Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 5th Report from the Constitution Committee, 6th and 8th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee.
25: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
“Representation of the People Act 1985 (Amendment)
(1) The Representation of the People Act 1985 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 1 (extension of parliamentary franchise) omit subsections (3)(c) and (4)(a).
(3) In section 3 (extension of franchise for European Parliamentary elections) omit subsections (3)(c) and (4)(a).”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 25, I shall speak also to the other amendments in the group, which are all in my name. My principal purpose is to draw attention to a grave injustice that afflicts large numbers of our fellow countrymen and women living overseas and is keenly felt by many of them. Amendment 25 would sweep away entirely the existing severe restriction on their right to vote in our elections—a right that so many of them wish to exercise freely and without interruption while they reside in other countries—no matter how long their residence abroad may last. Surely Parliament should regard it as a duty to make full, principled provision to enable all our fellow countrymen and women living in other countries to take part in our elections if they wish, rather than just some of them, as is the case under the current, arbitrarily devised rules for British subjects overseas.
According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, some 5.6 million British citizens are now living in other countries, of whom around 4.4 million are of voting age. During their first 15 years after leaving Britain, they are eligible to register for, and vote in, our elections. Thereafter, these rights are confined to members of the Armed Forces, civil servants, employees of the British Council and employees of charities registered in the United Kingdom. For everyone else, the shutters come down firmly after 15 years. Those who have been registered under the 15-year rule can expect to receive a cold, terse letter from their registration officer in Britain, informing them that their rights to register and vote are at an end. Some of these letters may be better than others; perhaps I am a little prejudiced, having recently seen a scrappy communication from the electoral registration officer of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which contained a number of mistakes and addressed the recipient by her first name, getting that wrong too.
The loss of the right to vote can cause not inconsiderable distress. I have a great deal of correspondence on the matter. One lady in her late 70s wrote that, “Even though I expected it, when I received a letter from Corby Borough Council in November 2010 telling me I was no longer eligible to register as an overseas voter, I was devastated and still am. Since reaching voting age way back in the 1950s, I have never, ever not exercised my democratic right to vote. But now I have been disenfranchised”. However, at the same time, the right to vote under the present restricted arrangements has not been widely claimed. The most recent figures, produced by the Office for National Statistics at the end of 2011, show that only 23,388 British citizens living overseas were registered to vote here. That extraordinarily low number should be prominently in our minds as we debate this important legislation, whose object is to produce a better, more accurate system of registration which gathers in those who are eligible to vote as fully as possible. It is undoubtedly true that the number of overseas voters under the current 15-year rule would be considerably higher if the process of registration and voting were simplified and streamlined. That is what the last three amendments in this group are designed to achieve.
The fundamental issue at stake here is the complete exclusion of so many British citizens living abroad for more than 15 years from the right to vote here. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, 55% of those who moved abroad in 2008 did so for work-related reasons, 25% for study and 20% for life in retirement. With an ageing population, and increased opportunities for work and study abroad, people are likely to continue to leave the United Kingdom in substantial numbers. Many of them will reside abroad for more than 15 years. In the countries to which they move, voting rights rest overwhelmingly on nationality, not residence. Apart from some nine Commonwealth countries—mainly islands in the West Indies—I understand that no state permits British citizens to vote in its principal national elections. They therefore exist in an electoral limbo.
Our existing law, restricting to 15 years the right of British subjects abroad to vote in our elections, is open to serious objection on the grounds that it does not conform with the requirements of international law on human rights. A much publicised case is winding its way through the European Court of Human Rights, brought by the redoubtable 91 year-old Second World War veteran and, in his younger days, Labour Party activist, Harry Shindler. As a non-lawyer, I cannot help but feel that he deserves to succeed, simply for showing such guts and determination. It is Harry Shindler’s contention that Britain’s restriction on overseas voting violates his right to choose his place of residence without being disenfranchised. He is invoking Article 3 of the first protocol and Article 14 of the convention itself. In a debate in this House on 2 March 2011, my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill described the various periods of time that have been used since 1985 to restrict overseas voting—first to five years’ absence, then 20 and now 15—as,
“entirely arbitrary and, I dare say, discriminatory in a way that violates Article 14 of the European convention read with Article 3 of the first protocol”.—[Official Report, 2/3/11; col. 1124.]
The judgment of the European Court is eagerly awaited.
I come to the nub of the matter. It is this: where voting rights are concerned, our country today serves its citizens abroad less well than many others. Great democracies, such as the United States, Australia and France, confer on their citizens living in other countries a lifetime’s right to vote, and take considerable pains to ensure that the processes of registration and voting are simple and straightforward.
Within the European Union, Britain compares unfavourably with most of its partners. Of the 27 EU members, 22 countries allow their expatriate citizens the right to vote, without any restriction on the period of residence outside the home country. That is apart from Germany, which restricts it to 25 years for expatriates living outside the EU. Just two countries, Denmark and the United Kingdom, restrict the period for voting rights: the UK to 15 years and Denmark to four. In three countries—Cyprus, the Republic of Ireland and Malta—expatriates have no right to vote.
Within the European Union, the United Kingdom comes 23rd out of 27 in terms of the voting rights it allows expatriates. Is that where we really wish to be, at a time when there is a marked international trend—not only confined to the developed world—towards wide, unrestricting voting rights for expatriates? Why, for example, should British expatriates living in Spain lose their right to vote here after 15 years, when Spanish citizens happily established in the United Kingdom retain the right to vote in perpetuity in Spanish elections? The Deputy Prime Minister’s wife finds herself in that satisfactory position. Mr Clegg, however, seems strangely reluctant to champion the interest of his fellow citizens living in Spain.
The world has become much smaller. Britons overseas can listen to our radio via their computer, they can watch British television and read British newspapers just as rapidly as anyone living here, if they subscribe to them electronically. I make a confident prediction that this debate in our House today will attract one of the largest television online audiences abroad that your Lordships have had. I have met many British overseas residents who are as well, if not better, informed about British political affairs than the average voter here. So the old argument about expatriates’ inability to make an informed judgment about the great issues in our political life no longer holds.
At the same time, the contribution that expatriates make to our economy becomes ever greater—for example, those working for overseas affiliates or for foreign companies with bases in the United Kingdom where profits are taxed. Is it right for us to say to these people: “Yes, please go and work overseas, but of course you will not be able to vote after 15 years”? Should we say this to our fellow countrymen and women who are studying in other countries or to those who have retired from a lifetime of working for, or service to, our nation, receiving pensions which are taxed in Britain and affected by laws made here?
We should acknowledge and rejoice in the pride and deep interest which so many of our fellow British subjects take in the nation to which they belong. I have heard from a vast number of people living abroad since I gave notice last July that I would table this amendment. All have stressed the strength of the ties that continue to unite them to their country. In this connection, I have been inundated with offers to inspect tax returns, pension payment slips, deeds of property and returns—not very high at the moment—on investment savings in Britain.
The essence of the matter was well expressed in 2009 by Jenny Watson, the head of the Electoral Commission. She said:
“British citizens living abroad come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but we know that most maintain strong links with the UK. It is easier than ever before for British citizens abroad to keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues back home and many will also want to have their say in elections”.
Any time limit is inherently flawed because there is no definitive way of deciding what the limit should be. Any limit that may be set has to be arbitrary and so is inevitably unjust. That is why our 15-year limit should go, as Amendment 25 proposes.
Amendment 26 requires no more than a few words. It is designed to provide the Government with an alternative to the immediate abolition of the 15-year rule. In the various statements that members of the Government have made on this subject, there has been no hint that immediate reform is likely. Though sympathetic to the case for change, they say that the matter requires further consideration. I hope that my noble friend will be able to tell the House today that the Government have now been persuaded by the arguments in favour of swift action, but I recognise that, sadly, he may not. Amendment 26 provides the acceptance of the need for change in principle and for the creation of a framework through which change could be introduced by secondary legislation in due course.
The remaining three amendments seek to improve the processes for registration and voting for our fellow countrymen and women overseas. At present, those who wish to remain on the electoral register must go through the protracted process of reregistering every year, after having to get their initial applications countersigned by another, unrelated British citizen not resident in the United Kingdom, even though a passport number provides positive identification of them. The requirements deter many from registering. The annual repetition of the whole process is widely felt to be unnecessary. It seems that the forms are rarely, if ever, checked. It must make sense to consider extending the period of validity of each registration of an overseas voter until the day following the date of the next general election. That is what Amendment 27 would do. There would be negligible risk of fraud because overseas electors are positively identifiable by means of their British passport number. Extending the period of registration should result in the more complete and accurate registration of overseas voters.
Amendment 28 seeks to ensure that overseas voters benefit as fully as possible from the development of online registration as envisaged by the Bill. Online registration can be expected to become the procedure of choice for British citizens overseas. Here, too, they have the advantage of being positively identifiable by means of a single, uniform identity document, the British passport. All British passports are now issued by the Identity and Passport Service of the Home Office, and from a date due to be announced this year, all applications from British citizens overseas will have to be made via the internet. It should not be unduly difficult to make effective arrangements through the Identity and Passport Service so that online application forms for passports from British citizens overseas include a question asking applicants whether they wish their passport applications to be treated simultaneously as an application for overseas voter registration, and if so, provide their most recent address.
During the 10-year period that passports are valid, their holders may of course move from one place to another. To ensure that they continue to be included on the electoral register, they could be asked to register their change of address on the Foreign Office’s LOCATE database, which is freely available via the internet. Therefore, it should be possible to devise an efficient system for online registration using existing online facilities at minimal extra cost and with the security of the passport.
Finally, Amendment 54 relates to online voting. Extending the electoral timetable for our parliamentary elections from 17 to 25 working days should make it much easier for British citizens overseas to be able to vote by post. However, the use of online methods could improve voter turnout further, as last year’s French elections indicated so clearly. In the French elections, there were just over 1 million registered overseas voters out of a total French population resident abroad of some 2.2 million. Around 700,000 of France’s overseas electors chose to vote via the internet; 300,000 voted in person or by proxy, using 800 polling stations outside France; some 70,000 voted by post. Clearly, online voting, which was offered for the first time in those elections, would seem to be the way of the future. Surely a similar system could be devised for British citizens overseas or, alternatively, a simpler e-mail-out/post-back system akin to that used by American citizens overseas, which was seen in action successfully last autumn.
I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for adding his name to Amendment 25. I beg to move.
My Lords, we are all grateful for the opportunity given to us by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, to address this subject this afternoon. I am also grateful to the clerks, because the letter from Simon Burton about the next set of amendments to come before us said:
“The bill has only two purposes—individual electoral voter registration and the administration and conduct of elections”.
I find it difficult to see how either rubric fits the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. However, the clerks have assured me that it is in order. I look forward to studying their explanation of why this is so this evening, and I am glad that we are debating this amendment this afternoon. I also hope we shall debate the next amendment. I shall be relatively brief, but some of the arguments that have been put should be answered.
At the moment, expats keep the vote for 15 years and then, except for the military and those enumerated, lose it. The aim of this amendment is to extend that period.
Who are these people? There is a huge range of them: some are abroad because they are working abroad long term; others moved abroad to be with their friends and relations; others for the warm climate, or perhaps in a few cases for the cheap gin and tonics; and a few are tax exiles. However, of those who speak to us, I do not doubt their sincerity in wanting to keep voting. I remember in particular the firm lobbying of members of the Brussels Labour group, who wanted the vote to express their Labour and pro-European sympathies.
There is, however, one less obviously desirable reason why they are lobbying for the vote. There is a very well organised lobby which objects to the fact that, broadly, outside Europe British pensions are frozen. Expats in receipt of pensions reasonably think that, if they had representation in Parliament—if they had a vote for MPs—they would be more likely to get this changed. This is entirely understandable. However, we must understand that conceding this would not be favourable to the British taxpayer. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, when he was the Minister responsible in 2005, estimated the cost at £3 billion, which is more than enough to pay for the total cost of the recommendations of the Dilnot report, which would do so much for elderly people living here.
How much do they want the vote? As I said, there is a very strong lobby, but a fact that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, mentioned makes me a little sceptical. There are estimated to be some 5.5 million Britons of voting age living abroad but in 2011 only 23,388 of those registered to vote—under 0.5%. If the people who have left only quite recently are not bothering to register, how many of the people who have been gone for 15 years or more are clamouring at the door for us to concede it?
This debate is not the first time that Parliament has examined this matter; there was a Question for Short Debate in this House. However, the main document referring to it is a 1998 report from the Commons Home Affairs Committee. That was some time ago, but the argument has not changed much since. Far from recommending an increase, that committee recommended that the period should be reduced to five years. It has not been put into effect but that was its recommendation.
I looked at the evidence put forward to that committee. I want to put the case as it was put to the committee by Professor Robin Blackburn, one of our foremost constitutional experts. He spoke of the absurdity of extending the franchise so that,
“an expatriate living hundreds or thousands of miles away, for the duration of a period exceeding a whole generation, carrying memories of British politics in the past and with little or no personal knowledge of contemporary issues in the constituency where he or she used to live, can influence the election of the government of a country to which he is not subject and to whom he or she may be paying no taxes”.
In a nutshell, you cannot have representation without taxation. I rest my case.
My Lords, I listened carefully to the eloquent case made by my noble friend Lord Lexden, but I want to speak briefly as a former Member of the House of Commons and one who was devoted to his Cornish constituents.
One of the benefits of the single-Member constituency system that we have is that it provides a very special local link between each area and one Member of Parliament. I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Lorton of Louth, speak eloquently in support of that principle, so I am surprised to see him endorse this amendment in its current form. It is true that the countries in the European Union that my noble friend Lord Lexden cited all have different electoral systems; they do not have the same direct link with the individual constituency as we have. I want to put the debate about overseas electors in that context.
If an MP’s primary role is to represent his or her area, and the constituents within it at that time, how does that square with a proposal which would see him or her representing people who live perhaps thousands of miles away in a very different economic and social context? And should we really equate in value the vote of someone who has departed—some would say deserted—this country for 15 years or more in favour of the Spanish sunshine with that of a British soldier currently serving his country in Afghanistan? That would be the effect of the amendment.
In 2020, it will be 15 years since I retired from the other place—in that respect, I sort of left North Cornwall then. It is surely beyond the limit of what is reasonable to ask my excellent successor in North Cornwall to represent after 2020 people who left that constituency as long ago as I did.
I accept, as my noble friend said, that there is some validity in the notional principle here about taxation without representation. In that connection, perhaps we should look at the system used for French national elections, to which reference was made, where representatives of a number of special “overseas” constituencies are elected in national elections by French voters who live abroad but who still somehow have a stake in French society. If more than 76,000 electors registered for such a constituency, it would justify under the previous legislation that we passed in your Lordships’ House having that separate constituency, but we are not in that position. However, that would be much less arbitrary than marrying people in perpetuity to an area with which they have had no direct connection for more than 15 years.
It has been asked whether there should be taxation without representation. Well, perhaps we should also think about representation without taxation. Why should someone who has lived on the Costa del Sol for the past 15 years still vote by post in local elections and therefore influence the local level of council tax in Cornwall for residents of Coads Green or Crantock in my former constituency?
Those of my overseas friends who have urged this change may come to regret raising this issue; they should be careful what they wish for. If all those overseas who have retained the right to vote in the United Kingdom in recent years now find themselves having to pay council tax, higher VAT or fuel tax, or even additional taxes imposed by the devolved Assemblies, the proposers of these amendments may not be as popular as they apparently are with overseas voters at the moment.
Meanwhile, I am particularly alarmed by the proposal under Amendment 54 in the name of my noble friend Lord Lexden for overseas citizens to be able to vote online. While that same convenience is not afforded to our own fellow citizens in this country at the moment, it would seem extraordinary to extend it to those people. As we know from previous experiments, there are real problems about that proposal anyway, quite apart from its unfairness, because it could raise a major risk of fraud.
For those practical reasons, we on these Benches ask my noble friend the Leader of the House and other Ministers to take the problem of taxation without representation seriously, of course, but also to find a solution which is less invidious and which properly recognises that our current system of single-Member constituencies makes it extremely unfair to introduce this particular proposal in this form.
My Lords, as one would expect, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, made a cogent and well researched point in favour of effectively extending the timeframe not only beyond 15 years but perhaps indefinitely, so long as one can still claim British citizenship. Therein lie various practical problems, which I will come to in a moment.
My noble friend Lord Lipsey said that of the 5.6 million overseas voters only 23,000 currently take advantage of that, which suggests that the demand is not very great. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made the point about the key principle in our country of representing a constituency and those who live within it. We await with interest the result of the determination of the European Court of Human Rights, but I recall discussing this problem with a representative from the country in the European Union which is probably the closest to us—that is, the Republic of Ireland. A friend who was a Senator from Ireland said, “Well, think of all the Irish people who are overseas, the Irish diaspora. If we were to give a vote to them all, there would probably be a Sinn Fein Government in Ireland”. That is the point he was making.
