Committee (5th Day)
If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.
Debate on Amendment 125A resumed.
Before we adjourned last Wednesday, I moved Amendment 125A and spoke to all the amendments in my name in this group.
I start by expressing my thanks to the Minister for moving his amendment at some length; we are grateful for the comprehensive nature of the explanation that he gave of the amendments. We were also grateful for the explanation that we had from him and his officials the day before of the purpose of the amendments.
Having said that, I will repeat the point that we made on Second Reading and which has also been made by the spokesmen for the Liberal Democrat party; that it would have been helpful if we could have seen the amendments, or at least a draft of them, at a much earlier stage. I understand that the Government had agreed two amendments of this sort on Report in another place, and I think that is now probably two or three months ago. If we could have seen the amendments, or drafts of them, on Second Reading or before, that would have helped. As it is, we will have to spend quite a long time on them on Report, particularly dealing with the concerns that we, and I suspect the Liberal Democrats, have about them. Those concerns largely reflect the question of timing.
The noble Lord has put into his amendments something that is very unusual; a suggestion that the earliest possible date that this can come into effect is 2014, even if the Government, the Electoral Commission and all others in the run-up to that date think that everything is in place and ready to go. If the amendments go through as they are now, we cannot go any earlier than 2014 without amending primary legislation. I give notice that I have a strong suspicion that we will be tabling amendments, which I suspect will be supported by the Liberal Democrats, or the Liberal Democrats will table some similar amendment that will suggest not having a cast-iron date in the Bill but leaving it to such a moment when it is felt by the Electoral Commission and others who have an interest that we are ready to move forward with individual voter registration.
I make it clear to the Minister that we are not happy with the timing, and we will certainly seek an amendment on that. It seems very odd to have in statute a hard and fast rule with a time limit of this sort that binds the Electoral Commission and the Government, whomsoever they might be, to stick to that. It looks slightly as if the current Government, for their own particular electoral reasons, find it more convenient to make sure that nothing can happen until 2014 at the earliest.
Well, I would not like to go much further than the particular words that I used. I shall leave it to the noble Lord to interpret what I said. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Government have a desire to ensure that no individual voter registration can happen—obviously, it cannot happen before the next election, which has to happen before May or June next year at the absolute latest. That would imply that the next election after that would be some time in 2015 and would be excluded from this. It might be that the Government for their own reasons—which may be party-political reasons, although I would not like to suggest that—would prefer to put it off until that date.
But the noble Lord has suggested it. He has made an accusation that we wish to defer the measure for electoral considerations. He should spell out exactly what he means, because it brings me to the heart of my case. He should not duck the question that I am asking.
I am not ducking the question; I am just putting it forward as a supposition to the Committee that that might be the motive behind what the Government are doing. The Government, being very honourable, have said very clearly that the reason why they are doing this is that they want to make it possible to get these provisions ready on time. We are saying that it would be perfectly easy to get them ready beforehand, if the Electoral Commission and others said so; if that was the case, we would move forward at that stage. I do not know what goes on in the Government’s mind and I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, as a Back-Bencher, does not know what goes on in the Government’s collective mind.
Perhaps I could be more blunt. Is the noble Lord suggesting that the Labour Party would be electorally disadvantaged through the introduction of individual registration? Is that what he is suggesting? If he is not suggesting that, what is he suggesting?
Of course I am not suggesting that. I am suggesting simply that within the minds of certain people within the Labour Party and the Government they might have thoughts of that sort. That is entirely a matter for them; I cannot comment on that. All that I am suggesting is that for some reason the Government want to make it absolutely impossible to bring this into effect before 2015, in effect. We believe that it might be possible for these provisions to be ready before that date. Whether that is the case I do not know.
I hesitate to intervene on this, but it worries me that such an accusation has been made, and my noble friend is right to raise the issue. One could always stand what the noble Lord says on its head and say that the reason why he wants to bring this forward is because he believes that it will be of political advantage to the Conservative Party. One should be just a bit careful about these sorts of comments.
As I have made clear to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours—and if the noble Baroness looks at my words, she will find that this is the case—I have made no accusation of that sort whatever. All that I have said is that it is very peculiar for the Government to insist on such a hard and fast rule that they write down a date. A word like “2014” does not often appear in statute; it makes it impossible to bring the provision in any earlier. If it is ready to come into effect before that and that is the advice, one should do that. There is nothing wrong with that, if it reduces the amount of electoral fraud. I could go into detail about the amount of electoral fraud that we have seen over the past few years. I could quote from that judge in the Birmingham case, and possibly we will get to that later when we discuss amendments on postal voting; he talked about the fact that what was going on would disgrace a banana republic. I am not going to do that. All that I am saying is that it is very peculiar to find a word such as “2014” in this legislation, when one could say, “at a time when the Electoral Commission thinks it appropriate”.
I am glad that the noble Lord is on his feet, because I want to ask him a question. He mentioned electoral fraud. Does he think that there is electoral fraud in the county of Cumbria, where he and I live? It is a typical rural county in England. Does he think that there is electoral fraud there?
I am not aware of any electoral fraud in postal voting in the county of Cumbria. I am aware, from criminal cases that have been before the courts and which have affected, I am afraid to say, all three of the main parties represented here, that there has been electoral fraud in various parts of the country as a result of postal voting, with which we are particularly concerned. I am not aware of any in the county of Cumbria, but I will wait to see what criminal cases might or might not emerge from any other part of the country.
Having dealt with the interventions from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, I will say a word or two about Amendments 125BA and 132AA in this group, in the name of myself and my noble friend Lord Bates. They have been tabled to invite the Minister to make a response; in other words, they are probing amendments.
Amendment 125BA deals with our concerns about data protection implications. The introduction of individual voter registration will mean that a lot more personal information is held by the electoral registration officers and shared between both central and local governments. Therefore, before such schemes for individual voter registration are established by order, consultation should take place with the Information Commissioner, as well as the Electoral Commission, to ensure that adequate data security procedures are in place and that best practice is followed. We certainly do not want any further examples of large-scale data loss on our hands from local government at a time when we are trying to improve confidence in the electoral register.
Amendment 132AA deals with the fact that there is currently no provision for personal identification at the ballot box. That bit of electoral fraud arising from impersonation has not been dealt with. I appreciate that that is not a major problem. As will be obvious to the Committee from the exchanges between me and my fellow Cumbrian, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, most of the problems with electoral fraud are in relation to postal voting. There have obviously been problems with impersonation in the long distant past but, in the main, postal voting fraud is the principal problem. However, I would be grateful for the Minister’s response on the question of personal identification at the ballot box.
I hope that that is helpful. I look forward to further debates on this matter on Report. No doubt we will hear more from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, both then and later on this amendment. For the moment, however, I leave it at that.
I welcome, of course, the thrust of the government amendment to introduce personal identifiers, on the basis that some of us have been arguing for them for a long time. Indeed, they should have been introduced around 2000, when we changed many things, including allowing postal voting to be on demand rather than on the basis of a stated case. Our concerns are now that, although it is coming in better late than never, we would like it to come in sooner if at all possible. On behalf of my noble friend Lord Tyler and myself, I therefore speak to Amendments 125CA and 125CB.
We are concerned that this issue needs to be addressed. It has taken so long to get here since 2000 that it is clear that we should have started earlier. From where we are now, however, it may be possible to make quicker progress. I hope that when the Minister responds to Amendments 125CA and 125CB, he will not simply say that it is not possible. All that these amendments say is that, if it is possible, we would like to consider making more rapid progress. That seems as reasonable and as moderate an amendment as you could possibly table on this issue.
The issue requires some urgency. There have been discussions about the level of electoral fraud in this country. The truth is that nobody really knows what it is. It is not proper to try to assess the level of fraud simply by looking at convictions, because, as we know, most forms of crime in this country do not result in convictions. It is not a reliable approach.
If more people knew how easy it was to commit electoral fraud in our system, there would probably be rather more of it. I have certainly come across some instances in the past. It is probably not very widespread, but any system that makes it possible easily to cheat and abuse the system must be reformed.
I shall not go on at length about my own experiences, but I recall the electoral abuses of the Militant Tendency in Liverpool, which I fought from the side of the Liberal Party and which I know the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, fought from that of the Labour Party. With all my experience of elections, I could not understand how it was turning out as many votes as it appeared to be doing given the level of its canvass returns—and I like to think that I am quite good at assessing these things. Eventually, I came to the obvious conclusion, confirmed subsequently by those on the Labour Party side who were investigating the tactics of the Militant Tendency, that it could turn out so many votes with such little support because a lot of people were going around the polling stations casting votes on behalf of people who they knew were not voting. It was very easily done. I am not suggesting that it is widespread, but it is so easy to do that we should move as quickly as we reasonably can to try to address it.
With hindsight, those of us who agreed to the extension of postal voting in 2000 probably should not have done so unless we had at the very least a clear and workable timetable for the introduction of the personal identifiers. We now see the whole political system discredited when elections come around, fraud in relation to postal votes and, just occasionally, impersonation at the polling stations.
My amendments suggest that if, in 2014 or any year prior to it, the Electoral Commission deems it appropriate, it should be able to make an assessment as to whether we can make more progress. We know that the issues are accuracy and completeness—that is not in dispute. We are saying simply that the Electoral Commission should be able to assess progress on accuracy and completeness and that the Government should pay due regard to its suggestions.
To go through two more Westminster general elections without a system of personal identifiers would be quite wrong. We may take a long time over it. Returning officers are hard pressed; they say that it is very difficult to collect those data; we may feel there are problems with both accuracy and completeness. But if we are reasonably satisfied on the principal tests of accuracy and completeness in the register—and the independent arbiter of it must be the Electoral Commission—we should make progress on reforming the system and ending the potential for abuse as rapidly as we can.
I might delay the Committee a little today because I want to speak in some detail on this issue, which is one of the problems with the whole legislation. I am totally opposed to the proposals being brought forward by the Government. I am opposed to the principle of national rollout of individual registration at any stage. I previously commented on these issues in Grand Committee on the Electoral Administration Bill on 21 March 2006 at col. 84 of the Official Report, but I shall today further embroider the arguments that I used then.
I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe is unable to join us today. I am indebted to him for having tried to facilitate a dialogue between me and the department’s officials so that we could perhaps establish some common ground and agree on the statistical information which I want to produce and they may wish to contest. But this is only Committee, and I therefore have an opportunity prior to Report to meet his officials. I am indebted to him; he is one of life’s natural conciliators, as we have all learnt over recent months.
I am totally opposed to national rollout. It is a waste of public money. At a time when local authorities are being required to make economies—as indeed are government departments—and when everyone is being required to tighten their belts, we are throwing money at a problem that is marginal and only exists in certain parts of the country. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, has admitted that it does not exist in our county.
I only know about one part of one county—a very large county. I do not know for a fact whether there is any electoral fraud in Cumbria or anywhere else. All we know about are the cases where people have been caught, and there have been quite a number, as the noble Lord will be aware. I admit, and the noble Lord will also accept, that this is something that has affected all three parties.
I am not altogether convinced that we will see an increase in registration as a result of this legislation. Indeed, I argue that it will lead to a reduction. If anyone wants to revisit the arguments, they need only refer to the 2005 report of the Electoral Commission, which sets out the groups that would be penalised under a system of national rollout. This information is taken from that report. The five groups are: deprived groups in areas of deprivation, people living in metropolitan areas, unemployed groups, certain housing tenancy groups, and people who live in houses in multiple occupation. I do not want to read out all of the sections in that report that are relevant to electoral registration proposals in the Bill, but for the record, in case there are people who read our proceedings, they should read paragraphs 234, 237, 242, 244, 245, 248, 251 and 254 because the information in that Electoral Commission report points the way forward as to the problems that will inevitably arise if national rollout takes place.
There are another two reports. There is the first report from the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for Session 2004-05 and the special report of that committee on the Government’s response to the Northern Ireland Committee’s first report. I shall refer to both those reports. We have to consider what has happened in Northern Ireland, and I want to produce figures that may be of interest to the Committee.
If you take the Committee’s figures identifying the 20 worst local authorities for electoral registration in the United Kingdom in 2004, the worst authority in the country out of 442 was Kensington and Chelsea, which disputes the figures. The second worst, at 441, was Westminster, which also disputes the figures and sent me a letter disputing why the council is at the bottom of the list in terms of electoral registration. The letter states:
“I attach as background the analysis of the City of Westminster electorate as last published on 1 December 2008. This gives you more information than you requested, but I hope you will find it useful as background. The December 2008 register was based on forms returned from just under 87 per cent of Westminster households. Further forms returned since then have raised this, so we currently cover register based on a return from over 92 per cent of Westminster households.
The letter continues:
“Any comparison of Westminster’s registered electorate against its estimated adult population fails to take account of the high proportion of foreign nationals resident in Westminster who are ineligible to register (e.g. citizens of the US, Russia, China and many other countries)”.
At 440th on the list is Forest Heath, which, I understand, is an area in which many American and foreign servicemen live, distorting the figure. Then you hit a group of areas in the United Kingdom where there are no excuses to justify their low levels of registration.
I started my canvassing career in north Kensington, which at the time was a marginal Labour seat, and it was extremely annoying to meet on their doorsteps people who were clearly quite affluent and who assured one that they were going to vote in Gloucestershire. They clearly did not think that north Kensington was the place where they really lived, but we could have done with their votes there. They were virtually of no value to us at all in Gloucestershire, where we had enormous majorities anyway.
I am glad the noble Lord has raised that valid point because it draws further attention to the invalidity of the statistics that were published on those three authorities.
However, 439th, Belfast; 438th, Camden in London, which has the same characteristic foreign population; 437th, Antrim; 436th, Limavady in Northern Ireland—they are all Northern Ireland now—434th, North Down; 433rd, Derry; 432nd, Coleraine; 431st, Carrickfergus; 428th, Castlereagh; 427th, Newtownabbey; 426th, Lisburn; 425th, Craigavon; 424th, Down; 423rd, Ards; 422nd, Omagh. In other words, at the bottom of the electoral registration tables within the United Kingdom at the time that the Northern Ireland committee in the other place was doing its work, all these Northern Irish local authorities came bottom of the list in electoral registration.
The percentages have been calculated, according to our source, using the mid-2007 population estimates for local authorities in the United Kingdom of those aged 18 and above and the numbers of people registered to vote in local government elections on 1 December 2007. I correct myself, I said 2004 before; I meant 2007.
Those statistics show that there is a problem in areas where this system of electoral registration has been introduced. My amendments concentrate on where the problem exists. In my view, there is no problem in Cumbria. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, did not want to be absolutely clear on that matter because he knew that if he were to concede that, he would be conceding much of my argument.
I speak purely as a lawyer: I cannot say categorically that there is no problem if I do not know whether there is a problem. I am not going to say that one county is clean and another county is not. We know where there are problems, but that does not mean there are not necessarily problems in other places that we think are okay.
But we do know that there have been no prosecutions in the county of Cumbria and that there are large swathes of the United Kingdom where there have been no prosecutions whatever. I suspect that there are no problems in probably 99 per cent of the UK land mass area. The problem exists in communities which carry a substantial ethnic minority population, and that is the reality. It is not racist to say that, because we live in the real world. In the debate in the other place some weeks ago, there were interventions from Members who were prepared to say that that was the case.
My case is very simple: why do we punish the whole nation for a problem that exists in a very small number of areas within the United Kingdom? Why are we prepared to create difficulties and administrative problems? Why are we prepared to waste public money on a national rollout of a system which affects the whole country when the problem is localised in very few areas within the United Kingdom? Government policy should target such areas with the amount of resource necessary to ensure that the problems are dealt with and should not waste money in areas like Cumbria, where we are already short of money in terms of local authority block grant. Why spend millions on administration?
Why place electoral registration staff at risk in inner-city areas where there is violence? Parts of inner cities in the United Kingdom are no-go areas. On the electoral registration Bill, I interviewed EROs in various parts of the country and I was told about no-go areas where they have trouble sending in people to canvass. In the minutes of evidence given to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee when it dealt with the matter in 2004, a witness from, I think, the Northern Ireland Office, referred to the problem of getting people to go into areas of Belfast to gather the information required, although they managed to resolve the problem after a period of time.
What does my Amendment 126 do? It places a responsibility on local authorities where there is a problem to apply to the Secretary of State for the power under an order to introduce a scheme which would then operate within the local authority area. It would target the problem where it exists.
The problem essentially, as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said, is fraud in the postal vote system. We are introducing a system of national rollout to deal with a problem of fraud which exists in very few parts of the country. The most recent case, if I remember rightly, was in Slough and was postal vote fraud. The cases which have been drawn to national attention in recent years have essentially been postal vote cases when people have sought to impersonate others by signing postal vote applications or have taken a number of postal vote ballot papers and signed them on behalf of others without those people knowing what was happening.
What would be the effect of the amendment? The local authority would avoid, at all costs, introducing a scheme and inconveniencing millions of people. It would try to sort out the problem locally without the use of the scheme. In the event that it could not sort out the matter locally without the use of the scheme, the local authority would apply to the scheme and it would probably concentrate its use on those wards with a problem, but not necessarily. It might want to apply the scheme throughout the whole of the local authority area. The Government would be able to concentrate additional money on areas with real problems. It would foster intra-ethnic community debate on the need to avoid corruption of the system. In ethnic- minority communities, a debate is going on where one group says that another group is not using the electoral system fairly. Arguments are already going on in those areas and individual groups which failed to agree could go to the local authority and ask for action. If the authority felt that there was a serious enough problem, it could apply for an order. It would stop piling up expensive legal responsibilities on local authorities.
