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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

Volume 723: debated on Monday 10 January 2011

Committee (7th Day) (Continued)

Amendment 54A

Moved by

54A: Clause 10, page 8, leave out lines 14 and 15 insert—

“(a) initially by a date to be specified by the Boundary Commission, once the Electoral Commission has certified that every local authority has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible; and(b) no later than every six years after that.””

My Lords, Amendment 54A stands in my name and in the names of my noble friends Lord Bach and Lady Thornton. It would leave out lines 14 and 15 of Clause 10 on page 8 of the Bill. Clause 10(3) states:

“For subsection (2)”—

of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986—

“there is substituted … ‘A Boundary Commission shall submit reports under subsection (1) above periodically … before 1st October 2013, and … before 1st October of every fifth year after that’”.

We propose that the two dates should be deleted and the following inserted:

“initially by a date to be specified by the Boundary Commission, once the Electoral Commission has certified that every local authority has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible; and … no later than every six years after that”.

We propose the change because in practice—this is their timetable—it has taken Boundary Commissions six to seven years to complete the past five reviews of parliamentary constituencies. The Bill proposes that the first review be completed before 1 October 2013. If the Bill were passed tomorrow—which seems unlikely—the work would have to be completed in two years and nine months. That is less than half the time that ordinary reviews have taken so far. While everyone would want the process to be quicker than it has been before, the Bill proposes that one should do it in less than half the time that it has taken before, even when one has to redraw every single boundary in the country. I say that because the chair men and women of Boundary Commissions came before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons and said that it was probable that every constituency in the country would be affected by the proposals that were being made.

In the first instance the Bill states that the work should be completed in two years and nine months—assuming that it gets Royal Assent tomorrow, which it will not—and before 1 October of every fifth year after that. It appears to acknowledge that the review process will take twice as long as the first review that the Bill proposes. One is struck immediately by the fact that there must be some driving timetable for the first review, other than practicalities. As noble Lords may know, under the current rules governing the boundary review process that are contained in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, as amended by the Boundary Commissions Act 1992, Boundary Commissions are required to conduct reviews every eight to 12 years. As I have said, in practice Boundary Commissions have taken around six to seven years to complete the past five periodical reviews of parliamentary constituencies. On account of comparative size, reviews in England have obviously taken more time than those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some argue that in practice a review every six or seven years is too long and that it carries the risk that population movements in the mean time are not taken into account. I have sympathy with that view, and it may well be possible to expedite the time it takes to undertake a boundary review, although that would obviously require additional resources. We will come to that point in a later amendment in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Bach.

A wish to speed up the process is one thing, but why are the Government proposing to conduct this first review under a new set of rules in less than three years? Let us not forget that we are not even talking about a standard boundary review. The secretaries of the four Boundary Commissions acknowledged that “every constituency will change”. The Government propose arguably the biggest, most controversial and most complicated redrawing of constituency boundaries since the departure of the Irish MPs in 1921. They intend to do it on the basis of an entirely new set of mathematical rules that will see factors such as geography, history and community pushed to one side by the need to adhere unbendingly to a higher electoral quota. The Government’s proposal of a timetable of less than three years is artificially quick, even under the Bill’s own terms.

As I said, further reviews, according to Clause 10(3), which amends Section 3(2) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, will be held on a five-yearly basis. That initial dramatic redrawing of boundaries is being tracked even faster than this apparent ideal. Why is that? Are the Government trying to minimise the risks of the results being made out of date by interim changes in the population? That cannot be the reason or they would be proposing that three years should always be the period for boundary reviews if the problem was “out of dateness”. The highly respected Constitution Committee of this House concluded that it could see no reason for the haste of this process. Indeed, that was its key criticism of the way in which this Bill has been presented: that it has been tagged on to the provisions for the referendum on voting systems. One, arguably, has some time sensitivity. The urgency of Part 2 of the Bill is, however, fabricated.

As the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Nicholas Clegg, said in the other place on 5 July. He said that,

“we need to start with the work of the boundary review as soon as possible in order that it can be concluded in the timetable that we have set out”.—[Official Report, Commons, 5/7/10; col. 37.]

I underline the words,

“in the timetable we have set out”.

The Deputy Prime Minister was questioned by the members of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee in oral evidence about this timetable and gave no other explanation other than that it had to be concluded,

“in the timetable we have set out”.

Rather than conducting a boundary review of this magnitude according to an entirely arbitrary and politically motivated timetable, the change should not begin until the basis for making it is reliable.

As I think that everyone around the House accepts, our electoral register is not up to scratch. Measures that were introduced while my party was in government—the rolling canvas and individual registration spring to mind—have improved and will further improve the situation, but further improvement is needed. In the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, this will be,

“the biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832”.

The boundaries are to be redrawn on data from which the Government admit 3.5 million eligible voters are missing. The Great Reform Act 1832 extended the franchise. How ironic it is that, in promoting the Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister will be rolling back the franchise. Millions of eligible but unregistered voters will be left out. For example, 9,651 are missing in Tooting; 12,421 in Bristol East; 17,528 in Leeds North West; and just shy of 50,000 in the Cities of London and Westminster. The national average registration is 91 per cent, but in a significant number of cases, mainly in urban constituencies, only about 80 per cent are registered to vote. That means that in some cases, as many as one in five voters are missing.

Those figures highlight both the extent of the problem—cautioning against the timetable for boundary changes envisaged under the Bill—and what is realistically achievable. If some inner urban constituencies in Birmingham and Manchester can register 95 per cent of eligible voters, why cannot similar seats do the same?

I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. I am finding it difficult to follow him. I think that this is the most important part of his amendment: the trigger to start the process. I should say that I sit on an informal all-party advisory group which the Electoral Commission consults occasionally. I really do think that his amendment imposes on the Electoral Commission a responsibility that it is not ready to take and would not wish to take. How can he suggest that there are criteria by which the Electoral Commission could certify that every local authority has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible? I cannot see how it can do that. The work done by his Government previously may have helped, but it certainly has not enabled the Electoral Commission to take the very subjective view that he suggests.

I do not think that it is a subjective view. The commission would not be asked to guarantee that everyone, or 95 per cent of people, was on the electoral roll; it would be asked to check that the local authorities had taken all reasonable steps. I envisage that it would set out what it would expect a reasonable local authority to do—for example, house-to-house inquiries if there were very high levels of underregistration; or getting the figure up to 95 per cent in certain sorts of area. It would not be difficult to identify the criteria that had to be satisfied before the commission could be satisfied. There are so many other areas in which public bodies certify that reasonable steps had been taken. I do not regard it as beyond the wit of man for the commission to do the same in relation to local authorities.

The noble Lord’s amendment says that every local authority has taken all reasonable steps, so presumably no Boundary Commission operation could start or any review be initiated until every local authority had been able to satisfy the Electoral Commission that it had taken reasonable steps. That is an impossible target. I am sure that, from his ministerial experience, he would agree.

This new review could not start before every local authority had done that, but what would the excuses be? Why should one, two, three or four constituencies be prejudiced?

I thank my noble and learned friend for giving way. Is he aware that the City of Glasgow Council recently conducted an exercise and, I am reliably informed, got an extra 30,000-odd voters on to the register? Does that not show that each council area can vary so much that it is not right or proper that we can have such variation in the country? Therefore, the measure of compulsion, if you like, on all local authorities to do what Glasgow has achieved should be in the Bill.

I am absolutely clear that the Electoral Commission would be perfectly capable of setting out what it would regard as the criteria that had to be satisfied. If you impose a provision like this, I have no doubt—and I have experience of this having been the Minister involved in ensuring good electoral practice—that that would have the effect, as far as the local authorities are concerned—they are, in practice, responsible for registration—of lifting all the votes up. I cannot envisage a local authority that would want to be one of two or three in the country that were incapable of meeting the standard. I cannot envisage that anybody in this House does not want the standard that I have described to be met. If the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, thinks I am imposing too high a standard, I am sure that he wants some standard imposed, and I would welcome his contribution about the margin of error that he would regard as acceptable as far as the Electoral Commission is concerned. I have detected no one in this House who has not supported the proposition that we should try to do all that we can to get the 3.5 million people—a broadly accepted figure—who are not on the electoral register on to it. The effect of my amendment is not that everybody has to get on; it is that the local authorities have to make a reasonable effort to get them on. If they do, and if the Electoral Commission certifies that they have done all that they can, then, and only then, can this process start.

