My Lords, we are carefully considering the Electoral Commission’s recent report and its three main recommendations and will respond in the coming months. We welcome the commission’s finding that electoral fraud is not widespread and agree that we should continue to consider ways to safeguard electoral integrity. That is why the Government are introducing individual electoral registration from June this year, which will help make registration more secure.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that many Members of this House will welcome the proposals in the package put forward by the Electoral Commission to be introduced by 2014. However, it proposes to leave the introduction of one area until 2020: individual identification at polling stations. In responding to the report, will the Government consider encouraging the commission to bring that forward, as it is a very important aspect of preventing fraud?
My Lords, the Government are considering that although I have to say that Ministers are not yet convinced of its desirability. We all know from the American experience that demanding qualifications and identification at polling stations tends to discourage people from going to vote and we do not wish to discourage people from going to vote. There is less evidence of personation at polling stations than there is of multiple registration—ghost voters being put on the register—or of postal vote fraud, so we are not yet persuaded that the response is proportionate to the problem we face.
My Lords, is it not interesting to note in the detail of the report that the Electoral Commission is finally prepared to recognise that there are high-risk areas, which it identifies and lists, which are identifiable as having ethnic minority populations, where it believes that there is a particular problem? Is it not true that if the commission had been prepared to admit that four years ago, when the legislation was introduced, we could have avoided spending tens of millions of pounds on an individual registration scheme, which is a total waste of public money, and could have targeted that resource on the areas where there is a particular problem? We are wasting public money on a scheme which is utterly ridiculous.
My Lords, I entirely disagree with the noble Lord on that. We are one of the few democracies that clings to the 19th century approach of household registration. Individual electoral registration is much more appropriate to the population we now have.
My Lords, given that my noble friend has already said that the most prevalent problem in the past has been fraudulent use of the postal vote system, is he confident that the returning officers, who will now have to check personal identifiers for every single postal vote returned, will have the necessary resources this year to deal with that? Will he assure the House that a proper and careful review will be carried out in advance of the 2014 elections to make sure that the system works much better than it has done in the past in this respect in preparation for a higher turnout, presumably, in 2015?
My Lords, coming back to the point raised by my noble friend and the issue of potential impersonation at polling stations, does the Minister recognise that in some places, particularly Birmingham, there are instances in which large crowds of men gather outside schools and intimidate some voters to prevent their going into vote? Does the noble Lord agree that that is what attention should be focused on and that the police need to be advised that they should take action when it occurs?
My Lords, I do a lot of my politics in Bradford, as the noble Lord knows, and I am well aware of the differences between the local problems we have with the voting system. One of the reasons that the new regulations allow for police community support officers to be present in polling stations is precisely to deal with that sort of occasional outbreak of intimidation. There is, as we all know, a problem of registration fraud—ghost voters being put on the register—but, again, it is localised. As I am sure all noble Lords know, this is much more of a problem for local elections than for parliamentary elections.
My Lords, I am well aware of that. Indeed, the Electoral Commission looked at the Northern Ireland scheme in particular and has estimated that if we were to extend it to Great Britain, with likely take-up, based on the Northern Ireland model, of 10%—mostly young voters—it would cost some £28 million.
My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, about areas of high risk, in our diocese of Wakefield the local authority of Kirklees has been pinpointed as just one such area for the sort of reasons that the noble Lord mentioned. The local authority is working hard with a number of agencies to ensure the probity of the next elections. Will the Minister say what sort of support will be given to councils to enable them to fulfil this important duty?
My Lords, I was discussing that exact question with the electoral registration officer of Kirklees the summer before last, including the authority’s co-operation with the police. We all know that there are pockets of problems within Kirklees. It is a matter for local co-operation with the police, who are well aware of this. We are also well aware that there is a certain tendency in some local elections for candidates to use allegations of electoral fraud against each other as part of the local campaign. That is one of the reasons why the police are occasionally a little sceptical about allegations being thrown around during the campaign.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Electoral Commission is responding to complaints from members of the public about the Scottish Government using taxpayers’ money for propaganda purposes, as part of the independence referendum campaign, by saying that it is not the commission’s responsibility? Does that not make a mockery of having election expenses and rules for expenditure in referendum campaigns? What is the head of the Civil Service going to do about this continuing abuse?
I am not quite as confident that there is no problem of electoral fraud outside the South Asian Muslim community, which I think the noble Lord was getting close to saying. As a young Liberal, I listened to many people talking about quite considerable electoral fraud among the white population during elections held in the 1940s and 1950s. I am not entirely sure that it has completely disappeared today.