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Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I hope that the Minister recognises, as did two Committees in the last Parliament, that if we go for individual registration, for which there is a very powerful case, it will be essential to adopt various forms of data sharing to ensure that people are not left off the register. At least some of those who were left off the register in Northern Ireland were probably not on it fraudulently in the first place.
Ms Harman: I pay tribute to the report produced by the right hon. Gentleman's Select Committee. It covers many important areas and we shall shortly be responding to it. It pulls together a great deal of information that had previously not been brought together as a basis for discussions and debates in the House.
Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): Following what the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, having successfully fought even one more general electionalbeit including a by-electionthan she did, I like many others, have considerable experience in these matters? I have to say that the state of the electoral register for the last general election was the worst I have known it throughout my entire period in Parliament. We must place a much greater onus of responsibility on electoral registration officers to be proactiveincluding data sharing, where necessary. They must keep the registers up to date, accurate and correct in every respect, and they must report on the extent to which the registers are correct. Does the Minister have some proposals to deal with that matter, about which I have written to her?
Ms Harman: May I thank my hon. Friend for his letter and say that his point is echoed in the Select Committee report. I have asked officials in my Department and the Electoral Commission to look further into how data cross-checks could both ensure that gaps on the register are filled and be a vehicle for detecting fraud.
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab):
When the Minister follows up the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), will she also look into another problem of
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which many hon. Members, particularly those in Coventry, are aware? I refer to the reduction in the number of polling stations. Has it been done to make savings or is it geared up to encourage more people to vote? It has led to problems in Coventry, particularly for ethnic minorities. In the last election, many ethnic minority women had to walk very long distances to vote. I hope that the Minister will respond and do something about that.
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point about access to polling stations. There is also the problem of access to the electoral register. The Select Committee report mentioned that the latest estimate of the number of new Commonwealth citizens not registered is 36.6 per cent.
We will all have experienced visiting a polling station on election day and being told by a constituent, "I have come down to vote, but they won't let me. Can you please do something about it?" We check the register and say, "Sorry, but the person is not on the register."
We are then told, "But the council has just sent me a bill for my council tax. How can I not be on the register?" There is a real prospect for data sharing to provide more complete registers and to check fraud. The exercise that one has to go through to get child benefit or a driving licence is much tougher than anything even the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is suggesting for tightening up the electoral register.
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): Many of the questions that the Minister is trying to answer are covered in "Securing the Vote"the Electoral Commission report of May this year. It suggests 11 main points as a way forward and I wonder whether the Minister's Department has had time to look at and assimilate those points. If so, does she intend to enact any of them?
Ms Harman: Yes, we have looked at and assimilated them. The hon. Gentleman will see that some of them are reflected in the policy document that we sent him and all other hon. Members. He is welcome to contact me again, either in person or in writing, to tell me what he thinks of the Electoral Commission's views. The Electoral Commission has important information to supply and plays a very important role, but at the end of the day, Members of Parliament have to decide on the law and how to operate it.
Mr. Love: My right hon. and learned Friend has spoken eloquently about the democratic deficit caused by the million or so people missing from the register. Before she considers erecting any more hurdles for people wanting to join that register, will she use the evidence that she has cited to ensure that the measures do not put more people off?
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises an important point. We need to achieve a more secure voting system and get more people on the register. It is not a matter of one or the other: we need to approach both problems on the same basis.
Once again, the Opposition have renewed their attack on all-postal voting. As the House knows, the Government are consulting on action for greater
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security for postal votes. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire does not need to urge us to look at that matter, as we have already agreed to do so, but we must do all we can to ensure higher turnouts. So far, all-postal voting has produced higher turnouts.
In the light of concerns that we all have about falling turnouts, we will not change the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which allow the Secretary of State to agree to applications for all-postal voting in areas that want it. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire asked for such applications to be allowed only under secondary legislation. I can tell him that today I have been considering an application from King's Lynn, where a parish council by-election is due to be held. In the past, the parish concerned has had some by-elections that involved all-postal voting, and some that did not. No complaints have been made about all-postal voting, which has led to turnouts of 33 per cent. By contrast, by-elections there that have not involved all-postal voting have achieved turnouts of only 11 per cent. Given that the parish is asking to be allowed to hold an all-postal vote, we should not tie up those responsible for holding the election with parliamentary problems. We should be satisfied that there is a consensus among people in that little area in favour of all-postal voting, and that it would be a bit heavy-handed of us to deny them the opportunity.
Mr. Heald: The Government set up the Electoral Commission to provide advice on these matters. Why will the right hon. and learned Lady not accept its recommendations on all-postal voting and individual voter registration? Why will she not do what the Government conceded was the right thing in Northern Ireland?
Ms Harman: Advisers have the responsibility to advise, and we welcome and respect their advice. It is the responsibility of the Government to bring proposals to this House, and it is the responsibility of this House to decide.
The Tory motion attacks our introduction of proportional voting systems in the devolved Administrations for "undermining democratic accountability". I confess that I am slightly baffled. In his speech, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire mounted full-blooded onslaughts on both proportional representation and the first-past-the-post system. I am therefore baffled as to what he proposes
My officials are examining the data relating to the new voting systems for the devolved Administrations. Of course it makes sense to review our experience of different electoral systems, as well as looking at the experience abroad. However, I cannot help reflecting that it is curious for the Conservative party to say that proportional voting in the devolved Administrations undermines accountability and leads to extremism.
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If the Scottish Parliament were elected on the first-past-the-post basis, the Conservatives would have only three seats, whereas the proportional system has given them 18. In Wales, the Conservatives would have only one member of the Assembly under the first-past-the-post system, whereas the proportional system has given them 11. Without proportional representation, even the leader of the Conservatives in Wales would not be in the Welsh Assembly.
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