Clearly the intention is obvious—to extend the vote to as many overseas British citizens as possible. I shall be brief because there is an important debate to follow, but there are clearly technical problems and grounds of principle that make one feel very cautious about this proposal. The potential numbers have been mentioned, particularly as more people travel and work overseas. There may be British citizens in Australia, Pakistan, Canada, Bangladesh and of course in all the European Union countries. There is a great range of countries and it will be very difficult to check adequately the bona fides of those who claim citizenship and claim to be eligible to vote. How do we prevent fraud? Those problems will be formidable and there will be also be a great problem in checking whether people are still alive after their last declaration.
On the grounds of principle, I recall the debate in the other place in 1985 when there was a package of proposals. I concede that the length of time is arbitrary but there was a consensus result at that time. Now of course the numbers are very much greater and we have, as has been cited, the reverse of the Boston Tea Party—that is, representation without taxation. We cannot extend that totally because many of the British citizens living overseas will be eligible for British pensions and therefore they have some stake in this country. Perhaps it would be better to say “representation without a substantial stake in this country”? Everyone who is resident in the UK has that substantial stake and those who live for perhaps a very extended period overseas increasingly lose sight of this country and lose sight of any stake they may have in it. Therefore, their stakeholding in this country becomes less and less serious. I will not go any further save to say that in my judgment there are considerable technical problems in the proposal and there are also major obstacles of principle.
My Lords, I intervene having heard the three previous speeches. First, to listen to a strong advocate of almost any electoral system except the first-past-the-post, single constituency arrangement, fight for this proposal was a surprise, particularly as the noble Lord will go on to support a misuse of the electoral system to ensure that we have an unfair electoral system for even longer. That is a peculiar case to put forward.
Then we heard the internationalist party explain how people who lived abroad might not understand what was happening in Britain. Sometimes I think that a number of people living abroad understand rather more clearly what is happening in Britain than some of those here who do not appear to follow the newspapers or the media very closely.
Then we heard the definition of how people voted. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that those of us who have been elected to the Houses of Parliament know that the reasons why people in this country vote and the logic on which they make their decisions, people who have never travelled abroad, certainly would not meet the conditions which he put forward as reasonable conditions for anyone who is voting.
Then there was the argument that because we might find that people who are at the moment, in their view, penalised because pensions for which they have paid out of taxation and national insurance are, because of their particular place of residence, refused, that they might vote in a different way than that which the Government might like, that evidently is a reason to deny them the vote. That is the argument of totalitarian regimes down history. That is why people did not want the extension of the franchise in Britain. People said, “My goodness, if those who are at the moment misused are given the vote, they might object to that”. I find that an odd argument to come from any part of the House, but to hear it from the party opposite, which is about to say that some voters in this country are to have a bigger vote and more say for a longer time than would otherwise have been the case, seems to me to be an affront.
Although I have no particular view on this—I think that roughly speaking, what we have is perfectly reasonable—I hope that this House will take seriously the fact that we have now heard three speeches designed to say that people should not vote if by their voting they might do something which was inconvenient for noble Lords on either side and should therefore be refused the vote. That is precisely the debate that noble Lords are about to have, which is to say that because a particular reform proposed in this House today would give people a fairer vote but thereby might give a different result, we should not change the voting system to accommodate them. That is an attitude to democracy about which we should be ashamed. Our decision should be on what is fair, what is equal and what is reasonable. I happen to think that the present rules about 15 years more or less meet that, but the three speeches that we have heard show that some people are prepared to use the system to get a particular result rather than seeking to have a system in which the result is the decision of the public.
I address myself briefly to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, with which I largely agree. I think that the criterion should be that it is fair and reasonable. Incidentally, I do not think that taxation is an issue here; taxation has never been a criterion for voting in this country and it is not now. It seems to me that what is, to use the noble Lord’s phrase, fair and reasonable, is that those who have chosen in a significant way to sever their relationship with this country should, after a certain period, lose their right to have a say in the affairs of this country. What that period of time should be is a matter for judgment. Like the noble Lord, Lord Deben, I think that 15 years is about right.
However, I want briefly to raise one significant issue that I would be grateful if the Minister would address in his response to the amendments. There is one important group of expatriates who deserve special consideration—those British citizens who have chosen to dedicate their lives to the service of large and small international organisations, such as the United Nations. There seems to be an anomaly there. These are people who have chosen to give their lives to public service which takes them all over the world, doing a job which serves this country and the rest of the world very well for the most part. It seems to me that there is a case for making a special exemption for those groups of people. There are lots of practical problems with that. Defining the kinds of international organisations which can be brought within the scope of such an exemption is difficult and problematic. In the past the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has championed the cause of such expatriates. However, there is a case for that group of British citizens to be considered separately, and I would be grateful if the Minister could address that in his response.
My Lords, I will assume it is a case of leaving the best till last. I very much agree with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, has just made. I have raised the issue before about people in that very situation.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about the Long Title, the Long Title is that this is a Bill,
“to make provision about the registration of electors and the administration and conduct of elections”.
I would have thought that amendments about the registration of electors fall quite clearly within the subject matter of the Bill—unlike, I think, what is to follow.
I have added my name to Amendment 25, as my noble friend Lord Lexden mentioned, but I also support the amendments that he has brought forward. My noble friend’s amendments raise an important issue of principle. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, was raising matters of practice, but there is a fundamental principle. It is perfectly clear that some British citizens live abroad because they wish to do so. Some live abroad because they consider that they have to do so. Most emigrants from these shores move abroad, as my noble friend said, for work-related purposes. Some will be working for British firms; some will be teaching English; some will be paying taxes in the UK.
The important point is that they are and remain British citizens. So long as they remain British citizens, I see no reason why they should be disenfranchised. If they no longer feel any connection with the United Kingdom then it is open to them to seek the citizenship of the nation in which they reside. The fact that they chose to remain British citizens should not be dismissed but rather regarded as an asset for this country. British citizens are often important ambassadors for the United Kingdom. Just as overseas students in this country return home with British degrees and serve arguably as the most important source of British influence abroad, British expatriates are a notable source of British influence around the globe. Rather than discouraging our own citizens, and indeed overseas students, we should be treating them as an important resource in maintaining our influence on a global scale.
The principle is one that appears to be accepted by other EU member states. We are, as my noble friend has said, in a somewhat anomalous position. The largest number of British citizens who live in a non-English-speaking state reside in Spain, with the second largest number in France. Neither of those states disenfranchises its citizens who live abroad in the way that we disenfranchise ours. The link with constituencies is not particularly relevant in terms of the fundamental principle involved. Other nations, such as the United States, do not disenfranchise their citizens either and I see no reason why we should disenfranchise ours.
Like my noble friend, I have been struck by the number of British citizens presently living abroad who have been in contact to make the case for ending this anomaly. The fact that they feel intensely about the subject reflects their commitment to this country. They are not seeking any material benefit through this route—they are clearly proud to be British citizens and wish to retain the intrinsic feature of citizenship in the form of the franchise. At a time when we are having difficulty persuading many of our citizens at home to vote, it seems inappropriate to prevent citizens who do wish to vote from doing so.
My noble friend’s amendments therefore address an important issue, but they do so in a modest and ingenious manner. They are modest in relation to the principle and ingenious in relation to the practical problems involved. The Minister may claim that we need more time to reflect on the principle and that we should not rush to abolish the 15-year limit. My noble friend’s amendments would not abolish the limit but would rather allow the Secretary of State to introduce an order to extend the time period. There is thus time to reflect and build a consensus in order to extend the period.
There are practical problems, as no doubt the Minister will emphasise, in the process of registering British nationals who live abroad. My noble friend’s amendments seek to address those problems. The Minister may argue that they are not adequate, in which case, if the principle is conceded, the onus rests on the Government to come forward with proposals of their own. It is thus incumbent on the Minister to address the principle and explain why British nationals living abroad are treated less favourably than the citizens of other EU nations living abroad, and why we seem unwilling to acknowledge what constitutes a great British resource. We should not be encouraging EU nationals to desert their commitment to the United Kingdom but should rather be acknowledging that commitment. I hope therefore that the House will support my noble friend’s amendments.
My Lords, I support my noble friend’s amendments. I have lived as an expatriate and, unless you happen to have parents resident where you want to register to vote, it is extremely difficult to get registered, particularly if people are busy with whatever their careers are.
My particular point is this: in most places, you are not entitled to vote in national elections wherever it is that you are living abroad. If such individuals cannot vote in the country of their nationality or in the country where they live, which is indeed the case with this country, then effectively you are denying them any major political vote whatever. No one seems to be concerned about that, but it is an unreasonable thing to do.
I was rather proud that in the most recent French elections London was, I think, the seventh largest-voting French city of the French electorate, as a result of so many French citizens living in London. Clearly there would have to be changes in the way that representation deals with expatriates if we were to adopt permanent voting by passport-retaining British expatriates, and the concept of the local constituency where they might have lived 10 or 20 years before does not work particularly well, but I suggest that for once it is worth while looking at how France runs its affairs because it deals rather more fairly with its expatriates than we do.
My Lords, my noble friend who moved this amendment is a historian, and I wish to add a historical footnote as well as to pay tribute to the chivalry of others involved in the exercise. In the late 1980s there was considerable embarrassment and concern that the amount of money being spent on parliamentary by-elections greatly exceeded the amount that agents, in signing for those expenses at the end of the election, were themselves putting down. It was a risk being run entirely by the agents, and all parties were involved in the problem.
I suggested to my noble friend Lord Hurd, who by coincidence I am sitting next to at the moment although I have not mentioned this to him, that it would be sensible if we managed to pass legislation briskly to correct this problem. He sensibly advised me that the only way in which that could be done would be if I could reach agreement with other parties, and it was sensible that that should occur. He referred me to the shadow Home Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, who referred the matter to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, who had some responsibility within the Labour Party for these matters. She and I had a meeting; we agreed that it was a problem and that, were we to recommend legislation to our respective Home Office Ministers and if there would not be a problem in getting it through the House promptly, then it was worth doing. We also determined that the same legislation should in fact increase the number of years from five to 20, and that was agreed between the noble Baroness and me.
I say that this is a matter of chivalry because she and I reached in private extremely rapid decisions on the matter that then went through the House of Commons in less than a month. I simply say that everyone has been involved in this story quite deeply in the past.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. I realise that a lot of people here are actually waiting for the main event; we are perhaps just the warm-up for that. As has been said, these amendments would, in effect, extend representation without taxation. They would allow people who do not, on the whole, pay council tax, income tax, value added tax or, presumably, any death duties here to continue nevertheless to elect people who decide on the level of those taxes. We also have to remember that this is not just about taxation; it is also about expenditure and these non-residents do not school their children here, use our health service, drive on our motorways or live day-to-day under our laws. Nevertheless, the amendments would give them the right to continue to elect the politicians who run our health and education services and who decide on our drink-driving laws, speeding laws and a myriad of other laws under which the rest of us live.
We supported a period of 15 years, by which people—basically those who tended to move away to study or work for quite long periods—were likely to return. We agreed that they should retain their democratic links here by retaining their votes. However, these amendments are largely about those who have left these shores for ever and do not participate in our civil life; they simply keep a UK passport. It is difficult to understand why they should continue to elect a Government under whom the rest of us pay our taxes and live with the consequences of our votes. Those people do not live with the consequences of theirs.
There is another major issue that needs to be considered. Should these amendments be agreed, these people would also be able to make donations to our political parties—a form of overseas subsidy that I thought we had outlawed. Section 54 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 allows UK nationals who permanently live abroad to remain on the electoral register for 15 years. By being on the electoral register, they are also categorised as permissible donors to a political party.
Following the controversy in 2007-08 around donations—in that case to the Conservative Party—the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 was passed. Section 10 prohibits a registered party accepting a donation from UK nationals living abroad and on the electoral register if it is more than £7,500 in any 12-month period unless they become resident in the UK and pay UK income tax. That Act also requires such donors to make a written declaration to the Electoral Commission as to whether they satisfy the rules. However, this section of the Act has yet to be commenced; it comes into force on a date to be decided by the Secretary of State under a statutory instrument. The Government have indicated that they do not intend to commence this part of the 2009 Act, which means that those living abroad can continue to give any sum that they like as permitted donors.
These amendments would therefore permit all UK nationals permanently living abroad to give unlimited donations to our political parties. I cannot believe that this House would support that. The Electoral Commission has confirmed to me that the test of whether individuals are permissible donors is whether they are on the electoral register, and that includes overseas electors. Therefore, if overseas electors were to be able to stay on the register for longer than 15 years, they would remain permissible donors for as long as they lived and as long as their money held out.
There are practical issues. The Bill that the Committee is discussing will, if we fail to change it, mean that quite a few people who live in this country are going to fall off the electoral register. It seems extraordinary that we should not be turning our attention to those people, rather than adding to the register those who have long since ceased to live here.
This Bill is important; it is about moving to individual registration, but the only registration for those abroad at the moment is, as has been said, that they have a passport and get someone to certify that they are still alive. Here, those who do not have to go through all this may not realise that there will be all sorts of data matching and checks on their NI, and such issues. It would seem extraordinary if those living abroad could get on the electoral register easier than others.
It is hard to see why those who have left these shores for ever and do not pay tax but simply remember their old address and maintain a passport should continue to elect our Government. As of this moment, we have heard no compelling arguments to support these amendments.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for this wide-ranging debate. The amendments in this group seek to remove the 15-year qualifying period for overseas electors and enable the Secretary of State to remove or extend the qualifying period via secondary legislation. Amendments in this group also seek to extend the 12-month registration period for overseas electors and to enable overseas electors to register and vote online.
I know that my noble friend Lord Lexden feels strongly about these matters, and I am well aware of the continuing loyalty to the United Kingdom of so many who have lived and worked overseas for many years. Indeed, this was echoed by my noble friend Lord Norton.
The current 15-year time limit on overseas voting rights, which Amendment 25 seeks to remove, was approved by an earlier Parliament. Whether the time limit remains appropriate is a wider question, which remains under consideration within government. I refer to what the noble Lord, Lord Wills, said about overseas employees. British Council employees, for instance, already have that continuing right, as well as other sectors. Therefore, his point will be part of that continuing consideration. There are valid arguments on both sides which need to be carefully considered alongside any practical issues before any informed decisions can be taken.
In the mean time, we have already taken steps in this Bill to improve the overseas voting process. The proposals we are introducing to extend the electoral timetable for UK parliamentary elections will facilitate greater voter participation. As part of the move to individual electoral registration, I am happy to announce that we also plan to remove the requirement for a person’s initial application as an overseas elector to be attested by another British citizen who is resident abroad. This change will simplify the registration process for electors living overseas.
Moving to Amendment 26, we believe that the franchise for UK elections should remain set out in primary legislation. It would be very unusual to provide for a change to the franchise in secondary legislation. Proposals regarding the franchise are important matters which should always be considered by Parliament before they become law.
Regarding Amendment 27, it is important that overseas electors update their registration and verify their details each year along the same lines as UK electors. This helps to ensure that postal ballots are despatched to the correct address whenever an election is held and enables the electoral registration officer to verify that an overseas elector’s 15-year qualifying period has not elapsed. Allowing overseas electors to remain registered until after the next general election would lead to inaccuracies in the register and open up avenues for others potentially to use fraudulently another person’s registration or to vote despite being ineligible.
Amendment 28 would compel local authorities to provide an online facility for overseas electors to make the declarations necessary to register to vote. Providing a full online facility for applications to be made that is similar to the domestic system that we are creating could prove to be very expensive relative to the number of people who are registered overseas, largely due to the necessary security against fraud that would need to be built in. We have, however, not ruled this out in the medium term and intend to see how much uptake there is of the domestic online system before making a decision.
While I support the sentiment behind Amendment 54 —that steps should be taken to enable those based overseas to participate effectively in elections—I do not think a provision to vote online is the best way to facilitate participation for this group. As noble Lords are aware, electronic voting is not in use at any statutory elections or referendums in the UK. It was piloted and considered by the previous Government and in some other countries but it has not been pursued in the absence of evidence of improved turnout and because of concerns about security.
The Government are assisting overseas voters to receive and return postal ballot packs. The extension to the electoral timetable from 17 to 25 working days will benefit overseas voters. Given the measures already undertaken to assist postal voting, the proposals to simplify registration and the ongoing consideration of the 15-year limit on overseas registration, I ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, we have had a useful and productive debate on an issue of international as well as national importance. I am grateful to all those who have taken part and illuminated various aspects of the issue. At the centre stands the principle, so clearly stated by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, that British overseas citizens who want to take part in our elections, reflecting their enduring commitment to our country, should be entitled to do so, particularly since they are disenfranchised in the countries where they live. Voting should rest on nationality not on residence or anything else.
I listened with particular care to the Minister’s speech and noted one or two encouraging points. Overall, however, I listened with some disappointment. I shall read his comments in full and reflect on them further. For now, my Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 25 withdrawn.
Amendments 26 to 28 not moved.
28A: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
“Amendment of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011
In section 10 of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, in subsection (3), leave out from “(a)” to “and” and insert “not before 1st October 2018”.”
