and that is what we have proposed.
Let me go though the amendments in the group. Amendment 22 would remove the possibility of the Government proceeding with the abolition or the amendment of the annual canvass. We have no immediate intention of doing either, but I believe that that is a valuable power to be available to both Houses, provided there are safeguards and it is used on the advice of the Electoral Commission. It would be a great shame to be unable even to consider following the example set in Northern Ireland if that is the best way to achieve completeness and accuracy of the register.
Amendment 24 deals with the mechanism within Parliament. As I said, the mechanism proposed is unique because of the requirement to have the advice of the Electoral Commission before starting. I hope that the House is satisfied that the two-stage process—a report by the Electoral Commission followed by the normal affirmative procedure in both Houses—provides sufficient scrutiny and safeguards.
Amendment 23 would remove the ability to reinstate the canvass, which seems a little perverse, given the comments made by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras. I hope that the House will reject it.
Under clause 6(5), an order to amend or abolish the annual canvass would include provision to create further secondary legislation. I think that makes sense. If amendment 25 were made, it would prevent subsequent orders, so everything would have to be in primary legislation. I do not believe we need to use such an unwieldy method and that regulation and subordinate legislation are better. On reflection, I suspect the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge will agree with me that that is not the most sensible way of setting about our business.
Clause 7 sets out the requirement, when a proposal is made, for a report by the Electoral Commission containing an assessment of the extent to which registration officers are currently able to ascertain those unregistered people who are entitled to be registered and those who are registered but are not entitled to be so; the extent to which proposals in the order meet that objective; and the merits of alternative methods of meeting it. If amendment 27 were made, that report, instead of going to the relevant Minister, would go direct to Parliament. That does not necessarily make sense, because if such a proposal were to meet with a negative response from the Electoral Commission, it would not proceed to Parliament—Ministers would not entertain the suggestion. If the report were positive, however, it would be presented to Parliament and would necessarily form part of the process. In any case, I would expect the Electoral Commission to publish such a report, irrespective of whether it was to be presented to Ministers or to Parliament; the report would appear on the website and be available for general view and consideration. The amendment is therefore unnecessary.
Amendment 28 would set arbitrary limits on the time the Electoral Commission had to produce a report. It is unnecessary to place such a restraint on the commission.
Amendment 29 relates to the important matter of the commission’s role in relation to schemes to pilot proposed changes to the annual canvass. If we are to have a successful system, the pilots are extremely important. Without them, proper evaluation of schemes proposed by registration officers for their areas will be impossible. This covers the point raised by the hon. Member for North Durham about, in effect, horses for courses. The instigation comes from the registration officer for the area, it is agreed by the Minister, and Parliament must agree it by the affirmative resolution procedure. To insert yet another hurdle into the process is unnecessary because, in practice, the Electoral Commission would play a part in the design of any pilot scheme and would be responsible for evaluating it in due course. At the end of the day it is Ministers who are responsible to the House for schemes that are introduced.
Lastly, on amendment 26, removing the requirement for such an order to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure or, indeed, any parliamentary procedure is a mistake, and I urge Members not to proceed with it.
The amendments do not add to what is a very thorough evaluation process. I repeat that our sole intent is to have a complete and accurate register so far as that can be achieved. We should use every possible means to do that. It would be quite wrong to lose arbitrarily the usefulness of the annual canvass, but we should not seek to preserve that in perpetuity if there are better ways of doing the same thing more efficiently and more effectively. That is why the procedure with all its safeguards is in the Bill. I urge the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge to withdraw the amendments.
In drawing the debate to a close, I begin by pointing out that amendment 22 deletes the proposal to give the Minister the power to abolish the annual canvass. Amendment 23 is consequential on amendment 22. That should be clear to everybody. It is therefore duplicitous of the Minister to suggest—
I withdraw the comment. It is unfair of the Minister to suggest that the Opposition are in any way trying to deny Parliament the power to reinstate an annual canvass, when in fact we are trying, through amendment 22, to ensure that the Minister is not given the power to abolish the annual canvass in the first place.
Mr Scott, I should have welcomed you to the Chair. I apologise for not having done so.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. We would have understood her amendments more clearly had she produced an explanatory memorandum. Amendment 23 does abolish the power to reinstate. I accept entirely her intention that it should be read along with amendment 22.
There has been very little by way of explanation from the Minister in his response to the amendments that would give us any confidence in the potential alternatives to the annual canvass that have been repeatedly mentioned from the Government Benches. We have had references to alternatives that may be developed in the future, which may at some point in the future give the House the confidence to agree to a ministerial proposal to abolish the annual canvass. It would have helped the Committee in its deliberations if the Minister had outlined clearly what some of those alternatives might be.
As I indicated in my initial comments on the amendments, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), suggested previously in oral evidence that modified versions of the annual canvass could be available in the future. It would have helped the Committee if we had had more detail from the Minister about what some of those alternatives might be. It is clear that Ministers are thinking through some of these proposals. Nothing in what we have heard today gives us the confidence to believe that the part of clause 6 that gives the Minister the right to abolish the annual canvass is anything other than a threat to the democratic process in this country.
The Committee is being asked to agree something completely in the dark. In his response, the Minister indicated that in early 2014 there would be a full annual canvass, and I thank him for that. He also made it clear that it would be carried out in time for the European elections, which take place in June that year, as we understand it. The local elections in 2014 are likely to take place at the same time. He then indicated that the new individual registration process would commence shortly afterwards.
May I take it that the Electoral Commission’s recommendation is that the commencement date for the new IR process should be 1 July 2014? We have had no response to that, but from what the Minister said, there is clearly a plan to go ahead with implementation of IR in the late summer of 2014. However, no information has been laid before the Committee today and no commitment has been given that the data-matching pilots which are part of the legislation will be completed and evaluated by the Electoral Commission before commencement of the new provisions.
It is reckless to commit to a new system of electoral registration and to commit to commencement in 2014 when we have no certainty that the pilot schemes designed to test whether the new processes work will have been completed. It is the Opposition’s view that the new scheme for individual registration should be introduced only when the Electoral Commission is satisfied that it will guarantee a high level of completeness and accuracy. Nothing that we heard today gives us confidence that that will be the case.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) made good contributions in which they described in detail the complexity of people’s lives and the impact that an annual canvass may have in reducing levels of completeness precisely because of those complexities. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham referred in particular to the problem of registering students.
Last week we had a debate about student registration. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) pointed out that there are 31,800 students living in his constituency alone. Without the annual canvass it is entirely possible, for all the reasons outlined in the debate, that registration in a constituency such as Sheffield Central could be substantially reduced. Given that the majority in Sheffield Central stands at only 165, it is obvious that before we make any radical changes to our electoral registration processes we should ensure that we have guarantees that any new system works properly, is based on sound evidence and is guaranteed and given the stamp of approval by the Electoral Commission.
We have heard a lot today about how the new system will work, but we have not heard the detail. We have had superficial reassurances that it will work, but we have heard nothing of the detail. We have had no significant reassurance on whether new systems will eventually be so robust that we will be able to abolish an annual canvass.
I wanted to check this information before I responded to the hon. Lady, but the assessment of the data-matching pilots to test the confirmation process by the Government and the Electoral Commission will be done by June 2013, well in time for us to have a clear picture before we commence the IER process.
The only one that we have to have tested before we move ahead is that to do with confirmation. The pilots that we will be doing, subject to the approval of Parliament, to see whether some of the data matching can help us to identify people not on the register concern things that we would want to know if we proposed to get rid of the canvass. As we do not propose to do that, we do not need to have that information before we move ahead with IER. We will know the results of the confirmation testing pilots by June 2013.
The key point is that the new register, and the one used for the boundary review in 2015, will not be as complete as it should be, because those people carried over for the general election will not be carried over for December 2015. I therefore do not take a great deal of reassurance from that.
We have had a lengthy debate. The Opposition will not seek to press the amendment to a vote. We believe that the House of Lords will engage in a lengthy and detailed debate on the issues that we have raised today, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 7 and 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Piloting registration provision
I beg to move amendment 32, page 7, line 29, at end add—
‘(7) An order under this section may require registration officers to record at the point of registration—
(a) a voter’s access needs in relation to any document which is required or authorised to be given to voters or displayed in any place for either registration or election, and
(b) a voter’s access requirements to the polling station.’.
This amendment would allow for pilots which could assist disabled people both to register to vote and to cast their vote. It would achieve this by allowing electoral registration officers to establish the level of demand for (a) documents in alternative formats and (b) additional accessibility measures at polling stations. It is estimated that there are approximately 15,000 disabled potential voters per Parliamentary constituency.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott.
The issue of disability concerns many hon. Members and, as demonstrated by the Government in bringing forward the legislation, the issue of effectual electoral registration also concerns the majority of hon. Members. Therefore, the amendment seeks to address two concerns for Members. First, it seeks to introduce a better system of individual electoral registration, which identifies every person eligible to vote, and it seeks to identify the needs of disabled voters participating in the electoral process. The Bill introduces an opportunity to achieve that by seeking information at the time of registration.
Recording disabled voters’ access needs at the point of registration can be used to improve the accessibility under the current system during the transition to IER and over the longer term. To put the issue in some context, it is worth establishing how many people it could affect. There are more than 10 million disabled people in the UK, with each parliamentary constituency containing approximately 15,000 disabled voters. That is almost a fifth of the total electoral roll. Polls Apart research has found that despite existing legislation aimed at improving the accessibility of election material, the experience of many disabled people has been that insufficient provision is made to provide information, forms and notices relating to the electoral process in alternative formats. Where this information is not available or is not sufficiently signposted, the election process can be considerably more difficult for these people to access.
The Electoral Commission has responsibility for monitoring the extent to which the electoral registration officers comply with a series of performance standards. One such standard is focused on accessibility, more specifically on the extent to which EROs have taken into account the different needs of voters in their local community. The commission’s first analysis of EROs’ performance against the standards in 2009 highlighted a lack of consideration of the need to provide documents in alternative formats and raised concerns that attention by EROs had been focused primarily on the provision of documents in various languages. I am concerned at the evidence that the provision of accessible formats to voters has not had the same focus, as the lack of it excludes disabled people who require information in a format other than the standard print from the electoral process. The Electoral Commission’s subsequent assessment against the standard has revealed a worrying trend that EROs’ performance on accessibility has remained poorer than for any other standard.
It can be said that we are currently placing the linguistic needs of people whose first language is not English above those for whom English is their first language but who, as a result of an accident or complication at birth, are being disfranchised from the electoral process. Consequently, individual registration has a potential to transform disabled people’s experiences of the electoral process if their access needs are recorded at the point of registration. The amendment seeks to achieve that by introducing a pilot project that can be rolled out on a national basis. The Government would need to ensure that such a pilot would be properly evaluated before any roll-out of the proposal goes nationwide. I am pleased to be able to inform the Minister that the Electoral Commission is prepared to carry out such an evaluation if the amendment is agreed.
It will be through the canvass. I hope, as I continue with my speech, that it will become clearer to the hon. Gentleman and the Minister what I seek to achieve by tabling the amendment.
The introduction of individual registration allows blind and disabled electors to specify at registration the format in which they wish to receive the information, including Braille, tape, large print, easy read, and so on. That would mean that a blind elector could specify when registering to vote that they would need to receive a polling card in a Braille or other format, or that they would require an audio postal vote application form. Allowing individuals to specify what format they need enables EROs to plan more effectively and meet the needs of a variety of disabled people who all encounter different barriers. Gathering data on voters’ preferred formats would enable EROs to send forms and information in that appropriate format and avoid having to make assumptions about voters’ needs. For instance, while Braille is used by some blind people, other formats may be just as important for blind and partially sighted people, including large print.
The registration form could also capture requirements to enable physical access to the polling station or for the support that voters may need in casting a vote. Provided that such information is shared with a returning officer, it could be used to ensure that those needs are met in the run-up to polling day and on polling day itself. It should be obvious, for instance, which voters may need a large print ballot paper and how many copies need to be provided at one or other polling station.
Recording information on access needs could not only be used to inform planning by electoral administrators, but is consistent with the Government’s goals in introducing individual registration to encourage individuals to take responsibility for registering themselves to vote. It should also be up to an individual to specify what alternative format they prefer. It is well known that the transition to IER is taking place in a climate of significant pressures on electoral budgets. Providing alternative formats involves some cost, but it is important to recognise that such a provision would not place any additional duties on EROs other than those they already have. Rather than increasing costs, such a measure would allow existing resources to be used more effectively.
I have tabled the amendment to support the recommendation made by the Electoral Commission for a scheme to be piloted that would involve EROs asking for individual access needs of electors at the point of registration. Piloting that would provide valuable guidance to EROs on the most suitable system for maintaining registration forms and their associated access needs records, as well as allow the Government to assess the merits for such a provision to be rolled out.
I hope that the Minister decides to accept the amendment, because I remain unaware of the validity of any claim that under the current legislation the Government already have sufficient powers to introduce the pilot—a view supported by the Electoral Commission and disability groups such as Scope, which have already impressed it on the Government. However, if it is asserted that that power already exists in other legislation, I can tell the Minister that the amendment would specifically ensure that the registration process itself is used to identify and meet access needs. No other legislation provides for the registration process to be used for that purpose. Given that, I believe the registration process to be the most effective mechanism for achieving both improvements for disabled people and benefits for electoral staff.
I commend my hon. Friend for tabling the amendment and wish that I had had time to sign it, because I am with him entirely—in spirit if not on the Order Paper. Is not the function of this probing amendment, as he says, to identify the need to husband our existing resources far more effectively, rather than taking a more scatter-gun approach that will not address the fundamental needs of disabled people?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is entirely right. This will be an opportunity to define what people need so that we can ensure that EROs’ resources are used most effectively and that the electoral registration process is suitable for blind and partially sighted people.
It may be asserted that such a provision already exists in the Bill, under the power to make regulations in clause 2. That will give the Secretary of State the power to prescribe the type of evidence that a person must provide to establish eligibility to register to vote. The Government could argue that that includes a power to ensure that access needs are recorded at registration, but I believe that the clause is limited to prescribing evidence that is needed to establish eligibility and therefore cannot be used to achieve the same purpose as my amendment.
I believe that the Minister is a considerate man. If he chooses not to accept the amendment, will he please explain where he believes the power currently lies for the Government to carry out a pilot scheme in order to provide assurances about how information, forms and notices relating to the electoral process in alternative forms will be provided to blind and disabled people at future elections, and will he indicate when that will be achieved?
May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Scott, and say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on tabling the amendment. It has two aspects: first, it is clearly about people’s right to vote, and secondly, it rightly raises the issue of registration in the first place. It is often assumed that people who are disabled, partially sighted or who have no sight will fill out the registration forms when they receive them or have someone else do it for them, so what he proposes is very important.
