Committee (2nd Day) (Continued)
52: Before Clause 13, insert the following new Clause—
“Provision for polling to take place at weekends
(1) Section 1 of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (polling days for parliamentary general elections) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2), leave out “The polling day” and insert “Polling”.
(3) In subsection (2), leave out “7 May 2015” and insert “conducted over the course of one day, or two consecutive days, between 2 May 2015 and 10 May 2015 inclusive”.
(4) In subsection (3), leave out “The polling day” and insert “Polling”.
(5) In subsection (3), leave out “the first Thursday” and insert “conducted over the course of one day, or two consecutive days, and in the first ten days”.
(6) In subsection (3), after “day” in the third line insert “or days”.
(7) In subsection (4)—
(a) leave out “the polling day” and insert “polling had been conducted”, (b) in paragraph (a) leave out “was appointed”,(c) for paragraph (b) substitute—“(b) was conducted before the first weekend in May”.(8) In subsection (5), after “day” insert “or days”.
(9) In subsection (5), leave out “is” and insert “are”.
(10) In subsection (7), after “day” insert “or days”.
(11) After subsection (7) insert—
“(8) The Prime Minister must by order made by statutory instrument specify the day, or days, on which polling is to be conducted under subsection (2) by 31 January 2014.
(9) The Prime Minister must by order made by statutory instrument specify the day, or days, on which polling is to be conducted under subsection (3) by a date no later than 15 months before the first weekend in May in the fifth calendar year following that in which polling had been conducted for the previous parliamentary general election.””
My Lords, at this stage of the evening I do not intend to go again through the arguments we had about weekend voting during the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. However, I am a long-standing advocate of a change to voting at the weekend, or at least for it to be considered. We have never held a proper pilot to assess whether more people might choose to vote if they were able to do so at the weekend. The amendment tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler seeks to give Parliament a chance to decide to hold the next general election over one or two days of the weekend following the presently scheduled date of 7 May 2015. This would permit time to consider properly all the issues about opening polling stations at the weekend and about, for example, religious observance.
The deliberate provision for polling to take place on two consecutive days would mean that no one need be disadvantaged by the requirements of their faith. Polling hours could perhaps be reduced if spread over two days to, say, 9am to 6pm, which would mitigate against potentially increased costs. To every practical objection to this measure, there is a practical answer. Those of us who campaign in elections know the frustration of trying to contact the working population of a whole constituency in the few hours between 6pm and 10pm, to remind them to vote. We know that electors who are contacted on polling day are much more likely to vote than are those who are not contacted. For that reason, if for no others, it is clearly wrong that the working population is so much less likely to meet someone on polling day asking them to go and vote than those who are retired and more likely to be at home during the day.
When we discussed the idea in principle of weekend voting during the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness said:
“I want to make clear that we are not ruling it out. I want to reassure the House that not including something in this Bill will not rule out the possibility of us returning to this issue”.—[Official Report, 15/3/2011; col. 175.]
Therefore, we are returning to it briefly this evening. On this occasion, I ask the Minister to consider moving beyond simply returning to the issue again in another Bill. We could move towards doing something about it. If this amendment is not quite the right one then there are alternatives. One alternative I have sometimes argued for is that we try weekend voting at the next European elections in 2014. Much of the rest of Europe votes on a Sunday anyway, so we would be bringing our arrangements into line with them by having voting on a Saturday and Sunday with votes counted on the Sunday evening at the same time as in the rest of the European Union.
I believe it may be much more convenient for many voters to be able to vote on a Saturday and Sunday than it is for them to have their schools disturbed, their children perhaps to have to be looked after, and for schools to be closed. I believe it is a bad sign to close the schools on a Thursday in order to vote when perhaps our children should be continuing to learn and parents should still be able to work. We can talk at great length about weekend voting, but it is a principle that should be considered, properly piloted, and if we pass the amendment it would allow proper time for consideration of it before the next general election. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will make a couple of comments on the amendment. I am a bit wary of it. I rather shared the view of the Electoral Commission in their evidence to us:
“The Commission is clear, however, that any change should only be made if there is firm evidence that it would be of significant benefit to electors. At present, the evidence on weekend voting provides an insufficient basis on which to reach a definitive conclusion”.
Therefore we would need a far stronger evidence base before proceeding. Moving to this for the next election would be rather an experiment, on a bit too grand a scale. We need much better evidence before proceeding.
I raise a more general point that I have variously developed before. I am always concerned that discussing such proposals can amount to a form of displacement activity by politicians. Voter dissatisfaction and apathy have little to do with the process of voting. If people are motivated to vote, they will vote. To motivate people to vote we need to address policies and political behaviour. Politicians cannot say, “It is not us, it is the system”. I fear it is us. We need to be addressing that and doing so in a sustained manner. With amendments of this sort, however well intentioned—clearly they are, and there is a case for discussing it—my worry is that it actually risks masking a much more important debate that we need to have. We need to open it up on a much wider scale. There is the obvious point that if we make a change of the sort proposed by my noble friend this is perhaps not the appropriate time or Bill to do it. We have already messed around this afternoon with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I do not think that we need to be messing about now with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
My Lords, this is always an interesting one; it feels so natural that it must be easier to vote over two days than over one, and at a weekend. On the face of it, the proposal seems very attractive. However, following on from the noble Lord, Lord Norton, in all the doorstep work I have done—and I have done a fair amount—it has never been a complaint that I have heard. Although it sounds quite attractive, I have never heard people saying, “Why don’t we vote at the weekend?”. However, perhaps we should look to France. When we were discussing the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, I think noble Lords were saying that we should follow France, which votes on a Sunday. Much more importantly, of course, they voted socialist on a Sunday, so we should definitely follow what France does.
It sounds attractive but we are perhaps in a closer place to the Government in that we await some evidence about whether this merely sounds attractive and easy, or whether it would do what I think all of us want and increase public engagement and accessibility for voters, which we are going to come on to in an important amendment shortly. What we need is evidence and some more thought on this, and we will then happily look at it. If evidence is brought to us that this would increase both turnout and engagement, we would respond quite positively. However, at the moment, we are slightly lacking that evidence.
