Motion to Annul
My Lords, in moving this Motion I must make it clear that it is wholly different to those we debated in your Lordships’ House last night. In the first place, I remind noble Lords of the very special status of the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission was set up following the fifth report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in October 1998, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen. It concluded that there was a need for,
“a totally independent and authoritative Election Commission with widespread executive and investigative powers”.
The commission was then established by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. In the debate on that Bill, the prospect of a fiercely independent commission enjoyed substantial cross-party support. Speaking from the Conservative Front Bench, the then Sir George Young MP—I am very pleased to see him in his place here in a different capacity today—paid tribute to the Neill Committee, saying that,
“they have managed to build consensus out of the bricks of political contention. We accept the establishment of the Electoral Commission”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/1/2000; col. 46.]
In Committee, the Front Bench Conservative spokesperson in the other place, Mr Robert Walter MP, went further, saying:
“We have stated our belief that there should be a powerful and independent Commission”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/02/2000; col. 692.]
Also on the Conservative side, the then Mr John MacGregor MP—now also a very senior member of your Lordships’ House—endorsed it too, saying,
“I hope that the broad framework of the Neill report will stand the test of time”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/01/2000; col. 63.]
The most supportive quote of all was as follows:
“We heard protestations earlier from the Under-Secretary about the absolute need for the commission to be wholly independent. That theme has been reiterated throughout our debates, and it is regarded as of great importance by Honourable Members on both sides of the House”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/02/2000; col 655.]
That was the then Sir Patrick Cormack MP. So, with that strong support from the then Conservative Opposition, Parliament legislated to create a totally independent, non-partisan and authoritative commission with its own unique Speaker’s Committee, answerable and accountable directly to both Houses of Parliament—not to the Government.
Thus, we must listen very closely to its careful, balanced, evidence-based recommendations. In that context, I very much welcome the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, which will strengthen my Motion. He and I both have past direct experience of working with the Electoral Commission, although of course none of us can speak on its behalf.
As Members of your Lordships’ House will have noted, the commission has now given clear advice on three occasions, most recently just yesterday. I will quote its advice briefly, but I remind your Lordships’ House just how important it is. It said back in June:
“Taking into account the data and evidence which is available to us at this point and the significant polls which are scheduled for May 2016, we recommend Ministers should not make an order to bring forward the end of the transition to IER. We recommend that the end date for the transition should remain, as currently provided for in law, December 2016”.
That was in June. It said the following when the Government issued their announcement:
“We are disappointed at the Government’s announcement and still recommend that the end of the transition should take place in December 2016 as set out in law. We therefore recommend that Parliament does not approve this order”.
I am now in the 25th year of service in Parliament, and have seldom heard the commission so crystal clear in its view. Indeed, I have not heard any statutory body expressing advice with such clarity to your Lordships’ House or the other place.
What will be the effect of the government order if it goes ahead unchallenged? The official estimate is that up to 1.9 million people who are currently on the register, and were on it at the general election in May, will be dropped off it. At a stroke, Ministers are prepared to disfranchise huge numbers of electors—for example 415,013 in London, 231,345 in Scotland and 68,042 in Wales. It is of course possible that these figures may be squeezed down as we approach the important elections in 2016, but it is still highly likely that people who think they are on the register will find themselves unable to vote when the time comes.
The Government, apparently, are prepared to risk legal challenges to the results of the London mayoral and Assembly elections as well as those for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. No doubt the Minister will be able to inform the House what answers were received from the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and London Assemblies when they were consulted before this order—which is of such vital significance to those bodies—was tabled. However, I have to tell the House that so far the Parliamentary Answers on this issue to my noble friend Lord Rennard have been less than satisfactory; he will deal with that crucial issue of consultation during this debate. For an even fuller analysis of the effects in each of the nations and regions in the United Kingdom, I refer Members of your Lordships’ House to the excellent report prepared by the well-respected voluntary campaigning organisation HOPE not Hate, which we have all received.
There is yet further long-term significance to this decision. As the commission points out, the sleight of hand involved in this order impacts profoundly on the parliamentary boundary review which is due to commence next year. If this order is allowed to slip through, the register in December 2015, which will be used as the basis for the next round of constituency boundary changes, will be missing large numbers of voters. Although these people could re-register between December and April to vote in the elections next year, to which I have referred, these voters will be irrevocably wiped off the face of our democracy for the purposes of the constituency boundary review. They simply will not count when the new constituencies are drawn up. With those potential voters removed—up to one in five in some of the London boroughs—there will be a knock-on effect on the number of constituencies in each place. It is calculated that the number of constituencies in London might be reduced by up to 10.
Is the noble Lord not skating on rather thin ice, given that the boundary review and the Boundary Commission report were prevented from being implemented in the last Parliament because he and his colleagues voted, against the clerks’ advice, on an amendment which was out of order?
My Lords, if the noble Lord had actually read what the Electoral Commission has advised this House, I do not think he would be adopting that position. This means fewer seats in densely populated, highly mobile urban areas, and proportionately more seats in rural areas with more stable populations. Thus, without cross-party consultation or consent, Conservative Ministers have introduced a deliberately self-interested, partisan order in direct conflict with the recommendations of the independent commission which is appointed by Parliament to ensure fair play. No wonder they slipped this out shortly before the Summer Recess with the absolute minimum of publicity.
What reasons have they given for this demonstrably improper and unprecedented action? Two excuses have been given to me and others, and will presumably feature again today. First, it is said that the Association of Electoral Administrators is happy that the period of transition could be foreshortened by 12 months. Frankly, that is not persuasive. The association does good work but it is the shop steward of electoral registration officers. Crossing all these voters off the register at the stroke of a pen will reduce its workload. By contrast, the Electoral Commission is the shop steward, answerable to Parliament, for the voter—for the integrity of our democracy. It is abundantly clear that we have a duty to listen to it. Since when did Ministers think that they should attach more importance to the self-interested views of a trade union than to the careful assessment of the statutory body tasked by Parliament to provide independent advice?
The commission rightly recommends that the additional resources available and the imperative of the 2016 election campaigns should be allowed to boost the total on the register and reduce the current serious shortfall. Additionally, the annual canvass is bound to improve the accuracy of the register. However, as the commission rightly says in this week’s briefing to us,
“taking this decision before the outcome of the annual canvass means the Government has acted without reliable information”.
The second excuse is even more ludicrous. Ministers claim that some or many or most of those 1.9 million entries on the electoral register may be false and potentially fraudulent—what? This is the register on which the general election was fought. Are Ministers really now saying that the whole election could have been based on a wildly inaccurate, potentially fraudulent register? What is the evidence for that? Why have the commission or the Government not demanded an inquiry? Are Ministers now challenging the outcome of the election on those grounds? Anyone can see that claiming now that the electoral register used this year is somehow so defunct as to be an instrument of fraud is a pretty thin veil over the real reasons for this blatant gerrymander.
That is precisely why we are moving towards IER, which my party and I personally have warmly supported and, during the coalition Government, sought to make sure was being effectively implemented at the local level.
I turn to the propriety of this Motion. There was much talk yesterday of what this House can and cannot do and what it should and should not do. This Motion is our one chance to do our duty to the voters. There is no middle way of delay or prevarication.
In any case, this Motion is quite distinctly different from any of those we debated yesterday. First, both Houses agreed primary legislation in 2013 which insisted that any order made to end the transitional period early might be, must be or could be annulled by either House of Parliament. This specific protection was built into the legislation precisely to withhold from the Executive an unfettered right to tamper with the electoral register. Secondly, of course, there is a precedent for the Lords voting down secondary legislation on matters of election law. Indeed, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Peers voted together to defeat such an order in 2000 when the then Government attempted to deny candidates for the Greater London Authority the chance to mail electors. Thirdly, in opposition Conservative Peers moved several other Motions to kill off similar secondary legislation. As is also apparent, the Conservatives made absolutely no mention of this change in their manifesto.
Parliament has a special responsibility to listen to the Electoral Commission—by law. It reminds us that we have not just a right but a duty to oppose this order. Ministers should be ashamed of this unilateral attempt to undermine the IER transition process, to skew the boundary review and, in so doing, to challenge the authority and integrity of the statutory independent commission set up precisely to advise us all on these issues. They hoped they would get away with it unnoticed. But they have been found out and now we in this House must, on behalf of voters, do our duty. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, I declare an interest as an elected councillor and chair of the registration working party in Lewisham. Previous to that, I was a member of the Electoral Commission.
I am speaking both in support of my amendment and in support of the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and I strongly endorse the points he made today. The Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats and, I am sure, other parties as well are in favour of individual electoral registration. Originally, the last Labour Government put it on the Statute Book and the coalition Government brought the process forward by bringing into law the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has said, the Act, which is less than two years old, has a transition period aimed at full implementation of IER by December 2016. The Government want to scrap that and bring forward the end of the transition period to December 2015, a mere six weeks away.
