[Relevant documents: the Tenth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2010-12, on Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration, Health Committee 1463, and the Government’s response, Cm 8245.]
[3rd Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee
[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
Clauses 10 to 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendments to do with part 1
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 35, page 21, line 23, leave out—
‘, so far as is reasonably practicable,’.
The amendment makes registration officers subject to the test of taking ‘all steps that are necessary’ under section 9A of the 1983 Act, in respect of their new duty: ‘securing that persons who are entitled to be registered in a register (and no others) are registered in it’.
Amendment 37, page 21, line 26, at end insert—
‘(4) In subsection (2), after paragraph (e), insert—
“(f) reporting to the police any suspicion he might have that an offence had been committed relevant to the integrity of registration and absent vote applications.”.’.
Amendment 40, page 21, line 26, at end insert—
‘(4) At the end of subsection (3) insert—
(4) If the Electoral Commission judges that registration officers have not taken all necessary steps as outlined in this section, the Electoral Commission shall have the power to intervene.”.’.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hoyle.
The Opposition have tabled the amendments because we are concerned about the schedule. Like the Electoral Commission, we are concerned about the watering down of the responsibilities of electoral registration officers. We think it is important that the Bill clearly defines the role of EROs in individual electoral registration and afterwards.
Amendment 37 seeks to redress what the Opposition see as a deficiency in the law—there is a lack of powers vested in EROs to detect and investigate electoral fraud, so allegations of offences under electoral law should be made to the police. That leaves a large gap in the powers of EROs. The amendment would, for the first time, place a duty on EROs to report to the police any suspicions that an offence might have been committed.
That is important. The Government have said time and again—incorrectly—that the Opposition are concerned about completeness and nothing else. We are concerned about completeness, but we are also concerned about the accuracy of electoral registers. The surest way to detect and act upon alleged fraud is for the individuals responsible for the administration of the process of registration to have a power vested in them—a duty upon them—to say that they are concerned about something. If they, as the experts, are concerned, they would have a duty to pass that information directly to the police, who would then act. We think, then, that the amendment addresses a gap in the current legislation and the Bill.
I support the amendment. Locally, EROs might be faced with competing local interests and not wish to offend a particular group, which is why this is extremely important. If there is a duty on them, they will have to act when allegations are made or serious offences committed. If they do not have a duty, they will tend to want to retain the status quo in order not to upset anybody.
My right hon. Friend makes a fair point. In a sense, the amendment would remove the discretion that EROs might feel they have and which often places them in an invidious position. As I have said, it is important not to exaggerate the occurrence of fraud, but if EROs have genuine concerns, they should have a duty to pass that information on to the police.
I support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) said. This matter is incredibly important at a time of resource restraint in local authorities. When resources are tight, there is always a tendency to defer decisions, but if EROs were required to act under the legislation, they would be unable to cite resource difficulties as an excuse for not taking action.
Yes, that is another good point. We all recognise that cash is short for local authorities. Indeed, we have highlighted during the passage of the Bill our particular concern that local authorities might not place the necessary emphasis on the registration process because of competing financial demands from other departments, which further reinforces my point that it is reasonable to place this statutory responsibility on EROs. Were they, in the course of their work, to come across a matter of genuine concern, they would not have to make a subjective decision about whether the matter was worth pursuing, but instead, if it was a serious concern, would have to pass it directly to the police, who would then investigate and consider the appropriate action to take.
Amendment 39 seeks to address the Electoral Commission’s concern that schedule 4 waters down the provisions in the Representation of the People Act 1983 requiring EROs to take all necessary steps in carrying out their duties. We are particularly concerned about door-to-door canvassing. As our debate the other day highlighted, this is an important area. We can talk about the introduction of new technology, which is to be welcomed, and about the importance of providing accurate literature and regular mailings, but, at the end of the day, the door-to-door canvass is vital and an essential part of the armoury of individual EROs in moving towards as complete a register as possible.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) will speak to his amendment 35, but I would say in passing that we have a lot of sympathy with the point behind it and, I am sure, the other points he will make in a moment.
Amendment 40 relates to amendment 39 and aims to give effect to our request to give the Electoral Commission the power to intervene where EROs are not performing to a sufficiently high standard. This is an important amendment because it is vital that best practice be promoted, enhanced, defended and maintained whenever possible.
We all know that with a new system like this one, there will be tremendous pressures on EROs. That is why we said in Monday’s debate that the issue of funding was so important—not just for providing new equipment and facilities, but for training as well, so that EROs have the skills and competence necessary to achieve the best standards. We also think it important to ensure that the Electoral Commission has a specific role to make sure that those standards are maintained.
I again endorse again what my hon. Friend says, as we all have experience of turning up to counts and meeting electoral registration officers and others involved in the process, some of whom, to be perfectly frank, do not have the training and experience to deal with these situations. Amendment 40 would not only enable the sharing of good practice but ensure that if people are perhaps not doing their jobs as effectively as they could, the commission at least had the power to try to put things right.
Yes, my colleague makes a very astute point borne out of his own experience. All of us who have been involved in democratic politics for a number of years can testify to that. The standard of EROs’ work varies enormously, so we need to ensure that everything possible is done to secure higher standards to reinforce the democratic process. Giving the Electoral Commission a key role and a key power in this respect will be important both for building up confidence and for ensuring that the system is as effective as possible.
Is it not the case that the Electoral Commission already has the right to evaluate how well electoral registration officers are carrying out their duties, but that it is not allowed as of today to intervene where poor practice is standard? The amendment would deal with that problem and give the Electoral Commission the opportunity to put right what it can see is going very wrong.
That is indeed correct. We have expressed on a number of occasions in Committee our worry that the Government do not recognise the important role that the Electoral Commission must have in a number of important respects. There is a weakness in the legislation as drafted, particularly regarding the role of EROs. This amendment is designed to plug that gap and make sure that the absolutely central role that the Electoral Commission has to play is built directly into the Bill, particularly in respect of the standards we believe it necessary for EROs to achieve in the furtherance of their duties.
I shall address my brief remarks to my amendment 35. It is a probing amendment, whose purpose is to raise and discuss concerns that have already been expressed about the duties of electoral registration officers. A constant theme running through all our Committee discussions so far has been the capacity of EROs to deliver their duties responsibly and effectively to ensure both the accuracy and completeness of the electoral list.
On Monday, we discussed the different approaches taken by local authorities and the need for some measure of standardisation—in the invitations sent out to encourage people to register, for instance. Local authorities have acted in different ways, but it is important to maintain the obligation on all EROs across the country to get everyone entitled to register to do so. I think all parties are agreed on that objective, but there has been some concern that the Bill as it stands will not achieve it. The Electoral Commission, among others, is concerned that schedule 4 will “dilute”—its word—the current responsibilities and requirements of EROs. That is particularly worrying given the findings of the Electoral Commission’s “Report on performance of Electoral Registration Officers” in Great Britain, published in June 2012. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), it expressed particular concern about the issue of house-to-house inquiries, stating:
“ Currently, section 9A(1) requires an ERO to take ‘all steps that are necessary for the purpose of complying with his duty to maintain the register under section 9’.
Section 9A contains a list of non-exhaustive steps which include, on occasions, making more than one visit through house-to-house inquiries.
The Electoral Commission feels that the duty in its current form works well and is an important tool in ensuring that EROs do all the work that is necessary to guarantee accuracy and completeness, including the conducting of house-to-house inquiries when, critically, other methods—we have heard a great deal about, for instance, data-matching pilots and aspirations for online voting—have not yielded the appropriate information. The commission remains baffled by why the Government would want to change the present arrangement.
After the Committee has heard my reply.
As my hon. Friend says, we must hear what he has to say on the subject first. His intervention is timely, as I am now moved to speculate on what he may say.
Schedule 4(6) adds to section 9A the words
“and for the purpose of securing that, so far as is reasonably practicable, persons who are entitled to be registered in a register (and no others) are registered in it”.
I know that the Government are content with that, feeling that it strengthens the responsibilities that EROs already have, but what risk, I ask my hon. Friend, does the change pose to the accuracy and completeness of the register? I feel that my amendment 35, which deletes the phrase
“so far as is reasonably practical”,
buttresses the obligation of EROs to secure persons who are entitled to be included in the register.
Let me reiterate to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly—for he is my friend—that mine is a probing amendment, and that, as I said at the outset, I am seeking to clarify these matters for the benefit of those of us who have discussed their concerns with the Electoral Commission. Certainly there is no good reason to reduce the duty imposed on EROs, and, if anything—given the tone of our debate and the cross-party aspiration that has been expressed—we should be enhancing and strengthening it. I should be grateful if the Minister explained the reasoning behind the changes in the Bill, and how they would affect EROs’ current obligations.
It seems to me that the Bill in its current form has the potential to weaken the principle of maximising registration, which would undermine what the Government are attempting to do. I do not believe for a moment that that is their intention, but I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
We have heard from other Members about the expectations that we have of EROs, and the performance standards that are used to assess their role. Let me refer again to the Electoral Commission’s report. Performance standard 3 refers to
“house-to-house enquiries to ensure that all eligible residents are registered.”
Although the Electoral Commission observed that progress had been made—
“the number of EROs who reported meeting or exceeding this standard increased between 2008 and 2010”—
eight EROs did not meet the standard. The commission stated that it had been able to contact them and remind them of their responsibility to “take all necessary steps”. It also stated that in 2011, for a range of reasons, it had heard anecdotal evidence suggesting that a greater number of EROs might not have met the standard in that year, and might not have taken “all necessary steps”. That prompted it to do some research. It contacted EROs and asked them whether they had carried out a personal canvass of all non-responders, and 58 replied citing budgetary restraints and rurality.
There is clearly continuing concern about house-to-house inquiries. The Electoral Commission is worried enough about the present set-up and the present wording of the legislation, but it fears that the position could worsen as a result of the new wording.
It is obvious from the attendance in the Chamber that the issues we are discussing are hardly setting the heather alight, but they are nevertheless important in the context of the relationship between central and local government. I think that Members in all parts of the Committee agree that there has been substantial consultation on the Bill, and that many key stakeholders—not least the Electoral Commission—have had an opportunity to draw on real-life experience for their prognostications and recommendations. However, I think that the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) risk changing a permissive, directional approach from the centre to the Electoral Commission vis-à-vis electoral returning officers to a much more oppressive approach, which would not take into consideration the differences that exist throughout the country in districts, boroughs and cities.
I think that had the Government not taken account of the experience of May 2010—for instance, the performance of EROs at polling stations and the administrative arrangements that caused difficulties in areas such as Sheffield and Hackney—it would have been fair to comment on their performance with regard to registration. However, the Bill does take account of that experience, not least in clause 17, which refers to the
“Inadequate performance of returning officer”.
One of the problems of being too prescriptive and draconian, and including in legislation what is effectively a direction to EROs, is that it fetters their discretion and allows central Government, through the Cabinet Office, to instruct them to do things that may not be appropriate in their areas. The data-matching projects are a good example. In my constituency, there were high levels of registration during our pilot project for the Electoral Commission because there was a very thorough door-to-door canvass. However, it should be borne in mind that the actual matching to the DWP and other databases was only 54% in Peterborough, and that it may be significantly higher in other parts of the country.
I think that it would be wrong to instruct electoral registration officers, who are typically chief executives or borough, city or district solicitors, that the fall-back position should be that they are not doing their job properly and not adhering to the existing legislation. The Bill in its present form recognises that it is imperative to maximise the number of people on the electoral register—and we all welcome that because we believe that it is important to democracy and future civic engagement—while also giving discretion to individuals at local level.
I have been listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Is it not important for the Electoral Commission, which will carry out these functions, to be both an independent body and a great repository of expertise in these areas? If that were the case, it would take into account local circumstances, and it would not act in a draconian manner.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. I do not wish to cast aspersions on the Electoral Commission commissioners, but we are in danger of overlooking two key facts. One is that EROs are ultimately responsible to those who are locally elected to direct their work and to have oversight of their effectiveness in their role—the leader of the council, perhaps, or the cabinet or the appropriate committees. That explains the importance of clause 17. Secondly, as ever in politics and governance, if we do not attach a price tag, it is likely that we will not get the desired end.
The measures in these amendments would be resource-intensive and would impact directly on the other local authority budgets. Ultimately, it is for the local authorities, and EROs guided by elected members, to make the value judgments that they see fit in regard to registration. They will clearly want to perform as well as neighbouring boroughs, districts and cities, and their performance will be compared on a nationwide basis by the Electoral Commission. My objection to this aspect of these amendments is that it would be unnecessarily draconian for the legislation to direct in a catch-all way. The current system is right in this respect.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that where the Electoral Commission feels an ERO has done the job effectively but is resource-constrained, it would be appropriate for the Electoral Commission and the ERO to refer that to the political leadership of their borough for proper discussion?
I agree, but there are existing checks and balances if the system does not work. I referred earlier to the situation in Sheffield, and in particular Sheffield, Hallam, the Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency. That was not just swept under the carpet. That was a very serious issue of people feeling they had not had the opportunity to take part in a vote and, as the hon. Gentleman will know, it resulted in a full, open, transparent inquiry by the Electoral Commission, and lessons have been learned. There is room for discretion within a permissive approach, but the amendments do not propose that.
I am always slightly wary of dismissing legislation that says, as schedule 4 does,
“so far as is reasonably practicable”.
That is the language of consensus, reality and pragmatism—the language of a practical approach. To disregard that and be overly-prescriptive would be a mistake. For that reason, if this amendment is pressed to a Division, I shall vote with the Government. I hope the Minister makes it clear that this amendment is unnecessary and the Bill’s current wording is appropriate.
It is a pleasure to return to this Bill under your chairmanship, Mr Hoyle.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for their amendments and the manner in which they discussed them. However, the hon. Gentleman’s revealing that he intends to vote for his amendment irrespective of my response does not give me a great incentive to try to persuade him—but my hon. Friend has a more open mind, and I know will listen carefully to what I have to say.
And on the basis of the way we have conducted our business in this Committee so far, I have also made an assumption about the hon. Gentleman. Let us leave it at that.
On amendments 39 and 35, it will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion to learn that I shall repeat what the Minister with responsibility for constitutional reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), said in an earlier debate on this measure: far from diluting the requirements on registration officers, under the new registration system we are strengthening the existing duties.
This Bill amends the Representation of the People Act 1983, and I accept that it can be a little difficult to follow how one qualifies, and relates to, the other. I shall try to explain that, therefore. The Bill sets out new requirements on registration officers, amending the previous legislation. My audience’s eyes will glaze over if I mention too many related sections, but one of the duties under section 9A of the 1983 Act is that the register must contain those who appear to the registration officer to be entitled to be registered. That presents a problem under the new system, because we do not want registration officers to confine their efforts simply to those who appear to be entitled to be registered; we want them to go out and seek out people, because we want the register to be complete. The duties are now expanded, therefore, so the registration officer has to go out and find people who are not on the register, and of whom he is not aware, and then include them on it. Therefore, a different process is engaged. At present, the provision in question also ignores the fact that there must be an application for registration before a person is added to the register. It is a key point that, at the application stage, the electors will be verified.
Those two important parts of the new system must be included in the new legislation, which is why the Bill amends section 9 to ensure that the description of the register in respect of individual registration is accurate. The register is to contain only those people who are “entitled” and have been through the application system. It also amends section 9A to make it clear that registration officers must do more than just take the specific steps laid out in the legislation in a tick-box manner and include in the register those people who made an application. Those requirements will remain, and must be fulfilled, without exception, but the Bill adds an express general duty to take all other
“necessary steps…so far as is reasonably practicable”
to compile as complete and accurate a register as possible.
The qualification of “reasonably practicable” applies to the standard of completeness and accuracy of the register that must be reached. It must be as complete and accurate as is “reasonably practicable”, which is a very high level, but there is an acceptance of the fact that no register will be absolutely perfect. It would not be right to set out in legislation a requirement for registration officers to achieve an unreasonable or impracticable level of completeness. However, the steps the ERO must take are not qualified. EROs must take all the necessary steps to achieve a register. That is not qualified as being steps that are “reasonably practicable”; they must take all the necessary steps to provide a register that is as complete and as accurate “as is reasonably practicable”.
