My Lords, the aim of the Bill is to tackle electoral fraud, to increase the number of people registered to vote, to give people greater ownership of their own registration and to improve the integrity of the register. The Bill also includes provisions to improve the administration and conduct of elections, which will serve to increase voter participation, and to make a number of improvements to the running of elections.
Last year, the Cabinet Office funded the Electoral Commission to carry out a detailed analysis of the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register in Great Britain. It showed that as of December 2010 the electoral register was 85% to 87% complete and by April 2011 was 85% accurate. This translates to there being over 6 million people missing from the electoral register compared with some 3 million estimated 10 years earlier.
To provide some perspective, Northern Ireland, which introduced individual registration in 2002, now has an electoral register which is also 85% complete but is 94% accurate. This Bill, by facilitating the use of such things as online registration and data matching, will help tackle the problem of declining registration. In doing so, the Government place equal importance on the completeness and accuracy of the register.
Britain is one of the few countries in the world still to rely on a system of household registration, inherited from the period when only heads of household voted. A system that relies on this notion of the head of household does not engender any personal responsibility for being registered or promote a person’s ownership of their vote. It is increasingly unsuitable in multi-occupation dwellings, where it may not even be clear who the head of household is.
As well as the current problem with completeness, the system is also unacceptably open to fraud. There is widespread concern about electoral fraud in this country. If citizens do not have confidence in the integrity of the electoral register, they will not have confidence in the integrity of election outcomes. For a number of years, observers of UK elections have highlighted concerns about the registration system. In its election assessment mission report on the general election of 2010, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights described the voter registration system in Great Britain as the weakest link in the electoral process because of the absence of safeguards against fictitious registrations. It recommended:
“Consideration should be given to introducing an identification requirement for voters when applying for registration as a safeguard against fraudulent registration”.
That is why in the Bill we are legislating to speed up the introduction of individual registration. The register published after the 2015 annual canvass will consist of entries that, with the exception of some of those for the Armed Forces, have all been individually verified. This is a position that the Electoral Commission supports. Jenny Watson, chair of the commission, when commenting on alleged malpractice in the London mayoral elections, said:
“The Electoral Commission wants to see our registration system tightened up and it’s good that the Government plans to introduce new laws to do this which will apply to any of us who want to vote by post before the 2015 General Election”.
Some individuals have advocated introducing a requirement for electors to provide some form of ID at a polling station. In considering any such proposal, we need to maintain a balance between security and accessibility, and to avoid introducing measures that would risk disenfranchising legitimate electors. The Electoral Commission is looking to carry out a review of the existing policy and is not asking for any changes to be made at this stage. The Government therefore have no plans to introduce ID at polling stations at this time, but will give careful consideration to any findings that emerge from the commission’s review.
Before I set out what we plan to do to reach individuals who are not registered, I will briefly set out the transition from the current to the new system and the steps we are taking to ensure that legitimately registered electors will not be removed from the register in the transition to individual registration. The last canvass under the current system will be postponed from autumn 2013 to spring 2014. This will ensure that the register will be as up to date as possible before the transition to the new system in 2014.
We plan to confirm about two-thirds of existing entries by matching the names and addresses of every elector on the register against the Department for Work and Pensions’ customer information system. Following this data match, electoral registration officers will carry out an amended canvass in the summer and autumn of 2014. The remaining one-third of electors whose details have not been confirmed through data matching will be sent a personal invitation to register under the new system. At the same time, the Electoral Commission will run a publicity campaign to inform the general public of the change to the new system.
If an individual fails to make an application after the first invitation, the registration officer will send them another invitation to register. If they fail to apply, the registration officer will be required to send a door-to-door canvasser to encourage their application. The registration may also, in specified circumstances, require an individual to make an application by a certain date—and if an individual fails to do so, a civil penalty may be issued.
At the same time, properties with no registered electors, and properties where a registration officer believes that there are unregistered residents, will be sent a household canvass form to help identify potential new electors whom the registration officer will invite to register, and follow up, as I set out. Following this canvass, a register will be produced, and only where a registration officer determines that an existing elector is no longer eligible will they be removed from the register. In other words, there will be a “carry forward” provision for existing electors so that, even if they have not had their details confirmed, and they have not made a successful new individual application in 2014, they will still be able to vote at the 2015 general election. However, any individual who wishes to vote by post or proxy at the 2015 general election will have had to have made a successful new application or have been confirmed and retained on the register through data matching. The electors who lose their postal or proxy vote will be informed and encouraged to register individually.
Following this canvass, and up to the 2015 general election, individuals will be able to register at any time. After the 2015 general election, registration officers will carry out another full household canvass. The new household canvass form will be pre-populated—that is, the names will already be on it—with the names of those electors who have successfully applied to be registered under the new system and those confirmed through data matching.
Before the end of the 2015 canvass, registration officers will send personally addressed application forms to existing electors who have not yet made a new successful application and whose details were not confirmed at the beginning of the transition. This acts as a final reminder for the individual to make an application before their name is removed from the register. Following this canvass, registration officers will remove all electors, except some service personnel, who have not made a successful application to register under the new system and whose details were not confirmed through data matching.
Let us be clear that, by this stage, this group will have been data matched to try to confirm them automatically in 2014, invited to register with a follow-up by post and in person in both the autumn of 2014 and the autumn of 2015, and received a final notification that they will be removed from the register. They will also have had the opportunity to register when political awareness was at its highest prior to the 2015 general election. The transition that I have just outlined, particularly the use of data matching to retain automatically the majority of electors on the register, will ensure that the registers created during the transition to individual electoral registration will be robust.
We are not aiming merely to stem the decline in the proportion of electors registering. The move to individual registration will also open up opportunities to improve the completeness of the register in Great Britain. The Bill will, for example, facilitate online registration. This will make it more convenient for individuals to register to vote; more accessible for people with visual impairments; and easier for young people. It will also make the whole process of electoral registration more efficient. We intend that the online system will be fully operational when the transition to individual registration begins.
Following the example of Northern Ireland, the Bill will also enable the use of data mining to find potential eligible electors who are missing from the register. Last year, we ran pilots for the first time to test this process in Great Britain and, subject to parliamentary approval, we plan to run a further set in February and March 2013 to test their use for identifying key target groups. The results of these pilots will allow us to see which data sets can be of most use for electoral registration officers.
We are also currently taking steps to maximise registration among under-registered groups. This will include working with a range of partner organisations, including Bite the Ballot and Operation Black Vote, to reach groups currently under-registered by testing a range of activities. Officials have also recently met the National Union of Students.
I want to touch briefly on some features of the Bill that were debated in the other place. The first of these is the new civil penalty. It is our intention that the warning on invitations to register, well before the question of imposing a civil penalty arises, will help encourage people to do their civic duty and register to vote. The Bill provides that after a registration officer has followed specified steps, they can require an individual to make an application. We have already published draft secondary legislation which sets out these specified steps. The Bill also sets out that the size of the civil penalty will be stipulated in regulations. We are of the view that the penalty should be within the parking fine spectrum, and the draft regulations set out the arguments for it being at the lower end, at around £40, or at the higher end at around £130. We will shortly be engaging with relevant stakeholders to seek views as to the appropriate level and we will make a decision based on these discussions.
It is also the Government’s intention to produce further iterations of the draft legislation by the time this House returns from the Summer Recess. These will include the regulations setting out the appeal procedure for any civil penalties issued and the enforcement mechanism. This will enable the House to debate the details of the civil penalty scheme while the Bill is in Committee.
Another issue that aroused debate when the Bill was in the other place was Clause 6, which provides for a power to abolish or amend the annual canvass. I want to put it on record that the Government have no current intention to abolish the annual canvass. It is, however, sensible to take this power now as it will allow future Governments to keep pace with technological developments. For example, in future it may be that a data matching exercise such as that used in Northern Ireland may be able to replace some or all of the canvass, thus simplifying the registration process further for individuals. I should remind the House that it was the previous Government who abolished the annual canvass in Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006. The use of this power is subject, in addition, to strict safeguards including, but not limited to, consulting the Electoral Commission on any proposal and requiring it to produce a report. We have allocated £108 million over the spending review period to fund the costs of transition. We will be funding local authorities in England and Wales directly through grants under Section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003, allocated for the purposes of paying for the transition. In Scotland, electoral registration is carried out for the most part by electoral registration officers who, barring the two exceptions of the City of Dundee and Fife, are independent of each local authority. The additional costs of implementing the new system will be paid directly to them.
I hope that noble Lords will accept that this Bill, which has already undergone pre-legislative scrutiny and significant consequent changes, represents a reasonable set of proposals which will safeguard the completeness of the register during the transition to individual electoral registration.
I turn now to the clauses in the Bill concerning the administration and conduct of elections. They address issues that have been raised by parliamentarians and stakeholders and make a number of practical and sensible changes that will help to deliver more effective electoral administration. The Bill includes provisions that extend the electoral timetable for UK parliamentary elections from 17 to 25 days. At present, postal voters have a maximum period of two calendar weeks to receive and return their postal ballot pack, but that shrinks when the time taken to print and distribute the packs is factored in. This creates a particular problem for service voters based abroad, their families and other overseas voters. The changes will address these problems by increasing the time period to up to four calendar weeks.
To assist with the understanding of this proposal and the related proposal to require electoral registration officers to publish two additional updates to the electoral register in the run-up to an election, I will today place in the Library of each House a paper which sets out in detail the current electoral timetable, our proposed extension of that timetable, and the benefits it will bring. The Bill also includes provisions that relate to postal voters whose votes are rejected at an election because their postal vote identifiers do not match with the identifiers stored on record. The Bill will enable regulations to be made that will place electoral registration officers under a duty to inform electors, after the election, if they fall into this category. However, electoral registration officers will continue to be able to use their discretion not to inform such persons if any impropriety is suspected.
Alongside this measure, the Government plan to introduce secondary legislation to require that postal vote identifiers are checked for 100% of postal votes, as opposed to the current 20%, at elections to strengthen the integrity of the electoral process and to provide an additional safeguard against electoral fraud. The Bill also includes provisions to allow the Secretary of State to withhold or reduce a returning officer’s fee for reasons of poor performance, on a recommendation by the independent Electoral Commission. These provisions will help to ensure that returning officers are accountable for their actions in respect of the conduct of parliamentary elections, making them liable to lose out on some or all of the fee that they receive for their services in connection with an election if there has been a clear failure to provide an adequate service.
In sum, the Bill will help to stem and reverse the recent decline in the completeness of our electoral register, to tackle fraud and to improve the integrity, administration and conduct of elections. I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill. This is a constitutional Bill. It comes out of the coalition agreement, which mentions reducing,
“electoral fraud by speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration”.
This Bill is important. Once bitten, twice shy, as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned. We understand from what the Liberal Democrat leader says that, depending on what happens in relation to House of Lords reform, they may renege on one of the other Bills that came out of the coalition agreement, namely the now Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act. I do not know whether this Bill fits within the same category. The two other constitutional Bills that have come out of the coalition agreement are the House of Lords Reform Bill, which is widely regarded as poor, and the now Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which is also widely regarded as poor.
The significance of these points—apart from a little dig at the Liberal Democrats—is to indicate that this House has an especial responsibility in relation to a Bill such as this because we know it is the product of a rather unsatisfactory political arrangement. Therefore, the role that we should perform in this House is to see whether it has a detrimental effect on our democracy or genuinely promotes a proper democratic situation. I am glad that we will hear from noble Lords from Northern Ireland who have had some experience of individual voter registration. I am glad that we will hear from my noble friend Lord Wills, who had responsibility for introducing individual voter registration. I am also glad that we will hear from people on all sides of the House who have been engaged in the process of running election campaigns on behalf of individual political parties.
The Bill does two things. First, it changes the timetable and the approach to the introduction of individual voter registration. Secondly—and separately—it makes provision for the administration and conduct of elections. I will restrict my remarks to the first, which is the first part of the Bill. There is no dispute between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party about the fact that individual voter registration is desirable in order to reduce the possibility of fraud. Indeed, the Labour Government introduced individual voter registration. The issue is not the merits of that. The issue is how one introduces it and how one strikes a balance between reducing fraud on one hand and ensuring that there is not a significant reduction in the number of people on the register on the other. I anticipate as well that there is agreement right across the House that the level of reduction in registration will have a damaging effect on democracy.
The current registration process is essentially a combination of household registration and rolling registration. With household registration, a form is sent to each household and one person fills it in with the names of all the people there. Once the form gets back to the electoral administration, all those names remain on the register for as long as the ERO believes that the people still live at that house. There is also a process of rolling registration whereby individuals can either change their existing registration or make a new application if they are not on the register. That system involves producing no proof as to who you are; it involves very little trouble to be on the register.
Individual electoral registration means that you have to fill in a form individually and produce proof—including a national insurance number, date of birth and something else—that you are the person who lives at the particular address. This is much more difficult—not remotely impossible but more difficult—and the consequence is almost bound to be that fewer people will register.
What is the wrong that we are seeking to right by making it more difficult to register? We are seeking to deal with electoral fraud. Mr Mark Harper, the gentleman in the other place who is responsible for promoting this Bill, describes electoral fraud in this country as “rare”. Anecdotally, the feeling is that electoral fraud does take place in this country but it is much rarer here than in almost any other country—
My Lords, my recollection is that he said it was “rare” but I will check that, if I may, and see precisely what he said. My reading of Mr Mark Harper’s case was not that there was actually a lot of fraud; his point was that one wanted to increase confidence in the system. My recollection of Mr Mark Harper’s speech was that he was saying that fraud was rare, but an opinion poll says that 36% of people are worried that there is fraud in the system. The Bill is to deal with confidence in the system. We on this side of the House are not averse to trying to increase confidence. As long as it does not have a damaging effect on the number of people who participate in our democracy, it is a sensible way to go.
The proposal—indeed, it became law in 2009—was to allow individual registration on a voluntary basis. Each year the Electoral Commission would report on how that was going; then in 2014, after the process had been going for some time, the Electoral Commission would give advice to Parliament on whether or not to move from a household system to an individual electoral registration system. This House could then make a decision as to whether or not the risks to our democracy in terms of the number of people who were not registered were safe enough for the move to be made. I respectfully submit that that is an extremely sensible way of dealing with it.
When this House last debated the issue of how many people were not registered, we proceeded on the basis that the register was probably 91% or 92% accurate. To their great credit, the Government financed the Electoral Commission to do further research in relation to that. This was published at the end of last year and showed that in fact we were underestimating the level of under-registration. From my reading of that research, at its peak the level of registration appears to be 82%, meaning that at certain times of the year, depending on how far away you are from an annual canvass, as many as 18% are not registered in this country. By my calculation that is some 8.5 million people. I would have thought that the consequence of making registration more complicated is bound to increase the number of people who are not registered.
What is wrong with making sure that, before one gets there, one has done as much as one can to get as few people as possible to drop out? Why has the programme been changed? Why are we not taking care of this? We will propose first, by way of amendment, that there should be monitoring as to how the process is going; and secondly, that we as a Parliament should get advice from the Electoral Commission as to whether it is sensible to do such a thing.
Following the points that the transition is being made too fast and that there is no monitoring of its effect, the next point is the boundary review. As I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, there will be a canvass during 2014, and the only people who will be knocked off the register will be people who the electoral registration officer is satisfied are not resident at the address. Even if you do not make an application and even if you do not provide any identifiers, you will not get knocked off the register in 2014 unless the ERO believes that you do not live there. Can the noble Lord confirm that in his winding-up remarks? However, as I understand the position, in 2015 those who can be data-matched with the DWP material will be put on the register without having to make an application. Again, I hope that the noble Lord will confirm or deny that in his winding-up remarks.
In relation to the noble Lord’s estimate, which I have no basis for challenging, from 1 December 2015 the one-third of the electorate who are not data-matched with the DWP material will get knocked off the register unless each one of them makes an individual application and produces the necessary identifiers. That is my understanding of how the transition and the system will work. If I am not one of the two-thirds of the electorate, if I am one of the one-third, I will have to fill in a form and provide the individual identifier—indeed, I think it will be three individual identifiers, one of which will be my national insurance number. If I do not do that, I will get knocked off the register. Have the Government made an estimate of how many people they think will not go through that process? If so, could they tell us what it is?
Am I not also right in saying that the boundary review that will take place for the election in 2020—if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 leads to five-year elections—will be based on the electoral register that will come into existence on 1 December 2015? In those circumstances we will have new constituencies brought into existence on the basis of the first shot at individual electoral registration.
There is no dispute, from anybody who has looked at this, that the people who are least likely to register are the young, the very old, the disabled, those from black and minority-ethnic communities, and those in private rented accommodation. The danger of all this is that you end up with your social class, your colour or your capacity determining whether you are registered or not. We should be doing our best as a nation to have individual electoral registration—but surely on the basis that it applies right across the board. Everybody agrees that it is worth while, but I am completely unable to understand why a sensible, monitored introduction is not taking place. What is the motivation for not doing what people regard as sensible, in a sensible way? The Liberal Democrats say that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act is a piece of legislation that was designed to help the Conservative Party—and that came out of the coalition agreement. Is this the same? We need an explanation as to why this important building block in our democracy is being dealt with in what appears, on the face of it, to be a rather cavalier way. Would the sensible thing not be to stick to the timescale, with annual monitoring and the report to Parliament, so we know where we stand in relation to it?
There are three other matters. First, I am unable to understand why those who are currently registered for a proxy or postal vote are not carrying forward their right to a proxy or postal vote for the purposes of the 2015 election. That appears both an unnecessary regulation and one that is very difficult to justify.
