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Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): I suspect that we are discussing a subject about which all hon. Members believe themselves to be experts. We all have our experiences of it. I have been a candidate in 21 elections and successful in 20—such is the life of a politician in Northern Ireland. I have participated in elections under three different voting systems and witnessed numerous changes in electoral law.

I broadly welcome the Government's intentions in the Bill but, like many others, I believe that it is too modest by far and that they will be forced to revisit some of the issues before too long. I join other hon. Members in welcoming the role that the Electoral Commission will play. It has played a significant role in Northern Ireland. Its contribution, not least in funding for political parties' policy development, has been especially helpful for the smaller parties in the United Kingdom. The Electoral Commission plays a complementary role to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. The whole of Northern Ireland is under one electoral officer and his staff.

Like several hon. Members, I feel strongly that good registration is the key to the Bill's three main purposes. I fear that the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland is not properly resourced to do the job that it needs to do. Many of us have experiences of forms that are sent out but never followed up. If a form is not returned, all too often, the Electoral Office makes no second attempt to get it. It is a matter of the resources that are available to it and the staff whom it can employ for that purpose. Significant work needs to be done on that.

As I see it, the Bill's three main purposes are: access to voting for all; the highest possible turnout, and the lowest possible fraud. As I said in an earlier intervention, those can be competing aims. The aspiration for a more accurate and fuller register is one aspect that the three purposes have in common but many other facets constitute competing aims.

In Northern Ireland, we are, ironically, at a more advanced stage because of the high level of voting fraud. Full details can be found in the report on this subject by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Northern Ireland formerly experienced voter fraud on a massive scale, constituting systematic abuse of the electoral system, which ultimately led to the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. Most of us who witnessed the resultant elections believe that, although there may be some outstanding issues, especially in relation to postal voting, the legislation has broken the
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back of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. I therefore say to those who experience similar circumstances to those that existed in Northern Ireland, that I perceive the 2002 Act as at least part of the remedy to the problems. However, ultimately, hon. Members will have to gauge the extent to which electoral fraud is a problem in Britain and decide whether they need to look to the remedies that were used in Northern Ireland.

Lessons can be learned from our experience in Northern Ireland. Fraud, even on a small scale, can change the outcome of elections.

Kelvin Hopkins: Changing the law on fraud appears to have had a political impact in Northern Ireland in that the hon. Gentleman's party has done rather better than in previous elections. Was the Act significant in that respect?

Mr. Robinson: The rise of Democratic Unionist party was irresistible and, no matter what the voting system or the electoral law, the party would, like the cream, have come to the top.

A significant number of people who were previously on the electoral register were removed from it at the time of the new registration and the personal identifiers. The bulk of those who were removed should not have been on the electoral register; they had registered more than once. As has been said, when subsequent registrations took place, there was a further significant fall in the number of people registered. I do not blame that on the 2002 Act, except for the requirement for an annual return of the registration form. The Government properly took steps to change that. I believe that that will steady the numbers on the register.

It is one thing to fill out a detailed electoral registration form to include, for example, a national insurance number. Some of the anxieties that have been expressed in the Chamber about the introduction of the national insurance number as an identifier are unfounded. That has not been a problem in Northern Ireland and it has assisted in reducing fraud. I accept colleagues' value judgment about whether they believe that the problem is so great that they need to introduce that personal identifier, but I believe that most people can be expected to cope with its introduction and that of the signature, the date of birth and other elements on the form every three or four years. However, the number of people who register will decrease if they are expected to do it every year, especially in years when they do not expect an election. In Northern Ireland, one can never be sure whether an election will come along, and people can easily get caught out. But if the register could be improved by better work being done at the Electoral Office, that could offset some of the losses that undoubtedly occur if we make it more difficult for people to register by increasing the amount of work that they have to do.

The Bill also contains a proposal to move the deadline for registration closer to the date of an election. I note, however, that Northern Ireland would be exempt from that measure. Can we have an explanation as to why that should be so?

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Does my hon. Friend agree that one way of finding out whether
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the level of registration is low is by canvassing during the election period? Therefore, the closer to the election that one can register, the better. It is amazing that this measure should not apply to Northern Ireland. It seems bizarre that it should apply elsewhere, but not to the Province.

