Report (2nd Day) (Continued)
81: After Clause 24, 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) leave out “not less than 20%” and insert “not less than 100%”.”
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendment 82. We put forward similar amendments in Committee, as a way of probing; it will only be a further bit of probing this evening. As I am sure the Minister will remember, the amendments are designed to make sure that all postal votes are checked. Given the amount of fraud in the system, it seems only sensible that that should happen wherever possible.
When I moved the similar amendment in Grand Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said in response:
“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”.—[Official Report, 13/5/09; col. GC 435.]
He went on to talk about the then forthcoming elections for the European Parliament on 4 June. As his noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours mentioned earlier, we have had the European elections between Committee and Report. Therefore, while I appreciate that on 17 June it is relatively few days since those elections, it might be useful if the Minister were able to say a little about what the Government learnt from them. I do not mean from a political point of view, as I imagine that they have been feeling fairly sore about them ever since, with a mere 15 per cent of the vote. That is the lowest percentage of the vote that the Labour Party has had in modern history, if we take modern history back to 1919; I see my noble friend Lord Bates nodding.
Even in those couple of weeks, the Government might have learnt something about the need for checking, so I wonder whether the Minister can say what level of checking there was in the different regions. He said that we required at least 20 per cent at the moment; I imagine therefore that 20 per cent were checked, and I look forward to confirmation of that. Can he say whether, in any of those areas, any of the returning officers felt it necessary to go beyond that 20 per cent because they began to think that there might be some fraud? That should be known at this relatively early stage. The same would be true of the local elections, which took place on the same day but were counted a couple of days earlier. Postal voting fraud seems more likely to happen in local elections; obviously, a smaller number of votes can make a big difference. In European elections it would be quite difficult, particularly with the d’Hondt system of counting the votes, for it to make much of a difference in the long run.
As I understand it, county council votes would have been counted on a ward-by-ward basis, which might have indicated to individual returning officers that it might have been better to have checked more than 20 per cent in certain wards. I think that the European votes were counted on a local government basis—roughly in constituencies, sometimes a bit bigger, sometimes a bit smaller. Again, I would be interested to know whether there were any areas where the returning officers felt it necessary to make such checks.
I hope that that is sufficient and that the Minister can give us some idea of what happened, and whether that indicates that there is a need to pursue these amendments at a later stage. I beg to move.
My Lords, the introduction of personal identifiers for postal voters under the Electoral Administration Act 2006 has been a key measure in strengthening the integrity of postal voting. Under amendments made to the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 following the introduction of the 2006 Act, we specified that at elections returning officers were required to check at least 20 per cent of returned postal votes. That is the minimum requirement, but they have a discretion to check 100 per cent if they wish to do so. 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. The current statutory provisions also provide the returning officer with the flexibility to begin with 20 per cent checking but to increase that level at later postal vote-opening sessions if any evidence of fraud emerges.
I repeat what I said in Grand Committee: we agree in principle with the desire for 100 per cent of postal votes to be checked and we will make that a statutory requirement once it is safe and appropriate to do so. The regulations for the recent European parliamentary elections followed the provisions for parliamentary and local elections, and therefore required that at least 20 per cent of returned postal votes were checked. However, at the request of the regional returning officers, we made funding available to local returning officers to cover the costs for administrators in checking all returned postal votes.
While we have been supportive of the 100 per cent checking of all returned postal votes, we continue to believe that it would be premature to mandate 100 per cent checking in law at this stage given, as I said in Grand Committee, 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.
In order to establish when it will be appropriate to move to mandatory checking of postal votes, it is imperative that we work with the Electoral Commission, electoral administrators and software suppliers to carefully review how the 100 per cent checking of postal votes worked in practice at the European parliamentary elections. For that reason, we do not consider it appropriate today to accept the amendment. It is possible to make the change to mandatory 100 per cent checking of postal votes through amendments to the existing secondary legislation. I want to reassure the noble Lord and other noble Lords that there will be no need to rely on there being a suitable Bill before Parliament for this change to be made. I hope that on that basis the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful that the noble Lord has confirmed that this matter can be dealt with by secondary legislation in due course, when the appropriate software systems are in place. However, he did not deal with my principal question, which was whether the Government have learnt any lessons, other than the obvious political lessons, from those elections. Were there any areas where a returning officer at a local or a wider level felt it necessary to make a 100 per cent check? The noble Lord must know the answer, because it obviously happened either on 5 June, when the local election votes were counted, or on Sunday 7 June, when the national votes were counted. The noble Lord’s colleague has returned with some advice; perhaps the Minister can intervene with an answer.
My Lords, I shall respond quickly. The elections happened only a few days ago and we await the Electoral Commission’s report on how the system worked for the European elections. The noble Lord must give us a little longer to come up with the answers. The votes were counted on the Sunday night; I remember it well. That was 10 days ago, which is not very long in the Electoral Commission’s life.
My Lords, I appreciate that it is possibly too early. I, too, remember watching the results on Sunday night; the noble Lord will probably remember them for longer than I will. For the moment, I must accept what he has said and take that as an answer. I shall not come back to these amendments, but I certainly hope that the noble Lord will make sure that, when the Electoral Commission reports, he notifies me and other noble Lords who have taken an interest in this of its findings. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 81 withdrawn.
Amendment 82 not moved.
83: After Clause 24, 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).”
My Lords, the amendment stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Henley. It deals with service registration and would add a new clause to strengthen provision for members of the armed services to be on the electoral register. It might be helpful for the House and for Members who were not present when this matter was discussed in Grand Committee if I offered a few sentences of background before coming to the point that we are concerned about.
Before 2001, service personnel were registered on the electoral register through the Ministry of Defence. This was changed to relieve the administrative burden on the Ministry of Defence and apply a greater focus to local authorities, which were then enabled to remove from the register those who were no longer resident. This period was marked by poor administration, but all service personnel were registered during that time.
The 2001 changes resulted in a number of service personnel not being included in the electoral register and, given the rolling register’s four-week qualification period and a three-week election campaign, many service personnel were disfranchised in the 2005 general election. The number of service voters in Great Britain on 16 February 2001 was 175,475; the figure for 4 December 2006 was 21,000—a reduction of 150,000. That is clearly a cause for concern, particularly given that our Armed Forces are involved in at least two military engagements. They are putting their lives at risk for this country and we certainly feel that they ought to have a say about the policy and the Government who are responsible for dispatching them into those engagements.
Under the terms of the Representation of the People Act 2000, the time limit on the validity of the service declaration for service registration was changed by the Secretary of State from every year to every three years, designed to coincide with the three-year postings which have diminished currency in the current period. Service personnel—and their husbands, wives or civil partners—are currently able to register as an ordinary voter or a service voter. Those based overseas can also register as overseas voters.
Service voters are registered at a fixed address in the United Kingdom, even if they move around. Therefore, if used for those who are moving more frequently, or for those who are likely to be deployed overseas frequently or at short notice, this has a significant impact. That is not to suggest that the Electoral Commission or, indeed, the Government have not been alert to the problems or not taken steps. The Electoral Commission launched an initiative last October specifically aimed at trying to get Armed Forces members to register. There was an attempt to have all 4,000 units hold an electoral registration day in November where attention would be drawn to the issue.
I come to the principal evidence causing our concern. A survey carried out by Defence Analytical Services and Advice, published in July 2008, surveyed 8,719 service personnel across the three services. It found that only 69 per cent of personnel were registered to vote. Only 62 per cent of Army respondents reported that they were registered. Some 84 per cent of officers were registered but only 66 per cent of the other ranks. Only 43 per cent of overseas personnel were registered to vote, and 31 per cent of personnel who were not registered to vote said that they did not receive an electoral registration form. Of the units, 70 per cent had still not held a service electoral registration day informing personnel about how to register to vote. That evidence, coupled with the massive fall-off in Armed Forces members registering to vote, was the cause of our concern.
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will not mind giving way. We were very impressed by what he had to say about this in Grand Committee, and he is making the same points tonight. As he says, the Ministry of Defence is making real efforts to ensure that more service personnel are registered. I should point out that the figures, which have come down so much, do not take account of the number of people in the services who have put their own names on the register at their home addresses, as they are entitled to do. The noble Lord is right to say that there has been a decline, but not by that amount.