Secondly, additional resources will presumably be required in order to achieve the handover or transition that we have been talking about. The Cabinet Office has been kind enough to publish something called the high-level implementation timeline, which involves this year, 2012, for local authorities. Those involved in local delivery will be asked to plan for the introduction of individual electoral registration at a local level, which will include working out what resources they need. They will also be asked to play an important role in developing and testing the new capability to be rolled out more widely in 2013. Will the Minister tell the House how that is going? That is at paragraph 7 of the notes accompanying the high-level timeline. For 2013, the timeline envisages that:
“Electoral Registration Officers and Electoral Administrators will have IT systems put in place, other resources acquired and capabilities—including staff training—built during this phase”—
“in readiness for go-live in the following year. All local capability needs will be ready by the end of this phase”,
that is, by the end of 2013. Can the noble Lord indicate what budget has been set aside to put those capabilities in place, what progress has been made in relation to the development of the IT systems required, and whether he anticipates any teething difficulties in relation to it? Can he also tell this House the extent to which the Government’s proposals depend on their IT systems working properly?
Finally, we on this side of the House will take care to examine these proposals in considerable detail. If they go wrong, there could be a substantial reduction in the number of people on the register. Currently, it could be as low as 82%. What would be the consequences to our democracy if it went to somewhere in the low 70s or even the high 60s? That would be extremely damaging. The question that underlies our approach to this Bill is: why on earth are the Government taking this risk with our democracy?
My Lords, it is entirely appropriate that this unelected second Chamber should be debating, probing, examining and questioning the electoral system in our country. As none of us is elected, we can approach this with a degree of objectivity and dispassion, which was how the noble and learned Lord began his remarks. I welcome that; it is a sort of oblique argument in favour of not having an elected element to this House, but I leave that debate for another day.
The independence of this House in electoral matters was very much evidenced in 2004 when postal voting by demand, introduced by the Labour Government in an Act in 2001, was eventually implemented that year by another Act. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, was involved at the time, as was one of his colleagues. This House insisted that there should be proof of identity in postal voting. That was resisted by the House of Commons again and again, and there was an episode of ping pong. Eventually a proof of identity was put on to the statute book, which I think is entirely appropriate. Anyone who has fought in an election, as have seven or eight speakers in the debate, knows how important the register is. They will also recognise how out of date and inaccurate it is, and how frustrating it is to be met by your supporters during an election campaign who say, “I’m afraid I am not registered”. We have all had that experience. There might be a case for late registration, which should be looked at by the Electoral Commission and possibly by the Government.
The purpose of the Bill is to try to suppress fraud. Fraud in election comes in many shapes and sizes. The old traditional one was a straightforward impersonation in the ballot room—you turned up and said that you were somebody you were not. I think it was derived from the old Irish custom of polling the dead, but wherever it came from that was the most likely method. If you look at the recent fraudulent cases, you will see that that rarely happens now. Fraud in elections has become much more sophisticated, and the real fraud now in elections takes place as a result of having a postal vote by demand. There is a good case for that in trying to increase the number of people who are going to vote in our country, but there is absolutely no doubt that after it was introduced there was a flood of fraudulent activities. I will give noble Lords some idea of its extent. Recorded proceedings were taken and charges were laid in the following places: Birmingham, twice; Coventry; Burnley, twice; Halifax; Middlesbrough; Rochdale; Leicester; Pendle; Hyndburn; Blackburn; Woking; Slough; Peterborough; Reading; Oldham; Bradford; and Tower Hamlets, which has become the centre of this activity and where there is an ongoing criminal investigation.
The original cases in 2005-06 were principally between the Labour and Liberal Parties in the northern cities. The Conservative Party was no slouch in this. It quickly got in on the act and there was really no difference between the various parties in this matter: all parties have engaged in that sort of fraud.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Perhaps he could help the House by saying two things. First, what percentage of total votes cast were represented by those challenges in that long list that he outlined? Secondly, is he familiar with the 2008 Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust study on postal voting? If he is not, I suggest he familiarises himself with it. I am going to quote extensively from it later in my speech. I will not tire the House with it now, but I hope that the noble Lord will stay around to hear exactly what it said about the extent of postal vote fraud.
I am familiar with the Rowntree report and I intend to quote something from it which rather refutes it, so we will have an exchange of quotations later. On percentages, the point about the list I have read out is that this particular fraud has certain characteristics. It is urban and it is in marginal seats. In many seats where there is a clear majority, either for the Labour Party or the Conservative Party, there is no fraud because it is unnecessary: it will not affect the result. It will affect the result only in marginal seats where a small balance of a small number of votes can determine who is going to win at a local election or at a general election. That is the comparison that one must make.
This fraud takes place in high-density communities with crowded premises in towns and cities. There is a high turnover because people are moving all the time from flat to flat and from residence to residence. There is often a floating population which can generate what has been described by some electoral pundits as clan loyalty whereby people want to see their immediate friends and colleagues elected. Many of these cases have landed up in court and there has been the imprisonment and bankruptcy of some of the people involved. Mayors and councillors have been involved, and reputations have been destroyed. It has been a very sad episode. It is in the interests of all our parties to try to eliminate this as much as we can.
In May 2010, the Sunday Times reported that 27 people were registered in a single property in Southall and in February this year the Evening Standard reported that dozens of flats in Tower Hamlets were registered with eight people per bedroom. The quotation that I shall use, which is rather later than the Rowntree report, comes from Judge Richard Mawrey, the expert on electoral fraud in our country. He has dealt with many cases. He said that,
“where a small number of votes will make a considerable difference, then the opportunities for fraud are enormous, the chances of detection very small, and a relatively modest amount of fraud will guarantee you win the election”.
That is the problem we have to face. What can one do about that?
I remember when I first stood in a council election back in the 1950s. In those days, if you wanted a postal vote or a proxy vote—fellow parliamentarians will remember this—you had to justify it and explain that you were elderly, housebound, or bedbound, were going to be abroad or out of town, or worked in a town that was different from the town in which you were registered to vote. There was a variety of reasons. You had to have that application signed by a magistrate, an MP, a doctor or a professional person. I well remember—and I am sure my noble friend Lord Rennard will remember because in these matters I look upon him as a professional expert—that in those days in all constituency fights you had a committee of people who sought out postal votes for your party. I think the Liberal Party was the first to do so, but we followed quite quickly. You identified people who you knew were going to be abroad and got them registered. I would go back to something like that, but that may be a little unrealistic unless the checks and balances that we create are effective.
If this business of postal fraud continues—and I think we are going to try to stop it with this Bill, very imperfectly, if I may say so—what can one do? The basis of the previous system was verification by an outsider. Under postal vote by demand the verification is by the registered person and, as the Minister said and the noble Lord confirmed, there will be three qualifications: a signature, a date of birth and a national insurance number. This is going to be a matter for the Secretary of State to lay down in regulations after the Bill. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that the national insurance number will be added. That would certainly deal with the problem of illegal immigrants because the national insurance number is the closest thing we in this country have to a national number.
Other checks are important. The canvass is important. There is going to be a canvass in 2014. That means that returning officers will have to carry out a canvass. I remember this happening once in Dorking. It surprised everybody. People were visited by people from the council who knocked on doors to see who lived there and who they were, but it happened only once during my 30 years-plus in the House of Commons. I think it is an important step in the verification of electoral registers, and there is a possibility that it could be suspended, postponed or done only partially, and that is quite wrong.
The other check is the verification of postal votes by returning officers. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, answered a Question last year or the year before about the 2010 election. In only two-thirds of the cases had returning officers checked the signatures on the ballot papers. Those of us who have postal votes know that you have to sign them, having previously registered your signature. That was done in only three-quarters of the cases. I would have thought that it would be necessary to make that mandatory for all seats.
One other matter I would draw to the attention of the Government is the spate of fraud from about 2005 to this year, mainly based around postal votes, and only partially on proxy votes. There have been one or two cases of late where the fraud seems to have moved to proxy voting. There was one case where somebody turned up with 50 proxy votes; that is just like the 18th century, when the Duke of Newcastle turned up with a number of votes and said, “That’s it”. I would have thought that there is a case for saying that anybody who has a proxy vote should have a vote for only one other person—not for another 50—to bring to the poll. That is not in the Bill; perhaps the Government might consider that carefully, to see whether such an amendment could be introduced.
I would make only these further points. This Bill also extends the length of the campaign from 17 days to 25. I do not know where this proposal came from; I always thought that 17 days was quite enough for a campaign. One of the great virtues of our system is that we have a short, sharp campaign. In America, it lasts for a year or 18 months, but in Britain, 17 days was absolutely ideal. I do not why we need another eight days for campaigning, when one counted and ticked off the days and the hours and hoped for polling day. That will be a big expense for the parties; they will need quite a bit more money to run the campaign for another week. It seems to be government policy and also I suppose coalition policy, too. It was—good Lord. In that case, I support it, although I do not really see the justification for it.
The other point I shall touch on is the extraordinary civil penalty which has been created: that the returning officer imposes a civil penalty on people who do not register. That reminded me of the Anglican confession:
“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done”.
It seems extraordinary to create a civil penalty and a fine for not doing something. It would face enormous trouble in the courts. I am sure the Minister is aware that there are very strange religious cults in our country, which are not remotely concerned with the electoral system here; they are mainly concerned about the accessibility of the next world. They will certainly tell their supporters on no account to bother to register. Sure enough, there will be a case with some awkward person who will actually go to court and challenge this, and almost certainly end up in a human rights court, challenging whether his human rights have been denied by not registering. He would be hauled up because he had not performed his civic duty. Civic duty is another extraordinary concept of this Bill and I have not come across this previously in legislation. I know it as a concept. When the human rights court gets such a case before it, it will almost certainly find in favour of the litigant. After all, it was prepared to disregard civic duty to the extent of allowing prisoners— who have abandoned their civic duties—to have votes. I think this will be a big problem area for the Government; I do not know where the problem arose.
In conclusion, it is in the interests of all parties to ensure that there are no obvious areas of fraud. I believe that in spite of the checks and balances introduced by this Bill, there will be scope for elaborate and very ingenious fraud through postal and proxy voting. That should be checked. It was checked in the 19th century and the early 20th century; we have made it much looser. That is not in the interests of democracy or fairness.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for some of his kind remarks about me. However, in many decades of organising elections, I was always sceptical about how far many candidates actually understood the details of the process. A number of those remarks have not reduced my scepticism about how far candidates have appreciated the detail of elections. I remember the period when, I think, the noble Lord was the chairman of the Conservative Party and the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Prime Minister. It was during that period that the fine for not complying with the registration process was increased from £50 to £400. There was great concern that people were not following their proper duty in being on the electoral register; they were possibly seen to be avoiding the poll tax—which we all remember—and therefore the fine was £400. There is sometimes a lack of consistency in the way that some Conservatives argue about the civic duty to be on the electoral register and it being a legal requirement that is, therefore, subject to a fine.
In general, at almost every point in the recent discussions on voter registration, I have asked Ministers to confirm that the aims of making changes to the process are at least as much about improving the completeness of the register as they are about improving its accuracy. However, the impact assessment of the Bill suggests that successful implementation of the move to individual electoral registration may mean only around 85% completion, which is little better than the situation is now. In other words, successful implementation may be deemed by the Government to be based on making the register more accurate but not necessarily more complete. The Government may be aiming rather modestly to do little more than halt the significant decline in registration levels that we have seen over the past 10 years. Therefore, the aims of the Bill are not very ambitious in respect of maximising registration. I should like them to be more ambitious and I believe that we need to know how successful the implementation of a new registration scheme has been before it can be declared fit for purpose for all elections and boundary reviews after 2015.
I welcome the changes to the Government’s approach that have been made since the publication of the White Paper in June last year. However, more detail on the proposed changes is still required and more could be done to improve, rather than weaken, the health of our democracy. I particularly welcome the significant change in the approach to obligations to register from that initially outlined in the draft legislation. The initial proposals would undoubtedly, whether wittingly or unwittingly, have had the effect of depriving millions more people of their right to vote. Instead of 6 million or 7 million people being missing from the register, as there are now, under the original proposal we might well have ended up with 12 million or 15 million people who are entitled to vote missing from the register, and therefore unlikely to be able to vote. With an electorate that should be around 50 million, it should be a source of great concern that so many millions of people would potentially miss out on the opportunity to vote for the lack of a proper process of voter registration, such as is the basis of all democratic systems. Therefore, everyone should welcome the Government’s recognition that there is an obligation to register to vote, and that this gives people the opportunity to take part in an election but does not require them to do so.
There is a significant problem with the existing system, caused by the inconsistency of individual electoral registration officers designing their own forms in every case. The degree of prominence given to the legal requirement has varied and the fact that you can, under the present system, be fined as much as £1,000 for not complying with the registration process is not even mentioned on many of the forms. Best practice requires making the legal requirement and the potential level of fine explicit and prominent on the household registration forms. I am very grateful to the Minister for confirming in the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, on 12 July, that in future,
“the application form that will be designed by the Electoral Commission must include a statement about the possibility of a fine and the size of that potential fine”.—[Official Report, 12/7/12; col. 1292.]
I hope that he can also assure us that regulations will ensure that the statement will be very prominent on those forms.
It will be even more important that we adopt the best possible methodology for the individual registration forms that will follow the household inquiry ones. The Bill establishes the principle of individual forms but the crucial detail about implementation will be in the secondary legislation. Therefore, in considering the principles of the Bill, I ask the Minister to confirm some of the issues of principle behind the implementation that are not featured in the Government’s implementation plan, which was published last Friday, and which I assume are still under consideration.
It seems important that the civil penalty for non-compliance with the individual registration form must not be seen as a one-off fee for exemption from inclusion in the voting register. I agree with the Minister that the level of fixed penalty should be akin to that deemed appropriate for parking offences. However, repeatedly and wilfully refusing to comply with the process should attract repeat penalties. Subsequent compliance with the registration process should then lead to the cancellation, at least, of further penalties and possibly the reduction, or even cancellation, of the original fixed penalty.
Perhaps the Minister will tell us more about exactly how this process will work, and how and when we will know how it will work. He will understand that many of us will want to understand these details properly before we approve the Bill. He should be aware that it will simply not be good enough for someone to pay a fine and then avoid registration completely until the following year. A one-off fine must not become an annual fee for avoiding registration.
We would also like to hear more detail about how we will avoid the fundamental problem that different local authorities tend to have quite different levels of diligence when it comes to the registration process. While we often argue that government processes are too centralised in this country in many respects, the basis for the electoral administration systems that underpin our democracy across the country should be the same across the country. This is necessary both to ensure a democratic outcome in the elections for those local authorities overseeing the process, and also for every set of elections based on using that electoral register.
The electoral register is also important for jury service, for credit referencing and for the purchase of goods and services, the supply of which may be linked to presence on the electoral register. It should not be up to individual local authorities or electoral registration officers to decide how assiduous to be in trying to make the register complete and accurate. The best practice of repeatedly writing to and visiting people who are known to be eligible to be on the register but who have not registered should involve explaining carefully to people four different principles.
First, they are not automatically registered. Many people believe, quite wrongly, that they are automatically put on the voting register. Secondly, there are important reasons for registering, including access to credit and to buying goods and services, often over the internet. Thirdly, it is a legal requirement, subject to fines and penalties, to comply with the process, as now. Fourthly, registration is a very simple process. Explaining these principles in writing and through doorstep canvassing must be not just the best practice but should be a universal requirement if our electoral register is to be in good order.
The Minister has accepted in other debates that the success of the data-matching pilots will be crucial to the successful implementation of individual electoral registration. There are certainly doubts about the effectiveness of the first round of data-matching pilots. I hope that the Minister will confirm that all possible national government or local authority databases will be used to identify individuals eligible to be on the register and that follow-up procedures will then try to ensure that they are registered. These should include, for example, databases such as those of the DWP, the DVLA and the Student Loans Company. Such data-mining exercises should go no further than providing names and addresses of people believed to be eligible for the electoral register. But to make a sufficient success of the changes to the system to enable the register to be fit for purpose, I believe that the Government will have to go further. They will have to show that they are really sincere about their stated aims of making the electoral register accurate and complete.
I believe that they could do so by applying the same principles of data mining that they will use for publicly held records to those held by the credit reference agencies. No more information should be obtained from these sources than names and addresses of potentially eligible voters who can then be invited to apply for the registration process. If they do not exist, or they are not eligible, there will be no further consequences. But if they do exist and they are eligible, they should be subject to the same registration processes as everyone else.
The Bill team has advised me that nothing in the Bill prevents the use of private data in this way. I believe that it could make a substantial difference to the success of implementation. But I would like to know from the Minister whether the Government are engaging with the credit reference agencies to see how, with proper safeguards, we can ensure that people entitled to be on the electoral register, but absent from it, are invited to register without compromising any private or personal information. Quickly confirming existing registration details might be more effective for this database or these databases than simply using things such as the DWP database alone. For example, queries about duplicate registration might be more quickly and easily dealt with by the returning officers with access to these data.
Much of the work to improve electoral registration should have been done decades ago. The fact that it was not done is not a reason for not doing it now. Our existing processes are now known to be rather more flawed than we thought only a few years ago. Above all, we cannot be complacent about the outcome of the process. We cannot let the Government simply say that they have done their best by the time of the next election and reluctantly accept that many fewer people will be able to vote in future.
The changes that will result from the shift to individual electoral registration may not affect any elections until after May 2015. But the local elections in England in 2016, and those to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, should all be based on the new voting system. I am not sure how far the local authorities, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly are aware of these changes or have been consulted about them.
After 2016, all elections should be based on this new system. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said earlier, the next parliamentary boundary review, as I am sure he well remembers from very lengthy debates, will be based on the register as it is on 1 December 2015, using the new system with no carryover from the old one. The Government accept that there are risks in making changes to this process. We must therefore be satisfied that the processes have been substantially successful before we can say that it would be safe to proceed to use the new system for elections or for boundary reviews.
