Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Peter Wardle: Yes, that is right. As you said, we do not say that there are no benefits to the measure; we say that there are some benefits. As the Bill is currently drafted, we think that the disbenefits outweigh the benefits, but it may be possible to change the balance of the argument so that the benefits of the clause are achievable without unacceptable detriment to the parties themselves.
The Chairman: May we move on to registration?
Q 153Mr. Tyrie: I just want to ask you about individual registration. I am confident that you heard Sir Christopher’s remarks in our first evidence session, that the introduction of postal voting on demand, combined with the retention of householder registration, generates conditions where the electoral system is “fundamentally flawed”. I would like you to comment on whether you agree with that conclusion of the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. What is your view?
Peter Wardle: Yes, we agree with the chairman. The commission has been calling for individual registration in Great Britain since 2003. Lots of other people—I will not rehearse them—have agreed with us. The Government made it clear when they responded to the report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life that they support the principle of individual registration, but they are concerned about how that could be introduced without significant numbers of people falling off the register.
The case for individual registration is about basic rights and responsibilities for individual citizens and the fact that it is not right, in the 21st century, to maintain an electoral system where the head of household influences who is enfranchised and who is disfranchised. Changing to individual registration with personal identifiers would also deal with the current lack of integrity and confidence in the process. We need a proper system. In our view and in the view of many others, only a combination of individual registration and a system of personal identifiers will provide end-to-end security in the electoral system, because the electoral register is the bedrock of that system.
There are legitimate concerns about the impact on the comprehensiveness of the register if we introduce individual registration with personal identifiers, but in my view we can and should address those concerns and should not make them a reason for continuing to put off the introduction of individual registration and thereby putting off addressing the accuracy and integrity of the register. The two things are not mutually exclusive; they are both problems that need to be addressed. In the commission’s view—it has been the commission’s view for some years now—a 21st-century modern western democracy ought to be able to address both the integrity and accuracy of the register and its comprehensiveness, but we will make no progress on either of those things unless we get started.
Q 154Mr. Tyrie: That is a pretty clear answer. Just to make it crystal clear, do you think that there are at the moment any practical or technical obstacles to which you do not readily see a solution, and which might not command general support, that lie in the way of beginning this process of implementation? How long would that process take?
Peter Wardle: I do not think there are any fundamental practical or technical obstacles. The biggest problem is the one I referred to before, about which the Government are understandably and legitimately concerned, which is that eligible people might, for various reasons, fail to appear on the new register. There are many ways of addressing that and we have made it clear what those are. First, sufficient resources need to be put into a public information effort. Probably some things might need to be done that were not done when individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland—principally, combining the introduction so that, on implementation, there is some sort of safeguard so that there is not a cliff edge for people in the first year of individual registration to fall off and then that is it; instead, they should be identified as potentially falling off and followed up, because we need their personal identifiers before we move forward.
The second thing is to look seriously at data sharing, so that, for example, if one part of a local authority knows that a family has moved in or out of the authority area, the electoral registration officer should somehow get a trigger to take action on his or her own account to ensure that the register is up to date.
This is a not insignificant change; the commission has never made any secret of that. This is a major change that effectively requires all registered electors to re-register and provide their personal identifiers afresh. That will make the register more secure and will give them an individual stake, in every case, in their electoral registration. There are certain categories of the community who are going to be harder to reach. We need to make sure that enough effort is put into finding them. There need to be safeguards so that people do not fall off overnight. This is not something that can happen immediately.
To answer the second part of your question, we think that if there were movement in the legislation now, the earliest that you could attempt to build a new register on the basis of individual registration would be in the 2010 renewal canvas. Almost certainly you would not have a comprehensive set of personal identifiers from that exercise, and until you have a comprehensive set of personal identifiers you cannot start to use those personal identifiers to guarantee, for example, the security of the voting process in the way that we would like to see. So we are probably looking at a two to three year gradual process until the register is complete and has a much greater degree of integrity, in that there are personal identifiers for each person registered. This is not an overnight fix. I think we are realistic about the time it will take. We acknowledge the concerns that the Government and others have put forward. But our view remains that it is better to get started on it now than to delay things.
The Chairman: Two hon. Members have caught my eye: David Kidney and David Howarth. If they put a question for a yes or no answer, I hope that one of our witnesses will be able to respond.
Q 155Mr. Kidney: Mr. Wardle, can we achieve a single registration of donations and benefits to Members of Parliament in place of the current system without changing this Bill?
The Chairman: That is the first question.
Q 156David Howarth: To come back to individual registration, you have answered most of my questions, but on one practical point, you would agree, would you not, that there are certain practical difficulties in simply translating the Northern Ireland legislation into Great Britain? For example, the three-month rule that was brought in for a particular reason in Northern Ireland would not necessary apply in Britain.
The Chairman: Thank you very much. I am afraid that that brings us to the end of the time allocated for the Committee to ask questions of the Electoral Commission. I thank Peter Wardle and Lisa Klein very much indeed for the way in which they have dealt with our questions; it has been most helpful. Thank you for giving evidence.
It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.
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