I beg to move,
That the draft European Union Referendum (Voter Registration) Regulations 2016, which were laid before this House on 8 June, be approved.
It will probably help the House if I restrict my remarks simply to explaining the nature of this statutory instrument, as the issues it raises will no doubt be debated in the ensuing discussion. The House will already be aware that on Tuesday night, between 9pm and 10pm, there was a huge surge of applications for registration—three times as many in one hour as have ever been experienced—and that, as a consequence, the website crashed at around 10 o’clock. Therefore, there were two hours during which it was lawful to apply to register in time to vote at the referendum, but people were denied that opportunity. The House will also be aware that it is the Government’s intention, following the strong cross-party support and the Electoral Commission’s approval, to introduce legislation to enable people to apply for registration up to midnight tonight and, if they are registered, to vote in the referendum. I want to explain to the House how the statutory instrument will achieve that.
I am listening to my right hon. Friend with great interest. He says that the website was down for two hours. What was the hourly rate of applications, and therefore what is his official estimate of the number of people who wanted to register in that timeframe but were unable to do so?
My hon. Friend asks a very good question. Unfortunately, I can give him only a very partial answer. We know as a fact that there were, if memory serves, 214,000 applications in the hour leading up to the crash. What we cannot know, because it is in the nature of the computer system that it cannot tell us, is how many people either tried or would have tried to apply during the succeeding 90 minutes or so during which they were unable to apply. The answer is therefore that I cannot tell.
Have the Government made any inquiries, assessment or technical analysis of whether there is any possibility that some malevolent attack was made on the website at that time, as opposed to there being an incredibly unusual spike in the numbers?
My hon. Friend will very much recognise that I am not a technical expert on computing, but I am advised by those in the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service that, as far as they can make out, there was no untoward event whatsoever. There was simply an incapacity of the system to handle that number of applications. The system is designed to be scoped to deal with a certain number of simultaneous events, and that number was exceeded during that period, so in retrospect, it was not surprising that it fell over. I should add that since that time, as the very first lesson learned, the website has been altered so that it has a larger capacity—I think almost twice as much capacity—to be able to deal with a higher number of simultaneous events than previously.
I think the question that most people want answering is: what is the rationale for extending the period for voter registration by 48 hours, given that when the system crashed it deprived people of the opportunity to register for two hours? Why not 24 hours or 72 hours—why 48 hours?
That is another very good question that I am very happy to answer for my hon. Friend. If we had been able to work out more quickly how to bring forward legally watertight legislation—in two or three hours, rather than 24 hours—it would have been possible to introduce the statutory instrument yesterday, and it might then have been possible to have an extension for a 24-hour period. We are anxious that the legislation should not be in any way retrospective, and it therefore makes sense that it should apply from midnight tonight, after the time at which this House and the other place will, I hope, have passed the statutory instrument. In the meanwhile, we have of course been doing our utmost to promulgate the fact that people can apply to register during this period and will still be able to vote in the referendum, thereby correcting the error that occurred as a result of the crash.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. The message did get out in Northern Ireland—the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland promoted it, saying that people could still register beyond the deadline—only for a sudden reverse to take place later, so that it now does not apply to Northern Ireland. Why the shambles? What went on in terms of consultation with the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland? Why are citizens in Northern Ireland being deprived of this extra opportunity? I know we do not have the digital system, but having been told that by the chief electoral officer and the Government, people had such an expectation. This is a UK-wide referendum, so why is there a difference?
I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for the fact that the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland did indeed issue a statement of the kind he describes. I do not know quite why it was issued, but that body is of course independent of us. As I think he is entirely aware, discussions went on yesterday about whether this should or should not include Northern Ireland. The answer to his question is the answer that he himself indicated: there is not an online system in Northern Ireland, and therefore the thing we are correcting did not go wrong in Northern Ireland. He would need to discuss with my colleagues in the Norther Ireland Office whether it would have been sensible nevertheless to extend this, but their view was that it would not be.
One of the big bugbears in the issue of electoral registration is the fact that people have to register some distance away from the actual election date. I am very pleased that the Government have now found that it is possible to shorten that period. Is it their intention that there may also be a shorter period for future elections so as to give people more time to register in advance of them?
I want to emphasise the same point as the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). In future, can we look to having something whereby the whole of the United Kingdom is on the same digital system and everything works together, because then all the electorate will understand it?
I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that comfort. Northern Ireland will shortly move to an online registration system, and it is clearly desirable that it should do so.
