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Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Con): I am pleased to speak in the debate as I am such a heavy user of electoral registration officers' services, having run in three different elections—local, regional and national—over the past three years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) rightly emphasised the issue of credibility. Credibility is important when someone is running in a parliamentary seat where the majority is just 75 votes.

The issues that came up sporadically in my election included personation: people turned up at the polling station to find that they had already voted or to be told that they had been provided with a postal voting form, although they were not aware of it. That example emphasises the importance of creating such credibility. Although I am sure that the result of my election was accurate, I am concerned that the credibility of elections is being undermined in such a way.

The Minister, in introducing the debate, emphasised the importance of the legislation in the context of concerns about fraud in UK elections. Although some Members have suggested that the process of election is not one in which we face much fraudulent activity, it is worrying when the Electoral Reform Society says that there is significant fraud in UK elections. In those circumstances, the introduction of the legislation is welcome, but there are clearly real concerns, especially over how postal voting and all-postal voting elections have proceeded.

I took the opportunity to sit in on the appeal that Lord Justice Woolf heard on the grossly fraudulent behaviour in Blackburn. That emphasises the fact that we need work to be done now to provide confidence in our system of election. I am concerned that it is proposed that there should be pilot schemes only at this stage, because it strikes me that personal identifiers are common to many people in our community, who find themselves signing many different documents from day to day.

I welcome the Minister's comments on the provision of £17 million for resourcing the work of electoral registration officers because that is the best way to ensure that we have the best quality of electoral registration, rather than going through a pilot scheme process. I understand the concerns expressed about the tremendous shortfall in registration, which, as other Members have said, is a very important issue in London. In my constituency and the neighbouring constituency of Croydon, North, it appears that 17,000 eligible people have not found their way on to the register.

The Minister said that she was concerned about a tremendous fragmentation in registration in London. I was not entirely sure that I understood her point about the Mayor having some role in the process, because during Greater London authority elections he, or the GLA, is reliant on the work of the individual boroughs. Certainly, the Mayor must have a role in publicity and advertising the importance of registration ahead of the election, but what else might his role encompass?

I have noted the point about being able to secure postal votes only 11 days ahead of an election. While that is a positive step, we must also recognise that the huge spike in activity ahead of the election will put real stresses and strains on electoral registration officers.
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From my experience in the general election, I believe that we should also take cognisance of the fact that those postal votes find their way to electors very slowly, with the consequent problem of returning them in time. Extra emphasis must be put on effectively resourcing electoral registration officers.

Like other Conservative Members, I am worried about the proposal to reduce the rate at which deposits are lost. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) provided us with the useful information that the UK Independence party might benefit most from that proposal. I hope that the Government have not been motivated by a desire to cause even more consternation among Conservatives about being undermined by a party slightly to the right of us.

I am interested in the Bill's proposal to allow for a proper following-up of election expenses up to four months ahead of the election. It is a worthy proposal. When I joined colleagues on a visit to the US, the US politicians to whom I spoke were surprised to find that, in theory, we could spend as much as we wanted until a few weeks before the election. The proposal is important and I hope that there will be a practical means of ensuring an increase in the very low level of expenses allowed if the period is extended to four months. I will be interested to hear an explanation of how that will work when the timing of general elections is less certain.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I have never quite understood how this country, without fixed-term Parliaments, can have a period running up to an election when only the Prime Minister has the faintest idea of when he plans to call that election. How will we know whether we will be caught by the four-month period until after the fact?

Mr. Pelling: I am grateful for that point, although I appreciate that the Liberal Democrats are very much in favour of fixed-term Parliaments. When the Minister winds up, I shall be interested to hear how the process can work effectively.

Other Liberal Democrat Members referred to the comments of Richard Mawrey QC about the use of the postal vote system. One of his comments that was not reported earlier in the debate was:

Many Conservative Members, as well as those in the other place, argued against the Government rushing into a large number of pilot schemes for all-postal voting. It is fair to say, however, that out of a desire to promote the maximum turnout in elections came a strong rush in the wrong direction. I very much hope that the Government will think again about the appropriateness of not moving much more quickly to a widespread use of personal identifiers.

I appreciate the view that it is important to encourage the greatest level of registration. I referred earlier to the significant shortfall in registration in my local borough of Croydon. I am sure that a large amount of that
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under-registration involves black and ethnic minority communities. It is therefore very important for the registration issue to be addressed.

Some will argue that they oppose personal identifiers because of the risk of depressing registration and, therefore, voter turnout. As the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) said in his excellent maiden speech, however, it is also a case of politicians being straightforward with electors, and about the type of politics that they pursue. It is too easy for politicians to move into a process of false petitioning, or false consultation, and not to talk genuinely to residents and electors. It is clearly incumbent on politicians and the Government as a whole to ensure that it is indeed worthwhile for people to take part in elections, especially at local and regional level. It is often far too easy to agree with electors who say that it does not make much difference who is in control at local government level, given the increase in central Government powers over local government over the years. Another argument is that the London assembly has very few powers over the Mayor.

I feel that I must vote against this important proposal because of the weakness in regard to personal identifiers. I also feel that it is incumbent on us as politicians to make it worthwhile for our residents to be able to vote in elections.

8.36 pm

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): I am very pleased to be able to speak in the debate. The Bill contains many positive measures. Its aims are set out clearly: to make the registration process more accessible, to enhance the security of voting, and to improve the administration of the electoral system.