My noble friend Lord Lipsey, who I am delighted to see in his place, made a speech before dinner in which he made the point that if we proceed with this very significant change in relation to the drawing of the constituency boundaries on the basis of the December 2010 register, which is what the Government are proposing, we are going to build in the bias. Who is the bias against? It is against young people, those in private rented accommodation and members of the black and minority ethnic groups. It might be said that that group would tend to favour Labour or even the Liberal Democrats, but that is not the point. You do not want to start with a great section of our population—the young people—being disenfranchised because they do not want to vote.

The sentiments that the noble and learned Lord expresses are wholly admirable. One wants to get every single person on to the register, but as I apprehend it, the problem is not a technical one; it is that there is a mass of disaffected younger people in our country who simply cannot be bothered to vote. They are not galvanised to take part in the democratic process. How does he propose to overcome that?

I know from my experience as the Minister responsible that if, for example, you do door-to-door inquiries, check who lives there, hand over a form to get on to the register, rather than sticking it in an envelope, and then go back and pick it up, you dramatically increase the number registered. My noble friend Lord McAvoy referred to the effort by the city of Glasgow. In my speech, I referred to the way that Manchester and Birmingham have 95 per cent registration because they are making the effort whereas London and Nottingham have 91 per cent, which is much lower. Picking up the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, work has been done to identify the practical steps that can be taken. That is why I am submitting that it is not unreasonable and does not impose an unreasonable burden on local authorities for the Electoral Commission to say that it expects good practice from everybody. Our democracy is crucial to the well-being of our society and only when all the local authorities have got to that standard, measured not by an absolute number but by doing the right thing, do we then move on to this particular approach in relation to registration. We then avoid the bias against young people, particularly in the BME communities and in the private rented sector.

Does my noble and learned friend agree that, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has said, whether people want to take part in voting is a secondary issue? The first issue is that we should never put any obstacles in the way of a person’s right to vote. A judgment, such as, “Oh, these guys are never going to vote so let us not register them”, would be much more damaging to democracy than allowing as many people as possible on the register and then leaving it to them to vote or not vote.

I certainly agree that we should not put any obstacles in their way, but I would go further perhaps than my noble friend Lord Desai. I do not know whether it will be the noble Lord, Lord McNally, or the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who replies but I hope that they will perhaps give us some examples—I know that there are examples—of where registration efforts have had an effect. It is those efforts that I am trying to build into the system.

I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, that I was encouraged by him saying that he supports the sentiments of the amendment. If he supports the sentiments, perhaps I can persuade him that you can make a difference by what you do. If the Electoral Commission is set up to judge that everyone has done what they should, would not that, I ask rhetorically, have the effect of improving registration, which is what everyone in this House wants to achieve?

Our amendment addresses this problem. It sets a standard for the electoral register of the UK to be certified by the body in charge of such matters, the Electoral Commission, before the redrawing of the boundaries begins. The status of the electoral register matters. Correct counting of the numbers of those living in different parts of the country matters. The Christmas adjournment debate in another place on miscounting in certain London borough constituencies during the 2001 census shows the impact that can be wrought on local communities in terms of allocation of local services and resources.

We have heard throughout this debate that what this Government aim for is fair votes and fair representation. That has been the headline into which the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Strathclyde, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, have resorted when seeking to justify this Bill. Basically, this amendment proposes that you have a starting point that means you have got as many people as you reasonably can on the register. It reflects the fact that these boundary reviews take time and that you should have reasonable time between the reviews so that the up-to-date process can be given effect to.

I respectfully believe that those are sensible and realistic proposals.

I wonder whether my noble and learned friend will press the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on something he said at the beginning of this debate. He referred to the informal party advisory group of which he is a member. Do we have an informal party advisory group for the Labour Party which meets with the Electoral Commission?

The noble Lord talked about a group. I am presuming that all parties belong to this group and not just the Liberal Party. It was the way the noble Lord phrased it. Forgive me: I will not press my noble and learned friend.

My Lords, I can possibly help. I have said on the Floor of this House that it was the case when I was Speaker that the Electoral Commission had to report. There was a weakness in the Electoral Commission in that it would not allow former party agents in its membership. As a result, although there were former chief executives of local authorities, you never got someone like Jimmy Allison—God rest his soul—who used to be the wily agent of the Labour Party in Scotland. As a result, it was agreed that there would be an informal committee to give the type of advice that was needed when there were proposals for delivering leaflets and meeting the electorate. We all know that when you meet the electorate, sometimes you have to face an Alsatian dog, and when you get by the Alsatian, you get a Rottweiler. The chief executives did not really know about that, but Labour Party agents did.

I sat on the committee with the Speaker in which we discussed those matters, and I remember the setting up of the informal committee. Since then a Bill has been passed which allows former politicians to sit on it. Happily, your Lordships have answered all the questions so I have not been put in the embarrassing position of doing that which I am not allowed to do, which is to press the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, because he is supposed to be pressing me in the course of this debate.

I have set out the reasons for this amendment. It is a very important amendment because it requires a justification as to why it is two and a half years, why we should not wait for an up-to-date register, and why gaps of five years are suggested. Those are the questions that this amendment raises. I beg to move.

My noble and learned friend is absolutely right that this is a very important amendment. It is double-barrelled in that it deals with two things. It deals with the redistribution to make sure that it is based on the real number as near as possible of people eligible to vote in a constituency, and it encourages people to register and to vote. It is important from the point of view of the redistribution of boundaries, but it also has a wider and more beneficial effect.

For the first aspect of this, I have an amendment, Amendment 89C, which I hope we will come to later this evening. I hesitate to say that it is better than my noble and learned friend’s amendment, but it is simpler because it just says that,

“for the purpose of this Act”,

the electorate will be taken as the number of people eligible to vote, not registered to vote. We can always find out the number of people who are eligible to vote through the census or whatever. I hope, in anticipation of that—which is why I am giving the Minister a bit of extra notice—he will look at his briefing. It is a simpler amendment and I hope it is one that the Government might accept.

However, my noble and learned friend’s amendment has the double advantage of getting people on to the register and, as my noble friend Lord Desai said, encouraging people to vote. There are lots of ways of doing that which we have discussed previously. One of those is compulsory voting. A number of colleagues were a bit doubtful and unsure about that, and with good reason. I say that because I have just been reading about the compulsory vote in Belgium, but because that country has a daft proportional representation system, which my noble friend Lord Grocott will particularly appreciate, it has not been able to form a Government for seven months, and the guy who was appointed to mediate between the various parties in order to try to get a government has just resigned. That is the sort of thing that happens when you have daft systems of proportional representation. Someone asked me who is running the Government in Belgium, and I said that I supposed it was the civil servants. They answered, “What’s different? Doesn’t that always happen?”. I hope that is not the case, but it is worrying that you can get to that position even with proportional representation and compulsory voting. You would think that that might improve the situation.

My noble friend referred to it as a “daft” system of proportional representation. For the benefit of the Committee, I wonder if he could list for us the good systems of proportional representation.

No, I cannot; there are not any. It is an even dafter system than the one included in the Bill.

What is proposed in the amendment has a very important aspect to it; that is, getting people on to the register. We should do everything that we can to achieve that. I am a little worried about the current situation, because, with public expenditure cuts, local authorities will spend less money on canvassing people to get on to the register. They will take the cheapest option of sending out letters once and hoping that they will be returned, instead of going round, knocking on doors, returning if they do not get a reply and really making sure that everyone in a household is on the register, which is vital.

It is not being party political or fighting the class war to say that it is much easier to get people to register when they are living in detached houses or houses that are easy to access. It is much more difficult to get to houses in multiple occupation; for example, tenements in Glasgow. Sometimes, you cannot get in through the main door to get up to the front door of the flat concerned to get people to register. It is therefore vital that we put in place a system or series of systems that encourage people to get their name on to the register and local authorities to get out and make sure that they reach as many people as possible. That is why the amendment needs our support.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said that it is not a responsibility of the Electoral Commission. Well, if it is not the Electoral Commission’s responsibility, who is charged with it? It seems obvious that it should be the Electoral Commission, which has extended its responsibilities during the past few years. As my noble friend said, the commission now has on it political party representatives, including my noble friend Lord Kennedy, who understand what they are talking about in relation to these matters. The Electoral Commission should therefore be able to take on this extra responsibility.

The amendment would put a constraint on the Electoral Commission to certify that all reasonable steps had been taken and on government not to be able to progress until such certification was obtained. I hope that the Minister will understand the importance of getting as many people on the register as possible.