Let me briefly explain how this statutory instrument achieves the intended effect and avoids a problem that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, when the matter was discussed yesterday. Our aim is to enable those who are applying to register up to midnight tonight to register to vote, if they are eligible, in the referendum on 23 June. That moves that date forward by 48 hours—two working days. The statutory instrument achieves that by taking an entire block of time, which used to elapse between midnight last Tuesday and midnight on 16 June, and moving it lock, stock and barrel, without changing any of the relationships within it, two working days forward. That is why, if Members look at the statutory instrument, they will see that it inserts in a whole series of pieces of legislation a date of 20 June, which would previously, either actually or in effect, have been 16 June. The reason why 16 June to 20 June is seen as two days rather than four is that the whole of our legislation is constructed around working days, and the Saturday and Sunday— 18 and 19 June—are therefore excluded. So we have taken a block of time and moved it two working days forward. The net effect of that is twofold, and only twofold. First, it achieves the intended effect of ensuring that people can register to vote in the referendum if they do so by midnight tonight; and, secondly, it means that the registers will be published at the end of the process by midnight on 20 June rather than by midnight on Thursday 16 June. No harm to mankind arises from the delay in the register being published.
The reason the SI solves the problem that was very rightly and acutely raised by my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee is that we retain the full five-day period for objections to applications, and indeed all the other aspects of the process, inside that block of time, because those relativities are not altered. I think that that is what led to the question from the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) about whether we could do exactly the same thing in future now that we have discovered that it does not cause any harm at the end of the process.
I very much welcome the fact that we are allowing people ease of registering to vote; I think we all agree with that as democrats. On the checking of who is eligible to vote, with large numbers seeking to be on the electoral roll, I have had a number of reports in my constituency of EU nationals being sent postal voting papers, and last night somebody called me to say that their 17-year-old daughter had received voting papers. What sort of assistance will be provided to electoral services officers and returning officers to ensure that the vote is secure in that sense?
First, nothing that we are doing in any way affects any of that, because the blocks of time are unaffected and therefore all the processes have the same amount of time in which to take place as they would have done previously. Secondly, there has been, in a few cases, a problem with the issue of votes to people who were not eligible to vote. That problem has been inspected and cured. We need to make sure that in future elections it does not happen. Thirdly, I have no knowledge of what might have happened to someone who is 17. I am sure that if my hon. Friend takes that up with my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), the Minister with responsibility for constitutional affairs, the Minister will be delighted to look into it immediately.
My right hon. Friend says that the problem of ballot papers being issued to those who are not eligible to take part in this election has been identified and cured. Can he therefore give us an idea of the scale of the problem? How many of these wrong ballot papers were issued?
There is a knock-on effect from the registration for postal votes. As we heard in the news this morning, some people have voted already in mainland UK, whereas others in Northern Ireland have not. A large number of Northern Irish supporters are going to the European finals—the indication is that it will be some 20,000 people—and their postal votes could arrive on any date between 9 and 16 June, which means that those people will be away when their postal votes arrive. In the light of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has said, there seems to be a bit of chaos in the system. What discussions has the Minister had with the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland to clarify those matters, get them sorted out and ensure that people who want to vote can vote?
There are two separate issues here. There is the question whether this statutory instrument has any effect on postal voting deadlines, and the answer to that is no, none whatsoever. They remain entirely intact. If there are people in Great Britain who are now able to register but who cannot get postal votes, they can take proxy votes instead. The deadline for proxy votes has not yet evaporated; it will be reached on 15 June, if memory serves. I have not had direct discussions with the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland about the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, and I suggest that he take them up with my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office.
I am conscious of the fact that I am using up time that needs to be used by the House for debate, so I will close by saying simply this. We have, of course, taken advice from our own lawyers—I had extensive discussions with the most senior figures in the Government legal service over a number of hours, as the House might imagine, yesterday—and from not only the Electoral Commission but, through it, its lawyers. We are absolutely convinced that we can do this by statutory instrument within the powers given us under the statutes, and that therefore this is a legally watertight measure. I hope that it will command the support of this House and the House of Lords in time for it to become effective before midnight tonight.
We welcome this statutory instrument, and I am glad that there has been extensive consultation, particularly with the Electoral Commission. The day before yesterday, more than half a million people successfully completed their application to be on the electoral register. That was a record, and all of us who believe passionately in democracy were truly delighted. But at its peak, the website was dealing with far more applications than at the previous peak, which was just before last year’s general election. There has been understandable concern, on both sides of the House, about the fact that the online registration system was unable to cope with the demand before the close of registration the night before last. At an appropriate time, there will need to be an examination of how that could have happened, especially as there is likely to be increased digitisation of the process for conducting elections in future.
While many of those who applied to register after 10.15 pm were successful, sadly many were not. The result was that many people who wanted to register so that they could exercise their democratic right to vote were unable to do so. That was a negation of democracy and we are right to give those people the opportunity to exercise their democratic right to vote.
I have three specific questions for the Minister. First, does the statutory instrument alter the provisions relating to postal vote applications? He touched on that, but I would like him to say a little bit more. Of course, voters with postal votes are able to cast their votes not just before the referendum day, but on the day itself by delivering them to the polling station. Secondly, what provision are the Government making for proxy vote applications, or will the situation stay as it is?
My third question relates to the extra financial burden that could well fall on certain local authorities. The Minister for the Cabinet Office made reference to extra resources being made available, but I wonder whether the Minister before us can be more specific about how those resources can be applied for, whether there will be a ceiling on those resources and if there is any estimate of what the overall additional cost might be to the Government.