The key point, to return to the previous debate, relates to the annual canvass, because the only way of finding some of these individuals is to knock on doors and assess their needs. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the format of ballot papers and the information people receive on how to register. He said that there are potentially around 15,000 disabled people in each parliamentary constituency, so we are not talking about a small number of individuals. It has long been one of my gripes that in certain areas where I have acted either as an agent or a candidate, many returning officers have only recently taken note of accessibility to polling stations, let alone of the suggestion for making registration information and ballot papers more accessible.
The reason for having a pilot is that it would show some new methods for achieving that and indicate whether they could be rolled out nationally. We also need to think a little out of the box on this. I know the Electoral Commission has done that before, but it has always shied away from postal voting and e-voting, for example, which for many partially sighted people would be better than going to a polling station. My mother is partially signed but does not read Braille, so the suggestion that she could vote by computer, for example, would be a good one for her.
Such pilots would be worth doing. We had a pilot in Durham several years ago and, overall, texting, a full postal ballot and e-voting were very successful. The Electoral Commission’s report was very positive, but unfortunately, as I said in the previous debate, it got cold feet because of some of the headlines about electoral fraud. I think that allowing the possibility of electronic voting for disabled people would be a step forward and that what the hon. Gentleman proposes would be a way of trialling it in certain areas.
It would be important to involve not only the major national charities so that they can talk about this, but the many local voluntary groups that support disabled individuals in the home. Care workers and local authorities could certainly play a role, and housing associations and others could identify where there might be large concentrations of people with physical or visual impairments, which would be very valuable. I wonder whether part of the pilot could put an onus on electoral registration officers to work with care homes, sheltered accommodation and local charities and support groups to be able to identify these people, first to ensure that they are registered in the first place—I am sure that many should be but are not—and secondly to explain the process to them.
When canvassing, it never ceases to amaze me how many people I come across who clearly need a postal or proxy vote because of a physical disability but who do not have them, either because they do not understand how the process works or because they think that they would somehow have to struggle to the polling station and know that physically they could not get there. Therefore, the pilot could be not only for testing the different methods for providing information in the largest type and Braille or for e-voting and other things, as the hon. Gentleman said, but—the Minister should take this on board—for explaining to many disabled people the different ways in which they can vote, because from my experience I do not think that many understand postal voting or recognise that they can apply for it.
I remember that under the old system someone had to tick a box and get a doctor or state-registered nurse to sign it, which was a bit of a palaver, but this would be a way of extending access to a group of people who, as the hon. Member for Hendon rightly identified, are perhaps not at the top of people’s priorities in the electoral process. They are—I think he would agree with this—a constituency that has a lot of issues that local councils, MPs and others need to take into account. The one way they can hold their elected officials, whether councillors or MPs, to account is through the ballot box, but if they cannot cast their vote or do not know how to do that, or if it is physically impossible for them to access that process, that constituency is hindered.
I support the amendment. It would be a valuable thing to pilot the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions in areas so that lessons could be learned. It would be a useful process to have ongoing pilots because they would provide a body of evidence for electoral returning officers, not only showing new ways of doing things but, in some cases. making them mandatory to ensure that, as he said, people are asked about disability, because if they are not how will a returning officer or anyone else know what the individual’s needs are?
The amendment would provide a very valuable lesson, and I hope that the Government do not push it aside, but look at it as part of the pilot process so that we obtain evidence that can then be rolled out, and so that some of those new methods, either for e-voting or for getting information to people on registration, become a normal part of electoral registration and, at elections, voting.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on tabling a very important amendment, which we support for all the reasons that he and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) have outlined.
The measures are supported by Age UK, Mencap, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Scope and Sense, and by the Electoral Commission, which importantly reminds us, however, that the Government would need to ensure that the pilots were properly evaluated before any wider roll-out of the proposal. The commission has also made it clear that it would be prepared to carry out such an evaluation.
The Bill provides an opportunity to go as far as we possibly can in securing opportunities to improve significantly participation in the democratic process by disabled and older voters, and the amendment would do so in two parts. It outlines proposals for pilots on the format used in the initial registration process, and, on the need for a variety of formats when it comes to registering to vote, the obvious example is that of partially sighted and blind citizens.
There are those beyond the partially sighted and the blind, however, who will not be able to sign registration forms or documents for one reason or another—perhaps because they have a physical disability that makes it hard for them to write or to use a pen. We have to remember also that, beyond the more severe and profound disabilities that unfortunately many citizens have to cope with, there are those who suffer from the more minor disabilities, such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, which mean that in many instances the completion of a form would be a major obstacle to claiming the right to register to vote.
Many people suffering from, for instance, dyslexia find the use of IT incredibly helpful in overcoming their disability. It is surprising, but I saw it when I was the local authority cabinet member for education in Sheffield, where I was lucky enough to witness the introduction of interactive whiteboards in classrooms and the use of IT tablets for participation in classroom learning. It was incredible to see how helpful IT could be in overcoming something that to many of us seems a minor disability, but which to those who suffer from it can be a major obstacle to participation in the right to vote.
Over and above that, I have also seen how individuals on the autistic spectrum benefit significantly from access to IT, and we in this House need to acknowledge that a wide range of formats could undoubtedly be adapted and used in the registration process.
Polls Apart research has found that many disabled voters experience difficulty in receiving information, forms and notices relating to the electoral process in a format that they can access, so the evidence is not just anecdotal but on the record. The Electoral Commission has recognised its existence and would like Parliament to act on it.
On polling stations, every Member will be more than aware of the problems experienced by a range of people with disabilities when claiming the right physically to register their vote on polling day, and I am sure that we, as politicians involved in election campaigns, have all taken voters to polling stations in our cars to exercise their right to vote. We know what it is like to see voters coping with crutches, wheelchairs and sometimes, because of infirmity due to age or disability, just the sheer effort of walking from the car to the polling station.
The partially sighted and the blind, equally, are presented with problems when physically presenting themselves at the polling station in order to claim the right to vote.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a surprising number of elderly people, in particular, who become housebound through age or disability do not know about their right to a postal vote? As part of the assessment proposed by the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), should they not have that explained to them and be given help to apply for a postal vote?
I completely agree. Back in 2004, south Yorkshire was selected as the pilot area for elections in which every vote was cast by post; we had an all-out postal ballot, as we called it. Not only did participation increase, but the process was particularly beneficial to those voters who, however accessible the polling station was, were never going to be physically able to get to it in the first place.
It is an indictment of our democracy that so many disabled voters should have to rely on lifts from political parties to exercise their democratic right to vote. That is not healthy, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right when he makes the point that we should do whatever is necessary to encourage the disabled to access postal votes and proxy voting so that they secure their right to a say in who their elected representatives are.
One disappointing feature of the Bill and an important part of the debate is that, when it comes to the carry-over provisions for the general election in 2015, postal votes will not be carried over to the register. That is worrying for democratic participation in the next general election, and more concerning is that its impact will probably be felt more deeply and profoundly by the disabled, the partially sighted and all the people whom we have been talking about. Labour Members have constantly made representations in this Committee about the removal of the entitlement to a postal vote for those citizens who are carried over to the register for the 2015 election.
One of the major problems in our democracy is that many polling stations are not accessible to the physically disabled. The obvious thing to do is to use new-build public buildings, such as schools, as they would be totally accessible. However, schools are increasingly resistant to being used as polling stations, partly because it disrupts the school day. There are also concerns about security, given that strangers are allowed to wander on and off the school premises to exercise their right to vote.
There is a major issue about accessibility to polling stations. I do not pretend that the amendment would deal with the whole problem, but it would at least place the onus on the Government. We are talking not about party politics, but about something profoundly important —the onus on the Government to ensure that they do their utmost to deal with problems of physical access to polling stations.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the number of polling stations is important as well? On accessibility, we should not go down the road taken by Newcastle city council when the Liberal Democrats were in charge—to save money, it reduced the number of polling stations. When I went back to my old ward to canvass during elections, I was amazed at how few polling stations there were and at the distances that certain people had to travel to cast their votes.
Again, my hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I represent the city of Sheffield and the borough of Barnsley in Parliament. As anybody who knows south Yorkshire will be aware, it is probably one of the hilliest areas in the country; Sheffield is probably the hilliest city in Great Britain. As my hon. Friend is well aware, it is built on seven hills; there are constant arguments about who lives in the hilliest part.
The key point is that the arguments about access to polling stations in the city are often entirely about how far away people are from their nearest polling station. The issue is not physical distance, but whether people have to climb up a hill to exercise their right to vote. That is a major issue in my area. Indeed, in this year’s elections, the problem was so acute in one of the polling districts that the local authority agreed to have a new polling station in a funeral parlour, which raised a few eyebrows locally. The local authority was desperate to increase levels of participation and given the difficulties due to the hilliness of the district, it was felt that the funeral parlour was the best solution to enable people to participate in the democratic process.
On the main point, there is a major issue of accessibility to polling stations in terms of distance and terrain. My hon. Friend is right: we need to maximise the number of polling stations in the first place, but we also need to think more carefully about how accessible those polling stations are.
Finally, I want to make a few comments about e-voting. The House has an ambition to move eventually towards a system of e-registering for the right to vote. Online registration has to be the way forward in the long term. I take the point made about broadband and rural areas, but many broadband problems are not to do with rural areas but with where BT has made infrastructure investments. Some of the urban areas in my constituency do not have superfast broadband, whereas some of the rural areas do.
Nevertheless, in the long term, e-registering is the way forward as we move towards the comprehensive electronic age. Equally, if we accept that e-registration is a legitimate way of encouraging the completeness of the electoral register, e-voting also has to be the way forward. My hon. Friend outlined some of the many ways in which we could introduce e-voting on a comprehensive scale. Whichever system people choose to use—voting online via the PC at work or voting by mobile phone or iPad—it must be right for us to begin properly to pilot access to e-voting. E-voting immediately improves accessibility to voting, particularly for disabled people. People with dyslexia and dyscalculia would also benefit from e-voting procedures.
Pilot work has been done on e-voting. There are concerns about security, but I am sure that they can be overcome. We live in an age when people can transfer money from one bank account to another through a mobile phone—well, they can with certain banks. Pingit is an innovation. If the banking system feels that e-banking is secure, it is about time that we as a country recognised that e-voting offers a credible, secure way forward for improving accessibility for disabled people to the democratic process. We support the amendment and, like the hon. Member for Hendon, we hope that the Government accept it in the spirit intended.
I genuinely welcome what the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) had to say about the amendment, for two reasons. First, he makes an extraordinarily important point about our electoral law and arrangements —that they should be inclusive. Secondly, on a personal note, he probably does not know, although some do, that in a former life I was an optician who had a lot to do with the visually impaired. I set up the all-party group on eye health and visual impairment because I thought the issue needed a higher profile. So the issue of accessibility is dear to my heart—certainly as far as the visually impaired are concerned, although of course it goes wider than that and other disabled groups are involved.
Providing accessibility to the registration process is important, and the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) made points about the voting process as well—whether at a polling station or by other means. It is nice that everybody in the House wants progress on the issue. What we have put in train by virtue of the Bill will allow and provide for yet more work to be done to make sure that the register is as complete as possible, and that includes the needs of people with disabilities.
The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned the importance of the canvass but added that other means must be available. I entirely agree. The suggestions on data matching in the Bill provide electoral registration officers with a wider palette of opportunities to consult the register of blind and partially sighted people —they can consult it now, although they do not necessarily do so. The evidence that local authorities have of people with disability or impairment will enable them to do a more complete job of ensuring inclusion.
Precisely. As the hon. Gentleman will know, in the Bill there is a duty on electoral registration officers to use a variety of means with the sole duty of ensuring that the register is as complete and accurate as possible.
I shall slightly disappoint the hon. Member for Hendon by saying, as he anticipated, that I do not believe that the amendment is necessary, because the Bill already provides for what he wants. Clause 9 allows for the new registration system to be piloted in advance of commencement, and there is no reason why it should not include the information that is collected from application forms. The clause enables electoral registration officers to propose pilot schemes in their areas to test how the new system will work in practice. We expect that to test the robustness of the individual electoral registration digital service in advance of nationwide implementation. There is no obstacle to a proposal’s using the power in the Bill in order to include the collection of a voter’s accessibility needs. That would be a very good use of that power.
I accept that these powers are in the Bill, but I think that what the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) is trying to get at is that this should not necessarily be left to local EROs. Yes, they might take it into account, but in order to get the body of evidence, it would be helpful if the Government said to particular areas, “Could you pilot this proposal on disabled people?”, so that lessons could be learned from the pilots. If it is just left to EROs, some of the better ones might do it, but we might not get the data or learn the lessons that are needed.
This involves two things. First, we need to have pilots to see how we can most effectively secure the information; the Electoral Commission might want to take a view on that. Secondly, we need to ensure that that is reflected in the secondary legislation—the regulations that specify what needs to be collected. There is already quite a long list of things that are specified; indeed, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) has complained that it is too long. Despite his reservations, I think that accessibility issues would be a useful addition. Provisions elsewhere in the Bill provide specific powers to add other requirements. For example, new paragraph 3ZA(1)(a) to the Representation of the People Act 1983 provides the power that the hon. Member for Hendon is concerned about. It seems that his view is shared by the Electoral Commission, which slightly worries me, but I will come back to that.
We want to make sure that every authority has the funding it needs to do the job properly. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a duty on local authorities to make available to electoral registration officers the funding that is necessary for them to do their job. He also knows that some authorities do that very well but some, frankly, do not, and in those cases the ERO ought to be saying, “You, Mr Chief Executive”—or Mr County Treasurer, or whatever—“are not providing the resources necessary to do the job effectively.” We will support every time EROs who lack the resources to do the job properly.
If such a pilot is of national significance because it could influence national policy, and it is above and beyond what an ERO or a local authority is already doing, surely it is incumbent on the Government, in a time of cuts, to recognise that and make additional funding available to it.
I am gratified by some of the Minister’s comments, if not all. I hope that I made it clear that I do not believe that the amendment would be an additional financial burden on EROs. I said that although providing alternative formats would introduce some costs, it is important to recognise that no additional duties would be placed on EROs. It would be more cost-effective in terms of the money that they spend in relation to registration rather than costing local authorities more. I would very much hope that local authorities would be willing to take out a pilot scheme.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. We have previously provided additional resources for pilot schemes where that is justified. However, as he says, his suggestion would simply encourage EROs to do their job more effectively using the information that they ought to have available, and that is why it commends itself to me.
On the whole, the Bill is good news for people with disabilities, because it deals with a number of issues that some of us have argued for some time ought to be dealt with. For instance—this is not the subject of the amendment, Mr Scott, but I hope that you will forgive me for responding to a point raised by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge—we have provided additional time within the timetable, exactly as Scope and others argued, to enable access issues to be better incorporated. The hon. Lady rightly mentioned issues to do with polling places. It would be wrong to go into detail on that in the context of this part of the Bill, because it is the subject of a clause in part 2. However, making sure that the polling places review is more closely aligned with UK parliamentary elections, thereby allowing it to examine the accessibility of proposed locations, ought to ensure that we do a better job than we do at the moment. I agree that in some areas access to polling stations is not desperately good and ought to be better. That is not confined to rural areas rather than urban areas or urban areas rather than rural areas; it is often partly about what is available and partly about the ingenuity and resolution of the ERO in doing the best job within the confines of the resources. There is a lot more that can be done.