My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend for moving this amendment, because it has given us an opportunity to consider the points on weekend voting. This amendment would amend the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, to change the current position, whereby the date of the parliamentary general election is on a fixed day, to a position whereby the Prime Minister would specify by order that polling for the next general election could take place on any day, or on two consecutive days, between 2 May and 10 May 2015. The provision would then apply for subsequent general elections every five years over the course of one day, or two consecutive days, and within the first 10 days of May. I understand that this is to allow the Government to consider the case for weekend voting and to implement it at the next UK parliamentary general election in 2015 and at subsequent general elections. This is clearly an important issue.
As noble Lords will be aware, there are arguments both for and against moving polling day from the traditional Thursday to another day or days, perhaps at the weekend. Similarly, there are arguments for and against holding elections over more than one day. We know that moving to weekend voting would raise particular issues and concerns for certain faith groups. However, it is not obvious that moving polling day from the traditional Thursday to a Saturday or Sunday, or both, would make it easier for electors to vote.
The most recent assessment of opinion on this issue was a consultation exercise undertaken in 2008 by the previous Government, which made the findings public. The overall response was against a move to weekend voting, with some 53% of respondents taking that view. Additionally, where weekend voting has been tested in a small number of electoral voting pilots, the total take-up was generally around 2% to 3% of the overall total number of votes cast, and there is no evidence to suggest that it encouraged voters to vote who would not have otherwise done so.
For these reasons, I do not believe that this is the appropriate legislative vehicle to make such a change, or even to open up the possibility for the Prime Minister to make the change later without, as the amendment is drafted, the consent of either House. Moreover, alongside concerns about practicability, moving to weekend voting would also raise resource and cost issues. Importantly, an impact assessment undertaken by the Ministry of Justice in February 2010 under the previous Government concluded that moving from Thursday to weekend voting would increase costs significantly. Staff, polling station and counting costs would all rise with weekend voting, as would the costs of storing and securing ballot papers over two days at the weekend. The impact assessment estimated that, in total, costs would increase by around £58 million per general election. This clearly is not the primary factor, but it is one that we should consider in discussing this amendment.
Given that there is no clear evidence that the electorate would favour such a move to weekend voting, the Government have no current plans to move polling day for either the general or other elections to the weekend. However, they will keep under review ways in which the democratic process can be enhanced. For these reasons, I hope that my noble friend will agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, these short debates about weekend voting are always frustrating for me. People always say, “Where is the evidence that it would be a popular thing to do?” yet we never have the pilots from which we could gain the evidence. It is rather like saying, “Well, I do not like Chinese food, but I have never been into a Chinese restaurant”. Unless you try something, you do not have much evidence. It seems to me that there is much evidence already there. We know that people of retirement age have a far greater propensity to vote than people of working age. Common sense tells you that a factor might be that retired people can vote easily during a Thursday when the whole of the day is at their disposal; whereas there are people of working age and in work, perhaps also of the age where they have children to drop off at school on a morning, who work a full day and pick up their kids from school and have much less time in the evening. Perhaps that might be the reason why fewer people who are not of retirement age vote. We do not know until we do these pilots.
We hear the argument about it costing more, but on the other hand, with things such as storing ballot papers, we vote in European elections on a Thursday and the ballot papers have to be stored until a Sunday and then counted. If you voted on a Saturday or Sunday, you could reduce those costs. However, I agree with the Minister that this is not the appropriate vehicle to make such a change and on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 52 withdrawn.
Clauses 13 and 14 agreed.
Clause 15 : Alteration of electoral registers: pending elections
52A: Clause 15, page 9, line 12, at end insert—
“( ) In section 13(4), at end insert “provided that the registration officer shall not make any such changes if an election specified in section 13B(4) is scheduled to take place within 30 days of publication of the revised version of the register.””
My Lords. This amendment stand in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton and myself. It is quite a small amendment about trying to counter electoral fraud. Luckily, we do not have an enormous history of electoral fraud here, but if anyone did want to do it, the easy way is to add a small number of electors to the register fraudulently over several months. The problem is that the shorter the time between them doing it and when the election takes place, the harder it would be for that attempted fraud to be identified. That is the problem that this amendment tries to meet.
The police commissioner elections took place quickly after the new register, when there would not have been time to do any checks. Probably, that is not good practice, although we understand the reasons. The other issue is that we need the register in good time for an election so those of us sad people who go round door-knocking have time to identify everyone who is on it and give them the opportunity to meet us and hear what we have to say. I know that the Government acknowledge that there is possibly something in this that could be looked at. The Government are not convinced that it would reduce fraud, but would be happy to look at these implications with the electoral administrators. We welcome that.
We have a concern about this potential fraud and would therefore ask if the Government agree that we need to take steps to prevent the sort of events that we saw in the 2007 Slough postal vote frauds occurring again. Perhaps the Government could also explain why they think this amendment risks producing new risks, whereas it is obviously aimed at reducing the potential for fraud. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for bringing forward this amendment. As I understand it, the amendment seeks to provide that those electors who remain on the register following the canvass would retain their existing electoral number if an election were to take place within 30 days of the publication of the register.
The amendment raises a number of practical considerations and could make the process for compiling the register, and the register itself, more complex. It may also result in additional costs for electoral registration officers if their IT systems have to be adjusted to meet these new requirements.
It is not certain that the amendment would necessarily address the concerns that were quite rightly raised by the noble Baroness, especially as implementing the proposed change could take up the time of EROs that could more usefully be spent on other matters arising from their registration duties. Of course, individual electoral registration is being introduced to tackle electoral fraud and to improve the integrity of our electoral system, in particular the electoral register.
The proposed change could lead to confusion in the data being included on the register; for example, it is not clear what would happen when electors are removed from the register following an annual canvass. If it is intended that the numbers for such electors are not to be used on the new register, this would result in gaps in the numbering of electors on the register. It is not clear how electors who are added to the register would be numbered; it may mean that a different numbering system would be used for new electors. This could mean that persons living at the same address are subject to different numbering systems and their names could appear on different parts of the register, which I understand could be an issue for the logistics of producing and distributing poll cards. When a revised register is published, parties will in any event need to update the data they hold to reflect changes to the register; that is, persons removed and added to the register.