Let us be clear: the Government are making a rash decision here—a decision that is not supported by the Electoral Commission, which has urged Peers to vote for the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. My amendment just incorporates the fact that what the Government are doing goes against the commission’s advice. The commission did not take the decision lightly to recommend that we vote for the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. As the noble Lord explained, the commission was set up by Parliament 15 years ago and it gives independent, non-partisan advice to the Government and Parliament on issues concerning electoral registration, party finance and election matters. The commission includes experts in this field, who have been leading advocates for the introduction of IER almost from the day it was set up. They played a leading role in persuading the then Labour Government first to put it on the Statute Books. It was right to make those changes to ensure that our elections were secure.
The transition period is an important part of the full implementation of IER. It should ensure that we have a period of time when work can be done to make electoral registers both accurate and complete. The Government have not made a convincing case as to why this process should be shortened by one year. The Electoral Commission is saying that 1.9 million people are presently being retained on the electoral register who have not been matched. I accept that that figure might go down, but there are still too many people who have not been matched. If the Government bring forward the deadline, we could have up to 1.9 million people taken off the register on 1 December, and that is simply not democratic.
It is worth pointing out that the commission has published research showing that we actually have an under-registration problem in Great Britain, not an overregistration problem. It is also interesting to note the difference between various groups being registered or not registered to vote. The commission produced figures showing that about 4.6% of people over 65 are not registered to vote. That figures leaps to 29.8% for people aged 20 to 24. The highest proportion of unregistered voters is among 16 and 17 year-old attainers, of whom 49% are not registered to vote. Only 6.4% of home owners are not registered to vote, while the figure is 36.4% for those living in rented accommodation. Of the unemployed, 23.6% are not registered to vote. These figures show the wide disparity of registration figures between groups, and that should be of grave concern to us all.
The Electoral Commission is clear that taking the decision before the outcome of the annual canvass means that the decision that the Government are proposing to take is risky because they are acting without reliable information, as we have heard today, on how many redundant entries there will be, how many entries will be removed and how many eligible entries will go back on again for the elections in May 2016—we have massive elections at that time, as we all know. This is not appropriate for the Government, and it is most regrettable. By retaining the cut-off date to the one which we have agreed means we are giving time to the EROs—the professionals—to do more work on improving the accuracy and completeness of the register. I do not think the Government have made a compelling case for bringing forward by one year the date to remove people from the register. I hope the House rejects their proposals today. I beg to move.
I have tried to understand the reports of the Electoral Commission published before this and have just seen the one that came out today—I am not sure what the method of transmission to people was but that does not matter. I am concerned that the commission said repeatedly in its advice, as I understood it, that by bringing forward the date of termination of the transition period there is a potential benefit to the accuracy of the register. I have tried to understand it and read the detail. Could the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, help me on what that amounts to?
My Lords, I will strike a more positive note in relation to this order than noble Lords who spoke from the opposite side. This is an important order. It has a clear and explicit purpose: to complete the transition to a new system of electoral registration that is infinitely superior to the one it replaces.
The great majority of those registered electors carried over from the old system have now done what was required to make themselves a full and enduring part of the new arrangements. All those who have not done so have now been reminded at least nine times in one way or another of the need for action. Through the deadline that the Government set in July, as they were empowered to do under the 2013 Act, they have in effect issued a final call for action, one that was rather usefully publicised widely over the national media last weekend.
This deadline of 1 December has been strongly endorsed by a body referred to perhaps unduly dismissively by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, namely the Association of Electoral Administrators, which represents the people who run our elections. A report it published in July concluded that,
“the end of IER transition should be December 2015 to provide certainty for the important elections in 2016 and the European Referendum whenever that is held”.
The organisation’s chief executive, Mr John Turner, added that,
“it is crucial to have the most accurate register possible and have confidence that everyone on the register is who they say they are”.
There are names of people on the existing electoral registers who would not heed any call for action or respond to any deadline, whether that was 1 December 2015, 1 December 2016 or 1 December 2026. This is because the names relate to people who do not exist. One of the great merits of this order is that it bears down on electoral fraud. Deep disquiet has existed for years in our country about electoral fraud and malpractice. It is unquantifiable, but recent well-publicised cases before the courts exhibited it in its full ugliness. Judges in some of these cases have expressed the gravest concern. The Conservative general election manifesto promised to ensure that,
“the Electoral Commission puts greater priority on tackling fraud”.
This order can perhaps be regarded as the first step in giving effect to that most welcome manifesto commitment.
No one will be robbed of the right to vote by this order. Anyone qualified to vote can register at any point, either before or after 1 December. One of the great benefits of the new system is that registration can be accomplished online in a matter of moments, as nearly half a million people found on registration deadline day before this year’s general election.
Of course we must have electoral registers that are as complete and accurate as possible. Substantial funds have been allocated by the Government for that purpose. In February 2015, another £20 million was made available on top of substantial, existing resources.
I am deeply conscious of the need to galvanise young people into registering, as are other noble Lords in all parts of this House. Far too many youngsters are missing from the registers. In this connection, I—and others—have drawn the attention of the House on a number of occasions to the success of the now well-established schools initiative of which the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland is rightly proud. The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland said recently that the initiative is the most productive aspect of his community engagement programme and is likely to remain so. The visits to schools require a substantial commitment of staff time and resources; the outcome, however, is well worth the effort.
The excellent organisation Bite The Ballot, well known to many in this House, has supplied me with the latest evidence of Ulster’s success. Some 75.6% of its 18 and 19 year-olds are registered to vote and the total is expected to rise further. This will ensure that the young are well represented, as they should be, in helping to shape a better future for our fellow men and women in their part of our country. The rest of us must surely learn from this success. Will the Government pledge to work with the Electoral Commission to install an effective schools initiative, along the lines pioneered in Northern Ireland, throughout the local electoral registration offices in the rest of our country?
Our country has never had a taste for frequent alterations to the fundamental features of its electoral registration arrangements. Indeed, this is only the second time that they have radically changed since their first appearance in the 1832 reform Act. This Government are putting the finishing touches to a radically improved system which should help to restore the trust and confidence in our democracy that has been badly eroded in recent years.
My Lords, I did not support the fatal amendment put forward by the Liberal Democrats last night because I thought that it was constitutionally inappropriate. However, I shall support this one, not least because, arguably, the constitutional issue at stake today is even more important than the ones that your Lordships debated last night. Those constitutional issues concerned the respective legitimacies of your Lordships’ unelected House and the elected House of Commons. The issue today concerns the legitimacy of the elected House of Commons and, as such, is of profound importance to our constitutional arrangements.
Electoral registration is often a highly technical issue but it is always an important one. The struggle for the right to vote defines the history of our democracy and electoral registration makes that right a reality. Individual electoral registration is desirable and, as we have already heard, the previous Labour Government legislated to introduce it. However, it is generally accepted that, for all its merits, the introduction of individual registration carries with it the severe risk that significant numbers of people who are eligible to vote will not register and so will be unable to do so. For all the good work done in recent years by successive Governments, the Electoral Commission and local authorities, we can see these risks being realised as individual registration is introduced across the United Kingdom.
There is already a serious problem with the electoral register. The most recent assessment, last year, by the Electoral Commission estimated that the register was only 85% complete. More than 8 million voters are eligible to vote but cannot do so because they are not on the register. The fact that so many people who should be on the register are not, despite all the measures taken by previous Governments to increase registration, shows how intractable this problem is. The improvements that individual registration is likely to bring to the accuracy of the register are undoubted, but they have to be balanced by the deterioration that it is bringing and is likely to bring to the coverage of the register. I hope that that helps to address the point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. This is a difficult issue and we are trying to balance competing priorities.
The Labour Government tried to do that by linking the introduction of individual registration to the achievement of a comprehensive and accurate register. In opposition, that approach was supported by both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats. The coalition Government could have continued that approach, but they did not; they rejected it, for reasons that they have never adequately explained. They rushed forward with a timetable for individual registration, removing that key safeguard of the requirement of a comprehensive and accurate register.
This Government are now trying to make this bad situation worse, increasing the risk of disfranchising millions of voters by rejecting a carefully argued and proportionate recommendation from the independent Electoral Commission. Why might the Government be doing that? They have suggested systemic threats to the integrity of the register as a reason for this haste. We have just heard a very well-argued speech by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, on precisely that point. There is undoubtedly localised fraud—there is no question about that—but how serious an issue is it? The independent bodies tasked with safeguarding the integrity of our electoral system do not share the assessment suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. They do not share the Government’s assessment of fraud. The analysis carried out by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission into the 2010 election, for example, found,
“no evidence of widespread, systematic attempts to undermine or interfere with the May 2010 elections through electoral fraud”.
The report stated that,
“we are not aware of any case reported to the police that affected the outcome of the election to which it related nor of any election that has had to be re-run as a result of electoral malpractice”.
