Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): To pick up on the point with which the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) ended his speech, it is important that we have an electoral system that has integrity. Indeed, the first of the Electoral Commission's aims is to promote a system that has integrity. Our discussion of individual registration is at the centre of that. The Government have said that they are willing to conduct pilot schemes, but having listened to the whole of the debate, it would seem sensible, given that this might be our only opportunity to discuss the matter before we have another general election, to consider the situation in Northern Ireland, where a pilot scheme effectively took place. The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), talked about evidence-based policy making, so we should analyse what happened there and consider examples of what did and did not work. We should examine the problems and learn from them, instead of holding another set of pilots, because after we had considered the pilots' outcomes, we might not have time to introduce another Bill and could thus find ourselves back here again after the next general election.
Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman talks about using Northern Ireland as an example, but is he aware that in the first year after the introduction of the system, which he suggests could be introduced in the rest of the UK, the number of people on the register fell by 10.5 per cent? In the light of that, would it not be far better to hold pilots to determine how the proposals work before spreading the scheme out to the rest of the country?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman makes that point. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said that a significant number of those who disappeared from the register jolly well should have done because they should not have been on it in the first place. Some people were not entitled to vote, some were
25 Oct 2005 : Column 259
registered more than once and some entries were fictitious. Measures that have been taken since then have meant that some people who should have been on the register have been put back on it.
The commission also said that it realised, as do my party and I, that a move to individual registration needs to be part of a package. Such a change cannot be made on its own, but must be carried out at the same time as other changes. The importance of registering to vote should be explained to people and electoral registration officers need to be given the duties, powers and resources to carry out their activities to ensure that only those who are not entitled to vote end up disappearing from the register. The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) makes a valid point, but we should consider what happened elsewhere and take steps at the beginning of the process to avoid problems.
I am worried that we have spent most of the debate considering registration. It is a good thing if everyone who is entitled to vote is on the electoral register, but that misses the point. If we get all the people who are entitled to vote on the register without addressing some of the wider issuesadmittedly that might not be possible through the Billwe will just end up with more people being entitled to vote, but no more people voting and turnout thus going down.
I think that the Minister has said on previous occasions that the mechanical process is not one of the main reasons why people do not vote. Labour Members have said that some 4 million people are not registered to vote, but the sad thing is that the process is not difficult. If someone wants to vote it is not difficult for them to put their name on the register and cast a vote. Depressingly, 4 million of our fellow citizens do not care enough about voting to take relatively simple steps to register. We have just had a general election, but I do not remember millions of people beating down my door because they were outraged that they could not cast a vote. That is what we should be worried about. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is pulling face, but according to his colleagues millions of people were not able to vote. However, they were not angry about that, and we should be worried that many of our citizens do not think that elections are worth participating in. Perhaps that is because the House has less power, as many of our powers to make laws have gone elsewhere. Many people say that all the parties are the same and so there is not enough reason to vote. We should be concerned about those issues rather than the mechanical details.
Like my party, I support the proposal to allow people to stand for election to the House at 18. It is important to equalise the age at which people can vote and the age at which they can stand for election, but I do not support
25 Oct 2005 : Column 260
the proposal to allow people to vote at 16. One has to have a cut-off point, and it has to have some logic. Some say that people can do other things at 16, but that argument does not hold water. One can pay taxes at any age. I accept that someone can join the Army at 16, but they will not be sent to the front line. They can get married, but only with their parents' permission. We have to draw a line somewhere, and if we do not do so at 18the age at which one becomes an adultwe could end up extending the provision to young teenagers. Voting is a rite of passage into adulthood, so it makes sense to keep the existing limit.
Finally, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) touched on the issue of funding. Many hon. Members spoke about the duty on electoral registration officers to produce a complete register and their increased responsibilities for door-to-door canvassing, producing publicity and liaising with other organisations to obtain data for databases. That will impose a burden on local authorities, and we cannot simply will the ends unless the means are provided. Although I welcome the £17 million set aside for publicity, that equates to less than £30,000 for each parliamentary constituency and does not relieve the burden on electoral registration officers. Only a few people in local authorities do such work permanently. Many people are hired at peak times, so they are not particularly well trained. Electoral registration is seriously under-resourced, and I sympathise with officers in areas with universities that have a large student population or in areas with a large transient population. It must be difficult to work in such areas, and officers do not always receive the funding and resources that they deserve. National standards for electoral registration are to be implemented, so when the Minister of State talks to the Minister for Local Government she needs to highlight the fact that those activities needed to be financed by funding local government properly. If we put burdens on local councils by giving electoral registration officers a duty to produce a good register without providing them with the resources to do so, we are effectively promising a lot but we will fail to deliver. Moreover, we will not produce an accurate register in more challenging areas.