So what are the arguments against my amendment? It would concentrate effort on ethnic-minority communities. What is wrong with that? We already single out ethnic-minority community areas for community support projects, employment support programmes, policing resources and literacy programmes, so anyone who somehow, as happened on a previous occasion when this amendment came forward, argues that there is some sort of racist overtone to this has completely misunderstood what is driving it on. It is not racism: it is a desire to deal with the problem in parts of the country where the problem exists.
I turn to the issue of data transfer.
The noble Lord will know that I agree entirely with his description of what goes on in many places. I have described it here and may do again this afternoon. But does he not understand that there is a danger if it is the local authority he is talking about rather than the local returning officer and their staff? A difficulty in some of these areas is that returning officers and election staff may not be sufficiently independent from the political control of the local authority. It is really the returning officers who need to sort these things out. Local authorities, because they are involved in the politics of it, may find it more difficult to do so.
I think that the noble Lord has a case. However, if an electoral registration officer within the local authority is dissatisfied with the response of the local authority, and he or she maintains that there is a problem with corruption of the electoral system, they can go to the Electoral Commission or to a Member of Parliament. It is unlikely that the majority of members of the local authority would be so corrupt that they would be prepared to turn a blind to corruption of the electoral system in a particular area. A minority of councillors within that authority area would want to foster such corrupt activities; I would have thought that the majority would be very much opposed to them.
I turn to the issue of data transfer under the proposals. I understand that there are already within local authorities arrangements for the interdepartmental transfer of data—for housing benefit, council tax information and so forth. I am told that some local authorities are tardy over the use of such facilities. However, I am also told that it is the Government’s intention to pilot the use of data transfer from national databases such as the DVLA and DWP to local authorities for use in electoral registration. That is in the Bill. Perhaps before doing so, they should read the recent Joseph Rowntree report, rather provocatively called The Database State, to which my noble friend has referred on a previous occasion at the Dispatch Box. I recall his comments with great interest.
On page 32, the report sets out the scale of cross-referencing already within the system under the heading,
“Links from and to DWP”.
Reading between the lines, it is obvious that the need for cross-referencing is based on some risk assessment. It is quite conceivable that the data-matching service, which has been in operation for over 10 years and which includes DWP benefits, Royal Mail redirecting, TV licences and other services, which detects fraud and error in benefits and is applied to millions of claimants, must provide for flagging-up areas of risk. I contend that many of those areas will include among them areas of social deprivation among which there will be precisely the same areas that I seek to identify in my amendments.
I therefore argue that a risk assessment, which at the end inevitably targets certain areas with high ethnic- minority populations, is more likely to breach discrimination considerations than an arrangement that allows those same areas themselves to voluntarily apply to central government for permission to adopt a scheme that deals with that same element of risk.
I should like to read into the record some information which has come from the other place. I refer to the report produced by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, which dealt with the whole matter of individual registration. In paragraph 18, the committee says:
“A pattern appears to be emerging for the number of registered electors to decline at each canvass only to show a slow increase thereafter as a consequence of rolling registrations. The Electoral Commission pointed to evidence suggesting ‘an emerging downward trend in the electoral register’. Although this evidence was limited because the new system had been in operation for 18 months at the time, the Commission considered that ‘nonetheless the available “like-for-like” comparisons indicate that the register is falling by about 1.5-2 per cent per annum’. This view is backed up by the 2004 canvass results, published on 1 December 2004, which show a further decline in the register to a registration level of just 83.9%.
This finding is a particular cause for concern in Northern Ireland because the adult population of Northern Ireland is increasing at a rate of 0.7% per annum. The Electoral Commission warned that: ‘…unless it is rectified, the downward trend in the register has the potential of embedding itself structurally in the registration process. If the register is in decline, then the number that can be canvassed will also tend to fall from one canvass to the next, thus reinforcing the cycle’”.
The committee goes on to say at paragraph 49:
“The shift from household to individual registration is one of the key changes resulting from the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. This change was essential to eliminate some of the possible sources of ‘phantom’ names on the register. However, this is now one of the key factors contributing to the low levels of registration in certain population groups”.
I repeat: one factor was the phantom vote. Paragraph 78 states:
“The second appears to be that a significant proportion of the eligible population does not register. There are several causes for this but there is little doubt that one of the most significant is the change to individual registration. The shift away from a system, where one person in each household registers the entire household to one in which each individual has the responsibility for their own registration requires individuals to be more pro-active if their names are to be included on the register”.
Paragraph 80 reads:
“We are deeply concerned by signs that the system of individual registration is causing a spiral of structural decline in the electoral register. This appears to occur because every year only those people who were registered the previous year are directly canvassed. While people are able to register outside the canvass periods through rolling registration, the number registering each year through this mechanism is lower than the number of people dropping out of the register in canvass registrations from one year to the next. Consequently, the register has been shrinking progressively. We believe that the level of electoral registration in Northern Ireland has now reached the point at which it will begin to have an adverse effect on public confidence in the integrity of the process”.
We will have a report like this in a matter of a few years. The question is: what would happen in those circumstances? The noble Lord, Lord Henley, appeared to be pretty frank about that. I think he was actually saying that he saw electoral advantage in individual registration, and I think he was suggesting that we might see electoral disadvantage. In other conditions, another Government might have that in mind. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, shakes his head, but I do not think that he can shake his head on behalf of his party when it comes to electoral considerations of that nature. I think that another Government might have other matters in mind in the event that they are required to make the changes which the Electoral Commission, under the legislation with which we are dealing, suggests to them concerning the further reforms that it feels are necessary prior to compulsory registration in 2014-15.
Further on, under “Political Discrimination”, the report says:
“Research by the Electoral Commission has shown that the highest decline in electoral registration occurred in the top 20 most deprived wards of which 69% are catholic and 27% protestant. This represents a serious adverse impact on the catholic/nationalist community in particular and exposes the highly political motivation behind the electoral legislation. Those who supported this legislation must look to the effect it is having, not just in terms of denying large numbers of people their right to vote, but in the categories of people being affected: the poorest within the nationalist community and to a lesser degree the poorest within the protestant community. It has affected the young, the old, those with disabilities and ethnic minorities. The pattern emerging across the north is that this legislation is producing a two-tier system whereby affluent areas are returning high registration uptake and the poorest areas, mostly in deprived catholic and protestant wards, are alarmingly low”.
Can we see the writing on the wall? Can we see, as we proceed with this project, that there are huge dangers inherent in this whole approach? We may well effectively be disfranchising very large numbers of people in the inner cities who cannot be canvassed, who will perhaps simply be ignored in the future for political reasons. I am particularly concerned about that.
I refer to a speech by Fiona Mactaggart on 20 October on this Bill. She is the Member for Slough, which has a large ethnic population. She said:
“In places where there is evidence of such corruption, there might be a case for individual voter registration. I would not support its introduction universally at the moment, because when it was introduced in Northern Ireland the number of people registered to vote went down by 10 per cent. That is not a tolerable consequence”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/08; col. 79.]
She is a former Home Office Minister in the Labour Government. She went on to deal with problems in her constituency in this area in some detail. We have a Member of Parliament who is a former Minister expressing concerns over electoral registration national rollout. She said that it should be dealt with on an individual basis. I understand that she is prepared to take my amendments, perhaps remodel them in some way and, if it is possible procedurally in the other place, to move them. She would have to do so under the somewhat truncated procedure whereby, on this huge issue, there is no Second Reading in the Commons, there is no Committee stage in the Commons, there is no Report stage in the Commons, there is no Third Reading in the Commons; but our Bill simply goes back for them to consider, if I am not mistaken, in one stage. I think that is grossly unreasonable. Unless someone can correct me, that is the case. That is completely wrong.
Finally, I will turn to what happened some weeks ago on binge drinkers. I raise binge drinking because when Sir Liam Donaldson made his proposals for a tax on the basis of so much per millilitre of alcohol, he argued that we should change the tax system on alcohol nationally, across the board, to deal with binge drinkers. The Prime Minister very quickly leapt in to say, “Oh no, we are not going to do that”. He said, “Let us deal with the problem in the area where it exists. Let’s deal with the problems of that particular group of people who are binge drinking. Let’s not punish the whole nation with a greater level of taxation, because that is unreasonable”. I have lost the quote, but I am sure that noble Lords will remember what he said at the time. If we are prepared to isolate binge drinkers and deal with them as a group, why cannot we do that in this case? Why cannot we isolate the problem in the areas where there is a problem and deal with that in isolation and not, if I might say so once again, punish the whole nation?
I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has failed to convince me on this subject. It seems to me that he has stacked up his whole argument on some rather tentative agreement between himself and my noble friend Lord Henley that there was no election fraud in Cumbria. With all due respect, neither of them knows whether there is electoral fraud in Cumbria. All we know about the convictions for electoral fraud is that they are probably the tip of a very big iceberg. Therefore, I do not think that anyone can say, “There is electoral fraud in this area but not in that area”, because no one is in a position to know.
I congratulate the Government on this legislation. Addressing the issues of identifying people in terms of their registration as voters is long overdue. If there is a Labour advantage in the status quo, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, then he is saying that many of his colleagues in another place were voted in on fraudulent votes, and I do not think he would be comfortable with that.
Let us consider the date. I very much support the Liberal Democrat Amendment 125CA. It is quite incomprehensible to me why we have to put a fixed date of 2014 on the enactment of this legislation. We do not know what the outcome of the next election in 2010 will be. One party or another may win by a relatively small majority and may copy the Labour Government of 1964 and go to the country two years later. That means that they may well be re-elected in 2012 and might serve the full five years, so we would be talking about 2017 before this legislation comes into force. I do not understand what the point is. I have great sympathy with the view of my noble friend Lord Henley that it looks a little suspicious that the Government are digging in on this when it may well be possible for this legislation to be brought in earlier. Why do we need a fixed date? The onus is on the Government to explain their thinking. It seems to me that it could be brought in earlier and, if so, it would be much to the benefit of everyone in this country.
I am distressed to say that I cannot accept a word of what my noble friend said. He knows how much I disagree with him on this. I know we have spent some time talking about fraud and I know that this is part of the issue, but it is only part. We should concentrate more on one of the other reasons why this Bill is important. Perhaps I may quote from day two of Report stage on the Political Parties and Elections Bill in the House of Commons when the Minister, Mr Wills, introduced this. He said:
“In Public Bill Committee, we discussed—and, it is fair to say, we all agreed—that democracy is undermined when significant numbers of people are not able to participate in elections because they are not registered to do so. Registration is the source from which democratic participation flows. Those who are not registered are denied that participation, so we must all be concerned that it has been estimated that more than 3 million eligible people are not able to vote in this country because they are not registered”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/3/09; col. 653.]
To me, that is a crucial part of why it is necessary to have individual registration. To compare that with binge drinkers is completely unacceptable.
Individual registration—I declare an interest as chair of the HS Chapman Society—has been supported by the society for some years now, as it has been supported by the Electoral Commission since 2003. It is also fair to say that it was backed by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. This has not just appeared out of the blue; people have given a great deal of consideration to it. I go back to the HS Chapman Society, which is made up of all the political parties, ex-apparatchiks like myself, party lawyers, the Electoral Commission and electoral registration officers. I make that point on purpose because they have supported the concept of individual registration in the HS Chapman Society and they are the officers of the electoral registration association. That is very important. The whole question of registration has been covered on television in the past few weeks. The adverts have been very effective at pointing out that if you do not register you do not have a vote; they emphasise the importance of registration.
When the Minister introduced the debate at our last sitting, he emphasised that this was a major change to our electoral process, and that, of course, is absolutely right. What, to me, is fundamental about this, and why I believe that it can make a difference in terms of fraud, is that it removes intermediaries from the process and provides a direct contact between the individual and the state, and no one in between can affect what people are attempting to do.
I am sure that individual registration will reduce the level of fraud. I do not say it will eliminate it, because I do not know that you can ever eliminate fraud. There are other ways of committing fraud, as we have heard today, such as through postal voting, as some people believe. In the judgments on the cases in Birmingham and Slough, Richard Mawrey QC advocated the case for individual registration. There were other factors, of course, but he came out very strongly in favour of individual registration.
I am sure we all agree that it is terribly important that the change receives proper, careful preparation—I shall come to the timing in a moment—because the integrity of our registers is absolutely crucial, as is the authenticity of the applications. I support the concept of the three identifiers—the signature, the date of birth and the national insurance number.
However, I say to my noble friend the Minister that we have to make sure that the EROs have the resources to be able to do the job effectively. I strongly urge that because, after the 2006 registration, money was given to local authorities to help the EROs produce better registers. I met with the Minister who was then responsible, Harriet Harman, to discuss this, and I said that just putting the money in would not work. What actually happened to the money is that a lot of it went into local government general funds. Any money allocated for this purpose must be ring-fenced so that how it is to be spent is clearly identified. Otherwise, the EROs will not be able to do the job properly.
One matter that the EROs will have to consider is the state of the cross-referencing with data information. Looking at the amendment, I have some sympathy with the Information Commissioner because, as I said at Second Reading, I hoped that that data, which I fully support in principle, would be in absolute conformity with the Data Protection Act so that there could be no challenge afterwards about where the information came from. I hope something will be done to ensure that that is the case.
My noble friend referred to the low level of registration. The reason for this, basically, is because the job is not being done properly. Obviously there are problems in some areas—I appreciate that—but, in the main, it is because the electoral resources have not been there and partly because either the 2000 Act or the 2006 Act reduced what electoral registration officers had to do. At one time, it was clear that they had to not only try to get the information by post but to go door to door.
I understand that in some areas that might be difficult and that it means that sometimes they have to go in twos because the areas are not sympathetic, but that is something that can be countered. That level of contact must be made.
What will also be important is the Electoral Commission’s review of what is actually happening and what work is being done by electoral registration officers so that we can identify the really bad cases of electoral registration. They relate to levels of multi-occupancy, people with literacy problems and harder-to-reach groups. There is no doubt that extra resources and effort must be put into those areas to make sure that everybody gets the right to register. We must not forget that this is a right. It is not something that they should do: it is a right to be on the electoral register.
I so disagree with my noble friend that you can pick out some areas and not others. He said that people have identified that it might be racist to do this. It is not racist, but it is discriminatory. Therefore, I have some serious questions about being able to split things up in that way.
The identification of some areas as areas where fraud has occurred would do that. But fraud does not only occur in those areas, although I appreciate that there are some basic problems. Having spent a lot of my time trying to sort out the membership of the Labour Party in some of these areas I can only say that some people come from a different background where electoral systems are different. Therefore, one has to do a lot of work explaining where we are at and what is the right thing to do. Most of the cases that I dealt with were not in any sense fraud; they were due to a lack of knowledge.
My noble friend says that it is discriminatory. But if a local authority itself has a problem and applies to the Secretary of State, in what way is that discriminatory? It is not the state saying, “We are making you do this”. It is the local authority itself saying, “We need additional powers to deal with our problem”. Local authorities do that all the time. They often go to the state and say that they need additional resources to deal with a problem in their areas. It may well be that they are dealing with problems that are ethnically based, but that is not discriminatory.
I disagree, because a local authority has a right to go to the Secretary of State within the context that this is a national scheme, but it has very specific problems that it has to deal with. It may have a higher level of multi-occupancy or whatever, and therefore it needs extra resources to help that process. But to pick out areas just because they happen to have a large Asian population, which is what my noble friend is saying, is discriminatory. I do not think that that is right.
I also need to respond on another matter. I intended to make this very short, but my noble friend has goaded me. In respect of Northern Ireland, he quoted a lot from the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report for 2004-05, but that is now so out of date as to be unquotable as evidence in real terms. Of course we have to learn from the Northern Ireland experience. Of course it was not right to begin with: there is no question about that. There were things that were not done as well as they should have been, and there were systems that were not done as they should have been done.
My noble friend says that the report is out of date. Perhaps I can give her the latest figures, which were published two months ago by Mr Wills, the Minister. Pre-2002, electoral registration in Northern Ireland was 1,192,000. The last figure was 1,142,000—down 50,000 over seven years of this so-called scheme. Meanwhile, the population over 18 in Northern Ireland in 2001 was 1,233,000 and in 2009 it was 1,327,000. Registration has dropped in those seven years and the population has gone up 100,000. Something is wrong somewhere.
If my noble friend will have a little patience, I shall deal with that. The reason is partly because some of the initial processes in Northern Ireland were not right. For example, Northern Ireland decided to get rid of continuous registration; it got rid of the “carry forward” facility, which we have in our own registration; and it went for annual registration, so that people had to register every year. That caused many problems and contributed considerably to the low level of registration at that time. We do not intend to do that and it does not appear in the Bill. That was one of the fundamental differences between the two systems. The latest figures from the Electoral Commission show that, while registration is not back up to the same level, it is increasing every year as the carry-forward facility and the system of continuous registration have been adopted.
Perhaps the noble Baroness will allow me to intervene on the point about annual registration. I believe that that is how the system started in Northern Ireland and it produced considerable indignation. People said, “Why do we have to come? Why are we not trusted?” The system was altered so that it became possible to register for I am not sure how long, but annual registration ceased. That matter of detail must be ironed out to make the system more acceptable.
Absolutely; I could not agree more with the noble Lord. That is why we have not introduced a system of annual registration in the amendments before us. By changing the system, Northern Ireland got rid of the negative impact of annual registration. Now, people have to reregister only when there is a change in circumstances, and that seems to be eminently successful.
One terribly important point about what happened in Northern Ireland is that the register published on 1 December 2007—I accept that that was 18 months ago—was 94 per cent accurate. For those of us who had some contact with Northern Ireland and its electoral system some time ago, the idea that a register could be 94 per cent accurate was unbelievable, because everyone knew that there were phantom voters and serious problems there. I found it fascinating to go to Northern Ireland and talk to the electoral registration officers about their problems. I have spoken to the current ERO in Northern Ireland, and he is very happy about the system and the way that it now works.