On the face of it, this amendment could bring added complexity and cost to the electoral registration process without bringing the obvious benefit that I know the noble Baroness is focused on, which is the reduction of electoral fraud. For those reasons, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for that. Certainly, we do not want to add complexity. As someone who has gone round knocking on doors, the last thing we want is different numbers within the same households, for reasons that I think we all understand.
I am grateful to the Minister as I think I heard him say that he understands what we are trying to avoid. If the Government or the Electoral Commission can perhaps work with electoral officers and look at that issue of having time to check on fraud, we will leave it to their good offices to do that. On that basis, I withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 52A withdrawn.
Clause 15 agreed.
Clauses 16 and 17 agreed.
53: After Clause 17, insert the following new Clause—
(1) Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 (parliamentary elections rules) is amended as follows.
(2) In paragraph 37 (voting procedure) after sub-paragraph (6) insert—
“(7) A voter who is in the polling station or in a queue outside the polling station for the purpose of voting at the time specified for the close of the poll shall be entitled to apply for a ballot paper under sub-paragraph 1 above and a ballot paper shall be delivered and the voter entitled to vote in accordance with this paragraph.””
My Lords, this amendment is tabled in the name of the chairman of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, and three members of that committee: the noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Lang of Monkton, and myself. The amendment addresses a mischief that occurred at the previous general election and which may recur at future elections, however careful the preparations.
The mischief is that eligible voters who present themselves at the polling station before the close of the poll at 10 pm are unable to vote if the relevant officials do not issue them with the ballot paper to which they are entitled by 10 pm. At the previous general election in 2010, some 1,200 voters queuing at 27 polling stations in 16 different constituencies were adversely affected in this manner.
Your Lordships’ Constitution Committee considered the matter. We concluded that eligible voters who present themselves at the polling station before it closes at 10 pm should not be denied a vote because they are not given a ballot paper by 10 pm, perhaps because many other voters arrive at or around the same time, or perhaps because the administration of the polling station is less than efficient. The right to vote is precisely that—a fundamental right. It should not be defeated by circumstances outside the control of the voter. Indeed, when we are rightly concerned to do everything possible to encourage people to vote, we should not be putting obstacles in the way of eligible voters who do make the effort to attend at a polling station and who are then frustrated by their inability to cast a vote.
The Electoral Commission has expressed its strong support for this amendment for very similar reasons. The amendment commands, I think, widespread support across the House. The arguments which have so far been presented by the Government in answer to the amendment are, your Lordships may think, very weak indeed. First, it is said by the Government that the voter need not wait until just before 10 pm. He or she could or should vote earlier. However, for many people, voting early is not an option because of work or family commitments. In any event, close of poll is 10 pm. Voters should not be required to guess how far in advance of 10 pm they need to attend at the polling station in order to be sure of being allowed to vote.
The second argument presented by the Government is that such a change in the law would cause practical problems. That is very unconvincing. All that needs to happen is that at 10 pm the polling officer closes the door of the polling station, or if, unhappily, there is a queue outside, stands at the back of the queue to ensure that anyone arriving after 10 pm cannot join the queue. The Electoral Commission has pointed out that the Scottish Government introduced such a reform in 2011. At the Scottish council elections last year, the change in the law enabled voting by three people who arrived by 10 pm but would otherwise have been denied a ballot paper. There were no practical difficulties. The Electoral Commission issued sensible and practical guidance to presiding officers.
The third argument advanced in opposition to this change in the law is that it is unnecessary, as the lessons have been learnt from the experience of the 2010 general election. The answer is that, however good the preparation may be, there is always a risk of a queue building up which prevents one or more eligible voters from voting because they have not received a ballot paper by 10 pm. Issuing a ballot paper may take a minute or two and, if several people arrive in the period just before 10 pm, a queue can easily build up. The risk of a queue is all the greater if ballot papers are being handed out for local as well as general elections. The Electoral Commission has rightly said that,
“no degree of planning alone can entirely mitigate the potential risk of queues at the close of poll”.
The final argument which the Government advance is that not many voters will be adversely affected. However, even one eligible voter denied a vote in these circumstances is one too many. The Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot say both that very few voters will be affected and that the amendment will cause practical problems. This amendment is correct in principle, it is workable in practice and it is much needed. I beg to move.
My Lords, as always, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has presented the amendment with enormous clarity and great conviction. As chair of the Constitution Committee, I can say that we have been working on this question for some time. We held a stand-alone inquiry on it in the autumn of 2011 and published our first report in January 2012. The most interesting thing about the difference between the report that we issued then and our subsequent scrutiny report on the Bill that is before your Lordships’ Committee this evening is that the Electoral Commission changed its mind between the two reports. That is significant. It looked at the evidence that we had taken and engaged in extensive correspondence and “offline” discussion with us and came back in October with the report from which the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has quoted extensively. I think that it was convinced by the arguments that we made—I am sure that it was by others, too, and took other evidence—and, at the same time, the Government, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has said, have continued to advance the same arguments. We heard those arguments last Wednesday when Chloe Smith represented the Government at a meeting of the Constitution Committee and put forward precisely the arguments which the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has described.
It seems obvious that the fundamental right to vote is the question on which we should focus, and that the law in relation to this matter focuses almost exclusively on the rights and responsibilities of the statutory role of a returning officer and not on the right to vote. If one looks at it from the perspective of the voter, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, again has said, we can be talking about small numbers, but it is worth remembering that the Electoral Commission reckons that around 1,200 people were affected in 2010 by the law as it stands and the individual is very important in this respect. I would just add—not that it is significant in terms of statistical comparisons, but it is still relevant—that, in 47 constituencies in the 2010 election, fewer than 1,200 votes formed the majority, and in 28 constituencies, fewer than 600 votes formed the majority. In a sense, this can be significant, and if one puts value on the individual vote, as I certainly do, then the human right to vote is clearly very important.
