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Simon Hughes: As the hon. Gentleman and all of us in urban constituencies well know, we must be realistic about who is sent out to do any of these jobs. I am sure he, like me, knows pretty well at what times the automatic door entry systems open and close, and where to find every address barring those that have just come on to the register. If a couple of people are recruited for a month to carry out the electoral canvass, there is only a small probability of their knowing where all the entrances are and what is the best time to find people in, even with the best advice in the world. We need people who are part of the community and really
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know what is going on, even though they may have other jobs at other times of the year.

Another group of people who come into the community with entitlements to vote comprises those who become citizens. We now have citizenship ceremonies. People who are Irish, Commonwealth or European Union citizens with the right to vote here, depending on which kind of election it is, should be given the forms at that moment. If they are not already on the electoral register, they should not leave the town hall until they have been asked to sign up to become part of the electorate. We have to consider every possible proactive way of ensuring that every adult from all our communities who is entitled to vote is on the list.

The Lords amendment is logical. It has some risks, but those can be compensated for by taking all the other necessary steps. We have a huge shared duty to ensure that we do much better than we have in the recent past.

Chris Ruane: I fully agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) that Labour Members are as concerned as any others about electoral fraud, but we need to get things in perspective. When I tabled parliamentary questions on the number of cases of electoral fraud at local and parliamentary level, I was told that there were one or two a year out of an adult population of 45 million. That is one or two too many. On the other side of the balance, 4.5 million are currently not registered to vote. That is without having put in place any barriers whatsoever—no date of birth, no signature and no national insurance number. Every additional barrier that one puts in front of the registration process will result in additional people not being registered.

Simon Hughes indicated dissent.

Chris Ruane: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. It was proved in Northern Ireland that when barriers were put in place electoral registration dipped, and then it rose to 92 per cent.

Mr. Heald: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Electoral Commission looked at this and found that he is completely wrong. In previous debates, Members from Northern Ireland have explained that the system was subject to fraud in Northern Ireland and that the effect of the changes was to clean up the registers. How can he go on, time after time, saying something that is incorrect?

Chris Ruane: It is correct. Registration in Northern Ireland dipped to a percentage in the low 80s, and after a registration drive it went up to 92 per cent.

In the UK, with 4.5 million people missing from the register, the figure is 92 per cent., so we are starting from the base that Northern Ireland is currently at. Any additional barriers put in place will reduce that percentage. In Northern Ireland, 92 per cent. is an average. In many of the Belfast seats, which probably include the poorest communities in the whole of the
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UK, registration is at 70 per cent. In my constituency, the poorest registration area is central Denbigh, at 76 per cent. Some wards in Aberystwyth have 50 per cent. registration. That is completely unacceptable. We need to get those people on to the register. If we start to introduce barriers such as signatures, dates of birth and national insurance numbers, we will keep on adding to the number of people who are unregistered. We might go from 4.5 million to 7.5 million unregistered people, who will be concentrated in the poorest communities in the UK. We do not have a fully functioning democracy if 7.5 million of the most dispossessed people are off the register.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): We have already established that we all want maximum registration, but I am deeply worried by what Labour Back Benchers are saying. Yesterday, we were told by a Labour Back Bencher that people on council estates had a higher propensity to commit crime; now, the hon. Gentleman is making the deeply patronising assumption that because someone lives in a deprived area, they cannot sign their name in order to get a vote. I do not accept for one moment that that is a barrier, and if he insists that it is, he is basing his entire premise on a fiction.

Chris Ruane: They are not my opinions but those of the Electoral Commission, which is put on a pedestal by the hon. Gentleman. When it carried out detailed research on unregistered people—its findings were reported last September—it found that most unregistered people are unemployed, low-paid, in council housing, black or ethnic, or young. That matches my experience. When I ask for a breakdown of the electoral registration percentages in my wards, I find that the poorest wards are those most affected, and that the poorest streets in those wards have the greatest under-registration. We need to get those people back on to the register. It might suit the political advantage of the Conservatives, or indeed the Liberal Democrats, to keep 7.5 million people off the electoral register—

Mr. Heath: Hardly.

Chris Ruane: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the remark that I quoted earlier. When one of the leading Liberal councillors on Islington council was asked to support an electoral registration drive before this year’s local elections, he said, “We will not support it—that’s how we win elections.”

Mr. Heath: I will not accept that until the hon. Gentleman provides proof. Undoubtedly, people in the most deprived areas are least liable to register, for a variety of reasons. For instance, they often move more frequently because they are more likely to live in houses in multiple occupation. That is a reason to target those areas for increased registration drives, but to say that such people would be inhibited by having to provide a signature is deeply patronising and frankly incorrect.

Chris Ruane: As I said, even without having to provide a signature, date of birth or national insurance number, 4.5 million are not registered, and any additional barrier will increase that number.