No, it would not. The steps that an ERO needs to take will be set out both in the guidance from the Electoral Commission and in the secondary legislation. Those steps will be a duty upon them; it will not be about doing this if they get round to it or if they feel it would be a good idea. There will be a basic level of steps that they must take. All we are doing with this “reasonably practicable” qualification is saying that, despite their best endeavours, EROs are not going to achieve a perfect register, because no one in any constituency in any country in the known world has ever produced a register that is absolutely accurate and perfect. However, EROs must do everything they can to make it is as near to that as possible by taking all reasonable steps.
The Minister is making a strong case. Is not the corollary of these amendments that, if we disregard the practicability of the efforts by the EROs to put this register together, compiling a register would be exactly the same, and would be seen as such, in Colchester, a constituency made up of one town in a compact urban area, as it would be in Orkney and Shetland, a constituency of many islands? It simply is not practical to regard the constituencies as being the same for the purposes of compiling a register.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He sets out why we must avoid being too prescriptive: we want EROs to do a variety of different things in different places to achieve their objective.
The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) asked whether there is a minimum that is required. I can tell him that there is. Our draft regulations will set out what the EROs must do to encourage applications to register to vote. That will include, as a minimum, the sending of an invitation, of two reminders and of a canvasser to encourage an application. There is no question of our watering down the duty of EROs; we are simply recognising that even at the end of all that, because of the change in the way in which this section is constructed by the amendment of the original Act, EROs will not have a perfect register. However, they must have as near to a perfect system as possible for getting to the perfect register.
With all due respect, what the Minister is saying is about as clear as mud. As I understand it, the Government are trying to say that this is merely a technical amendment. We are saying that the whole issue of a door-to-door canvass is extremely important, and if it ain’t broke, why fix it? We should keep it as it is.
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman cannot understand the point I am making, because I thought I had set it out clearly. I am not sure that I can find an alternative construction that might make it easier for the hard of understanding. What he asserts to be a dilution is not a dilution because it applies to a different process. The use of
“so far as is reasonably practicable”
is a qualification of the completeness of the register, not of the system the EROs use to get there, where they must take all the steps required, and others, in order to achieve an accurate and complete register. I think that that is sufficiently clear and that members of the Committee will feel it is sufficiently clear. However, as he stated that he was not going to be satisfied by my explanation even before I gave it, I am not entirely surprised that he finds that difficulty now.
The Minister says that the things that the ERO will need to do will be set out in the regulations. Will those matters also be subject to the test to which the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) referred—the financial wherewithal necessary to carry this out—or can that be judged under the criteria the Minister has just suggested?
I am in danger of straying into a different part of the legislation here, because that requirement is already in place. One of the things that concern many of us is the difference in performance of some authorities in carrying out what is clearly their duty. The returning officer and the ERO have a statutory duty to carry out their duties effectively. If they are not given the resources by the local authority concerned, they must insist that they have those resources. There is also a back-up provision for the Electoral Commission to take a view on that and report the matter to the Government where there is a deficiency—so the apparatus is in place. Given the new responsibilities that EROs have and the transition funding that they will receive as part of the process of implementing this Bill, I hope that they will be a little more forthright in saying when they are being starved of funds. I must say that there is no direct correlation between the EROs who have more than adequate resources to do their job properly and those who do not, and the relative financial solvency or otherwise of the local authority; it is often a matter of political will as to whether this is seen as a priority.
I think that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that point.
May I just deal with the other two issues raised in the amendments? Amendment 37 deals with the reporting of suspicions that an individual had committed offences relating to electoral fraud when submitting either a registration or absent vote application. Again, nobody would quarrel with the purpose of that. Perhaps I should say the “purported purpose”, as we never know exactly what the purpose of the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Caerphilly is because he does not provide an explanatory statement, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion. I accept that the purported purpose is a good one.
Let us be absolutely clear that there is a need for EROs to refer to the police any suspicions they have on registration and postal vote applications that they receive, and that is set out clearly in the guidance issued to them by the Electoral Commission. The hon. Member for Caerphilly will have looked at that, and he will know that paragraph 3.37 of the Electoral Commission’s “Managing electoral registration in Great Britain” guidance clearly states:
“Any issues concerning the integrity of the registration process should be reported”—
by the ERO—
“to the police immediately.”
In addition, the Electoral Commission has worked with the Association of Chief Police Officers to produce guidance for EROs, returning officers and police officers on identifying and responding to allegations of electoral fraud associated with the registration and postal voting process. In exercising powers under section 9A of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Electoral Commission has also set out a specific performance standard on integrity—performance standard 4— which EROs need to meet on maintaining the integrity of registration and postal vote applications. In order to meet that performance standard, EROs are required to establish and maintain contact with their local police—a single point of contact—and ensure that any suspicions arising from registration and postal vote applications are reported to them immediately. EROs are already assessed on their compliance with that standard by the Electoral Commission, so putting in place this statutory requirement would be otiose in those circumstances. If the question is whether they are doing that, the Electoral Commission’s report is encouraging. EROs appear to be making significant progress in the completion of the integrity performance standard.
The figures in the report on the performance of electoral registration officers in 2011 show that 260 EROs, or 68%, met the standard, whereas 116, or 31%, performed above it. Those who are mathematically gifted will work out that 68 plus 31 is 99, which leaves only 1% of EROs—only four—who did not meet the standard. Why not? They did not provide sufficient documentation to the Electoral Commission about the work they had done—they had done it—to take matters forward with the police. The Electoral Commission has give a strong bill of health to the steps taken by EROs of their own volition and with the support of local authorities, as the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) said, to do the job with which they are entrusted and to report their suspicions.
I concur warmly with the Minister. My experience of living through Operation Hooper, which was the postal vote fraud investigation in Cambridgeshire arising from the June 2004 local and European elections, puts that sharply into perspective. It is important that there should be no perverse incentive that means that electoral registration officers do not take action because of the resource implications. Hooper cost the Cambridgeshire constabulary a huge amount of money, which has never been recouped by the constabulary or by the city of Peterborough, and the Minister should be mindful of that.
I absolutely agree. There should be no constraint on dealing effectively with attempted or actual fraud in the electoral process. EROs should be confident not only that they have the capacity to act but that the police will engage with them. That is why the work between the Electoral Commission and ACPO is so important.
I hear what the Minister says about the reports produced by the Electoral Commission, but that is all in the past. We are talking about a transitional system and an entirely new system. Our contention is that EROs should have greater responsibilities to ensure that they take that aspect of their work very seriously and that there is a need for a stipulation to that effect on the face of the Bill.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but the Electoral Commission’s most recent report from 2011, which is really not that long ago, expresses the strong view that EROs understand their responsibilities in this area perfectly well. It is by no means clear that a statutory provision would make one jot of difference. From a jurisprudential point of view, I do not think it is very easy to establish that someone has failed to report a suspicion. If they have documented it, they are likely to report it, and if they have not I would like to see the process by which one could establish that a suspicion had formed in their mind.
There are difficulties with the proposal from the hon. Member for Caerphilly, but I do not think we are talking about a major difference of opinion. We simply think that the Electoral Commission has taken and will continue to take the necessary steps, that EROs are responding positively to that and that we have a much more satisfactory arrangement now than we would have had a few years ago. That is partly thanks to the work of the previous Government in introducing the provisions that gave the Electoral Commission the standard-setting duties it now has.
Finally, let me deal with the proposal to give the Electoral Commission powers of intervention. The amendment is not clear. I do not want to criticise the hon. Gentleman, but it is a curious provision in an Act of Parliament to give a power of intervention without stating what that power is. The proposal raises a serious point about the role of the Electoral Commission. We think that the fulfilment of the requirements set out in section 9A of the 1983 Act plays a vital role in improving the completeness and accuracy of our electoral registers. We are committed to achieving that, but giving the Electoral Commission powers to intervene when that is not being done would be a significant change to how it operates. It already has powers to set and monitor performance standards for electoral services, which is what we have just been discussing, and it does it very well, measuring the performance of EROs against those criteria. A failure to meet those standards might suggest a potential failure to meet the duty set out in section 9A of the 1983 Act, which is absolutely right.
Under the 2010 Act, the Electoral Commission was given a central role because of the critical importance of the introduction of individual electoral registration. Amendments have already been made to downgrade the role of the Electoral Commission. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that we need an independent body with expert witnesses in its membership to ensure a smooth transition to individual electoral registration?
I absolutely agree. The Electoral Commission plays a hugely significant role and will continue to do so, setting out and monitoring the performance standards. It is also helping through its new responsibilities to ensure that EROs do their job. When there are concerns about the EROs’ performance as regards this duty or any other, the Electoral Commission has a power to intervene by making a recommendation to the Secretary of State or the Lord President of the Council, who has a power of direction to require registration officers to comply with the directions on discharging their functions. It goes further, because in addition it is an offence for a registration officer to breach their official duty without good cause. If prosecuted and found guilty, a registration officer can be fined up to £5,000. I believe that that system has so far worked well as regards any registration officer who was found to be in dereliction of his duties. I cannot see any need to change that or for any specific provision to be made about the discharging of those duties under section 9A.
We want the Electoral Commission to play a key role in monitoring how registration officers implement their policies, including their fulfilment of section 9A duties. The Secretary of State or the Lord President of the Council would as a last resort retain the ability to issue formal directions to a registration officer if they were in breach of their legal responsibilities. I hope that those detailed explanations of the Government’s position mean that the hon. Member for Caerphilly and others will feel able to withdraw their amendments.
Schedule 4 agreed to.
Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Timing of parish and community council elections in England and Wales
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
In principle, the provisions in clause 14 on the timing of parish and community council elections are sensible, but, as the Minister knows, local government is devolved to Wales. What consultation on this point was carried out with the Welsh Government prior to the publication of the Bill?
I would not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman by suggesting that I have personally made such contact, because I have not. That would have been a matter for the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is the Minister with responsibility for constitutional reform. However, throughout our work on the Bill, we have ensured that we have shared our intentions with all the devolved Administrations that will be subject to it. I will confirm to the hon. Gentleman what consultation was carried out with the Welsh authorities, but I am confident that that will have taken place, because it has happened with other aspects of the Bill. When possible, we have accommodated any points that the devolved Administrations have made.
The clause deals with the timing of local elections, but local authority elections are a matter for the National Assembly. Clearly, community council elections should also be a matter for the National Assembly, rather than being reserved to Westminster. Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), will the Minister hold discussions with the Welsh Government on taking that idea forward? There is a Green Paper on future electoral arrangements for Wales, and perhaps the subsequent White Paper and legislation would be a vehicle to move that forward.
I undertake to draw the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the attention of the Wales Office and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office. If progress can be made in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests, that can certainly be considered.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 14 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Alteration of electoral registers: pending elections
I beg to move amendment 38, page 9, line 12, at end insert—
‘(1A) In section 13(4), at end add “provided that the registration officer shall not make any such changes if an election specified in section 13B(4) is scheduled to take place within 30 days of publication of the revised version of the register.”.’.
The amendment is small, but important. Clause 15 will amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 to provide for two interim publication dates when an election is pending on which notices of alteration of the electoral register must be published. The intention behind amendment 38 is to counter electoral fraud.
Unfortunately, if someone was so inclined, they would find it relatively straightforward to add a small number of electors to the register fraudulently over several months. The odds of such fraud being detected reduce in proportion to any reduction in the time available between the publication of the electoral register and an election. I am told that this was part of the problem in the 2007 Slough postal votes fraud. The chances of detection are also reduced if the electors added mid-year are new to the register, because the situation will not be apparent from the register itself.
The police commissioner elections will take place in November, just a matter of days after the publication of a wholly new register. We are keen to ensure that that does not become a pattern, because it is not especially good practice. I say that not just on behalf of the Labour party, but for the benefit of all political parties, because we all have the role of engaging with the democratic process and making a case to secure votes in elections. Such a situation does not give time for parties’ local activists to detect suspicious new registrations through the numbering system employed by electoral registration officers.
While this might be a small issue in the scheme of things, we are making an important practical point from the perspective of not only the organisation of political parties, but the detection of fraud. We are especially concerned to avoid a repeat of what happened in Slough in 2007.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this sensible point. We all agree that, when possible, registers should be in place for a significant time prior to the elections to which they relate. I do not want to revisit the police commissioner elections, because I think that he will accept that they are an exceptional case.
The hon. Gentleman has set out an option for what could be done, but his proposal would create practical difficulties. Indeed, the problems are of such a scale that they might involve additional expense. While that would not be the end of the world if the proposal meant that fraud would be detected more effectively, the amendment would also create the possibility of confusion.
I understand that the amendment would provide that electors remaining on the register following a canvass would retain their existing electoral number if an election took place within 30 days of the register’s publication. However, I am not clear about what would happen if electors were removed from the register following the annual canvass. If the intention is that the numbers for those electors would not be used on the new register, there would be gaps in the number sequence for electors, unless those gaps were filled with new electors, which would create a strange and rather jumbled numbering process. It might mean a different numbering system for new electors. Far from getting rid of the difficulties which the hon. Gentleman correctly identifies as a risk, it might introduce new risks into the process if the system made it difficult for the parties, the electoral registration officers and the IT systems to cope.
The further issue—this is not to belittle the hon. Gentleman’s amendment—is at what point the renumbering should begin. The amendment is silent on when would be the appropriate time to renumber consecutively. If we wait until the next revised register, the same circumstances might apply, and there might be a significantly longer period during which no renumbering has taken place and the numbers do not run consecutively, which would pose a different challenge.
When a revised register is published, parties must unavoidably update the data that they hold to reflect changes to the register, removing people from and adding others to the register. The numbering is part of that process. The amendment would add complexity and potentially cost, though that is not the critical factor if it were effective. I am not convinced that it would reduce fraud, but I would be happy to explore the implications of the hon. Gentleman’s proposal with electoral administrators. I am not convinced by it yet, for the reasons that I set out, but I understand the point that he is making. If, by withdrawing the amendment, he will allow me to do so, I will ensure that we consider whether it is practicable or whether an alternative proposal is practicable to deal with the issue that he raises.
I thank the Minister for that considered and balanced response. He acknowledges that there is an issue that should be addressed in one way or another. I am not suggesting that we have presented a watertight solution, but the amendment is an attempt to engage with the problem. I welcome the fact that he is prepared to consider, with officials, whether there is a technical way to reduce the problem that we have identified. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 16 and 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Use of emblems on ballot papers
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
No doubt the Minister is convinced that I am determined to make mischief on the clause. I am sorry to disappoint him. I will not embellish the concern that some Conservative Members expressed to me privately, and one or two of them in the Chamber, that this might open the way for a new symbol to be adopted if there were joint Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates in an election. I will not go that way.
Perhaps there should be a competition to determine the most appropriate symbol.
On the issue of joint Co-op and Labour party candidates, I understand that the Government explained on Second Reading and before that the clause is intended to address a gap in the legislation. Can the Minister provide reassurance not only that it will address an anomaly in the case of parliamentary elections, but that there is no difficulty in the case of local elections, and that is covered by other legislation?
I did indeed think that the hon. Gentleman intended to make further mischief, and he may have done so, marginally. May I reassure him that there is not the slightest intention of my party standing joint candidates with the Conservative party? We come together as a coalition of principle in this Government but at the next general election—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman does not keep up with the news if he believes that there are not divergent opinions developing on policies after the next election. We will see what happens.
The clause deals with a simple anomaly that affects the hon. Gentleman’s own party at every election where there are Labour/Co-op candidates and they cannot use a symbol that relates to their joint candidacy. It is not only the Labour party that is affected. Some of us, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), may remember Cynog Dafis, formerly a Member of the House. He was elected on a Plaid Cymru/Green ticket. The problem did not arise then, because at that time we did not have party emblems on the ballot paper, but were he or another candidate to stand on the same basis today, he would not be able to have a joint emblem to denote his candidature. It is a small discrepancy, and the clause amends rule 19 of the parliamentary election rules in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 to enable a candidate who is standing on behalf of two or more registered political parties to use a single emblem on the ballot paper.
I believe I am right in saying that the clause would allow that if the emblem were registered as the emblem of those two parties in combination. I imagine the Labour and Co-operative party will wish to register an emblem to indicate that their candidates will be taking on that joint sponsorship.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. If his interpretation is not right, perhaps we can be written to and the matter considered before the Bill makes progress in another place. It would be useful if the Government said whether they intend a candidate standing with the agreement of more than one party to be able to use a symbol combining elements of the symbols of both parties. If the intention is to disallow that, it would be interesting to hear that. If the intention is to allow it, it would be nice to know that explicitly.
