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I welcome the all-postal voting pilots but, having had the chance to learn from them, we should not pursue all-postal voting in future. I say that for two reasons: first, they deny the individual the choice of whether they vote by post or go to the polling station, and secondly, we should develop, as the Electoral Commission wants to, one standard method for all elections so that voters may be certain whether they will be voting by post or at the polling station, or a mixture of the two, which is the option that I favour. Voters should be able to decide whether they want to vote by post or at the polling station and tick a box on the electoral registration formit should be as simple as that. Some authorities are already taking that route.
Generally speaking, our electoral system is secure. There have been one or two high-profile cases, mostly involving postal votesnot all-postal votes, but postal votes per se. Those have been much highlighted in the press and are to be deplored. However, the Electoral Commission and the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister undertook investigations and proposed several serious, important and welcome suggestions as to how we can make the system even safer, including the introduction of new offences surrounding postal votes.
The real problem with the current system is the appallingly low level of voter registrationthat is the challenge that we have on our hands. By and large, it is not evenly spread across the country. In areas where people are socially and economically excluded, those people are becoming politically excluded as well. That should be a serious worry for us.
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The annexe to the report produced by the Select Committees on Constitutional Affairs and on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister contains an interview that I did with the electoral registration officer in Sheffield. It was interesting to learn that the initial canvass of voter registration in the city produced a 90 per cent. return of electoral registration forms in the leafy suburbs of Hallam. In the poorer parts of the inner city in Sheffield, Central, it was just over 50 per cent. That is telling.
Different electoral registration officers conduct different practices. For example, some electoral registration officers will remove a household from the register if a form is not returned for two consecutive years, whereas others will leave it on. Some will leave the household on if they can find other evidence, such as council tax registration, which shows that people still live in the property. Different systems operate. Whatever system we adopt nationally, electoral registration officers locally must follow a clear code of practice, meaning that the same system and rules operate throughout the country.
I recognise and accept that we must move towards individual registration, with a signature. That is sensible from a security point of view. However, we have to learn from what happened in Northern Ireland, where the number of people who registered fell dramatically. People may claim that that was because some people were doubly registered, but the fall went on after the first year. It continued after the so-called clean-up of the register. There is a genuine problem of not registering, and if we do nothing but introduce individual registration, it will get worse. That will apply especially to groups who are socially and economically excluded. The registration officer in Sheffield said to me, "If you're going to change the system, change it fundamentally. Don't try to build bits on to the existing system, which clearly doesn't work properly."
Some members of the Select Committee went to Australia. We appeared in one or two national newspapers for our pains and learned some interesting things about the system there. First, we were asked what we did. When we said that we began by writing to every household every year, we received blank looks and were asked, "What? Why do you write every year to households that haven't changed? The same people live in a house for 15, 20 or 25 yearsnothing changesbut you write them? If they don't write back, you write to them again, and if they don't reply for two years running, you take them off the list? Is that a way of trying to encourage people to register? Are you putting your resources into the right activities? You do that for four months of the year and nothing for the other eight? What is the point?"
The Australian system is simple. There is a register, which remains in place unless people change. There are various ways of notifying changes of address or age or deaths. Of course people can write with the information, but there is also a requirement on the Post Office, the utilities, the driving licence people and local authorities to provide information. Schools and colleges get paid a bonus for giving information. Such information can also be gleaned from the register of births and deaths. That enables the registration officers and the relevant authorities to concentrate on the changes, follow them up and ensure that the information is accurate and goes on the register.
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There is therefore no annual audit or review in Australia, although the possibility of conducting a review every three years was considered. We could conduct a three-yearly audit on a rolling basis here, so that electoral registration officers were not obliged to put all their resources into a four-month period every year. It could be spread out over a longer time to verify the accuracy of the register but concentrate on instances where change had occurred.