The argument which was very current before our discussions with the Electoral Commission last year was that the law as it stood was secure. The Constitution Committee challenged this because when we looked at the two cases that were being relied on at that stage—one from 1901 and one from 2001, almost exactly 100 years later—it was very clear that these depended on the impact and role of the returning officers and not on the individual voter. We think that the time has come to achieve clarity about the rights and responsibilities of the individual voter, which could be done by this simple amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has already referred to the example of Scotland. I would refer also to the example of the United States, where in the presidential elections last November there were certain polling areas where queues were in place two hours after the official closing of the poll and yet the votes were still counted. This is something that we need to look at very swiftly and in time for the 2015 election.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend. We strongly support the amendment. The fact that it is presented to the Committee by four very distinguished members of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee gives it rather special significance.
In general, we should trust the presiding officer in the polling station to use his or her common sense. It is their role to use their discretion in that respect. However, if anything, they should surely seek to give every opportunity to the elector who has come in good faith, and in good time in most circumstances, to vote.
I am reminded of an incident when I went at about 11 am to a very remote polling station in a draughty caravan in the middle of Bodmin Moor in a winter election. It was the smallest electorate in my then constituency; indeed, there were only 18 people on the electoral register, and 17 of them had long since voted at 11 am. Everybody knew that the 18th person had actually died in the last few weeks before the poll. Yet of course the presiding officer and his assistant had to stay there in that bitterly cold caravan for the following 11 hours.
I give that example because, of course, we do not know how many presiding officers in May 2010 used their common sense to give a ballot paper to those who were actually within the building and standing in a queue ready to vote, having been there perhaps for some time, without already being given a ballot paper. We only know about the ones who were kept out by those who thought perhaps they were doing precisely the right thing in the circumstances—the 1,200. However, in my view it is incumbent on this House and the Government to try to clarify this situation. It is clearly the case that in May 2010 a large number of people were disenfranchised by the circumstances of the particular polling station and by a sensible approach not being taken in the terms to which the noble Baroness so eloquently referred—the human right to vote in a democratic society.
The Government, as has already been said, were quick to say that legislation was not needed, and they continue to claim that the amendment is not necessary. Surely the question that must be before the Committee today is: what harm would it do to pass this amendment to clarify the situation and make sure that we do our very best to enable everybody to vote who should be allowed to vote?
As I mentioned previously, I sit on the cross-party informal advisory group to the Electoral Commission; and therefore I take very seriously the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, has just made. The commission previously thought that it was not necessary to make this change. It now enthusiastically supports this change. I hope that the Committee will permit me to repeat the quotation which I think the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, referred to earlier, and to give it in absolutely specific terms about the Scottish local government experience, because I think that it is extremely relevant. I cannot see how my noble friend the Minister can ignore this recommendation from our official advisers. The Electoral Commission said:
“We believe that the Scottish Government’s legislative provision to enable the issuing of ballot papers to those who have arrived at the polling station by the close of poll is a wise backstop which puts the interests of voters first, and we continue to recommend that similar provisions be made for all other statutory elections in the UK”.
That could not be clearer. I believe that the logic is impeccable, and it comes from our official advisers. Parliament has recently—and continuously—said that we must listen to the Electoral Commission particularly on these sorts of issues because it is so easy otherwise for Parliament to take a partisan approach to this sort of issue.
I simply ask my noble friends on the Front Bench to recognise that it would be unnecessary and certainly counterproductive to continue to fight this amendment. They should accept it or commit to an alternative with the same effect on Report. I look forward to a very positive response from my noble friend.
My Lords, it is rather encouraging at this time of night if two Peers rise at the same time. I was on the Constitution Committee when this matter was discussed and I rise to support the amendment as well. I think the case for it is compelling. If an elector has made the effort to be there by 10 o’clock at night they should have the right to vote. Following on from what I was saying earlier, I think the last thing we should be doing is discouraging voters who want to vote from actually voting. I think that it is imperative that we facilitate the opportunity to do so.
Given what has been said I do not want to speak at length. I just want to pick up on one point that has already been referred to, and that is not so much defining a queue as determining who is in it at 10 o’clock. We have had reference to experience elsewhere. We do not actually need to go as far as Scotland or the United States. We can do it in terms of our own House—because of course if there is a queue outside after eight minutes, as I understand it, one of the doorkeepers just stands behind the queue and stops anybody else coming in. It is fairly straightforward. All that needs to be done is straightforward guidance to returning officers as to how to deal with that in a practical way. I do not see any fantastic difficulty involved, but a fundamental principle is engaged by the amendment, and we should facilitate those voters who have made the effort to get to the polling station to vote if they are there by 10 o’clock.
My Lords, I shall make a few comments on the amendment, to which I added my name. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and other noble Lords have made clear, the need for the change has been questioned on the grounds that at the previous election, problems arose in only a small number of polling stations. As they have said, that surely cannot be a strong argument against the amendment. Everyone who wishes to vote and arrives at a polling station before 10 pm must be accommodated. That is the principle from which we must not deviate. The comparatively few cases of difficulty that occurred in the 2010 election were widely publicised and aroused considerable concern, as they were broadcast on television throughout the country. That does no good for the image and reputation of our electoral system. A repetition simply must be avoided.
It has also been said that all voters should be able to make their way to the polling station well before 10 pm. Who can tell what personal difficulty or domestic problem might arise in the case of particular voters, causing them to arrive at a polling station at the last minute? The country needs the assurance that the official in charge of each polling station will devise clear, practical and sensible arrangements well understood by his or her colleagues running the station to enable all those who arrive before 10 pm to cast their votes. That is why the amendment is to be commended.
My Lords, it is very hard to imagine that the Government will say anything but yes to the amendment—no, I do not think that I am quite getting that message back.