I wish to make a couple of final points, the first being the length of time for the introduction of the system. I have a little sympathy for querying whether there is a need to put the date in the Bill. I understand all the reasons for the Government and the Electoral Commission needing time to do the necessary work to ensure that the register is accurate, but I wonder whether it is necessary to put the date in the Bill.
One of the fundamental differences between the systems—this was mentioned by my noble friend when he introduced the amendments—is that in Northern Ireland, where much less time was allowed for the introduction, there is only one electoral registration officer, whereas in this country we have, I think, 402 EROs, all of whom have to have been trained and be working on the scheme before it can be introduced.
One thing clearly to have come out from the Electoral Commission is that the performance of electoral registration officers up and down the country varies considerably. That has to be sorted out. Also, if we are to start with a voluntary scheme, the Electoral Commission has to ensure that that scheme is working before starting on a compulsory scheme. The view of the Electoral Commission will be crucial and there has to be discussion with it about whether it thinks that it is necessary to put the date in the Bill.
For all these reasons, I think that my noble friend is completely incorrect in many of the things that he has identified as problems with individual registration. It could increase the names on our register and the number of people who are able to vote; it is much more democratic and should help to reduce fraud. We shall come back to fraud in other debates; I am not going to talk about postal votes, as that is a separate issue. If we can succeed in improving the level of registration in this country, I think that we should support it.
Follow that, really. In speaking to this group of amendments, I specifically support the amendments tabled by my noble friends on the Front Bench, although I do not want to speak to them specifically. Like the noble Baroness, I want to respond first to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. I am not as critical as she was of how the noble Lord raised these matters, not least because the questions and problems that he raised on individual registration are in many cases legitimate. For those of us who believe fervently in the concept and the practice of individual registration, we have to solve those problems if it is going to work. I welcome the fact that the noble Lord raised those issues, because it concentrates attention on them.
I was not quite sure where the noble Lord was going when he referred to binge drinking. I thought that he was coming back to the practice of personation parties that I mentioned briefly at Second Reading, which fortunately I do not have direct experience of in Pendle but I have heard reports of it in other parts of Lancashire. In fact, they are not known as “parties”, but I shall not use the word that people do use, which involves alcohol and is alliterative, but which it would be unparliamentary to put into Hansard.
Could I give the noble Lord the exact quote, because it is quite important that it is on the record? When the Prime Minister was asked to comment on binge drinking, he said:
“We have taken action to tackle binge and under-age drinking and it’s right that we do so … But … it’s also right that we do not want the responsible sensible majority of moderate drinkers to have to pay more or suffer as a result of the excesses of a small minority”.
How very apt in this case.
I heard what the noble Lord said and I hear what he says now, and I understand the point, although I disagree with it. The point that I was making is that there are things that involve binge drinking called personation parties, which are reported to me, whereby people who would not normally vote, who are from what might be called the lower echelons of society, are invited to come along to a particular location, are given a polling card and told to go and vote in that name and then, when they return having done so successfully, they take part in the personation party, which involves the provision of large amounts of alcohol. That is clearly not happening particularly in the Asian community—not in the Muslim community anyway.
There is no getting away from the fact, however, that electoral fraud, as it has mushroomed in this country, has unrepresentatively involved Asian communities. There is no point in beating about the bush in that regard. I am told that there has been personation in some West Indian communities as well. That is just a fact and, unless people grasp that fact and do something about it, it will continue to happen, and the people whose reputation suffers most are those people in those communities. However, I do not want to pursue that further at the moment, although I may do so later this afternoon.
However, there are other forces around in British politics, on the far right, which I would not trust to operate our electoral system fairly and reasonably. They are not involved as far as one knows in false registrations and postal vote fraud, but the BNP is, judging by reports, prone particularly to fraudulent filling-in of nomination papers. There have been a number of instances where BNP nomination papers have been found to contain names which have been filled in by people who were not the electors who were purported to have filled them in. I do not trust that particular section of the British party spectrum to continue to operate the system fairly. It is not just community practices from south Asia that we have to worry about; it is the fact that, as my noble friend Lord Rennard said, as people discover just how prone the British electoral system is to being fiddled, more of them will do it.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said that the main issue was in Asian/ethnic minority communities. I do not think that it is. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, that the main problem is the accuracy of the register. It is perfectly reasonable to say that this proposal for individual registration will make it worse, but the real issue is the accuracy of the register.
As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, I have never really seen a proper assessment of how much of the reduction in the number of people on the electoral register was due to the removal from it of people who should not have been there—the ghost voters, for example, to whom the noble Baroness referred. There is no doubt that there was considerable over-registration in Northern Ireland, which appears to have been significantly eliminated. If so, that is a good thing.
Individual registration will help us to clean up elections in practice, but the most important thing is that it is right in principle. People’s votes belong to them. It is surely their individual responsibility to make sure that the entry in the electoral register in their name is accurate, is in the right place and is not being manipulated by somebody else. However, it is not a panacea for postal voting problems. It is clear that in postal voting, where individual identifiers now exist, people fiddling the system are getting cleverer and more organised. They are taking notice of the information that people now have to provide and have changed as a result. However, individual registration will help considerably with problems of personation at polling stations, the level of which, as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said, we do not know. All that we have is anecdotal evidence from some areas.
To some extent, there are two separate issues. One is individual registration and the other is compulsory personal identifiers. Each could be brought in without the other. The two are being brought in together, which overcomplicates the issue. I would have preferred to see a system of individual registration, and all the problems associated with it, brought in first before compulsory identifiers, but other people will take a different view.
Some people are in a very difficult situation as far as registration is concerned. Homes in multiple occupation and other communal residencies are the classic example. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said that the people in them would be disadvantaged by individual registration; I take the opposite view. At the moment, who fills in the form in an HMO? Who fills in the form in any sort of communal residency? The answer is that, in some cases—for example, university colleges and halls of residence—it works properly. It is done by the college and by the hall of residence officially. But there are some who refuse to do it. They say, “It is nothing to do with us. We are not here to register our students”. So in some areas it works and in others it does not.
One of my reservations about individual registration is that, in that kind of communal setting, there must be an onus on the people running it to ensure that the system is working, to get the individuals to sign their forms and send them in. That must be added to these proposals if they are going to work, or these people will just be missed off altogether.
I hesitate to use the phrase “doss house”—many HMOs are perfectly reputable and well run institutions—but who is responsible in that kind of institution? Who is responsible in a large family? The idea of the head of the household has gone, so it is no longer them. It is whoever gets the form and decides to bother filling it in. In a normal family it is probably a responsible person who might be the head of the household—or their wife, in a traditional way, because they are probably more efficient at doing it—but it works. However, in many places it does not.
If you are placing that responsibility on somebody at random, or on a landlord to whom people might not want to give certain information, then it is a difficult situation. In areas like HMOs, if the council or electoral registration staff are efficient and do it properly then the system will be more efficient and better in every way for the electors concerned. Special efforts must be made in such places, as well as safeguards for genuine institutions, such as colleges, hospitals, nurses’ homes, boarding schools or whatever.
Some things will be necessary in order for the fears put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, to be overcome. One is the question of resources, which has already been mentioned. There is no point in trying to do this unless the registration and returning officers have the resources to do so. I made the point before that there is already a separation of powers between the people who run elections and the council, but the council is responsible for providing them with the resources. That separation of powers needs to be strengthened to prevent political interference for whatever reason—perhaps just to safeguard the council’s budget, not nasty political reasons.
On that matter, no one has given us those assurances. The Official Opposition have not said that they are prepared to ring-fence those resources, which is absolutely critical. If they are not ring-fenced, they will be absorbed elsewhere and there will be cuts in budgets.
This is the extent to which I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and thank him for raising these issues. They are relevant. I am afraid that I cannot speak for the Official Opposition, and I cannot even speak for the Liberal Democrat Front Bench in this instance. I can speak for me and, like the noble Lord, I am saying what I think, which is the astonishing privilege that we all have in this Committee.
Secondly, the system of rolling registers must be reformed so that there is a genuine rolling register. We currently do not have one. We have an annual register which is topped up on a monthly basis by those who bother to do so, and those who are encouraged to do so by political parties when they go around and find that they are not on the electoral register when they ought to be. We need to move to a proper rolling register, topped up by an annual canvas, targeting the houses where people are not registered rather than the other way around. That could be tied in with the national core database.
As part of that, which may be controversial, people ought to be on the electoral register once within the United Kingdom. This has implications for votes in local elections, but people ought to say, “This is my principal place of residence, where I am going to be registered as a voter”, so that they are on the electoral register once and that is that. That is my personal view.
How does the noble Lord’s plan deal with death? You have a rolling register to which people add their names—spinsters, bachelors and so on—and people die. What happens to the accuracy of the register? Does not that particular route open the door to fraud?
This is exactly what happens at the moment. If someone dies and the local electoral registration staff do not pick it up, their names are rolled over to the next year at least and in some places possibly to years beyond, although that is not supposed to happen now. This is why I say that the basic system ought to be the rolling register, which people go on to when they go to live somewhere and come off when they move somewhere else. One of the problems—not a death problem—is that people go on the register in the place they move to, but do not come off the register in the place they move from. However, if they inform the people in charge of the register that they are going on to where they come from, the people in charge will send that information back to the local authority registration officers in the other place. That system should be tidied up as well. If you go on to the electoral register because you have moved to somewhere, you ought to have to say where you have come from and what registers you have been on previously. This will enable you to be taken off those registers.
As to deaths, many electoral registration officers scrutinise the local papers and receive council house information, council tax information and so on, and they manage to take many people off the register. It will always be hit and miss to an extent, but we have to get it as accurate as we possibly can. Basically, a rolling register with a system of annual checks and balances would be the best way to do it.
I would also extend the canvassing operation throughout the whole year. Electoral registration officers have to employ all the staff who are willing to do this—and they are not always easy to find—at the same time of the year. It may well be that electoral registration officers could find people who are quite happy to do electoral registration work for, say, one evening a week throughout the year. In that way, the canvass could take place throughout the year rather than annually.
The third major point I want to make is that the system should be piloted, as I said at Second Reading. I share some of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. It is so important to get this right that it should be piloted not only in areas where postal voting fraud or other fraud has been seriously reported or alleged but in a range of areas so that we can see how it works and what the effects are. I do not understand why this proposal has not been put forward. Pilots could be brought in much earlier than 2014. Rather than having a voluntary system, which seems much ado over nothing—it will create a lot of bureaucracy and will not result in anything positive in the next five years—perhaps 40 or 50 local authority areas should be piloted in a range of areas across the country. We could then iron out the problems and see how to make the system work.
My fourth point is that political parties will have to get much more involved again in electoral registration. At the moment, if you asked the Electoral Commission, it would probably say, “We do not want to do this because it is all part of political parties getting involved in the electoral process and potential fraud”. But local constituency associations started off in the 19th century as registration associations to make sure that everyone who voted Conservative or Liberal, as it was in those days, was on the electoral register. The register covered only a relatively small proportion of the adult population and it was crucial to get all your people on it. That was how they started off. When out campaigning, local parties should take much more responsibility on the ground for getting people registered. They should do that on the basis of individual registration, with the safeguards which have been put forward and which I am talking about built in.
I apologise for having arrived late. One of the hazards of the date of Grand Committee sittings changing is that one has diary conflicts which prevent one being punctual. I had assumed that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, would have something to say about Westminster. In the famous words of Willie John McBride, the Ulster forward in the British Lions team, I had intended to get my “retaliation in first”. However, I shall read carefully what he said. If I feel it is necessary to rebut any of it, and he refers to it on Report, I shall do so then. I have no intention of prolonging the proceedings by guessing what he said about my former constituency.
I shall say two generic things about my former constituency and one thing, which may be germane, arising out of my electoral experience there over 24 years. First, as a number of rude things have been said about Westminster, I say that when Charles James Fox fought Midhurst, he required seven votes to be elected; when he fought Malmesbury he required 13 votes to be elected; and when he arrived in Westminster he was confronted by an electorate of 6,000. So liberal was the franchise in Westminster, that after the Great Reform Bill, the electorate in Westminster fell because it had been more liberal than that which had been brought in in 1832.
My second point relates to the kind of constituency. I do not want it to be regarded as wholly typical of every constituency in the country. It is regarded by the European Union as the richest area in the European Union, due to a false statistical calculation under which it divides GDP by residents instead of dividing GDP by the number of people who work in the area. As 750,000 people come to work in my former constituency, that somewhat distorts the calculations of how much wealth is being produced.
Interestingly, and this is not surprising in an inner-city seat, the poverty statistics for my former seat are calculated by the percentage of households which meet the normal standard poverty indices. My former constituency was the 48th poorest constituency in the country and, therefore, it was a remarkable constituency to represent. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, would be doing the Grand Committee a mild disservice if he implied that it was typical of all constituencies in the country.
My third point relates to something which I heard the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, say. After the 1983 general election when, for the first time, the boundaries of my constituency went outside the boundaries of the old City of Westminster and took in parts of what had been St John’s Wood and St Marylebone, the constituency had the lowest turnout of any constituency in the country. I said to my agent, “I don’t mind if we move up only one place at the next general election, but it would be acutely embarrassing for me if we had the lowest turnout in the country two elections running”. Over the next 14 years, we moved upwards to where our turnout was the 25th lowest. We overtook 24 constituencies during that period, which I thought was an adequate effort by our canvassers. Canvassing in an inner-city seat makes me deeply proud of the British postman. To find all the addresses in an inner-city constituency is a remarkable achievement.
I march, in part, with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, in that the 24 seats which we overtook were all inner-city seats or they were in Northern Ireland. There was no exception to that at all. There is a problem which is concentrated in certain areas. That rise over 24 seats was also achieved against a steadily rising population. Again, one would have to look at all the figures to be sure that something significant was not to be derived from the fact that those seats constituted the categories to which the noble Lord referred, especially as inner-city seats are necessarily highly mobile.
I want to say one last thing about Northern Ireland. The noble Lord made much of the movement in the figures, and of course I understand what has happened in the past seven years. In Northern Ireland before the 2002 legislation, there was fraud going on, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, said. If you go back to the 2002 electoral figures, before that new legislation, you may well have an inflated figure from which there was a subsequent fall. I am not absolutely confident that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, made allowances for that in what he said.
I know that the noble Lord is not doing that, but others have. Something else came out when I looked into this. I looked into the famous “brown book”, where all the election results of Members of Parliament are, and I looked up the Northern Ireland seats. Something struck me as rather odd: in the constituencies where Sinn Fein had the opportunity of winning a seat, the turnouts were very high and electoral registration in those areas was very high. Sinn Fein is obviously involved—now, under the new system—in maximising the turnout and the number of people that register. That might be an argument in my favour, because it may be increasing the number of people registered who otherwise would not register if they were not nationalists.
I had sat down. This argument could go on all night, and I have no intention of prolonging it. However, I shall remark on one historical episode of exercise of continuity. Winston Churchill, after the 1918 election, alluded to the glories of peace, but then said that when we looked to Ireland,
“we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone”,
continuing to rise above the bogs and the mist. It was in Fermanagh and Tyrone that the charges of malfeasance were strongest after the 2001 election, which then gave rise to the 2002 Act.
We have had a substantial debate, quite rightly, on the major new clauses that we are proposing here; as everyone has agreed, whether they are for or against them. They represent one of the most significant developments in electoral administration for many years, so it is quite right that we should have debated it at length this afternoon and equally right that no doubt we will do the same on Report in due course. I do not know whether it will be good or bad news for noble Lords, but I do not intend to take very long this afternoon in responding to this debate. There will be plenty of time later on to talk on these matters again.
There are people who are very much in favour of this change. There is almost a consensus for that. But there are those, among them prominently my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, who argue passionately against the changes. That is just as it should be, but I do not think that anyone can really say that the present position is entirely satisfactory. What we are looking for, which is why this should not be a party issue, is both an accurate register—that is absolutely vital—and one which is comprehensive. It is the trick of achieving both those things that has eluded us so far and that is what we intend to try to see happen in future. I cannot see how that can be a party point; surely all democrats want as full and accurate a register as possible. I emphasise that that is behind what we are trying to do.
As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, the current system of household registration, with one member of the household taking responsibility for electoral registration, is out of date. It takes away individuals’ responsibility for their votes—individual registration supports that. Thus far, therefore, I go with what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said.
It is right that we carefully consider our approach and ensure that we are guided by the need to support and enhance both the comprehensiveness and the accuracy of the register. We can also agree that provision for identifying information on this scale needs to be handled appropriately. We have looked carefully at the amendments laid before the Committee today. It was interesting to hear views on Amendment 125BA and how consulting the Information Commissioner may offer some benefits in our move towards individual registration through the voluntary collection of identifiers.
We believe that the Electoral Commission is best placed to deal with matters relating to our electoral system, including the design of forms and administrative processes affecting eligible electors. That does not mean that the Information Commissioner does not have a role to play in the development of individual registration, and we have consulted him, and will continue to consult him, on an informal basis as necessary. For example, we have already advised him of our planned move towards individual registration and the collection of identifiers, which he indicated that he welcomed in principle.
The Information Commissioner did not indicate any desire to be consulted further, but we will seek his guidance and expertise should any concerns arise around the handling of personal data. In Northern Ireland, where similar provisions for the collection of personal identifiers already exist, there is no requirement to consult the Information Commissioner every time a change in a form or in the identifiers collected is needed. We do not want to place an undue burden on the commissioner, particularly given that not all aspects of the regulations will relate directly to information concerns.