Like many other hon. Members, I am concerned about turnout, which in this year's general election was 61 per cent.—the third lowest since 1847, I understand. That is shocking. In my constituency, turnout was 48 per cent. I was quite pleased that it had increased a bit since 2001, but it is a poor figure nevertheless, and I shall do my best to encourage people to vote in the next general election.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) made clear in his maiden speech, turnout is an issue for all politicians. It is not an issue for a particular party or group of society; it is an issue for us all. I want to tell the House about a gentleman whom I met outside the polling station on 5 May. He rushed up to me and said that this was the first time he had voted in 25 years. I was with a colleague, who said to me "Gosh, that is very impressive. This guy has actually gone out to vote, having not voted for 25 years. It must be due to the strength of the political arguments."

I had met the gentleman the day before, when I was campaigning in Tesco. We had a long exchange. The gentleman was called Mr. Hirst. As many Members will know, Mr. Hirst was a prisoner who pursued a case against the Government to enforce his human right to vote. Earlier this year, following an appeal, the European Court of Human Rights upheld that human right. The Government are now considering their response to its decision. I think it is appropriate to give certain groups of prisoners the vote. I know that this is
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not Government policy, but I personally believe that it is wrong to have a blanket approach. We had to change the law earlier to allow those on remand to vote.

I was glad that the Minister spoke about social exclusion, and the democratic deserts that exist in some parts of the country.

I strongly support some clauses of the Bill. I have a problem in my constituency: there are large gaps in my electoral register. I am very pleased, therefore, that electoral administrators will have a duty to produce a complete register, and will be able to look at information and data from other organisations. The chief executive of Kingston upon Hull city council wrote to me this week saying that the university in my constituency was not very keen to disclose information about students who had moved into the constituency. I hope that the Bill will enable my university and others to feel confident about sharing such information in future.

I am very pleased that the Bill encourages children to accompany parents and carers when they go to vote; that is a very good message to send to our young people. I also support the personal identifiers proposal. It is right and proper that we pilot that proposal, and I hope that it will be conducted regionally. We will get a much clearer view of how the proposal will work if the pilot includes inner cities and rural areas. I am deeply concerned, however, about the reduction of the deposit from 5 per cent. to 2 per cent. As others have said, such a reduction will benefit parties to which most Members will feel uncomfortable about giving any benefit, notably the British National party.

Clause 20 brings our law up to date from 1695, when the candidacy age of 21 was first set. I am very pleased that we are now lowering the age to 18, but there is an anomaly in the clause. There is a difference between parliamentary and local mayoral qualifying dates, and in the former case one must have attained the age of 18 on the date of nomination, rather than on the polling date. That anomaly needs to be sorted out. Our electoral law needs to be very straightforward and easy to understand, in order to encourage people to engage in the process.

I am very disappointed that the Government have not decided to lower the voting age to 16. As I said, the average turnout nationwide at the last general election was 61 per cent., but the average among 18 to 34-year-olds was 37 per cent. That is a real problem. For almost two decades, groups and organisations such as the British Youth Council, the Children's Rights Alliance for England and, more recently, the Youth Parliament, have sought to reduce the voting age to 16. There is cross-party support for such a provision, and I hope that the Government will consider introducing it. We should consider the participation rights set out in article 12 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which the UK ratified in 1991.

I give five reasons why people should be able to vote at 16, the first of which concerns equality of expression. Not letting 16 and 17-year-olds express their political views through the ballot box gives the impression that we do not really care about what they have to say, and that their views are not valid. That clearly is not right. Sixteen and 17-year olds already play a very important
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part in their communities and in their work. The second reason is consistency. As we all know, 16-year-olds can pay taxes, join the Army, leave home, get married and claim social security benefits—so why should they not be allowed to vote?

The third reason concerns citizenship. The Labour Government introduced citizenship classes into secondary schools, so that all children up to the age of 16 can learn why citizenship is important and why they should have a role in the civic life of their community. It is therefore ridiculous that on reaching 16—just when we have learned why we should get involved in such matters—we have to wait two years to exercise our right to vote. The fourth reason concerns the moral right to vote. As politicians, we make decisions about young people all the time, and by not allowing them to express their views about us, we are doing them a great disservice. Here, we should also remember the principle of no taxation without representation.

I turn now to the question of raising turnout. When the Electoral Commission examined lowering the voting age to 16, it said that one problem is that if we did so it would reduce turnout even further. I have with me a report of a local election held in Vienna on Sunday, at which 16 and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote for the first time. The turnout of 16 and 17-year-olds was higher than that of other age groups, particularly 18 to 34-year-olds.

The Electoral Commission's report has been mentioned, but I believe that flawed information and evidence was used. The commission claimed to have received 1,000 individual responses and 6,500 group responses to its consultation on reducing the voting age to 16, which were two to one in favour of the age reduction. However, it was claimed that the views of those people were skewed because they were, by nature, a self-selecting group, but I think that that logic does not stand up to much examination. A pool of 234 young people was said to be divided on whether to have the vote at 16 and it was also claimed that turnout would go down if 16 and 17-year-olds were included in the voting.

Over recent years, many different organisations and projects have examined the issue and have taken into consideration much larger groups than the 234 young people to whom the Electoral Commission spoke. The "Why Vote-Why Not?" project of 2002 consulted more than 1,500 young people and the British Youth Council consultation in 2000 consulted 10,000. Save the Children UK consulted more than 500 young people in England in 1999 and the Children's Society carried out a research project in the same year.

If we are a modernising Government—as the present Labour Government have been in many ways—we should consider introducing an amendment to reduce the voting age to 16. Across the Floor of the House, any Member who considers themselves a constitutional moderniser—many hon. Members in their places today—should rally to the cause and support any appropriate amendments to that effect.

8.47 pm

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