Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con):
It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), as she and I were political opponents in the constituency of
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Brentwood and Ongar in 2001. We have all had a glimpse today of how formidable a political opponent she can be, and I am sure that she will prove an enormous success in the House. She was very brave, furthermore, to take on the Government over giving the vote to prisoners.
I did not entirely follow the hon. Lady's logic over giving the vote to 16-year-olds. She seemed to say that people at 16 pay taxes, but so do some young people at 14 or even five, insofar as people with money to spend purchase items that are subject to value added tax. It seems an entirely phoney argument to me. It does not really matter whether it is 17 or 16, but there must be an age at which all the rights accrue. There cannot be a halfway house in which people get part rights and no responsibilities. Some young people are in the Army at 16, but they cannot stand on the front line. I find the idea of child soldiers at the front line repugnant and I do not like the idea of 16-year-olds entering into credit agreements. The argument is misplaced, but it was advanced powerfully.
I regret the way in which the debate has seemed to offer us two choices: individual registration or increasing the turnout. It seems somehow that if we opt for individual registration, we are sacrificing voter registration and turnout. I simply do not accept that, but I believe that we must do two important things.
First, the Bill must make the electoral system entirely proof from systematic and sustained fraud. Secondly, it must reassure the public that they can trust the electoral system. Members have referred to the MORI poll, which showed for the first time that people believe that it is now easier to commit electoral fraud and are concerned about it.
I have been involved in elections for nearly 40 years. In the past few years, people have become increasingly worried about the safety of our electoral system. My electoral registration officer in Brentwood is Mr. Jim Stevens, who tells me that since the general election more than 400 people have returned their postal vote registrations because they do not want to continue voting in that way. In the general election, a number of people were worried that their postal vote would somehow be taken away from them or rendered illegitimate.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) talked about observers from Ukraine and other democracies who had witnessed our general election. They produced a report, "Democratic Institutions, and Human Rights Mission", and we would do well to listen to some of their remarks. The report mentioned the introduction in 2000 of "postal voting on demand", and it said that the lack of an application process
Much has been said about the case in Birmingham, and I shall not repeat any quotations that have been offered to the House. I do not mean my remarks in any way to be a barb for any Labour Members in the
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Chamber, or for their party in general, but one passage in the electoral court report into the matter is especially chilling. It states:
"Here we have two wards, some distance apart, in both of which the Labour party organisation has conducted a large and skilful campaign of electoral fraud, using precisely the same techniques in each case. This cannot be a coincidence. But did it go wider? In my view, it does."
It is a shock to realise that our system has become so vulnerable to systematic fraud, but we must accept some of the lessons so eloquently set out by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). The dilemma is often described as how to strike the balance between security and turnout, but I suspect that few people will be willing to turn out in an election if they do not trust the system.
I believe that the balance to be struck is between sensible security, overreaction, and security against fraud. I shall deal first with security against fraud, which involves the problem of individual registration.
I see no reason not to move towards individual registration. The discussion about whether we should use national insurance numbers was utterly pointless. Sure, we could use some other methodiris recognition, DNA, blood sample, or a person's ability to recite the "Star Trek" cast list.
Mr. Pickles: I am sure that my hon. Friend would qualify in that respect. We have national insurance numbers, and the hon. Member for Belfast, East gave us some wise advice about their use. They would give us a degree of certainty, although I agree with hon. Members who said that we cannot talk about registration without trying to find people to register.
In this day and age, it is ridiculous to have the head of a household signing the register for other household members. We know that the further a person gets away from the family, the less likely it is that he or she will register to vote. That strikes me as wholly unsatisfactory, and one reason why there is such low registration in houses of multiple occupation.
We have seen how easy it has been for various people to register in false names. The Daily Mail, The Sunday Telegraph, Evening Standard and Sky News have reported on that, but it is not being done to get a vote. The reason might be to appear on a register for credit purposes. We know from some work that was undertaken by The Mail on Sunday that at the last general election there were reports of asylum seekers falsely signing up to obtain consumer credit.
