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Registration Officers: General Duty

'After section 8 of the 1983 Act (registration officers) insert—
"8A   Registration officers: general duty

(1)   Each registration officer shall have the general duty of ensuring as far as is practicable that—

(a)   every person entitled to vote is registered;

(b)   every person registered to vote has the opportunity to do so; and

(c)   no person is registered who is not entitled to vote.

(2)   Each local authority which appoints a registration officer under section 8 shall have a duty to provide the resources necessary to enable him to carry out his duties.".'.—[Mr. Heath.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Heath: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment (a) to new clause 2, No. (a), at end of proposed new subsection (1)(c) add—

'(d)   any person registered to vote who is not entitled to vote is removed from the register as soon as reasonably practicable.'.

New clause 5—Prisoners voting—

'No person who has—

(a)   been convicted of any criminal offence, and

(b)   is currently serving a sentence of imprisonment and is detained in full-time custody in consequence thereof,

shall be included on the register of electors.'.

Government amendments Nos. 47 to 51.

Mr. Heath: I hope that we will resume the consensual approach that we enjoyed during the previous group of amendments. There is a pressing need to improve the registration process, and I know that the Minister shares that aspiration—I am as alarmed as she is by the deficiencies in the current process. Earlier, she mentioned electoral registration levels in London, and she has been kind enough to send me a letter containing the details. It is a huge indictment of the system that more than 500,000 Londoners who are entitled to vote are not registered to do so, and it is simply not acceptable that that should be the case in our electoral system.

Although London has particular issues, I am sure that that situation is replicated in many constituencies up and down the country. In constituencies such as mine, it is relatively easy to achieve high levels of registration, but communities that contain large numbers of houses in multiple occupation experience a lower level of registration. Frankly, some local authorities do not provide sufficient resources to allow registration officers actively to pursue registration and achieve the results that we would hope and expect from them.

Geraldine Smith: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point. My constituency is one of those that he has mentioned—it contains a large number of houses in multiple occupation, and the local authority sometimes does not spend the necessary resources on electoral registration. When forms are just thrown into blocks of
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flats or houses, they do not reach the relevant people, and we must do something about that to allow people their legitimate right to vote.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is alarming that electoral registration officers often do not realise that it is not only their duty but their right to insist on the resources from their local authority to do the job properly.

There are huge variations. Many experienced EROs have some clout within their local authority; equally, many do not. Many are relatively junior officers who find themselves at the whim of cost-cutting administrations when times are hard. Electoral registration is, unfortunately, one of the areas that bear the brunt of the reduction in resources—wrongly, because by statute EROs have a right to those resources.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I have found the reverse to be true in my constituency. We have a conscientious returning officer who feels that his problem is that he does not have enough powers to pursue voter registration.

Mr. Heath: There are instances of that kind. The Bill makes up some of the deficit in that respect, and I commend the Government for that.

We expect three things: as full a registration process as possible; opportunities for people who are on the register to be able to cast their vote effectively; and accurate registers to ensure that those who are not entitled to vote do not appear on the register in the first instance or at a later stage when they come to cast their vote. One of the points that recurred on Second Reading and in Committee was that we need to be absolutely clear about the duty on EROs, and on those who control their finances, to ensure that the process works effectively.

I agree with the Minister about the three legs of the stool as regards the legitimacy of the election process. To use slightly archaic language, an old political song in the Liberal tradition from the beginning of the last century says:

The triune aspiration for us is to ensure that registration officers have a clear duty to maximise registration, that people who are registered have the opportunity to vote, and that those who should not be registered to vote are not on the register and do not have the capacity to affect the outcome of elections.

The difficulty is that that is nowhere to be found in the Bill. In clause 9, the Government have produced some duties to take necessary steps. There is an argument that clause 9 would become redundant were my new clause to be accepted, but I do not accept that. The new clause sets out the practical steps that we should expect registration officers to take. I want a declaratory statement of the basic duty of registration officers that they can put in front of the chief executive of their local authority and say, "Look—this is my duty, and I want to perform it on behalf of the electors in this constituency in this local authority area. Your duty, clearly stated, is to provide the resources necessary for me to carry out those functions." There is great merit in
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being so clear. Including the declaratory statement improves clarity for all registration officers and I hope that the Government will warm to it.

5.30 pm

I do not dissent from the sentiments of amendment (a) but it is otiose. It adds a fourth duty that

I agree with that but it is encompassed by subsection (1)(c) in the new clause, which provides that

If one is not entitled to vote, one should either not be registered in the first instance or not be allowed to remain on the register.

Mr. Binley rose—

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is not wrong. We tabled amendment (a) to clarify and improve the new clause. However, if he does not accept it, we will not push the point. I agree with him and we will continue to support the new clause.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Lady and I hope that she accepts that I agree with her sentiments. Does the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) wish to intervene?

Mr. Binley: No, I am just wide eyed.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman may be wide eyed but I doubt that he is bushy tailed or innocent.

Let me deal briefly with the other amendments in the group. I look forward with interest to Conservative Members' comments on new clause 5 about prisoners, and with even more interest to the Minister's reply. The European Court of Human Rights has made a judgment on the issue and there is a legitimate and sensible argument for prisoners' rights to vote. There is no obvious correlation between the deprivation of liberty and that of other civil rights that prisoners hold. We maintain several citizens' rights in the case of prisoners. We currently deprive them of their right to participate in the democratic process, but in many countries that does not apply. In recent years, I have been an election monitor in countries in the developing democracies of central and eastern Europe. I have visited some pretty filthy prisons there. I remember one in Tblisi where prisoners had the right to vote and were voting. It was happening under extraordinary conditions, but nevertheless they had the opportunity to exercise their franchise.

Let us not assume that, simply because it is not the practice in this country to give prisoners the right to vote, it is necessarily wrong to do so. It is sometimes argued that it is a good thing to do in preparing for release. I look forward to the Minister's reply because that will tell us what the Government intend to do about the adverse finding, which they need to address at some stage in future, if not now.
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I have no argument with the Government's application of the safety test to others. It derives from discussion in Committee and I am grateful to them for tackling the matter.

New clause 2 constitutes a desperately important declaratory statement, which would mean that no one had any doubt about the principal duties of registration officers and the importance that we, as a Parliament, attach to their duties in franchising the citizens of this country. Woe betide any local authority that does not provide the encouragement or the resources to enable them to do that job even more effectively than they do it now.

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