It does seem to be a much more complicated issue than I expected when I stood at the Dispatch Box. My understanding is that under the present arrangements parties can register more than one emblem, for example to demonstrate regional or national differences within a single party, so I do not think that that is a problem. That is my understanding, unless I have completely misunderstood the intention behind this. I will write to the hon. Gentleman to clarify that point.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly referred to other elections. This applies only to parliamentary elections because we have already made the necessary changes in secondary legislation to address the issue for most other elections that are affected by the change. We cannot do that for UK parliamentary elections without primary legislation, and that is why it is in the Bill today. It will complete the process, so that we no longer have that discrepancy. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 18 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 19 to 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
New Clause 1
‘In section 60 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (Personation) after subsection (2) insert—
“(2A) The Secretary of State shall introduce regulations by statutory instrument to facilitate actions by electoral registration officers, their agents and others, including candidates and their agents in elections, to—
(a) prevent, and
(b) detect personation.”.’. —(John Hemming.)
This Clause would enable action to be taken to prevent or deter personation.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Other voting offences—
‘In section 61 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (Other voting offences) after subsection (6) insert—
“(6AA) The Secretary of State shall introduce regulations by statutory instruments to facilitate actions by electoral registration officers, their agents and others, including candidates and their agents in elections, to—
(a) prevent, and
(b) detect the offences listed in subsections (1) to (6).”.’.
This Clause would enable action to be taken to prevent or deter other voting offences.
First, I emphasise that all political parties have had members who are responsible for electoral fraud. In Birmingham it has tended to be the Labour party, but that is not to say that any one party is perfect or any one party is necessarily much worse than any other.
I have unusual experience as a Member of the House in that I have drafted election petitions. The best known is the one for Aston; less known is that for Sparkhill, which dealt with issues of personation. When it was passed to some lawyers, they missed the deadline for serving it, and it was never considered in court. So whereas in 2002 it might have been possible to have proven the scale of personation, it was not until the elections of 2004, when there were election petitions in Aston ward and Bordesley Green ward, that he looked substantially at postal vote fraud. To start with, most of the evidence came from the fact that the Labour candidates were found some time in the early morning on an industrial estate in Aston checking that there were three Labour votes on each of the 273 ballot papers because they did not trust each other to mark them with three Labour votes, it being a three-up election, thinking that the person with the most votes gets elected for four years. A number of the ballot papers in the then Springfield ward were cast with only one Labour vote if they were postal votes, so it was reasonable to assume that the Labour candidates could not necessarily trust each other and therefore their reasoning for sitting late in the morning to look at the ballot papers was justified.
In trying to deal with election fraud, the Bill tries to ensure that the people who are on the electoral roll should be there, and that is a good thing to do. What it does not do and where there is a big gap—although I intend this as a probing new clause—is to try to ensure that people cast their own vote. Historically, there has been a tendency at times for there to be a sort of informal proxy. This has gone on for decades; it is nothing massively new. People think that someone is away and somebody else goes to vote for them. That has also turned into other situations where parties cast votes intentionally for people that they do not expect to vote. We have one way of spotting that through tendered votes. For those people who do not know, if someone turns up at the polling station and is told that they have already voted—it could be that the wrong name was marked on the register—they can get a tendered vote, a pink ballot paper, which is put in an envelope, so that if there is an election petition it is possible to consider the tendered votes and see whether they would have made any difference to a narrow election result. The difficulty, as we have seen in Birmingham, is that vans of people can go from polling station to polling station casting a vote in each one. “Newsnight” found out some of the details of that.
Anyone who is interested in these issues must read the full judgment of Richard Mawrey, an electoral commissioner. He has done a number of election courts since, but he was the electoral commissioner who dealt with the Aston and Bordesley Green election petitions. We have to consider how to ensure that elections are honest. We cannot entirely rely on the apparatus of the state to do that. In his judgment at paragraph 150 he says:
“The reaction of the police”—
to the allegations of election fraud—
“can best be summed up by drawing attention to the code name they gave to the complaints of malpractice—Operation Gripe. This indicates better than anything else their view that the whole business was a complete waste of their time and that Mr Hemming and the other complainants were a tiresome nuisance.”
I may be a nuisance at times, but at paragraph 264 he said:
“As set out above, in the course of the campaign the Liberal Democrats asserted on several occasions that the Labour Party candidates and their supporters were cheating. Mr Hemming and his team made their complaints to the police and the police largely ignored them.”
Paragraph 265 says:
“Mr Hemming also complained to Mr Owen, to be told, politely but firmly (and certainly correctly), that the Elections Office could not intervene.”
There are issues there. The elections office has to handle the paperwork of the elections in a way that is seen to be fair. My particular concern at that election was that the 273 arrested ballot papers found their way to be counted, and, most importantly, I as leader of the Liberal Democrats and Mike Whitby as leader of the Conservatives at the time, were not told that 273 ballot papers had been arrested on an industrial estate and found their way into the count. So the idea that one casts a vote and it goes off to an industrial estate, the police arrest it after a little discussion and then take it in is quite strange.
Paragraph 707 says:
“But, when all that is said and done, Mr Hemming was right and his critics were wrong. He said that there was a massive, Birmingham-wide electoral fraud by the Labour Party and there was in fact massive Birmingham-wide electoral fraud by the Labour party. He may have played the part of Cassandra, but like Cassandra his prophecies were true. He emerges from the case with credit which is more than can be said for those police officers who treated his complaints as no more than Operation Gripe.”
But the most important part of the judgment from Richard Mawrey was paragraph 717, which says:
“The systems to deal with fraud are not working well. They are not working badly. The fact is that there are no systems to deal realistically with fraud and there never have been. Until there are, fraud will continue unabated.”
With personation, in theory it is possible to appoint polling agents who can stand in the polling station and potentially put the statutory question to people: “Are you such and such a person of such and such address?” If a woman comes in and says, “Yes, I’m Gordon Brown of such and such address,” the fact that that woman—unless she has changed her name by deed pool—is unlikely to be telling the truth is no good reason for the presiding officer not to give her a ballot paper.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting case. Following the incident that he describes, have the police apologised for the way in which they behaved, and have they given any reassurance to him that in future they will treat complaints of electoral fraud seriously?
There was no apology. They did start going down a different route, but they then started prosecuting people for offences that were not offences. There was one case where they prosecuted someone for what they thought was postal vote fraud, but they made the mistake of not checking whether the votes were cast to work out whether there was a chance that there was postal vote fraud. Most people indulge in electoral fraud to get more votes and be elected, but if someone assists someone else in filling in the forms for a postal vote and the vote is not actually cast, one can assume that there is no offence. A person was prosecuted for that. There has been no apology for it.
I am more concerned about the fact that we are doing nothing to control personation. I want to draw a distinction between actions that enable the system as a whole to act to prevent personation and actions that enable political parties to do so. Issuing an election petition is very difficult. Again, it is worth reading the judgment. The prosecution in Birmingham took place in the Birmingham and Midland Institute, in a room that could accommodate possibly 300 people, and there were often 200 people there watching the election court’s proceedings. It was the best entertainment in town at the time, and many people who saw it would accept that as a fair description of the situation. Whatever processes are put in, there must be a facility that allows them to be transparent and enables the political parties to be involved in challenging them through an open and transparent judicial process in an election court.
At the same time, it is useful to have processes that allow the police to get involved. In Birmingham it was clear that 4,000 people’s votes were stolen in the Bordesley Green ward. There were three local election votes and one European parliamentary vote, so basically 16,000 votes were stolen. That involved threats to the postman, who was told, “We’ll give you £500 if you give us your box of postal votes or we’ll kill you.” It is an offer you cannot really refuse. One letter box was actually set on fire in an attempt to stop postal votes reaching the electoral office. There was a semi-riot involving 200 people, because obviously when this sort of thing goes on the tension goes beyond what we would normally have in rows about unparliamentary language and people start fighting in the street instead. Those are the sorts of issues that arise.
The hon. Gentleman’s new clause rightly suggests first deterring people and then being able to catch them and take action. False registration is clearly an issue, and obtaining postal votes when they are in transit is another. Has he considered whether powers are needed to be able to film each person delivering a vote in person, because there is either the postal vote personation or the voting-in-person personation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I would rather he had not made it, because I had intended to say that and now he has mentioned it first. I think that technology has facilitated recording in polling stations. Making that recording available would be the best sort of change, because it would not record which way people vote.
I had started to talk about the Greek situation, where transparent ballot boxes are used, which, in terms of transparency, are better than black boxes. In Cheetham Hill ward in Manchester in 2003 a ballot box went astray for about an hour and a half after the end of polling. Obviously that is a good opportunity for ballot box-stuffing, as people can put a few extra votes in the ballot box as they drive around Manchester. There are a number of advantages with the filming process. If someone is personating, we would see who it is, which in a sense is the better challenge.
I am sorry, but that is not what they do; they mark off the marked register, but there is also the counter stub with the number on, which is then tallied with the number of votes issued. I think that what the hon. Gentleman suggests would be very difficult for someone to do unless they also had control of the book of ballot forms.
We have experience in Birmingham of identified presiding officers campaigning for the Labour party in the polling station. In Hodge Hill ward, for instance, the presiding officer was handing out poll cards to the Labour agent, which is a criminal offence, and I reported it to the chief executive at the time. In one polling station the poll cards were given to the Labour party. It cannot be assumed that just because people are presiding officers—I accept that there are two people there—they suddenly become perfect people who behave exactly as we would wish them to. If we had enough activists and we could put polling agents in each polling station for all the hours of the poll and monitor what was going on, that would not be such a problem.
I find it remarkable that the hon. Gentleman opened his speech by saying that electoral fraud, of which I think there are a tiny number of cases, affects all parties, because he seems to be very partisan in using examples only from the Labour party. Is he really suggesting that polling agents and people who work in polling stations are involved in fraud, because in my opinion that is not the case? There is a danger in what he is suggesting, because if we put in agents from some parties they could intimidate the polling clerks.
I have two little points to make on that. First, I said that all parties have people who are responsible for election fraud but in Birmingham we have tended to find problems with the Labour party, so I am tending to talk about the Labour party. Secondly, with regard to polling agents, that is the current law. If the hon. Gentleman does not know the current law, that is life. The current law allows people to appoint both counting agents and polling agents. Most people do not appoint polling agents but in Birmingham, because of the large amount of personation that tends to go on, we appoint polling agents in some wards when we can manage it. I have sent to the presiding officer, with evidence, examples of presiding agents who attempted to persuade people to vote for the Labour party in the Soho ward in Birmingham. There would have been other election petitions in 2004 on the basis of those particular issues had it not been for the fact that running one election petition is a major challenge and running two would be a bigger challenge, so much so that we had legal assistance on the second one.
The hon. Gentleman has made some accusations, admittedly only in passing, but they are quite serious and he has stated them as though they are fact. If he has serious allegations, he really ought to produce the evidence to the police, rather than relying on parliamentary privilege in this House.
I did provide that information to the police in 2004, and they had an operation called Operation Gripe, in which they basically did nothing. We have now moved on. We are eight years down the track. I do not think that it would be reasonable to prosecute people for things they did eight years ago. Let me quote again from the judgment:
“The reaction of the police can be best summed up by drawing attention to the code name they gave to complaints of malpractice—Operation Gripe. This indicated better than anything else their view that the whole business was a complete waste of time and that Mr Hemming and the other complainants were a tiresome nuisance.”
I gave all the evidence to the police, who piled it in a box, called it Operation Gripe and did nothing. At the same time, we have to be realistic. We have moved on eight years and I am not going to spend all my time trying to get a particular woman prosecuted for handing poll cards to the Labour party. What I said to the returning officer, the chief executive of the council, was that I wanted her to stop doing it, not get her imprisoned. There are questions about the objectives. My objective in the campaigning I have done on election fraud over a number of years is to stop it. To do that, we must have systems to monitor and detect things. That is where these particular probing amendments come in. They would give the Government a facility to make changes. I happen to think that the proposal for video recording in the polling station would be one of the best solutions.
What value does the hon. Gentleman place on integrity in electoral processes? That is the real question. One of these new video camera thingies, such as a mobile phone, would cost about £100 per polling station, and if we do not necessarily introduce them throughout the country, the question is, what value do we place on integrity in election processes? To me, the integrity of an election is absolutely critical.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about integrity, but within that, and in hard times, we have to weigh two things in the balance: integrity and cost. So what assessment has he made of the incidence of such electoral fraud—personation or whatever? Would it be worth paying out £100 for every polling station in the UK, or would some of that money be better spent on installing disabled access, which is a far bigger problem?
Somewhere in the judgment, Members will find that I made about 50 complaints to the police in 2004 in Birmingham. As I have said, things have moved on, and some progress has been made on dealing with election fraud.
One issue was the large amount of postal vote fraud, and we proved that a small number of people had forged all the witness statements, but since then witness statements have been abolished so we can no longer prove whether any are forged. So changes have been made, but not all have necessarily been good changes.
The hon. Gentleman says that things have moved on in eight years. Does he have the statistics for the number of cases of electoral fraud and personation last year and this year? Is it a current problem, or would we be spending £100 on every polling station to resolve problems that existed eight years ago but do not exist today?
Paragraph 717 of Richard Mawrey’s judgment states:
“The systems to deal with fraud are not working well. They are not working badly. The fact is that there are no systems to deal realistically with fraud and there never have been.”
In paragraph 714, which I did not read out earlier, Mawrey states:
“In this judgment I have set out at length what has clearly been shown to be the weakness of the current law relating to postal votes. As some parts of this judgment may be seen as critical of the Government, I wish to make it clear that the responsibility for the present unsatisfactory situation must be shared. All political parties welcomed and supported postal voting on demand. Until very recently, none has treated electoral fraud as representing a problem. Apart from the Electoral Commission, whose role I have described above, the only voices raised against the laxity of the system have been in the media, in particular The Times newspaper, and the tendency of politicians of all Parties has been to dismiss these warnings as scaremongering.”
So there we go: personation is still going on.
In South Yardley ward this year, for instance, we put in a little bit of effort after the election and uncovered personation, but one difficulty is that when people are asked, “Did you vote?” they all tend to say yes—whether they did or not. There is a record of people who voted in 2012 but not in 2011, and when they are asked, “Do you remember whether you voted in 2011 or 2012?” they tend to say, “We voted both times,” when in fact we know that they did not vote in 2011.
We did, however, find a small number of personated votes in South Yardley ward—not enough to affect the result, but the point is that we found some. There are difficulties in dealing with things retrospectively, however, and that brings us to the point about new clause 1, which is about facilitating change. Emotionally, I like what some democracies have, which is orange or purple dye on the finger.
Has the hon. Gentleman thought that his suggestion of installing a camera in every polling station might create a whole new raft of electoral fraud—namely, one party making a spurious complaint against a known supporter of another party in order to deter that party’s voters from voting later on or in another election?
First, I do not think that that is true; and, secondly, the new clause is not necessarily the best way to deal with the issue, because it is an important one that needs consideration in primary legislation. Experiments—pilot schemes—might be undertaken to see how the proposal worked in certain areas, but it is an important issue that in primary legislation would attract far more Members than are currently in the Chamber to look at it. So we cannot say now what the exact solution would be, but at the moment Richard Mawrey is still right: there is no system for controlling personation.
A voter does not need their polling card, so they can turn up and say, “My name is X, of this address, please give me a ballot paper,” and the officials are under a duty to do so. Interestingly, during the 2010 general election I had in Birmingham observers from Kenya and Bangladesh, and, after I took them round and showed them how it all worked, they were quite surprised at how easy it was to defraud the system.
To return to the point I was about to make before the previous intervention—that is no criticism of the intervention—I am emotionally attracted to the practice in some countries of putting purple dye on a finger.
If we were to adopt the hon. Gentleman’s policy of putting an extra 60,000 CCTV cameras in polling stations throughout the country, how would that fit with his party’s view that there are too many such cameras already? An extra 60,000? Surely that would be Big Brother.
The question we have to ask is whether the use of something is proportionate, because in my constituency I supported the use of closed circuit television cameras, for instance, in the Yew Tree shopping centre, where they provide a useful function in an area with a history of crime. Sadly, there has been a history of crime in certain polling stations too, and, although I am not saying that we should put cameras all over the place, I think there is an argument for them as an option.