Does the Labour party agree with me that it is very important that the will of Parliament on whether people from the continent of Europe can vote in the referendum is enforced? It is the clear will of Parliament and most British people that they should not vote. Does the hon. Gentleman have any independent intelligence on how many of them have wrongly been sent polling cards?
I certainly agree that the rules should be adhered to, and I am reassured by the Government’s assurance that that will be the case. However, it would be wrong to exaggerate this issue and make any kind of political point out of it.
As I said, the statutory instrument has our full support because it will enable those people who feared that they had been disfranchised to cast their vote on 23 June. I sincerely hope that those voters do precisely that. I urge the Government to publicise as widely as possible the fact that this facility is available. I urge them to consider new means of advertising it, such as having an advert on Facebook.
I said a moment ago that the statutory instrument has the support of both sides of the House, but I am disappointed that some in the leave campaign have criticised it. It is said by some that the statutory instrument is disproportionate. Others in the Vote Leave campaign have even suggested that the registration site was crashed deliberately to provide an excuse for extending the registration period. That really is absolute nonsense. It is equally nonsensical to suggest that the statutory instrument is somehow unconstitutional. That is clearly not the case.
The Opposition believe that every single person who is entitled to be on the register and who has made a valid application should be able to cast their vote. Of course, how people cast their vote is up to them—that is what democracy is all about.
Is it not the case that students who are registering at this time may have been preoccupied with exams and graduation? Is it not wholly reasonable, therefore, if the system has crashed, for the Government to do something about it and extend the time for registration?
Yes, that is entirely reasonable. We could cite many examples of people the length and breadth of the country, particularly young people, who for reasons like those that my hon. Friend has given have not found time or had the inclination to register to vote. I am heartened that although many people say that the vote has not engendered a great deal of interest so far, the referendum has certainly excited a great deal of interest among young people. The indication is that many of the people who have applied quite late are young people who want to exercise their democratic right.
It is obviously good news that the referendum is generating excitement among people of all ages who want to take part in the ballot. However, many students are doubly registered, at their home address and at their place of learning. So that those people do not get into trouble, should it not be made clear that even if they are legitimately registered twice, they cannot vote twice? Should that not be explained, especially to those who are voting for the first time?
I do not want to go into detail about individual electoral registration. We have expressed our concerns about the process in the past, and I welcome the fact that more and more people want to be on the electoral register and thereby have the ability to vote. It is good for democracy that young people in particular want to be involved in our democratic debate and will cast their vote on 23 June.
I reiterate that it is important for us to say categorically what most people realise: in our democracy, if one person has a vote, they should use it on one occasion on polling day. That is abundantly clear.
All who are engaged in the debate hold strong views, but it is vital for democracy that people have the right to cast their vote on 23 June. I therefore warmly welcome the Government’s initiative. It is unfortunate that we have had a technical mishap, but action has been taken. I urge people throughout the length and breadth of this country to take advantage of the opportunity to register to vote and to cast their vote, whichever way they wish to do that, on 23 June. The decision is the most important that this country will make in a generation, and it is therefore vital that everyone who is entitled to vote casts their vote.
Most of us, from whatever side of the argument, accept that the greater the number of voters who take part in the referendum, the better, because a high turnout, with more voters participating, gives the result added legitimacy.
The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) is right that student preoccupations are many and diverse. They do not always involve study or graduation—certainly in my experience. However, perhaps one of the lessons for the future is that leaving registration until the last two hours possible may not be the wisest thing to do. Perhaps those who follow these proceedings will in future decide to register in plenty of time if they want to have their vote.
The sad tale of Government, the public sector and IT continues. This is yet another chapter in it. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that, given the demand on the system, it was unsurprising that it crashed. I am very surprised that it crashed, so I would like to know one or two things. First, how much load testing was done? Why did not we anticipate that, when people realised that the referendum was getting closer, they would want to register? Why was sufficient provision not made in the system to allow for a spike in demand? That happened before the general election—it is not unprecedented. Why did the Electoral Commission not make sufficient arrangements to determine whether its system could cope with the demand? How do we know that it will not happen again? If we have another deadline tonight, how do we know that the system will not crash in exactly the same way?
It might help if I answer that point now. A massive amount of load testing was done, and the system was tested with the assumption that we would not face anything like the extent of the difference between what had been experienced previously—for example, at the general election—and now. This spike was three times as intense as the one that occurred before the general election. For today and yesterday the system has been made twice as capacious as it was previously, and we would now have to have about six times as many applications as were made at the general election before the system crashed again. I profoundly hope that that will not happen.
We also hope that such a crash will not happen again.
I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend provided further information either today, or to the House in due course. First, how many of these are duplicate applications? There is clearly a problem, and a lot of voters believe from the literature provided by the Electoral Commission that registering for the referendum is different from registering for the general election or any other election. A lot of voters have said to me, “I’m registered for the general election. Do I have to register separately for the referendum?” The information given by the Electoral Commission was less than clear, and I wonder how many of the applications are in fact duplicates from people who are mistakenly asking whether they are already registered.
