Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mrs. Laing: New clause 1 was originally in my name, but I then detected that I had made a drafting error, so I tabled amendments (a), (b) and (c) to the new clause. As a procedural matter, therefore, my name no longer appears at the top of new clause 1 and it is in the name of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, who has asked me, on his behalf, to continue to speak to it. For the sake of getting the amendments to the new clause out of the way, I shall begin with amendments (a), (b) and (c) in my name.
Mr. Tyrie: This is about the most important clause that we will consider in the whole of the Bill. It goes to the heart of it. I have seen many of these clauses in past Committees, but we have not yet developed the last word on this. The Government say that they are keen, in principle, on this type of improvement. I take it that we would be amenable to constructive suggestions from the Government to improve the new clause. Is that correct? If they come forward with suggestions, rather than just knocking it out, the Opposition will be constructive.
Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend asks me a leading question, and of course I agree with him.
Mr. Tyrie: I am not a lawyer, so I am just asking a question.
Mrs. Laing: I, clearly, and not for the first time, have been proved not to be a brilliant parliamentary draftsman, but I did not set out to be. My hon. Friend is right. This is an extremely important group of new clauses on a vital issue. If the Government produce a constructive way forward, we would be happy to co-operate.
I will deal first with the amendments, so that the Committee does not have to puzzle over their meaning. New clause 1, as drafted, is taken from the Northern Ireland legislation, so I made the mistake of leaving in proposed new subsection (4A)(c) (ii), which states:
“a statement of whether or not he has been resident in the United Kingdom for the whole of the three-month period ending on 15th October in the year in question, and”.
That should not be there, because it is a specific requirement relating to Northern Ireland and it is not necessary in the rest of the United Kingdom. I did not intend to introduce the three-month residency restriction across the rest of the United Kingdom—that would be wrong. Amendment (a) removes that sub-paragraph.
It has not been our intention at any point in the Bill to make it more difficult for people to register, or for people who legitimately ought to be voting to vote. We want to ensure that the franchise is extended to everyone to whom it ought to be extended, with no unnecessary restrictions. The areas to which amendments (a), (b) and (c) refer would have introduced a residency restriction, so I have amended my own new clause. Or, in technical terms, to ensure that the procedure is correct, I have amended the new clause standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon. I hope that the Committee will accept that explanation so that we do not have to waste time debating amendments (a), (b) and (c).
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): As one who tried to persuade my noble Friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton to include a scheme for individual registration in the 2006 Act, I certainly will not argue against the principle of the amendments, but when the hon. Lady refers to the Northern Ireland model, does she accept that there was a big drop in the number of people registered to vote when the single registration scheme came into effect there? Does she think that, when we design a scheme for the rest of the United Kingdom, we ought to do something in the law to protect against that happening again?
Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman makes at the outset the very point that we have to discuss. That is why the new clause is such an important omission from the Bill. I cannot say that it is an important part of the Bill because it is not in the Bill, but it should be.
I will deal with the hon. Gentleman’s point later, but discuss it briefly now. One reason why the legislation was introduced in Northern Ireland while it was still in the early stages of being considered for the remainder of the UK was because it was seen as a necessary way to solve a specific problem in Northern Ireland. It was recognised by the Government and, I believe, all political parties, that the Northern Ireland register was not accurate. It was not intact. It had on it the names of many people who should not have been on it. Indeed, it had on it many names that were not the names of people. It was very much in need of being cleaned up, to put it simply.
Inevitably, if one of the reasons for introducing legislation is to remove names that are not names of people but the names of people long deceased or not yet born or of people who left the country long ago and have no right to vote or that are merely anagrams of other names—something that was discovered when the matter was examined—given that the intent of the legislation as it applied initially in Northern Ireland was to remove superfluous names from the register, by the very nature of the legislation, the outcome was that the number of names on the register was significantly reduced.
Mr. Wills: May I clarify this point? Is the hon. Lady asserting that the entire fall in the numbers registered was due to the phenomenon that she described?
12.45 pm
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): While the main purpose of the legislation was to remove people from the register who should not have been on it, does the hon. Lady accept that there already was a serious problem of under-registration in Northern Ireland, with 29 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds and 17 per cent. of people in socio-economic categories D and E not on the register, and that the legislation probably made the problem worse by increasing under-registration among those groups?
Mrs. Laing: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s statistics, but he must not forget that there is a statutory duty to register. I am sure that the Minster will correct me if I am wrong, but the present legal framework provides that electoral registration officers in Northern Ireland can impose a fine of up to £1,000 on someone for not registering. Of course, that is not enforced. I am not suggesting that it should be enforced, but the framework is in place to allow that and perhaps it would be a good idea for the Government, through their officials in the electoral registration offices, through the Electoral Commission, or through whichever way they choose, to remind people that they have a duty to register to vote. There is an idea that, “Oh dear, a significant part of the population aged between 18 and 25 don’t bother to register to vote”. Surprise, surprise. A significant part of the population aged 18 to 25 do not bother about very much, because they are at that stage in life where they do not have to, and this is just one of those things. However, it should be remembered that the framework is there to impose the law if the Government choose to do so.