What criteria would the hon. Gentleman use for placing those—[Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) sniggers, but this is a serious issue. What criteria would the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) use for placing those extra 60,000 CCTV cameras across the nation? Would he do so if there had been previous electoral fraud or personation in an area, or if a certain socio-economic group or ethnic group had been involved? If he had a plan of the UK, where would he plonk those cameras?
Any decision would be better driven by the requests of the political parties. If they were willing to fund the measure so that it did not affect the deficit, they could place a camera to record what was going on and make sure that people were not being intimidated in the polling station.
There have been serious problems with people being bullied by their families in what is supposed to be a secret ballot. That is not supposed to happen, but it happens at the polling station as well.
Would political parties decide where the cameras went throughout the nation? If there were 60,000 of them, would there be 20,000 for Labour, 20,000 for the Tories and 20,000 for the Lib Dems, or would there be some kind of proportional representation for the allocation of CCTV cameras? Will the hon. Gentleman clarify that point?
One point about the new clause is that it does not try to be explicit about how we might deal with a specific problem; it would allow a discussion to take place. I am very pleased to have the hon. Gentleman’s interventions, however, as we look creatively at how we can deal with an issue to which, effectively, a blind eye has been turned for more than a century. When political parties had larger memberships it was easier to arrange polling agents all over the place; it has become harder as political party activity and social capital has gone down. So the hon. Gentleman might make that proposal, but what is important is that something should happen.
I am proposing, believe it or not, new clause 1, which would facilitate secondary legislation to deal with the matter. I accept the point that the issue is so important that it should be dealt with in primary legislation, but it would be nice to see the Electoral Commission showing some interest in pilot schemes to deal with these issues. Personation is well known in many areas of the country, and the noble Lord Greaves has highlighted cases in his area.
We do not need an ID card to have some way of checking an identity. I would not go for the fingerprint solution; I think the video camera is—[Interruption.] The reason I like the idea of colour on the finger is that it would be a badge of honour. People who had done their civic duty and cast a vote could say to those who had not, “I’m one up on you—I’ve been out to vote.” I always say to people that others have fought for the ballot and that even if they spoil the ballot paper, they should cast their vote. I also explain to them that if something sufficiently rude is written on the ballot paper the agents and candidates often get to see it, so it is a way of getting a message across, whereas sitting at home and not casting a vote does not have an effect, and those who do not cast votes tend to be ignored. People should be aware of that.
In the past, the Electoral Commission has tended to be somewhat complacent about electoral fraud and has been more interested in increasing the number of votes cast, whether or not they were cast by the person who was supposed to do so. Hence we have ended up with phantom people on the electoral roll who vote reliably every year. The Electoral Commission has not seen that as a priority; it has been more concerned that of the people recorded on an unreliable electoral roll, a higher proportion cast votes.
We come back to the question of the secret ballot. One of my concerns about the postal voting system is that it is quite easy for people to be intimidated into voting in a particular way because the circumstances in which the ballots are cast are not controlled. In Norway, for instance, there are controlled circumstances for absentee ballots. That is important. In Birmingham, people have gone en masse into a polling station and been pressurised by family members about how to cast their secret ballot. In my view, each individual family member has a right to cast their secret ballot in whichever way they wish. We have had serious problems, with the police being called to polling stations because of the frantic things going on. Again, I am going back to 2004, but it is a continuing problem. One of the difficulties in dealing with electoral fraud is that unless one looks for it one does not find it. The challenge on election day is whether to spend time trying to get the vote out or find out what is going on.
In a recent parliamentary question, I asked how many successful prosecutions of electoral fraud there are every year, and the answer came back, one or two, but 36% of the British public think that the situation is worse than that. Part of the reason for that disparity could be that MPs and Ministers stand up in the Chamber and on the news and say that electoral fraud is a terrible problem, but really it is not and there are very few cases. Yet the whole gist of the Bill—
In fairness, Mr Hemming, you have taken a lot of interventions, and we have to deal with other new clauses after this. You have already been speaking for 30 minutes, and I think you are in danger of being drawn into something you do not want to be drawn into. It may be helpful if you are not drawn into it, and I am sure that you are now coming to the end of your speech.
This has been a fascinating debate. In my view, one of the weaknesses of the new clause is that it calls for action but does not outline what should happen.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that the number of cases of fraud in this country is small. Overall, we have a very good electoral system. In the Electoral Commission’s report after its voting pilots of the early 2000s, it found that the incidence of fraud was quite small, but, as we know, concentrated in certain communities, whether Asian communities in big cities such as Birmingham, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) represents, or those in other areas such as Bradford and Tower Hamlets, where the Liberal Democrats do not have a fantastic record. We must therefore be careful not to get this out of proportion.
I am worried about some of the hon. Gentleman’s suggested measures to detect fraud, which would be completely out of proportion to the problem that is being addressed. Having seen his performances in this House over the past few years, I am not surprised that the police chose the name Operation Gripe. Making scattergun accusations such as those he made today is not very helpful, either to the police or to the real debate about electoral fraud.
The hon. Gentleman proposes to extend these measures to candidates and polling agents. In Durham, political parties do appoint polling agents, but their role is very clearly defined. They cannot interfere with the issuing of ballot papers. They can ask people for their numbers, but many, rightly, do not give them. They may be asked for the number of people who have voted, and will be happy to give that. If polling agents were able to sit over the polling clerks, as he suggests, that would be wrong because it might intimidate them. The polling clerks I have dealt with in the many elections in which I have been either an agent or a candidate are very professional individuals. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence of a polling clerk issuing ballot papers incorrectly, then he must provide it. He should not throw it out in such a casual manner as he has today. I would be very uncomfortable with polling agents taking on the role that he suggests in sitting over the clerks when they are doing their job.
I accept that the hon. Gentleman’s community is very different from the one that I represent, but I find it strange that voters take other people into the polling station to vote. In my experience of the elections in which I have been an agent or a candidate, if someone arrives who is infirm or needs assistance, the polling clerk will take them into the voting booth to assist in pointing out the names of the candidates. I have never known polling clerks allow a relative, or a candidate or representative of a political party, to go with somebody into the voting booth. The message is the quality and rigour of the polling clerks, who, in my experience, are professional individuals who know what the rules are.
In Durham, when polling clerks take numbers at polling stations, it is made clear that they must sit way outside the balloting area—if it is a school, usually in a corridor; if it is a community hall, usually outside—so that they cannot in any way interfere with the process. I have sometimes taken infirm people to vote. The usual procedure is to take them to the door and indicate to the clerk, who will take over from there so that we do not get involved in the process.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd said, the hon. Gentleman is doing us a disservice in perpetuating the myth that electoral fraud is a huge problem in general, because it is not. I accept that it is a huge problem in certain areas, and the people involved should be dealt with properly.
I find it strange that a Liberal Democrat has such a schizophrenic attitude towards CCTV given that the Liberal Democrats pride themselves on saying that CCTV is against civil liberties. I would not want any recording device in polling stations, because the ballot is private. No matter how many assurances people were given, they would fear that a CCTV camera was recording or indicating which way they had voted.
First, we have had for some time the experience of having police officers in polling stations from the days when they might have been needed to keep order. Secondly, surely the proposed CCTV camera is intended to show the ballot paper being issued and put in the box, not to go behind the screen where the paper is marked.
The hon. Gentleman says that, but what is to prevent someone from shifting the camera so that it covers the voting booths? My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd also made a good point about cost. I think that many electors would find it intimidating to be filmed while they were performing their democratic right. I therefore think that this is a very strange suggestion from the Liberal Democrats. They rail against the Big Brother state a lot, but this would be taking the Big Brother state to a huge and strange conclusion.
I also find it strange that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is in favour of people marking their fingers. Again, I am not sure that that would go down well in my constituency.
Having known my hon. Friend for many years, I know his sense of humour and will take his comment in that spirit. I certainly would not support electors having to have their fingers, noses or any other part of their anatomy dipped to show that they had voted.
I think that robust training for polling clerks is important. The safeguards are already there. The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) spoke about police officers at polling stations. That is a good idea where there are problems. If there are problems in certain wards, as hon. Members think there are, the Bill allows for community support officers to take that role. That is a good move because it will free up police resources. The mechanisms are there to ensure that the ballot is run fairly.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley made the accusation that somebody was giving out polling cards to the Labour party. His speech was interesting in that he said that the problem affects all parties, but did not name one case that involved his party, when we know that the Liberal Democrats have been at this on an industrial scale in parts of the country. If he has evidence of polling cards being given out, he should report it. The only problem comes if he bombards the police with 50-odd minor complaints. In that case, even I would consider him an irritant.
I am not being funny, but if somebody turns themselves into a serial complainer, I can understand why an authority would start to ignore some of the complaints. The hon. Gentleman would be better off concentrating on specific cases on which he has hard evidence, rather than throwing complaints around like confetti, which is not helpful.
The other thing that will help the process is individual registration, which will ensure that the register is as up-to-date as possible. I reiterate that elections in this country are largely run fairly and correctly. We should keep reinforcing that message. When we had the pilots for all-postal and e-mail voting elections in the early 2000s, the report from the Electoral Commission was very positive. A council by-election in my area achieved a 67% turnout. If the number of votes cast is increased, the effect of minor fraud is diminished, so getting turnout up is important.
I accept that the constituency that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley represents is very different from mine, and that there are communities that engage in electoral fraud. The effort should be made in those places, rather than there being a scatter-gun approach. I therefore see no reason for the new clauses. They are quite weak, because they do not prescribe what the action would be. They are not well thought out.
Finally, we should praise the many local returning officers and council chief executives who work very hard and are scrupulous in running elections.
The speech from the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was interesting. It was like saying that 788 planes landed safely at Heathrow and that only one crashed, and then asking why we are spending our time on the crash.
The new clause is a probing suggestion that something should happen. Clearly, something should happen. It would be good if the Minister said that he will get the Association of Chief Police Officers together with the Electoral Commission, electoral registration officers and others to come up with a way of finding out how much of a problem there is—that means research—and a statement of how the police gain the information on which they can base prosecutions when problems are reported.
I respect the hon. Gentleman, but I am trying to develop a slightly different approach. I will do so very briefly.
First, there should be a one in 100 check on postal vote applications. Secondly, there should be a retrospective check on whether postal votes have been used by the elector themselves. Thirdly, there should be a place where people who think that postal votes have been stolen—literally and physically stolen—can report it, and there should be a way to check those reports. Lastly, the police should be asked what it is they lack that would make it possible for them to investigate complaints and suggestions of impropriety properly. I think that that approach would solve the problem.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this Committee, Ms Clark.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) has raised an important point about impersonation and other electoral fraud offences. He was very fair in what he said at the beginning of his remarks. First, he said that this is a probing new clause. I therefore do not intend to dissect the wording of his new clauses to any great extent, because I do not think that he intends to press for a Division. Secondly, he was fair in saying that electoral malpractice is not confined to one party. We all need to be aware of it, to be on our guard against it and to take all appropriate steps to ensure that it does not happen, either in our own parties or in the wider electoral process. He, of course, recounts what he has experienced in Birmingham, and it is perfectly proper for other hon. Members to raise issues that reflect the experience in their areas.
We have traditionally been extraordinarily complacent in this country about our electoral administration arrangements. We have assumed that most people play the game according to the rules, and most people do. However, in making that big assumption, we have sometimes omitted to take elementary steps that would be considered perfectly normal in other jurisdictions to prevent the possibility of those who do not want to play by the rules doing things that we would not consider to be normal.
As I indicated earlier in the passage of the Bill, I have considerable experience of monitoring elections overseas as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Indeed, I have led international monitoring missions in a number of countries. The things that I have seen done in other countries, which we say in international forums are the things that we would like to see, are completely omitted in our country. Some of the things to which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley referred, such as the use of transparent boxes to avoid ballot stuffing, are normal in most new democracies. It is normal in most new democracies for representatives of parties to act as observers in polling stations as a trust-building measure. Indeed, it is common in a lot of countries to have a method of indicating that somebody has voted, such as the use of dye. Those are not measures that we should or need to take in this country, but it is important that we do not have a complacent view of fraud, or an old-fashioned view that such things cannot happen in the United Kingdom—they can, and we should be on our guard.
Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that the police in this country, perhaps unfortunately, have traditionally taken a relaxed view of electoral fraud—it is almost as if it is not a proper crime? Does he welcome noises from senior police officers in the past few months to the effect that they have got that wrong and will be more stringent in future?
I mentioned in the debate on an earlier group of amendments the extraordinarily valuable work that has been done between the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers. That work, which has involved comparing notes and finding best practice, has brought it home to local police officers that electoral fraud is their responsibility, and that attempting to undermine our democratic process by doing things incorrectly is a serious offence and should be taken seriously.
That has not always been the case—Governments, too, have not always taken electoral fraud seriously. I give credit to the previous Government because they started to take it seriously latterly in legislation, but I emphasise on behalf of this Government that we take electoral fraud very seriously indeed and regard the integrity of the ballot as a top priority. That is precisely why we introduced the Bill and measures such as individual elector registration.
We need returning officers and their staff to work closely with local police forces, candidates and agents to raise awareness of voting offences and the proper procedure for reporting concerns. The joint guidance from ACPO and the Electoral Commission in advance of a poll, for which the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) asked, will give examples of best practice on detecting malpractice. It will be enormously valuable. For example, polling station staff will be issued with guidance notes routinely on how to identify individuals they suspect of committing a voting offence, and on what to do if they are not satisfied that a person is a genuine or eligible voter.
Under existing law and under the Bill, polling station staff can ask voters certain prescribed questions before issuing them with a ballot paper, including asking whether they are the person named on the register under the relevant entry and whether they have already voted in that election. Staff can withhold a ballot paper from those attempting to vote more than once. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley that the process of a tendered ballot is not well understood, but it ought to be in such circumstances. Staff must also mark each voter’s name on the register before they are issued with a ballot paper to prevent people from voting several times.
That is precisely the point about the tendered vote. The person who subsequently arrives at the polling station can vote—whether a personation has occurred is determined at a later stage.
Similarly, measures are already in place to prevent postal voting fraud. All postal voters must supply postal vote identifiers—a signature and a date of birth—both when they apply for and when they return a postal vote. Anyone seeking to abuse a postal vote that is addressed to someone who has moved out of a property would have to replicate a signature and know the date of birth to pass the rigorous checking system. In addition, the Government will introduce secondary legislation to make it mandatory—this deals with an issue raised by the hon. Member for Worthing West—for returning officers to check 100% of postal vote identifiers on return postal vote statements. Taken together, those measures will make it very difficult for a third person to intercept a postal ballot and commit personation.
The evidence is that the number of instances of personation remains relatively low. That is not complacent—in certain areas under certain circumstances, there is a higher number, but overall the rate is relatively low. The encouraging thing is that the joint report by the Electoral Commission and ACPO shows a reduction in the proportion of reported cases following the 2011 referendum compared with previous ballots. The existing safeguards in legislation and practice perhaps are beginning to have an effect, but we are introducing further safeguards in the Bill.
As I said, I shall not dissect the new clauses, but the concern we have with the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley is that they are vague—unidentified measures could be taken by delegated powers, of which hon. Members have traditionally taken a dim view because they allow Ministers a freer rein to introduce new measures. If we were to take additional powers to deal with such problems, we would want to do so in primary legislation.
I apologise for having only recently come into the Chamber, but what the Minister says on personation is interesting. Polling officers check for personation, but many people do not speak English, particularly women from ethnic minorities. Will such difficulties be addressed?
The most important thing is the sequence of events. First, we want to get the register right. The Bill gives a much wider responsibility to electoral registration officers to get the registers complete and accurate. An accurate register makes it more difficult for somebody to commit an offence at the point of voting. The easiest thing in the world is not to vote fraudulently but to register fraudulently. That is why we are keen to make the register accurate and complete in the first instance.
Secondly, when tendering a postal vote—voting at the polling station is not an enormous problem for the communities to which the hon. Gentleman refers—the identifiers should mean that there is no problem. The Electoral Commission constantly monitors arrangements to ensure they work for everybody.
