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Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), who achieved a good balance between a moving maiden speech and a very funny maiden speech.

I welcome the Bill. It is a good measure that achieves the right balance between widening participation and securing the vote. Before the Bill was published, I felt that there was a danger of over-emphasis being placed on securing the vote. I am pleased that that is not the case. Newspapers were full of articles about postal ballot fraud and Ministers were questioned at the Dispatch Box on the issue of electoral fraud. Of course, electoral fraud, including postal ballot fraud, is a serious issue, but we must have regard to the statistics. I tabled a written question, No. 10802, on 14 July. I asked the Minister how many successful prosecutions there had been for postal ballot fraud, at parliamentary and local government level, over recent years. I was told that there had been none at parliamentary level and about one or two a year for local government elections.

Surely the greater evil is to have 3 million to 4 million missing or unregistered electors—figures revealed by the Electoral Commission in September. I welcome the commission's research. If I have any criticism of it, it is that the research was not conducted three or four years ago when many Members, certainly on the Government Benches, were raising concerns about under-registration. Had that research taken place at that time, perhaps the newspapers would have been full of what I say is a greater injustice—3 million to 4 million missing electors.

Mr. Love: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is disappointing that the commission has not made any recommendations to increase electoral registration? It has focused almost entirely on individual registration, to the detriment of the situation that he is describing.

Chris Ruane: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and one to which I am coming.

The research undertaken by the commission revealed—I think that my right hon. and learned Friend referred to this in her opening remarks—the profile of unregistered electors. They are unemployed, low paid, young and living in rented accommodation. In the words of my right hon. and learned Friend, they are the most disengaged of our electorate.

If proposals for a single signature for each elector had been adopted, the number of unregistered voters could have doubled to 7 million to 8 million, compared with 3 million to 4 million. When a single signature for each elector was adopted in Northern Ireland, there was a fall in the number of electors of about 10 per cent. To have 7 million to 8 million voters missing from the register is not the way that a western democracy should function.

I asked my right hon. and learned Friend what the Electoral Commission had predicted if a single signature system were to be introduced in this country. I was horrified by her answer, which came from the Speaker's
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Committee on the Electoral Commission. The commission stated that it had not undertaken any detailed research into the likely impact of the introduction of full individual registration in Great Britain on the levels of voter registration. The commission advises that such research would involve making a number of speculative assumptions and would thus be open to a significant margin of error. I am horrified that no research has been undertaken and that no predictions have been made. Serious action should be taken by the Government.

Mark Tami : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the role of the state to get people on to the register and that we should do as much as we can to achieve that? It is not for individual authorities or whatever to get people on to the register; it is the role of the Government and the state to encourage people to take part in the democratic process.

Chris Ruane: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will not rush headlong into single signature registration. I trust that she will give the matter careful thought. If pilots are to take place, I make the specific request that there should be no priority until we have those 3 million to 4 million people back on the register. Without that there will not be true piloting. We are talking of the people who are most likely to stay off the register if there is a single signature system.

I shall make some suggestions for consideration by my right hon. and learned Friend. I welcome her open approach, which means that she is prepared to consider views expressed by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, provided that they are reasoned and backed by statistical data.

Having tabled dozens, if not hundreds, of written questions on electoral registration, it is obvious that not enough information is collected centrally by my right hon. and learned Friend's Department. The Bill will go some way towards addressing that. Ministers do not know, for example, how much is spent by each local authority. I want to sing the praises of the National Assembly for Wales. I asked my Assembly colleague, Ann Jones, if she would ask her Minister how much was spent by each county in Wales per elector on registration, and I would ask mine how much was spent by each county in England. Her question was answered fully by the Assembly, but the response from my Minister was that the information was not collected centrally.

Mr. Binley : No work is being done on the competency or professionalism of registration staff. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that needs addressing, too?

