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Shona McIsaac: I am interested in what my hon. Friend is saying. Indeed, from work I have done in my constituency I found that electoral registration is much lower in the most disadvantaged areas. Such areas have higher problems as regards literacy, so it is vital that councils carry out not just one canvass, but two or possibly three to ensure that as many people as possible in disadvantaged areas are registered to vote.
To conclude the point that I was making, the number of doors knocked on rose as the area became more affluent; indeed, in the most affluent part of my constituency the number reached 95 per cent. The net effect is that there is an inverse relationship between the numbers missing from the register and the number of doors that are knocked on. To return to the point made by my hon. Friend, the opposite should be the case. It is critical that we knock on doors in disadvantaged areas for the reasons that she gave.
I am not drawing conclusions solely about my local authority because I think these things happen across the board, but when I asked my local authority why that situation had come about I was told that it had difficulty in getting people to canvass and often canvassers receive abuse on the doorstep. When we look more closely, however, we find that canvassers are paid less than the minimum wage for the hours they worksignificantly less in the case of my local authority. Furthermore, the payments that they receive are based on the number of people that they put on the register. Therefore, there is an in-built incentive to canvas in affluent areas where registration is high. There is an absolute disincentive to go into the areas where the canvassers are needed most. If that is taken together with poverty pay and the perverse incentives of the system, one can understand why it is difficult to get canvassers.
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That brings me to the issue at the core of the debate. The Electoral Commission and the Opposition parties tell us that we need to move to individual registration. I asked the Electoral Commission and my local registration officer what would happen to the register under current circumstances if we moved to individual registration, and I was told that it would decimate the register. I appeal to the Minister to take back to the Department for Constitutional Affairs the view that we need to stand firm against individual registration. We need the maximum number of electors on our electoral registers.
I would also like to make a number of practical suggestions that are important to the discussion on how we overcome the democratic deficit. I know that a Bill will be heading to the House in the near future, so I would like to make some suggestions as to what should be included in it. First, we must be much more transparent. It is a devil of a job to find out how much money a local authority spends on electoral registration and, of course, they are always stuck for money. We must ring-fence the money. If the money is ring-fenced and endorsed by the Electoral Commission, any political interference with the registration process will be minimised.
Secondly, we must ensure that we have best practice. Electoral registration offices and officers are often parked at the back of a building or in an outhouse. The officers are left entirely to their own devices and communicate with no one. They need to communicate with each to ensure that we have best practice. Copies of the best practice must be made available so that we ensure that everyone follows it. It is also necessary to ensure that the implementation of best practice is taking place, and one of the ways to do that is through performance review. Carrying out such a review would be an ideal role for the Electoral Commission, which would be able to ensure that things are done properly.
An issue that has caused contention in the past is the advertising of elections and encouraging the idea that it is important for the public to vote. I suspect that all of us would say that we should do that, but electoral registration officers and departments often feel that such activity falls into the grey area between what is political and non-political in the election process. Any Bill that comes forward should make it clear that urging people to vote is not a political act, and the sponsoring of higher turnouts should be a permanent feature of electoral registration departments.
A slightly more controversial issue is that of tapping into the information that undoubtedly exists at a local level about who lives where. A number of databases are held at local authority and other local levels that would assist in ensuring that all the people qualified to vote are on the electoral register. I understand that data protection safeguards are necessary, but we should make better use of local information,
It is, and has been for a long time, an offence not to return an electoral registration form. However, how many prosecutions take place as a result of that? A report from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister says that there have been one or twothat is the extent to which that happens. I understand why local authorities might think that it would not be terribly good publicity
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to prosecute people for not returning electoral registration forms, but it is important for someone to take responsibility. If we do not think that returning the electoral registration forms is a good idea, we should do away with them, but if we think that that is sensible, we must make arrangements to ensure that a prosecution will proceed if the requirement is flagrantly breached.
Elections in the UK are safe and secure, despite the recent publicity, and they are certainly fair. I hope that they are accurate, although I have cited problems today. The challenge from the last two elections is not about postal voting or other worries that have been raised, but to address the fact that only 59 per cent. of the electorate turned out in 2001. Although we edged that figure up to 61 per cent. in 2005, none of us can be proud of the fact that we are still at the lowest level for the past 100 years.
Of course there is an even greater challenge. We often talk about the Americans getting a turnout of less than 50 per cent. in their elections, but that figure takes account of not only those who did not turn out, but those who were not registered. If we included the people who were not registered in this country when calculating the turnout, we would get a much greater surprise, and the shock would lead us to take action. That is where the real democratic deficit arises. When the electoral administration Bill comes forward, I hope that the Government will accept that we require action to start to deal with such problems.
John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I wish to speak about something that needs to be a key theme for the Government over the next three, four and five years and will certainly be a key aspect of my work in my Bassetlaw constituency: raising aspirations, especially those of young people. Over the past four years in my constituency, the foundation blocks that allow aspirations to be raised have been laid. We have the top health facilities and services in Britain, according to the Government's audited statistics. No other constituency in Britain can match our 11 out of 12 health star ratings. However, we need more, and following what has been promised I anticipate that we will get more, including four new health centres, the building of which is due to be started this year.
Bassetlaw has some of the best housing stock in Britain. The former Coal Board housing is extremely good and the new housing that has been built over the past 10 years, with a range of sizes and prices, is good, popular and gives people a varied choice. The £62 million that we have secured to achieve the decent homes standard for public housing will consolidate that position and give us an above-average housing stock compared with the rest of the country.