There are structures in place to detect suspicious applications to register. One thing hon. Members spoke about earlier was the liaison between EROs and the dedicated single points of contact within local police forces. That ought to improve police performance in that respect. The key is the introduction of individual elector registration, which the Bill allows and which will remove some scope for malpractice.
I criticised my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley for the vagueness of his proposals. I know he will take that in good part, because he did not intend to prescribe. I do not go along 100% with some of the things that came up in the debate. I am not sure, for example, that having CCTV in every polling station makes sense. Some polling stations in my constituency are lucky to have electricity, let alone CCTV.
In addition, there are confidentiality issues. I would be slightly worried about such a change. This country has a long and important tradition of secret ballots, and some people are already worried that simply being ticked off contradicts that principle. It does not, of course, but having a television camera trained on them might give them cause for concern, so this is not something we want immediately to embrace.
Having said that, I hope that the Electoral Commission, the police and Department officials will consider constantly what initiatives and changes of practice can be made to bear down on fraud, and I think that my hon. Friend’s comments are important. I am not one of those who simply say, “Oh, fraud is such a small issue that we needn’t bother about it.” It is not a small issue but a big issue, and one that strikes at the heart of our democratic system. Luckily, though, it is reasonably low-level at the moment, which is how we want to keep it—low-level to the point that we can actually remove it from the system. That is why we are taking such stringent measures in the Bill and why we will continue to do everything we can.
On that basis, I hope that my hon. Friend feels that he has been able to air his concerns, that the Government are responding to them and that we will make further progress on dealing with fraud and personation, which undoubtedly remain but which we hope we can eliminate in due course.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is not here to hear the answers to his points. First, he confused tellers and polling agents. Secondly, it is wrong to say that this is a one-community issue. It might be limited to certain areas of the country, but it is not an issue for just one community, and I resent his assertion otherwise. There is clear evidence that it goes wider than one community, and in Birmingham, as I said, it has gone on for 100 years, which shows that it is not confined to one community.
The issue is one of evidence. At the moment, if somebody’s vote is stolen through personation, there is no evidence of who did it and nothing for the police to investigate, hence there is a hole. I agree with the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and disagree with the Deputy Leader of the House about cameras. They would not cause a problem, because simply identifying who picks up a ballot paper does not track which way they cast it. I agree with him, however, that it would be better to withdraw the new clause and for there to be a continuing discussion. It is important that we do not forget about this issue, because it does go on, and as it currently stands there is no system to pick it up. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
New Clause 3
Representation of the People Act 1985 (Amendment)
‘(1) The Representation of the People Act 1985 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 1 (Extension of parliamentary franchise) omit subsections (3)(c) and (4)(a).
(3) In section 3 (Extension of franchise for European Parliamentary elections) omit subsections (3)(c) and (4)(a).’. —(Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.)
Currently, British citizens can qualify as overseas electors only if they have been resident in the United Kingdom within the previous 15 years. This also applies to Members of the House of Lords for European Parliamentary elections. This amendment would remove this qualifying period, so that British citizens could qualify as overseas electors even if they had ceased to be resident in the United Kingdom more than 15 years before.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 5—Explicit right of British citizens to register to vote and to participate in elections—
‘(1) The Representation of the People Act 1983 is amended as follows—
(2) Insert “a British citizen,”
(a) in section 1 (parliamentary electors), in subsection (1)(c), after “either”,
(b) in section 2 (local government electors), in subsection (1)(C), after “is”,
(c) in section 4 (entitlement to be registered as parliamentary or local government elector), in subsection (1)(c), after “either”,
(d) in section 4, subsection (3)(c), after “is”, and
(e) in section 7B, subsection (3)(e), after “is”, in the first place it occurs.’.
British citizens are currently enfranchised in statute as Commonwealth citizens, not British citizens. This amendment is to introduce a statutory entitlement for British citizens to be enfranchised as British citizens.
At present, under sections 1 and 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1989, as amended by section 141 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, British citizens can qualify as overseas voters only if they have been resident in the UK in the previous 15 years. The new clause would remove this qualifying period altogether, so that all British citizens could qualify as overseas voters, regardless of when they were last resident in the UK.
According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, 5.6 million British citizens currently live abroad. The shocking truth is that although, as of last December, about 4.4 million of them were of voting age, only 23,388 were registered for an overseas vote, according to the Office for National Statistics’ electoral statistics. Out of 4.4 million potential overseas voters, only 23,000-odd are actually registered! Half the problem is the difficulties of the registration process, which I brought before the House during the clause 1 stand part debate on 18 June, but the other half of the problem is the cut-off limit or qualifying period.
A number of Members have major overseas firms based in their constituencies—I have Toyota, Rolls-Royce and Bombardier—and have constituents who go to work abroad for these firms for many years. It is outrageous that they might be working for firms based in our constituencies and not have a vote. What does my hon. Friend think about that?
My hon. Friend has read my mind. I shall happily address her issue a little later, but she makes an extremely good point.
The House and the British people should take no pride in the fact that so few citizens living abroad are registered to vote. At a time of decreasing voter turnout, the overseas vote represents a potentially large pool into which we could tap, if the House was minded to accept my new clause. This issue will not go away, and today is a timely opportunity to tackle it. Each year, more and more British citizens, for one reason or another, choose to move abroad, as my hon. Friend said. The ONS international passenger statistics show that an estimated 130,000 British citizens left the UK in the year to March 2011—up from 119,000 in the year to March 2010. In 2008, according to the IPPR, of those who moved abroad, 55% did so for work-related reasons, as my hon. Friend said, 25% for study and only 20% for retirement. With an ageing population and particularly with the increased opportunities to work and study abroad, people are bound to continue to leave the UK.
In most other countries, both developed and emerging, voting rights for parliamentary elections depend solely on nationality, not on an arbitrary time limit. For example, US nationals can vote in presidential, congressional and state elections, regardless of where they reside in the world. Similarly, Australian nationals can vote in the equivalent elections there, no matter where they live. However, the most startling example comes from our nearest neighbour. French citizens in the UK have just elected a new President and taken part in parliamentary elections for one of the 11 Members of Parliament whose job it is solely to represent French people abroad. They include the French MP for the newly created constituency of North Europe, who is in the French Assembly to represent French people living in the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia and the Baltic states.
The right of Spaniards abroad to vote is enshrined in article 68 of the Spanish constitution. Likewise, the Portuguese constitution states explicitly that the single Chamber, the Assembly of the Republic, is
“the representative assembly of all Portuguese citizens”.
As a result, all Portuguese citizens living abroad have the same right to vote in Assembly elections as fellow citizens living in their home country. The simple fact is that the citizens of the US, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and all these other countries have better voting rights for their citizens abroad than we do for British citizens living abroad.
For a democracy as ancient as ours, it is not an exaggeration to say that it is a stain on our democratic principles that our citizens are placed at such a disadvantage when they have moved abroad compared with citizens from those other countries. Her Majesty’s Government is very happy to collect tax from most of the enormous number of people involved, but denies them the vote. British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years are completely disfranchised from voting in the UK. There is certainly no lack of interest among British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years. Whenever I have addressed branches of Conservatives Abroad, this has been a contentious and profound issue. I understand that the Labour party has a similar organisation and that the Liberal Democrats have recently established their own version, so I have no doubt that this issue will have been raised by other parties’ organisations as well.
The states in which these British citizens reside do not allow them to vote as residents, because voting rights are based on nationality and not residence, and they cannot vote in the UK on the basis of the current rule, for which there is no obvious rationale. I challenge the Deputy Leader of the House to state where there would be any disadvantage in abolishing the rule. The consequence of the rule is that many British citizens living abroad are in a state of electoral limbo, unable to participate in any election whatsoever. That seems to be a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.
It is not just me saying this, as a number of learned Lords agree. Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat Minister of State for Justice, said:
“I do not think there is a rationale…for the figure of 15 years, five years or 20 years”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 March 2011; Vol. 725, c. 1133.]
The noble and learned Lord Lester of Herne Hill said on the same day:
“I am not aware of any rationale for how these periods have been chosen. They seem to be entirely arbitrary”—
the point I was making—
“and, I dare say, discriminatory in a way that violates Article 14 of the European convention read with Article 3 of the first protocol.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 March 2011; Vol. 725, c. 1024.]
A number of learned people clearly think that this rule is unfair.
This is all about one group of people who live overseas and last registered here less than 15 years ago, who currently have the absolute right to register as overseas voters, compared with another class of overseas voters living abroad for more than 15 years since they last registered here. One has the absolute right to register; the other lot do not. It seemed to me to be an arbitrary cut-off date; as the noble and learned Lords I cited said, that seems quite wrong.
My hon. Friend mentioned a category of British citizens who could not vote at all. Membership of the European Union clearly gives them rights to vote in local government elections—in Spain, France or wherever. They have the right to do so here. Another point arises from the debate about whether 15, 20 years or whatever is the appropriate period of time. We have arrangements that deny people the vote and deny them membership of the House of Lords, for example, if they are not resident here or do not pay taxes here. There comes a point at which a tax equation is relevant, along with the duties and responsibilities of being a British citizen. That is different from where someone has lost connection in many ways over a long period with his nationality, responsibilities, duties and allegiance to the Crown.
My hon. Friend raises two issues. The first is whether British citizens are entitled to vote in EU local elections and European elections, as is the case in most European countries. The fact of the matter is that British citizens living overseas for more than 15 years since they last registered are not able to register here in order to vote in our general elections. Secondly, he says that these people have lost allegiance to the UK. I think that that is a slur on many of them. I think many people living abroad have a huge interest in what goes on in this country. I suspect that most of the voters who are unable to register still pay their taxes, or at least some part of them, to the UK. It seems to me that if the UK is prepared to take their taxes, why should they be denied a vote? I just cannot see the case for that.
My hon. Friend has clearly explained this arbitrary cut-off of 15 years. That is understood. Does he agree that the electoral registration officer is obliged to register people who are entitled to vote here and, if so, who should have the responsibility to register those overseas who are entitled to vote, irrespective of whether they have lived abroad 15 years or more since they last registered here?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is up to the electoral registration officer to consider the application on the basis of the individual involved and the facts of the case. He would no doubt be entitled to make further inquiries—the Minister will put me right if I am wrong—if there were any doubt or confusion about whether the person had been registered here within the 15-year period, outside it or indeed about whether the person was entitled to vote at all.
I understand that, but I was asking a slightly different question. Should someone have the responsibility for trying to recruit these people to register in the same way that domestically resident people like myself are if they are entitled to vote?
That is a very fair point. I think that Her Majesty’s Government should have an interest in their citizens abroad. Just as it makes publicity available for British citizens to register on British electoral rolls, it should do the same thing for British citizens abroad. That would not be difficult in the age of the internet.
Fundamentally abolishing this arbitrary and unjust time limit is mainly about giving those people who have spent their lives abroad, often working, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) said, for British companies, for international organisations and for UK Government Departments and agencies, and who are actively pursuing and often promoting British interests, the right to have their say in the future government of this country. Universal suffrage is in the universal declaration of human rights, to which this country is a signatory. This arbitrary cut-off time limit is totally contrary to that principle and the declaration. This is an opportunity for my hon. Friend the Minister to rectify this wrong. If he will not accede to my suggestion today, I request that he take this matter away and carefully consult on it, as I am absolutely certain that the other place will be interested in it.
I shall speak briefly in support of my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) in endorsing new clause 3. I believe that our electoral rules for overseas citizens were fashioned in a bygone age. I realise that the 15-year rule is relatively recent—
Thank you—a very important distinction, I am sure. I am saying that I believe our rules for people living overseas who are British citizens have been fashioned in a bygone age. When we consider the world today, a young person can work anywhere, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) who mentioned the large employers in her constituency, Many students are studying mandarin Chinese and may spend much of their lives—more than 15 years—in China. Many of our fine and bright young people spend more than 15 years in America. Given our weather, many people retire to sunnier climes overseas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) spoke about people giving up their allegiance to this country and the Crown, but many people who aim to retire overseas for ever, end up coming back. The stats are quite staggering on that. People have not given up their allegiance and they will certainly have family here and perhaps property here. As we have heard, they may pay taxes here. I believe that because we have this old-fashioned mentality, we lag behind many of the countries that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds mentioned in respect of our systems to ensure that British citizens living overseas can vote.
The important point about the 15-year rule, apart from the fact that there is an absolute cut-off point after 15 years, is that it creates confusion in the minds of many of our citizens overseas as to whether or not they are allowed to vote, so they do not even look into it fully. I have looked into the process we put in place for people to register to vote in this country, and I have found that it is just about as old-fashioned as could be imagined. I realise that there are security issues, but I think that the Government should consider making the system more streamlined and more user-friendly and allowing greater use of the internet.
I wonder whether, because ours is one of the oldest democracies in the world, we have become a bit complacent. Other countries are so much more dynamic and proactive in encouraging their overseas citizens to vote. I was staggered to learn that well over a million French citizens who were not living in France at the time voted in the recent presidential elections. As we heard earlier, in this country we mustered the staggeringly small number of about 30,000 Brits out of the 3.5 or 4.5 million who were eligible to vote. Fewer than 30,000 had registered to vote, and of course even fewer than that will have actually voted.
I think that we have become complacent about the importance of our democracy. We make only feeble efforts to encourage our active service people to vote, and I think that our lack of support for British citizens living overseas may be another indication of our complacency. I believe that we need to do an awful lot more to remove the barriers and the confusion, and to improve the system. A French person living in London can go to the French embassy to vote in the French presidential elections, but we cannot go to the embassy in Paris. It is all rather odd, and the Government should look into it. Perhaps, in the time-honoured Liberal Democrat tradition, they could even set up a royal commission, but we probably need rather more dynamic action than that.
I support this important new clause, which takes us quite a long way towards being able to send a strong signal to Brits living abroad. We need to be able to tell them, “We still think that you are an important part of our democracy, and we want you to engage in our democratic processes. We want you to register and we want you to vote, because you have a valuable part to play in our country.” Let us remove the 15-year barrier, and make a much more dynamic and proactive effort to encourage Brits living abroad to engage in our democratic processes.
I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter). For one thing, he has more or less covered many of the points that I was going to make. I will not follow the traditions of the House by simply restating them, but will press on and make one or two observations.
When it was drawn to my attention that we had imposed a time limit on British citizens living abroad, it struck me that we were sending a rather perverse message. I think that if the Committee supported the new clause we could send a very different and positive message, as well as doing a service to the democratic process. I do not think that we should say to a British citizen who has served his or her country before going abroad, be it through industry, public service, civil service or the military, “At the end of your working life—at the end of the time for which you have served your country and paid your taxes—we intend to disfranchise you if you exceed a Government target.” I am sure that none of us would wish to find ourselves in that position, and to feel that we had been effectively disfranchised for having done the right thing for most of our lives.
Why are such people disfranchised? It is quite a simple question, but I can find no convincing reason for it. I looked at the reports of some of the original debates about the issue in the House, going back as far as 1984, but none of them seems to have addressed the problem. In my opinion, ridding ourselves of the limit would involve no real cost to the Government, but only a benefit.
Surely the reason is that the system was built on a 19th-century rather than a 21st-century model. I should be grateful to my hon. Friend if he pushed for a system whereby people voted in the countries in which they live, and the results were telegraphed to this country.
That is entirely the point. We are living in a new world, and in a world that changes at a much faster rate than it has ever done before. There are no barriers to voting. There may be challenges for us as politicians when it comes to reaching the electorate, but that is for us to deal with. It is for the electorate to have free and fair access to the exercising of their vote. As a result of the changing world—the changing technologies, and of course the British consulates that are represented around the world—it is now possible for people overseas to vote in person.
I should like to make one important distinction. The Committee has an opportunity to move with the times by allowing overseas voters—I mean overseas British citizens; I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) is not still present, as I should be in trouble if he were—to exercise their democratic right. I was struck by a paragraph in a public letter from a Mrs Margaret Hales, MBE, who lives in Spain. She sums things up rather well, and if the Committee will forgive me, I shall read out the full quotation. She wrote this letter to the Deputy Prime Minister, and said:
“I am immensely proud that one of my ancestors was Emmeline Pankhurst. One hundred years ago she struggled through arrest, imprisonment, force-feeding and the derision of the then Liberal government”—
I make no partisan point—
“finally to gain universal suffrage. Had she been alive today she would have supported the help given to free Libya, she would have been behind William Hague in his negotiations to secure freedom in Syria and his support of Aung San Suu Kyi. But she could never ever have dreamed that her relative would be writing to you today to remind you, the British Deputy Prime Minister, that universal suffrage is the ultimate goal of every democracy and that the government is there to serve its citizens and not to disfranchise them.”
