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Licensing Act 2003 (Amendment)

Peter Luff accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Licensing Act 2003 in relation to touring circuses; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 2 December, and to be printed [Bill 65]

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Orders of the Day

Electoral Administration Bill

[Relevant documents: The First Joint Report from the Constitutional Affairs and the ODPM: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committees, Session 2004–05, HC 243-I and 243-II, on Electoral Registration, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 6647.]

Order for Second Reading read.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the reasoned amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.48 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As Members of this House, we are all here because we are elected to represent our constituents under our democratic system. That is an extraordinary privilege, and as we swing through those doors marked "Members Only" we cannot help but feel a sense of pride. However, I bring the Electoral Administration Bill to the House on Second Reading today because all is not well with our democracy. As Members, we need to acknowledge the problems; as the Government, we need to take action to tackle them.

The legitimacy of our democracy depends on three things—everyone having the right to vote, everyone wanting to vote and no one fiddling the vote. However, we have problems with each of those three legs of the stool. Before I come to the specific measures that I am commending to the House in the Bill, I want to make it clear that the problems of under-registration and low turnout are not evenly spread, so those problems with our democracy are the map of inequality in our society.

We are all familiar with the concept of social exclusion—with communities that suffer from poorer health, lower educational achievement and worse housing—and we all agree that it is the business of Government to act to tackle the problems. However, what is less accepted is that social exclusion has a political dimension—that although the better off are on the register and go out to vote, people in poorer communities are more likely to be left off the register and are less likely to go out to vote.

As the Constitutional Affairs Committee pointed out in its report of March this year, people who are white owner-occupiers in non-metropolitan areas will be on the register. However, about 3 million people—most of whom are poor, council tenants, black and living in inner cities—will not be. In those areas, low registration and low turnout compound each other to create what I call democracy deserts, where it is the norm not to vote. Therefore, the Bill contains measures to ensure that those hard to reach people are included on the electoral register.
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Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the particular problems in London, where 21 of the 25 constituencies with the highest levels of under-registration are situated. Does the Bill contain special measures for London?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is exactly right. The Electoral Commission also reported last month, and it found that London was the region with the lowest turnout. As he will be only too well aware, the problem in London is compounded by the fact that we have 32 electoral registration authorities. That results in fragmentation among those whose task it is to deal with the cross-London problem. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured to hear that I am working with the Mayor of London, the Association of Electoral Administrators, parliamentary colleagues and all the capital's local authorities to try to establish a much better register before the May elections.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): On behalf of her party, does the Minister accept any responsibility for the fact that electoral services in the places to which she refers by and large have been run for many years by Labour councils? Precious little has been done to deal with the problem.

Ms Harman: I had hoped that this Bill would not become a party political football. We should undertake a shared analysis of the problem and take into consideration the findings of both the Select Committee and the Electoral Commission, as we all have an interest in supporting democracy and tackling inequality. Everyone would like the situation to be better, but today's debate is an opportunity for the House to determine whether the measures in the Bill, and other operational measures, can help to resolve the problem.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Minister will know that I share her concern and also her commitment to ensuring that many more people vote in areas such as the ones that she and I represent. I want to make a couple of constructive suggestions. First, we should hold a census day every year that has much better publicity than is currently the case, and it should be on a regular date so that people can recognise and remember it. A week before a general election, another day should be set aside as the last day for registering to vote. With huge publicity, that would help to ensure that people go to the polling booth.

Secondly, people who want to vote often go to the wrong polling station and are turned away. They should be allowed to vote there and then, and any other votes cast by them should be discounted. That approach would at least prevent people from feeling that they are not wanted, which can put them off ever trying to vote again.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman shares a borough and its electoral registration services with me, and he makes a very important point. The idea of holding a democracy day, which people would know was the last possible date for registering to vote, is not a bad one. We could try it out in London. I hope that he will be part of the London campaign as we need many ideas to tackle the problem that I have outlined. We need to ensure that
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all registration officers take all the necessary steps to get people registered, and that all of them follow best practice and reach the highest standards.

The Bill introduces a new duty for electoral registration officers to take all necessary steps to ensure comprehensive registers and it sets out what those steps must include. We will extend the registration time until after an election has been called, instead of the current cut-off of six weeks before the election. Once the election campaign is under way and the parties are out and about, people often feel most motivated to get on the register, only to discover that that is not possible. We will allow them to register up to 11 working days before the election. We will require administrators to make public the amount that they spend on electoral services to ensure that we can all see how much each authority is spending.

Ensuring that everyone has the right to vote also means ensuring that everyone who is eligible and registered to vote is then able and encouraged to participate. To promote participation we are requiring that all polling stations are regularly reviewed to ensure that they provide proper access for everyone.

There is a particular problem of young people not being registered—and of not voting even when they are registered.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Will the right hon. and learned Lady reflect that we provide citizenship education for our young people up to the age of 16 and then force them to wait until they are 18 to exercise their vote? Will she consider bringing forward proposals that will allow the voting age to be reduced to 16—[Interruption.]—so as to harness the enthusiasm of 16-year-olds and encourage participation and community cohesion?

Ms Harman: The problem of young people not voting is so acute that, with respect, I would say to right hon. and hon. Members who say, "No, that is a bad idea", that we are not in a position to rule out any options. We must be as open-minded as we can possibly be on this issue.

I hope that the provision in the Bill to allow parents to take their children into the polling booth with them will enable parents to show their children how to vote and give them the opportunity to teach their children democracy in practice.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Does the right hon. and learned Lady understand that this is not a mechanism? The failure to register is not because the process is inadequate. Among young people there is a complete disengagement from politics. I commend to her a report produced by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which shows that most people get out of the habit of voting. That does not relate to youth alone—an entire generation feels that this place is entirely alien from it. To re-engage with the members of that generation means reaching into society. It is not a question of mechanism.

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