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13 Jun 2006 : Column 670

Mr. Prentice: If the Electoral Commission and international observers are recommending that, and given that the Government accept the principle, but will not embrace the system for practical reasons, the argument is made.

I rely on my own experiences on this matter, as I do on many other issues. At the time of the last general election, my Liberal Democrat opponent, Shazad Anwar, had two sisters and a brother registered at his home in Pendle, although the election literature referred to only Shazad Anwar and his wife, Raisa. We checked the electoral registers for Pendle and next-door Burnley, where Shazad Anwar’s father lived. The same two sisters and the brother were also registered in Burnley. Exactly the same thing had happened the year before: two sisters and a brother were registered at Kibble grove in Brierfield and the same two sisters and a brother were registered in Burnley.

When the matter was drawn to the attention of my Liberal Democrat opponent, he told the Nelson Leader, just a few days before the general election on 29 April 2005:

How one can send off a registration form without realising that it records people who do not actually live in a house beats me.

That situation brings me back to a point made by the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) with which I agree 100 per cent. In the 21st century, we should not be relying on the quaint 19th-century concept of heads of household. It is absolutely absurd in this day and age that we expect one person who is designated as the head of household to certify that other people in the house should be on the electoral register. I am disappointed that the Government and the Minister have taken such a view on Lords amendment No. 8, because we are missing a great opportunity to clean up our electoral system.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): We are having an important debate that has carried on up and down the corridors of this building since the Bill was introduced. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who is in the Chamber. He started looking after the Bill on behalf of the Liberal Democrats and will continue to help me today as part of his other responsibilities. He and our colleagues at the other end of the building have been extremely diligent in working with Members of other parties to try to ensure that we get this matter and—as far as possible—electoral law right.

Although I picked up the baton on the Bill, I had an interest in it before and kept a watching brief. I pay tribute to the three Ministers involved in the passage of the Bill, who have been assiduous in ensuring that we all at least understand what we are trying to achieve, even if we sometimes disagree: the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who is in the Chamber; the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman),
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who is my neighbour; and Baroness Ashton of Upholland, who looked after the Bill in the Lords.

The controversial aspect of the group of amendments is the fact that the Government wish to persuade the House to disagree with the Lords in Lords amendment No. 8. I will set down our position immediately. We will vote with those on the Conservative Front Bench and, I anticipate, some Labour Members to uphold what the Lords did when they voted by a majority of 23 for the principle of individual voter registration not just for postal votes, but for other votes as well. My noble Friend Lord Rennard set out why we would do that. We have adopted that as a party policy position and it would be impossible not to support it when it comes before us as a proposition in law. So we will vote to keep the Bill as the Lords amended it and will vote against the Government.

I understand the issue acutely. I want the hon. Member for Ruabon—

5.30 pm

Chris Ruane: Vale of Clwyd.

Simon Hughes: Somewhere beautiful up in north Wales, which we all know well.

Chris Ruane: You are supposed to be Welsh.

Simon Hughes: I am indeed, and I have been there often. I just could not remember the latest title of the hon. Gentleman’s important constituency.

I understand the issue that exercises the hon. Gentleman, as it exercised the Minister of State and as it exercises me. There is still something rotten—not functioning—in the state of electoral registration in Britain and in the state of our democracy. One option is compulsory registration. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) alluded to it, and it is an argument that people have made. I have resisted it. I do not agree with it, and nor do my colleagues. However, even that would not be perfect because we could have compulsory registration in theory, but not everyone who was meant to register would do so. Let us not delude ourselves. It would not mean that every person who was entitled to a vote was registered, let alone voted. In theory, however, we would get a bigger turnout.

Part of the reason why compulsory registration is not a good system is that it conceals the positive or negative response to the electoral process. Turnout goes up in close or important elections, and we can see that. If politicians are not responding to the electorate well, turnout goes down. In the local elections in our borough of Southwark last month, the turnout varied from something in the order of 25 per cent. in one ward to more than 50 per cent. in another. It depends on local circumstances.

Chris Ruane: The hon. Gentleman mentions the local elections last month. He has an enlightened view on maximising electoral registration. What would he say to the leading Liberal Democrat on Islington council who, when asked for his group’s support for an
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electoral registration drive before those elections, said that it would not support it, and that is how it wins elections?

Simon Hughes: I do not know the quote and would want to check it, out of loyalty to my friend. If that is what he said, it is not my view. I am on the record as saying to the Minister of State, across the Floor of the House, that we need much more effective ways of getting people on to the list. I will suggest two.

