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Political Parties and Elections Bill

Political Parties and Elections Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Peter Atkinson, Mr. Joe Benton, Frank Cook, †Sir Nicholas Winterton
Ainger, Nick (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab)
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor (Epping Forest) (Con)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester, Central) (Lab)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Reid, Mr. Alan (Argyll and Bute) (LD)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew (Chichester) (Con)
Whitehead, Dr. Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
Wills, Mr. Michael (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice)
Wishart, Pete (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)
Chris Shaw, Chris Stanton, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 18 November 2008


[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Political Parties and Elections Bill

Further written evidence to be reported to the House

PPE 04 The Electoral Commission—Supplementary
PPE 05 The Electoral Commission—Further Supplementary

Clause 12

Election falling with canvass period
10.30 am
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 10, line 20, leave out from ‘shall’ to end of line 26 and insert
‘amend the electoral register by means only of an additional entry at the end of the appropriate section of the register, until the appropriate publication date of an election.’.
This is a fairly uncontentious part of the Bill. The clause is perfectly reasonable and we do not argue with it but, as I have said several times during our proceedings, the problem is that of clarity. An anomaly in the clause could cause considerable problems and even disfranchise people if an election were held during the latter half of the year during the canvass period. The amendment is therefore intended to clear up the anomaly. It is technical, and I say at the outset that it is of a probing nature and if the Minister can convince the Committee that the anomaly can be dealt with in another way, possibly by a Government amendment, which would deal with matters more efficiently, I would be delighted to withdraw it.
While we welcome the intention to make it easier for people to register to vote, the anomaly arises whereby the voting ability is adversely affected between July and December in respect of people who are new to an area and therefore new to an electoral register because of rolling registration. As I am sure all members of the Committee know, the annual canvass of electors is conducted during the autumn and is compiled on the basis of residents at an address on 15 October in a particular year. The new register must be published by 1 December.
For example, during the autumn of 2007, there was considerable speculation that there might be a general election. It is not for me to commiserate with Ministers that there was no such election. [Interruption.] Some Labour Members seem happy about that, while others seem sad. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wirral, West says from a sedentary position that I have not seen the polls. I am sure that such matters are outwith the scope of the amendment. However, I have seen the polls and I am quite happy with them.
During the early autumn of last year, when making concrete plans for a possible general election, the electoral administrators were faced with the real possibility of an election taking place during the annual canvass period. There was much concern among them about whether a general election held before 1 December 2007 would use the register drawn up in October 2006 with the rolling register additions made during the year, or whether the 2007 canvass information could be used. I hope that I am being clear, but if I am not, it is because the whole situation is not clear, which is the very point that I am making.
The Electoral Commission subsequently, and quite rightly, issued guidance to electoral administrators, which stated that the 11-day rule for registering to vote before an election did not apply to the annual canvass. In other words, electors may have completed canvass forms, but they would not be added to the register until the new one was published in full by 1 December 2007. This meant that any elector not on the old register would have had to register by rolling registration by 17 October 2007 in order to vote at a general election held on 1 November 2007, or he or she would have been disfranchised. I am not concerned about 2007—that has been and gone, with no election—but this could happen in any future year when there might be a general election during the latter half of the year.
Electoral registration offices were advised by the Electoral Commission last year to use the information about new voters on return canvass forms to contact those new voters and ask them to fill in a rolling registration form. As long as this was done by 17 October 2007, they would appear on the register and would have been able to vote at an election on 1 November 2007. I am sure that the Committee will well understand that this is causing a lot of confusion. An electoral system which is not definite and which has any area of doubt in it is not a fair electoral system. In a close election that could cast doubt upon the very legitimacy of a Government. We do not want that in the United Kingdom; we need a system that is absolutely watertight, so that people know that when they have an entitlement to vote, they know how to vote, when to vote and that if they are on the electoral register then they are on the electoral register.
Under the current system, people may or may not be on the electoral register, which also produces an enormous burden upon the administrators who look after the practical workings of a general election. I say general election, because most other elections are on a specific date, when we all know well in advance that there will be an election on 4 June or 3 May. That is not a problem because the former register would have been in force from the previous 1 December and all electoral registration officers and anyone else concerned with elections would know for months that they were heading towards an election. However, with a general election, we sometimes only know for three weeks. To have this scramble to ensure that the right people are registered in the right place during the three weeks of a general election campaign puts the entire process into doubt. It is that doubt in the process that Opposition Members are constantly trying to avoid.
