Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mrs. Laing: Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. We have received evidence from electoral registration officers that they are worried about the matter and the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators has warned of the worst logistical challenge in living memory if matters were all to go wrong. We do not want the process to go wrong. The point of amendment No. 17 is to identify a possible loophole in the Bill and to help the Government to overcome the problems. The practical result of the amendment would be that the electoral registration officer would put the new names at the end of the register, thereby avoiding the need to renumber it until the next month, and following a general election.
I have proposed how the problem could be obviated. There could be a much cleverer or more practical way of getting round it. If the Minister and those immersed in the Ministry of Justice who know exactly how the system works can come up with a better solution than the amendment, I shall be delighted because it is merely my quick attempt to highlight the problem and suggest a way in which it might be put right.
David Howarth: Good morning to you, Sir Nicholas, and to members of the Committee. I wish to put on the record my thanks to the Government for clause 12. It attempts to resolve a problem which, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest said, affects a number of places, especially university towns, by changes in the electoral register in the canvass period in two respects: first-year students might not be on a register, and second and third-year students will have changed address, as a result of which there will be terrible confusion about where their polling card should go.
There is not a problem in the clause but, if there is, I am sure that the Minister will deal with it. However, there is a problem with the amendment, which is that it would remove the words
“shall take effect as from the beginning of that day”
from proposed subsection (6). Without those words, there would be a fundamental problem in the Bill.
Incidentally, the hon. Lady keeps referring to John Turner and his nightmare. That was hypothetical and would happen only if administrators had to issue rolling register forms. They will not do that, so she will be relieved to hear that nightmares are off the agenda. She asked whether the elector’s number will change when the register is republished in December. Yes, it will at that point, but it will not change when the notice amending the register is published. She made a specific point towards the end of her remarks, which I will address in some detail because it is important. It relates to the concern that clause 12 could result in a mass of new people being added to the electoral register shortly before an election and therefore it would be difficult to scrutinise their applications. That is a valid concern. However, in resisting the amendment, I hope to be able to demonstrate to her, and the Committee, that appropriate procedures are already in place to allow applications for registrations to be scrutinised by the public. I hope that in doing so, I shall bring the clarity that the hon. Lady seeks.
It is important that, in addition to the checks being made by registration officers, members of the public and parties can check a person’s eligibility to register—to help prevent fraud, among other things. At present, the provisions set out in the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 provide a means for an elector’s eligibility to register to be scrutinised. Regulation 27 provides that an elector registered in the area of the local authority may make an objection to a person’s registration, whether before or after that person has been added to the register. Regulation 28 provides that an application for registration, including one made on a canvass form and any objection to a person’s registration, shall be made available for inspection at the registration officer’s premises, until the application has been determined. Regulation 29 sets out the procedure that must be followed by a registration officer when he or she determines applications for registration, or objections to a person’s registration without a hearing. Under this regulation, each registration officer is required to keep a list of all the applications for registration that still have to be determined. While there is no obligation to do so, in practice, each registration officer compiles this list by reference to the street name and the ward of the registrant and allows members of the public, or political parties, to inspect it, together with the registration applications.
Once an application for registration has been determined, clause 12 requires the registration officer to add new electors to the appropriate section of the register by the publication of a notice, which then becomes part of the register. It contains the name, ward, street and house number of each new elector, or person, removed from the register. That notice is published five days before the poll; it is available to political parties to inspect, or they can request that they be supplied with a copy. It is therefore already possible for members of the public and political parties to scrutinise applications for registration made before the poll.
Mr. Djanogly: Is it not currently the case that political parties are given a copy of the new list? Is the Minister now saying that they will have to request a copy?
Mr. Wills: It is absolutely the case that they will have to request a copy if they so wish, but it is readily available. I am not sure that that is an additional burden on the volunteers with whom we have been so rightly concerned throughout these proceedings.
Mr. Djanogly: Would that be at nil cost to the candidates?
Mr. Wills: No, it will not be at nil cost but it would be at a marginal cost. [Interruption.] I stand corrected, it will be at nil cost to the candidates. In other words, the costs would be borne by the electoral registration officer.
It is possible for these applications already to be scrutinised. It is also possible to see which new entries have been added to the register for the election by looking at the published 13BB notice. As mentioned, this amendment would also delete proposed new section 13BB(7) to the 1983 Act, which serves a useful purpose. It is quite feasible that an election may be called late in the canvass period, where registration officers have completed their annual canvass and wish to bring forward the publication of the register from 1 December to coincide with the poll. Deleting this subsection would leave the effect of the provision unclear and may mean that registration officers will not be able to deal with canvass forms in the usual manner, which is the quickest way of compiling the register.
We need to get the right balance between enabling as many people as possible to register to vote and being able to check that those who register are eligible. We believe that the current arrangement for making a list of applications and objections available for inspection and publishing a list of changes to the register achieves this end. I hope that in the light of that explanation the hon. Lady will withdraw her amendment.
