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Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Like other hon. Members, I begin by paying a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the new Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), who is not in his seat at present. He gave a very good account of himself this evening.
The Bill is important not least because it begins to deal with legislation that dates back to as early as 1872. I hope that it will bring it up to 21st century standards, but I want to focus on my experience in a London constituency. At the general election, I went down streets in my constituency where one in every two households had no one on the register. There were polling districts in which 30 per cent. of the electorate were missing from the register. We have a registration crisis, especially in London, although the problem exists
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all over the country. Between 3.5 million and 4 million electors are missing nationallybetween 8 and 9 per cent. of the electorate.
House of Commons researchers estimate that, in 2001, 5,400 electors were missing from the register in my constituency, but that by 2004 another 3,500 could have been added to the total. A comparison of the electoral register for 2003 with census figures for 2001 shows that 9,600 people were missing from the register. As I said, 21 out of the 25 constituencies with the most people missing from the register are in Greater London. The crisis in registration must be a priority, especially for the Bill.
Sadly, I do not think that the problem has been shared with the Electoral Commission. Although most of the Bill's provisions have resulted from various reports and research carried out by the Electoral Commission, little research has been done on registration itself. The focus of the commission's activities in recent months has been individual registration. We might want to move to individual registration, but we have limited experience of it so far. Much of our experience comes from Northern Ireland, where the proportion of the electorate on the register fell to 84 per cent. It was only when the electoral officer of Northern Ireland disagreed with the Electoral Commission that the figure was boosted to 94 per cent.
The thing that surprises me most is that of the duties that Parliament has asked the Electoral Commission to undertake on our behalf, its third is to encourage greater participation in elections. I know that a balance must be struck between individual registration and not erecting hurdles that will reduce registration, but I submit that the Electoral Commission has simply got its priorities wrong. We have a democratic deficit in this country stretching to 3.5 million electorssome 7,000 in my constituency, if we take that as the average figureso we need to comment when the Electoral Commission, which is supposed to be accountable to Parliament, appears to ignore it. The Electoral Commission has a duty to report to Parliament through the Speaker's Committee, so I urge those who will next review its five-year plan to examine carefully whether the commission is getting its priorities right. I believe that if the commission were doing that, it would be paying far greater attention to the registration process and to how we can get more people on the register.
We could do several things to increase registration. Although I shall mention other matters, if we are honest about the balance of all the issues with which the Bill deals, registration must be our priority. First, electoral registration officers must have access to all information that can assist the registration process. In 2004, a statutory instrument was passed to help the process. It clarified the fact that officers may access registers for council tax, council rent and housing benefit, as is right and proper. However, my local electoral registration officer tells me that the information on local authority registers often does not give officers the precise information that would be of most benefit to them.
I suggest, therefore, that we consider extending the information available to electoral registration officers, much of which will be on national registers. For example, we could consider using information from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Land Registry. We could evendare I say it?use
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information from TV Licensing because we know that 98 per cent. of all households have a television. I understand that under data protection rules such information might not be made available, but we could use other mechanisms and work with those organisations to communicate to people the need for registration if they are to vote at local and general elections.
Secondly, we need a properly resourced electoral registration service. It was said earlier that we no longer see properly qualified electoral registration staff. Electoral registration staff in my local authority area, who have been working with the same funding for the past 10 years, carry out a canvass each year. Hon. Members will thus understand that the extent to which the canvass is comprehensive has declined somewhat over those 10 years. That is not the only problem, however, because under a process called adverse selection, canvassing takes place in areas where electoral registration is already high, but areas where registration is low are not canvassed. When one asks why, one is told that canvassers find it difficult to canvass in those areas. We must examine carefully the way in which registration is conducted.
The Electoral Commission has done a good job on this issue because it has researched the prevalence of non-registration. It has identified three groups in particular that do not register for elections, so with a bit of advice and support we could target those groups and get them on the register.
Thirdly, electoral registration departments almost always act on their own. They are almost always ignored by their local authorities and there is no national mechanism to bring them into any sort of process. Performance standards are an important mechanism through which the Electoral Commission can assure local people that their departments perform their functions properly, but we must also ensure that the departments are given the best advice. We should allow them to come together to talk about how that advice could be used throughout the country to improve the process. We must, of course, ensure that expenditure on electoral registration is transparent. The Bill will make additional money available for the electoral registration process, but I would like an assurance that it will get through to electoral registration officers because that has always been a problem.