We are going now through a series of issues which ought not to be party political and on which we all ought to find common ground. The noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord McNally, are very old friends of mine—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has been for many years, and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, used to be one of my constituents—but I somehow get the impression that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, listens more to the arguments that are being put forward, picks them up and responds to them. I hope that that is a presage for his feeling able, on some of these issues which are not really party political, to say, “I’ll have a look at that. I’ll pick it up. I’ll go back and talk with my colleagues about it and then come back at Report stage”. The coalition Government would find the passage of this Bill, which has been difficult for them, a lot easier if they were to do that. I know that that is difficult for two reasons: first, because there is a coalition, with differences of opinion between the two parties, I am led to believe, on certain aspects of the Bill. I have no inside information—the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is shaking his head—but I still think that there might be some differences of opinion. I know that that takes some time. I know also that Ministers in the other place have principal responsibility for this; Ministers in the Lords do not necessarily have ministerial and departmental responsibility and they therefore have to consult with Ministers in another place.

The third thing that will make it difficult for them is that there are two departments dealing with the Bill. There is the Ministry of Justice in which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is a Minister, and the Deputy Prime Minister within the Cabinet Office also has responsibility. There are some differences of accountability there. Notwithstanding that—I am using this amendment but it will come up a lot in others and I hope I can be excused special pleading in relation to Amendment 89C—I hope that the noble and learned Lord will not just come up with an argument against everything that we put forward. I hope that as time goes on and we go through the Bill this week, next week and the week after that, on issue after issue, he will look at this carefully. If he gives it that kind of positive response, he will find a lot more sympathy on this side of the House.

My Lords, can a local authority or the Electoral Commission speak with accuracy regarding steps being taken by a local authority? The amendment says that,

“every local authority has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible”.

That does not mean that it has to be so exact that, as in the days when I was in engineering, you have to be half a thou within your measurement. The amendment says “all reasonable steps”.

I know through experience that the Electoral Commission is a well resourced body. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, had this experience, but it even said that it wanted copyright for a teaching pack to teach returning officers how to carry out their duties. That is the extent to which the Electoral Commission goes into these matters.

Talking about accuracy, my thoughts go back to the days when Strathclyde region was on the go and the famous poll tax was a big worry for every Member of Parliament in the west of Scotland. Strathclyde region took in the whole of the west of Scotland. People were deliberately staying off the electoral register. It was not a case of the man or woman of the house coming to the door and forgetting to say that one of the sons was working offshore but was resident in the household and therefore the canvass could be inaccurate to one person in a family because of the wrong information. This was particularly single people making sure that they stayed off the register to avoid the poll tax. It used to be called the community charge. That was a nice phrase. We called it the poll tax because that was what it was.

Mr James Woods was put in charge of electoral registration for the whole of Strathclyde. All the Members of Parliament for Strathclyde met him and said that the voters roll would be inaccurate. When it came to appeals and the Boundary Commission, a big matter would be the number of people on the electoral roll. He told us all, “Here is what I’ve done. Come and visit my department. I do a canvass and then I do a second canvass and if we suspect that there are people who are taking their names off the electoral roll, we make inquiries”.

There was also the question of people having two homes. Sometimes a wife would register in one home and a husband in the other to avoid a double poll tax. Mr Woods assured us that he was putting a high and accurate return on to the electoral register. It would be reasonable for the Electoral Commission to interview someone such as Mr Woods and ask, “What are you doing? What facilities have you got? We want to visit your premises and see what you are doing”. That would be good enough to give a certificate.

It must be remembered that people used to speak with fondness about a local authority called Saltcoats down on the Ayrshire coast which had the cheapest rents in Scotland—the reason being that it had no direct works department and was a small local authority. The local authority was so small it would even meet if it had to hire a foreman gardener. Local authorities such as that are no longer with us. Local government has been streamlined. There is often a criticism that some chief executives in local government get paid more than the Prime Minister of the day because of their large responsibilities. I do not wish to go into that as I would stray from the amendment but all local authorities that I know of in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland would be well able to hire a highly competent electoral registration officer who could easily convince the Electoral Commission to give the local authority a certificate to say that it is working to ensure an accurate register. If the Government had a worry about the Electoral Commission, it need not be the Electoral Commission but someone else. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned certification; certification is given to shipping, factories and other bodies.

This is my first intervention in the Bill. I am pleased to join my happy band of colleagues to, I hope, help with the discussions. I want to get involved in the issue of voter registration in this part of the Bill because of my work with young people, particularly excluded ones, in a variety of charities and also because I am from Bradford. My title is Baroness Thornton, of Manningham. I suspect that Manningham in Bradford probably has one of the lowest records of voter registration in the whole of our city, for reasons that we will discuss in the next series of amendments.

We know that those who are absent from the registers are likely to be drawn from the same social groups as under-registered voters in previous decades. This is not a new issue. Variations in registration levels by age, social class and ethnicity have long been recognised and it is predominately densely populated urban areas with significant concentrations of mobile young people that have the highest levels of under-registration. That is why I, along with other noble Lords, support amendments pressing our concerns for different groups of our fellow citizens.

The Electoral Commission’s March 2010 report The Completeness and Accuracy of Electoral Registers in Great Britain highlights that matter. The report states that,

“there are some grounds to suggest that geographical variations in registration levels may have widened since the late 1990s. Available data sources suggest that registration rates in London appear to have stabilised, and may even have improved slightly, since the late 1990s. By contrast, English metropolitan districts appear to have experienced a clear fall in registration levels. Canvass response rates show a similar pattern. In 1996, the average canvass response rates for metropolitan districts were 93%, significantly higher than the 87% achieved by the average London borough. However, by 2004 the average response rate among London boroughs had risen slightly to 89%, while it had fallen to 84% in the English metropolitan districts. Despite improved response rates among metropolitan districts in 2008, the 90% average remained just below the 91% figure achieved by London boroughs”.

As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said, if the electoral roll is to be frozen as at 2010, how much more inaccurate will it be in those areas of the greatest vulnerability by 2015? We know that more than 3 million people are not on the electoral roll. How many more voters would the coalition Government find it acceptable not to appear on the electoral roll by 2015? I think that the Minister needs to answer those questions, given that millions of people—young people, ethnic minorities and people who live in rented accommodation in areas of high density—will in effect be disfranchised by the Government’s proposals.

Our amendment suggests, quite reasonably I think, that the Electoral Commission should ensure that the local authorities that have responsibility for the canvasses that produce the electoral roll should do their job as effectively and as efficiently as possible. I cannot see what is unreasonable about that. Indeed, our suggestion seems entirely proper, so I am surprised to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has a problem with it, as I cannot think what that problem would be. We need to get those 3.5 million people back on our electoral rolls and then—although, as my noble friend said, this is a different matter—to consider voting. I support Amendment 54A and I hope that the Government will do so as well.

My Lords, I rise to speak on the role of the Electoral Commission, in which I, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and others are involved. I apologise first to my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer for missing the opening phrases of his speech, but I know very well what his amendment is about and have considerable sympathy for it—indeed, I fully support it—as it deals with an important issue.

Of the two things that I want to say, the first relates to the Electoral Commission. When I have spoken on previous occasions when we have considered the Bill, I have not mentioned that I am a representative on the Electoral Commission’s parliamentary advisory group, which includes Members of both Houses and all parties. The parliamentary advisory group offers advice on the Electoral Commission’s proposals and the Electoral Commission listens to our comments.

Given that a number of problems with registration need to be looked at, there is certainly a case for having a debate—although perhaps not at this stage—on the role and powers of the Electoral Commission. The commission performs an important job, for which, as the noble Lord, Lord Martin, pointed out, it is also well resourced. However, I think that the noble Lord would agree with me that one problem is the lack of real clarity on the commission’s powers to investigate and to make strong recommendations on the effectiveness of local authority registration processes. Various members of the Electoral Commission frequently mention—and the Members from the political parties who attend the parliamentary advisory group recognise—that, although the commission can try to persuade local authorities to drive up registration levels, it does not have the power to say, “This is not good enough, so we will not certify you”. Without that power, as I think was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Martin, the local authorities ultimately do not need to try that hard.

As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and others have pointed out, we should all be able to agree that registration levels in this country could and should be far better. The current levels are not good enough. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Thornton quoted the Electoral Commission’s March 2010 report, which makes the point—this is true—that registration levels in London went up and then stabilised but appear to have gone down in other areas.

