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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Hugh Bayley
Buck, Ms Karen (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye) (Lab)
Hughes, Simon (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD)
Hunter, Mark (Cheadle) (LD)
Kawczynski, Daniel (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)
Moran, Margaret (Luton, South) (Lab)
Morgan, Julie (Cardiff, North) (Lab)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs)
Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)
Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Ussher, Kitty (Burnley) (Lab)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Standing Committeeon Delegated Legislation

Monday 6 November 2006

[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

Draft Review of Polling Districts and Polling Places (Parliamentary Elections) Regulations 2006

Draft Service Voters’ Registration Period Order 2006

Draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment)(No. 2) Regulations 2006

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Review of Polling Districts and Polling Places (Parliamentary Elections) Regulations 2006.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Service Voters’ Registration Period Order 2006 and the draft Representation of thePeople (England and Wales) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2006.
Bridget Prentice: Thank you, Mr. Bayley. This isthe first time that I have appeared under your chairmanship, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so. I hope that we will remain entirely in order as we go through the regulations, but I am sure that you will rapidly bring us back into order if we step away from what is proper.
Let me begin with the representation of the people regulations. One aim of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 was to improve access to and engagementin the democratic process. Research suggests that3.5 million people are entitled to vote but are not registered, and part 2 of the regulations aims tohelp increase registration by allowing anonymous registration for people who believe that they or others in their household would be put at risk by having their name and address on the register.
The Government consulted a variety of stakeholders, such as Victim Support, the Home Office, Scottish Women’s Aid and the Network for Surviving Stalking.
4.32 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
4.47 pm
On resuming—
Bridget Prentice: We consulted stakeholders on anonymous registrations so that we could hear views on such matters as the evidence required with an application and who will require access to the record of anonymous entries. The results of that consultation are why we drafted the regulations as they stand. There will be strict criteria for anonymous registration. For example, the Family Law Act 1996 or the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 might give someone a reason to ask for anonymous registration, if they felt that it would help to protect them from harassment or molestation. If a person did not have a relevant order, they could apply using an attestation signed by a senior officer, such as a chief constable in the police or the equivalent in another organisation. We did not want registration officers to undertake a qualitative investigation of why someone should have an anonymous entry, so we have prescribed the evidence and forms of attestation that will be acceptable.
Anonymous registration will last for 12 months only and then, as set out in the regulations, a person will be sent a reminder that a fresh application must be made, if they wish to remain on the register anonymously.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): When an election of whatever sort is called, will it be possible for political parties or whoever to be given not the names of people, who are, by definition, anonymous, but the total number of such people at that date? Will there be a process whereby material from parties or candidates can be sent to those people, so that they receive everything that everybody else receives?
Bridget Prentice: Yes is the answer to both those questions.
Part 2 of the regulations extends the current system of registration objections to empower the registration officer to remove an elector’s name, if it becomes apparent that they should not have been registered. The regulations allow for an individual to object to another person’s registration at any time, and that change will ensure that registration is more open to scrutiny. The register should therefore be more accurate.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Regulation 9 appears to prevent any objection to an anonymous registration. Although I understand that it would be difficult to do so, does the Minister think that those who register anonymously are any less likely to register improperly?
Bridget Prentice: This morning, I asked exactly the same question as the hon. Gentleman. I have told civil servants that they should never underestimate the ability of Members of Parliament to find questions to ask, especially when the subject is elections, because we, above all others, believe ourselves to be experts on elections.
First, it would be more difficult for a person who wants to register anonymously to do so without having the right to do so because of the other restrictions—for example, registration requires the agreement of a senior police officer, and it must be done under legislation such as the Family Law Act 1996 or the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. There are specific reasons why a person is allowed to register anonymously.
Secondly, the nature of anonymous registrations makes it impossible for someone to challenge such a registration, because they would not know who was registered anonymously. No one that I asked was able to come up with a situation in which such a challenge would be possible. The proposal should provide a fail safe on those two counts.
Simon Hughes: The Minister is right that we all know exactly how these things work. Another practical matter is that when an election is called, we go out on to the doorsteps and before long invariably find out that someone has died or that they have left to go, orgo back, to Australia, Jamaica or Bangladesh, for example. As the Minister knows, I welcome the regulations, but will the new system ensure that we can feed such information back to the electoral registration officer by the time of the election, so that those names are not on the register and cannot be abused? Will it, for example, prevent someone from turning up and claiming to be Bridget Prentice, if the evidence shows that Bridget Prentice has left a month ago?
