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6.15 pm

Mr. Betts : In many senses, this amendment goes to the heart of a real dilemma. There is general agreement on both sides of the House about where we want to get to on these issues. In principle, everyone is in favour of a safer and more secure voting system and, they say, of a higher level of voter registration. The fundamental problem is how we achieve that. I am not accusing Conservative Members of wanting under-registration. Equally, I hope that they will not accuse Labour Members who vote with the Government on this issue of being complacent or of wanting to see voter fraud continue.

We need to identify the fundamental problem with our electoral registration system. From all the data that we have—thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane)—we can conclude that the scale of under-registration is the fundamental problem. There are 4.5 million people who ought to be on our electoral registers but who are not. Given that attempts to improve that situation are at the heart of the Bill, we must think very carefully about any proposals that would make it worse, and probably draw back from them at this stage.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Everyone agrees with the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that there should be no question of bringing in measures that would result in real people disappearing from a register. Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that although the introduction of certain measures to cut out fraud would result in a reduction of the number of people on a register, they would not be real people? They would be bogus people, and bogus people cannot make up for real people who are not registering.

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Mr. Betts: Obviously, I am not in favour of bogus people being on any register. However, I am concerned that the present system allows for a massive amount of under-registration of real people, and that even more people might not register if we pursue the issue of personal identifiers and personal individual registration in the present circumstances. I want to see the most secure voting system possible, and I am in favour in principle of individual registration. I want us to get there in due course, but I want that to happen at a time when the level of registration is much higher, when more of the real people who are currently missing from the register are on it.

We can all go out and see, sometimes in local authorities of our own political persuasion, that the effort put into electoral registration amounts only to sending out two forms to households. In many cases, the forms do not get returned, but the system then gives up on those individuals. There are local authorities across the country that do not think that this is a priority. They do not put money into it, and most councillors are not awfully interested. All right, they have other things to do—they have education and social services systems to run and the environment to look after. Those are very big issues. The councillors concerned get lots of letters from their constituents about them, and they quite rightly respond to them.

Electoral registration often comes quite far down the list and, provided that there is no specific requirement for it to be put on the agenda and for electoral registration officers to carry out specific duties that can be monitored and scrutinised by the local council and the Electoral Commission, we shall continue to have the system that we have today. I accept that the Bill takes us forward in regard to trying to get the levels of registration up.

I hope that the Minister will give us reassurance on a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd. If we are putting extra money into the system, how can we be sure that it will be spent on the system? Some local authorities will take the grant and use it for other purposes. How can we be sure that the £17 million—and there will be questions as to whether that is enough—is spent on improving the system?

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed their concern whether, even if we improve the level of canvassing, it will really catch the people whom we are worried about, who do not fill in or send back the forms. It is that much harder when we are dealing with people living in houses in multiple occupation.

Chris Ruane: On targeting people who are the most difficult to get to register, will my hon. Friend reflect on a suggestion from Wales? Public or voluntary bodies that target socially excluded people on council estates, such as black and ethnic minorities or people on low pay, could ask, “And how about registration?” while carrying out their other work. Different bodies that are already active and have gained the trust of people in the community could also help with registration.

Mr. Betts: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Electoral registration officers should be imaginative in how they go about encouraging registration. Let us increase the canvass as well, although that will not do
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anything like 100 per cent. of the job. We have to deal with trying to get data and information from other sources, and that is in the Bill. When the data protection people gave evidence to the Select Committee hearings, they were not worried about cross-matching data provided that it was clear from the initial collection what purpose it would be used for—that is the issue.

There is a genuine concern not only that electoral registration officers are not currently cross-matching data to which they have access within the local authority, but that they may need to access data outside the authority. In some cases, local authorities wanting to obtain data on young people becoming 18 can go to their own schools. In my constituency, most young people becoming 18 are based in the college, which is outside the local authority, rather than a school within it. How can we stop the problem of bias in the system, which means that data can be captured in some authorities but not in others?

Stock transfers of houses are another problem. Local authorities can access data on their own council tenants before such a transfer, but I am not sure whether they can afterwards. I do not know, but the question has to be answered. Housing associations are sometimes set up to take over stock transfer properties and they take over documentation and data about tenants with them. Those are the sort of problems that have to be dealt with. How can we ensure that access to data and cross-matching goes wider than the local authority, into the rest of the public sector and probably outside it into organisations such as the utilities and the Post Office?

I now come to the crucial point. I believe that the Bill is a halfway house in a number of senses. Eventually, we want to get to individual registration, but we want to do so with a much fuller registration system in which we can be certain of getting the registration percentage into the higher 90s just like the Australians, who reach 98 per cent. They do not rely on canvassing as the primary means of drawing up the register; rather, they rely on data from a range of sources. They rely on the utilities, postal services, local authorities and other bodies to give information to electoral registration officers—in Australia there is an electoral commission for each state. All the information from those bodies is used to establish when people have moved in or out of properties, when people have become 18 or died and so forth. They check whether the information is correct and draw up the data on that basis.