My other point is that, as I and others in this House have seen, when a local authority makes a major effort to improve registration, it achieves it. When my own local authority in Hammersmith set out to increase registration, it went up dramatically. As I think my noble friend Lord Foulkes was saying, it was a matter of going and knocking on doors and handing the form to people, asking them to fill it in and then following that up if it did not arrive back. In areas such as London and, indeed, in some other big cities, this is particularly important because you have a very high turnover of population. One estate in my area, the White City estate, had at one stage a 25 per cent turnover of population every year. There was still quite a stable core to the estate’s population, but all the others were changing. I remember making that point strongly to the Electoral Commission a couple of years ago and it was sympathetic. It understands the problem and would be the first to say, “Yes, the local authority ought to make that extra effort”.

There are two issues. First, local authorities can and should make a far greater effort than they are doing and there should be less variation in the country if we are all agreed—as I assume that we are—that registration ought to be maximised. The other point is that, as I have indicated, at some stage we need to think about whether the Electoral Commission has enough power to say to the local authority, “You are not doing well enough and we expect you to do better, or you will not get properly registered or certified”. We really need to increase that power. As I understand them, this amendment and the following amendment, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lipsey, will both have the effect of making it more likely that we will get people to register than we will at the moment with the Bill.

Given that the Electoral Commission does not have this power, was it not highly irresponsible of it to push individual registration on local authorities when it knew that it could not enforce it?

There are two views about individual registration. I understand the argument, but this is not the time to have it. I accept my noble friend’s underlying point: if we are going to give the Electoral Commission the power to enforce in some way or to put heavy pressure on the local authority, we will need to think through some of these underlying issues, because there is a legitimate argument on both sides of the point that he has just raised—even though I have one particular view, which I suspect is the same as his.

Let me go back to my main point. If we are going to make sure that local authorities maximise registration, we really need to ensure not only that they have the time to do it but that we, as a Parliament, put the pressure on them to do it. Given that there is some acceptance that the Electoral Commission cannot enforce this as fully as one would like, the Government need to say that each local authority will be asked to demonstrate that it has maximised the registration on the voters roll in its area and that it will be asked for evidence of that, where there is a track record of its having a lower registration than other, similar authorities. That could be done in part by accepting these amendments, but there really needs to be some leadership from the Government on this issue.

The debate before the dinner break was on the crucial issue—it is a central issue for me—of the constitutional factor. We will return to that when my amendment comes up, which I suspect will not now be tonight. I hope that it will be on Wednesday. All of this is in the context of a Bill that is doing the very thing that I have said before that the Government are doing: presenting us with the image of a Government who do not care too much about the quality of our democracy and are determined to drive through the changes. In that sense, they have become an overpowerful Government. You can see that in the Public Bodies Bill or in this Bill, where they are determining the size of the House of Commons at the same time as they are increasing the numbers in the House of Lords to a position where they almost have a majority. All these things are deeply worrying. There is a massive increase in the use of Henry VIII powers, about which all the members of the Regulatory Reform Committee, including me, expressed their acute concern in their report on the Public Bodies Bill. All these things are coming together. The Government, simply in terms of their own image, need to demonstrate that they are taking these matters more seriously than they seem to be at the moment.

It troubles me, as it troubles other Members, that, particularly in the previous debate, which was so clearly on a matter of acute constitutional importance, virtually no one took part—except one Liberal Democrat Member—from the government Back Benches. I know, and I challenge the Government to deny this, that all the Back-Benchers from the political parties in the coalition have been instructed not to speak on that issue because it would take up time. I challenge them to deny that the Back-Benchers have been whipped not to take part in debates that add to the time on this Bill. That was particularly true in the previous debate.

I will give way. I want to hear a clear indication that that did not happen, because I have been told that it did.

I have received no such instruction. I would not expect to receive one, and if I did I would pay no attention to it.

I am very encouraged by that. I have to say, though, that I would rather hear it from the Front Bench, because I am sure that this did not come round in the form of a letter or even an e-mail.

I will give way in a moment, if I can take one intervention at a time. I know, as does everyone who has dealt with party politics, that you advise your group not to do something in meetings and by word of mouth. That is how it happens.

The noble Lord threw down the gauntlet and someone has to pick it up. Exactly as my noble friend has just said, no one has said any such thing, and if they did—I must not use unparliamentary language—I would not be impressed.

I am delighted to hear that. I am sure that Members did not receive e-mails or letters of that type. However, I challenge the Front-Benchers again to give a clear indication that they did not tell Members on their Back Benches not to take part in the debate in a way that would add to the time taken on the Bill. I want to hear that.

All I know is what I have been told. I respect people’s privacy, and I respect individuals who say that it has not happened; I am sure that people on this side would say the same. But I also know, from all my experience in Parliament and in this House, that it happens in all parties—I am talking not just about my party but about all parties, including mine; I have seen and heard it happen in all of them—that a recommendation goes out that you do not take part because that will use up time when a Government are worried about time on their Bill. We all know that that is what this Government are worried about. I would be less concerned about that if this were a conventional Bill, but on a constitutional Bill this is profoundly serious.

My Lords, I am surprised to hear these suggestions. I have been here for some little time now and, needless to say, I have never had advice from anyone not to speak. I am assuming that no such advice has gone out from the opposition Front Bench to its Back Benches.

With respect, I am sure that the noble and learned Lord is one of those Members to whom no one would say that—just as they also would not say it to me, actually. But I know the way in which it works in all political parties: when a Government are worried about time on a Bill, they try to get their Back-Benchers to stay quiet and then they accuse the other side of filibustering. That is what we had today; the evidence is before people. In that major constitutional debate, only one Member from the Liberal Democrats, who suddenly got very angry about one aspect, spoke. Not one other Member spoke on the issue.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I cannot resist it when he is casting these aspersions across the Chamber. Can he assure the House that he has not received any instructions to waffle on ad nauseam on this issue?

I most certainly can. What is more, I can go a bit further. At our meetings to discuss how to handle the Bill, there was a clear view that we should not filibuster. I say that categorically and give my word of honour. There was not one occasion when anybody supported the idea of filibustering. What we have seen this afternoon, sadly, is the reverse of a filibuster. A government party—or two parties—refused to take part in a serious debate about the constitutional matter of a Government taking on themselves the power to change the size of Parliament. That is a major issue. I do not want to make it directly relevant to this debate, which is becoming slightly off-side. I will simply say—and I will leave it on this point—that in a situation where a Government are allowed to change the size of a Parliament, you cannot deny that it is a major constitutional issue. The voting system is not. The voting system and even registration are not major constitutional issues. They are very important but they are not constitutional issues in the sense that changing the size of Parliament is.

Compared to the noble Lord, I am still an apprentice in the procedures of this House, but should we not be talking about the amendment before us? That might be the best thing to do.

My noble friend still thinks that he is in his previous role. If he was in that role here, he would have ruled me out of order, which would be quite right. However, we do not have that system.

The noble Lord was the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He would never have allowed any Minister in the Labour Party to tell Members not to speak. That would have been an invitation for them to speak.

I am not sure that I wholly agree with that. I certainly would not encourage people to speak, but let us be clear. Whips at all times have said, “If you speak on this from the other side, you will be here very late tonight. Alternatively, we won’t get the Bill passed in time”. What matters to the Government, on this Bill more than any other, is time. That is what this is about. We need to be very clear about it, which is why I say that what happened earlier was a filibuster in reverse. It was a silent filibuster, if you like. That does not alter the fact that, on this issue, my reason for arguing and the reason why we diverted is precisely that the registration of citizens is important in the voting process. In the context of a Bill that is incredibly important constitutionally because of the power to alter the size of Parliament, you cannot argue that this is irrelevant. It is an important part of it.

The Government need to show some willingness to move on these issues. If we agree that registration is not as good as it ought to be in this country and accept that at the moment the Electoral Commission does not have as much power and authority as one would like it to have to instruct local authorities, there is a duty on the Government to do more to make sure that representation on the electoral roll is as good as it can be. I would expect leadership from the Government on that. I would expect them to stand up and say, “Yes, we will do this and we will discuss with other political parties how to deliver it”. That is the sort of statement on which we need to get some cross-party agreement for a very important Bill.