The hon. Member for Hendon will recognise, I hope, that we are not only fully seized of the issue he raises but determined that we can and should do better for people with disabilities. We need to work closely with organisations that represent those people to make sure that the draft secondary legislation that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), has published—it is a good job he has done so—takes these issues into account as comprehensively as possible. I am prepared to give a clear commitment that the Government are more than happy to consult those organisations further—with the Electoral Commission and with anybody else, including the hon. Member for Hendon himself if he so wishes—to make sure that we have done that and that when the final regulations are approved by this House they meet the requirements that he has put forward.
It is right that we take whatever steps we reasonably can not only to ensure that our arrangements are as inclusive as possible, but to bring in innovation where possible. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge is right that some aspects of modern technology are hugely beneficial to people with disabilities. We will test that as part of the registration process, as she knows. I think that that is another huge advance. Those are things that we ought to do, if we can.
Finally, I say to the hon. Member for Hendon that we do not think that there is a difficulty with the powers in the Bill in giving electoral registration officers and the Electoral Commission the opportunity to do this work. If there is any difficulty, I undertake to look at the powers again to ensure that there is no gap. We are certainly prepared to introduce something else if necessary, but on my reading of the powers it is not. On that basis, I hope that he will withdraw his amendment so that we can discuss the matter again before the Bill reaches its conclusion.
I am grateful for Members’ contributions and want to make a few comments about them.
The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned annual registration of the right to vote. We currently have that. As I am sure he is aware, the Polls Apart survey at the last general election showed that 67% of polling stations presented one or more access barriers to disabled people that might have prevented them from voting and that 47% of postal voters experienced at least one access problem. Even with the current system of annual registration, we are experiencing problems. Any change to that system will not increase the access of disabled and partially sighted people.
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) represents an area of the world that I know well, as I stood in Barnsley East and Mexborough many years ago and tramped up and down the hills of Sheffield, Hallam as we attempted to win that seat, unsuccessfully, in 2001. She made a good point in asking what disability is. One person’s disability is not another person’s. She mentioned dyslexia, which on face value I would not consider to be a disability. However, if I suffered from it, I would probably view it differently. I can think of at least four Members of this House who have a visible disability and each one of them has very different needs. I will not name names, but I am sure that Members can imagine that people who are partially sighted have different access needs from those who are in a wheelchair.
I met a physical disability group called Disability Action in the Borough of Barnet, which is located in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer). One of the issues it raised is the siting of polling stations. One polling station in my constituency is located in a portakabin in a pub car park. There have been occasions when disabled people have been required to vote outside the polling station because they were not able to access the ballot box directly. That is incredible in this day and age. I had hoped that my amendment would address such issues.
I was gratified by the Minister’s response, particularly on the register of visual impairment. Along with the intervention of the hon. Member for North Durham about blue badges, that reminded me that there are opportunities for electoral registration officers to identify people who may need assistance. I believe that we need political will in our local authorities to ensure that those opportunities are taken. I hope that the Bill goes some way towards achieving that.
I believe that the Minister has more than left the door open. I will be watching the passage of the Bill and will be pleased if any concessions can be achieved elsewhere. He used the word “assurance” and I hope to hold him to account on that. I would like to be part of any process to take the proposal forward. On that basis, I say categorically that he has assured me at this stage. I will seek leave to withdraw the amendment, with the provision that he maintains his gaze on this matter. I assure him that I will. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 9 allows for flexibility and contingency in the way that individual registration is implemented and it allows for the Government to test changes to our system before rolling out individual registration nationwide. However, we have had no concrete details so far on how the changes will be phased in. As I indicated in the debate on clause 6 and the related amendments, many questions about implementation remain outstanding. That is why the Opposition want to take this opportunity to place on the record our agreement with the Electoral Commission, which has made it clear today that it is essential that the Government publish a detailed implementation plan as soon as possible to show what needs to be done to deliver the changes outlined in the Bill.
Last week, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), said that he was confident that there would be no backlog in voter registration because the IT system to be used for data-matching purposes would be properly tested before widespread implementation.
We have had promises from IT companies before that everything will be all right, but the systems have failed at the first hurdle after we have spent billions of pounds on them. We have a political deadline to meet, because the Conservatives want to win the next general election on the back of the Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree that that must not stand in the way, and that the IT system must be in place properly before we move forward?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, especially given that the new register will be used for the boundary review in December 2015. It is critical that the data-matching arrangements work. He is right that the IT systems procured by Governments for public sector services often prove to be lacking, inefficient and not fit for purpose. The outcome of such problems is usually a backlog, causing frustration and anger for people up and down the country who do not get the services to which they are entitled.
That is not a problem just with central Government. When I was in local government, we introduced a new IT system to process housing benefit. It was introduced by the former chief executive of the council, who is now the top civil servant in the country and is very competent indeed. Even so, it was impossible to get an IT system that worked in the right way from day one. Sheffield city council ended up with one of the most severe backlogs that I have ever seen in processing the benefits that were due to the people of the city.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) is right that it is crucial to the democratic process that any IT system is tested thoroughly before people use it to register their right to vote. It is crucial that the right to register is given priority over anything else. If the IT system is found wanting, the partial register that results from it should not be used for the boundary review in 2015.
If the House is to have confidence in the Minister’s verbal reassurances, it must have the detail on how the changes are to be introduced. We must have concrete evidence in an implementation plan that every process that is required for the new system, including the data-matching and confirmation processes, will be up and running efficiently and properly before we move on to using the new system. Given that the boundaries in the 2020 general election depend on our getting this right, the House is entitled to a proper response from the Minister and to reassurance that the details will be made available soon.
This is an area in which the official Opposition are probably world experts: IT systems that go wrong. The Government are grateful for their experience, which was garnered through many years, of the criminal justice IT system that never worked, and the NHS system that never even got off the starting blocks, despite millions of pounds being spent. We know from their example just how poor IT systems can be when they fail to function.
However, to take us into IT systems that go wrong on the basis of clause 9, which introduces the opportunity to trial and pilot to ensure that things are robust before they go live, is odd. It is important that we ensure that we pilot registration provisions; that the verification system is sufficiently robust before we roll out individual electoral registration; and that we test the IER digital service before it goes live in 2014 so that it can cope with the transition. That is exactly the reason for clause 9.
The clause enables the draft orders for the pilots to be introduced for the consideration of the House to ensure that it is satisfied, and so that we can properly evaluate the outcome once the pilots are concluded. Incidentally, the orders can be brought forward only at the proposal of the registration officer responsible for the area. We have learned many lessons from the data-matching pilots carried out last year. They were used to make improvements to the system and to simplify the proposals for the transition process before the Committee. The proposed pilots could have the same impact as the data-matching pilots.
Understanding how such things work and what can go wrong is crucial to any change of such magnitude. Clause 9 is therefore important because it provides the legislative framework that will enable pilots to take place. They will ensure that the system has the confidence not only of those who operate it, but of those who use it. They need confidence that the system is robust and that it has been pressure tested. That is the reason for the proposals.
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) made an important point on setting out an implementation plan. The Government are still consulting and working closely with the Electoral Commission and taking the advice of the political parties. When we have concluded that process, we will set out an implementation plan for all to see, but that is not the purpose of the measure. The clause will ensure that we properly test and evaluate the proposed system to ensure it works, which has so often not happened in the past. Only when it works satisfactorily and has been seen to do so can we make progress.
I hope that that answers the hon. Lady’s points to the satisfaction of the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 9 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Invitations to register
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 13, page 4, line 32, at end insert—
‘(1B) There will be a duty on local authorities to ensure that individuals are invited to register when those individuals move into the area of the local authority and register for council tax purposes.’.
Amendment 16, page 5, line 15, at end insert—
‘(9) Regulations under subsection (2) must require registration officers to include on electoral registration forms a clear explanation that the electoral register is used for other civic purposes.
(10) There should also be a clear explanation that the electoral register is used for assessing an individual’s credit worthiness and ability to sustain mortgage repayments.’.
Amendment 34, page 5, line 15, at end insert—
‘(9) Regulations under subsection (2) must require registration officers to include on invitations given under subsection (1)—
(a) a clear statement to the effect that the edited electoral register is available for general sale and is used by organisations for commercial activities, as well as for other civic purposes; and
(b) clear instructions on how to opt out of the edited electoral register.’.
The amendment is intended to ensure that it is clear to people who are invited to apply for registration that the edited register may be sold, and to ensure that people know how to opt out of the edited register.
Amendment 17, page 5, line 16, at end add—
‘(3) Government departments with responsibility for welfare payments, pensions, driving licences, revenue collection, National Insurance and passport applications must inform all individuals who apply for these benefits or services of their possible entitlement to join the electoral register.’.
This debate focuses on the arrangements established by clause 5. Clause 5 lays out in principle the arrangements for issuing invitations to register to unregistered persons known to electoral registration officers, via either an annual canvass or any other means. It is important that arrangements are made for the pursuit of such individuals, and the Opposition are pleased that the clause now includes provisions for a civil penalty—there was initially no suggestion of a civil penalty for failing to register to vote. The Government considered opt-outs from the duty to register, but we are pleased that they have changed their view and acknowledge that they have listened.
We have said that the annual canvass should remain as the cornerstone of this country’s approach to electoral registration, but we do not oppose the clause. It gives the green light to the establishment of regulations for hard-to-reach individuals, or for individuals who need to register outside an annual canvass because, for example, they are moving from one borough to another.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned some of the pressures experienced by people when they move property. They might be starting a new job as well as moving home, or their children might be starting at a new school. They will need to register with doctors and dentists, and with new telephone companies and energy suppliers. It is said that the stress of moving house is second only to the stress of changing job or losing a family member—it certainly ranks highly in that respect—and many people move home each day. The likelihood is that they will not have registering to vote at their new address high on their list of priorities. Hon. Members probably rate registration as a high priority when they move property, but that is because we are politicians—we do not reflect the general population.
I know from my experience of canvassing door to door in election campaigns that people often fail to register their vote. One can knock on someone’s door and establish that they would indeed support one’s political party, but then find that they are not the people registered as living at the address. Inevitably, they have moved from elsewhere, and then of course one must go through the rigmarole of advising them that if they want to register their right to vote, they must do so at their old address.
The Opposition feel that that situation can be improved. In many instances, people move but do not immediately want to re-register their right to vote. I was one such individual when I first moved to Sheffield way back in 1994. I stayed with family at that time, because I was busy trying to get my foot in the door and find work. I did not buy my first home in Sheffield until six or seven months after moving, which meant I was not on the electoral register for the city for a significant period. I was a member of a political party, but registering the right to vote was not my highest priority at that time—getting a wage and somewhere to live were far more important.
The system can be improved. The Opposition believe that every possible means must be used to encourage the completeness of the electoral register. To that extent, we believe that the regulations sanctioned by clause 5 should be supplemented with various new obligations which, taken together, will help to maximise opportunities for a higher level of completeness of the electoral register.
Amendment 12 would make it compulsory for councils to include a statement about the importance of registration in council tax demands. Council tax demands are the one occasion every year when a local authority communicates with most residents. The detail of the communication is not always welcomed by those who receive it—not many welcome the council tax demand that pops through the letter box every April. Most people look at the final figure and at the monthly payments, and make a derogatory statement about the quality of the services provided and the money they pay annually. Interestingly, when people are asked what they get for their council tax, many say, “All I get is my bins emptied.” I suspect that many Members have heard that time and again. On one level, that proves that when people get the council tax communication they do not read the details about how the income raised is spent.
Were the amendment accepted as a potentially valuable addition to making the register more complete, I would recommend that the statement about council tax payers’ right to register in a borough be placed in a prominent part of the communication and in bold print. That would make it clear to people that they have overlooked this matter and should register their right in order to have a say over how the income they hand over to the council is spent. It would involve no extra cost to local authorities, because the communication goes out every year anyway, and would have the advantage of reminding voters of the relationship between their choice of elected representatives and the spending priorities and choices of those representatives. At the very least, then, the amendment would strengthen the relationship between voters and their local authorities. If used effectively in council tax communications, it could also help to improve levels of voter registration.
Amendment 13 would give councils a duty to invite people to register when it contacts them mid-year to set up council tax payments, when an individual or individuals move into a new residence. From our experience of election campaigning, we all know that in real life there is always a degree of churn in electoral registration, because people have a habit of moving properties. Even in the most stable and enduring of communities, however, where there is little movement—my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham said that his area was particularly stable, and so is mine—people move. They move for work, family and social reasons; because they want to downsize or upsize; or to be in a particular school catchment area. People move for all sorts of reasons.
It is important to ensure, therefore, that under regulations arising from clause 5 electoral registration officers bear a responsibility for chasing these changes and, in so doing, play an important part in ensuring the greater accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. Furthermore, as with amendment 12, the coupling of the invitation to register with a council tax communication will help to remind citizens of the relationship between the right to vote and the decisions of elected representatives. It is important constantly to bear in mind the relationship between the right to vote and have a say, and the payment of tax. It goes to the heart of our democracy.
It is also important to remember that a duty to chase the registration of people who have moved property will enable electoral registration officers to ensure that a citizen’s registration is not duplicated in more than one local authority area, in cases where the individual has simply moved from one house to another. It should be easy for the Government to accept amendment 13, because it is not controversial, would involve no extra cost and would be a valuable addition to the armoury of the registration process.
Amendment 16 would require electoral registration officers to include on all registration forms key information designed to raise awareness of the importance of registration. This refers to the link between the register and the availability of mortgage and credit facilities, as well as jury service. The latter reflects the earlier point made during our debate on clause 6. Voter registration is not only a right but a duty, and jury service is one of the key duties of any citizen. It underpins our commitment to democracy and the rule of law, and our commitment to justice and the right of individuals to be tried by their peers.
Most Members, if not all, will know how much access to credit and mortgage facilities relates to the applicant’s ability to verify their identity. We all know about the difficulties arising if an applicant for a mortgage or loan cannot prove where they live. It makes things very difficult. There is also the business of having to produce the last three months’ utility bills and wage slips, and all the rest of it. Most of us will experience that at some point because, when one has moved house but not long lived in the new property, finance houses demand such extra information before providing access to a loan. It is a good thing in our society that financiers—the banks and building societies—run those rigorous identity checks before making available access to finance.
Callcredit, the UK’s second largest consumer credit reference agency, has pointed out that if the register is depleted, credit reference agencies’ ability to provide services to companies, local authorities and Government Departments in order to guard against fraud and identity theft will be significantly hampered. It is important to emphasise this point. One of my first pieces of casework as an MP involved a fraud case and the theft of the identity of someone who sadly had passed away. Their identity was stolen via utility bills from their property. Access to finance was almost secured, but was stopped at the very last minute following checks run by the postal service on delivery of the loan agreement. It is important to ensure, therefore, that the register is as complete as possible in order to minimise fraud and allow people access to finance.