My Lords, as I think everyone already knows, I have received advice from the Public Bill Office that Amendment 28A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, is inadmissible because it is not relevant to the Bill. It is therefore my duty, under paragraph 8.56 of the Companion, to draw the attention of the House to that advice and I readily do so. My noble friend Lord Strathclyde placed a copy of the advice in the Library on 31 October last year and I wrote an open letter to the party and group leaders, attaching the advice, earlier today. That advice from our clerks is clear and unequivocal and, as the Companion requires, I ask the House to endorse it.
It is rare that we find ourselves in this position and I therefore hope it will help for me to explain what happens next. We are, essentially, in the hands of the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton. There is no separate Motion or vote on the question of admissibility. When I sit down, it is for the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, to decide whether to move his amendment in the light of the sense of the House. When my predecessors have been in this position—and that has not been often; just three times since 1999—the amendment has, on each occasion, not been moved. If the noble Lord, Lord Hart, chooses to move his amendment, debate will follow and, no doubt, a Division. That Division will be on both the question of admissibility and on the substance of the amendment. For those of us who want to endorse the Clerk’s advice, the way to do so is to vote “Not Content” at the end of the debate for the sole and sufficient reason that we have been advised that the amendment is not relevant to the Bill and therefore inadmissible, irrespective of the substance of the amendment. Having explained that, I have to say that I regret that we find ourselves in this position at all.
My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford asked a question in an earlier debate on this subject: why could the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, and his supporters not find a way to put their substantive proposal before the House that was consistent with our rules? A Private Member’s Bill could certainly have been drafted and delivered to the Commons between October and today. I very much regret that instead of using the procedurally sound approaches that are available, the noble Lord and other noble Lords who have put their names to the amendment are asking us to set aside our rules, which I suggest is the wrong thing to do.
The last thing I want to say is that for the House to consider this amendment today is the wrong thing to do in principle as well as in particular. The House itself is of course the only authority that can decide on the admissibility of an amendment. The Clerk’s role is to advise, and the House is the arbiter. We are self-regulating. But our system of self-regulation is based on the very few rules which we have set for ourselves in the Companion. It means that only we can enforce our rules; it does not mean that we do not have any. The Companion is clear that on this issue of the admissibility of amendments,
“it is expected that this advice will be taken”—
that is, the advice of the clerks.
It would be unwise for us to get into a situation where we try to change referee when we think that it is expedient. The amendment is not relevant to the Bill because the clerks say so, in accordance with the precedent. It is they and they alone whom we have entrusted with advising us impartially in these circumstances. Over the past week, I have looked at the precedent and, on every occasion that I can find in the files, the House has endorsed the clerks’ advice on the admissibility of an amendment. Although I am relatively new to this House, I care very much for our culture, including the courteous, consensual way that we have of doing our business. I think that it enhances our work, role and reputation as a revising Chamber. That culture depends on our respect for our rules and, on certain very rare occasions, on the professional referee in the form of the clerks. If we choose to set aside the clerks’ advice on this occasion, why not tomorrow? Why not next week?
Today, we are taking a decision that is not just about a particular issue but potentially about the whole way that we work. If the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, moves his amendment, I ask Members around the House this afternoon to set aside their views on the substance of the amendment and to endorse the clerks’ unequivocal advice. It is for the House to decide which is more important for us. I choose the latter and, if it comes to it, I will therefore be voting “Not Content”. This is a difficult moment for the House, but there is someone here who can help us out of our difficulty, and that is the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton. At this last moment, it is still possible for him to rescue us from our difficulty and to say, “Not moved”. I call on him to do so.
My Lords, I should like to make one preliminary point which is to repeat that, in intending moving this amendment, as I do, I intend no disrespect to the clerks, for whom I have great admiration. Of course, I have written to tell them that. However, there is a serious, genuine difference of opinion about admissibility, which I believe should be subject to the view of this self-regulating House.
Accordingly, I rise to move the amendment tabled in my name, and in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, Lord Rennard, and Lord Wigley, whom I thank for their support. The effect of the amendment would be to postpone the review of parliamentary constituency boundaries for one electoral cycle, and similarly delay the reduction in the number of Westminster seats from 650 to 600. It would ensure that the 2015 general election is contested on the basis of current boundaries. It would also provide a window of time to address the current deficiencies in the electoral register and the likely impact on its accuracy and completeness from the introduction of individual electoral registration. As the building block on which boundary reviews are being conducted, the status of the electoral register is fundamental to our system of representative democracy.
The amendment has two principal purposes. The first is to allow time for the new system of electoral registration to bed down and to allow for opportunities to test how far the register is complete and accurate. That is essential, because the register provides the raw data to be used by the Boundary Commissions in determining constituency numbers and, hence, constituency boundaries. The two are inextricably linked, because any inadequacy or flaw in the register feeds inaccurate calculations in terms of seat numbers and their boundaries. It has the potential to be damaging to democracy and to seriously undermine the coalition objective of political renewal and re-engaging with the public.
Throughout the Second Reading of this Bill in both Houses, and from many sides, there have been warnings that the register, whatever its policy, will not be sufficiently complete for its purpose. It is generally accepted that, currently, at least 6 million people eligible to vote are missing from the register. That is around 10,000 people—I am averaging the figures—in each constituency; it equates to a missing 88 Parliamentary seats, based on current averages. This is a serious problem for our democracy which must be put right. However, it is also clear that the changes brought about by the Bill, with the transition to individual electoral registration—for all its merits—will lead to a further large number of voters falling off the register. This would be an additional blow to democracy and to the accuracy of the raw data on which boundary reviews will be based.
Furthermore, the pattern of people who are missing from the register is not random. I have heard no one dispute the fact that among those missing from the register are likely to be the young, the very old, the disabled, those from black and minority ethnic communities, those living in areas of high social deprivation and those in private rented accommodation. Some of those groups are already the most marginalised in society, and the shift to individual voter registration—without the proper safeguards which my noble friends on the Front Bench have been calling for throughout the passage of this Bill—will compound this democratic deficit. It is those groups from which even more will be likely to go missing.
The status of the register—its completeness and its accuracy—is extremely important. The Electoral Commission lists the consequences of a flawed register as being people being unable to vote, or wrongly registered at a polling station which is not in their local area; people not being contacted by candidates and political parties campaigning during elections, or campaigners finding that the people on the register are no longer there; people not being summoned for jury service; increased risks of electoral fraud; and, most important for my argument, people not being counted in setting boundaries.
The move to a system of individual electoral registration is welcome; it is due its time, and enjoys cross-party support. It is recognised that the shift may help to tackle problems of fraud. But it is also recognised that there are risks involved in the transition. As I have said, it is clear that the changes contained in the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill are very likely to mean that an additional large number of voters will fall off the register, at least in the initial transition period. The Electoral Commission warns that the introduction of individual electoral registration risks bringing registration rates down from around 90% to as low as 65%.
By the Government’s own admission:
“Individual Electoral Registration (IER) is the biggest change to our system of electoral registration for almost a century and it is essential we get it right”.
However, preliminary findings from the Government’s data-matching pilots, using DWP data to confirm people’s entries on the electoral register, show a success rate of around 70%. However, looking in more detail at the 14 pilot areas, some returned match rates that were as low as 55%. The Government have judged this to be a good starting level of registration for the transition, but that is a 70% success rate based on a register which we know is already missing 6 million eligible voters. Put shortly, the shift to individual electoral registration risks disenfranchising millions of British electors. My amendment allows time for checking and, if necessary, taking action to put matters right.
My second reason for this amendment is that there is a crisis of uncertainty and confusion in terms of the administration and conduct of the next general election arising from the ongoing but seemingly moribund boundary review. The state of limbo in which that review currently exists is both wasteful of public resources and damaging to democracy. The Deputy Prime Minister has stated repeatedly that the Liberal Democrat Party will not be supporting the boundary review proposals when they come to the other place for voting in the autumn of 2013 and that,
“we are not going to introduce the changes ahead of the general election in 2015”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/10/12; col. 146].
However, the Leader of the Conservative Party, the Prime Minister, has vowed to plough on with the planned timetable for the boundary changes. Reacting to a statement by Mr Clegg in August, the Prime Minister insisted that the boundary change vote would go ahead. The coalition’s mid-term review published last week pledged that:
“We will provide for a vote in the House of Commons on the Boundary Commission’s proposals for changes to constituencies”,
and yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph reported that Mr Cameron remains “absolutely committed” to boundary reforms and is personally determined to press ahead with the policy. This represents a significant confusion at the top of the Government which is damaging to democracy and once again undermines attempts at restoring public trust in our political system.
Certainty is needed now because it is right that the public should know as early as possible which constituency they are in, and therefore who their candidates are to be, and what they are doing and saying. This is a key element of accountability in our democratic system. Under the current proposals, voters might know neither their constituency nor their candidates until a little over a year before the next general election. The connection between an MP and his or her constituents is probably the most important element in a healthy democracy. That connection is being challenged by this impasse. The continuing uncertainty about boundaries is having a chilling effect on selections, planning and the distribution of resources. It is also inevitably going to be a source of concern and distraction for sitting MPs who should otherwise be focusing on their central role of representing the people who elected them.
Achieving a conclusion and stopping the boundary review process now will also save significant amounts of public money being wasted on a process that appears to be doomed. Government figures released at the end of last year show that the Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland and Wales have so far between them spent around £5.8 million on the current review and related purposes, with a further likely expenditure of £3.8 million before the end of the review. So this amendment provides a practical solution to the political difficulties and confusion that confront us. It is not a wrecking amendment; it postpones the proposals for boundary reform by one political cycle. It also affords the time and opportunity to check the results of the new system of individual registration, the biggest change in the franchise for 100 years, to ensure that the register is not simply accurate, but complete before it is relied upon by the Boundary Commissions for future boundary reviews.
In a democracy nothing is more important than to ensure that those who are eligible to vote are enabled to do so. If the fountain or well of democracy is tainted, so too is democracy itself. I beg to move.
My Lords, I appreciate that this is of great interest to many noble Lords in the House. I remind noble Lords that we are in Committee and therefore the device of saying, “Before the noble Lord sits down” is not necessary. Of course Peers may ask the noble Lord who moved the amendment—the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton—questions. He is at liberty either to answer them as part of an exchange in Committee or to answer them later. Therefore my noble friends Lords Elton and Lord Forsyth will be in order when they next ask the question. They were out of order when they tried to prevent the Lord Speaker from putting the Motion.
My Lords, the noble Lord has made a moving, interesting and in some ways compelling speech, but he omitted the prior question. He has not answered any of the points made by my noble friend the Leader of the House and has given no reason for riding roughshod for the first time for decades, if not centuries, over the advice of the Clerk, upon which the smooth running of the House depends. I do think he ought to give us his reasons for so doing.
The noble Lord does not have to reply.
Well, I shall. The relevance comes as a result of the Boundary Commission’s work deciding numbers and constituencies upon the raw data from the electoral register. As I have said, if the electoral register is wrong and produces wrong data then the Boundary Commission and its findings in terms of constituencies and numbers will also be wrong. That is the relevance.
My Lords, I apologise for getting the procedure wrong. My point was rather similar to my noble friend’s. The noble Lord has given by way of response, as a justification for riding a coach and horses through our procedures, an argument about the Bill and its provisions. What is at stake here is not whether his opinion is different from the Clerk’s, but that our convention has been that we accept the Clerk’s advice. Can he explain why he is prepared to ride roughshod over that, with all the precedents that it creates and the difficulties that it will cause for the House, which is nothing whatever to do with the substance of the Bill?
I explained, I hope, a moment ago why what I am saying is relevant to the particular proposals of the Bill. It is for the House to decide its procedure. In the sense that I have found it completely compelling that it is relevant, it is for the House to decide, in due course, what the outcome of the debate should be. If the view of the House is that what I have said is irrelevant, out of scope, nothing to do with the Bill at all, then the voting will take place accordingly. If, however, there are people——and I suspect there are many—who agree with me then they will vote to the contrary.
The four Members from different parts of the House who signed the amendment may all have slightly different arguments to make about why we each support it, but we are all agreed that the electoral register on which the current boundary review is taking place is not really fit for that purpose and that the current review of boundaries should therefore be postponed.
This issue was the subject of fierce debate during the lengthy passage of the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill, with many noble Lords saying that it was not fit for purpose then. However, most of us relied on the best evidence available at the time that the electoral register contained the details of 92% of the people who should be included on it. Since then, however, work done by the Electoral Commission, commissioned and paid for by the Cabinet Office, shows that across the country, only about 82% of the names that should be included on the register are presently on it and that there are wide variations between different areas. For example, in the London Borough of Lambeth, only about 73% of the names that should be there are on the register.
This electoral register provides the basis for boundary reviews, and it is now clear that, if we want to have equal-sized constituencies, we must have an electoral register for which every possible effort has been made to make it as complete and accurate as possible, and that special efforts must be made to tackle underregistration in some areas if that objective is to be achieved.
As a former leader of the London Borough of Islington, which is very similar to Lambeth, I can say that the electoral register over time has never been more than 70% to 75% accurate. What magical qualities are there now that will change the situation in boroughs that have a transient population, always have had and always will have?
Those of us who have followed in great detail the Committee proceedings on this Bill will know that I have argued at length, together with other noble Lords, for a large number of measures that could greatly improve the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register, particularly schemes of data matching and data mining, which would enable public and private databases—
The Deputy Prime Minister’s statement on 6 August was clearly not off the cuff and noble Lords to my left should have been aware of what he was going to say in the event of other issues which took place.
If I might proceed with some of my arguments, I would also like to say that for some of these Benches, another argument is very important. In the long deliberations on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, we considered the relative effects on the power of the Executive and Parliament of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600. My party has always considered the need to reduce the number of MPs in the context of issues such as greater devolution and decentralisation, and the reform of your Lordships’ House. Not all my noble friends behind me will agree on some key aspects of Lords reform, but we all want to see an effective second Chamber able to hold a Government, of any party, to account. The failure to achieve—
I am concerned at this linkage between Lords reform and the measures that the noble Lord is now espousing. I took the effort over the weekend to read 22 Days in May, by our colleague David Laws, who was part of the negotiations. In the book, I found nothing in those negotiations that links Lords reform with boundary changes.
My Lords, the constitutional package that resulted from those 22 days—or however long it was—of deliberation clearly linked together many aspects of constitutional reform. If I may be allowed to develop my argument, I am suggesting that there is a clear link between the accountability of government to Parliament and the number of MPs. It is the view of my party that the failure to achieve any measure of reform at all here means that the hoped-for increased ability to hold the Executive to account will not happen. It may even decline as the Prime Minister prepares to make many more nominations to this House.
With the so-called payroll vote approaching half the membership of the government side of the House of Commons, the power of government to control Parliament is effectively increased. I believe that the opposite should be the case. This is, therefore, not the right time to reduce the ability of the House of Commons to hold the Executive to account by reducing its membership. There are no signs that the size of the Government’s so-called payroll vote will be reduced and coalition government probably makes it less likely. Many in my party take the view that the reduction in the number of MPs proposed in the current boundary review should not take place without reform that would strengthen the legitimacy of this House.
The media would make too much of two coalition parties going into two different Lobbies today. But in countries across Europe where coalition is much more the norm, this is not so unusual and people understand that different parties vote in different ways on some issues, while agreeing on packages of measures where they can find agreement on what they both consider to be in the national interest.
On the whole package of constitutional reform set out in the coalition agreement, it was not possible to deliver what was promised in that agreement and in the gracious Speech following the general election. So my noble friends to my left should not be surprised that we are where we are today. Noble Lords who have followed our many debates on electoral registration will know that my consistent aim—and that of my party—has been to improve the process of electoral registration so that we have a system fit for the purpose of conducting elections and reviewing boundaries as and when required. The question that now must be considered is what is the link between the boundary reviews and the process of electoral registration being considered in this Bill.
It seems to me that the issues of electoral registration and boundaries are inextricably linked. As my noble friend the former leader of the House, Lord Strathclyde, stated when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was debated,
“the boundary review will be based on the electoral register in force at the time of the review”.
He pointed out that all:
“Previous boundary reviews have used the electoral register”.
He also relied on the fact, which we now know to be incorrect, that,
“the registration rate in the UK is between 91 and 92 per cent”.—[Official Report, 26/1/11; col. 1040.]
If the Bill that we are currently considering is passed, we will soon have a very different electoral register—one that, according to the aims of all Ministers, should be both more accurate and more complete. It is right that we use the new registration system for the next review of boundaries.
In considering the scope of the Bill, I too have great respect for the advice that we receive in this House and I note that it is for the House itself to decide on the basis of conflicting advice. However, I also have long experience of electoral registration and administration issues. I need hardly point out that elections simply cannot be conducted without a process to determine constituency boundaries and that this amendment is about the timing of that process. It is an integral part of the process by which boundaries are revised and why the amendment is highly relevant.