I share the view of the hon. Member for Pendle. There is serious merit in considering the idea that we might give somebody a discount on their council tax for being on the electoral register. I take the view, as hon. Members would expect me to, that we have moved on from the patrician days when somebody registers on behalf of the household. We need individual responsibility, with people registering at the age of 18. However, we need to do many other things to get people on the list. First, as people cross the threshold into voting age—my party takes the view that that should be 16, not 18—they should be automatically registered from the beginning by the institution, college or school that they attend.

Secondly, from the moment that they are on the register, there could be an incentive of a discount on council tax. It would be small, but worth having, like the vouchers for computers for schools. Vouchers for small amounts are worth having and we redeem them. I got some in the paper the other day to give me free editions of World cup posters, supplements and so on. It is 40p off and worth having.

Thirdly, and most importantly, as I have told Ministers before, the only way in which we can achieve a significant increase in annual registration is to conduct an annual campaign. In February, which is usually 28 days long, but is 29 days long every fourth year, we should count down through newspaper, radio and television adverts to “democracy day” on 1 March. During that period, campaigners sign up voters at bus stops, and outside railway stations, supermarkets, pubs and football grounds in a huge effort to increase registration. Such a campaign should happen regularly because, with the best will in the world, canvassers are never entirely successful in their efforts at registration. When I was in the Minister’s constituency on the day of the marathon, canvassers were struggling to find addresses in Blackheath. I remember canvassing in the Northfield by-election and trying hard to find addresses—it took me 20 minutes to go round the back of a block of flats, up a ladder and over a roof before I found Nos. 63 to 92 Bristol road south. It is sometimes difficult to find addresses but, when one does so, lots of people are not in, as more and more individuals do not keep conventional hours.

Chris Ruane: They are working, under a Labour Government.

Simon Hughes: Or they are travelling on EasyJet. They are certainly not in, even if they are not working. They may be in bed and not answering the door, because they think that the caller is someone else.

Trying to encourage people to register is a serious issue. In my constituency, there is a serious problem of
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under-registration. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) is right, as is the Minister of State, that the poor and less well educated, the young and people from black and minority ethnic communities are usually significantly under-represented.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman could add to those under-registered groups people who live in houses in multiple occupation, which are common in my constituency, many other seaside towns and inner-city areas. How will a proposal for individual registration assist efforts to put such people on the register?

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Blackpool is an obvious example, as are many student towns and cities. Hon. Members may not be aware of the fact, but every year in my constituency, which is a couple of miles from the House, a quarter of the electorate move house. They do not all move out of the constituency—

Mr. Gordon Prentice: They are trying to get away from the hon. Gentleman.

Simon Hughes: In case that is reported in Hansard, I must explain that they are not doing that—usually, they want to stay and upgrade. About 25 per cent. of people in my constituency move because they want a bigger place or choose to live somewhere else. We must therefore make it easier for them to re-register, and we should not rely on a canvass officer bumping into them on their doorstep, as that does not usually happen. The chance of their being in when the officer comes round so that they can fill in the form is very small indeed.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman appears to be speaking against the proposition that he supports. People are required to return their electoral registration form, but we do not implement that requirement, so compulsion is not the answer. However, to take up the point that he has just made, people who canvass my constituency, where more than 9,000 people are missing from the register, say that, for various reasons, it is increasingly difficult to contact electors. My electoral registration officer says that if individual voter registration is introduced, it will decimate the register. Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to accept the fact that the 9,000 people missing from my register will increase to 18,000? I suspect that the increase will be even higher in his constituency.

Simon Hughes: I am sure the numbers are significant, but by definition one does not know what they are. Of course I do not want the number of registered voters reduced. I share the concern about what we should do, and I have suggested various ways of increasing registration.

The other side of the argument is how we avoid fraud and the abuse of the system. Every year when I look at my electoral register, I know for a fact that
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names are repeated and that the names of people who have moved or who have died still appear. It is not an up-to-date list that records the position at the beginning of the electoral year. Again, that is more often the case in urban than in rural areas.

On balance, the argument should be that people must take, and know that they have to take, personal responsibility. The starting point should be that they register either once or annually, and that they register in their own name. The question is whether the proposal that the Lords have passed into law and which is included in the Bill will have a significant downward effect on voting. The fact that the form goes in with the person’s signature and date of birth substantially reduces the likelihood of that. If there were no other circumstances, my judgment is that voting would not be affected much, if at all, for the reason given by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and others.

On any official form people generally expect to sign their name and, although I am not in favour of data being collected unnecessarily, often give their date of birth. For people who have come from the developing world and may not know their date of birth, it is traditional that they give as their date of birth 1 January of the year in which they were born. That convention is generally accepted. There is no problem with people who do not know their specific date of birth, or who have come as refugees and do not have their birth certificates.

We need to watch closely what happens. The Northern Ireland experience is relevant, but not entirely parallel. We are trying to overcome all the shortcomings and defects with a single piece of legislation. We want a better campaign to recruit people on to the list. We want to give them incentives to go on the list. We want to make it easy for young voters to go on for the first time. We may also want to do one other thing, which is where the difficulty has arisen.