I rest our case.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for introducing this new clause. We had a taster of the argument it raises earlier in our proceedings, when he got some answers from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is constitutional affairs Minister, but I shall attempt to give some more answers today.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question, ably supported by the hon. Members for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) and for Enfield North (Nick de Bois). If I was asked to defend 15 years as the right length of time for qualification, I am not sure that I could come up with a convincing argument, other than the fact that that is what Parliament decided. Parliament has considered this matter on a number of occasions, and it has come up with different definitions of the appropriate qualifying period. On no occasion hitherto has Parliament decided that there should not be a qualifying period, however; it has always said, “Well, there must be a point at which somebody’s links with their country of origin are sufficiently tenuous not to entail having a vote.” Whether that is the correct view is for the House to decide. I merely report the view the House has taken when it has discussed this matter previously.
Surely the fact that somebody would want to register their overseas vote to take part in a general election in this country is sufficient evidence in itself that they have sufficient interest about what is going on in this country to merit being allowed a vote, rather than being denied it.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. I am simply reporting the fact that when Parliament debated this matter in the past, it always took the view that there should be a limit.
As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, many other countries take a different view on the appropriate franchise. Some provide for their citizens to vote in domestic elections, while others have specific Members of their legislatures who represent the diaspora. I recall once meeting a charming gentleman who was an Italian Senator. I think I represent a fairly large constituency in the context of the UK Parliament, but its size paled into insignificance when compared with that of his constituency, which, if I recall correctly, was Australasia, Asia, Africa and Antarctica. That is a fairly large part of the world. I do not know whether he visited every parish council on a regular basis, but he certainly represented a lot of Italians who were living abroad. The point is that different countries find different ways of addressing this issue.
Our position at the moment is that we give eligibility to vote to people within 15 years of their living abroad. We extend that also to Members of another place for the purposes of voting in European elections. Some exceptions are made in respect of members of the armed forces, persons in Crown service, persons working for the British Council and their spouses and civil partners.
The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) asked about people performing important duties on behalf of this country in representing commercial interests that are vital to our world trade abroad. She makes a strong point. We assume the loyalty and the involvement of those in the service of the Crown, and treat them on the same basis as UK-based civil servants. She puts an argument that those engaged in the commercial world are every bit as committed to the interests of the UK but are working in a different capacity.
This proposal is something that the Government want to consider, as we have indicated. However, we would not want to rush into it, not because of any wish to obstruct, but simply because the question of extending the franchise is a fundamental one, and both the Government and the House would have to feel comfortable with doing that, having taken due care. If we were to accept the new clause, we would face minor but real difficulties. For instance, there is no current requirement for registration officers to keep copies of previous registers, except in so far as they need them to check registrations for the 15 years provided for under the current legislation. So under the current terms of checking we would not have the material to check whether someone ever had been an elector—a properly registered person—in this country. That is not insurmountable, but it is a practical issue that we would have to take into account.
Questions relating to the electoral franchise are important. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds and his friends have made valid arguments, but there are arguments the other way, which we have not heard today but which have been expressed on other occasions, and they need to be carefully considered. What we have done in the Bill is improve the overseas voting process. One significant part of that is the proposal to extend the electoral timetable for UK parliamentary elections from 17 to 25 days, which will make a significant difference to those who are registered in enabling them to vote. It will help postal voters and particular overseas and military voters. At the same time, we are ensuring that the underpinning of elections is more robust.
We also need to consider what more we can do to improve the registration process. The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who is not in his place, raised a cogent question: what are registration officers to do to identify all those abroad who might be qualified to vote? Putting an onus on them similar to the responsibility we are placing on them in this Bill to seek out everyone who could possibly be qualified to vote would provide an insuperable problem for them if applied to overseas electors. I think that the hon. Member for The Cotswolds would probably acknowledge that that is the case.
So we would still need to have a responsibility on overseas electors to register, rather than have the registration officer seek these people in order to enable them to be registered. Having said that, if we can find better and easier ways to enable that to happen, we should do so; the advent of IT processes may well do exactly that. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his new clause. He has made some very important points and I undertake that the Government will give them serious consideration. We will see whether there are proposals that we might wish to bring forward in due course to address some of his points.
I support new clause 5. The reasoning behind it is clear and has been discussed over a long period. The fact is that we only have the right in this country to vote through our membership of the Commonwealth; we do not have the right to vote as British citizens. I do not intend to take up a great deal of time, because I appreciate that the debate is under considerable time pressure, but the question of the relationship between citizens’ rights and duties has become increasingly disconnected.
The history of our nationality laws goes back to a great and long imperial past, and each of our Representation of the People Acts has, in a sense, tried to catch up with the world as it is. We have no greater right than as a citizen of the Commonwealth, and I wanted to see on the face of a Bill—it has been suggested that this should happen—that a British citizen has a right to vote, and for that citizenship to be the category.
A Library note first gave me cause for concern, along with the response to a query from me about the House of Commons research paper that accompanies the Bill. That response from the Library concerned the question of the accuracy of the information presented to Members of Parliament. I make no criticism of the Library, as it is the finest resource and the most remarkable people are employed there. They often make a difference to the quality of our speech from the arguments we were originally able to articulate according to our own ability. The Library states:
“The Research Paper refers to ‘British Irish and qualifying Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK’ in order to explain the franchise arrangements succinctly. As we agree, the RPA 1983 refers to qualifying Commonwealth citizens and Irish citizens as being able to vote. I believe that most British citizens do not understand that they come under the term ‘Commonwealth citizens’. Other disqualifications are also relevant, such as meeting the residence requirements of the RPA, and ensuring that the prisoner disqualification does not apply. The Research Paper did not cover these in detail either.”
That is why the House does not necessarily know the background.
The debate has gone on for a long time. The arguments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) about the length of residency overseas that is necessary to maintain the vote here was a matter of considerable controversy in the 1980s, when those provisions were introduced. At that time, the Labour party was deeply concerned about the proposals on the false assumption, I think, that everyone who could afford to retire abroad or live for long periods in countries such as Spain would predominantly vote Conservative. That is perhaps why we have that mismatch. My experience of life is that one cannot necessarily tell how anyone will vote.
I want to commend the previous Prime Minister. I know that that is an unusual position for a Conservative and for many citizens, but he set in train the consideration of some of our Crown authority issues, such as passports and so on. He commissioned Lord Goldsmith to conduct a review of citizenship and its relationship to the vote. The review was called “Citizenship: Our Common Bond”. The anxiety with all this in relation to the Representation of the People Act 1983 is that citizenship is not necessarily a common bond any longer, as can be seen in some ways. People have dual nationalities that they can take on for whatever reason or convenience, so they can have British citizenship but no sense of allegiance to the institutions or the country. That is the way the world is going, with a divorcing of the relationship between loyalty, allegiance and a sense of pride in one’s country. As a country, we are one of the most fortunate in the world and there is an enormous sense of pride across all communities about being British. Our right to vote as citizens of Britain should be in legislation.
I note the remarks that two people have made about this issue. First, our spokesman in the Lords during the passage of the Representation of the People Act 2000, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, spoke to an amendment at Lords Committee stage to include the term “British citizen” in that legislation. He thought that should be set out clearly. I mention, in passing, that during the debate Lord Jopling suggested that if the UK were expelled from the Commonwealth there would be real problems with the wording in the legislation. That is a silly but technical point, in which there is truth. More importantly, Lord Goldsmith, in his report on citizenship, touched on the right to vote and recommended restricting the right to vote to UK citizens. These were his words:
“However, I do propose that government gives consideration to making a clear connection between citizenship and the right to vote by limiting in principle the right to vote in Westminster elections to UK citizens. This would recognise that the right to vote is one of the hallmarks of the political status of citizens; it is not a means of expressing closeness between countries. Ultimately, it is right in principle not to give the right to vote to citizens of other countries living in the UK until they become UK citizens.”
That is the argument behind this measure. It is an old argument and a new argument in the sense that people do not realise they have the vote only through their Commonwealth citizenship. I would like to see the measure in the Bill.
I know that the Government must think about this and that there would be consequences, but 800 million or 900 million Indian citizens, if they gained admission here—I do not think we could possibly take 800 million but if they did gain admission—would have the right to vote in British elections. I do not think that is right. This is a big and substantive issue that affects our relationships. Citizenship by birth or through the expression of allegiance, by wanting to be a citizen and acquiring citizenship, are justification for the vote. These arguments mirror those adopted elsewhere and in other countries. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look closely at this matter and see whether an amendment could be tabled in the House of Lords to support my new clause.
The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) addressed two factors in his remarks, the first of which was the extent of the franchise and the different categories of people who are allowed to vote in our UK parliamentary elections. Secondly, he addressed the definition in the Bill, which his new clause addresses, of whether it is an accurate description, rather than dealing with the qualification.
The Representation of the People Act 1983 sets out those who are entitled to vote in UK parliamentary elections as those who have attained the age of 18 and are Commonwealth citizens or citizens of the Republic of Ireland who are resident in the UK. In order to register, Commonwealth citizens must have leave to enter or remain in the UK, or not require such leave. I accept that is a historical anomaly, but it has been in place for many years and reflects our historical ties with Commonwealth countries. There are reciprocal arrangements with Ireland, as British citizens resident in the Republic of Ireland have been entitled to vote in elections to the Irish Parliament since 1985. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not enter into a debate about whether that franchise is right, because that does not relate to the purpose of new clause 5.
Precisely so. The 1983 Act uses the term “Commonwealth citizen” and, by definition, while we remain part of the Commonwealth—I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about what would happen if we left the Commonwealth, but I do not think that that is expected in the near future—that includes every person who is a British citizen, a citizen of the British overseas territories, or a citizen of one of the Commonwealth countries listed in schedule 3 to the British Nationality Act 1981. People are therefore entitled to vote in this country as British citizens, but the term used in legislation is “Commonwealth citizen” because the franchise extends wider than just British citizens and citizens of British overseas territories.
I think that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that new clause 5 would have no practical effect on the franchise, but it would be a declaratory provision setting out that the right to vote in an election in this country is conferred by virtue of being a British citizen, and that that right is extended to Commonwealth citizens. It would therefore make a distinction between the two.
What other democracies in the world do not designate their citizens as having the right to vote? Does not the Minister find it extraordinary that, of all the countries in the world, we are the one with a mechanism under which people have the right to vote only by virtue of membership of an international organisation, the policies of which we have no control over?
We are not entitled to vote only through Commonwealth membership. We are entitled to vote as British citizens. British citizens are Commonwealth citizens, and that is why the legislation is drafted in such terms. I understand why the hon. Gentleman feels that it is important to make such a distinction, because I would hope that those of us who hold British citizenship are proud to do so. I am also proud to be part of the Commonwealth, which reflects the great history of our nation, and our electoral law takes account of that.
There are aspects of British electoral law in which such a distinction is necessary, and therefore is specifically stated, because an entitlement is restricted to British citizens. For example, the Representation of the People Act 1985 sets out that only British citizens are entitled to register as overseas electors. When the distinction is necessary in legislation, it is made. While I understand the intention behind new clause 5, it is not necessary to change the construction of our electoral law in such a way. I fear that if it were enacted, it would introduce a potential inconsistency with other legislation which uses the phrase “Commonwealth citizen” to include British citizens and other Commonwealth citizens.
However, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point and I will go away and consider it further to see whether there is a useful distinction that ought to be made in our legislation. I hope he will not press the new clause today, although it is useful for him to have raised the issue. Perhaps we should at some stage address the question of whether that distinction should be made. Perhaps we should at some stage also look at the franchise, but now is not the right time and the Bill is not the right place to do that. Nevertheless, he is perfectly entitled to raise the point today.
With the leave of the House, may I comment briefly on what the Deputy Leader of the House said in response to my new clause? He said clearly that the Government were keen to look at the issue. He rose to my challenge and raised a few minor problems with extending the franchise beyond 15 years for overseas voters, and he responded to some of my hon. Friends, whom I thank for supporting me in the debate, about some of the difficulties of the registration process.
Of course everybody wants the integrity of the electoral register to be maintained to the utmost degree. Only those who are eligible to register should register. We all understand that. The Deputy Leader of the House asked how an electoral registration officer would promote who is entitled to register as an overseas voter, which in the Bill is a positive duty. May I suggest that for overseas voters, that would be only a reactive duty? The electoral registration officer would have to react only to a valid application that was made to him.
May I suggest to the Deputy Leader of the House and to the Committee a practical way of dealing with the issue? The hon. Gentleman should table an amendment on Report or an amendment should be tabled in another place to take powers to extend but not reduce the 15-year period at a time when the Government are satisfied that the registration process is robust and maintains the integrity of the electoral register. He would be able to do that in tandem with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, his hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who told the House last week that he would look at the measures for the registration process that I suggested to him—namely, using the passport as an identity document, abolishing the annual requirement to register, perhaps introducing a permanent opt-in for people who had registered validly once, and the possibility of using British embassies so that people could register and, even better, vote there. The Cabinet Office Minister undertook to look carefully at those measures, which could be introduced under the Bill and under the existing legislation and secondary legislation. I suggest that the Deputy Leader of the House table an amendment to take a power to extend the 15 years when the Government are satisfied that those measures are in place. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw my new clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
New Clause 4
‘(1) Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 (c. 2) (parliamentary elections rules) is amended as follows.
(2) In rule 37 (voting procedure) after paragraph (6) insert—
“(7) A voter who is in the polling station or in a queue outside the polling station for the purpose of voting at the time specified for the close of the poll shall be entitled to apply for a ballot paper under paragraph 1 above and a ballot paper shall be delivered and the voter entitled to vote in accordance with this rule.”.’. —(Mrs Laing.)
Currently, voters who are in a queue at a polling station at 10 pm but who have not yet been issued with their ballot paper are unable to cast their vote. This amendment would allow for ballot papers to be issued to any registered voter who is in the polling station or in a queue outside the polling station at 10 pm, in order that they may then cast their vote.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring new clause 4 before the Committee. As is explained on the amendment paper, the clause would allow for ballot papers to be issued to any registered voter who is in the polling station or in a queue immediately outside the polling station at 10 pm or whatever time the poll closes, in order that they may then cast their vote. The Committee will recall what happened at the last general election, when more than 1,000 voters in 16 constituencies were denied the right to vote.
As the law stands, voters who are in a queue at a polling station at 10 pm but who have not yet been issued with their ballot paper are unable to cast their vote. Both the Electoral Commission and the House of Lords Constitution Committee have called on the Government to change the law to ensure that voters are not disfranchised as some were at the last election. There is precedence for such a provision because the Scottish Government recently changed the law for local elections in Scotland to allow for voters in queues at polling stations at 10 pm on the close of poll to cast their ballots.
I take the findings of the Electoral Commission very seriously in this respect, and the main factors that the commission identified as having contributed to the problems in 2010 were that there was evidence of poor planning assumptions in some areas; that there was use of unsuitable buildings and inadequate staffing arrangements at some polling stations; that contingency arrangements were sometimes not properly triggered or were unable to cope with demand at the close of poll; and also that current restrictive legislation, and therefore the presiding officer having no ability to apply discretion, meant that those who were present in queues at polling stations at the close of poll, were not able to be issued with a ballot paper.
The main conclusions of the Electoral Commission published in May 2010 recommended that the law must be changed to allow people queuing at polling stations at 10 pm to be able to vote. The commission also noted that local authorities and acting returning officers must take steps to improve their planning—we all agree with that—and must review their schemes for polling districts and polling stations to make sure that they allocate the right numbers of staff and electors to each polling station. All of these practical measures should be taken, and I hope now will be taken as a result of the fact that we saw 1,000 people at the last general election being deprived of their votes. In addition, the structure for delivering elections must be reformed to ensure better co-ordination and consistency, and, as we have debated during the last few days in other parts of this important Bill, returning officers should be more accountable for the way they manage elections. Nevertheless, I want to give the House the opportunity to consider whether we here in Parliament ought to add this clause to the Bill in order to give not just the clear direction but the power to a presiding officer to act in the way I describe in new clause 4, which will ensure that everybody who is present at the right time at close of poll should be allowed to cast their vote.
