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Secondly, the debate is about maximising turnout at elections. No matter what party we are in, it is in our interests that there should be a much better turnout. There used to be much better turnout, but it declined.
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It has just begun to increase again, thank goodness, but turnout is nothing like what it should be. It must be in the interests of healthy politics for people to participate in choosing their local council, London Assembly members, a mayor—in the places that have one—Members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, whose elections are coming up, Members of the United Kingdom Parliament, and Members of the European Parliament. That is clearly an objective.

The third objective of the debate must be maximum accuracy. If we are to ensure maximum integrity of the voting system, it is important to ensure maximum accuracy of the electoral register. That is the issue before us today. We all have stories to tell—the Minister, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and I, and many other hon. Members of all parties have told such stories—about how, after looking at electoral registers, it has been blindingly obvious that there are people on it who should not be, and people who are not on it who should be.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): The armed services.

Simon Hughes: The armed services are the most significant general category, and my hon. Friends and I have made that point, in support of Conservative colleagues, who, to be fair, have also been persistent in arguing that case. There are also people who appear twice on the electoral register, as there are people who died a long time ago and whose names should not have remained on the list.

I want to pay tribute to four groups, because it is easy to be critical without saying thank you. First, I pay tribute to the Electoral Commission, which has had an unfairly critical press. Since it was set up, it has been absolutely clear about what it thought was needed. In particular, on the issue of individual registration, as opposed to head-of-household registration, it has said what it thinks time and again, and in every report that it made to Parliament. It was not its fault that Parliament did not follow up on what it recommended. We set the commission up, rightly, some years ago, and it has done an independent, non-partisan job. It kept on saying that individual registration was a better system. Last month, in an article in The Times, Peter Riddell said:

The Electoral Commission was criticised too much by the Committee on Standards in Public Life on that issue, and that was unfair, given how consistent the commission has been.

I pay tribute to the people who do the work out in the field every day. The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) has been involved in more elections than I have, and he started when I was very young indeed.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): He lost.

Simon Hughes: He may have lost; I am not sure. The hon. Member for Northampton, South made the point that the people on the ground often think that they do not have enough resources. It is important that local
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government officers who do the job have the resources, not just in cash, but in personnel and support. The Minister has said that there is now more on the table, and that is welcome. Those officers often do a good job, but that job is not always given priority, year in and year out, outside election time, by the political leadership. I am clear about the fact that we need to make sure that that small group of people—often there is a handful of full-time employees, but sometimes there are just one or two full-time employees, who recruit extra people—have a much more secure basis in local councils than they do at the moment.

Mr. Binley: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although the Minister mentioned that the Government had allocated an extra £21 million, that equates to £30,000 per constituency? Does he also agree that that does not nearly cover the additional burden that has been placed on electoral registration officers over the past five years? More particularly, that money is not ring-fenced, so we do not even know whether it will be spent on that purpose.

Simon Hughes: I have not done the maths, so I do not know exactly what the figures are, but it sounds to me as though £30,000 per local authority will not go very far. That will pay for a member of staff, to put it bluntly, and not a very senior member of staff, either. Certainly, it is no good giving the money if it is not ring-fenced for the purpose. There ought to be a real assessment of the cost of putting in place enough people in every local authority, so that we can deliver the electoral system that we all want. At the end of the debate, perhaps the Minister can tell us whether there has been such an assessment.

Mr. Devine: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I live in his constituency, and I am impressed by the local electoral registration officer. I get two letters, a personal visit, and a final letter telling me that if I do not register and fill in the appropriate documents, I will be fined £1,000. I have gone back to Scotland and used that model.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful for that, and I am happy to have the hon. Gentleman in my constituency, as he knows; he is very welcome. If I may say so, he has already made a good contribution in the House. I do not mean to patronise him in any way. He has done extremely well on certain issues. He is right: in recent years my local authority has tried hard to do that job well, and to do it better. I think that it is doing so, and the Minister’s borough next door—Lewisham—is trying to do so, too. Good practice yields dividends, because other local authorities can emulate it.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): My hon. Friend understands the importance of that work. When the Select Committees on Constitutional Affairs and on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister jointly looked at the issue of individual registration it became clear that, important as individual registration is, it could well result in a significant fall in the number of people registered. It must therefore be accompanied by measures to increase the registration of people who ought to be on the register.

