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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 5 May 2004

[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]

Electoral Register

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Kemp.]

9.30 am

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne) (Con): I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the integrity of the electoral register. For some time, I have been concerned that the system for the registration of voters in England, Scotland and Wales is not sound and could lead to election fraud. When I was appointed as an election scrutineer in the Seychelles on behalf of the Commonwealth and in Angola on behalf of the United Nations, one of the first tasks was to decide who was entitled to vote, followed by the cleansing of the electoral roll. Only by setting those important criteria could we acknowledge that one of the basic principles of free and fair elections had been met.

Today, I shall focus on both those aspects as they relate to the United Kingdom. I am sure that we all accept that an accurate electoral register is the cornerstone of any democracy. If it is corrupted or compromised in any way, the process will be undermined and the general public will lose confidence in the integrity of the Administration. Six months ago, I became aware that the names of some of my constituents who were foreign nationals were appearing on the electoral register. I remind hon. Members that an offence is committed when the householder fails to give the electoral returning officer information that enables him to discharge his registration duties, or when the information provided is false.

There may be several reasons why ineligible people are registered to vote. First, the family may lack the knowledge, education or expertise to complete the registration form correctly. Even children may be added to the roll through a misunderstanding of the system and because the roll has been confused with the census. Secondly, some foreign nationals may have little grasp of the English language. When the registration form comes through their letterbox, the householder, who has a duty to complete the form, may not understand the rules and may fill in the names of everyone living at that address. Thirdly, they may know, as foreign nationals, that they are not eligible to vote and have no intention of doing so but add their names to the register because it is extremely useful for obtaining credit cards, parking permits, loans and so on. Hon. Members will know that many organisations use the electoral register as a database to verify someone's residence.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Lady rightly focuses on those whose names go on to the register but who are not eligible to vote. Does she accept, however, that for every one of those there are likely to be substantial numbers of people who are eligible to go on to the register but do not
 
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do so and that, in their efforts to make the register complete and accurate, the authorities should also spend time encouraging those who do have a right to be on it to register?

Mrs. Roe : I fully agree. The electoral roll should be accurate, and those who do not register but are eligible to do so should be given every encouragement and all the information necessary to ensure that they can vote in the proper way.

Fourthly, there may be a criminal element in registering a false name: the aim may be to legitimise false identities and to provide cover for illegal activities such as benefit fraud. Fifthly, false names or those ineligible to vote may unfortunately be registered deliberately in order to corrupt the vote and to enhance the chances of a particular candidate in local and general elections in marginal wards and constituencies, in which case ballot rigging becomes very easy.

Moreover, every electoral returning officer throughout the country produces a different electoral registration form, which adds to the confusion. None looks alike. There is no uniform presentation. In some parts of the country, some registration forms are in different languages to assist voters, but they seem complicated to many people who fail to read the small print.

What caused me serious anxiety was the fact that, in general, no comprehensive checks were made on those who put their names on the register. What was worse was that I was told that the act of investigating people whose names seemed foreign could be deemed to be racist and that there was no need to worry because the system was self-regulatory. When I made inquiries about such matters of the Electoral Commission, I was informed that

Furthermore, the electoral returning officer is unlikely to make inquiries unless there was an objection to the inclusion of the name. The creation of the rolling register system has made it harder for political parties to use the claims and objections procedures. That was acknowledged by the Electoral Commission in its report, "The electoral registration process", which noted that

In a written answer on 9 March 2004 to a question that was addressed originally to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Financial Secretary gave a list of 20 constituencies in which the highest number of registered electors was lost from the parliamentary register between 2001 and 2003.

David Taylor : Does the hon. Lady accept that the largest loss of electors from the register occurred in the early 1990s when the community charge was introduced? Thousands of people who were required to
 
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be incorporated into the register at that time have still not surfaced. Is that not shocking? Is there not something that we can do about it?

Mrs. Roe : I agree. I hope that something can be done about the problem.

I return to the written answer of 9 March. I remind hon. Members that I am talking about the constituencies in which the highest number of registered electors was lost from the parliamentary register between 2001 and 2003. I draw attention to the constituency at the top of the list, Brentford and Isleworth, in which there was a decrease of 15,486—18.6 per cent.—which the Financial Secretary acknowledged in her reply

Portsmouth, South showed a decrease of 11,210 registered electors, a 14.5 per cent. fall. It follows that there are major implications for the work of the boundary commissioners as well, which have yet to be acknowledged and dealt with when assessing ward and constituency boundaries. The information that I have given hon. Members demonstrates clearly the size of the problem.

There is no doubt that the electoral register is being abused. The argument that cases of fraudulent registration rarely appear in the courts cannot support the view that there is no problem to solve. The reason why no prosecutions are taking place is that no checks are being made and no evidence is being exposed. An article in the Daily Mail on 7 February 2004 stated:

The quote continues:

British citizens can vote in all elections—local, national and European—in the United Kingdom. Citizens of the Irish Republic can do the same, as can all Commonwealth citizens. Finally, citizens of a country that is a member of the European Union can vote in local elections and choose in European parliamentary elections whether to cast their votes in the United Kingdom or their country of origin. Under our system of registration, how can a returning officer know whether "John Smith" is British voting in all elections, a Canadian voting in all elections, or an American who
 
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cannot vote in any elections? It is impossible to know unless a thorough identity check is available on each individual.

In Northern Ireland, the problem of fraudulent voting was confronted and dealt with through the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. We have all heard the motto, "Vote early, vote often." Now, in Northern Ireland, there is individual registration of each voter; the householder no longer has the responsibility to complete the forms on behalf of all residents in the home. On the new registration form, there are four identifiers: name and address, date of birth, national insurance number and a personal signature. Those details can be checked more easily. More important, the voter must produce at the polling station when voting photographic identification documents from a list of options.