The amendment will not place a burden on local authorities or electoral registration officers. It is already the practice of some local authorities to refer to the importance of registration in securing credit and mortgage facilities.
I would ensure it through the amendment. Local authorities should be under an obligation to draw local residents’ attention to the fact that access to finance and mortgages might depend on whether they are on the electoral register. Some local authorities already do that. Southwark council makes it clear on its website, on the page referring to the annual canvass under the heading, “What do I need to do?”, that
“If you are not on the register you may find it difficult obtaining credit for a loan or mortgage”.
That is a simple, straightforward sentence making it clear that if someone does not register to vote as a resident of the borough, they might be denied access to finance.
To show that I am not being partial, I shall mention a Conservative borough. Basingstoke and Deane council makes it clear on its website that access to finance will depend on registering to vote. Not every local authority does that, but it is a straightforward, lost-cost option. Local authorities would simply have to make it clear when they send out the forms for the annual canvass that registering is important not just for the right to vote but for accessing finance. That can also be put on local authority websites. As far as we are concerned, there is no excuse for local authorities not making that point clear to its residents. It is a simple reference on a form or on a website page; it is a simple request, and I am sure that the Government will want to accede to it. That applies to all our amendments in the group, as not one of them involves extra cost or any significant extra burden on the work of local authorities or electoral registration officers.
Amendment 17 is designed to extend the opportunities for getting through to those hard-to-reach individuals for individual registration purposes. The Electoral Reform Society strongly believes that when Government Departments such as the Inland Revenue and those responsible for welfare payments, pension payments, driving licences, national insurance and passport applications have contact with the people who apply for those things, it would be very useful if those agencies were required to make a registration form available. That is particularly relevant to 17 and 18-year-olds who apply for their first driving licence, for instance. It is typically the younger generations who do not think that seriously about registering to vote. They have far more interesting things on their minds for the most part. As things stand, the responsibility for their registration lies with their parents or the head of the household.
There is a real risk under the new system that those young people will not get themselves registered. We know from the low level of participation of young people in elections that there is a high risk of that happening. It is therefore entirely sensible for Departments and public sector agencies such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Passport Service to have a duty or responsibility to make young people, or anybody applying for a driving licence or a passport, aware of the importance of electoral registration.
Of course, but the system we have now and the one we want to put in place would provide safeguards on that score. Anyone applying for a passport has to prove nationality before being granted one. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there should be sufficient safeguards in any registration system to ensure that only British nationals with the right to vote are allowed to go on to the electoral register. Indeed, that lies behind many of the issues that we are discussing today.
Many other legislatures across the world use such a method of ensuring that the registration of eligible citizens is maximised—the United States, for example. Once again, Opposition Members can see no reason why the Government would want to resist amendment 17 in any way, as it is perfectly sensible. It is a practical, common-sense way of extending awareness of registration and of the duties and responsibilities that go with being an adult citizen in Great Britain. It provides a perfectly sensible and practical way forward for maximising awareness of those rights and responsibilities. I look forward to hearing the Government’s response, particularly to hearing that they are ready to accept all our amendments in the group.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith). Her amendments specify the steps that local authorities should pursue to register more people. Amendment 16 specifically reminds applicants of their civic duties. This raises the key issue of what information should be included in the communication, and she listed some reasonable mechanisms and steps that should be taken. I guess the substance of the debate will be whether these provisions need to be written directly into the Bill or whether, as clause 5 specifies, they can be made by regulation. That will be the focus of my brief contribution.
I believe it is good that clause 5 allows the Electoral Commission to standardise forms, which is my reading of that particular clause and it applies to some of the issues the hon. Lady mentioned. We heard on Second Reading, as we usually do, from the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who talked about the excellent experience in the county of Denbighshire. He mentioned the good work that had been undertaken there and the documents that had been created, which led to impressive rates of registration.
I would like to hear more from the Government about the onus they intend to place on the Electoral Commission—in preference to writing provisions directly into the Bill—in respect of the substance of those forms and the prominence in them of various messages, not least the civic duty and the penalty. The Bill as it stands says that the Electoral Commission should provide that information, but will the Minister ensure that it must provide it? We need additional clarity about the penalty and the implications if the application is not complied with. Will he confirm whether the Electoral Commission will be mandated to put information about the civil penalty on the forms? If we are to have good practice, will the usability of those forms be tested? Critically, if we are to rely on regulation rather than place these matters directly on the face of the Bill, when will those regulations be laid out? Critically, too, what detail will they specify? In short, what is the Electoral Commission’s role in these matters; what is its role in disseminating good practice; and what is its role in insisting on that good practice? The hon. Lady cited some good examples of good practice undertaken by local authorities from both political parties—I wish she had said from all political parties—but the reality is that that is not universal. I am interested—I suspect the hon. Lady and the Minister are, too—in ensuring that best practice is pursued.
I agree with hon. Gentleman, who makes a good point. I recall that Derwentside district council used to be responsible for registration in the Derwentside part of my constituency. It was clear from looking at the register that there were gaps of entire streets or parts of streets. That showed me that not a great deal of attention was being paid by the registration officer to information that could be seen just by flicking through the register.
I concur with the hon. Gentleman. I think we have nothing to be scared about in the Government’s legislation or in respect of the good practice that some local authorities are exhibiting. I am concerned that we spread good practice, and I believe clause 5 provides us with the mechanism to do that by requiring returning officers in the first instance to send the invitations to register and then by providing a secondary power to make regulations about the substance of the initial applications. Further to that, the regulations
“may confer functions on the Electoral Commission”.
I hope that the Minister can flesh out the role he believes the Electoral Commission should play in these matters.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Weir.
Before I deal with this important clause and set of amendments, let me say a few words about the role of those who have served on my Select Committee, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I believe that it did an exemplary job in examining not just clause 5 but all the other clauses, and I fear that had it not done so, and had the Government not engaged with it as they did, this Committee stage would have been much more fraught. It is because the Select Committee managed to clear away a lot of the undergrowth—a lot of the detail—during its close discussions with the Government that the real, strong political issues that should be debated on the Floor of the House are being so debated. Not only the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), who is present, but other members of the Select Committee have participated in the first two days of this Committee stage, and will probably participate in the third.
I was surprised to see how many amendments the Government had accepted. I had thought that we had done a reasonable job, but that co-operation has taken the Select Committee to a better place in the way in which we should, responsibly, seek to amend Bills. There can be nothing more important than what we have tried to do in respect of the right to vote, the registration of the vote, and the invitation to vote. It may sound very dry and technical, but the truth is that those issues are fundamental to our democracy. If we get this wrong, all the high-falutin’ phraseology about our freedoms and liberties, and our right to create our own Governments and dispose of them, will be rendered useless.
We need only read the history books, such as those that deal with the Jim Crow laws in the United States, to know that, even when there is a nominal right to vote, if registration is not got right—if, indeed, it is deliberately twisted so that it is difficult for people to vote—everyone is denied their right to democracy. As Lyndon Johnson is quoted as saying in a famous book by Robert Caro, which I would recommend to anyone, if people are given the right to vote they are given access to the whole panoply of the power of Government, and can then exercise their ability to change law by whatever means they wish to employ: through their political parties, and through other organisations. We have seen how vital it is for registration to be exercised in a responsible and comprehensive way in countries such as South Africa, which, in recent years, has done a tremendous job in fulfilling that requirement.
However, we also need to look a little closer to home. When we talk about registration, I always think of the old Shire hall in the middle of my city of Nottingham. Three blocks can be pulled out of the steps of the hall, and that is where the old tripod gallows used to be. It was used at the time of the Pentrich rebellion, only six generations ago, to execute people who were demanding the right to vote—demanding the right, in our own country, to exercise the mandate that would decide who should be the Government.
I go to those stratospheric lengths only to demonstrate that we are debating an extremely serious matter. We are not merely discussing the dry technicalities that electoral registration officers, who are almost always extremely capable and conscientious public servants, put into law and into our democratic process. We are discussing a fundamental issue.
As well as engaging with Government and producing a great many changes and evolutions in the original proposals, my Committee decided to table a couple of probing amendments that would keep the Government on their mettle, but would not be pressed to a vote. I hope that the Minister will approach our amendments in that spirit. The first is amendment 34, to which is appended an explanatory statement enabling any Member who should wander innocently into the Chamber and wonder what we are doing to understand exactly what the debate is about. The amendment does what it says on the tin. As the explanatory statement says:
“The amendment is intended to ensure that it is clear to people who are invited to apply for registration that the edited register may be sold, and to ensure that people know how to opt out of the edited register.”
That is crystal clear. I hope that we do not all suffer the wrath of the Chair of the Procedure Committee, but take his edict seriously, and begin to attach explanatory statements to all our amendments so that everyone can understand the business a little more readily.
The edited register is available for general sale, and is used by organisations for the purpose of commercial activities such as marketing, as well as for campaigning purposes by all of us here who are members of political parties. It is also used for purposes such as the tracing of missing persons. I am sure that Members who are in the Chamber have received a number of representations from certain bodies about that. Electors who do not want their details to appear on the edited electoral register need to opt out.
When my Committee conducted its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, it recommended the abolition of the edited electoral register. We did not feel that it was appropriate for personal details gathered by the Government for electoral purposes to be sold to commercial organisations. Sadly, on this occasion the Government did not accept our recommendation, and that is why I am pressing the Minister tonight. I want to understand this thinking and to establish whether he wishes to think about the issue further, either now or at a later stage. The Government did, however, say in their response that they were
“aware of and considering the finely balanced arguments on the future of the edited electoral register.”
My Committee feels that while the edited version of the register continues, it is important for people who are being invited to register to realise that it may be sold—I am sure that many do not know that—and that it could be used for commercial purposes. It is also important for them to know exactly how they can opt out of the edited register.
I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to respond to the points that I have made, and to tell us whether he has had any further thoughts of the sort that he outlined in his initial response to my Committee.
May I also say, Mr Weir, what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship?
I want to record my thanks to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and his Committee for the work they have done. They have improved the Bill substantially, which demonstrates the power of Select Committees when it comes to pre-legislative scrutiny. I think that we should see more of that, because it would not only give Bills a smoother passage in this place, but allow external agencies to ensure that their voices were heard. I also think that the Minister should be commended for the spirit in which he has accepted the Committee’s report.
Clause 5 deals with the maintenance of the register, a topic we touched on earlier in the context of ensuring it is as accurate and up to date as possible. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said, this goes to the heart of our democracy. People must have the democratic right to be on the register. My hon. Friend referred to Lyndon Johnson, and I, too, have just finished reading the latest version of Robert Caro’s fourth book on Johnson, which I recommend as essential reading to all Members. It is important to ensure that citizens have the right to vote for their local representative, whether at parish, district or county council level or in parliamentary or European elections.
Clause 5 covers regulations governing electoral registration officers. It is important to give clear steers, either in the Bill—as suggested by my Front-Bench colleagues —or in regulations. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said, there are onuses on EROs to do certain things, but there must be consistency in this regard, as well as the will to do those things. The Bill states:
“A registration officer in Great Britain must give a person an invitation to apply for registration in a register maintained by the officer if—
(a) the officer is aware of the person’s name and address,
(b) the person is not registered in the register, and
(c) the officer has reason to believe that the person may be entitled to be registered in the register.”
Under current legislation, there are certain onuses on EROs. The Representation of the People Act 1983 was amended by the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which added a new section, 9A, setting out the steps that must be taken by EROs to identify people eligible for registration as electors. The steps include:
“(a) sending more than once to any address the form to be used for the canvass under section 10 below;
(b) making on one or more occasions house to house inquiries under subsection (5) of that section;
(c) making contact by such other means as the registration officer thinks appropriate with persons who do not have an entry in a register;
(d) inspecting any records held by any person which he is permitted to inspect under or by virtue of any enactment or rule of law;
(e) providing training to persons under his direction or control in connection with the carrying out of the duty.”
It may be claimed that many of those steps are already in place, but I come back to a point made earlier: the key is how they are implemented by local EROs.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has done a lot of good work in highlighting low registration across constituencies in the UK, and what he says is right, as I know from my own experience in County Durham. We could see obvious mistakes on the register, such as large gaps in streets—numbers 12 to 15 might be entirely missing, for example. A member of the council staff should have said, “Wait a minute; it can’t just be a matter of chance that all the residents in that sequence of addresses haven’t registered. A mistake must have been made.” Another example involved a sheltered accommodation property. It was run by a local councillor, but it was not included on the register at all. The new county council has made a determined effort to address such mistakes through a canvass, and we added about 12,000 people to the electoral register. That was a result of Durham county council looking at council tax records and other resources and of door-to-door canvassing, which will still be key.
My constituency has quite a stable population, but, as I said earlier, in certain parts of it—including parts of Stanley and Chester-le-Street—and especially in areas with a lot of private landlord accommodation, the names on the register change fairly often. The Electoral Commission report says:
“Incompleteness and inaccuracies on the registers are strongly associated with population movement.”
That comes as no great surprise. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) talked earlier about the transitory nature of much of his constituency’s population, and any Member representing a constituency with a large student population could make the same point.
The Electoral Commission report also makes it clear that there is a decline in registration in the most densely populated urban areas. It states that that decline may be
“as much as 10–15 percentage points over the lifetime of the registers.”
That, too, will come as no great surprise to anyone who has been involved in local government or in elections.
All EROs must make the accuracy of the register a top priority, and we must take steps to ensure that measures that are already in place are put into effect. We will wait and see whether that is pursued through the Bill or through regulations. If these amendments are not agreed to, there must be regulations that deal with this matter.
My experience in local councils tells me that we must do more than just rely on local EROs. Councillors must have the political will to take these steps, as must the chief officer. It must be seen as a key priority, for the reasons my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North outlined.
As amendment 12, tabled by my Front-Bench colleagues, makes clear, the new council tax bill that is sent out every year presents a golden opportunity. Durham county council is running a trial that enables people to tick a box if they want to apply a postal vote. Again, the good councils are doing that, and I think the Minister will agree that good councils will use such measures. This aim is to ensure that councils that are not mandated to use that process will in fact do so, as permitted under existing law.
It never ceases to amaze me that when new housing estates are built, people are not automatically registered. I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge said earlier—that when people move into a new house, there are more important things to do than making sure they are on the electoral register. They have to change their children’s school, sort out their electricity and bank details, and so on. However, moving home provides a good opportunity to address this issue. About 10 years ago I moved into a new house, and, as I discovered on doing so, people soon receive a demand from the local council. That provides an opportunity to ensure that people are registered, whether by letter or e-mail. Indeed, increasingly, people are registering to pay council tax and other bills by e-mail and other such services. That would ensure that a resident on a new housing estate is registered.
The situation with new council housing and social housing residents—again, it varies from authority to authority—also never fails to amaze me. When residents move in, local councils know who they are, and that information should automatically be used to get them on to the register. In my constituency, two organisations that are separate from the council—Derwentside Homes and Cestria Community Housing—now run all previous council stock. I am sure that they would be happy to co-operate in ensuring that people are on the register when they move in. As the Minister and others have said, there is a lot of information there—it is a question of the will to deal with it.