The Australians ask why, in this country, we bother with annual registration when we get forms back, by and large, from people who have lived in a property for 20 years, rather than capturing data from people who change their property regularly, sometimes annually, particularly in the private rented sector. The Australians concentrate on households where the information has changed from one year to the next. They follow that up closely and ensure that it benefits the registration process. Better use is made of registration officers’ time because their efforts are spread throughout the year rather than for three or four months with little concentration of effort for the rest of the year.

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We have a lopsided system that, to use the currently in-vogue jargon, is not fit for purpose. The Bill is a great step forward in giving more powers and responsibilities to electoral registration officers, but it takes us only part of the way there. I would like us to think about consulting on a new Bill, perhaps in three or four years’ time, which deals with how best to move towards the Australian system, while tightening up the security of the voting system by taking individual registration into account.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman has outlined some very good ideas, but I hope that he accepts that there are good things that electoral officers and their teams could do now. Forms could be placed with estate agents or solicitors who do the conveyancing or sent out with Inland Revenue or social security material, or sent with all the other items delivered through our letterboxes. It just requires some lateral thinking about how to reach people as they move, arrive or connect in various ways with the authorities.

Mr. Betts: I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. I am all in favour of every imaginative way possible to try to improve registration and put registration forms in front of people, but we must consider the fact that we are trying to improve a system that is not the best fundamental system for registration purposes.

Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend consider the situation in my constituency, where 6,000 voters in purpose-built student accommodation are block registered by their landlords, who never consult the students concerned? This year, the registrar of the university of Newcastle refused, on data protection grounds, to register 3,000 students in their own accommodation. The electoral registration officers, seeing 3,000 voters disappearing off the register, prevailed on him to block register the students again. At no stage in the process was a single student consulted about whether he or she wanted to be on the register.

Mr. Betts: The reality is, of course, that there is a legal requirement for people to register, so I am not sure whether consulting people on whether they want to register is the legal position. I am in favour of universities co-operating in the business of registration. In some cities, one university co-operates and another does not. That creates an imbalance in the figures. I am in favour of electoral registration officers being able to gain access to information from universities. Co-operating in a process that involves a legal requirement to register should be encouraged. Electoral registration officers should have access to that information, and universities and others ought to have a responsibility to provide it.

I am sure that my final point will not receive any agreement from Opposition Members. We can make improvements with the Bill, but not necessarily reach the ideal position. When we come to the further Bill, which I hope will come about in three or four years’ time, we will be developing a form of registration that will be ideal for the purpose—it goes with the creation of the identity card scheme. That will eventually
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provide the basis on which we can create an accurate register— [ Interruption. ] If Opposition Members are concerned about voter fraud and people trying to register twice or three times, they should consider the fact that a national identity card register, with only one identity for every individual, is a sure-fire way to get 99.9 per cent. registration on the most secure basis possible. I hope that Opposition Members will eventually understand that point.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) latterly proposed, perhaps not wholly seriously, a rather imaginative idea for advancing his cause. I agreed with much of his speech, frankly, especially on the need to improve our data, and he has some imaginative ideas about how to do so. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) made similar points in saying that many people are not on the electoral register.

I understand where Labour Members are coming from, but do they not recognise that, in effect, we politicians are bound, to some extent, to be biased on this issue one way or another. My hon. Friends and I are perhaps more concerned about fraud; Labour Members are perhaps more concerned about under-representation. However, the fact is that the Government contracted out such things to the Electoral Commission, which is an independent body, and it came up with a view of how we should look at our electoral system. It made suggestions and recommendations—for example, on individual registration and using personal identifiers on a larger scale—and the Government were willing to accept them.

The Government found a way out of such problems by using an independently established body, which can take an objective view. That body has existed for five or six years. The problem with the proposals from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe is that, once again, they kick things further and further into the future. Do we want to go on for ever trying to improve or change what we have got? Are we no longer prepared to listen to a perfectly respectable independent body, which the Government set up? It seems a great pity that the Government are not prepared to accept its advice and suggestions.

Bridget Prentice: This has been an excellent debate, which, as expected, has reflected the strong views held on both sides of the House.

On the question of fraud, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) mentioned yet again the judge who referred to our system as being like that of a banana republic. I remind him that that unfortunate and terrible phrase was used about the situation before 2004, and a number of measures have been put in place since then. On the whole, therefore, the elections this year reflect that we have tightened up on the abuses that took place in Birmingham.

6.30 pm

I hope that every Member of the House believes in zero tolerance in response to anyone who abuses the system through fraudulent registration or voting. That is why the Bill increases the penalties for such
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behaviour. Several Members referred earlier to the registration form being sent to the head of household. In fact, it is not sent to the head of household—we do not use such Victorian terms—but to the occupier.