My Lords, I shall start with a personal reminiscence. I went into the other place after a by-election in 1990. I managed to persuade my party to make me Home Affairs spokesman shortly afterwards with the result that, after the general election in 2002, I found on my desk an invitation to go to the Home Office’s regular post-election wash-up. I decided that I would go, and when I went I found that I was the only elected representative. The other parties were represented by experts in the subject, which I certainly was not; on that occasion, I was a mere practitioner. During one discussion, there was a comment about a problem—I cannot remember whether it was made by a representative from the Conservative Party or the Labour Party. I could not quite understand the problem because reference to it was curtailed. During the coffee break, I went to the Conservative and Labour representatives and inquired, “What was that that you were referring to?”. They said, “We were mentioning a significant problem that occurs in certain areas and affects all our parties. The problem is that there is widespread fraudulent voting in those areas but no one is prepared to talk about it openly because it gets into areas of ethnic minorities”.
They went on to say that in these areas the register is completely unreliable and that there is great difficulty in checking it because in some cases you are dealing with large numbers of people whose surname is merely based on the fact that they all came from a certain village on another continent. That was in 1992. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, referred to cases that were more than 10 years later. More than 20 years have passed since that comment was made in the margins of a meeting—it certainly was not made formally—but the problem has not passed and it should be addressed.
I also recall that once, at an election in Portadown, I came to a narrow, dilapidated, boarded-up house. Those who were with me with a copy of the electoral register drew my attention to the fact that there were six persons on the register for it. That is completely dwarfed by the figures that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, mentioned earlier, but it impressed me at the time that someone thought they could put so many persons into such a small house.
There is clearly a problem. In Northern Ireland, where photo ID is now required for voting, the quality of the register is the main source through which electoral fraud can occur. Mention was made earlier of how individual electoral registration was introduced in Northern Ireland and I want to refer a little to that experience. Individual electoral registration was introduced in 2002; individuals registering to vote had to include personal details, including National Insurance and a signature, and registration was done de novo with no carry-forward of names from the existing register, which had a 12-month life.
The immediate effect was a fall of over 10% in the number of voters. The figures are as follows: in 2002 there were a total of 1,198,504 persons on the register in Northern Ireland. That dropped in 2003 to 1,072,425, a drop of just over 124,000. It dropped further in 2004 to 1,069,000, a drop of 3,000, and in 2005 there was a drop of a further 23,000 to 1,047,601. There are a number of reasons for the decline and, in the absence of any detailed research, which I do not think anyone has undertaken, those reasons are speculative. False registrations were responsible for a significant number, though we cannot quantify it. There were also many people who preferred to be off the register for a variety of reasons, such as not wanting to have their name accessible, though it is not necessary to go into these. There would also, of course, have been those who could not be bothered.
Because of the continuing falls after the initial one, there was concern over this situation and, starting in 2005, a number of measures were adopted to curtail the decline. First, carry-forward was reinstated in 2005 for that year and then permanently. Secondly, a system of rolling registration was introduced in place of the requirement to register annually. Thirdly, provision was made for data matching and, as the Minister says, data mining, though I would have thought that was included in data matching. Fourthly, provision was made for a canvass to be held in 2010 and every tenth year thereafter although, significantly, provision was also made for additional canvasses where the chief electoral officer requested it and the Secretary of State was satisfied that it was in the public interest. Fifthly, the chief electoral officer was given access to the identities of 16 and 17 year-olds in schools and further education so that they could have their attention drawn to the desirability of registering.
These measures have resulted in an increase in the register. In 2006 it increased by roughly 10,000 to 1,157,000 but dropped, funnily enough, the next year to 1,075,000. In 2008 it went up to 1,125,000, an increase of over 50,000, and increased by another 16,000 in 2009 to 1,142,000. In 2010 it was 1,170,000 and finally, by 2011, it reached 1,202,000 and got above the 2002 figure. It has increased in the latest register by a further 2,000. As the Minister said in his opening speech, it is indicated that this is roughly 85% complete.
In 2007 the Electoral Commission, commenting on this experience, said that the fall in numbers reflected the removal of the carry-forward, which had the effect of removing inflationary factors from the register. That lovely phrase “inflationary factors from the register” is a way of avoiding the use of the word fraud, but that is what it was. Significantly, the commission said that it had the effect of “restoring integrity” to the registration process. That is hugely important, and I hope that that integrity has been sustained.
I am slightly uncomfortable, though, because one has heard rumours—I can say only “rumours” because they cannot be proved—about a certain political party in a certain constituency, when it has its post-election get-together, awarding a special prize to the election worker responsible for the most votes. I am not sure what the mechanics of that are these days and I am not going to identify the constituency, but I am sure that if this is happening, and given its discipline and organisation, the political party will have ensured that the number of votes claimed by its election workers is accurate.
It will have been noticed that the Bill retains the annual canvass, has provision for data matching and introduces a civil penalty for failing to register when required to do so. The carry-forward will continue until 2015, by which time the register should have been thoroughly checked. One hopes that these measures may work in maintaining on the register persons entitled to be there but, if there is a reduction, we should not jump to the conclusion that it means that people entitled to be on the register have been removed—one has to remember that it is possible that there is significant fraudulent registration. Not all the measures adopted in Northern Ireland have been paralleled here, but most of them have. However, we may want to consider during the passage of the Bill whether further measures similar to those adopted in Northern Ireland should be introduced.
Finally, I wish to mention another matter, although I will not be in complete agreement with party colleagues. A welcome side effect of the extension of the electoral timetable occurred in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 2011 when the early dispatch of poll cards resulted in more than 17,000 changes to the register, of which some 11,500 were new registrations. The extension to the electoral timetable may produce more new registrations, and they would indeed be welcome.
My Lords, the Minister told us that the Bill’s purpose was to create a system designed to reduce electoral fraud and increase the integrity of the register. Clearly, individual registration rather than household registration, by removing intermediaries, should go quite a long way to achieving the aim of reducing fraud. That is crucial.
However, equally important should be the aim to increase the level of electoral registration and thereby ensure that the maximum number of eligible people are entitled to vote. That aim was not evident from the Minister’s words in the Commons, when he said:
“I sincerely hope that it will be no lower than the population that is registered today”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/5/12; col. 1178.]
There was no specific reference to the 6 million or 7 million people currently not on the register. Talking in percentages actually undermines the reality, because we are talking about some 6 million to 8 million people who do not have the right to vote. I do not really care about the percentage. I am much more interested in talking about people, and they are missing from the register. Nor have we heard how the Bill will ensure a vast reduction in that number while providing safeguard mechanisms to ensure that the change to IR does not result in eligible electors falling off the register. With respect to the Minister, I have to say that I am not convinced.
Having such a large gap in the electoral roll has to be completely unacceptable. Surely the goal in any democracy must be to achieve a complete and accurate register. I completely agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, when he talked about the completeness of the register—not only its accuracy—and its consistency across the country. I should say that over many years the noble Lord and I have worked together as electoral apparatchiks. I am glad that we are on the same wavelength. However, I really want to concentrate on registration.
Before going further, I must declare in an interest as chair of the HS Chapman Society—a society made up of representatives from the main political parties, ex-apparatchiks like me, party lawyers, the Electoral Commission, and electoral registration officers. We aim to ensure that registration and elections are run effectively and are fraud-free, and we genuinely believe that individual registration is a key component to achieving those aims.
However, given that we had an effective Bill—now the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, which received cross-party support at that time—I find it puzzling why it was necessary to change in the coalition agreement what had already been agreed. It was a Bill that covered both the elimination of fraud and safeguards on registration. I cannot understand why we just have not followed that Bill through. It could have been well on its way to doing its work now.
Rather, we have a new Bill speeding up the process—a Bill that is flawed in many ways and which is causing grave concern among many practitioners. I appreciate that adjustments have been made to the original proposal such as withdrawing the chance of an opt-out for individuals who did not wish to register—I find it absolutely unbelievable that could even be suggested—the agreeing of the annual canvass in 2014, reversing the Government’s original position, and retaining non-registration or providing false information as an offence. In spite of those welcome changes, they do not provide the assurances and safeguards necessary to overcome those concerns.
This brings me to my first concern about this Bill: the proposal to amend the current Section 9A(1) of the RPA 1983—as outlined in paragraph 6(2) of Schedule 4 of the Bill. Currently, Section 9A(1) requires an ERO to take,
“all steps that are necessary for the purpose of complying with his duty to maintain the register under section 9”.
This Bill proposes to amend this to include the words,
“so far as is reasonably practicable”.
However, as the Minister said, this duty is extremely important to ensure that the EROs do all that is necessary to improve the accuracy and completeness of the register, including conducting house-to-house inquiries where other steps have not yielded the necessary information. We may be told that the change of wording is intended only as a technical amendment. Clearly it is not—not only is the proposed amendment confusing but it has the potential to dilute the effect of the existing duty. Surely there is a good reason not to reduce the duty at this time, when the accuracy and the completeness of the register is so critical.
This brings me to the crucial canvasses being conducted in 2014—canvasses that also, of course, have to be complete and accurate. The Minister mentioned that there was going to be a wide advertising campaign. How is that campaign going to be conducted? I am pleased to hear that the campaign will not be aimed just at the general public but will use different approaches to different communities, be they home movers, the BME community or young people. I would like to hear much more about how much money is going be put into that campaign, what the process will be, and who will be conducting the campaign and be responsible for it, whether it be the Electoral Commission or not.
I need to also ask, appreciating how important canvasses are, whether it is the right time for the Minister to have the power to cancel annual canvasses. I know that the noble Lord said that it would not happen with this Minister, but it could give the ability to other Ministers to cancel those campaigns. I think that is what he said. He will tell me if I have got that wrong. I cannot honestly see why there is any need to put that into this Bill, particularly as it is estimated that the accuracy of the register deteriorates by 1% following the canvass. I fail to understand, without the annual canvass, how that shortfall will be dealt with.
Clearly, all that raises the question of funding for this job to be done effectively, as the financial impact assessment states that it will require significant investment, not least as a substantial part of the implementation will depend on the ERO having the right tools in place to be able to do the job, whether it is electoral software or IT solutions. This means that we must consider how much money it will cost. The Minister in the other place stated that £108 million would be provided for the transition to IER. I do know what that includes. Will it buy the sort of equipment that EROs will need? How has the figure been identified and what will the money be spent on? It also means that there must be timely—almost immediate—provision of funds for the initial planning, overall design, tendering and implementation. I would like more detail about how and when the £108 million will be spent.
I appreciate that the funding allocated will be paid under Section 31 of the Act, which covers direct grants. That means it will not be ring-fenced. There is therefore no guarantee that it will be used for the purposes for which it was allocated. From experience, money given in this way often finds its way into other local government expenditure, not least at a time when local authorities are facing cuts. What guarantees will there be that the money will be spent for the purposes for which it has been allocated? The Minister’s reply on this point in the Commons was not in any way adequate. He indicated that the Government would consult about the mechanism, and that local authorities with specific needs would bid for extra resources. There was no detail of what the mechanism or the specific needs would be, what criteria would be used and what would happen if the bids failed and the local authority were left with a funding shortfall.
Another query relates to data matching, which has already been mentioned. Of course it can be useful and helpful against any decline in registration during the introduction of individual registration. While 22 pilot schemes have taken place, they have not yet been evaluated. However, in spite of the electoral registration officers who were involved in the schemes indicating that using government databases to identify new electors had had limited effectiveness, the Government are still steaming ahead with the Bill. Following completion of the Bill, what will be the process for rectifying flaws when the pilots are eventually evaluated in 2014 and changes have to be made?
One of the most disturbing things in the Bill relates to postal and proxy votes. It is right that during the transition phase people without a postal or proxy vote who fail to register under IER will be carried forward to the 2015 register, thereby enabling them to vote in the 2015 general election. However, it is absolutely not right that those with a postal or proxy vote will have to register under the new system in 2014 or forfeit their absentee vote—they will have to vote in person or not at all. The speed of introduction of the process will deprive EROs of the necessary time to verify all applications. This will create a discriminatory situation, particularly against the elderly and the disabled who, through no fault of their own but because of the Government, could be debarred from voting because they are unable to get to the poll because of illness or disability. Organisations such as Scope, Mind, Age UK, the RNIB and Sense believe that the IER presents a real opportunity to improve the electoral processes for elderly and disabled people, so it would be ironic if they were penalised in this way. To debar a single eligible voter from voting is wrong and I question the legality of the Government’s position.
I will say a brief word about fines for non-registration, which have always been in place, as has been said. I am confused about the relationship with a parking fine, and about how one will work within a spectrum. I would have thought that what was needed was a national fine that would be imposed across the country. Perhaps it will be explained that that is the case, but I am confused about what is meant by “spectrum”. It would also be useful to know whether there are any ideas about what the civil penalty will be in that system, because that will affect its effectiveness.
In conclusion, I want to say a word about the 2015 parliamentary boundary changes. As others have mentioned, they will be based on the new electoral register at the end of the transitional period on 1 December 2015 when, under this Bill, the size of the electorate could be temporarily diminished. Under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, if there is a decline in the number of electors in certain constituencies, for whatever reason, the parliamentary boundaries must be redrawn. This will apply at a time when the electoral register will be at its most variable because of the flaws in this Bill, and many invisible citizens will not be accounted for. It will cause a great deal of concern in certain parts of the country that will be affected more than others. Therefore, while I support the principle of this Bill—I did when the Labour Government introduced the question of individual registration—I hope that it will be amended in Committee so that it not only eliminates fraud but diminishes the possibility of any reduction in the register and provides a substantial increase in the number of people on the register.
It might also be useful to consider amendments to achieve what might be called a registration revolution. I appreciate that we are now registering online but there are other ways in which the registration process could happen. We need to examine new opportunities to make registration easier, such as registration forms, perhaps at government offices or in the Post Office. I disagree firmly with the Minister about registering on election day. If voters have personal identifiers and evidence of who they are, fraud is prevented by registering on the day. A growing number of countries register on the day. In the early 1990s, I worked a great deal in the new democracies in eastern Europe. We established that those people who had not been able to register previously would always be able to register on the day. However we deal with this Bill in Committee, I hope that, in the end, we are able to achieve an increase in the number of people who are entitled to vote.
My Lords, I wish to bring three brief points to the attention of your Lordships’ House. I welcome the attempts in the Bill to reduce electoral fraud by speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration, which has clearly been very effective in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, has referred extensively to the figures. When individual voter registration was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2006, there was a 20% reduction in the number of those registered to vote. That is a significant number in anyone’s terms.
The first matter I wish to consider in detail is the power contained in Clause 2(2) of the Bill, which would insert a new paragraph into Schedule 2 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. This relates to Section 53 of that Act. Those provisions are unexceptional. They permit the Secretary of State or the Lord President of the Council to make regulations, subject to the affirmative procedure, about the registration of voters and arrangements for postal and proxy voting. However, the new provisions pursuant to Clause 2(2) will give power to the Secretary of State by determination, not by affirmative resolution or regulation as is the pattern elsewhere in the Bill, to require that a person seeking registration as a voter must provide specific evidence of identity to prove that he or she is the person named in the application and to enable the registration officer to determine whether that person is entitled to be registered. There is a new sub-paragraph, to which some reference has been made, which states the kind of evidence required, including a person’s date of birth and national insurance number. On the face of it, that sounds quite normal and what one might expect of legislation. However, this provision goes to the heart of the exercise of the right to vote. It removes from any formal parliamentary oversight or challenge the nature of the evidence ultimately required to be permitted to vote. It is left to the Secretary of State to decide by determination. The question here must be: why not by regulation?
There is already confusion about which documents permit one to be able to register as a voter. Searching the web does not always reveal a clear and coherent statement in answer to the question. Moreover, there are many in our society who do not have access to the web and thus to the information that may be available. I think of the elderly, those with a disability, those from the ethnic minorities with language difficulties, and even the very young voter. The explanation given to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, of which I am a member, of why the Secretary of State should be allowed to decide by determination what evidence should be required was that:
“The question of what information or documents have sufficient evidential value to be relied upon is a technical one, and one which changes over time as the technology used by various entities changes ... this information may need to be changed at short notice”.
That is the justification for removing from any form of parliamentary scrutiny that part of the process which will enable intending voters to become registered. We all know that it is possible for primary legislation to be made in the course of a day, let alone amending regulations. In its sixth report, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee stated that the arrangements set out in the Bill are inappropriate.
The reality is that the range of documents which may be used to confer eligibility to register is limited, but there will undoubtedly be circumstances in which people who should be entitled to register will not have the normal documents. Not everybody has a passport or a driving licence; not everybody even has a birth certificate. You can get birth certificates from Somerset House, but that does not actually prove that someone is the person named on the birth certificate. Questions have already been asked as to whether the Government are satisfied that the current data collections in relation to material held about people’s identity are accurate. What of the validity of information which may be supplied pursuant to the Bill by a person of any kind from whom the electoral registration officer may seek information?
The matter is complicated by the fact that if you are a citizen of one of some 105 European Union or Commonwealth countries, British Overseas Territories or British Crown dependencies and you are resident in the United Kingdom, you are eligible to register to vote. That means that the nature of the documentation could in some circumstances be very different from that which might be required of a UK citizen. This is of fundamental importance to our democracy and I would suggest that, like all the other provisions in the Bill, there should be a proper arrangement for this process.