Mr. Robinson: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Most of us recognise that, although we might like it to be different, most people out there do not live politics to the same extent that we do in the House. Most people discover that there is to be an election only when the television hype begins, and that is when they start to think about whether they are entitled to vote. The rest of the kingdom will enjoy the benefits that the Government have drafted in the Bill, and we should look again at the position in Northern Ireland. I recognise that the additional time required for security checks in relation to postal votes is such that we need to be careful about the cut-off date, but it is important that Northern Ireland should benefit as much as other parts of the United Kingdom in regard to registration.

My colleagues and I support the minimum age for candidacy being lowered from 21 years to 18, and we look forward to young colleagues joining us to reduce the average age in the House. The Liberal Democrats' desire to reduce the voting age to 16 is not one that I would support, however. That would not be a sensible step for the House to take.

Clause 57 relates to the protection of donors to political parties in Northern Ireland. Most of the parties are satisfied that we have not yet reached the stage at which it is safe to publish the names of such donors without their fearing that they might become a target because of their political views. My party has consistently put forward the view, however, that while we may not yet have reached that stage, there is no good reason why there should not be a requirement for Northern Ireland political parties to report to the commission the donations that they have received. That arrangement would fall short of what is happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom, but it would be an improvement on the present situation. There is sufficient trust in the commission to maintain that confidentiality for us to have a higher level of accountability without leaving the arrangement completely open-ended.

I have given a broad welcome to the Bill. I believe that there is value in having individual registration. That is the conclusion that comes from the Northern Ireland experience and it is the view of the Electoral Commission. I believe that, ultimately, the Government will be forced to go in that direction. Like many others, however, I fear that this will probably be the best opportunity for them to do it.

I have also read the reasoned amendment tabled by the Conservatives. As a general principle, my colleagues and I believe that if a piece of legislation is deficient, that in itself is no reason not to give it a Second Reading. It is, however, a very good reason to try to change it in Committee. There is sufficient good in the Bill to enable us to give it the benefit of the doubt on Second Reading, although we hope that it will be improved in Committee. Ultimately, we can also look at it again on Report and Third Reading.
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8.15 pm

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): In general, the Government are on the right road with this Bill, even if it has not quite got to the destination that I would like it to reach. I want to deal with the problems of under-registration and fraud. I was a member of the Joint Select Committee that produced the report on those issues earlier this year. There is no doubt that the present system produces results that are unfair and biased. They are biased against people who live in inner cities, against people who are black or Asian, against young people and against people who happen to live in houses of multiple occupation. That in itself should condemn the present system and we should do whatever we can to reform it.

The problems of fraud exist. They are not as widespread as some sections of the media would have us believe, but where they occur they are serious and we must deal with them. However, I do not believe that we should do that by going back to the old system of applying for postal votes, rather than allowing people to have them on demand. That would disfranchise an awful lot of people by making it more difficult for them to vote. Neither do I believe that we should have all-postal vote elections. People should have a choice between voting by post or in person, and that choice should be made easy by providing them with the opportunity to place a simple tick on the electoral registration form.

As a matter of principle, I favour the use of personal identifiers. I accept that we must get this right, so I support the pilot schemes that the Government are proposing. However, we must also make other fundamental changes to the system alongside the introduction personal identifiers. If we only introduced personal identifiers, that would simply reduce voter registration still further, which would exacerbate the problem even more.

The Opposition have talked about the accuracy of the register, and I accept that we need an accurate register in the sense that anyone who is not entitled to be on it should not be on it. However, there are two sides to that coin—it also has to be accurate in the sense that anyone who is entitled to be on it should be on it. We must get both those issues right.

I believe that eventually we will be able to move to a system involving a national register of residents that will transfer over to a voters' register with virtually complete accuracy. That is one of the reasons why I support the Government's proposals on ID cards. Such a system would provide the necessary proof of identity. It would also save money, in that the work that the electoral registration officers currently do would no longer be necessary. Before we get there, however, we have the opportunity to make some changes to the present system.

I accept that doing more canvassing might be beneficial, but it is not the only solution. Last year, before the Select Committee produced its report, members of the Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister went to Australia to look at the system there. Australia claims to have a voter registration system that is 98 per cent. accurate. People there were incredulous when we told them that we wrote
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to every household every year, irrespective of whether the household had changed, and that we concentrated those efforts into a three or four-month period.