I thought long and hard about the Clerk’s advice and alternative legal opinions. It seems to me that even if electoral registration and boundaries were not considered to be connected, this Bill could not be considered to have only one or two simple purposes— the basis of the view that the amendment may be out of scope. It is clear to many of us that the Bill is about more than one or two things, since it actually covers at least eight areas: first, individual registration; secondly, the timetable for elections; thirdly, polling stations and district reviews; fourthly, the performance of returning officers; fifthly, emblems to be used on ballot papers; sixthly, the right of police and community support officers to enter polling stations; seventhly, alterations to the postal vote regime; and eighthly—and relevantly—repeal of existing powers for a centralised, national electoral register.
This means that the Bill is open to this amendment and, with good reason, we on these Benches support it.
My Lords, as my noble friend the Leader of the House has reminded us, the Companion states in specific terms that it is expected, in the circumstances that have arisen, that the Clerk’s advice will be followed. He was absolutely right in the warnings that he gave about the possible unintended consequences of the actions now being taken. That seems to be one powerful reason for rejecting this amendment. It is not a sensible way to change the conventions and practice of the House.
I want to concentrate on a second reason for opposing the amendment, although I will say this about the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Hart, about the information being incomplete and the register being inaccurate: of course, it is freely acknowledged that under the present arrangements the information is substantially out of date and often very substantially incomplete.
Last Wednesday in the Constitution Committee, I questioned the Deputy Prime Minister on the subject that we are now debating: the implementation of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act. I do not refer to this exchange with any great expectation that I can persuade my Liberal Democrat friends to abandon their stated intention to support the amendment but because I think that noble Lords in other parts of the House should be clear as to why they are being asked to act in the same way.
Both in our committee last Wednesday and in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place on 13 December, the Deputy Prime Minister made it quite clear that his decision had absolutely nothing to do with merit and was entirely due to a political judgment that the implementation of this measure must be postponed to keep,
“the overall balance of the packages of the things that we included in the Coalition Agreement”.
He rejected my opinion that the balance argument did not hold up and that a desirable Bill should not be dropped simply because the public had given “a big thumbs down” to the measures or because he had not persuaded the House of Commons that the House of Lords Reform Bill was a good Bill. He equally firmly rejected what I described as my “old-fashioned” point of view that you should support or reject a measure because of its merits or lack of them.
The Deputy Prime Minister could not have been clearer about the merits of the Act. At Second Reading in the other place, he had identified,
“three problems with the current electoral map. Constituencies vary too much in size, they are based on information that is out of date, and there are too many of them”.
He provided specific examples of these grave discrepancies, saying:
“On the broken scales of our democracy, 10 voters in Glasgow North have the same weight as 17 voters in Manchester Central”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/12; col. 36.]
Later, referring to the number of Members of Parliament that we ought to have, he said, “600 is about right”.
In both committees, the Deputy Prime Minister said that he was strongly in favour of the Act and hoped that it would be implemented, but that he wanted its implementation delayed for a full electoral cycle. He wanted that to happen for one reason only: because Conservative Members of the Commons had by their votes blocked his House of Lords Reform Bill. He repeatedly asserted that they had done so despite being elected on a manifesto commitment to reform the House of Lords. My noble friend Lord Lang of Monkton pointed out that the Government voted in support of the House of Lords Reform Bill and tried to ensure Back-Bench support and that the manifesto commitment was to seek a consensus, which is totally different.
In my view, we are not dealing with two measures that can be put neatly on each side of the balance scales, but with a whole string of measures covered by the coalition agreement, some of which, to use the Deputy Prime Minister’s own words, the public had given “a big thumbs down” to.
I think I was right when I said to him,
“you are saying that the next general election should not be fought on a fair basis. You have described why the present basis is not fair and yet you are arguing that we put it off into the next Parliament and that it is entirely reasonable that we should fight the next election on a basis that you have described, in eloquent terms, as being unfair and as producing more Members of Parliament than we need and unbalanced constituencies, some small and some large. That seems to me a most extraordinary position to attempt to argue”.
I repeat my final comment to him, which seems to sum up the issue before us this afternoon:
“You referred to the broken scales of democracy … What you are actually saying is, ‘We will not go ahead on the merits of this proposal; my party is insisting that the next election is to proceed on the basis of the broken scales of democracy’”.
This House should not allow that to happen.
My Lords, I was sorry not to be in the House on Tuesday when tributes were paid to the departing Leader. What was said was very well said, I wish I had been there to say something too.
When my name appeared on this amendment, I was summoned by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to explain myself. There was a little bit of the headmaster’s study about it, but it was done with his customary style and charm. I will explain to the House why my name is on this amendment in exactly the terms that I explained it to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. It is for reasons that are to do with Scotland. I believe that the largest threat at the moment to the constitutional settlement in these islands is the secession referendum in Scotland next year. The First Minister of Scotland is an extremely skilful politician, and one needs to be very careful of being complacent about where the public opinion polls are. The Scots, who are extremely good at grievances, have in the boundary changes and the changes to the number of constituencies, a very real grievance. Unusually for the Scots, the grievance is real. The reduction in the number of constituencies in England will be 6%, in Scotland it will be 12%.
When we were debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, I argued several times that we should take due account when we were considering the size of constituencies and the size of the franchise—the 5% either way—we should take account of peripherality and sparsity, the distance from London, the difficulty of the MP’s job, and the difficulty of getting round the constituency if it was an enormous one. I remind noble Lords that the coastline of Argyll is longer than the coastline of France. If we look at the results, we see that leaving aside the four island constituencies, the two Scottish island constituencies, and the two on the Isle of Wight, the average Scottish constituency fetches up considerably larger than the average English constituency. This seems to be a perverse reading of the principles of peripherality and sparsity.
I do not wish to see this proceeded with in advance of the secession referendum in Scotland. It would be perpetually argued in the campaign that the numbers show Westminster less and less willing to listen to Scottish concerns and that defending Scottish interests requires secession, something I profoundly disagree with.
I remind noble Lords that the suggested reduction to 52 seats in Scotland is on top of the reduction from 72 11 years ago. The number went down in 2005 to 59, now it is to go down again to 52. The reason it went down in 2005 is to do with devolution. Once we have dealt with the secession threat, once we have secured the right result on the referendum, we need to come to the West Lothian question, but I do not believe that any of us in this House believe that the right answer to the West Lothian question is to make it more and more difficult for Scottish Members of the United Kingdom Parliament to do their job. I think that most of us believe that the right answer is to have Scottish MPs not voting in the Westminster Parliament on matters where they would be voting only on English, Irish or Welsh law. If we succeed, I think that we will have a chance to come back to the question. That is the moment when we should consider how many Westminster seats there should be for Scotland.
Urged by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and because I have great respect for the clerks, I have considered very carefully the question of relevance. I admit that I have considerable difficulty with a definition of “relevance” which is so narrow and so far removed from what the outside world would understand. The subject matters of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act and this Electoral Registration and Administration Bill are inextricably intertwined. The argument was explained most clearly in our earlier discussion in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan. The intertwining is particularly close during the present transitional phase as regards registration. Every constituency in the land is changed by the PVSC and it seems quixotic to use data which are so out of date and will be so radically altered by the new registration arrangements. The matters clearly are closely connected. We see from the quotation from Erskine May circulated with the Leader’s letter that amendments relating to the purposes of the Bill, if it has only one or two purposes,
“or touching on matters closely connected with them”,
can be considered as relevant. I cannot conceive of anything more closely connected than the issues that we are talking about now.
Were we in the House of Commons, and were we being guided by Erskine May, there would be no question but that this was an admissible amendment to the Bill. After deep thought, I am encouraged to stick to my guns by the advice that we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, when she told us of her experience in handling such tricky matters in the other place. I was heartened by what she said. She urged us to rise to our responsibilities. It is for us to decide; we cannot delegate that task to the clerks to decide for us. It is for us to make up our minds, and it is in that spirit that I maintain my support for the amendment and hope that the Committee will vote for it.
My Lords, I was intrigued as to why the noble Lord had put his name to this amendment. I was particularly intrigued, because of his background as a very senior civil servant whom we all held in very high regard, as to why he would go against the principle, which has been upheld in this House, that we accept the advice of the clerks. The noble Lord is arguing is that, where the players on the field do not like the result, they should have a vote on whether they agree with the referee. The noble Lord prayed in aid the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, for whom I have even more regard—indeed, I voted for her as Speaker in the House of Commons—but the position in the other place is completely different. They have a Speaker, and I say to the noble Lord that, if we go down this road, we may very well end up with such a situation in this House, which would be a very bad thing indeed.
However, it never occurred to me for a moment that the noble Lord would bring Scotland into the argument. He takes as his title, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard. Kinlochard is at the bottom of the loch by which I live; I look at Kinlochard. I have to tell the noble Lord that the people in Kinlochard are not beset with the question of how many Members of Parliament represent them. In fact, their view of Members of Parliament is probably best not repeated in this House. To argue that the nationalists will use the legislation to exploit opposition to the United Kingdom is utterly ridiculous. Alex Salmond wants there to be no Members in the House of Commons from Scotland and to argue that he is going to be concerned by a reduction in the number of Members is ridiculous. To be fair to the SNP, it has always accepted that in return for more powers—which they call devo-max—there should be a reduction in the number of MPs. This is a wholly spurious argument. If the noble Lord had said that he was supporting this amendment because he thought it would help the Labour Party to win the next election, I could have understood the argument, but I have to say that his argument cuts no ice with me at all.
What is the origin of this? How have we got into this mess? Why are we faced with this problem? The answer is that the Deputy Prime Minister is cross. He is cross that, despite repeated warnings, his Bill—which was not properly thought through—crashed on landing in the other place. He said something quite extraordinary the other day. Before he had even heard the Prime Minister’s speech which is to be made in Europe, he said that he was going to go to Europe in order to translate the Prime Minister’s speech on Europe from double-Dutch to Dutch. What we are seeing today is that the Deputy Prime Minister is capable of going from cross to double-cross, because that is what this is. It is a double-cross.
I certainly will not withdraw. There was a clear commitment which had nothing whatever to do with House of Lords reform. I have sat in this Chamber and have gone along with things that I did not like at all, such as the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, the boundaries Bill, the coalition agreement and the deal on AV. All these things we went along with on the basis that there was a bargain which was in the interest of the nation. At no stage, as my noble friend Lady Browning pointed out, was the issue of House of Lords reform in any way attached to the question that we are considering today. The Prime Minister is being cheated by his Liberal colleagues.
I want to oppose this amendment because, to me, it breaches three important constitutional principles. The first is collective responsibility. We have Ministers in this Government who are Conservatives and Liberal. When I was in the Government, I understood that if you were a member of the Government and you did not agree with their policy, you resigned from the Government. You do not take the Queen’s shilling and then go through the lobbies and vote against the Prime Minister. That is what is going to happen tonight and it is an absolute disgrace.
The second principle is the one which I have talked about—maintaining the self-regulation of the House of Lords. The third is the integrity of the Boundary Commission decisions. I have told this House before that when I was Secretary of State for Scotland I had to sign a Boundary Commission report which destroyed my constituency as a Conservative opportunity in 1997. There were other factors in 1997 which may have added to my defeat. I freely acknowledge that, but it never occurred to me for a millisecond not to sign off that Boundary Commission report, because it is an absolute principle that people should not play politics with parliamentary constituencies and boundary matters.
I know that noble Lords opposite are thinking back to Mr James Callaghan and all that, but that was a long time ago. In those days, there was a very big row about it as I recall. Of course, it could be argued that a deal was done by the coalition whereby they got their AV referendum, and I may say the Prime Minister risked the future of the Conservative Party as a party of government by agreeing to that. The Liberals believed that they could win it and the voters gave their answer; yet here today we have the Liberals still trying to gerrymander our constitution. That is what is going on here because they voted for the legislation which has been approved by Parliament that gave an instruction to the Boundary Commission. The right thing to do now is for both Houses to approve the Boundary Commission proposals. That has been the precedent and this is an attempt to gerrymander our constitution for political reasons because it has occurred to the Liberals that they might very well evaporate at the next general election. All they have to hang on to is the thought that they might be able to hang on with the benefit of incumbency. Of course, if we had fair constituencies, many of their people would not have that incumbency and they would lose their seats. So they are putting their own party interests before the democratic interest, dressing that up as some kind of defence of democracy and linking it with House of Lords reform.
On the subject of House of Lords reform, down the Corridor, PPSs in this Government were sacked because they voted against a Bill which was not thought out and was simply ridiculous. Those PPSs were sacked and told that their careers were over. I understand that tonight we are to see Liberal Ministers going through the Lobby voting against the Government. Are they to be sacked? I think not. I have a proposition. There must be among some of them a faint sense of conscience. If tonight they vote with the Government of whom they are members, they may make themselves a footnote in history, because they will be the first Ministers to be sacked for supporting the Government of whom they are members. They may even find themselves the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question in future.
My Lords, as one of the four Members whose name is attached to the amendment, I am aware of the feelings that some have harboured about the appropriateness of tabling such an amendment and, in particular, of pressing it when, in the opinion of the clerks, it might be out of order. I am therefore glad to have the opportunity to outline why it was and remains my feeling that the amendment is essential.
Two distinct issues are at stake. The first is whether the amendment is in order. If it is, the second is whether it should be passed. If a majority of Members of this House were to have indicated that they did not believe that the amendment was in order, I would of course have accepted that willingly. Unfortunately, we are required to debate both issues together, which, frankly, is rather unsatisfactory.
If passing the Bill made it impossible for the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 to be workable as intended when it was enacted, it would surely not only be in order but a duty on us to table consequential amendments to the Act either to make it workable or for parts of it to be repealed. It would be most unfortunate if our perceived Standing Orders prevented us from addressing such an eventuality.
We surely cannot detach the content of the Bill from its consequences. If the implications of passing the Bill were to make the constituencies Act incapable of fulfilling its original objectives, we should flag up those dangers to give the other place an opportunity to overcome the difficulty. If that is the case, it must be in order for us to suggest ways in which those difficulties can be resolved.
Therefore, central to the question of whether the amendment is in order is the basic issue of the effect of the Bill, if passed in its present form, on that legislation. I contend that individual registration would have far-reaching implications for the application of the constituencies Act in practice and, in the extreme, could materially undermine its purpose.
When he introduced the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill for its Second Reading on 6 September 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Nick Clegg, stated categorically:
“New rules will demand that every constituency is within 5% of either side of a single size”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 37.]
He described that as a “strict requirement”. That strict requirement is reflected in the Act as finally passed. Schedule 2 states categorically:
“The electorate of any constituency shall be … no less than 95% of the United Kingdom electoral quota”.
Mr Clegg acknowledged in that Second Reading debate that our existing registers are woefully inaccurate and that the inaccuracies are not geographically evenly spread. He cited inner cities and coastal areas as having particular problems. He put that forward as a reason for,
“accelerating the shift to a system of individual, rather than household, registration”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/9/10; col. 40.]
The extent of the inaccuracy has been estimated as representing 6.5 million eligible voters not on the current registers. The Electoral Commission itself accepted a year ago that as many as 6 million people could be excluded. The level of registration of students is particularly bad. In the Commons debate at Second Reading of this Bill, the register in one ward in Aberystwyth—both a seaside and a university town—was cited as having only 56% accuracy.
The Government’s remedy for that is that the last canvass under the existing system will be up to the spring of 2014 and that thereafter there will be a transition to the new, individual registration system. The register on which the 2015 election will be fought will therefore be a hybrid. It will consist in part of people who have been registered under the old system, which Mark Harper MP, the Minister introducing the Second Reading of this Bill, described as a “carryforward” provision. He anticipated they would make up two-thirds of the new register and that people who had been registered individually one-third.
It is my contention that a register composed in that way will inevitably contain distortions. Some socioeconomic groups within society will respond more positively than others to the invitation to register individually. It would hardly be surprising if illiterate or less educated people were slower in responding to the new system. Older people might well respond on their own behalf but younger members of their household—who previously had been entered by the head of the household—might not respond, particularly if they are away at university. There is every likelihood that introducing individual registration for one-third of the register will have a differential effect in geographic, age and socioeconomic terms.
When individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland, it initially led to a reduction of 11% in the registration levels; this was subsequently retrieved and higher levels were achieved, but that took time. This could not conceivably be accomplished before the election in 2015, a matter of months after the new system has been introduced for one-third of the register. It allows totally inadequate time for registration officers to undertake the checks, including matching every elector on the register against the DWP’s customer information database. The additional costs of introducing this change will amount to £108 million, reflecting the complexity of the transition. It is my contention that an accurate and comprehensive transition just cannot be achieved by 2015.
In order to underline the complexity of the process proposed by the Government for 2014-15, I draw to the attention of the House the words of the Minister, Mark Harper MP, at Second Reading of this Bill on 23 May last year. He said:
“At the end of the canvass, the EROs will send personally addressed individual electoral registration application forms to individuals who appeared on the electoral register produced at the end of the old-style canvass, who have not been verified individually and whom electoral registration officers do not believe to have moved … That will be a robust process”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/5/12; col. 1181.]
For “robust process” I would suggest the words, “Herculean task”.