Mrs. Laing: I thank the Minister for his explanation. My reason for tabling the amendment has always been clarity. I am pleased by his explanation to the Committee this morning. We certainly welcome clause 12 in general, but I was concerned about the renumbering issue in particular. I would like him to confirm that I have got the following right: the register will not be renumbered during the month before an election if it falls within the canvass period. Given his undertaking that that is the intent of the clause, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
11 am
In 2000, the Government disfranchised thousands and thousands of people serving in the forces by making it compulsory for them to register every year. Unsurprisingly, as people were taken up with their duties on behalf of Her Majesty’s forces, sometimes they forgot to re-register. If someone is in a combat zone, I do not suppose that it is at the top of their list of concerns to think, “Oh goodness, it’s 15 October, I’d better register again to vote.” As we all know, there are other pressures on serving officers and their families.
In the Electoral Administration Act 2006, after we complained bitterly about the situation, the Government finally conceded that registration should be necessary by members of Her Majesty’s forces every three years only. The way in which clause 12 deals with how the canvass is done and registration is carried out will keep the provision that people have to register every three years. When hundreds of our servicemen and women are risking, and giving, their lives for the freedoms that we enjoy in this country by fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world, putting on them the burden of having to register every three years is wrong. Those people are literally risking, and giving, their lives for the very democracy that we are talking about, but they are often not able to take part in the democratic process, because they are disfranchised by the bureaucracy of having to register again and again. That is wrong, and the Government have an opportunity to put it right.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): This is an issue that I am extremely concerned about, and have been for several years. Clearly, the only issue that we should and can address today is the relationship between clause 12 and the methods that the Government have already put in place to try to ameliorate the problem. However, they have not fully ameliorated it, so I am not convinced. I want to know from the Minister—we shall find out—how much thought has gone into the relationship between clause 12 and the largely consultative, ad hoc measures for addressing the effective disfranchisement of a large proportion of our service voters.
It is important to explain and rehearse how we got into this mess, otherwise we shall not be clear on how or whether clause 12 can get us out of it. The problem all arose because, inadvertently, as a consequence of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, thousands of service voters—probably a third to half of them—and their families were removed from the register. They thought that they had been registered for the whole period of their service, which is what they were told when they joined, but they then discovered—a few of them, much later—that PPERA had disfranchised them. Their enfranchisement no longer applied, without there being any notification or information about how to get back on the register.
As a matter of fact, I was the one who uncovered the situation. At the time, I had two bases in my constituency, and I asked my returning officer in Chichester, casually, about the registration figures. He said, “Well, on Thorney island there has been a drop in registration.” I said, “Oh. By how much?” He said, “Forty-seven per cent.” About half those on the island, who are almost all service voters and their families, had been taken off the register. I raised that with the Government and the Electoral Commission, but I am afraid that I got dilatory responses.
The Chairman: Order. I shall allow the hon. Gentleman to make his point, but it goes rather wider than clause 12, which deals with registration during the canvass period. However, I understand the importance of his point, so I shall use my discretion.
Mr. Tyrie: Thank you very much, Sir Nicholas. It will be of particular concern to a large proportion of our service voters if they can have some assurance that this change will not inadvertently lead to another ill effect, as yet not thought out—I have not thought it out—just as no one thought out the effect of PPERA.
I could not persuade the Government to do anything about service voters before the 2005 election. The Ministry of Defence has to shoulder some responsibility for this, because the Department was aware of the situation but did nothing about it. In the Department’s defence, it was fighting a war, so one might argue that it had more important things on its mind—that is what the Ministry of Defence would argue.
Taking to heart your strictures about ensuring that my remarks are pertinent, Sir Nicholas, this is my last general point. It is particularly ironic that, as a country, we expected members of our military to put their lives at risk to extend democracy in countries such as Iraq while we were neglecting to ensure that they could vote in a general election. Furthermore, in that general election, the biggest single issue was the war in Iraq. That was absolutely extraordinary.
My questions to the Minister come in several parts. First, since he took office, has he examined the schemes that have been put in place to ameliorate the problem? I shall give time for the officials to prepare an answer. I understand the position, and I apologise to him for not telling him in advance what matters I intended to raise with him, as I can see from how he is scribbling that he regards them as important. Is he up to speed with knowing what has been done since I raised the matter previously? A number of us made a lot of noise about it in the House. Is he confident that the existing service register is functioning properly? What estimate does he have of registration as a proportion of the total service vote?
Given what the clause does to the rolling registration period, my second question concerns the effect that it will have on the level of service registration. Has it been taken into account? Have there been any discussions with the Ministry of Defence about it? Are we confident that it will have no ill effects?
Is the Minister ready to answer the questions? It seems as though he is getting near that point, so I shall gladly allow him to respond.
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