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Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman said about PR, but he obviously wants to put more obstacles in the way of participation in voting. Does he accept that we must do something about the hundreds of thousands of people who are not on the register? Should we not encourage them to get on it?

Mr. Heald: I am in favour of proper campaigns to ensure that as many people as possible who are entitled to vote register to do so. If the changes that I suggest were introduced, it might be a good thing for an extra effort to be made to find those people and ensure that they register. It might even be a good idea to canvass twice during the year. What I do not accept is that people who are not entitled to vote should be able to register. It is completely unacceptable for registers to be inaccurate by as much as 10 per cent.

In the 2005 general election, across England, the average electorate in constituencies that elected Labour MPs was 67,500, while in Conservative constituencies the figure was 73,000. Boundary Commission regulations should be amended to ensure that maintaining an equal quota has primacy over other considerations, and they should allow county boundaries to be crossed. There should be more up-to-date information about the size of electorates towards the end of the boundary review process to avoid the drawing up of constituencies on the basis of data from the start of the review that subsequently becomes out-of-date. That would be a fairer system, as it would ensure that each elector had the same level of parliamentary representation.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): That is an important point. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that the standard quota should extend not just across England but across the United Kingdom? Is he aware that, of the 10 largest seats in this Parliament, all are in England and all but two are represented by Conservative Members, whereas, of the 10 smallest seats, none is in England and none is represented by a Conservative?

Mr. Heald: I am aware of that and I agree that we should have a quota that is fair and equal across the United Kingdom, although in the Isle of Wight and one or two other constituencies where it is geographically difficult to achieve an exact electoral quota, special arrangements may be needed.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): In my constituency, just under 10,000 electors are missing from the census, and 6,000 have disappeared over the past six years. Is that not a major contributory factor in the difference in size between electorates? Does the hon.
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Gentleman accept that conducting two canvasses rather than one is simply not adequate to the need in that context?

Mr. Heald: I think the hon. Gentleman and I agree that we need a much more active campaign to ensure that people who are entitled to vote are registered to do so. What is not acceptable is a situation in which, typically, there are inner-city seats with 51,000 electors, and county and rural areas where the average is 73,000 or 74,000. That is not equality between electors. Each elector should have the same level of parliamentary representation.

It has become clear that the Government's obsession with electoral modernisation has compromised Britain's traditional reputation for free and fair elections, and undermined the integrity of the system and public confidence in it. We were proud in this country to put behind us the electoral practices in the rotten boroughs of the 18th and 19th centuries—the intimidation, fraud and risk. I for one would be very sad, and I am sure that this view is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, if that became the hallmark of the 21st century. That is why it is time for the Government to stop fiddling with our constitution for partisan advantage. It is time to protect people's right to vote in person and in secret. It is time to restore confidence, integrity and accountability to British democracy.

5.15 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to end, and insert:

Although I regret the tone of the speech of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and take issue with many of the swingeing, unsupported and unsubstantiated assertions that he made, I welcome the subject that the Opposition have chosen for today's debate. It is timely, coming barely a month after the general election, and it is an opportunity for me to set out our approach. We will draw on the great experience in the House and beyond. We will be guided by the principles that I believe we all share. We will found our proposals on evidence and proceed by way of consultation.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): You say that you will found your proposals—I am sorry. She says that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Although I think that the hon. Gentleman is just getting to the point, he should be referring to the right hon. and learned Lady.

John Hemming: The right hon. and learned Lady says that she will found her proposals on evidence, but the Government do not collect the evidence that is necessary to identify a problem. People get disfranchised because they have a postal vote that they do not receive, they turn up to vote on the day of the election and are told by
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the presiding officer that they have to go away and are not entitled to vote. No record is kept of that. The Government keep no record of how many times that has happened, as I learned after I tabled a written question. There is an underlying problem when the Government are not collecting the evidence in the first instance.

Ms Harman: I welcome the comments and information, drawn from the hon. Gentleman's own experience, that he has already given us. We are genuinely interested in hearing what the concerns are and hearing evidence. We are taking action and consulting on proposals that we hope will deal with those matters. It is true that not enough evidence is routinely collected about the problems in the system. I accept that point.

Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that, in Birmingham at the last general election, 185 people turned up at the 90 polling stations in the city saying that they wished to vote and were told that they were on the postal vote list? Is she also aware that the chief returning officer of Birmingham city council instructed her staff at the polling stations to keep a list of all those people? I am surprised that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) did not know that, seeing that his administration was running the city council during the elections.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point and we must consider all those issues. I look forward to hearing speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House. As I said, we will found our proposals on evidence, wherever we receive it, and proceed by way of consultation. Our objectives are to ensure that we take action to tackle the scandal of the possibly millions of people who are entitled to be on the electoral register but are not and so are not able to vote; to ensure that we will have more secure voting; and to ensure that we increase the turnout.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Ms Harman: I will, but I do not want to make too lengthy a speech. If there could be fewer interventions, or at least if I could answer them more quickly, I would be able to get on with my speech.

David T.C. Davies: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving way again, but does she share the concern of many people that, while it has been easy for large sections of the population to get on the register, it has not been easy for members of the armed forces? Given that members of the armed forces are serving around the world, carrying out the instructions and will of her Government, is it not shameful that so many of them were left off the electoral roll and were unable to vote in the last election?

Ms Harman: I agree with the substance of the hon. Gentleman's point about service personnel, which I will deal with in due course. If I may, I should like to make some progress. I anticipate that my speech will deal with many of the points that Members want to make.
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So our three objectives are getting people who are entitled to vote on to the register, establishing a voting process that is more secure, and increasing turnout. The legitimacy of our system depends on making progress in all those areas. There is a great wealth of election experience in all parts of the House. I am by no means the longest serving Member of this House, but I have been returned in seven elections, and the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who will respond to this debate, has been a candidate in five general elections and in many local elections. There is a wealth of experience in this House, but also beyond it. We need to draw on the experience of our colleagues in local government, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the European Parliament and the political parties—not just the organisers, but the vast army of volunteers who do so much to make the electoral system work.

I believe that we all share a commitment to a system that allows everyone the right to vote and is secure against fraud. While there should be no party difference on that point, the constituencies that we represent are very diverse—a fact that affects Members' approach to these issues. For example, more than a third of my constituents were not born in the United Kingdom. My constituency, which has a high population turnover and many people struggling on low incomes, is very different from that of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire. It also differs from the constituency of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), where, the electoral system must work for a population which, although stable, is very widely scattered. In some constituencies, the issue of student voting is very important; in others, the issue is the ability of servicemen and women to vote. The essential principles of our electoral system must be applied in all constituencies, not just some.

The different concerns of Members in all parts of the House arise principally from the differences in the constituencies that we represent. We must acknowledge and respect those differences. Those in whose constituencies there is proven fraud should acknowledge that that is not the case everywhere. Those in whose constituencies fraud does not exist should not deny the need for robust anti-fraud systems. Those whose constituencies have no problem with under-registration should not deny that it is a huge problem in others. As I have said, probably more than 1 million people who are entitled to vote are not registered. The point is that both security and access to voting matter. Measures to tackle both issues must be adopted, and they must be proportionate and sensible.

We will proceed on the basis of considering the evidence. We will respond to headlines, but only because we recognise that when they overstate the problem of fraud, we need to do what we can to reassure the public and to sustain confidence. We will not be complacent but nor will we panic, and we will proceed by way of consultation. We issued a policy paper last month and we are consulting on it. We are still considering the responses, so I have no further announcements to make today. However, I intend to listen carefully to this debate. I want to hear the speeches not only of Front Benchers, but of all Members in all parts of the House, so I will stay for the whole debate. We have also
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consulted by way of meetings and discussions with Members from all parties. I want to thank all those Members who have written to me and taken the time to give me their views in meetings. I believe that I am the only person to have invited the new Conservative Members to a meeting who is not also running for the Tory party leadership.

We will continue to consult. We must have a system that ensures that all have the right to vote, which is not currently the case. As I said, there are probably more than a million who cannot vote because they are not on the register. That not only affects individuals who lose their right to vote, but undermines the basis on which the boundary commission does its work. That is why it is so important.

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