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Such trends are well known by those who are locally and nationally politically active, and they form the subject of comment and debate by bodies such as the
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Hansard Society and of reports such as that of the Power inquiry. Having set up the Electoral Commission with the express responsibility of promoting public awareness of, and involvement in, the democratic process, hon. Members should be worried that, five years on, we have a crisis in registration and democracy deserts, with young people and people in deprived areas being uninterested in our democracy and unwilling to vote or to try to influence decision making. Happily, there are measures in the Electoral Administration Bill to start to remedy the problem of registration and to give returning officers more powers to improve access to voting and promote participation.

The Electoral Commission has presided over a slide in registration and has done little that has been truly effective to halt the decline in turnout. Additionally, the commission has quite wrongly argued for amendments to the Electoral Administration Bill that might lead to an even greater decline in registration. It has backed individual registration despite knowing that when such a system was introduced in Northern Ireland, it caused a 10 per cent. dip in registration.

Mr. Heald: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Barbara Keeley: No. We have spoken about these matters a great deal during our consideration of the Bill.

When I spoke on the matter on Second Reading last October, I recalled that an electoral registration officer for the Trafford local authority had said that, in his view,

to requests for individual registration, especially the poorest responding groups, such as young people. The registration officer for Salford local authority said more recently that he thought that moving to individual registration would have an impact on the register that would be

because it would make the registration numbers drop like a stone and they would not recover for many years.

I have referred to the cohort identified by the Electoral Commission of young people who do not register or vote when they attain voting age and become less and less likely to register and vote. That links to targets that the commission has set, so I am surprised that it has taken such a stand on registration over the past eight or nine months.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Barbara Keeley: No.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life is conducting an inquiry into the Electoral Commission and has asked about the balance of the division of responsibilities between the commission and other public bodies when promoting public awareness of, and participation in, elections. The balance is not working well at present. Propensity to vote, which is a key aspect of the Electoral Commission’s targets 2 and 3 on the increased or maintained likelihood of voting, is measured at 52 per cent. Surprisingly, the most recent
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report shows that the commission did not until this year establish measures of public awareness on how to cast a vote, where to find out about practical arrangements for voting, and why it is important to vote. Those are key measures to have waited six years to establish.

So we have very low levels of public awareness of, and declining levels of involvement in, our democratic process. On target 3, the percentage of the public who feel that they know about politics has fallen from 45 per cent. to 39 per cent., so the key indicators are in decline.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Is the hon. Lady aware of the huge amount of research showing that there is enormous—in some respects, unprecedented—public involvement in politics? I am thinking of the volume of correspondence to MPs, the great increase in activity on the internet and young people’s extensive knowledge of, and involvement in, single-issue politics. Is not much of the problem the failure of political parties to appeal to young people, rather than young people deciding to dissociate themselves from politics altogether?

Barbara Keeley: No, I do not agree. I have been heavily involved in a single-issue organisation—Amnesty International—for more than 20 years. Indeed, my husband used to chair the local group, but when he gave it up nobody else was willing to do it. Despite claims of increasing membership of such single-issue organisations, we found that, in the entire borough area that we served, it was very hard to get six, seven or eight people even to attend meetings. People will sign the odd postcard and send messages on the internet, but they will not contribute in various ways to the running of such organisations. That happens not only in political parties and single-issue campaigning groups, but in scouts, guides and volunteering organisations. So I do not agree that the problem lies with political parties; it is a problem in our society that the Electoral Commission was charged with addressing, but which it has not addressed fully.

A further question relating to the Electoral Commission is governance, which has been touched on, and I want to comment briefly on the restrictions on who can be an electoral commissioner or, indeed, work for the commission. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) raised this issue and I agree that the situation needs to be reviewed. There is growing recognition that the restrictions are unworkable. A national body is charged with regulating political parties and their finances—a complicated issue, currently—advising those involved in elections and reporting on major elections; yet knowledge and experience of party structures, organisation, fundraising and campaigning are disqualifiers for either governing, or working for, that body.

In that context, the Electoral Commission would perhaps have benefited from establishing a robust relationship with political parties. When the Constitutional Affairs Committee asked questions on this subject of Sam Younger, the chairman and chief executive of the Electoral Commission, last November, we were surprised to find out that that had not happened. When questioned about the commission’s being politically naive—as it was put to him—he
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admitted that the commission had forged a working relationship with only one political party, meeting quarterly with the Conservatives’ 1922 committee of Back Benchers. I found it astonishing, and I still do, that an independent body charged with regulating parties and their finance had, in effect, developed a working relationship with only one party.

