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Individual registration has potential benefits for the security of postal voting, particularly through the collection of personal identifiers such as signature and date of birth. That is why we included it in the Bill. We wanted to test the use of personal identifiers. Because the provisions have not yet gained the confidence of Parliament, we have adopted the alternative compromise proposed by my noble Friend Lord Elder. As I have explained, the proposal targets the use of personal identifiers primarily at postal voting. It meets the security concerns about postal ballots, and deals with concerns about the impact of personal registration on the number of people registered to vote.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In the interests of absolute clarity, is the Governments reason for resisting the Lords amendment based solely on the perceived likely reduction in the level of registration? If it can be demonstrated that individual registration is far and away the best means of protecting against fraud, will the Government reconsider whether there are alternatives for tackling the slightly lower levels of registration that might result?
Bridget Prentice: I said at the outset that, in principle, we accept individual registration; we do not have a principled objection to it. However, it is clear that there are two issues that should be considered, the first of which is that the term of punishment for any offence relating to false registration will be increased from six months to 51 weeks. Some 3 million people are not on the register who should be on it, and if there were a 10 per cent. drop in registration in Great Britain, that would add another 4 million people to that figure. A register that has up to 7.5 per cent. of its eligible electors missing does not make a good register.
The Bill includes a number of important changes to the way in which registration and elections will be run, and the Government are confident that they will meet our objectives. However, we will keep the impact of this legislation under review and share the results of our evaluation with the House. This may also be an appropriate issue for the Constitutional Affairs Committee to consider, and we would welcome any such further scrutiny from it.
We will also consider whether further evaluation may be appropriate once the Law Commission has concluded its report on the use of a formal process of post-legislative scrutiny. The Government believe that this is the appropriate way forward, and I therefore hope that Members will reject the amendment.
Mr. Heald: We in this House must do everything that we can to tackle electoral fraud. Faith in our democratic process has been undermined by recent allegations. A judge has said that our system is wide open to fraud and similar to that of a banana republic. Only last week, election results in Coventry were questioned when it was found that people who were in Pakistan on the day of the vote somehow managed to vote in person at the polling station. I understand that there are currently no fewer than eight petitions in the High Court alleging electoral fraud in the recent local elections.
Parliament cannot ignore this problem, especially as we have always taken great pride in our democracy. We used to lecture the world about parliamentary democracy; now, we are in the dock, accused of complacency. Our system is criticised not only by the Electoral Commissionthat is an important factand by judges; it was also criticised by international election observers at the last general election, including those from Ukraine and Serbia. A few years ago, we would not have expected to have to take lectures from such countries about our system. That says a lot about how our stock has fallen.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): My hon. Friend mentioned that there are eight outstanding electoral petitions. Does he accept that, if the hurdle to tabling electoral petitions was not set so high in financial terms and in other ways, there would be many more of them? A number of petitions that barristers said would certainly have succeeded have not gone forward because of those financial and other barriers. The House should act to remove them.
Every authority that has examined this question has called for individual voter registration and personal identifiers. I strongly support Lords amendment No. 8, and I pay tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Hanham. The amendment simply requires a signature and a date of birth for everyone going on to the voting register. I am disappointed that the Government continue to drag their feet on this issue. I have always said that I prefer the system used in Northern Ireland, where national insurance numbers are used to verify registration. That is an excellent example to follow, and the Government have crowed about that system as an outstanding success story. A consensus must be reached, and it could be reached around Lords amendment No. 8.
The Government have already accepted that voters who apply for postal votes should have to give their date of birth and signature. That was a welcome concession, made in Lords amendment No. 7. However, if that is all right for postal votes, why cannot it be done more generally? Given that it is already accepted that two forms of identification are required for a postal ballot, why is not that an acceptable approach that could be used for identifying voters more widely? The amendment would require a signature and date of birth to be included in all voters registration, not only in that of postal voters. I would still like to see national insurance numbers added as a personal identifier for voter registrationindeed, I have argued myself into the ground about itbut in the interests of trying to achieve a consensus, I am prepared to leave it until another opportunity arises to get it on the statute book. I hope that that will not be as a result of another scandal of the sort that we have seen in recent months. We have to secure personal identifiers for voter registration generally.
Hon. Members will be aware of the Electoral Commissions campaign for individual voter registration and personal identifiers. From the outset
of proceedings on the Bill, it has called for personal identifiers. The Government have gone some way towards that, and we all welcome Lords amendment No. 7. However, in the commissions briefing for this debate it says:
The Commission is delighted that the House of Lords has voted to accept an amendment tabled by Baroness Hanham requiring applicants to provide signatures and dates of birth when registering to vote.