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David Taylor: Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the core reasons why a substantial number of people are not registered is alienation from the political process, not difficulty in registering, which is simple? If parallel extra effort went into the registration process, would he be happier with the proposal from the other place about incorporating individual registration as an additional barrier?

6 pm

Chris Ruane: No, I would not be happy with that. I revert to my original point that any additional barrier will lead to greater voter under-registration. It is great if we can have party unity about the Bill, but it is not essential. Our proposal for getting 4.5 million people back on the register should be viewed in the same light as male emancipation in the 19th century and female emancipation in the 20th century. The Bill is in the great tradition of emancipating people and getting them on the register. It should be perceived in that way.

Some political parties will not want 4.5 million poorer people on the register because it is not in their political interest. That is probably why a leading Liberal Democrat councillor in Islington said what he did. The leader of such a council is on £50,000 a year and cabinet members are on £17,000 to £20,000 a year. Is it in their interests to have 10,000 extra poor people on the register who may not vote Liberal Democrat or Conservative—

David Taylor: Who may not vote at all.

Chris Ruane: Indeed.

Mr. Marsden: My hon. Friend, in his description of what happens in constituencies, has brought an air of practical, down-to-earth reality to the implications of the Lords proposal. Does he agree that, in the areas that he describes as deficient in voter registration, there has often not been a great push by local electoral registration officers and that, until we have the minimum standards that have been mentioned, it would be dangerous to follow a suck-it-and-see route only to find, too late, that 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. of an already small electorate had been lost?

Chris Ruane: I agree. Local authorities’ allocation of resources needs to be examined carefully. I tabled a parliamentary question which asked for the amounts of money spent by each local authority in England on electoral registration to be specified. The answer stated that the figures are not collected centrally. I asked my Labour Assembly colleague in Wales to table the same question. The information is collected centrally in Wales and, of the 22 authorities, lo and behold, those that spent the most per capita on registration had the best registration rates and those that spent least had the worst rates.

The Bill allocates an extra £17 million of resources to electoral registration. I ask the Under-Secretary to consider the matter carefully, because that extra money has not been ring-fenced but will be given as part of a local government settlement. I believe that, if £17 million of a budget of, for example, £120 billion is not ring-fenced, local authorities, perhaps of a
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different political persuasion, that have no interest in electoral registration, could cream it off. I therefore ask the Under-Secretary to look into that because registration is not only for local government elections but for European and parliamentary elections. The money should be ring-fenced.

Some members of political parties throughout the country will try to preserve their positions—as council leaders, cabinet members and so on—in a local authority and will not want more poorer people on the register who may threaten their incomes and livelihoods. We need to deal with local authorities that are dogmatic about the matter. When we say, “These are our new standards,” but they say, “We won’t obey them,” and when we say, “Here is the money,” but they say, “We won’t spend it,” we need a last resort. We need to tell truculent, politically motivated authorities, “We’ve given you the resources. Here are the new guidelines. If you don’t use them, we’ll give you one of three options. Because electoral registration is so poor, we’ll take the responsibility from you and give it either to a neighbouring authority or to the Electoral Commission, or we’ll privatise it.” We need to be as blunt as that with local authorities that refuse to implement the proposed legislation.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): The hon. Gentleman’s speech has been characterised so far by assertion without evidence. Will he identify those politically motivated local authorities to which he referred?

Chris Ruane: I am looking to the future. I have already mentioned one such authority—Islington, where a leading Liberal Democrat said that he would not support an electoral registration drive because of the way in which the party wins elections. I have therefore given one firm example—there will be others. However, I am also looking to the future. If we implement the Bill, introduce all the benchmarks and provide additional funding, and a politically motivated local authority pays them no heed because it is not in its political or financial interest to do so, there must be a last resort whereby we can say, “We’ve given you the tools to finish the job. You’ve refused, so we’re taking that responsibility from you.”

Simon Hughes: As somebody who represents a larger proportion of council tenants than any other Member of Parliament in England, who has campaigned for better registration, and who had a Labour council that did not do nearly enough but has done more in the past few years, let me say that we could all make party political points, but it is not helpful. A better, non-partisan point would be that local authorities should be given an incentive based on percentage of increase of validly registered electors. That could be reflected in some form of adjusted settlement so that, whatever the party and administration, an incentive exists to do a much better job.

Chris Ruane: Incentives are welcome but as well as a carrot, we need a stick to beat local authorities that refuse to obey legislation that the House has endorsed.
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I oppose Lords amendment No. 8. The Bill is long overdue and will result in getting a good proportion of those 4.5 million citizens back on the electoral register and participating fully in democratic life in this country.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): We have got on to a bit of a rollercoaster with postal voting. Like many hon. Members, when I first became involved in politics I found that we made a fetish of making it almost impossible for people to get a postal vote for an election, because by the time one had got around to trying to register someone, the date had passed.

