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Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): My concern lies with the quality of electoral registration staff. In general, the staff tended to stay in office for a very long time some years ago. When there was perhaps a man who had worked for 30 years whose assistant had worked for 10 years, the quality of the staff was very high indeed. That length of service has ceased to exist in many electoral registration offices, but the Bill mentions nothing about the training of electoral registration staff. Will the right hon. and learned Lady consider that and tell us how such training might improve our whole electoral system?

Ms Harman: Training will be part of the performance standards that the Bill will allow the Electoral Commission to lay down, in consultation with the Secretary of State, and that will require that all electoral administrators reach the highest standards.

I am aware that many colleagues on both sides of the House want to speak. I have been speaking for quite some time already, but I am about to get to the point that concerns many of them very deeply indeed, as it does me—fraud. Therefore, I will try to truncate my comments while doing justice to the many issues in the Bill.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): On the important issue of data sources, I welcome what my right hon. and learned Friend says about EROs being able to gain access to data from councils and, perhaps, other Government sources. Will she also consider the possibility of gaining access to other data—for example, from the Post Office, from the utilities and, in areas where housing stock has been transferred, from housing associations and arm's length management organisations? Will she even consider requiring those organisations to provide information to EROs, as well a giving EROs the right to gain access to it?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a number of points about other data that are available that ought to inform the electoral registration officer whether someone should have the right to vote. As I have said, under the Bill councils will have a duty to check their own data to ensure that their register is complete. Beyond that, we will no doubt consider such things further to find out whether the measures that we have already taken are enough, or whether we need to follow my hon. Friend's suggestion and take further steps.

On the question of fraud, every person in this country—no matter what ward or constituency they live in, and no matter what their ethnic background is—is entitled to be sure that they can cast their vote and that the votes will be fairly counted. No one's vote should be stolen and no result should be perverted by fraud—that is a basic right for all. To protect that individual right and to ensure that the public are confident that that is the case, we have a comprehensive plan for electoral security that will tackle the concerns that were graphically identified in Richard Mawrey's judgment on the Birmingham fraud cases. The measures include primary legislation, such as many measures in the Bill; secondary legislation, which I shall bring forward shortly; performance standards to ensure that there is best practice; and extra resources for electoral registration officers. People have a choice about how to
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vote in this country. Whether they choose to use the ballot box or postal votes, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) mentioned, they should be confident that the system is secure.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Is the Minister aware that police in Bradford, which is where I am from, have examined approximately 252 cases of alleged electoral fraud? It would certainly be of great benefit to our part of the world if she would consider introducing individual registration and give a commitment not to hold all-postal ballots again, which have done much to devalue the electoral system.

Ms Harman: We will continue to allow people to choose to vote by post if they want to. We want to increase participation. Hon. Members on both sides of the House acknowledge that we do not want to stamp out the choice of postal voting. However, the hon. Gentleman makes important points about fraud and I hope that I will be able to reassure him with further points that I shall make in my speech.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): The Minister talks about the choice of using postal voting, but one of the awkward aspects of the system is the fact that people never quite know when their postal votes will arrive. Have the Government considered having a central point in each constituency at which people would be able register their votes in person after postal votes were available? Some people cannot be sure that they will receive their postal vote before they leave on holiday and so on. Such a central point in each constituency at which they could vote in person up until polling day would take away some of the distrust in the postal system.

Ms Harman: That is a good idea, although I would have to work out whether it would require primary or secondary legislation, or a performance standard. Several people have expressed concern about the matter, so we will consider the situation.

Several hon. Members rose—

Ms Harman: I have a bit of a problem because although many hon. Members are making important interventions, I realise that I am taking time away from other speakers. I guess that I had better take only two more interventions and then just plough on.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend be cautious when following suggestions about individual registration and take careful note of the experience in Northern Ireland? There was a substantial drop in numbers on the electoral register there and representations on ways to remedy that were made across a wide part of the political spectrum. Yes, we need an accurate register, but we must ensure that it is comprehensive too. I certainly do not think that we should consider introducing
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individual registration before many other measures have bedded down to enable us to ensure that the maximum number of people are on the register.

Ms Harman: The points that my right hon. Friend makes are absolutely right. It is helpful for the House to hear about his experience as a Northern Ireland Minister.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): The Minister cited Birmingham as a high-profile case, but is she aware that there are several smaller cases throughout the country? For example, there was a police investigation in my constituency of Reading, East that proved that fraud had occurred. However, a challenge to the result was impossible because the investigation lasted well beyond the legal time limit in which such a challenge could be made. Should not the time limit be suspended while an active police investigation is taking place?