No analysis is yet available, at least in public, of the 2015 general election but, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, if the Government want to make their case for this statutory instrument on the basis of widespread fraud, that raises fundamental questions about the general election that put them into power. If the Government are so worried about the integrity of the system, why do they not bring in this legislation and agree to rerun the general election so that it can be run on the basis of an electoral register that everyone agrees is complete and accurate? I look forward to the Minister’s response to that suggestion, but I think I can guess what it is.
There is never any justification for any complacency about even a single incident of malpractice, but the evidence does not suggest that the spread of electoral malpractice justifies the risk that the Government are running with the electoral register. An extensive Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust report in 2008—some time ago, admittedly—concluded:
“It is unlikely that there has been a significant increase in electoral malpractice since the introduction of postal voting on demand in 2000”,
and that what malpractice there was,
“related to a tiny proportion of all elections contested”.
What evidence does the Minister have that suggests that that 2008 analysis now needs to be revisited?
Nor will individual registration address all cases of electoral malpractice—it is not a panacea. The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission concluded that the nature of recorded electoral malpractice changes as measures to combat it change. As one form of electoral malpractice is tackled, another rises to take its place.
Your Lordships can see just how seriously the Government take the issue of fraud by their response to the recommendation by the Electoral Commission in January 2014 that a key way to tackle fraud would be for voters to be compelled to produce proof of ID. After an extensive analysis, that is what the Electoral Commission suggested in January 2014. I understand that the Government have still not responded to that proposal. That is how seriously they take this issue of fraud.
The weakness of the Government’s case for their approach is matched by the damage it risks doing. It risks excluding millions from their democratic right to vote. It junks the principle followed for very good reasons by successive Conservative and Labour Governments that fundamental constitutional change such as this should proceed, wherever possible, only on a bipartisan basis.
We now look at why the Government are doing this. What they are doing matters for specific electoral reasons as well as on grounds of general democratic principle. Most agree that eligible voters who are not registered to vote are most likely to vote Labour when they do vote. The Liberal vote in the inner cities, such as it still is, is also likely to be affected. The Electoral Commission found over and over again that underregistration is notably higher than average among the young, private sector tenants and black and minority British residents, and that:
“The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas”.
The evidence suggests that the party that will suffer least, if at all, from such a flawed electoral register is the Conservative Party. Electoral registration has been significantly lower in Labour areas than in Conservative areas. It is significant that, despite the fact that the register is still only 85% complete, the only action that the Government proposed to take in their 2015 manifesto to increase that figure was to increase registration among British citizens living overseas. There was not a word about British citizens living in British inner cities, which we know are likely to be significantly underregistered. I am sure that I do not need to remind your Lordships that British citizens living in British inner cities do not tend to vote Conservative in large numbers.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has also pointed out, as I did at length in another debate, that conducting the boundary reviews on the basis of this sort of flawed register is likely to benefit the Conservative Party. Sadly, the reason that the Government have rejected the Electoral Commission’s recommendations about individual registration seems all too clear.
Parliament and politicians have been falling into disrepute in recent years. I ask your Lordships, therefore, to consider the impact on the health of our democracy if it turns out that the outcome of a future general election has been determined by the fact that millions of eligible voters could not vote because they were not registered to do so, and that this was the result of a government policy deliberately pursued, despite all the evidence that it would have precisely this consequence. I give way to the noble Lord.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord. We keep hearing about these extraordinary numbers who will be denied the vote. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said that 1.9 million people will be wiped off the face of our democracy. Surely that is a fantasy. Yesterday we listened to a very fine speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis—almost too effective a speech, from my point of view—in which she was able to quote time and again the individuals who believed that they would suffer from the tax change that we were discussing yesterday. Today, I have listened to all these speeches and so far not a single individual has come forward to say that they believe they will suffer, despite the fact that apparently 1.9 million are going to be wiped off the face of our democracy. Surely this is fantasy. Where are these mythical hordes that the noble Lord keeps talking about?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that characteristically energetic and vivacious intervention, but we have to make policy on the basis of the evidence available to us. Of course the noble Lord is right that we cannot look into the future, and maybe magically, in the next few months, the electoral register will go from 85% up to, say, 95%, which is probably as close to being comprehensive as one can reasonably hope. Maybe it will but, on the basis of all the evidence that we have, it is unlikely to happen.
I quote to the noble Lord the experience of Northern Ireland. When it introduced individual registration, the independent Electoral Commission of Northern Ireland found that:
“The new registration process disproportionately impacted on young people and students, people with learning disabilities, people with disabilities generally and those living in areas of high social deprivation”.
It concluded—this is the sort of evidence on which we have to make policy—
“While these findings relate directly to Northern Ireland, they are not unique and reflect the wider picture across the UK. They present a major challenge to all those concerned with widening participation in electoral and democratic processes”.
There is the evidence that something has happened, and we have to learn from that.
We have had experience over several years of trying to increase the register to tackle precisely these sorts of problems. Sadly, despite all the efforts made by the coalition Government, who spent millions of pounds on this and went to a great deal of effort to try to increase the levels of registration—I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who was the Minister responsible and who stood up many times in this House and told us precisely what the coalition Government were doing—they are still not having an impact. This is known to the Government, and despite these problems being known to them on the basis of historical fact—I cannot predict the future, as the noble Lord rightly pointed out, but we can go on the basis of the evidence available to us—and despite all the problems that are faced, the Government are proceeding.
I will try to be brief on this. The noble Lord is talking about individuals who are not on the register. This whole order is about names that are on the register but should not be. That is a completely different argument from the one that he is putting forward.
No, my Lords. As I have already said, this is a difficult issue because we are trying to balance competing priorities. Of course the accuracy of the register is important, which is why all sides support the introduction of individual registration and why as a Minister I legislated to bring it into play. There is no question about the importance attached to accuracy. However, it has to be balanced by a comprehensive register, for all the reasons I have endeavoured to set out today. The Government could have done a very simple thing: they could have accepted the Electoral Commission’s recommendations. It would not have solved all the problems—they are too intractable for that—but it would have helped. The Government have decided to reject that. The risks are clear but, for no good reason, the Government have ignored them. Despite the eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and what I am sure will be the eloquence of the Minister in due course, no good reasons have been given for doing this.
The last time I spoke in a debate with the Minister at the Dispatch Box, I recommended that he read Aristotle. I am sure that, with his very heavy workload, he has not managed to pull down that well-thumbed volume from his bookshelves, so perhaps I may remind him of the words of that great Greek philosopher. He said that,
“constitutions which aim at the common advantage are correct and just without qualification, whereas those which aim only at the advantage of the rulers”—
or, in this case, only at the advantage of the Conservative Party—
“are deviant and unjust because they involve despotic rule which is inappropriate for a community of free persons”.
Once again, I recommend those words to the Minister; and to your Lordships’ House, I also recommend the conclusion of the royal commission, in 2000, that your Lordships’ House should act as a “constitutional long-stop” to ensure that,
“changes are not made to the constitution without full and open debate and an awareness of the consequences”.
That is why I will support this Motion.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wills, used the word haste, but this process has been going at a snail’s pace for years. We introduced individual electoral registration in 2002. As my noble friend Lord Lexden pointed out, the solution in dealing with the inevitable groups who tend to be underrepresented on every electoral register is not just to sit back and leave on the register loads of people who may or may not exist; as my noble friend Lord Lexden said, you target those groups. You form a schools initiative and go round the universities and the schools. We had a mobile unit that went round housing estates knocking on doors and to community centres to give people photographic ID cards so that they could use them at the electoral office if they did not have passports or driving licences. You target the people who you know are traditionally not on the registers.
As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, the Electoral Commission is a body that the whole House respects. However, it is not a body that we take instructions from; it is a body that we listen to and consider. Take the Scottish referendum: I do not think that that was a particularly great example of good advice.
Nevertheless, we are talking about a balance of risk: the risk that people who are currently on the register will be denied a vote in the future versus the risk that people will be on the register and constituency boundaries drawn up on the basis of people who are not there at all.
There is another category of person that has not been identified. We talked about a figure of 1.9 million people. But even on the figures that we are getting more recently, that number will have reduced substantially, one way or the other, by the time that we come to December. However, that does not mean that those 1.1 million or 1.2 million people, as it will be by that stage, will not be on the electoral register; it just means that they will not be on the register at the address that they were knocked off it from.
In Belfast, there was a transition period when the process came in, and the register was printed including the names of those who were not individually registered. That is perfectly sensible and reasonable. However, a point came at which we decided to draw the line. At that point, people had to be individually registered or else they were taken off the register. In the Botanic ward in Belfast, near the university—my noble friend Lord Lexden will be very familiar with it—the number of people on the electoral register dropped by 27%. The reason was that the students, nurses, junior doctors and others in the area who occupied many of the dwellings were not there. However, they were registered at their home address in various other parts of the country. Just because a number of people are taken off the register, that does not mean that they are not voting somewhere. That is an issue that has to be taken into account, but which has not been in this debate so far.