On the first register compiled under the new system of individual registration, there were 120,000 fewer names—a decrease of 10 per cent.—than on its predecessor compiled under the household registration system. Thus, the electoral register eventually restored credibility and confidence in the procedure of voting at elections. In December 2003, the Electoral Commission produced a report outlining its analysis of the workings of the new system in Northern Ireland, and made recommendations for further improvement.

In one corner of the United Kingdom, therefore, we have already acknowledged the difficulties of producing an accurate electoral register and have introduced legislation to correct the flaws. What are the Government doing to ensure that the same approach is adopted for the rest of the country, especially bearing in mind that for the first time everyone in the north-east, north-west, east midlands and Yorkshire and Humberside regions will be voting by post for the European elections in June? Is that not putting the cart before the horse? Is it not almost an enticement to vote illegally when ballot papers are put through letterboxes with every encouragement to use them? It appears that the Government are sending out the message that we want as many people to vote as possible, even if they are not eligible to do so.

In a briefing issued on 15 January on the Government's electoral modernisation agenda, the Minister for Local and Regional Government said:

Surely the priority focus should be on who is eligible to vote. That should come before the introduction of multi-channelled, e-enabled elections. Of course I support making voting more accessible and straightforward for the electorate—that is, for those who are eligible to vote—and more flexibility should be allowed in where and when they vote, but surely that applies only to those entitled to vote. Returning officers need to be given direction on scrutiny of the electoral register, protected from accusations of racism, harassment and so on, supported and given sufficient resources to fulfil their duties.

A knock-on effect is that the percentage figures on those voting are completely distorted, as many people on the electoral register are not entitled to vote in the first place. The whole matter needs to be addressed
 
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urgently. There will be a strong possibility of challenges to election results in marginal seats if there is a suspicion that fraud has been committed.

I return to the subject of who is entitled to vote in the United Kingdom. Of course, there are no question marks over whether British citizens should have the right to determine who governs them at local and national level, or represents them in Europe. Citizens of countries in the European Union can vote in local and European elections, and there are reciprocal arrangements for British citizens. As a result of the Consolidated Act under the Representation of the People Act 1983, citizens of the Irish Republic can vote in the United Kingdom, and a reciprocal arrangement exists for British citizens in Ireland, although they are subject to a residential qualification of three months.

Commonwealth citizens can vote in all our elections under the 1983 Act. There are 53 Commonwealth countries. That means that citizens from 52 countries around the world can come to the United Kingdom and vote in our local, national and European parliamentary elections. For example, if I were an Australian citizen, I could come to the United Kingdom, buy or rent a property and, within months, add my name to the electoral register through the rolling register system. I could then start to vote and to influence which political parties govern following local, mayoral, general and European elections. However, a British citizen could not go to Australia and vote on the same basis, as there is no reciprocal arrangement. The same applies to Canada and India.

In fact, only 14 of the 52 other Commonwealth countries offer reciprocal arrangements to British citizens. They are mostly the islands in the West Indies—Barbados, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana—they also include New Zealand, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia and South Africa. Even citizens from countries that have been suspended from the Commonwealth are entitled to vote in the United Kingdom.

The question must be asked: is it fair that all Commonwealth citizens are permitted to vote in European parliamentary elections to choose the United Kingdom's representatives in Europe? Our Commonwealth cousins are clearly displaying the fact that they believe that the umbilical cord with the mother country has been cut in this respect, and we should accept that that is their desire. I urge the Government to instruct the Electoral Commission to undertake an urgent review of who should be entitled to vote in the United Kingdom, with reference to our Commonwealth cousins. They, of course, should be consulted on whether they wish to continue any reciprocal arrangements. If so, those arrangements can continue. The others should be consulted on whether they wish to initiate a reciprocal arrangement, or whether their citizens should no longer be able to vote in the United Kingdom.

That exercise should be conducted in the friendliest of terms, so that the fairness of the arrangements can be clarified as far as the British public are concerned. At the end of its inquiry, the Electoral Commission should be invited to present an analysis of the current arrangements, as well as all the workable options available to Government that would demonstrate an
 
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even-handed system, which is understood by everybody. It is important that the practices of other countries should be considered: for example, some have residential qualifications for voting in some elections rather than a Commonwealth link. There can then be an informed debate on the issue. All the information can then be assessed to produce a coherent qualification for voting rights and can thus restore an acceptance that our democratic system continues to be built on a foundation of freedom and fairness in the 21st century.

The Electoral Commission's report on Northern Ireland's new electoral system was published in December 2003. The conclusion states:

Surely it is right that those sentiments must apply to the whole of the United Kingdom in order to guarantee that our democracy continues to flourish. My constituents want to see secure procedures in place for the registration of voters, which will provide an electoral register that has its integrity constantly maintained. Every loophole that allows our electoral process to be corrupted must be removed and any unfairness eliminated.

9.52 am

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) on securing this debate on an important issue that goes to the heart of the integrity of our electoral system. Our ability to rely on the electoral register when conducting our electoral business is the cornerstone of how we conduct our voting and judge the veracity of the results that stem from that process.

In this country, the electoral register has always been a process by which people record themselves for electoral registration. In future years—should an identity card be introduced, for example—that system could be strengthened by the production of an identity card when voting or registering. The hon. Lady mentioned the recent clean-up of the electoral register in Northern Ireland, which employed some of those techniques. However, because the electoral registration system is essentially voluntary, it always has been, and it still is, possible to abuse it by registering in the way that she described.