Since that shortcoming was identified, there have been a number of informal meetings with MPs, which I and other Labour Members have attended. Sam Younger will soon meet Members of both Houses to discuss this issue and to see whether a way forward can be established. However, the fact remains that, five years after we established the Electoral Commission, it had not forged working relationships with the political parties until members of the Committee on which I serve queried that point. So as with the crisis in registration, static or falling turnout and low levels of political engagement, the time must be right to re-examine restrictions on the governance of, and staff employment in, the Electoral Commission, so that it does not continue to be politically naive by design.

The issues to which I have referred have been highlighted over the past eight to nine months, and since then there has been recognition of gaps in performance. It has perhaps been a question of too little, too late on registration, as I have outlined, but rather more has been done on trying to bridge the gap between the commission and political parties. I hope that these improvements continue and gather pace, so that, in the new situation following the passage in a few months’ time of the Electoral Administration Bill, there will be a greatly improved Electoral Commission.

8.49 pm

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers), who gave an outstanding speech setting out what the Electoral Commission has been doing and putting the case for it extremely well. I shall be critical of the Electoral Commission, but the chairman does a very good job and is an outstanding man. We should bear in mind that it is a new institution that has been messed around by some well meaning but ill thought out Government initiatives and incomplete and defective legislation.

The Electoral Commission was created because the Committee on Standards in Public Life said that the oversight of elections should be neutral and should be seen to be neutral, so the task should be taken away from the Home Office. The case for doing so was never adequately made. The Home Office system was not ideal. It gave the governing party an opportunity to rig elections but, in a typically British way, that rarely happened. Indeed, there was rarely even a controversy about the system. One would not recommend such arrangements for Guatemala or the Ukraine, but they seemed to work in the United Kingdom. The old system was also cheap, and this is an estimates debate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) pointed out. However, we cannot put the clock back.

Any change that we make must be subject to one overriding test: does it contribute to the securing of
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consent from the electorate to the result? With that, we will get an increase in democratic interest and respect for democracy. Without it, we are on the slippery slope to anarchy.

It is difficult to argue that the early years of the Electoral Commission have bolstered consent. Examples to the contrary are legion, such as the commission’s failure to get to grips with the service voters farrago. It is astonishing that we allowed ourselves to get into the position where we effectively disfranchised a large proportion of our service voters by mistake. The Electoral Commission was alerted to that extensively by me before the election, as was the Government, but they did hardly anything about it. Another example is the postal votes scandal. The Electoral Commission was originally bright eyed and bushy tailed about extending postal voting. It was far too weak and slow in flagging up the crisis that was developing, which we could already see early on as a result of the pilots.

There is the risk of another problem being generated now in relation to the reform of the boundary commissions. If the Electoral Commission is to have such responsibility, it must open up a public debate immediately to ensure that a vote is worth the same—that is, that seats are of equal size—throughout the United Kingdom. We cannot carry on with the moribund system that was put in place after the second world war.

There are several other examples, I regret to say, of the Electoral Commission’s failure to grasp the nettle adequately. I agree with the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) that we still do not really know how parties obtain their money. We are supposed to have more transparency, but we have had only a little more. The Electoral Commission should be pressing vigorously and in public debate to make sure that all necessary information is available.

I also worry that we have inadvertently created the conditions in which the Government can behave as though they had been absolved of their obligation to act impartially, as they had when they had responsibility directly through the Home Office. The Government—any Government—can abuse the system more effectively now by claiming that they have been open to independent advice but, having considered it, have set it aside. That is exactly what happened with regard to postal voting.

All the functions that I have described are core functions of the Electoral Commission. I deeply regret that the commission seems to have involved itself far too much in what one might call not the bread and butter, but the jam—that is, the much more interesting work of encouraging greater participation and understanding of the democratic process. We have had a stream of reports and initiatives on that. It is worth pointing out that when the Committee on Standards in Public Life began the process, it did not recommend that this role should be given to the Electoral Commission but argued that the core tasks given to the commission were already sufficient to do the job. I am not convinced that the problem of voter participation will be dealt with by anything undertaken by the commission. That work will almost certainly turn out to be a waste of money.