My right hon. Friend is asking pertinent questions, and it will be useful to have them answered for the rest of the debate. We do not and cannot know how many applications are duplicates, because until they have been verified we do not know whether those people were already on the register. Anecdotally, we think that a large proportion of applications may be duplicates, but we will know that in aggregate only once we see the published register and compare it with previous registers.
An important lesson will be to see whether a larger number of people register for the referendum than for the general election. If it is a much larger number, it suggests that the clarity and instruction given by the Electoral Commission had a good deal missing, which would be an interesting lesson for us all. On the competence of the Electoral Commission, let me return to the point that I raised earlier about ballot papers being sent to those who are not entitled to vote in the referendum. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend said that issue was identified and cured, and I wonder whether in due course a list can be published of those local authorities that say they had no problem, and of those that did have a problem, so that we can see exactly where the problem occurred across the country and its extent. I would be interested to know whether for some of those local authorities that said they had no problem that genuinely turned out to be the case, or whether it was an estimate about whether there was a problem or not. If the issue is so difficult to identify, it is difficult to believe that people can be so sure that they did not make mistakes in sending out those ballot papers.
I totally accept that this is a legally watertight mechanism, but to legislate for an electoral process during the election itself is not a precedent with which I feel entirely comfortable. I understand the emergency nature of this legislation, and I want as many people to participate as possible. I understand why the crash happened in terms of the technology, but I do not find it easy to agree to in effect changing the rules of any part of an election during the electoral process. We must be careful to state that this is an emergency procedure, and that we are not in any way accepting a precedent for Governments of the future to introduce changes to the rules while the game is in play.
The Scottish National party welcomes the extension to registration. Our right to vote is precious, and we all bear responsibility for giving people that right, so I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. I also agree with the comments made by the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who said that we would rather avoid legislating for an election during an election period, but we are where we are.
It is essential that everyone who wishes to register is able to do so, and the SNP will back the Government today on extending the registration window. This is a critical vote, and Members across the House with different views recognise the importance of this referendum. It will affect future generations, and it will have a much more substantial impact on younger voters, who will have to live with the decision that we make in two weeks’ time, than it will on older voters. We are on the final straight; there are two weeks until the referendum. Will the Minister assure us that there will be a post-match analysis, so that we can consider what lessons we can learn from what happened over the past 48 hours?
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest, and I agree that there should be a post-match analysis. Does he share my concern that that analysis will be conducted by the Electoral Commission, which will be writing a report about itself? Should there not be some kind of independent analysis? Otherwise, the report will automatically be skewed.
It is important that there is a steward’s inquiry at a later date into what happened. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must also consider the effect that moving to individual electoral registration has had on this issue? Every time the register is compiled, there is a surge of new people joining it for the first time; this year, I fear that we may have had the additional burden of a lot of people who were previously on the register checking to see whether they are still on it, or realising that they are not, and that has created a big spike in demand.
My hon. Friend raises a good point about people double-checking. I double-checked myself, and I encouraged others to do so, so I wonder whether the Government will consider that.
I also ask the Government to consider what lessons can be learned from Scotland. During the independence referendum, voter registration was at 98%, and everybody involved in that process should rightly be proud of themselves. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) has also reflected on that. Having had 98% registration, we had an 85% turnout in the referendum, with huge voter participation on both sides, and we should learn from that. I hope that we will reach a turnout of 85%, or even higher, in the referendum, as I am sure that colleagues across the House do, although I am not sure we will quite get there.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. If, as has been suggested, younger voters are the ones registering, I encourage that, and perhaps we should consider giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. Evidence shows that the younger a person engages in the political and democratic process, the more likely they are to be engaged in the long term, so I hope we can reflect on that.
The hon. Gentleman makes important points, but we should not forget that an estimated 7 million people are not even on the register in the first place. We should not lose sight of that, or of what we need to do to get those people to register.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point that ties into the one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) and other SNP Members have wondered whether we should start looking at automatic registration. We want to encourage people to register, and we do not want this problem in future. Automatic registration works in other countries, and it can be a better and cheaper system. Will the Minister commit to considering automatic registration when he conducts that post-match analysis? In conclusion, the SNP welcomes the extension to the registration period, and we encourage as many people as possible to take part in the important decision in two weeks.
Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I shall keep my comments brief. The statutory instrument is a sensible and proportionate measure that is in no way harmful to decent process, as the Minister sensibly set out. It simply picks up and shifts the period, which is a measured way of dealing with this unfortunate problem. I do not like it that the problem has arisen. I was the Minister who introduced online registration, an innovation of which I am very proud, and I wish the system well; we all want to see it functioning properly.
Let us not forget what the alternative to taking this measure would be. It would be to allow an unlawful situation to have persisted from Tuesday night, whereby people with the right to register to vote were denied the ability to do so—and an arbitrary situation also, given that, because of the nature of queueing on a website, it would not be possible to be even-handed towards citizens. It would be deeply ethically wrong to allow such a situation to persist, so we have no alternative but to take this measure.