The hon. Lady drew our attention to a recent article in the Daily Mail, which, as I understand it, outlined the committing of a fairly grave offence—one punishable, I believe, by a substantial fine. My hon. Friend the Minister might consider whether proceedings ought to be instituted against the individual who has admitted in print to the fraudulent registration of a number of voters. The offence has been committed whether or not the person so registered exercises the right to vote: the fraudulent registration is the offence.

Fraudulent registration is possible in a variety of fields, and newspapers delight in pointing that out. If one is determined to do so, one can register for bogus gas and electricity bills, bogus car registrations and bogus passports, and the hon. Lady mentioned several such incidents. Nevertheless, the numbers involved are fairly small. As far as I know, large numbers of Australians are not making their way to Britain to
 
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register, get a vote and take part in elections, although some may well be making their way here for other reasons.

There is scant evidence of widespread fraud and personation in England, Scotland and Wales in recent years. That has not always been the case: in Victorian times, there was widespread evidence of personation and electoral corruption, with people receiving funds to vote. The Conservative candidate in the 1895 election in Southampton, Sir Tankerville Chamberlayne, gave his address as the first floor of the Dolphin hotel in central Southampton. Six strong men carried him shoulder-high from the first floor and placed him in a cart that they had previously unhorsed. They then pulled him to the Cowherds inn at Above Bar, and he waved to the crowds and threw sovereigns at them as he went. Incidentally, his election was ruled invalid, and a further election was held. These days, however, we have relatively clean and uncorrupt elections in the UK, and there is certainly little evidence of personation, fraud, undue influence, bribery and treating in our electoral system.

A much greater problem for the integrity of the electoral register is the fact that it does not record everyone who is available to vote. The numbers involved are not marginal—indeed, they are very considerable. We can form some impression of the extent of the problem by comparing the census figures for people over 18 in England and Wales in 2001 with the numbers on the electoral register in 2001 and subsequent years. The census shows that there were 40,249,000 people over 18 in England and Wales in 2001, but it is generally recognised that the census under-recorded the number of people by up to 1 million. So, leaving aside the marginal numbers of people who, as the hon. Lady mentioned, can vote in local elections but not national elections, the census itself under-records the number of people who can, in theory, register to vote. However, according to the electoral register for 2001, the number of people registered to vote in England and Wales was only 39,531,000. At only 700,000 less than the census figure, the gap does not appear to be enormous, but given the under-recording in the census itself, approximately 1.5 million people are not on the electoral register who should be.

The figures for registration in subsequent years show not only that the 39.5 million has not been maintained, but that it has fallen each year. In 2002, the number registered was 39,404,000 and in 2003, it was 39,192,000. That is the opposite of what we would expect. The 2001 census indicated the size of the population in 2000; the population would have grown a little since then, so the registration figures should have crept up marginally in line with the growth in population.

From those figures, I draw two conclusions. First, about 1.5 million people are missing from the electoral register. Secondly, in just over two years we have lost a further 300,000 people from the register. The gap is increasing as the years go by. However, there is worse news. If we delve a little deeper into those figures—we can do that thanks to the recent publication of the 2001 census figures for each constituency—we will see a wide variation in who registers where. The hon. Lady was kind enough to draw attention to a recent question of
 
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mine asking which were the top 20 constituencies of those that had lost a substantial number of electors over the two years in question. The answer included a large number of seats in Northern Ireland—as the hon. Lady said, they were the subject of the cleansing of the electoral register—and a number of Scottish seats. I shall concentrate on England and Wales.

Going more deeply into those figures, we see that a large number of seats have suffered a decrease of more than 5 per cent. in the number of electors between 2001 and 2003. The hon. Lady highlighted two of what we might call the worst offenders, but the list is a catalogue of constituencies—50 or 60—that have suffered a decrease of more than 5 per cent. in their electorate during those two years. The list included Brentford and Isleworth; Portsmouth, South; Leeds, West; Southport; Brent, East; Bolton, South-East; Lewisham, Deptford; Dulwich and West Norwood; Brent, North; Tyne Bridge; and so on. Significantly, those constituencies are overwhelmingly concentrated in inner city and urban areas—and, interestingly, in seaside towns.

A second test of the integrity of the changes that have occurred in the electoral register would be to compare the number of people aged over 18 in each constituency, as set out in the 2001 census, with the figures shown in the 2003 electoral registers for those constituencies in order to see how near they are to the 2001 census figures. Again, I emphasise that—if they are an accurate record—we would expect those figures to be close to 100 per cent. of the 2001 census figures for those aged over 18; indeed, they might even be 1 per cent. or 2 per cent. above the census figures, reflecting the increase in the number of people who became eligible to vote after the census. However, the 2003 figures show that a number of seats have more than 10 per cent. fewer people registered to vote than the 2001 census figure suggests. The list of constituencies seems remarkably similar—Brent, East; Hammersmith and Fulham; Brentford and Isleworth; Brent, North; Sheffield, Central; Hackney, South and Shoreditch; Dulwich and West Norwood; and so on.

The shocking fact is that, although the 2003 voter registration figures for a number of seats are 10 per cent. below the 2001 census figures, some of them are as much as 30 per cent. below. The figure for Brent, East is 70 per cent. of the 2001 census figure; for Hammersmith and Fulham and for Brentford and Isleworth 76 per cent., and for Sheffield, Central 81 per cent. In those constituencies, the number of people who are registering to vote bears no relation to the number of people who are really there—the census actually recorded them even if the register under-recorded them. The figures for overall electoral registration in the country mask such enormous variations, which are systematically concentrated in certain parts of the country.

