Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mr. Wills: I will come to the points about service voters in a moment because, although they are slightly beyond the scope of the clause, I recognise their importance. The hon. Members for Epping Forest and for Chichester have described graphically the importance of such matters to those to whom we all owe a huge debt of gratitude. I shall do my best to answer the specific questions asked by the hon. Gentleman. Before I do so, however, we must be clear about the overall purpose of the clause. It is designed to address a set of issues, which over the past year have become particularly clear to each member of the Committee.
The annual canvass of electors takes place each year from early summer to late autumn, and the purpose of the clause concerns the circumstances if an election were called during the annual canvass period. That is not common in recent history, but, as the hon. Lady tried to persuade us, we can never be certain of anything in this life. We need to be prepared for all eventualities. If an election were called during that period, a new application for registration recorded on the canvass form would result in eligible voters being added to the register for the poll. At the same time, administrators would be required to remove non-eligible electors from the register.
As the law stands, if an election is held during the annual canvass, the register can be amended in response to applications for registration made on an individual rolling registration form up to 11 days before the election. However, administrators may register only electors who complete and submit a canvass form on the publication of the revised register at the conclusion of the canvass, which may be after an election. An application for registration cannot be accepted even where there is clear evidence that a new elector or electors have moved into the household from which the form has been returned. The Government want to do everything we can to ensure that eligible voters are on the electoral register and have their say at the ballot box. The clause helps to achieve that aim.
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On the potential disfranchisement of service voters, our proposed measures should—I say, “should”—help service and other voters who would otherwise be caught by the existing situation. My general response to the concerns raised is that we hope and expect the Bill to be of benefit. No one can rule out unforeseen consequences—the hon. Member for Chichester spelled out the risk—because they are, by their very nature, unforeseen, but we are sensitive to the issues.
The hon. Gentleman’s first question was about whether I have got fully up to speed on the issue since taking office. I took on responsibility for this area about three weeks ago. Am I as up to speed as I would have been had I been in post for a year? Probably not, but I am reasonably up to speed and I hope that I can give him some reassurance. If, however, there are issues that we cannot address in Committee—
Mr. Tyrie rose—
Mr. Wills: I recognise the importance of the issues, so I am happy to address concerns on the margins of the Committee and then write to all members of the Committee. I shall address some of the other concerns in a moment, but I am happy to give way.
Mr. Tyrie: If the Minister is going to come to those issues, I am sorry to have interrupted.
Mr. Wills: If I do not fully answer all the hon. Gentleman’s questions now, I will be happy to give way again.
I say straight away that there is a problem in identifying the degree of disfranchisement among service voters. That is partly because some of them are registered at their home address, which is sometimes difficult for electoral registration officers to determine. That is not for a second to query that there is an issue. I have no reason whatever to dispute the evidence given by the hon. Member for Chichester on the level of disfranchisement in his constituency, but I merely point out the fact that it is sometimes difficult to determine.
Mr. Tyrie: I hope the Minister will not mind if I interrupt a few times to make suggestions. I put to him the thought that I have been begging to have him place on the issue for some time—a commitment to undertake a regular survey of a proportion of service voters to establish the level of registration in relation to the rest of the population. That should also include the families. If it were done, we would have a yardstick—a measure.
Even if the survey did not provide entirely accurate information, even the level of change would give us a high degree of information about whether the Government’s measures were working and how deep the problem that we have identified since the introduction of PPERA remained.
The Chairman: Before the Minister replies, I must remind the hon. Member for Chichester that I used my discretion earlier. I shall continue to chair proceedings with a light hand, because I know how strongly he feels, but once again, this point, in the general sense in which he is raising it, goes much wider than the clause we are debating.
Mr. Wills: I accept your strictures, Sir Nicholas, but I hope that you will also extend a similarly light touch for a few sentences during which I shall address the general concern here.
The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible suggestion and I am happy to carry it forward. He may be aware—I hope he is—that Ministry of Justice officials regularly hold round-table discussions with the Ministry of Defence, the Electoral Commission and others about how best to tackle the issue. There are regular drives to try to increase registration among service personnel, encouraging them to register.
I hope that I have said enough in those few words to reassure hon. Members that we take the issue extremely seriously, as do the Ministry of Defence and the Electoral Commission. That is not to say that there is no room for improvement. I am happy, in my ministerial capacity, outwith the Committee’s remit—
Mr. Tyrie: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Wills: I will in a moment, but I want to give this assurance before I return to the substance of the clause. I am happy to carry on a dialogue with all hon. Members who are concerned about this issue and who have service personnel in their constituencies to ensure that we get it right. It is an important matter and we want to address it clearly.
