That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Electoral Administration Bill because it fails to introduce necessary and sufficient measures to restore public confidence and integrity in the electoral system, owing to the absence from the Bill of the tried and tested Northern Ireland system of individual registration; because it lowers the threshold for lost Parliamentary deposits, which will assist extremists like the British National Party in spreading racist propaganda; because it perpetuates the flawed system of all-postal voting and fails to provide for the proper Parliamentary scrutiny of election pilot schemes; and because it exposes the Government's continuing preoccupation with electoral modernisation that has undermined the UK's reputation for free and fair elections.
Nobody could present the measures proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) better than he doubtless will. We stand behind his proposals, but I shall not even attempt to explain them.
Given what has happened to our electoral process, no Opposition politician could fail to point out that when Labour was elected in 1997 the promise was to restore trust in the political process and to introduce a new politics. Since then, the electoral system has been tinkered with on many occasions, often for partisan advantage. The Government have opened the door to an older form of politics, which was riven with abuse and corruption and which all of us were glad ended more than 100 years ago.
Electoral law was the most unexciting and staid corner of the Home Office until the Government turned their beady eye on the subject. Since then responsibility has changed three times to three Departments, we have had six Acts of Parliamentthe Bill would be the seventhand we have ended up with a system that has led public opinion and confidence in the electoral system to collapse and compromised the perceived integrity of Britain's once proud electoral system. There is no question that what has happened is wrong. Something substantial needs to be done, but the Bill is inadequate. We needed a strong sword to defend our democracy and what we have is a damp lettuce leaf.
I shall start with the proposals for pilot schemes for collecting personal identifiers. The introduction of postal voting on demand in 2000 was a welcome step. It allows electors to apply for a postal vote without any specific reason. It has led to an upsurge in postal voting and we do not oppose that at all. However, the experience has shown that we need firm anti-fraud
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measures. Things have got to a point where we have had international election observers from as far away as the Ukraine and Serbia, those well-known beacons of democracy, coming to the United Kingdom to tell us how to run our system. They warned that the issue of postal voting has raised lingering doubts about this country's ability to regulate elections securely. They went on to suggest a way to overcome the problemindividual voter registrationfor which the Government's own Electoral Commission and MPs from across the political spectrum have also called.
The Government's proposal for a few local authority pilots is wholly insufficient. There is no need for pilotsNorthern Ireland, a nation in itself, has trialled the system extensively over a number of yearswhich are simply a delaying tactic. Conservatives want to see the Northern Ireland scheme introduced in Great Britain, with national insurance numbers used to verify registrations, which is essential to ensure an accurate register and to curtail postal vote fraud. The Government do not like the use of national insurance numbers and initially opposed their use in Northern Ireland. It is, however, worth reminding them that after pressure in the other place by Conservatives and Unionists, the late Lord Williams helped to introduce their use in Northern Ireland.
The electoral registration officer for Northern Ireland, Denis Stanley, with whom I have discussed the matter, told me that he was initially concerned that the use of national insurance numbers might have an adverse effect on registration, but his fears have been allayed. In a road to Damascus conversion, even the Northern Ireland Office now admits that national insurance numbers were
The dead were voting in Northern Ireland, and now they are not. Some 94 per cent. of the people in the census were registered to vote before the change, and the figure is now well ahead of the registration level in many inner-city areas, which is an issue that the Minister has discussed.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House about the initial drop in voter registration as a result of the introduction of the single signature in Northern Ireland and the number of successful prosecutions for postal ballot fraud in the past few years?
Mr. Heald: The fall in the number of people registered was about 120,000. It is often claimed that that shows that people who should have been on the register were no longer on it. However, the Electoral Commission, which has looked into the matter, and Denis Stanley, the electoral registration officer for Northern Ireland, do not say that. They say that the single signature has improved the accuracy of the register.
The level of registration in Northern Ireland is high compared with the areas about which the Minister, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and I are concerned. Labour councils in inner-city areas have not done anything to address the problem of under-registration, which requires an active campaign and proper canvassing, and I welcome the fact that the Minister now talks about those things.
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I welcome the idea of data matching and checking, which the Select Committee has rightly suggested. However, let us not kid ourselves that everybody has been working hard and busting a gut trying to get people to register in the inner cities, because they have not.
Mr. Love : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the electoral registration officer for Northern Ireland put 70,000 electors back on the register in order to get the register up to the 94 per cent. figure, after it became clear that only 83 per cent. of the people on the census were registered in Northern Ireland? The electoral registration officer made that decision because there was a crisis in registration that had to be addressed.
It is possible to introduce two changes at once, and the introduction of individual registration should be accompanied by an active campaign involving the materials mentioned by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) in order to capture the true position by obtaining an accurate register. It can be done, and it should be done.
Mr. Peter Robinson : It is fairly well established in Northern Ireland that the initial drop in the register was a result of the removal of fictitious electors. However, in the subsequent year there was a further drop of, I believe, 70,000, which has been mentioned. The Government will face a conundrum, as there is a tension between having an accurate register and fraud. The more identifiers one requires and the more difficult one makes it for people to register, the fewer will register.
Mr. Heald: I agree that there is more to this than a simple solutionwe need a strategic approach that involves a range of measures. I understand from my visit to Northern Ireland that there is now much more confidence in the accuracy of the register. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that extra measures are being suggested further to improve the system to ensure that people do not drop off the roll every year. That need not happen if the register is effective, accurate and well canvassed. The proposals for Northern Ireland are probably a good way forward, although the hon. Gentleman might want to query points of detail.
Individual voter registration and an identifier such as the national insurance number are required because without them there is no way of checking that the person exists. I shall give an example from New Zealand, which has a system similar to the one that we would end up with under these proposals. Last month, it was reported in The New Zealand Herald that a disgruntled resident had decided to register his pet Jack Russell, Toby, on the electoral roll as a protest against development laws. He gave his dog the full name of Toby Russell Rhodes and his occupation as rodent exterminator. He signed with a squiggle using the dog's paw and then put a paw mark, just to make the point. He gave Toby the birth date of 4 July 1977, which would equate to his age in human years; he is really four years old. Toby was signed up to the electoral roll and duly received his voter's card. That could happen under the system that the Government
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suggestand he could have a postal vote, to boot. Not one of their proposals really tackles the problem with the register.
This is not just about what international observers and the Electoral Commission have said. In the draft guidance, even the Government accept that when the good old identity card comes along there may be scope to use it to do what I am suggesting needs to be done using the national insurance number.
"no serious independent investigation was ever carried out into postal vote fraud. In short, there is likely to be no evidence of fraud, if you do not look for it. Especially if a policy decision is made not to look for it."