The effect of all this will inevitably be that the registers on which the 2015 election would be fought would be substantially different from those on which the Boundary Commission undertook its equalisation process. It is totally inconceivable in practice that every constituency will be within 5% of the UK quota. On the proposed new basis there are no fewer than 63 constituencies in Britain which, as things stand, are between 4% and 5% below the UK quota. A proportion of these will inevitably pass the 5% lower tolerance figure, and such constituencies will be in default of the provisions of Schedule 2 to the 2010 Act. The effect of the electoral registration Bill, as it now stands, will be to frustrate the purpose of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.
The British Academy forum discussed these changes and, in an article last year arising from that forum, Professor Ron Johnston and Professor Iain McLean commented:
“The introduction of IER is likely to have a considerable impact on how representative constituencies are, and therefore on the fairness of the British electoral system ... The potential impact of IER is greater than it might otherwise have been because of new rules for the definition of constituency boundaries laid down in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011”.
They go on to warn of,
“an under-representation of urban areas in the new electoral map”,
“changes arising from the interaction of the new rules for defining constituencies with the introduction of IER will contribute to a considerable alteration in the nature of British representative democracy”.
That is why we should think carefully about the changes that this Bill will introduce and why we should ensure, to the extent we can, that in rushing the combination of changes we do not trigger a third act—the act of unintended consequences. Incidentally, there will also be consequences for the devolved elections in Wales in 2016, and no doubt in Scotland, if it is still part of the union.
The logic of the situation as proposed in the amendment is that the elections on the new equalised constituencies should not be introduced until after the Boundary Commission’s submissions, due on 1 October 2018. That would allow for the purpose of the Bill—for individual registration to be introduced in a coherent, timely fashion. It would allow registration officers to do their work without the frenetic pressure that the current proposals imply, and would produce a comprehensive register on a unified basis, not the hybrid register now being proposed.
The House of Commons needs to think again on this most fundamental matter, central to the working of democracy. Passing this amendment would give it an opportunity to revise the proposals in a coherent manner, and I urge noble Lords to support the amendment in the Lobby.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, has said, this matter involves many different aspects, some of high principle, some of good practice and some of base politics. It should be about fair voting, of course. “One voter, one equal vote” is a formula so simple and so powerful that it has underpinned every democratic system that has ever been. That is why I believe in it, and others do too; many people have welcomed that concept.
Somewhere along the line, though, something seems to have changed, and a fundamental principle has somehow been sacrificed during the summer rains. Our Liberal Democrat friends have been wholeheartedly in favour of fair voting. I excuse noble Lords on the Labour Benches of that, of course; there was a time when their forefathers and foremothers stood shoulder to shoulder at Peterloo and marched with the Chartists through the streets of our cities—but then, as Mr Blair kept insisting, the Labour Party is not what it used to be. I wonder whether noble Lords can remember what the Chartists’ demands were. They were universal suffrage—
Yes, annual suffrage, a secret ballot and, goodness me, equal constituencies. I would have been proud to have been a Chartist, as I am proud to be a Conservative. I know that this party seems a little fuddy-duddy at times, but this was after all the first and only party to elect a Jew as Prime Minister and the first and only party to elect a woman as Prime Minister, and I very much hope that we will be the first party to elect a black or an Asian as Prime Minister.
As was said earlier in the debate, the principle lies behind so much of what we promised and what has been done. Today it is not about the Conservative Party or the Labour Party—essentially, this debate is testing the principles of the Liberal Democrats. Last week at Question Time, my noble friend Lord McNally stood at that Dispatch Box and rounded on the noble Lord, Lord Bach.
Where is he?
That is a very interesting question.
Noble Lords will remember that it was to do with the legal aid order, and I am sure that they will remember his words. He said that although the noble Lord, Lord Bach, kept alleging that a commitment had been made, “It was not made”. That is a direct quote. I found that pretty stirring stuff. It certainly stirred me; I went in search of the evidence to back up the claim that constituency boundaries are linked to Lords reform. We have heard so much about that and, after all, that is the reason why we are here today. I went first, and naively, to the words of the Deputy Prime Minister. I am sorry; is my noble friend trying to intervene?
Yes. A section of David Laws’s book is relevant to what my noble friend has just said. In the negotiations that he attended, he reports,
“‘So what I am suggesting is this,’ said Danny”—
that is, Danny Alexander, who is now a Minister.
“‘We will support your proposals on redrawing the constituency boundaries to make voting fairer. But in return, we want your support for a referendum on a reformed first-past-the-post system’”.
It is very clear what the deal was.
I am grateful to my noble friend for that intervention. There are so many quotes that one could bring to bear. Let me offer the House another one:
“votes should have an equal value, an equal weight, whether you are in the farthest reaches of rural Cornwall or in the inner cities, and whether you are in England, Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland”.—[Official Report, 15/11/2010; col. 592.]
I hope the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, does not mind me quoting his words; they are very fine words and I agree with him entirely.
There is another one; I wonder whether noble Lords can guess who said this:
“It is barmy to have general elections on the basis of boundary reviews that, by the time they come to be tested, are nine years out of date”.—[Official Report, 16/11/2010; col. 764.]
I suspect that the earthiness of that approach gives the game away. I am sad that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is not in his place to stand up and take a bow for it.
Let me go to the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, because he has talked endlessly on the matter, talking about the package of coalition reforms and the crucial linkage between Lords reform and boundaries. Speaking about the coalition’s commitment to Lords reform, he said it was,
“a commitment to deliver legislation, and indeed elections, come 2015”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/9/2012; col. 38.]
It may seem petty of me, but if you go back to the coalition agreement and bother to read what it says on the tin, you will find that no such commitment ever existed. The agreement talked about many things—about setting up a committee and bringing forward proposals—but unlike many other parts of the coalition agreement, there was absolutely no commitment to legislation. There was no mention of whipping the vote and not a whisper of a date like 2015. I have the coalition agreement here. It is very clear about what it says and what it does not say—unless any of my noble friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches want to draw my attention to any other part of the coalition agreement which says otherwise. No, I did not think so.
However, the agreement does talk about legislation, and I am going to be petty and quote the wretched thing again. It talks about legislation—wait for it—
“for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies”.
It is illuminating stuff—this little booklet—when you read it. There was the linkage, a very direct linkage, but not with Lords reform. The linkage was with the referendum Bill. It was in the same sentence; there was not even a full stop between those commitments, which is why I and my colleagues held our noses and eventually helped pass that referendum Bill. I personally crawled through that Lobby to support it. So where now is the other side of the deal?
Nevertheless, the Deputy Prime Minister keeps going on, and on, and on, about some linkage with Lords reform. Where did that linkage come from? In my search for enlightenment, I decided to put down a Written Question, in which I asked the Government,
“whether they envisage a direct link between proposals for reform of the House of Lords and proposals for the revision of constituency boundaries”.
I thought that was sure to clarify things, particularly as the Answer came from my noble friend Lord McNally. His signature was on it. I always enjoy getting notes from my noble friend Lord McNally; they are unfailingly kind and helpful, and this was no exception. This is what it said:
“These are different elements of the Government’s constitutional and political reform agenda and there is no formal link between them”.—[Official Report, 21/3/2012; cols. WA 167-68]
I may be too dull to understand what that means because it seems to me that the Answer is that there is no formal link. If my noble friend were here, I would thank him for his characteristic honesty. So I think we have reached the truth of this matter: there is no linkage and there never was. It is a distraction, an excuse, an alibi and an invention. The truth is that this is solely, sadly and cynically because the Deputy Prime Minister did not get his way on Lords reform. Now he wants to exact a little retribution. It is nothing less than a great political sulk.
Those on the Benches beside me are my noble friends. Of course they are; many of them are dear personal friends. They are men and women of principle, but right now you would need the telescope at Jodrell Bank to discover where those principles are hiding. I do not blame them. This one came from the top, but the Deputy Prime Minister has form. He tried to fix the voting system to his own advantage with the referendum, and he failed. He tried to fix the House of Lords, and he failed at that, too. Now, once again in pursuit of his own advantage, he is trying to fix the next election. I have to say that if he were a plumber, I would never let him anywhere near my bathroom.
The issue before us underpins all our freedoms: one voter, one vote, one equal vote. It does not get simpler than that. That is all we are asking for. The Liberal Democrats were asking for that too until ambition and their leader’s manipulation got in the way. A lot can be said about his manoeuvre. Perhaps we might use the language that he used about this House, the House of Lords. It was so unnecessary. We could say that his manipulation is cynical, illegitimate, disgraceful and, to use his own words, “an affront to democracy”.
This should not be about partisan advantage: we should be concerned about creating a level playing field for the voters. That is what fair votes are all about. That is what I hoped Liberal Democrats believed in. We fight for what we believe in with a passion but when in politics we come to fight for what we do not believe in, we hold ourselves hostage. This is not the coalition’s finest hour. I hope that it gets better than this.
I should warn my noble friends that when they go into the Lobby this afternoon, into what will become that hall of shame, they had better not do so with their heads held high. There is a better chance that they will be recognised as Liberal Democrats. That fact will be taken down, and at the next election it will be used as evidence against them in every constituency in this country.
My Lords, as I have been mentioned in earlier exchanges, perhaps I might have a word, which will be very brief because I commented at length on this matter in mid-November. Not wishing to be tedious or repetitious, I shall make only a couple of points. If there was any success in the Speakership of the Commons during my period of office, much of it was due to the advice and support that I received from the clerks. I have to admit that there were a couple of occasions when I overruled that advice, one of which was against convention. But I did so because I thought that it was right to provide an opportunity for debate on a contentious issue which was of public interest and of concern. The roof did not fall in.
We have no such arbitrator with authority to make a decision in your Lordships’ House but we are often reminded that we are a self-regulating House. While, of course, we must examine the advice of the Public Bill Office and the clerk, there can be no authority that can in advance rule an amendment out of order. The bottom line is that the admissibility or otherwise of an amendment ultimately can be determined only by the House itself. When I spoke last year, I suggested that the Government allow this House to determine the issue for itself and I am delighted that we have the opportunity of so doing today.
My Lords, I will be brief but I want to make one point on admissibility before turning to my main points concerning the substance of this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Hill, who we are delighted to see in his place, made a moving appeal to my noble friend Lord Hart to withdraw his amendment. All of us will have felt the force of that even if we cannot go with him.
However, at the end, he put it as if it was down to my noble friend Lord Hart to decide this and that no one else could have stopped the situation that we are in today. After our last debate, when this Bill was withdrawn by the Government, it would have been perfectly easy for Ministers to put down a Motion in another place or in this House saying that they wanted to proceed with the electoral review and that if it was lost they would agree that they would not introduce the orders in November. It would have been perfectly easy, perfectly in order and there would have been no difficulty about it. It would have been a clear decision.
They did not do so and we all suspect their motives for not doing so. As we read in the papers, the Prime Minister was determined to see whether he could get the various minority parties in the other place to back the change and carry it through but it was going to take a little while. That is fine, but we should be careful about getting on too many high horses on this matter without checking that our girths are properly tightened.
My second point concerns the substance. I have heard a lot about fair votes this afternoon and the Chartists and all that. When you draw constituency boundaries you have to weigh off various things against each other. Equal weight for every vote is important but so is community integrity and so is the need to disrupt as little as possible the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his constituents: when you take one lot away and put another lot in it takes time for the relationship to form. These are matters of balance: the balance was entirely wrong for 5%. In a sentence: Gloucester Cathedral now sits in the middle of the Forest of Dean.
Intrinsic to the original Bill were the combination of moving from 650 to 600, the decision that the boundaries were going to be changed after every single election and the dreaded 5%. If it had been 10% we would not have had any difficulties in the first place. I am not saying that this is why some Members of this House may have changed their mind, but the argument has moved on and it has got much worse for the proponents of these boundary changes.
In these debates we have often heard from the leading academics in the field—David Rossiter, Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie. They wrote on the subject in Parliamentary Affairs in 2012 and I need not add to what they said:
that is to say the recommendations of the Boundary Commission which we are about to put into force if we pass the Government’s Bill unamended—
“were much more disruptive to the pre-existing constituency map than many had anticipated, and the outcome—should the proposed constituencies (or some variant of them) be finally adopted—will see much less continuity and reflection of community identities … As it stands, the outcome suggests that the underpinning theory of British representative democracy—that Members of Parliament represent places with clear identities—is being undermined”.
That is the constitutional case against this Bill and it is a case that has only come to light since we passed the previous Bill in those long winter nights two years ago. They also have something to say on the subject of individual electoral registration—the subject of this Bill—and tie individual registration closely with it. They say:
“If the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration is successful and the electoral rolls are more complete, the allocation of seats could change considerably”.
That is to say that the brand new registers we are getting under this are going to be another wholesale upheaval. As we get to grips with electoral registration and the electoral rolls are changed again and again and again as a result, there will be more upheavals to come. If we pass the Bill into law we will set a fire to the electoral map of Great Britain, to all the constituency and personal loyalties that have been incorporated within it and pledge ourselves to do the same thing again at every single election for all eternity. That is why I hope the amendment will be carried.
My Lords, I suspect that I am not the only Member of this House who finds this a thoroughly unattractive debate. I suspect that there may be many noble Lords on the other side of the House whose opinions I respect who will very much regret that we find ourselves in this position.
I say that for this reason. I was particularly struck because we started with a point about the inadmissibility of the amendment. It was interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, who has long service in this House and who must have worked closely with the clerks in his time in other capacities here, did not make any reference—as was pointed out in a number of interventions—to the desirability normally of respecting the view of the clerks. He just soldiered straight on, without dealing with that argument or, as far as I could see, with any respect for the basic issue regarding the Companion and the importance normally of respecting it.
I know that we have the advantage of a legal opinion from a QC, commissioned by the Labour Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, which has been made available to the House. It of course gives a clear indication as to part of the motivation behind what we are facing here today. However, in looking at that legal opinion—and I am certainly not a lawyer—one point struck me regarding the issue of scope. What the amendment does is basically de-gut an Act that has very recently gone through this House and been approved by both Houses.
The point that I would simply make is that when the coalition put forward its proposals for these parliamentary Sessions, there were two Bills. The first dealt exclusively with parliamentary voting systems and constituencies—interestingly enough, the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill. The first half of the Bill was to provide for a condition of the coalition, the AV referendum on parliamentary voting systems. The second half was to deal exclusively with constituencies. At the same time, a separate Bill was proposed to deal with electoral registration and administration. The Bills were distinct and separate.
There might be an argument that the amendment was perfectly acceptable to be introduced if the other matter had not just been dealt with by your Lordships and the other place as conclusively as was the case in the carrying of the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Act. It is not as though the amendment is some minor technical addition to what was previously proposed. This is a major de-gutting of the previous legislation, enshrined in Part 2 of that Act.
I respect entirely the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, has, very properly, made absolutely clear that this is a matter finally for the House to decide. I would add to that—and I know that she will accept this—that it is a responsibility that this House must take very seriously indeed and not treat lightly, as though it were a matter for political advantage on this occasion.
My second point relates to the guts of the amendment, which is to delay the boundary review. I do not know whether anyone in this House any longer believes that there is not gross unfairness in the present parliamentary boundaries. We have just fought one election in 2010 on boundaries based on data that were 10 years old. If the amendment stands, we will go into the next election with data that are manifestly older still. That is a certainty.
I was struck partly because a colleague, Lord Maples, whose absence from this House we much regret, showed considerable interest in this subject. I had not realised that he introduced a 10-minute rule Bill to the House of Commons five years ago to equalise the size of parliamentary constituencies. He said in his speech in this House that he wanted to call it, “A Bill to abolish rotten boroughs”, but the clerks would not let him. Perhaps they thought that that was going a bit over the top. However, he said that in 2005, the smallest constituency had 21,000 voters and the largest had 107,000; and that one Member of Parliament got elected on 6,000 votes—lucky chap—when it took someone else 32,000 votes to get elected. Those of us who had to fight for every one of those 32,000 votes knows what it feels like. Looking at the registers and the disparity between constituencies, one sees that in the last election when new boundaries were introduced on old data, there was a discrepancy of 18,000 between Banbury and Sheffield Brightside.
It is against that background that I simply say that of course there have been sincere speeches about the importance of keeping the registers absolutely up to date and making sure that the new arrangements being introduced are totally incorporated before there can be any idea of changing the constituency boundaries. However, the intervention of my noble friend Lord Naseby certainly bears out what I and anyone who has stood for election know very well—that the registers are never right. People are always missing from them. No one knows at this stage to what extent these changes will substantially alter constituencies, and it may be that the changes are not as big, but it is certain that everyone who votes for the amendment is determining that the unfairness, which has been generally recognised, published and accepted, will be maintained. This unelected House will then have determined and ensured that some votes in those constituencies will be worth more than others, and that the unfairness that existed in the 2010 election is even worse next time. What a position for this House to take. In the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, it is very much a decision for this House, and I hope that it will take that decision very seriously indeed.
My Lords, I, too, received advice from the clerks of the House and I valued it. At the end of the day, although I did not ignore that advice, there were occasions when I said, “I will go in another direction”. In effect, I did not accept 100% of what the clerks had said.
