Mr. Heald: It looks as though the hon. Gentleman, who wants to intervene, has been pressing that case strongly. I agree with him about that. I am not saying that we need only measures to make the register more accurate; I am saying that we should do both. It was said of the late, great Spiro Agnewperhaps not so greatthat he was a man who found it difficult both to walk down the sidewalk and chew gum. I think that we can do better.
Chris Ruane: The hon. Gentleman referred to Northern Ireland statistics. Let me repeat that when the changes were introduced there, the electoral register went down to either 84 or 86 per cent., even after the advertising and the political campaign. According to Sam Younger in a letter of last week, it is still only at 91 per cent. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that 91 per cent.effectively 10 per cent. of people disenfranchisedis good enough?
Mr. Heald: My figures relate to September, when I spoke to the electoral registration officer, and it was 92 per cent. I believe that that is an accurate and up-to-date figure. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have talked about circumstances in which far fewer percentages than that were registered on the mainland. It is all very well saying that 3 million or so are not registered: I agree, but let us remember that it has been like that for 10 years and there has been no improvement. It has to be said that the worst areas are often controlled by Labour councils.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab):
The hon. Gentleman is correct that voter registration has fallen over the last 10 or 15 yearscoincidental with the introduction of the poll tax. People were concerned that the information that they provided would be used by other bodies. Is the hon. Gentleman not concerned that his proposals might put off even more people from registering? If national insurance numbers were to be used, for example, people might be concerned about identity theft.
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Mr. Heald: I would credit the hon. Gentleman for just one point there. He may not remember, but the poll tax or community charge was longer ago than 10 years. It may be fresh in his memory because it is mentioned so often in his leaflets. It is often argued that nobody knows their national insurance number, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman did not make that point, because it is a terribly middle-class point to make. The fact is that the deprived people in our societypeople claiming benefits, those in receipt of weekly pay packets and so forthknow their national insurance numbers, because they see them more often than others. I know my national insurance number and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman knows his. I want to continue with my argument because I am making a serious point about individual registration and do not want to talk just about national insurance numbers.
If we believe in one person, one vote, then individual voter registration is the right way forward. Why should someone else register for us? The concept of a head of household is an old-fashioned and, I believe, inappropriate way of dealing with the problem. Many homes in multiple occupation simply do not have a head of household to whom one could point. It also reinforces a stereotype, saying to young people that this is someone else's business, not theirs. If the form is completed and personal identifiers are adduced for a whole household in multiple occupation, there is a risk of electoral fraud.
Chris Ruane: The hon. Gentleman mentions houses in multiple occupation. The west ward of Rhyl, in which my office is based, is the poorest ward in the whole of Walesthe poorest out of 865 wards. There are 900 HMOs there and since 1997, voter registration in that area has gone down by 30 per cent. under the current system, which allows the head of household to register in that way. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the number of people registering to vote in that ward of Rhyl will go up or down as a result of single signatures?
Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: people in HMOs are poor at registering to vote. Why is that? It may be because one person is being sent the form for the whole householdthe reality being that a group of people share the flatand that that person simply cannot be bothered to fill the form in for the others. I believe that a more individual approach, targeting each person in turn, is more likely to succeed than the current failed approach, which the hon. Gentleman seems to want to continue with. He admits that registration has gone down in that ward by 30 per cent. in recent years and he invites us to build on that success. Surely we should look at why the system has failed so badly.
I am all in favour of data matching, and think that it is a good idea. I want us to be proactive in this matter, because a register must be accurate in two ways: it should not contain names that should not appear; and it should contain names that should.
We need to get beyond the use of names such as Hootie McBoob and Gus Troobevthe latter is an anagram of "bogus voter"on voter registration forms. That still happens, but the Electoral Commission has taken a constructive approach. Instead of insisting on full individual voter registration now, it proposes that
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we try to tackle the problem of postal voting fraud. In its evidence to the Select Committee, it suggested a very modest approach. It said:
"The transitional arrangement we discussed with the Select Committee would give people the option to provide their signature and date of birth on a voluntary basis when responding to the annual canvass. But it would be mandatory for those wishing to vote by post or proxy".
That transitional approach is a very modest proposal, compared with what the Electoral Commission asked for originally, but it is not the potty piloting proposed in the Bill. Piloting individual voter registration or personal identifiers in one district council will tell us nothing. After all, it could be said that a successful pilot scheme has taken place already in Northern Ireland, which is a whole country.
Regardless of party allegiance, many hon. Members will not be satisfied unless action is taken on individual voter registration and personal identifiers. Therefore, I hope that the Minister agrees that the time has come for some movement on this important issue.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I want to speak about some concerns that the organisation Scope has brought to my attention, and I look forward to the response from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who will answer the debate.
Scope supports the idea of personal identifiers very strongly, but considers that the registration process, if carried out appropriately and correctly, could help disabled people exercise their right to vote. I shall come back to what Scope would like to happen with the piloting, but it recommends that registration forms should have enough space so that people can make clear their preferred format for any communication that they receive. In addition, the form should allow disabled people to set out their access needs if they are required to attend a polling station. Scope says that that would help registration officers in their forward planning for elections, as they would have a rough idea of how many people with disabilities any given polling station would have to cater for.
However, Scope is worried that the registration forms could become too crowded and busy if all that information were to be included. It reports seeing some mock-ups of forms that might be used, but says that there is a concern that there may be insufficient space for identifiers. Moreover, the organisation says that the forms should use a reasonable print sizeat least 12 pointso that people with a visual impairment can read them.
Scope thinks that piloting is a good idea, but is keen that consideration be given to piloting both household and individual registration at the same time, to ascertain which option is more effective. That approach may deal with some of the problems raised on Second Reading and in today's debate, and settle the argument about which method would ensure that the largest number of people were registered.
The Bill does not specify that the pilot schemes must be conducted in respect of household registration only, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State can assure me that there is a possibility that individual registration could be piloted as well.
Scope is also keen to ensure that personal identifiers are easily understood. The Opposition propose that national insurance numbers be used for that purpose,
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but Scope does not agree with that, as not everyone has a national insurance number, and the number itself is not the easiest thing to remember. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said that he knew his number, but I am afraid that I do not know mine. I think that a lot of people would struggle as well. Even so, most disabled organisations welcome the use of personal identifiers. Part of the reason is that the only identifier presently in use is a person's signature, and many disabled people find it very difficult or impossible to sign their names.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will assure the House that pilot schemes will be held for collecting individual identifiers using both the household registration form and the individual registration form. In that way, we will be able to see which approach is correct.