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Mr. Harper: To pick up the point about pilots, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that we seem already to have had a pilot of sorts in Northern Ireland, from which we learnt some things. We should pay attention to the Electoral Commission, which recognised that there were some negative effects on registration, and advised that to tackle that we should couple a move to individual registration with other measures such as campaigning and publicity work.
I am not sure how far forward the running of pilots will take us. One of two things will happen. The use of basic identifiers such as a signature and date of birth will not show a significant drop, which I am not convinced will satisfy some Labour Memberswho have already seen examples of a drop in Northern Irelandthat there will not be a problem in rolling that out across the country. Alternatively, it will show a significant drop, but the reasons for that, and the reasons why there are such barriers, will not necessarily be clear.
"a qualitative piece of research trying to get into the minds of individuals who perhaps do not register actively. What puts them off from registering? That is due to be completed some time around April ."
Will the Minister tell the Committee what progress has been made on that, and whether that information will be available? Clearly, if some of what seem to be relatively straightforward identifiers act as significant barriers, we need to know why they are acting as barriers. I do not see how we can get much more straightforward identifiers than signature and date of birth for most people. If the introduction of such identifiers causes a massive drop in registration, I am not sure what other sorts of identifiers would not have a similar effect. We therefore need to be clear about why a drop in registration has been caused.
If a signature and date of birth is that off-putting, that either reflects levels of education among some of the groups who are not registering to vote, or, as I have said previously, the extent to which they could care less about voting. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) that for some individuals a signature might be a problem, and the Bill provides for that, but if most people are so disinterested in voting that asking them to sign a piece of paper and give their date of birth will cause a catastrophic drop in registrationas some Labour Members were sayingit strikes me that we have a more serious problem with voting and democracy in this country than is recognised.
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The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that he would like to see a pilot in one region. We have already had thatthat region was Northern Irelandand we have seen the results. He said that he could not get his head round the idea that people are not prepared just to sign their name and give their date of birth. The hon. Gentleman cannot get his head around that notion. He is a well-balanced Liberal Democrat, a professional politician. Obviously, he sees no problem. If he lived in a house of multiple occupation, if he were unemployed or on the minimum wage or if he were part of an ethnic minorityobviously he is notperhaps he would see that there are problems. There are problems for those people who are not registering under the current system. Any other measure that is put in their way will act as a disincentive to register.
We have learned the lessons from Northern Ireland, where the figure went down to 84 per cent. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said that we needed a registration campaign in conjunction with advertising, but that was undertaken in Northern Ireland. The figure went from 86 per cent. up toaccording to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald)92 per cent, a figure with which he said he was satisfied. I certainly am not. I do not represent Northern Ireland, but I am a democrat and I do not believe that democracy should be functioning on the basis of 92 per cent. of the population being registered. If we want an efficient and effective democracy with all sectors of society catered for, we need 100 per cent. registration.
I also wanted to speak about the timing of any pilots, which is key. I would urge the Minister not to start any pilot in any area of the UK until we have the 3.5 million to 4 million missing people on the register. If pilots go ahead, we should have it at that point. The people missing from the register are the most sensitive to any change. If we introduce pilots before they are on the register, we will not get a true reflection of the impact.
In 1997, there 55,000 voters, which went down to 48,000. I raised the issue in the House two or three years ago and, lo and behold, an extra 2,000 to 3,000 voters were put on the register. Currently the figure stands at about 52,000 electors, 3,000 down on 1997. In the last 10 years, the population of my countymy constituency makes up 65 per cent. of my countyhas gone up by 4 per cent., while registration has gone down by about 10 per cent.
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Chris Ruane: Whatever the percentage is, it will be a lot worse[Interruption.] I think that I have given enough statistics about my constituency and I hope that hon. Members have statistics of their own. I have also supplied every Labour MP with their percentage fall since 1997 for 2001 and 2004. I have also cross-referenced that with the census database and supplied that information. I have given enough information about voting populations in my constituency and, indeed, 300 or 400 other constituencies.
New clause 5 would ensure that this House was properly consulted, through primary legislation, before any national scheme for national identifiers was rolled out as a result of the pilots. The very fact that we are debating these matters on the Floor of the House gives an indication of how important we feel this Bill is. Important changes that could result from a pilot scheme should not go through on the nod but should be properly and fully debated in this House. I oppose any measures that would further reduce the size of the electorate in my constituency and those of other Members. We must be very careful about the way in which we implement pilot schemes involving personal identifiers and signatures, and even more careful when deciding what will happen when the schemes have run their course.
The Bill had its genesis in the furore and fallout from a number of high-profile postal-ballot fraud cases during the 2004 local elections. There was wall-to-wall coverage of those cases on television and radio, and in the press. The Government, being a listening Government, decided to act on the concern. The initial thrust of that action was to secure the votes. When the Government listened further, especially to representations from Labour Members on the other issue, widening participation, they realised that it was a question not just of security but of ensuring that people were on the register.
I believe that, since the Bill's inception, its balance has been evened out. I believe that there has been a trade-off between securing the vote and widening participation. Pilots will show us what impact additional security initiatives will have on voter registration and participation. As I have said, my main concern is the widening of participation. I would oppose an automatic roll-out as a result of any pilot studies that might be undertaken.
Members may be tired of hearing a statistic that I have already mentioned, but I think it essential to repeat it until people know the true figures. According to the Electoral Commission, between 3.5 million and 4 million people are missing from the electoral register under the current rules. Had the Government listened to the press, had they listened to the Opposition and, dare I say, had they listened initially to the Electoral Commission, we would be implementing a system that could lead to a drop of a further 10 per cent. in the number of electoral registrations if the Northern Ireland pattern were repeated. Given an electorate of 44 million,
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that could constitute 4.5 million missing voters. There could have been a total of 8.5 million missing voters had Labour Members not intervened.
Some people are concerned about security. Let me put the matter into perspective. Replies to a parliamentary question that I tabled about postal-ballot fraud suggested that there were no prosecutions in the case of general elections, and only one or two per year in the case of local elections. That is one or two too many, but I feel that the greater evil is represented by a potential 8.5 million voters missing from the register. I realise that pilot schemes were introduced in an attempt to compromise, but I think that the results should be carefully monitored. Each and every one of us should have an opportunity to comment. If there is cause for concern, primary legislation should be initiated, and should be fully debated in the Chamber before any permanent national changes are made. I do not want such legislation to go through on the nod.
Nothing is so precious to a Member of Parliament as his boundaries and the size of his electorate. To me, as a Labour Member, size does matter: the bigger the better. If any changes made in my constituency or others would have a negative impact on an already diminished electorate, I want a say in them. As a democrat, I believe that if changes that might affect 8.5 million of the most disadvantaged people in society are to be pursued, they are worthy of a debate, a vote and primary legislation.
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