I have therefore welcomed the general trend of making it easier for people to obtain postal votes. However, the Government clearly went too fast, in the teeth of opposition by the Electoral Commission. There have been several incidents of fraud, and public confidence has been knocked to the point where one or two people whom I know have been put off voting by post because they feel that the system is not as robust and trusted as it once was. I therefore welcome amendment No. 7 and the Government’s acceptance of it, because it is sensible to move to a system whereby people have to give their date of birth and signature.

I wish to raise some technical points. Under our system, we always involve political parties. As we all know, at the count, several ballots are questionable, and at the end, the returning officer calls the agents or candidates over and they go through the 20, 30, 50 or 100 that are not entirely clear. Although the final decision rests with the returning officer, whether something is counted or not depends on nods and assent from the political parties. The Under-Secretary said in her opening remarks that returning officers would check the ballots against their records and that rejection of ballots would be up to them. I presume that the political parties will still be included in the process.

At the end of the process of verifying postal votes, the handwriting on some will raise questions,—we all receive things through the post that are not entirely clear, and they are put in a pile. If the returning officer intends to reject something, the political parties are included at that point. Of 8,000 postal votes, there may be a genuine concern about the accuracy of a signature on 200 of them. In such cases, I personally would like the agents or the candidates to be involved in the process so that they can see how the returning officer is making decisions. So if there were widespread fraud or concerns about a number of the ballots, the political parties could be very much part of the process of dealing with that, and would not then be surprised if someone jumped up at the end of it to say, “I’ve rejected 1,000 ballots.” They would have been able to see the process taking place, which is important.

It is a pity that the Government will not accept Lords amendment No. 8, because individual registration is the way to go. We have talked in the debate about benefit, and there are benefits involved in being registered. Anyone who goes into Dixon’s or Curry’s and tries to get credit will know that one of the ways of judging whether they are worthy of getting credit to buy a hi-fi system or a TV is whether their
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name and address pop up in a search of the electoral register. However, I accept the argument that if we make the registration process more complicated, we might put people off. That is why, if we accepted Lords amendment No. 8, we should also have to have a package of measures to encourage people to register under the new system.

We have all had experience of electoral registration departments. They are usually underfunded and overworked. They have some very good-quality people working in them, but this issue is hardly the highest priority of most local authorities, which are struggling to deal with money and personnel and consequently have other priorities. One of the most productive things that we, as politicians across the House, could do would be to ensure that registration offices were better funded. Sometimes, when I look at the glossy brochures produced by the Electoral Commission, I think that some of that money would be better spent on registering voters at the sharp end.

I am attracted to the idea put forward by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). Why not give people some benefit for registering, beyond the one that I have just mentioned with regard to obtaining credit? It could be a lottery ticket, premium bonds or whatever. That could form part of a successful national campaign. It is in the national interest to get people to register.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: I have raised this issue with Sam Younger at the Electoral Commission—some colleagues present tonight were also at that meeting—and I think that he is minded to see whether it would be possible to have a pilot to test that idea.

Mr. Syms: That would be a useful way of proceeding.

The suggestions in the Lords amendments on postal votes are sensible, as are their suggestions on ordinary registration for voting. If those proposals were combined with a package of measures to provide people with an incentive to register, and if investment went into electoral registration, we could all support that.

Houses in multiple occupation were mentioned earlier, and we know that when polling cards are delivered to a building containing 40 or 50 flats and end up in the postal area in the basement, there are occasions on which they disappear. People then turn up at the polling station to discover that someone else has voted in their place.

I agree with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that these proposals are not a panacea, but they represent a small step forward. They will make those who want to commit fraud think again, because they will slightly increase the prospect of their getting caught and prosecuted. In particular, a system of registration for ordinary voters that involved the checking of a person’s date of birth in the polling station would provide a much better chance of catching people who are voting when they should not be. That would add integrity to the process. It would be a step forward, and it is a pity that the Government are not going to accept Lords amendment
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No. 8. That proposal, combined with the package of measures that Members on both sides accept would be necessary to implement it, would create a better and more robust system.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman made the point that electoral registration officers need the necessary resources to do their job effectively, and that they must not be prey to the whims of their political masters in county or city halls. The Bill will achieve that objective by placing clear duties on electoral registration officers and providing a clear requirement for them to have the necessary funding to perform their duties. There are also reserve powers in the Bill to ensure that that requirement is consistently applied across the country. So we can be assured that the situation will improve if the Bill is passed into law.

Mr. Syms: We can all welcome that. We are making progress. There will be some votes this evening, as we do not agree on everything, but in electoral terms, we are going in the right direction. Lords amendment No. 7 would certainly help people to feel better about the integrity of the postal voting system. It is a pity that Lords amendment No. 8 will not be accepted, but I suspect that this argument will run and run.

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