I understand that I have only a few moments left in which to speak, but I want to comment on the important issues of corruption and individual registration. I certainly do not underestimate the need for change and greater security. It is clear that the greatest focus has been on personation and vote rigging. We heard earlier about the situation in Blackburn and Birmingham. Genuine difficulties must be addressed and we should not underestimate them. Labour Members have pointed out that the extent of electoral fraud is not as great as that which is sometimes reflected in our national media, but we should all be worried about any such fraud. However, the Bill addresses the issue, especially in postal voting, where most of the problems have arisen.
We must acknowledge the important contribution that postal voting has made to increasing participation in elections. At the 2005 general election, 12 per cent. of
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the electorate registered for postal votes, accounting for 14.5 per cent. of the votes that were cast. We certainly do not want to lose such an important contribution.
The Bill introduces four measures that will help to improve security. As has already been said, there is a new offence of falsely applying for a postal vote, which will deal with some of the problems that arose in Birmingham. The use of personal identifiers, particularly someone's signature, is important. Undue influence, a major factor in recent cases, will become an offence, as will providing false information. All those measures should satisfy people that we are beginning to make voting much more secure. I believe that surveys should be conducted as well, but overall the Bill is an excellent measure that should be warmly welcomed by the House.
Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): May I explain the basis on which I seek to participate in this debate? The Electoral Commission was created as a free-standing body after 2000, but a means had to be found to control its strategic plans and budget. The Speaker's Committee was therefore instituted, and the commission is accountable to the House of Commons through an hon. Membermewho answers written questions on the Electoral Commission. I answered one yesterday from the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and, if he requires it, I am happy to provide him with clarification later. I also answer oral questions in the House once a month, and I try to be neutral and objective. I once said that I am merely a drone target against which colleagues can assay their shafts of wit and wisdom. I do not comment in the media on Electoral Commission issues because, given my efforts to be neutral and objective, it is not appropriate to do so. However, as the Bill will change fundamentally the Electoral Commission's structure and operational methods I thought it appropriate to seek neutrally to express its views on the measure.
The Electoral Commission welcomes the Bill, 80 per cent. of which derives from its proposals. Similarly, 80 per cent. of the commission's recommendations were accepted by the Government and are included in the Bill. The Electoral Commission welcomes the provisions to allow independent observers at elections and referendums for the first time; to reduce the minimum age of candidacy at all elections from 21 to 18; to enable people to register after an election has been called, up to 11 days before polling day; to enable electoral registration officers and returning officers actively to encourage participation in elections and referendums; to improve assistance for disabled voters and voters whose first language is not English; and to improve the nomination process with measures that include the standardisation of deposits and the lowering of the forfeiture threshold from 5 to 2 per cent. It welcomes provisions to reintroduce descriptions of independent candidates; to reduce the administrative burdens on political parties, candidates and others; to provide stronger deterrents against electoral fraud by introducing two new electoral offences; to increase the length of time available for the police to carry out
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investigations into electoral fraud; and to introduce performance standards for local authority electoral services.
The Electoral Commission broadly welcomes the Bill, for which it has been pressing, but there is pressure on the legislative process, as the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will know better than anyone else in the House. He will agree that we must get the Bill right. It is the first national legislation to be introduced on the subject in five years, and there was a gap of 15 years separating the 2000 legislation from the preceding legislation. It is therefore likely that this is the last chance that we will have before the next general election to get electoral legislation correct.
The Minister of State spoke about fraud when she introduced the Bill. While the total amount of fraud is small, it has a disproportionate effect on people's trust and confidence in the system. The Electoral Commission's study of participation in the 2005 general election shows that for the first time more people rated the postal voting system as unsafe than safe, and were worried about incorrect registration and votes going astray. There is considerable concern about houses in multiple occupation, as residents are not all registered by the head of householda dated concept in the 21st century. Who is the head of household in an HMO? The Electoral Commission believes that the system to register voters by the head of household is out of date and should be replaced with a full system of individual registration. Since 2003, it has consistently recommended replacing the current system of household registration with a system in which individuals register themselves to vote, providing personal identifiers at the same time. It believes that the household registration system is open to abuse and error. Individual registration would help to encourage a sense of personal involvement in the democratic process, and it would produce a more accurate electoral register while improving the security of the system, allowing people to participate with confidence.
In particular, a system of full individual registration would mean that at all stages of postal voting checks would be made against the personal identifiers on the register for each elector to ensure that only individuals who are entitled to do so can cast a vote by post. The commission has a two-fold difficulty with the Government's proposal to pilot the use of personal identifiers. First, outside the pilot areas, postal voting will still be available without an adequate system of security checks. Secondly, a proposal to pilot falls short of a commitment to implement the core recommendation for full individual registration throughout Great Britain, which the commission believes is right in principle as well as urgently needed to counter the risk of postal vote fraud. The Electoral Commission was created to advise on electoral matters, and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to put its advice on the parliamentary record.
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