My Lords, the Government have no current plans to restrict the right of second home owners who meet the residence requirement to register in two places, but we will keep the issue under review. An individual may be registered at more than one address if it appears to the electoral registration officer for the local authority area in which each address is located that the individual is resident in that area. However, it is an offence for a person to vote twice in a general election or European Parliament election.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. Is it not a principle, just as we have for one person one vote, that for a national election an individual should be able to cast their vote where they really are a resident and a stakeholder in the community? Will the Minister make sure that that is clarified for returning officers, and will the Government take steps to ensure that people are able to vote in national elections only where their main residence is located?
I thank my noble friend for that question. The electoral registration officer is responsible for defining this particular issue. I also thank him for suggesting nominating a main residence, and I can confirm that the Government are considering this further. Noble Lords will recognise the difficulties that can arise from such definitions.
This matter has been a long-standing feature of our electoral system. The whole business of permanent and temporary residence has been defined by case law, and two English cases that set out the principles state that a person may have two residences that qualify them for an interest in the outcome of the elections in two local authority elections.
My Lords, returning to second homes, I wonder whether, since the Government have so rightly emphasised the importance of getting equity between the value of votes, they should address this issue of giving some people two votes, while everyone else, including those of us who are allowed to vote in whichever elections, have only one.
This is a matter which, as I said in my original Answer, the Government are reviewing. It is a long-standing tradition that people can register in two different addresses where they have an interest. I should emphasise that it is against the law to vote twice in the same election to the same body.
Does the noble Lord not agree that the real problem that real democrats are concerned with at the moment is that 3.5 million people are not registered and are therefore not entitled to vote? Could he update the House on what the Government are doing to try to reduce that number?
The Government are trying to make sure that all databases and the electoral register, which is in effect a database, are made as comprehensive as possible. I answered a Question not so very long ago, as the noble Lord will remember, on the census, as I did on election registration. There is currently a review to produce a national address gazetteer, which will assist both electoral registration officers and the census process in providing information, so that a more positive approach can be taken to address the issue that the noble Lord has raised.
I do not think, with respect, that the Minister has precisely answered the question put by my noble friend Lady Trumpington. She asked whether it was right that a student should have two votes—one at home and one at the university—when he or she is likely to be at the university for only two or three years and is therefore electing someone who might well be in office for many years after they have left the university.
Does not the Government’s decision to set their boundaries on the basis of the December 2010 register, which includes this flawed material on second homes and the registration of voters, further confirm how the data that are being used for boundary setting are just unacceptable and should not be used?
I wondered when that question would be posed, because it ties in with the debates that we are currently having on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The distortions that all databases have—the census is no exception, because it, too, has to be assessed in various areas because of low returns—are distortions to the electorate numbers and would affect electorates in university towns and coastal recreational areas in particular. I should emphasise, however, that residences that are used primarily for recreational purposes are not, in general terms, considered to be second residences and should not be registered.
My Lords, the noble Lord has properly reminded the House that it is illegal to vote twice in the same general election. Will he say, under the present arrangements, how it is possible to police that law; and how many people does he think, or does he know, have actually been prosecuted for doing that?