We can see how concentrated they are by examining some of the seats that do not appear in the list and where the registration is stable. It could be that certain seats have always had a low registration and continue to have one, but they would not show up in the figures because they escape the artificial boundaries that I have set. I have concentrated on one particular county: Hampshire. I see present the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), whose constituency is included in this investigation. If we do the same comparison of those registered in 2003 and the 2001 census figures and we
 
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examine all of the constituencies in Hampshire we find that most of them record 100 per cent. of the 2001 census figure or more. The figure for North-West Hampshire is 103 per cent. of the 2001 census; for Fareham it is 100.9 per cent.; for East Hampshire it is 103.1 per cent.; and for Gosport it is almost 100 per cent.—99.8 per cent. Again, however, the percentages in urban areas are far lower. The figure for Basingstoke is 94.4 per cent.; for Portsmouth, North 92.6 per cent.; and for Portsmouth, South 82 per cent. Therefore, it appears that in rural and suburban areas, by and large, the electoral registration process is keeping up with what one might expect in terms of population, whereas in urban and inner-city seats, that process is diverging radically from what the census reveals.

I imagine that by now many hon. Members will have glazed over at that recitation of interesting statistics—interesting to me, anyway. Nevertheless, there is a point that I feel is worth emphasising. Those statistics show that the real issue for the electoral register's integrity is that in a number of parts of the country, the registration process is simply not working. That should be of concern to all of us who value the register's integrity, who want the electoral process to deliver a result that the electorate can find legitimate and who want to ensure that when people come to vote in an election, they have the opportunity to do so. It should concern us all that in parts of the country—I have mentioned them—as little as 70 per cent. of the population is registered to vote.

I will make one final brief point about statistics. That drop in the number of electors—the under-registration of electors compared with the census—correlates closely to turnout at elections. The same seats that do not have many people registered for them and where the electorate is dropping in numbers also have low turnouts at elections. In the last election—these figures are not predictions for the next—the turnout figure for Brentford and Isleworth was 52.9 per cent.; for Portsmouth, South 50.8 per cent.; and for Leeds, West 49.9 per cent. That suggests that we have, to coin a phrase, a double whammy. We talk about a worrying drop in turnout, but in some instances we are talking about 50 per cent. of 70 per cent. That means that the actual turnout in some constituencies is 35 to 40 per cent. of those who, theoretically, could vote. Again, that raises fundamental concerns about the integrity of the electoral register and the legitimacy of our electoral system.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making a clinical presentation, which is certainly relevant and interesting. The one thing that he has not touched on is why people do not register to vote. People intentionally do not do so, for various reasons. Will the hon. Gentleman speculate on why, in many urban and inner-city areas, people do not register to vote? Failure to register is intentional; it is not accidental.

Dr. Whitehead : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing what one might call a sub-heading for my next set of observations. He is quite right: showing that there is cause to be concerned is not entirely sufficient. What we need to do is consider why the figures are as they are—albeit briefly, as I am aware that other hon. Members wish to contribute and I do not want to stay beyond my welcome.
 
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It is true, as the hon. Gentleman says, that some people simply do not wish to register and will take steps to avoid doing so. It is also true, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) pointed out, that it was suggested in the early 1990s that a community charge register be set up separately from the electoral register. That can be counted among the effects of the poll tax. In theory, one would not have to look at one register to discover who was liable on the other. Local authorities were charged with establishing the two registers in parallel—an absurd process. However, a relatively large number of people thought that they would be, as it were, spotted for council tax charges if they registered and there was a substantial drop in registration. We have been recovering from that since, although, as I said, the figures from recent years suggest that we are not recovering and are in fact going in the opposite direction.

It is true that some people evade registration, but it is also true that in urban and inner-city areas the population is relatively mobile. The traditional methods of getting hold of people, which require them to be present at a certain time, have not enabled some people in such areas to be registered.

Mrs. Roe : Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that there are people who are registered on an electoral register somewhere else in the country? For example, many students will be on the electoral roll at home—where they come from—rather than in the inner-city area where they attend university or college.

Dr. Whitehead : The hon. Lady makes a point that is certainly valid, but universities are by no means located only in inner-city and urban areas. Since we are in the market for interesting statistics this morning—

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): We have had quite a few, have we not?

Dr. Whitehead : Indeed, and I thought that we might have one more. The city of Southampton has more students per head of population than Cambridge, yet neither is an inner-city area and both have a large number of students.

I have highlighted urban and the inner-city areas as places where the electoral registration system seems to be going seriously wrong. The problem is probably related to a number of the factors that we have discussed. It could be that some students and people who are fairly mobile or transient do not register and that registration forms do not reach people who change address. To an increasing extent, people do not read official material that comes through their letterboxes, and attempts by electoral registration officers to secure registration by traditional means—letters, reminders and canvassing—fail even when people are there and could register.

The returning officers in some of the constituencies that I have mentioned explain the considerable drop in registrations by saying that they have cleaned up their registers, as has been done in Northern Ireland. They have removed the names of people whom they have not managed to contact in the past year. The problem is not that the people are not there, but that they have not been
 
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contacted. Increasingly, in urban and inner-city areas, those who are registered are those who can register and who have been contacted by traditional methods.

My plea is that we should find ways to make registration easier and to contact people who are transient. Other methods of registering should be investigated; then, we might get a register that has integrity. I agree with the hon. Member for Broxbourne that having a register with integrity is a way to ensure that our elections are legitimate and that people believe that the outcome has been achieved by a means that they can endorse.

10.17 am

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): It is a great pleasure to address this sitting of Westminster Hall under your chairmanship, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am grateful for the opportunity. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) has made a compelling, if not concise, case for compulsory registration, carefully and clinically supervised. I have some sympathy with that. To have the vote is a privilege as well as a right.

