Political Parties and Elections Bill

[back to previous text]

The Chairman: May I assist the Committee—particularly the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute? I say this, of course, before the Minister has replied to the debate, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to press one or both of his amendments to a Division, he will need to make it clear during the debate. As I say, the Minister is yet to reply, but I have to advise him that if he does not make it clear, the Chair will proceed to put the question on adding the clause to the Bill straight away. I hope that will help the hon. Gentleman to make up his mind. Of course, we now depend on the Minister’s reply.
Mr. Wills: I shall be happy to give way to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute at any point during my relatively brief remarks. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Epping Forest for their understanding of the special circumstances in Northern Ireland. We all accept that. Unfortunately, like the people of the United States of America, I shall reject the advice of the hon. Lady.
The vast majority of respondents to the consultations, including the four largest political parties in Northern Ireland, agreed that reform was needed. With that in mind, I hope that the Committee will agree that it is not appropriate now that the system has been changed to reintroduce a system for filling—
David Howarth: I am interested in what the Minister is saying. Can he give any instances in which the problem to which he refers actually happened, and what the resolution was?
Mr. Wills: It is not so much whether it has actually happened. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that there is a possibility that it could happen and, as we have heard many times in this Committee, we must legislate for reasonable possibilities as well. With that in mind—given that we have conducted the consultation and that the four largest political parties in Northern Ireland agree that the changes should be made to the Northern Ireland Assembly—the changes in new clause 18 would align the method for filling vacancies in the Northern Ireland Assembly with that for filling vacancies in the European Parliament. It seems almost perverse to accept amendments that would return to a system that the four largest political parties in Northern Ireland want to change.
David Howarth: Just to put it on the record, it does not have the consent of the fifth largest party, the Alliance party. There is another way out of the problem. France, I believe, has a supplĂ(c)ant system for elections to the National Assembly. A party can put forward a supplĂ(c)ant, and if the supplĂ(c)ant does not want to do the job, a by-election must be held. That risk is up to the party.
Mr. Wills: We have discussed by-elections, and I was careful to say “the four largest political parties in Northern Ireland”. That is an important consideration. As I said, it would be perverse not to seek to align the two systems, and I very much hope—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that I have just been informed that, although the consultation was widespread, the Alliance party did not respond to it, which might account for the fact that it is not part of the consensus. However, I am not sure that it would be anything other than perverse to resist the amendments, and I hope that the Committee will not do so.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 19