I remind the Committee that there is already a well established process of legislative scrutiny through parliamentary debate and committees. The House is in many ways best placed to decide when it is appropriate to draw on the expertise of the Information Commissioner, having the power to call on him to give evidence during the progression of any legislation through Parliament. I have set out our doubts about the amendment, but I shall undertake to consider further the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, between now and Report.
Amendment 126 proposes a radical solution to the problem. I am afraid that we in government cannot support it in any way, for the reasons set out by my noble friend Lady Gould and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, among others. It would be a mistake to allow for the collection of personal identifiers from electors in specified areas, targeted areas or parts of areas for a specified period upon request by a local authority to the Secretary of State.
The schemes would allow local authorities that have been subject to manipulation of the vote in the past or that anticipate a risk at a future election to apply for a personal identifier adoption scheme order, requiring electors to provide specific identifiers. On the surface, the scheme appears to offer some benefits, but, in effect, it would introduce individual registration in areas through the back door—which should never happen—without considering the impact on the electorate or registration rates.
Among the problems that we foresee are, first, that confusion would potentially be caused among the electorate, resulting in people being removed from the electoral register, and, secondly, that it would damage the electorate’s confidence in the electoral system, which could impact on turnout. We also suspect that, because the scheme would be run on a voluntary basis, take-up by local authorities would be low because participating in it could give the impression that some sort of performance issue was involved.
I suspect that, first, the area that was chosen would feel—I use this word carefully—discriminated against compared with the rest of the country, and that might have a severe effect on registration in any area that was chosen. People would feel that there was something in that area that drew the attention of the world to them and that that was unjustified. I think that we would very quickly find ourselves facing accusations of, at least, discrimination against an area, whether or not it was one with many ethnic groups. This has to be done on a national basis.
As the Minister knows, I am not arguing for the Campbell-Savours scheme of trying out the system in problem areas; I am arguing for a representative series of pilots across the country. Does the Minister understand that there is increasing concern among ordinary voters at what is perceived to be the rigging of the postal vote system, and that, if this were put forward as a way of contributing to solving that problem, people might feel that they were being discriminated in favour of and not against?
I do not think that they would. What would happen when the first local authority requested the Secretary of State—and the request was granted—to subject a particular area to individual identifiers when no other area in the neighbourhood was so subject? We would never hear the end of it. I do not think that that is the right way to approach this issue. I believe that we should move towards individual registration as a country, rather than doing it piecemeal.
Does that not completely misunderstand the nature of the debate that is going on in these communities? In the areas where these problems have arisen over ethnic minority, basically, vote-rigging, it dominates the local press. People everywhere say, “What are we going to do about it?”. They do not say, “What is the nation going to do about it?”; they say, “What are we going to do about our problem in our area?”. That is why I cannot understand the obsession with national rollout. Why do we not deal with it in individual areas?
That is a very generous offer, which we shall have to consider. I must move on.
In any event, the Government have already announced the timetable leading to the implementation of individual registration, which will be supported by measures to maximise and maintain registration rates. The noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Greaves, agree that there is a degree of voter fraud. There may not be as much as they think there is, or there may be more than they think there is, but the fact that it exists is the reason why we want to take our time to ensure that the system that we set up not only gets rid of the fraud but also keeps up the number of people on the register, as we must. Our timetable allows us to proceed with care and caution and get the right systems in place. I will say more about that in a moment.
Amendment 132AA would require electors to produce evidence of their identity in order to be issued with a ballot paper in polling stations at an election. The purpose is to strengthen the security of the voting process at polling stations. Of course, everyone takes the integrity of the electoral process seriously. Voting at polling stations has traditionally been conducted without the need for any personal identification to be produced. Of course, it is an offence to attempt to vote in place of another, and staff at polling stations are given training and guidance on how to spot people who are attempting to cast votes falsely.
The report published recently by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission found that the May 2008 elections were,
“free from major incidents of electoral fraud”.
It is consistent with earlier findings that the scale and volume of allegations of fraud have been decreasing. The police recorded 103 cases of electoral malpractice at the 2008 elections. Of these, 13 related to impersonation and in six of these cases no further action was taken. All this must be seen in the context of the 16 million votes which were cast at the May 2008 elections.
Any proposal to require voters in polling stations in Great Britain to produce identification would need careful consideration. The amendment provides for the Secretary of State to designate, by order, documents that may be produced as evidence of identity. However, we would wish to carefully consider the practical implications of the proposal and the barriers that it might present for voting at elections, particularly as the requirement to produce evidence of identity would be a significant change to the electoral system.
In addition, the amendment does not include any provision for checks to be done on the ID produced or for the details on the ID to be validated against another source. Again, that could undermine the effectiveness of the scheme. We understand that the Electoral Commission has indicated that it does not favour the use of ID by voters in polling stations at this time, so we have no plans to require electors in polling stations to require identification. However, this is an issue we will wish to consider in the context of our plans in relation to the electoral registration process, and we will look at it further once an overarching structure for individual registration is in place. We keep the matter under review and explore the options for ensuring that votes in polling stations are cast safely and securely.
Liberal Democrat Amendment 125CA provides the Electoral Commission with discretion to make an assessment before 2014 of whether the registration objectives would be helped or hindered by a move towards the compulsory collection of personal identifiers. In tandem, it also provides the Commission with the ability to make a recommendation before that date on whether the provision of identifiers should be made compulsory. This is in contrast to the Government’s proposal, which requires the Electoral Commission to make such an assessment only in its 2014 report and to make a clear recommendation on whether or not to proceed to compulsory provision of identifiers to the Secretary of State.
Of course, there are noble Lords who would like us to move more quickly towards a system of individual registration, and it may be worth saying a word or two about why we have chosen the timetable that we have and put it before Parliament. A phased approach is the only way to ensure that what I have described as a radical change is made effectively. It cannot be rushed. Our specific timetable delivers on this phased approach. It has been developed carefully, with due regard to the magnitude of the change and to the risks involved, some of which were set out by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours.
It is a long time since last Wednesday evening, when we first set out on this group, but it is worth reminding noble Lords of why we are taking this course. There is concern about the timetable for the shift, which we propose should not happen before 2015 at the earliest. Given the importance of safeguarding the electoral system against fraud and the vital role that individual registration can play in achieving that, it is understandable that noble Lords would be anxious to make progress soon. However, a significant amount of work needs to be undertaken to ensure that the system is fully equipped to meet the challenges of the shift. We know from the experience in Northern Ireland, which did not start as well as it might—although I would argue that it has improved a lot—that there is a real risk that numbers registered could decrease as a result of the move. Under individual registration, many people will for the first time be responsible for their own registration; for all individuals, there will be a new requirement to provide additional personal information when registering. We have to ensure that the electorate has sufficient time to acclimatise to the new requirements.
The other advantage of a phased approach will be that it enables us carefully to monitor progress at each stage, including using the commission’s annual progress report—there is to be one from the commission each year from 2011—better to ensure that registration rates can be maintained during the change. That will allow us to develop and test new measures to drive up registration rates, working closely with registration officers and the commission to determine what works best. Part of this is to increase registration at all times, as well as to move to individual identifiers. We will expect electoral registration officers and the system to work all the time towards increasing the number of people registered. That has been happening over the past few years.
I do not expect my noble friend to answer directly now my two questions. Is it true that EROs are paid on the numbers of persons registered? If so, will that arise under this new arrangement? In other words, are they paid on the numbers that they manage and the local authority has registered? Perhaps my noble friend will drop me a note about that. Furthermore, will there not be an incentive in some areas for EROs to leave on the register electors who have moved on, for whatever reason, to compensate for failure to gather new individual registrations? Perhaps my noble friend will also comment on that in writing.
Of course, I shall write to my noble friend with the answer to the first question, but for an ERO to do the second thing would be in breach of every part of the responsibilities of the job, which is surely to compile as accurate a register as he or she possibly can for the area for which they are responsible. I shall write on the first point, but I would have thought that the ERO was paid as a local government officer under normal terms and conditions. I see those who are still very much active in local government nodding.
As to the dates and their relationship to elections, let me repeat what I said last week. Should the shift to compulsory provision of identifiers take place in 2015, it would take place after both the 2014 European parliamentary elections and the spring 2015 elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of course, we do not know the dates of future general elections, but I was very interested in the hypothesis that the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, put forward in the debate. Placing the potential change in that time frame would manage partially the risk of making a shift in the period immediately before a national or sub-national election. We think that this change is so important—and it seems that the Committee does too—that we want as far as possible to investigate all the potential issues fully before the provision of identifiers becoming compulsory.
I go back to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. The timetable, which is designed to give certainty to this process, which we believe is an important point, would give sufficient time for the public to acclimatise to the change; time for each and every one of the—I take the word of my noble friend Lady Gould on this—402 electoral registration officers in Great Britain to adapt to the new system and to ensure that all are working at the level of the best; time to investigate and test which public sector databases would be of most assistance to registration officers; and time to design the infrastructure of the validation of national insurance numbers that will underpin the system. It will also allow us to minimise disruption to elections by avoiding, so far as is possible, national and sub-national elections.
We must take heed of the Northern Ireland experience. The registration rate fell significantly when individual registration was introduced. We intend to do all that we can to mitigate the risk of that happening in Great Britain—that is at the heart of our phased implementation programme. The points that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours makes indicate precisely why we need to make sure that we get it right in Great Britain. We believe that this objective is most likely to be achieved by building in time to ensure that the factors I just mentioned can be fully taken into account. That is what we are attempting to do. Accepting this amendment would put the successful pursuit of that objective in jeopardy.
The purpose of the phased implementation is to ensure that we take the necessary time to bolster, adapt and improve the current system for registration in readiness for this major shift in the process. For that reason, any attempts to introduce individual registration at a faster rate might risk damaging the integrity of the system and, worse still, the public’s confidence in it. If that were to happen in the run-up to a general election, the consequences for democracy and engagement could be quite serious.
The second amendment in the noble Lord’s name is Amendment 125CB, which provides that, in making an order commencing the compulsory collection of identifiers, the Secretary of State must have regard to any recommendation by the Electoral Commission of any system changes that are needed ahead of the shift to compulsory individual registration. The amendment proposes that, in that event, the Secretary of State should have the power to make an order to amend the provisions in our Amendment 125D, which provide for the obligatory provision of personal identifiers, in line with those recommendations. There would then need to be an affirmative resolution.
In essence, the effect of the amendment would be to allow the commission to recommend changes to the system of full, obligatory individual registration that we are setting in place in the Bill and give the Government of the day the power to change the system by order. These changes could be fundamental and might even include the replacement of the substance of the new clause introduced by our Amendment 125D with something very different. We have reservations about that proposal. First, the discretion that it would confer on the commission and on government would be very wide. Essentially, it would create a power to make changes not envisaged in this legislation and invest that power in the Secretary of State by enabling him to make secondary legislation. The scope of the power would be limited only by the Electoral Commission’s views, and that might hand the initiative to the commission from Parliament in quite a novel way.
Secondly, it is not clear how such recommendations by the commission for changes would interact with the recommendation that the commission is required to make in 2014 as to whether the provision of identifying information should be made obligatory. A positive recommendation under that subsection would trigger an affirmative order to commence the provisions, but what would the situation be if the commission should make such a recommendation conditional on other steps that it had recommended under this amendment? What would be the most appropriate course for government and Parliament if it was felt that any such conditions set by the commission, though well intentioned, were not sensible to pursue?
A partial or conditional recommendation would introduce an additional and unnecessary layer of complexity to the test process, which as currently drafted is intended to allow for the smooth transition to individual registration. It is not clear what would happen if, for example, the Secretary of State disagreed with the commission’s recommendations for change. The potential for disagreement to stall the process for transition is real.
There is also a risk that the conditional nature of the recommendation could undermine its strength. Under our proposals, if a recommendation is made to move to individual registration, the Secretary of State must put it to Parliament for a vote. However, if the recommendation is conditional, it may follow that the nature of the obligation to do something in response to it feels less robust.
Thirdly, the amendment would shift the focus of the commission’s role in an important and undesirable way. The commission’s views on what changes to the system might be necessary are helpful—that is why we have asked it to include in its annual reports an assessment of what changes it thinks might be needed. But that is different from a power to make formal recommendations which could be far-reaching in their effect and trigger a wide power for the Secretary of State to act on them. That goes towards handing the initiative in designing the system to the commission, when it is properly for government and Parliament.
Nor are we sure that the amendment is necessary. It indicates that the Secretary of State “must have regard to” the recommendations of the Electoral Commission in making an order allowing the shift to the obligatory provision of identifiers. However, the Secretary of State—and, more importantly, Parliament—would at any rate take into account the commission’s assessment of the system’s readiness for change. It is the commission’s assessment that unlocks the process. That is why the tests are in the Bill, placing the Electoral Commission and Parliament at the heart of the change but making a proper distinction between their roles. That is why we are not content with the amendment as it stands and I invite the noble Lord not to press it.
I have spoken much longer than I intended. It has been a major debate, and I have no doubt that we shall come back to these matters at a later stage.
Amendment 125A agreed.
125B: After Clause 21, insert the following new Clause—
“Regulations amending or supplementing section (Voluntary provision of identifying information)
(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations—
(a) amend subsection (1) or (2) of section (Voluntary provision of identifying information);(b) make any other amendments to that section or this section that appear to the Secretary of State to be necessary or desirable in consequence of an amendment made by virtue of paragraph (a);(c) make provision supplementing that section.(2) The provision that may be made by virtue of subsection (1)(c) includes in particular—
(a) provision as to forms on which identifying information may be provided;(b) provision as to explanations or other material to be provided by registration officers, either on forms of the kind mentioned in paragraph (a) or otherwise;(c) provision about the form and manner in which records under section (Voluntary provision of identifying information)(5) are to be kept;(d) provision for the disclosure by the authority responsible for national insurance numbers (the “relevant authority”) to a registration officer or CORE keeper, following a request by that person, of—(i) the national insurance number recorded in respect of an individual specified or described in the request, or the fact that the individual is not recorded as having a national insurance number, and(ii) in the case of such an individual recorded as having a national insurance number, any further information about the individual that is recorded by the relevant authority,for the purpose of checking the accuracy of any information that appears in a register or other record kept by a registration officer (including a record under section (Voluntary provision of identifying information)(5)); (e) provision authorising the relevant authority to charge fees to a person making a request of the kind mentioned in paragraph (d) to cover the authority’s reasonable expenses in complying with such requests;(f) provision as to action to be taken by a registration officer who suspects (whether as a result of checks of the kind referred to in paragraph (d) or otherwise) that any information collected under section (Voluntary provision of identifying information) is false.(3) Regulations under this section may contain transitional or saving provision.
(4) The power to make regulations under this section is exercisable by statutory instrument.
(5) Before making regulations under this section, the Secretary of State—
(a) must consult the Electoral Commission, and(b) in the case of regulations containing provision amending subsection (1) or (2) of section (Voluntary provision of identifying information), must seek the Commission’s views as to whether, if it was obligatory for every registered person to provide identifying information, the provision would help or hinder the achievement of the registration objectives.(6) For the purposes of this section, the registration objectives are to secure, so far as is reasonably practicable—
(a) that persons who are entitled to be registered in a register are registered in it,(b) that persons who are not entitled to be registered in a register are not registered in it, and(c) that none of the information relating to a registered person that appears in a register or other record kept by a registration officer is false.(7) The first regulations under this section, and any subsequent ones that amend section (Voluntary provision of identifying information) or this section, may not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing them has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(8) Any regulations under this section not falling within subsection (7) are subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(9) In this section—
“CORE keeper” has the same meaning as in Part 1 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 (c. 22);
“false”, in relation to a signature, means that the signature is not the usual signature of, or was written by a person other than, the person whose signature it purports to be;
“identifying information” has the same meaning as in section (Voluntary provision of identifying information);
“registered person” means a person registered in a register.”
Amendment 125BA (to Amendment 125B) not moved.
Amendment 125B agreed.
125C: After Clause 21, insert the following new Clause—
“Report by Electoral Commission on provision of identifying information
(1) The Electoral Commission must keep under review the operation of section (Voluntary provision of identifying information) and any supplementary regulations.
(2) In each calendar year beginning with the year after that in which the duties under that section first arise, the Commission must—
(a) submit to the Secretary of State a report on the operation of that section and any supplementary regulations, and(b) publish the report in whatever way the Commission think appropriate.(3) A report under this section must contain an assessment by the Commission—
(a) as to the adequacy of the electoral registration system in Great Britain, with particular reference to the effectiveness of registration officers in meeting the registration objectives;(b) as to what (if any) changes with regard to that system would be necessary or desirable for meeting those objectives if the provision of identifying information was made obligatory.(4) The report for 2014 must contain (as well as the assessment mentioned in subsection (3))—
(a) the Commission’s assessment, on the basis of the available evidence (including in particular evidence as to the operation of section (Voluntary provision of identifying information) and any supplementary regulations), as to whether it would help or hinder the achievement of the registration objectives to make the provision of identifying information obligatory;(b) the Commission’s recommendation as to whether or not the provision of identifying information should be made obligatory.(5) The report for 2014 must be—
(a) submitted to the Secretary of State by 31 July in that year, and(b) laid before Parliament as soon as possible by the Secretary of State.(6) If—
(a) the recommendation in the report for 2014 is that the provision of identifying information should be made obligatory, and(b) the recommendation is approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament,the Secretary of State must as soon as reasonably practicable make an order under section 29(2) bringing section (Obligatory provision of identifying information) into force.The Secretary of State may not make such an order if those conditions are not met.(7) If—
(a) the report for 2014 does not contain a recommendation that the provision of identifying information should be made obligatory, or(b) the report does contain such a recommendation, but it is not approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament,the Secretary of State may require the Electoral Commission to submit, by a specified date, a further report under this section containing the things mentioned in subsection (4).(8) The date specified under subsection (7) must be at least one year after the day on which the requirement is made but not more than two years after that day.