Some provisions in the Bill are welcome, but unless we address the problem of individual registration and the need for integrity in the voting system we will fail to make progress. My party tabled a reasoned amendment because, as has been said, this may be the only opportunity before the next general election to tackle the problem. We are concerned that the Government are not grabbing that opportunity to introduce a proper system of individual registration.
Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab):
I welcome the new measures in the Bill relating to registration, and the new powers given to returning officers to improve access to voting and promote participation. A number of my hon. Friends mentioned the increasing difficulties that electoral registration officers have with registration, particularly in inner-city areas. The standard method for many authorities has been the annual canvass, but on its own that is proving increasingly ineffective. In Salford local authority, registration levels vary from 75 to 92 per cent. by constituency. Happily, mine is the
25 Oct 2005 : Column 261
constituency at 92 per cent., so I can feel a little more comfortable, but I know that wards in our authority show a level as low as 64 per cent. Clearly, it is cause for concern that one third of households are not registered.
As hon. Members discussed earlier in the debate, we know the groups among which non-registration peaks. In Salford, the election registration officer has difficulty with certain tower blocks near Salford university, where access for the canvass is difficult and where there is a high turnover of occupants, with many students who are registered elsewhere, as has been discussed. Some of the flats are owned by companies, which is a new development, and there are many six-month tenancies, which is a problem when the peak of our registration activity occurs at a certain time of year.
In the debate many of us have acknowledged a crisis in registration. The issue needs addressing in years to come. The measures in the Bill that start to address it are most welcome. Data sharing will be a help, to ensure that electoral registration officers get the most comprehensive data for the register. A number of suggestions were made earlier about agencies that might share data on household occupants, such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, TV Licensing, tax credit agencies, housing associations and arm's length management organisations. I hope that those suggestions for extra sources of data can be followed up and used by local authorities to help them build and improve their registers.
I wholeheartedly agree with the Minister's caution in not making a change to individual registration. We know that, when such a change was made in Northern Ireland, it caused a dip of 10 per cent. in registration. With wards that stand at only 60 per cent., we cannot make a change that would further reduce that figure. In evidence to the Joint Select Committees on electoral registration in 200405 the electoral registration officer for Trafford foresaw that
to requests for individual registration, particularly among the groups, including young people, who we know are already the poorest respondents. The electoral registration officer for Salford told me today that in his view individual registration would be like
It is known that if young people do not register to vote when they attain voting age, they become less and less likely to register and then to vote. I have talked on the doorstep to people in their early 30s who admitted that they have never voted, as if that were a badge of honour. We should not underestimate the problem. It threatens the future legitimacy of our democracy.
On postal votes, I have had substantial experience of leading in local government in all-postal vote pilots. Based on that experience, I have a positive view of that voting method. In Trafford we ran pilots of all-postal voting in 2002 and 2003. In the first pilot, making voting easier by all-out postal voting raised turnout from 33 to 52 per cent. We all felt that once turnout was over 50 per
25 Oct 2005 : Column 262
cent. in our local elections, we had more of a mandate and that our decision-making was more legitimate. That is the key issue to balance the other concerns that people haveare we legitimate in what we do in local government?
It is important to point out what we thought were the elements that contributed to the success of those pilots. First, there was a drive by the council to ensure that the new voting procedure worked well for our electors. Then, there was the involvement and support of all political parties, good co-operation from and co-ordination of tasks with Royal Mail, and a simplification of the process by designing a ballot paper that was easy to use, with simple, easy-to-follow instructions.
Finally, publicity issued by local authorities such as information about candidates, an explanation of the councillor's role or even a description of a postal vote's journey is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) has pointed out the need constantly to explain to people how their vote works and what happens to it, particularly in the case of postal voting. The Bill includes many of those elements: it sets performance standards for local authorities on elections; it gives returning officers and electoral registration officers a new power to encourage participation in the electoral process; and it provides powers to prescribe a different and hopefully simple form of ballot paper.
Although the Bill does not mention this, I hope that it will become routine to co-operate with the Royal Mail on the delivery of an increasing number of postal ballot packs. In my experience of local government, some issues cause problems with all-postal voting. We tried a complicated witness statement in the early pilot, but then we dropped it and did not use it again. A complicated ballot form can also cause problemsthe June 2004 ballot form in the north-west for the joint elections was far too complicated for many voters. Local authorities that are less than enthusiastic about postal voting are an issue in my region. For instance, some authorities made it difficult for voters to obtain replacements for lost or spoiled ballot papers. The co-operation of the Royal Mail on deliveries is also important. In one case, less than 1 per cent. of the electorate in a polling district of 600 people voted, which suggests non-delivery of ballot papers.
Setting performance standards for local authorities in elections is a key step forward. I hope that it will gradually change situations in which local authorities are unprepared, are not proactive, have inaccessible or inconvenient polling stations or obstruct postal voters. Our residents, and younger people in particular, need encouragement to register to vote. I welcome the Bill, which will start to ensure that all local authorities perform to the best standard.