My Lords, “more haste, less speed” is a maxim that every Lib Dem Minister in the coalition—and, perhaps, other Ministers—should pin up above their desks in large Day-Glo letters. We can see that the dynamic behind the Bill—and the reason why the coalition seeks to thrust it through as fast as it can—is the ambition of the Deputy Prime Minister to establish himself as an effective constitutional reformer and his anxiety that he does not have much time in which to do it. How very much more important it is to get it right than to do it hastily. That is why my noble friends were quite right to table this amendment which would place some restraint on the Boundary Commission process.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, talked about the Electoral Commission and the art of the possible. We ought also to consider what it is reasonable and realistic to expect the Boundary Commission to do. As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said in his opening remarks, the proposition in the Bill that the Boundary Commission will submit reports for the redrawing of effectively every constituency in the United Kingdom in a short period of some two and a half years before 1 October 2013 is not a sensible thing to undertake to do, and I do not think that it is a proper thing to undertake to do. While there are all sorts of reasons why it would be very difficult for the Boundary Commission to do that satisfactorily, not least because it would be impossible for the citizens of this country to have the opportunity to make their representations on the process in this abbreviated timescale, there is also the factor of electoral registration. This amendment, which focuses particularly on the indispensability of having a decent level of electoral registration before we draw the boundaries of the new constituencies, is absolutely right. You can reform electoral systems and constituency boundaries as much as you want but it will be a hollow process if you fail to ensure that those who should be the beneficiaries of these reforms—the citizens of this country—are in a position to benefit from them. If you merely reform without ensuring that people will be able to exercise their vote under your reformed system, it is effectively a case of “Hamlet” without the prince.

The reasons for declining turnout at successive elections over a considerable period of our modern history are mysterious and it is a very difficult phenomenon to understand. There are a number of proximate causes that we can see. The noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, drew the House’s attention to the decision by a significant number of people to drop off the electoral register when they saw the poll tax heading towards the statute book. Certainly, more of them did so after it had become law. That is one reason why, since the late 1980s, the electoral register has not had the respect and integrity that it had before then. There are other factors. We will see some new factors that will cause imperfections in the electoral register in our own time. One of them will, I fear, be the effect of housing benefit changes because more and more people, particularly tenants of private rented accommodation, will be on the move because they cannot afford to continue to live in the same place in which they were living. That will impair the electoral register; so will rising unemployment, particularly among people who have been employees in the public sector. They will also be on their bikes and on the road, trying to find work in new places. All that makes it more difficult to ensure that we will have an adequately up- to-date and comprehensive electoral register. Therefore, the pressure that this amendment would introduce into the system is extremely valuable.

I refer to another reason why we should be worried about what may happen to registration. Here I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, as I am not confident that, as he said, local authorities will necessarily have the resources to employ more electoral registration officers. We are going to see very draconian reductions in local authority budgets and they will find it very difficult to do anything that is not mandatory. Anything that is discretionary expenditure will be difficult for them to take on board.

Given the size of local authorities, it is not a question of having more electoral officers but of having a specific official to look after electoral registration. That person in turn would give an account of his or her stewardship to the Electoral Commission. That is different from employing more people, and it is not the point. It will be a sad day, given the size of local authorities in the United Kingdom, when there is no official in charge of electoral registration.

I certainly share the noble Lord’s hope that that will indeed be the case, and it is important that it should be, because it will be more difficult for the regime which this amendment envisages to operate if local authorities do not have registration officers in place doing their work energetically and with adequate resources. It is something on which we will need to keep a careful eye. I do not have quite the confidence that he does that that will necessarily be the case.

I should like to make just one observation on paragraph (b) in Amendment 54A, in which my noble friends have proposed that the Boundary Commission should submit reports every sixth year, rather than every fifth year, after 2013. That is wise for a number of reasons, but at this time of the evening I shall mention only one of the reasons. If constituencies are to be redrawn—and perhaps quite radically redrawn—at pretty frequent intervals, it creates problems for political parties. If political parties have to be re-formed election by election—and we know that they will all have to be re-formed in the period between 2013 and 2015, if the election is postponed for that long, and at quite frequent intervals thereafter—that creates a lot of difficulties for political parties.

We know the problem—I suspect that all political parties share this problem—of securing an adequate membership. We need a degree of stability to ensure that political parties can perform their role. Healthy, thriving political parties are a precondition for healthy, thriving local government and for healthy, thriving parliamentary democracy. So I do not think that we want to cause upheaval in political parties any more frequently than is really necessary. Of course the Boundary Commission reviews need to be of sufficient frequency and of a regularity to ensure that they adequately reflect the changing composition of the population of this country. That is essential and we all acknowledge that. It is a question of judgment and of striking a balance between that imperative and what I think is also very desirable, which is not to keep on throwing the system up in the air and destabilising political parties. For that reason, the modest change that my noble friends have proposed—having reviews every six years rather than every five years—makes good, practical sense.

The nearest that any noble Lord comes to being economical with the truth is when they stand up and say they are going to be brief. Let me try, for once, to ignore that rule and be brief.

First, we all agree that we need a better electoral register—that is common ground. Secondly, and slightly less obviously, the accuracy of the electoral register matters far more under the system that the Government are proposing for constituency boundary drawing than it does at the moment. The Boundary Commission now has reasonably wide discretion. If there is an extra elector here, the commission can make an adjustment there. It cannot do that under the Bill. If there is one voter more than the 5 per cent threshold, all the boundaries of that seat, and in consequence the boundaries of all the surrounding seats, need to be redrawn. An upheaval can rest on whether a single voter is registered.

I have a third point, and given that we are at Committee stage, perhaps we are allowed to inject new ideas into the debate. I can see why the Government are reluctant to go along with the excellent amendment moved by my noble and learned friend, because they think that it will delay the process. However, there is an alternative. Instead of the Boundary Commission trying to equalise the actual number of registered electors, it should try to equalise something different: notional registered electors—that is, the electorate as it would be if there was 100 per cent registration everywhere. That is perfectly achievable.

That is exactly what my Amendment 89C proposes. The easiest solution would be for the three wise men on the Front Bench opposite to agree now to accept that amendment later when I move it.

The noble Lord has led me to be even briefer, because I was about to refer to his Amendment 89C and to a similar amendment that I myself proposed. It is quite easy statistically to equalise notional electorates. It depends on, for example, the proportion of rented tenure in the given constituency. Perfectly good equations can be developed that pretty accurately project the notional electorate from the actual electorate. Equalise those within whatever limit the House may decide and you have a much more sensible approach than that which is in the current draft of the Bill.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Will he accept, even if some of his colleagues would not, that one of the disincentives to registration is that people—perhaps particularly if they are transient through the area—think that if it is a very safe seat, their vote simply will not matter? It is the correlation between safe seats under the first past the post system and the disincentive not just to register but to bother to vote even if they do register. I think that at least he will accept that that is one other reason. How does he propose to tackle that problem if, as seems to be his colleagues’ wont, they want to resist any improvement to the electoral system?

I am proposing to tackle it in the very same way as I hope he is proposing to tackle it—by voting yes to AV whenever we get round to the referendum, whether on 5 May or, as I hope, a later date.

I know that it is a shock to see somebody rise from this side but perhaps I, too, may make a speculative intervention following what the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has said. I have not thought this through, but it seems to me that if it were possible to take the number of potential electors—let us call them that—as the governing yardstick for the size of constituencies, then Amendment 54A becomes unnecessary because one would then be in the position that all one needed to be satisfied about is that the local authorities had done their work properly in time for the election concerned. If, however, you take the system as it currently prevails, then the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is the way to go. But, as I say, it would take away one of the time constraints if one was to go down the Lipsey-Foulkes line, if I can call it that.

The other thing that is worth not forgetting—because a lot has been said about the difficulty, or more than difficulty, of having everything sorted out by 1 October 2013; a number of noble Lords opposite have made that point—is that paragraph 37 of the report of the Select Committee on the Constitution, to which a number of noble Lords have referred, states:

“The Boundary Commissions have confirmed that this timetable is achievable”.

That is to say, things will be sorted out by 1 October 2013. It, after all, should know what it is talking about. With that assurance, and with a new method of calculating the mean, it seems to me that Amendment 54A may not be necessary.

First, I welcome greatly the fact that someone on the other side is actually participating properly in the debate—genuinely debating and listening to the debate. I can reassure him. Just in case the Government are preparing to say, “We cannot work out, or we do not know, what the notional figure, or the actual electorate, is”, how can they say that 91 per cent are registered here, or 85 per cent are registered there? There is no way of calculating the percentage unless they know the number of people eligible to vote.

