I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill relates to electoral fraud and abuse, so I hope that it will receive the Government’s warm support. There is a lot of voter abuse of our electoral system, which undermines our democracy. The Government have undertaken various initiatives to try to build public confidence in the system. They have launched various inquiries, including Sir Eric Pickles’ inquiry, and engaged with the Electoral Commission.
The fact that some people do not register when they are entitled to do so is an issue, and everything is being done to try to encourage more people to register. That is the Government’s policy and I certainly support it. If the hon. Gentleman had wished to introduce a Bill to deal with another aspect of our electoral system, he could have done so, but this is a narrow Bill to prohibit people from being registered to vote in parliamentary elections in more than one constituency.
It seems to me that it would be a good idea to tidy up our system. Currently, large numbers of people are registered to vote in UK parliamentary elections in more than one constituency. It is, of course, against the law to vote more than once in a general election, but after the most recent general election, several people bragged that they had voted more than once because they had been able to vote in more than one constituency.
No, I am not. Indeed, that was what prompted me to introduce the Bill. After the general election, I spoke, in my naivety, to the Electoral Commission to inquire what it was doing to ensure that people who were registered in more than one constituency did not vote more than once. It became apparent that the commission does not have a national register, and therefore is not able to say whether a Mr David Jones in one constituency is the same Mr David Jones who voted in another constituency. That is why I have introduced the Bill.
I have every sympathy for what my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour is trying to achieve, but would clause 1(2) place an onerous burden on local authorities in respect of the checks required? Alternatively, does my hon. Friend envisage a national register such as that which he has just mentioned being brought into force as part of the Bill’s implementation?
I envisage a national register. Indeed, I think the Government’s policy is to introduce a national register. I would be the first person to accept that the Bill is probably not perfectly drafted, and that anybody who wanted to try to undermine it would be able to do so.
My hon. Friend says that he is not aware of anybody being charged. In fact, five people were charged—one was convicted and given a fine; two had no further action taken against them; and the cases against the other two are, I believe, still outstanding.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information, but I am not sure whether those five cases were based on anything other than open admissions rather than detective work. We need a system that ensures that people do not vote in more than one constituency in a general election and therefore do not abuse the system by voting twice.
Would it not be better to put greater emphasis on the management of existing law, which makes it illegal to vote twice in parliamentary elections, rather than potentially removing the franchise from people who may be away from their home at the point at which an election is called?
No, I do not. If people are away from their home, they are perfectly able to apply for a postal vote. Some people have more than one home. Why should those people be in a privileged position by being able to pick and choose the constituency in which they want to vote in a general election?
I will not give way again because I am trying to develop my argument. It is obvious that not everybody accepts the principle that we should have a legal system that is as tight as possible so that it is easy to enforce against those people who carry out abuse. There were five prosecutions after the previous general election, but we know that the practice of voting in more than one constituency is much more widespread than that, as is reflected in both the Pickles report and also the work of the Electoral Commission.
Why do we not do everything possible to maximise the confidence in our electoral system and follow the recommendations that I propose in this Bill, which would ensure that if somebody registered with an electoral registration officer, they would, at the same time, have to declare that they were not already registered somewhere else? It is a pretty straightforward thing to do. There is also provision, which is not often enforced, that people should indicate their previous registered address, or that if they do not have a previous registered address, they should give some evidence of identity and perhaps also of nationality.
The electoral register is the key to the integrity of our system but, at the moment, it is very vulnerable. Another area of vulnerability is that if people are registered in more than one place and, to take the point of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), somebody is away, it is easy for somebody else to impersonate that person, knowing full well that they will not get caught out, because there are no circumstances in which that person will turn up to vote.
One of the deterrents against people going along and voting as somebody else in a constituency is that the real person could turn up to vote and that would create a bit of a problem. If people know that large numbers of voting cards have been delivered, sometimes in bulk to halls of residence at universities, for example, those voting cards are very vulnerable to getting into the wrong hands and then being the subject of abuse. This enables people to vote when they should not be able to do so, because they will be voting for a second time.