Another issue, which I mentioned earlier, is people in residential care. Again, local councils have the power to deal with this. Many such people make a contribution to their fees. However, to judge by the experience of residential care homes and sheltered accommodation in my constituency, unfortunately, the register is often outdated. Because of the nature of such places, there is quite a regular turnover—if I may tactfully put it that way. However, social services and care providers could work with the electoral registration officer to ensure that people are registered. Moreover, there is nothing more upsetting than people getting letters addressed to recently deceased relatives. Such a provision would be a way of taking off the register those who are no longer entitled to be on it because, unfortunately, they are no longer with us.
The point was also made, in the context of amendment 16, about the broader civic duty to vote. It is difficult to convince people that there is such a duty. Some of my older female constituents remember fighting for the vote and make sure they are registered and vote every time. It is not the same with younger voters; sadly, the struggles that a lot of women went through to get the vote are perhaps not recognised by younger generations. Trying to promote that civic notion would be very difficult.
As I said earlier, people in my constituency and others thought that a way to avoid paying the old poll tax was to get themselves off the register. I have to say that most constituents who come to see me never use the phrase “council tax”; they still call it the poll tax.
The system that we have had up to now has worked for good councils, but unless the Bill or regulations force councils to take such action, I doubt whether anything will actually happen.
Another issue is the training of electoral registration officers. In my experience, some of them are very good and see it as their role to ensure that the register is as up to date as possible, and take pride in doing so. Others—and other councils—see it as something of an afterthought. That issue needs to be looked at.
Amendment 17 is a common-sense provision that examines some of the other ways in which central Government, who interact with many of our constituents, can help in the electoral registration process. I am big fan of Directgov, through which, two weeks ago, I renewed my driving licence. It is a simple way to pay car tax or to renew a driving licence. The one thing that people have to provide is an address, and, as part of the process the website could ask whether people are registered at that address. When I moved house a couple of years ago, I had to go through that process to change my address. The Government could easily make use of that opportunity, and the same point applies with passports, as was mentioned earlier. It is about making sure that the mechanisms exist to capture such information. Directgov would be an excellent way to ensure that people are registered. Perhaps the Minister can say whether it is currently possible to register through Directgov. Once a number has been generated, it links together a person’s interactions with Government. That would be a simple way to address this issue.
Another issue is the contents of the form and the invitation to vote. We need to think a little bit outside the box in deciding how we are going to deal with this issue. In 11 years as a Member of Parliament, I have noted, as most Members have, that the way in which people interact with MPs has changed. The days of getting large postbags of handwritten letters are coming to an end. We receive an increasing number of e-mails, including, surprisingly, from older people. Councils have the e-mail addresses of those people who register for council tax through that method. Perhaps that could be used as another way of encouraging people to register. We do not necessarily have to use the old-fashioned, traditional form through the door. Here, however, we return to my earlier point about the will of individual councils and officers to adapt to some of these ideas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge also talked about using the electoral register to reduce fraud. That would make a big difference to the ability of local registration officers to spot individuals who are registering illegally, or those who are using the existing register for identity fraud purposes. That is an increasing problem: as recent figures show, such fraud runs into hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Making provision in respect of the actual need to have an accurate register lets people know that this is important in reducing fraud.
I am not sure that many people know that, as has been mentioned, being on the electoral register helps them to establish credit worthiness. Those who move addresses often may find that difficult to get, but at least this is a way of giving information that agencies can use. Most people think that being on the register is just about voting. We need to work out how we get the message across that it is important to register for that purpose, too.
In addition, the use of verification procedures when goods are being ordered online is becoming increasingly obvious. The use of postcode and address details is one of the important aspects of the secure procedure when ensuring that the right people get the right goods when ordering online.
My hon. Friend rightly says that people are increasingly using the internet for things such as ordering goods online. Again, I doubt whether many young people know that being on the electoral register is an important source for those types of thing, so that is another good reason why the amendment is important. The terminology is perhaps a bit loose in terms of civic responsibility—I am not sure that many people see it from that point of view—but we could set out a practical reason for young people to register.
I mentioned driving licences earlier, and new drivers provide an obvious opportunity in this regard. I am not suggesting that everyone applies for their licence when they are 17, but new licences are an obvious way to engage young people and ensure that they are registered to vote and know the importance of that. We should not miss that opportunity.
The penalty has been mentioned, and I welcome the work of the Committee and the Government in ensuring that the penalty is set out. Again, the test will be whether or not it provides an incentive for people to register. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has asked a question on this, and it was answered by the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. His answer stated that, based on the data that were available in March 2010, only
“67 prosecutions were initiated in relation to a failure to provide information in response to the…annual canvass.”—[Official Report, 26 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 166.]
The Bill’s penalty for not registering will not be meaningful and effective unless it is enacted and enforced. However, it is important to include it in the Bill as a sanction; again, it can be publicised to ensure that people know that there is a potential sanction for not registering to vote.
The Government have got it right overall on the armoury they will give local returning officers to ensure that the register is as accurate as possible. The proof of the pudding will be in how that is actually used. As I said, the Bill provides a lot of ways in which councils can ensure that people are registered, but councils are not using them. I will be interested to hear how the Minister is going to ensure that the provisions—and his hope that councils and returning officers will use some of these different ways of not only interacting with the public, but using the information they already have—will mean that the register is as accurate as possible. It would be sad to miss this opportunity to ensure not only that more people are registered to vote, but that the registration is accurate as possible.
As has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), local government has many ways of contacting electors. It can do so by way of housing benefit, council tax, disabled parking badges, the people it puts in residential care, the home helps who visit people in their homes, contact when people are placed in council and social housing, contact when enforcement and registration is carried out in respect of houses in multiple occupation and contact when new houses, be they private sector or public sector, are built. Local authorities are not extending the invitation to register to many people who use those things. A lot more can be done, but it will take time, effort and resources, and that has been used in the past as an excuse not to act. This Bill and other Bills are bringing about huge constitutional changes, which could dramatically alter the constitutional landscape, and local authorities need to do everything in their power to maximise the registers in their areas by using the previous legislation and this Bill.
The Government also hold databases, as outlined in amendment 17; they relate to
“welfare payments, pensions, driving licences, revenue collection, National Insurance and passport applications”.
All those offer an opportunity for national or local government to extend that invitation to register to people using those things at critical moments in their life. We need to address an issue about sharing national Government databases with local authorities, but there is no issue involved in using local databases within the remit of a local authority. Local authority databases can be used for the purpose of registration, and we need to examine ways in which we can improve those channels of communication between national Government and local government to open up those databases. I realise that people have concerns about losing databases; Department for Work and Pensions databases have been found on roundabouts in the past, and that caused a national outrage as it hit the national press—
Indeed, as my hon. Friend reminds us. We need to keep that in perspective, because although losing those databases was bad, I am sure that new systems can be implemented to allow secure access to those databases for the purpose of registration.
I also want to talk about the rights and responsibilities of Assembly Members, MPs, councillors, MSPs and Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland in respect of putting pressure on electoral registration officers to ensure that the existing legislation and this Bill are monitored, not only by the Electoral Commission, but by us as parliamentarians—as elected representatives. Last week, I e-mailed 250 Labour Members with a specific list of questions that the Electoral Commission had designed for MPs to put to their ERO. I have circulated those questions to Labour MPs and asked them to go to see their ERO with their Assembly Member, with their local group leader to put pressure on the ERO to ensure that everything is being implemented. That should also be examined in this Bill to ensure that elected representatives at least have that invitation to work with EROs to maximise the register. I have done this in my constituency, where we have a fantastic ERO, Gareth Evans, who has increased the registration in my constituency from 47,000 to 57,000 in a two or three-year period. That is excellent and I pay tribute to Gareth for his work on that.
On the invitation to register, we also need to ensure that there is no political interference by politicians who do not want people to be registered. Liberal Democrat Members will be aware—I have mentioned this in the past—that when the ex-Liberal leader of Islington council was asked by the Labour group to have a registration drive to get the unregistered on to the register, he said, “No, we are not doing that. Keeping people off the register is how we win elections.” If there is such a degree of political interference within a local authority, it needs to be tackled. The case might have been isolated, if high profile, but we need measures to tackle political interference if it occurs.
Such interference could be tackled in a number of ways. There does not necessarily need to be political interference; there could be political, bureaucratic or administrative incompetence. If the job is not being done and the mustard is not being cut, a solution is needed to allow registration to take place. I ask the Minister to consider, in the final analysis, transferring the rights of a local authority’s underperforming electoral registration department to that of a neighbouring authority that is achieving or letting the Electoral Commission carry out the registration in emergency circumstances. Alternatively—I say this as a Labour Member—there is perhaps a case for using the private sector. Experian has built the databases and knows exactly where the unregistered are, so perhaps there is an opportunity for its involvement if local authorities are too lazy or if there is political interference.
A number of the amendments would put the onus on the local authority to explain why it is important for an individual to be on the register. More needs to be done and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham that the question of civic duty might fall on deaf ears. Having said that, I am very glad that the Government, who initially talked about downgrading the civic duty to a lifestyle choice, listened to the avalanche of complaints from across the country, from the civic sector and from Opposition parties and decided to keep the civic duty. The explanation from Ministers, from political parties and from the ERO of the reasons why someone should be on the electoral register and the benefits that it brings in getting a mortgage and credit is important. If members of the local population are not on the register, they will not have access to proper credit and will be forced into the hands of loan sharks.
A great deal more education and explanation are needed from EROs and us. I am pleased that a lot of progress has been made. I pay tribute to the Ministers, whom I have hounded over the past two and a half years with hundreds of written parliamentary questions and oral outbursts in Committee and in the Chamber. I make no apology for that. A group of dedicated MPs from all parties have pursued the issue and progress has been made, specifically on the issue of fixed penalty notices. I pay tribute to Ministers for that but I maintain that the whole Bill is unnecessary. These things could have been done with all-party support, through Labour’s Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. I did not support it—I voted for it, but it was not in my heart— but I accepted it as a political reality and necessity. These things could have been achieved with all-party parliamentary consensus in 2015.
I recently asked in a parliamentary question why Labour’s Act was negated and the 2015 deadline was brought forward to 2014. The answer was that it was imperative to go through all this turmoil and upset and to take up all this parliamentary time because there is great concern out there among the Great British public, 36% of whom believe that there is electoral fraud, that meant we must tackle the issue. I also asked how many cases of electoral fraud there were, and the Minister replied that there were a couple a year.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Electoral Commission’s report on the pilots a few years ago, which was buried following outcry from the Daily Mail and others, said that in most of the pilots—including e-voting, text voting and, to give an example from my constituency, full postal voting—fraud was negligible?
The question I drafted on the train from Rhyl to Euston this morning expands on my hon. Friend’s point. It asks what assessment the Minister has made—he might want to think about this overnight—of the reasons why 36% of the British public think that there is electoral fraud, on the impact of Ministers and Government MPs talking about electoral fraud and on its coverage in the media—
You have been very lenient, Mr Weir, and have let me rabbit on for a few minutes.
I give the Government credit for their recognition of representations from both sides of the House, civic society, the police, the Electoral Reform Society, Unlock Democracy, the courts and so on. They have listened, but this was all unnecessary. If they had stuck to Labour’s 2015 timetable, we would not have been discussing the matter today and would perhaps have been discussing the economy, growth or other such issues.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir.
I should acknowledge the very charitable comments—for him—made by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). It was pleasant to have such a polite outburst, compared with some of his previous ones. I acknowledge straight away that he is right that we all have a responsibility to help get these matters right. As Members of Parliament, we are in a very powerful position when it comes to talking to our electoral registration officers, asking what they are doing and checking that they are doing everything that is necessary. The same applies to senior councillors. I often hear anecdotal evidence that EROs say that they have trouble getting the resources to do the job properly, but the EROs and returning officers are often the more senior officers in the council. Councillors are very interested in ensuring that the electoral register is done properly and we as Members of Parliament have an opportunity, which the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should take, to ask EROs what they are doing. When the Bill becomes law, as I hope that it will, it will be incumbent on us all to talk to our EROs, to check that they are doing all the work and to ask how they are progressing in implementing the provisions.
I thank the hon. Members for Vale of Clwyd and for North Durham (Mr Jones) for what they said about the Select Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and the excellent work it did in pre-legislative scrutiny. I also thank the hon. Member for North Durham for what he said about our response to that scrutiny. There is not much point in its being done only for us to ignore all of it, and we made a number of significant changes before we introduced the Bill. I should also praise the hon. Gentleman for mentioning accuracy as well as completeness. They are of equal importance and the Government have focused on both.
It is relevant to amendment 34, standing in the name of the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, to confirm that the Government have concluded that the edited version of the electoral register should be retained. We have discussed whether it should be abolished with interested parties on both sides of the debate and received numerous representations. The previous Government consulted, but did not have the opportunity to take a decision before leaving office. There are those, particularly in the electoral community, including the Electoral Commission, who argue that having an edited register acts as a disincentive to people registering, but we have seen no convincing evidence of that. On the other side of the argument, some argue that it provides significant wider social and economic benefits, and in the previous Government’s consultation, 7,447 of about 7,600 responses favoured the edited register’s retention for those reasons. On balance—it is a finely balanced decision—the Government believe that keeping the edited register from which voters can choose to opt out is the right decision. I know it will be disappointing to some and welcomed by others, but that is the decision the Government have made.
The group of amendments have a theme of inserting various prescriptions about what local authorities should do and the information on the forms. A general point is that putting that sort of stuff in the Bill is not the right approach. In many cases, there is detail in some of the secondary legislation we have already published in draft, and I think that that sort of specific provision is better there than in the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) is no longer here, unfortunately, but in an intervention on the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), he referred to British citizenship, and I think it is worth stating for the record that the franchise for parliamentary elections consists of British citizens, Irish citizens who are resident in the United Kingdom, Commonwealth citizens who are resident here and either have or do not need leave to remain and, of course, British citizens who live overseas and are registered to vote; and for local elections, to that list are added European Union citizens resident in the United Kingdom. It is a complicated franchise and perhaps not what would have been produced had we started with a clean sheet of paper, but as I have said before, we have reached that position because of our complicated history, and when Parliament has considered the matter previously, it has decided to stay in broadly the same place. Given my hon. Friend’s comment, I thought it important to make that clear on the record.
Amendment 12 is about putting a statement on registration in the council tax communication. My first point—I think the hon. Lady alluded to this—is that I am not sure that the council tax document is read cover to cover by every voter, even though this year many will have been able to read that their council has frozen their council tax, thanks to the policies of this Government, which I am sure would have come as very welcome news. As well as not being enormously well read, the document tends to be looked at, if it is looked at by anyone, by the head of the household or the person who pays the council tax. I suspect it does not reach into every part of the home.
