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Barbara Keeley: I want to talk about registration and personal identifiers. On Second Reading, I said that I wholeheartedly agreed with the Minister's caution in not making a change to individual registration. That caution is the key thing. Today, as we did on Second Reading, we have debated the crisis in registrationthat about 3 million to 4 million citizens are not included on our electoral registers. That is a serious matter.
The Electoral Commission has pointed out that under-registration is high among certain groups. The figures from the commission's research are borne out when we check out such groups. One of the groups most under-represented on the register were people who had moved during the past two to three months. When I checked with the Salford ERO, I was told that the areas with the most problems were those where there are six-month tenancies. The problem is serious. A large number of peoplebetween 30 and 35 per cent.in inner-city wards and polling districts are not registered.
As I said earlier, we should not be raising additional barriers to electoral registration when a third of people in a polling district or an area may not be registered. We should be doing the opposite. As Members have already said, we should be encouraging people to register and targeting the groups most subject to under-registration. When prompted, people who had not registered said that it was a chore or time-consuming, or that they did not understand the process. Another important point,
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which relates to the amendments, is that people said that they were nervous of bureaucracy. All the proposals in the amendments would make that situation worse.
We know that the change to personal identifiers in Northern Ireland, including national insurance numbers, caused a 10 per cent. drop in registration, so it is astonishing that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) talked about success and said that registration was high in Northern Ireland. I do not regard 91 or even 92 per cent. as high. When 89 per cent. of people in a community are disfranchised after an exercise to develop a better register, that is not acceptable.
"there was a drop but not as big a . . . drop as . . . 10 per cent . . . While one cannot put an absolute figure on it, a goodly part of that was actually names that should not have been on the register anyway".
Barbara Keeley: We debated under and over-registration earlier; it changes from place to place. I was citing examples, borne out by the Electoral Commission research, which show that in some inner-city areas as many as 35, 37 or 38 per cent. of people are not registered. When, as the commission agrees, a total of 3 million to 4 million people are not registered, that is a crisis. The hon. Gentleman has just quoted evidence from the Select Committee session with the Electoral Commission last week and I shall quote from that, too. Sam Younger referred to the tension between participation and security, which is what we are debating, and said:
I have two quotes from electoral officers in the north-west. I have used them before, but they are still appropriate. In evidence to the Joint Select Committee in 200405, the ERO for Traffordnow, sadly, a Conservative-run authoritysaid that whole areas of the electorate would not respond to requests for individual registration, particularly the under-registered groups. I know and have respect for that officer. He told me that, in his view, individual registration would be like a
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con):
The hon. Lady and several of her colleagues referred to the crisis of under-registration. That may indeed be the case, but as I said on Second Reading, we are talking about extremely mechanical methods of fixing the problem. We may think that it is a crisis, but the millions of people Members say are not registered do not appear to agree. It is easy for them to solve by filling in a straightforward form. We are talking about barriers. If such a relatively simple thing as filling in a simple form and signing their name is such a problem for our fellow citizens that they
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are willing to give up voting, that is the problem we need to solve rather than tinkering around with mechanical details.
Barbara Keeley: People in some of the under-registered groups probably do not see registration as a priority. Research showed that some people admitted to being politically disengaged and some might be politically hostile. That is sad, but we all accept it. However, the MORI research identified groups of people who do not understand the process, who do not see the benefit of being registered or who are nervous of bureaucracy.
Chris Ruane: Does my hon. Friend think that the official Opposition might show greater concern about under-registration if the under-registered groups lived in Acacia gardens instead of Corporation street?
Barbara Keeley: I am sure that the Opposition would. I do not speak as someone who has a problem in her constituency. Worsley has between 92 and 94 per cent. registration, but my colleagues in neighbouring constituencies with more inner-city wards find after the annual canvass that the ERO is fighting to pull up registration from 64 per cent.
Mr. Heald: The hon. Lady will be aware that there has been much criticism of the Labour party over election fraud. In the areas that she is talking about where there is substantial under-registration, which councils have been indifferent over the years? Not Conservative councils, but Labour councils.
Barbara Keeley: I do not want to talk about postal voting pilots, but when I was in local government I worked on several highly successful pilotstwo in Trafford, which is now a Tory authority. We worked as an all-party group; there was all-party consensus and we held successful postal voting pilots[Interruption.]
Barbara Keeley: I said on Second Reading that part of the difficulty with postal voting ballots is that many authorities did not want them and dragged their feet. That is part of the difficulty, but in both Trafford and Salford I worked on incredibly successful postal voting pilots where there was no suggestion or suspicion of fraud. The question is really whether you want to do it, whether all parties want to do it and whether you work at it.
Sam Younger does not believe in including national insurance numbers, so that is a dead duck. If the Electoral Commission does not support you, you should not be making that proposal[Interruption.] Well, you cannot have it both ways.
I cited two EROs who say that in their experience the proposals would make the whole situation worse. It is right that we proceed with caution and pilots are the way forward. From what has been said today, I am sure that there would be many volunteer local authorities and many Opposition Members would be desperate to hold pilots in their constituencies. Let them do so. I hope that their local authorities will work hard on that. By enabling the setting of performance standards for local authorities, so that they can work more effectively at building the register, we shall deal with the issues.
Mr. Betts: I shall deal with the two key issues in the debate: first, the personal identifiers and the possible use of national insurance numbers; and secondly, whether people should fill in a household form or an individual form. It is important to try to work towards some sort of general agreement across the Chamber on those matters. On electoral law and the conduct of elections, if we could reach a consensus that would endure for a number of years, it would help the electorate to have stability.
On national insurance numbers, I hope that the Conservative party might reflect again, for two reasons. First, national insurance numbers are not necessarily secure. That point has been well made. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that people could use duplicate numbers fraudulently. Indeed, I accept that such numbers are used in Northern Ireland, but people can sign a statement to say that they do not have one. If people can do that, what is the point of requiring them to give their number in the first place? That is a hole in the system. A few years ago, a Select Committee report identified how many extra national insurance numbers existed than people entitled to have them, so there are problems with that proposal. It will not greatly add to the security of the system.
Secondly, the use of such numbers might be worth considering if it were not for the fact that that would be a disincentive to people registering. Some people will be able to lay their hands very easily on their last salary or wage slip and read their national insurance number, but the point has been well made that some people cannot do sofor example, those who have been out of work for a period. Women will be particularly discriminated against because many of them will have taken time off to have a family, which is a fairly normal course of events. People who are unemployed probably cannot remember where they put their last pay slip. In the circumstances, if they must go and hunt for it the likelihood is that they will just say, "Oh, I'll get round to that in due course", and they will end up not filling in the registration form. I hope that hon. Members will accept that those difficulties can be a barrier to people who are unemployed, to women and, probably, to people in the ethnic minority communities. Some of the very people who we want to encourage to register will be discriminated against. So I hope that that proposal will be reconsidered.
If Opposition Members are really keen on people having a discrete, unique number to use on the forms and a secure form of electoral registration that is more efficient than anything else, they should opt for the national identity system with ID cards. People would
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then have a number to put on the form. Moreover, there would be a straight read across to give us a register that would be about 99.9 per cent. accurate. That shows another benefit of ID cards, but national insurance numbers would not eventually provide that security.
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