However, let me put this to noble Lords. One of the reasons that a clerk would give to me, to the Chairman of Ways and Means or to a Deputy Speaker for not selecting an amendment was that the matter had been aired fully on a recent occasion. This matter was recently aired fully. I am speaking not only about this amendment or this issue. I take an interest in Boundary Commission debates and in electoral registration legislation. I am speaking because I am interested in both issues. I spoke about Argyll and was accused by the Liberal Party of filibustering. The beneficiary of the Argyll constituency was a Liberal, not Labour, Member of Parliament.
The amendment says, “Do not implement the matter until 2018”. Therefore, what guarantee do we have that by the 2020 elections, which will occur at that time because of the five-year duration of a Parliament, the boundary commissioner will be able to finish his or her business and deal with the appeals that will take place? I concur with everything that has been said about electoral registers. That argument has gone on for as long as electoral registers have existed. The first argument has been, “They are inaccurate”, but that is unfortunately bound to be the case because of bereavement and transient populations. That is a legitimate argument to put before a boundary commissioner. I have been before Boundary Commission inquiries and said that the electoral register was inaccurate. I went before boundary commissioners when the famous poll tax was on the go and people were deliberately keeping their names off the register.
I would feel a lot more comfortable with the amendment if there was a Private Member’s Bill of one clause from the other place encompassing the same case as the amendment. At least we would then truly be taking on our role as a revising Chamber. We are talking about passing an amendment when we do not know the view of the Members of Parliament down the corridor. If it came from the other direction, however, we would at least have had the benefit of the Hansard report of the debate. Any of us who has been through boundary changes as Members of Parliament know that it is the last possible thing you can get through in a sitting. You can lose a colleague, or colleague can be turned against colleague. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, as the Secretary of State for Scotland, had to sign off a boundary commissioner’s review—a proposal made in good faith—knowing that it would have a profound effect on his political career. People down the corridor know what the boundary commissioner has already pulled out of the hat. Some are going to win and some are going to lose. That brings about the human frailties that it can bring about and we will not get the objective vote we would have got if it came from the other direction. We are in a very serious situation when we disregard the clerks without due cause. That is the important thing—without due cause.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord. Could he, with his experience as Speaker in the other place, clarify the comparison being made, which the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, referred to as persuasive—that somehow the Speaker’s ability to disregard the clerks’ advice at the other end of the corridor is analogous to this House as a whole disregarding the clerks’ advice? Surely that is not the case, because the convention in the House of Commons is that the Speaker’s ruling is not challenged.
The noble Lord is quite right. However, it is not only the Speaker who gets advice from the clerks; as I said, the Chairman of Ways and Means and the chairmen of committees do as well. It is done on the basis that of course, as the noble Baroness said, a matter can be given an airing. A Speaker can put forward an amendment as a safety valve for the House, to allow the matter to get an airing, while possibly knowing that the amendment will be defeated. However, as one noble Lord said, there is no way that a Speaker or his advisers would allow a situation where the guts were taken away from a piece of legislation that had previously been passed. If we pass this amendment, we are allowing someone to say, “I wasn’t happy with the last piece of legislation, so I will create an amendment and look for a near kindred piece of legislation to latch it on to”. That is not a good way to run a Parliament.
My Lords, I am obliged to the Chief Whip. Amendments are admissible in this House if they are, to quote the Companion,
“relevant to the subject matter of the Bill and to the clause or Schedule to which they are proposed”.
As is well known, the Public Bill Office has advised your Lordships that this particular amendment is not admissible. The view of the movers is that the amendment is relevant and therefore admissible. I share that view. The first question for your Lordships today is: how is a disagreement such as this to be resolved? The Companion specifies that the Public Bill Office advises on whether an amendment is admissible and it is expected that that advice will be taken. The Companion states that the decision on admissibility—again, it makes this clear—can ultimately be decided only by the House itself. It lays down a procedure; namely, it requires the Leader to put the advice of the clerks. While normally the advice of the Public Bill Office will give rise to no difficulty and will be plainly right—hence the expectation—if the mover of the amendment has good reason to contend that the amendment is relevant, and he or she has discussed it with the Public Bill Office and still holds that view, then he or she is entitled to put it to the House.
The movers of this particular amendment have discussed it with the Public Bill Office at length. They have taken the advice of a Queen’s Counsel experienced in the field who has concluded that the amendment is relevant. This is plainly a proper case in which it was right for the movers to allow the House to decide. I have read very carefully the letter from the Leader of the House—perhaps I may interject that I welcome him to his post and say how very much we will miss the previous Leader, whom I am happy to see in his new place—which proposes, in effect, that the House should always accept the advice of the Public Bill Office.
As the noble Lord, Lord King, says, we should always behave responsibly in considering the views of the Public Bill Office. We need a good reason to disagree. However, I respectfully submit that there is no convention—and it would be unwise to suggest—that we always accept that advice. This House has to decide what it considers relevant. In giving advice, the Public Bill Office is seeking to give effect to the will of the House. How can it do that unless from time to time the House discusses the issues of relevance?
The last time there was a full debate on relevance in this House was in 1968, when Lord Goodman proposed a particular amendment. It was debated by the Leader of the House, Lord Shackleton, who sat on this side, and the former Lord Chancellor, the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, whose daughter is in this House, although I am not sure whether she is here today. The idea that it was improper to have a proper debate did not occur to any of the distinguished Lords who took part in that debate.
I will take interventions when I have finished this part of my speech.
The correct approach was accurately described by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. I will embarrass her by quoting what she said in November:
“For us, of course, there is no Speaker here to make that ultimate decision”—
namely, whether we can accept an amendment—
“We all know what the Companion tells us; it has been repeated many times recently in this House. But by its very nature, it is advice that is offered to us and it is only advice; it is only expected to be taken. It is not a command, nor is it written on tablets of stone. I put it to the Leader of the House that, as there is no individual in this House to make the ultimate decision, is it not for your Lordships’ House to make that final decision?”.
I agree with the noble Baroness. It completely reflects how a self-regulating House should operate. I want to make it clear that my disagreement with the views of the Public Bill Office in no way reduces my respect for those in that office. I have the greatest confidence in them; they serve the House very well. This House should not feel anxiety about debating and reaching a decision on an issue such as this. Again, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, got it right when she described her own disagreements with the clerks:
“But I took it in what I believed to be in the best interests of the democratic process, and to provide debate on a contentious issue of public interest and concern—and the roof did not fall in”.—[Official Report, 19/11/2012; col. 1623.]
Again, I respectfully agree.
Why is this amendment admissible? Relevance is the test. The language is different from that of the other place, but the slightly different approaches would usually achieve the same result. The rules exist to ensure that amendments to Bills are properly focused on that Bill and not on wider issues. There are no legally defined limits to what is relevant in this context; they are to be garnered from the approach of the House to previous amendments. The Public Bill Office rightly advised me, when considering this matter, to look at previous amendments which had been debated without any issue as to relevance being raised by that office. I was told that that indicated what is admissible since the Public Bill Office considers every amendment for relevance. With respect, I agree with the approach of the Public Bill Office.
Noble Lords will remember the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 which introduced a new system for fixing boundaries focused primarily on the number of registered voters in any place. Throughout the passage of that Act, which for these purposes deals with boundaries and the alternative voting system and not with registration, through both Houses of Parliament, amendments were tabled and debated that sought to delay the timing of the boundary review until such time as the level of registration of voters had improved. Concern was expressed on all sides of both Houses about the undoubted fact that there were unsatisfactorily low levels of voter registration—perhaps as many as 6 million people who should be registered were not. There was no substantial dispute on any side of the House that this was a problem that needed to be addressed. Neither the Public Bill Office in this House nor the clerks to the Speaker or the Speaker in the Commons regarded those amendments as either inadmissible or out of scope. The 2011 Act contains no provisions about registration.
This Bill speeds up the introduction of individual elector registration. Currently, the position is—
My Lords, it was on this point that I had wished to intervene from the perspective of someone who spent 13 years in the usual channels. The question that the noble and learned Lord is putting is, I think, the wrong one. It is not whether the House can do it, but whether it is wise to be contemplating doing it. That was the point made most compellingly by the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn. I would ask this directly of the noble and learned Lord: if it is not the clerks to whom we defer for advice in these matters, then to whom? If, as was said earlier, we are now going to establish a practice whereby any noble Lord can put the case that their amendment is a good one so why do we not take it, or worse, if we are expected to go to outside lawyers or QCs for advice on what is or is not admissible, would that not be a revolution in the way this House does things and would it not advantage those with deep pockets or political parties with access? Most of the rest of us in this House do not have access.
Is it not the case that the—
We are in Committee, my Lords. Is it not the case that our clerks are uniquely experienced and uniquely dispassionate, and that their advice is available equally to all? Is it not better to stick with the system we have than the new, revolutionary approach being proposed by the noble and learned Lord?
My Lords, I am not suggesting a new and revolutionary approach. There is one group of people—namely, this House together—which has a better view than the clerks. I say that because the clerks are seeking, in the advice they give, to express the will of this House. I fundamentally disagree with the noble Lord, Lord True, that this is a change in practice. It reflects exactly what has been happening for many years. I refer to the debate in 1968 where the idea that it was in any way improper to discuss it was wrong. The consequence of being a self-regulating House is that when significant issues such as this one arise, ultimately it is the House that decides them. This is a classic issue which the House should decide.
He withdrew his amendment at the end of the debate, making it absolutely clear that there was no support for the idea that solicitors should become High Court judges. That was the reason he withdrew it. However, as I understand it, the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, have said that there is some convention that you should not move the amendment. The approach of the Leader of the House in urging my noble friend Lord Hart to withdraw his amendment, and as I understand it the approach of the noble Lord, Lord True, is that the right thing here is that the advice of the clerks, which I greatly respect, is not advice but a definitive ruling against which there is no appeal.
I have referred to the fact that amendments relating to registration were allowed to the boundary changes Bill. The obvious reason for that is that, in relation to a Bill about boundaries, it was accepted that registration is a vital building block in how to fix the boundaries. It is important, when applying the rules of admissibility, to show both common sense and consistency. The thing that really matters in relation to the new—
Very briefly on this point of relevance, perhaps I may draw the attention of my noble and learned friend to Clause 16 of this Bill which, like this amendment, deals with electoral boundaries. It deals with the reviewing of boundaries, as does this amendment. Both Clause 16 and the amendment deal with the timing of the reviews, not their outcome. Does my noble and learned friend agree that that makes the amendment admissible in the context of this Bill?
I do not know if your Lordships have noticed, but it is my personal view that this is an admissible amendment because it is relevant. If you fundamentally change the system of registration—the Government have described the effect of this Bill as being the most important change to registration for 100 years—that is bound to have a very significant effect on the boundaries that are to be fixed for individual constituencies. The best analogy I can think of is this. Let us suppose there was a Bill to double the length of sentence for anyone given a sentence of imprisonment. Would the clerks or this House take the view that you could not have an amendment which said, “Before you introduce these longer sentences, make sure that you have enough prison places”? Would it be argued that because the subject matter of the Bill was sentencing, you could not deal with the issue of prison places? That is the closest analogy.
This is a situation where constituency boundaries are determined by the numbers of registered voters. If you are going to change the registration system, that is bound to have an effect on the boundary changes. What is the effect of the amendment? It would delay the boundary changes by five years, which does not mean that they must be changed in five years’ time, but that they must be “not before” a period of five years. The consequence of such an amendment would be an opportunity to look at the effect of individual registration. As has been pointed out by my noble friend Lord Hart, we already have pilots which suggest that there is a low rate of striking in relation to the new individual registration. That is what you would expect. Currently, household registration allows the head of the household to register everyone. The effect of individual registration, coupled with the need to prove that you are the person you say you are, inevitably makes the process more cumbersome. There are considerable benefits, but the effect inevitably will be to reduce the coverage of the electoral register.
In addition to those arguments, it is plain that we are in a situation of limbo because it is not clear upon what basis, in terms of constituencies, the election that is bound to take place by May 2015 will take effect. This is an admissible amendment. This is a relevant amendment. It is an amendment that this House can rule on. There are very strong arguments for delaying the introduction of the new method of registration because if you do not, you will end up with a substantial group of people, mostly the dispossessed, who are not registered and will thus take no part whatever in our democracy. I strongly advise the House to feel able to vote on this amendment and I strongly advise noble Lords to support it.
My Lords, I have thought hard if not long about how to respond to the debate on the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hart. I recognise that many noble Lords will have their own reasons for lending their support to one side or the other. Sometimes this may be a matter of conviction. Sometimes one may see party advantage one way or another. I am going to ask noble Lords to put all that to one side. Before I challenge some of the issues raised by the debate, I would like to focus the attention of the Committee on the implications of passing the amendment.
Some might say that this is an amendment conceived in mischief. I know and like all the noble Lords whose names are on the amendment, but I expect all of them will have to acknowledge that they have been disingenuous, if persistent, in seeking to include it in the Bill, for it seeks to postpone the provisions of an Act passed by this House and by Parliament less than two years ago. We should not forget the context in which the many measures for providing for constitutional change were brought before Parliament. Following the expenses scandal all parties recognise the need for change. The reduction in the size of the House of Commons and the provision for an immediate boundary review to be repeated in each fixed-term Parliament were designed to restore public confidence in the political institutions of which this House is a part.
This was the manner in which the House debated the measure. It was thoroughly argued into the early hours and indeed, memorably, through the night on one occasion. Issues that I am sure are fresh in noble Lords’ minds were raised, argued and resolved from the bandwidth of variation in constituency size, the historic overrepresentation of some parts of the United Kingdom and the need to reconcile that with geographical, local and historical ties. From the Tamar valley to the Isle of Wight to Orkney and Shetland, the Bill was passed. It is the law.
How stands the House should it now say, without good cause, that the provisions of the near-completed boundary review should not be implemented for the election for which they were designed? How stand politicians who argue this way? How stands politics as a consequence? Where does it put this House in the eyes of the people should the Committee choose to pass the amendment? We will not be seen, as we would choose to be seen, as the guardians of constitutional propriety or active above and beyond narrow interests and loyalties. No, we will be seen as being no different from the rest of them, motivated by hubris and cynicism. We have recently won time to demonstrate the strengths of the House. Indeed, it would appear from the comments of my noble friend who attended the Constitutional Committee that the future form of this House is the subtext as to why the amendment is here today, and I am replying to it. We should see the trap that has been laid.
I have listened to the arguments of those supporting the amendment. It is still not clear whether there is agreement on the ambiguity at the heart of it. The current review, based on the December 2010 register, is one for which current law provides. How does its deferment stand under the amendment? Is it to be kept on ice and used for the 2020 election, despite the fact that it will then be based on a register that will be nearly 10 years old or is the work to be abandoned and a new review used for the May 2020 election? Whatever, it is clear that in the absence of the current boundary review, it would be the old boundaries, based on a register as old as February 2000 as far as England is concerned, that would be used for the May 2015 general election.
I am reassured that the noble and learned Lord makes that point, but that means that this particular boundary review has been a wasted effort in his mind. I would like to challenge why that is the case. This particular piece of legislation affects only individual electoral registration. It does not affect the boundaries of constituencies—certainly not for the next election. That lies in existing legislation that is not the subject of the Bill. If the Committee has had difficulty in addressing this issue, it rather proves the point of relevance. We have heard some marvellous speeches for and against individual registration of electors, which is the subject of the Bill before the Committee, but it is hardly going to be affected by this amendment because the 2015 boundaries are based on the 2010 register, which is already in existence and cannot be affected by a change of register for this occasion. That register has nothing to do with individual voter registration or the Bill.
There have been lots of contributions from all sides of the Committee about individual electoral registration and, in particular, criticisms of the transitional procedures. That is perfectly proper. That is what the Bill is about. The Bill is about the process of individual electoral registration. However, they are irrelevant as far as the amendment is concerned because it seeks to defer a boundary review that is based on the old system of registration, namely the 2010 register. That is why, I suspect, the clerks found it extremely difficult to find relevance in the amendment because it does not affect the subject of the Bill that is before the Committee of the House.
There has often been mention of the differing views within the coalition on the presentation and approval of the current review, which is now more or less completed. That may be so but, as the law stands, it is not the Government, or the coalition, that decide the response to the Boundary Commission; it is Parliament and it will have the final say. However, the amendment would deny this Parliament that opportunity by preventing the Boundary Commission finishing its work and so denying the House of Commons of this Parliament an opportunity to take an informed decision on the Commission’s proposals. Is it right that this House takes it upon itself to deny the House of Commons that opportunity? Herein lies the trap for those of us who believe in the unique contribution that this House can make to our parliamentary democracy and the delicate constitutional underpinning that lies beneath it. Noble Lords can, of course, ignore this and press ahead with their amendments. I hope they do not subsequently rue the day. Rather, I hope noble Lords will reflect further on where this amendment might put this House, and politicians and politics in general. I urge the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, to do so and to withdraw his amendment.