The hon. Lady is right to say that councils and registration officers have to contact people who are not on the register. That is why we are continuing the annual canvass and placing a new obligation on registration officers to invite unregistered people to register when they become aware of them, which applies all year round. In the second set of data-matching pilots, later this year, we will look for good ways to spot such people. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd made the point that local authorities have access to council tax data. If the database lists someone who pays council tax but that person is not registered to vote, under the proposals registration officers have a legal duty to use that information to write to that person to invite them to join the electoral register. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, all the other databases the local authority has can be used as well. That may be a good way of promoting electoral registration and some local authorities may think it effective, but it is not necessarily something we want to specify in the Bill. I therefore urge the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 13 would give local authorities a duty to invite people who move into the area and register for council tax purposes to join the electoral register. Local authorities have access to their council tax records and so are aware of such people, and the Electoral Commission’s guidance states that when they send out council tax bills, they should send rolling registration forms, but again, that will capture only the bill payer—the person who pays the council tax—and will not help to identify other people. However, the hon. Lady is right about the need to find ways to capture people who move home, as they are the group of people who are least likely to be registered and there is a direct link between the length of housing tenure and electoral registration. We are looking at various solutions, in particular solutions relating to the sorts of transaction people engage in when they move home. Registering for council tax may be one of those transactions, but again, I am not sure that we want to specify it in the Bill.
Amendment 16, to which the hon. Lady spoke as well, is about putting on electoral registration forms
“a clear explanation that the electoral register is used for other civic purposes”
and alluding to the financial checks for which the electoral register is used. Having seen the draft secondary legislation that we published last week, the hon. Lady will know that the IER forms will carry a statement about the processing of the data that the individual supplies, which will set out clearly what the information is used for, both on the full register—for purposes such as credit checks and fraud prevention—and on the edited register.
Several hon. Members spotted that we intend to work with the Electoral Commission on designing the forms. Several Members spotted that in clause 5 there is a power to give that responsibility to the Electoral Commission. When the Electoral Commission designs forms, it carries out user testing in order to produce forms that are clear, brief and to the point, and to ensure that they are properly understood and properly completed. We want to use that work to decide what should be on the form and whether there should be some other documentation with the forms. When the Electoral Commission has done that work, we have the powers in clause 5 and in paragraph 18 of schedule 4 to require registration officers to provide that information. We would want to do that if, for example, there are aspects of the forms that the Electoral Commission identified as effective.
The information could also be in the campaigns that are run by the Electoral Commission or the local authority. I live in London, in the borough of Lambeth, and I have seen some of the council’s advertisements, which focus—
May I make a suggestion concerning the registration form? There should be a simple tick-box for people to register for a postal vote. In some cases, they have to register to vote, and on a different form register for a postal vote. A tick-box on the registration form would be much easier.
Let me conclude my previous thought and I will come to that.
Some local authorities already use the register for the other purposes for which it can be used—for example, to run credit checks, or when people want credit for a mobile phone—as a positive method of encouraging people to be registered. This is where is it important to give EROs the power to consider their local circumstances. Depending on the area, depending how many people move, how often and the kinds of people, there are different messages that may work with different groups of people. The ERO should have the opportunity to do that. The Electoral Commission will be doing some work with us on this. When the commission suggests that certain things should be on the form and should be mandated, we have the powers to do that.
On postal votes and the point made by the hon. Member for North Durham, a separate form must be completed. In order to prevent fraud, people have to provide identifiers, such as date of birth and a signature for the electoral registration officer—[Interruption] The hon. Member for North Durham says, “On one form.” If we are moving towards allowing people to register electronically, a postal voter would still have to provide a hard copy signature, so the process cannot be made completely seamless. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Some local authorities may want to collect all the information, including date of birth, at one time. I will take his suggestion and see whether there is anything in our regulations which would prevent that. It may be one of the things that we can ask the Electoral Commission and some of our stakeholders to investigate to see whether that would be helpful for voters.
I am grateful for the Minister’s response. I accept that a signature and date of birth are needed, but surely those could be provided on one form. That would save council administration and encourage people who want to apply for a postal vote to do so more easily.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, and, as I said, I will take it away and look at it. We will make sure that there is nothing that prevents such a suggestion, and we will also investigate it with our stakeholders, including the commission, administrators and a lot of the groups, particularly focusing on those who might find a postal vote helpful. We can perhaps trial some of that and see whether it is effective. That is a helpful suggestion from the hon. Gentleman.
Amendment 17 links Government Departments with responsibility for welfare payments, pensions, driving licences, revenue collection and national insurance with information about the electoral register. I agree with that up to a point and we will already be doing some of that. However, it would not be helpful to mandate that, given that most voters are already on the electoral register and quite a lot of people do not move about all the time. We do not want to insist on making every transaction with each of those Departments more complex. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge about signposting and making that kind of linkage more effective.
The hon. Member for North Durham mentioned driving licences, and we are working with the Department for Transport on that. He also mentioned Directgov, and the Government Digital Service, which is working with us on developing the online registration tool, is also responsible for Directgov, so they will work seamlessly together. Where Departments deal with people who move about or new voters, we are considering signposting and giving people prompts. If we did that electronically and people needed only to tick a box, potentially they could be redirected straight to the site where they could register online. For some voters, that would be an effective way of driving up registration.
Directgov would be a good system, because the identifier is down to the individual, and it allows one to do a whole range of things. To be able to register to vote through it, accepting that a form may be required to obtain a signature later, would be much easier for a lot of people, especially when they move house. A lot can be done through Directgov in one place, which is always useful.
The hon. Gentleman makes some good points. Once we have an online method of registering in the first instance, that will be very effective. It already works very well in a number of local authorities for re-registering each year. I have just received my form in my constituency of the Forest Dean and I was able to re-register in a matter of minutes on my BlackBerry, putting in the code and ticking the opt-out box for the edited register. That worked very smoothly and a confirmation e-mail arrived. Many local authorities already do that. What they cannot do, because they are not empowered to do so, is effect new registrations in that way. Once we can do that, many people will move to that, either doing it themselves, or, if they need assistance, through an assisted digital method. It is important that people have that assistance and I think that is where people will start going.
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, like Members beforehand, raised concerns about younger voters, particularly attainers—16 and 17-year-olds who get registered. I have been to Northern Ireland and seen how they register young people directly in schools. The chief electoral officer’s staff do a presentation, focusing on the civic side and the need to register to have a vote and to have one’s say, but they are not above looking at some of the other reasons that young people might want to be registered to vote, such as credit. Northern Ireland has a voter ID card and electoral staff run also through some of its practical uses, such as proof of age. Interestingly, as I have said in debates before, now that younger voters are engaged with directly, a higher percentage of them are registered to vote than in Great Britain, where we rely on mum and dad to do that.
So, I am a bit more hopeful. Having spoken to young people when I visit schools, as I am sure have many Members, I think that such direct engagement is a way to get them not just to register to vote but to use their vote. One of the depressing points is that young people, even when registered, are the least likely to cast their vote. In a sense, getting lots of people registered just to see them not vote is not very encouraging, so I think that we can all do a better job on that. However, as I said, I am more hopeful about younger voters engaging directly. There is some evidence that if we can engage with voters directly, rather than relying on one person in the household, we might all be pleasantly surprised.
Last but not least, let me turn to amendment 34, tabled by the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), on behalf of a number of its members. In passing, I congratulate him and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on the explanatory statements to their amendments, which were very helpful to Members. The hon. Gentleman can explain to his Front Benchers how to produce such statements, because they did not manage to produce any for their amendments, meaning that we had great difficulty following what they were on about, which caused a little altercation earlier in the debate. As we would expect from a Chair of a Select Committee, he offers an exemplar of good parliamentary procedure.
With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s specific request, in our draft secondary legislation, which I hope he will note we have published while the Bill is still going through the House—that was one of the questions I was asked when I appeared before his Committee, and we have already done that in a number of areas—we have said that the application forms will include a statement on the processing of data, so that it will be very clear what the information and the full register and the edited register can be used for. The Electoral Commission will ensure that the forms are as user-friendly as possible.
Of course, if people are to be able to opt out of the edited register, it is important that that is a very clear choice for them. Again, some local authorities currently have very clear forms and are clear about what the data are used for, but some do not. Some, I am told—I have seen evidence of this—slightly misrepresent what the information is used for in order to encourage people to opt out, and some do not provide very clear information on what the decision is about. We are looking at that, and the Electoral Commission will do some user testing to make sure that the forms are clear and that people are clear about what the register is used for and what the decision to opt out is about. The hon. Member for Nottingham North is absolutely right that it is very important that they do so.
Part of our thinking behind keeping the edited register was making sure that the information on voters’ decisions to opt out is not more widely available. That is acceptable. If they are not sure and they are not given a clear decision, that is clearly not a satisfactory position, so we will be working closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure that the forms are clear and straightforward. On that basis, I urge the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge and for Nottingham North, respectively, to withdraw and not press their amendments.
May I echo the comments of other Members in the Chamber and say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir?
Indeed, it was a pleasure to listen to the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who chairs the Select Committee. As other Members have said, he did a superb job in the report that the Committee produced. I also appreciated his comments about the importance of the registration process to democracy—a point we have made repeatedly from the Front Bench over the two days in Committee. He mentioned the sacrifices that have been made in the name of democracy by people in the Nottingham area in the past. I would add to that record the campaign waged by the Levellers, no less, many of whom were shot in the churchyard in Burford in Oxfordshire. And to that list we can add the suffragettes. The history is long and it is one that we should be proud of in some ways.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) outlined perfectly the importance of extending the ways in which people can register to vote, particularly online, and talked about the importance of the amendment relating to credit and mortgage facilities.
I put on the record once again the long and arduous campaign that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) has waged not so much to get this legislation and approach on the statute book, as to get it right. My hon. Friend talked about the rights and responsibilities of elected Members, and I join the Minister in underlining the responsibilities of elected representatives at every level on that score. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I and my colleagues from the city of Sheffield have done exactly as he has recommended in the past, and it has had an impact on the work carried out by our local electoral registration officer.
I have been quite heartened by the Minister’s response to the four amendments before us in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David). It has been made absolutely clear that there is a place one way or another—via secondary legislation, guidance issued by the Electoral Commission or its work in designing the necessary forms for the new process—for the points that we have made in our amendments, and that the Government take them seriously and have listened to them, so the Opposition’s response has to be that we will watch very carefully to see how the Minister’s comments play out as the process unrolls, unwinds and is implemented over the next few months and years.
On amendment 17, the signposting principle that the Minister outlined, particularly in relation to new voters and people who move, is important, and the Opposition take his points about young people. The point about electoral registration officers, or their staff in a big authority area such as Sheffield, Leeds or Manchester, going into a school to educate young people and encourage them to participate in the democratic process—perhaps as part of citizenship classes—is a very important one which makes a valuable contribution to the debate, but it will require resources.
Electoral registration officers and their staff will have to feel that they have the time and money to spend on undertaking such work. In a city such as Sheffield, there are almost 180 schools, 27 or 28 of which are secondary, so we are talking about a significant commitment on the part of EROs and their departments to make the process work, but I take the Minister’s point and accept that citizenship classes in schools could benefit enormously from such engagement with the local democratic process. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
It is a great pleasure to speak again on these very important issues and, in particular, on the amendments before us, regarding the civic duty that we all have to vote, and the question of what a society does when, in a voluntaristic democracy, some individuals consistently refuse to play by the rules, to play their part and to carry out their share of the democratic duty that should fall on all of us.
We have heard a lot about the sacrifices that people have made, and I will not go over those issues again, but, when one looks at the history books and sees what sacrifices people made to achieve the vote, one finds that it adds great resonance to our debate. We have all had the experience of people who say, “Well, I don’t bother. I don’t even register. A plague on all your houses —it doesn’t mean anything to me.” As far as I am concerned, that is breaking the social contract that we all have when we commit to serving our democracy. If we do not maintain, hone and develop that social contract, we leave the door open for those who would take away our very democracy.
Therefore, on behalf of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I am taking what might at first sight appear to be a rather draconian view. It is that, in extreme circumstances, after many warnings and much discussion, there should be a power—a reserve power—to fine those who deliberately flout the rules and regulations of registration.
How did the hon. Gentleman’s Committee come up with the figure of £500?
I do not think that any science was involved in coming to that figure; the Committee felt that it should be pitched at a reasonable level. If it were pitched lower—at a parking or traffic-offence level—it might be regarded less seriously. Where it is actually pitched is a matter for debate and for the Government, but I hope that they will listen to people who say that, on the very rare occasions when a prosecution takes place, such offences should be met with an adequate fine.
I am not suggesting that everyone who fails to register should be fined £500. We heard that in a whole year in this country, people were prosecuted for non-registration only 67 times. That is not quite one in a million, but such prosecutions are a very rare occurrence. However, we need the power to fine so that people understand how seriously we take the matter.
I congratulate the Government again on how they have moved on a number of these issues. I am delighted to be joined by a member of my Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), who participated in our debates and made sure that so many of our proposals were put in a way that allowed the Government to accept them and take the Bill forward.
Like the other Committee members, my hon. Friend will remember the early days when it appeared that our electoral system was almost being marketised or commodified by some of the phraseology around at the time. Our right to vote—our democracy—is, in the Committee’s opinion, a civic duty and I am delighted that the Government have reaffirmed that. It is not a consumer choice; it is not a punt, a bet or going down the shops—it is about how we run our society. There are alternatives to democracy; it is important that it is healthy and strong and that everybody participates in it.
From my hon. Friend’s perspective, would the £500 represent more of a preventive measure, that would hopefully garner so much registration that it would never have to be used? A lower figure might mean that many more people would not register and would be taken to court.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. If someone is fined for failing to register, that is a symbol of failure for us all—Government and non-Government Members, those on Select Committees and those who are not. We want everybody in our democracy to participate. Many of us have said on visits to schools and other places, “Yes, of course, in a partisan way we care about the way you vote, but we come and do these things because we feel you’ve got to exercise your rights in a democracy and as a citizen.” The lessons that we give to our children, particularly teenagers, when we talk to them in those terms apply to everybody.
It would be a failure if we fined people every time, but as my hon. Friend said, there needs to be a preventive, deterrent effect that encourages people to vote who might otherwise say, “Well, nothing will happen if I don’t, so I’m not going to bother.” If the thought that something might happen is in the back of their mind, a lot of people will be encouraged to register who otherwise would not do so. If they then choose not to vote or decide to go to the polling station and spoil their ballot, that is their decision, but they are enabled to make that decision by the very fact that they are on the register, and disabled from doing so if they are not on the register or encourage others not to be on the register.
I, too, welcome the Government’s direction of travel on the penalty. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that rather than becoming too hung up about the figure, we should consider how to communicate the fact that there is a penalty at all? It is about the size of the font and the prominence given to the wording in the documentation that is sent out as much as the scale of the fine.
At the risk of summoning the ghost of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), the hon. Gentleman makes that point far more articulately, and perhaps more often, than I do. If we can persuade people to vote because they have got this message clearly from the panoply of paperwork that we send out to get them to register, then that in itself is a good thing, and it will mean that the threat of deploying a fine is not acted on.