There has been considerable discussion of the issue of proxy and postal votes and the carry-forward arrangements in the Bill. I endorse much of what has been said about the importance of cleaning up proxy and postal votes, but I want to emphasise the fact that, for those with disabilities and for the vulnerable, it will be necessary to make further carry-forward arrangements. Otherwise, they will be deprived of their right to vote.
There is another issue that I would like to raise. A survey undertaken at the last general election by the organisation Scope called “Polls Apart” found that there are approximately 15,000 potential disabled voters per constituency, with 67% of polling stations representing one or more access barriers for disabled people. Five charities, Mencap, the RNIB, Age UK, Scope and Sense, have suggested that the Bill presents a real opportunity to improve the electoral process for disabled people, particularly by recording information about electoral access needs at the point of registration. Recording disabled and older voters’ access needs at the point of registration could be used to improve the accessibility of the current system during the transition to IER and over the longer term. I am also informed that this recommendation is supported by the Electoral Commission. Such information could inform plans for the creation and renovation of polling stations.
A provision to include a pilot scheme for recording access needs was presented in another place during the passage of the Bill. At that point, the Government did not commit to ensuring that a pilot would take place. This Bill undoubtedly represents an opportunity which should not be missed to make provision for a pilot that would provide the information at the time of registration about the access needs of the applicant. It would be a simple amendment that would make a significant contribution towards giving the disabled and the vulnerable the access necessary to exercise their democratic right to vote.
Finally, I will speak briefly about the imposition of civil sanctions by electoral registration officers. I can see no purpose in the imposition of civil sanctions for failure to provide information to register. They do not go to the purpose of the Bill, which is to prevent electoral fraud. There is a risk that, like so many other provisions where a low penalty is introduced by the Government, it will simply be regarded as a further money-raising exercise. I do not mean to be offensive, but we have had an enormous number of additional fines and penalties recently. They will be costly to administer. There is no provision for a scrutiny process—there is a review process but not a scrutiny process. I think the fact that discretion is given to the electoral registration officers as to whether to fine or not may well lead to unfairness. There being no legal duty to vote, why should there be a legal duty rather than a moral compulsion to register and to provide the information to vote? Why should that legal duty be accompanied by a penalty if one does not comply? What is required is further education about democracy itself and about the level of prosecutions for failure to provide information. In Northern Ireland, since 2006, there has been one prosecution for failure to provide information, and the penalty imposed by the magistrate in the court was a fine of one penny.
My Lords, there is a problem of trust in the process of registering and voting. I believe we should privilege the integrity of the ballot over convenience. We have leaned a little too far in recent years towards convenience. I therefore welcome the Bill—it is a step in the right direction. However, I very much agree with my noble friend Lord Rennard that we should aim for a full as well as an accurate register. They should be seen as compatible goals. We need to ensure that the resources are made available to deliver on those goals; it is a question of resources as well as rules.
I had intended to devote the first part of my speech to discussing individual electoral registration, but most of the points I wanted to make have already been made. I will therefore discard that part of the speech and not repeat what has already been said. Instead, I will focus on concerns not yet expressed by others. I have a concern about one particular provision of the Bill and then I wish to address what I see as two omissions—both were touched on in debate in the other place.
The first concern relates to Clause 21, repealing the provisions of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 for the creation of a,
“co-ordinated on-line record of electors”.
I recall the debates we had when the 2006 Bill was in Committee. The Government do not wish to pursue having such a database because, as the Minister, Mark Harper, said last year in a Written Ministerial Statement, establishing such a system would not be,
“proportionate, cost-effective or consistent with the Government’s policy on databases and reducing the number of non-departmental public bodies”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/7/11; col. 70WS.]
I understand all that. It may be an expensive way of getting rid of redundant entries as well as ensuring that people who are registered at more than one address do not vote more than once. Given that the Bill is designed to enhance the integrity of the register, it is incumbent on the Government to explain what they propose in place of the provisions for an online record of electors. I do not think that Clause 21, by itself, is sufficient. Therefore, I ask the Minister, what is the Government’s alternative? What plans do they have to take to prevent fraud in this respect? The introduction of individual electoral registration is necessary for that purpose, but it is not sufficient.
My other concerns cover what is not in the Bill. There are two omissions. First, the Bill does not address the 15-year rule for those British nationals who live overseas. In the last Parliament, I raised the issue of British nationals working for international organisations. Here my concern is more general. It is an issue that was raised in the other place during the passage of the Bill by Geoffrey Clifton-Brown. As he noted, although there are 4.4 million British citizens of voting age living abroad, only just over 23,000 are registered as overseas voters. In response the Minister, David Heath, said that the Government would give the issue “serious consideration”. I appreciate the reasons for not wishing to rush to judgement. There are practical issues as well as the issue of principle raised by the Minister—the two come together in terms of ensuring the integrity of the ballot. However, there is a countervailing principle in respect of the rights of those who, while they may live abroad, retain British citizenship. It will be helpful if my noble friend gives some indication of the Government’s thinking in the light of the discussions in the other place.
The other omission is a provision dealing with the edited electoral register. This is something that I have raised on a number of occasions. An edited register is produced as a by-product of citizens fulfilling a statutory obligation. There is the option not to be included in the edited version, but it is an opt-out process and one exercised at the moment by the head of the household. The move to IER will at least ensure that individuals are exercising their right to opt out. None the less, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons as well as the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators have argued that the edited register should be abolished. A survey by the Local Government Association and the AEA found that almost 90% of electoral officers surveyed believed that the practice of selling the register discouraged people from registering to vote.
There are thus significant problems arising from the generation and publication of an edited register. I am familiar with the arguments for its retention. The magazine Parliamentary Brief has regularly rehearsed them, albeit ignoring the fundamental objection of principle adumbrated by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and one that I have previously advanced. The arguments for the edited version were also repeated at Second Reading of the Bill in the other place by Dan Rogerson.
The Government are seized of the issue and have undertaken a consultation on the future of the register. In response to the report of the Constitutional and Political Reform Committee, they said the arguments were “finely balanced”. During the Committee stage of the Bill in the Commons, Mark Harper reiterated the point in saying that the Government had decided to retain the register. That decision is one that we need to explore in some detail. There is the argument of principle. If the edited register is to be retained, then we need to address a number of changes that may be necessary. At present, the edited register can be sold to anyone. Direct marketing companies—generators of junk mail—are on a par with charities and other bodies pursuing functions that may be as meritorious as those of some of the bodies that are entitled to copies of the full register.
Inclusion in the edited version is automatic unless one makes the conscious decision to opt out. The information provided to electors as to the nature of the register and their right to opt out is not as clear as it could be—I gather practice varies. If the edited register is to be retained, then these are all points that need to be addressed. Again, it would be helpful if my noble friend could indicate the Government’s thinking.
I welcome the Bill. As we have heard, the principle of IER is compelling, but it is essential that its implementation is sound. We cannot afford to skimp in ensuring that a fundamental civil right is delivered.
My Lords, as we have heard from almost every speaker so far, there is widespread support for the objective of the Bill, but there is also profound unease about the way the Government are going about it. The Bill aims to bring in individual electoral registration which, as the Minister and others have described, has significant advantages over the current system of household registration. That is why the previous Government brought in legislation, for which I was the responsible Minister, which introduced individual electoral registration. However, unlike this Bill, that legislation secured cross-party support. That is because, unlike this Bill, it was designed to have no partisan effect in the way it was delivered.
This Government have abandoned that careful cross-party approach; instead, this Bill seeks to rewire our electoral arrangements in a way that is likely to have a partisan impact and damage our democracy. This may seem strong language to apply to what may appear to be a narrow and technical Bill, but while electoral registration is often a highly technical issue, it is always an important one. The struggle for the right to vote defines the history of our democracy and electoral registration makes that right a reality.
As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said in his opening speech, the key question that has to be addressed when scrutinising this Bill is: why did this Government abandon the previous Government’s approach of bringing in individual electoral registration by linking it to the achievement of a comprehensive and accurate electoral register? That is the key question because all the evidence and expert opinion suggests that for all its merits, the introduction of individual registration carries with it the severe risk that significant numbers of people eligible to vote will not register and so will be unable to vote. This was the case in Northern Ireland when it moved to this new system, although, as we have heard, there were special circumstances there. The independent report on that experience by the Electoral Commission concluded that, while its findings about the impact on registration related directly to Northern Ireland,
“they are not unique and reflect the wider picture across the UK. They present a major challenge to all those concerned with widening participation in electoral and democratic processes”.
In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the House of Commons last year, Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission, upon whom the Minister relied in his opening speech, said it was possible that,
“the register could go from around a 90% completeness that we currently have”—
actually it turned out to be a bit less than that—
“to around, say, a 60% completeness”.
There is already a serious problem with the electoral register in the United Kingdom. As we have heard, the latest estimate suggests that at least 6 million people eligible to vote were not registered to do so in December 2010. The problem is all the worse because those eligible voters who are not on the register are disproportionately concentrated in particular groups: young people and students, people with learning disabilities, people with disabilities generally, those living in areas of high social deprivation, and ethnic minorities. The introduction of individual registration risks making a bad situation significantly worse, which is why its introduction was delayed for so long. The improvements it is likely to bring to the accuracy of the register by helping to ensure that all those on the register should be on it are balanced by the deterioration in accuracy it is likely to bring about as increasing numbers of eligible voters do not register.
As I have said, the previous Government sought to address this problem by linking the implementation of individual registration to the achievement of a comprehensive and accurate register by 2015. This timetable allowed for a phased introduction of the new system but we showed our commitment to meeting it by giving the Electoral Commission the power to oversee the process and the obligation to report annually to Parliament on its progress in achieving the objective, and substantial new powers to help it do so. This approach has now been junked by the Government, who want to bring in individual registration whatever the consequences for the coverage of the register.
I know that the Government, in good faith, are taking measures to increase registration and they are all welcome. But they are essentially a continuation of the same measures the previous Government brought in and, as I keep telling Ministers in this Government, when I was the Minister responsible for bringing in these measures I hoped that they would halt and reverse the likely decline in registration but I could not guarantee they would do so. That is why we took the approach we did. As I have said before, I could see no justification in advancing towards one public policy objective at the expense of another when it was perfectly possible to advance towards both at the same time.
In response to questioning in a debate in your Lordships’ House on I2 July, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, admitted that he could not guarantee that this Bill would not cause the numbers on the electoral register to go down but he appeared to justify this by saying that the numbers have been falling under the present system of household registration. I hope that, on reflection, he is not seriously seeking to argue that because a problem already exists, it is acceptable to make it even worse.
The impact assessment of this Bill carried out by the Cabinet Office is a very interesting document. It admits that in the long run the register is expected to remain 85% complete. In other words, all the efforts the Government are making to increase registration, which are considerable, will be counteracted by the damage to registration levels caused by the Government’s approach to bringing in individual registration. That figure of completeness is more or less where we are today.
The Government seem content to accept that, by their own estimates, some 6 million eligible voters will remain off the electoral register—even though the Minister has told us today that the Government place equal emphasis on the completeness and the accuracy of the register. This is in contrast to the previous Government’s approach, where there were continuing incentives to improve registration rates by tying them to the delivery of individual registration—a goal on which the whole of Parliament, I think, can agree. There was also provision for annual progress reports to Parliament by the Electoral Commission, giving Parliament the opportunity every year to introduce new measures should they be needed. All that was agreed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in opposition; all that has been junked by them now they are in government.
My concerns are increased by the silence of the impact assessment on two important issues that could make electoral registration even more worryingly incomplete. First, it does not say what levels of investment it assumes will be made by local authorities in registration. This Bill gives a lot of powers—we have heard a lot about data-matching—but it does not say how much local authorities are actually going to invest in the process of registration. Your Lordships will be aware that the money allocated by central government to local authorities for electoral registration is not ring-fenced. It is therefore likely that, at a time when local authorities are subject to intense pressure on their budgets, some—possibly many—of them might be tempted to spend those funds not on electoral registration but on other hard-pressed services.
Can the Minister say whether, in making projections about levels of registration, the Government have assumed that every penny of the money allocated for electoral registration will be spent to that end by every local authority? If they have not assumed that, what assumptions have they made about levels of local authority spending on registration? Will the Minister also share with your Lordships the calculations the Government have made about the impact on levels of registration if local authorities do not spend the funds allocated to them for that purpose to that end?
Secondly, the impact assessment is silent on the differential impact of this change on the system of registration. As I have said, under the current system, registration rates are lower among particular demographic groups and in particular parts of the country. Will the Minister set out the methodology through which the Government reached their assessment of the impact of this legislation on levels of registration? Can he say if the Government made any assessment of the impact on those groups and those parts of the country in which registration is disproportionately low under the current system? If so, what was that assessment?
Why are the Government risking such damage to the electoral register? They have suggested—in the Explanatory Notes, for example, and we have heard it again today from the Minister—that the aim of this Bill is to,
“reduce electoral fraud by speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration”.
Their argument appears to be that the problem of electoral fraud is so pressing that tackling it is such a priority that the Government must abandon the previous Government’s timetable and all its protections for levels of registration.
No one can quarrel with any measure that reduces electoral fraud, and I agree with the Government that individual registration can play a part in doing so; that was one of the main reasons the previous Government legislated for it. However, this argument needs to be kept in perspective. There is no evidence—none—that electoral fraud is widespread or systemic. That is what the independent bodies tasked with safeguarding the integrity of our electoral system have found over and again in their study of all the elections that have been conducted in this country over the past 10 years and more. To quote from just one analysis carried out by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission into the 2010 elections, they found,
“no evidence of widespread systematic attempts to undermine or interfere with the May 2010 elections through electoral fraud”.
With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Baker, who seemed to be making a slightly different point, they went on to say about those elections,
“we are not aware of any case reported to the police that affected the outcome of the election to which it related nor of any election that has had to be re-run as a result of electoral malpractice”.
There is never any justification for any complacency about even a single instance of electoral malpractice. I agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and others have said. However, the evidence does not suggest that electoral malpractice justifies the risk that the Government are running with the register. The Rowntree Reform Trust report of 2008 concluded:
“It is unlikely that there has been a significant increase in electoral malpractice since the introduction of postal voting on demand in 2000”.
It went on to say that what malpractice there was,
“related to a tiny proportion of all elections contested”.
Nor will individual registration address all the cases of malpractice. ACPO and the Electoral Commission have concluded that the nature of recorded electoral malpractice tends to change as efforts are successful in tackling previous forms of it. Indeed, the Bill suggests the Government are actually not that worried about electoral fraud; they could have included measures to tackle it but they have not done so. They have not included, for example, anything to implement a suggestion by ACPO and the Electoral Commission that to strengthen the security of the electoral process the Government might require proof of voters’ identities at a polling station. There are strong arguments against it, but there is no consideration of it in this Bill and they have not brought anything forward to deal with it.
If the Government were really so concerned about electoral fraud, the Bill would include further measures, for example, to tackle directly personation, which still exists from time to time, and it would carry forward measures to tackle postal vote fraud. I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Baker, on the advantages of 100% verification of postal vote ballots; he is absolutely right about that. At the moment electoral returning officers verify a small percentage of them, but 100% verification would help to tackle what postal vote fraud exists. There is nothing about that in the Bill; there could be, but it is costly. If the Government were as worried, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, seems to be, they would make provision for it, but they have not.
Looking again at the impact assessment, we can see that the Government are not altogether convinced about their own case. It suggests that the “problem under consideration” is the,
“widely held view that the current system for registration is vulnerable to fraud and a public perception that this allows electoral fraud to occur”.
In other words, the problem is not necessarily something that exists in fact but simply the perception that it might do so. Of course we need to be worried about perceptions—any doubts about the integrity of the electoral process are very important—so how widespread is that perception? I think the most recent evidence we have is from the tracker survey carried out by the Electoral Commission in 2011. That survey found that 36% thought that electoral fraud was a big or a very big problem but 50% thought that it was not a big problem or not a problem at all, so only a minority are worried about it. That becomes even more relevant when we look at the sample where those who said that they knew a lot about the problem amounted to a total of 6%. This hardly seems like a secure evidence base on which to bring legislation before Parliament. The Government seem to recognise this because they bring forward financial fraud as another reason for this legislation.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and, as always, I hesitate to interrupt in debates, but it may be helpful to all noble Lords taking part if I remind them gently that the Companion says, in chapter 4.44:
“In debates where there are no formal time limits”—
and this debate is not time limited—
“members opening or winding up, from either side, are expected to keep within 20 minutes”—
which, indeed, they have done. It continues:
“Other speakers are expected to keep within 15 minutes”.
I am sure that the noble Lord is coming to the end of his speech.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for her guidance. I am actually about to come to the end. However, I would point out tactfully, although I am not intending to take advantage of this, that the notes issued by the Government Whips Office suggests that the House is due to rise at 10 pm, so I suspect that there is a little time left for me to conclude.
I assure the House that I will not tire it any further. However, as I spent a great deal of my life on this issue—not altogether of my own volition—when I was a Minister, I had hoped that I would be able to contribute something to the debates as we went forward. I hope that I may be allowed a little more latitude—another two or three minutes, if that is acceptable. I see that I am being allowed to continue for the time being until I get a signal from my own Whips.
I shall deal with the question of financial fraud because it is put forward as an important justification for the Bill in the impact assessment. No one has mentioned it so far, but the Government estimate that there could be a reduction in such fraud of £17.5 million by 2030. When we look at the arguments for this, though, we see that that figure is reached only if the amount of fraud detected and prevented is a linear function of the electoral register—but then it is admitted that no such assumption can be made. The impact assessment states:
“This figures should be considered to be indicative”—
a slippery word—
“only however because the mathematical relationship between the accuracy of the electoral register and fraud is imperfectly understood”.