We do not want to discourage people from voting. We are in the business of getting as many people to vote as possible. We should not have artificial restrictions that stop people voting when they turn up to do so. At the same time, if an unforeseen incident occurs, which means that some people are at the polling station but do not have their ballot paper in their hand, the presiding officer should have a certain amount of discretion, within very strict parameters that I am setting out here, to allow people to cast their votes. It cannot be right that we in Parliament should take action that stops people voting when they have a legitimate right to do so. It goes against everything that we are trying to do in expanding democracy and encouraging people to vote and have a say in the government of our country.
At present a ballot paper must be correctly issued to a voter who applies for one before 10 pm. Issuing a ballot paper, as colleagues will know—we do pay attention to what happens in polling stations—is not instantaneous. There is a strict process that must be followed. It includes: calling out the number and name of the elector, as stated in the copy of the electoral register; marking the number on the corresponding number list of ballot papers issued; and placing a mark in the register against the elector’s number to indicate that a ballot paper has been received. All those steps have to be taken carefully and the presiding officer must ensure that they are all taken properly.
Therefore, it takes a minute or two to issue a ballot paper, but if there are several people in the queue, those minutes can mount up, and if there is a problem in the run-up to 10 o’clock it might take more than the few minutes to issue the necessary ballot papers. The steps that must be carried out when issuing a ballot paper necessarily affect the speed with which a polling station can deal with voters, and these practical matters must be taken into account when the House considers this legislation.
At present there is no provision for extending the polling time or issuing ballot papers beyond 10 pm, except of course in the case of riot or open violence, when polling would be adjourned to the following day. I am not talking about exceptional circumstances when there are riots or open violence at polling stations; I am talking about circumstances, such as those that occurred at the last general election, when people are genuinely present at the polling station, perhaps at 10 minutes to 10, yet there were so many that the ballot papers could not be issued.
What happens under the current arrangements if there is suddenly a medical incident, such as a car accident, outside a polling station at a quarter to 10 and the police have to secure the area while the ambulance men deal with anyone who is hurt? Would the polling station close at 10 regardless, because that seems a bit silly?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. That is exactly the sort of contingency that I am asking the House to consider in new clause 4. At present, if an incident occurs that prevents a potential voter entering a polling station or slows down their progress there from the car park, the tube or train station, the bus stop or the zebra crossing, nothing can be done about it.
I agree. If the presiding officer is standing at the door of the polling station and sees that there are people just about to come in at 10 minutes to 10 but they are being prevented from doing so by some very good and unforeseen reason, and if he knows that when they come in it might be two minutes to 10 and there is no way 10 or 15 ballot papers can be issued in two minutes, under the current arrangements he can do nothing about it. He has to say, “Too bad. That happened and you lose your vote.” That seems entirely undemocratic and simply wrong.
This matter has been considered by the courts, which have held that
“where a ballot paper has been duly issued to an elector that elector should be allowed to complete it and put it in the ballot box provided this is done without undue delay. However”—
and this is the crux of the matter—
“no ballot papers should be issued after the time of close of poll.”
So if a person is standing in a queue of five or six people—it does not have to be a crowd—at five minutes to 10, and in front of them someone is having difficulty identifying their name, or is perhaps suffering from a disability that makes it difficult for them to give their name quickly to the polling clerk—
Yes. My hon. Friend once again comes up with an interesting contingency. Supposing someone at the front of the queue collapses or becomes ill and attention is thus diverted, the five or six people who are legitimately standing there at 10 or five minutes to 10, expecting without any problem to be given their ballot paper, cannot be given one if the clock strikes 10. That just cannot be right.
The courts—this is a statement of the law at present—have ruled:
“We are of the opinion that the true dividing line is the delivery of the ballot paper to the voter. If he has had a ballot paper delivered to him before”—
I say “he”, because I think that the judgment was delivered before the female of the species was entitled to vote. Let us therefore bring this judgment of the courts up to date: when I say “he”, I mean “he” or “she”.
The judgment continues, finding that
“he is entitled in our judgment to mark that ballot paper and deposit it in the ballot box before the ballot box is closed and sealed. This interpretation of the enactment…appears to us to give a simple, definite, and just rule of procedure… As the polling commences at”—
by the officials, and the machinery being ready then to supply ballot papers to voters who apply for them, so in our view the poll must be no longer ‘kept open’ beyond”—
“the officials then ceasing to supply ballot papers to applicants.”
That position, as stated in court, was confirmed most recently by an election court in Northern Ireland, which in 2001 stated:
“It was the duty of the presiding officer to close the poll at 10pm by ceasing to issue any more voting papers. So long as voting papers were issued by 10pm, however, if electors marked them and deposited them in the boxes without delay the votes were valid.”
The Electoral Commission, in guidance published for the Scottish elections in May this year, issued strict directions to presiding officers on what exactly should happen. Some people have argued that it would not be possible to determine where a queue ends and where exactly the cut-off point should be for people who are entitled to vote, but that criticism has to be nonsense. The presiding officer—surely, in a position of responsibility—will be able either to close the door or to usher people inside the polling station, and to say exactly where the cut-off point should be.
The guidance states:
“If there is a queue shortly before 10 pm”—
the presiding officer should—
“find out if anyone waiting is delivering a postal vote so that they can hand in the postal vote before the 10pm deadline; Make sure that nobody joins the queue after 10pm; If there is a queue at 10pm and if the polling station can accommodate all the electors in the queue, ask electors to move inside the polling station and close the doors behind the last elector in the queue”.
That is so simple. The guidance continues:
“If the polling station is too small to accommodate all the electors in the queue, a member of the polling station team should mark the end of the queue by positioning themselves behind the last elector in the queue”—
again, terribly simple and straightforward. The presiding officer, the guidance notes state, should also:
“Explain to anyone who arrives after 10 pm and tries to join the queue that the poll has closed and that, by law, they cannot now join the queue to be issued with a ballot paper.”
All that is terribly simple and straightforward.
Does the hon. Lady agree that under the Bill a police officer, or a local community support officer acting with the same powers as the police, could be in attendance so that if there were any dispute they could ensure that people knew exactly where the end of the queue was?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. However, as I am sure the Committee will appreciate, this is not about an outbreak of violence, a riot, a demonstration, or unruly electors behaving in a somehow inappropriate fashion; it is about decent, law-abiding potential voters who turn up at a polling station before 10 o’clock, or whenever the close of poll might be, and find that because of some unforeseen contingency they do not get as far as having their ballot paper issued by that time.
Let me explain the difference that new clause 4 would make. At the moment, most people think that if they are in the polling station at 10 o’clock, they will get their ballot paper and be able to vote. That is a reasonable position, and the new clause would make it law. It is an unreasonable position to say that someone who has arrived at a polling station ahead of 10 o’clock, and for some unforeseen reason does not have a ballot paper issued, cannot still have one issued for a few minutes after that time. Nothing in the new clause would mean that the poll stayed open beyond 10 past or quarter past 10. We are talking about a very small amount of time for the sake of fairness. In the 2010 general election, 1,000 people were denied the opportunity to cast their vote when they had every right to do so. I am simply asking the Committee to bring the law up to date in order to give everybody who has the right to vote the chance to cast that vote.
On a point of order, Mr Evans. I wonder whether you have had notice that a Treasury Minister intends to come to the House to make an urgent statement on the news concerning the alleged market manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate, for which Barclays has today been fined a record sum by the Financial Services Authority. The mortgage interest rates of hundreds of thousands of our constituents up and down the country depend on LIBOR. We need to know how widespread this market manipulation is across the financial services and banking sectors, and whether a Minister will come urgently to the House to talk about how the Government intend better to regulate the LIBOR-setting process.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I have been given no indication that any Treasury Minister intends to come to the House to make a statement, but I am sure that his point has been heard by those on the Treasury Bench.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. It is also a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing). She is a doughty campaigner and defender of the values of the British constitution that she holds so dear, and it is incumbent on the Committee to listen carefully to what she has to say on these matters.
The hon. Lady outlined the purpose of new clause 4 in great detail and stated that it has the support of the Electoral Commission and the House of Lords Constitution Committee. The reason for the new clause relates to the problems on 6 May 2010, when 27 polling stations in 16 constituencies experienced problems with queuing in the period leading up to 10 o’clock and beyond. The constituencies included Birmingham, Ladywood; Hackney South and Shoreditch; Hackney North and Stoke Newington; Liverpool, Wavertree; Milton Keynes North; Sheffield, Hallam; and my constituency of Penistone and Stocksbridge. In total, more than 40,000 polling stations were in use during the 2010 elections. As well as the 650 parliamentary elections, there were local elections and mayoral elections.
Just over 1,200 voters were affected by the problems, leading to just over 500 complaints to the Electoral Commission within a fortnight of the elections. The strength of feeling was high. For example, 100 or more students at Sheffield, Hallam staged a protest after 10 o’clock, having been denied a vote. If that protest had carried on, perhaps the mechanisms to which the hon. Lady referred would have been activated. We are glad that they were not.
Given all that we have heard and read in recent years about voter disengagement, it is heartening that people cared so much about exercising their right to vote that they were prepared to queue. In Sheffield, Hallam and in my constituency, they did so in the rain. That defied all the pundits, who said repeatedly in the years before the 2010 election that people were disengaged from politics, that they were not bothered and that turnouts were going down. In fact, the 2010 election saw an increase in turnout. For that, we should be grateful. This House should feel an obligation to ensure that arrangements are in place to avoid any citizen ever again being denied the right to vote in any election.
The Electoral Commission report on the May 2010 problems identified two key problems. First, in the constituencies where problems were reported, there were common factors in the failure of returning officers to make sufficient arrangements for the elections. Despite their being issued with numerous publications detailing guidance, checklists and guidebooks, the planning processes adopted were inadequate. In particular, the plans were unrealistic and inappropriate, and in some cases were based on unreliable assumptions. On top of that, there was inadequate risk management and inadequate contingency plans were put in place in the constituencies that were affected. For example, voters experienced problems with the space in some polling stations, because they were small, cramped and unsuited to dealing with a steady stream of voters. That was not the primary cause of the problems, but where those conditions existed they impeded the throughput of voters and limited attempts to deal with the building queues.
Secondly, in several of the areas where there were problems, the allocation of voters per polling station exceeded the ratio recommended by the Electoral Commission. The recommended ratio was one polling station per 2,500 voters. In some instances, the latter figure was as high as 4,500. Staffing levels also varied considerably across the piece, with some returning officers providing only one presiding officer and one polling clerk, despite having voter ratios that demanded a much more generous staffing allocation. The commission lays down guidelines on the numbers of clerks and voters allocated to each station.
The combination of elections also made things difficult.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way on that point. I have argued strongly that we should never have two elections on the same day when that includes a general election. It is not so much of a problem to have local elections and another election on the same day because the turnout is naturally much lower than for a general election. A general election should be a stand-alone election. We should never have local elections and a general election on the same day.
Like me, the hon. Gentleman represents a constituency that experienced problems. The commission makes the point that the combination of a general election and other elections might have created problems. In some London constituencies, there were local and parliamentary elections, and mayoral elections. That was given as an explanation for the queuing problems, but the commission has pointed out that there were no such problems in some constituencies that had more than one election. I do not believe that having two elections on the same day is the root cause, although it can make things more difficult. Having two elections on the same day certainly made the count more difficult—I did not get my result until 7 o’clock in the morning.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point—I believe he is referring to European nationals. We would have to rely on the commission for evidence of large concentrations of European voters in any one constituency or polling district in order to make that case.
Perhaps the most astonishing failure of all is that almost all the returning officers identified by the commission as experiencing problems with queues had underestimated turnout. In some cases, predictions were based on local election turnouts since 2006; in others, the turnout from the 2005 general election was taken into account. That was despite guidance from the commission—given well in advance of the election—that plans for elections should be based on an assumption of a higher turnout in 2010 than in recent elections, including the 2005 general election. I find it astounding that any returning officer could assume that the turnout in a general election would be at local election levels.
Finally, the monitoring of polling station performance on the day and the plans for drawing down additional staffing were not robust, and some staff at stations failed to notify returning officers of problems early enough. By any calculation the commission’s report demonstrates the need to improve planning and processes for elections, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest pointed out. The commission recommended in the report that returning officers should review their approach to planning for adequate polling station and staffing provision at future elections, and made it clear that it would be more prescriptive on those points in its guidance.
The report also made it clear that there had been an unprecedented late surge in voters at some polling stations, to such an extent that extra staffing would probably not have guaranteed that all voters would get their ballot papers. That is the key point—the hon. Lady made it very successfully.
The commission therefore recommended the changes laid out in new clause 4 and pointed out that the restrictive approach of the UK to the close of the poll does not compare well with electoral legislation in many other countries. In New Zealand, for example, all electors who are inside the polling station at the close of the poll are entitled to vote. In Canada, I believe that everyone in the polling station or queuing is entitled to vote. That is the approach that we want to adopt through new clause 4, which is designed to implement the second part of the recommendation in the commission’s report.
I will briefly illustrate the provision’s value by rehearsing the problems experienced in two constituencies on that day two years ago. In Birmingham, Ladywood, 2,678 electors were eligible to vote at the polling station where the problem materialised. Turnout for the election increased to 40%—up from between 12% and 18% in the previous three years—but the station had just one clerk and one presiding officer. Just before 10 o’clock, the presiding officer asked staff to confirm the time on their watches. This is how we run elections in this country! One staff member’s watch was about 5 minutes slower than the others’, but the presiding officer took it as the correct time and issued ballot papers until that particular watch said 10 o’clock. At that point, the presiding officer sealed the ballot boxes and closed the polling station. The police were eventually called to disperse the crowd. Can we wonder!
It is estimated that between 65 and 100 electors, some inside and some outside the polling station, were turned away without having been issued with ballot papers. If we take the time according to the slowest watch in the room as the time at which we close the ballot, surely we are making a nonsense of the 10 o’clock cut-off point. Does it not indicate more than anything else that legislation needs to be more flexible in order to ensure that everyone at the polling station gets the right to vote. That is a really important point.
At Sheffield, Hallam, the problem was quite significant and involved three polling stations, at which many voters were denied the right to vote. St John’s parish church polling station in Ranmoor—a place I know well—was allocated 4,469 electors, excluding postal voters, and had one presiding officer and three clerks, with additional staff deployed in the evening. In the polling stations that had a problem, 480 electors were affected, most of them at St John’s. This was the polling station at which a protest was staged at 10 o’clock, with 100 students refusing to move and the police having to be called in.Despite the best efforts of the Sheffield returning officer to ensure that this polling station, which had a large allocation of voters, had four members of staff, and despite the deployment of extra resources, nothing could be done to get everybody in to vote. That suggests that new clause 4 would be a vital change to our electoral legislation.
It is obvious that we need to change the law in accordance with new clause 4. The constituents of many Members were denied the right to vote. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) has consistently raised this issue in the House and is a co-signatory to the new clause. As I said, I had 70 voters denied the right to vote in Penistone. We all feel strongly that this needs to be addressed. It is not just about students. Penistone is hardly awash with students: it is a little market town, on the edge of the Peak district, with an engineering past. It does not have a big, posh student population.
Sheffield, Hallam, on the other hand, has many student voters, 340 of whom were turned away after 10 o’clock that night. On the day following the election, Friday 7 May, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg), now the Deputy Prime Minister, made a statement in which he said that he shared the “bitter dismay” of voters who had to wait in long queues and that it
“should never, ever happen again in our democracy”.
At a meeting with constituents on 21 May at the King Edward VII school in his constituency, the Deputy Prime Minister was asked about the problem again, and he quite rightly described it as “a fiasco”. Responding to one student in the audience, he said:
“I share your anger. I can’t think of a better illustration of how broken our politics is.”
One thing I think we can say for certain about our Deputy Prime Minister is that understatement is definitely not his style.
The problems experienced on 6 May 2010 did not illustrate a broken politics, as the Deputy Prime Minister suggested, but they do illustrate a need to change the law to make sure that this never happens again. I hope and believe that Members of all parties will recognise that and support new clause 4. Given its cross-party elements and cross-party support for its provisions, I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister and his Government will feel able to fulfil at least one of his promised to his constituents. I conclude on that note and look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute. I rise with some trepidation to debate “clause 4”, but it nevertheless has my wholehearted support. I want to provide a few anecdotes in support of the new clause. In my view, the issues it deals with are not confined to the last general election, as they have been going on for many years. On the basis of experience of fighting elections in my part of London over 38 years, I know that turnout will double between the opening of the poll and 6 o’clock in the evening and the period after that until the close of the poll.
