Previous Section Index Home Page

When the time comes, which will be no more than an hour from when we started by virtue of the guillotine, my colleagues and I will vote to uphold the decision that the House of Lords took the other day. We will do so for several reasons. As you know from your constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, and as we all do from ours, we have to get the balance right on maximising turnout
28 Jun 2006 : Column 300
and minimising fraud, both of which we want to do. I have checked the Library note to find out the turnout at the last general election. For reasons about which we could be mischievous, although I will not, the Northern Irish always have the best turnout. West Tyrone won, with over 80 per cent. of those who were registered voting—they must be congratulated. Indeed, the four constituencies in the UK with the highest turnout were all in Northern Ireland. The constituency on the mainland of the United Kingdom with the highest turnout was West Dorset, at 76 per cent.

However, sadly, there was a different situation in the constituencies at the bottom end of the league table. The turnout in Liverpool, Riverside was 41 per cent. The figure in Manchester, Central was 43 per cent. and it was 43.3 per cent. in Salford. The turnout in Glasgow, Central was 44 per cent., as it was in Liverpool, Walton. Two Hull seats—Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle, and Kingston upon Hull, East—both had a turnout of 45 per cent. The figure in Glasgow, North-East was 45.9 per cent, as it was in Manchester, Gorton, and the turnout in Leeds, Central was 46.2 per cent. I cite those figures entirely objectively without commenting on the Members for those constituencies or their parties, but people can obviously check what sort of seats they are. Those figures are not good. According to the Library note, the turnout in the recent local elections in England was 37 per cent., but there were huge variations. In my borough, turnout ranged from 25 per cent. to over 50 per cent. Since our debates began, we have also had the Power report to examine the way in which we can deal with both maximising turnout and minimising fraud.

Two bits of objective advice have been given to us, the first of which was from the Electoral Commission, which is the statutory body that has been set up to advise us. The Electoral Commission is in favour of personal identifiers for not only postal votes, but votes cast in person. If a body that we set up is meant to have authority, it seems to me that we should take it seriously and presume that its proposal is the right one, unless there is a good argument against that.

2.45 pm

Secondly, we have advice from the relevant Select Committee. “Electoral Registration”, the first joint report of Session 2004-05 of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee, said:

It also said:

The history of our debate shows that the Conservative party started by saying that national insurance numbers should be used, which we opposed. The joint Select Committee suggested that there should be a system that was halfway between what we have now and that more extreme proposal—having a signature.

28 Jun 2006 : Column 301

Mr. Heald: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that I still think that national insurance numbers would be an extremely useful safeguard. It is only because I have not been able to garner sufficient support from other parties that that proposal is not still before us at this stage. That is why I am compromising.

Simon Hughes: Of course. I was not trying to misrepresent the position of the hon. Gentleman or his party. However, we are in a period of compromise. I observe in passing that that idea might have been slightly discredited by the revelation that emerged recently, although some of us knew about it a long time ago, that a person does not need a legal status in this country to get a national insurance number. That somewhat weakened the argument for a national insurance number being adopted as one of the things that a person must prove.

The Lords amendment says that there should be two personal identifiers: the signature and date of birth. The joint Select Committee talked about one—the signature. Although we can debate the matter today only on the basis of those two identifiers, my constructive suggestion to the Minister is that we could reach an acceptable compromise in this Bill for this year—before we break for the summer recess, thus providing the time for the Bill to become law and take effect before next year’s important elections in Scotland, Wales and England—by agreeing to have the signature alone as the identifier this time. My colleagues in the Lords will talk with Conservatives and Cross Benchers, as well as Labour Members and Ministers, and I hope that we may be able to use that suggestion as the basis for an agreement. However, such a measure is not an option for us today because we have to have a final go to determine the position of this House.

We are not doing this for no purpose. I know of the sensitivities among Government Back Benchers—I have heard them. Some of the Minister’s colleagues are troubled. I would be troubled if I thought that the measure would put off from voting people whom we particularly want to encourage. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has been assiduous in trying to make the point, on our behalf, that it is a pretty unpleasant argument to suggest that the people who at the moment are not voting—the young, the elderly, those in areas of economic deprivation and those from our black and minority communities—are not doing so because they cannot write their signature or, if date of birth were included, because they cannot remember and fill in their date of birth. That is a patronising view. There are many reasons for young people not voting, but I have not yet heard anyone saying that it is because they cannot sign or will not sign. Indeed, I have seen research to the contrary. I have seen no evidence that an inability to sign is a reason for not voting in any of the other categories that are under-represented in the turnout.