I will listen very carefully to what the noble Lord said both last time and tonight. He knows that the existing regime allows the period to be varied by up to five years by order, instead of the three years at which it stands at the moment. In respect of members of the Armed Forces and their spouses or civil partners, if the view is reached on consideration of the evidence that a longer or shorter period would be beneficial, we think that it would be important to retain that flexibility. We think that to allow it for ever, as the amendment provides, would automatically make the register inaccurate. Therefore, in response to his comments and his concerns about lower registration rates, we intend to extend the service declaration period from three years to five years. An increase to five years offers the additional benefit of being the same period as the one in which postal voters must provide new identifiers. Indeed, the service voters’ registration form, as issued by the Electoral Commission, includes a postal vote application.
I am sorry to interrupt him. I do so in order to tell him that we are prepared to make that concession because of his advocacy this evening. I hope that may assist him in continuing with his arguments.
My Lords, I am happy to take such interventions at any time. It is a very welcome intervention and I thank the Minister. He is always extremely courteous and thoughtful and he pays attention to the debates. It is very encouraging that he is making that proposal.
The proposal to have no time limit is essentially an attempt to return to the state that existed before 2001. I recognise that changes have come into place and I recognise the importance of having an up-to-date and accurate electoral register. The Minister’s offer of an increase from three years to five will therefore be widely welcomed not only by service personnel but by their families. It is one way of ensuring that their voices are heard in future elections. I am very grateful for that reassurance.
Perhaps I may push my luck just a fraction further by mentioning that 70 per cent of units have still not held a service electoral registration day informing personnel how to register to vote. I am sure that service personnel will appreciate that they have to go through this exercise only once every five years as a result of the Minister’s welcome concession. However, perhaps I may press him a little further and ask whether he can encourage his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to make representations—indeed, it would seem appropriate for the Ministry of Defence to issue an order—regarding an electoral registration day so that people know about the changes that have been made and know also that their engagement in the democratic process is of the highest concern to Members on all sides of this House. I am happy to give way at this point or, if other people want to contribute to the debate, perhaps I should sit down and allow that to happen.
My Lords, the Minister will recall that in Grand Committee we, too, were concerned about this issue, and we very much welcome the concession that he has made this evening. I cannot remember whether it was him or his colleague but in Grand Committee the Minister who spoke was pretty adamant that he wanted to stick with the three-year period. Therefore, I am glad that on this issue at least the opposition parties seem to have moved the Minister a little.
I want to make a couple of additional points. First, I understand that since 2005, which is after all four years ago, the Electoral Commission has been working with the Ministry of Defence on this issue because it, too, has been very concerned about the underregistration of members of the Armed Forces. Can the Minister say how that initiative is progressing, and can he give us an undertaking that, if further recommendations come forward as a result of that exercise, there will be a method by which he can, if necessary, move further without the need for legislation?
Secondly, if the discrepancy is anything like the one to which the noble Lord, Lord Bates, referred, then is the Minister serious? After all, in recent years we have been asking young men and women to fight on behalf of the nation in the most appallingly difficult circumstances. Following deployment, the very least that they should expect is every possible assistance to enable them to use their civic right to vote. I cannot think of any situation more frustrating than for a young service man or woman coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan not being able to vote on the big issues affecting the nation today. I am sure that the Minister accepts and supports that view. Therefore, if the Electoral Commission and the MoD feel that further improvements can be made, I hope that there will be ways in which that can be achieved outwith this legislation.
My Lords, I am obviously very interested in this subject. I should like to be quite clear that it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence to bring to the attention of all service personnel the current situation, whatever it may be, in relation to voting. At the moment, it seems that one talks about the Ministry of Defence doing this or that, but I should like it to be clearly laid out that it is an MoD responsibility.
My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords. I should have praised, or at least mentioned, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and his colleagues, who also pushed for a change in our line on this. We were always persuaded that there was a problem, even though the numbers have gone up recently, and we always knew that more had to be done. However, as I said, their joint advocacy moved us to believe that we could alter the rules by statutory instrument as soon as practicable in order to change the time limit from three to five years.
As I understand it, getting members of the Armed Forces on to the register is a joint obligation on the Ministry of Defence and my department, the Ministry of Justice, which has responsibility for elections in general terms. That is the answer to the noble and gallant Lord.
The question of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, links with the question of the noble Lord, Lord Bates, asking what more we can do. On the information gained from the survey last year, we have redoubled efforts through the annual information campaign to encourage members of the Armed Forces and their families to register to vote and to update their registration details when they move. The campaign will continue to highlight the options for service personnel and their families to register as an ordinary elector or as a service voter; a choice that they can exercise depending on their circumstance.
Officials at my department will support that work and place particular focus on establishing how the MoD’s joint personnel administration system can help to promote service registration. As noble Lords will be aware, the Electoral Administration Act 2006 placed a duty on the MoD to maintain a record of a service person’s electoral registration record on a voluntary basis. The use of the system is still in its infancy, but responses from service personnel themselves in the 2008 survey suggest that they could be better employed to aid registration. It is clear that more work needs to be done to identify new ways of encouraging service personnel to register. My officials will meet MoD officials to discuss the matters in more detail, and I am happy to write to noble Lords on the outcome of that meeting so that they will be kept informed about progress. I hope that in the light of the offer that I have made to the noble Lord, Lord Bates, he will consider withdrawing his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s comments, as I am for the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, in these matters, and the intervention of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, who sought clarification of exactly where responsibility resides. The Minister’s response was clearly that responsibility is shared between the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence, in which case responsibility clearly needs to lead to action. It is not acceptable that there is such a large fall-off involved. More needs to happen to realise the aspiration put forward by the Electoral Commission about electoral registration awareness days.
There is a special electoral registration form for armed services personnel which is readily available on the internet. However, there is no substitute for having those in hard-copy form. When armed services personnel are deployed overseas, that should be part of the checks made under the standard operating procedures. That would seem a sensible way forward. The Minister has undertaken to make representations to the Ministry of Defence. We are encouraged by that and I am grateful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 83 withdrawn.
Moved by Lord Greaves84: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—
“Rejected postal votes
(1) Schedule 1 to the 1983 Act (parliamentary elections rules) is amended as follows.
(2) After rule 31A (return of postal ballot papers) there is inserted—
“Postal ballot papers not counted
(1) Where a postal vote has been returned but not counted because the personal identifiers—
(a) are absent,(b) are incomplete, or(c) do not match the personal identifiers provided with the application for a postal vote,the returning officer must record this information on a separate list (the list of postal votes returned but not counted) in addition to making the entry on the marked list.
(2) The list of postal votes returned but not counted is a relevant election document for the purposes of section 42 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006.
(3) The returning officer shall write to each elector whose returned postal vote has not been counted for a reason listed in paragraph (1) to inform them of the circumstances in which their vote has not been counted.”.”
Lord Greaves: My Lords, as I am going to refer to some of the local information on Pendle about which the noble Lord, Lord Bates, was asking, I should declare an interest in that I was the Liberal Democrat agent for most of the county council candidates in the recent elections and attended counts on both Friday morning and Sunday evening. The matter raised by the amendment was one I referred to briefly in Committee on a different amendment, but I have now brought it back following the experience in the recent elections as there is a serious problem that needs to be tackled. I am moving the amendment in the hope that it is helpful.
The amendment requires the returning officer to do two things. First, the returning officer must keep a separate list of those postal votes that have been returned, or where envelopes have been returned but where the votes have not been counted owing to a failure of the personal identifier system. In other words, the personal identifiers are absent, incomplete, or do not match the information that the council holds on file as a result of the application for a postal vote. I should say that I am particularly grateful to Gillian Hartley, who is the Pendle Council elections officer, for helping me to understand how the system works and what happens, and for providing me with the information that I shall offer a little later.
Secondly, the amendment requires the returning officer to write individually to each of the electors whose votes have not been counted because of a mismatch in or absence of the personal identifiers. At the moment, that does not happen. At the moment, two lists are produced after the election, which are available to candidates and political parties under the approved conditions.
The first is the marked register, which shows the people who have turned up at polling stations and been given a ballot paper—and, presumably voted. The second is the postal voters list, which provides a list of those postal votes which have been returned at that election. The postal voters list includes all the envelopes that have been returned, because the list is compiled from information on the envelopes before they are opened and before the votes are opened, so it includes those which are not subsequently counted. The provision of that list, which did not happen before the passing of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, was partly a result of discussion that took place in your Lordships' House on previous legislation, when it became clear that that list was required. Before then, the only list required was of the postal votes issued, not those returned.