There is another reason. None of us should accept poor service from the Government towards their citizens—those citizens ought to be the Government’s master—so I greatly respect the ministerial team for their efforts to ensure that public services, digital as well as paper-based, work better for citizens. That is very important.
The Government have answered that point for themselves many times yesterday and this morning, but I think it was a foreseeable circumstance, what with the TV scheduling and the availability of online registration. I am, however, reassured by what I have heard today about a further multiplication of capacity. It is the right response. As I have said, retrospectively allowing for a further 48 hours—we hope that gets the message out—is a sensible solution.
I offer one more practical thought. If would-be registrants got as far as leaving their contact details on the site before it failed, it might be possible for them to be contacted directly in the remaining hours. I offer that as a suggestion. I know that it will not cover everyone who tried to register on Tuesday night, but it might be possible in some cases, and it would be a sensible thing to attempt, in order to avoid an unlawful or arbitrary loss of those citizens’ rights.
I end with a point that The Economist made last week, in reference to American politics:
“Any political party that hopes for lower turnout has lost its way…lawmakers must decide whether they still believe in the good sense of those they aspire to govern, or whether they lost that faith somewhere on the way to the statehouse.”
That should be the principle in all our hearts, both in this referendum and, crucially, as we go about politics from hereon in.
I am pleased, if not astounded, by the speed at which the Government have moved on this issue. I am grateful for that, and for the Minister’s clear explanation of the reason for the statutory instrument and its purpose. Given that this is the biggest decision for a generation, I believe, like others, that it is essential that as many electors as possible can take part. This is not a general election; it cannot be rerun in five years.
As others mentioned yesterday, there are major implications for the Boundary Commission, so I would like to ask the Minister a very specific question: will there be discussions with the commission as a result of what has happened in the last 24 hours, given that it will clearly have a major impact, as many more constituencies will now have reached the appropriate number of electors?
The point is that a large number of people not previously registered are registering, which will affect the number of electors in each constituency. This means that the commission is using figures that do not reflect the number of newly registered electors. That is why this is important.
I have a technical question for the Minister. Is it possible that some people who were in the middle of registering when the system crashed were left with the impression that they were registered, and will not find out otherwise until their ballot papers fail to arrive? If so, what is being done about it?
The Minister has rightly said that what happened has allowed us to identify that the final point in the process—the publication of the register—is not a critical point, and that publication could be brought closer to the date of the election. I wonder whether it would be possible to bring it closer still to the election date. If nothing needs to happen after publication, except for local authorities putting copies in the packs for polling stations, why not move it even closer to the date of the election?
Finally, as a result of what happened, there has clearly been some confusion among the electorate generally about whether it is still possible to register up to the end of today. Is there Government funding available that can be used today to ensure that the likes of Facebook and Twitter use the channels by which they can reach a mass audience instantly to make it clear to everybody that they can register until midnight tonight?
May I correct any misinterpretation? Everyone I know in the leave campaign—in Vote Leave, in particular—welcomes the enormous interest and surge in the number of people registering to take part in the referendum. It was clearly imperative that something be done, if possible, to address the anomaly that arose on Tuesday night. I welcome the fact that young people in particular are registering, and I absolutely take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) that anybody in politics who thinks they will thrive on a lower turnout is not thriving in a democracy that we want to be part of.
There will be a time for an inquest, not just by the Electoral Commission or the Government, but by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. We have already pencilled in what we will do in the aftermath of the referendum, to see what lessons should be learned, and in the aftermath of the general election, individual registration and so on.
Is it not particularly important in the case of big national issues, such as whether we want an independent democracy in one country, that the electorate be the one chosen by Parliament? Does my hon. Friend share my concern that there is not proper control over continental Europeans registering and voting in the referendum?
I was going to come to that later but will deal with it now. With individual registration, it is imperative that every new registration is cross-checked with national insurance data and, if necessary, Border Agency data. There is no post-registration audit of electoral registers, so anybody who is mis-registered stays on them. This needs to be looked at, because we have no idea how many non-UK EU nationals not from Malta, Cyprus or Ireland are recorded as eligible to vote and have been sent ballot papers, not because of a software glitch but simply because they were mis-registered, either on purpose or inadvertently. Indeed, one electoral returning officer told a member of the House of Commons Library—off the record—that if somebody lies on their registration form and it cannot be checked, nothing can be done about it. The person still has to be registered. There is no way of cross-checking to find out whether someone has lied.
I am listening to my hon. Friend’s remarks with great care. This is an issue for my constituents, who are really concerned about it. If an EU citizen in the borough of Kettering applies to be on the register but ticks the wrong box—either inadvertently or deliberately—and declares that they are a UK citizen, can that be picked up and the application rejected? I have not yet heard that there is a mechanism for doing that, and certainly not if there are to be 100,000 or hundreds of thousands in just a few hours.
My hon. Friend raises a legitimate question, and we should inquire further into it. There should be a fail-safe way of ensuring that someone is who they say they are when they register their vote. At the moment, there is not. If people on the register now who are registered incorrectly are being sent ballot papers, and if it is not due to a software glitch, there is no way of picking it up.