Mr. Heald: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the patronising nature of those comments, but he would agree, I am sure, that the amendment that the other place has been sensible enough to send us makes provision for the electoral officer to dispense with requirements if somebody is disabled or has a problem.

28 Jun 2006 : Column 302

Simon Hughes: Absolutely, and indeed there are a few people who cannot write, and who normally put a cross or make a mark. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out.

We can have a more robust system, and we ought to do so. That would allow some cross-checking if there were suspicions about people registering. The Northern Ireland experience does not suggest that we will suddenly lose unjustifiable numbers of people from the register. What we will lose are the names of people who appear twice, those who stay on the register when they should not, those who remain on the register after they die and, as the hon. Gentleman reminded us, the occasional Mickey Mouse names, which people put down for a joke to see whether they will get into the system. There may be a temporary dip, but if the other good things in the Bill happen, hopefully the number still start to rise again and we will end up with increased registration. That is what we all want, and I and others have made specific suggestions to the Minister about how we can achieve it.

I end with a compliment to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). He has been assiduous in pressing for submissions to be placed in the Library, and they have now arrived. The coup in his research—“research” may be overstating the case; he made investigations—is that he was ahead of me in discovering that Labour Members have made submissions entirely contradictory to that of the Government. That is not unusual, but it is a helpful addition to the panoply of arguments. I hope that after we have debated the matter, and the Liberal Democrats have voted with others to sustain the Lords amendment and keep identification for voting in person, we can get a sensible outcome in the House of Lords so that we have to deal with the matter only once more, it can go on its way and we will have a better system in place ready for next year.

Mr. Syms: We have made a good deal of progress, and over the last few months there have been many things that those of us who care about these issues have been able to support. We are to have a much more secure system. The Government’s support for individual registration for postal votes is a good move; some of our greatest concern about recent cases has been to do with postal votes. It is just a pity that the Government will not take one more step and support individual registration for those who vote in person.

There are concerns out there. There are many blocks of flats and houses in multiple occupation where piles of cards go through the door and sometimes disappear. We all have examples of people who have turned up to the polling station to find that they are not registered, and they get angry. But people get really angry when they are registered, but find when they go to vote that somehow somebody has voted for them. In my years of politics I have known that happen, not very often but on the odd occasion, and if we can do something about it, we ought to.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about national insurance numbers. About 2 million or 3 million have been issued on a multiple basis. This is one of the least secure means of personal identification. I understand that we do not have an ideal identification method at the moment, but a system using signature and date of
28 Jun 2006 : Column 303
birth is sensible and will be easy to operate. Most electoral registration officers whom I run into are capable people, and I am sure that it is not beyond their wit to introduce that system for 2007.

If there were a problem and the Government were concerned, it would not be the end of the world if they agreed to the amendment and delayed the measure a little until they could introduce the system. They have already said that they are keeping the situation under review. We have heard from the evidence already given that there is widespread support throughout the political parties, and the question is when. Why not now? If the Government were to agree to the amendment, it would be a good thing because it would show them joining in the general consensus across the parties—except for the Scottish National party.

Mr. Greg Knight: My hon. Friend has touched on the view of the SNP. Is it not worth saying to the Member who represents the Western Isles that as the Lords amendment relates to England and Wales as well as Scotland, he should perhaps abstain?

Mr. Syms: I do not intend to go down that particular track, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. MacNeil: As the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, I say to the House that if the amendment affected only England and Wales I would, of course, abstain, as that is the SNP’s policy.

Mr. Syms: Excellent.

The Lords have considered the issue and given us an opportunity: they have given the Government an opportunity to think again. We should stick with the measure, because we all know that it is the right thing to do. Why not do it now rather than putting it off for a few more years, by which time there will be other examples of fraud which will annoy voters?

Bob Spink: I welcome the Bill; it contains some worthy measures. I congratulate the Minister on the way in which she has taken it through the House, and particularly on accepting a number of changes.

I fail to understand the Government’s rationale in resisting the amendment on personal identifiers for individual registration. It is perfectly normal for official or civic forms to require a signature; that is part of the normal requirements of modern life. The Government’s own electoral advice body, the Electoral Commission, gave clear advice that a signature and date of birth are essential, so I cannot understand the Government’s position. It would be extraordinary not to require a signature or mark—it defies common sense.

It is extraordinary that the Government feel that requiring a simple signature and date of birth as personal identifiers will be in some way obstructive, even though they plan to roll out the first identity cards, with three forms of biometrics, in 2008 and to make that work using a massive IT infrastructure.