The Act that the Minister has used to bring this provision forward provided him with the opportunity to do so. It could have said “2016”, but it included the provision that it could be brought in earlier. Presumably, therefore, at that stage, the Minister and the House saw circumstances in which there could be a variation in the timing of this process.
As I said to someone rather light-heartedly, even with these measures being introduced, it was lily-livered legislation. For example, it does not deal with the barking mad idea of postal votes on demand. Also, people still need to have photographic ID—there are huge gaps. However, I do not believe in the blood-curdling prognosis that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has brought forward as the risk factor here. In a transition from one system to another, there is always risk. It is a question of finding out what the balance is. There is substantial time and still opportunity to do that.
A big push should be made between now and the end of the year for publicity and action at local level. I also believe that the opportunity will still exist after 1 December for people to register. They should do what we did and target groups—it works. We have the proof, in that we got young people on to the register at a very high level. Target the schools, universities and community centres, particularly those in urban areas, because we all accept that the same profile of individual tends to be off the register in most places.
There is also another category of person: those who do not wish to be on the register. That can be for a variety of reasons: they could be “doing the double”, avoiding moneylenders or all sorts of things. People deliberately take themselves off the register. In my view, there is no way that we are going to deal with that, unless we change the law dramatically.
On balance, the risk here is that there are grossly inaccurate registers in certain places. There is no point in persisting and saying, “Well, we’ll keep it going for longer and longer”, because that will not fix anything. If you identify a problem in a particular area, you go and target the area. The local councils know where these areas are. We know where the schools are and where the universities are. Target those places instead of this blunderbuss approach where you just carry on and hope that, over time, it will get it more accurate. It will not.
The noble Lord tells us a story of the wonderful things that have happened in Northern Ireland and the way in which many of these problems have been tackled, but given the present state of local government resources and the view taken of some of these things in England and Wales, does he think that there is a chance at all that in the next six months they will happen here?
That is a perfectly reasonable and sensible point. I absolutely agree that it does need resources. I understand that there have been some additional funds—my noble friend Lord Lexden mentioned one example, and a further £3 million has been put in—and I would be entirely supportive if the Government felt the need to put more money into local authorities. I do not know what applications there have been from local authorities. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House what responses he has had. As I understand it, although the aid is targeted at certain boroughs, it is open to others to apply. Perhaps the Minister can give the House an assurance that, should the applications outreach the supply, the Government will look at that. That is a very sensible suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. All I am saying, from our experience, is that by bringing it to a conclusion you force people to do something. If you combine it with the special measures that I have outlined, together perhaps even with additional resource, we will end up in six months’ time with a very effective register.
I am very sympathetic to the point that the noble Lord is making. However, that is not the timescale. It is just five weeks to 1 December. That is the vital date. All he is talking about, which could happen in five or six months, simply will not happen in five weeks. He also said that some people who are not on the register wish to be on the register. These are people who are on the existing register but are not being transferred on to the new register. They want to vote, they want to be registered and they want to be part of the electoral process.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that people can be on the register in a particular constituency, but that does not mean that they are not on the register in a different constituency. That is the point that I made in the student example. We found that people registered in their place of residence at home registered again when they came up to the university area. When they had to produce a national insurance number we could tell that people were registered in two different places and they got knocked off in one place but were still on the register in another. That practice is widespread and well known.
Does the noble Lord acknowledge that the Electoral Commission report which has been cited has taken all that into consideration? It did a very good and nuanced report that looked at the risks and benefits. It concluded, as my noble friend Lord Tyler indicated, that given the five weeks’ notice and potentially the 250,000 people affected by this in Scotland alone, it was not right to bring forward the closure of the transition period. The more targeted approach that he is asking for is best conducted over the normal timeframe which the Electoral Commission and the EROs have operated under existing processes.
First, I do not accept that the scale of the problem is as large as the noble Lord suggests. As to the five weeks, our experience is that this process has been going on for quite some time—it is not as if it has come from nowhere. We are talking about the opportunity at least to bring it to a conclusion. However, the period after 1 December is not a period in which nothing can happen. People can continue to register. I hope the Minister has listened seriously to what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has said. It has been done before and it works if it is targeted. If we are drawing up new boundaries in parallel, the best thing to do is get on with it, draw the line, bring it to a head and provide the resources to target the groups that are traditionally underrepresented. If the effort is made we will end up with a very accurate register. However, the Government should go further. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, made a fair point when he mentioned ID. I do not understand why people should not be asked for their identity when they go to a polling station. It is a very basic thing to do. The postal voting system is mad. There is a lot of work to do and the problem with this process is that the Government are not going far enough.
My Lords, two very different arguments are being advanced today about the purpose of this statutory instrument. The government position, if I may paraphrase it, is that it is simply a tidying-up of the voting registers. However, the position of most of the parties and of the independent Electoral Commission is that it is wrong in principle to remove people from those registers prior to elections in much of the country next May, and in particular in advance of the start of the Boundary Commission’s work on drawing up new constituency boundaries. All the measures just proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, are welcome but could not be done within the next five weeks, before the Boundary Commissions start work on the new boundaries based on the electoral registers as of 1 December 2015. That date cannot be changed.
The Government’s position must be called into question because of the suddenness with which they laid this order before Parliament, at almost the last possible moment specified in the legislation, only a few days before the Summer Recess, without consulting any of the bodies with elections next May, and in the face of unequivocal opposition from the Electoral Commission, which advises us independently on such matters.
Three years ago, work by the Cabinet Office showed that our electoral registers were far less complete than we had been led to believe. We now know that today’s registers are no more complete than they were then. Perhaps 8 million people who should be on them are missing. The evidence for this—I say this to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs—is that we know from the census figures how many people there are aged over 18 in the United Kingdom, and we know that there are far fewer people on the voting registers. The advice of the independent Electoral Commission is that, even with these 1.9 million people included, there may be another 8 million who exist but are not yet included. The Government are seeking to make that problem worse by removing from the register up to 1.9 million people who are currently on the register before the end of this year.
In our debates in the House about electoral registration and administration almost three years ago, it was generally recognised that there is a small but not very significant problem with a few people who are on the register but should not be. There is a much bigger problem, however, with people who should be on the registers but are missing from them. This House decided, after much debate and on the basis of the government amendment, that the appropriate date for finally removing people from the electoral register if they had not completed the individual registration process was 1 December 2016. Much is made in our debates in this place about the need for compromise and consensus, and the date of 1 December 2016 was agreed as a compromise to allow the process of individual registration to proceed. At the same time, the compromise amendment, which came from the Government, gave specific power to either House of Parliament to say no if a future Government sought to speed up the process in the way that is being proposed, which would exclude a significant number of people from the voting registers, unless it was convinced that the process of individual electoral registration was so successful that it could be brought forward.
We know that the electoral register is no more complete now than three years ago. It is suggested that none of these 1.9 million people are real people and that they should not be included on the electoral rolls, but that is not the case, as is evidenced by the fact that the other 8 million people, who we know exist, should be on the registers but are missing from them. Many of these 1.9 million people will have voted in the general election in May, and it is possible to check from the marked registers who actually voted in that election. The Government have acted with suspicious and unseemly haste in suddenly proposing that these people be excluded from next year’s elections and, perhaps most importantly, from consideration when new constituency boundaries are proposed.
Part of the problem is that many of these 1.9 million people do not understand that they need to return the forms that are sent to them. The forms do not properly explain the obligation to co-operate with the process or the benefits in doing so. Independent research by the Electoral Commission shows that most people believe that the electoral registration process is automatic and does not require any action at all on their part. Most people not on the register do not know that they are not on the register and will not receive polling cards telling them how to vote in a future election.
Those of us with experience of canvassing in elections—and there are many of us across the House—know that more than one or two calls at the door are required in order to speak to every individual within a household, especially if those calls are being made to properties in multiple occupation and when people are unlikely to be at home. It may be cheaper and easier for some returning officers to have to deal with fewer people on the voting lists, but that would be the wrong priority because it would mean effectively excluding many people from the democratic process. The Electoral Commission advises us from its independent viewpoint that it is not safe in democratic terms to remove these people from the electoral rolls prematurely. If the Government were, as they say, simply seeking to improve the accuracy of the electoral registers, they might have consulted the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the London Assembly or local government in advance of proposing changes to the registers that will be used for elections next year, but they did not, and they have subsequently not received backing from any of those bodies.
Many of the people who will be removed from the registers are in urban areas and in London in particular. The London Assembly debated this very issue, overwhelmingly rejected these plans and asked us to do so as well. It may be argued that making changes to our democratic processes and the rules for the conduct of elections are not our business, but it was our business that insisted three years ago on the date of 1 December 2016 for full implementation of the new voter registration system, not the date that is now proposed. We agreed then with a government amendment that the date could not be brought forward if either House objected. What is now proposed follows from the fact that we have a Government who were elected with the support of less than 25% of the electorate. Instead of trying to increase that level of support, the Government now seek to remove people less likely to support them from the voting registers. Most importantly, in the long run, they seek to ensure that in future there will be fewer constituencies that can be won by their opponents. They seek to make the system less fair, not the other way round.