I have urged the Electoral Commission to make more public statements, because the system now has different franchises for different purposes. Why will there not be notices in polling stations? The electoral officer is bound to offer a ballot paper to someone who is on the register, but a “Read this” notice could make it clear that people who are not eligible to vote but who knowingly do so commit a criminal offence.
I accept the point about people filling in the application form without declaring that they are an EU citizen, but if they are an EU citizen they will be marked up as such on the register at the polling station. If they were sent a polling card inadvertently, the clerk would know that they were not entitled to vote.
Not if they were misrecorded—that is the point. We need to make people aware of who is eligible to vote. It would be perfectly reasonable for the Electoral Commission and the Government to make more visible public statements to make it clear that if someone has been offered a ballot paper but is not eligible to vote— and knows it—it is an offence to vote. It is as simple as that. I am not asking polling officers to discriminate when the vote takes place; I am simply asking for more clarification and greater public awareness of who is and is not eligible to vote.
This is not a new issue. The registers for the Scottish Parliament elections and the local government elections are different from that for the UK general election. We had elections for the Scottish Parliament about a year after the Westminster general election, but the problem highlighted by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) did not arise—there was not a great deal of confusion. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is making a mountain out of a molehill.
If the wrong people are able to vote, it is not making a mountain out of a molehill. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want the wrong people to vote, so I am surprised that he does not want the public to have the information that they should have.
The matter before us should not have arisen. It reflects a lack of adaptation, because individual registration has enormously increased the pressure on systems to cope with the problem. The Government were warned by the Electoral Commission and the Public Administration Committee, as it then was, about the consequences of rushing forward with individual registration, however desirable it was. There was a lack of foresight. The Government agreed to spend millions of pounds on promoting registration in the run-up to this poll. Perhaps they should have used publicity to clarify that people did not have to re-register if they were already on the register. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) rightly noted, and as the Minister confirmed, a great number of people registered to vote in this referendum when they were already on the register—perhaps up to 75% of those applying. That is one reason why the system has become clogged up. People have not clearly understood that if they are already on the register, they do not need to re-register. We need to learn from that.
Let us be clear about the consequences. A requirement to change the law when a poll for postal voters has effectively already opened is highly irregular. If this happened in some fledgling democracy in the former Soviet Union or in Africa, what would the observers say about the conduct of the poll? This is a really unpleasant precedent to set in our system, which should be one of the finest democracies in the world. The fact that Ministers have spent so much talking to lawyers underlines the point I made yesterday that this is on the cusp of legality. We are on the edge of what is acceptable. I do not for a moment believe that there will be a legitimate challenge, but the fact that we have to consult lawyers in such detail and so carefully to get this right underlines the pickle that we are in as a result of this lack of foresight and lack of care.
More pressure is being placed on electoral returning officers and electoral administrators. I have heard anecdotally from one authority that “we are near breaking-point”. There are record numbers of postal votes, record numbers of registrations, record numbers of proxies in a massive national poll, on which so much is hanging. The pressure is on them, and this adds to that pressure. We should be mindful of that, thank them for their incredible commitment, which makes our democracy run so smoothly most of the time and wish them well in their tasks.
I extend my best wishes, too, to the Electoral Commission. I and others have criticised it, but it is doing its best under very difficult circumstances. There may be lessons to learn about the future of the Electoral Commission and the future role of the Cabinet Office when we conduct our inquest into this referendum.
I had thought it a unifying point in the debate that we wanted to get the maximum number of people to vote and to be registered in this campaign. What I have just heard from the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), however, is a typical muddying of the waters that we have seen from the leave campaign, even in respect of the facts that we are dealing with. The hon. Gentleman threw out a figure of 75%—I accept that some people will have re-registered without needing to do so—with no evidence to explain where that estimate came from. We must deal with facts.
We have seen in the press that huge numbers of people who are EU citizens and not entitled to vote have obtained voting cards. If they are getting voting cards, there will be an indication on the registrations that they are EU citizens. The register that officers will tick off will show whether people are EU citizens and unable to vote. This attempt to muddy the waters on the legitimacy of the polling is complete nonsense. Attempting to rubbish this referendum even before it starts and using the sort of highly emotive language that we just heard, suggesting that the electoral process would somehow be questionable for a developed state brings no credit to those arguing such a case and is not at all helpful.
I welcome what the Government have done. The upsurge in those wanting to vote in the referendum has been a problem, but we should celebrate it. It is good that people want to vote in this very important referendum. Unlike with a general election, there is no possibility of a change in five years’ time; this decision will guide the future of our nation for many decades to come.
It must be the first time I have ever agreed with a Liberal Democrat, but I agreed with the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) that we must subsequently have an inquiry into whether the increase in registration should be reflected by the Boundary Commission.