In other words, it might be a strong argument for this Bill but it might be no such argument at all. We really should not be legislating on such a flimsy evidence base, and the flimsiness of the case for this legislation is matched by the damage that it is going to do to the electoral register.
What are the consequences of this? Clearly it damages our democracy when millions are excluded from the electoral register. Most agree that eligible voters who do not register are more likely to vote Labour when they do vote. The Government recognise this problem by allowing a carryover from the household system of registration for the general election in 2015. Significantly, though, as we have heard, they have not allowed for such a carryover for the boundary review that is also going to take place in 2015. What are the consequences of that likely to be? As I have previously argued, Labour constituencies are likely to see disproportionate declines in those on the register because those less likely to register are disproportionately concentrated in such constituencies. Because of the very tight numerical limits on constituency size imposed by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, that is likely to mean fewer Labour seats. Furthermore, because of the way that Labour constituencies are often surrounded by strongly Conservative constituencies, that is likely to mean that more Labour safe seats will become marginal and more marginal Labour seats will become Conservative ones.
I have asked your Lordships before, and I ask you again today, to consider the impact on our democracy if it turns out that the outcome of a general election has been determined by the fact that millions of eligible voters could not vote because they were not registered to do so and this was the result of a government policy, deliberately pursued despite all the evidence that it would have precisely this consequence. As it stands, this Bill is noxious to democracy, and this is compounded by the broad order-making powers that Ministers wish to give themselves to alter the system further in future.
However, despite all that, I do not think that the Bill is beyond redemption. A number of amendments could rid it of its partisan elements while still securing its overriding objective. I conclude my remarks with a plea to all those Peers who have an understandable reluctance to amend too vigorously legislation that affects elections to the other place. I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said about our slight remove and therefore our greater objectivity in these matters, but I also understand that many Peers do not wish to interfere in electoral matters. I ask any Peers who feel like that to recall that your Lordships’ House has historically seen the protection of our country's constitutional arrangements—
My Lords, the noble Lord is now in the 21st minute. The Companion says that even if the speech is of great significance to the nation that it should not continue beyond that period. It is a matter for the Minister to decide, of course, whether he responds to points put by the noble Lord. Given the general nature of this debate, I am sure that he would wish to do so. The Companion is clear and is there, for fairness, to all Peers because we are all treated equally.
My Lords, during his opening remarks, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said that perhaps those of us in Northern Ireland who had experienced this system, or a variation of it, for the past 10 years might be in the position to give some indication to the House as to how it had gone. By my calculations, something in the region of nine elections have now taken place under the individual registration system. That includes local, Assembly, European and national elections. I think that the noble and learned Lord would agree that, by any standard, it is a reasonable test bed for what is likely to happen.
Along with the noble Lord, Lord Wills, I do not believe that the circumstances in Northern Ireland are so unique or different that lessons cannot be drawn as to the likely outcome. I broadly support the principle of individual registration, although, as many noble Lords have said, there are a wide variety of detailed points that will be crucial when determining how effective the new legislation will be. As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, initially there was a substantial drop in the number of people registered to vote. By agreeing to the rollover provision initially, the Government should avoid the substantial precipice that we encountered and therefore the reduction, if there is one, should be much less than that we experienced in 2002 to 2003.
I will give just one example. Registration in the Botanic ward in the city of Belfast, the ward immediately surrounding the university, dropped from something in the region of 3,800 to 2,200. That was the most notorious example where a substantial drop took place but, as noble Lords can imagine, that was because there were houses in multiple occupation and students who came up from the country and preferred to be registered at home rather than at the university—there was some reason to believe that some were registered at both, although that is not an offence unless people vote at two locations in the one election. That was an extreme example but there was systematic evidence to suggest that the process reduced the number of people on the register. To what extent that reduced the accuracy of the register, which is of course a different thing, is another matter. However, having the rollover should avoid the worst excesses of a reduction.
There are other ways in which a reduction can be offset, particularly among those groups less likely to vote, who, by and large, are the same wherever you are throughout the country—we all accept that. I received, as I am sure a number of other noble Lords did, representation from Callcredit and other organisations, which made the point that their services were providing a positive national contribution and a resource. However, such organisations are one of the principal reasons why people do not want to be registered. People do not want to be chased for credit; they perhaps owe money and feel they will be pestered for information, cold-calling, sales and other purposes. That can have a negative effect on people’s wish to be registered to vote.
The other issues that I have grave concerns about have been mentioned already, including the postal voting system in Great Britain. I feel that the way it is set up here verges on the reckless. We tried that system once, I believe in the 1970s, where you had a purely on-demand requirement for postal votes. It is not hard to imagine that people would knock on the door and say, “Missus, I wouldn’t mind to have your wee form please”. This sort of thing happened and we disposed of that process, so that now you have to have a specific reason for not voting in person and for using a postal vote. It is not terribly restrictive—you can have it for illness, for being on holiday and for work purposes. Nevertheless, it has to be witnessed and signed, and it is pursued, I can assure noble Lords, by the electoral authorities. A completely open-ended thing—which I think had the right motivation at the time, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said—is today highly open to abuse, following some of the examples we have heard. I strongly support changes to that proposal.
I also do not understand the reticence about having identification for individuals. We introduced a thing called the electoral identity card, which any individual elector can have access to if they do not possess a passport, driving licence, Senior Smartpass or some other photographic form of identification. You can get it in the electoral office, but the Electoral Commission at home took out a mobile unit and brought it to schools and housing estates, because many people discovered they were not able to vote because they did not have another form of photographic identification. If you push at it and pursue it, there are ways in which you can actually improve the registration. The commission has gone into schools, spoken to sixth forms, and brought the mobile unit to the school. It is perfectly possible, with a bit of effort and work, to achieve the two objectives of having the confidence that the electoral register is genuine and, at the same time, do a lot of work to ensure that as many people as possible can participate.
The other thing in the figures that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, read out to us was that in recent years there has been a massive amount of immigration into this country. As a consequence, European Union citizens—non-UK citizens—have rights to vote at certain elections. Taking all that into account, I wonder about the accuracy of the figures that we have been given in terms of the validity of the electoral roll. Is it 82% or is it more than that? I suspect it is probably a lot less because the register decays with time and from year to year. The further away you get, the less the likelihood that it is accurate. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, made the point that anybody who has run elections or been a candidate for election runs into dozens of people who say, “Well, I’m sorry, mister, I’m not on the register this time”. We all meet so many people in the course of our politics who have that message to say and, indeed, do so accurately.
One other thing I am glad to see us moving away from is this idea of the head of a household. It is an outmoded idea in this day and age. Taking a mythical example, let us assume we had the Wallace household—any Wallace household, not necessarily the Minister’s. Who is actually the head of that household? There might be some dispute as to that, and perhaps rightly so, but there may be somebody there who fills out forms. Within a household, it has been known for people to have political disagreements. Indeed, I have known households where people are in different political parties. Would noble Lords really be satisfied that the return from that household is accurate? I would not be so sure about that. I certainly think that the head of the mythical Wallace household will be glad to be relieved of the responsibility of filling out those forms.
We have to get more research done as to why people stay off the register. I think that credit issues are one reason. I conclude by making one final point about the risks to certain groups of individuals of being on the register. It is not unknown for thieves to look at a register to identify places where, say, women are in single occupation of a dwelling and might be seen to be vulnerable. People look at issues like that, and I have been told that some people are concerned. Obviously we have specific security concerns at home—while they are not gone, thank God they are significantly reduced—but certain groups of people find it uncomfortable to have their names known to different groups of people. We should do some research to establish who these people are and why the register is deficient.
I hope that in Committee and further down the process we can address many of these matters in detail. I understand the Government are bringing forward secondary legislation which will deal with a lot of the detail. In those circumstances, I hope we can refine what is in the Bill with the objective of making it sound and so that we have confidence in it, but at the same time having measures in it to ensure as much participation as is possible.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who has great experience in this whole area, having seen it work successfully in Northern Ireland in nine elections, I think he said. That should give us some confidence that we are on the right lines. We are all taking about how we can reduce the likelihood or the perception of fraud while increasing the level of participation in the democratic process. That is the circle we are trying to square. It may not be possible, but this is an unfolding process.
I was slightly disappointed to hear the tone of the noble Lord, Lord Wills, in his lengthy remarks on this subject because I feel that we are continuing something that was begun under the previous Government in the Political Parties and Elections Act, which they brought forward. With a little bit of encouragement from the opposition parties, they came forward with the idea of having individual electoral registration. That was seen as being absolutely right and proper. We are debating the timeframe over which that is introduced, but the actual idea is beyond dispute. On that point mention was made by Mr Harper in the debate in the other place on the report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe when describing the voting system in the United Kingdom. He said that.
“the weakest link of the electoral process [is] due to the absence of safeguards against fictitious registrations”.—[Official Report, 23/05/12; col. 1177.]
In many ways, that backs up the fact that there is a problem that we need to address. Again I was slightly disappointed by the tone in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wills, because I felt that the Government have brought this forward in a responsible way. They had evidence-based analysis undertaken by the Electoral Commission on which to draw conclusions. They subjected the Bill to pre-legislative scrutiny, for which we in this House are always arguing. Indeed, there had been an excellent report by the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, chaired by Mr Graham Allen, which came forward with a number of suggestions, but did not entirely endorse the approach.
At Second Reading in the other place, Mr Mark Harper made quite a lengthy speech in his opening remarks. One of the reasons for that was that he announced four or five substantial changes to the Bill to take account of the concerns that were being made. There is much to be welcomed in the Bill as it stands. Some people will be surprised that these things do not happen already. The idea that we are going to do data matching between different government departments to check that the data held are the same—that is, that the data held at the DWP are the same as that held at the DVLA—would be greeted by most people with, “We kind of thought you probably would be doing that already”. The fact that it was not and that it now is has to be welcomed.
I think that the provision could go a lot further. We live in a world where we are used to having to produce utility bills and driving licences as proof of ID for the most menial of purchases in stores. However, having left your electoral registration card at home, you can wander into a polling booth to cast a vote in a general election and just point to your name on the electoral register, be given a ballot paper and be able to go into a booth to fill it in and cast a vote. People might find that rather strange, but perhaps that debate is for another time. We certainly want to reduce fraud.
Again I refer to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wills. It is not easy, but you cannot argue that not taking action over suspected fraud is justified because you believe that action might result in a decrease in the number of people registering. A decrease in the number would not necessarily be a bad thing if the wrong people were on the list in the first place. In 2001, the Electoral Commission estimated that the number of eligible people missing from the register was 3 million, and in 2010 that figure had risen to around 6 million. There is therefore a problem to be addressed.
I defer to my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking on virtually all matters, but as regards lengthening the election campaign period, I would be happy to see it increased to 25 days simply because I think that allows a longer period. Fixed-term Parliaments will also strengthen the ability to increase awareness. I think that 25 days is the same length of time that was given to local elections. We are simply coming into line and into the 21st century, so I am quite comfortable about that.
It would be good if in the wind-up speech the Minister could comment briefly on civil penalties and say whether there will be nationally set rates or whether there will be some local discretion along the lines of parking fines. If it is to be a national thing, the idea that there will be some locally set rate as to what that penalty should be would seem a little odd. The reason we want to do this is because it is relevant not just for voting in the elections, but for jury service. There are substantial penalties for not turning up for jury service and there are substantial penalties if you do not complete your self-assessment tax return, so the fact that there should not be any penalties for not registering to vote seems to me to be an argument which, let us say, is not the strongest.
Postal voting is a very interesting area. I totally support the idea that we should move from a 20% sample testing to a 100% test against verification. But that will result in a sizeable increase. If the figures produced by the Library in a very helpful guide or companion to this debate are correct, they would suggest that of a 20% sample about 150,000 ballot papers were rejected. If one extrapolates that—it could be wrong—and if you go to a 100% test. you might get 750,000 cases where the signatures do not match or where the dates are not connected. If national insurance numbers and identifiers within that are required, the potential for that number to increase goes up significantly. People will be advised after the election that they did not qualify. It will be a useful, if bureaucratic, process, but it would be an awful lot more helpful if somebody could tell them before that happened. The figure for postal ballots at the previous election was 7 million, and there were 150,000 spoilt ballots. The overall total was about 3.8%. It would be helpful if in winding up the Minister would comment on whether that level of spoilt ballot papers in postal votes is higher than normal for votes cast in the polling both. That would be interesting to know.
I have two ideas to increase the number of people on the register. One has already been referred to, so I shall not spend a great deal of time on it, other than to say that the fact that we have only about 25,000 or 30,000 overseas voters on the register is a real weakness of our current system. It would be great to see that figure of 4.5 million increased to 5 million. My son is at university overseas, and I know that registering from overseas is a very bureaucratic process. You have to go back to the place where you lived, track down the electoral register and work from there. I do not see why we do not have an office for overseas voters where people could register online to claim their vote. If people think that that might be a horrific prospect, I find it strange that we are able to fill in our tax returns, which is pretty confidential, online through the Government Gateway and, I think, make some benefits claims. Why should people not be able to make greater use of registering online, particularly as this Bill extends that?
My final comment relates to how we extend participation, particularly among the young. We all recognise that that is a problem. A provision in the Bill talks about the Electoral Commission undertaking a publicity and awareness campaign. Even the idea of a publicity and awareness campaign and the Electoral Commission coming together is causing most people to drift off to sleep. The idea that it is going to excite young people seems pretty unlikely. I urge my noble friend on the Front Bench, who I know is deeply sympathetic on all these matters, to look at innovative ways to increase the number of young people voting and perhaps to look at other countries, for example, the US, to see how they have tried to do that. I viewed a message online that was headed by Tom Cruise and included various major stars and celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Justin Timberlake. All these widely known names were used to get the message across.
We could use social networking sites to promote awareness of voting and the importance of voting. I think the Minister knows where I am going with this because we have had conversations before about “The X Factor”. I think it is an interesting concept, not least because Simon Cowell, with his commercial and artistic genius, managed to generate 15 million votes in the final programme of the last series. That was more than the turnout in the local or European elections. It might just be that, in the process of consulting people about how to increase participation among young people, you could do worse than consult Simon Cowell to see whether he can put a bit of X factor into our voting system.
My Lords, I cannot claim to have the allure or charisma of Simon Cowell but, if your Lordships will excuse me, I am trying to dip my toe for the very first time into the waters of this kind of debate. I have sat for many hours in a House that is stuffed with constitutional experts, people learned in the law and those with glorious and glittering political careers behind them and, in some cases, ahead of them. I cannot compete with them in their analysis of what is happening around us, and I have not wanted to compete with their excellence or experience. However, I feel that I must remind myself that as a citizen of this country, all these discussions relate to the constitutional arrangements under which we all live, claim our rights and want ourselves and our children to flourish, and I have as much right to speak in these debates as anybody else. It is in that sense that I dare, almost with the feeling that I am making a maiden speech, stand here and offer some thoughts now.
I was terrifically interested in the cascade of figures that the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, gave us about what happened when the voting arrangements in Northern Ireland changed from household registration to individual registration. I believe that the noble Lord said it was a straightforward move from one to the other, but that it took 10 years to return to the same level. Perhaps that ought to be a stark reminder that in anything we do in this Bill we should try to avoid losing so many voters that it will take us 10 years to catch up. We might learn from that experience, perhaps avoid making the same mistakes and try to tread a safer path.
One of the great disappointments in my experience of the House is the way we have, in more recent times, got round to discussing constitutional measures. I feel that of all the things on which we ought to seek a consensual arrangement, something that we can all subscribe to, constitutional arrangements ought to be on the highest rung. I have sensed the trading, whether obvious or subterranean, that has been going on between the parties in government as they seek to satisfy each others’ needs and expectations. It has been a major feature of the way constitutional arrangements have been discussed in the House latterly. That may be a layman’s observation, but it is deeply felt, and I feel the need to say so before I continue with my remarks.
In 2009, when we considered our electoral system under another Government, we were all very clear that we must reach whatever arrangements we end up with consensually. Let me read what was said in the other House by the then shadow Conservative Minister about moving towards individual registration. She said that these plans,
“should not be rushed but taken step by step to ensure that the integrity of the system is protected ”—
the noble Lord, Lord Norton, talked about the integrity of the system—
“and not only protected, but seen to be protected, so that there is no perception of harm being done to the system … I can assure the Minister and the House that any future Conservative Government would never take risks with the democratic process”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/7/09; col. 108-9.]
In that debate, the Liberal Democrats made similar fulsome promises:
“I do not think that anybody was suggesting that the timetable be artificially shortened, or that any risk be taken with the comprehensiveness of the register”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/7/09; col. 112.]
That was the assurance given us by the Liberal Democrats.
Here we are with an arrangement or a direction of travel that all of us want to see happen, which I am convinced we need to make happen at a pace that will assure us of the assimilation of experience gained and a confidence in destinations reached. That seems to me to be so self-evident that I cannot quite understand why the acceleration of individual registration is being given so much attention. Since I did A-level Latin, I have always subscribed to the tag, festina lente—it is slowly that we make the most speed in a forward direction. After all, we are talking about a change of culture, and a change of culture does not happen by diktat or by the imposition of a set of new rules and regulations that push things forward artificially. Therefore, we should do as my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer suggests; take the proper steps at the proper pace, with good monitoring in place and proper scrutiny at each step, so that we can have confidence in what we end up with.
However, I have one more problem that I want to share with noble Lords. It was an article in one of our newspapers by an Oxford professor—not that Oxford professors are always right. I suppose a Cambridge man might say that. He says,
“To move straight to individual registration risks moving straight to mass disenfranchisement of the young, the urban, the mobile and ethnic minority voters”.