(9) Subsections (5)(b) and (6) to (8) apply to a report submitted in response to a requirement under subsection (7) as they apply to the report for 2014.
(10) In this section—
“identifying information” has the same meaning as in section (Voluntary provision of identifying information);
“obligatory” means obligatory for every person registered in a register;
“registration objectives” has the same meaning as in section (Regulations amending or supplementing section (Voluntary provision of identifying information));
“supplementary regulations” means regulations under section (Regulations amending or supplementing section (Voluntary provision of identifying information)) made by virtue of subsection (1)(c) of that section.”
Amendments 125CA and 125CB (to Amendment 125C) not moved.
Amendment 125C agreed.
Amendments 125D and 125E
125D: After Clause 21, insert the following new Clause—
“Obligatory provision of identifying information
(1) With effect from the commencement of this section, the amendments made to the 1983 Act by section 1 of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 (c. 13) extend to the whole of the United Kingdom.
(2) The 1983 Act is amended as follows.
(3) In section 10 (maintenance of registers: annual canvass)—
(a) for subsection (4) there is substituted—“(4) The form to be used for the purposes of a canvass shall be—(a) a form prescribed for those purposes, or(b) a form to the same effect.Paragraph (b) does not apply in Northern Ireland and, in Great Britain, does not apply if or to the extent that regulations so provide.”;(b) in subsection (4A), for “a canvass in Northern Ireland” there is substituted “a canvass”;(c) in subsection (4A)(c), at the beginning of sub-paragraph (ii) there is inserted “in the case of a canvass in Northern Ireland,”;(d) in subsection (4B), for “The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland” there is substituted “A registration officer”;(e) after that subsection there is inserted—“(4C) In relation to each person without a national insurance number to whom the form mentioned in subsection (4) above relates, regulations may require the form to be accompanied by such other evidence to identify the person as may be prescribed.(4D) A registration officer shall keep a record showing the information obtained under subsection (4A) above.”(4) In section 10ZB (the relevant registration objectives)—
(a) in the heading, the words “(Northern Ireland)” are omitted;(b) in subsection (3), for “the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland” there is substituted “a registration officer”;(c) in subsections (4) and (5)(a), for “the Chief Electoral Officer” there is substituted “the registration officer concerned”.(5) In section 10A (maintenance of registers: registration of electors)—
(a) in subsection (1A), the words “in respect of an address in Northern Ireland” are omitted;(b) in subsection (1A)(c), at the beginning of sub-paragraph (ii) there is inserted “in the case of an application for registration in respect of an address in Northern Ireland,”; (c) in subsection (1B), for “The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland” there is substituted “A registration officer”;(d) after that subsection there is inserted—“(1C) In relation to each person without a national insurance number to whom an application for registration relates, regulations may require the application to be accompanied by such other evidence to identify the person as may be prescribed.(1D) A registration officer shall keep a record showing the information obtained under subsection (1A) above.”;(e) in subsection (2)(a), for the words from “the form” to “in a register” there is substituted “a completed form specifies any person as a person who is entitled to be registered in a register in respect of a particular address”;(f) in subsection (5)(a), for sub-paragraph (i) there is substituted—“(i) no canvass form was returned showing the elector as resident at that address on that date, or”;(g) in subsection (5A), for the words in paragraph (a) from the beginning to “does not include” there is substituted “a canvass form has been returned showing the elector as resident at that address but the form does not include”;(h) in subsection (7), for the words after “in cases where” there is substituted “no canvass form has been returned in respect of the person in question”;(i) in subsection (9), before the definition of “determines” there is inserted—““canvass form” means the form mentioned in section 10(4) above;”.(6) In section 13A (alteration of registers)—
(a) in subsection (2A), the words “in respect of an address in Northern Ireland” are omitted;(b) in subsection (2A)(c), at the beginning of sub-paragraph (ii) there is inserted “in the case of an application for registration in respect of an address in Northern Ireland,”;(c) in subsection (2B), for “The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland” there is substituted “A registration officer”.(d) after that subsection there is inserted—“(2C) In relation to each person without a national insurance number to whom an application for registration under subsection (1)(a) above relates, regulations may require the application to be accompanied by such other evidence to identify the person as may be prescribed.(2D) A registration officer shall keep a record showing the information obtained under subsection (2A) above.”(7) In section 13BB (election falling within canvass period) (inserted by section 16 above), in subsection (1)(a)—
(a) for “the form returned in respect of an address (“the relevant address”)” there is substituted “a form”;(b) for “an application for registration is treated as having been made in respect of that address” there is substituted “an application for registration in respect of a particular address (“the relevant address”) is treated as having been made”.(8) In section 13D (provision of false information), in subsection (2), for “the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland” there is substituted “a registration officer”.
(9) In section 201 (regulations), after subsection (2A) there is inserted—
“(2B) In the case of regulations under section 10(4C), 10A(1C) or 13A(2C), in carrying out the consultation required by section 7 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 the Secretary of State shall seek the views of the Electoral Commission as to whether the provision to be made by the regulations would help or hinder the achievement of the registration objectives (within the meaning given by section 10ZB).”
(10) In Schedule 2 (provisions which may be contained in regulations as to registration etc), in paragraph 1—
(a) after sub-paragraph (4) there is inserted—“(4ZA) Provisions for the disclosure (otherwise than by virtue of sub-paragraph (4) above) by the authority responsible for national insurance numbers (the “relevant authority”) to a registration officer or a CORE keeper (within the meaning of Part 1 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006), following a request by that person, of—(a) the national insurance number recorded in respect of an individual specified or described in the request, or the fact that the individual is not recorded as having a national insurance number, and(b) in the case of such an individual recorded as having a national insurance number, any further information about the individual that is recorded by the relevant authority,for the purpose of checking the accuracy of any information that appears in a register or other record kept by a registration officer.(4ZB) Provisions authorising the relevant authority to charge fees to a person making a request of the kind mentioned in sub-paragraph (4ZA) to cover the authority’s reasonable expenses in complying with such requests.”;(b) in sub-paragraph (5), for “sub-paragraph (4) or (4A)” there is substituted “sub-paragraph (4), (4ZA) or (4A)”;(c) in sub-paragraph (6), for “sub-paragraph (4A)” there is substituted “sub-paragraph (4ZA) or (4A)”;(d) in paragraph 1(8), for “the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland” there is substituted “a registration officer”.”
125E: After Clause 21, insert the following new Clause—
“Provision supplementing section (Obligatory provision of identifying information)
(1) Where on the commencement of section (Obligatory provision of identifying information) a person is registered in a register maintained by a registration officer, the person’s name is not to be removed from the register by virtue of section 10A(5A) of that Act (canvass form not including required information, etc) until the conclusion of the third canvass to be concluded after the commencement of that section.
(2) An order bringing section (Obligatory provision of identifying information) into force may—
(a) repeal any provision of sections (Voluntary provision of identifying information), (Regulations amending or supplementing section (Voluntary provision of identifying information)) and (Report by Electoral Commission on provision of identifying information);(b) make amendments to any enactment that are consequential on the coming into force of section (Obligatory provision of identifying information).(3) The Secretary of State may (either before, at the same time as or after section (Obligatory provision of identifying information) is brought into force) by regulations—
(a) amend section 10(4A) or (4B), section 10A(1A) or (1B) or section 13A(2A) or (2B) of the 1983 Act;(b) make any other amendments to the 1983 Act that appear to the Secretary of State to be necessary or desirable in consequence of an amendment made by virtue of paragraph (a).(4) Regulations under subsection (3)—
(a) may make different provision for different purposes or different areas; (b) may make transitional or saving provision.(5) The power to make regulations under subsection (3) is exercisable by statutory instrument.
(6) Before making regulations under subsection (3) the Secretary of State must—
(a) consult the Electoral Commission, and(b) in the case of regulations containing provision amending section 10(4A) or (4B), section 10A(1A) or (1B) or section 13A(2A) or (2B) of the 1983 Act, seek the Commission’s views as to whether the provision would help or hinder the achievement of the registration objectives.In paragraph (b) “registration objectives” has the same meaning as in section (Regulations amending or supplementing section (Voluntary provision of identifying information)).(7) An order containing provision made by virtue of paragraph (b) of subsection (2), or regulations under subsection (3), may not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the order or regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
Amendments 125D and 125E agreed.
Clauses 22 and 23 agreed.
Amendment 126 not moved.
127: After Clause 23, insert the following new Clause—
“Registration of interests by candidates
(1) Every candidate for election at a general election shall provide to the returning officer at the same time as submitting his nomination papers a completed registration form containing information of any pecuniary interest or other material benefit which the candidate receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence the candidate’s actions or speeches.
(2) The returning officer shall publish the interests.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (1), a candidate shall register all those interests which a member of the House of Commons is required to register under the House of Commons Code of Conduct and Guide to the rules relating to the conduct of members.”
I shall speak briefly to the amendment. I would like to think that it will get the support of the Committee, but I doubt it. Nevertheless, I shall press on.
It is a transparency amendment in that it provides the public with increased information on candidates. When Members of Parliament are first elected, they are immediately required to register their interests in the Register of Members’ Interests in the other place. In doing so, they are effectively signing up to a code of conduct which requires them to accept that their conduct will meet the seven general principles of conduct as identified by the Committee on Standards in Public Life as applying to the holders of public office. They are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
I believe that every candidate for election to Parliament should sign up to these principles prior to possible election. Practical application of these rules would require a candidate to submit a registration of interests return to the returning officer at the time of submitting the nomination papers. A returning officer would have that document, signed, available for public scrutiny if required.
This system would have a number of advantages: first, it would provide greater transparency in relation to those standing for public office; secondly, it would enable the electorate to establish whether MPs were using public office, if elected, to secure outside employment; thirdly, it would concentrate candidates’ minds on the standards required of those seeking public office; and, fourthly, it would enable the electorate to better understand the commitment of a Member of Parliament to public service, if elected.
Some argue that Members of Parliament should not have outside employment, but I do not. I argue only that the public are entitled to know what the position of a candidate is if he or she is elected. It was very interesting that last night on “Newsnight” Mr Tony Benn was interviewed, together with someone whom I cannot remember, and he mentioned this principle during his contribution to the programme. After a lifetime in the House of Commons, he obviously subscribes to the view that there should be registration of candidates’ interests. My view is very simple: we need to restore public confidence in the system and I believe that this amendment, if agreed, would do that. I beg to move.
Perhaps it would be appropriate to say a word about the context. I have some sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has said about openness and transparency, for very obvious reasons. At Second Reading, some of us expressed considerable concern about what we might call the serious reputational crisis of Parliament and politics. Since this Grand Committee has met, that crisis has deepened and, in fact, is now dire. The warnings given during Second Reading—not just by my noble friend Lord Rennard and me but by the noble Lords, Lord Hodgson, Lord Marland and, indeed, Lord Campbell-Savours—were substantial. If the Minister is not fully aware of the crisis that we are facing and the extent to which this Bill might be able to meet it, then I do not think he ever will be. I do not believe that he is in denial but I think that some of his colleagues in the Government are still extraordinarily complacent. If we are always going to have to try to rely on the consensus of the lowest common denominator in order to move forward, I do not think that we will meet the crisis that is clearly there in terms of our reputation.
My problem with the noble Lord’s amendment is not the purpose, which I think is admirable, but the practice. He is right that the explosive mixture of money and politics, which is at the heart of so many of our current reputational problems, is appropriate in terms of candidates and their concerns. However, if we were to accept the noble Lord’s amendment, how exactly would it work? The Electoral Commission has already raised a number of concerns. It says, for example, that compiling and publishing these reports would place a significant new burden on both candidates and returning officers. At what point in the process would that have to happen? Would it take place following nomination, when the electoral registration officers’ teams are absolutely flat out? Presumably, it would cause extreme difficulties in terms of the timescale.
Perhaps I could answer that, although I have not seen the Electoral Commission’s brief on any of these issues. The information would not be generally disseminated but it would be available. The press journalists would turn up, as they do on nomination day, look at the nomination papers and take from them whatever information they needed. It is not a question of widely disseminating the information.
That immediately takes me to the next point that the Electoral Commission raised. It is not clear what the consequences would be if a candidate failed to make an accurate report, or if a returning officer failed to publish the report. In what format would that report be made available? Nor is it clear who would be able to provide candidates with advice on complying with the full range of reporting requirements that would be involved, given that the requirements of the House of Commons are quite wide-ranging but are not definitive, and they do change.
There is a wider issue, which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, made oblique reference to. Are we to understand that candidates should seek to divest themselves of any interests before election that might in any way impede, constrict or constrain their role as a representative post-election? That would be a completely novel procedure. To take an example—we all have personal examples—I never inherited a safe seat, so I was working flat out, trying to earn my living, right up to the date on which I was nominated, both in my original constituency and then, when the boundaries were redrawn, in my second constituency. From the point of view of the electorate, would the fact that I had a professional interest be held to stand against me compared with the full-time incumbent, who, presumably, having already signed up to the House of Commons rules, would be thought to be well above any such personal pecuniary interest?
This is a dangerous tendency. It is attractive at first sight, but it would discourage people from entering parliamentary politics. Goodness knows, at the moment a lot of people are going to be discouraged from doing so by all that is going on, but it would discourage them further if it were thought that only full-time politicians who did not have a business, professional or trade interest already or have experience in that field, but who had a lot of private money or money from some other source, would escape the scrutiny of the electorate. There is already the problem—other noble Lords might agree—that too many people come to the House of Commons without direct experience of real life and without having a trade, profession or business that would give them good, substantial reasons for becoming a good representative of their local community. If this proposal were to be a further disincentive to those people, it would be a considerable step backwards.
It is attractive that we should be more open and transparent. In the end, the electorate are extremely effective at identifying whether the people who stand before them for election will be good to represent that particular community, and I do not see that this provision is going to improve that.
It is entirely a matter for the candidate whether to explain what their particular job or interest is, and very often they do. All I am saying is that there would be practical difficulties in doing this, and there could well be a further disincentive for candidates who were experienced and already had a business or trade, whatever it may be. It is all too attractive to support the incumbent against the challenger, and this is just another way in which the incumbent, who is given a great deal of support already, may be given an unfair advantage, if his or her opponent is going to be forced to try to look as if they are above any sort of interest.
I do not want to sound as if I am against the specific purpose of the amendment; I am not, as I hope I am indicating. But I believe that the way the noble Lord has framed his amendment is not going to advance open and transparent local politics; it might even do the reverse.
I support the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on this issue. There is certainly a big reputational problem with the other place at this moment, which it has to meet, but the amendment is not the answer to that problem. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, this will ultimately discriminate against people who have business interests when they are standing against an incumbent who can say that he is a professional politician and does nothing but devote his time to looking after his constituents. Also, this is only a description of somebody at a moment in time: that of the election. If that candidate then loses the election, presumably he hopes but cannot guarantee—because the sympathy of employers cannot necessarily be counted upon these days—to go back into the job that he was doing before the election. If, on the other hand, he wins the election and is part of the management of a large organisation, he may well cease to work for it anyway because he cannot devote the time to it upon becoming a Member of Parliament.
This has no relevance whatsoever. It is of interest to know what profession or part of working life a candidate comes from but, beyond that, it does not add to the situation in any way. If, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, says, it will discourage people who know about something other than just politics from coming into the other place, that is regrettable. We are moving towards more professional politicians. One sees on the government Benches in the other place a lot of people who have never really had any experience of professional life in terms of earning money or doing anything constructive of that sort. It has not been a very good Government, and I hope that we can move to having people who really do know how to run things if there is a change at the election next year.
My noble friend is seeking to increase the information available to electors about candidates’ pecuniary interests at UK parliamentary elections, and to bring the reporting requirements for candidates into line with those for Members of Parliament. We appreciate the principle that my noble friend is pursuing and the intention behind his amendment. Transparency is a key feature of the Bill. However, for the same reasons set out by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, we are not prepared to accept the amendment.
The practical implications of creating a register such as that proposed in the middle of an election campaign are considerable. This is particularly true given the short timetable for UK parliamentary elections. At present, the legislation requires that the returning officer collates the candidate’s particulars. To go beyond this and require the returning officer to collate all interests of the candidate would introduce unnecessary complexity into the electoral process, as well as introducing a further burden on a returning officer.
The question of whether an interest is subject to registration or not is likely to be complex and subjective and it is not clear who would adjudicate. Even if the returning officer were to take the information provided at face value, the ensuing debate is perhaps likely to distract a returning officer from the task of administering the election at a point in time when he or she might be under considerable pressure. There are also risks inherent in formalising the declaration of interests in the manner proposed, rather than, as now, relying on the campaign to bring information of genuine significance to the fore.
Another effect would be that the significance of an inadvertent error might be magnified and, in the short and feverish campaign period, this could unfairly compromise a candidate and may even affect the result. I remind the Committee that this might be made all the more likely given that candidates might have as little as six working days to prepare the information, which is perhaps unfair given that Members of Parliament have three months from the date of their election to complete their return. If no one were to police the register, we would, as now, essentially be dependent on the scrutiny of competing candidates to inform the elector of contested and controversial interests.
There is a danger of real confusion, too. The amendment suggests that all relevant interests,
“which the candidate receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence the candidate’s actions”,
should be disclosed. This implies that it is up to the candidate to decide what influence certain interests might have. Introducing a layer of subjective judgment such as this might lead to inconsistent application of the rules and undermine the value of the exercise. In fact, it might make it more harmful than if there was no disclosure at all.