The amendment introducing personal identifiers for postal voting was introduced by the Lord Elder, a Labour peer, and it had the support of my noble Friend Baroness Hanham and of Lord Rennard, so we managed to reach agreement across the parties, which allapart from Labourwanted to make further progress. The recent alleged fraud in Coventry was the background to the debate in the other place and spurred them on. They did not want to see such things happening again. The Coventry example is just one in a long line of cases where identity has allegedly been impersonated at the polling station. The use of personal identifiers would go a long way towards protecting individuals from that kind of fraud.
collecting personal identifiers has the potential to improve security and integrity in the electoral process.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2006; Vol. 679, c. GC593.]
Schedule 1 requires voters to sign for their ballot paper at the polling station. The amendment would therefore introduce a useful check against fraud. Those registering to vote would provide a signature that would go on the register, which would then provide a check of whether the person signing for the vote was the same person who had registered. In circumstances such as those that allegedly occurred in Coventry, that would be extremely useful. I do not see how the provision of a signature at the polling station will be much use if there is no register of the original signature in the first place. What is more, our amendment would save voters the worry of finding a legitimate counterfoil to prove their signature in any fraud investigation.
There can be few legal forms that entitle one to do something but do not involve a signature and the provision of simple details, such as date of birth. It is suggested by some that it would be so difficult that it would put people off registering to vote. However, those of us who take a close interest in these matters know that people fill in forms for almost every activity in life and that they almost always have to sign their name and give their date of birth. How difficult is it for people to sign their names? That question shows how pathetic it is that this important change is not being made by all-party agreement.
During the Bills passage through the House, the Government accepted that a persons signature and date of birth should be used for postal voting, so how can it be said that the same requirement is too hard to be used elsewhere? My voter registration form from the London borough of Lambeth says that any change of
details must be backed up by a signature and a date of birth. Lord Rennard made the same point in the other place. Lambeth is an example of a Labour council already doing something that I am calling for.
Chris Ruane: Under the current system, people do not have to give their signature. Last Septembers Electoral Commission report on under-registration found that between 4 million and 4.5 million people were not registered to vote. Any requirement to supply a signature and therefore make filling in the form more difficult would cause the under-registration figure to increase to 5 million people.
Mr. Heald: I do not see why the hon. Gentleman should think that that would happen. For how many things in life are people required to sign their names? The answer is that they have to do so for almost anything. People have learned how to sign their names, even under the Labour education system. Even under Labour, they know when they were born. It is not too much to ask for such simple information.
Personally, I do not think that there is much harm in asking for a national insurance number, but I have given way on that because I want to achieve consensus. What the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said is old-fashioned. Not only does he clearly believe in the patrician system, with the head of the household filling in the form for everyone else, but he fails to realise what the real problem is. What happens when a registration form goes out to a flat or a house in multiple occupation? The person whose name appears on the form may well throw it in the bin. What happens if it goes to a father who thinks that the women in the house should not vote? The form may not even have those women listed.
The range of possibilities is wide because the current process works against the grain of modern society. People see themselves as individuals with rights. It is true that our society is consumerist in its thinking, but people do not believe that the head of a household should organise how that households members should vote. This is the 21st century, when we believe in one person, one vote.
It is about time that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd came up to date. Individual voter registration is proposed by the Electoral Commission, the body of independent experts set up by his Labour Government to advise on this very matter. Yet the Government have such utter contempt for its recommendations that they say that they are going to pick and choose between them. What a disgrace.
Chris Ruane: At present, between 4 million and 4.5 million people are not registered to vote. Last Septembers report from the Electoral Commission found that, in the main, they were unemployed, on low pay and living in council or social housing. They also included a lot of young people and people from the black and ethnic minorities. Is the hon. Gentleman so unconcerned about under-registration simply because people from those groups do not vote Conservative? If they lived in Acacia gardens as opposed to Corporation close, would he pay more attention to under-registration?
Mr. Heald: I am worried that the hon. Gentleman is letting his blind political prejudices get in the way of the obvious facts. People are not obliged to vote in our society if they do not want to, but getting them to register to vote requires a lot of hard work. People need to go out and canvass those homes, door to door. We used to do that in the old days, but we have made cutbacks and stopped doing that. That is what is neededactive campaigning to get people to register to vote.
We need to bear it in mind that people live in households as individuals and not necessarily with a [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd is harking back to a patrician world where the head of the householdthe father of the familyfilled the form in for everyone. The world is not like that any more. He needs to get up to date.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman talks about campaigning to get people to register, but his political party did not deliver a single leaflet in my constituency during the local elections. Does he accept that a large percentage of the 4 million to 4.5 million people who are not registered are young people? It is an interesting fact that, among young people, the rate of registration decreases as they enter their 20s, primarily because when they live at home the head of the household registers them, whereas when they move out they tend not to register. There is a real problem and until we sort it out, the effect of his amendmentalthough I have some sympathy with it in principlewill be to increase under-registration among young people.
Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands my point. I was not talking about political parties canvassing, although I think that that is vital to our system. I was talking about council officersthe electoral registration officer and his teamcanvassing door to door to encourage registration. He might not have come across that, but it used to happen: large numbers of people were employed to go out and canvass for registration. I did it myself before becoming politically active.