A middle-class scam is taking place in many constituencies. Children fly the nest and move on to prosperous jobs. They may move to London. They may move to a part of the city, and not necessarily the most salubrious address. At the same time, mum and dad keep them on the register at home. They do not do that for a sentimental attachment, thinking that one day the children may return. They are on the register for credit ratings and for insurance purposes, to ensure that the children get a better deal. That sort of scam needs to be sorted out. That can be done only by a process of individual registration.
Is there an element of overreaction? There is a suggestion in the White Paper that ballot papers needed to be bar coded. Surely that is pointless. After all, a bar
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code is only a number. It would add practically nothing to the security of the process. My electoral registration officer points out that that would effectively mean that a limited number of printing companies would be able to produce a ballot paper. We know that there were problems arising from the various pilot schemes. My ERO sensibly suggests that the bar code should be printed on the declaration. It is possible to do that with the software that most EROs have. That simple idea is more practical in offering real security than moving to something that will cause many problems.
I lend my support to the suggestion that problems will stem from clause 29. It is absurd that anyone could work out exactly when a general election could take place. The change in the 2001 election from May to June, because of the foot and mouth outbreak, is a clear example. I thought that the last set of elections were at least honest. If political parties are daft enough to spend money before an election period, that is up to them. Spending will not be avoided. It will merely be put underground.
Perhaps we have an unrealistic expectation of what is possible. We need to understand that our EROs bring in a bunch of people at election time. EROs understand the situation but sometimes the workers do not. That means that there is a high hurdle. We need to simplify and justify the law. We need to ensure that we place our trust in the electoral system.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. We are rapidly running out of time and many Members are seeking to catch my eye. If Members could see their way to taking less than their allowed 12 minutes, that would be extremely helpful.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): The Bill is good and wide-ranging. I have also found out the true identity of Michael Caine, which is given in the explanatory notes. I am not sure whether that affects the right of the celebrity known as Maurice Joseph Micklewhite to anonymous registration.
I was disappointed that the Opposition have decided to divide the House, as their opposition to the Bill seems manufactured. Although several Members have discussed their differences with the Bill, they could by and large be resolved in Committee, as can my concerns about it.
The Bill is a three-legged stool and the Opposition have concentrated on one leg, which they think should be made four or five times as fat as the other two legs. The principle of the three-legged stoolas many people as possible should be able to vote, as many people as possible should actually vote and as few people as possible should abuse the voteis central to getting electoral registration and participation in elections right. Equal attention to all three criteria is important.
It is right to look at electoral administration, because there are questions about all three legs. It is undoubtedly true that the state of registration is a cause for concern. In some parts of the country, as Members have said, a slow train crash seems to be in progress; in many urban areas, registration is dipping below even the incomplete
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census figures. Of course, we can only discharge the second legelectoral balanceif people are registered to vote in the first place and in some of those areas turnout is also low, which means that only a low percentage of a low percentage of people are voting. Unless we proceed carefully we shall undermine confidence in the whole system, as we attempt to deal with the problems by shepherding in abuses along with proper measures to make registration easier and more straightforward. It is important that we understand the interlinked nature of all three elements in dealing with electoral registration and turnout.
As the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) said, in the past our system was based on a high degree of trust. We do not face problems of trust only in postal voting but also in the whole systemthat a person is who they say they are when they vote and that they vote only once. A personal identifier for individual voting would not solve the problem of people registering for insurance or credit purposes; they would simply sign on the dotted line. In many spheres, we still trust people to say who they are.
Perhaps, in our society, trust is dipping and people feel less inhibited about attempting to obtain electoral advantage by means that would have been seen as venal sins in the past but to some people nowadays are seen merely as venial, if indeed they are considered sins at all. That trust was earned by a system of checks and balances in the ballot, which have mostly stood the test of time. There has not been much abuse of the system over recent years. The public nature of registration and presenting oneself at the polling station have helped. However, modern views about privacy and modern methods of communication present challenges to those checks and balances.