There is a case, which we could explore on another occasion—although the Minister might like to take the idea on board now—for holding a special census, with compulsory registration, and for everybody who registers for it to be on an electoral register. However, such a census, properly supervised, could happen only if there were rigorous safeguards to ensure that everybody was legitimately registered. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) has done a great service not only to us here but to the House. I regret the fact that the debate is not taking place on the Floor of the House with a great many Members present, because she has highlighted an important issue and, as was apparent from her admirable and comprehensive opening speech, she has done a great deal of homework on it.

For a year, I have chaired my party's committee that liaises with the Electoral Commission. My hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne, for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) sit on that committee, and we have had some useful discussions with Mr. Sam Younger and his colleagues. We have sought several times to highlight the problem of the register's integrity. On 24 March, I wrote to the Minister making some of the points that have been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne. I found his response a touch complacent.

Two separate issues have been raised today. The first, which needs to be addressed, is that described by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test. The other, which is what we are really debating, is the fact that people register with bogus identities. There is a suspicion that that problem might be much more widespread than we know. In many cases, electoral registration offices seem reluctant to probe the identity and credentials of those who register. It is no answer to that to say that one is committing a criminal offence if one registers in a bogus manner, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne has pointed out, many people find the form somewhat complex, and many come from other cultures and speak languages that are not English. They may therefore not be sufficiently conversant with the process.
 
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There ought to be a process throughout the United Kingdom similar to that adopted in Northern Ireland. In his letter to me, the Minister says that the results and experience of the new Northern Ireland system are being considered. I hope that that is the case and that the system is being looked at expeditiously.

I hope that the Minister will say a little more about that. He is a highly intelligent man, and he is as concerned as I am about the integrity of the registry. He will acknowledge that it would be a problem if even half a dozen people got on a constituency register who were not entitled to be there. While accepting the limitations of the law, and that the law takes time to change, he should send a strongly worded letter to all electoral registration officers immediately, before the elections on 10 June. He should ask whether they are satisfied that they have conducted investigations into the integrity of their register and urge them to be particularly rigorous in future in ensuring that those who seek to register are entitled to do so.

The constituency situation referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne is worrying, and she is right to be concerned. We also know, and my hon. Friend referred to it, that we are approaching an election in which virtually half the population of England and about a third of the UK population—I think that those are the figures—will vote by post. That is a very large number of people. The Minister screws up his eyes at my arithmetic; perhaps I have it slightly wrong, but it is not very wrong. Certainly about half the electorate in England will vote by post on 10 June. That will be compulsory postal voting, which we have debated in the House. The Minister knows that I was very unhappy that the advice of the Electoral Commission was not followed more closely. However, that is over and done with. The House has decided; Parliament has decreed.

We are none the less concerned that people not necessarily entitled to be on the register will automatically receive postal votes and be encouraged to return them. That may well compound the situation that my hon. Friend has highlighted. If we are to move towards more widespread postal voting—I shall be sorry if we do so on a compulsory basis—we must be even more vigilant about the compilation of the electoral register.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Does he agree that if one physically has to vote at a polling station, one's presence may well be challenged? If one votes by post, it cannot. Bearing in mind that many of the people in attendance at polling stations know a great many people in their areas, the chance of fraud and deception is much less. It is much greater with all-postal voting.

Sir Patrick Cormack : Of course. That is self-evident, and my hon. Friend is right to point it out. If he turns up at a polling station and claims to be Mr. Sam Bloggs, there are many people in Macclesfield who will think that that is not quite right, whereas if he fills in something in the privacy of his home, there is no means of checking it or detecting that.

We have all, of course, heard about cases involving houses in multiple occupation, houses where the ethnic culture is not quite the same as our own, or old people's
 
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homes. We have heard anecdotal accusations of organisation of voting: it is easy to do that. When we had talks with members of the Electoral Commission, they were rightly exercised by that aspect. I urge the Minister to take immediate steps to contact electoral registration officers about those issues.

I want to touch briefly on eligibility to go on the register; my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne spoke about that and discussed the Commonwealth nations. I was disappointed that when I wrote to the Minister on the matter, he replied:

It would be appropriate to carry out a review. Reciprocity is the thing. I have no objection to the system that applies to citizens of the Republic of Ireland, or of those other nations, including South Africa, which my hon. Friend listed, where there is reciprocity. However, where there is no reciprocity, I wonder whether we should persist in automatically giving the right to vote in all elections in this country. It is a question of fairness and balance, and I am not sure that we have got it right.

I shall end where I began, following the comments of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test who highlighted an important issue. If we are seriously contemplating compulsory identity cards—I am not one of those with a big hang-up on the issue—there is a real case for compulsory registration and for telling people that if they are not registered, they cannot receive benefits or do this, that or the other. People should register as a subject and citizen of the country, and all rights and duties should flow from that. I see no sensible objection to that proposition. It should be considered.

I would even say that I prefer compulsory voting to the proliferation of postal ballots. Compulsory voting does not mean having to register a vote for a Labour, Conservative, Liberal or any other candidate. It means having to turn up or fill in the postal form and vote. I am conscious that there are three wind-up speeches to come, so I shall end there. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne for what she has done, and I hope that the Minister will give us a positive and encouraging reply.

10.28 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) on securing the debate. It is extraordinary that the democratic process, which is the lifeblood of the House, often seems to be such a peripheral and marginal issue here. It is left to those who can be loosely described as anoraks to pore over the details of the statistics and processes. I should like to think that all our colleagues in this place understand the difficulties of the electoral process and take an active interest in it.