It is clear that many, if not most, of the people to be removed from the electoral registers are young or living in the private rented sector or may not have English as their first language or are simply the least literate. Those people who would be omitted from the register are concentrated in urban areas and they are known to be less likely to vote Conservative. I suggest that the biggest reason for the proposed change is to ensure that more Conservative parliamentary seats are created in future while people who do not vote Conservative are represented by fewer MPs.
I promise not to interrupt again, but this is a very important point which goes to the heart of this matter. The noble Lord has talked at great length about all of these people who will be disenfranchised. Can he please identify a single real person? Otherwise, we have to dismiss this as simple hyperbole. It is a little rich for us to have a lecture from the noble Lord’s mouth about electoral advantage as he is well known for his love of electoral advantage. Can he please nominate a single, real, living, flesh-and-blood individual? If he could identify one, I would welcome changing my mind.
My Lords, as I was saying only a few moments ago, it would be technically simple and easy to prove the existence of these people. As the noble Lord will know from his vast experience of elections, the marked register of exactly who goes to a polling station and marks their X on a ballot paper is publicly available afterwards. Returning officers know these people—there are 20,000 of them in the London Borough of Lambeth alone—and it would not be difficult to look and see how many of them actually voted. We know that there are very few people on the register who should not be there compared to the millions whom we know, from independent advice, are missing. They do exist.
The primary purpose of the Government’s proposal is to change the way in which the Boundary Commissions would propose new constituencies. This is happening now because the four UK Boundary Commissions all have to work on the basis of the electoral register as it is on 1 December 2015. If up to 1.9 million people are removed from the registers, there will be fewer constituencies in future which are unlikely to return Conservative MPs. It is as simple as that. The proposal is grossly unfair. We know that millions of people in these categories are missing from the electoral rolls, and their existence should be taken into account if we really want to have fairness in terms of constituencies of equal size, which is a Conservative manifesto commitment from the last election.
The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 specifically gave either House of Parliament the power to say no if a future Government sought to bring forward the agreed date for full implementation of electoral registration. The electoral register is not any more complete, in terms of including all those who should be on it, than it was then. It would be much less complete if this proposal, which undermines democratic principles, goes ahead. We should not let it.
My Lords, I find it a little difficult to be lectured on political rectitude by the noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Benches. He has, of course, fought many elections, and so have I. I canvassed in every one since 1959. He is not the only one who understands what is implied. Until a few months ago, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, was, my noble friend. I was flattered by the quotation which he gave the House and I would not withdraw a single word. At that stage, I was speaking as the Conservative Front Bench spokesman on constitutional affairs in the other place and of course I welcomed the establishment of the Electoral Commission. However, as my noble friend Lord Empey said in a powerful speech, the commission is there to advise. We are not always obliged to take the advice. The commission would be better employed, not just in the next five weeks, but in the months afterwards—because it is possible to register within a very short period—in exhorting and encouraging young people and those of all ages to ensure that they are registered. I am sure that the Minister will give us the appropriate facts and figures, but many reminders have already been delivered to those who have not registered. It is important that we have confidence in the integrity of the electoral register.
I am one of those who has favoured compulsory registration. I have raised this point in the House on many occasions with considerable support from the Benches opposite and, indeed, from many of my noble friends. I would still like to see that. I also agreed emphatically with the noble Lord—
Just a moment. I also agreed emphatically with my noble friend Lord Empey when he agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Wills—who made an extremely persuasive and very fine speech—that proof of identity at the polling station is something we could all reasonably demand.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord who, with all the authority of his experience and wisdom, raises a very important point about the importance of belief in the integrity of the electoral system. I think everyone agrees with him on that. But does he accept that the integrity of the electoral system involves both the accuracy of the system and its comprehensive coverage? The system cannot be thought to be replete with integrity when so many voters who are eligible to vote are simply not on the register.
For a start, we do not know exactly how many are not on it. The figure of 1.9 million has been quoted. It is inevitable that by the time we reach 1 December, that figure will shrink considerably and between then and the crucial elections that will take place in Scotland and elsewhere next year, I believe that the figure will be much smaller still, and I very much hope that it is. But we also have this balance between completeness and total accuracy. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, made this point in his very fair speech. We know from experience in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere that there have been occasions when the electoral register has been manipulated and democracy has been brought into disrepute. We know that for a fact. What we want is a register of total integrity. That is why I agree with the noble Lord and my noble friend Lord Empey that proof of identity should be a requirement. I also believe that postal votes should not be supplied on demand because that lends itself to abuse.
It has been said that this is a very different debate from yesterday’s. Of course, it is. Given the opportunity to speak yesterday, I would have argued that the constitutional priorities should be the most important ones for this House. But the House spoke as it spoke and, even though I may regret that, I had sympathy with the arguments advanced so brilliantly by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and others. We are where we are, as they say, and we must see what happens. However, I use this opportunity to say to the House that we must be very careful about using the power that we have. Today, we quite rightly have it, and that was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, when he quoted from the Act. Of course, we have the right to reject this order today if we choose to do so. However, as one who believes passionately in this House and its integrity, and who believes equally passionately—nay, perhaps more so—in the supremacy of the other place, where I had the honour to serve for 40 years, I say to the House that we must be very careful how we use our power.
Although I have very considerable respect for the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and many of his colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, I say this to them: they believe in a number of things very firmly and, I accept, with complete honesty. They believe in the supremacy of the House of Commons, as they tell us repeatedly. They believe in proportionality and many of them do not believe in your Lordships’ House, but some do—
I will not give way at the moment. I wish to complete what I am saying. What I say to him, very quietly and in a spirit of collegiality, is that they must be a little careful how they use their votes because if they were proportionately represented in this House following the last general election, there would at the most generous estimate be 60 of them and more likely 50. I think 83, 84 and 81 voted in Divisions last night. Had they led by example, practised a self-denying ordinance and put only 55 into the Lobby—that being the difference between 60 and 50—the last Division would have gone in favour of the Government. The previous one would have been very finely balanced. I say to them, please be careful how you overuse the power you have accidently got when you are speaking in the House where you have 104 more Members than in the elected House. That is something everyone in this House should take into account. When we come to address—
I just want to complete this. When we come to address the size of the House, which I believe we will do shortly, we will have to bear in mind the numbers of those represented in another place, the number of votes garnered by the parties represented in another place and always preserve that distinguishing feature of this House: the 20% or thereabouts of Cross-Benchers. We should bear in mind that this House should never have an overall majority for any Government, whatever its political complexion. We should address the issue not only of underrepresentation but of overrepresentation. The debate we are having today—
I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He has on two or three occasions emphasised the supremacy of the House of Commons. I understand that the House of Commons, despite the enormous importance of this question, did not discuss it at all. This House is discussing it. Can he confirm that that is his understanding?
Yes, but I am not in charge of Government business. The other House has the opportunity to accept or reject. As the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, perfectly rightly pointed out, so do we. All I am doing is saying that we should be particularly careful when exercising judgment on an issue that pertains wholly and entirely to the elected House. We need to bear that always in mind. I will give way to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.
My Lords, as has been made clear by a number of Members of your Lordships’ House this afternoon, the immediate concerns about the electorate are nothing to do with the other place. This is about the Scottish Parliament, the London Assembly, the Welsh Assembly—the other bodies that will be elected in 2016. They have not been consulted; they have not even been asked their views on this extremely important issue. The noble Lord is precisely wrong.
No, I am not precisely wrong at all. We are dealing with the electoral register for the United Kingdom as a whole, a country in which I believe. I have to say again, with great charity—difficult as it is to summon it up on occasions—that the party that prevented the boundary changes going through, in a fit of petulance and pique, has no right to talk to us on this.
My Lords, can I bring the House back to the matter under debate? That is what I would like to speak about this afternoon. I speak in favour of the annulment and the amendment.
Much has been said about Northern Ireland. The real story of Northern Ireland is that when individual electoral registration was introduced, the register collapsed. The registration officers then had to find people, without speaking to them, and put them on the register—a very unsafe process. It has taken several years for them to reach their current situation; we have five weeks. Northern Ireland is a small, homogeneous society in terms of housing tenure, the mobility of the population and so on; we have much more complex problems in terms of registration.
We already know that some 8 million voters are not registered, and we may be in the process of knocking off a further 2 million. We know about those people—real people—because we know the census data, the gaps in properties and the number of young people in school. If the noble Lord opposite would like to meet some of these people, I will be going out and knocking on doors this Sunday. If we meet outside the Chamber, I will arrange to bring him to some of these households to understand some of the problems with registration. This is about 10 million people versus this secondary issue, which has become a bit of—
Since the noble Baroness raises the point, what we are talking about is those who are on the register, who she claims are going to be knocked off the register. We all want those who are not on the register, but who ought to be, to be on it. The whole House wants as complete a register as possible, but this is not what we are talking about. We are talking about these ghost votes, which should not be there in the first place.