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Simon Hughes: That is absolutely true. In Northern Ireland, the figures went down a little when the new systems were implemented, but they started to go up. [ Interruption. ] The Minister says that they are going down again, which is sad news. Certainly, it is difficult to track down every resident in every household. A Member of Parliament may have a vote in London because they are here in the middle of week. Other people may do business in the area, but they may not be in. It may be hard to find someone at home if they did not fill in their form, especially if they leave at 7 am and return at midnight, or whatever time the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) gets in. Seriously, however, many people are rarely at home during normal working hours, so we need the resources to reach them.

May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who chairs the Constitutional Affairs Committee, as it is important that that Select Committee holds the Government to account? May I pay tribute, too, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, which makes sure that we have a regular opportunity to keep these matters on the agenda? The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) has left the Chamber, but I wanted to recommend to the Minister what might be confusingly called the Prentice proposal on maximum registration—it might be better to call it the Pendle proposal. We would do well to think more carefully about providing a very small financial or other incentive so that people add their name to the electoral register. There is merit in such a proposal. Of course, it should happen automatically, and there is a legal obligation to register, but in reality, some people need a push. I am not suggesting that it is the whole answer, but it would be worth looking at.

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, whose constituency borders mine and that of the Under-Secretary, was positive about something which, given the shortness of time, I shall call the Hughes proposal. [ Interruption. ] No, I submitted it, and the right hon. and learned Lady said that the Department for Constitutional Affairs would look at it. We need a certain period every year—February is the logical month—in which there is a countdown to democracy, and a big registration day on, say, 28 February. It would be easy to remember that date, as it would be the same every year. There would be a big push on radio and television, and in the newspapers and in railway, tube and bus stations, outside schools and colleges—

Mr. Fraser: And in our prisons.

Simon Hughes: Seriously, it could take place everywhere. [ Interruption. ] I heard that mischievous suggestion on the Back Benches. There should be an annual round of public encouragement. There is a good biblical precedent for such a practice, as people took part in the census 2,000 years ago. We should get into the habit of doing something similar. I remind the Minister that 31 January is embedded in many people’s minds as the date on which they must submit their tax self-assessment. It is a simple date to remember, because it comes at the end of the month. In the final hours of 31 January this year, as in many previous years, people were running to the tax office near where I live to hand in their forms. People know the score, and the same would apply to electoral registration.

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Mr. Wilshire: I thought that I heard the hon. Gentleman say that he was in favour of financial inducements to vote. If so, how would he deal with someone seeking re-election who said, “I made sure you received some money for registering; now you had better vote for me.”

Simon Hughes: I was saying that there might be a statutory form of inducement to register to vote, but it would not be legal to offer a financial inducement to vote.

Mr. Wilshire: What is the point of registering if one does not vote?

Simon Hughes: We are all engaged in the debate about citizenship and the way in which we maximise participation in the political process—the Power report and others have made it clear that we are not doing very well at that. Such a measure would complete its passage through the House only if it commanded consensus, but we must maximise incentives to encourage people to participate in the process. We have discussed with the Minister other means of doing so, but the issue ought to be on the agenda. I shall not say more than another sentence about maximising turnout. Until and unless every vote counts equally, we will not maximise turnout, because many places are electoral deserts, given the nature of the contest. I urge Ministers not to forget the commitments that the Labour Government made in 1997, which they have not yet honoured.

My final substantive point concerns the maximising of accuracy. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) was indeed a signatory to the Council of Europe report, which was prompted by the request from the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) for an inquiry. It is perfectly reasonable that we should be held to account internationally, as opposed to nationally, but we must not misrepresent the position. Although there have been many allegations, the number of instances of proven electoral abuse—anyone can see them, as they are on the record in the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life—is, as the Minister rightly suggested, small. The Committee sets out all the cases of which it is aware from 2001 to 2006; it does not pretend that it is a comprehensive record, as statistics are not collected centrally. The five parties that I have mentioned—all three major parties and two others—are involved and there appear to be 11 occasions on which there was a prosecution and a conviction. There appear to be four occasions on which there was no prosecution, although there was an investigation. When the report was published at the turn of the year, another five cases were recorded as under investigation. The numbers are not great, but several cases involved more than one person.

Philip Davies: It is the tip of the iceberg.

Simon Hughes: That may be so. I do not wish to underplay the problem, but I am trying to make sure that we get the balance right. Clearly, there is fraud, and there are many reasons for being concerned about that, but there are not hundreds of thousands of cases every year. Prosecution is difficult, I accept, because the evidence may be difficult to collect.