Like the hon. Member for Broxbourne, I have been asked on occasion to monitor elections elsewhere. As a member of the parliamentary assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, I have on occasion been asked to go to the emerging democracies in central and eastern Europe to assist in elections. Indeed, I was in Georgia not long ago to see the elections in Tbilisi.
 
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I find it extraordinary that we often fervently preach about the benefits of strict democratic process and argue about the merits of a democratic structure in our country while retaining a partly appointed and partly hereditary House, but that is an aside. The point is that we often cannot sustain such arguments when our own arrangements are considered, because they are open to abuse.

I do not argue, by extension, that our arrangements are habitually abused to a great extent, as there is abundant evidence that that is not the case. However, it is dangerous to be complacent and to assume that we will always have a reasonably clean electoral system because that has been the case historically, or that we should not endeavour as much as we can to maximise the integrity of the system. That is what the debate is about, and that was the context of the valuable contributions of the hon. Members for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) and for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack).

The potential problems with our electoral system have all been dealt with, to some extent, in previous contributions. The first such problem is false registration. The point of entry, as it were, of the hon. Member for Broxbourne was the concern that it is relatively easy for one to register oneself falsely.

I can think of three reasons for doing that, the first of which is to establish a false identity for purposes outwith the electoral process, and I have no doubt that that happens. The second reason is to perpetrate electoral fraud. I do not know the extent to which that is a problem; I do not think that anyone does. The view expressed by the Minister in previous exchanges on the matter when considering legislation smacks of complacency of a high level. The fact that there have been relatively few prosecutions means not that the problem does not exist, but that it is not being detected. It is arguable that the processes by which it could be detected are so deficient that we are unlikely to have a high number of prosecutions.

However, there are occasional prosecutions. It is unfortunate that we could not refer to a case during proceedings on the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill concerning a gentleman who was prosecuted for electoral fraud at an all-postal ballot election. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) will know of it, as the gentleman concerned was from his part of the country.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but I would be grateful if he confirmed that, although the case was, as he put it, in my part of the country, it was not in my constituency.

Mr. Heath : I am happy to confirm that. Having listened to the hon. Gentleman last night in the House with great interest, I know that he has enough problems in his constituency, and I do not want to add to them. I understand that the case involved an elected Conservative councillor in the Guildford constituency, who was convicted.

That case at least serves as evidence that such things do happen. They happen in all parties—this is not a party political point. There have been instances of electoral fraud in all the major parties.
 
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I ask the Minister the question that I asked the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) when he was representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission: will the admirable code of conduct produced by the Electoral Commission be sent to every candidate in future elections? It is important that people understand what they must and must not do regarding electoral registration, so I hope that that will be the practice. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his helpful response to my question, but it also needs the imprimatur of Government to suggest that it is a necessary part of spreading the word of good practice.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Since the hon. Gentleman has referred to me, may I explain my role in speaking on behalf of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission? That committee has quite narrow responsibilities with regard to the commission. When I answer questions once a month, I try to incorporate the views of the commission and to make it clear that they are its views. It is not part of my responsibilities to express my personal views in sittings such as this.

Mr. Heath : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. He discharges his duties on that matter extremely well both in the House and elsewhere.

I was saying that there are three areas of false registration—false identity, electoral fraud and, thirdly, sheer stupidity. Every year, some clown comes forward, appears in the popular press waving his electoral registration card for his dog, cat, pet budgie or three-year-old child, and says, "A stupid electoral registration officer sent me this card," not realising that it is they who are stupid for having put that name in the wrong column on the registration form. It upsets me that the press never seem to understand that simple fact. They think that such stories are just a jolly good way to bash yet again the local authority and the electoral registration officers for not knowing what they are doing, despite the fact that someone has committed an offence. The offence was probably committed not intentionally but because of an inability to understand the instructions, but it is nevertheless an offence.

The second area of concern, which I will not dwell on, is multiple registration. I have difficulties with that. I had a long argument during discussions on the Representation of the People Act 2000, because I confess that I do not understand the electoral arrangements whereby one can register in more than one place when the qualifying date is a specific time in the year when one is supposed to be in residence for one evening.

I was repeatedly assured by the then Minister with responsibility for that matter that I was wrong to have disqualified myself from registration at my London flat because I was registered in Somerset. I thought that I was interpreting the rules correctly, but I was told, "No, it is perfectly proper to register in more than one place, provided that you exercise your vote only in one place at an election." If I, as a reasonably well informed member of the public on this matter, am confused, a lot of other people must also be confused. We need to clarify what is allowed.
 
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I think that it is rare for people deliberately to register in order to exercise their vote in a number of different constituencies, but I am sure that there are people who do that. They need to have a fast car to move from polling station to polling station, but that has been known to happen.

Non-registration is a factor in highly mobile populations, in areas where there are institutions of higher education, and in places where there are many houses in multiple occupation. It also occurs in constituencies that are ethnically diverse and have many young people. It should be of deep concern, as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test said. The rolling register was supposed to help deal with that, but it has not—possibly because people do not understand that register, as it has not been sufficiently well advertised.

All-postal voting, combined with non-registration or false registration, is potentially very dangerous. E-voting will be equally problematical. In Ireland, a major IT programme has been abandoned simply because it could not be made to work, despite high expectations. The hon. Member for Broxbourne has raised some important issues. I am not convinced that the co-ordinated online register of electors, which I am sure the Minister is going to talk about, is the answer.

On the Commonwealth, I agree with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire that the problem is a relic of empire. People being able to say, "Civis Britannicus sum" is something that we can perhaps no longer deal with. Should we not consider the experience in Northern Ireland, where we have made advances, see what lessons can be learned for mainland Great Britain and perhaps have an electoral system with a great deal more integrity than we have potentially at the moment?