I am not talking about these ghost votes—I do not believe them to be ghost votes. We know that they have not returned a registration form but we know that they continue to pay council tax. We know that they are there. If the noble Lord does not agree with me, I ask him again to accept my invitation to come out on Sunday and we can talk to these voters together. I can reassure him that they do exist. We know they exist.
We have the problem affecting in the region of 10 million voters versus this smokescreen of fraud, which is the obsession that has hindered us from properly scrutinising this regulation. When has there ever been a case of registration fraud—ever? How many people have registered wrongly? Tell me the numbers we are talking about. Can any noble Lord tell me when they have ever met such a voter? I have been knocking on doors since 1978 and have never come across anybody who has fraudulently completed a registration form. Nor have I spoken to a registration officer who has seen this taking place. I think your Lordships are getting confused with postal vote fraud. Even the impact assessment for the Bill from which this regulation was drawn up says that it is a very rare occurrence, yet it does not name any occurrence ever happening. There has never been a proven case of registration fraud in this country.
There are three reasons why I think we should go for this annulment and allow the regulations to come in in December 2016—three things that the Government need to concentrate on. The first is data matching. The data matching is not working in practice. On several occasions during the general election, I knocked on doors where I had voters. The people who came to the door were different voters. When I asked them why they had not registered, they told me they had but had then got a letter from the local authority to say that their data had not matched and they would have to call with their passports.
One woman I spoke to said, “I have just moved up from Southampton a few months ago. I registered to vote. I got a letter from my local authority. I was asked to bring in my passport. I asked my manager”—she was a middle manager in the Home Office—“for time off and I was allowed to take my passport into the registration office yesterday”. She was registered and able to vote. We are talking about somebody who works in the Home Office. When I asked all the other people I spoke to—shift workers, manual workers, people who were not in the sorts of jobs where they could get time off—why they did not take their passports to the registration office, they looked at me as if I had gone completely mad. There was no way they would be able to do that.
Those are individual cases, so what is the problem on a statistical level? I contacted two local authorities after those experiences. One had not been able to data match just over 1,000 voters using its computer systems but when it went to do it manually—for example, by cross-referencing on the council tax register—it found them to be there. Another local authority could not data match because the systems were not working for more than 2,500 voters. That is just two local authorities. If you scale those numbers up, you see the extent of the problem, and 12 months would allow us to make sure that those systems were in place.
The second problem is identity theft. This is not a safe system. We are asking the public to put a piece of paper through the post—not even in an envelope—with their date of birth, national insurance number, phone number and address. A lot of people are scared of doing that. We recently saw the problems and the opprobrium that TalkTalk faced when it was the victim of a crime. This is something the state is asking the public to do. Before we can sort this problem out, the Government will have to reassure voters about this identity theft problem, and they will need the 12 months to do it.
The third issue is the objective of completeness. We must all want a complete register. We must all feel really dreadful that there are currently 8 million people missing and there could be a further 2 million. I will quote from the impact assessment that was done by the Government when the legislation was introduced:
“IER should improve the accuracy of the register to allow us to address the current level of completeness and help people currently missing to get on the register”.
We have not been able to do it so far. We need another 12 months to make this happen.
My Lords, your Lordships’ House wants to reach a conclusion on this matter, so I will try to be very brief.
I want to counter something that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said a few minutes ago about the danger of your Lordships’ House exceeding its powers. In 2013, we specifically wrote into this legislation—without dissent in your Lordships’ House and without any disagreement between the two Houses of Parliament—the right for either House to dissent if the transition period should in any way be altered. Therefore, no one is exceeding their powers by introducing this Motion, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has done, or the amendment to it that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has introduced today. We should not confuse these questions, and I hope that the noble Lord will agree with me that that is wide of the argument.
The integrity of the process—a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, in his timely and excellent speech earlier today—is the key factor. I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, when he talked about the integrity of the electoral register; I agree with him about issues of electoral fraud; I am in favour of individual registration; and I also agree that it is important to have timely Boundary Commission reviews. We are in agreement about all of that. However, I think that the legitimacy of the process is the key question that your Lordships have to address this evening. The legitimacy of the process can only ever be guaranteed by the independent Electoral Commission. That is why I disagree with my noble friend Lord Empey.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, when he intervened on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, reminded us of what the Electoral Commission said about the benefits. I have the entire quotation here; it is not long:
“If the transition ends in December 2015, there is a potential benefit to the accuracy of the register—with any retained entries which are redundant or inaccurate being removed—”,
but it goes on to say that there is also,
“a risk to the completeness of the register and to participation”,
in the important set of elections in May 2016,
“with retained entries relating to eligible electors being removed”.
The commission concludes that the risks outweigh any benefits, and argues that, before overturning the original timetable agreed in your Lordships’ House and in another place,
“there should be a compelling case for bringing forward the end of the transition”,
from the date originally agreed by Parliament.
The commission—not the political parties or many of us who sit as independents in this House may have had political allegiances or might be supporters of parties—says that the case has not been made. This is not about party advantage; this is about ensuring that the process is above any suspicion. It is ensuring that no one is a loser or a gainer as a direct result of changing the regulations and agreements that were originally made.
For 25 years, I represented inner-city communities, either as a city or county councillor or as a Member of the House of Commons. I also saw two parliamentary constituencies disappear—it might be thought that to lose one might be regarded as carelessness—and I recognise that demographic changes have to be reflected in fair electoral arrangements. My own experience tells me that the really crucial point is that any changes have to be seen to be disconnected to party advantage and must always be one step removed from party politicians; otherwise, they lead to the devaluation of our electoral arrangements. Inevitably, the short-circuiting has given rise to the charge that the normal arrangements are politically motivated. Whether or not that charge of trying to score political advantage is true, perception, of course, is all. Anything that casts doubt on the legitimacy of our electoral arrangements, or the fairness of how elections are conducted, is bound to poison the wells of our democracy, and so should be resisted at all costs.
The independent and impartial Electoral Commission says that,
“taking this decision before the outcome of the annual canvass means the Government has acted without reliable information on how many redundant entries will be removed”.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, that he does not know, and I do not know, what the numbers are. The commission says to us that there is no reliable information and therefore, we should not proceed in this way. Acting without reliable information is no way for any Government to proceed. It says:
“We therefore recommend that Parliament does not approve this order”.
That is the best possible advice we could have been given.
Although my noble friend Lord Empey is right that we are entitled to reject that advice if we wish, we put it into the legislation for a purpose, and we would have to have very good and compelling reasons for overturning it. Frankly, I have not seen those good and compelling reasons. We must safeguard our electoral process by ensuring that it is above any suspicion of any kind of cynicism or manipulation. I therefore urge your Lordships to support the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy.
My Lords, I rise having listened to the full debate and, like many in this place, having fought many elections. In fact, my noble friend Lord Cormack referred to having canvassed in every election since 1959. I have fought a fair number of elections and the House of Lords Information Office has been good enough to produce biographical details on me. According to its information, I first fought Kingswood in January 1900 and in the same month it says I fought Christchurch, so, according to the Information Office, I somewhat outdo most Peers in this House. That will be corrected at some point.
I start on an aspect of harmony. A number of noble Lords on both sides, but originally the noble Lord, Lord Wills, identified that we should produce ID in voting. I wholeheartedly agree with all those who made those points.
On elections, a number of those who know me know that I have been interested in this subject for many years. In fact, and this is to some extent an admission of guilt but I hope of impartiality as well, I was the second new entry in the 1983 intake into the other House to vote against a government three-line whip. I did so on the paving Bill in relation to the abolition of the GLC because I thought it inappropriate. My comments today in support of what the Government propose are against the background that I have taken and still take a very dispassionate view on these matters.
I will pick up a number of points covered by other Members of this House. First, the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, commented on registration fraud. Unfortunately, it would appear that she has not read the verdict, statements and analysis of the recent case in Tower Hamlets where there is clear identification of that position. Also, the Electoral Commission in 2012 made the point that there should be improvements in electoral registration in Tower Hamlets. It identified that Tower Hamlets had a policy and administration that were above the practice of many of the London boroughs.
I turn to the question of “ghost” voters. I choose to call them that because having tried to contact these people nine times, they must be pretty close to being ghosts. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred to the fact that there may well be people among that 1.9 million—dropping to 1.4 million or 1.2 million—who voted in May. I could understand it if the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, had made particular reference to that and said that this order should not be introduced until there had been that sort of matching process. Instead, we have a catch-all that we will do away with it completely or delay it until 2016.
However, these people have been called on nine times. I now speak from personal experience. I currently live some 200 yards from where the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, went to primary school. When I attempted to be a candidate in the last London elections, I visited my neighbours. They were not on the electoral roll. I visited the neighbours four doors down, and they were not on the electoral roll either. When I first moved into my current address, I had eight years of having somebody on the electoral roll who had never lived there. That is the essence of this debate. We are talking about removing people who we have attempted to contact nine times as against those people who a number of noble Lords have said we need to get on the electoral roll. Those are two different groups of people, and that should be recognised in this debate.
