To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the recommendations of the recent Electoral Commission report Electoral Fraud in the UK, what action they propose to take to tackle electoral fraud.
My Lords, we are carefully considering the Electoral Commission’s report and recommendations and will respond in due course. We are clear that any changes to the electoral system should be proportionate and not impose unnecessary barriers to participation by legitimate voters.
My Lords, I welcome that Answer, as far as it goes, and pay tribute to the work of the Electoral Commission. However, are there not three key dimensions to its report: first, the integrity of the registration; secondly, ensuring that the person voting is the person who is on the register; and, thirdly and lastly, the accuracy of the count? I have had the privilege to win elections by 179 and 141 votes. Against that sort of background, can my noble friend give a commitment that there will, in the next Session of Parliament, be legislation on at least all these three dimensions of electoral law?
My Lords, I am not sure how one would legislate on the accuracy of the count. We have a whole system of poll watching, which noble Lords are all well aware of and which most of us, I am sure, have taken part in many times, to check the accuracy of the count. On the question of moving towards individual registration, the introduction of the national insurance number as a verifier is intended as a check on who is being registered. On the question of personation and checking on those who turn up, we are watching that very carefully and are now checking with police officers on reports. All the evidence we have is that the level of personation is extremely low.
My Lords, in contrast to my noble friend Lord Naseby, I was once elected with a majority of nine, so I take a considerable personal interest in this matter. On 6 February, we had some exchanges on this issue when my noble friend the Minister emphasised that the risk in this area is of course with postal votes. Can my noble friend now confirm whether every single postal vote cast in next month’s local and European Parliament elections will be checked against a personal identifier?
My Lords, that was the original intention of the 2006 Act. However, representations from electoral registration officers that that would be difficult led to the Act stating that a minimum of 20% should be checked. In recent elections, we have achieved virtually 100% of postal votes being checked, and we are now confident that with the co-operation of electoral registration officers, it will be 100% in the forthcoming general election.
My Lords, there must be zero tolerance for those found breaking the law, but any attempt to prevent millions of law-abiding citizens from being able to cast their vote by post would be hugely disproportionate. Why have the Government done absolutely nothing to get the more than 6 million of our fellow citizens who are presently not registered on to the electoral register? IER, when it is introduced, is not going to solve the problem; it is going to make it worse.
My Lords, as I have said before at this rostrum, the Government are doing a great deal to maximise the level of registration. We all recognise that we will never reach 100%. The proportion registered had been going down over the previous 15 years and we recognise that there are particular problems, especially with young people. A range of government schemes is currently under way, in co-operation with a range of non-governmental organisations, to raise in particular the number of disadvantaged groups and young people who register to vote. Online registration is but one of the things that we are doing.
My Lords, the basis of any fair electoral system must surely be one voter, one vote. Yet the constituency of the Isle of Wight has more than 111,000 voters while the outer islands constituency has barely 22,000. Is my noble friend able to offer any sensible explanation as to why a vote in the Isle of Wight—or in East Ham, Manchester Central or North West Cambridgeshire—is worth only one-quarter or even one-fifth of a vote elsewhere? Does he believe that this is in any way liberal or even vaguely democratic?
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, understands that the process of politics is not entirely rational. In the most recent discussions of electoral redistribution, there was an active campaign to prevent the Isle of Wight being split and there was an active campaign to exempt the various Scottish island constituencies. That is the reason for these exceptions to the general rule.
Will the Minister tell the House whether either the Government or the Electoral Commission have given any thought to following the example of Australia, Luxembourg and a few other countries of making voting compulsory?
The Government have considered everything, but that is not an idea that has led to enormous enthusiasm within government or, I suspect, within this House.
My Lords, is it not true that had the Government not taken an irrational decision, an ID card would now be being introduced? We would have been solving problems with registration because everybody would have been entitled to registration. They could have been checked for validity and they could have been voting. We would not have the problem to the same degree that we have with border control, immigration, the NHS, landlords and a whole range of different databases that have now had to be created by this Government. Will they not think again on that?
My Lords, we have been through that debate over an extended period. The Government are not persuaded that the original ID card scheme was necessary. It would be extremely costly. As far as voting is concerned, the level of allegations of voting fraud and impersonation is remarkably low. There were in the order of 179 allegations of different sorts of electoral fraud last year, for example, which is within a range of confidence as to the problems we face.
Many believe that postal voting fraud is widespread. Is my noble friend confident that it is not?
My Lords, postal vote fraud has always been there. I am old enough to remember constituencies in which representatives of at least one party would go round old people’s homes and fill in the ballot papers with the matron. I will not name which parties might have been engaged in that. That is not new. Postal vote fraud is a problem with which we are all concerned. That is why postal vote identifiers have now been tightened up.
My Lords, having correctly pointed out the appallingly low turnout for elections and, on top of that, the appalling low registration figures, does my noble friend accept that a major contributor to that parlous state of affairs is that so many young people feel outside the tent, so to speak, vis-à-vis politics, which is complex, and that people need some sort of education before they leave their schools? Will the Government do something about that?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, has a Question on exactly that to be debated next week, which I look forward to answering. I must say that during the transition to individual electoral registration, the level of registration that we have so far achieved has been much higher than some of us originally worried might be the case.