Ms Harman: The Bill will extend the time in which the police can investigate before they prosecute. I do not know whether that addresses the exact point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but it is something along those lines—I will have to write to him.

As with registration, the key to tackling fraud is to give electoral administrators the powers, duties and resources that they need. There will be new electoral fraud offences in the Bill. We have strengthened current offences, created new ones and toughened up penalties. As I said, we are extending the time in which the police can undertake investigations, and in polling stations we will require voters to sign for their ballot paper. People have to sign for a recorded delivery, but they do not currently have to sign for a vote. Doing so will be an extra security measure.

The Bill includes a number of measures to ensure the security of postal voting. We will require administrators to write to everyone who has applied for a postal vote to confirm it. Unless another individual living in someone's house is opening their post they can be confident that their postal vote application is secure. We will require voters to give a reason if they want their postal vote to be redirected to an address different from the one on the electoral register. We will bring forward the deadline for applying for a postal vote to give electoral administrators more time to check applications, and we will make it clear that electoral administrators have the power to check signatures on applications to vote by post. If passed, secondary legislation will be introduced in time for the May 2006 council elections.

In the Bill, we allow local authorities to pilot a scheme making identifiers such as someone's signature or date of birth a condition for inclusion in the electoral register. Hon. Members will know that the Electoral Commission recommended individual registration. We have decided that rather than go straight to a national roll-out, we should test the proposal first. We need to be able to assess in practice the security benefits of such a system, as well as the extent to which it compounds the problem of under-registration.

Under-registration is not a problem in all areas, but it is an acute problem in some. We cannot afford the risk that even more of our poor, black and young people
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who are eligible to vote are unable to do so because they are left off the register. We need tough anti-fraud measures, and we are taking them. We need to try out individual signatures as a condition for inclusion on the register, and we are doing so. We will proceed in an evidence-based and, I hope, sure-footed way. Individual registration is not a principle, but a means to an end. We will try it out to see whether it works. The principles at stake are security and access and we will not compromise on either.

The Electoral Commission will play a key role in supporting and evaluating the pilots. I expect that local authorities with the greatest fear of fraud such as that of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) will be the    first to volunteer for the pilots. Anticipating the comments of the official Opposition, I believe that before we make significant changes we need to be as sure as possible that they are right. As I have said, we will adopt an evidence-based approach. We will not take risks with the security of the vote, nor are we willing to take risks with the register and people's right to vote. We will evaluate the pilots and the results will be presented to the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs and to the House.

The next elections will be held in May 2006. I am already working closely with local authority chief executives, and I thank them for their work and all their ideas for improving the process, as well as electoral administrators, council leaders, police and, of course, hon. Members. To support their efforts in wards that are at risk of fraud we need to identify the relevant areas and take action. Such areas may be home to minority ethnic communities, but the men and women in those communities have as much right to participation in fair elections as anyone else. Wherever there is a threat of fraud we must take concerted action. Most areas do not have such fears, but where there is a history, or a new threat, of fraud we will back the individuals taking action at the local level. The Bill will give electoral registration officers a power to promote participation in elections to achieve higher turnout, and it will provide a ring-fenced fund.

Everything in the Bill is underpinned by provisions for performance standards for electoral services, which will be set and monitored by the Electoral Commission, after consultations with the Secretary of State, to promote best practice. To enable them to carry out their greater responsibilities and exercise their wider powers and duties, we are allocating £17 million to local authorities over the next two years.

I know that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) will attempt to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make his proposals about the legal changes that are required when a candidate dies between nomination and election day. He is a senior and experienced Member of the House who has had more reason and more time to think about that than anyone else, so I am grateful to him for being prepared to sort the matter out, and I am making parliamentary drafting available to him so that he can table his proposals by way of amendments in Committee.

As to the process, we will be seeking to deal with part of the Committee stage of the Bill on the Floor of the House. As this debate has demonstrated, the issue is one in which many Members of the House have a keen interest and a great deal of experience. The Bill is not a
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virility test for the Government or party politics. It is about improving democracy and tackling inequality. I will listen, as will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, to the views of Members in all parts of the House. If hon. Members from whichever part of the House come forward with proposals of merit backed by reasoned arguments, we will accept their amendments.

I hope that when the measure comes to be considered in another place there will be an acknowledgement that we have, in this elected House, given the Electoral Administration Bill the careful, impartial scrutiny that a measure reforming our democracy deserves. I commend the Bill to the House.

5.21 pm

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