10.40 am

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Cook. I am glad to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I must remind the Chamber that the House, in its wisdom or otherwise, decided that occupants of this Chair, while they were sitting in it, should be addressed as Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Hawkins : I corrected myself as you were rising, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I apologise. I am glad to be here under your chairmanship.

I sincerely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) on securing this important and timely debate and on what she said. On behalf of the Conservative Front-Bench team, I say that we as a party agree with the vast majority of what she set out this morning.

I was particularly struck by the extraordinary decreases in the numbers of electors in certain seats to which my hon. Friend referred. Brentford and Isleworth and Portsmouth, South—the two with the largest reductions—are both seats that I know quite well. I agree with what she said about reciprocity, which was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Reciprocal rights to vote in elections in both countries are crucial. The House should perhaps investigate
 
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reciprocity. There is now a Select Committee that shadows the work of the Minister's Department. Perhaps all hon. Members should talk to its Chairman about a future inquiry into reciprocity.

As my hon. Friends know, we have expressed concern about how the Electoral Commission, which was set up by the Government, valuable though much of its work has been, is perhaps developing a life of its own and producing a vast number of glossy brochures and so on, as so many newly created bodies tend to do. The House could valuably consider reciprocity. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne could look at it in future. Both of us might speak about that to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), Chairman of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, and suggest that the Select Committee investigate it.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, the Minister and I are veterans of what he memorably described as the groundhog day debates on the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill. We went through the same arguments about six or seven times in the ping-pong before Easter between the two Houses of Parliament. In that debate, I expressed the concern—it was also the view of the Electoral Reform Society, for which I have a great deal of time, because it provides independent, objective advice to all hon. Members on matters to do with elections—that large-scale fraud in British elections was now possible for the first time in 130 years.

I was pleased that, as a result of the efforts of my noble Friends in repeatedly defeating the Government in another place, the Government were impelled in the end to make certain concessions to the Lords and to introduce some extra safeguards on the postal pilots, as they were described, although half the country will be voting by post in those so-called pilots. That was the main issue of contention. However, even the extra safeguards that we forced the Government to include in the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill do not go far enough. We are still concerned about some of the things that my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne, for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and for South Staffordshire have commented on. We will continue to raise such points in debates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne said that the question of who is eligible to vote should be the priority focus before the introduction of what the Government call multi-channelled, e-enabled elections. I have made much fun of the Minister's obsession, and that of his officials, with trendy phrases such as multi-channel elections. The Government have got another thing coming if they really believe that talking about multi-channel elections will make it easier for the ordinary voter to understand elections. I do not believe that the ordinary voter has a clue what the Government mean when they talk about multi-channel elections. We must get back to traditional ways of persuading the electorate that elections and politics are important.

I have been slightly critical of the Electoral Commission and its work, but it has said some very interesting things. I received its latest brochure, "The register", in my parliamentary post this morning. It contains some quite interesting things to which I do not have time to refer in detail this morning, but I advise my
 
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hon. Friends to read in particular the very sensible views expressed on the last page by an office manager in Copenhagen on the European parliamentary elections. I particularly agree with those views.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne rightly said that returning officers need to be given more direction on the scrutiny of the electoral register, and protected from accusations of racism and harassment. I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that electoral registration officers are busy local government officers with other duties who are often much put upon and insufficiently supported. I hope that, when the Minister responds to this short but important debate, he will make it clear that the Government strongly support electoral registration officers, who have a difficult job that, in my experience, they do as best they can in difficult circumstances and often under great pressure of time. They should be better supported in order that they may make the investigations called for by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) may have gone a little wrong in his extensive contribution to the debate in being so critical of the newspaper that revealed how easy it was to misregister and to commit other electoral abuse. Would the hon. Gentleman have said the same if the matter had been investigated by The Guardian, the New Statesman or The Independent, and not by the newspaper that is the hate figure for all Labour Members?

Dr. Whitehead : The answer is yes.

Mr. Hawkins : The hon. Gentleman says yes. We await his reactions if that happens. I believe that that newspaper performed a public service. It has the resources to find out how weak the system is, and the Government have been very complacent about that. Seats in parliamentary elections can be decided by tiny majorities. By my calculations, in the 2001 general election, 28 seats in this House were won by a majority of less than 1,000, including the seat of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. The lowest majorities were 33, 48, 53, 74 and 128. Those tiny majorities show how easily only a few people indulging in electoral fraud can change an election.

Mr. Heath : The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—a marginal seat such as mine is open to such abuse. However, it also produces the highest turnout because people feel that they have something worth voting for, which they do not feel in European or local elections, where decisions appear to be taken elsewhere.

Mr. Hawkins : I agree. For a moment, I thought that I could convert the hon. Gentleman or his party to returning to single Member European constituencies and restoring that constituency link.

In response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield, my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire rightly said that the chance of fraud is much greater in the case of all-postal votes. I agree with what he said about the dangers in respect of houses in multiple occupation. He urged the Minister to take urgent steps to contact electoral
 
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registration officers. Again, I agree with his comments. He also said that there was a real case for compulsory registration. That could be looked into further, and I hope that the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs will do so.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned his experiences in Georgia and the elections in Tbilisi. He rightly said that we do not know the extent of electoral fraud. There has not been enough investigation. He also rightly said that Ministers are far too complacent because it is unlikely that fraud will be detected. A detective chief inspector of the west midlands fraud squad, Dave Churchill, said:

Some form of identification is needed both for voters at the polling stations and for those who vote by post. The new postal voting system provides an opportunity for malpractice.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) and the work that he does in the House. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome talked about press misreporting when things go wrong, and about the issue of stupidity. There may be only a few voters who deliberately vote several times in different places, but that can swing an election. This is a serious issue, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne for bringing it to hon. Members' attention. We will doubtless return to it on many occasions.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie) : I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) on securing this debate, which has shown that all hon. Members from all parties rightly continue to be vigilant about the need to have an accurate electoral register. We all agree on that, even though we may differ on the different techniques to achieve that. I appreciate the interest and concern that have been shown on the subject.