I also listened to a number of contributions in which there have been criticisms of what happened in Northern Ireland. They said, “It happened like this”, or “It happened like that”. That seems to be a justification not for delaying but for not having IER in the first place. You cannot have both. If you are to have IER, then you will face some of those problems. They have to be tackled through better collecting of registration.
In his opening remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made comments about shop stewards which a number of people who have backgrounds as shop stewards would consider a little unfortunate. He suggested that the AEA was the “shop stewards’ fora”—I think that was the phrase he used. He then went on to quote the Electoral Commission’s report. On page 3, under acknowledgements, there is only one acknowledgement and it is to that same group of people for their work.
I turn to the question that he identified about primarily urban or rural communities and their retained electors. Taking the top 20 authorities with the worst record on retained electors, it is not, as has been suggested, filled purely with Scottish or London boroughs, although there are a lot of London boroughs among them. The deprived London borough of Kensington and Chelsea is third on the list. The equally deprived borough of Windsor and Maidenhead comes out 12th. Harrow and Scarborough appear in the same block. None of them is an area that one would identify as being either deprived or necessarily totally urban.
I am, but I have not got them with me. I am happy to write to the noble Lord with the answer. They are not particularly relevant to the point I am making which is the one cited by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler about the difference in registration from one place to another in relation to those who would suffer if those ghosts were removed. I have just mentioned those areas where the level of retention would appear to be worst, if I may use that word.
On the other hand, there are authorities at the other end of the spectrum which have tackled this issue incredibly well, including the deprived areas of Hartlepool, Halton, Redcar and Cleveland, Barrow-in-Furness, Chesterfield and Bridgend. I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton, because one of the authorities with a reasonably good record so far is Liverpool. Knowsley, which nobody can argue is anything other than deprived, has a strikingly good record. So there is no correlation between the two. There is a correlation between some parts of the country and others. I would like to identify some of the other places—
Actually, I know the answer to the question I asked the noble Lord. I was about to tell him. There is roughly a 6% difference between registration levels in Conservative-held seats and Labour-held seats. That might have changed a little in the last general election, but I doubt by very much. There is a significant difference.
I do not challenge that. The noble Lord has made the point for me. We are talking about people who are registered or not registered and not about the ghost voters whom we are talking about in this debate.
There are other areas of deprivation where they have cleansed the register very effectively. There is a whole series of authorities in Wales—places such as Bridgend, Cardiff, Swansea and Rhondda Cynon Taff. All of them have low figures of problems, if I may use the term, in cleansing their registers. I have not raised this, but if it is right that it was possible in Wales to have cleansed the registers in those sorts of authorities, why is it not the case in London? If it is suggested that this is to do with boundaries, then the places that will suffer are the valleys of Wales because they have cleansed their registers. The boroughs of London which have not cleansed theirs will benefit.
In conclusion, we have been talking about this group of people—these ghosts—as if there is no burden. There is a substantial burden on local authorities. They have to print the electoral rolls with all these people on them, many of whom should not be there. They issue polling cards. They issue ballot papers. There has to be freepost provision for these people for some elections. There is an attendant burden. No wonder the AEA makes its views clear on what it thinks would be the best position. It recognises that there is an unnecessary burden on a large number of local authorities. If one removes retained voters from the register, we will not be sending out all the unnecessary cards, ballot papers, freeposts, et cetera, during the upcoming election.
My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me. A lot has been said this afternoon. It has been an excellent debate, and there have been very good contributions from all sides, although I profoundly disagree with some of what has been said, as I will come on to. It is always nice to be reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that I have not read my Aristotle. He firmly puts me in my place.
I shall start by taking a step back to make two fundamental points, on which I hope we can all agree. First, we all agree that we want more people to engage in the democratic process and register to vote, but those who are not on the register today will clearly not be affected by the measure we are discussing, which is the removal of ghost entries. Secondly, as my noble friend Lord Lexden said in his excellent speech, nobody will lose their right to vote as a result of the government proposals that we are debating today.
Instead, the core of what we are debating comes down to the accuracy of the new electoral register. Do we keep on the new register ghost entries—entries of people who may have moved house or died or may never have existed in the first place? Are these ghost entries living, breathing voters, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, calls them, or hundreds of thousands of database errors which need to be removed ahead of the important elections next year? As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, rightly pointed out—let us not disguise this fact—for the sake of completeness, the Electoral Commission wants to keep those entries on the register, even if this means that the accuracy of the register is undermined. It judges the risk of fraud to be acceptable, and the Government disagree.
First, we believe that after 18 months of transition and more than a decade of waiting, as we enter a year of elections and possibly a referendum on Europe—possibly—the time has come to move fully to the new system. Secondly, we see the risk of fraud as unacceptable. Thirdly, we believe that people have been given ample opportunity to register on the new system. That said, fourthly, we entirely agree with those who want more people to register to vote and participate in the elections, but we do not make the register more complete by stuffing it with inaccurate registrations.
I shall take those points in turn. As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, we have been waiting for the full transition to individual electoral registration for more than a decade. As the current chair of the Electoral Commission said:
“This change is something we’ve been calling for since 2003 and is an important step towards a more modern and secure electoral system”.
To give the former Labour Government their due, they legislated to introduce individual electoral registration in 2009. The coalition Government further legislated in 2013 and, finally, in the summer of 2014, the new system was introduced. I remind your Lordships that at the general election, in its manifesto, the Conservative Party committed that:
“Building on our introduction of individual voter registration, we will continue to make our arrangements fair and effective by ensuring the Electoral Commission puts greater priority on tackling fraud”.
This Government believe that it is time to finish the process, and finish it now. This decision is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, rash.
Let us consider the progress that has been made. Back in May, 96% of the electorate was successfully registered under the new system. It is the remaining 4%—the so-called “carry forwards”—that the Government believe should be removed from the register at the end of December. It is not the entire register that we are questioning, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, seems to suggest; it is the 4%. Then we have to ask ourselves: what do these entries represent; who are they; do they exist? The reality is that neither we nor the Electoral Commission know who they are. They may be people who have moved or have died, or they may never have existed in the first place. However, we have gone the extra mile to find out whether these entries actually are people living at the registered address. Electoral registration officers have been working tirelessly to confirm whether the remaining entries are real people or whether they are merely ghosts.
These people will have first been sent three invitations to register. If they had not done so by last autumn, an electoral registration officer would have visited the address linked to the entry. If this failed to elicit a response, a further letter would have gone to the address earlier this year. Where carry-forward still exists, these addresses will receive three further letters and another visit from an electoral registration officer this autumn. That is the second fact that I would ask noble Lords to remember. These people, if they are people, will have been contacted at least nine times by December. I ask noble Lords to compare that with the number of times people are contacted about renewing their TV licence—four times. These people, if these entries do indeed represent people, have been contacted nine times. On top of this, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, the Government made available to councils up to £3 million of additional funding to support extra efforts targeted specifically at carry-forward entries, and £1.2 million of that was drawn down.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He has always been very courteous when we have been debating issues of the constitution. He will be aware that the Electoral Commission has taken everything that he has said into consideration, yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said, it has still given a very clear recommendation that the transition period should not come to an end early. One reason is the significant polls scheduled for May 2016. The Minister knows that I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament. On an issue of principle such as this, it is inconceivable to me that the Government would not have consulted the Scottish Parliament in bringing forward the transitional period, given the significance of the polls in May 2016. Can he confirm formally, at the Dispatch Box, whether the Government did or did not consult the Scottish Parliament? If they did, what was the view of the Parliament?
My Lords, the timetable for the start of IER was agreed with the Scottish Government and allowed the referendum to take place before IER got under way. There is no legal requirement to consult on this order, and electoral registration is at present within the competence of the UK Government. I will come back in a moment to the other points raised by the noble Lord.
I refer those who argue that we should wait for another year to the Electoral Commission itself. It said that such efforts are likely to see:
“Diminishing returns because a greater proportion of these electors are no longer resident at that address”.
On the point that the current canvass will address this issue, I agree entirely. The canvass going on at the moment means that we can be even more sure that the vast majority of these entries are ghost entries.
I come to the next point. Where are these ghost entries? Six of the local authorities with levels of carry-forwards above the national average have been identified as among the authorities more at risk of electoral fraud. As my noble friend Lord Hayward said, one of these boroughs is Tower Hamlets. There, the election judge slammed the “extremely lax” registration rules of the previous system as opening the door to electoral corruption. It is worth noting that the London Borough of Tower Hamlets was awarded top marks in the Electoral Commission’s performance standards for electoral integrity.
In Hackney, which is not even one of those six authorities, there were in May 43,000 carry-forwards. That is 23% of its electorate—I repeat: 23%. It is worth noting that in Hackney the register has increased by 10% since the introduction of individual electoral registration. The Electoral Commission states that the increment in the number of entries,
“may have therefore been inflated by a high volume of inaccurate entries”.
