Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I call Mrs. Eleanor Laing.

Mrs. Laing: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for the delay but I was deferring to the Minister in my usual deferential manner.

I shall be brief, given that we are nearing the end of our excellent debate. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has made a good case for the new clause, which we support. I shall not take up the House's time in reiterating his arguments, which were well put.

I hope that the Government, and the House, will support new clause 2, as it will add to the Bill. We also strongly support Government amendments Nos. 47 to 51 and Government amendment No. 68. The Minister has been very reasonable and courteous in the way in which she has consulted throughout the Bill and taken on some of the arguments put by hon. Members on both sides of the House. We asked for these amendments, and we are pleased that the Government have now tabled them. However, that is where the consensus ends. We shall have a rather more robust debate on new clause 5.

We have tabled new clause 5 to clarify what might become an anomaly in our system. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has just argued against it. I shall now put the case for it. When someone is convicted of an offence that is serious enough to require a custodial sentence, part of the punishment is the loss of freedom and the loss of certain freedoms. Fortunately, the kind of prisons that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has seen in other countries do not—I hope—exist here. Of course we believe in upholding the personal human rights of prisoners, but the loss of the privilege of taking part in the democratic system does not come into that category. It is part of the punishment for a serious crime. I am not talking about people who are on remand, but about people who have been convicted of a serious crime. Such people should have their freedom withdrawn and should lose their right to participate in the democratic process. That is a simple argument, and for the sake of brevity I shall not go into it in any more detail.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Laing: I will give way to the hon. Lady, because I recall that on Second Reading she made a passionate case against this proposal, and that she is personally acquainted with the gentleman who brought the case that might give rise to the anomaly.

Ms Johnson: That is right. Mr. Hirst, who took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, is a
11 Jan 2006 : Column 371
constituent of mine. Would the hon. Lady look favourably on the idea that, when passing sentence at the end of a court case, a judge might rule that someone's right to vote should be removed? That could be an alternative to the blanket provision of removing the right to vote from all prisoners.

Mrs. Laing: I take the hon. Lady's perfectly reasonable point, but I happen to disagree with her. I would argue that the passing of a custodial sentence implies that a serious crime has been committed, and that it deserves a serious punishment involving the loss of liberty and of certain other rights, including the right to participate in the democratic system.

I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will consider allowing a separate vote on new clause 5, because this is a serious matter that deserves proper consideration on its own by the House this evening.

Ms Harman: The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has tabled new clauses dealing with increasing registration, and I strongly support his objective. However, we do not suggest that the House accept his new clauses.

New clause 2 would insert a new section 8A in the Representation of the People Act 1983, and would add additional elements to the duty in clause 9 of the Bill. Clause 9 places a new duty on registration officers to take steps, set out under the clause, to ensure that the electoral register is accurate. Subsection (1)(a) of the new clause specifies that the electoral registration officer has a general duty to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is registered. We believe that that is unnecessary. Clause 9 is already clear about the duties of electoral registration officers in ensuring that everyone who is entitled to vote is registered.

Subsection (1)(b) of the new clause specifies that the electoral registration officer has a duty to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote has the opportunity to do so. Again, we believe that that is unnecessary. The Bill includes several provisions to widen access to all electors as far as possible. Clause 19 provides for a review of polling places that must take place every four years. Clauses 36 and 37 respectively provide for translations of documents into other languages and Braille, and for assistance for certain postal voters to find information about translations.

Subsection (1)(c) would add a new step to those specified under the new duty, stating that electoral registration officers must remove from the register those who are no longer eligible. That is already enshrined in section 9(2) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and is reinforced by clause 12, which confers specific powers on electoral registration officers to remove from the register persons who are not, or are no longer, eligible.

We made the changes in clause 12 not because they lack the general obligation, but because at present it is not apparent that electoral registration officers can quickly remove persons who are already on the register except on the occasion of the annual canvass, or when a declaration-based registration lapses. The statutory provisions entitle a person to remain registered until such events occur; clause 12 changes that. Subsection (2) of the new clause attempts to place a duty on local
11 Jan 2006 : Column 372
authorities to provide the "necessary resources" to enable the electoral registration officer to do his duty. Again, I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. The same point has made been on many occasions by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane).

The current system of funding local authorities is designed to give them overall control of the amounts that they spend on different priorities, including elections. Different local authorities across the United Kingdom have differing needs in terms of election funding. It is difficult to establish a set definition of the "resources necessary" for electoral registration officers to carry out their duties. That is one of the problems that we identify in the new clause. However, we recognise that it is essential that returning officers and registration officers receive enough funding to be able to implement the measures in the Bill successfully and perform their duties effectively.

Clause 63 provides for the Electoral Commission to collate centrally information from local authorities on their spending on elections and registration. That is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd has been able to acquire information because the system is organised differently in Wales, but Members here cannot compare the amounts spent by electoral registration officers. Under the Bill, for the first time, information will be collected that will be crucial to the informing of future policy development.

The Opposition's amendment (a) to new clause 2 adds a further subsection 8A(1)(d). It is designed to require electoral registration officers to remove ineligible persons from the registers

The amendment is unnecessary, for the reasons that I gave in respect of the provision on removal.

Clause 9, the "new duty" clause, and clause 12 will build on section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to ensure that registers are complete and accurate. We support the aims of the new clause, but we believe that existing provisions in the 1983 Act are sufficient. We therefore ask the House not to accept the amendment.

I have two things to say about new clause 5. We appreciate that the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) has sought an opportunity to submit the issue for debate, and we welcome that. However, I respectfully suggest that she ought not to ask the House to divide on her new clause, which simply re-states current law but in perhaps less well-drafted terms. She will not want those outside this House to think that there is a policy dispute between us, simply because we fail to support her new clause. I am happy to give way if she wants to ask a question.

5.45 pm

Mrs. Laing: The consensus that the right hon. and learned Lady reasonably seeks on this issue may not actually exist. The hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) disagree with me on it, so perhaps there is a policy difference. I appreciate that, in the light of recent judgments, the Government may not have had a chance to consider my new clause, and that, in strict legal terms, it perhaps does what the right hon. and learned Lady
11 Jan 2006 : Column 373
says it does. However, it might help the Government's thinking on this issue if we vote on it, so that the opinion of the House can be known.

Next Section IndexHome Page