The Representation of the People Act already requires information about donations above certain thresholds received by candidates to be declared. Although that information might not be publicly available until after the election, it is none the less available. The advantage of the existing requirements is that they are long standing, well understood and clear. The Government’s view is that that while the amendment is of truly noble intent, it would not be effective in practice and would certainly need a lot more work before it could be considered by us in the context of the Bill.
I have listened to the protests of those who object to this amendment not in principle but to the detail of how I proposed it. The registration that I am asking for does not necessarily have to follow all the categories set out in the House of Commons registration form. It could be selective. It could show employment and directorships. It need not necessarily show major shareholdings, but it should certainly show employment and non-executive directorships.
As to whether it would be an onerous task on returning officers and those making the declarations, it is very simple to get advice from the regional office. In one phone call, the regional office could give sufficient information to fill in the minority of categories that I referred to during the course of my contribution. After spending 22 years in the Commons, it dawned on me that some people used that place to pick up outside jobs. They do not come in with them: they gain them when they are in there. They use the system of being a Member of Parliament to secure employment. It is perfectly reasonable for the electorate to know where it stands in advance of being elected as against what subsequently happens.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has just given the game away. Clearly, you only get the job once you get in. In 14 years of being in the House of Commons nobody ever offered me a job. I had to give up all my other earning because I found it a full-time job. He is now saying that those who get in are the problem, but his amendment deals with those who are seeking to get in and challenging those who are in there. He is already qualifying what he said. In his amendment, the noble Lord mentions “any pecuniary interest”. He is now backing off that and he must accept that we all understand his honourable intentions, but this will not work.
I am surprised that the noble Lord is so vigorous in his objections. “Any pecuniary interest” may well be in the amendment, but this is a debate. I am putting a proposition. I am standing on my feet and offering a compromise, but the Committee is not picking up my proposal. The reason why it is important to know both before and after is that it concentrates the mind of the person elected on what they originally told the electorate their activity would be when they got into Parliament and the electorate would be able to measure to what exact extent the MP has met any undertakings that might have been given. Members of Parliament might be less inclined to gather a list of 20 directorships once they are elected if they knew that their electorates might consider those matters as significant when they go to the polling booths. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 127 withdrawn.
128: After Clause 23, insert the following new Clause—
“Absent voting: personal identifiers verification in England and Wales
(1) The Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2006 (S.I. 2006/2910) are amended as follows.
(2) In Regulation 37 (amendment of Regulation 84), in paragraph (2), leave out “not less than 20%” and insert “not less than 100%”.”
I shall speak also to Amendments 129, 131 and 132. I will not be moving Amendment 132AB, which is in this group. Although there are a few more groups of amendments, we are moving towards the end of the Committee stage and this is the last one with which I shall be dealing. These are probing amendments to further explore some of the elements involved in fraud and postal votes, much of which was dealt with in the government amendments on IVR.
Amendment 128 seeks to insert a provision that personal identifiers verification must happen in 100 per cent of postal votes and not only 20 per cent as a minimum. Amendment 129 would do that for Scotland. Amendment 131 seeks to insert a provision which makes a fraudulent application for a postal vote an offence with a custodial sentence not exceeding six months. Amendment 132 seeks to impose a moratorium on all-postal ballots.
As has been made clear by a number of speakers, particularly during the debate on the large number of government amendments to which we devoted two hours, we are all concerned about the fraud contained in postal ballots and are very keen to see what we can do about it. The first two amendments are designed to ensure that all postal votes are properly checked and, given the amount of fraud within that system, it seems only sensible that that should be the case. I welcome the Government’s comments on that in due course.
The amendment relating to bringing in a custodial sentence is designed to probe the Government as to whether they have any intention of doing this and to discover how seriously they are taking the complaints about the amount of fraud. We could go through all the cases we discussed earlier, quote from what Judge Mawrey said in the Birmingham case and so on, but the suggestion comes from the Electoral Commission’s recommendation in its 2005 Securing the Vote report. The report stated:
“There should be a new offence designed to prevent fraudulent applications for postal votes. The maximum penalty should be a custodial sentence in line with the penalties for personation. Voting fraudulently is already an offence, but there is no specific electoral offence of fraudulently applying for a postal vote, probably because the number of applicants was relatively insignificant until postal voting was made available on demand in Great Britain. A new offence, with appropriate publicity surrounding its availability and use, would have some deterrent value, and would also help to encourage greater public confidence”.
Again, I would welcome the Government’s comments on that.
As I made clear, Amendment 132 is a probing amendment, the basis for which again comes from the Electoral Commission’s 2005 report. It stated:
“All-postal voting should not be pursued for use at future statutory elections or referendums in the UK, and the option of sending out ballot papers automatically to every registered elector should not be pursued”.
I should like assurances from the Government that they do not intend to go down this route given the current state we are in and because of the ease with which fraud can be pursued in postal votes in what I will call the pre-IVR era. After we have achieved individual voter registration it might be possible to have more postal voting. At this stage I do not think that is the case. I beg to move.
We have examined carefully the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and listened carefully to his explanation. We have sympathy with some of his points, but not universally.
The Electoral Commission has said that it supports the proposed new clauses in Amendments 128 and 129. In its briefing it states:
“We have been calling for a 100% verification since before the introduction of absent voter identifiers in 2006. Many Returning Officers already check 100% of identifiers but we believe that, in the interests of consistency and the integrity of the electoral system, this practice should be mandated”.
Hence it supports its inclusion in the Bill. The commission then goes on to make a valid point that that would imply resourcing, which is something that the Minister will need to address.
It will be interesting to know, as I do not think that in the past either the commission or the Minister or the ministry has told us, whether significant concerns have been reported in previous elections when such a check has been carried out, whether it has been effective in identifying mistakes or, worse, frauds, or whether there is a major problem in completing the exercise in good order and time. We are very sympathetic to Amendments 128 and 129.
On Amendment 131, it is important to make it absolutely clear to all concerned that electoral fraud is totally unacceptable. Our anxiety on this point is whether we should simply use the threat of custodial sentence for that purpose, given that the prisons are pretty full of all sorts of characters already. As I understand it, the fine is currently set at its possible highest—at level 5, at £5,000.
I do not want to interrupt the noble Lord because I want to shorten this process, if I can, but what is on the statute book is there under the Electoral Administration Act 2006. It is a new offence relating to applications for a postal or proxy vote, in which the maximum sentence is two years’ imprisonment. That is already on the statute book, but I shall say a bit more on that in due course.
I was referring to paragraph 8 of Schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000, where the reference was to someone being liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on a standard scale, but I have not been able to identify precisely how that falls. The Minister will not only be right but, in due course, he will be able to correct me. I do not think that we in this Grand Committee should add to the categories that normally have a custodial sentence; we should try to make sure that the fine is appropriate to the severity of the crime and is related over time to inflation. I know that we do not have much inflation at the moment, but it is important that it should go up and be an effective disincentive to anybody even contemplating crimes of this sort.
Amendment 132 is about all-postal voting. As the noble Lord, Lord Henley, knows, we are sympathetic to the point that he makes. We believe that all-postal ballot elections are completely outwith anything that we should consider in the immediate future, until the whole process of personal identifiers and individual registration is completed. The Government have not been as explicit as that, but perhaps the Minister can be now. I would hope that he could give us an assurance that that is not contemplated at present. However, I am bound to say that I am not sure how the amendment would deal with the situation; it is rather peculiarly phrased at the moment, but the noble Lord’s purpose is quite clear. I was not entirely clear from his remarks whether he wants to refer to the new clause proposed in Amendment 132AB, which seemed to have some textual complexity that was beyond me—or perhaps it was just not quite as intended. Although it referred to overseas postal communication in its heading, the amendment does not deal with that precisely at all. Effectively, it deals with communication outwith the constituency concerned.
Even at this late stage in the proceedings, this is useful for clarification. In particular, I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an indication of why the Bill does not follow the advice of the Electoral Commission on verification, which is a very important point.
Talking about old postal ballots takes me back to our lengthy debates in this room on the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill in 2004, which ended with a record ping-pong session between the two Houses before the Government got their way and were able to organise all-postal ballots in three regions in the north of England, including my own. I think that we had six ping-pongs, so this is not new. I shall not say much more about that, except to underline the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Henley: namely, can we understand that at the moment the Government have dropped the idea of all-postal voting? If they say yes, a lot of us will be very relieved.
I am strongly in favour of Amendments 128 and 129, but, first, I have a couple of comments to make on Amendment 131 and offences. Because of the obstacles that have to be got through and over in order to take election fraud to court, it is rare for such offences to reach court and for there to be a proper trial. Nevertheless, when they go to court, quite often the offences with which people are charged turn out not to be the technical election offences which we talk about in Bills like this, but much broader offences, such as conspiracy.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, referred to the recent case in Slough, which ended up with a headline in the Daily Mail about Tory councillor Eshaq Khan being jailed for three and a half years. It does not warm my heart to see Tory councillors or anyone jailed for election offences. It happens in all parties but taints and undermines the whole democratic political process. However, it is interesting that most of the defendants—most of the six people who were jailed—were not charged with election offences. One gentleman was found guilty of personation and sentenced to four months, but most offences were conspiracy to defraud the returning officer, perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, which are fairly general offences. I am not saying that they are not appropriate in these cases, but they point out how, when they are looking into offences, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service find it difficult to pin down offences in the Representation of the People Act and similar legislation.
In this case, hundreds of false names had been put on the electoral register. Postal votes were applied for and then they were used. It was straightforward fraudulent activity. No doubt, conspiracy to defraud the returning officer and to pervert the course of justice were genuine offences. In relation to this amendment, it is interesting that the judge, Gordon Risius, is reported in the Daily Mail—the source of all wisdom—as saying that although there are currently no sentencing guidelines for election fraud, he was required to pass sentences that would act as a deterrent. Citing a recent Court of Appeal case, he said:
“For such offences, it was said that as long as they are proportionate and not unjust, deterrent sentences are called for”.
That is a little different from the point of view being put forward by my noble friend, not wanting to fill up the jails. It illustrates the difficulty of taking cases to court, getting convictions and then deciding what to do.
Amendments 128 and 129 propose that 100 per cent of postal votes should be checked for personal identifiers, rather than the minimum of 20 per cent as stated in the legislation at the moment. The personal identifiers are the signature and the date of birth. My understanding is that the north-west returning officer in the European elections has written to local authority returning officers in the region requiring a 100 per cent check of postal votes. My question to the Minister is this: is the returning officer for the north-west making this decision on his own or will it be a requirement in the European and county council elections taking place on the same day? Is this a central decision or is it the returning officer for the north-west making a very sensible decision on his own?
I am grateful for the Minister’s reply, but my understanding is that the districts in Lancashire that do not possess the additional machinery rather than the software—although perhaps the two go together—are busy buying them at the moment. That is a welcome announcement and a step in the right direction.
That is even better news. I cannot imagine that people in some of the more hard-headed parts of Lancashire would buy them without being given the money.
Yesterday I asked the senior election officer in Pendle, the lady who runs the office, what the experience was in Pendle. Off its own bat, Pendle has been checking 100 per cent of returned postal votes, or at least certainly since last year in view of the allegations and problems there have been in our borough. She commented that, while it takes time and resources, it can be done. It is a matter of getting organised. The process is slower but the machines themselves are getting faster. The software goes into the computer, the signatures are scanned, information on the date of birth is fed in, and then the pieces of paper that people put their signature and date of birth on are fed into the computer system. The computer checks them and decides whether they match or not. When they do not match, a warning is thrown up on the screen and someone has to physically compare the piece of paper that people signed when they registered for a postal vote with what comes up on the screen. The process takes time and resources, but it is possible to do and it works quite well.
Only five weeks ago I attended a count during a town council by-election and watched the process. It seemed to work quite efficiently. From a practical point of view, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that if it works in our part of the world, it will work everywhere else.
The other interesting thing, however, is that the system is resulting in votes being rejected. When the computer finds that there is not a match, someone looks at it and decides whether the signature and the date of birth match and a proportion are rejected. Again, that is a downside of the system. For whatever reason, the proportion of postal votes rejected is quite high.
We had two town council by-elections five weeks ago. In one case, where there were not so many postal votes, only 5 per cent were rejected. In the second ward, over half the votes cast were postal votes and people had been actively signing people up for them. We did not have a candidate in this by-election, so noble Lords cannot point fingers at our party. In that case, approximately 10 per cent of the postal votes that were returned were rejected as a result of 100 per cent checking. So 100 per cent checking is weeding out illegitimate votes on quite a substantial scale in at least these areas.
The question is whether that is a deterrent to people not to do it in future. Because of the nature of the thing, the people whose votes are being rejected do not know that they have been rejected. However, from a practical point of view, 100 per cent checking can happen. It ought to happen and I very much support the Conservative amendment.
Noble Lords will wish to ensure that at elections, returning officers are required to check the personal identifiers on all returned postal votes. The introduction of personal identifiers has been a key measure in strengthening the integrity of postal voting.
Given the technical and logistical factors involved for electoral administrators in implementing personal identifiers for postal voters, we decided to specify that at elections returning officers are required to check at least 20 per cent of returned postal votes but may check 100 per cent if they choose to do so. We think that 20 per cent is statistically a robust figure for sample checking, and is a good indicator of whether fraud is occurring. If the returning officer considers that there is a real risk of fraud, he may specify from the outset that all postal voting statements will be checked. If the returning officer decides to begin with 20 per cent checking, that level can be increased at later opening sessions if evidence of fraud emerges.
Obviously, noble Lords’ comments on this issue have been noted. We agree in principle that all postal votes should be checked, and will wish to require 100 per cent to be checked when it is practicable to do so. A key factor in determining when it will be appropriate to move to 100 per cent checking is when there is deemed to be sufficient capacity within postal voting software systems to support 100 per cent checking.
At the forthcoming elections for the European Parliament on 4 June 2009, the regulations for these elections follow the provisions for parliamentary and local elections and therefore require that at least 20 per cent of returned postal votes are checked. However, as I told the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the regional returning officers have indicated that they wish all returned postal votes to be checked within each region, where the software systems can support that.
We are supportive of these officers in wishing all postal votes to be checked where that is possible. However, it would be premature to mandate 100 per cent checking in law at this stage given that we cannot be certain that the necessary software systems are in place to deliver 100 per cent checking across all regions in Great Britain.
I recognise that there is a dilemma here, but putting on the face of the Bill that there should be a minimum of 20 per cent checking may make some returning officers retreat from their current practice of 100 per cent. That is a retrograde step. I do not know the administrative answer to this. Maybe it is something that could be dealt with by regulation, but if the Bill includes what would appear to be a retreat, that would send a most unfortunate signal at the present time.
While I have the Minister’s ear, can he give some indication of the results of checking on a wider basis than my noble friend’s anecdotal evidence? There is obviously a considerable difference between finding a discrepancy between the signatures, which may be something to do with elderly people finding it difficult to give a consistent signature, and the other things. That is unfortunate because they will not know. But getting one's date of birth wrong is different, apart from somebody who has dementia, which is a different problem altogether. If it is always the signature that is the problem, we may have to think very carefully about the effectiveness of this verification.
I will be able to give some help about regulations in a moment. Regulations made under the Electoral Administration Act 2006 set the 20 per cent figure; not this Bill. With the funding that we are making available to electoral administrators for running the elections, we have made provision to cover the expected costs for administrators in checking all returned postal votes. Administrators will therefore have the flexibility to check them all where the necessary systems are in place.
We intend to review the experience of these elections carefully. This will inform future considerations. We will continue to work with the Electoral Commission, electoral administrators and software suppliers to establish whether it will be appropriate to move to mandatory 100 per cent checking of postal votes. That can be done by way of regulations. Just because we do not put it in the Bill, that is not the end of the story.
Evidence from the 2008 local elections in general is that the rate of rejections of postal votes is not greater than those without postal votes, and it is often lower, around 3 per cent. Those rejected are mostly due to errors by electors with the date of birth not matching between postal vote applications, as I understand it.
I hope I have dealt with Amendments 128 and 129, the first two in the group, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, is satisfied with my response.
It would help if the regulations for the announcement of spoilt ballot papers were changed. At the moment, spoilt ballot papers are those that have been dealt with and counted at the verification stage and then are found to have something wrong with them. Perhaps there is no cross on them or more crosses than required, or whatever it happens to be. They do not announce the number of postal vote ballot papers that have been sent in but rejected because of discrepancies in the personal identifiers. That is a different issue from what we are talking about, but it would really help to identify this if that was announced as a matter of course with every election.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. I will take that idea back, if I may.
Amendment 131 amends provisions in Schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000 concerning absent voting in Great Britain to increase the penalty for persons convicted of the offence of making fraudulent applications. I am glad to hear that this was a probing amendment, because it would mean that anyone guilty of such an offence would have to receive a custodial sentence. The maximum of that sentence could be six months. I am sure that is not what the noble Lord intends.
Postal voting has been a longstanding feature of the electoral process. As the Committee knows, the 2000 Act extended the availability of postal voting by introducing postal voting on demand.
The greater availability of postal voting has generally proved popular, with many voters finding it a convenient way to cast their vote, in a way that fits in with their busy lives. A positive impact on voter turnout has been the result. To illustrate this, at the 2005 general election, 12 per cent of the electorate opted to have a postal ballot, accounting for 15 per cent of all votes cast. At the May 2008 local elections, it has been calculated that around 15 per cent of electors were issued with a postal vote. Of course we have to be vigilant where the security of the electoral system is concerned. A number of safeguards have been put in place.
The noble Lord highlighted the offence provisions at paragraph 8 of Schedule 4 to the 2000 Act, which concern false statements made in any declarations or forms used for the purpose of making absent voting applications. He is right that at present, conviction of an offence of making a false statement will result in a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.