That is my overriding worry; it is the main point that I want to offer in this speech. I have been considering this Bill at the same time as I have been trying to evaluate a report on what happened with the riots in our inner cities almost a year ago. I live in the East End; at my front door is the borough of Islington, at my back door the borough of Hackney. I am not far at all from everything that was happening last year. There are lots of young black teenagers within the company I keep and the people I try to offer mentoring to. In conversation—although I can only be anecdotal about this—I do not detect a heightened understanding of the probity, necessity or valour of voting. It is not just that we have to raise awareness, as the noble Lord, Lord Bates, suggested; we must educate and shape the expectations of whole bodies of people who feel disenfranchised and quite at odds with the system. I do not want to say anything that would appear to condone last year’s events. However, I know that if you do not feel you are a stakeholder in a society, you have no motivation to involve yourself with it or with shaping its future. So I look at the literacy and numeracy levels with which people leave some of our schools; I look at the lack of character formation within some of our schools; I look at the brokenness of the homes and the difficult social patterns within which people live. All these things are very real. We frame constitutional arrangements in order to prepare a country for this generation to grow up in, with all the diversity that there is in our land in these days.
I am trying to articulate, then, the needs and deep desires of ordinary, young, urban people across the ethnic groupings of our city. I do not want the system that we end up with to threaten their involvement, because they have so much to give. They are genuinely talented people, but they do not feel plugged in. We must work on that a bit harder.
I have finished my remarks, and since I am six minutes early, perhaps the credit can be given to my noble friend Lord Wills as some kind of compensation.
My Lords, we have heard some very wise reflections from the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths. It is a privilege to follow him. This is an immensely important Bill, designed to help make democracy in Britain work considerably better than it does now, and to restore the trust in it that has become so badly impaired. The Government submitted the Bill to prolonged pre-legislative scrutiny. It has been significantly improved and strengthened as a result. There could be no better advertisement for the value of this new parliamentary procedure, and the Government deserve great credit for the open-minded way in which they have carried out consultations over the last two years. I hope that the same open-minded attitude will be displayed in Committee.
On the matter before us today, great care is singularly appropriate. Our country has never had a taste for frequent alterations of the fundamental features of its arrangements for electoral registration. Indeed, this is only the second time they have been radically changed since their first appearance in the Reform Act 1832, of which Mr Clegg is such an ardent fan. The Act created a thoroughly bad system under the supervision of incompetent officials, the overseers of the poor. Votes were awarded to the dead and to the unqualified. The 18th century practices—of which my noble friend Lord Baker reminded us with characteristic vividness—were very much alive and well throughout the 19th century. The system only worked creakingly, because the political parties exerted themselves, with the assistance of expensive lawyers, to fill the registers with as many of their firm supporters as possible. They showed no scruples. “As a class”, a parliamentary committee was told in 1835,
“attorneys obtain more fraudulent votes than any other men in the country”.
In all areas, the main function of local party organisations during the supposedly high-minded Victorian age was the manipulation of deeply flawed electoral registers. As late as 1896, the Liberal Party’s agent in Manchester reported that the registration of votes,
“involved an expenditure of about two-thirds of the entire cost”,
of his organisation.
Rectitude and competence finally arrived in 1918, when responsibility for electoral registration was placed in the hands of local government officials. From that point until this, they have sought out the names of voters by,
“house-to-house or other sufficient inquiry”,
as legislation prescribed. Now, however, the 1918 dispensation has fallen into disrepute in its turn. Our long-familiar arrangements are tainted by fraud which, though unquantifiable, has aroused widespread public concern. As my recently married noble friend Lord Bates reminded us, one highly respected international body has ticked us off for lacking “safeguards against fictitious registrations”. At the same time, an astonishing number of people who ought to be on the electoral registers are not—some 6 million to 8 million of them, according to the Electoral Commission’s latest estimate.
Across the political spectrum we all agree what should be done. Registration should cease to be undertaken on a household basis; it should become an individual responsibility, as many distinguished political thinkers have long advocated. As this debate has made abundantly clear, a consensus for change has not, however, been accompanied by a consensus on the path to change, or on the speed of change. Perhaps that was always going to be difficult to sustain. I strongly support the Government in their belief that the magnitude of the registration problem is such that we should proceed more quickly to a new system of individual registration than was proposed before the last election. That is what Part 1 of the Bill provides, and it is to Part 1 that I confine my remarks.
The Government have rightly set themselves the aims of making our country's electoral registers as accurate and as complete as possible. We must take care to ensure that this major reform is not seen as a change designed to benefit particular political parties. After the passage of this legislation, there should be careful monitoring of progress, not least in view of the widespread fear that the transition to individual registration could reduce, rather than increase, the numbers registered, as happened in Northern Ireland when individual registration was introduced there in 2002. That fear may not have been wholly assuaged by the Government's wise decision to allow those on the last register compiled under the existing system to be carried over to the first register of the new system.
In this connection I particularly welcome Clause 5, which will introduce a civil penalty for those who refuse to comply when an electoral registration officer asks them to register. As the debate has made clear, however, there are practical difficulties. This change has been included as a direct result of pre-legislative scrutiny, replacing the Government's original intention of allowing individuals to keep themselves off a register if they wish.
Democracy frequently needs the help of the law to stiffen the incentive to take the right course of action. This is a case in point. In this connection, I remind the House of one of the conclusions reached by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the Commons in its report last November on the proposed new system:
“There appears to be no reason why failure to complete and return a registration form should be a criminal offence in Northern Ireland but not in Great Britain. The Government should take steps to remedy this inconsistency”.
I also welcome the Government’s plans to ensure that a wide range of public data, at both national and local government level, are used to verify the identities of those already on the register and to help pinpoint those who should be on it but are not. As we have heard, a number of pilot schemes have been completed and more are on the way. As the Government have made clear, depending on the outcome of the latest round of pilot schemes, the process of data matching will be used by electoral registration officers throughout Great Britain to ease the transition to individual electoral registration in 2014. The Electoral Commission has said that an,
“elector whose entries match will be confirmed on the register and need take no further action”.
This is extremely important. Electoral registration officers will then be free to direct their resources and efforts towards the minority of existing registered electors who cannot be verified by data matching, and the missing 6 million.
I turn now to Northern Ireland, on which noble Lords from the Province have already commented, drawing on their own direct experience. Northern Ireland tends to be regarded solely as a cautionary tale—a warning that individual registration tends to cut the size of the electorate. However, perhaps it has not been sufficiently noticed that since 2002 several measures have been taken under primary and secondary legislation to rectify the main problems. Annual canvasses have ceased; a system of continuous registration now operates; each elector has responsibility for updating his or her entry on the register; and data matching and targeted canvassing have been introduced in the most effective manner. Since 2008, secondary schools have been among the specified authorities from which the chief electoral officer, who has responsibility for electoral registration throughout Northern Ireland, can request information for registration purposes. This has been an effective and successful innovation, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, vividly described.
There are in Northern Ireland today some 12,000 more registered electors than there were before the introduction of individual registration. The Electoral Commission announced in May that it would undertake a new assessment of the state of the electoral register in Northern Ireland, which in 2007 it had already found was 96% accurate and 84% complete, compared with 85% and 82% respectively in Britain, as shown by a survey last year. Since 2003, there have been no allegations of electoral fraud although, as my noble friends from Northern Ireland will know better than me, that does not mean that the age-old Northern Ireland customs have ceased completely. Overall, the lessons from Northern Ireland are sources not of universal anxiety but of considerable encouragement.
Electoral law in Northern Ireland remains the responsibility of this Parliament. In their White Paper on individual electoral registration last year, the Government referred in paragraph 29 to their intention to align Northern Ireland legislation on individual registration with the rest of the country. In paragraph 32 they stated that they would include appropriate provision in this Bill. That does not seem to have happened. Perhaps the Minister will be able to provide a word of explanation.
Finally, I urge strongly that the scope of the Bill be extended, as my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth argued, by adding to it provision to enable all our fellow subjects of Her Majesty who live abroad to vote in our parliamentary elections. This would end the existing 15-year limit, for which no clear rationale has ever been offered. There are some, such as Mr Clegg, who are inclined to say that our fellow country men and women abroad should take the nationality of the country in which they reside, even though I understand that Mrs Clegg, who retains Spanish nationality, has a lifetime’s right to vote in Spain’s elections. There are others who say that because they pay no taxes here they should not vote here, but many do pay taxes. In any case, other countries do not admit taxation as a principle for access to their franchises. Others say that our fellow citizens abroad cannot feel a strong attachment to the United Kingdom after some years away from it. However, in the age of the internet, they can follow closely what is happening in their native land and, as online participants, contribute powerfully to developments taking place here whether they live in Perugia, Portugal or Pennsylvania.
I set out the case for change more fully in a debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, in January and I propose to return to it in Committee. The Government have this great issue under active consideration, as the Minister confirmed in a Written Answer to me on 25 June. There could be no better time for action than in this Diamond Jubilee year. Some 5.6 million subjects of Her Majesty live abroad. Many of them today stand hopefully at the bar of British democracy. Let all those who wish to join us be allowed to enter.
My Lords, I start from a similar viewpoint to that of my noble friend Lord Lexden. We have heard much in this debate about the potential flaws in the new system but I will concentrate a little more on the known flaws in the status quo. The present system is broke and it needs fixing. We have learnt from several recent Bills that Governments have to identify the problem to which they are offering a solution if the public are to accept that change is necessary. In this instance, there is clearly a problem and change is necessary. The current registration system is so open to fraud that it might as well be an old uncrossed cheque, signed and left on the train.
I regularly take part and lead discussions in seminars with electoral administrators from all over the world, many from developing countries. All are astonished when they learn that any male could walk into the polling station in my district and claim to be Paul Tyler, say that he lived at my address and be issued with a ballot paper. At the previous general election, the presiding officer wanted me to vote for the parliamentary candidate and thought it most peculiar that I was not entitled to do so. I could easily have done so. My noble friend the Minister and other noble Lords have referred to this as a matter for further consideration. We will have to discuss this during the Committee stage of the Bill because it is clearly a serious security issue that needs to be dealt with. We must examine the case for recording signatures, or some other identifier known only to the individual elector, as part of the registration process for those voting in person as well as those voting by post or by proxy.
The alibi for maintaining the current insecurity and inaccuracy of our electoral process has always been to try to achieve notional completeness. I have a long-standing commitment to the integrity of this crucial component of our representative democracy. I declare a non-pecuniary interest as a member of the informal cross-party group that advises the Electoral Commission on some of these issues.
Completeness is an equally important objective, as my noble friend Lord Rennard said. Clearly, there is little point in developing a system that is so secure that even those who should be on the register do not end up there. None of us wants that, but the existing system is by no means insulated from that problem.
The most recent Electoral Commission research, which has already been referred to, found that the existing electoral register is only 82% complete. Even the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, accepted that under the previous Government there was a major problem. It remains. That figure is down from previous estimates of some 90%, which he also mentioned. Seemingly, some 2 million or 3 million electors got lost during the Blair and Brown Administrations. The 82% figure is also the national average. By definition, that means that in some parts of the country registration levels are even lower. A number of colleagues referred to this problem but they did not identify how low the figure is in some areas.
The latest Electoral Commission research, completed in 2009, estimated that Glasgow, for example, has 74% of its residents on the register. Lambeth, just a stone’s throw from your Lordships’ House, had only 73%. In particular areas, one-quarter of those who should be on the register and are entitled to vote are simply not there. That is an extremely important point, which we have to address in the Bill. The status quo is not sustainable or acceptable. Since 2009 when that research was done, the discrepancy, especially among younger and more mobile people in the inner cities, may well have deteriorated further. We should be under no illusions that the existing system is adequate and acceptable. That is why the Bill presents an opportunity at least to start to reverse this deplorable trend. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, who, in the previous Administration, tried to do this. To some extent his attempt to introduce and implement the move towards individual registration was effectively stopped by some of his colleagues, who were fearful of change.
My noble friend Lord Rennard has already referred to the necessity for the Electoral Commission to take on a stronger role in directing the design of registration forms. We have also heard from the Minister reassurances that in future the potential for a civil penalty to be levied when an individual does not register will be prominently displayed. The size of the penalty is not as important as the size of the printed warning on the registration form. I looked at my registration form last week and it was not there at all. That is clearly ridiculous.
It is true, as a number of noble Lords have said, that in Northern Ireland the criminal penalty has been retained and has been found to be helpful in persuading people to do their civic duty. I hope that the Electoral Commission’s guidance will reflect the best practice from across the country.
It could do worse than look at the example of Hounslow. Here I am very grateful to Angela Holden, Hounslow’s electoral services manager, for permission to quote this evidence. In that London borough, the council sends out a sequence of up to five forms. Those who respond to the first are entered in a prize draw to encourage early response. Two further reminders go to all non-responders before canvassers start door-knocking. At that stage each outstanding household receives no fewer than three more personal visits until registration is achieved. Those who are recalcitrant enough still not to be registered at that point receive a fifth form emblazoned in red, in big print:
“Register now or risk prosecution”.
Having made such sterling efforts to get people on the register, Hounslow does follow through its threat of court action with those who still do not respond. This year the authority secured prosecutions against 10 residents. Nine paid out £150 each and another £115. All had to pay £120 or more in costs. As the leader of that council put it:
“Prosecutions are always a last resort, but we want to send out a clear message to all residents that ignoring the electoral registration requirement is an offence, which carries costly consequences”.
The noble Baroness, Lady O'Loan, said that she found it difficult to see what precise civic duty we are emphasising. It is a civic duty to be available for jury service. Imagine in one of those previous boroughs to which I referred, where it is down to perhaps 60% registered, and particular groups of people are not registering. Imagine how representative of that borough the local jury might be if the register is already so inaccurate. That is an important civic duty. It is not just the opportunity to vote, but also the opportunity to be a citizen in our local community.
That is how one borough, Hounslow, acts. It uses the positive—the carrots, if you will—as well as the negative. Its electoral services manager has told me that:
“In January each year, we obtain records from our education department and check that those students that are eligible are registered—anyone not registered receives a letter and a registration form. We also send out a registration form with all new council tax bills”—
not every annual bill, but to those opening new accounts—
“and with British citizenship packs at the ceremony”.
I note the examples given from Northern Ireland, where this automatically goes into secondary schools, as part of the citizenship course, so that people see the natural progress into being a fully-fledged citizen and being registered to vote.
Again, Hounslow invites schools to visit the council chamber each October, during democracy week, and conducts a mock election. This year 602 pupils are coming to visit over four days. That is just one local authority acting with real imagination and determination to ensure that its registers are as accurate and as complete as possible. As a result, the authority reckons that its register is 96.5% complete.
That is a very important lesson. These efforts will be all the more vital when individual registration is introduced, so that the new system can be seen for the opportunity that it is. Here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that in the end, the vital ingredient for the success of this change will be local commitment and resources, not just what the legislation says.
I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues are localists. We always have been and we always will be, because we acknowledge that Whitehall does not always know best and that councillors are usually closer to their communities than civil servants and Ministers. Yet the binding principle of localism is that when decisions are taken closest to those whom they will affect, it is all the more likely that citizens—by way of election—can choose people who will take the decisions they want.
If that is to work equitably and democratically, the register must benefit from the highest possible integrity. In that respect I am content that the high degree of national direction—which should be the responsibility of the Electoral Commission—over the way in which councils perform their work in this area, to achieve a high level of quality control, is one of the most basic building blocks of our representative democracy. For it to thrive, it is critical that local authorities have the responsibility and the resources to undertake it.
In this respect, as my noble friend Lord Rennard said earlier, local government has to carry out an important national responsibility. I hope the Minister can make clear again, as he did previously, that once the legislation is passed these authorities will be able to make use of extra resources that Government will make available for this purpose. Whether it is practical to have ring-fencing I do not know—the Minister may be able to tell us—but we must make absolutely clear that these resources are for a national purpose and they must be used for that purpose and not any other. Our democracy is far too important to leave to chance. This Bill has the potential to make registration far better, more accurate, and more comprehensive.
Of course, we will discuss important safeguards during its passage through the House. Noble Lords on all sides of your Lordships’ House have referred to safeguards that they may be looking for. I am sure that the Committee stage will benefit from the wise and experienced voices that we will hear in this House. I believe the most important of all those safeguards—the failsafe—is the one that my noble friend Lord Rennard has already suggested. It is very important to ensure that electors in 2016, who will have important local authority elections and the Scottish and Welsh devolved Assembly elections, and which will in due course provide the figures which will be the raw material for further boundary reviews, are dealt with in a way that is fully cognisant of the problems that have been referred to in this debate. If the implementation of individual electoral registration has not gone as well as we would hope, there will have to be a reassessment of that process.
There will be other desirable safeguards. I have heard several suggested during today’s debate. I know we can rely on the wide experience of elections on all sides of this House to work out what they should be. In the mean time, the principle is self-evidently right and has been supported by both Governments and Members of all parties. With those safeguards in place, I hope that the Bill will have my enthusiastic support.
My Lords, this Bill is part of the coalition’s ongoing search for constitutional change. We have had a Bill on how we vote, with AV. We have had a Bill on who we vote for, with the House of Lords reform. Now we have a Bill to decide whether we can vote at all. Let us hope that this Bill is rather more useful than the others.
In essence this is a good Bill, although it will need a great deal of work in Committee if it is to become as sound as it is important. It is a paradox, is it not, that, as so often, it will be this unelected House whose duty it is to sort it? Many of us party politicians—someone suggested today that we should call ourselves party-linked parliamentarians, which is a much nicer phrase—have political backgrounds, although I hope that we can approach this in a non-partisan fashion. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, suggested that this was a partisan Bill. I do not agree with him on that. He did not provide much evidence. I much preferred his points about funding.
