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Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): I get the impression that the Government came to power full of great ideas for reforming and improving the electoral system, but so far there has not been much progressor at least only in limited areas.
The Government have already introduced two major changes to the electoral system and the Bill will bring a third. The first change was the introduction of rolling registration, which as far as we can tell has gone reasonably well, although people have said that it may enable bogus voters to stay on the register indefinitely.
The second change was the relaxation of access to postal voting, which was a disaster. The details of the Birmingham case and everything that accompanied it
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the so-called warehousing problemsneed not detain us. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) read part of the judgment and it was absolutely right, as was the judge. The Government and the Electoral Commission between them really mucked it up. They failed the first and overriding test of any reform in this fieldto maintain confidence in the system.
The credibility of the electoral system has taken a severe knock among a large section of the electorate. It is paramount in any democracy that people should believe that the electoral system is fair and acceptable and not subject to fraud. The Government make a number of proposals in the Bill to try to prevent such things from happening again. One proposal is to create a new offence of falsely applying for a postal vote. I am no lawyer, but I am not yet convinced of the need for that offence. The people who engaged in the so-called warehousing in Birmingham knew very well that they were committing an offence. The new offence seems to have the smell of "display purpose only" legislation, of which we have had so much in the past few years, adding to the statute book but perhaps not to the effectiveness of the law.
Of course the third major change to registration, which is a major part of the Bill, is the switch from household to individual registration. Frankly, I cannot tell whether the Government intend to introduce personal identifiers and keep the household system going, or whether they really intend to move to a truly individual registration system eventually. I was still not clear on that, even after the Minister had introduced the Bill. What is worse is that the Government clearly want one thing, a halfway house, while the Electoral Commission wants anotherit wants the Bill to go the whole hog right at the start. I certainly have the impression that the Government are dragging their feet on the Electoral Commission's original proposals.
I am sceptical that the integrity of the electoral system will be seen to improve much with the Government's halfway house. I would not have rushed to adopt individual registration, but I am beginning to warm to it now that I have heard the argument tonight. The Electoral Commission, of course, wants a truly individual registration system. It believes that such a system is now a vital part of restoring credibility in the system after the postal voting farrago. Sam Younger makes that clear in the briefing letter that, I think, was sent to all MPs, when he says, "Without individual registration", by which he means the fully fledged system,
We have had an experiment with postal voting. It has gone wrong, and to patch it up we are about to embark on another experiment, with the Electoral Commission pulling one way and the Government another. The fact they are already arguing about that pretty much in public does not make me very optimistic about success.
Why do we need to take such risks with something as important as the credibility of the electoral system, which was already working reasonably well before the reforms began? We have heard some of the answers from those on the Front Bench. Of course, the main answer given is that a good number of peoplein particular, the Governmentconvinced themselves that the old system was not working.
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Whenever we have these debates we tend to hear a lot about how voter participation is in sharp decline, about fears of voter apathy and, as a consequence, of great dangers to democracy and the like. Of course our system is imperfect, but as I have already intimated, the greater risk may lie with half-baked changes that can further erode the electorate's confidence in the system. In any case, I am not convinced that the electoral system is in such a terrible mess. I think that the doomsters have largely got it wrong.
No amount of meddling with the electoral system will dramatically increase turnout. That will come when the electorate go into an election very uncertain of the result. I do not think that they did so at the last election, and they certainly did not in the 2001 election when the turnout was very low. When the outcome was uncertain and two parties were arguing vigorously, with very different policy stances, we had one of the highest turnouts ever seen in this country, as recently as 1992. I do not think that the country has suddenly gone into a paroxysm of apathy since then, and the case is greatly overstated that voter apathy and problems of participation have increased massivelybut perhaps we should debate that wider issue more deeply another day.
Wherever the Government have introduced such proposals, whenever they have travelled down the road of electoral reform, we seem to be given further evidence of the law of unintended consequences, and I fear that the Bill will be more of the same.[Interruption.] The Minister is saying something from a sedentary position that I cannot hear, I am afraid. She is welcome to intervene if she wants to.
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman says that there are unintended consequences when the Government take action, and I was simply mutteringmy apologies for doing sothat that is why we want to pilot the introduction of individual identifiers, not rush into things wholesale, thus causing what happened in Northern Ireland, where we had to legislate and then legislate again to deal with the problems that we created in the first bit of legislation.
Mr. Tyrie: The Minister may have a point, judging by what happened with the unintended consequences of another aspect of the Representation of the People Act 2000. I am sure that she did not intend to disfranchise a large proportion of service personnel at the last election, but that was the effect of the legislation. It is a scandal that we have been sending troops to Iraq to help to build a democracy while making it so difficult for them to vote in the last general election. A very large proportion of them almost certainly did not vote. It is disgraceful that when I warned the Government about that in late 2004, on the basis of evidence that I had gleaned from my constituency, they did virtually nothing about it. Equally disgraceful has been the Government's response since then. I can find nothing in the Bill to suggest that they will tackle the problem.
In the Constitutional Affairs Committee last week, I secured the Lord Chancellor's agreementit is fairer to say that I wrung agreement from himto produce a thorough report on how the problem arose and what the Government intend to do about it. If we are to avoid
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more delay in finding a solution, we need several things. FirstI hope that the Minister will say that she agrees to thiswe need a survey of servicemen to be undertaken to establish how many of them were disfranchised. We need not survey all this country's servicemen; we need to pick a group and conduct an intelligent survey.
Secondly, we need a careful examination of what action the Government took after they were warned in 2004, before the general election. Thirdly, we need the Government's proposals on how to ensure that such things never happen again. The third requirement can be met only if we have accurate information on the first and second.
Finding a solution will not be complicated. All that the Government need docertainly for the next election, while they consider longer-term reformis restore the old service voter registration scheme. That would do the job in one jump. Incidentally, I also alerted the Electoral Commission to those problems in 2004, and I regret to say that it was also breathtaking in the complacency of its response. After a number of inconclusive exchanges with Sam Younger, its chairman, requesting that he take action, he finally sent me a letter on 6 December, and I shall just read a small section of that extraordinary reply, where he said:
The Electoral Commission and the Government are full of grand schemes and noble projects, many of them costly, to improve voter registration and participation. I really wonder whether we would not now do better just to stick to basics. For example, let us ensure that 250,000 service personnel get the vote at the next election. Let us take fewer risks with postal voting. We have made quite a mess of it in the last few years; we now need to avoid further mistakes that could further erode the credibility of our electoral system. We have had more than three quarters of a century of electoral registration with a full franchise, and we have not done so badly. A note of caution is required now.
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