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The Minister of State was asked—

Electoral Registration (Barnet)

14. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): If she will make a statement on the level of electoral registration in the London borough of Barnet. [53918]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): In the London borough of Barnet, there are probably some 22,000 people who are eligible to vote but who are not on the electoral register, and who are therefore unable to vote.

Mr. Dismore: Does my right hon. and learned Friend not agree that this is a lamentable performance by Conservative-run Barnet council, given that almost a quarter of voters have not been registered? Does this not demonstrate the council's complete lack of commitment to the democratic process? It put out 64 canvassers only last year and it is now reduced to paying them £1.50 per voter signed up; such paying by piece rate is a real sign of desperation. It has not, so far as I can see, taken up the issue of data matching or been imaginative by, for example, trying to register people at supermarkets and further education and sixth-form colleges. Does this not show that the Conservative party really has no interest in democracy?
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Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are probably more than half a million Londoners who are eligible to vote at the forthcoming council elections, but who will be unable to do so because they are not on the electoral register. The important thing is for electoral administrators in all boroughs to find those hard-to-register voters. This is not, by and large, a problem associated with white home owners aged over 55; rather, it is associated more with young members of black and minority ethnic groups who live in private rented accommodation. That is the information given to us by the Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Electoral Commission, and all electoral administrators in London need to work on this issue.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The situation in Barnet—and, indeed, across London—is, as the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) says, disgraceful. It is unacceptable that more than half a million Londoners who should be registered to vote are not. Has the right hon. and learned Lady had a chance to progress the excellent suggestion, made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) during Second Reading of the Electoral Administration Bill, of having a democracy day, on which we can really sell the concept of electoral registration? Can she report such progress to the House?

Ms Harman: I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I pay tribute to the contribution made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) to the debate on electoral registration. Those Opposition Members who do not represent inner-city areas, where there are very low levels of registration, might not understand the true position in the way that we do. The point is that our democracy is worth its name only if it is equal, and at the moment it is not equal. Those who are black and young and live in rented accommodation in an inner city are less likely to have a vote. We should all be concerned about this issue.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that in Islington, which has a Liberal Democrat-run council, only just over 67 per cent. of those eligible to vote have been registered? The Labour group attempted to pass a motion relating to this issue at a council meeting, but it was voted down by the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrat councillor responsible for performance, Terry Stacy, shouted, "That's why we win elections"—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady should have read the original question, which is on Barnet. Although she can allude to London, she cannot major on another London borough within the scope of this question.

Constituency Electorates

15. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): If she will make a statement on Government policy on equalising the number of registered electors per parliamentary constituency. [53919]
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The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): The Parliamentary Boundary Commission reviews parliamentary boundaries according to the number of registered electors and other geographical and community factors. It will next report to the Government by April next year. That report will be laid before this House, and its proposals will be in force for the next general election.

Mr. Hands: I thank the Minister for that answer, but does she accept that our democracy is being damaged by unequal representation in this House? In that regard, I pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) through his Parliamentary Constituencies (Equalisation) Bill. There are 239 constituencies in this country that diverge by more than 10 per cent. from the national average. They are not confined to English rural areas: my constituency of Hammersmith and Fulham in inner London has 79,807 electors, is the 57th largest in the UK and is more than 16 per cent. larger than the average. What proposals does she have to amend the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 to correct those undemocratic disparities and to make more frequent boundary reviews—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister has probably got the point.

Ms Harman: I should like to thank the boundary commission for the very difficult work that it does. It is not party political, and every hon. Member has an axe to grind with it but, by and large, the House should have confidence in its work, which is independent, neutral and based on research and consultation. The smallest UK constituency—Na h-Eileanan an Iar, in Scotland, formerly the Western Isles—has only 23,000 electors because it is an island. However, the largest has 107,000 electors, but that is also because it is an island. We must take account of geographical factors, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in looking for the estimated 17,000 unregistered voters in his constituency of Hammersmith and Fulham who do not have the right to vote.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend say what is the Government's policy in respect of equalising the number of residents who are eligible to be registered as electors in each parliamentary constituency? That is a more important question. Merely to equalise the number of people registered would discriminate against people in the inner cities and those who live in private rented accommodation or houses of multiple occupation or who belong to the black and ethnic minority communities. All of those people are less likely to register in practice.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The boundary commission bases its estimate of a constituency's size on the number of registered electors. If 500,000 possible electors were missing from the register in London, for example, that total would amount to the number of voters in eight parliamentary constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) told
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us about what is happening with her council, but perhaps the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) should get on to his friends on that local authority and ask them to deal with the same problem there.

Another problem has to do with the electoral administration canvassers who go around knocking on doors to find the hard-to-register voters. There are only 64 such canvassers in Barnet, but in Southwark we have 170. All areas should aspire to the standards of the best in their work to find our unregistered voters.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Surely the Minister is not saying that we should count people who are not registered to vote. How could we possibly guess who they were, or how many of them there were? However, a party that gains the majority of voters in England but ends up with 93 fewer seats cannot say that the system is fair. We need a system that is genuinely fair, so that first past the post works, rather than a flawed proportional representation system. Should not the boundary commission rules be changed so that there is a fixed electoral quota in constituencies across the UK? The Minister may say that the country has plenty of islands, but in reality there are not that many. An equal quota should be the general rule, and the boundary commission's rules need to be changed.

Ms Harman: I confess that I am not following the hon. Gentleman's line of argument—but I hope that he is not criticising the way in which the boundary commission goes about its work. The House agreed, on an all-party basis, what the framework for the boundary commission should be, and that is the framework on which it operates. I am saying that we should estimate the number who are not registered and get those people registered; then the boundary commission's basis would be much more robust.

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