I am sorry about that. I hope that between now and Report, the Government will think about the amendment seriously. The numbers here may not be as full as they were earlier, but it is clear that it is pretty widely supported. We on all these Benches fully support it. As we have heard, so does the Electoral Commission. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, suggested that it has been left up to individual assistant returning officers. It is not fair to put it on to their shoulders, particularly if there is a TV camera looking over them at that point, whether they decide to be sensible or not; whether the queue is inside or outside; or whether, if there is more than one ballot paper because we have a multiple election, as we often do, and people have one in their hand but not the other, they are to deny them that vote. It is not fair for the decision to be on the person in charge of that polling station.
I also do not think that it is fair that if you turn up at 10 o’clock in a nice, quiet area you can wander in—as sometimes one does in the Lobby here when there are not many on our side—but if you as an elector happen to turn up in a busy area, you will be discriminated against because other people will also have turned up late.
I had not heard of the government advice to turn up early. That is the reverse of what we had when I was young: it was called drinking-up time. We used to be allowed 10 minutes that way. That suggests that the Government want us all to be there at 10 minutes to the hour. We do risk assessments elsewhere, where we look at likelihood and impact. I think that the Government are right that the likelihood of this is low. Returning officers have realised that there are cameras and that they should not do that again. The likelihood may be low, but the impact will be high both on those going to the polling station—it is serious that they cannot vote—and on those watching on television people who have turned out to vote but who are not allowed to. We do not want that. I hope that the Government will think again about this.
My Lords, I thought that I had had enough excitement for today, but this is an interesting debate. At first sight, everyone was positively affronted by the fact that people intending to vote found themselves in a queue and were unable to do so. At the previous election it was a disgrace. If I remember the press reports right, one of the queues was well over 100 people long. It was clearly a huge error on the part of the people responsible for organising the polling stations. Contrary to what has been implied, these were not people turning up at the last minute. The queues had formed during the day and existed for quite a lot of the evening. Those of us involved in elections will know that the peak time for voting tends to be between 5 pm and about 8 pm. If a queue has formed then—it can happen; I think that most of us will have seen that—one would hope it is not big enough to disadvantage voters who come along later. However, the size of the queues at the previous election—which were reported during the day—clearly impaired the ability of people to vote, and that is not a good thing.
I am going to disappoint noble Lords, particularly those on the Constitution Committee, because I know that my honourable friend Chloe Smith talked to them last Wednesday. The answers she gave them are very similar to the answers I am going to give. I hope that the House will forgive me. It may be that those answers are right. We have to think through a change of this nature and think of the consequences. The Constitution Committee, as the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Lexden, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said, also supported this aim and obviously has given this matter a great deal of thought. It takes the view that this would give greater clarity. We need to write the discretion of the polling station clerk into law so that they can do that. I appreciate the sentiment behind the amendment, but we are not entirely sure that it would help to clarify the present arrangements.
While it might seem initially like a sensible response to the queueing at 9.40 pm, there is a real danger of creating unintended consequences and reducing the clarity and certainty of the law. As it stands, the law is very clear—a ballot paper cannot be issued after 10 pm. Elections are quite precise affairs. Votes are a matter of quite fine delineation and that is particularly true in local government elections. Although queues in local government elections are relatively rare, they were referred to in the Scottish local government elections. Returning officers, polling station clerks and voters know where they stand because it is enshrined in law. The present certainty around the time of close of poll and what close of poll actually means—no issuing of the ballot paper—also facilitates other aspects, for example, the requirement that exit polls cannot be published until the polls have closed. If the polls have not closed somewhere because there is a queue this makes it much more difficult for those responsible for public exit polls to be sure that anything they say may not influence a potential voter. It may sound pedantic but we are talking about something which requires precision. What would be the impact of this on the timing of results if a significant number of electors queued up? I do not think it is beyond the wit of certain people to have a bit of fun with this and to form a queue. It can be done and it might occur. There is also the risk that some people might use this as an opportunity to make a public statement about elections, particularly in areas where tensions exist.
It has been remarked that controlling and delineating a queue is quite difficult. Where is a queue? What is a queue? Most of us think that we know one when we see one, but not many of us would like to take responsibility for actually harnessing a queue, particularly without the power of a police officer. After all, the police officer is not acting under the instructions of the returning officer. A police officer would not wish to interfere with what constituted a queue, while those administering the election might be better off issuing ballot papers rather than trying to organise a queue. I am suggesting that there are factors of people control and definition that are important.
When the Electoral Commission reported on the 2010 queues, it identified that a major factor was ineffective planning by returning officers. I think that most noble Lords would agree that in any circumstances in which queues appear, there must be something wrong with the arrangements. Indeed, it is widely rumoured that some returning officers took turnout figures from local elections and had not actually thought through the fact that figures for general elections, even in these days when we find it difficult to persuade people to vote, are considerably higher than that.
The Government take the view that the responsibility for ensuring that there are no queues at polling stations is not the responsibility of the voter but should be the responsibility of the returning officers by providing sufficient staff to deal with predicted levels of turnout. That must be the right way forward, and I think that all noble Lords will know that lessons will have been learnt from the 2010 queues.
The Minister is spending quite a lot of time on the word “queues”. It would be helpful, not least for those who tabled the amendment, if he could say whether the Government would also have a problem if the amendment said,
“A voter who is in the polling station … at the time specified … shall be entitled to apply for a ballot paper”,
or if it is simply the matter of the queues that they have a problem with.
The noble Baroness makes an interesting suggestion. It is rather like the doorkeepers here keeping the doors open after eight minutes; in exactly the same way, it is quite difficult to close the doors. It is definable, though, and I accept what the noble Baroness says. It is easier to manage a building in which the writ of the polling clerks actually operates than perhaps a street scene, where it would be quite difficult for polling clerks to define to an individual person that they were outside the scope of the queue because they joined the queue after 10 pm. That is in effect what we are having to suggest, is it not?
I am grateful to my noble friend for what he has just said because it showed an openness of mind that I confess I have not previously witnessed from Ministers on this issue. I wonder if I could take this a step further: has he any evidence that every single presiding officer in every single polling station in the country did not take what I would regard as the common-sense view, when someone was standing there in the polling station ready to get a ballot paper when the clock struck 10 pm, and issue them with a ballot paper?