The people who will be most adversely affected are those who have recently moved home and students, who frequently move. Almost every year, students move from one address to another. Imagine the upheaval for someone who is in charge of a student house and who therefore has to fill in the details of some 20 or 25 students who move in or out every October. If there was a general election in a November, we might find that the wrong people were registered and that the right people did not get a vote at all. That matters because a few hundred votes here or there in a university town could decide the outcome of an election, and therefore it is a matter of great concern. I can see a particular hon. Gentleman who represents a university town grumbling in the wings, and quite rightly so. If the hon. Member for Cambridge comes up with a better solution than my amendment for getting round the problem, I will gladly support him.
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Member for Cambridge is very much in the Committee; he is not in the wings.
Mrs. Laing: I beg your pardon, Sir Nicholas. I almost said that the hon. Gentleman was to my left. I meant that geographically. I tried to avoid using the phrase “on my left”, just in case metaphorically and politically he is not, because I am not sure about that.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I am.
Mrs. Laing: I think that the hon. Gentleman is confirming that he is on my left, which is quite likely. He is both geographically and politically on my left and not in the wings at all. I do apologise to him.
I return to my concern, which was expressed publicly and vociferously by John Turner, the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, who warned of the worst logistical challenge in living memory for electoral administrators. In an interview on the BBC’s “Politics Show” on 30 September 2007 he said:
“nobody sitting in my place could guarantee that it will be less than trouble-free, and the real problem is that we could run into uncharted water in terms of these problems that we’ve just been talking about.”
What he had been talking about was the effect of the rolling register. We have also been warned by others who are involved in the running of elections that clause 12 could inadvertently cause an enormous problem.
The last thing that we want in Britain is the hanging chad situation that they had some years ago in the United States. Surely, we want respect for our electoral system, and we do not want challenges to be made to the outcome of elections. We also need certainty. It is perfectly possible that the hon. Gentleman, for example, might win or lose his election in a university town by some 100 or 200 votes.
David Howarth: Unlikely.
Mrs. Laing: It may be unlikely, and I will not upset the hon. Gentleman with possible predictions—in any case, I am not in any position to make such predictions—but it is technically possible. It is also technically possible that the hon. Gentleman might hold the balance of power in this place. There might be equal numbers on either side of the House apart from the hon. Gentleman. What if there was a challenge to the outcome of his election? I use the hon. Gentleman only as an example, because, sitting as he is to my left, he is a winning example. However, there are many such seats throughout the country, which could mean, if the outcome of an election was uncertain, the outcome of the entire general election could be uncertain. We have been warned about that in advance, so we must take that into consideration now.
10.45 pm
The problem is in the renumbering of the register. What happens is that electoral registration officers renumber the register, therefore creating uncertainty. Of course they renumber the register when they produce a new register; that is perfectly reasonable, logical, essential and part of a process. However, what if they do that in the last 11 days before polling day? Political parties carrying out canvassing will not be able to match up the numbers on the previous register with the numbers on the register on polling day, but that is a side issue which may concern us as prospective candidates in elections and is not my main concern. My main point is that there is a danger that polling cards, for example, which have been issued prior to the 11 days before the election, will have a different number on them for some electors—those whose numbers have changed because someone has been inserted into the register. Therefore, when polling cards have already been sent out with one number on them, if there is a new register in front of the electoral registration officer or polling clerk on the day of the election, the number might be different. If the Minister tells me that that is not the case, I shall be delighted, but it looks to me as if it is.
Another thing that I am concerned about is the importance of checking where donations are coming from, which we have talked about for many hours during the passage of the Bill. One of the ways of checking whether a candidate can accept a donation from any particular person is by checking whether that person is registered on the electoral roll. A candidate has to be pretty sure when someone wants to give £500. We all have to stop and think whether we can accept the money, and one of the ways of checking is, of course, whether that person is on the electoral register. If the person is, prima facie, a candidate may say, “Right, that’s great, this person is in a legitimate position to give us this money. That is fine, we have checked it.” If there is any doubt about the electoral roll itself, that puts all of that checking into doubt as well. Once again, all I seek is clarity. The Bill already imposes—quite rightly—considerable duties on candidates, agents and volunteers to check donations, to ensure that everything is absolutely correct with accepting donations. If we start messing about with the electoral register in the last 11 days before an election, it puts all of that into doubt, which is a matter for great concern.
Amendment No. 17 requires the electoral registration officers to amend the register to take account of new voters. We want to make sure that everyone who has a right to vote is given that right in practice, so of course electoral registration officers should go ahead and amend the register to take account of new voters, but those new names should be put at the end of the register.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Has my hon. Friend seen anything in the Committee’s documentation on electoral registration officers asking about this issue? Where are they coming from?
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