As the Minister said, members of the Select Committee are trying to be as good as we can in giving the Committee an explanatory statement of the amendments so that Members can wander into the debate and know exactly what we are talking. The statement is straightforward. We hope that the deterrent would be used only very sparingly and rarely, if ever, but it says, in effect, that the concept of registering to vote is not about marketisation or convenience but about values—the values of which we in this place must be the guardians at every conceivable opportunity. The amendment is about the right of every qualified individual in this country to vote for the governance of their choice, and we believe that it would safeguard and extend the possibility of all of us enjoying that right.
The burden of the argument in the earlier part of the speech by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) seemed to be that there should be a fine for not voting. If I have misunderstood that, I apologise.
In the long history of these islands, people have sought to accomplish the very thing that we represent here—a representative democracy that is their check on autocratic government and all the things that go with it. I profoundly believe in exercising the right to vote. I have never not voted, with the exception of the time when I was abroad as a student, when it was not possible to vote as such a person. However, I also believe that with a sense of liberty goes the right not to vote. This is a clear choice of citizens. When I first stood for election during the 1980s, most of the polls in my area, which is in the west midlands and is not the wealthiest of regions any more, we had turnouts of between 79% and 81%. As we know, the collection of data for the electoral register—the very thing that we are talking about—is under-recording numbers because of movements or deaths. Therefore, 79% to 81% is a very good turnout. Only in the most recent years has the turnout collapsed. Who is to say why?
May I reassure the hon. Gentleman, whose record is second to none in this House in the service of democracy, that nothing in my amendment indicates that someone should be fined for not voting? The sanction would apply to people who do not register and should apply only in rare cases as a way of encouraging individuals to get on the register. People may then choose to not vote, to spoil their ballot paper or to vote for the party of their choice.
Will the hon. Gentleman muse on the new Boundary Commission rule that a minimum number of electors has to be found in a ward, and that if the number is even one short, a whole other electoral ward must be brought in to make the constituency up to the correct size? We could therefore have a situation in which that happens because of the non-registration of one person. That is how the rules are written, as I understand them. In that scenario, the registration of one voter becomes vital.
I would think that the truth of the matter is that the rough must be taken with the smooth. It is the particularisation that I do not like.
I agree that having a correct census is fundamental to a democracy, and yet that is not universal. There are not many fines in relation to the census and we still do not have a complete one. However, I am very cautious about the idea of forcing anyone to do anything in their relationship with the democratic process, whether it is voting for parties or anything else. Australia has a fine for not voting, in theory, but I do not think that that is appropriate for us. It would be an inhibition on liberty. If I do not wish to be part of a process, as a free-born Briton, surely I have that right. That is the essence of what being British was about once upon a time.
I am not going to get excited, because I have been here a long time and I have heard all the passing nostrums. I am not saying that this is a nostrum, because the hon. Member for Nottingham North is trying to address a genuine worry; I do not doubt that. However, I have the sense that I am free born and that I may do what I wish, with my view of public officials, because that is entirely a matter for me, and that I should not be required to register with the possibility of a penalty if I do not vote. That seems to me to be the other side of the coin to liberty.
To follow on from the point that has just been made, I believe that in a democracy everybody should be able to choose whether to exercise their right to vote, but to do that they have to be on the register. That is what this debate is about. People must be on the register so that they are able to choose whether to vote in an election.
The Government are committed to continuing with the fine under the current legislation of £1,000 for households that refuse to co-operate with the electoral registration officer. However, they have had second thoughts on whether it is appropriate to introduce a fine or civil penalty for individuals who refuse to co-operate.
Like other hon. Members, I welcome that change, because initially the Government suggested in the draft Bill that registration would be a matter of personal choice. Many argued that to register is a civic duty and responsibility, and that there should be a civil penalty attached for individuals who do not co-operate.
I also welcome the fact that the Government intend to use the fine sparingly. Their impact assessment states:
“Currently the criminal offence of not responding to a household registration form is used to encourage compliance and thus maintain the completeness of the electoral register. It is sparsely applied in practice and 150 prosecutions are actually initiated annually. It is intended that the new civil penalty will be used in the same way thus the propensity to issue fines should not increase,”
which is perfectly reasonable. The important thing is the declaration—I take the point made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on that. It is important to make such a stipulation prominent, so that people are aware of their responsibility. The threat—the incentive—to comply is important, not the penalty.
The penalty is not the first but the last resort. People can do a range of administrative things, including visits, letters and calls, which hon. Members use within political parties to get people out to vote, before a fine is levied. The penalty will enable people to register. It would not be fixed in the sense that a bureaucrat will say, “I see Mrs Smith hasn’t registered. Send her a £500 fine.” It will be the last in a very long chain of events.
My hon. Friend makes the point extremely well. He mentions in passing his proposal for a £500 fine. The official Opposition are proposing a £100 fine. Both probing amendments were tabled because we are disappointed that the Government, despite the encouragement we have given them, have not proposed a figure for the fine. We are told that the figure will be in regulations in the not-too-distant future.
As I have mentioned regulations, Mr Weir, may I make a point in passing? The Minister referred a number of times to the draft regulations placed in the Library last Monday. I went to the Library after our debate last Monday and was told that the regulations were placed there at 4.1 pm, or 22 minutes before the debate began. As he well knows, it is impossible for any reasonable person to discuss such regulations with such access. In addition, the existence of the draft regulations is more theoretical than real—only two appeared, when the others would have been directly relevant to the debate. We must wait for the publication of the other draft regulations, but the communication placed in the Library was clear that there are no draft regulations in six important areas.
The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) spoke of affronts to liberty, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is an affront to liberty that Ministers can set the level of the fine by diktat outwith the processes of the House? All Governments have introduced such provisions—I am not making a partisan point—but we should take that power by amending the Bill this evening. All hon. Members would understand that, and the Government would have the ability to adjust the fine over the years, because of inflation or because a different view is taken of the offence.
My hon. Friend makes his point very clearly. That is precisely what we would have liked: full parliamentary scrutiny, with the figure having been presented to us in the Bill or at least in regulations that we could have considered in parallel. In fact, we put that request to the Government months ago, so I am disappointed—not from a partisan point of view but in the interest of scrutiny and democracy—that it has not been possible. There are several gems in the regulations. I do not want to digress, but there is a reference to “agile methodology”. That is a new one on me. Perhaps the Minister could write to me about what it means with regard to verification.
We do not know the size of the civil penalty the Government have in mind. The Minister was reported as saying that it would be something like a parking fine, but that does not take us very far forward. As I said on Second Reading, in Westminster local authority, the higher-rate parking fine is £130 and the lower-rate £110; in my own area of Caerphilly the higher rate is £75 and the lower rate £30; and next door, in Rhondda Cynon Taff, the higher rate is £50 and the lower rate £25. I could go on, but the point is that there is a tremendous national variation. We know that these fines will not vary, but to say that they will be like a parking fine does not tell us much at all.
That is right. A balance has to be struck. We had hoped to debate whether the Government had struck that balance, but unfortunately we cannot come to that decision. Perhaps before the end of the debate the Minister will tell us what level of fine the Government have in mind.
I want to say one or two words about the draft secondary legislation. I do not apologise for when I laid it in the Library, because we are not debating it; we are debating the Bill. I put it in the Library so that Members could see it. I know I said this last week, but I will repeat it, because the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) needs to think it through: I will take no lectures from him about secondary legislation. Two similar Bills delegating significant powers to Ministers on electoral matters were introduced in the previous Parliament. I shall tell the House when the previous Government published the secondary legislation. It never published any in draft during the parliamentary passage of the Bill. The first any Members saw of any secondary legislation was after royal assent. I have published the draft secondary legislation while the Bill is still before this House, let alone the other one, and I have said that the rest of the secondary legislation will be published by the autumn, before the Bill has finished its passage through the other place. It might not be perfect and we might not be paragons of virtue, but we are doing an awful lot better than the previous Government. He ought to think about that before makes that point again.
Does the Minister accept that the difference between the two previous Bills, which, I admit, were certainly not perfect, and this Bill is that the former were not highly politicised? The 2009 legislation had cross-party support, but this Bill is highly contentious. We believe it to be highly politicised and the Conservative party’s ticket to winning the next election and the one afterwards. There is polarity there, which is why we need to see the fine print.
Order. Before the Minister gets too far into this, let me remind the Committee that we are not debating the secondary legislation at this point. Let us debate what is before the Committee. The Minister can reply if he wants to, but I hope he will shortly bring us back to the main subject.
That is a good steer, Mr Weir. Let me make the point in passing that the 2009 Act to which the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) referred was not uncontroversial. We voted against it by way of a reasoned amendment because it did not include provisions on individual electoral registration. They were put in only when the Bill went to the other place, so I think we have done very well. Let me clarify what we have done. We have added to the secondary legislation and put in provisions setting out the steps the registration officer should take before insisting on a penalty and we have set out some information about the penalty, to which I shall return in a few moments.
Let me explain, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned it, that “agile methodology” is a way of developing information technology—the way it is done in the private sector—in order to avoid complicated and massive IT systems that cost a fortune, do not work and then have to be scrapped. We have learned much from how the previous Government operated; this is the way in which this Government will develop IT systems, and I think that they will be much more successful.
Picking up on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd), let me be clear from the beginning that we are talking about registration; we are absolutely not talking about imposing a penalty for not voting. Voting is voluntary and it will remain voluntary. While this Government are in office, there will be no proposals to change that. I am always disappointed when people do not vote, but they absolutely have the right not to, and it is our job as politicians to give them reasons for going out to vote or use their postal vote and to ensure that there is no obstacle to their doing so. If they do not vote, it will be because we have not given them sufficiently compelling reasons either to vote for us or against us, depending on their point of view. That remains the case.
It is worth setting out—it is a bit of a stand part debate, but it is relevant to the amendments—how we have arrived at this point. Members will know that it is not now and will not be in the future a specific offence not to register to vote in the first instance. The current position is that if people do not respond to the household form or, indeed, other inquiries that the electoral registration officer makes—this is the current way of getting on the electoral register—it is a criminal offence with a penalty of up to £1,000. We have no plans to change that; it will remain in place.
The question we faced with the invitation to register was whether to have a penalty. The hon. Member for Caerphilly is quite right that when the draft Bill was first published, it did not include a penalty. Several hon. Members have touched on the public policy reasons justifying a penalty. Some aspects of registration affect other people. First, the register provides the source of jurors, and it is important to have balanced juries made up of a proper cross-section of adult electors. Secondly, electoral registers can affect boundary changes—not just parliamentary boundary changes, but local ones as well, as highlighted by several hon. Members. That is why we decided it made sense to have a civil penalty, which was also in response to the Select Committee’s report and some of the evidence that was taken.
As for the amendments—the Select Committee’s amendment 33 and amendment 14 from the hon. Member for Caerphilly—regardless of the amounts specified, I do not believe it sensible to put the civil penalty directly in the Bill, as this would be better done through secondary legislation. I hesitate to correct the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chairman of the Select Committee, but these matters are not at the diktat of the Minister. All the Bill’s powers are made by Ministers, but they all have to be approved by way of affirmative resolutions by both Houses. There is proper parliamentary control over the exercise of that Executive power.
I hope that both hon. Members will withdraw their amendments; as I said, it is not appropriate to put the figures directly on the face of the Bill rather than implement them through secondary legislation. As for how we get to the figure for the penalty, I am afraid that the hon. Member for Caerphilly is going to remain disappointed for today, as I do not propose to pluck a figure out of the air. The process we want to adopt is one that we have done all the way through—we are going to listen to people. We have explained how we will go about this. We think that the analogy with parking fines is sensible. The hon. Member for Caerphilly observed that there was a range of parking fines across the country, but the range is fairly narrow. A parking fine is not £500; it is about £40 at the lower end and £130 at the higher end.
There are some good arguments in favour of setting the fine at the higher level, for instance to reflect the importance of the matter and to ensure that it is a proper deterrent, but there are also arguments in favour of setting it at the lower level. Unlike the £1,000 fine issued by magistrates who can take into account the circumstances of voters—both the extent to which they believe them to be culpable and their financial resources—this will be a fixed penalty. It should also be borne in mind that although the criminal penalty involves a maximum fine of £1,000, the fines that are actually issued are usually much lower. During the 2011 canvass, the London borough of Hounslow successfully prosecuted 10 people for not providing the information required, but the average fine issued was £125. That was because magistrates were able to take various factors into account. This penalty will be fixed throughout the country, and when it is issued it will not be possible for the electoral registration officer to alter it.
We have listed a number of factors that should guide the arguments in favour of a higher or lower level, given broadly the same range as that which applies to parking fines, and we will do some targeted work with our stakeholders and consider their responses. I suspect that some will favour a reasonably high number for encouragement purposes, while others will be a little concerned about the potential impact.
I have listened carefully to the arguments that have been advanced today. I think that the hon. Member for Caerphilly’s proposal is at least in the ball park of the parking fine system, while the figure suggested by the hon. Member for Nottingham North on behalf of his Select Committee is rather on the high side. We will draw our conclusions, and Members will be able to see what we have come up with.
I should also say, in response to a point made by both the hon. Member for Caerphilly—who referred to the impact assessment—and the hon. Member for Nottingham North, that this is not the first course to which electoral registration officers should resort. We do not want them running around the country handing out fines like confetti; indeed, in an ideal world we would not want fines at all.
Those who receive parking fines can usually reduce them by paying promptly, but they cannot reduce them to zero. In this instance, everyone who incurs a civil penalty—and we hope that the number will be no more than the 100 a year or so who incur criminal penalties—will be able to reduce the amount to zero by registering to vote. If they register as a result of incurring the penalty, the electoral registration officer will be able to waive it. The purpose is to persuade people to register, not to issue fines. The Bill will prevent registration officers from keeping the money, so that they are not tempted, and so that people do not think that they are issuing the fines in order to use them as a revenue generation exercise, which would be just as bad.
We will specify—and have set out in draft regulations—what registration officers must do. They must issue the invitation, send reminders and send a door-to-door canvasser, and they must be satisfied that the individual has received the invitation and still resides at the address involved. Only when they have done all that can they tell people that they will issue a notice, and that if they do not register after that, a penalty will be incurred.
The Minister touched on an important point earlier. He will know that some London boroughs, in particular, have given parking attendants an incentive to issue tickets by offering payment by results. Will he include in secondary legislation a methodology that would preclude such activities in areas where the level of registration is usually low in the first instance, so that there is no incentive to fleece the taxpayer?
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend was present when I said this, but we have included in the Bill the important provision that any revenue from fines does not go to the ERO and is not kept by the local authority. It must go to the centre. The purpose of the fines is to encourage people to register to vote, not to generate revenue for local authorities. Therefore, the process of issuing a penalty will come with a cost to, and a burden on, the local authority. We do not want this to become a means of revenue generation for local authorities, as some people think is the case in respect of parking and speeding fines. I am confident our proposals strike the right balance.