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Barbara Keeley: I find it surprising that the hon. Gentleman is so exercised by equal numbers for the boundary commissions but not worried about participation. As many as 7 million errors may be being made in registers, and 3.5 million people may not be registered. If there is any scandal—he has used that word several times—that is it.

Mr. Tyrie: I am not complacent about it, but I am not as gripped by it as some Labour Members. Voter participation increases dramatically when, as I think is going to happen, an election takes place in which people do not know what the result will be and major issues are at stake. As recently as 1992, arguably the highest turnout in modern British democratic history was recorded. Technically speaking, it was the third largest by a whisker, but a careful look at the degree of redundancy in the register for the earlier elections suggests that there is a good case for saying that there was enormous participation in 1992. It is largely the job of parties to enthuse electors. If we succeed in doing that, we will see a big recovery in registration and turnout in elections.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Does my hon. Friend agree that lower turnouts are a function of social change? Voters may take a consumerist approach whereby they are less tribal than they used to be, say, in the 1950s, when absolute levels of poverty and deprivation were higher and there was no political education. That social pattern is the reason for lower turnouts through the years, and no amount of Government spending will change that.

Mr. Tyrie: I should like to think carefully about that before agreeing with my hon. Friend. I am keen to speak for less than 10 minutes, so I will not think aloud at the moment.

I want to end by making the five proposals that I have already made in a submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. First, the Electoral Commission must concentrate on its core tasks instead of engaging in all these other activities. That will also lead to financial savings. As a former Treasury adviser, savings interest me a good deal.

Secondly, the Electoral Commission must exercise leadership right now with regard to what it will probably have to take on board through its new responsibilities for the boundary commissions. We cannot carry on with boundaries that are always 10 to 15 years out of date in relation to the population statistics and with constituencies of such widely differing sizes. These problems are readily resolvable, but that requires leadership from the commission.

Thirdly, we need much more rigorous and independent thinking to implement reform on postal votes. It cannot be right for us to go into an election as we did last time, with so much scope for scandal. Again, the Electoral Commission must be much more vigorous in public debate to ensure that we do not carry on as we are.

Fourthly, we need much more accurate data on party funding. For example, we cannot carry on with the pretence of transparency but the reality of still not knowing—I hope that Members do not think that this
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is a party political point—how much and by what means trade unions are supporting the Labour party.

We must also sort out the accountability arrangements, to which many hon. Members referred. It is not the Electoral Commission’s fault but ours that they are in such a mess. How on earth did we get into a position whereby the commission is accountable behind closed doors, with no verbatim minutes published, when it scrutinises more than £25 million of expenditure? There is a case for a statutory committee to do the work, chaired by a senior Opposition Member of Parliament, along the lines of the Public Accounts Committee, rather than expecting the Speaker to do it. It is burdensome for the Speaker. The Constitutional Affairs Committee also has a role to play. I have raised that matter in private hearings on several occasions, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who chairs the Constitutional Affairs Committee, knows.

My final point is about the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It brought us to where we are and it is important that it considers carefully what we should do now. We cannot and should not meddle with the relevant legislation indefinitely. We must make one more change and allow matters to settle down. Continual change is a recipe for the further erosion of public confidence. My advice to the Committee on Standards in Public Life is, therefore, to think carefully about the matter, get it right and, to sum it up in one phrase, expect the Electoral Commission to do less and do it better.

9.1 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): After the downbeat assessment of the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), I am happy to follow with a sunnier and more optimistic view of the Electoral Commission. I enjoyed the account by the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) of his recent visit to the commission’s premises. He does not need telling that one is definitely old when one thinks that even Electoral Commission staff look young. He needs no reassurance from me that, behind chief executive Sam Younger’s boyish good looks lies a shrewd, intelligent and experienced operator.

Is it only five years ago that we legislated to set up the Electoral Commission? It is such an obviously sensible thing to do and a constitutional necessity in a democracy such as ours. The public now take the commission for granted, as though it had always existed. I am sure that they found it interesting on the first occasion to learn, after the 2005 general election, the cost of the then Leader of the Opposition’s make-up or of the Prime Minister’s wife’s hairdressing, but, like other hon. Members who spoke, I hope that, after future elections, people will focus more on the serious issues of the source of money and its use.

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