The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, has just quoted from a Boundary Commission document, which states that this is achievable.

I hesitate to interrupt, but the quotation was from a report not of the Boundary Commission but of our own Select Committee on the Constitution, which is rather more important in this respect.

It may well be achievable but on the basis of a deficient register. That is at the core of our complaint. We do not accept that the review should take place on the back of a deficient register.

I do not challenge my noble friend Lord Soley, but I do put it to him that when the Electoral Commission tells him that registration rates in London have gone up, that is at variance with the statistics that have been published by the Office for National Statistics in Wales. The director-general wrote to Chris Ruane, a Member in the other House who has led the charge on this issue over recent years. He has tabled hundreds if not thousands of Questions, and has a library of statistics that is of great interest to those of us who take an interest in these matters. In June of last year, the director-general of the Office for National Statistics in Wales wrote to him:

“I have been asked to reply to your question asking what the electorate was in each year since 1997 in the 100 parliamentary seats which have had the largest decrease in the number of electors on the register since that date … This is the latest year for which comparable data are available”.

One can look at where the London boroughs stand in this table of the bottom 100. I will start from the bottom of the table. Kensington and Chelsea, the Cities of London and Westminster, Regent’s Park and North Kensington, Holborn and St Pancras, Hampstead and Highgate, Hammersmith and Fulham, North Southwark and Bermondsey, Islington South and Finsbury, Brent East—I intervene at this stage to suggest that they are not doing well in London, despite what the Electoral Commission might say—Wimbledon, Vauxhall, Tottenham, Lewisham, Deptford, Islington, Hackney. There are more that I could reel off.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, tells us that the problem does not necessarily arise in the way that we suggest because many of these are safe seats where people do not think that it is worth voting. I argue that most of the seats in London that I referred to are highly marginal.

The figures that my noble friend gives are very important. I will look at them and draw them to the attention of the Electoral Commission to get its response. Without being sure what we are comparing here, it is difficult to be confident. The statement about the London boroughs was, to the best of my memory, that registration had gone up and stabilised. That was in the last report of the Electoral Commission. I do not know what date the statement related to, but I am happy to take on board the figures and ask for an explanation of them.

Perhaps I may tell my noble friend exactly what the figures relate to. The percentages were calculated using the mid-2007 population estimates for parliamentary constituencies in the United Kingdom of those aged 18 and above and the number of people registered to vote in parliamentary elections on 1 December 2007. We have a clear description of what we are talking about. No doubt the Electoral Commission will pore over our contributions to this debate and respond to us accordingly.

I turn to the position of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. He knows that I have huge respect for him. We have worked on many issues over the years. However, I found his intervention extraordinary. It was almost like the intervention of a government Back-Bencher in the House of Commons desperately defending the position taken by the Government when clearly there is a deficiency in that position. What he is arguing essentially is that it would be acceptable for the Boundary Commission of England and Wales to set boundaries and to change those boundaries on the basis of every local authority having not taken,

“reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible”.

That proposition is ludicrous.

I suspect that the Government will resist this amendment because they know that local authorities will not have the resources available. The issue has been raised by my noble friends, and I have discussed the Bill with a number of electoral registration officers in the past month, to which I have referred on previous occasions. They make it absolutely clear when I speak to them discreetly that they are very concerned about what might happen to their budgets in conditions of declining local authority expenditure. I cannot see how the Government can assure us that we will gain the high levels of registration that are required when they know that they are subject to these cuts. They know equally that local authority budgets are not ring-fenced, and I hold our own Labour Government responsible for that. We allowed local authorities to proceed on the basis that those budgets would not be ring-fenced. If we had decided to ring-fence them at the time, we might not be arguing as we are arguing today. We are arguing in fear of the fact that we know that electoral registration levels will not be as high as they should be.

I have another reason. I think that the Government are not prepared to secure the high levels of registration in the inner cities that are essential to make registration work. When we dealt with the Bill on electoral registration, I talked to electoral registration officers the first time the Labour Government tried to push through individual registration in the teeth of opposition from some of us. This was about 2006 when my noble friend Lord Bach was in Committee. He will remember the amendments that I moved to try to block individual registration. The fact is that parts of Britain’s inner cities are completely inaccessible to electoral registration officers. There are no-go areas in Britain’s inner cities. There are places where you cannot send canvassers. You cannot pay them to go into those areas because they are frightened of violence.

When I raised that problem on a previous occasion, people said that it did not arise. Why do they not go into the inner cities and talk to the people who have to knock on doors, ask the questions and hand over the forms? There is a real problem here. I had a number of conversations with electoral registration officers and I felt so angry that I wrote to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, when it was inquiring into the Electoral Commission a few years back, to complain that the commission had failed to consider that matter when it was pushing electoral registration on Members of Parliament in the hope that they would get Parliament to approve individual registration. It got it in the end because the Government backed the recommendation.

If the situation is as dire as the noble Lord suggests in a minority but nevertheless presumably in a number of local authorities, I do not understand how the requirements of his noble friend’s amendment could possibly be met.

That is precisely the point. The amendment says that,

“all reasonable steps to ensure”,

must be taken. We might well have to invest additional resources in the inner cities for canvassing teams to go around with forms to ensure that people are being properly registered. Unless there is an enforcement regime to deal with that problem, you will not get the electoral registration levels that are required.

Furthermore, the problem is escalating. I intervened on the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, last week on when the subsequent boundary review—not the next one—will take place. It will take place on the basis of a register that he has drawn up on individual registration. I see a much larger problem arising in the long term, in perhaps seven or eight years’ time—not at the next election, but at the election after—which Parliament has not even begun to consider. When we dealt with this matter during the course of the Bill on electoral registration, we did not consider it because we did not realise that we would be faced with the nonsense that we are being faced with today.

As I said, I do not believe that the resources are there. They must be made available to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible before the Boundary Commission can complete its work.

My Lords, bearing in mind the late time of the evening, I will also try to be relatively brief. First, I apologise to my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton for missing the first moments of his moving the amendment. I am inspired to speak by an encounter with my friend with a small ‘f’, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who earlier this evening urged me to speak in the debate because he had missed my dulcet tones, as he put it. I am always at the disposal of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for that.

The noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, referred to Strathclyde Regional Council’s electoral registration duties. I was for five years a councillor on Strathclyde Regional Council, and I can testify to the noble Lord’s account of how it took its duties seriously. We were severely affected in Scotland and—my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport has referred to this—are still affected by the poll tax. The integrity, the aura, if you like, of the electoral register has been damaged. It is no longer an article of faith to make sure that you are registered. Lasting damage has been done to democracy by the imposition of the poll tax.

In discussing the Bill, I keep thinking that something is ajar or unbalanced. This is a constitutional Bill. One combination of votes in a House of Parliament can force through constitutional change, especially in a House where, previously, no single combination had the majority to deliver such legislation. I know that some people will jump up and say, “We are a coalition; we are still Conservatives and Liberals”. In this place, the Government are a combined operation and have a majority. That is unhealthy. This is a constitutional Bill, so that is entirely wrong. The rush to get it through is causing problems. It is causing problems for the Government, because I can read people's faces to a certain extent, and although the noble Lords on the Front Bench try very hard, they are not convincing all their Members. At this stage, most of them are voting for it—I think that the occasional Peer may vanish—but they are not winning the intellectual argument, because those on our Front Bench are putting the case.

The rush through this House is causing strains. It is causing noble Lords on the government Front Bench to act in a manner which, with two exceptions, is foreign to their character. I do not know about the third one, but certainly for two of them it is foreign to their character. Surely the electoral register has to be right before we start drawing boundaries on the basis of it.

The amendment would ensure that the Boundary Commission had to do everything “reasonable”—that is the key word—to ensure that people were registered to vote. Earlier, a noble Lord mentioned that we cannot make folk vote. As a noble friend of mine said, that is a different argument. It is our job as parliamentarians—Government and loyal Opposition—to ensure that people want to register and have that choice. It would be outrageous if they did not have that choice. If they do not vote, that is a condemnation of us all. We all have a duty to try to get there, but no one party or combination of parties should have the power to legislate, especially when it is changing the constitution of the country.