The Minister has referred to exit polls. I do not think that Parliament should worry too much about those who conduct exit polls. Those polls are taken only when people come out of the polling station, so frankly they are not relevant in the present circumstances to what we have been discussing. However, I am very encouraged by his openness of mind; perhaps with an appropriate tweak to this amendment, we might all make some progress.
My Lords, before the Minister replies, I would like to add one sentence: one of the legal advisers to the Constitution Committee said that he thought it was beyond common sense to suggest that it was impossible for the parliamentary draftsmen to define a queue in terms that would be properly understood in an Act or a piece of law.
I do not know; I am not a parliamentary draftsman, but I would hesitate to define a queue that stopped existing at 10 pm so that part of the queue was within a queue and another part was in a non-queue.
I am interested in what the noble Lord said. I think that he has misunderstood the point about exit polls. They cannot be published until polls have closed, for fear that they might influence people who have not yet voted. Therefore, voters who are queuing up could be listening to the radio and getting an exit poll, and that could influence the outcome. I am sorry, but that is the very purist view about the publication of exit polls. This shows the importance of defining these matters quite strictly, because one thing about elections is that you do not want people saying, “It is not fair”. That is what noble Lords are saying about people who have been excluded from voting because they were not given the opportunity of getting a ballot paper and casting it. I accept that: it was not acceptable. I suggest, however, that the way to deal with it is to ensure that the resources to process voters are adequate to ensure that queuing is not a problem.
I am delighted that my noble friend thinks I have an openness of mind; I always have an openness of mind and think it is very important in politics to have one. However, that does not necessarily mean that I am going to be able to come back with a response that is more positive than that which I have given previously. Noble Lords should understand that. The definition that lies behind the current arrangements provides clarity for both voters and those responsible for managing electoral processes, without any ambiguity at all. The Government would not wish to put on the statute book a provision which is not only unclear—because, although the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, says that it should be possible to make it clear what a queue is, I think it would be quite difficult—but might also send a message that queues are acceptable; that as long as the resources are adequate, if there happens to be a queue formed, then it is perfectly all right. I do not believe that that is the case; I think that those responsible for organising elections should make adequate provision to process voters so that queues do not form. That is the right way to proceed.
I am very interested in the issues for which the Minister is identifying the problems and unintended consequences. Does he have evidence that any of these have occurred in the cases where the practice already exists? I wonder whether the words “holes” and “digging” come to mind.
There is no experience there to suggest that there is any problem; the numbers involved are very small indeed. The noble Baroness—or possibly the noble Lord, Lord Pannick—talked about three voters. The note I have here says that possibly 10 voters may have been issued with a ballot paper after 10 pm under the more liberal regimes. This is nowhere near the scale of the 2010 general election situation here. I should say that in the United States, the majority of queues that form there are the result of mechanical voting and the breakdown of the technology used for voting. That is not the same sort of problem that we are talking about here.
I hope I have given noble Lords a run-down of the difficulties that Parliament would face if it chose to be more flexible in this area. I hope the noble Lord will feel free to withdraw his amendment.
I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this interesting debate, not least to the Minister, despite his surprising failure to fulfil the expectation of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and simply say yes to this amendment. The noble Lord recognised that at first sight, everyone would see the force of this amendment. I would hope that any reasonable observer would retain that opinion after considering the matter at length.
I cannot for my part see that the amendment would introduce any lack of clarity into this area of the law or that any minimal reduction in clarity should outweigh the fundamental right to vote. Concern about exit polls, deliberate queue forming and problems about what is a queue, all of which are factors to which the Minister referred, certainly demonstrate the noble Lord’s considerable debating skills. But whether these are realistic problems are matters on which I would take a different view. For my part, I would be very doubtful that a queue needs to be defined. I would be satisfied that a polling officer would be able to address any problem, not least with the assistance of any relevant guidance from the Electoral Commission and would know a queue when he or she saw one.
I will withdraw the amendment, not least because it would be inappropriate to vote on a 10 pm rule as the hour approaches 10 pm. There certainly would be no need for the doorkeepers to stand at the back of any queue were we to vote tonight. However, I say to the Minister that we will return to this matter on Report. I will carefully consider of course what he has said when I have read the debate. But at the moment I am wholly unconvinced by the arguments that he has put forward. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 53 withdrawn.
Clauses 18 to 20 agreed.
Amendment 54 not moved.
Clause 21 agreed.
55: After Clause 21, insert the following new Clause—
“Repeal of the edited version of the electoral register
With effect from 1 December 2013, the provisions of the Representation of the People Act (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2002 (SI 2002/1871), the Representation of the People Act (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2002 (SI 2002/1872), and the Representation of the People Act (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2002 (SI 2002/1873) in respect of the edited version of the Electoral Register shall cease to have effect and no further versions of the edited Electoral Register shall be produced.”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 55, I shall speak also to Amendments 56 and 57. As I would hope would be fairly obvious, Amendments 56 and 57 are alternatives should Amendment 55 not find favour. The amendments address the issue of the edited version of the electoral register. My starting point is that the current position in respect of personal data supplied by electors is not sustainable. Some electors find that they are included in the edited version, even though they have no wish to be included. Some find their personal data being made available through organisations selling data taken from the register, on occasion apparently even though they have opted out of being included in the edited version.
By introducing individual electoral registration, the Bill goes some way to addressing the problem. It means that each elector has to make a decision as to whether they wish to opt out of the edited version of the register, whereas at present the head of the household may make that decision, which could mean a decision taken, for instance, by an official on behalf of students residing in college. The Bill, however, does not go far enough. The retention of the edited version raises a fundamental issue of principle. It entails the harvesting and sale of personal data as a by-product of a civic duty imposed on citizens.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons, as well as the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators have argued that the edited register should be abolished. As the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has argued:
“Whatever benefit it might bring, we cannot justify the sale to commercial organisations of personal details gathered by the Government for electoral purposes”.
