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Mr. Betts: I accept that there is no absolute read across, but the basics of a pretty accurate register would be provided. Certain things would have to be done to add people and perhaps to exclude others as well, but a firm base would be created on which to proceed.
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) said about whether there should be a household form or an individual form. We need not necessarily have one sort of form or the other. Indeed, we do not have one or the other now, do we? The canvass goes out using a household form, but if people apply to register during the year, they apply on an individual form. Both systems operate. I accept that that can get a bit confusing, but I am with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) in spirit about individual registration. Ultimately, I think that we may get that system, but it would be very difficult to move the whole step at this stage.
I do not know whether the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire has tried to address some of those practical problems. However, given the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) that we discussed in the first group, the Opposition accept that there are people on the register who should not be there, that some people registered at certain households may not live there, and that there are houses where no one is registered. So how do we decide how many individual forms to send to those houses?
If no one is registered at a house, do we send one, two or three forms? What happens with a house in multiple occupation? It is all right to say that forms will be sent to the people whom we think live in a certain place, but if those people are not there because they are last year's students, rather than this year's students, how do we know the number? Does the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire favour sending individual registration forms around the system like confetti, when he is arguing that we should have a more secure system that stops people registering if they are not entitled to register?
Those practical problems need to be thought through, but we might get such a system in the end. When we develop a much more accurate registration base and when we start to use data from different sources, we can then write to people, as is done in Australia, on the basis of the information held by the Post Office, the utilities, the college or the driving licence people to say that there has been a change in circumstances at an address and that we understand that so-and-so is living there now. We could send the registration form to the individual whom the registration officeror the Electoral Commission in Australiais told now lives at that address. That is how individual registration could build
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a completely new system, but that would be difficult under the current arrangements when we have an inaccurate register and do not know to whom we are sending the forms.
Again, I return to the fact that there may be a case for both systems. I want to address a practical problem. I listened to what my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister said about registration officers being encouraged to go out into the community and knock on doors as part of the existing arrangements. If that sort of canvassing is done, I hope that the officers go with both forms. If they find the head of household in, I hope that they get that person to register everyone at the address while they are there. If they knock on the door and the head of household is not there, I hope that they have taken some individual registration forms so that they can at least register those people who are present and get them signed up on the spot.
Mr. Djanogly: In some ways, the hon. Gentleman has answered his own questionultimately, the canvassing needs to go aheadbut what about a university hall of residence, for instance, where foreign students have been registered and students are moving in and out without being taken off the register? What would he do in that situation? How could that be dealt with other than by canvassing?
Mr. Betts: Clearly, the university must provide information about who is resident in those halls. That is simple to dosome universities do it and some do not. That is why I am in favour of having a legislative requirement for certain bodies to provide the electoral registration officer with information or for the officer to be able to gain access to that information. We would then have national standardswe will come to them laterthat require registration officers to behave in a certain way when they receive information that people's circumstances have changed or so that they know what do to if a form is not sent back.
Different registration officers deal with those situations differently. Some officers keep people on the register and some do not. Some officers take them off after one year, and others after two years if they do not have corresponding evidence from council tax documents that those people still live at the address. We must deal with those approaches by laying down national standards. However, we are talking about the forms and whether we need one form for the whole house or a form for each individual. The reality is that we have a mix at present. We will eventually move to individual registration as we put in place all the other arrangements, but in the meantime, while we are conducting the canvass, I hope that we use both sets of forms to try to ensure that when we knock on the door and find someone in, we get the maximum amount of information for registration purposes that we can.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (David Cairns):
We have had an extremely useful and enlightening debate. It has been our first canter around issues regarding individual registration, the forms for such registration and the nature of piloting, with which I will deal in a moment. First, however, I want to respond to several specific points made during the debate.
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I entirely agree with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that we need a campaign to increase the numbers on the register. The entire purpose of the two-and-a-half-hour debate that we had earlier was to set out the basic parameters of that campaign. At a later stage, we will talk about the performance standards to which we will expect electoral registration officers to perform. We are thus in agreement about the need for such a campaign, and I welcomed the commitment that he gave.
The hon. Gentleman said that everyone who has studied the matter has concluded that individual registration will improve security without having an impact on numbers on the register. However, not everyone agrees with that. Several hon. Members who spoke, the EROs who contacted my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley), and my electoral registration officer, Mr. Edward Duffy from Renfrewshire valuation joint board, certainly do not agree. Mr. Duffy wrote me a letter last week that said:
"Of course having identified residents, there still remains the problem of trying to persuade them to complete and return the canvass form. This is likely to become more of a problem with the requirement to collect signatures and dates of birth."
That view of an experienced registration officer is echoed by registration officers throughout the country. It is not just Labour Members who are saying that collecting information from people on individual or household forms might impact negatively on the register. That is why we propose to follow the route of piloting, which we will discuss in more detail during our consideration of the next set of amendments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) raised the legitimate concerns that have been expressed by Scope, Sense, the Royal National Institute of the Blind and other bodies about the design of any such form. The Department has not produced any mock-up forms, so I am not sure of the provenance of the forms to which she refers. We will not create any such mock-up forms or proceed on the matter without consulting the organisations to which she rightly drew attention. We give a firm commitment that if the process moves forwardthe Bill allows for individual identifierswe will consult those organisations and others with a vested interest in ensuring that we get the design of the forms right. My hon. Friend also said that several of those organisations have reservations about the requirement on national insurance numbers that is proposed in amendment No. 18, for reasons of complexity.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) rightly said that there was a need to take action on fraud. He also acknowledged, graciously, that we are taking such action. The new fraud offences regarding both registration and applications for a postal vote have tough sanctions. We are not sanguine about fraudthere will be zero tolerance of it, as it has been saidand we are proceeding with tough new measures.
The hon. Gentleman said that the requirement to give a signature and date of birth was not a difficult barrier, but that is a point of contention. My electoral registration officer thinks that it could well be a barrier, as do the registration officers of the Minister of State,
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my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), and my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley. There is no consensus that the measure would not have the undesired consequence of increasing what have been described as the catastrophic drops on the register.
The hon. Members for Somerton and Frome and for North-East Hertfordshire talked about the so-called transitional arrangement proposals put forward by Sam Younger. We must remember that Mr. Younger was setting out a fallback position, in a sense, because he does not want the pilots. We are thus effectively having this discussion the wrong way round because we should talk about the pilots first.
I have read the letter that Mr. Younger sent to my right hon., learned and noble Friend the Secretary of State, which I noticed was faxed to him at 6 pm on Friday evening. The letter makes serious suggestions, so the proposal clearly must be studied with a view to its possible ramifications. A prima facie reading of the letter leads me to ask two questions about the proposal. If it will be voluntary to provide such information on the form, will that provide the increased security that people want? Secondly, would it not add to the confusion surrounding the forms if there was a space for people to provide their dates of birth and signatures, but they did not have to fill them in if they did not want to? People would say, "If I don't fill this in, will I be somehow worse off than if I do?" We could explain to them that they would not be worse off because it would be voluntary to provide the information, but that would add to the confusion about which my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley spoke when she cited the MORI polls. People find such forms confusing enough as it is, without adding another layer of possible confusion. However, I have made only a prima facie reading of the proposal. We will give it greater study, but I am not immediately attracted to it.
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