In my part of the world, many people travel long distances or have small shops that they keep open for quite extended hours. At the conclusion of their work, they travel back and join long queues to seek to exercise their right to vote. This is not confined to one or two polling stations, as it applies to many. This has been a problem for a long time.
The 2004 London mayoral election and the European elections were held on the same day, causing dramatic confusion in polling stations and leading to serious problems, with long queues forming—certainly in my neck of the woods. Some people were confused about what they were voting for, but the need to issue them with large numbers of ballot papers caused extensive delays.
In the London mayoral elections of 2008, the number of Londoners wanting to vote for Boris Johnson as Mayor and to kick out Ken Livingstone was so overwhelming that it led to huge queues in polling stations, particularly in areas where large turnouts were not expected, causing further problems. In the general election of 2010, because of the activities of both political parties—certainly in my constituency—people regularly had to queue for an hour to exercise their votes during the day.
The presiding officer has discretion over what constitutes a polling station. If it is a Portakabin, it is fairly straightforward, but if it is a school the question arises of where the polling station begins and ends—is it the school gates or the school hall? That causes further consternation.
The key point is this, however. When people are keen to go to the polling station to express their views by voting, it is vital for them to be able to get there and to queue for however long it takes for the ballot papers to be issued, and for however long it takes those ahead of them in the queue who have also sought to be there validly before the 10 pm watershed to register their own votes. I can think of nothing more frustrating for someone who has travelled a long distance back from work, has arrived at home, has said “Oh yes, I must go and register my vote”, has reached the polling station at 9.45 pm, and has joined the queue than to be denied his or her vote because the queue is so long, and to be told by the presiding officer “Very sorry; you arrived too late.” We can imagine the reactions of people who have travelled long distances or closed their shops quite late in the day in order to go and vote.
The problem has been raised with me many times in connection with polling stations in north-west London. I think it important for us to set in stone in the Bill that if someone has reached the polling station, validly, before 10 pm and is in the queue, that person’s vote will be recorded. I do not think it acceptable for presiding officers throughout the country to be able to interpret the position in different ways. If a presiding officer says “According to my watch it is 9.59 pm so I shall allow you to vote, although the time is actually 10.10 pm”, that is not a valid way of operating.
It cannot be right that elections could be won or lost on the basis of a presiding officer’s judgment of what the time is. That is clearly not what Parliament wants, or what the people want. What we want is absolute clarity, so that there is the minimum wriggle room for a presiding officer in the interpretation of the rules and the maximum capability for people to register their votes validly in the way that they wish.
Does my hon. Friend agree that presiding officers should be given a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to deciding exactly where their polling station is, and should have enough flexibility to be able to say “In the interests of democracy, I should make this decision”, or does he believe that the legislation should be so prescriptive that it lays down in black and white exactly what should happen? I tend to think that it would be quite good for the presiding officer to have a bit of wriggle room, and to have a say in what should happen when unforeseen circumstances occur.
I ask my hon. Friend to imagine this scenario. A person gets home late, arrives at the polling station, parks in the school car park and dashes through the doors of the school at 9.59 pm, but of course the polling station is in a hall further on. The person then gets lost because the signage is not good enough, or, worse still, is misdirected and goes to the wrong polling station, because there is often more than one in the same building. Whose fault is that? It is the person’s fault, because he or she is the voter.
Such questions are difficult, but what is clear is that the law should say that if the voter has arrived in the polling station, or in the queue at the polling station, his or her vote should be recorded. What should not happen is that a person arrives at the place where the ballot papers are issued, only to be told “I am sorry, but it is one minute past 10 and we have closed the polling station, so you are not allowed to vote”—although the person has been in the polling station and validly queuing for 15 or 20 minutes, or perhaps even half an hour. That is what needs to be clarified. There should be the minimum discretion in that respect, but the maximum discretion for the voter.
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s description of the incident that might occur. I should make it clear to the Committee that new clause 4 is not intended to help someone who runs into a polling station at one minute to 10. Each individual has a responsibility to leave enough time in which to find the polling station. The new clause is intended to help people who arrive at the polling station at 10 minutes to 10 thinking that they have plenty of time, but, as a result of some incident that then occurs—there may, for instance, be too many people or bad organisation—the ballot paper is not issued at 10 minutes to 10. I think my hon. Friend would agree that that is quite an important distinction.
I agree. The most important thing is that people who have arrived at the polling station well before the time deadline and have formed a queue and are waiting for their ballot papers to be issued should be allowed to register their vote.
We are not only talking about general elections. In 2014, for example, there will be European and local elections, probably on the same day. There are often multiple elections, and further problems can arise in such circumstances. In a general election, turnout tends to be high, of course, but these problems can occur even in local elections, when turnout is lower. We, as democrats, must seek to ensure that people are given the optimal opportunity to register their votes.
It is often not appreciated that we have huge numbers of differentials in elections, in that different people are entitled to vote in different elections. In the 2010 elections, in my constituency 10% of the voting population were from eastern Europe and were not eligible to vote in the general election but were eligible to vote in the local elections. That caused substantial confusion at certain polling stations, particularly later in the day. People were arguing about whether they should have a ballot paper. That can add to delays in issuing ballot papers to others, so people who have left sufficient time to cast their votes can find that they are not issued with ballot papers. That is fundamentally wrong. I want us to give a strong steer in law to returning officers about what they should do in such circumstances, and there should be the minimum of discretion for interpretation.
Sadly, in the 6 May 2010 elections my constituency was seriously affected by events that were similar to those that unfolded in other constituencies, and people were, understandably, very upset. I am a strong supporter of new clause 4, therefore. As there is cross-party support for it, I hope the Government will agree to add it to the Bill.
Three elections were taking place in Hackney South and Shoreditch on that day. Our elected mayor was up for re-election, and we had the local council elections and the general election. As a result there were three different ballot papers, each of a different type. One required electors to vote for three individuals, the general election was a first-past-the-post election with one vote to be cast, and there was a preferential system for the mayoral elections. That sometimes required some explaining. Hackney has learned lessons from that experience, which I shall discuss later.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) suggested that general elections should always be held as stand-alone elections. I disagree. Although we are all democrats and are fond, especially in this House, of people voting, we have seen in respect of the timing of the European elections, which are usually held a month after the May elections, that it can be difficult to persuade people that it is in their interests to come out and vote twice in quick succession. There is also a huge additional cost attached to holding elections at separate times when they could be doubled up. There is therefore much sense in holding elections at the same time.
Of the six polling stations that were affected in the borough of Hackney five were in my constituency: the Ann Tayler children’s centre, which experienced some of the worst problems, the Trinity centre, St John the Baptist primary school in Hoxton, the Comet day nursery, and Our Lady and St Joseph Roman Catholic primary school in De Beauvoir. Those polling stations did not have a huge number of electors, however. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) suggested some polling stations were over-optimistic and covered a larger number of electors than they could cope with, but that was not the case in Hackney. In my constituency, in each instance the total number was less than 2,500, which falls well within the tolerance levels.
In some polling stations there had been queues at other times of the day, but by about 9 o’clock—and certainly by 9.15 or 9.30—there were serious issues. One extra staff member was deployed at the Ann Tayler centre at 9 pm, where there were particular problems, but, a whole hour before the close of polling, that was not enough to deal with the scale of the difficulty or the queues. That is why I will discuss what Hackney council has done more generally to try to solve this problem.
Any estimate of the number of those affected is just an estimate, because some people went home disappointed and may never have told us about their problems. However, between 200 and 300 people seem to have been affected at these six polling stations, the vast majority of whom were at the Ann Tayler centre, where 134 people were turned away. A small protest took place. Happily, there was no violence, but there was a sit-in by some of the electors who were, understandably, very frustrated that they had not been able to exercise their democratic vote.
Of course the presiding officers were approaching the returning officer for advice, and the only advice that could be given was that where someone did not have a ballot paper, they could not vote. I will not repeat all the excellent arguments put forward by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) and my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, but clearly that advice makes no sense. After all, these people were in the polling station, which is quite a big one. There is a long distance between where people enter the building and the actual polling booths, as there is at Our Lady and St Joseph. It made no sense to those people that they lost their vote and they were understandably very upset.
Hackney’s handling of the situation did raise some issues. I was impressed that the returning officer gave up some of the money he normally receives; returning officers, as chief executives, get extra money for managing elections. He acknowledged the errors, and I give him credit for doing so. He met me—I believe on the Monday after the election—to put up his hands and say, “We got some things wrong and this is what we are now doing to resolve them.” From the moment that the election problems started, he began planning for the next set of elections.
The returning officer has introduced changes, for which I give him credit. He is increasing the number of staff recruited who are trained and accredited properly to work on elections. He has been looking outside the town hall as well, to bring in Hackney residents, and has been overwhelmed with people’s interest in participating in our democratic process. That is a good thing. He is also increasing the number of polling stations, doubling the number of some stations and limiting the number of electors per station—my hon. Friend said that that was important. He is also allocating more staff to each station, with more on standby to be deployed if there is an evening rush. There are other procedural measures associated with keeping in touch with presiding officers at polling stations.
Let us examine the impact of this situation. In Hackney, it caused distress to those who were unable to vote. My majority is substantially higher than 200 or 300 votes, so it did not have a material impact on the outcome of the election. Even in the local elections, the majorities that the councillors achieved meant that the outcome of any one of the ballots would not have been affected. However, we all know that there are Members in this House whose majorities are considerably lower than 300, 200 or even 100, and in some cases 92 voters not being able to vote could have had an impact on the outcome. What happens if we do not change the law and that happens in a parliamentary seat?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. We need to ensure that we tighten this law now to make it fairer for electors. They would be upset that, having gone to the expense of another election and having come out to vote again, the election result and the will of the people could be affected by such a situation. That is indeed a serious concern. Rather than repeat the excellent arguments made, I rest my case there. I hope that the Government will introduce this change in this Bill to ensure that electors in my constituency never have to have this terrible experience again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) on tabling the new clause. She explained clearly that what we need to do is include in this Bill—we have an opportunity to do it—what is “reasonable” and “practical”, as she put it. We are not asking for any major changes to the system we use for elections in this country, but it was quite clear in 2010 that large numbers of people in some constituencies were denied the right to vote even though they intended to wait in queues to get into the polling stations, as the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said.
One issue that needs to be clarified is that the new clause would help returning officers to know exactly what the law is, as there were different responses in different parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) mentioned Sheffield. In the Sheffield Hallam constituency, long queues of students waited to vote for the now Deputy Prime Minister. I doubt they will have that problem at the next general election, but if they have such problems when they turn up to vote him out, those who have turned up to vote in reasonable time should be able to cast their ballot.
One issue mentioned by the hon. Lady, with which I agree, concerned the preparation for elections. For nearly 11 years, I was a councillor in Newcastle upon Tyne and in 2010 I went back to help with the general election in my old ward of Walkergate. I was shocked by what the Liberal Democrat administration had done to that ward by reducing the number of polling stations. Not only did people have to travel large distances to get to the polling station, as I mentioned the other day, but there was a capacity problem in trying physically to deal with the number of electors. Making the law clear would be helpful. As I understand it, in one polling station in Newcastle the returning officer took what was referred to afterwards as a “practical” and “common sense” step by allowing people into the polling station if they had arrived at 10 o’clock, locking the doors and allowing them to vote. If the law was clear, it would, as the hon. Lady said, be quite simple to know where the end of the queue was.
The new clause is long overdue and would help not only returning officers but the many thousands of constituents who were denied their vote in 2010. As we have said on numerous occasions during the passage of this Bill, that vote is the core of our democracy.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Evans, and am grateful to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) for tabling her new clause. We have had a valuable debate involving the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and for North Durham (Mr Jones).
It is simply unacceptable that significant numbers of electors are unable to cast their vote due to the organisation of a polling station. It should never happen again and we must take steps to ensure that it does not. Those Members who have expressed their concern and even anger on behalf of their constituents are perfectly in order to do so, as such things should not happen.
I should also point out that only a small number of polling stations were involved: only 27 out of 40,000 across the country. That is not a representative sample of electoral arrangements in this country, and there were not many large queues at polling stations at close of poll that left people unable to cast their vote. That in no way reduces the impact on those who were affected, but it at least puts it in context.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), has made it clear in everything he has said on this issue in Committee and in this House that the primary cause of the problems was a lack of effective planning by returning officers. That will be effected not by legislation but by administrative action to make sure that they do the job better in future to avoid those unacceptable scenes. They should ensure that enough polling stations are provided to accommodate the electors in each area. It is not acceptable for there to be too few polling stations. They should ensure that polling station staff have sufficient time and training to manage the flow of electors well, as they generally do in most parts of the country and in most elections. In some ways, the firm closure of the poll at 10 pm should concentrate returning officers’ minds to ensure that, given that it is hardly news that the poll will close at 10 pm, they have the right arrangements in place to ensure that a complete and smooth passage for those arriving seeking to vote is effected at that hour.
I am concerned by the tone of the Minister’s remarks. If this was simply an administrative error, why did we see it across the country in such a widespread way? There had not been problems before in my constituency but there were on this occasion. The council acknowledged that there were things it could do better but this could still happen again. I cannot see what the Government would lose by backing this new clause.
I am sorry that the hon. Lady asks why this happened in such a widespread way given that we have just established that it happened at only 27 polling stations out of 40,000. I do not think we can say it was a widespread problem. It was a significant problem but not a widespread one.
No, I really do not have time if I am going to do justice to responding to the debate.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest did an excellent job with her Select Committee on the pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. I know that she chaired many of the sessions in the absence, unavoidably, of the Chair and that she took great care to make sure that my hon. Friend the Minister was quizzed by the Committee, when it took evidence and brought forward its responses. That is why I was a little surprised when she said that her Committee backs these changes to the legislation because that suggests that I have completely misread paragraph 98 of her Committee’s report, which was produced under her chairmanship, which states:
“On the issue of close of poll the Minister set out the Government’s position that the issues around close of poll in the 2010 election were ‘largely around poor planning, poor resource management’ and that an attempt to legislate in this area could create more problems than it solved. We agree with the Minister that in this area careful planning and allocation of resources are likely to be more effective in ensuring all those who are eligible can access their vote without resorting to legislation.”
That was the view of the Committee at the time.
The Minister is right to read out that part of the Committee’s report, but since then the Electoral Commission has looked at this matter in greater detail, has taken further evidence and has recommended very strongly that new clause 4 should become part of the Bill. I have listened to the Electoral Commission and that is why I have brought this new clause before the House.
I do not think the Electoral Commission has changed its position. [Interruption.] I do not think it has. It took evidence but it took no further evidence after the hon. Lady’s Committee took its evidence and came to a conclusion. I am grateful to her Committee for supporting the view that the Minister took.
Any changes that we introduce create more potential for problems. For example, this is not what the hon. Lady has proposed but if we were to introduce discretion on the part of returning officers they would be open to challenge because of the way in which they applied that discretion. I am glad that she has not gone down that road. [Interruption.] She says, “No one suggested it,” but that was suggested by one of her colleagues. That is why I am responding to that point in the context of this debate.
There is a suggestion that the problem could be addressed by reference to the limits of the curtilage of the polling station, but that would be extremely difficult because it varies enormously among polling stations. The hon. Lady’s proposal is probably the least bad option, but the queue itself presents problems with definition and management, which is why it is extremely difficult to accede to such a measure. The situation did not happen widely before 2010 and has not happened widely since, but we must ensure that it is not allowed to arise, and the key to that is proper management.
Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 23 May).
The Chair put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83D), That the clause be read a Second time.
The Chair then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83D).
Clauses 22 to 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment proposed: 31, page 14, line 17, at end insert ‘with the exception of Schedule 5, Part 2, which shall come into force by order only once—
(a) the data matching pilots for pre-verification purposes established by the Electoral Registration Data Schemes Order 2012 have been completed,
(b) the Electoral Commission has reported on these schemes as under the terms of that Order, and
(c) the Electoral Commission believes that the completeness of the register will not be negatively affected.’.—(Wayne David.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee proceeded to a Division.