As for the hon. Gentlemans other point, part of the reason why people living in student accommodation and others in that age group do not register is that weor the Governmentstubbornly, or perhaps blindly, insist that the head of the household should be responsible for registration, so the authorities send the form only to the first person of whom they are aware living at that address. It may well be that, when the form arrives, it is simply tossed and four of the five people who are sharing the flat never hear anything about it. That is a problem that active canvassingreally going after those people and encouraging registrationcould help to solve. That is why I welcome later amendments in which we insist that electoral registration officers make a real effort.
Mr. Gordon Prentice:
We have to think laterally. Why can we not positively reward people for going on the electoral register? We could adjust the tax code of people in work, adjust the state pension of retired
people, or tweak the benefits of people who receive them. We could give people a lottery ticket for registering. Why can we not do that to encourage people to register?
Mr. Heald: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should work out the details of that suggestion and propose a scheme. We should consider all reasonable options to encourage people to register to vote. I am not sure how the lottery ticket idea would work, but incentivising people to register might be possible.
We should make a serious effort to get those who are not currently registered on to the register, but we should always bear it in mind that it is wrong to deal with matters such as the size of constituencies based on some back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many people may be entitled to vote in a certain area. The registration system must be what we rely on and I would like it to be much better in our country than it is now. The Government have accepted a requirement for a signature and date of birth for postal voting and it seems to me illogical that they will not go the whole way, especially given that the Bill requires people to sign for their vote at the polling station.
Door-to-door canvassing is an important part of electoral registration practice, and we need to improve what we do in that respect. I believe that a reason for the decline in the quality of our electoral registration system over the past 20 years is that local authorities have cut back in that respect. Certainly, they have felt squeezed and obliged to deal with other matters. Local authorities need to be able actively to canvass to achieve the best possible result. There is a great deal of disquiet about the potential for electoral fraud. It has grown significantly over the last few years. The Electoral Commission was set up to give independent advice on that issue. The House of Lordsthe other place; not the democratic Chamberhas said that this measure is necessary in the interests of democracy. The Government should not contemptuously ignore the Lords.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: I agree with an awful lot of that. There are dozens of MPs in the Commons who have majorities in three figures. I wonder about the integrity of the ballot and I have done for years. I think that there is a huge amount of fiddling and cheating going on. I am disappointed that the Government are resisting Lords amendment No. 8. The Minister drew our attention to some flaws in the amendment: there is no chief electoral officer in Great Britain, although there is in Northern Ireland. It is unfortunate that the Lords did not pick up on that point. I am heartened that she accepts the principle behind individual voter registration. It is clearly just the practicalities that the Government are concerned about, not the principle, which she has conceded. We have an Electoral Commission and its job is to police the electoral system. If it thinks that there is fraud and malpractice, it should blow the whistle and the rest of us should stand to attention when we hear it.
I thought that I would sit here and agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said, but I disagree with what he said about the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission is not there
to police; it is there to advise and to set out what the law is. It will not get involved in any way in policing accusations of fraud or questions that have been raised. That is for individual returning officers. The system falls down because there is no way of controlling the actions of an errant, or even corrupt, electoral returning officer. That is where we need to strengthen matters.
The Electoral Commission takes a view on the electoral system. As I said a few moments ago, if it believes that the system needs improving in some way, it will make recommendations. It made specific recommendations in the case of individual voter registration. The Government have moved towards that in part, but not entirely. I was left reflecting on what the response of the Electoral Commission should be. The Electoral Commission has been turned over by the Government before, when its recommendations have been put to one side. My view is that if the Electoral Commission thinks that this matter is important enough, its members ought to resignor Sam Younger ought to resign. That would make us all pay attention. If members of the Electoral Commission were to resign en masse, there would not be a dozen or two dozen people in the Chamber; it would be packed to the gunnels to discuss the issue.
The Governments position turns on the whole business of increasing voter turnout. I believe, as I said a few moments ago, that we need to think laterally about that. I would reward people. There is an alternative, put forward by our colleague, Lord Kinnock: compulsory voting. I am not in favour of compulsory voting, but that is one way forward. I prefer to reward people for going on the electoral register and to recognise that they are participating in a civic process, which should be rewarded in some way by the state. That has never been done here, and a lot of people probably think that the idea is zany and a bit eccentric. However, we must consider such solutions if we are to address the point that my friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) constantly makes about the number of young people and people from ethnic minorities and other groups who are not represented on the electoral register.
I take the point made by the Conservative Front Bench spokesman about international observers. I want international observers to policeif I may use that wordour domestic elections in the United Kingdom, but it is a sad state of affairs that I think that that is necessary.
Mr. Heald: While the hon. Gentleman is on the subject of international observers, those from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe advised that we should have individual voter registration in this country.
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