Should the noble Lord and his colleagues press on and seek the support of the Committee, I ask all noble Lords to think this matter through, as I have tried to do myself. It is a virtue of this place that I can address all the Benches and say that we in this House should be very wary of defying the will of this Parliament, as expressed in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act. I certainly do not seek to argue that the elections to another place are no concern of this House or this Committee—the Bill we are discussing is all about that—but I do say that we fail in our constitutional function if we deny another place fairness of constituency size.
With respect, the Minister has now said, on about three or four occasions, that we are tying the other place. If this amendment is passed, it has to go to the other place for agreement. The other place can choose not to accept it—we are not forcing legislation on the other place. The House of Lords cannot force legislation on the House of Commons; the House of Commons must agree to this and may choose not to.
That is perfectly correct. I was just asking noble Lords to consider where that puts this House in its relationship with the other place. Where does it put this House to provoke and to seek to deny, at our instigation, the Boundary Commission whose review both Houses of this Parliament determined should take place and should apply to the forthcoming election? I think it quite remarkable that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, seeks to pretend that there are not implications for this House in this particular amendment being passed. I think that there are and that it would be irresponsible of me not to advise the House that there are great dangers in this.
My Lords, it would be because we will have shown that we are not in a position to take advice from our clerks, that we seek to trample roughshod over the conventions of this House and that we are passing an amendment that is not relevant to the Bill that we were considering when we formed this Committee this afternoon. When we went into Committee, we were discussing a Bill about individual electoral registration. That is right, proper and the subject of the Committee, and there can be varying views on that. We were not seeking to overturn an Act, passed by this House less than two years ago, which provided for electoral boundaries for a forthcoming election. What we will in effect be doing is forcing the other House to reject our ill considered—in my view—and unwise amendment.
We began this debate with my noble friend the Leader of the House explaining that there are two issues at stake here: the inadmissibility of this amendment, which is indisputable, and the substance—
It is indisputable that the amendment is inadmissible. The House may overrule that, but it is inadmissible. The other issue is the substance of this amendment. The noble Lord the Leader of the House also explained that we would have to resolve both issues in a single vote. I would like to remind the House of just that. If the noble Lord, Lord Hart, wishes to press this matter to a vote, and noble Lords are inclined to support him, they will be forced to decide what their greater priority is: to support the substance of the amendment, and ignore the advice of the clerks or to uphold the advice of the clerks on inadmissibility and therefore vote to defeat this amendment.
If the noble Lord insists on pressing his amendment, I am clear where I stand. I will seek to uphold the advice of the clerks. I will therefore be voting against this amendment, and I urge all noble Lords who value the customs and practice of this place, from whatever part of the House they come, to do likewise.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to all the arguments put in this debate. I am afraid that I do not accept what the noble Lord has just said. I wish to test the opinion of the House and, in doing so, I repeat that there is no disrespect to the clerks. This is a genuine difference of opinion, for which this House must take the decision.
Schedule 3 : Civil penalty for failing to make application when required by registration officer
Amendment 29 not moved.
Schedule 3 agreed.
Clause 6 : Power to amend or abolish the annual canvass
Amendments 30 to 33 not moved.
Clause 6 agreed.
Clause 7 : Consulting Electoral Commission about proposals under section 6
Amendments 34 and 35 not moved.
Clause 7 agreed.
Amendment 36 not moved.
Clause 8 : Piloting of changes to the annual canvass
Amendment 37 not moved.
Clause 8 agreed.
Clause 9 agreed.
Clause 10 : Orders under Part 1
Amendment 38 not moved.
Clause 10 agreed.
Clauses 11 and 12 agreed.
Schedule 4 : Amendments to do with Part 1
39: Schedule 4, page 21, line 23, leave out “, so far as is reasonably practicable,”
My Lords, our Amendment 39 seeks to resolve concerns raised by the Electoral Commission that the wording in the Bill could weaken electoral registration officers’ existing duties.
It is welcome that the Government propose to add a duty to secure that,
“persons who are entitled to be registered in a register (and no others) are registered in it”.
This is effectively a duty to ensure completeness and accuracy, and I welcome that. However, we do not see the case for diluting that duty with a test that states,
“so far as is reasonably practicable”.
If those words were omitted, the duty would simply be subject to the existing test, which is to,
“take all steps that are necessary”,
making it far stronger. The Government argued at an earlier stage that the “reasonably practicable” test does not make any difference and that electoral registration officers will still comply. That begs the question: if it makes no difference, why change the wording? It is clear that having these words is more likely to dilute the duty than not having them.
As far as I know, no legal challenges have been brought to the existing test of,
“take all steps that are necessary”,
with, perhaps, a vexatious suggestion that an electoral registration officer should have taken an unreasonable step, such as coercing someone to fill in a form or something of that nature. It is of course understood that the steps taken should be reasonable, but we believe that all necessary steps should be taken, and to that end the words referred to in Amendment 39 should be omitted.
I would be grateful to hear from the Minister why he thinks there is merit in removing those words—or at least a reiteration of the assurance that there is no intent to change the purpose of those words, even if they disappear from the legislation. We should not like to hear that there is any intention to dilute the duties of the electoral registration officers, and these reassurances will need to be persuasive if we are not to return to this issue on Report. I look forward to hearing from the Minister and I beg to move.
My Lords, we have two amendments in this group. They chime with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is making; namely, is the Bill intending to dilute the powers of electoral registration officers and the Electoral Commission?
Amendment 39A seeks to address concerns held by the Electoral Commission that Schedule 4 waters down the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1983 that required electoral registration officers to take all necessary steps in carrying out their duties. Our amendment proposes to remove this subsection and is intended to give the Government an opportunity to explain their thinking on this, and it very much reflects the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.
With regard to Amendment 39C, this Bill downgrades the role of the Electoral Commission in the transition to and rollout of individual electoral registration. We have sought several opportunities to amend this Bill to give the Electoral Commission more power. This amendment aims to give power to the Electoral Commission to intervene where EROs are not performing to a sufficiently high standard.
However, interestingly, the Electoral Commission has now issued a statement saying that it feels that it does not need these further powers. We originally tabled this amendment in response to the Electoral Commission’s concerns, but it now says:
“In instances where the Commission has concerns about ERO performance, following a recommendation from the Commission, the Secretary of State or Lord President of the Council has a ‘power of direction’ to require EROs to comply with any general or special directions in relation to the discharge of their functions. To date this system has worked well and we therefore see no need for this to change when IER is introduced”.
The Electoral Commission says it is satisfied with this provided that it receives assurance from the Government that they are prepared to use the existing power of direction in cases where EROs are not fulfilling their duty to take all necessary steps to maintain the electoral register.
It is not a satisfactory position that the Electoral Commission not taking additional powers depends upon a Minister intervening in relation to what particular EROs are doing. It is a slower process; it depends upon the good will of politicians. Is it not better for it to be dealt with by a body that is independent of any political party? I would be interested to hear the Government’s views on these issues.
My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend for raising the issue of the general duty on registration officers.
The amendments to the 1983 Act set out in the Bill strengthen the existing duties on a registration officer while taking into account the requirements of the new registration system. The amendments to Sections 9 and 9A of the 1983 Act made by the Bill do not lower the standards that registration officers are expected to meet. Instead, they set out explicitly important requirements that are not expressly stated in legislation at present.
The qualification of “reasonably practicable” applies to the standard of completeness and accuracy of the register that must be reached—it must be as complete and accurate as is reasonably practicable. This is a high standard. To set it any higher would be to ask registration officers to achieve unreasonable or impracticable levels, which would not be right. It is simply not possible for registration officers to have perfectly up-to-date registers at all times and it would not be reasonable to introduce a requirement on registration officers which they would not be able to meet.
The Electoral Commission accepts that the changes proposed to Section 9A do not represent a watering down of the duties of electoral registration officers, but has asked the Government to make clear their intention behind the rewording of Section 9A. To offer that reassurance I will quote Mr David Heath from another place when he said that,
“far from diluting the requirements on registration officers, under the new registration system we are strengthening the existing duties”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/6/12; col. 316.]
The change we are making does not weaken the duty in Section 9A. We have set out in draft regulations our initial proposals for what registration officers must do to encourage an application to register to vote. This includes as a minimum the sending of an invitation, two reminders, and the sending of a canvasser to encourage an application.
I believe that Amendment 39A has the same desired effect as Amendment 39. In addition, however, it would have the effect of removing the explicit duty to seek to include in the register those who are eligible to vote but are not currently on the register. Amendment 39C would give the Electoral Commission powers of intervention where they judge that registration officers have not taken all of the necessary steps outlined under Section 9A. However, it is not clear from the amendment what form this intervention would take.
We believe that the fulfilment of the requirements set out in Section 9A plays a vital role in improving the completeness and accuracy of our electoral registers, which we are committed to achieving; however, giving the Electoral Commission powers to intervene where this is not being done would be a significant change in its role.
The Commission already has powers to set and monitor performance standards for electoral services, against which electoral registration officers’ performance is measured. A failure to meet those standards could indicate a potential failure to meet the duty set out in Section 9A of the 1983 Act. In addition, Ministers may require registration officers to comply with directions relating to discharging their functions. It is also an offence for them to breach their official duty without good cause. To date this system has worked well and we see no need to change this or for any specific provision to be made relating to the discharge of Section 9A duties. For these reasons, I question whether the amendment is necessary in ensuring that Section 9A duties are fulfilled. For those reasons I ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
I shall also speak to Amendments 43 and 45, which are minor and technical amendments. As a consequence of the changes to the canvass process under IER to be made by the Bill, we need to remove the reference to “the relevant date” from Section 49(6)(a) of the 1983 Act. That date is usually 15 October, which is currently the date of residence for the purposes of the annual canvass. Under IER the canvass will not be tied to a date. It is for those reasons that the Government will move Amendments 43 and 45.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his assurances that there is no intention whatever to weaken the duties of returning officers in relation to the registration process. I hope that any information that emanates from the Electoral Commission in due course will emphasise that fact to returning officers. On the basis of his reassurances, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 39.
Amendment 39 withdrawn.
Amendment 39A not moved.
39B: Schedule 4, page 21, line 26, at end insert—
“( ) In subsection (2), after paragraph (e), insert—
“(f) reporting to the police any suspicion he or she might have that an offence had been committed relevant to the integrity of registration and absent vote applications””
This amendment seeks to put an additional duty on electoral registration officers. Tackling electoral fraud is one of the stated aims of the Government in shifting to a system of individual electoral registration. It has been one of the justifications for speeding up the implementation. While we warn against the fast-track transition, we wholeheartedly support all attempts at addressing and seeking to eliminate the occurrence of fraud. EROs are the officials charged with the administration of the electoral register. If they see suspicions of fraud, they should report them to the police, and in this amendment we suggest that a specific duty be placed on EROs to do that. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 39B would require electoral registration officers to report to the police any instances where they suspect that individuals have committed offences relating to electoral fraud when submitting a registration or absent vote application. While the spirit behind the amendment is commendable, the Government do not consider it to be necessary to make this a statutory requirement. I should like to explain the reasons for that.
The need for EROs to refer to the police any suspicions they have on registration or postal vote applications which they receive is already very clear in the guidance issued to them by the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission’s Managing Electoral Registration in Great Britain guidance clearly states:
“Any issues concerning the integrity of the registration process should be reported”—
by the ERO—
“to the police immediately”.
In addition to this, the Electoral Commission has worked with the Association of Chief Police Officers to produce guidance for EROs, returning officers and police officers on identifying and responding to allegations of electoral fraud around the registration and postal voting process. In exercising its powers under Section 9A of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Electoral Commission has also set a specific performance standard on integrity which EROs need to meet in maintaining the integrity of registration and postal vote applications. In order to meet this performance standard, EROs are required to establish and maintain contact with their local police with a single point of contact and to ensure that any suspicions arising from registration and postal voting applications are reported to them immediately.
In view of the guidance, performance standards and the reports from the Electoral Commission which confirm that the overwhelming majority of EROs already take the appropriate action to report any suspicions they have in relation to fraudulent registration and postal voting applications to the police, we do not consider that this amendment will have any major impact or lead to any improvements on the ground. Although it is commendable, it is for those reasons that I ask the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 39B withdrawn.
Amendment 39C not moved.
40: Schedule 4, page 22, line 20, at end insert—
“(b) omit paragraph (c) and the “or” before it.”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 44 and 46. These amendments are all technical and consequential. They relate to anonymous entries in the register. I should make it clear that the move to individual electoral registration will not change the right of individuals who may be at risk if their details are published in the electoral register to be registered as anonymous entries. However, the procedure relating to anonymous entries is being modified slightly as a result of individual electoral registration. These amendments are all consequential on these modifications and other IER changes. I beg to move.
Amendment 40 agreed.
41: Schedule 4, page 23, line 15, leave out “In section 13(5)(b),” and insert—
“(1) Section 13 (publication of registers) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2)(b), after “13A(3)” insert “or (3A)”.
(3) In subsection (5)(b),”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 42. These are minor amendments and are intended to ensure that as many eligible applicants as possible are registered by removing a restriction on rolling registration applications being added to the revised register. Removing this restriction would not affect the entitlement of people to object to an application for registration or the registration officer’s duty to determine objections. Rolling registration was introduced by the Representation of the People Act 2000, the provisions of which set up a 14-day period prior to the publication of a monthly update or a revised register during which successful rolling registration applications may not be added.
Under the household registration system, this 14-day limit does not cause any great problems as different rules apply to the compilation of registers used for elections, and the revised register, which is usually published on 1 December, is published following the canvass period. Because a returned household canvass is a de facto application to register, few rolling registration applications are currently made in the canvass period. However, under IER, all applications to register will be akin to rolling registration applications. Having a 14-day period when these cannot be added to the revised register could cause a problem and potentially harm the completeness of the register. The amendments remove the 14-day limit in relation to the publication of the revised register.
As I said, these are minor amendments, but they are supported by the Electoral Commission, which said that it did not believe that there was any significant rationale for retaining the current 14-day period. Indeed, the Association of Electoral Administrators did not feel that there was any administrative reason to keep the limit. For those reasons, I beg to move.
My Lords, the amendment sounds reasonable. Am I right in saying that there will now be no time limit before publication in respect of which registration can take place, meaning that, if you make your application the day before the register is published, it will be included in the register? If you remove the 14-day limit, that appears to be the effect. Perhaps I have misunderstood the amendment, but that seems to be the effect.
My Lords, I think that I am getting into slightly technical territory, but my understanding is that the provision is designed so that, about five days before the register is concluded, as many people as possible are able to be on the register. Some assistance may be coming from the Box, which is always very helpful. The answer that I have is that there is still a five-day objection period, which I think gives the provision a practical effect.
That is incredibly helpful. I am more than happy to see the 14 days go. The consequence is that, up to five days before publication, you will get on to the next published register; if the application is within those five days, you will be on the register that is published after the one that is just about to be published.
Amendment 41 agreed.
Amendments 42 to 44
42: Schedule 4, page 23, line 23, at end insert—
“( ) After subsection (3) insert—
“(3A) Subsection (2)(a)(ii) also does not require a registration officer in Great Britain to issue a notice under subsection (2) in a case where the month which follows that in which the relevant time falls is the month containing the date on which a revised version of the register is next due to be published in accordance with section 13(1)(a); and in such a case the alteration in question shall be made in that revised version of the register.””
43: Schedule 4, page 23, line 37, at end insert—
“(1) Section 49 (effect of registers) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (5)—
(a) in paragraph (b), for the words from “is not” to “was not” substitute “is not or was not at any particular time”;(b) in paragraph (c), for the words from “is, or” to “was,” substitute “is or was at any particular time”.(3) Omit subsection (6).”
44: Schedule 4, page 24, line 14, at end insert—
“In section 62 (offences as to declarations), in subsection (1A), for “section 9B(1)(b)” substitute “section 9B(1A)(a)”.”
Amendments 42 to 44 agreed.
44A: Schedule 4, page 24, line 26, leave out “must request or provide” and insert “may or must require persons to give by virtue of regulations under paragraph 1(2), or must provide to persons,”
My Lords, this is a minor and technical amendment to the Bill. It ensures that there is no ambiguity over the continued application under individual electoral registration of the existing criminal offence relating to non-disclosure of information in response to the annual canvass or providing false information in the response.
The amendment maintains our declared policy of keeping the criminal offence alongside the new civil penalty. The criminal offence of non-disclosure or providing false information is an important part of electoral registration, giving registration officers the capacity to offer a warning on the canvass form and to insist that it is duly completed and returned.
The civil penalty is an additional tool for registration officers as they encourage individuals to register, but the criminal offence is still necessary to ensure that they receive as much information as possible in response to the annual canvass so that residents may be retained on the register or invited to make an individual application.
This is a technical amendment to paragraph 1B of Schedule 2 to the Representation of the People Act 1983, which is inserted by the Bill. It creates a link to paragraph 1 of that schedule, on the requirement to give information, which contains the link to the offence in paragraph 13. I beg to move.