Chris Ruane: I echo those thoughts. The status of electoral registration officers should be recognised. Their pay and training should be increased because they are doing a great job in difficult circumstances. They take the blame for inefficiency and under-
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registration, yet that is often the fault of the local authority for not assigning enough finance in the first place.

Mark Tami: There are contrasting approaches to registration. In north Wales, I receive one letter a year about registration, whereas in London I receive three, as well as someone coming to my door. We need a more uniform approach to encourage people to register, and many local authorities could do much more.

Chris Ruane: I concur with my hon. Friend.

The Minister referred to minimum standards. May I respectfully ask that minimum standards be high, transparent and readily understood by elected representatives and the public? Local authority electoral administrative performance should be made available to MPs and the public and should be in league table format. Successful electoral registration officers and departments should be recognised, while there should be sanctions against failing authorities and departments. There should either be financial sanctions or responsibility should be handed over to a more successful neighbouring authority or an outside agency. Democracy is too important to be left to a council with a devil-may-care attitude to the basic building block of all elections, be they local, national or European—the electoral register.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I appreciate my hon. Friend's point that electoral registration officers should measure up and perform well, but given the profile of the people missing from the register is it not likely that those in areas where there are larger numbers of students and poor people will suffer discrimination? We should compare like with like.

Chris Ruane: I shall shortly be coming to the question of student registration.

Clear direction should be given about the use of door-to-door canvassing, which was widely and successfully used in the past. The practice has diminished over recent years, mainly on cost grounds, but electoral registration officers should be given specific instructions to use door-to-door canvassing. Whether it is at the end of the process, after the initial letter has gone out, the reminders have been sent or telephone calls have been made, we need to knock on doors to ensure that we maximise registration. The report by the Office for National Statistics on conducting the canvass strongly suggests that at some stage in the process personal contact must be made with householders to maximise response rates.

Electoral registration could be dramatically improved if all EROs and electoral administration departments fully utilised current powers, which were given to them in the Representation of the People Act 2000. However, if I were to ask how many electoral administration departments were using those powers, I am sure that I would be told that the information is not collected centrally. Using existing powers could make a big difference.

New computer programmes also offer opportunities. Local land and property gazettes give a unique property reference number to each building, each floor in a
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building and each living unit on that floor. Such 21st century information systems could offer a full picture of every house, home or living unit in a county or constituency. It would be of particular use to me in my constituency where there are about 1,500 houses in multiple occupation. If we knew where each living unit was, we would have a greater chance of knowing who lived there.

Local authorities should also co-operate with the Royal Mail, which keeps a comprehensive list of properties. They should have the power to ask for information from owners of HMOs and caravan sites and from social landlords to help them to compile the register. Such powers should be used fully. The right and responsibility of EROs to consult local government databases, which was established in 2001, is the key to finding most of the information necessary for a full register. For example, education departments could furnish the ERO with the names and addresses of further and higher education students and sixth-formers. Social services departments could furnish information about residential and nursing homes, people receiving home help and attendance allowance, and vulnerable young adults. Housing departments have a treasure trove of information about council tenants and people on housing benefit. Environment or public protection departments will have details about HMOs. EROs should also have the right to consult letting agents and social landlords. The means are already in place, but they need careful monitoring. If all my proposals were carried out we could obtain most of the required information. My question to the Minister is: are those powers used? I do not think that they are, otherwise about 4 million people would not be missing from the electoral register.

I urge the Minister to go further and push for secondary legislation to allow EROs to access central Government databases. If a majority of unregistered people are unemployed, why not use unemployment registers to find out where they are? If a majority are on low pay, why not use the tax credit registers to find out where they are? We should not wait another two or three years to see whether the current proposals are embedded. We should act now.

I welcome the Bill's proposals and I am pleased that the Minister has welcomed suggestions to improve security and widen participation. If we act co-operatively and collegiately and make our best suggestions, the Minister will take them up and democracy will be the better for it.

6.58 pm

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