The harsh realities of local government life, especially in the next year or so at least, will be cuts. There is not a statutory duty on a local authority to have a positive electoral registration policy and to go out and look for people to register. The harsh reality is that the pressure is on councils to deliver a social work department, especially for the elderly and children, or an education department and, life and human nature being what they are, electoral registration is nebulous and not an immediate thing for the people concerned. That is the damage that this coalition Government are doing to democracy. I do not think it is an evil coalition; I do not think the coalition Government are there to do bad things deliberately; but the effect is bad, and that is the damage they are doing to democracy.

A previous friendly skirmish with my good old quarry, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, prompted me to table a Question to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, regarding over-18 populations and those who are registered. For instance, in my former constituency of Rutherglen and Hamilton West in 2008, the population was 80,103 but the electorate came to 77,363, which is an imbalance of almost 3,000. I know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, may say that because the register is going to be taken from December 2010, there is a hope—it can be only a hope—that they will have caught those missing people and got them on. I trust the figures of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, and arithmetic was never my strong point, but when I totalled all the different figures, there was a disparity of 281,000 people over 18 in Scotland who were not registered to vote in mid-2008. Without a measure as contained in this amendment tabled by my noble and learned friend, I do not see how that can be made up. Surely 283,000 is a massive disparity. I understand the pressure of getting a Bill through the House, although I have never resorted to writing notes or anything like that. The figure of 281,000 was only a couple of years ago, and who is to know what the disparity is now? The figures for 1 December 2010 will not be published until February, so I cannot refer to them. It is quite clear that there is a lot of work to be done on the register.

I am surprised that somebody has not jumped up and said that the previous Labour Government did not do anything about this. Is it going to be the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace? That is fine, but the difference is that if the previous Labour Government can be criticised for not doing enough on that, that previous Labour Government was not undemocratically changing the constitution of this country. That is the difference because that is what is happening. I am glad that the noble Lord took over to raise that while I am on my feet. We have this problem with registration. If this amendment is not the proper way to go about doing something about it, I do not hear anything coming from the government Front Bench to tackle that disparity, and I look forward to hearing whether there is any positive response to the justified fears that are being expressed.

My Lords, I promise the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, that I will genuinely be brief. I had not intended intervening in this debate, but it occurred to me as I was listening that if, for some bizarre reason, BBC Parliament and Radio 1 got confused and Radio 1 listeners had to listen to the nature of the debate we have had tonight, they would assume that this House had been overtaken by Martians because we are talking geek language. We are geeks, and we live the language of electoral registers and the necessity to get people involved in the democratic process.

But if we take it right back to basics, we have to be honest on all sides of this House that the craft of politics is held in very low regard in this country at the present time. We have an opportunity with this amendment to go some little way towards trying to restore that. This should not be a partisan point. Those of us interested in democracy and in the constitution of this country do so from the best possible motives. The way in which the Bill is crafted reads as if the lowest common denominator would be acceptable; that is, to get a register regardless of how accurate that register is.

If we are to make a breakthrough particularly with young people, disadvantaged people and those who feel that they are outside the system, if they turn up at a polling place and find that they are not on that register, we will have undone all the work that all of us in this House want to see done to re-engage people with the craft of politics. I urge the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness—I know that his freedom of manoeuvre is limited—at least to say that he will look at these issues and the very important points that my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer made in his introductory remarks. The fact that a complete review has to be made of every constituency in this country is a measure of the scale of what is involved here. If the coalition Government were prepared to look at that, I am sure that we could together work to find a way that would help to reassure people that at least the lowest common denominator is not acceptable.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for this amendment, which has given us an opportunity to raise the two issues—the double barrels, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, referred to it—of the timetable for the boundary review and the very important issue of trying to ensure that the electoral register is as accurate as it can be. In the spirit of the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell, and the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Foulkes, I want to make it clear that this should not be a partisan issue with regard to trying to ensure that as many people who are eligible to register do register.

Perhaps I should also say at the outset, if it keeps the noble Lord, Lord Soley, happy, that I have not asked any of my colleagues not to speak. I know full well what their reaction would be if I tried to do so. Maybe he will interpret my not asking them not to speak as being to encourage them—I hope noble Lords follow me.

I want it to be clear that no one on the government payroll has asked Members not to speak because of the time that it takes.

I think that I have made it clear that I have not asked any of my colleagues not to speak. I am not quite sure that I could make it any clearer than that.

With regard to the timetable, the indication we have given is that we wish the changes in Part 2 to be in effect for the election due to take place in May 2015. One could say that that is dependent on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, but in any event, even under our present constitutional arrangements for the timing of elections, the latest date would be May 2015. It is the wish of the Government that constituency sizes should be of an equal size in time for that election. That is why we are asking the Boundary Commissions to bring forward their reports by October 2013. That would give time between the reports—one for each constituent nation of the United Kingdom—being published and an opportunity for the parties, the importance of which I think someone mentioned, to gear up, as it were, to what will be different boundaries.

With regard to the issue that I think was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, about whether this is feasible, my noble friend Lord Phillips quoted from the Constitution Committee report where the Boundary Commission had indicated that it would be feasible. In giving evidence to the committee in another place, the secretary of the Boundary Commission for Wales said:

“I don’t think the timescales for Wales are going to be too challenging”.

The question was then directed to the secretary of the Boundary Commission for England, which is obviously much larger. He said:

“Taking a potential worst case scenario, based upon what is in the Bill in front of us, the initial view of myself and the Commission is that the timetable is achievable”.

The noble and learned Lord went on to ask why not do this in two and a half years every time, and why institute five-yearly reviews after that? The reason is that a five-yearly review would mean that there would be a boundary review in each Parliament. If he thinks about it, with a two and a half year or three-year review, you could have two reviews within one Parliament and a boundary review producing constituencies for an election that would not take place. I am sure he agrees that that would be farcical. That is the reason for the five-yearly review, and later we will debate other amendments regarding seven and eight year reviews. As was noted by the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, the second part of the amendment has a six-yearly review. We believe that a review every five years would mean that in each Parliament, if the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill goes through, there is less likely to be disruption. The more frequent the reviews, the less the opportunity for wide divergence and therefore the less would be the likelihood of disruption.

I wish to intervene very briefly on the quotations used by the noble and learned Lord from the secretaries of the Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, when they gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place. The note I have confirms that the secretary of the Boundary Commission for England said that the timetable was “achievable but tight” and that,

“extra resources would certainly be needed”.

I do not know what date it is assumed that the process would start and what extra resources would be provided.

I am not making any presumption about the date it will start because it would depend on Royal Assent, and therefore I am not going to speculate on when that might be. I know that the noble and learned Lord has a later amendment regarding resources, tabled for the avoidance of doubt. When we come to it, he will see that it is not necessary because as the Bill stands, the resources ought to be there to be drawn on for the purposes of this review. If he thinks about it, given all the comments made by noble Lords opposite about the Government wishing to get this piece of legislation through, they are hardly likely to wish then to frustrate it through lack of resources. That is perhaps self-evident. We will have a better opportunity to discuss the level of resources when we come to that particular amendment, but I would assure him that we do not anticipate that the issue of resources will be a barrier to the timetable being delivered.

Perhaps we may move on to the other barrel of the amendment, which would have the effect of delaying the boundary reviews until such time as,

“the Electoral Commission has certified that every local authority has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible”.

That is quite a steep requirement. My noble friend Lord Tyler questioned whether it would be appropriate for the Electoral Commission to make subjective judgments in cases that could have major consequences for a boundary review, and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, raised some of the practical difficulties that again were picked up in an exchange with my noble friend Lord Tyler. I would simply observe that if the Electoral Commission decided that, in its judgment, one local authority in the whole of the United Kingdom had not done this, a boundary review could be put off indefinitely. It certainly would not be in time for the 2015 election, it might not be in time for the 2020 election, and it might not even be in time for the 2025 election. That is the possible logical consequence of the amendment put forward by the noble and learned Lord.

If there was a problem with a boundary review where the baseline for the review would be 1 December 2010, if we held elections in 2020 or 2025 where the boundaries for England were based on a baseline of data from the year 2000, that really does not address the very legitimate issues he has raised with regard to people who might be eligible to vote but might not be on the electoral roll.

Does the Minister really think that it is fair to draw boundaries in the inner cities on the basis of electoral registration figures that have been damaged by the fact that a whole canvass was not possible? Surely that full canvass has to be completed and maximum registration achieved before we can even begin to consider redrawing the boundaries. By not agreeing with me, the Minister is conceding, in the case of the argument about violence, that violence in many ways pays.

I am only indicating that it could be a circumstance in which the Electoral Commission may take that view. All the problems that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, identified may well have been addressed, but there may be a recalcitrant council somewhere in the country which, for one reason or another, has not done that.