What might be the cause of those inaccuracies?
Hackney, and many other areas where there are large numbers of ghost entries, share a common characteristic: their population is, as has been mentioned, mobile—and in mobile populations many people rent their homes. Again, the Electoral Commission itself has suggested that those who rent private sector accommodation are more likely to have been carried forward. Why is that? One in three households in the private rented sector moves every year. It is therefore hardly surprising that we see a high percentage of carry-forwards in these areas given that the entries to the register are over a year old, dating from February 2014, which was before the introduction of the new system. As my noble friend Lord Hayward pointed out, these numbers are not just in Labour areas; the last time I looked, Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth and Windsor were blue.
The noble Lord has quoted the Electoral Commission several times. As a matter of process, the opinion of the Electoral Commission is extremely important. As a member of the coalition Government, my clear understanding was that we had agreed that we would complete the process by December 2016 unless there was—as the Electoral Commission has confirmed there is—compelling evidence that it was not necessary to go that far. The Electoral Commission has said, very clearly, that it thinks we are mistaken in what we are doing. Is the Minister saying that the Government consider the commission not to be relevant in this crucial area, although he is using it to support his argument in other areas? Why do the Government not regard the Electoral Commission’s argument? I repeat that this is a matter of the rules of politics, which have to be seen as fair.
I completely agree with the noble Lord that the rules of politics must be seen to be fair, which is why we are taking this action today. We believe that it is wrong to have so many inaccurate ghost entries on this register and that the facts have changed, in that by December these four out of 100 voters will have been contacted at least nine times. I will go on.
The Minister keeps referring to this figure of 96%. Can he be absolutely clear that he accepts that 85% of the eligible population has registered to vote? In other words, 15% of those eligible are not registered. Many noble Lords have made the point in this debate that the process now under way, which the Government are hurrying forward in this way, will prejudice attempts to get that other 15% on to the register.
My Lords, I completely agree that we need to get more people on the register. However, let us not confuse apples and oranges—these are two separate things. If people are not on the register, there is absolutely no way they can be taken off the register, which is what we are saying today. I do not understand—maybe I am not explaining it clearly enough. However, I will go on, if I may.
When people move, we should not leave their entries on the register. That increases the risk of not only electoral fraud but benefit and financial fraud. In advance of Northern Ireland moving to a system of individual electoral registration in 2002, the police said that it would,
“go a long way to eliminating the opportunities for fraudsters to commit the offence of personation”.
The noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, asked about fraud. Let us just remind ourselves that since 2002-03, courts have imposed jail sentences for electoral fraud in Ashford, Blackburn, Bradford, Bristol, Burnley, Coventry, Derby, Guildford, Oldham, Peterborough, Slough and Walsall.
No—I am absolutely clear. We need to make sure that we take every step possible to cut down on electoral fraud. Therefore, after such an effort to contact the ghost entries, which puts pestering PPI calls in the shade, and given these facts, the Government believe that the time has come to remove these entries from the register.
I will repeat a crucial point which I made at the start. Even if someone is removed inadvertently from the register, he or she has not lost the right to vote, as some would have it. Indeed, as I have said before, we want more people to register. A number of noble Lords, such as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, have highlighted the number of those who are not on the register already. I agree—they are right—there are too many of them, and we need to encourage them to register, as I said at the start. Individual electoral registration will help them do that. It is now easier to register than ever before and takes minutes to do online: 460,000 applications were made on the registration deadline for the general election alone—that is five applications a second.
As the Minister for Constitutional Reform said in his speech last week, the approach to registration needs to be updated and modernised, building on the success of online registration. This will help to meet the challenges of finding and registering those currently missing from the register and build on the excellent work that was done under the coalition.
The key point is this: the need to encourage voter registration has nothing to do with removing the inaccurate carry-forward entries on the register. As I just said, if a person is not on the register already, they obviously cannot be affected when these ghost entries are removed from the register. As I said at the start, the answer to underregistered groups, such as young people or expatriates, is not to stuff the electoral roll, and potentially the ballot boxes, with the names of people who do not exist but, instead, to encourage more people to vote.
A number of your Lordships referred to the boundary review, which, as your Lordships will know, begins its work early in the new year, fulfilling the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitment to cut the number of MPs and make votes of more equal value. If we are to create constituencies of equal size, the electoral registers used for the boundary review must be accurate across the UK. Otherwise, areas with large numbers of carry-forwards will get more MPs than those with small numbers.
This should not be a partisan point, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said. Areas with high carry-forwards include Conservative authorities such as Windsor and Maidenhead, and Kensington and Chelsea. It is right that overregistration be tackled in these areas. Equally, Labour councils such as Barrow, Cardiff and Hartlepool have below average numbers of carry-forwards. Surely it cannot be right that we leave 17,000 carry-forwards on the register in Kensington and Chelsea, according to May’s figures, while there are just 558 in Hartlepool. If we allow this to happen, it will distort the distribution of seats, hitting, in particular, Wales and Northern Ireland, where there are no carry-forwards as they already have individual electoral registration. A full transition to the new system will ensure fairness—something we all should want.
As we enter a year of elections, the Government believe that we should not retain these ghost entries on the register, making it inaccurate and perhaps making elections open to fraud. As has been said, we are not alone in thinking this. As my noble friends Lord Lexden and Lord Hayward said, the Association of Electoral Administrators supports ending the transition this year for primarily this reason, saying that:
“It is crucial to have the most accurate register possible”.
All democracies depend on a weighing up of interests and a careful consideration of the facts. This is no less true of our electoral system. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, we must take an approach that strikes the right balance between safeguarding the integrity of the register and ensuring that the electors registered to vote for the elections next May are accurate. The Government believe that we are past the tipping point. Remember, 96 out of every 100 electors have successfully registered on the new system. By December, at least nine attempts will have been made to contact those entries that were carried forward. The chance of a large number of the remaining carry-forward entries being eligible to register to vote is vanishingly small. No one is losing the right to vote and registering is easier than ever before. This is why the Government oppose the Motions today.
Although I heed the words of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I would like to echo the words of my noble friend Lord Cormack. Having broken a convention yesterday by failing to respect the primacy of the other place, the House supporting these Motions would defeat a statutory instrument, not on the grounds that it has been improperly made but because the noble Lords who tabled them disagree with it. It is up to your Lordships to make your decision clear, but it would be killing a statutory instrument—something this House has done only five times since World War II. With a further fatal Motion on the Order Paper for later today, the House is being invited to withhold its approval to three statutory instruments in two days; doing in two days what this House did in the 13 years between 1997 and 2010.
As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, the Electoral Commission is an independent body but we are not bound to observe it. As I have set out very, very clearly, we believe that we have a strong case for proceeding as we have.
Although this House is unelected, I believe that we should be doing our utmost to protect the integrity and accuracy of our electoral system. That is the duty we have to voters. We believe that it is time to finish the transition to individual electoral registration in December 2015 so that we can all be confident in our electoral register.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. I think the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is going to accept my amendment, so I am grateful to him for that. The Minister has not made a convincing case to the House this afternoon. The Government also failed to persuade the Electoral Commission, an independent body set up by Parliament which is expert in this field, to which a number of noble Lords referred, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
As has been said, the Electoral Commission urged the House to support the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. My noble friend Lord Wills made a powerful contribution, particularly pointing out that the Electoral Commission recommended the use of ID cards at polling stations. The Government have not moved on that and they should do so if they have concerns about electoral fraud.
The noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Lexden, made reference to the Northern Ireland schools initiative. I agree that it is a very good initiative and I have repeatedly said from the Dispatch Box that the Government should introduce it in Great Britain, but to no avail so far. I know that EROs target groups, and supporting the Motion today will be giving more time to EROs to do more work on the register.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made an excellent point about the completeness of the register, which underlines the underregistration problem we have in Great Britain today. It is important to note that a cut-off date of 1 December 2016 was in a government amendment. It has been mentioned here before and nothing has changed since then. No one suggested here today that it is so successful that we can take a year off the period. From my time on the Electoral Commission, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that it worked with great determination on IER. It was the champion initially and worked really hard on completeness. When it says that this is a risk, we need to look at that very carefully.
My noble friend Lady McDonagh made an excellent contribution, highlighting the data-matching issues that have been experienced across the country. The case has not been made today.
I wonder whether the noble Lord can help on a question I asked earlier. I am obliged to him for his reference in the amendment to the Electoral Commission’s view, because it made me interested to see what it had said. I understand the second part perfectly—there is no question about why it thinks there is a degree of risk to completion—but I do not understand how shortening the transition period contributes to the accuracy of the register.
We discussed this point earlier. The commission looked at all these factors—risk, accuracy and completeness—and it still says in its paper that,
“taking this decision before the outcome of the annual canvass means the Government has acted without reliable information”.
It looked at all the figures and decided that if Government go ahead with this, they will be making the wrong decision.