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In conclusion, may I urge the Minister to accept the committee’s recommendations? Some of them are proposals to Government, but others are of a different nature. She knows that we support individual registration. We tried to secure it during the passage of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 between the Commons and the Lords, but we did not do so, and the Government got their way. The committee makes eight proposals, including three to the Electoral Commission. First, it suggests that the commission

The Minister told us that the commission has started to do so, which is welcome. Secondly, the committee suggests that the commission should include in its statutory reports on this year’s elections in Scotland, Wales and England

The third recommendation is that the Electoral Commission implementation plan should include a focus on measures to minimise under-registration. That is the commission’s business, and as far as I know, it is working on all three proposals, although one of them will come back to the Government.

There are four proposals specifically addressed to the Government, as well as three to the political parties, one of which is that we start discussions now in order to reach agreement on the precise form that the new system of registration may take and the measures needed to assure comprehensiveness and accuracy. Will the Minister announce at the end of the debate that the Government will invite Opposition parties to take part in those talks now, so that we can start the process as soon as possible? That would be a good sign.

The second recommendation to political parties is the same as that made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire—that the Government accept, as the Opposition parties do, that individual registration should be implemented and should include at least one objective identifier. The hon. Gentleman suggested the national insurance number, but I do not think that that is the right one. In addition to signature, address and date of birth, or signature and date of birth, we need to find another identifier. The problem with national insurance is that many people do not know their numbers, and one can get a number off the shelf, as it were. That is not an infallible system.

The last recommendation for political parties is that if the new arrangements in Northern Ireland, including the abolition of the annual canvass, are successful, they should be adopted as part of the system of registration in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Government are asked to do two further things—first, to make it a requirement that the Electoral Commission’s views on proposed primary and secondary legislation on electoral issues should accompany any such draft legislation. That is similar to the proposal that I made. There must be a means of allowing the House to see what the independent body recommends, so that Government cannot try to put an alternative proposal, suggesting that theirs has greater merit.

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Finally and crucially, the Committee recommends that a decision should be made and legislation should be developed to implement a system of individual voter registration immediately following the next general election, or by 2010 at the latest. The time frame is “within one year”, meaning that that should be agreed and the necessary legislation passed within one year of the report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

I hope that Ministers will say that they are now willing to accept that there is one other important body that supports the Electoral Commission, the Opposition parties, some though not all Labour Members, and many bodies outside. If we are to achieve maximum accuracy of electoral registers, we need to move to individual registration within a year of the report. I hope that Ministers will be positive about that. I know that it is difficult and I know that there is some opposition on the Labour Back Benches, but I hope that we will see some movement so that we get maximum effectiveness, maximum accuracy, maximum turnout and maximum participation in elections, which after all is the only way that people can feel that the democracy that we claim is theirs as well.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I remind the House that there is a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which applies from now on.

8.31 pm

Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab): The integrity of the electoral system is the cornerstone of a properly functioning democracy. Prior to the Birmingham judgment, I raised in the House what happened in Birmingham when we had postal voting on demand. I pointed out rather graphically that in one ward the number of people applying for a postal vote out of 20,000 electors started at 690, and five weeks later stood at 9,600. I am glad the Minister and the Department have produced proposals to address these matters, and in general I welcome them, although in my opinion individual voter registration must be the way forward. I hope that in due course that will happen.

Postal voting has been discussed this evening, but as has been pointed out, only 12 per cent. of voters apply for or participate in postal voting. The vast majority still prefer the traditional way of casting their vote. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said that it is not unreasonable to expect that in a democracy there should be free, fair, secure elections and that voters should have confidence in them. He is right, but I would add that people who choose not to cast postal votes ought to be able to go along to a polling station without harassment, peer pressure or intimidation, or misinformation being given out when they arrive there.

It is fortuitous that the debate is taking place tonight. I tabled a private Member’s Bill, which was down for Second Reading last Friday, to try and address the issue that I intend to raise now. Unfortunately, after five hours of excellent debate on the benefits of respite care, that Bill was talked out and mine was never reached. I am sure the Minister would have been delighted if we had had a proper debate on it. Although it was only a two-clause Bill, the Government objected to it receiving a Second Reading.

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The Bill suggested that people should not be allowed to campaign within 250 yd of a polling station on election day. The definition of campaigning was

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