I am disappointed by the tone that we are hearing from Opposition Members. They do not seem to be concerned about improving the integrity of our electoral system and doing everything we can to eliminate electoral fraud. Surely that should be the starting point for any debate to try to reinforce our democratic institutions, one of which is, of course, the ability of a person to vote in general elections if they are aged over 18, but only once.
I disagree fundamentally with the Bill, for two main reasons. First, it does not focus on enforcing existing laws. We must be cautious about creating more laws for the sake of it. The statute book already provides for people to be prosecuted for voting more than once in a general election, so the effort should be put into ensuring that there are sufficient resources to allow electoral registration offices in our local authorities, which are well known to be suffering as a result of Government cuts, and police forces, which are also suffering from cuts, to enforce the law as it stands.
Secondly, we must consider what the Bill would mean for particular voter groups, and I am thinking especially of students and members of the armed forces. Those who serve in our armed forces are frequently posted away from their homes and families, so their ability to register in both locations is vital to ensure that they do not miss out on their democratic right to choose who represents them in this place and on local councils.
The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible argument, but did he not hear the response to that point from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), which was that students and those serving away from home in the armed forces can choose to register elsewhere and simply vote by post?
Given the frequency of snap elections—past and potentially future—I do not think that we should necessarily be arguing for people to plan their residency arrangements around the whims of the Government, whether they collapse or not. Also, people are not able to apply for a postal vote right up until the last moment, and they do not always know whether they will have to be away from their home address for an election. There are many circumstances, whether relating to education or to work, that will mean they need to move between different locations where they are registered, which makes that a more difficult argument. I think that we should be focusing on getting more people registered to vote, rather than making it harder for those people who are already registered to use their vote.
The point I was making about the armed forces is important, because we should go further to ensure that those who serve our country in uniform can use their vote to elect people to this place, and to local government and other offices. We must recognise that deployment patterns mean that they need to move to different locations, away from their homes and families. Indeed, voter registration already recognises that and allows it to be done.
A similar argument can be made for students, especially those studying away from home. The ability to register and to use their vote, whether they are at university in Plymouth or Exeter—wherever they might live—is an important part of ensuring that our young people and others in education do not lose their right to vote.
I think that there is an argument about making it easier for people to register to vote and then to use their vote. Instead of removing the flexibility that comes from having complex lives, often involving unpredictable travel patterns, we should be using this opportunity to talk about how we get more people on the electoral register, how we encourage our 16 and 17-year-olds to register at an early age—even though they are currently denied the right to vote—and how we can move to automatic voter registration, so that when someone registers for council tax, for instance, they are automatically passed on to register online.
This morning I registered to vote in my place in London, because I moved house a couple of months ago. When I filled in the online registration—I did it on my mobile from the Front Bench—I was asked, “Have you moved house recently?” There is progression in making registration easier. In fact, some of the points that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) made in his speech dealt with how people currently register to vote online. Online electoral registration has been an improvement in the system. It has not yet reached what I think should be its final destination, which is more automatic registration so that everyone is registered, regardless of whether they can fill in the details, whether their national insurance number matches Department for Work and Pensions records, or whether they follow things up with a letter along the way, which are the complications that have come from the registration system.
I think that potentially denying people the right to vote based on this type of legislation would be bad for our armed forces and bad for our young people studying in higher education, and for that reason I cannot support the Bill.
It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). Like him, I cannot support the Bill, because I cannot support anything that makes it more difficult for individuals to be able to vote. If my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) does not mind my saying so, I think it is a little mean-spirited when it comes to students. I remember registering twice because I was never sure whether I was going to be in Durham or back home in Mr Speaker’s constituency of Buckingham.
Anything that adds bureaucracy and regulation, or that makes it harder to incentivise people to vote, is not, in my view, in the best spirit of democracy. I say that as a supporter of votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, albeit I do not think we should have automatic registration. Quite frankly, if people cannot take that step to then go and vote—
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 15 March 2019.