I feel sorry for the Minister because this is rather a complicated amendment. It was presented as being intended to preserve the criminal offence alongside the civil penalty. My reading of the amendment, which amends an amendment to another Act of Parliament, is that, instead of referring to information that a registration officer “must request or provide”, it refers to information that they,
“may or must require persons to give by virtue of regulations under paragraph 1(2), or must provide to persons”,
when conducting a canvass in Great Britain. I do not read Amendment 44A as preserving a criminal offence; I see it as changing the terms of the change that was introduced by the amendment to the other Act in this Act. Am I right and, if so, what is the effect of Amendment 44A? I apologise for asking such a complicated question but it is a rather complicated provision.
I understand that the key phrase in the amendment is the reference back to paragraph 1, but its purpose and effect is that there will be a criminal offence relating to non-disclosure of information on the annual canvass, as there is under the current household registration system. This relates to not providing information or providing false information when requested by an ERO. The criminal penalty can be used by EROs to ensure that the annual canvass form is completed and returned. However, the offence will remain in addition to the civil penalty being introduced under IER, which allows registration officers to impose the penalty where an individual fails to apply to register when required to do so. The criminal offence is more severe because it aims to prevent the potential disenfranchisement of others through the canvass whereas the civil penalty relates to an individual’s application. That is the purpose and effect of the amendment. I can go into further technical detail but perhaps I may clarify the point to the noble and learned Lord more fully when I have taken further advice. Having looked at the technical detail, which involves so much explanation of paragraphs, sections and subsections, I think that I would be in difficulties, and I suspect that other noble Lords might be also.
I am perfectly content with that answer. Perhaps the Minister could have somebody write a little letter about it, because I do not think that it is at the heart of the Bill. It is my fault for not quite understanding the effect of the new amendment. If it were possible to write a letter in relation to it, I am sure that it would be no problem, but it would mean that, by the time we got to Report, we would know where we stood. I apologise for not grasping it.
Amendment 44A agreed.
Amendments 45 and 46
45: Schedule 4, page 25, line 24, at end insert—
“Representation of the People Act 2000 (c. 2)In Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 2000 (registration: amendments of Representation of the People Act 1983), omit paragraph 12(3) and (4).”
46: Schedule 4, page 25, line 27, leave out “paragraph” and insert “paragraphs 4(2), 5 and”
Amendments 45 and 46 agreed.
Schedule 4, as amended, agreed.
Schedule 5 : Transitional provision to do with Part 1
47: Schedule 5, page 27, line 21, at end insert—
“( ) The Government shall report to Parliament annually, within two months of the end of the financial year, on what money has been made available to local authorities to meet costs of transition to the new register and what safeguards have been put in place to make sure the money has been spent on the specified task.”
My Lords, this amendment—if it was passed— requires the Government to report to Parliament annually, within two months of the end of the financial year, on what money has been made available to local authorities to meet the costs of the transition to the new register which will be under IER, and what safeguards have been put in place to make sure that the money has been spent on the specified task. I do not think it would be properly regarded as ring-fenced money but it would mean that the Government would be identifying the amounts of money that they expected to be seen spent on the transition and then there would be a report back afterwards to indicate what had happened to that money.
This is important because I think everybody in the House, and certainly in the other place, is aware of the importance of IER being made to work. I think most people would accept that whether IER works properly or is introduced in a way that does not leave too many people off the register will depend to some extent on the resources that are made available by central government to local authorities to ensure that happens. We know local authorities are pressed in a whole variety of ways at the moment because of the current economic position. I think it is sensible to try to protect the position that at least there is a requirement to report on both the money envisaged and then what happened to it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have a slight problem with the amendment moved by the noble and learned Lord. I may have missed something, but he said that the amendment provides that the Government shall report to Parliament annually, so there is no limit on the number of years—presumably it is in perpetuity—but they would be reporting on something transitional. Presumably there should be some time limit set in the amendment, otherwise there is redundancy built in to what is being asked in terms of providing material that becomes irrelevant once the transition is complete? Or have I missed something?
One would hope so. I do not know how long the transition is going to take. It is clear from the way that everybody has spoken that probably in the first publication of the register where IER is compulsory—1 December 2015—it will not be complete. I have no idea how long it will go on after that, therefore at the moment I am not minded to put in a terminus date. At this stage, I cannot see any objection to the principle. This may surprise you as I am not intending to push this to a vote, but if the principle were accepted—which I hope it will be—then I think the right thing to do would be to talk to the Government to work out the best way to craft the detail.
I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his amendment requiring an annual report to Parliament on the funding allocated to local authorities. I am sorry to disappoint the noble and learned Lord, but as the then Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform announced during this Bill’s Second Reading debate in the other place, we will provide local authorities in England and Wales with grants under Section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003 to pay their net costs for the transition to individual registration in addition to the current costs of running the annual canvass process which will continue to be met through the formula grant.
The Government wrote to local authorities over the summer seeking views on the proposed payment method for the allocation of non-ring-fenced Section 31 grant and the proposed formula which will be taken into account in making allocations. The Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform then wrote to local authorities in December 2012 setting out how the final funding approach, including the funding formulae, will work. The grants paid by the Government to each local authority during the transition will be a matter of public record, and the progress made by local authorities towards implementation of individual registration will be scrutinised by the Electoral Commission as part of its performance standards regime and will also be a matter of public record.
Spending decisions are ultimately a matter for local authorities. However local authorities are required by Section 54 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to pay the expenses of a registration officer properly incurred in the performance of their functions. Paragraph 16 of Schedule 4 to the Bill ensures that this requirement extends to the registration officer’s duties in respect of the transition to the new system.
I am sorry to disappoint the noble and learned Lord, but it is for those reasons that it is felt that the amendment is not necessary, and I therefore ask him to withdraw his amendment.
The effect of my amendment would be that the report to Parliament annually, within two months of the end of the financial year, would simply be on what money was made available which the local authorities could use to meet the costs of the transition and what safeguards have been put in place to make sure the money had been spent on the specified task. It does not, in fact, require that the Government have to ensure that they do. It is a means of identifying what they intended and what steps they took to see whether it happened. With the greatest of respect to the Minister, I cannot see in any of the reasons that he gave why that is not quite a good thing to do which causes no problems for central government and does not interfere with the fact that it is ultimately for local authorities to make the decision about how they spend the overall grant they have. All that is being required here is that central government do the best it can in order to ensure that there is enough money for the transition without in any way offending the constitutional position.
Despite the Minister’s excellent help on previous amendments, I fear we may be hearing about this one again. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 47 withdrawn.
48: Schedule 5, page 27, line 31, leave out “first” and insert “second”
My Lords, Amendments 48, 49 and 51 deal with this particular issue. We know that even though there is no compliance with the notifiers in the period up to 2014, nevertheless the individual elector will be carried over to the 2014 register but not to the 2015 register. In relation to the 2014 register, although the registration would be carried over, the proxy or postal voting arrangements made in relation to that elector will not be carried over. We would like to see carryover of the proxy and postal voting arrangements. We fear that if there is carryover without that also being carried over, it may well be that, without knowing it, people lose their ability to vote. The people who will be most affected by this will tend to be the poorest and the dispossessed in society. Is there a reason why the carryover does not include the proxy or postal vote? If the registration is to be carried over to 2014, what is the thinking behind not having a carryover? Will the Government think again? I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak first to Amendment 58 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler. Unlike the intention of other amendments within this group, we do not wish to decide today that the transition to individual electoral registration need necessarily take longer than the Government hope. However we very much want to make sure that Parliament has the opportunity, if necessary, to lengthen the transitional period in order to protect the comprehensiveness of the register. That is the purpose of Amendment 58.
We understand from recent discussions we have held with the Electoral Commission that it will not be sure about the success or otherwise of this transition until some point in 2016. Therefore, we think it is highly desirable that there should be some opportunity to extend that period. We know that throughout the process the Electoral Commission will give advice to Parliament as the transitional phase continues, and Parliament will have regard to that advice, but we feel strongly that Parliament must be able to act upon that advice rather than just receive it. However we think it would unfair to say that the Electoral Commission should be the sole arbiter of whether progress towards individual electoral registration has succeeded sufficiently well that the register could be considered to be in a fit and proper state for the various purposes for which it is used.
The Committee has heard previously about our recommendations to try to ensure that the process is a success. We considered them on our first day in Committee. We on these Benches were particularly concerned about things such as the position of attainers—16 and 17 year-olds. We wanted to know how we can track down people in the private rented sector and how we might make use of the DVLA database of drivers to find huge numbers of adults. Even if we do not use the whole DVLA database, we are anxious to know how people who notify the DVLA that they have changed their address might be incorporated into the system of electoral registration.
All those different methodologies to try to improve both the accuracy and the comprehensiveness of the electoral register involve new technology and new processes, and we cannot tell at this stage how successful or otherwise they will be. The current round of pilots has yet to be properly evaluated. Although we want to make individual electoral registration a success under the timetable set out in the Bill, we think that it is important that there is a safeguard in such an important issue for our democracy, so that Parliament has the opportunity to say, “We are not sure that this process has been sufficiently successful for us immediately to change over to individual electoral registration exclusively and drop the carryover”.
We know from many debates how the electoral register is in a different state of order in different parts of the country. We would want to know that it is in a better state of order in all parts of the country before proceeding. We think that we need more flexibility.
We know that Ministers might even welcome the idea that Parliament has to approve the final completion of the transitional phase and the use of the new electoral register without carryover if it helps bring pressure to ensure that that transitional process is carried out successfully. It is not necessarily delay or dilution, but flexibility which we seek. We hope to hear from the Minister that consideration will be given to allowing Parliament to decide later in the process whether it is really safe to proceed as is envisaged for 1 December 2015 or whether carryover needs to continue for a little longer. We may be dealing with new boundary reviews starting on the register on 1 December 2015, and important elections are due in Scotland and Wales and many English local authorities in 2016. It is vital that the register is in good shape for those purposes.
Amendment 50 deals with the distinct issue of the treatment of postal voters in the transition to individual electoral registration. I have instinctive sympathy with the Government’s view, which the Electoral Commission appears to share, that the postal voting system may be more open to abuse and therefore ripe for reform than the in-person system. However, the purpose of the amendment is to test the evidence for that contention.
In 2006, the previous Government accepted an amendment in my name to the Electoral Administration Bill, now enacted, which greatly improved the security of the postal voting system by requiring anyone voting by post to sign a personal application to say that they wanted to vote by post and to sign an accompanying certificate with the postal vote so that we could be certain that the person who applied for the postal vote was the same person who was returning the completed ballot paper.
It is possible to see how voters impersonating people in person can more easily get away with impersonation. It is not difficult to go to a polling station, give a name and address and be handed a ballot paper. You might not choose the name of someone famous or someone who always votes, because they may turn up subsequently and dispute the fact that they have already been given a ballot paper and demand a subsequent ballot paper, and there may be an investigation, but we know that many people never vote. A party could be involved in an election, find out that someone has no intention of going to the polling station and vote on their behalf. Indeed, in my experience in Liverpool in the 1980s, when the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, was trying to organise reforms of the Labour Party in that city at the same time as I was trying to beat the then Militant-led Labour Party, there was widespread impersonation at the polling station organised by the Militants, who did not have sufficient support from ordinary voters but could impersonate large numbers of them.
It is not as simple as saying that voting by post is clearly open to fraud and abuse but that voting in person is not, but the Bill proposes that you must be registered under the IER system if you are to vote by post, but that you do not have to if you vote in person. I wonder whether that is justifiable and whether we should insist that postal voters are registered under the new system if they are to be able to exercise their right to vote in the 2015 elections.
My Lords, there is no question of inadmissibility for these amendments. Indeed, questions were raised during the debate that we had a short while ago that addressed, in particular, the transitional arrangements to the new, individual electoral register.
Two subjects are under discussion and, if noble Lords will permit, I will deal with them in turn. The first is the removal of absent votes from those electors who do not register under IER in 2014. My noble friend Lord Rennard’s Amendment 50 and Amendment 51, tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, speak to that issue. The amendments would leave in place absent votes for the 2015 general election for voters who have not registered or been verified under IER. To respond to my noble friend’s challenge, I think that he is saying that that is incompatible with the arrangements that we have elsewhere. One of the drivers of IER is tackling electoral fraud, and especially vulnerabilities to registration fraud, to restore voters’ confidence in the system. Moving to a position where all those casting postal votes or using proxies have been verified through IER will add an additional safeguard to the system at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Electoral Commission agrees with this position and stated in response to Amendment 50:
“We oppose this amendment because we believe that the security of the absent voting process should be improved in advance of the 2015 UK general election”.
The use of data matching to confirm entries will mean that a significant number of current postal voters are likely to be able automatically to retain their postal vote in the 2015 general election. Others who are not automatically confirmed on the new register will be given an opportunity and reminders to register under the new system in 2014 and, if they choose not to, will still be able to cast a vote—not a postal or proxy vote, but one in person—at the 2015 general election. We are not disfranchising anyone, but the driver is, of course, to get people to register under IER.
There will be clear communication to anyone with an absent vote who is invited to register under the new system about what will happen if they do not do so, and in the event that the person does not register, they will be written to again to inform them that they have lost their absent vote and giving them the opportunity to register under IER and reapply for their absent vote. This is a participatory exercise; it is not designed to remove legitimate voters from the register.
Those steps, alongside the addition of the other measures we have introduced to maintain completeness, such as the introduction of the civil penalty, minimise the risk of someone with an absent vote inadvertently losing it, which was one of the noble and learned Lord’s concerns, while as promptly as possible bringing in an important safeguard against fraud.
I now turn to Amendments 48, 49 and 58, each of which relate to the carry-forward of existing electors under IER. I briefly remind the Committee that, under our proposals, there is already a carry-forward function to include those from whom a canvass form has been received in the final pre-transition canvass, which we intend to conclude in spring 2014. Those who do not make a successful application to register and are not confirmed by data matching, which of course the vast majority will be, will remain on the register throughout the transition to TIER, including the register used for the 2015 general election.
Amendment 48, tabled by the noble and learned Lord, would have the effect of including in this carry-forward those electors who last registered in the canvass of 2012. This would retain until 2015 the entries of electors added to the register last year who did not respond positively to the final non-IER canvass. If entries from 2012 were kept on the register until 2015 without any subsequent evidence that the person was still resident there, the register for the next general election would contain entries where the ERO had not heard from the elector for more than two years. We believe that this is too long for the ERO to remain satisfied that the citizen is indeed still resident and that the effect of this amendment would be to increase the inaccuracies on the register, something I think all Members of the Committee would agree should be avoided. Indeed, much of the debate we had earlier was about inaccuracies on the register.
Amendment 49, also tabled by the noble and learned Lord, would extend the carry-forward for one year, so that non-IER entries on the register are not removed until 2016. Amendment 58, tabled by my noble friend Lord Rennard, would mean that the final transition to an electoral register made up solely of individually registered electors could take place only following Parliament approving a statutory instrument. We are not minded to adopt these proposals because of the likelihood of the inaccuracies they will bring to these early IER registers. We know that carrying forward non-IER entries on the register will result in some inaccurate entries being carried forward. We judge that this is an acceptable risk to take to protect the registers for the general election in 2015.
However, when the registers are published, after the 2015 canvass, in December 2015 it could have been nearly two years since the ERO had heard from the individuals in question here, which brings in the risk of a high degree of inaccuracy. Under the noble and learned Lord’s amendment these entries would remain on the register and under my noble friend’s amendment they would remain on the register if Parliament did not vote to engage the removals process in 2015. Furthermore, under our plans, by the time of publication of the registers in 2015, those individuals who are not confirmed automatically at the start of the transition will have had more than a year to register individually, over two canvasses, and will have been contacted a number of times by their ERO. There will also be a general election between the two canvasses—a time when awareness of politics and voting is at its highest. Our intention—and I hope this reassures noble Lords who are the authors of these amendments—remains that EROs will write to individuals who have neither registered nor been confirmed towards the end of the 2015 canvass to inform them that they will be removed and to offer them one further chance to apply to be registered.
I hope that is reassuring. The intention behind these amendments is to maintain the number of entries on the register, but in our view they risk reducing the accuracy of the register to an unacceptable degree. In the case of the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Rennard there is also the difficulty of creating uncertainty for the public and administrators which could undermine the effectiveness of our plans for the transition. The Government are confident that our proposals for the transition to IER are about right. We will avoid the problems that this group of amendments is intended to address and, for the reasons I have set out, I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for that comprehensive reply. Two things go through my mind. First, in relation to the 2014-15 change, he acknowledges that despite all the efforts being made to get people to register by IER it may not work. If that is right, why will it work in relation to postal or proxy votes but not in relation to individual registration? Secondly and separately, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, referred to the effect of the information that is coming out, and we know what the data-matching pilots are saying. Do they not make the Government think that a longer carryover period is be required? In particular, the data-matching pilots are showing that only about 70% of names are matching up, which may not be enough. I hope the Government will think about those matters. We will certainly think again and consider whether to come back on Report. I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 48 withdrawn.
Amendments 49 to 51 not moved.
Schedule 5 agreed.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.26 pm.