Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Dr. Whitehead: If we take the 2001 census and then use the on-year estimates from that census, in some seats where registration is consistent because the seats are stable, registration may exceed the total census figure that was recorded prior to the half-year figures going forward. In other seats, such as those in Brent, which is about 60 per cent. of the census figure, the opposite is the case. I do not believe that one is miraculous or that the other is because of feckless citizens failing to register.
Mrs. Laing: What the hon. Gentleman is saying is all over the place. No one is talking about feckless citizens failing to register. I do not understand what he is talking about. He referred to 103 per cent. but 103 per cent. of what? Did he mean 103 per cent. of the estimate based on the census? That is interesting but fairly meaningless, and it is not what we are discussing. We should get on with debating new clause 1. We are discussing what should be the most important part of the Bill and, quite honestly, Labour Members are wasting time.
The fact that electoral registration in Northern Ireland fell by 10 per cent. on the introduction of individual voter registration is evidence that the problem of fraudulent over-registration was tackled directly. That is the whole point. Individual voter registration and the accompanying personal identifier system worked in Northern Ireland. It is a good system. It is better and much tighter, and we ought to have it in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is important that we tackle over-registration in Great Britain, and that we restore the trust and integrity that we should observe in the ballot.
We should also note that, in its report, the Northern Ireland Select Committee stated that the
“Electoral Commission has concluded that the removal of the carry-forward mechanism is likely to be the most important factor by far in the decline in the level of voter registration following the introduction of the 2002 Act.”
All that shows that the lessons from Northern Ireland are there to be learnt, not to be copied, and that we should not dwell too much on what is happening in Northern Ireland. What matters is that the integrity of the electoral system is the very basis of our freedom under democracy. That is precious. We are here as elected representatives of the people to defend the process, and we should value it but it is under threat because of how registration is carried out. It is not more difficult to borrow a library book than it is to register to vote. In fact, we have to prove more to take a book out of a library than we do to cast our vote and influence who governs the country. Integrity could so easily be restored by introducing individual voter registration coupled with personal identifiers.
The Government have said on more than one occasion that they intend to introduce a scheme of individual voter registration. The Minister has said that he accepts the principle, as have his colleagues. If the principle had not been accepted, it would not have been suitable for Northern Ireland. The Government promised to put the principle into action, but what puzzles me is that they have failed to take the opportunity to do so under the Political Parties and Elections Bill, the perfect vehicle for such a measure. That is why we put high store by the proposal and why the new clause, tabled immediately after Second Reading, is about individual voter registration.
In a report published just last week, the Committee on Standards in Public Life stated that, although levels of confidence in the electoral system are reasonably high,
“people are attracted to the greater security and accuracy of individual voter registration.”
It goes on to explain that it undertook a survey that showed that about two thirds of respondents—65 per cent.—in the United Kingdom thought that the electoral registration system in their own country was very or fairly safe from further abuse, but that only 15 per cent. of respondents felt that the system was very safe while 18 per cent. considered the system unsafe.
Should we not in the UK in the 21st century have a system that is very safe and utterly watertight? Of course, we should. Mediocre is simply not good enough. Nearly two thirds of respondents to the survey expressed an overall preference for the individual registration system in Northern Ireland, compared with 30 per cent. who preferred the household system in Great Britain. There is a 2:1 plebiscite in favour of an individual rather than a household system of registration.
I ask the Committee to imagine it. If we were giving advice to a newly emerging democracy on how to set up an electoral system in order to produce the best democratic results possible, we might say, “Here you are; get on with it. You set up your Parliament—it may have one House, it may have two—and you set up a system of voting.” The hon. Gentleman on my left would say that the single transferable vote or some other proportionate system was best, while I would say that first past the post was best. It would be decided one way or the other. Each system has its merits. But suppose that we then said, “How about copying the British system? You have a country full of free, individual people, and in order to be allowed to vote, each one of them has to go to the head of their household, who has the duty to fill in a form that gives them the right to vote or doesn’t.” How utterly ridiculous when it is looked at like that.
We have that system because it is left over from the Victorian age, when the paterfamilias did everything. It is left over from an age when only the men in the household voted. It is left over from an age when we did not have the technical or practical ability to carry out a canvass of individuals. It is an affront to the freedom of the individual and it is totally ridiculous to take away personal power and responsibility. No wonder lots of young people do not bother to vote or take their duties seriously. They have to get their mothers or fathers to fill in the form for them, as though they were children.
In thinking about it, I realised that it happened to me when I was living under my father’s roof and was a parliamentary candidate. I was the person on the ballot paper. I was the person for whom people could vote. All right, it was in Paisley, North and only 5,252 of them did vote for me, but I thought that that was quite a lot at the time. I was the name on the ballot paper, but before I could cast my vote for myself, my father had to fill in my name and sign the form as head of the household. How utterly ridiculous. That is the system that Ministers are defending. It is simply not right.
I speak jocularly about my situation because my father, being an honourable and responsible district councillor, filled in the form properly, but if I had tried to be a Labour candidate and not a Conservative one, you can bet your bottom dollar that my father would not have let me vote. Whether that is right or wrong— [Hon. Members: “It is wrong.”] Of course it is wrong.
