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Mr. Gordon Prentice : I agreed with the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) when he said that this should not be an either/or argument between maintaining the integrity of the electoral register and making it as comprehensive as possible. I also agreed with my Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) when he reminded us of the situation in Australia, where they have compulsory voting. As he told us, 98 per cent. of the population there is on the electoral register, so we should examine the Australian experience carefully. I would not adopt compulsory voting: instead, I would reward people for joining the electoral register. That may sound a little eccentric or zany, but we could tweak income tax codes or enhance benefits and reward people for participating in elections, which is of course a civic duty.
I agree with amendment No. 14 that registration officers should be under a duty to remove names from the electoral register. At the last election, my Liberal Democrat opponent, Shazad Anwar, circulated leaflets saying that he lived at 34 Kibble Grove, Brierfield, with his wife, Raisa. When we looked at the register it showed that he also lived with his brother and two sisters, who also appeared on the electoral register in Burnley. We went back a further year and those same relatives appeared on both the Pendle and the Burnley registers for that year. We took the matter up with the police, who told us that they had been in touch with the town hall in neighbouring Burnley and it was the practice that if electoral registration forms for an address were not returned, the names were rolled forward on the register for 12 months. I have the letter from the police in front of me. That practice is not good enough, because if
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people think that the integrity of the electoral register is corrupted in some way, they will soon stop accepting the results of elections, especially close ones. These are important issues.
I want more registration. Currently, there is huge under-registration, but we must do everything we can to maintain the integrity of the electoral register. On that I agree with Opposition Front-Bench Members.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I support my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) in his amendment. I also agree with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) that we need to increase registration, as there is undoubtedly under-registration. I thoroughly agree with the intention of his amendments even though, as he admitted, they may be not quite technically accurate enough for acceptance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon is right to try to get the balance right, whether it be at subsection (1) or subsection (5). There should be a balance between an increase in registration and getting the register right. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and other Members pointed out that there is far more under-registration than wrongful registration. That is a valid point, but our view is that it is also a question of confidence in the security of the electoral systemthe point made by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice)and individual results may be influenced in local authority elections, for example. In such cases, there would certainly be scandal or invidious press comment and the whole process would become a shambles. I am sure that the Government do not want that any more than Members do. It is not a quantitative question, but one of confidence, and my hon. Friend's amendment addresses that squarely. If we can find that balanced approach, I am sure that the House can reach consensus on the issue.
Secondly, I want to raise a point that was brought to the attention of the House and the Minister by Dame Marion Roe, who was formerly the Member of Parliament for Broxbourne, and who is happily not entirely disengaged from politics as she is one of my constituents. She pointed out that probably many foreign nationals on the register are not Commonwealth, European Union or Irish citizens and are certainly not British citizens. They may be immigrants whose cases are in a pending tray at the Home Office and who are not properly yet entitled to be on the register. Somehow they get on to the register, not necessarily with fraudulent intentthey may simply have filled in a form that was thrust through their letterbox because they thought that they should. They may not have completed the form accurately because they do not understand the language. They may have filled it in because they thought that if they were not on the register they would not be able to claim benefits or have access to a parking scheme. They may be Turkish, Kosovan or some other nationality and they are not allowed to vote.
It is certainly the case, as the Minister may point out, that the recent change in the application form to require that people include their nationality should significantly
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deal with the issue. I think that requirement is on all the most recent application forms. That is good but it will not satisfactorily deal with the problem.
Mr. Love : May I raise with the hon. Gentleman a concern expressed to me at the general election? I have several Greek constituents who are British citizens. When they filled out the section on nationality, they said, naturally enough, that they were Greek. As a result, they were not allowed to vote at the general election, even though they took their passports to show that they were British citizens. Because they had inadvertently filled out their nationality wrongly they could not vote at the general election.
Mr. Horam: Unfortunately, that shows that there is a downside to every improvement we try to make. On the whole, the inclusion of nationality on the form is reckoned to be a good thing and I support it. If there is a downside, it underlines the point I was making: it is not enough simply to register one's nationality; we must give EROs the right, and the duty if possible, to check it out. We need a checking process as well as a registering process. That is the way to deal with what is undoubtedly a problem.
Chris Ruane : I have not got the exact information, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman. Is not the greatest injustice that 37 per cent. of the black and ethnic population of this country are not on the register? He makes a point about keeping this or that nationality off the register, but if people must state their nationality, date of birth and national insurance number and if they must sign personally, each of those steps will take the 4 million unregistered people up to 8 million.
Mr. Horam: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about the mathematical facts. Undoubtedly, under-registration is a bigger issue numerically than wrongful or fraudulent registrationhe makes that point very wellbut confidence is also an issue. Amendment No. 14 rightly points to the fact that the public's attitude is an issue in how an election may be decided in certain circumstances. The Government should take this issue seriously. They should consider those foreign nationals who may be on the register unwittingly, not intentionally or fraudulently, and therefore give electoral registration officers the right and duty to investigate such matters, and encourage them to do so. That is the way forward.
I rise primarily to endorse the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), but before I do so I shall briefly comment on amendment No. 14 in the context of the way that it was moved: it was suggested that its rationale
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was that ensuring the register's security and accuracy should be given priority above all other considerations. Other hon. Members have spoken about the need for balance. I want to go further by saying quite clearly that what we have in this country is a crisis of under-registration. Over-registration may or may not existthere are one or two constituencies where more than 100 per cent. of the estimated local electorate appear on the electoral registerand although I recognise that a balance and proper security measures are needed, we need to address the significant problem of under-registration.
The fact that somewhere between 3.5 million to 4 million peopleabout 9 to 10 per cent. of the populationare missing nationally from the registers has been mentioned already. In parts of the capital, particularly in inner London, the figure rises to somewhere in the region of 20 per cent. of the population. Although I accept some of the previous suggestions that perhaps we do not need an annual rolling register, there are certain parts of the country where it may well be necessary to keep such a register to achieve accuracy, and London is an example.
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