I remind the Committee that electoral registration officers are under a statutory duty to compile and maintain comprehensive and accurate electoral registers. It is not as if it is a voluntary activity; there is an obligation on local authorities to compile as best they can comprehensive and accurate electoral registers. As was commented on earlier, the Electoral Commission’s report on performance standards for electoral registration officers in Great Britain, published in March, showed that just under 96 per cent of electoral registration officers met the completeness and accuracy of electoral registration records standard this year.

I salute what Glasgow has done—the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, mentioned this—and that should be the model. It is important that we have as accurate and comprehensive registers as possible. It is worth reminding the Committee that another report of the Electoral Commission, The Completeness and Accuracy of Electoral Registers in Great Britain, also published in March, stated that the UK’s registration rate of 91 to 92 per cent compared well with other countries. I am sure that that touches on the question of notional registration, which I am sure we will debate further when we come to Amendment 89C—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for advance notice of it. The 91 to 92 per cent figure for completeness is derived from the 2000 census, but it is an approximate measure. It could not form the basis of a boundary review as it does not provide sufficiently robust data to give confidence for something such as a boundary review. However, I take the noble Lord’s point and I shall carefully look at his amendment before we come to debate it.

Is the noble and learned Lord saying that this reforming Government are really satisfied that the present condition of electoral registers will do, that they are as complete and accurate as they need to be, and that it is therefore perfectly acceptable to go ahead with the boundary reforms on the timescale that is written into the Bill? Is he really saying that we can be complacent and be satisfied with the state of affairs that we have at the moment, particularly in the light of what my noble friend said about Bradford?

I am rather disappointed because I have tried my best to listen to what noble Lords have said, and I rather regret that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, did not listen to me at the very outset when I said that I hoped that there was common ground in our not being satisfied that people who are eligible to be on the electoral roll are not. That should concern noble Lords in all parts of the Chamber. I apologise if I did not make that clear enough to the noble Lord.

Is the Minister saying that he is happy for the legislation to proceed on the basis of the present condition of electoral registers?

I am saying that I do not believe that it is an either/or. The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, mentioned the previous Labour Government. I think it is fair to say that 3.5 million people have not suddenly disappeared from the electoral register since 5 May 2010. Indeed, the figures which the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, gave related to mid-2008. It is a problem that occurred under the previous Administration; it is a problem which we must address. It is not as if we are sitting back; we are being far from complacent. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, said that there should be some leadership. I indicate to him and to the Committee that a pilot will be launched for local authorities to compare the electoral register against public databases to identify people who are not currently on the register.

There are other things, such as the door-to-door canvass, which has been referred to, and the importance of going back to contact people who have not responded, which there is an obligation to do. It is important that councils use their own data, such as council tax data. Some do and I understand that some do not, but it is important that they use that data. There ought to be other data. We are looking at using public databases to identify people not currently on the register—for example, the national insurance and DVLA databases. Those are the pilots that we want to set up.

I am delighted to hear the noble and learned Lord say that, because we have to use all the public databases available to us to ensure that we have an accurate register. We should start with a register and then check off its accuracy rather than the other way around. Could school records be included? That is one source where you know that someone leaves school at the age of 16 and you know where they live. Would it be possible to use those data for the electoral register?

I hesitate because I do not want to say anything definite if there are data protection problems, but that is a positive suggestion and one that I will no doubt look at to see if it can be done. The noble Lord is absolutely right. It is one possible way and if it can legitimately be done I am sure that it will help. The pilots will be tried later this year. The precise locations have yet to be confirmed, but a report will be published by the Electoral Commission towards the end of the year. When pilots have been run, it will be possible to broaden the scope.

This is not an either/or. It is important that we do this. However, if we were to proceed with the amendment, not only is it possible that one or two councils would not be certified by the Electoral Commission before the 2025 election, but even on the basis of the 2015 election we would still be using data for England that would be 15 years old. If there are 3.5 million people missing, I suspect that the data for 2000 are even more damaging. There is a difference between the data that are used for calculating the numbers for the constituencies and the important objective year in, year out to make sure that the electoral roll is as up to date as possible and that people are on it who ought to be on it.

I thank the Minister for his comments. I certainly appreciate some of the things that he is looking at. However, to return to the point about evaluation of the registration system used by the Government, is he aware that this is self-assessment and that there is no independent validation of the system that the Electoral Commission uses? Will he look at an independent validation of the system?

I hesitate because I am not entirely sure that I fully understand what the noble Baroness is asking me to do. I am sure that it is one of the things that I can look at in the record.

My point is that the figure that the noble and learned Lord is using of 96 per cent validation that the register has been compiled to the best of the person’s ability is completed by the person operating the system. They are the ones who sign a form to say that the work has been done adequately. There is no independent validation of the electoral registration system in this country. As part of the process that he is looking at in terms of data and so on, will he look at whether it is possible to have an independent validation of the system that is operated, as happens in most other government agencies?

There are two points there. The first is that the figure that we have been using of 96 per cent comes from a report published by the Electoral Commission. It was not published by the Government. That is a matter that will need to be taken up with the Electoral Commission. The point that the noble Baroness has made will be drawn to the Electoral Commission’s attention. The second point underlines that it is not necessarily the wisest move to say that the Electoral Commission then has to make a subjective judgment as to whether the terms and conditions of the certification that is inherent in this amendment are met.

Following what my noble friend said, why can there not be a random selection, a pilot project, to check whether the statistics to which my noble friend referred are accurate? It might well be that local authorities are not submitting particularly accurate returns. I presume that these figures from local authorities come from electoral registration departments. They could maybe take a dozen local authorities in various parts of this country and check whether that is the case. Secondly, when the Minister referred to the pilot projects before, is it true that the pilots, and the registration levels that arise as a result, will not influence the statistics that are to be used by the Boundary Commission in its review?

The first point is, as I have indicated, a matter for the Electoral Commission. At least two noble Lords in this debate—the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and my noble friend Lord Tyler—have identified themselves as advisers to the Electoral Commission. These points will have been noted.

As I confirmed in a debate before the Christmas Recess, the base for this boundary review was this 1 December past and the next one will be 1 December 2015, if this Bill goes through in full. That is more likely to be able to take account of the information from these pilots, and, I hope, broaden that out. I understand that there are issues on the Benches opposite about individual registration. It is more likely that these will be taken into account quicker than were we to wait for the day when certification comes from the Electoral Commission, as is proposed in the noble and learned Lord’s amendment. I therefore invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.

I am grateful for the trouble that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has taken here. As he rightly says, there are two bits to this. The first part of my amendment questions the proposition that you could effectively complete a review of every constituency in this country by October 2013, which is what the Bill proposes, when there is agreement across the House that hitherto it has taken between six and seven years to complete such a review. I was looking for the reasons why that which hitherto has taken six to seven years can be dealt with between the date upon which this Bill gets Royal Assent—a date we know not but assume is some time in the next few months—and October 2013.

The evidence that the noble and learned Lord relied on was that the secretaries of the Boundary Commissions had said to the Political and Constitutional Committee that they think it can be done but—he might have disputed this—that the timetable would be tight. How will it be done? I do not know and it strikes me, from my knowledge of the way that such bodies operate, that to manage a much more complicated and difficult review than they have ever done before—it will touch every single constituency in the country—sounds unrealistic. I do not in any way criticise the noble and learned Lord for his answer but it did not really offer an explanation to me that provided any consistency on how this marvellous process could be done so much more quickly.

The second point is that we should really make efforts to ensure that people who are not registered are registered. The noble and learned Lord made the quite valid point that surely not every single local authority has to comply. Maybe we should have some rule or process that says “substantially all” local authorities should comply, but that was his only point. I am willing to be guided by him: he might produce some proposal if he thinks mine is too draconian. Let us give more room for manoeuvre. Every single person who has spoken in the debate has said that we should do something about under-registration. If our idea was too draconian, I would have expected the noble and learned Lord to have come forward with some idea about how we would achieve that which appears to be an aim shared by all Members of the Committee.

I thank the noble and learned Lord for taking the trouble to respond in the way that he did, but I have to say that his reply was disappointing. Of course I will not ask the Committee to divide at this time of night, but I will certainly come back on Report with an amendment to deal with the unrealistic timetable for the first review and to propose how one might deal with the issue of under-registration. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 54A withdrawn.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 10.46 pm.