CORE information and action to be taken by electoral registration officers
‘(1) Section 2 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 (c. 22) (co-ordinated on-line record of electors: use of information) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (6)—
(a) in paragraph (b), after “is requested” there is inserted “in respect of the same address or”;
(b) in paragraph (c), for “acts as” there is substituted “is appointed as, or votes as,”.
(3) After subsection (6) there is inserted—
“(6A) A CORE scheme may require that where a CORE keeper informs an ERO as mentioned in subsection (5), or informs an ERO of any suspicions that the CORE keeper has concerning the commission of an offence under the 1983 Act or other impropriety—
(a) the ERO must take such steps (if any) as appear to the ERO to be appropriate in response to being so informed;
(b) the ERO must notify the CORE keeper of the steps taken (or of the reasons for not taking any), within such period and in such form and manner as is specified—
(i) in the scheme, or
(ii) by the CORE keeper in accordance with the scheme.”
(4) In subsection (7)(b), after “relating to the person” there is inserted “, or to any such suspicions as are mentioned in subsection (6A),”.
(5) In subsection (11)—
(a) for “must not authorise” there is substituted “must not—
(a) authorise”;
(b) at the end there is inserted—
“(b) authorise one ERO to supply information to another.”’.—[Mr. Wills.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Wills: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 129.
Mr. Wills: I am moving this clause now because it is necessary for the successful implementation of the co-ordinated online record of electors scheme, and if we do not pass it, there may be delays in the implementation of the scheme. Subsection (2) expands the circumstances in which the CORE keeper must inform an electoral registration officer that improprieties involving electoral records or potential absent voter fraud may have arisen.
As for postal votes, the CORE keeper will now be required to notify electoral registration officers when more than a specified number of postal votes are requested for a single address, as well as for a redirection address. That is in response to feedback from electoral registration officers that the number of postal vote redirections is minimal and that there would be greater value in looking at all instances when large numbers of postal votes have been requested to close the opportunity for postal vote fraud to occur.
12.15 pm
The new clause also provides that the CORE keeper will be required to notify electoral registration officers when the same person is appointed or votes as proxy for more than two electors. Being appointed as proxy for more than two electors is not in itself an offence, but voting as proxy for more than two electors who are not close relatives is. The new clause will provide an opportunity for electoral registration officers to remind those appointed as proxies of the legal position.
Subsection (3) of the new clause extends the Secretary of State’s order-making powers in respect of a CORE scheme order so that he or she can require an electoral registration officer to take steps, if any, that seem to the electoral registration officer to be an appropriate response to a notification from the CORE keeper. It will be the responsibility of the electoral registration officer to decide what steps should be taken or whether steps should be taken at all. That is consistent with the nature of the statutory appointment of electoral registration officers, in that they are ultimately responsible for their own electoral registers. When deciding how to respond to a notification from the CORE keeper, electoral registration officers will be free to make best use of their professional judgment, local knowledge and experience.
Subsection (3) also requires electoral registration officers to report to the CORE keeper about either the steps taken in response to information provided by the CORE keeper or the reasons for not taking steps. That will enable the CORE keeper to maintain an overview of how the CORE scheme is running and ensure consistency throughout the scheme. Subsection (4) of the new clause allows the CORE keeper to provide relevant information to an electoral registration officer when the CORE keeper has a suspicion that an offence has been committed or may have been committed under the Representation of the People Act 1983 or that there has been some other impropriety.
Subsection (5) of the new clause allows a CORE scheme to provide for the electoral registration officers to share information with each other for the purposes of responding to information supplied by the CORE keeper under the provisions. That will allow electoral registration officers to work together across electoral boundaries for the purpose of taking steps in response to notifications from the CORE keeper. The new clause is essential to the detection of fraud and in making sure that the prevention functions of the CORE scheme work effectively. It will ensure that the CORE scheme can be delivered without unnecessary delay.
Mrs. Laing: I am pleased that the Minister has tabled the new clause because we support all efforts that are made by the Government to stop electoral fraud. As I have said several times, we want the workings of our democratic system to be absolutely watertight and we are in favour of every reasonable measure taken to ensure that that is brought about. When the CORE scheme was introduced, we supported it for that reason.
However, I am worried that, in the few years since the scheme was introduced, it has not achieved anything. Little has been done, but it has cost a lot of money. If that money were invested in improving our record on electoral fraud, I would be all in favour of it, but we have seen a lot of money spent and little result. The Minister might explain that there is a long time lag in the spending of money and the setting up of some parts of the CORE scheme. If he does, I will have to accept that. However, when we first discussed the matter during consideration of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 some three years ago, we all hoped that something along the lines of CORE would happen. We hoped that by the time we were looking at another general election and the important European elections that we are about to face, the CORE scheme might be achieving something.
However, in a written answer to a question that I put to the Minister a couple of weeks ago, we discover that to date, the staff costs of CORE are £2.78 million and that £1.73 million has been spent
“to enable local authorities’ electoral management systems to output data in an agreed Election Mark Up Language (EML) format.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 559W.]
I accept that those sums, and the other several thousands of pounds that have been spent in the intervening period, are necessary. One does not get the results if one does not invest in the technology—I am in favour of that. However, I have a couple of questions to ask the Minister in this respect.
Mr. Wills: To clarify the point, is the hon. Lady suggesting that we should not spend this money on getting an agreed system for outputting data?
Mrs. Laing: No, not at all. I am saying that if we can see that this expenditure is investment in a good system to combat fraud, we are certainly in favour of it. I am not suggesting that it is an enormous amount of money; it is a few million pounds, and when covering the whole country, I accept that that is what these things cost. Every penny of taxpayers’ money spent in this way will be well spent if it brings about the result that we hope for.
However, two aspects in particular concern me. I am sure that the Minister is aware of these points and will be able to address them. The first is that, generally, the Government’s record on investing in technology has not been good. In the Ministry of Justice alone, several projects have gone way over budget and have not achieved what they ought to have achieved. I am not suggesting that that has yet happened with the CORE scheme. I also appreciate that the Minister has not had responsibility for this area of policy development for very long, so I do not hold him personally responsible, or suggest that he has not carried out his duties properly. However, we have had many examples of massive expenditure on Government technology, on computer systems that do not work, on new technology which promises the earth and where Ministers announce in the House, “We will be able to achieve x, y and z because we have spent £10 million on a, b and c,” and it does not happen. People rely on technology and it does not work. Not only do the Government not achieve what they set out to achieve, but they are often in a worse position than they were before they spent all the money on the technology.
I hope that that will not happen with CORE. I am not suggesting that the evidence we have so far indicates that the whole CORE project is likely to fail and I seriously hope that it does not. We want this project to work; we want the fight against electoral fraud to be won and we will do all we can to support the Government in that respect. I merely draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that some of his colleagues have been very unsuccessful in bringing about good end results in the technology projects that they have started. I hope that he will be able to assure us that vast amounts of money will not be spent on CORE to no avail. I appreciate that he may have good explanations of why it has not achieved anything yet, but I would like to give him the opportunity to say what it will achieve in future, hopefully without the spending of further enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money.
My second concern is the security of data, another matter on which the Government have a bad track record. Again, it is not this Minister and this project that have been in trouble—far from it. Let us hope that they never will be. However, even he must admit that his colleagues in many Departments have been responsible for massive losses of data that should have been kept secure and safeguarded on behalf of the members of the public to whom it related. My one concern—[Interruption.]
Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 19 November 2008