The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): We have had a wide discussion on the amendment. I shall begin by discussing the spirit of the Bill and how its objectives will be implemented.
The Government, working with electoral registration officers at a local level, are responsible for achieving three things, in the light of which we have considered all the amendments. Everybody who is entitled to vote should be registered to vote, and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have acknowledged that universal suffrage is the basis of the franchise. We are not discussing numbers or an abstract registerwe are discussing an individual's right to vote.
We should be concerned about every individual who does not have the right to vote, because they are not on the electoral register. In discussing his amendment, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) failed to give that point sufficient importance, because all other hon. Members who have spoken acknowledged it. He argued that the importance of ensuring that there is no fraud must be the priority and that everything else can
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be overlooked. We must have full registration and high levels of participation, and we must tackle fraud. Those are our three objectives, none of which is optional.
Some hon. Members have mentioned different numbersmy hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) is obviously the numbers guru in Committee. Hon. Members who represent constituencies with high registration levels must be baffled to hear us going on about the problems of under-registration. Electoral registration officers sometimes think that Electoral Commission estimates are exaggerated, so I conducted a survey in my constituency surgeries over a number of weeks.
I hold my surgeries in Southwark town hall and limit the number of people who attend to 60. I filled in people's names and addresses on a form and ended consultations by saying, "Sign here to go on the electoral register." Quite a few people said, "I am already on the register", to which I replied, "It doesn't matter. If you are already on the register, they will bin this application form. Sign here, and I will take the form down the corridor to the electoral registration officer." I put a big fluorescent "H" on each form to allow the electoral register officer to see how many people were not registered. Of people attending my surgeries, 30 per cent. were eligible to be on the register, but were not registered. We must always remember that those are real people who have the right to vote.
Mr. Andrew Turner: I understand the good intent with which the Minister conducted her survey. Does she agree that sometimes the same person is registered twice at an address simply because, for example, they use different forms of their Christian name for formal and informal activitiesthey might call themselves "John" in one context and "Jack" in another? The Minister's survey may have advanced that process.
Ms Harman: When I took those forms along to the electoral registration officer in Southwark, she did not think that the names were not exactly the same or that the surname and the first name were in a different order. We must recognise the major problem of under-registration. One of this Bill's objectives is to tackle that problem, because we cannot have a situation in which people in our democracy do not have the right to vote.
The question involves not only individuals not having the right to vote, but social cohesion. Under-registration is not evenly spread throughout the communityit is a particularly worrying feature among black and ethnic minority communities, people living on council estates and poorer people. If we want our democracy to include everybody, we must go the extra mile to ensure that everyone is registered and that our democracy does what it says on the tin.
Mr. Binley: I take the Minister's point that everybody should have the right to vote, but surprising numbers of people are excluded because of incompetence and inefficiency. Can she assure me that she will review training to ensure that local government is properly equipped and resourced to undertake it?
We want to have full registration, to encourage participation and to be absolutely sure that no one fiddles the vote, which is important for the legitimacy of our democracy and the confidence that people have in it. I appreciate that we cannot play the numbers game on fraud. We cannot say that 3 million people are not registered but 3 million people are not committing fraud. Wherever fraud is identified it causes a real problem with public confidence. We must treat it with the utmost seriousness in every single ward and constituency where it occurs, because people must have confidence that those who are elected are their proper representatives in our democratic system.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. and learned Friend undertook an interesting exercise at her advice sessions. I did something similar by linking those who turned up with those on the marked register who had used their vote in the most recent election. In North-West Leicestershire, 70 per cent. of people vote and 30 per cent. abstain, but of the people who come to advice sessions nearer half do not bother to use their vote. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a lot of work to be done between registration and participation?
Ms Harman: I do agree. Social inequality is a problem in terms of participation as well as registration. It used to be the case that although people's educational status and health status were very much affected by their socio-economic status, the one thing that remained equal was the likelihood of their participating in an election, which showed no class differentiation. Worryingly, that has changed in the course of the past three elections. The Institute for Public Policy Research has looked at the numbers and identified a growing gap in terms of the likelihood that those in poorer communities will not vote. In a socially cohesive country and an egalitarian democracy, we must pay attention to people being on the register and participating in the electoral system.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: What about people who have pots of moneythose who have second homes? Would it not be more equitable to have dual registration so that people vote where they spend most of their time, instead of being able to choose where to vote, perhaps in a marginal where it would count for more?
Ms Harman: Most of those who are registered in two places are students. Because we do not know when the election will fall, it is not sensible to require people to choose in which of two places they will ultimately vote.
The spirit of the Bill is all about encouraging registration and participation and countering fraud, and we are establishing a framework on which to do that. We will place new duties on electoral registration officers, give them new powers, and have a new performance standards regime backed up by adequate resources. Several of the issues that hon. Members raised focused on the electoral registration officers' duties and powers and, until now, their lack of performance standards and inadequate resources.
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Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The Minister is right to mention resources. During the recent general election, several people came to me having realised that they were not registered to vote and said that they had not registered because they were expecting a knock on the door from the local authority. That knock never came, because for several years the local authority has not been conducting annual censuses on a door-to-door basis. Does the Minister think that that should be addressed?
Ms Harman: I can assure my hon. Friend that those people will get a knock on the door, not once but twice if they do not fill in the form and get registered the first time. It is right that we have independent electoral registration officers, but the performance standards that are laid down in the Bill will ensure that we have common high standards for electoral registration, as well as transparency and accountability.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd rightly said that we do not know how much each individual registration officer spends in their area or the total amount spent on electoral registration. Under the Bill, electoral registration officers will be required to report to the Electoral Commission on what they are doing, how it is working, and how much they are spending on it. That transparency will enable us to compare neighbouring authorities, to see what is working and what is not. It is a basic building block to ensure that the citizens of this country become enfranchised by being on the register and able to vote.
Data sharing is very important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said. A basic commonsense issue is involved here. People are exasperated if they turn up to vote and are told, "You can't vote because you're not on the electoral register." They say, "How can the council say that I don't live therethey sent me a council tax bill yesterday?" We must be cognisant of data protection issues but also use common sense. People do not understand why an electoral registration officer in a local authority does not use the information that it holds. That is a question not only of the legal powers to use data but of operational practice. Such practice varies because individual registration officers interpret the rules differentlyfor example, some might interpret them as permissive but decide that they are not going to use the data. They should have a clear understanding of the data that it is right for them to refer to, because those data will help them to understand where there are gaps on the register.