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I shall be as brief as I can. I propose the removal of subsection (2). I have three objections to it. First, I have a fundamental objection to changing the list of electors in the middle of an election. Secondly, I believe that people should take responsibility for their own registration. We should not over-complicate the system for returning officers, and indeed those engaged in elections, to accommodate those who have failed so to do. Thirdly, the system should balance the opportunity to do what is lawful against the temptation to do what is unlawful.
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For many months at the beginning of this year, the Government denied that the postal vote system is open to abuse, but that blew up in their face in the Birmingham city council 2004 elections case, and indeed in the Blackburn case of 2002. I do not want us to get into a position whereby vote stealing is replaced by wrongful registration as a means of fiddling election results. Those are my philosophical reasons for objecting to the measure. In a moment, I shall move on to my practical reasons.
Mr. Turner: Of course I cannot cite any research evidence as to what vote fiddling there would be in relation to the clause, because the clause is not yet law. It is my hope that it will not become law, but we know that there was vote fiddling and widespread fraud in the 2004 Birmingham city council elections, and more than 200 votes were abused in Blackburn in 2002.
My practical reasons for objecting to the clause, and indeed to the Liberal Democrat amendment, involve, first, postal votes and, secondly, the capacity of candidates to communicate with their electors. I intend to rely on the D-minus system to enumerate the days leading up to elections, whereby D minus one is the day before the poll and D minus 17 is the date of proclamation or issue of writ in a general election.
Under the Government's proposals, people would have to apply by D minus 11 to be on the register by D minus five. Under the Liberal Democrat proposals, people would have to apply by D minus 13 to be on the register by D minus seven. Under the proposals tabled by my hon. Friends on the Conservative Front Bench, people would have to apply by D minus 20 to be on the register by D minus 15. If people want a postal vote, they have to apply by D minus 11. They will be eligible to apply for a postal vote only if my amendment, or the proposal tabled by my Front-Bench colleagues, is agreed to.
The second problem involves candidates communicating with their electors. The Royal Mail indicative timetable for the freepost, which I have in front of me, shows that the latest acceptable day for unaddressed items in the highlands, islands and rural areas is D minus 10. For addressed items, it is D minus seven. The latest day for addressed mail in any other part of the country is D minus three.
That makes it practically impossible to get literature into the freepost, addressed from the printers to the addressing company, from the addressing company to the Royal Mail, and from the Royal Mail into the post, in time to communicate with electors. It is fundamental that candidates can communicate with electors. The clause, which is not, as far as I can see, recommended directly either by the Electoral Commission or the OPDM Committee, makes it too easy to do something, and thereby makes it too difficult for candidates and others to communicate with electors.
There are 1,200 days in the average four-year parliamentary term during which someone can apply to be registered. It is a great pity if they can only apply in the three or four days after a general election is called.
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Mr. Heath: I can also be brief. I support the Government's view that the maximum amount of time should be allowed for late registrations. We have all had the experience of knocking on doors during a general election campaign and speaking to people who are distraught because they are not on the register when they thought that they were, and who find that they cannot vote as they want to do. It seems appropriate that we give them the maximum time to register. Either they are entitled to vote or not. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) says that, if they are tardy or feckless, they should not be allowed to vote. I am sorry, but I do not agree. If they are entitled to vote, they should be able to do so, within the constraints and practicalities of the registration process.
My amendment moves the relevant date from the fifth to the seventh day before the poll. That is partly a probing amendment, because I want to clarify that we are referring to working days. If that is not the case, the deadline on the fifth day before the poll will be on Saturday evening, and that is not in practical terms the most sensible deadline to give registration officers for the registration of new electors. I would have thought that Thursday evening would be a more sensible deadline.
I also want to deal with the problem mentioned by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight: once someone has gone on to the register at that late stage, it is appropriate that they receive something from the candidates to inform their vote if the parties are capable of doing that. The amendment provides a little extra scope to do that without defeating the objective of the Government. I would be interested to hear the Minister's response.
Mr. Binley: I am an old campaigner and, in the old days, as the Minister will know, we used to publish B and C lists. The whole concept of the register was open to scrutiny by everybody. That was one of the ways in which we maintained a fairness and credibility in the register of electors, which I was sorry to see go.
As I understand itthere might be a built-in opportunity to do thismost electoral registration officers are willing to take comment if people feel that a mistake has been made. In that respect, my concern is that five days is just not enough time to go through that process. We have already argued that it is right and proper that everybody should have the right to vote, but it is equally right and proper that the register, which is a public document, should be seen to be fair and open to scrutiny. Enough time should be allowed for that scrutiny to take place, and some mechanism should be available to amend the register if mistakes are made. I therefore appeal for a longer period than that suggested in the Bill.
The amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) would maintain the status quo. We believe that moving the last day for registration closer to polling day could benefit registration, so we shall not support his amendment. Although moving the last day for registration to 11 days before polling day is in alignment with the close of nominations, we are concerned that that is too close to polling day. To that extent, we believe that my
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hon. Friend points in the right direction. The Liberal Democrats propose a change of only two days, and we struggle to see what difference that would make, although I would be interested to hear the Minister's views.
There is no doubt that a change in the deadline is welcome. The current rolling registration law means that the register is updated every month, but, to vote, a person must be on the register for the month in which an election begins. The closing date is usually midway through the previous month, which means that the deadline for the 2005 general election was fully six weeks before polling day. Moving the last registration day closer to polling day will allow people to register when they hear that the general election is called and is a valid way of encouraging greater registration, as interest and awareness among the electorate tends to peak closer to polling day.
It has also been proposed that registering to vote and submission of postal votes will have the same 11-day deadline. We are concerned that that will put enormous pressure on electoral registration officers. Does the Minister agree that there simply will not be enough time for the appropriate checks to be carried out on each application? Will EROs really be able to manage such a large number of last-minute applications at one of the most hectic times of the year? Will the objection process for questioning dubious registrations work effectively? That could be an issue of concern, particularly in marginal seats and as we attempt to combat fraud in the electoral system. What provisions will be in place for the Royal Mail to deliver election literature via the freepost to late applicants? Will there be an opportunity for last-minute mailing to them?
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