Voter registration is clearly fundamental to the democratic process. It is the obvious basis on which all our other electoral processes are built. We fully recognise the importance of accurate and up-to-date electoral registers. Without being on the electoral register, a person is not able to exercise his or her right to vote. We also recognise that it is crucial to have public confidence in the systems in place for voter registration, and to ensure that they are secure and that only eligible persons appear on the electoral register, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) urged.

In addressing voter registration procedures, a balance needs to be struck. It is important to make voter registration convenient and flexible to help to maximise voter registration, but we must tackle understandable worries about the registration system being open to abuse. The hon. Member for Broxbourne made that point.

It might be useful to consider briefly the eligibility criteria for registration. Under electoral law, British citizens, qualifying Commonwealth citizens and citizens
 
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of the Republic of Ireland are eligible to register to vote in all UK elections. The term "qualifying Commonwealth citizen" was introduced in the Representation of the People Act 2000. That amended the eligibility criteria for Commonwealth citizens, as a result of which only Commonwealth citizens who have the right of abode in the UK, or who have leave to enter or to remain in the UK, are now eligible to register to vote.

The hon. Lady raised several points about reciprocity between Commonwealth countries and this country. I do not have the statistics to hand on the number of our citizens who vote in those countries, but I shall look into that matter in more detail. We have well established arrangements that operate on the basis of the good faith relationships that we have with those countries. There are no plans to change that.

Our provisions mean that persons who are here perhaps illegally are not eligible to register to vote. For example, asylum seekers, including those who are Commonwealth citizens, are not eligible to register to vote, as an asylum seeker acquires leave to remain in the UK only if his or her claim is successful. Furthermore, under the Maastricht treaty, citizens of the European Union living in the United Kingdom have been eligible and entitled to register to vote in UK European parliamentary elections since 1994, and in local elections since 1996.

It is obvious, but worth restating, that the people responsible for compiling electoral registers are the local authorities. Electoral registration officers are officers of local government and have a key role in the voter registration process. The Representation of the People Act 1983 requires local authority electoral registration officers to compile electoral registers accurately. They play a key part in ensuring that eligible people complete and return voter registration forms. They also have a key role in publicising voter registration arrangements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) made eloquently the point that, although there are concerns about the possible abuse of the registration system, to a large extent, our voter registration procedures are based on trust and good faith with the wider community. Given the volumes involved, that needs to be the case, although a number of offences guard against misinterpretations and malpractice.

I am aware of the Daily Mail article about a reporter who fraudulently registered to vote in a number of constituencies. I should explain that it is an offence for a person to register fraudulently and for a person so registered subsequently to vote in an election. The Electoral Commission has been looking into the registration process and has found that a great majority of electoral registration officers have reported no experience of fraud.

However, we do not wish to be complacent and we want to continue to be vigilant. We have given electoral registration officers a range of powers to enable them to carry out their duties. Fairly recently, regulation 23 of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 permitted an electoral registration officer to require any person to give information required for the purposes of that officer's duties in maintaining registers of parliamentary and local elections.
 
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It is an offence, punishable on conviction by a fine not exceeding £1,000, to fail to comply with a request for information from an electoral registration officer or to give false information. Prosecutions for non-compliance are initiated at local discretion. Importantly, the electoral register compiled by the electoral registration officer must be published and available for public inspection. Entries on the register can therefore be checked by political parties, by candidates and by members of the public.

Sir Patrick Cormack : Will the Minister follow up my suggestion and write to all electoral registration officers?

Mr. Leslie : We are in regular contact with electoral registration officers and I personally have a lot of trust and faith in the job that they do. I do not want to suggest that I am losing confidence in their ability to do a good job. As yet, I do not see the evidence that would require me to take that step. However, we are always reviewing such matters.

I want to come to a point mentioned by the hon. Member for Broxbourne. It was suggested that some electoral registration officers have declined requests to investigate the inclusion on the register of certain persons on the basis that that could be construed as discriminatory. What steps to take to ensure that the registers are accurate is a matter for an individual registration officer's judgment.

The ethnicity of a name on an application should not in itself invalidate inclusion, but nor should it preclude an electoral registration officer, who believes that they have a just case, from making inquiries about eligibility. That electoral registration officer would be responsible for compiling as accurate a register as possible, and the integrity of the democratic process is in no small measure dependent on their doing so. It follows that such a registration officer should have discretion to make reasonable inquiries to satisfy themselves about the eligibility of applications, provided that they do so courteously and sensitively.

If Members of Parliament or candidates have evidence that the electoral register contains inaccurate entries, they should inform the relevant electoral registration officer. If MPs or candidates consider that a registration officer is failing to investigate cases of alleged misregistration, they may wish to take the matter up with the chief executive of the local council.

This has been a useful debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test raised a wider question about the relationship between the census and the smaller register of electors in some urban areas. There may be issues to do with transient, mobile populations that we can consider another time.

I believe that we have put in place strong measures. They include rolling registration, which allows a registration officer to take persons off a register at any time, rather than just on one particular day a year. The changes that we have made ensure that we have the best registration process in history, and probably one of the most accurate electoral registration processes in the world.


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