Let us face it, none of us owns this or that group of voters and no party has entirely grime-free hands in these areas. Earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, showed himself to be a past-master in the dark practices of electoral fraud, as befits a former Conservative Party chairman. If that has come out wrong, I am sure that the Hansard writer will find a way to make it slightly more acceptable. Of the many instances he gave, we have to acknowledge that some of those involved Tories.
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is far too young to remember 1969 when the late Lord Callaghan, who was then simply known as Jim, buried a boundary review simply because it did not benefit the Labour Party. I have even heard outlandish rumours that some Liberal Democrats are threatening to do the same now. I wait in expectation for one of them to jump up and say that this is not the case. But we must move on from the suggestion that this is a partisan measure.
The vote was a right that our forefathers and mothers fought for with too much sacrifice and too much suffering for it to be cheapened by this Bill being turned into a game of musical chairs, waiting for others to be shoved out of the way and off the register when the music stops. We all of course have our differences and preferences but I think that we are all agreed that some measure of change is needed.
The current system is open not just to inaccuracy but to fraud. As Judge Maurey has said, the postal voting system is one which,
“would disgrace a banana republic”.
That must change. But I entirely understand the anxieties expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that change that is too rapid or too ill thought through might disadvantage various minority groups. We must take that seriously and study it in Committee, although I have to say that the arguments are frequently overdone. For example, if a student is capable of registering for a loan, he or she is equally capable of registering for a vote. We must test the provisions of this Bill to make sure that they are fair and balanced.
We have heard much in this good and very informative debate. Perhaps I may share with noble Lords my experience of the last election. It is well known that I am a man of limited imagination. As a result, I named my second son Michael. Therefore, in our household we had two Michael Dobbs on the register in Wiltshire. As it happens, some nameless, faceless registration officer decided, quite sensibly perhaps, that there were too many people with that name on the register. But, without any checks or thought, on a personal crusade to implement data matching, my son’s name was crossed off the register. He found himself unable to vote. After many years of being on the register, he was unable to vote last time around. Fortunately, it was of no great consequence. The admirable John Glen was elected in Salisbury with a handsome majority.
However, that is not the point. Under the current system, some who should be on the register are not and some who are on the register should not be. We need to change that. In Committee, we will deal with many issues. This evening, I want to highlight only one; namely, Clause 13, which extends the timetable between dissolution and polling day. The Bill suggests that this should be lengthened from 17 days to 25 days, which sounds innocuous. The reasons for this seem to be to make life easier for returning officers. I believe it is suggested that it delivers a small cost saving. But there is a bite in the tail, and not simply that of voters being bored to death, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Baker.
Of course, it is not simply 25 days. There are “dies non” which refer to weekends and bank holidays. In fact, those 25 days stretch to five and a half weeks. We recently passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which, in normal circumstances, means very predictable elections every five years. But not all circumstances are predictable. Let us imagine a national crisis—for example, a desperate economic and financial collapse in Europe, and political paralysis here at home. Let us further imagine a Government no longer capable of commanding a majority and losing a vote of confidence; and there being no agreement on a replacement and an election being called. Because of the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, that cannot be for another two weeks. Five and a half weeks becomes seven and a half weeks, which adds to the political and economic crisis that has created this situation.
We are talking of a potential situation of political paralysis and governmental chaos at a time of national crisis that could stretch into months. We cannot always predict political crises, let alone avoid them. But we can prepare for them better than the straitjacket of Clause 13. We need to look at it again, and I hope that Ministers will take a look at this and allow us to discuss it in greater detail.
The noble Lord has had great experience at Central Office. I agree with him entirely about the extension. Does he have an estimate of the extra cost that parties will have to bear as a result of extending this campaign? At the individual constituency level, there will be considerable cost. At the national level, all the main parties will want to advertise. I wonder whether he has considered replying to the Liberal Party, which proposed this, and telling it that a great deal more money will have to be found for campaigning in these extra weeks. I wonder where it will find that money.
That is an excellent point. In this Chamber previously, I have suggested that the lack of adequate funding for political parties is one of the things that undermines our parliamentary democracy. We will not solve it through this Bill but there is no reason why it should be worse either.
There are many other details to discuss and I will not detain the House any longer, except to point out that the other place spent three days discussing these matters before the guillotine fell and they gathered up their buckets and spades and departed. Once again, this unelected House will have to do the donkey work of democracy. It leaves me wondering where we would be if we were elected—off on the beach with the other lot, I suspect. On that note, perhaps I may express the wish that your Lordships will long retain the cherished position alongside the mentally incapable and convicts and continue to be denied the vote.
My Lords, I hope to be brief, not least because I hope to pop along to say farewell to Peggy Byatt, who has been one of the longest serving members of staff of this House.
Last May, when this Bill was introduced in the House of Commons, Mark Harper, the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, stated that the aim of the Bill was to,
“tackle electoral fraud, increase the number of people registered to vote and improve the integrity of the electoral register”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/5/12; col. 1172.]
No one would disagree with that. As my noble friend Lord Wills has stated, it was for these precise reasons that the previous Labour Government, with cross-party support, put through the Political Parties and Elections Act. Those reasons also paved the way for individual registration.
However, in committing to this, we also provided for a phased timetable and independent testing of any new system, backed up with strong and effective monitoring by the Electoral Commission. Why did we do it in that way? We wanted to make sure that the systems to stop fraud, which we are all committed to stopping, did not also exacerbate an already growing problem of underregistration. As we have heard today, there are millions of unregistered—mainly young and low-income—voters missing from the electoral roll. The Electoral Commission’s briefing, which has also been quoted today, states that the December 2010 register was between 85% and 87% complete, with at least 6 million eligible people missing from it. It is the biggest scandal for our democracy that so many people are denied the opportunity to vote. The other issue that is combined with underregistration is the prospect that the growing number of people who do not vote in elections will not see the point of registering to vote. That concern is also shared by the Electoral Commission.
Without a concerted and prolonged campaign, it is possible that the register may go from the near 90% completeness that we hope we currently have to something like 65%. As my noble friend Lady Gould said, 65% will result in as many as 10 million voters losing the opportunity to vote. What sort of democracy is that? I shall repeat the question of my noble friend Lady Gould. Will the Minister give us the details of the implementation plan now? Will they set out the timetable in more detail and will they give us better figures on a budget to ensure that we have an effective campaign? This is not scaremongering when you consider the experience of Northern Ireland, on which we have had some very interesting perspectives. When the system was changed there in 2002 it resulted in a huge drop in the size of the register. It was such a drop that we had to address it in subsequent legislation, so we know that there is a problem that we need to address.
Although I believe very strongly that the timetable proposed in the Bill is too rushed, I welcome the concession that there will be a carryover for those who are currently on but fail to register individually. However, this will not happen in my household or in the many, many other households where everyone is registered to vote by post. As many noble Lords have pointed out, for many elderly people and people with disabilities, voting by post is their only real opportunity to vote. I do not accept the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that the fundamental problem with our electoral system is the extension of postal voting. With the right measures—we have talked about how those measures can be improved—postal voting undoubtedly increases turnover. What we want is more people participating in our democracy. The fundamental problems are more to do with false entries on the register. All parties and all individuals can take responsibility to highlight where they think there are problems and address them. When I had that responsibility in the Labour Party we were very rigorous in pursuing any example where we found multiple registrations.
Why, therefore, will postal voters and proxy voters be excluded from this carryover which, as we have heard, is going to affect a lot of elderly people and people with disabilities? For the record, in my own household, neither my husband nor I will be eligible to vote when it comes to the general election; me because of my membership of this House and he because he is a Spanish national. We have talked about the errors that can occur and about checking each signature. Unfortunately, on one occasion—I am not going to say which election because I have proudly voted in every one—when we were completing our postal votes on the dinner table, I mistakenly signed his declaration and he mistakenly signed mine. Despite efforts to contact the appropriate authorities, I fear that my vote was not counted on that occasion.
As many of my noble friends have pointed out, the Bill rushes through a process that actually needs a lot of careful consideration and planning. Why the rush for the next general election? My sentiments about the Bill are accurately reflected in the following quote:
“I also agree with the Minister that it would be difficult to introduce a new system shortly before a general election. There should be other ways of testing the system along the way to ensure that the accuracy, integrity and comprehensiveness of the register and the system are always utterly watertight. I hope that that reassures the Minister on that point”.—[Official Report, Commons,13/7/09; col. 109.]
That was Eleanor Laing MP, Shadow Conservative Minister, speaking in 2009.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, in his excellent contribution, mentioned those dreaded words “ID cards”. This is why I have always supported the principle of national ID cards—a national ID system. I have always been committed to it because it carries with it clear rights and responsibilities. I am sorry that many of my noble friends—I mean to say many of the noble Lords opposite—are not committed to that principle despite the fact that they want to ensure that the electoral register has as many constraints on it as possible. Yet they are not in favour of the one thing that would deliver a system of integrity in our democracy.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for giving way. I referred to our system of electoral identity cards which are very specific and can be used only for voting purposes. They are slightly different from the national identity cards which were proposed here some time ago. Nevertheless, I am sure the noble Lord accepts that I agree with the point, which I suspect he is trying to make, that it gives an opportunity to know that the person standing in front of the polling station clerk is the person who is entitled to vote.
I thank the noble Lord for that contribution. I agree with him completely but I have to confess that I was using the opportunity of his reference to ID cards to have a little go. When we are talking about secure systems, we have to understand that that issue cuts across all civic society.
We need to ensure that any scheme of individual registration passes the test of accuracy and completeness. Here I agree 100% with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. He and I have a lot in common in terms of our previous experiences of elections. He may have won a lot more elections, but the fact is that we spent our livelihoods and lifetimes trying to tell politicians to follow the rules and regulations. I agree with him 100% when he asks whether by focusing on accuracy we are missing the fundamental importance of completeness. That is what this debate is about, and it is what the Bill needs to focus on. I am sure that that is what the discussions in Committee will be about.
Despite some welcome concessions from the Government that we heard articulated today, I am afraid that they do not represent sufficient safeguards to ensure that the Bill will not result in millions of people being unregistered and therefore unable to vote. What we have is a speeded-up timetable for the introduction of individual registration purely—I put this at its best—to save money. Combine that with another important issue, the downgrading of the role of the Electoral Commission, and we are left with the potential for long-term deterioration in the accuracy of the electoral register.
My Lords, I add my strong support for the aims of the Bill. The disadvantage of being so late in the speakers’ list means that most areas have been covered by other noble Lords. However, the advantage is that I have had the opportunity of hearing their interesting, wide-ranging and well expressed comments. Those wide-ranging views have covered fraud, fines, timetables, reduction of numbers on registers, postal votes and many other points. All will be discussed in great detail in Committee.
My main reason for wishing to speak in this Second Reading is because of my serious concern at the existence of electoral fraud. I have had personal experience of it, but I hasten to add that it was not as a fraudster but as the past leader of a council in one of the cities mentioned by my noble friend Lord Baker. Three members of my political group were found guilty of electoral fraud and, unfortunately, the common comment in the community and of other politicians at the time was that the three who were caught were less practised in fraud than the many other party members who practised it, managed it with expertise and got away with it.
I do not take pleasure or comfort in reminding your Lordships that politicians of various political persuasions have been convicted of electoral offences. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that he may feel that this is not a major issue, but such circumstances are hugely damaging to citizens’ views of the democratic process and to the political process.
The noble Baroness may not have correctly heard me. I was quoting a report by the independent Rowntree Reform Trust and made it clear that even a single incident of electoral fraud should be taken extremely seriously. I am afraid that the noble Baroness inadvertently misrepresented my position.
I apologise if that is the case.
It is not an enjoyable experience hearing, first-hand on the doorsteps at election time, voters clearly expressing the view that it is a waste of time voting when there is so much fraud taking place that can affect the outcome of the election results. Particularly in council elections where majorities can be small, these events can have a major impact on the outcome.
There is an issue that no one has raised but I have observed. There seems historically to have been a reluctance by the police to tackle and track down electoral fraud. Perhaps the Minister will say whether he thinks the new system of personal registration will help in this regard.
I should like also to express my concern about personation, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, because it often referred to as a potentially bigger issue than many of us recognise. I fear that we must urgently move to an electoral registration system that gives all electors confidence in the integrity of that system because it prevents fraud. I am sure that in Committee we will give a great deal of time and attention to the detail, and that we will all be pleased to accept the end product.
My Lords, in the four minutes available to me, I should like to make one or two points about the Bill. I agree with some of it, but my main concern, as a number of noble Lords have expressed, is the turnout. After all, one hopes to get the highest turnout in democratic participation.
Some things in the Bill may improve that. Clause 14 makes it clear that there will no longer be the discrimination whereby there must be three weeks between parish and community council elections. They are being brought together to take place on the same day as the European elections, local government elections, and the parliamentary general election. Those elections are regularly held. However, what about the police commissioner elections? They will be held every four years but are not mentioned in the Bill. Is it necessary to include them to make sure that they can be held on the same day? It is important to do that because the Government, for one reason or another, have decided to hold the elections for police commissioner in November, which will certainly affect the turnout. I therefore hope that when we discuss these matters the Government will look at how the timing will affect those elections.
I had three points to make. The second relates to the statement on the cover of the Bill in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights. It refers to Section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act and then explains further inside. However, Article 8 is about voting. What is the Government’s position on prisoner voting? Does this mean that the human rights provisions apply only in a narrow sense, because there is difficulty? As the Deputy Prime Minister in the other place made clear, the legislation on House of Lords reform does not conform to the Human Rights Act and it could not be written on the face of the Bill. What is the position now? Can the registrar register prisoners? Can they have a vote? Or has there been just a limited human rights interpretation? Perhaps the Minister could tell us.
I apologise for raising matters directly on the police commissioner elections, but on the day that the Grand Committee dealt with that legislation we had the Statement on G4S. I chose to attend here in the Chamber and was therefore denied the opportunity to raise points in that Committee. I hope that the Minister will bear with me as regards a particular point that he may be able to help us with, perhaps not by answering today but by writing to me about it. There is the problem of this new kind of election, which involves police authorities, chief constables and the inspectorate all making decisions in their own different ways on how the candidates are to be consulted. Some are laying down rules for some candidates by saying, “You must all sit in the room together”. As we know, there is nothing in that which we would agree with. You could do it on the first occasion, but each candidate must individually have the right to talk to either the chief constable or the police authority. That seems to be the agreement between those two bodies, but it is not the opinion of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which I have here. It makes it clear that the meetings should take place on a one-to-one basis.
Obviously there are different ways of running this. An example is the financing of the mayor’s election. There will be financing for that but not for these elections. Different rules apply. What concerns me most—the Minister made it clear—is that the Government are looking for a common way to run elections in the future. I understand that and there is a lot of sense in it. However, if we are deciding new rules particularly for this election I wonder whether they might say that legislation is not required, but merely a message from the Home Office to say to the parties involved, “Why don’t you actually allow what is normal in other elections?”. If a candidate chooses to talk to the parties whom he is supposed to ask for information—or, indeed, if he has a responsibility to produce a plan—he should be able to consult them. I hope the Minister will tell his colleagues that they should set out that message, because things are under way. Finally, it is said that things will have to wait until you are registered as a candidate. That will be in October. Then a five-year plan will be produced for us, all within six weeks, that will have to be ready to give to the Government. A bit of common sense should apply here. There should be a common rule and candidates should have the right to be able to talk face to face.
My Lords, this has been an informative debate with much commonality of approach, especially regarding the desire for a complete register. As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said, this side of the House supports in principle the move to individual electoral registration, and indeed we congratulate the Government on listening during their consultation and making some significant adjustments, as set out by my noble friend Lady Gould, especially to introduce a civil penalty, to remove the opt-out and to have a full canvass in 2014.
Individual registration recognises the increased emphasis on the rights of the individual and it reflects how we vote—as individuals, not as family blocks. As has been said, it was the previous Labour Government who legislated for this to deal with inaccuracy, but particularly the incompleteness, of the register. We want to capture those 6 million people who are effectively disenfranchised; nearly half of whom think that they are on the register; the figure is 25% in some areas, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, reminds us.
However, individual registration has only a part to play. The democratic deficit also arises from insufficient preparation in schools for participation in the political process, despite the very good example that the noble Lord gave us of, I think, Hounslow. Our press, which is forever decrying the role of democratic governance, does not help, and there is also the lack of action to ensure that under registered groups, be those private sector tenants, BME residents or the young, are motivated both to register and then to vote.
Added to this will be the new boundary rules, which will force changes to constituencies every election. Those rules are actually quite undemocratic because they will break the ongoing link between an elected Member and her or his constituents. Voting alone, which particularly those in the House who have been MPs will know, is not all there is about democracy—it is also about accountability. That means going back to those who elected you after a five-year Parliament for their verdict on your record. This is going to be denied to the proposed elected Members of your Lordships’ House, but will also lessen as a parliamentary seat’s make-up keeps changing to accommodate the coalition’s obsession with statistically numerical definitions of a constituency, quite trumping habits, travel, community, geography, history and place.
The ConservativeHome blog, which I recommend to everybody, told us last week the real reason for these new boundaries, which is quite different from producing identi-sized seats. As Tim Montgomerie, known I am sure to those sitting on the opposite Benches, blogged:
“One leading aide to the Party Chairman told me yesterday that the passage of the new boundaries was the most important single legislative change for the Conservative Party’s chances of winning the next election. CCHQ is pleased at the outcome of the boundary review and it has confirmed the general view that the party needs a 10.5% lead to win an outright majority on existing boundaries but a much more modest 7.6% on the new boundaries”.