The current system is that if you send a postal vote back, the envelope is returned, received and opened. Inside that envelope, there should be a smaller envelope, sealed up, that includes the ballot paper and the piece of paper that contains the personal identifier. When those personal identifiers are checked—I have to say that Pendle, like most of the councils in the north-west, did a 100 per cent check of postal votes and the returning officer decided to do it last year in view of the controversy over previous postal votes in Pendle—the sheet of personal identifiers comes in, it is fed into the machine that checks them and that computer-type machine checks whether the information about date of birth and signature match the information that the council holds on its records. If the machine thinks that they match, it goes through. If the machine thinks that they do not match, or it is not sure, it is spewed out and on the screen, on the monitor, is displayed the information that the council holds on its records. That is then compared visually and manually by counting staff with the paper that has come in, and they decide whether, yes, they match sufficiently or no, they do not. That is how it actually works.
We discussed this in Grand Committee, I brought evidence from two county council by-elections this spring in Nelson, which is part of Pendle, in one of which the number of rejected votes, because of a mismatch or absence of identifiers, was more than 5 per cent of the total, and in the other, which was a substantially Asian ward, more than 10 per cent. This year, in the six county divisions within Pendle, which make up Pendle and the area that counted for the European elections, 485 returned envelopes were rejected—in other words, the ballot paper was not looked at and not counted—for failure to provide a matching identifier. In some cases, the identifiers were absent; in some cases, only one of them was there; in most cases, they did not match. This was approximately 4.5 per cent of the total, on a return of postal votes of about 70 per cent.
In the most Asian division—I do not have the exact figure, but I think the Asian electorate is about 45 per cent of the total—the return of postal votes was 81.7 per cent, and 11.6 per cent of the envelopes returned were rejected. So across the area, about one in 20 was rejected, and in this particular division, it was more than one in 10.
I am interested in the Electoral Commission’s comment on this amendment, and I will read it:
“The Commission has since July 2007 recommended that the Government should enable Returning Officers and Electoral Registration Officers to access and use data that identifies electors whose postal votes were rejected due to a mismatch of identifiers. This information should be used by the Electoral Registration Officer to write to all electors whose postal votes were rejected due to a mismatch of identifiers, inviting them to provide fresh identifiers. The Returning Officer should also write to any elector where they believe that their postal ballot was used in error by someone other than the elector, advising of the correct process and the possible penalties for malpractice”.
Whether these figures show that people are simply making a mess of the system, or whether they show that, in some cases at least, there are attempts at voting fraud which have not succeeded because the postal vote identifier system is working, there is a problem. If one in 20 or one in 10, or something of that order—450 votes across the borough—are being sent in by people expecting them to be counted, and they are not being counted because the personal identifiers are absent or not matching, there is something wrong.
It seems to me that this is information to which candidates and political parties should have access after the election, because it is fairly obvious that, in some cases, there may be prima facie evidence of fraud. One of the reasons why candidates and political parties are allowed access to the marked register and the list of postal votes returned is precisely so that they can be investigated, and if people want to challenge an election or ask the police or the returning officer to get involved, they can do so. This seems to be a piece of information that also ought to be available, but at the very least, the electors concerned should be written to, because otherwise there may well be a lot of people who are sending back their votes in good faith, who are making the same mistake time after time. It may be that they have two signatures, and they are just using the wrong one—they are using their personal signature and not their cheque-book signature or whichever way around it is—and votes are being lost. There is, therefore, a problem here arising from the system of personal identifiers that was very properly introduced in order to make postal voting a bit more secure. There is a problem and it needs to be addressed.
My final point is that I am told by Mrs Hartley that the information on the proportions and numbers of these votes which have been rejected for these reasons are part of the information that is being sent off, she says, to Plymouth. I assume it is the elections centre at the University of Plymouth that is collecting information, as she says, on behalf of the Government. So there ought to be a lot of this information gathered in fairly soon from around the country. It is a serious problem and one that needs to be addressed. This amendment is an attempt to do that. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall comment briefly on the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. We obviously have some sympathy with the amendment in that it is designed to help deal with postal voting fraud, which I stress was an important issue in an earlier amendment. We have just three caveats that I shall point out before the Minister responds.
First, I worry that the amendment could place an excessive burden on the returning officer, and I am interested to know whether the noble Lord has carried out any assessment of the resource implications of the returning officer writing what might be a rather large number of letters, particularly in an area such as Pendle in which, as the noble Lord told us, some 400 or 500 postal votes were held not to be valid.
Secondly, if the returning officer had to write to each elector setting out why their vote has not been counted, as set out in proposed new sub-paragraph (3) in proposed new subsection (2) in the amendment, and if there was the possibility of a criminal prosecution of this matter later, I worry that anything that the returning officer might say might prejudice the chances of a fair trial. I would need legal advice as to whether that is the case, but no doubt the Minister will respond to that point in due course.
My third point relates to privacy. Proposed new sub-paragraph (2) in proposed new subsection (2) in the amendment tells us that:
“The list of postal votes returned but not counted”,
would be kept and would count as “a relevant election document”. As a relevant election document under Section 42 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, it would be available for inspection by the public. The noble Lord set out his reasons for that, but presumably—again, I welcome comments on this—it could have a detrimental impact on privacy of the ballot. People should not be able to see a list of those who have spoilt their ballot paper, intentionally or otherwise, so there are dangers in going down this route. Although I have expressed a degree of sympathy for the noble Lord’s amendment, I think that there are one or two problems with it.
My Lords, the amendment would require a returning officer to keep information on postal votes that have been rejected because the postal-vote identifiers have not been completed, are incomplete, or do not match the records held on the postal-vote application form. The second part of the amendment would require a returning officer to write to all electors whose postal vote was rejected notifying them of the circumstances in which it was rejected.
I think Members on all sides of the House are concerned to secure every possible improvement that we can to the postal voting system, and the amendment clearly has very good intentions, seeking as it does to ensure that votes cast may be counted and that the integrity of the system is strengthened. These are aims that the Government of course support, but while we may agree on the general intention, I have some concern about the policy prescription set out by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I am not convinced that compelling a returning officer to write to all electors who have had their postal vote ballot rejected due to a mismatch of identifiers is the correct course of action. In some cases, this may well have the effect simply of alerting would-be fraudsters to the failure of their attempt.
My inclination would be to grant the returning officer discretion so that, when there has clearly been a simple error such as entering the wrong date on the postal vote application or statement, the returning officer might write; but where the returning officer suspects fraud, he or she might consider that notifying the police to investigate is the correct course of action. This judgment should be made in conjunction with administrators and the Association of Chief Police Officers, rather than leaping to a decision that may hinder rather than help attempts to tackle fraud. At this late stage in the passage of the Bill, I do not consider there to be the time available for us to work through the issues so that we can be confident about making a change of this nature.
Another matter for further consideration is the question of those electors who do not respond to the letter issued by the returning officer. It may well be desirable for additional follow-up action to take place in this instance in order that the ERO might establish beyond doubt the identity of the individuals residing at that address with a view to ensuring the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the electoral register. However, this is properly a role for the electoral registration officer. Clarifying the powers for returning officers and electoral registration officers to share data for these purposes is another area which would need careful consideration. Rightly, there are clear provisions in law concerned with the safe disposal and secrecy of election documents. It would be all too easy to implement a change in the legislation which sought to provide access to election records for one purpose, but which inadvertently compromised the safety and secrecy of the information that those records contained.
On the provisions for dealing with election documents, I should also make it clear that the amendment put forward by the noble Lord is defective. It provides that the proposed list should be regarded as a relevant election document for the purpose of Section 42 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006. However, this section provides for access to election documents in relation to elections other than parliamentary elections. Corresponding provision in respect of parliamentary elections is made in Rules 55 to 57 of the parliamentary elections rules.
I am sorry that I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Henley, any answers, but his questions make the point that the Government would make. It is not straightforward. We would need to understand the size of the burden, the implications for a successful criminal prosecution and the implications for the whole area of privacy.
To summarise, we agree that there is merit in the intention behind the noble Lord’s amendment, but we are concerned that the right measures are put in place and we would wish to consult more widely before bringing forward proposals. I note from its briefing that the Electoral Commission supports the intention of the noble Lord. However, I understand that it shares our concerns about moving to legislation without due consideration of the issues at hand. The Government will therefore undertake to consider this issue with the commission, ACPO and other appropriate stakeholders with a view to legislating in the next electoral Bill. On this basis, I would ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful for that reply. I agree with a great deal of what the Minister has said, particularly about the potential tension between, on the one hand, when a returning officer or an electoral registration officer writes to people to say, “Sorry you have made a mistake. You ought to know this because you are losing your vote”—accidentally, presumably—and, on other hand, when they think that it might be evidence of fraud. I thought about that issue before writing this amendment, but I came to the view that it would be best to put down a simple amendment in order to raise the issue and in the hope of getting the response that the Minister has given. I am very grateful for that and for his promise. I was getting quite excited until he used the word “stakeholder”, then I lost interest.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Bates, I do not think that there will be a huge administrative burden. There will be a little extra administrative burden because when someone applies for a postal vote—at general elections a lot come in at the last minute—the returning officers write to people to check that they want it and that it is okay. Election offices are full of computers which are for ever churning out letters and envelopes. They do that all the time—perhaps they do it too much. Nevertheless, it is not a huge question. On the privacy and secrecy of documents, it is important that lists of everyone who has voted and everyone who has returned a postal vote envelope are produced, just like those that are produced at the moment.