Let me point out again that the Electoral Administration Act 2006 introduced new offence provisions relating to applications for a postal or proxy vote. The new offence provisions deal with a number of specific activities and build upon and complement the existing ones in Schedule 4 to the 2000 Act. Under these new provisions an offence is committed if one of the following things is done with the intention of obtaining the right to vote or depriving another of that right: first, applying for a postal or proxy vote as some other person; secondly, otherwise making a false statement in, or in connection with, an application for a postal or proxy vote; thirdly, inducing a registration officer to send a postal or proxy voting ballot paper to an address that has not requested it; or, fourthly, preventing delivery of any information relating to postal or proxy voting to an address that has requested it.
A person convicted under these offence provisions will be guilty of a corrupt practice and will be liable on conviction to be imprisoned, or to a fine, or to both. It can be up to two years’ imprisonment on indictment. If the conviction is on a summary basis the maximum penalty will be six months.
I appreciate that the intention of noble Lords is that strict penalties should be in place for persons who seek to abuse the integrity of the electoral process. I can reassure the Committee that a person who makes a false statement in, or in connection with, an application for a postal or proxy vote will be liable to a custodial sentence under the 2006 Act. However, I undertake to consider in more detail the relationship between the offence provisions which the noble Lord has highlighted and the offences that I have mentioned that were introduced in 2006, and perhaps revisit this issue on Report.
The purpose of Amendment 132 is obviously to prevent any future all-postal ballots, or certainly any in the near future. There is, in fact, no specific provision in electoral law for all-postal ballots to take place at national level. Rather, under Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 there is provision for pilot schemes to take place at local elections in England and Wales to test alternative methods of voting. This power has been used in the past to provide for all-postal pilots at local elections. Such pilots have generally had a positive impact on voter turnout, but, the Committee may be pleased to hear, there are currently no plans to hold all-postal ballots for UK statutory elections. An important consideration, of course, as was mentioned in the debate, is that the introduction of personal identifiers for postal voters makes it problematic to hold an all-postal election as it would be necessary to collect personal identifiers from all electors, possibly within a short timescale, for use at the election. This could be a significant task and there would be a risk that some electors would not provide their identifiers and would, of course, be liable to be disenfranchised from voting at that election.
We have set out and discussed at length a clear timetable for moving towards individual registration. As was also said in the debate, such personal identifiers collected for registration purposes could be used in due course for the purposes of postal voting and so would facilitate an all-postal ballot. Given this, we see no reason to close the door altogether on holding all-postal ballots, as they may be appropriate at some stage in the future. However, further legislation would be needed to give effect to this and we have no current plans to bring such legislation forward. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will not press the amendments.
Perhaps I may deal with the amendments in the order in which they appear. I am grateful that I had a degree of support on Amendments 128 and 129 from the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Greaves. I was somewhat confused at first by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who implied at first that the good people of Pendle would not be able to cope with the software systems available to them. One envisaged them in some dark age of information technology where they were still on clockwork computers or whatever, but I am glad to discover that in fact they can cope. In due course, having listened to the Government, we hope that everyone in all areas will be able to cope with these matters, and it will therefore be possible ultimately to move from 20 per cent to 100 per cent verification as appropriate.
On the probing Amendment 131, I fully accept the Minister’s criticism that it is badly drafted—appallingly drafted, in fact—if it makes prison a compulsory matter for people who commit such an offence. I also accept the point that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made, that there are already enough people in prison; the prisons are bursting at the seams, as the noble Lord will know because he knows that the figures go up every month despite everything that the Government do to provide early release. We do not want to start putting more people in prison.
I was interested in the point that the noble Lord made about fines at a time of low inflation. It might be low, depending on how you measure it, but most of us who look at these things and at what the Government have done over the past year reckon that we are going to get some fairly high inflation in future. Still, that is not a matter for debate today; we can discuss it on other occasions.
On Amendment 132, on the moratorium question, I am grateful for the words that came out of the Minister’s mouth when he said that the Government had no plans to bring in all-postal voting at this stage and had no plans to do so before there was a proper scheme of individual voter registration. One should always say from the Opposition Benches that if you can get the Government to go so far as saying that they currently have no plans, that is probably about as good as you can get. I therefore thank the Minister for that.
I want to say a word or two to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about Amendment 132AB, which I am not planning to move. The reason I decided that I would not move it tonight but might come back to it on Report is that it has certain cost implications, and we all have to be wary of any amendments at this time that have cost implications. I will look at that amendment and possibly bring it back at a later stage, but I give the noble Lord the assurance, to speed up our progress, that I will not be moving it when we get to that part of the Bill. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 128 withdrawn.
Amendment 129 not moved.
130: After Clause 23, insert the following new Clause—
(1) Section 15 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (c. 2) (service declaration) is amended as follows.
(2) Omit subsection (2)(a).
(3) Omit subsections (9) to (12).”
This amendment, which is in the form of a new clause, deals with an important issue: the enfranchisement of military service personnel to vote in our elections. I shall set out some of the background of how the amendment came about. Before 2001, service personnel were registered on the electoral register through the Ministry of Defence. That was changed to relieve the administrative burden on the ministry and apply a greater focus to local authorities, which were then able to remove those who were no longer resident. That period was marked by poor administration, but all service personnel were registered during that time.
The 2001 changes resulted in the number of service personnel not included on the register increasing quite dramatically. The number of service voters in Great Britain on 16 February 2001 was 175,475. The same figure for 4 December 2006 was 21,006. Those people, probably more than any other citizens in this country, have due cause to have a close interest in the foreign, defence and security policies of this country. Under the terms of the Representation of the People Act 2000, the time limit on the validity of a service declaration for service registration was changed by the Secretary of State from every year to every three years. It was designed to coincide with three-year postings, which have diminished currency during the period.
The current situation is that service personnel and their husbands, wives and civil partners are able to register as an ordinary voter or as a service voter. Those based overseas can also register as overseas voters, but as this limits the type of elections they can vote in, it is not recommended for service personnel. Those registered as service voters are registered at a fixed address in the United Kingdom, even if they move around, and is therefore used for those moving frequently or deployed overseas. They are required to re-register every three years. Ordinary voters must of course renew this annually.
I want to quote some survey data in support of this amendment from the Armed Services Association. It carried out a survey that was published in July 2008. It surveyed a large sample of the Army personnel—8,719—and therefore I believe that the findings have veracity. It found that only 69 per cent of service personnel were registered to vote; only 62 per cent of armed service respondents reported that they were registered. Most worryingly, only 43 per cent of overseas personnel were registered to vote. Some 31 per cent of personnel who were not registered to vote said that they did not receive an electoral registration form. Seventy per cent of units had still not held a service electoral registration day, informing personnel how to register to vote. Local authority electoral registration officers are keen to ensure that service personnel continue to have the option of being registered as ordinary electors rather than returning to the pre-2001 mandatory service-personnel registration system administered by the Ministry of Defence. That is why we have tabled this amendment.
The proposed course of action in the Political Parties and Elections Bill is to amend the Representation of the People Act, specifically Section 15, to include a service declaration. Subsection (2)(a) of that section is removed, but it provides for the electoral registration officer to determine after a 12-month period whether or not a person is entitled to be registered. The effect of the above changes in the new clause would be to allow service personnel to continue to decide whether they would wish to be registered as individual electors or as service voters. Where an individual decided to register as a service voter, there would be an obligation on the Ministry of Defence to co-ordinate with local authority registration officers on the information that they maintain to ensure that service personnel are registered. I beg to move.
We clearly agree in principle with this amendment. The arguments were well put by the noble Lord, Lord Bates. The cause was championed frequently by the late and much missed Lord Garden from the Liberal Democrat Benches. The Minister will have to make a very strong case as to why we may not agree with it.
The new clause makes amendments to Section 15 of the 1983 Act. Subsection (2) of the new clause would remove the fixed period provided by the 1983 Act after which a person registered in pursuance of a service declaration will cease to be registered. Subsection (3) of the new clause would remove the provisions which give the Secretary of State the power to make an order varying the period. That power was exercised in the Service Voters’ Registration Period Order 2006, which set the period for which a service voter could remain registered under a single service declaration at three years.
As an alternative to service registration, service voters can register as ordinary electors when they are eligible to do so by virtue of their residence. The practical result of these provisions would be that those persons registered in pursuance of service declaration will remain registered as electors until the registration officer has reason to think they are no longer entitled to be registered, they cancel the declaration or they register elsewhere.
On the surface, this amendment might appear to address concerns about under-registration among service personnel. However, registering service personnel to vote in one place for an indefinite period previously created inaccuracies in the electoral register, which led to the introduction of a 12-month limitation on service voter registrations in the 2000 Act. In practice this amendment would simply re-introduce the same inaccuracies to the electoral register, so that we have high registration rates, but low participation levels during elections because of the inaccuracies.
I reassure the Committee that we are serious about increasing registration rates among service voters. I remember with affection Lord Garden—we were opposite each other for a number of years in the defence field—arguing that there was too little registration among the Armed Forces. He did so with passion and effect.
Since 2005 the MOD has been working with the Electoral Commission to address under-registration among members of the Armed Forces. Bimonthly meetings are held to develop information campaigns with MoJ officials also in attendance. Each year a campaign is run around the same time as the annual canvass to provide information to Armed Forces personnel and their families about methods of registration, with particular focus being placed on the service declaration facility. The 2008 information campaign was run between October and November, and activities included sending a combined service voter registration leaflet and application form to service personnel in 5,000 military units across the world; holding registration days in each unit led by a dedicated unit registration officer; advertisements in service broadcast and print media; placing information on the Electoral Commission and MoD's websites; and providing additional guidance and tools, such as promotional posters and resource CDs to all units.
The MoD is not in favour of this amendment; it has serious concerns about it. It believes that if service personnel were registered indefinitely, they would continue their very mobile careers expecting to be automatically re-registered in any new UK constituency in which they may come to be resident, and as a result they would fail to re-register when moving constituencies. It is the MoD’s view that this will lead to personnel being disenfranchised because their registration details will be out of date.
We think that the three-year period strikes the right balance between encouraging service personnel to register and maintaining an accurate register. That is not the only reason for maintaining the current position; the existing regime allows that period to be varied by order if the view is reached, on consideration of the evidence, that a longer or shorter period would be beneficial. We think that retaining that flexibility is important. Furthermore, the annual information campaign run by the EC and MoD is encouraging members of the Armed Forces to register to vote or update their registration details where they have moved and the choice of registering as an ordinary elector or service voter is helping to maximise registration rates in the forces. The Government do not want to undo this good work.
It is for those reasons that we think that this extremely well meant amendment should be withdrawn.
I am grateful for the support that the amendment has received from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. The campaign fought very diligently by Lord Garden is something that we take very seriously. He was a champion of this cause, which should increase the weight that these concerns are given.
The briefing for the Minister’s response sounds as if the Ministry of Defence has contributed to that, but the evidence seems to dispute it. The Minister cites the action which was taken in 2008. I was citing service evidence from July 2008 that said that 70 per cent of units had still not held a service electoral registration day informing personnel how to register to vote, a commitment that was given. I am disappointed that the Ministry of Defence should regard it as an administrative burden. Surely all members of the Armed Forces ought to be encouraged to take an active part in the democratic systems and processes of this country. Whatever the administrative burden may be, it would be worth while.
There is a suggestion of a modification for those who are most mobile which I would like the Minister to consider. A form could be sent around on an annual basis asking people if they had changed their place of residence or address in the UK. Failure to receive the form back would be an indication that they had not. That might also provide some additional reassurance that the electoral register is kept up to date.
Given the Minister’s position, I will obviously withdraw the amendment, but I ask him to seriously consider this before Report. We will consider returning to the subject on Report to see if it is possible to get a more positive response.
Amendment 130 withdrawn.
Amendments 131 and 132 not moved.
132A: After Clause 23, insert the following new Clause—
(1) Schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000 (c. 2) is amended as follows.
(2) For sub-paragraphs (1), (2) and (3) of paragraph 3 there is substituted—
“(1) Where a person applies to the registration officer to vote by post or proxy at parliamentary elections, at local government elections or at both (whether for an indefinite period or for a particular period specified in his application), the registration officer shall grant the application if—
(a) he is satisfied that the applicant is eligible to vote by post or proxy at elections to which the application relates,(b) he is satisfied that the applicant is or will be registered in the register of parliamentary electors, local government electors or both (as the case may be), and(c) the application meets the prescribed requirements.(2) For the purposes of this paragraph a person is eligible to vote by post or proxy at parliamentary or local government elections—
(a) if he is or will be registered as a service voter,(b) if he cannot reasonably be expected—(i) to go in person to the polling station allotted or likely to be allotted to him under the appropriate rules, or(ii) to vote unaided there,by reason of blindness or other physical incapacity,(c) if he cannot reasonably be expected to go in person to that polling station by reason of the general nature of his occupation, service or employment or that of his spouse, or by reason of his attendance on a course provided by an educational institution or that of his spouse, or(d) if he cannot go in person from his qualifying address to that polling station without making a journey by air or sea,and a person is also eligible to vote by proxy at parliamentary elections if he is or will be registered in pursuance of an overseas elector’s declaration.
(3) For sub-paragraphs (1) and (2) of paragraph 4 there is substituted—
“(1) Where a person applies to the registration officer to vote by post or proxy at a particular parliamentary or local government election the registration office shall grant the application if—
(a) he is satisfied that the applicant’s circumstances on the date of the poll will be or are likely to be such that he cannot reasonably be expected to vote in person at the polling station allotted or likely to be allotted to him under the appropriate rules,(b) he is satisfied that the applicant is or will be registered in the register of parliamentary electors, local government electors or both (as the case may be), and(c) the application meets the prescribed requirements.”
This is a distinctly Back-Bench amendment. I will be interested to know what my Front-Bench colleagues think about it. It would introduce a new clause amending Schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000.The aim is to return the postal voting system, in general terms, to that which existed before 2000 by putting postal and proxy votes on the same basis. The Minister may tell me that the amendment is not exactly right in purely technical terms. I do not know if it is or not; I have done my best. Clearly, it has been tabled to instigate a general debate on postal voting and is similar in intention, although not at all in wording, to an amendment tabled in the House of Commons by Mr Douglas Hogg which was unfortunately not debated.
In simple terms, the amendment would abolish postal voting on demand. If I had more time to consider matters carefully, I would want to restrict postal voting further than that. I hope that the country will look seriously at advanced voting systems as an alternative to postal voting, of the kind that we discovered to our surprise are pretty widespread in the United States, which restricts postal voting to grounds of infirmity and illness. However, that is not what the amendment would do. It would abolish postal voting on demand, which was introduced in 2000 with the best of intentions. It has proved to be a system that is wide open to electoral fraud, corruption and fiddling, and is a thoroughly bad thing.
In the previous debate but one, the Minister talked about the importance of the “convenience” of voting. I am interested that he is still using that word because it was almost predominant when we were talking about the old postal voting pilots that the Government used when were talking about the then Electoral Administration Bill in 2006, when I was ploughing the same furrow. They talked about convenience and increasing turnout. Unfortunately, there are unintended consequences, many of which I believe are unavoidable.
I was looking back through the huge piles of material on postal voting that I have received over the past few years, and I again picked up the Electoral Commission’s report of August 2004, following the last European election, called Delivering Democracy? The Future of Postal Voting. The commission has carried out various surveys about whether people find that system of voting convenient and so on, and the Government have relied on that information. The report has a very interesting Table 1 entitled “People’s priorities for voting arrangements”, and it was written back in 2004, before a lot of the publicity about postal voting fraud had come out. The question posed was:
“Thinking generally about elections, which one of the following would you say is most important to you when you vote?”.
The result for all adults was as follows: “My vote being private”, 33 per cent; “My vote being safe from fraud or abuse”, 30 per cent; “Voting being convenient”, 20 per cent; “Voting being easy to use”, 15 per cent; and “Don’t know”, 1 per cent. In the over-55 age group, the proportion that thought that voting being either convenient or easy to use was important was down to a combined figure of 24 per cent. I thought that that was quite interesting.
My suspicion is that a similar survey would now be more biased towards voting being private and not open to fraud. As a result of the publicity in the local press to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, referred and also in the national press, and as a result of the national scandals that have occurred—notably the case in Birmingham, various cases in East Lancashire and the recent case in Slough—I think that the Government have to take account of what is an increasing perception. A prosecuting lawyer clearly overstates the case many times. Again, I quote the Daily Mail of 2 May—my favourite reading:
“Charles Miskin, prosecuting, told the court on Friday the action of the convicted vote-riggers was like a virus that needed to be eradicated. ‘This week the newspapers are full of what has been called the swine fever pandemic, but there has been another epidemic that has been working its way across the United Kingdom in recent years’, he said. ‘Not of course a threat to life and limb but one that attacks, effects”,—
I think that that should be “affects”—
“and corrodes the roots of our democracy”.
He quoted the famous, or infamous, comments of Richard Mawrey QC, following the Birmingham case, about banana republics and so on. He went on to say:
“The systems to deal with fraud are not working well, they are not working badly—the fact is there are no real systems. Until there are, fraud will continue unabated. The system for voting would disgrace a banana republic”.
There is an increasing perception in this country, which I believe is accurate, that the incidence of voting fraud is on the increase. It may be said that it happens only in a few cases, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said this afternoon that it occurs in only a few places. However, I think that it happens in more than a few places. I have a big lever-arch file full of these cases, which I add to over the years, particularly when we have debates here, and it is getting bigger and bigger. It does not happen in the majority of cases and it is not endemic throughout the country, but it does not occur in only a small number of places and it is not a small number of cases. In my judgment, the number of incidents that get to court are a fairly small proportion—I would even say a tiny proportion—of the total.
