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Elections: Fraudulent Registration

Volume 719: debated on Monday 14 June 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they will take to prevent fraudulent multiple registration by individuals to vote in elections and to ensure that electors who turn out to vote can do so.

My Lords, the Government are committed to tackling electoral fraud by speeding up the introduction of individual electoral registration. This will improve the accuracy of the register and ensure that only those entitled to vote get on to the electoral register. We are also considering the Electoral Commission’s report on the queues at polling stations on 6 May and the Government will take any appropriate steps necessary to prevent a repeat.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that succinct Answer. Is he aware that on 23 February I asked a supplementary to a Question for Oral Answer about how many recommendations from the Electoral Commission the then Government had implemented? I received a holding response that afternoon and later a letter was placed in the Library which indicated that there were a great many outstanding items. In the light of the last election when over 1,000 queued up and then could not vote, and there were serious problems with the register itself, as indicated by the Commonwealth monitoring group, is it not time to look at the role and powers of the Electoral Commission so that we have full and fair elections and can trust in the results?

My Lords, I share the aspirations of my noble friend, but it is fair to put the case into perspective. There were problems at 27 polling stations out of 40,000. That was a bad piece of public relations and terrible pictures went around the world, but in fact represented a very small percentage of the actual turnout.

On the powers of the Electoral Commission, I think it is true to say that it has few teeth; whether it should be given more teeth or its powers transferred elsewhere is a matter for discussion and examination after we have its report on the recent general election.

My Lords, all sides agree that individual registration is the way forward. However, does the Minister agree that the danger is that if we move too quickly, it is a near certainty that many of our fellow citizens will drop off the register, thus adding to the 3.5 million people whom the Electoral Commission estimates are currently unregistered? Does not the Northern Ireland experience, where 10 per cent of the population immediately fell off the register following a sudden switch to individual registration, show us how careful we must be?

My Lords, it is quite clear that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, is holding on to his old briefs. Yes, that is exactly why the implementation of the new form of registration has been taken at a measured pace. The experience in Northern Ireland was of a very large drop. However, again, we have got to get into perspective the fact that 91 or 92 per cent of people are on the electoral register. We are trying to balance the need for a clean and credible register against the points of caution the noble Lord has pointed out.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is now time to consider changing polling day from a Thursday to avoid the kind of problems we had in the recent general election, with large queues of voters unable to vote in the middle of the evening? By switching voting to the weekend we would avoid disruption to schools and enable more people to participate in our elections.

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with my noble friend’s argument for weekend voting. However, he may well be aware that the consultation on this matter did not show a great deal of support for the idea. We may come back to this issue, but the problems on 6 May, the day of voting, lay elsewhere.

My Lords, given the long queues to which the Minister referred, particularly in the evening, which prevented so many people getting to a polling station in time to vote, will the Government consider making polling day a bank holiday so that voting can be spread throughout the day? This would be of help to people who have to work in the daytime and cannot get to the polling station until the evening, sometimes after travelling long distances.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Shutt, who has experience of Yorkshire habits, said that in his part of the world the voters would all go to Blackpool if they were given a bank holiday, so the idea has some attractions.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that, during the period the coalition is in government, local authorities will have ring-fenced budgets for electoral registration offices and that the budgets will not be cut?

Such questions are always extremely difficult to answer because we never know what is going on at No. 11 Downing Street, as the noble Lord knows well. One of the commitments of successive Governments has always been that they supply sufficient budget to enable our democracy to function properly. I cannot imagine that we will move from that situation.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, mentioned 10 per cent of the population dropping off the register in Northern Ireland. How many of those 10 per cent should not have been there in the first place?

I am not sure. We all know all the jokes about Northern Ireland voting. This Government take fraudulent voting very seriously. Wherever in the country there is fraud, we will prosecute with the firmest intention of getting convictions.

Is it not a cause for concern, and no cause for complacency, if we have only 91 per cent of the eligible population registered? What steps will the Government take to ensure that the figure does not fall below 91 per cent? If possible, will they take steps to try to increase it?

It is not a reason for complacency, and there is none. People are encouraged to register. Interestingly enough, the figure for registration in Australia, where there is compulsory voting, is 95 per cent, so we are not far off. Ours is a voluntary system of registration. We should continue to promote in our society the social contract that registration and voting involve. We should not chase voters by making it ever easier to vote without putting some challenge to the rest of the population and making it clear that there is a responsibility. If you have the honour, the pleasure and the freedoms of living in democracy, you participate by voting.