On education, starting at the end of the year we will get more private finance initiative money per pupil than anywhere else in Britain to rebuild our secondary schools as new, which will provide another vital block to build aspirations.
The final block is employment. When I made my maiden speech four years ago, I was faced with the 4,500 redundancies that had taken place in the six months before the election. I am now facing the problems associated with full employment and a labour shortage. The problem is not so much a skilled labour
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shortage, although there is some of that, but an unskilled labour shortage. We have not had to tackle such problems in my area for generations, so I welcome tackling them because they are problems that are due to a successful economy.
Those bedrocks of success, however, will not in themselves increase people's aspirations. A culture of low aspirations goes back many generations in mining communities. Until recently, our education systems defined people's ability in two ways: for males, the choice was to work underground in the pit, with a job for life; for females, it was to be a housewife and sometimes a textile worker. Those were the choices. Educational standards and success were often perceived in terms of the school that had the best football team and best culture of sport, rather than the one that produced pupils who were capable and able to move onward and upward in life, with a wider range of choices.
In terms of tackling the deep-rooted problem of low aspirations, the key thing that Parliament and Government can do is to consider ways in which a wider world is brought to people. There are simple and basic ways of doing that, such as the twinning of schools. One small sub-theme of the new plan for Africa is to twin schools in traditional white communities, such as mine, with schools in Africa so that they have an exchange of views. Over time, in this technological age, that exchange will take place via electronic communication and the schools will learn from each other. That could make a great difference in communities like mine.
I thank the Holocaust Educational Trust, which this week agreed to take six pupils from my constituency to Auschwitz. That will be a tremendous learning opportunity for them. Such an opportunity has not been offered to people in my constituency before. EDF Energy, which owns the two big power stations in my constituencyWest Burton and Cottamhas excelled itself in taking primary school childrenfrom year 6 in particularto the Palace of Westminster over the past four years, and it has agreed to do so again. When I took those young people around the Houses of Parliament, I found to my surprise not how few of them had visited London, but how few had been on a train or to the south of England. Just the visit from some of my schools to London is one small step in raising aspirations. I commend that company for being far-sighted.
This March, we had another big breakthrough with Provident Financial, which took a group from one of my most underprivileged schools to a youth hostel in the Peak district for an outward bound course. Again, that gave a group of young people opportunities that they had never considered before, and those opportunities will increase the life chances of some of them. They will realise that different options are available to them and that life does not begin and finish on their estates, but can be much wider, wherever they choose to go in their lives. That has to be an undercurrent of the debate.
I commend the Youth Hostel Association, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. It was established precisely to allow working-class young people to get to understand, enjoy and benefit from the wider world outside their work and home community. It remains as relevant in its ethos and work today as it did when it was first established in the 1930s. I am delighted that this summer the Government will provide finance
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to allow those from less-well-off backgrounds the opportunity to take a break outside their community and for the outdoor pursuits arena to be open to them. I hope that that will be a recurrent funding stream from the Government during the four or five years of this Parliament.
Another theme that I hope to see emerging is a plan on which we have been working on for some time in my constituency, and that is beginning to come to fruition. We are looking to build the equivalent of the first teaching hospital, but a teaching hospital for sport. We would like to replace one of our pupil referral units as a whole with a teaching sports academy, where not just those who have been excluded from schools, but those who are doing well and those who are beyond schoolsuch as their younger siblings, parents and grandparentscan come. It will be funded on an economic model using the social enterprise that is now well developed in the east midlands through the East Midlands Development Agency.
Any money made will go back into the community. We will be running the equivalent of a leisure centre, but with everyone within it striving to become sporting coaches and leaders, and we will be looking at the vocational routes that can come from that. This model can create an option of bringing higher education into Bassetlaw for the first time by linking with one of the universities that has degrees in sports and leisure. We hope that it will be a model for providing facilities to the community as well as increasing aspirations, and it is a model that will succeed.
The project goes further than that in its uniqueness. We are looking not simply at sport but at health and education simultaneously. Money has been spent in my community on healthy living, but this is precisely the kind of vehicle that can create healthy living. That is why I am pleased to see the primary care trust, the LEA and the police contributing to the thought processes as to how we will develop this project into something sustainable.
The other strong aspect is the voluntary sector and I am delighted that the Prince's Foundation for the Built Community, the Prince's Trust, the Coalfield Regeneration Trust, Sport England, Sporting Chance, the Football Association, the Football Foundation and many other groups have contributed towards creating what could be a beacon for other areas in the country to copy in terms of raising aspiration and improving the health of the community.
Some of our definitions of neighbourhood renewal are rather bureaucratic and we need to liven them up in a way that provides vision and ownership. As well as fusing together health, education, employment and vocational training, it is young people who are taking the lead. The consultation on the project is not by me or by aging professionals paid by the Government to consult. It is the young peoplethe teenagerswho are showing the enthusiasm and drive. They recognise that the fusion is important and that whatever is created needs to be cross-generational.
The example those young people give most strongly is their desire to have a dance studio, which they point out can be recreational and educational, can lead to vocational skills, and can be part of a healthier living programme. Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, babies and toddlers can go to a dance studio.
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That encapsulates the model we are taking forward. I hope that, in the next two or three years, I can come back to this House and outline our successes. We need some new models for raising aspiration and this is something on which we must succeed.
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