The noble Lord referred to spoiled ballots. We are not talking about spoiled ballot papers, but those that have not even been looked at. I agree that a spoiled ballot paper should never be divulged because that is the way someone has voted, but here we are talking about ballot papers that have not been looked at or counted, so no one knows if they have been spoiled because they are still in their envelopes, having never been opened.
The Government said that they would work through these issues. Instead of waiting for the next election before introducing legislation, I wonder whether it might be possible to deal with this through secondary legislation by introducing statutory instruments to amend the election rules. I would ask the Government to look at that once they have carried out the consultation. However, I am very encouraged by what the Government have said and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 84 withdrawn.
84A: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—
(1) Except in the case of postal votes, ballot papers must be given to voters unfolded.
(2) The Commission shall monitor, and take such steps as they consider appropriate to securing, compliance with subsection (1).
(3) Within three months of an election, the Commission shall publish a report pursuant to subsection (2).
(4) If the Commission consider that failure to comply with subsection (1) may have affected the result of an election, it shall advise the Secretary of State on the validity of the election result and make public its advice.”
My Lords, as I mentioned at col. 893 during our last proceedings, this amendment is inspired by the very unsatisfactory events of 4 June during voting for the European Parliament. The name of my party, UKIP, which came last alphabetically on ballot papers, was folded over at the back of a large number of them. The result was that many hundreds of voters blocked our call centre saying that they could not find UKIP on the ballot paper and either asking what to do or telling us that they had voted for another party. I appreciate that a number of noble Lords may feel that this could not have happened to a nicer party, but it is worth recording that Mr Nick Griffin of the BNP won his seat from us in the north-west by only 1,300 votes.
The problem appears to have been at its worst in the south-east, where I understand that we may have been denied another seat. It is certainly true that we received a great many complaints from voters in East Sussex, especially Bexhill; from West Sussex, especially around Worthing; from Hampshire, especially in Farnborough; and from Surrey, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, especially in Aylesbury. Such inquiries as we have been able to make indicate two main causes: machine folding, perhaps before the ink was dry, by printers supplying local returning officers, and the manual folding of ballot papers by polling clerks. This latter practice is encouraged by the Electoral Commission in its guide to polling station staff. Machine folding by printers appears to have been a major problem in Yorkshire, while manually folded papers caused serious problems in the eastern region and the West Midlands.
Following a complaint from our party leader, Mr Nigel Farage, the commission did issue guidance on 4 June that all ballot papers should be handed out unfolded, but this followed only very late in the day, sometimes as late as 9 pm, and does not appear to have been generally followed at all in the north-west. As things stand at the moment, the onus appears to be on UKIP to discover exactly what happened and where, and if it can muster sufficient evidence, to mount a petition to the commission for a re-run. This is a prohibitively expensive task and one, I submit, that should not fall to the affected party but to the commission. I would have hoped that, at the very least, the commission would find out how many ballot papers with UKIP over the back were machine folded and where they were distributed, and how many were folded at polling stations. I would have thought that the commission should also employ a good independent psephologist, if it does not have one in-house, and publish an objective report drawing on all these inputs. If anything like this happens in the future, surely the commission should sort it out, not the damaged party. I look forward to the Minister’s view on these questions.
I also wonder whether the commission should be empowered to oversee and direct regional and local returning officers on the printing, distribution and handling of ballot papers, especially when the list of candidates is as long as it was in many areas on 4 June. I understand that the commission does not think that this amendment is necessary, so may I assume that it will be doing all the things I have suggested above under the present Act? If not, how will we get redress? What happens next? I look forward to the Minister’s reply and I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall comment briefly on the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and, in doing so, I recognise that it is of the utmost importance that people get the opportunity to vote for the party they wish to vote for.
One of the consequences of the ever expanding list of parties seeking election under our proportional representation system for European elections is that the ballot paper is ever lengthening. An interesting point has been raised as to whether someone needs to think—forgive the pun—outside the box on this and consider whether the shape of the current ballot paper is the right one. The noble Lord’s amendment, which I assume is a probing amendment, might not be able to answer the point. If a burden is placed on people to ensure that papers are not folded, it might lead to disputes in polling stations. If a paper were folded there could be a discussion about whether it was done by one of the polling clerks or by the elector. I can foresee many such disputes.
The noble Lord raises a valid point. If he cannot find satisfaction on this issue, he might consider changing his party’s name so that it appears further up the ballot paper. However, I do not wish to be guilty of giving too much assistance to him.
My Lords, the amendment seeks to ensure that all ballot papers are handed out in polling stations with the paper flat in order to prevent the problem of folded papers potentially hiding the names of candidates from the sight of electors. The amendment would require the Electoral Commission to monitor whether that was done and to report on it, and to assess any adverse impacts if and when it was not done.
Clarity for the elector and a level playing field for the parties are of course important factors, and I fully understand why the noble Lord has brought forward his amendment. It cannot be right that the nature of the production of a ballot paper, or any other element of the administration of an election, should adversely impact on how electors vote or on the results for a party or candidate. In this instance, I understand that the production of the ballot papers with machine folds had caused the bottom of the papers in some areas of two regions—Yorkshire and the Humber and the South-East—to be bent upwards. It is reported to have potentially obscured the names of one or a number of candidates so that they were not apparent to electors as they marked their votes. There are, however, large versions of the ballot paper posted up in all polling stations to assist voters in making their choice.
As I understand it from officials, action was taken to address the issue on 4 June, once the concerns of the noble Lord and his party were raised in the morning. Indeed, I had the pleasure of speaking to the noble Lord that morning in the environs of this Chamber. This included the local returning officers in relevant areas being asked to ensure that ballot papers were handed out flat, and then a subsequent notice to that effect was sent out from the Electoral Commission to all returning officers in the UK.
The ballot papers for the elections were very long due to a significant number of candidates standing. For ease of transport and handling, I am told, they were folded to fit into cardboard boxes. That in itself is not a problem; rather, as the Government understand it, it is the position and nature of the folds that may have caused an issue in this instance. In fact, the Electoral Commission’s guidance, as contained in the handbook that it produces for polling station staff, actively suggests that the practice of folding the completed ballot paper before it is put in the ballot box in the polling station is maintained to ensure the secrecy of the vote. So perhaps we should pause before moving to legislate in the manner proposed by the noble Lord. However, I suspect that this is a probing amendment and, if I may, I will treat it as such. I am therefore not going to criticise its wording because that would just be to waste time.
Notwithstanding what I have said, the Electoral Commission has a statutory duty under Section 5 of the PPER Act to prepare and publish a report on the administration of the European parliamentary elections. I understand that the commission has already undertaken to report on this issue in detail. It is right that we await the outcome of that report and consider the most appropriate way forward in the light of evidence. Pending receipt of that report and consideration of its conclusions, however, we think that the issue is best addressed for the moment by identifying best practice and issuing clear revised guidance on the production, supply and handling of ballot papers. I understand that the commission’s thinking is along these lines.
The noble Lord raises an important issue. We are grateful to him, and we will respond accordingly as a Government once the full facts of the case are available.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken, particularly the Minister. Of course there is nothing wrong with a folded ballot paper, provided that it does not cause the problems that were caused on 4 June. I accept that greater secrecy is achieved by folded ballot papers, and I am also aware that there were large versions of the ballot paper in the polling booths. That did not stop hundreds of people ringing in and saying that they did not understand how to vote for UKIP. It is true, as I think I mentioned in my remarks, that the Electoral Commission issued instructions, and I am most grateful to the Minister for his interest on the day in question. It is also true, though, that those instructions did not appear until very late in the day. I hope that before Third Reading I will be able to get a better idea of what the commission proposes to do in this case. In the mean time, though, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
On a slightly separate subject, I am also extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bates, for suggesting that I should rejoin his party. That, of course, depends on whether the Conservative Party joins me on another matter.
Amendment 84A withdrawn.
