Chris Ruane: Is my hon. Friend aware that the Department does not know how much is spent by each electoral registration office, so if additional money is provided we do not have a baseline for judging how much has been given? We need to collect and collate information on how much each office spends per elector so that we can monitor the situation.
Mr. Love: My hon. Friend is right that there has been a great lack of transparency in this area. I hope that by giving powers to the Electoral Commission the Bill will succeed in providing transparency, so that figures are available both locally and nationally and we can ensure that registration and the provision of resources are satisfactory.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, we commend the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe, which encapsulate the targets and priorities that Government Members and, indeed, many Opposition Members support. I do not have any difficulty with the other two amendments in the group, and I am sure that with some good will we can achieve a balance so that we can protect the register and ensure that it is accurate, while at the same time we can reach the largest possible number of people missing from the register and put them where they deserve to beon the register and able to vote in local and national elections.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP):
I do not intend to speak at length on this group of amendments. However, clause 70 does not apply to Northern Ireland. The Electoral Commission says that the Government intend to introduce legislation for Northern Ireland to deal with some of the problems that that entails,
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but it is essential that that legislation reproduce the propositions in clause 9. I wholeheartedly endorse the standards that the Government are attempting to apply to electoral officers in clause 9. If that standard had been included in legislation affecting Northern Ireland in the past few years, when electoral law was tested on us before it was tested on the rest of the nation, the number of people falling off the register would have been very different.
Will the Government confirm that clause 9 will be replicated in the Northern Ireland legislation that is to follow? Can they tell us whether that legislation will be introduced soon, because it would be wrong to head into a general election without all parts of the United Kingdom having the same standards of registration? Hon. Members have referred to the Northern Ireland experience, and the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) is right to say that the issues that impact on GB are not entirely the same as the issues that impact on Northern Ireland. He said that there is a crisis of under-registration in Great Britain, but in Northern Ireland there was a crisis of over-registration.
Chris Ruane: The hon. Gentleman said that there is not a crisis of under-registration in Northern Ireland. When the changes were implemented there, registration went down to 86 per cent. Some of that reduction was about getting rid of guff on the register, but registration has since climbed to only 91 per cent., so 9 to 10 per cent. of the Northern Irish electorate are disfranchised because they are not on the register. Is that not a crisis?
Mr. Robinson: No. The hon. Gentleman's case rests on an assumption. It was well documented that many people had registered themselves at a number of address throughout Northern Ireland, and there were also people on the electoral register who had died many years before but still managed to come out to vote. There are some dangers in not coming out in person to vote, but the dead could still do so by post. Those issues, however, can be dealt with by other legislative changes. Many of the people who were removed from the register should not have been on it in the first place.
I accept that the greater the number of personal identifiers included on the registration form, the more difficult and off-putting it is to fill in the form. I do not think that anyone can provide any precise statistics about the impact of such a measure, but in Northern Ireland people were not put off registering because they were asked to give their signature and date of birth. They were not even put off by being asked to include their national insurance number. I accept the Conservative argument that the national insurance number offers an advantage in cutting out fraud. There were two linked problems in Northern Ireland. The requirement for individual registration, rather than registration by the head of the household, reduced the numbers on the register considerably. The decision was right, but the requirement to register annually was problematic. If it is difficult to comply with all the additional registration requirements, it becomes increasingly frustrating to do so every year.
All the political parties in Northern Ireland supported the Government's decision to change the requirement for annual registration, as has been said. Annual
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registration may not be necessary if we tie down the requirements for personal identifiers. We will deal with many of those issues later in Committee, so I simply wish to secure an assurance from the Government that everything in the clause, which I fully support and which they are right to introduce, will be included in the Northern Ireland legislation.
There is no inconsistency between the clause and the Conservative amendment. It is entirely legitimate to attempt to comply with the two main requirements of the legislation. We should attempt both to increase participation in the democratic process by ensuring that as many people as possible are registered and to remove people who are fraudulently registered.
One may quibble about whether or not it is their first duty, but it is the electoral officer's duty to make sure the register is as accurate as possible. If the provisions in clause 9 had applied to Northern Ireland, the fall in registration would not have occurred. Such provisions, combined with an end to annual registration, could lead to a marked change in Northern Ireland.
On over-registration and under-registration, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) has referred to Westminster city council. I think that connecting the electoral register to other local government functions creates a problem. Westminster city council not only has a problem with people with two homes, but links residents' parking permits with the electoral register. The difficulty is that if someone with a parking permit moves on, it is definitely not in their interests to tell Westminster city council about the change of address, if they want to keep the permit.
Linking other functions to registration also creates under-registration. When electoral registration was connected to the payment of the poll tax, we saw the first catastrophic drop in registration. Those of us who campaign in elections know that it is common to visit a house in which a couple, or perhaps a family, live, but only the woman of the household is registered, which possibly allows people to claim a council tax discount by having only one adult in the household. It is interesting that Electoral Commission research shows that 8 per cent. of men are not registered, compared with 6 per cent. of women. If we want to improve the integrity of registers, which is an objective for all parties, we should make it clear that local government should start to split functions and not link items such as residents' parking permits with the electoral register, which causes problems.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) that encouraging registration is somehow a political activity. Encouraging participation and registration is a proper function of councils, and we must get over the idea, which some local government officers have, that it is not.
If registration officers can pull in other data sources and have a duty to encourage participation, I am concerned that they will choose a data
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source that matches the profile of a particular political party, because modern campaigning techniques give parties a clear profile of who votes for them.
Last week, the Constitutional Affairs Committee held an evidence session with the Electoral Commission. Conservative Members have discussed either creating barriers to registration or encouraging participation, and the Electoral Commission is now inclined to discuss the situation in terms of a spectrum from creating barriers to registration to encouraging participation. It does not see one function as superseding the other; it sees the situation as a spectrum, and we should accept the existence of that spectrum. If we want to encourage participation and to get the maximum number of people registeredpeople cannot participate if they are not registeredwe must focus on the barriers.
Some of the ideas that we have discussed would create barriers to registration. When the Electoral Commission conducted its research, it asked people why they did not register. Those people said that registration is "old-fashioned", "time-consuming" and "a chore". In some parts of the country and among some age groups and ethnic minorities, there are already people who do not register, because they think it "a time-consuming chore". We must be cognisant of that point, because everything that we add to the process makes it more of a chore and more time consuming. I cannot agree to proposals such as adding national insurance numbers to registration.
On electoral registration officers seeing it as their job to encourage registration and participation, it is key that the process is not understood: people assume that the council automatically registers people; they do not understand the process; they think that they are already registered; or they do not see the benefits. Encouraging registration is clearly an educational task and is in no shape or form a political activity.