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Mr. Ross: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. As we are spending some money, perhaps a bit more can be found if need be. In the light of the Minister's remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I beg to move amendment No. 58, in page 21, line 39, after "above;", insert--

"(ca) is notified of any decision on an appeal by virtue of section 56 below which requires any such alteration in the register as is mentioned in subsection (4) of that section;".

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 61, 64 and 65.

Mr. O'Brien: These are minor drafting amendments. They deal with the point at which alterations to the register have been the subject of an appeal. I shall not outline them to the House at this stage of the proceedings unless any hon. Member particularly requests it.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Barnes: I beg to move amendment No. 44, in page 21, line 41, at end insert--

"(1A) The registration officer shall determine an application for an alteration of the register within a period of three working days from receipt of the application.".

The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 45, in page 21, line 45, leave out from "him" to "and" in line 50 and insert

"not later than the day following the day on which he determines or, as the case may be, becomes satisfied that the alteration should be made".

Government amendments Nos. 59 and 60.

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No. 46, in page 22, line 22, at end insert--

"except where a person can demonstrate that he was, before that day, entitled to be registered and where the registration officer makes his determination at least three working days before the election.".

Mr. Barnes: We have an increasingly mobile and rootless society, which has a tremendously adverse effect on electoral registration in the United Kingdom. The Government seek to tackle that problem, but the Bill is unduly restrictive. My amendments, and others to which I shall speak on later occasions, are intended to improve on the Government's proposals.

The problem I seek to tackle is that, while electoral registers do not come into force in Britain until 16 February each year, the person is registered at the address at which he or she was resident on 10 October in the preceding year. The Bill proposes to remove the 10 October qualifying date so that someone who moves to a new area may transfer his or her electoral registration without having to wait up to 16 months. When people move or die, their registration will be deleted from the original register.

That is fine as far as it goes, but the Bill has shortcomings in that the transferred registration will become effective only when it is published on a supplementary monthly list. Registration submitted within a fortnight before publication of those lists will be held over until the following month's publication. No monthly supplementary list will be published when an election is approaching once the last day for nominations has been reached. When those provisions are combined, in some cases, people seeking to transfer registration five and a half weeks from the close of nominations will not be able to vote in an election in the area of their new residence. We can do better than that.

A transferred registration could become operative as soon as it is accepted and logged into a computer by the electoral returning officer--as happened with the anti-social poll tax. To avoid an area's being subject to a rush of temporary registrations that would distort the result of a by-election, the register could cease to roll on the closing date for nominations, recommencing on the day after polling. However, if someone has moved to an area before the close of nominations but has not registered immediately, his or her registration could still be accepted up to, say, three days before the election.

To make my proposals fit the current Bill, amendment No. 44 proposes that registration should be determined three days after its receipt by the electoral returning officer. In amendment No. 45, I propose that registrations should be published the day after determination, and publication could be on the computer. Amendment No. 46 argues that someone who is late to register, but who qualifies to have registered, can still be put on the appropriate register three working days before an election. I am trying to make the register roll in keeping with modern needs. In later amendments, I shall try to help that process further. The current amendments are only part of my modernisation proposals.

I want to stress the seriousness of this problem. We need stronger provisions to allow the register to roll more genuinely than it would under the Bill. Radical reforms are needed. I gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on the seriousness of the shortfall in electoral registration. In 1993, the Office for Population, Censuses

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and Surveys published a survey by Stephen Smith entitled "Electoral registration in 1991". In the summary of his main findings, Mr. Smith wrote that

    "the best estimate of non-registration in private households is therefore between 7.4 per cent. and 9 per cent. for England and Wales."

On the same page, Mr. Smith published a table in which the most serious aspects of non-registration of those eligible were set out. The figures were: 38.2 per cent. of those in private and rented furnished accommodation; 36.6 per cent. of new Commonwealth citizens; 27.6 per cent. of those who have moved over the past year; 24 per cent. of black people; 21.9 per cent. of those under 17--the teenagers soon to have their names on a register; 20.6 per cent. of the 21 to 24 age group; and 20.4 per cent. in inner London. Those serious distortions have considerable effects on electoral registration. The Bill does something to deal with basic problems so that people who move can transfer registration, but we must do much more. I shall introduce amendments on the role of the electoral returning officer in those matters, as part of the whole scheme of things that I am proposing. At present, I am limited to the amendments before the Committee.

My evidence to the Select Committee continued:

I mentioned those earlier. I went on to say that the second was that

    "between 1983-96 the shortfall between those registered and the eligible population fell steadily in Britain from 2.2 per cent to 4.9 per cent. This seems to me to fit in with a period in which we have seen a breakdown in certain aspects of the social fabric: which will disproportionately affect groups highlighted in Stephen Smith's survey. A boost was given to non-registration by the impact of the Poll Tax from 1988 where there was an interlink between the Poll Tax and electoral registers."

Probably, about 1 million people were missing from that registration.

My evidence continued:

If the situation is as serious as the one that I described in my evidence to the Select Committee, we need to take several measures that are stronger than those in the Bill. My amendments are intended to do that--they will set us on a path that will enable us to put the missing millions back on to electoral registers.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) for tabling these amendments, because it gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to him. If there is anybody who can claim to be the father of rolling electoral registration, it is my hon. Friend. He kept the issue alive when it was far from fashionable, and now that it is fashionable, he deserves much credit.

At last, my hon. Friend's efforts are coming to fruition, and I hope that he regards the system of rolling electoral registration that the Bill provides as an important step forward. I use those words carefully. I would be the first to accept that this is not a perfect scheme--it is certainly not the scheme that he would like ideally--but it does

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represent a significant advance on what exists at present and it will lay the foundations for a more comprehensive rolling registration scheme in years to come.

The system that the Bill provides for was devised by a sub-group of the working party on electoral procedures whose members comprised electoral administrators and representatives of political parties. That is important, because those are the two groups who have the greatest interest in making rolling electoral registration work as effectively as possible; they are in the front line when it comes to receiving complaints from irate members of the public who are unable to vote in a particular election.

In its final report, the working party endorsed the sub-group's recommendations and stated:

The scheme in the Bill sticks exactly to that timetable. Quite simply, the electoral administrators did not believe that the more ambitious timetable that my hon. Friend had in mind would be possible at present. That is why I said that we hope to create a system that will deliver a much better and more effective rolling registration system, but I cannot say that we will deliver the ideal system envisaged by my hon. Friend. We may have that ideal system in future, but unfortunately we may have to wait for a short while before it comes to fruition.

Electoral administrators have many duties and cannot always consider registration applications instantaneously. For example, hon. Members could imagine what might happen if there was a by-election in one ward of a local authority. The registration officer, who might well also be the returning officer in that by-election, would probably be far too busy in the week of the by-election to give instant consideration to registration applications from other wards. Considering and processing applications as they come in, instead of monthly, would require registration officers to issue almost daily alteration lists, which I imagine would not be popular with the political parties or anyone else.

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