The Electoral Commission has reiterated its support for abolition of the edited version in its briefing notes on this Bill. As it notes, prohibiting the production and sale of the register is particularly important, given the need to maintain people’s confidence in the security of their personal details. In December 2011, the Guardian editorialised that the edited register,
“lingers on, a travesty of the democratic process that sullies the relationship between voter and state, and illustrates just how casually politicians think about democracy”.
There are then objections of principle to having an edited register. There are problems with the mechanism by which the names of electors are included. When the sale of the full electoral register was deemed illegal, the edited version was introduced with an opt-out provision. If one does not opt out of having one’s name included, it is assumed that one wants one’s name included in the edited register. The Government cannot be certain that those whose names appear in the edited version of the register want their names to be included. The extent to which the opt-out provisions are explained to electors appears to differ, but even if it was explained on a consistent and prominent basis, we still cannot be sure that the edited version comprises the names solely of those who wish their names to appear.
There are thus significant problems arising from the generation and publication of an edited register. At the heart of it, however, is an issue of principle. I am familiar with the arguments for its retention which are, essentially, practical arguments and are variously advanced in the magazine Parliamentary Brief and in the other place by Dan Rogerson. They do not engage with the issue of principle. The argument is that the edited version brings economic benefits because of the use made of it by commercial organisations. I understand that the Government were considering abolishing the register but have now been swayed by this argument. One would have thought that it was obvious why commercial organisations bought the edited register but this seems only now to have dawned on the Government.
There is a separate argument—essentially a public good argument—that some bodies use the edited version for altruistic reasons or for purposes that have a public benefit, such as tracing lost family members. I would have thought that the benefit is limited, given the scale of electors opting out of the edited register, and that there is a case for allowing bodies access to the full register where they can meet a public benefit test.
In response to the report of the Constitutional and Political Reform Committee, the Government said the arguments were “finely balanced”. In terms of principle, I am not sure that they are. I think principle trumps any commercial benefit. There is no public benefit in selling the edited register, other than a broad and incidental benefit in that it helps commercial organisations to trade, but that benefit would apply in all sorts of contexts where firms could operate in a way that conflicts with basic principles, be they in relation to the franchise or, say, working practices.
Amendment 55 thus prohibits the production and sale of the edited version of the register prior to the commencement of individual electoral registration in 2014. That is the clear-cut option. It gets rid of the edited register. That is my preferred option. If, however, the Government wish to persevere with an edited register—I would prefer that they did not—then Amendments 56 and 57 modify the existing arrangements. Amendment 56 is designed to get the Government thinking about who should have access to the edited register. It provides that only bodies designated by the Secretary of State as having a legitimate purpose for seeking access should be allowed to purchase it. My preference, as I have indicated, would be to abolish the edited version and introduce a public benefit test to allow bodies, other than presently permitted to do so, to have access to the full register. However, I put the amendment down to encourage reflection on the point.
Of the alternative options, Amendment 57 is the important one. This also engages an important principle. If—I stress if—the edited register is to be maintained, then it is essential that we move from an opt-out provision to an opt-in provision. In other words, electors should be included in the edited register only if they have explicitly given their consent to their inclusion. It is not sufficient to assume that they wish to be included if they do not opt out. Consent must be given rather than assumed.
The Government’s response may be that, although desirable in principle, there are practical difficulties, perhaps insurmountable problems, in introducing an opt-in provision. If that is the argument, then there is a clear alternative: get rid of the edited register. The choice is between Amendments 55 and 57. Either get rid of the edited register or introduce an opt-in provision. Leaving the situation as it is with the edited register is neither acceptable nor sustainable. I invite the Minister to indicate the Government’s preference. If he merely repeats the mantra that the arguments are finely balanced but things will remain as they are, we will be having this debate on further occasions. I beg to move.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth is absolutely right to raise this issue in this context because the change to individual electoral registration provides a precise opportunity to think about this matter again. As he properly said, it already improves the situation and it is the right moment to be looking at this issue.
However, I confess that I am somewhat bemused. The most persuasive case for retaining the edited register has come from charities and credit agencies, both of which have a proper and natural interest that we should recognise. Theirs is a proper use of this data. It is rather unusual to hear a Conservative, of all people, apparently decrying that very proper interest of such organisations in accurate data of this sort.
It may be that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is introducing a new idea, as he has done just now, by suggesting that some organisations of that sort should have access to the full register. That brings us to a very difficult problem of definition because under Amendment 56, he is apparently defining what a commercial purpose is. A credit agency would certainly be a commercial purpose. Is seeking to raise money for a charity not also a commercial purpose? I find it slightly bewitching at this time of night that a dedicated Conservative Peer appears to denigrate the idea of having a commercial purpose at all, as if it is somehow a disreputable activity. I therefore have a problem of definition under Amendment 56.
However, I return to my original point. It is perfectly right, proper and appropriate that we should ask the Government at this stage to be thinking about this matter. Amendment 57 is clearly the least objectionable option that the noble Lord has put forward, but I wonder whether, if electors had to opt into an edited register, many would do so and whether the whole exercise would become a wasteful bureaucratic nightmare. The opt-in option would, in that sense, be a red herring.
However, this is obviously the right moment to be asking Ministers to think again, and I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will do just that. If he is unable to make progress in persuading the Committee in one direction or another, perhaps this is a matter that we will have to return to on Report.
My Lords, I welcome that contribution from my noble friend Lord Tyler because he points to the fact that commercial activity is highly desired by this Government. We look for the growth agenda and when people are looking for a job, they perhaps think that that is a bigger principle than anything that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth may have raised.
I should make it clear that, before 2002, the full register was available for purchase by commercial organisations. There was no opt-out and no edited version was available. The edited version was produced in order to protect individuals who did not want such purchases to happen, and that opt-out arrangement remains current and will continue through the change to individual voter registration.
There has been discussion with interested parties on this matter. This is not the Government making their mind up without having discussed these matters with commercial organisations and electoral organisers. The Government have decided, on balance, to retain the edited register and the current opt-out arrangements. However, were the edited register to be abolished, there would be strong pressure for increased access to the full electoral register, from which no one can opt out. The Government are concerned about the potential impact this could have on registration rates; if people did not want to be removed from this register by an opt-out, they may choose not to register at all. On balance, the Government believe that an edited register from which electors can choose to opt out is the right outcome. It is worth noting, as I said before, that before the creation of the edited register in 2002, the full electoral register, including everyone’s name, address and details, was available for purchase by any commercial or other organisation.