Bridget Prentice: Again, I assure the hon. Gentleman that if the information is fed back to the registration officers and they can verify it, they will take the name off the register and it will be checked at the polling station. Of course, someone could leave to go to Australia a month before an election but still have the right to vote. That is perhaps not the best example to use, but if someone had died—
Simon Hughes: They would not vote in person.
Bridget Prentice: It is certainly true that they would not vote in person.
Mr. Turner: Proposed new paragraph 31C, which is in regulation 11, lists those who are entitled to give notice of a death to the registration officer, but, again, there is no guarantee, and I question whether that entitlement should extend to canvassers for political parties. There is no guarantee that someone has died unless there is a death certificate. Was the Minister saying in response to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that that power extends to canvassers for political parties?
Bridget Prentice: Will the hon. Gentleman expand on what he means? Is he suggesting that political parties have the power to register a death?
Mr. Turner: To notify the registration officer of a death.
Bridget Prentice: The registration officer will be able to investigate any case where somebody suggests that someone is not able to vote, so they would be able to go to the registrar of births, marriages and deaths. Such an issue would be sensitive, and if it were close to an election, the registration officer might have to take note of the complaint and make a decision after the election. There is room in the regulations for that to happen, too.
Part 3 of the regulations allows for a registration officer to make alterations to the electoral register to correct an error or to give effect to a court ruling until 9 pm on polling day. That is an important change, because under the previous system a person could have been disfranchised if a clerical error was discovered on the day of the poll or within the five days preceding it. I think that all members of the Committee could give examples of clerical errors that have resulted in someone being disfranchised. Such errors are likely to come to light only when a person physically goes to the polling station to cast their vote. I hope that hon. Members will view this as a sensible amendment, which focuses on the elector and their right to vote.
Mr. Turner: What arrangements are in place to ensure that someone claiming to have been omitted from one register is not included on another?
Bridget Prentice: Let me say two things. First, the registration officer will have the power to investigate whether someone is on another register because they live elsewhere. Secondly, the co-ordinated online record of electors, when it is completely up and running, will provide a simple way of checking registers across the country to find out who should be registered where. We must remember that people—for example, students—can be registered in two places in certain circumstances.
On the replacement of counterfoils, ballot papers will no longer need to be attached to a counterfoil, which will allow more automated procedures to be used in printing ballot papers. Hon. Members may have concerns about the secrecy attached to that, and I shall explain the issue in a moment. Returning officers will record ballot papers numbers to be used at a parliamentary election on a corresponding number list, the form of which is prescribed in the regulations. In future, electors will be required to sign the CNL when they are issued with a ballot paper at the polling station.
The Electoral Commission will issue guidance based on the experience of last year’s pilot schemes about using a device to cover other signatures. When the elector signs for their ballot paper, they will see only their own signature, and not anyone else’s. I hope that reassures hon. Members that the secrecy of the ballot will be preserved. My own authority, Lewisham, used that system for ballot papers at polling stations last year. I used the system, which was safe and secure, and there was no way in which I could see other electors’ names or numbers, nor they mine.
On the issue of absent voting and personal identifiers, improving confidence in the electoral system lies at the heart of a healthy democracy, and the regulations include further details about requiring people who apply to vote by post or by proxy to provide their signature and date of birth. At elections, postal voters will have to provide those identifiers on their postal voting statement when they cast their vote. The regulations state that the returning officer must set aside at least 20 per cent. of returned covering envelopes for verification purposes. The personal identifiers on the postal voting statements in the envelopes will be compared with those supplied by the voters on their initial application.
For practical reasons, we have decided to phase in the new provisions, which is why I have stated that there must be a minimum level of 20 per cent. However, any returning officer who wants to check more than that will be perfectly able to do so. We support the principle that checks should be carried out on all returned postal votes, and we aim to introduce 100 per cent. checking as quickly as possible, while taking into account funding and the practical issues involved. Many authorities hope to move beyond the 20 per cent. minimum in next year’s elections. They will certainly move beyond it in the following year’s elections.
The regulations extend the long-term proxy vote facility to electors with any disability, including a non-physical disability. That is a result of the abolition, under the 2006 Act, of the common law preventing persons with mental impairment from voting. The Act also removed the ban on voting in person at polling stations for mental health patients detained under civil powers. The regulations will allow such people to apply for an emergency proxy vote if, for example, they have been refused permission to be absent from the hospital to vote.
If a postal voter states that they have not received their postal voting pack, but the postal voters list shows that the pack has been received and recorded, a returning officer will be able to cancel the returned postal ballot paper. The regulations set out the detailed procedure for that and for retrieving a cancelled postal ballot paper from a ballot box. Candidates and agents will be entitled to be present when a sealed ballot box is opened for the purposes of retrieval, and when the ballot box is resealed.
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Prepared 7 November 2006