On the issue of fraud versus the register, which seemed to be a theme throughout the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) referred to petitions. At present, eight petitions are before the courts, four of which are about election fraud, while the other four are about other election issues. The Coventry petition relates to about 10 electors, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd rightly pointed out, should be compared with the 3.5 million to 4 million people who are not on the register. Therefore, while we all agree that fraud is bad and dangerous, we should look at it from the perspective of the number of elections that took place this year, the number of people involved in those elections, and the fact that a huge number of people are not yet on the register. That is why we have approached the issue as we have done. We have tried to be proportionate and to strike a balance, which is why we have accepted the Lords amendments on identifiers for postal votes.

I agreed with virtually everything that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, apart from his comments about personal identifiers. As he and I represent inner-London seats, we know exactly the problems that people face in getting on the register. It is not a case, as his hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, of being patronising about those living on council estates or in houses in multiple occupation, the unemployed, young people and black and ethnic minorities. Their disfranchisement, as we know, relates not just to the register but to a variety of issues, and their disfranchisement from the register arises in a sense from all of those. It is therefore important that we try to get those people on to the register, as well as doing all the other things on the Government’s social exclusion agenda.

Mr. Heath: To correct the record, I made it absolutely plain that it was not remotely patronising to point out that such groups are under-registered and that there is a real need to address that under-registration. I said that it was patronising to suggest that asking those particular people for a signature would significantly deter them from voting, whereas it would not deter the rest of the population. I hold to that view.

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is, of course, entitled to his view, and I think that he is wrong.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey made several positive points about the variety of ways in which we can and should encourage people to vote. I agree with the idea of a democracy day. I hope that after the Bill is passed by the House and the other place, we can engage in some cross-party lateral thinking about the creative methods that can be used to get people to register and to participate actively in citizenship.

On data sharing, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) is right that returning officers already have at their disposal a huge variety of ways of using that. Sadly, a number of them do not
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take advantage of those. Perhaps obstacles are put in their way by other organisations that could be more positive. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey alluded to a possible role for estate agents, solicitors’ offices and so on. Of course, when people move into an area and register for council tax, there is no reason whatever why the local authority should not send out a registration form with its council tax bill.

On the issue of the canvass, the Bill includes measures on physical canvassing. I suspect that I am no different from many Members in that when the canvasser comes around, I am not in—I might be out canvassing myself. In the 15 years that I have lived in my current house, I have only been in once when a canvasser has knocked on the door, on a Sunday afternoon. My local authority allows me to register by telephone, which is another way in which people can ensure that they are on the register.

On funding, I had a lot of sympathy with what several colleagues said. We have been relatively generous in relation to funding—around £21 million will be provided to cover the costs of the Bill. All the returning officers and electoral administrators with whom I have had conversations feel that that money, if it reaches them, would cover their costs. The funding is not ring-fenced, however, and they are aware, like a number of my colleagues, that local authorities sometimes use the money for other items. As has been pointed out, the Bill also introduces performance standards that will be overseen by the Electoral Commission. We will also ask for accounts showing the amount of money spent on the election process. I hope that those measures will help to counter any temptation by local authorities to spend the money on something other than electoral registration and so on.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) was concerned about errant returning officers. The Representation of the People Acts include provisions to prosecute returning officers if they breach their duty. As I said, the Bill also includes performance standards, which will be set by the Electoral Commission. That will help to improve the standard of electoral administration.

The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who made a thoughtful speech, asked about the verification of postal votes. I assure him that candidates can be present at the checking of disputed postal votes. Details of that will be included in the regulations. He also welcomed the fact that the Government are moving in the right direction, as did a number of other colleagues. That is true—the Bill moves us forward both by tightening up the system to counter any possibility of fraud and by tackling under-representation in this country. I hope that Members will support the Bill in that respect.

Simon Hughes: I realise that the Minister is approaching the end of her speech, but may I ask her to consult on another matter? People become very frustrated when, having turned up at a polling station, they discover that they are not on the register. At that moment, they ought to be given a form and asked to fill it in and leave it there, or at least given a form to take away. If we could make people’s bad experiences at
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polling stations far less frequent, gradually over the years there would be a more positive response from those who currently feel that they are not wanted.

Bridget Prentice: Again, the hon. Gentleman has made an important point. I hope that, in further discussions with the Electoral Commission and in cross-party discussions, we shall be able to consider the practicality of some of his proposals. I believe that we should make it as easy as possible for people who should be on the register to be on it. That means—in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice)—thinking laterally. Perhaps there should be incentives; who knows?

I reiterate that the Government do not feel ready, at this stage, to accept personal identifiers across the board. We do think that they are appropriate for postal votes, and I therefore commend the Lords amendments on postal vote identifiers, which received cross-party consensus. I hope that we can make progress on the rest of the Bill in a consensual way, but I ask Members to reject Lords amendment No 8 when it is put to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 8.

Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.— [Bridget Prentice.]

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