Amendment 56 is, as my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth says, a little by way of an “either/or”. It would prohibit the use of an edited edition of the electoral register for commercial purposes, and require the Secretary of State to define designated organisations. We are aware that some within the electoral community have argued that data collected for electoral purposes should not be used for commercial gain. On the other hand, I have presented the case for the use of the register as an aid to business and commerce. I hope that my noble friend will take that seriously. Others have argued that the edited register provides significant economic and social benefits. Crucially, anyone who does not wish their details to be used for commercial—or any other—purposes is able to opt out of the edited register.
Under IER, registration forms will also include a statement on the processing of the data supplied by the individual, including the uses of the registers. The Government are reviewing the name and description of the two versions of the electoral register to ensure that it is as clear as possible to registering voters what the circumstances are and to enable them to make a fully informed choice. Given this important safeguard, I see no reason to limit the uses to which the edited register can be put.
My noble friend’s Amendment 57 would remove the current opt-out arrangements for the edited version of the electoral register, in favour of an opt- in. The Government take the handling of personal information seriously and believe that providing electors with a choice to opt out, alongside sufficient information—of which I have given an indication to my noble friend—to allow the individual to make an informed choice, provides appropriate protection and control. Electors will also be familiar with the choice of an opt-out; this has been in operation for a decade now.
However, we believe that the current system, where most electors are asked to make a fresh choice each year about whether they wish to opt out, is unnecessary. We are therefore proposing that under IER an individual’s choice will be carried forward unless and until they inform their registration officer that they wish to make a new choice or they complete a new application to register. We also intend to make it as simple and straightforward as possible for electors to change their preference at any time.
I hope that noble Lords will believe that I have tried to give as positive a response as I can. We are sensitive to the issues which underlie my noble friend’s amendments, but I ask him to withdraw them.
My Lords, I am grateful to those who have contributed. However, there was one notable absence in the contribution of my noble friends Lord Tyler and Lord Taylor of Holbeach. That was any reference to principle. I have raised an important principle. Neither of them addressed it, they merely concerned themselves with the practical issues. In response to my noble friend Lord Tyler, the Tories have a good history of at times putting principle above commercial interests dating from the times of Shaftesbury and Disraeli. There is a very important principle involved which has not been addressed.
My noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach glossed over the reason why the change was introduced from the sale of the full register to the edited version. It was not the Government suddenly deciding that it was an important issue, it was forced upon them; they were required to do so. I would not be surprised if, in the fullness of time, there are not challenges requiring a move from opt out to opt in.
I tabled the alternative amendments as a way of generating some thought on how to address what I consider to be a very real problem. They were introduced to prompt ideas and not necessarily to foreclose debate, so I have no intention of pursuing them now. However, they need to be reflected upon. The Government need to think much more seriously about the fundamental issue involved in terms of the use of personal data. This is something to which we most certainly will return. For the moment, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 55 withdrawn.
Amendments 56 and 57 not moved.
Clauses 22 to 24 agreed.
Clause 25 : Commencement
Amendments 58 and 59 not moved.
60: Clause 25, page 14, line 19, leave out subsection (3)
My Lords, this amendment would delete subsection (3) which states that:
“An order under subsection (1) may appoint different dates for different purposes (including different days for different parts of the United Kingdom)”;
that is, to commence the Act, as it will become. This gives the Minister considerable power and we would not willingly see that handed over because it will enable a pick-and-mix approach towards when different parts of the Bill come in.
My particular questions concern the provision, I think for the first time, to commence different parts of the Bill in different parts of the United Kingdom. It is slightly hard to understand what the Government have in mind in writing that into the Bill. This is, after all, an all-UK provision, even if votes take place in different parts of the country. This Bill is about a new system of electoral registration and who will be on the register in the future. We would like to know why the Government feel they need a power to bring in just by ministerial order different parts of the Bill in different parts of the United Kingdom. I beg to move.
My Lords, this amendment seeks to remove a technical part of the Bill—namely, Clause 25(3)—which would mean that the order commencing the provisions in the Bill would not be able to state different dates for different purposes. The subsection in question is a standard provision in legislation and the effect of this amendment would be to prevent the commencement of different parts of the Bill at the most appropriate times.
The Bill is set up to make changes over a two-year transition period. It is drafted with that in mind, and some provisions are specifically drafted to commence at different times. It is presumably not the Opposition’s intention that the planned two-year transition would become a big bang switchover with all the preparation work having to be done at the same time that IER was live.
The amendment would also mean that the much-needed improvements to the administration of elections contained in Part 2 could not be commenced until the provisions under Part 1 relating to IER were ready to be commenced. This would result in either delay in the electoral administration provisions being commenced or the Government being required to commence provisions of the Bill well before they intend to use the powers enabled by them.
The amendment would undermine the entire transition to IER, for example, by not allowing the Government to bring forward an order delaying this year’s canvass until IER was in force, thus defeating the purpose of doing so. It would also mean that electoral administration provisions under the Bill could be commenced only all at once and only alongside the IER provisions. For these reasons, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
I think the noble Lord did not answer my main question. What is the intention behind allowing it for different parts of the United Kingdom? We are less worried about the staging of the Bill. Why bring it in at different times for different parts of the United Kingdom?
My Lords, I am not aware in detail of the issue raised by the noble Baroness. I had better write to her about that because there is a point that needs clarification—unless a further message reaches me, which would be extremely timely so that we can tidy this up. My message tells me that this legislation has been designed to be as flexible as possible, and that is why the legislation is drafted such as it is. Perhaps I could consider the matter and come back to the noble Baroness.
Amendment 60 withdrawn.
Clause 25 agreed.
Clause 26 agreed.
Bill reported with amendments.
House adjourned at 9.53 pm.