85: Before Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—
“Establishment of corporation sole to be CORE keeper
(1) Part 1 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 (c. 22) (co-ordinated on-line record of electors) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 1 (CORE schemes: establishment), in subsection (10), for “must be a public authority” there is substituted “must be—
(a) a corporation sole established by an order under section 3A, or(b) some other public authority”.(3) After section 3 there is inserted—
“3A Establishment of corporation sole to be CORE keeper
(1) The Secretary of State may by order establish a corporation sole (“the corporation”) with a view to its being designated by a CORE scheme as the CORE keeper.
(2) The Secretary of State may also by order establish a panel (“the advisory panel”) to provide advice and support to the corporation.
(3) An order under this section may make—
(a) provision for and in connection with the appointment of—(i) the occupant of the corporation (“the office-holder”);(ii) directors of the corporation (including non-executive directors);(iii) one or more deputies to the office-holder;(iv) other officers or members of staff of the corporation;(v) members of the advisory panel.(b) provision about the terms and conditions of appointment of persons referred to in paragraph (a) (including provision about how and by whom those terms and conditions are to be determined and provision as to their approval);(c) provision about the payment to or in respect of persons referred to in paragraph (a)(i) to (iv) of remuneration, allowances, expenses, pensions, gratuities or compensation for loss of employment;(d) provision about the payment of allowances and expenses to members of the advisory panel;(e) provision about the acquisition and disposal by the corporation, and in particular the transfer to the corporation by the Secretary of State, of property, rights and liabilities;(f) provision about the transfer of staff to the corporation by the Secretary of State;(g) provision about the functions of the corporation and of the advisory panel, and about delegation of functions of the office-holder;(h) provision requiring the corporation to consult the advisory panel in relation to particular matters or in particular circumstances;(i) provision about accounts and reports, including—(i) provision requiring accounts and reports of the corporation to be laid before Parliament and published;(ii) provision about auditing of accounts;(j) provision about the name of the corporation and of the advisory panel;(k) incidental, supplementary, consequential or transitional provision. (4) An order under this section may add such entries to—
(a) the Table in paragraph 3 of Schedule 1 to the Public Records Act 1958,(b) Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967,(c) Schedule 1 to the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, or(d) Schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975,as the Secretary of State considers appropriate in consequence of the establishment of the corporation or the advisory panel.(5) The Secretary of State may make payments to the corporation of such amounts, at such times and on such conditions (if any) as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.
(6) Neither the corporation nor any person referred to in subsection (3)(a)(i) to (iv) nor the advisory panel is to be regarded as a servant or agent of the Crown or as enjoying any status, immunity or privilege of the Crown.”
(4) In section 6 (CORE schemes: procedure)—
(a) in subsection (1), after “section 1” there is inserted “or 3A”;(b) after subsection (5) there is inserted—“(6) An order under section 3A must not be made unless the Secretary of State first consults—
(a) the Electoral Commission;(b) the Information Commissioner.””
My Lords, I am moving these amendments today as they are necessary to the successful implementation of the co-ordinated online record of electors, or CORE, scheme. The amendments are essential to ensure that there is authority to create a new non-departmental public body to fulfil the role of the CORE keeper. Until November 2008 it was intended that the Electoral Commission would fulfil this role, and the Electoral Administration Act 2006 makes provision for that. Following the recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, however, the commission is seeking to refocus its functions and concentrate on enhancing its regulatory role. The Government agree with the commission that this is the right thing to do.
Furthermore, the Government have now brought forward our proposals for the introduction of a scheme of individual registration. It is quite likely that we will require a central point through which electors’ personal identifiers, such as national insurance numbers, may be validated with the relevant authority, and CORE may provide that service. Such a role does not currently fit with the Electoral Commission’s redefined regulatory role, but it is important that the public body taking on this role is demonstrably independent from government. In bringing these amendments forward, therefore, we will ensure that the CORE scheme can be delivered without delay, and that the necessary infrastructure can be developed to facilitate the introduction of individual registration.
The new clause that is brought in by Amendment 85 inserts new Section 3A into the 2006 Act to enable the Secretary of State, by order, to establish a new non-departmental public body in the form of a corporation sole with a view to its being designated by a CORE scheme as the CORE keeper.
This type of body is considered appropriate for three reasons. First, it would comprise a single office-holder, meaning that there is an identifiable decision-maker for accountability purposes. This is regarded as important because the CORE keeper’s functions under the 2006 Act will include the receiving and processing of electoral registration information from EROs. Secondly, it would achieve the right balance between daily operational independence and accountability to Parliament via the Secretary of State, who would appoint the office-holder. Finally, a single identifiable decision-maker is similar in concept to an electoral registration officer, and is therefore a model that is established and well understood within the electoral administration field.
Taking a power to create the corporation sole in secondary legislation is designed to provide an appropriate degree of flexibility so that the precise detail of the structure and operation of the body, and the timing of its creation, can be developed consistently with the CORE scheme order. The amendment provides for necessary matters of detail concerning the creation of the corporation sole to be addressed in the order, and makes provision for a number of matters that would be consequential on the establishment of the corporation sole. In particular, it amends Section 1(10) of the 2006 Act expressly to provide that a person designated as the CORE keeper under the CORE scheme must be a corporation sole established under the new power, or some other public authority. This preserves the ability for another public authority to take on the role of CORE keeper if that is considered appropriate in the future. It also provides for an order establishing the new corporation sole to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and provides that, before the order can be made, the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner must be consulted. These requirements are designed to ensure that the order will be subject to a high degree of scrutiny.
Moving on to the other amendments, Amendment 86 is intended to provide additional protections around access to the electoral register from the CORE keeper. The effect of current provisions in the 2006 Act is that the regulations governing the supply of the electoral register by EROs will also apply to the CORE keeper, subject to any modifications that the Secretary of State considers appropriate. This means that bodies entitled to receive copies of the electoral registers and related information from EROs will be entitled to receive the same information from the CORE keeper, subject to the same restrictions on access and use. This does not expand the range of bodies with access to the registers, but the creation of the CORE scheme would enable the registers to be accessed from a single source on a national scale. In light of this, specific arrangements may be required where information is supplied by the CORE keeper to ensure that the provision of data is appropriate. Accordingly, Amendment 86 supplements the Secretary of State’s existing power to modify the application of the regulations by enabling additional or different conditions to be imposed on the supply of material by the CORE keeper.
Amendment 87 relates to Section 3 of the Juries Act 1974, which currently requires EROs to supply copies of the register for the purpose of jury summoning. Once the CORE system is operational, it may be more efficient and convenient for the registers to be supplied on a national scale by the CORE keeper, rather than by each individual ERO. Accordingly, this amendment takes a power to amend Section 3 of the Juries Act to provide for this, but it would not allow anyone who is not already entitled to access the register from EROs to do so from the CORE keeper.
Finally, Amendment 88 extends the Secretary of State’s existing powers in relation to the CORE scheme order so that the order can authorise information sharing between the CORE keeper and the Electoral Commission. As I have already detailed, the original intention was for the Electoral Commission to be the CORE keeper. However, now that this is not to be the case, it is important that the CORE keeper is able to furnish the commission with information that is relevant to its functions. It is envisaged that the power may be exercised to enable the CORE keeper to provide the Electoral Commission with statistical reports, for example, regarding registration patterns or the number of notifications made by the CORE keeper to EROs about circumstances that may be indicative of absent voter fraud or other improprieties. The power may also be used to enable the CORE keeper to inform the commission where an ERO has failed to report back to the CORE keeper on steps taken to investigate potential instances of fraud or other improprieties, as may be required in the CORE scheme order. I beg to move.
Amendment 85 agreed.
Clause 25 : CORE information and action to be taken by electoral registration officers
Amendments 86 to 88
86: Clause 25, page 26, line 6, at end insert—
“( ) At the end of subsection (3) there is inserted—
“Modifications under this subsection may, in particular, provide for the supply of material by a CORE keeper to be subject to conditions or restrictions which do not apply in the case of an ERO (or which differ from those that apply in the case of an ERO).””
87: Clause 25, page 26, line 6, at end insert—
“( ) After subsection (4) there is inserted—
“(4A) A CORE scheme may amend section 3 of the Juries Act 1974 (electoral register as basis of jury selection)—
(a) so as to require a CORE keeper to supply a designated officer with any documents or information referred to in that section (as it had effect immediately before the establishment of the scheme), and to make provision as to when the CORE keeper is to do so;(b) so as to require an ERO to supply a designated officer with any such documents or information, but only when requested to do so by the officer.In this subsection “designated officer” means an officer designated by the Lord Chancellor.””