Mr. Djanogly: My hon. Friend, with the help of the hon. Member for Battersea, has uncovered one of the most disgraceful aspects of our electoral registration system and democracy in this country: hundreds of thousands of people fail to register, thereby breaking the existing law. We are looking to move the law on, but it is important to make the point that the existing law is being broken.
Mrs. Laing: My hon. Friend is correct. I do not think that I have ever seen a Government information programme—leaflets or posters—about this. We see so much Government information: there are glossy brochures on just about everything, coming from every Department. One can hardly turn round without seeing some kind of Government information about something, whether it is teaching our children to read, how to cross the road, or not having water that is too hot running into our baths—that is done particularly in Scotland, but it is still Government money that pays for it. All that is done, and yet I do not think I have seen any promotion by the Government saying that it is an offence not to register to vote.
Mr. Wills: I am sorry to stray, but I hope that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that the literature on babies being scalded is not worth spending money on.
Mrs. Laing: No, of course I am not. It is right to educate people about such important matters, and so it is right to teach people that they have a duty to register to vote. We all often go out on the campaign trail and I assume that every member of the Committee sometimes knocks on people’s doors and asks, “Will you vote?”. Usually we ask “Will you vote for me?”, rather than “Will you vote?” generally, but often the conversation comes round to whether a person votes generally. We find people who say “I don’t vote”, like “I don’t smoke” or “I don’t eat pasta” or “I don’t ride a bicycle”, as if there is no duty to register to vote. It is as if they are asserting that they are in some way morally superior because they do not get involved in the political process, but they will be the first to complain if something goes wrong and their representative has not done anything about it. That is a massive generalisation that I do not propose to back up, but we all meet people who say that they do not vote. It should be up to the Government to tell them that they have a duty to register to vote. If they then choose not to vote, of course every individual has the freedom to choose whether to exercise their vote.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady’s argument about what happened in Northern Ireland and the what purpose of individual registration was. Does she accept that, after 2005, when a provision was introduced to enable a person to have one year’s grace on the carry-forward mechanism if they had not re-registered the previous year, virtually the whole reduction in the register that had been experienced previously was reinstated by the increase in votes that took place as a result of that carry-over mechanism? These were real voters, not fake voters, who had been removed from the register. By and large, they were members of the settled population in Northern Ireland, not the younger people whom she referred to, who perhaps had not fulfilled their responsibility to register to vote. Is she saying that all portions of the population should register annually in order to undertake the duty to register, or is she saying that, as is the case throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, there may be some leeway for ensuring that settled communities that do not necessarily have to re-register every year continue to be placed on the electoral register?
Mrs. Laing: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should have different rules in different parts of the country. I accept what he says. It is essential, and it is the purpose of the Bill, to try to make it easier for people to register to vote. He will have heard what I said about service voters earlier this morning. It is essential that everybody who has the right to vote can fulfil the duty to register to vote, and then to vote if they choose to do so.
Other Labour Members have also made good points about the lessons to be learned from Northern Ireland. I am not suggesting for a moment that everything that happened in Northern Ireland is perfect, but I am suggesting that the individual voter registration scheme has been successful there, and that in learning the lessons of what could be improved, the Government should be able to bring all those lessons together and in a short space of time introduce a similar scheme in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): The hon. Lady has just told the Committee that the Northern Ireland scheme is successful. It depends what criteria one uses to describe successful. Nearly 120,000 people were removed from the electoral roll as a result of the changes, and it was only when the rollover system was introduced that a further 70,000 came back on. That means that there are still at least 40,000 to 50,000 people who are not registered in Northern Ireland. I do not think that that is a success. While individual registration is important, we need a range of other packages to ensure that we encourage people, as she rightly says, to register to vote, so that they can vote.
Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman’s comments are amazing. The point of introducing the legislation in Northern Ireland was to take out of the register the names of people who were not people and of people who did not have the right to vote. That system was not democracy, the Government rightly took steps to put it right and we supported them. UK citizens who are responsible enough to exercise their right to vote and make a decisive contribution to deciding who shall govern our country ought to have responsibility for registering themselves to vote. We ought not to make that difficult but, my goodness, it is not very difficult to fill in a form.
Mr. Wills: I invite the hon. Lady to respond to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire actually made.
Mrs. Laing: I beg your pardon, Sir Nicholas. If I have missed the point, I should be happy for the hon. Gentleman to make it again.
Mrs. Laing: I did not miss the hon. Gentleman’s point; I fully understood it. I accept that the drop of 120,000 went too far, and that it was right to introduce further legislation on the rolling register. That brought the number back up by 50,000, meaning that 70,000 had been taken off the register.
Nick Ainger: It is the other way around—70,000 went on.
Mrs. Laing: Yes, so the number that came off the register was not 120,000, but 70,000, because 50,000 went back on. This is exactly my point about pilots and about learning from Northern Ireland. There were unintended consequences, as there often are with this type of legislation, but the Government then put the situation right. That is what is important. Can the hon. Gentleman explain where those 70,000 people are and why they do not register?
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