Many constituencies with large numbers of unregistered voters cover some of the poorest areas of the country, where cuts in other areas will loom large. EROs will be under a lot of pressure. If they legitimately raise finance through fines, should they not be allowed to keep a proportion of that, to reflect the additional work they will have to do? Will every step be monitored? Further, will there be an increase in bureaucracy, and if so, how will it be paid for?
I shall make two points in response to the hon. Gentleman’s questions. First, some of our stakeholders are concerned that many people who are not registered to vote may well be poorer people; they do not want people without much money being hit with fines and being financially penalised. We thought about this matter when drafting the legislation, and my view was that it was better to make sure there was not a financial incentive. Everyone who gave us feedback, including EROs, said they wanted a penalty. They do not want to issue any penalties, however; rather, they want to be able to write a scary notice on the form saying, “If you don’t do this, something will happen, so you can’t just ignore this form and put it in the bin.” That goes back to a point made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams).
We will work with the Electoral Commission on how to set out the description of the penalty so that it has the desired effect. It will test that in the design of forms, through user testing. If we come up with forms that are effective in this regard, we will be able to make it mandatory that they are used, which is important because at present authorities do these things in a variety of ways.
On this question, may I refer the Minister to the example set by Denbighshire county council, which stated in the middle of its form for registration, “If you do not fill this form in, you will be fined £1,000”? The warning has to be prominent and at the centre of the page, so that the recipients of these forms clearly understand that they must fill them in.
The Electoral Commission will consider such issues when addressing the design of the form, and I am sure the points the hon. Gentleman raises will be taken into account.
Having set out why I do not think the level of the fine should be stated in the Bill, and having drawn attention to the draft secondary legislation and the approach we plan to take in coming up with that figure—rather than just making it up, we will listen to what stakeholders have to say—I hope the amendments will be withdrawn so we can allow the clause as currently drafted to stand part of the Bill.
First, may I name-check another member of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), for her attendance and contribution? She made an epic contribution, and she was extremely helpful to me when I was indisposed, in making sure the Committee carried out its scrutiny duties effectively. Secondly, may I give credit to the Government, as they have moved on this issue? At the outset, there was not to be any fine whatever, and it takes courage, and some cost, to listen, and the Government should be commended in this Chamber and outside it for having done so. There is more to do, of course, but we are now in a position from where we can move forward.
There were a couple of references in the debate to Robert Caro’s mammoth biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who, from a very difficult position, became the leading promoter of civil rights, including civil rights legislation. At the beginning of those enormous volumes, the scene is set by a black woman in the south seeking to get registered to vote. We need to remember, particularly in discussing registration and clause 5, that she was prohibited from participating in the democracy of the United States not by being prevented from voting, but because she could not even register in order then to participate in the voting process. That is why this clause is important, and why I hope the Minister will listen to the arguments that have been made tonight. In order to ensure that he listens even more carefully than he normally does, I will withdraw my amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 3 agreed to.
Transitional provision to do with Part 1
I beg to move amendment 21, in schedule 5, page 27, line 21, at end insert—
‘(6) The Government shall report to Parliament annually within two months of the end of the financial year on what money had been made available to local authorities to meet costs of transition to the new register and what safeguards have been put in place to make sure the money has been spent on the specified task.’.
I will refer specifically to the amendment and then more generally to schedule 5. On the financing of individual electoral registration, our concern is whether sufficient finance is being provided. The explanatory notes that accompany the Bill indicate that:
“A total of £108m was allocated at the Spending Review in 2010…This includes £85m resource funding in 2014/15 to fund registration officers to make contact with each potential elector individually”
who hopes to be on the register.
The petitioners of individual electoral registration and those who work in the field have concerns. I cite in particular the comments of the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, Mr John Turner. I know there has been discussion between the Government and the association, which I welcome. However, Mr Turner made the following important point in his written evidence to the Select Committee:
“It is our view that the successful implementation of the new system will depend on the relevant funding going directly”—
I emphasise the word “directly”—
“to electoral services.”
This is critical. He continues:
“Any funding needs to continue post 2015 and should not simply be seen as one-off capital funding.”
Our concern is essentially in line with his comments. We are worried, for example, that there will be insufficient resources to provide electoral registration officers with the necessary new guidance and training, particularly in respect of data management. We recognise that it will be necessary to enhance the skills and knowledge base of officers, and we are concerned that money is not provided for that. In other words, a comprehensive training re-vamp is needed, along with a comprehensive skills analysis, in order to inform the appropriate provision of training and support for electoral administrators.
In addition, there is also the fear, as I said, that the money allocated by the Government will not eventually get through to where it is needed. We have tabled this amendment because, ideally, we would like these resources to be ring-fenced, so that the whole transition period and the implementation of a new system is properly financed with money that is guaranteed. The only way that electoral registration officers can plan effectively and do what is necessary is if they know exactly how much money is coming through.
One additional problem that will be faced, which has been discussed a lot in the course of the debate, is the differential involved in how various areas will find carrying out this process. We already know how different that can be, even within parts of an area, but certainly between different areas. We have to be confident that this will be provided for.
That is a good point, because one of our concerns about the Government’s approach to this legislation is that it will not be a comprehensive one right across the country. We feel that where there is a perceived need for more resources to be allocated, those resources will not, in fact, be allocated to where they are required. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.
That leads me to a specific question I have about the devolved institutions—the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I made inquiries the other day with the Welsh Assembly Government as to whether or not any agreement had been reached with central Government about an appropriate allocation of resources to the Assembly, because local government is devolved. I was concerned to be told that no such agreement had been reached with the Cabinet Office. So people in Wales are not sure exactly what sum will be made available and whether or not the Welsh Assembly Government will have the ability to do what they believe is necessary within the confines of Wales. So I would welcome any comments the Minister wishes to make about Wales and Scotland.
In the second half of my comments, I wish to refer more generally to schedule 5, which relates to the transition to the new system. The amendments that we tabled last Monday have already been discussed, but we have concerns about this schedule in particular. It is a vital part of the Bill, and we are very concerned about postal votes and the number of electors who will be on the register when the next boundary review takes place in December 2015.
It is not my intention to repeat the arguments I used a week ago, but I would just like to make a couple of points, the first of which relates to postal votes. Strong representations on postal votes have been made by a number of organisations. I particularly wish to cite the most recent joint circular given to Members of Parliament by Mencap, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Age Concern, Scope and Sense. Those organisations say:
“We believe that an appropriate balance must be struck between safeguarding individual registration against electoral fraud and ensuring accessibility. We remain concerned about the risks involved in the arrangements currently in place for dealing with postal votes during the transition to IER. Postal votes are disproportionately used by disabled and older voters.”
That is a very important point and, despite their listening exercise, the Government have not truly taken on board the points made by all those organisations which have united to speak with one voice to set out their concerns in moderate and reasonable ways.
Those organisations have supported our amendments 18 and 19, saying that our approach
“would give those people wishing to use postal votes time to register under the new system before the next election.”
Our concern is that many of these postal voters will not be able to vote at the next election. The circular goes on to say that our approach
“would have allowed for disabled and older people, who disproportionately make use of postal votes, time to familiarise themselves with the new system and ensure that they remain eligible for postal voting at the next election.”
We strongly endorse those points.
May I set this out in a genuine sense, through an anecdote? My mother is 86 years of age and she has a postal vote. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] She will very pleased. She has had her postal vote for many years and, as far as she was concerned, when she filled in the form to have a postal vote it was for the rest of her life. I hope that she will get through the Government’s data-matching exercise, as otherwise she will be asked to reapply for a postal vote at the ripe old age of 86—it will be a fairly detailed application, too. It is unreasonable to put such a burden on elderly people and the Government should, at the very least, ensure that the carry-over is the same as it is for other voters.
We are not making a partisan point. A number of people have said to me that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, owed his success in the recent mayoral election to postal votes. My point is simply that it makes sense for all of us who are concerned about democracy, participation and access for elderly and disabled people to the electoral system that they should have the same facility for postal and proxy votes as everybody else. They should not be singled out.
My second point about schedule 5 concerns the reference to the carry-over for the boundary review of 2015, or rather to the lack of a carry-over. In the transition to IER, there is concern that the new register will be at its most vulnerable at the very start. That concern has been expressed by a number of experts and academics and reflects the experience in Northern Ireland. Concern has also been expressed by the all-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. It has been suggested that the lack of carry-over represents what the Electoral Commission fears most of all.
It is most unfortunate that the Government have introduced IER before the second set of pilots, which we discussed in Committee the other day. It would have been far better if the results of those pilots had emerged and confirmed that, as we hoped, there would not be a problem. We could then all have proceeded happily. Many people have said that it is quite likely, as was the case with the first tranche of pilots, that that second tranche will show that there is a problem with IER, particularly at the start of the new system. We are concerned about that.
To illustrate once again that we are not taking a partisan approach, let me refer to a number of other organisations and academics who have made representations. In particular, I want to point out the evidence given to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee by one of the most distinguished academics in this area, Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, senior lecturer in social policy at the university of Liverpool and executive director of Democratic Audit. He said:
“If we do see a large number of people drop off the registers, even if in all likelihood they are not going to vote, that will have a profound implication for the redrawing of boundaries under the new rules that have just gone through. If there is going to be a political effect, that is where we could see it very, very significantly, because if the kind of groups we expect to drop off the register are the ones that we start to see drop off the register, it really could have profound effects for the redrawing of constituency boundaries next time round.”
He is not grinding any political axe; that is an objective evaluation of where we are.
Dr Wilks-Heeg referred to particular groups who were at risk of not being included in the electoral register, particularly as the new approach starts. Those groups include young people, disabled people, people from black and ethnic minorities, people in public and private rented accommodation and people who, for one reason or another to do with their lifestyle, are very mobile. If we look at the United Kingdom as a whole, we find that the greatest concentration of such people can probably be found in central London. It has already been suggested that, under the legislation passed last year, London will be under-represented. If the Bill is passed unamended, they will be further under- represented.
Having quoted an academic, I will now quote John Turner, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators—again, someone with no political axe to grind and someone with whom, commendably, the Government have been working. In his evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, he said:
“At the risk of provoking any of you, can I also make a point about the December 2015 register? If you have that sort of drop and your friends at the Boundary Commission then have to do the next boundary review on the next system, it is going to make another major difference to the way in which parliamentary boundaries are drawn, given that the 2015 register, with these potential drops, will be that which is used to settle the new constituency boundaries for 2020.”
There is another entirely objective view. It is notable—commendable—that, having received that sort of evidence, skilfully and objectively presented, the Committee reached a powerful conclusion regarding constituency boundaries. All hon. Members know, but I underline the fact that the Committee, although chaired by a Labour Member, is a cross-party body. It concluded:
“For the next parliamentary constituency boundary reviews to be fair and representative, electoral registers across the country need to be at least as complete—and as consistently complete—as they are now. The Government needs to ensure that its proposals will achieve this end.
There is a risk that the electoral registers in December 2015 will be particularly varied in their levels of completeness: this matters because they will be used under current legislation as the basis for the next boundary review. We recommend using instead the registers as they stood on or before general election day in May 2015.”
That is a perfectly reasonable position expressed by the Select Committee. I hope that Government, given that they have rightly been congratulated on making a number of moves—perhaps even concessions—on key areas, will consider doing so again, even at this late stage.
The strongest thing to happen now in the interests of democracy would be cross-party agreement on this important measure to modify and modernise our electoral registration system. That requires political consensus. Throughout this process, we have been more than happy to engage in dialogue with the Parliamentary Secretary. He has listened to our concerns and there has been movement on some of them, but until now, on the crucial issue of the potential impact on boundaries, the Government have decided not to listen. We are concerned not only that a number of people will not be able to vote, but that they will not be able to exercise their democratic rights in a host of different ways.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this provision is the last remainder of what was essentially a gerrymandering Bill and that not removing it will affect the boundaries? Can he see any reason why Liberal Democrats in particular should vote for it, given that it would be one of those rare occasions when turkeys vote for Christmas?
My hon. Friend’s concern for the Liberal Democrats is touching, although I cannot say that I share it. To answer his first question frankly, yes, at the start of the legislative process, strong words were used, not least by me, because we were worried by the overtly and crudely partisan nature of the Bill of that time. But—and it is an important “but”—the Government modified their position. I give them credit for doing so. As my hon. Friend implies, if they have made concessions in a host of areas already, why not go the whole hog and let us have a proper consensual approach?
I listened intently to what the Minister said in the debate on our amendments last Monday. He did not produce any convincing arguments why the timetable that we established in legislation when we were in power could not be followed, and why we need to move hastily towards the Bill. If the Government do not take heed of what we are saying from the Opposition Front Bench, let them at least take note of what many people outside the House have said—the Electoral Commission, academics and the cross-party Select Committee. Many people drawn from a range of different organisations have made the same point: this is probably the most important change to our electoral system since the advent of universal suffrage. It is far too important to be the victim of crude partisanship. We want a consensual approach that will unite all democrats.
Finally, the Bill is important in terms of people’s ability to decide whether to cast their votes or not, but it is important in other respects as well. This underlines the civic responsibility point—people need to be on the electoral register for reasons other than to vote. One of the most important reasons is that those who are eligible for jury service are drawn from the electoral register. When we talk about the completeness of the register, we are not talking only about our democratic system and the voting system, important though it is. We are talking also about the criminal justice system and its credibility.
We all saw the terrible riots which scarred English cities last summer. That is all the more reason to ensure that all groups in our society are effectively represented on our juries. The last thing we want is an electoral register which contains a disproportionately large number of white middle-class people who are in turn represented on the juries that are selected. That is no way to enhance the credibility of our criminal justice system.
It is important to recognise that electoral registers are used to establish people’s creditworthiness. Whether they may have a mortgage is quite often defined by their presence on the electoral register. Also, it is seldom mentioned that the police make great use of the electoral register. It is important for the development of our society, as well as for our democracy. In a modern democracy, being on the electoral register is a civic duty and a civic responsibility. That is why we want accuracy in our electoral register. Although we all want accuracy, it is important to recognise that standing alongside it there must be completeness as well. Those are the twins that should go together in the legislation.
Despite the debates that we have had, our concern is that the Government place far too much emphasis on accuracy at the expense of completeness. We want to see the two going together. That is important not just when we reach a fully fledged individual electoral registration system, but in the transition system. Schedule 5 is a vital part of the legislation. It takes us through the transition and ensures that when individual registration is introduced it has the support of the people of this country, including potential and actual electors. I hope that the Committee will consider the schedule carefully and give careful consideration to the amendments for which we argued passionately last Monday—
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, 23 May).
The Chair put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83D)
Amendment proposed: 20, page 27, line 44, leave out ‘second’ and insert ‘third’.—(Mr David.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendment proposed: 18, page 31, line 6, leave out ‘first’ and insert ‘second’.—(Wayne David.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Schedule 5 agreed to.
The occupant of the Chair left the Chair (Programme Order, 23 May).
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.
Progress reported; Committee to sit again tomorrow.