88: Clause 25, page 26, line 30, at end insert—
“( ) After that subsection there is inserted—
“(11A) A CORE scheme may authorise the CORE keeper to supply information to the Electoral Commission.””
Amendments 86 to 88 agreed.
Clause 26 : Voluntary provision of identifying information
89: Clause 26, page 27, line 20, leave out subsection (7)
My Lords, the Government have tabled a number of amendments to the individual registration clauses. Many of these, with the exception of Amendments 90, 91, 92, 99, 100, 101, 114 and 117, are minor technical changes that tidy up the way that these clauses are intended to work and I do not propose to say anything about them. There is also a small number of more significant changes that I will describe shortly. I do not think that I need to go into detail at this hour about the importance of the shift to individual registration, which as a principle I know has the support of all the main parties in the House. It marks a significant point in the evolution of our electoral registration processes in Great Britain.
I wish to mention briefly five changes. The first concerns Amendment 90, which amends Clause 27(2)(d) to broaden the purposes for which EROs can check information provided from the national insurance number (NINO) database during the voluntary phase of individual registration. The purpose of this amendment is to give EROs more flexibility in using data from the NINO database, while also ensuring that data are used only for appropriate purposes relating to checking a person’s entitlement to vote.
Amendment 91 provides for the disclosure of information by the CORE keeper to a registration officer for the purposes of registration. Amendment 101 introduces a requirement for registration officers to provide assistance to the Electoral Commission for the purpose of compiling its reports, and thus is very close to what the Official Opposition are looking for in their Amendment 96. In practice this is likely to cover the provision of information that the commission is likely to require. The Electoral Commission specifically asked if we might include this requirement in our legislation.
Amendments 99 and 100 make a number of amendments to the steps the Secretary of State needs to take in the event that there is not a positive endorsement of the shift to individual registration in 2014 by either the Electoral Commission or Parliament. If noble Lords require more detail on those amendments, I shall be happy to give them that information. Those are the government amendments in short. I shall now sit down as I know that there are opposition amendments in this group. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for explaining the government amendments. I wish to comment briefly on the two amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Bates, and on Amendment 98, to which I imagine the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, will want to speak, and which my noble friend and I also support.
As regards Amendments 96 and 97, in light of what the noble Lord said about achieving most of what we were trying to do in those amendments, and in view of the lateness of the hour I assure noble Lords that I shall not move those amendments when we come to them. As regards Amendment 98, I make it clear again, as we did in Committee, that we still find it odd that the Government are trying to insist that nothing can go ahead before 2014, whatever happens. That is why we strongly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, myself and my noble friend Lord Bates. That amendment makes it clear that if the commission believes that an appropriate assessment has been made, as provided by subsection (4)(a), a recommendation can then be made that the process should go ahead. Most of us, being rather cynical, suspect that there are political motives behind this and that we are not allowed, if things are ready, to move ahead of the date 2014, if that is possible. It might be that the Government have been conservative, and it might not be possible to get things moving by 2014, but it might be that we are easily ready for that date. When the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, comes to move his Amendment 98, which we are supporting, we will certainly give it our backing. I do not know what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, intends to do with it at this late hour on a Wednesday evening. If he feels it is inappropriate to divide what I imagine is a fairly empty House at this hour, he might consider coming back to it at Report stage. Certainly, as this is happening at a late hour, we would reserve the right to consider that if it was necessary.
My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Henley, means the Third Reading for a further look at this. We are getting to the stage now when we are all a bit punch-drunk.
The integrity of the register is incredibly important and we welcome the moves that the Government are making towards personal identifiers. I think I am right in saying that the Electoral Commission made its recommendations as long ago as 2003. It is a very long time ago; we ought to have made more progress by now. As the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said, the purpose of Amendment 98, standing in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Rennard and supported by the noble Lords, Lord Henley and Lord Bates, is to try to build back into the Bill a little more flexibility. If we can make some progress, it surely would be right to do so.
In Grand Committee, the argument that the Minister gave was that if we were to move more quickly it might conflict with the run-up to the general election. He is obviously greatly better informed that I am, because who knows when the election after next is likely to be? We might indeed find ourselves with a very short Parliament. I was the victim of the very short Parliament in 1974—in and out within eight months. Who knows? I therefore do not regard that argument as being conclusive, unless of course the Government are going to move towards fixed-term Parliaments as part of their package of reform proposals that are due any moment now.
We simply thought that it was sensible to ask the Electoral Commission not to be boxed into a corner of automatically doing nothing until 2014 and that if there was a possibility of moving further and faster, we should do so. But we recognise also that there are important reasons why that may not be possible. We are not precluding the possibility of waiting until 2014; we are simply saying that if we can move further, faster and earlier we should so.
I shall listen with interest to what the Minister says on this subject in a moment. I assume that he is going to address that particular point, and then we will have to think very carefully whether it is appropriate to pursue this any further at this late hour, or whether it is more sensible to look at it again, in the light of the Minister’s response, in time for Third Reading.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords. Amendment 98 is an important amendment. It provides the Electoral Commission with a 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. Our proposal is well known.
Of course, I am aware that some noble Lords believe that we should be moving more quickly towards a system of individual registration. As I argued in Grand Committee, a phased approach is the only way to ensure that this very radical change is made effectively. We should not rush it. The specific timetable we have set out delivers on this phased approach. It has been developed with great care, with due regard to the magnitude of the change and the risks involved. What this timetable allows is, first, sufficient time for the public to acclimatise itself to the change; secondly, time for each and every one of the 400-plus electoral registration officers to adapt to the new system and to ensure that all are working to the level of the best; thirdly, time to investigate and test which public sector databases will be of most assistance to registration officers in targeting people not included on the register; and, finally, time to design the infrastructure for the validation of national insurance numbers, which will underpin the new system. Importantly, the proposed timetable will also allow us to minimise disruption to elections by avoiding, so far as is possible, national and sub-national elections, such as the 2014 elections to the European Parliament.
In developing that timetable, we have paid careful attention to the Northern Ireland experience when implementing individual registration. That is an important point in my argument. The registration rate fell significantly in Northern Ireland when individual registration was introduced. There is an ongoing debate about why that happened, and at least some of the decrease in the numbers registered in Northern Ireland in 2002 was due to the removal of the carry-forward, but the Electoral Commission’s analysis tells us that the impact of that change was keenly felt among particular groups. It states that individual registration,
“tended to have an adverse impact on disadvantaged, marginalised and hard-to-reach groups. Young people and students, people with learning disabilities and other forms of disability, and those living in areas of high social deprivation were less likely to be registered and encountered specific problems with the new registration process”.
It goes on:
“While these findings relate directly to Northern Ireland, they are not unique and reflect the wider picture across the UK. They present a major challenge to all those concerned with widening participation in electoral and democratic processes”.
That comment is important.
We all agree that making the shift towards individual registration is right but, in doing so, we have to ensure that we do not disfranchise large numbers of people who may find the new system more onerous. That becomes especially important when you consider that already an estimated 3 million individuals are not registered to vote. We must do all we can to ensure that that figure does not increase. By taking time to prepare both the system and the public for the change, to analyse registration performance and to develop a better understanding of the issues impacting on registration rates, we mitigate the risk of that outcome. Now more than ever, we need to ensure that we do not take steps that risk discouraging individuals from engaging in our democracy. A more effective and secure registration system is more likely to be achieved by building in time, to ensure to that the factors that I have mentioned can be fully taken into account in a realistic timeframe. That is what our proposal is designed to achieve.
The work that I have described would be vital to the success or otherwise of the shift to compulsory individual registration. The Electoral Commission’s reports will provide invaluable evidence about registration rates, the performance of EROs and the operation of the system, which will inform our understanding of its preparedness for the change. Without that information, we cannot have a full understanding of whether the system is ready for the shift. We must protect the space for the Electoral Commission to undertake proper and robust analysis during the voluntary phase. It is only on the basis of that evidence that we can be confident that the system can withstand the change.
If the idea is that a pre-2014 recommendation should be permissible and brought before Parliament if made in favour of individual registration, we would resist that. Furthermore, the existing proposed timetable is a fair balance between the role of the Electoral Commission and that of Parliament. It is right that Parliament should set the agenda for moving towards a compulsory phase, taking into account the recommendations of the commission. A decision as historic as this should be made only after a thorough and informed parliamentary debate.
The purpose of a phased approach to implementation is to ensure that we take the necessary time to bolster, adapt and improve the current system for registration, in readiness for the major shift in process. 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 could be dire.