I had better be careful about using my late and very honourable father as an example, because he did not do things that were wrong—well, not that sort of thing, anyway—and he would not have done that, but under the current system, we give the person who fills in the form the ability, if not the right, to disfranchise other people who live in that household. That is indubitably the case. It is not a right—it would be wrong for a person to fill in the form wrongly—but we give them the opportunity and ability to disfranchise other people. It might not happen often in families, but it might happen in other households in multiple occupation, such as student or bedsit accommodation or homeless hostels. It is wrong that one person should have the ability to prevent another from registering to vote. If we are talking about individual responsibility and individual duty, each individual must have the ability to register themselves individually to vote. By not adopting new clause 1, the Government are saying that they are content with the law of 100 years ago, under which the head of the household is the person who holds the power and individuals do not count. That is a disgrace in the 21st century.
4.45 pm
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Being as concerned with the rights of women as she has shown she is in this place and in various committees on which she serves, would my hon. Friend care to discuss how women have been disadvantaged by the existing system, compared with individual voter registration?
Mrs. Laing: I thank my hon. Friend for that very helpful point. I jocularly gave the example of myself bowing to the greater political wisdom of my father, but fortunately I agreed with him, so there was no difficulty for me, but what if there was a difficulty? What if there was a difficulty in a culture in which men say that women should not take part in affairs of the outside world? I know of many households in and around my constituency and in other parts of our country where women are expected to undertake the domestic duties and bring up children. I am not saying that they are necessarily badly treated, although sometimes that happens, but the men in the household will frequently say, “Voting is a matter that men undertake; women don’t need to do that.” That may happen; it may not happen. In many cultures, that attitude prevails. The point with new clause 1 is that it should not be possible. By carrying on without individual voter registration, the Government are potentially allowing it to happen.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I think that the hon. Lady has said that she knows of cases in which that happens. Will she clarify that? If she does know of such cases, that is material to the debate that we are having, but why has she not done anything about it? As she has already pointed out, it is a criminal offence to fail to register, so it would be in her hands, in respect of the cases that she knows about, to have the matter dealt with properly. Has she done that?
Mrs. Laing: I must explain something. The hon. Gentleman knows that I was not saying that I know of specific cases that I can name. I have said that I know of cases in which a household is set up in a certain way. It might be a large house with two families living in it, in perfectly happy and luxurious conditions, but the men, according to the particular cultural background that they pursue—it is entirely a matter of their free will for them to do that; I am not complaining about it for a moment—take part in the outside world and the women do not even speak English and stay at home, look after the children and undertake domestic duties. There is nothing wrong with that. I am not criticising. Every family and every person can choose to live the way they want to, but I am saying that keeping the current system of household registration instead of individual registration makes it possible for the head of the household, however right or wrong, not to put down other people on the form. I am not saying that that is being done vexatiously or even intentionally; I am saying that it can happen and we should stop it happening.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): I have been enjoying the excursions into the hon. Lady’s family history, but I hope that she realises that under provisions that the Government introduced in 2001, what she describes need not be the case. Any voter can apply for an individual registration form, even if they have been left off the household form, so the hon. Lady need not have been excluded if her father had taken the route that was suggested.
Mrs. Laing: I thank the Minister for that point, which brings us back again to the fact that the Government have accepted in principle that individual registration, by individual voters, is the right way forward. [Interruption.] I thank the Minister for confirming that. I do not want to go down other illustrative routes—I intended to make a small point and I have given away on too many occasions. I do not want to take up the Committee’s time. I am merely illustrating that things can go wrong under the current system which would not do so under a system of individual voter registration.
I am not the only person who thinks that; almost every organisation concerned with such matters agrees. The chair of the Electoral Commission, Sam Younger, said:
“Registration should be a matter for each individual rather than for heads of household and it is vital that a system of individual registration is introduced as soon as possible so that the register used at the next general election is secure, accurate and commands confidence.”
That is the most important statement made on behalf of anyone on the matter, and the Government should pay attention to it. A report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life said:
“Despite the simplicity and familiarity of household registration, on balance the Committee takes the view that, as there is agreement among all the major parties, it is the right time to recommend the introduction of individual registration.”
It recommended that
“A decision should be made and legislation developed to implement a system of individual voter registration immediately following the next General Election or by 2010 at the latest.”
The judge who looked into vote rigging during Birmingham’s 2004 local elections said that he had heard evidence of fraud that
“would disgrace a banana republic.”
It is embarrassing to have such a judgment of our electoral system in the 21st century.
The comments made by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s Monitoring Committee were even worse. It said:
“The voting system in the United Kingdom is open to fraud, and while it delivers democratic elections, this is despite vulnerabilities in the system which should urgently be addressed...In particular, registering voters without personal identifiers—such as date of birth or national insurance number—made it ‘childishly simple’ to register bogus voters”.
The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust said that there is
“widespread, and justifiable, concern about both the comprehensiveness and the accuracy of the UK’s electoral registers—the poor state of the registers potentially compromises the integrity of the ballot.”
Outside ministerial circles, there is a widespread view that a fundamental overhaul of our system is necessary. Coupled with individual voter registration, we would need personal identifiers and that is laid out in new clause 2. I suggest that those could be the person’s signature, date of birth and national insurance number, but if the Minister were to come up with a better idea, we would support it. I am not wedded to the practicalities of new clause 2, but I am to the principle.
Mr. Wills: For the purposes of the record, will the hon. Lady accept something else contained in the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust report? It also said:
“It is unlikely that there has been a significant increase in electoral malpractice since the introduction of postal voting on demand in 2000.”
Any malpractice that did exist
“related to a tiny proportion of all elections contested.”
Will the hon. Lady confirm that the report said that, and can she enlighten the Committee about how many cases of electoral fraud there have been in recent years?
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Prepared 19 November 2008