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Longer-term analysis by the Electoral Commission suggests that there is a disfranchised generation that, as it gets older, will not turn out in greater numbers. We hear little as to what the Government propose to do about that. Increasing political awareness and interest
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must surely be at the heart of any attempt to increase turnout. If that issue is not tackled in conjunction with the Bill, increasing duties on electoral registration officers will, we agree, have little effect.
The commission raised particular concerns about the existing registration system, under which the head of household is much more likely to be registered than other eligible people in the home. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) will deal with that point later. We believe that individual registration is very much tied in with amendment No. 14, which is why I have taken some time to put the two together.
Clause 9, which will insert proposed new section 9A in the Representation of the People Act 1983, sets out a non-exhaustive list of the minimum steps that must be taken by the electoral registration officers to identify persons eligible for registration as electorsfor example, making repeat house-to-house inquiries in connection with the annual canvass.
We support that clause and believe that there should be clear duties on registration officers to promote accurate registration. Nevertheless, the clause could go further in promoting not only registration, but an accurate register. We must recognise that over-registration and under-registration are both problems that need addressing.
We must all be clear about the fact that an accurate register that results in fewer people being registered is preferable, from our point of view, to a bloated, inaccurate register. If the registration system is secure and accurate, the risks further downstream in the electoral process are significantly reduced.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): There is a fundamental difficulty with that. If someone's name is inappropriately on the electoral register and he votes, he may commit an offence, but if someone's name is not on the electoral register, he has no recourse and is precluded from voting by the absence of his name.
Mr. Djanogly: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important pointI agreebut our position is that the integrity of the register in itself must be the priority. If there is no integrity within the electoral register, people's confidence in the system will only decline over time.
Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Obviously, the rules can encourage under-registration or over-registration. Has the hon. Gentleman sized those two different problems? What is the percentage of over-registration compared with the percentage of under-registration for any one given register?
May I tell the hon. Gentleman that the figures for under-registration are in the public domain and were produced by the Electoral Commission in September? The figure is between 3.5 million and 4 million people. If single signature or unique identifiers
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go ahead, there could be a further 10 per cent. dropanother 4 million. We might have 8 million people off the register as a result.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one can have under-registration and over-registration at the same time, because some people, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) suggested, might be registered more than once without such an entitlement? The Government were happy to introduce a Northern Ireland electoral fraud Bill that was designed to prevent the phenomenon of some constituencies having more people registered than there were electors.
Mr. Djanogly: I agree with my hon. Friend: there can be over and under-representation on the same register, but the priority is to ensure that the register is as accurate as possible. That is the starting block of our democracy.
The amendment would ensure that registration officers had a clear duty to remove individuals from an electoral register who should not be on it. People who are no longer resident should be removed from the register, particularly in urban areas with a high population turnover. Keeping electors on the electoral roll who are no longer resident opens the door to election fraud. The amendment is designed to tackle the current problem of over-registration by creating this new duty for electoral registration officers to remove individuals from the register who are no longer eligible to be on it .
Mr. Love: I thank the hon. Gentleman for getting on to the terms of amendment No. 14. I understand that, under the 2000 legislation, electors are removed from the register and safeguards are in place, especially where no electoral registration form is returned. What additional over-registration is the hon. Gentleman trying to reach with this amendment?
Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman will find that the situation varies dramatically from place to place. Best practice across the various electoral districts is a serious issue. The point of the amendment is that electoral registration officers should have a duty under the Bill in relation to those who should not be on the register, as well as in relation to those who should be on it. The wording of the amendment is no less important, if not more important, that that in the Bill.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend explain to the Committee how this amendment, which I broadly support, would work in the case of someone sentenced to imprisonment? Would that not impose a duty on registration officers to remove such an individual's name from the register for the period of his incarceration?
We acknowledge that the Secretary of State is given powers to add to the list contained in clause 9 but believe that the Bill should go further and that EROs should have an obligation under the clause to ensure that proactive steps are taken towards an accurate register, which would include removing individuals from the register who are no longer eligible to be on it.
We also acknowledge that clause 61 provides for the Electoral Commission to set performance standards for electoral administrators and that it envisages that the commission will set further standards for EROs to complement the minimum ones set out in clause 9, but is that not just another example of a clause that talks the talk but does not quite walk the walk, of which we will see a lot during consideration of the Bill? Why should we not clearly set out those further standards and all the duties and expectations of EROs in this clause? Obviously, we accept that some flexibility to add or modify the duties is desirable. Why not be a little bolder and set clear duties on the EROs? They would work more effectively if they knew their role and if their responsibilities were clearly defined.
I acknowledge the excellent work done by registration officers and other electoral staff and administrators. We must realise that increased burdens require increased training and possibly increased staffing levels. Has the Minister done any impact assessment of the additional costs that could be involved and how exactly they will be funded? It must be said that the Government's record in introducing new duties for local government and then providing inadequate resources is renowned. There are many instances of local authorities having to subsidise new duties because of insufficient Government funding. These are the issues that need to be addressed if the Bill is going to work.
The increased level of under-registration has also been of concern to all those involved in elections, but it is a distinct issue. In their report "Understanding electoral registration: the extent and nature of non-registration in Britain" of September 2005, the Electoral Commission estimated that 3.7 million people across England and Wales who are eligible to vote are not registered to do so. That means that approximately 8 per cent of those eligible to vote are not registered. I shall discuss that in more detail later.
Under the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, there is an obligation on the head of the household to return the registration forms. Clearly, that is not being done and the fine that can be imposed is simply not being put into effect. Making individuals more accountable could be better achieved under a system of individual registration, where a duty to register would be easier to enforce and the obligations imposed by the amendment would be more easily enforced as well.
It is widely recognised that non-registration is not spread evenly across the population but is worse in certain areas and among certain sections of the population. That point demonstrates that individual registration will not necessarily increase voter turnout. Non-registration should be combated by targeting those parts of the population where it is particularly prevalent. If that is done in conjunction with the introduction of individual registration, we will be taking effective steps towards combating both over and under-registration.
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We generally agree with the principle of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and with the idea that there should be duties on electoral registration officers both to keep an accurate register and to promote electoral registration. On a cautionary note, increasing political awareness and interest surely must be at the heart of any attempt to increase turnout. If the issue is not tackled in conjunction with the Bill, increasing duties on electoral registration officers may have little effect.
On the amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats, we welcome any amendments that have the potential to deliver better access to electoral registration and voting for disabled people. However, I wonder whether the reference to the Disability Discrimination Act 2001 is correct and whether it should be 1995 or 2005.
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