So there we have it. It is nothing to do with a more equitable spread of the electorate but the search for an outright majority to dump the Lib Dems. No wonder they are thinking twice about voting for those new boundaries.
I digress. The issue before us today is about just one part of boosting the accountability and representativeness of elections, whether for police commissioners, to the Commons, to local authorities, to the European Parliament, to devolved Administrations and maybe even to this magnificent building. However, there are serious concerns that the Government must answer.
First, on methodology, why, as everyone has asked, is there no carryover for postal votes, which are largely used by some of our most disadvantaged groups who can no longer get out and about for the joy of a walk to the polling station? Interestingly, these electors are already individually registered rather than household registered, so they are a little ahead of the game. Postal votes should, as I think many noble Lords have said, be carried over to the register for the 2015 election; there is really no democratic case against that. The way in which the register is compiled will be crucial, and to be successful there must be sound strategic planning plus adequate ring-fenced funding. It cannot be allowed to fail because of Treasury miserliness.
Secondly, on timeliness, why are the Government so keen on speeding up individual electoral registration? No explanation was given throughout the passage of this Bill through the other place although, as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said, that was a rather short period. This is the biggest change to the registration system since 1928 and therefore needs careful planning and implementation. We have spent years building up the register, and we should not jeopardise it for some quick-fix formula. I ask, as others have, whether the Government have a coherent implementation plan. I was somewhat taken aback by the Government publishing on 17 July, just as MPs who know about the intricacies of registration and its drawbacks were—again, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs—packing their buckets and spades for their week at the seaside. It does not sound a very good time to produce the so-called implementation plan. It is a bit weak and seems to provide more evidence about this ruinous timescale for proper scrutiny as well as implementation. This is very different from the step-by-step approach quoted by my noble friend Lord Griffiths of Burry Port.
There are risks in speeding up the timetable for what should be an invaluable democratic tool, but a tool which, if mishandled, could undermine trust in the voting system in a way that will rebound not only on the present Administration but on the whole system of elections, which will be bad for all of us.
The results of the data-matching pilots will not be known until this Bill becomes law, yet there is no built-in safeguard should the pilots demonstrate significant flaws in the chosen methodology. Given that the present register does not contain dates of birth, there must be questions about how well it will match with DWP information, especially for those with common surnames such as a Baker, a Collins, a Wills or a Dobbs who is even less imaginative in insisting in cloning his name within the same household.
Indeed, as the Minister will recall, in Grand Committee I questioned what would happen if the Electoral Commission’s and the Cabinet Office’s assessments of the pilots varied. Answer, I am afraid, came there none. The evaluation of those pilots may not even impact on the Government’s determination to move forward on an individual register to their predetermined timetable, no matter what their outcome. The previous Government proposed a gradual implementation along an agreed timetable; now it is hurried and done without consensus. No wonder people are worried.
Thirdly, there is the apparent downgrading of the monitoring role of the Electoral Commission. Surely the commission should have to certify that individual registration is functioning properly before anyone previously registered to vote loses that right. As the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, we must know that it is working before we use it as the basis for boundary changes or for the 2015 general election. Will the Minister share with us the risk register for this project? If he does a Department of Health and refuses, will he at least let the Electoral Commission have the risk register so that its work can take account of the likely pressure points and vulnerabilities of the scheme?
Fourthly, why does the Bill seek the power to abolish the annual canvass? This is essential. It is not a luxury that all eligible voters should be on the register. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, the register decays with time. As a people, we continue to move, probably more rather than less. Families form and, sadly, break up; people’s employers change far more than those of our parents’ generation; people move abroad and back; and people change their name—even women. My generation of women’s-libbers assumed that none of us would ever take our husband’s surname, but strangely that has not been the case. An enormous number of changes are going on. We will seek in Committee to remove this pernicious little power.
Allowing an elected politician to tamper with the register of voters in this way is something akin to a Henry VIII power. It was as far back as 1918 that responsibility for compiling registers was transferred to public officials who were independent of the candidates and their friends. We should not undo this staunch underpinning of the voting system. We have been reminded how the register was undermined by the poll tax, when suddenly there was a price to being on it. It has taken much work to pull back from that, so never again should a politician be able to take a decision, such as ending the annual canvass, that could so impact on people’s right to vote.
What is lacking in the Bill? What does this House, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, have a duty to sort? First, we must secure cross-party agreement on timing and implementation to ensure that this is done for the sake of our whole democracy and not just one part of it—or should I say “party”? We want a guarantee of adequate funding for the job; “Don’t skimp” was the advice from the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. We need a proper mitigation plan should the pilots suggest that the methodology is not robust. We need sufficient safeguards to ensure that there is no reduction in completeness and fairness. We need provision to carry over postal votes to the new register without people having to reapply for them. We need the removal of the power for a party-elected Minister to abolish the annual canvass. And we need to carry over the May 2015 register for the December redistribution of boundaries, otherwise it will look as if the parties in Government are artificially omitting those least likely to register, such as the young, tenants and the mobile, from the all-important numerical count.
My predecessors fought for the right of women to vote. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, used the word “sacrifice”—and they did. Today we must ensure that the urban, the young and even the rioters, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, are enabled and encouraged to register. The new scheme must help make the right to vote a reality for a greater proportion of our citizens. We must do all that we can to make individual registration a benefit and not a way of excluding voters. This should be above and apart from party politics. It is too important to play games with. It is a matter of fairness, accuracy, inclusivity and consensus. We hope that the Government will heed our concerns.
My Lords, this has been a very worthwhile Second Reading, and a number of very valuable points were raised that we will all pursue further in Committee. I say straightaway to the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, that he raised a number of very interesting points on which I was not fully briefed, so I will be very happy to write to him on them.
We can take either a partisan or a non-partisan approach to this Bill in Committee. I very much hope that we will follow the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. Surely our goal must be to achieve a complete and accurate register—although I have to say, as complete and accurate a register as possible, because we all recognise that we already have problems with the register in both respects. We are trying to improve that, and none of us has the hope that we will be able to get complete accuracy or completeness. So let us take as non-partisan an approach in Committee as we can.
If I were to take a partisan approach, I would be quite sharp with both the noble Lord, Lord Wills, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, whose opening speech reminded me of one that a prosecuting counsel might make in a case where he knew that the evidence was relatively weak. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, suggested in effect that this was a vast Conservative conspiracy in which the Liberal Democrats were somehow co-conspirators. I have done my politics in cities and I know of many cases of election fraud, mainly in local elections and often by Labour voters against Liberal Democrats, that were not pursued by the Liberal Democrats because of the immense expense involved in mounting a challenge. I am talking about Kirklees, Manchester and Bradford, although I am well aware of cases in Burnley, Birmingham and elsewhere. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, what sort of democracy is it when we have severe problems at local level? I am also very conscious—
I must correct the misapprehension that the Minister is under. I do not think that I used the word “conspiracy”, and I was not alleging any grave conspiracy. I was trying to take noble Lords through the consequences of the Government’s approach to the review of boundaries in 2015, and the partisan political consequences that could well ensue—that was all. It is perfectly open to the noble Lord to give me good arguments why those consequences will not happen, and I shall be completely reassured. There is no question of a conspiracy; it is just a question of natural consequences following from what the Government are trying to do.
I shall do my utmost to reassure the noble Lord by the way that we handle the Bill as it goes through. I regret that the level of Cross-Bench participation in this Second Reading debate was not higher, because there is a lot of expertise on those Benches about the groups we most want to reach—the most vulnerable and marginal groups in society who are least involved in politics. We share a common interest in trying to get those people re-engaged in politics, and we recognise that we all have a problem in getting them re-engaged. I spent some time over recent weekends on big estates in Bradford where the level of turnout was astonishingly low and the level of registration fairly low.
To suggest—as I think I also picked up from some noble Lords on the Benches opposite—that somehow these people belong to Labour and are naturally Labour, even if they do not vote or even register, is stretching the argument. They belong to no party, and we all share the problem of how to get them re-engaged in society, politics and community life. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that in this respect we have many problems. We are struggling against a deeply cynical media that reinforces the instinctive scepticism of rising numbers of voters. We all have to demonstrate that we share a concern for the quality of our democracy and of our democratic institutions.
Perhaps I may make one more partisan remark before I return to being my usual entirely non-partisan self. In the 2005 general election, the Labour Government returned to power on 35% of the votes cast—barely a quarter of the electorate—and the majority of the media and the Opposition did not cry, “Illegitimate and improper”. However, it was close to the bounds of democratic acceptability.
How will we engage young people? The noble Lord, Lord Bates, in particular asked how we are working with Bite the Ballot and Operation Black Vote. We have not looked very far into the question of whether we should have campaigns which involve personalities and celebrities. However, we have looked at using social media more. We are looking at the experience in Northern Ireland where working in schools with what are called the “attainers”—16 and 17 year-olds—has provided better civic education. Taking registration forms into schools has clearly had a very positive effect. As we move to individual registration, we very much hope to follow this experience to ensure that we catch the attention of young voters, many of whom are not terribly interested in politics at that time.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, raised the issue of elderly and disabled people. We are consulting Scope, Mind and a number of other bodies on how best to make sure that access is maintained and how to improve access to polling stations where possible. The levels of suspected fraud for postal votes and proxies are much higher than for those giving personal votes in the election. Therefore, asking people to reassure us during the transition that postal and proxy votes are real is a justifiable way of improving the accuracy of the system.
Perhaps I may talk about the difference between this Bill and the previous Act. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred to a “ruinous timetable” as if this were being rushed through unannounced. I remind the noble Baroness that this Bill has been through pre-legislative scrutiny and through the other House. We have listened and changed the Bill. When the Political Parties and Elections Bill was introduced in the Commons, it contained no provisions for individual electoral registration. However, when the Conservative Opposition tabled a reasoned amendment and voted against the Bill, relevant clauses were added in the Lords. These were not discussed fully in the Commons, except when the Bill returned from the Lords. It is, therefore, grossly unfair to suggest that we are rushing into this or, indeed, as I understand the opinion of the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that the previous Bill was perfect and this is somehow imperfect.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked me about the statement on the invitation on the civil penalty and how prominent it would be. The Electoral Commission will design the invitation form and will test it with users to achieve the best possible form to encourage registration. I know that there is much concern about differences between local authorities in the duties of the electoral registration officers. These duties will be clearly set out in the Bill, secondary legislation and in Electoral Commission guidance. We are working closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure, as far as possible, a consistent approach across local authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, will no doubt return in Committee to how large the civil penalty should be and how often it should be applied. If an individual has been issued with the penalty and subsequently applies to be registered, we intend that the penalty will be waived. We are not persuaded by his suggestion of multiple fines in a single year—whatever it might do to assist the Treasury.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, asked what we are doing now to increase registration rates. I have already said a little about that. We are closely studying the experience of Northern Ireland. We have seen the excellent work there and we hope to learn from it to ease the transition, which I have already described in my opening speech. The Cabinet Office is leading a programme of work to maximise electoral registration among the groups on which we all agree—that is, the ones that are currently under-registered or identified as at risk of falling off. However, we recognise that under-registration is not the responsibility of Government alone. We will work closely with partners across the public, private and voluntary sectors. I hope that we will all engage in this effort and encourage people from voluntary organisations to engage in it as well.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, also asked me what evidence should be required. We dropped the requirement for a signature on the grounds that a date of birth and a national insurance number would be adequate in themselves. We propose to require these to enable online registration. We hope that people will gradually move forward with the technological change. I was struck by the DWP evidence about the speed at which people are moving to interact with the state online. Within the next five to 10 years, the overwhelming majority of people, including those of our generation, will be likely to interact with the state online. That is why we are moving in this direction and why it is proper to take in this Bill a power to suspend the annual canvass at some point in the future, as has been done in Northern Ireland, when it seems that the number of people dealing with registration online has reached an appropriate level.
The noble and learned Lord also asked me questions about the budget of the high-level implementation plan. I am sorry that he did not pick up from my opening speech that there is £108 million allocated over the spending review period. We are also making excellent progress in developing IT and we are pleased by the engagement of electoral registration officers of the Association of Electoral Administrators—
Although I am very encouraged to hear about the excellent progress being made, perhaps it would be possible to write and say precisely where we have got to because it is not easy to make an assessment when things are going fabulously. One needs a little more detail, if that is possible. I accept that it may not be for now.
I was just coming to the further detail. Perhaps I may issue a personal invitation. A number of parliamentarians have already seen a demonstration of the website that is to be used for registration. I am happy to offer a further demonstration of the prototype if any noble Lord, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, would like to see it. Progress is being made, but it is being tested as we move forward.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and others suggested that the data-matching pilot had not yet been evaluated. The Electoral Commission and the Cabinet Office have evaluated the pilots undertaken so far. A further exercise is taking place this year, and that will be evaluated over the next few months. The first pilots were very valuable in testing the usefulness of data matching and what is required to share and match data effectively. The evidence suggests that we can simplify the transition for existing electors by using data matching to confirm their details as accurate. As I have already explained, it produces a floor of around two-thirds of people, which enables us to concentrate our efforts on the remaining third to make sure that we get them back on the register as well. Later this year we will run a second set of pilots to confirm the conclusions of the first round and to refine the process of matching data.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, suggested that we should use data mining on private databases as well. I have to say that we would begin to get into issues of privacy and access to data if we were to go too far in that direction. As I have been learning about this process—and in regard to the census—I can hear Liberty and some other groups at my back as they begin to worry about it, so there are questions of privacy. However, we are speaking to organisations that hold potentially useful data, including the credit reference agencies, to establish the most useful data for the purposes of finding people who are not registered.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, asked about the publicity campaign. That will be the responsibility of the Electoral Commission, which of course will play a major role in the entire process. I do not accept the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that there is an apparent downgrading of the role of the Electoral Commission. Perhaps we can discuss that further before the Committee stage, but if it is a concern then clearly we need to meet it. I anticipated the question about risk registers. The Government do not publish risk registers, and we can return to the point at a later stage.
I was asked why we are abolishing the annual canvass. I again suggest that we have no intention of abolishing it until we are sure that we are getting sufficiently good results by other means.
It may be that the other House thinks that it needs an affirmative resolution. It is a very good point that we can of course discuss in Committee, but it certainly does not need primary legislation. As the noble Baroness knows, it has been carried through in Northern Ireland and it appears to have been successful there.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, asked about whether there would be a single level for the civil penalty. We intend to reach a single level within the spectrum, but we are consulting with various interested parties on what they think the appropriate level should be. Perhaps the noble Baroness would like to put down an amendment suggesting that we adopt the Finnish system, which is that the appropriate level should be a percentage of a person’s declared income for the year. That is how the Finns impose traffic and parking fines, but that is not our intention at the moment.
I regret to say that that might be of declining utility. One of the things I have learnt while looking at data sets is that the number of young people who are registering as drivers is declining. It is a good thing for those of us who think that public transport is much more important in the cities, but fewer young people are learning to drive and getting driving licences, which is why that data set is not quite as useful as we thought.
My noble friend Lord Norton asked why the Government were taking in Clause 21 a power to repeal the establishment of a co-ordinated online record of elections. As we have said before, the costs of building and running the record seem to us to be disproportionate when weighed against its potential benefits. He also asked about the edited register, to which we will clearly return in Committee. The edited register is much beloved of charities and voluntary organisations. Now that I have to speak for the Cabinet Office, I have learnt that the lobbies in the charities sector are as determined and uncompromising as the lobbies in any other sector. They are very strong on maintaining the edited register, but the Government are committed to maximising registration rates, although we recognise that there are a number of issues about the names that appear. Perhaps that is another question for discussion in Committee.
That is a very good question to which I do not have the answer, so I will write to the noble Lord about it. I suspect that there is a multitude of reasons. Of course, some people have good reasons for not being on the register, including people in witness protection programmes and some celebrities. A range of issues can be cited, and there are others who are simply moving around too quickly, are not interested or who do not want to have contact with the state.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, queried the phrase,
“as far as is reasonably practicable”.
It is intended to refer to the completeness of the register, which comes back to the point that we do not expect electoral registers to be able to be 100% complete, but we want them to do their utmost to get as far as they can.
I thank the noble Lord, but that is not the interpretation that is being put on it by the Electoral Commission. It has raised this as an issue that needs to be looked at. Perhaps I could pass the information on because it might be of help.
I have read the note from the Electoral Commission on this.
The question of overseas electors will be raised. I had a conversation off the Floor of the House with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in which we agreed that we are both being lobbied heavily by our local party organisations from Brussels and Luxembourg on this issue. The Government do not have any plans at the present moment to lengthen the period from leaving the country beyond 15 years, nor do we have any really ambitious plans to do what is done in some other countries, which is to allow voting in embassies and consulates. However, the longer electoral period will help.
I hope that that covers many of the questions which have been raised—
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. I understand from the Companion that the time is now up. However, I did ask quite a large number of very specific and detailed questions, most of which derived from the impact statement published by the Cabinet Office. The Minister has not even referred to them. If there is no time now, I would be grateful if he could write to me with detailed answers to those questions. Also, he told me at the beginning of his speech that he would deal with the particular problem of the impact of any fall in registration on the boundary reviews. Perhaps he might be able to squeeze in a few seconds on that.
We will return to many of these issues in Committee. We have taken on board everything that has been said in the debate. We are confident that by going through the transition process and learning from the Northern Irish experience, we will come out with a register that is at least as complete as it is at the moment, and more accurate. Let us all recognise that we are operating against a decline in the completeness of the register over the past 10 to 20 years and that, first, we have to stem that decline. If we were to continue with household registration, it is likely that it would decline further. If we can work to reverse that decline and bring about a transition by which we will catch those who move around rapidly such as students and young people, we will have done extremely well.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 8.07 pm.