At present, electoral registration officers have the choice whether to keep somebody on the list at the end of the year or take them off if they cannot check their eligibility. We need a better system to ensure that people can confirm that they are where they used to be, without necessarily having to go through the rigmarole of filling in the form, signing it and providing their date of birth. Suppose someone is away when the form arrives. A business man in my constituency, for example, went to India the other day. He may want to vote, always votes, but was not at home at the time. He needs an easy way of checking whether he is on the list. There is a package of things that we need to do, but we must avoid what most brings the system into disrepute—fraud and abuse of the system.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman said that he supported the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) of worthwhile incentives for people to register, but he will not want to ignore the significant cost that would be associated with that. Even the worthwhile sum of, say, £10 per registration would mean £750,000 in a typical constituency, and £2 million in a London borough containing two and a half constituencies. Ought that not to be funded centrally, because it is in the national interest that we have the highest level of registration possible?

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Simon Hughes: Indeed, or it would be unfair on local authorities with different needs. Areas with the more difficult, the more mobile and the more transient populations—student towns, university towns, seaside towns and inner cities—would suffer most.

Mr. Marsden: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Has he not exposed the problem with individual registration in his remarks about electoral registration officers and how they deal with voters who cannot be contacted? He is right to say that some keep them on and some keep them off. We are entirely dependent on the degree of registration and participation, and on the commitment of individual electoral registration officers to the process. Unless the House is prepared to set minimum standards, that situation will be made even worse by individual registration.

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome has watched the Bill closely from the beginning, and he says that it will help with that matter. Nobody is pretending that we will get a perfect system after the Bill is enacted, but a lot of the proposals which come from the Electoral Commission, the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and other places concern that process.

5.45 pm

We should do much better in modern Britain, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire has said. For example, why do we not have lots of people out on the streets in towns such as Blackpool in February, which I have been told is the last month in which it is manageable to conduct such activities in time for a May election? We may not get people to fill in forms at midnight on a Friday, but it is possible to catch them at the bus stop on their way to work. We must try very hard by, for example, visiting FE colleges, guesthouses and businesses. We should also use technology by asking people for their e-mail addresses in order to check annually whether we have got their residential addresses right, which might be more convenient for them.

We also need to keep the system under review. After next year’s local elections in England and the elections in Scotland and Wales, the local elections and London elections in the following year and the European elections across the United Kingdom in the year after that—there will probably be a general election in that period, too—we should be able to see whether the proposals have had the effect that we all want or whether we are still failing. If we are still failing, we may need to do other things, but we should start from the basis that people should have to start the ball rolling themselves by signing and submitting a form.

We need to agree a convenient system for keeping people on the register. The process should be led by the customer—the voter—rather than by bureaucracy.

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in countries in which the register is more accurate such as Australia and, indeed, Northern Ireland, it has not proved necessary to re-examine the register every year, because it is possible to maintain an accurate register
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by using the methods that he has discussed? Data matching is another way to use technology. A lot of councils have got plenty of information about the people who are not registered, and data matching across the council’s information is a useful way to ensure that as many people as possible are registered.

Simon Hughes: There are some dangers down that road. I am always nervous about the Big Brother state collecting information for one purpose before passing it on for another, which is a point that applies to both central Government and local government.

Bob Spink: The important point concerns avoiding fraud in order to maintain and rebuild public confidence in our precious electoral system and democracy. The hon. Gentleman speaks for the Liberal party, but there is cross-party support for the concept that all fraud, particularly where it involves a candidate or agent, should always be investigated by the police and referred to the courts by the Director of Public Prosecutions. That is the only way in which we can rebuild confidence in our electoral system in this country, which is sadly lacking at the moment.

Simon Hughes: That is one area in which zero tolerance is appropriate. People should know that if they abuse the system by which we run our democracy, they are at risk of prosecution, conviction and, potentially, serious and exemplary punishment. If the person involved is locally elected or holds office in the community, one would expect an exemplary punishment to be imposed.

There are currently eight petitions on that point, but that may be the tip of the iceberg, because it is difficult to launch an electoral petition. I am sure that there are many other places in which the electoral register and those who voted did not accurately reflect who turned out on election day.

Mr. Love: There is as much concern about fraud among Labour Members as among any other Members, but certain balancing factors must be taken into account. I want to issue a health warning in relation to the siren voices that use Australia as a comparison, as it has compulsory voting. The situation in Northern Ireland is apposite, because it has a settled population, whereas London does not. If an equivalent decline in the number of people registered in Northern Ireland occurred in a non-settled population such as that of London, that would be catastrophic.

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