Mr. Tyrie: I met the Minister before he took office, so I know that he will take the issue seriously and look at it carefully. He has had only a few weeks to start thinking about it, and perhaps asking him to be up to speed was not quite the phrase that I should have used on the spur of the moment. The key issue with respect to the clause is whether there has been any consultation. Has there been any consultation with the Ministry of Defence? Has there been any consultation to try to establish what effect this will have, if any? That is a relevant question for him to look at, and if he said a few words about that I would be grateful.
Mr. Wills: As I said in my opening remarks, we expect that the clause will help service personnel and others who will experience problems before it is brought into effect. We expect that to happen. The hon. Gentleman has made valuable suggestions for how we can improve levels of registration and ensure that, subject to the concerns expressed by the hon. Lady, service personnel are not disfranchised. We will do everything we can. We think that the clause will provide a significant improvement in circumstances should an election be held during the annual canvass period and I hope that the Committee will judge that it should be part of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13

Local returning officers for elections to the European Parliament
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Electoral Commission has expressed concern that, as the Bill may not receive Royal Assent until March, the change will happen within only two or three months of polling day. The commission has always expressed the view that changes in legislation that affect elections should be put in place at least six months before the election date. Returning officers in Scotland and Wales have also expressed concern that if the change was to come into effect in March there might not be enough time, because preparations for the European elections will already have started.
I want to ask the Minister what his intentions are for bringing the clause into effect. Will he take the advice of the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators in Scotland and Wales, and not bring the clause into effect for Scotland and Wales until after this year’s European elections?
The Chairman: Admirably succinct.
Mrs. Laing: The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute has just expressed most of the concerns that I would have expressed, having also discussed the matter with the Electoral Commission. When the Electoral Commission comes forward with concerns, we must take it seriously—it is not doing so for any reason other than to try to make the system work better. Although I understand what clause 13 says and what it brings about, I cannot quite understand why the Government are bothering to make this change to a system that appeared to work perfectly well before. Is this because the Government have been told by the European Commission that this is the right thing to do in respect of European elections? [Interruption.] The Minister indicates that that is not the case. I accept that and will put that to one side. I am delighted, because in the United Kingdom we are perfectly capable of running our own elections the way we always have done, without any interference from those who sometimes think that they know better. However, it still puzzles me why this is necessary.
Mr. Reid: I can give the hon. Lady an example of an occurrence in my own constituency during the last local and Scottish elections. The postal votes are sent out by the returning officer, but because the Scottish parliamentary constituency and our local council constituency areas did not match up, it meant that returning officers were returning postal votes to a different local authority area from that in which they operated, which caused some confusion. This new clause will streamline that process.
Mrs. Laing: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that explanation. I remember vividly the debate that we had in the Chamber about coterminosity. Members of the Committee who have never paid any attention to the workings of the Scottish Parliament or Scottish electoral issues will wonder what on earth I am talking about. Opposition Members warned that creating boundaries that are not coterminous would cause confusion at election times. At that point, we were talking about the non-coterminosity—it is getting worse. [Interruption.] The lack of terminosity, if the hon. Gentleman accepts that term, between Westminster constituencies and Scottish parliamentary constituencies is bound to lead to some confusion.
According to the hon. Gentleman—he is absolutely right—the lack of terminosity between the European boundaries and the local authority boundaries, which is, to some extent, inevitable, is causing a problem. I accept that and I accept that the problem should be put right. However, the Electoral Commission has concerns, as the hon. Gentleman has also expressed, about the possibility of this part of the Bill coming into effect a very short time before the forthcoming European elections. I share that concern and I therefore wish to express it on behalf of Opposition Members. I am sure that the Minister will have an answer to that, so I shall allow him to give us that answer.
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Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I welcome you back to the Chair, Sir Nicholas. I was not going to make any remarks on this particular clause until I heard the curious remarks made by the hon. Member for Epping Forest. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute about the commencement of this clause. We need to hear from the Minister that there is no intention whatever of commencing this clause prior to the European elections in 2009, as we would be in a very curious situation whereby it would have different applications in Scotland, Wales and England. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are no local authority elections in Scotland in June, so there is no order on the Table that would combine local authority and European elections in Scotland or Wales. In Scotland, under existing guidelines, matters would still be determined in accordance with Westminster constituencies. I am not too worried about that because it is always good to have a snapshot of how well we are doing in our constituencies when it comes to European elections, but I am concerned about coterminosity in such matters.
It is worth while pointing out that Scotland is one region, according to European elections, and that it is not broken down into Scottish Parliament or Westminster constituencies. It would therefore be of benefit for matters to be determined on a local authority basis so that they would be clearly understood. I hope that the Minister agrees with the Electoral Commission that no new measures should be put in place six months before an election, and that we can have a guarantee that there is no intention of the clause commencing before the European elections next year.
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