My key point is that the absence of a requirement for a signature or mark and date of birth would invite further public distrust of the electoral system, and that would be a very serious matter. I urge the Minister to continue with the good progress that she has made in accepting decent changes to the Bill by accepting this decent change.

28 Jun 2006 : Column 304

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise to the House for the fact that I was unable to be here at the beginning of the debate; unfortunately, I was caught in a meeting, but that in no way diminishes my belief in the importance of this debate and the issue that we are deciding on this afternoon.

It is worth emphasising continually that everyone in the House accepts that, in principle and in a perfect world, it would be better to move to individual registration. I suspect that it would be better if we could have all sorts of other identifiers to ensure that everyone who voted in an election was the person who was meant to be voting. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, so we must balance contending pressures. On the one hand, we must ensure that electoral fraud does not take place, but on the other hand, we must facilitate the registration of the maximum number of people so that they can take part in elections. That is the essence of our debate.

3 pm

May I say at the outset that I am concerned about fraud and the cases that have been heard in court? However, at every election, whether for local, regional or national Government—I am sure that all hon. Members have had the same experience—many people come to my headquarters to say, “I’ve just discovered that I’m not on the register, and I can’t take part in the election.” We have made it easier in the past few years for people to register almost up to election day, but if I counted up all the people in that position, they would vastly outnumber the total cases of fraud brought to court. I do not wish to minimise legitimate concerns about fraud, but we must look at the overall context, because we would be concerned if people could not exercise their democratic right to vote in elections.

Mr. MacNeil: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is probably a strong argument for requiring the Government to undertake a canvass of the electorate to ensure that it is as comprehensive as possible on polling day?

Mr. Love: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, and I shall come to the question of an annual canvass. I shall draw on my own experience in my local authority—it is probably reflected in other parts of the country—as I have concerns that I wish to share with the House.

An enormous number of potential electors simply cannot exercise their democratic right because they are not registered when elections take place. I shall not go into the figures in detail, but everyone who has participated in our debates will know that about 4 million people are missing from registers nationwide, and that on average 8 per cent. of voters are missing from each electoral register. Of course, there are some registers from which few people are missing, but that is not the case in my Greater London borough. Some 20 per cent. of people are missing from registers in many parts of London, and it appears that we cannot do anything to improve the position and increase the number of people who register. That is the backdrop to Labour Members’ concern that any further hurdles facing people who wish to register will only make the situation much more difficult.

28 Jun 2006 : Column 305

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am not sure of the provenance of the figure of 4 million for unregistered voters, but does my hon. Friend not accept that the main reason for the lack of votes in ballot boxes is the fact that people who are on the register formally abstain from voting? Some 40 per cent. of the national electorate—16 million or 17 million potential voters—do not vote. Is it not even more important to address people’s alienation from the political process, as it is a great cause for concern? I support individual registration and the annual canvass, but we must tackle alienation more effectively, because it is at the heart of the problem.

Mr. Love: That is a big topic, and you would call me to order, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I went off at a tangent to discuss that interesting and critical subject. I will resist the temptation to do so, although I acknowledge the importance of my hon. Friend’s contribution.

Every time we debate this issue, the subject of electoral registration in Northern Ireland comes up. The figures show that there was a significant drop in registration following the introduction of additional identifiers in Northern Ireland, but it was partially reversed when a comprehensive canvass of electors was carried out. That suggests that the identifiers had a negative impact on registration in Northern Ireland, which, I emphasise, has a settled community. In a community with significant churn—for example, London—those difficulties are intensified. We can therefore say with some confidence that additional identifiers will dramatically reduce the number of people on the electoral register in cities such as London, as well as all major urban areas throughout the country.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman knows that I sympathise with the aim of ensuring that more people are put on the register, and I believe that there are different ways of achieving that. Does he accept that the evidence from Northern Ireland suggests that the names that were removed were largely those of people who should not have been on the register, or who had died? Consequently, was not the drop in registration a positive, not a negative?

Mr. Love: I accept that there were individuals in those categories who were taken off the register. However, I emphasise the point that after the numbers declined following the introduction of the identifiers, they began to grow once the comprehensive canvass took place, so, rather than the case described by the hon. Gentleman, a significant number of people must have been removed from the register because the identifiers presented a hurdle. It is that problem that concerns people more than anything else.

David Taylor: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. Is he aware of any academic research that compares the names that disappeared when individual registration was introduced with the names that reappeared? If there is a considerable correlation, there is substance to the theory that individual registration deters some people from submitting their names. Has any such research been done? It would be fairly easy to conduct, as the register is computerised.

Next Section Index Home Page