In the past, there has been serious abuse of the UK system. It took successive Acts of Parliament in the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s to deal with that, as the history of the frequent and quite startling election petitions of those days testifies. The problem with election petitions was that a retinue of judges, clerks, scribes and assistants descended on a town to investigate when a petition had been lodged by the unsuccessful candidate. The expense of the entire revenue was borne by the unfortunate ratepayers of the borough, with the perverse result that local people became so fed up with the bills that they incurred that they invariably voted for the candidate of the party that had been unseated by the petition. They blamed the losing candidate for bringing misfortune down on their town. That was perhaps an example of getting an element of those three legs wrong. We might reflect today on whether vesting the costs of registration entirely in the hands of local authorities is similarly a problem.
As hon. Members have pointed out, the application of registration activity varies greatly between authorities and on the basis of how local councils allocate funds from their budgets. In that context, I was pleased that the Bill states that the budget for publicity and other activities will be ring-fenced at £17 million. It says that the Government may repay electoral registration officers the cost of activities, such as producing publicity, that are intended to increase participation. Perhaps we need to consider in Committee whether that wording will produce essentially a challenge fund or a peel-off-on-demand fund. I would not like to think that
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the electoral registration officers who undertake such activity risk using the money that they receive from local authorities.
We still ask some registration officers, by the very nature of the areas for which they are responsible, to undertake enormously greater activity, at far greater public expense, than others who must simply check whether people are still in the same place as they were last year to produce an electoral register that is 98 per cent. or so complete. So we need to have a number of thoughts about the nature of how we fund electoral registration and about the basis of its distribution in the country.
I hope incidentally that increased publicity will include local measures to explain how to vote. The Bill makes provision for children to go into polling booths with parents. That will ensure that some of us no longer have to sit with children while the parent goes into the polling booth as in previous years. It is a good idea to expose children to the very mechanism of voting, which would happen if they went into the polling booths with their parents. Perhaps, in times past, as families tended to eat together, they tended to go to vote together, and parents showed their families how to vote. With less geographical cohesion in our society, first-time voters may receive information on something about which they are about as familiar as travelling to the moon when they first vote.
I certainly have experience of talking to young voters who live in flatsperhaps young mumswho start off the exchange by expressing familiar nostrums about not voting because we are all the same or because it makes no difference, but it becomes apparent pretty early in the conversation that they simply do not know how to vote. No one has told them about it. They do not know how to vote or where to vote. They are afraid that they might be embarrassed or make a mess of it or that the process requires much more knowledge about the system than is the case. Measures to familiarise people with voting are therefore important.
Postal votes are pretty secure once dispatched to a returning officer, but public perception is important. So it is right that we look again at signifiers for both registration and postal votes to ensure that they are more robust but in a way that does not result in the over-complication of registration or in signing for postal votes, so that people simply do not register or, if they are registered, do not cast a vote. Signing on when votinganother provision of the Billseems to make an important psychological difference in ensuring that there is a public record and acknowledgement that people are who they claim to be which will stand regardless of how people vote in the privacy of the polling booth.
Frankly, part of the debate has turned in the past on the perceived advantage of different measures for parties. High turnout is alleged to favour Labour and therefore concern has been expressed about measures to improve it. By the same token, proper concerns about securing the integrity of the ballot have been downplayed sometimes because of the view that the imperative was to improve turnout using new means of voting when their integrity was still questioned. In fact, such issues affect all parties equally.
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I have some concerns about the Bill, as I have said. I am not sure whether reducing the percentage of the vote necessary to preserve one's deposit is wise. There are discussions on both sides of the argument; but on balance, the preservation of a 5 per cent. limit would be wise. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), action should be taken in respect of the activity involving national election expense when such things are truly local election expenses. There are several issues that we should examine properly in Committee.
I am sorry that when we are considering such an important matter as the legitimacy of all parties through the electoral process, the message may not go out from the House that all parties are behind change. If everyone agreed with the reasoned amendment, we would have no Bill at all to consider, which would be a most perverse outcome. I hope that the Opposition will even now decide not to divide the House and allow the Bill to go to Committee. We could then discuss the Bill together and send the message on electoral registration and voting that we mean business by ensuring that the electoral system is accessible, usable and secure.