That does not happen in Australia, which relies on other organisations—such as the driving licence agency, local colleges, the post office and various utility companies—to give information to the electoral commissioners about changes in household information, such as whether someone had reached 18 years of age. The registration officers then chase up the people whose circumstances have changed and alter their position on the register accordingly. In other words, they concentrate throughout the year on the 15 or 20 per cent. of households that change each year, rather than writing to everyone over three or four months, irrespective of whether there had been any changes. That seems to be a much more sensible system.

We probably could not move to such a system all at once, and I note the comments of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives—SOLACE—which would like us to move to a system under which information would come in from various sources and people's position on the register changed accordingly, without the need to send them a form. That might ultimately be the system that we need, and perhaps the Government should consider consulting on that sort of change in our arrangements. In the meantime, we can go some of the way, and I am pleased that the Bill does that.

I am pleased that clause 9 requires registration officers to take

while clause 63 deals with encouraging electoral participation. There has been doubt among electoral registration officers about whether they have such powers and whether they could be accused of political bias if they went out to undertake electoral registration drives. This provision will remove that problem once and for all.

I am also pleased that clause 9 provides a right to inspect any records. We want to make it absolutely clear that that does not simply mean the records of the relevant local authority; it means the records of any local authority and of central Government, whether they be driving licences or TV licences, and so on. The provision goes beyond that to others, such as registered social landlords, arm's length management organisations, housing associations, the Post Office and private sector organisations such as utilities.

We ought to look very widely indeed to ensure that we can collect as much information as possible so that we get a very accurate database. Of course, we may need to undertake canvassing as a boost to that, to ensure its accuracy and to fill any gaps and loopholes. We can get a lot of the information that we need to establish a much more accurate register from all those other sources.Those organisations should not simply have to respond to a request for information from an electoral registration officer—they should have a duty to provide. We should consider how to frame such a provision so that the registration officer has a duty to get the information and the organisations have a duty to provide it.

As we move through the CORE system— co-ordinated online record of electors—to what is effectively a national register drawn up at local level,
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registration officers should have a duty to pass on to other registration officers information about people who leave their areas, so that when people move house they transfer from one register to another. That is something else that we should consider building into the system. I am therefore very much in favour of the formulation of a national register, even if the work is done locally. The idea in clause 61 of having national standards is a very good one, as there are far too many different practices. I am generally a great supporter of letting local authorities get on with the job, but in this case we are dealing with a register that will form the base for voting at national elections, so we must have national standards.

In some authorities, but not in others, people are taken off the register if they do not return a form for two years in succession. In some authorities, people are taken off only if they cannot be cross-matched with the council tax register. We must put such examples in a national context so that the same situation is dealt with similarly in each electoral registration area. Westminster council has a system of producing poll cards when the register comes out in February, which gives people an indication of whether they are likely to be able to vote at the next election. That, again, is something we could consider for a national standard.

Clause 61 refers to the possibility of the Electoral Commission asking electoral registration officers locally to do returns on their performance at registration. We should consider making that an annual requirement. Every officer would have to produce an annual return on how well they think they are doing and what percentage of qualified people they think they are getting to register in their areas. There is an awful lot that we can do to build on the current system, but perhaps we should consult on even more fundamental change in the future.

Briefly, I want to pick up on the issue of extremist parties, as well as whether we are right to consider the issue of the level of the deposit or whether we might be better looking at the suggestion made by those on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench—I do not always agree with them—about the number of assenters on a form. There was a bad case in my constituency at a local election two or three years ago, where the British National party got people to sign up on false pretences. People thought that they were signing some sort of petition, only to find that they had signed the electoral registration form.

We might be able to deal with that issue. I understand that once the form has been accepted, it is not possible to cancel the candidacy, even if someone has persuaded people wrongly to assent to the form. Perhaps that is something else we can have a look at. We should consider whether assenters ought not to give their voter ID number when they do the assent, so that we would be quite clear about which people were assenting to which party—it would be more public if people did that.

To summarise, I believe that, ultimately, we have to have a very different way of formulating our election registers if we are to make them accurate and ensure that we have a proper democratic process in operation. The Bill will significantly improve the current system. There is an opportunity here, which I hope we pursue further to make even more improvements in Committee and on Report.
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8.25 pm

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