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David Cairns: The debate is yet further evidence of the lack of consensus on individual registration and personal identifiers. Amendments Nos. 4 to 9 would put pilots of personal identifiers on a compulsory and regional basis. New clause 5, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said, would prevent the rolling out of personal identifiers on a permanent and nationwide basis without further primary legislation.
Let me deal first with amendments Nos. 4 to 9. The Government believe that, when a new system is tested, there is a balance to be struck between ensuring that it is tested on a large enough scale for the results to be meaningful and not taking unnecessary risks. Members will be aware that, for previous electoral pilots, we initially conducted tests at voluntary and local level. When we were confident that the system was ready to be used more widely, we scaled it up. What we have not done is to move to a regional scale without being clear that the benefits outweigh the risks.
The potential benefit of personal identifiers is an increase in the security of the electoral process. We are doing much to address this issue and personal identifiers may help us to do more. There is a risk of a significant drop in the number of people registered to vote. As we have heard repeatedly, in excess of 3.5 million people already cannot vote because they are not registered and we do not intend to exacerbate the problem.
Through pilots, we hope to measure the impact of identifiers in terms of both benefits and risks. We believe that a voluntary and local scheme will allow us to do that effectively. In our view, a compulsory regional
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scheme would attract an unacceptable level of risk, while not providing significantly more information about how the new system would operate.
Mr. Harper: If voluntary pilot schemes are to rely on local authorities coming forward, how can we ensure that such schemes are piloted in regions where there are significant numbers of people who are not registered? In order to tackle some of the issues that we have discussed today, we need to pilot areas where significant numbers are not registered. Moreover, if we discover that there are barriers and a drop in registration occurs, what are we going to do to find out why?
I was about to say that it might be useful at this stage if I gave more detail on how we intend to take the pilots forward. We believe that they should last for at least two years, and that shorter tests would not be sufficient to provide the evidence that we need to make a decision on rolling out. We intend to create one generic schemein consultation with the Electoral Commission and volunteer local authoritiesand to pilot this same scheme across a variety of areas. In this way, we will be able to test the impact of personal identifiers simply, without the confusion that would be caused if we tested a variety of slightly different schemes.
In selecting local authorities, we will ensure that local elected representatives are consulted. My briefing note says that there will be no question of a Member of Parliament being taken by surprise by a pilot in their area. That rather brings to mind the image of a British Airways captain leaping out on us from a darkened doorway, but the point is made.
In response to the argument that regional pilots would be preferable because they encompass areas with different social and demographic profilesthe point alluded to by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper)we will seek to hold our local pilots in a wide variety of areas with different make-ups. The Office for National Statistics has grouped local authorities into seven classifications, some geographical and others more widespread. They are London centre, London suburbs, prospering UK, coastal and countryside, cities and services, and mining and manufacturing. There are also a number of sub-groups. We will seek to pilot in areas in each of these classifications in order to learn lessons from different areas with differing circumstances.
We have not yet issued a prospectus seeking volunteers, but we intend to do so shortly. Even in the absence of such a prospectus, a number of local authorities have already informally expressed an interest in piloting. I therefore foresee no problem in gaining enough varied volunteer local authorities to carry out a full and thorough test of the new system.
I mentioned earlier that I felt that the risks of regional registration pilots were too high. Let me explain why. The smallest UK electoral region is the north-east, which has some 2 million electors; the largest is the south-east, which has approximately 6 million. At the top end, a pilot covering two or three regions could cover a population of as many as 10 million to 15 million electors. A 10 per cent. drop in registration in such areas,
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as seen in Northern Ireland, would equate to the disfranchisement of between 1 million and 1.5 million people. Some Members may be sanguine about the prospect of disfranchising 1 million people, but we are not. If a local pilot had such a negative impact, the Government and the local authority in question could work together to rebuild registration rates. With a regional pilot, however, the catastrophic scale of the drop in registration would make such rebuilding far more difficult to achieve.
The purpose of holding pilots is to test a system that we feel is not yet ready to be rolled out. Here, there is a clear dividing line. We are testing the system because we are uncertain whether the benefits will be delivered without a catastrophic drop in the register; indeed, that is the whole principle behind piloting it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd spoke to new clause 5, which would prevent the rolling out of the use of personal identifiers on a permanent and nationwide basis without further primary legislation. As I said, there is no consensus on that issue. The Electoral Commission tells us to roll out personal identifiers now. My hon. Friend, who has tabled more parliamentary questions on the matter than anyone elsemore perhaps than is altogether healthybelieves that, following pilots, a new Bill should be required to provide for national implementation.
Our position, as I have explained, is an attempt to respond practically to both sides of the argument. We will hold pilots that will be thoroughly evaluatedand they will be evaluated, to answer the second point of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), by the Electoral Commission. The Secretary of State will then take a decision as to whether he believes that the system is ready to be rolled out nationally.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd made a strong and powerful case, asserting the key role that the House must play if we are to institute such a far-reaching new scheme throughout the entirety of the UK. He clearly believes that it would be more appropriate for such a fundamental shift to be occasioned by primary, not secondary, legislation. The interest shown in the debate so far suggests that he advanced a powerful argument. However, my right hon. and learned Friend and I would like to reflect further on the implications of such a move. Given my assurances on how we are going to conduct the pilots, I hope that my hon. Friend is not minded to press the new clause.
Mr. Heath: I am grateful to all those who participated in this brief debate, but hearing the Minister say that it was outrageous to suggest that an electoral experimenta pilotshould be extended to anything as large as a region when the Government had no compunction about forcing four regions through an electoral experiment only a little while ago against the express views of the Electoral Commission and every single party represented in the House other than the Government takes the biscuit.
We did not move immediately to all-postal regional pilots. They were piloted at a local and voluntary level and lessons were learned before the
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regional voting pilots that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It would help if he were to clarify that that was the point that I was making.
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman again attempts to clarify what he said, but the fact remains that, following that election, we had the biggest crisis of confidence in the electoral system of this country that we have ever seen. For the first time, we had people genuinely doubting whether the election in which they had just taken part was conducted freely and fairly. We should not tolerate that. What is the Government's response? Are they prepared to go into the next general election with the same postal voting precautions in place? Yes, they are. Their answer is, "We'll do something, but mañanatomorrow, whatever." That is not a satisfactory position. We need to do something urgently. The Electoral Commission has given us a clear steer about how we should go forward and I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.
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