That is the Government’s argument as to why the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, should not be moved.
Amendment 89 agreed.
Clause 27 : Regulations amending or supplementing section 26
Amendments 90 to 95
90: Clause 27, page 28, line 8, at end insert “or checking a person’s entitlement to be registered in a register”
91: Clause 27, page 28, line 11, at end insert—
“(ee) provision for the disclosure by a CORE keeper to a registration officer, for the purpose mentioned in paragraph (d), of information within sub-paragraph (i) or (ii) of that paragraph;”
92: Clause 27, page 28, line 14, at end insert—
“(2A) Information obtained by a registration officer or CORE keeper under regulations made by virtue of subsection (2)(d) or (ee) may not be disclosed by the officer or CORE keeper except—
(a) for the purpose mentioned in subsection (2)(d), or(b) for the purposes of any criminal or civil proceedings,or, in the case of information obtained by a registration officer, to a person to whom the officer may delegate his or her functions.(2B) A person who discloses information in breach of subsection (2A) is guilty of an offence and liable—
(a) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or to a fine, or to both;(b) on summary conviction in England and Wales and Scotland, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or to both;(c) on summary conviction in Northern Ireland, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months, or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or to both.”
93: Clause 27, page 28, line 25, leave out “section” and insert “Part”
94: Clause 27, page 28, leave out lines 42 to 44
95: Clause 27, page 28, leave out line 46
Amendments 90 to 95 agreed.
Clause 28 : Report by Electoral Commission on provision of identifying information
Amendments 96 to 98 not moved.
Amendments 99 to 102
99: Clause 28, page 29, line 42, leave out “the Secretary of State may require the Electoral” and insert “within 12 months after the day on which the report is submitted by the Electoral Commission (in the case mentioned in paragraph (a)) or disapproved in Parliament (in the case mentioned in paragraph (b)), the Secretary of State must require the”
100: Clause 28, page 29, line 45, leave out subsection (8) and insert—
“(8) For the purposes of subsection (7)—
(a) a report is disapproved in Parliament when either House decides against resolving to approve the report (or, if both Houses so decide on different days, when the first of them so decides); (b) the date specified by the Secretary of State must be at least one year, but no more than two years, after the day on which the requirement under that subsection is imposed.”
101: Clause 28, page 30, line 2, at end insert—
“( ) A registration officer must comply with any request made in writing by the Electoral Commission for assistance that they reasonably require in connection with the preparation of a report under this section.”
102: Clause 28, page 30, leave out line 6
Amendments 99 to 102 agreed.
103: After Clause 28, insert the following new Clause—
“Personal identifiers at the ballot box
(1) Schedule 1 (parliamentary election rules) to the Representation of the People Act 1983 is amended as follows.
(2) After rule 37(1) (ballot paper to be delivered to voter on application) there is inserted—
“(1A) A ballot paper shall not be delivered to a voter unless he has produced a specified document to the presiding officer or a clerk.
(1B) Where a voter produces a specified document, the presiding officer or clerk to whom it is produced shall deliver a ballot paper to the voter unless the officer or clerk decides that the document raises a reasonable doubt as to whether the voter is the elector or proxy he represents himself to be.
(1C) Where a voter produces a specified document to a presiding officer and he so decides, the presiding officer shall refuse to deliver a ballot paper to the voter.
(1D) Where a voter produces a specified document to a clerk and he so decides, he shall refer the matter and produce the document to the presiding officer who shall proceed as if the document has been produced to him in the first place.
(1E) For the purposes of this rule the Secretary of State must, as soon as is practicable, after consultation with the Electoral Commission, designate by order what the “specified document” or “specified documents” are.
(1F) The power to make an order under paragraph (1E) is exercisable by statutory instrument.
(1G) No order may be made under paragraph (1E) unless a draft of the instrument containing the order has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.
(1H) Orders made under paragraph (1E) may be subject to alteration by subsequent orders made by the Secretary of State in consultation with the Electoral Commission.
(1I) References in this rule to producing a document are to producing it for inspection.”
(3) After rule 38(1) (incapacitated voter’s vote to be marked on ballot paper on application) there is inserted—
“(1A) Paragraphs (1A) to (1G) of rule 37 shall apply in the case of a voter who applies under paragraph (1) above as they apply in the case of a voter who applies under rule 37(1), but reading references to delivering a ballot paper to a voter as references to causing a voter’s vote to be marked on a ballot paper.”.
(4) After rule 39(2) (blind voter to be allowed assistance of companion on application) there is inserted—
“(2A) Paragraphs (1A) to (1G) of rule 37 shall apply in the case of a voter who applies under paragraph (1) above as they apply in the case of a voter who applies under rule 37(1), but reading references to delivering a ballot paper to a voter as references to granting a voter’s application.”.
(5) After rule 40(1) (person entitled to mark tendered ballot paper after another has voted) there is inserted—
“(1A) Paragraphs (1A) to (1G) of rule 37 shall apply in the case of a person who seeks to mark a tendered ballot paper under paragraph (1) above as they apply in the case of a voter who applies for a ballot paper under rule 37(1).
(1B) Paragraph (1C) below applies where a presiding officer refuses to deliver a ballot paper to a person under paragraph (1C) of rule 37 (including that paragraph as applied by rule 38 or 39 or this rule).
(1C) The person shall, on satisfactorily answering the questions permitted by law to be asked at the poll, nevertheless be entitled, subject to the following provisions of this rule, to mark a ballot paper (in these rules referred to as “a tendered ballot paper”) in the same manner as any other voter.”.
(6) After rule 40(4) there is inserted—
“(5) A person who marks a tendered ballot paper under paragraph (1C) shall sign the paper, unless it was marked after an application was refused under rule 38 or 39.
(6) A paper which is required to be signed under paragraph (5) above and is not so signed shall be void.”.”
My Lords, this amendment brings in personal identifiers at the ballot box. I spoke on this issue in our long debate on IVR in Grand Committee. At that point, I said that I did not think that fraud at the ballot box in the form of personation was that serious a problem. I have since been advised that it is, in fact, a growing problem, mainly in local elections, because personation is quite difficult to do in large numbers. However, in houses of multiple occupancy and similar establishments it is often easy for people to pick up a number of different polling cards and use them to vote in the names of other people.
When he responded in Committee, the Minister did not consider this to be a serious problem and did not seem to think that merely providing some proof of identity would necessarily deal with it, because one would have to decide what type of proof of identity would have to be produced. In the previous group of amendments, the noble Lord prayed in aid Northern Ireland legislation. We have taken our amendment from legislation in Northern Ireland whereby voters have to have personal identifiers, but we have left out the bit that specifies the document that would have to be produced by the individual when they turned up at the polling station. We have left it for the Secretary of State to designate that by order.
Most of us normally carry some form of identification that would be enough to stamp out most fraud of this sort—a driving licence or even a credit card. If people were required to take credit cards, which obviously do not have photo ID on them, it would complicate the whole matter and would make it that much harder for them to commit fraud on a large scale, which must be our issue of concern.
I feel quite strongly about this amendment, but I shall listen carefully to what the noble Lord has to say about it. At this hour, whether we press this to a vote will depend very much on the support I receive from other parts of the House and on the response I get from the Government as to whether they will consider bringing this measure forward at a future date. I beg to move.
My Lords, all that I want to say at this stage is that I know from friends who have experience of Northern Ireland that they think that the requirement for personal identification is natural. They are so used to it that they do not think that this matter should be controversial. Frankly, at this time of night we are not going to have a substantial debate, but we may well wish to return to this issue at Third Reading. I hope that the Minister will give some thought to what could be done, because there is a genuine concern that if we are to move in this direction we need to ensure that it works as effectively as it does in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, the amendment would require electors to produce evidence of their identity in order to be issued with a ballot paper at a polling station in an election. The purpose is to strengthen the security of the voting process at polling stations. Of course, voting at polling stations has traditionally been conducted without the need for any personal identification to be produced.
However, as we have been told, it is an offence to attempt to vote in place of another elector. That is personation. The Electoral Commission has provided guidance for returning officers on the actions that polling station staff should take if they suspect that a person requesting a ballot paper is not who they claim to be. It has encouraged returning officers to supply copies of this guidance to all presiding officers. The commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers have also worked together to produce guidance for police officers on how they should respond to any incidents of personation at polling stations.