The problem with postal voting is that it is not secure. I have entertained people previously with quotes from debates on the Ballot Act 1872 and I have quoted Mr Gladstone saying why he was converted to the idea of secret ballots. In that debate, a Mr J Lowther proposed that postal votes should be allowed, that the returning officer should be allowed to distribute votes to people at their addresses and that they could return them to the town hall or wherever. There were warnings in that debate about the evils of proxies and canvassers going about armed with voting papers. Some of us have observed this in the streets; it is happening in this country today. The Ballot Act was introduced to abolish the appalling amount of fraud and bribery which existed before then, when votes were open and people knew how people were voting. If you do not know how someone has voted, all the bribery or intimidation in the world will not work because people can say, “Yes, we have done what you told us to do”. In the privacy of the polling booths, people can do what they want.
More and more safeguards and complications will be required if postal voting on demand is continued. That will result in more postal voters losing their votes because the more complications that are brought in the more people will fail to meet the tasks. The figures of 5 per cent and 10 per cent which I quoted earlier in two town council by-elections are serious. People are being encouraged to vote by post and some of the votes are being ruled out because they have not fulfilled the obligations.
I have no doubt that in at least one of those by-elections some of those votes were fraudulent votes—I know they were. You can tell what postal votes look like when you have been around a bit. They all look different: people use different pens and some people tick or put things in different places. I am absolutely convinced that some of those votes in that by-election had been filled in by people other than the electors. I have seen them before and I know what they look like. Some of them were not stolen; some of them were ruled out because people simply had not coped with the bureaucratic system. The more postal votes you have and the more safeguards you have, the more that will be a problem.
Those who want to fiddle the votes will find more and more ingenious ways of getting round the rules. After the Birmingham case, I think voting warehouses will no longer be possible but there are other ways. There is no point pretending that the main problem is not in the south Asian community. I refer to the report published by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in 2008, Purity of Elections: Causes of Concern by Stuart Wilks-Heeg of the University of Liverpool. He confirms that:
“Greater use of postal voting has made UK elections far more vulnerable to fraud and resulted in several instances of large-scale fraud. … Public confidence in the electoral process in the UK was the lowest in Western Europe in 1997, and has almost certainly declined further as a result of the extension of postal voting. The benefits of postal and electronic voting have been exaggerated”.
An interesting part of the report is the section on political and social geography of electoral malpractice. The combination of extended families with a fairly strict hierarchy and links to villages, where the village politics come in, and the biraderi clan system results in people not being able to vote as they want to.
My final quote from this report is not from a political ally of mine but from Salma Yaqoob, the Respect councillor in Birmingham, who talks about how votes are taken away from women in Asian families. That happens all the time. She says in the report that:
“Women in particular have been disenfranchised. Postal votes are filled out in the ‘privacy’ of one’s own home. But it is not private when family members, candidates or supporters, can influence subtly or otherwise, the way you complete your vote. Community leaders may claim to be able to yield significant voter blocs, but no one can interfere with the secrecy of the polling station”.
Many young Asian women have complained to me that they are no longer allowed to go to the polling station, where they can vote how like, whether it is for my party or any other. I continue the quote:
“A secret ballot means that loyalties to families and friends can be maintained in public, but political arguments can still win out in the real privacy of the voting booth”.
Those are exactly the same arguments that Mr Gladstone made in 1872 in relation to bribery. That is why postal voting on demand has had appalling, unintended consequences. I beg to move.
The noble Lord has rehearsed a number of the arguments that were raised in relation to the previous group. There is no question that concern is felt about the misuse of postal ballots, but our view is that the answer to that is right use, which is what we proposed though our amendments on personal identification and how it can be secured. There are two issues here: first, the Electoral Commission, whose comments we all take seriously, says that it continues to support the availability of postal voting on demand in Great Britain, but that changes to improve security and reliability of postal voting are none the less essential. We agree with that. It is a question of mechanism. Secondly, the noble Lord’s proposed new clause would place an extraordinary burden on the returning officers, who would be forced to adjudicate as to who is eligible and who is not.
My final point is an anecdote. One of my first jobs, while still a student, was as a voter registration officer and accounting clerk in European, local and general elections in the late 1970s. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke about one particular community; I was the electoral registration officer in a pretty tough area of Gateshead. One of the problems that we had was husbands coming in with their wives to vote, peering around the corner to see who their wives were voting for and in some cases tearing up the ballot paper. Arguments would often ensue. So it is a problem that is faced by all communities, which is why we need integrity in the system and protection for everybody.
I am sorry if I slightly disappoint my noble friend by saying simply that the problem with his amendment is that it tries to put the genie back into the bottle, which, nine years after it was let out, is rather hard. I confessed earlier that we made a mistake in 2000 in allowing the extension of postal voting on demand without the proper safeguards that we should have insisted on at the time. Having done that, our real priority now is to make as rapid progress as possible with a system of personal identifiers to avoid some of the potential for abuse which is clear in the system now. We made some significant progress on this issue with the Electoral Administration Act 2006: we now insist, for example, on the signature and the date of birth accompanying the application to vote by post, and we have got rid of the witness signature form, which was sometimes an even bigger barrier to people being able to vote by post than the problems which my noble friend has indicated so far.
Five years ago, in the 2004 elections, I led the opposition in this House to what I called compulsory postal voting when the Government extended what they called pilots and introduced all-postal voting in the northern half of England for the European and local elections. I did so when this House defeated the other place on five occasions, an almost unprecedented number. I said in argument that it was wrong to have compulsory postal voting and that people should have a choice as to whether to vote by post or at a polling station in the traditional manner. It now seems it would be quite unpopular to take away the option of voting by post but I emphasise the need to move rapidly on the issue of personal identifiers, otherwise we will have to return to my noble friend’s amendment if we do not make further progress on improving the security of the process.
The amendment seeks to amend provisions in the 2000 Act concerning absent voting in Great Britain in order to remove the current availability of postal voting on demand. Instead, postal voting would be available in limited cases only and electors wishing to have a postal vote would be required to demonstrate that they are unable to get to the polling station to vote in person. It is an attempt to move the clock back to what the law was before 2000, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was, as always, completely frank about that.
As I said earlier, the greater availability of postal voting has generally proved popular, with many voters finding it convenient to cast their vote in a way that fits in with their busy lives. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred to the all-postal ballots that took place in some parts of Great Britain during the 2004 European elections. Whatever faults there may or may not have been in that, certainly the number of people who voted went up compared to the election before it. However, we are not talking about all-postal votes but the system of postal votes that has pertained since the passing of the 2000 Act. Postal voting gives greater choice to electors and I am concerned that the amendment, if carried, would deny many people the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights.
Of course there have been justifiable concerns about security and we have put in place a number of measures to safeguard the security of postal voting. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, mentioned the 2006 Act and the associated secondary legislation. Measures include the requirement for electors to provide some personal identifiers. If they wish to have a postal vote, identifiers must be replicated by electors when they cast their postal votes and are cross-checked. We have provided for new secrecy warnings on postal and proxy voting papers to do our best to deter any attempt unlawfully to influence another person’s vote. Further, after every election, a marked register of those who voted by post is published, which will enable individuals to check that their postal vote was received. In an investigation, the police would be able to check with any individual whether they actually voted by post or whether their vote was stolen from them.
In addition, we have supported the work of the police and the Electoral Commission in improving police awareness of and response to allegations of electoral fraud, including the production of guidance on the detection and prevention of fraud. This has resulted in much more effective working between returning officers and local police.
The Slough case, the most recent, shows that persons who attempt to carry out electoral fraud will face serious consequences. The separate evaluation reports produced by the Electoral Commission on the 2007 and 2008 elections have concluded that the action we have taken has had a positive impact on the safety and security of the electoral system. In addition, they found that allegations of offences at those elections were down on previous years. I mention also the joint report just published by ACPO and the Electoral Commission on the May 2008 elections and allegations of fraud there. They found that these elections were free from major incidents of electoral fraud.
I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will be surprised to hear that we do not plan to restrict the availability of postal voting. However, I emphasise that we are not complacent about this issue and that we will keep postal voting under review to ensure that our electoral system remains secure. Inasmuch as the noble Lord wants to see it secure, we are absolutely with him. I hope on the basis of what I have said, the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I will in a minute. Whether or not the Government keep this matter under review, I shall keep harassing them over it and producing all the evidence that I can at all times. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, said that my system would be a burden on electoral registration officers. Well, it is just going back to the old system, which was not thought to be burden and would actually remove a much larger burden: the volume of postal votes that now come in. If they all have to be 100 per cent checked, which they do, then that would be the bigger burden.
The Minister referred to the increase in turnout at the last European election due to postal votes. He is quite right: there was a general increase in turnout. However, that part which was a result of the old postal votes was about 5 per cent. Let us get that in perspective: there was an increase, but it was not very much.
I hear what my noble friend Lord Rennard said. I am tempted to say that all political parties have a vested interest in the present postal voting system because they all use it to increase their stock of postal voters. The real point about postal voter turnout is that in normal elections the turnout of people who do have postal votes is usually significantly higher than those who do not. We all know that. It might be as much as 70 per cent to 40 per cent, or 60 per cent to 30 per cent, depending on the circumstances. So it is currently in the interests of all the political parties to get as many of their firm voters signed up on postal votes as they possibly can. I would argue that those are probably people who would vote anyway. Even so, the parties do it. My noble friend is certainly very good at it. There is nothing wrong with it under the present system.
It is quite true that there is a marked list of postal votes received. I was one of those who helped to persuade the Government that it was necessary. However, it does not tell people whether their vote was rejected because of the personal identifiers, which is the point that I was making earlier. They will find out that their vote was received, but will not know if it was counted or not. The Minister has already said that he will look at that.
The Slough case does not show that everything is working wonderfully. It was one of the rare exceptions that managed to get as far as court and a conviction, due to the real persistence of the Labour candidate who lost her seat as a result of the vote-rigging. I pay tribute to her, because you really do have to stick at it and it is not always very easy or pleasant. She did it then, and people from other parties have done it on other occasions.
The famous Birmingham case with Richard Mawrey was not brought to court by the police. If I remember correctly, it was the result of an election petition and the court case was a private prosecution. I think that I am right in saying that; I will check it. However, the local police in Birmingham were certainly extremely reluctant to bring that case. On the two registration cases that I reported last May, the local police thought that we had a cut and dried case of people who had been put on the electoral register over the years, despite warnings, who should not have been. I pursued it because it was the home of a Labour candidate. The police thought that we would get a prosecution. In the end it fell because the local police and the Crown Prosecution Service did not proceed quickly enough and ran out of time.
My experience is that election matters are not always regarded as a high priority by the police. They are better now than they were a few years ago, but those matters are still not always given the highest priority. In the infamous Pendle case seven years ago, the police admitted that they wanted to pursue all this evidence I had given them about votes being sent off to wrong addresses, but there had been murders in Rossendale and things like that, which had to take priority. I understand that, but it means that electoral allegations are not always taken as seriously as they could be.
Having said that, the Government are still being complacent. I will tell Members of the Committee what will happen to really put a bomb under the whole thing: when it becomes clear that one, two or three parliamentary constituencies have been rigged at a general election. Who knows when it may be? It may be at the next general election, or two or three down the road. However, it will happen sooner or later and, when it does, I am afraid that the system will have to be radically changed. At this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 132A withdrawn.
Amendment 132AA not moved.
Amendment 132AB not moved.
Clauses 24 and 25 agreed.
Amendment 132B not moved.
Schedule 5 : Minor and consequential amendments
133: Schedule 5, page 59, line 2, at end insert—
“( ) In rule 9 (deposit), in paragraph (3), for “rule 6(1)” there is substituted “rule 6(4)”.
“( ) In rule 14 (publication of statement of persons nominated), in paragraph (2), after “nomination papers” there is inserted “and home address forms”.”
These are minor consequential government amendments required to give effect to Clause 17, which was inserted into the Bill following a free vote on an amendment tabled by the honourable Member for New Forest East in the other place. That clause amends the parliamentary election rules found in Schedule 1 to the 1983 Act to allow candidates at a parliamentary election to choose whether or not their home address appears on the ballot paper and other election documents that are open to the public.
As I made clear, the Government have no view on this issue, and it is our intention that there should be a free vote on that provision in this House, as there was in the other place. However, we must ensure that the legislation is technically correct. The amendments are necessary to ensure that if Clause 17 does stand part of the Bill following completion of the parliamentary stages, the legislation it amends works properly and is clear to those who use it.
The consequential amendments are required to apply the provisions contained in Clause 17 to the specimen form of ballot paper and the directions for printing. In practice, the changes will allow for either the candidate’s address or constituency to appear on the ballot paper depending on the choice the candidate has made on the home address form. Aside from the issue of the candidates’ addresses, the Government intend to work with the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and other stakeholders to review whether any further changes are required to the specimen ballot paper. Any changes will be made under the regulations provided for under Rule 19 of the Parliamentary Elections Rules. That is all the amendments do. I beg to move.
I certainly shall not repeat all the arguments that we had about Clause 17. However, I want to take up one point. The Minister reiterated the Government’s intention to have a free vote on this issue. In the previous discussion in Grand Committee, I raised a question on that issue and the Minister’s noble friend did not respond. I want to get this absolutely clear. If we do not discuss this in our House, the issue will never be debated. The amendment was not even moved in the other place; it was not even one of the group of amendments before the House at that stage. I do not understand why the Government feel that it is necessary to have a free vote in your Lordships’ House simply because it was a free vote in the other place.
Having said that, I will take this opportunity to say how grateful my noble friends and I are for the way in which the Minister and his team have assisted the Grand Committee to do a professional job in scrutinising an important Bill. We shall be even more grateful if the Minister manages to respond to some of the issues raised during Grand Committee when we get to Report.
I associate myself with the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, towards the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and the team, who have usually provided information in a timely way—with the slight exception of individual voter registration. We will, I am sure, have a vigorous debate again about Clause 17. The position of the Official Opposition is that this is a matter for a free vote. This matter has been decided by a vote—if not a debate—in the other place. It particularly relates to those who stand for elected office. Therefore, as the unelected House, we should not seek to impose our view on this issue. As a result, these are consequential amendments. Dealing with consequential amendments on such a contentious provision at five minutes before midnight in the time that we have available was a bit of a chance on the Minister’s part, but I hope that we can wind up now and support them.
Yes, it was a bit of a chance—the noble Lord is right—but I hope that I have just about got away with it. I thank all noble Lords, particularly Front Benchers, who have taken part in Committee. It looked at one stage as though it would never end, but it is very close to ending now and we have got through a lot of good work. We look forward—some with more anticipation than others—to the joys of Report in the Chamber.
Amendment 133 agreed.
Amendments 134 and 135
134: Schedule 5, page 59, line 9, leave out “forms, in” and insert “forms—
135: Schedule 5, page 59, line 11, at end insert—
“(b) in the Form of Front of Ballot Paper, for the address after “Richard Edgbaston” there is substituted—“(address in the Birmingham Northfield Constituency)”;(c) in the directions as to printing the ballot paper, in paragraph 3(b), after “address” there is inserted “(or the constituency in which that address is situated)”.”
Amendments 134 and 135 agreed.
Schedule 5, as amended, agreed.
Schedule 6 : Repeals
Amendments 135A to 140B
135A: Schedule 6, page 62, line 4, leave out “In section 10A(2)” and insert—
“In section 10ZB, in the heading, the words “(Northern Ireland)”. In section 10A— (a) in subsection (1A), the words “in respect of an address in Northern Ireland”; (b) in subsection (2)”
“In section 10ZB, in the heading, the words “(Northern Ireland)”.
In section 10A—
(a) in subsection (1A), the words “in respect of an address in Northern Ireland”;
(b) in subsection (2)”
135B: Schedule 6, page 62, line 5, at end insert—
In section 13A(2A), the words “in respect of an address in Northern Ireland”.”
In section 13A(2A), the words “in respect of an address in Northern Ireland”.”
136: Schedule 6, page 62, line 16, column 2, at beginning insert—
“In section 47, subsections (2) and (3).”
“In section 47, subsections (2) and (3).”
137: Schedule 6, page 62, line 17, at end insert—
“Section 65(5). Section 71S(6).”
138: Schedule 6, page 62, leave out lines 23 and 24 and insert—
“In Schedule 7— (a) in paragraph 6(1), the word “or” at the end of paragraph (a); (b) paragraph 12(3).”
“In Schedule 7— (a) in paragraph 6(1), the word “or” at the end of paragraph (a);
(b) paragraph 12(3).”
139: Schedule 6, page 62, line 24, at end insert—
“In Schedule 7A, in paragraph 1(7)(d), the words after “(in relation to a members association)”.”
“In Schedule 7A, in paragraph 1(7)(d), the words after “(in relation to a members association)”.”
140: Schedule 6, page 62, line 24, at end insert—
“In Schedule 7A, paragraph 12(3).”
“In Schedule 7A, paragraph 12(3).”
140A: Schedule 6, page 62, line 32, at end insert—
“Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 (c. 13) Section 6(3).”
“Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 (c. 13)
140B: Schedule 6, page 62, line 33, after “paragraphs” insert “2,”
Amendments 135A to 140B agreed.
Schedule 6, as amended, agreed.
Clause 26 : Transitional provision
Amendment 141 not moved.
Clause 26 agreed.
Clauses 27 and 28 agreed.
Clause 29 : Commencement
141A: Clause 29, page 23, line 30, at end insert—
“( ) section (Report by Electoral Commission on provision of identifying information)(6),”
Amendment 141A agreed.
Amendments 142 to 146 not moved.
Clause 29, as amended, agreed.
Clause 30 agreed.
Bill reported with amendments.
Committee adjourned at 7.43 pm.