Let me knock on the head the nonsense we have heard about 17-year-olds voting. I have been an election agent and a candidate in many elections, and I have never known an election yet in which somebody has not been on the register who should not have been. It happens; it is human nature. If someone who is 17 has been given a poll card and turns up at the polling station, they will not be allowed to vote because their date of birth will appear next to their name. Let us try to clear away the fog that Members are trying to create by suggesting that the process is somehow illegitimate. I do not know whether they are preparing their excuses for the result post-23 June, but the fact is that long-standing mechanisms are in place.
May I ask the Minister one simple question about postal applications? He said that the deadline would be extended until midnight. Will there be any provision for a councillor or returning officer to obtain the applications from the post office before midnight? In most cases, the last post will be during the day, and we do not want large numbers of postal applications to sit in sorting offices if they could be delivered to the returning officer. Could the returning officer, or councillor, arrange with the post office to collect them later in the day? Even if they were collected at five o’clock, at least people would then be registered.
What has happened is unfortunate, but I must give credit to the Government for coming up with a solution. That brings me back to the main point, which is that we must ensure not only that as many people as possible are registered to vote, but that the turnout is as high as possible on 23 June.
I think it is worth pointing out that the reason we are having a referendum at all is that the Conservatives won the last general election. All the Opposition Members who are celebrating this massive increase in registration should bear it in mind that none of this would have happened had they formed the Government following the election.
Because the Labour party would not have agreed to a referendum on our membership of the European Union, and we would therefore not have seen more than 2 million extra people registering. The Conservative victory means that we are a healthier democracy than we could ever have been if Labour had won the election.
The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) is a most assiduous Member of the House, and is also extremely particular about adherence to conventions and scope. I therefore do not encourage him to dilate further upon the point that he has just made. He has made it, but I know that he will now wish to focus on the instrument, and not beyond it.
I am grateful for your wise counsel, Mr Speaker.
The instrument amends the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which specified what we all assumed at the time was the last possible date for registration. One of the worrying aspects of this revision is the fact that we are now being told that it will be possible to register two days after what the Government had told us would be the last possible date. I fear that the Government inadvertently misled the House. Surely, if the aim is to encourage more people to register, it is desirable to specify the last possible date, which is what we have now arrived at by means of the instrument. I urge the Government, when it comes to future elections, to ensure that “the last possible registration date” means precisely that.
I understand that the instrument does not change the postal vote application deadline. There will be instances in which people apply for postal votes without being on the electoral register, and assume that they will be given postal votes because they are registering today. My understanding is that they will not qualify for postal votes, because it is not possible to apply for a postal vote without being registered.
I am sorry to intervene, but I think it would be helpful for me to do so at this stage. My hon. Friend has asked a serious question, but what he has said is not accurate. I asked the same question myself, because it is a fine point.
It is not, in fact, necessary to be registered to apply for a postal vote, although it is obviously necessary to be registered in order to receive and exercise that vote. Those who applied for postal votes in time for the postal vote deadline, and are now able to register in time for the new registration deadline, will qualify for postal votes.
I am most grateful for that clarification. We have ended up with the right result, even if it is the wrong way round.
I am concerned about an aspect of student voting, although I hope the Minister will tell me that I have got it wrong. It is great that so many young people are signing up to take part in the referendum, and of course many participants on both sides will be very enthusiastic. First-time voters, in particular, may not appreciate a fairly simple point that many other voters do appreciate, which is that even if people are registered twice, they cannot vote twice. There is a serious point to be made here. My understanding is that voting twice is a criminal offence, and that it is the police who investigate it. I think it would be a great shame if students ended up being investigated by the police because, in their enthusiasm and naivety, they voted twice.
It is, again, trying to confuse the situation to say that that will create a problem. How could someone who was registered in Durham—other than by means of a postal vote: I must say that before the hon. Gentleman comes back at me with it—vote in two places on the same date? That is not possible.
There is another point which the hon. Gentleman and other Members have missed completely. When people walk into a polling station, they see a long list of dos and don’ts, and the don’ts include voting twice.
There is a long list of dos and don’ts, but no one reads it, because the type is so small and the notice is so big. It looks like what it is, a load of legalese about the correct procedures. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House and an experienced politician, and he knows about democratic procedures. The serious point that I am making—not from a vote leave standpoint, or indeed from a remain standpoint—is that there will be hundreds of thousands of first-time voters who do not understand registration, and because they realise that they can register at the last minute, they have done so. What I want to avoid is police investigations afterwards because students have made a silly mistake.
The hon. Gentleman has no evidence whatsoever that this will be a big problem. He is obviously trying to get a headline into tomorrow’s Daily Mail. As an experienced candidate and an experienced election agent, I can tell him that anyone who is unclear about the rules can always ask the poll clerks, who will explain the process of voting.
I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the quality of the universities that he knows, or about how fast their battle buses must be to take them from one place to another, but will he at least accept that we should be encouraging students and young people to become involved as a point of principle?
I have already said that twice, but I am happy to say it again. I think it is great that we are seeing loads more people signing up to the electoral register, especially young people. If it were up to the hon. Gentleman’s party, or the other party, we would not be seeing that at all.