Any proposal to require voters in polling stations in Great Britain to produce ID as envisaged under the amendment would need very careful consideration. Though the amendment provides for a wide range of documents that may be produced as evidence of identity at polling stations, the Government remain of the view that requiring identification might present considerable barriers to voting at elections for some individuals. I note from the Electoral Commission’s briefing note that it is also of this view, stating:
“While we would welcome such consultation, we believe that the benefits of moving to a system of ID in polling stations would need to be carefully considered before deciding on whether legislation should be introduced, so as to examine the risk that it could disenfranchise some electors”.
The requirement to produce evidence of identity would be a significant change; we must ensure that any approach is aligned with other reforms to the registration and electoral processes that are a part of this Bill. It would be premature at this stage to introduce identifiers in order to vote before we have had the chance to scrutinise the feasibility and any subsequent effectiveness of moving to a system that requires identifiers to be produced in order to register to vote.
It is perhaps worth mentioning the recent information published on 1 May by ACPO and the Electoral Commission, which allows us for the first time to examine the extent and nature of allegations of electoral malpractice. From the information published, it is evident that there were 13 alleged cases of personation at the 2008 elections, with no further action being taken in at least six of these cases. While any instance of personation is unacceptable, these figures must be seen in the context of the 16 million votes that were cast at those elections. Any response must be proportionate.
Our view is that, while not rejecting this out of hand, the available evidence does not justify the potential barriers to voting that the measure proposed by noble Lords might well put in place. This Government are prepared to take forward significant reform of the electoral system as, I hope, the introduction of individual registration clearly demonstrates. The approach we have taken to ensure that we strengthen the integrity of the system on a step-by-step basis, in the light of available evidence, in a way that does not disfranchise those electors who are entitled to cast their vote, is the right one. We do not think this amendment fits in with that. The great worry is that people will turn up at the polling station without any identification and then be turned away. That is the problem that we need to overcome. That is what I have to say on the matter on behalf of the Government tonight. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I do not think that that was satisfactory. I am minded to consider what to do about it in due course. At three minutes past 10, I will spare the noble Lord a Division on this matter, because I suspect that the response that we might get might not be representative of the feelings of the House.
I think that there is a problem here. I have certainly been advised that there is one. I do not think that it would be a problem for people to bring some form of identification. Most people have some form of identification of one sort or another on them most of the time. We suspect the Government want ultimately to make that compulsory by bringing in ID cards. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, denies this and shakes his head. However, we know that ID cards are on the way. At least, the Government seem to think that they are on the way; I am not sure that they will ever happen.
I will not go any further. The response was unsatisfactory. I will consider what we shall do with this matter. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 103 withdrawn.
Clause 29 : Obligatory provision of identifying information
Amendments 104 to 111
104: Clause 29, page 30, line 34, after “above” insert “or by virtue of subsection (4C) above”
105: Clause 29, page 31, line 12, after “above” insert “or by virtue of subsection (1C) above”
106: Clause 29, page 31, line 47, after “above” insert “or by virtue of subsection (2C) above”
107: Clause 29, page 32, line 23, leave out from “keeper” to “, following” in line 24
108: Clause 29, page 32, line 36, at end insert “or checking a person’s entitlement to be registered in such a register”
109: Clause 29, page 32, line 40, at end insert—
“(4ZC) Provisions for the disclosure by a CORE keeper to a registration officer, for the purpose mentioned in sub-paragraph (4ZA), of information within paragraph (a) or (b) of that sub-paragraph.”
110: Clause 29, page 32, line 40, at end insert—
“( ) in sub-paragraph (4A), for “such authority or person” there is substituted “authority or person within paragraph (a) or (b) of sub-paragraph (4)”, and for “such records” there is substituted “any records within sub-paragraph (4)”;”
111: Clause 29, page 32, line 43, leave out paragraph (c) and insert—
“(c) for sub-paragraph (6) there is substituted—“(6) But provision made under sub-paragraph (4ZA), (4ZC) or (4A) may not permit information obtained by a registration officer or CORE keeper under that provision to be disclosed by the officer or CORE keeper except—(a) for the purpose mentioned in sub-paragraph (4ZA) or, as the case may be, sub-paragraph (4A), or(b) for the purposes of any criminal or civil proceedings,or, in the case of information obtained by a registration officer, to a person to whom the officer may delegate functions.”;”
Amendments 104 to 111 agreed.
My Lords, as Amendment 111 has been agreed to, Amendment 112 should not refer to page 32, line 44.
112: Clause 29, page 32, line 44, at end insert—
“( ) after sub-paragraph (6) there is inserted—“(6A) In sub-paragraphs (4ZA) and (4ZB) “CORE keeper” has the same meaning as in Part 1 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006.”;”
Amendment 112 agreed.
113: Clause 29, page 32, line 45, leave out paragraph (d) and insert—
“(d) sub-paragraph (8) is omitted.”
Amendment 113 agreed.
114: Clause 29, page 32, line 46, at end insert—
“( ) In paragraph 13 of that Schedule, for sub-paragraph (1ZA) there is substituted—
“(1ZA) Provisions making a person who discloses information in breach of paragraph 1(6) guilty of an offence punishable—
(a) on conviction on indictment, by imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine, or both;(b) on summary conviction in England and Wales and Scotland, by imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or both;(c) on summary conviction in Northern Ireland, by imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or both.””
Amendment 114 agreed.
Clause 30 : Provision supplementing section 29
115: Clause 30, page 33, leave out lines 29 and 30
Amendment 115 agreed.
Clause 31 : Schemes for provision of data to registration officers
Amendments 116 to 119
116: Clause 31, page 33, line 42, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
“(2) The purpose is assisting the registration officer to meet the registration objectives and, in particular, assisting the officer—
(a) to ascertain to what extent those objectives are being met, and(b) to determine what steps should be taken for meeting them.”
117: Clause 31, page 34, leave out lines 26 to 28 and insert—
“( ) A person who discloses information in breach of subsection (7) is guilty of an offence and liable—
(a) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or to a fine, or to both;(b) on summary conviction in England and Wales and Scotland, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or to both;(c) on summary conviction in Northern Ireland, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months, or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or to both.”
118: Clause 31, page 34, leave out lines 35 to 37
119: Clause 31, page 34, leave out lines 39 to 44
Amendments 116 to 119 agreed.
Clause 32 : Schemes under section 31: proposals, consultation and evaluation
120: Clause 32, page 35, line 36, leave out ““registration officer” and “scheme” mean the same” and insert ““scheme” has the same meaning”
Amendment 120 agreed.
121: After Clause 32, insert the following new Clause—
“Meaning of expressions relating to registration
In this Part (except in section 29)—“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;
“register”, in relation to a registration officer, means a register maintained by that officer under section 9 of the 1983 Act;
“registered person” means a person registered in such a register;
“registration objectives” has the meaning given by section 27(6);
“registration officer” has the same meaning as in the 1983 Act (see section 8 of that Act) except that it does not include the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland.”
Amendment 121 agreed.
Schedule 6 : Repeals
Amendments 122 and 123
122: Schedule 6, page 76, line 42, at end insert—
“In Schedule 2, paragraph 1(8).”
“In Schedule 2, paragraph 1(8).”
123: Schedule 6, page 77, line 2, in the second column, at beginning insert—
“In section 13— (a) in subsection (1), paragraphs (b) and (c); (b) in subsection (1A), paragraph (b) and the preceding “and”; (c) in subsection (2), the words “or (b)”; (d) in subsection (3), the words “, or to local government,” and the words after “in Scotland”; (e) in subsection (7), the words “, or to local government,”.”
“In section 13—
(a) in subsection (1), paragraphs (b) and (c);
(b) in subsection (1A), paragraph (b) and the preceding “and”;
(c) in subsection (2), the words “or (b)”;
(d) in subsection (3), the words “, or to local government,” and the words after “in Scotland”;
(e) in subsection (7), the words “, or to local government,”.”
Amendments 122 and 123 agreed.
Clause 35 : Transitional provision
124: Clause 35, page 36, line 7, leave out from second “in” to second “to” in line 8 and insert “any other Act”
Amendment 124 agreed.
In the Title
125: In the Title, line 2, leave out “and expenditure and” and insert “, loans and related transactions and about political expenditure; and to make provision”
My Lords, as a result of amendments that have been made since its introduction, the Bill now deals in a more significant way than at the outset with loans and other transactions regulated by Part 4A of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. Therefore, this is a technical amendment to ensure that the Bill reflects that in the Long Title.
Before moving the amendment, I take this opportunity to thank noble Lords for their kindness in ensuring that we finished the Report stage tonight. I also thank the usual channels for their help. I beg to move.
Amendment 125 agreed.
House adjourned at 10.07 pm.