Eventually, this country will have the most comprehensive database of individuals and where they live, drawn up for the national identity card scheme. Why do not we have a direct read-across? If people want a secure, comprehensive system with integrity, there we have it. We would save resources at local authority level. There would be no need for all the canvassing, verification and checking that currently occurs. Local authorities could pay the national register for the information. That would contribute towards the cost of the register. It would save central Government and local authorities money and be a comprehensive system with integrity and security. We should consider it seriously. It would be a dramatic step forward, which will give us a register that is 99 per cent. accurate. If that is what everyone wants as a basis for our electoral system, the Government should consider it seriously.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). I commiserate with him on the state of his voice and hope that he finds a lozenge soon. I agree about the importance of the electoral registration system being open and welcoming. It also needs to be transparent and, above all, to inspire confidence.
Much to my surprise, it is nearly 40 years since I joined a political party. I recall that, in the late 1960s, no one really questioned the honesty of the British electoral system. It was taken for granted that it was run correctly, but that is no longer the case. People doubt the integrity of the ballot box. This was my fourth general election in Brentwood and Ongarthis seems to be confession time, with me telling the House how many times I have fought an electionand I think that I also fought four elections as a district councillor. This is the first time I can remember people coming up to me to express their worries about the safety of their postal vote because of what had appeared in the newspapers.
The expression of such worries was not confined to those in political parties. The electoral registration officer for Brentwood borough council, Mr. Jim Stevensa man of considerable experience in the conduct of elections, both in this country and overseasreported to me an unprecedented number of telephone calls from people seeking reassurance that their postal vote would be safe. Even in a quiet place such as Brentwood, we have one election fraud case pending.
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I have known Philip for the best part of 25 years, and I worked closely with him for 12. He is not a man who moves with the whim of fashion. He is not an excitable man; he is a dedicated, loyal public servant who would not have called for such reviews had he not been shocked enough to feel that some probity should be brought back into the electoral system. Probity is important. Of course, there will be unscrupulous people who try to cut corners, but we must build into the system a degree of probity. It is with some regret that I say that the Government have, unintentionally, built probity out of the system, rather than building it in.
The Minister of State does us a great courtesy by remaining in the Chamber for the whole of our debate. She asked for suggestions on how to improve the situation, and I shall give her three. I could give more, but because of the time limit I shall let these three speak for all of them.
The document issued by the Department for Constitutional Affairs suggests allowing people to register to vote after an election has been called, up to 11 days before the poll. Under the current law, there is a five-day period of objection. That would mean that there would be just six days before the election to check people entering the register at that point. The chances of fraud or multi-registration would be much greater. If the present March deadline allows vote factories to operate, how much greater would that problem be with an 11-day deadline? Such a deadline would provide little or no chance to check that the voter had been removed from their previous address, and in most cases, such voters would have the opportunity to vote in another electoral district.
It has also been proposed to replace the serial numbers on ballot papers with barcodes. That might sound sensible because it would increase transparency, but it is probably the best example of the Government's determination to increase postal voting at the expense of the polling station and ignores the reality on the ground. The Government's argument that the measure would increase safety and improve anonymity is wrong-headed, because, at present, only a court can open ballot papers and check them against the numbers provided. The use of numbers is of immense importance because they can be used by the polling clerk and the returning officer to reconcile information, first to ensure that the right number of ballot papers have been issued in the right order and, secondly, to ensure that the same number of ballot papers that leave a polling station arrive at the other end. If barcodes replaced the numbering system, we would not know whether any ballot papers had gone missing on the route between polling station and counting station. Something that would be handy for the purposes of postal votes would undermine the whole process of voting in person.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) made a point about signatures. The document suggests that people should
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be able to apply for postal votes at the same time as applying for registration. Many authorities have invested in software that identifies signatures. If a person makes both applications at the same time, it will be impossible to check for fraud. That is wholly wrong. I agree with him that signatures should be integral: when people go into the polling station, they should sign the register.
I think that it would be possible to introduce several reforms to encourage turnout without compromising the integrity of the ballot paper. The Government suggest that applications for postal votes should be made 11 days before the polling date rather than six, which would allow for fraud checks to be made. The drawback is that many people would not be able to vote, and many would object at the polling station. If a proxy vote could be issued six days, or three days, in advancethat, after all, relies on the issuing of a single paperthe Government's sensible suggestion might be workable, and people would still be able to vote.
Those who want to increase voter participation and want more people to go to the polling station should think about the powers of local government. If all decisions are made in a remote region, people will not see the point of going out to vote. If power is given to local authorities, people will vote.
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