The instrument makes it clear that there will be a post-match analysis, and that the Electoral Commission will have to produce a report on the conduct of the referendum. This is a serious point: the Electoral Commission will be writing a report about what the Electoral Commission has done in the referendum. Now, that is fine—that is one piece of evidence—but there is no provision in the statute for another investigation to be conducted.
This is a matter for my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin). I think that, whatever the result of the referendum, it will be an urgent priority for his Committee to initiate an investigation of not just this matter, but the way in which the system has worked in general. I understand that there are issues involving the electoral arrangements as a whole—not just registration, but the way in which the referendum is being handled—owing to the scale of the challenge confronting registration officers, and those who conduct the referendum itself. I urge my hon. Friend and his Committee to begin that work as soon as possible after the referendum. The Minister helpfully said that there were 214,000 applications to register in the hour before the crash. I think I am right in saying that the down time of the crash was one hour and a quarter.
Right. None of us knows, but it would be reasonable to assume that about 400,000 possible registrants were not able to register. To make up for this down time—I am not saying that this is wrong; I am just pointing it out—we are effectively extending the registration period for two days. It is very important that Her Majesty’s Government publish the number of registrants in that two-day period. Effectively, they are stopping the registration clock as of midnight two days ago, and they will publish the numbers of applicants for the two preceding days.
It may help the House and my hon. Friend if I say that, according to my latest information, there were 242 applications yesterday, which was the first of the two days to which he is referring. That is just over half the number he is talking about across the two days.
I am grateful for that. It is great to have the latest information here in the House.
I close on this point—I keep reiterating it, but, as usual, the Government do not seem to listen—why do we not have the simple system whereby every time a member of the public is in contact with a Government agency of some sort, whether it be a local authority or the benefits department, they are asked the question by a Government official, “Are you on your local electoral register. This is how you apply, and we encourage you to do so.” I do not see why that should be difficult for the Government to organise across Departments, and it would help to minimise the scale of this problem in future.
I will try to be brief, Mr Speaker.
Whatever we think of the problems that this country has with its relationship with Europe, we certainly have problems with disfranchisement, disengagement and disbelief in the values of what we do in this place and with politics in general. I welcome the fact that we have seen huge numbers of people registering in this process, and the fact that we have extended that process for two days. As the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) said, it demonstrates that we could extend the period for voter registration to closer to the date of an election or a referendum. We now have a very good precedent for doing so. For my money, I would also look seriously at 16 and 17 year olds voting, and at compulsory voting. The serious point that I seek to make is that for those of us who favour in principle the idea of online voting, this exercise has demonstrated quite how perilous that transition could be.
The right hon. Gentleman read my mind.
Although there are many Members across the House who think that online voting is inevitable, it is crucial that, in a world where we cannot get voting in person right in some parts of the country in the 21st century, we conduct sensible small-scale trials of online voting.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that in 2004 the Labour Government did a trial of all postal voting, e-voting and other things. It was commended by the Electoral Commission. It was his party and others who argued that fraud could be endemic, and that was why the trial was not taken any further.
I agree that trials have taken place and that they were a good thing, but they did also demonstrate that the system was not perfect. I do not think that anyone who looked at those trials, which were 12 years ago and which did not use the technology that we would now use, would say that they should have been rolled out across the whole country, because they were not as robust as we would have liked them to be. None the less, it remains the case that online voting is inevitable given the direction in which this country is going. We should look carefully at what that means, but, given the experience of the past 24 to 48 hours, let us bear in mind that if we get things wrong, we risk not only further undermining people’s faith in democracy, but putting ourselves in a position where even fewer people than now would vote, and that would be bad for all of us.
Although I welcome many of the things that we have seen over the past 24 to 48 hours, I urge the Government to seize the opportunity to extend the registration deadline closer to the period of an election or a referendum, to demonstrate the real appetite of people to use the web to get involved in democracy, and to begin those trials into online voting so that we can, over however many years it takes, get to a point where people can use the web to cast their vote and increase turnout overall.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft European Union Referendum (Voter Registration) Regulations 2016, which were laid before this House on 8 June, be approved.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I ask whether you have had any request or indication from a Minister or a Law Officer that it is their intention to come to the House today, or at any time, to make a statement regarding the announcement by the Crown Prosecution Service today that, having considered the case of UK security service personnel and possible involvement in extraordinary rendition of two families to Libya, it has decided not to take proceedings? The press notice issued by the CPS indicates that it has concluded that there is sufficient evidence to support the contention that the suspect had sought political authority for some of his actions. This is the first occasion on which we have had any indication that the Government of the day had any knowledge of what might or might not have been done. Surely this House should be told about that.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me notice of his intention to raise it. The short answer is that I have received no approach from any Minister indicating a desire or intention to make a statement on this matter. Moreover, although a matter of huge interest to him and a great many other people in the House and beyond, it is of course not a matter for the Chair. However, he has put his point very forcefully on the record, and it has been heard by cerebral occupants of the Treasury Bench, and doubtless the thrust of what he has said will wing its way beyond this Chamber to other important persons. We will leave it there for now. I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what we have just heard.