Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mrs. Laing: I agree entirely. I said that this morning, but it might have been at a time when I was going on a bit.
David Howarth: I hope that I will be forgiven for having forgotten, because it was so long ago.
My interest in the matter, as I said this morning, comes from being in a university seat. Among the households that organise electoral registration are Cambridge colleges. They count as the head of the household and put everybody on the register. If we changed to individual registration, we would need some way to ensure that individual students were on the register. That would not be too difficult to organise—students have to sign up for lots of things at the start of term, and they could sign up for that as well—but we would need to ensure that it was carefully considered.
I believe that we are also discussing new clause 2. The hon. Lady did not say much about new clause 2, but its effect appears to be the opposite of new clause 1. New clause 2 seems to say that if one is an overseas elector and one does not have a passport, one does not have to present one’s passport number—it is enough to claim to have a passport. That seems to be the exact opposite of what the hon. Lady is trying to do with new clause 1. It seems that it is okay to stuff the roll with people who live abroad, but not with people who live in the UK.
Mrs. Laing: I ought to clarify that point. I skipped over new clause 2 to try to save time, because I had given way so many times over new clause 1. I realised that was the only time that other Members would have a chance to participate in the debate.
The point of new clause 2 is simply to find a personal identifier for overseas voters and a passport number seems to be a perfectly sensible one.
David Howarth: I accept that a passport number is a sensible identifier, but the substitute, which is simply a declaration that one has lost one’s passport, does not seem to be adequate at all.
I return to the rather disappointing arguments from the Government Benches about why we should not go to individual registration quite yet. There is a kind of Augustinian aspect to this—we all accept that it is a good idea, but we do not want to be made virtuous right now.
The hon. Member for Battersea raised an argument about postal votes, saying that they are the real problem and that if one looks at the cases one can see that there is a serious problem. He said that there is not a problem—at least as far as we know—with personation, where people turn up at the polling station, pretending to be somebody else. There is some truth in that, but individual registration would make postal vote fraud more difficult because planning the fraud would take longer. At the moment, all one has to do is to decide to commit the fraud at the moment when one is trying to generate fake postal votes. That is the point at which one would generate the fake signature.
However, to commit the same postal vote fraud when the signature is on the register and each individual has signed the register to make sure that they are individually identifiable, makes the whole thing more difficult because it has to be planned further in advance. That does not make the system foolproof, and I fully accept that individual registration would not make the system foolproof. It does not seem to be a significant condition for increasing the security of the register to first-class levels, but it would make it better. In the end, what would make the system even better than simply a legislative change comes down to resources, which I touched on earlier when I talked about the need for a campaign of registration. One of the problems at present is that electoral officials do not have the resources to check signatures properly on postal votes—they are simply overwhelmed by the numbers.
Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that there is a problem with resources, although whether the service is better or worse depends on which part of the country one is in. It is also a question of the checking systems—the machines that help with the checking are apparently not up to scratch in many cases either.
David Howarth: I gathered the same thing as the hon. Gentleman, but it is a matter of resources in terms either of people, or of the equipment needed to make the system work properly, and we cannot do without that. It is therefore not right to say that simply passing a law to introduce individual registration would solve the problem—it would not. More would be needed, such as the investment of resources and a real commitment by the authorities to make the system work. Nevertheless, I am still convinced that the individual registration route is an important step forward.
Mr. Tyrie: I have been reflecting on the hon. Gentleman’s proposals for a state-run campaign. Can he clarify whether that state-run campaign is the Electoral Commission, which enables a transition from the current system to individual registration to be conducted without people falling off the register, or is he primarily talking about a campaign with a substantial increase in public expenditure that will take place every year to achieve higher registration?
David Howarth: There is definitely a need for a transitional campaign. The question is where to go after that. Having been a local councillor and seen how much money is devoted to ensuring that the register is up to date in particular authorities, I think that there might be a need for some permanent increase as well. My main point remains that even though we will not attain perfection by introducing individual registration, it will be an improvement. I support new clause 1 as amended by amendments (a), (b) and (c).
I do not support new clause 8 in its present form. The problem with new clause 8, with its list of personal identifiers, is that it is too inflexible. It does not allow for different circumstances in different parts of the country. The hon. Member for Epping Forest spent a lot of time talking about library cards, but I notice that library cards are not on the list. I have a British Library card. It has my signature on the back and a photograph on the front, and it seems a perfectly adequate identifier. New clause 8 is imperfect, and I urge the hon. Lady not to press it.
Mrs. Laing: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the principle of personal identifiers?
David Howarth: Yes. I agree with what the hon. Lady said. It has always struck me as rather extraordinary that in the UK one can vote without any personal identifier at all, but there needs to be flexibility in how the system of identifiers works. What will count as an adequate identifier in some parts of the country will not exist in others. In my constituency, library and university cards would be good things to use.
I mentioned new clause 2, which goes in exactly the opposite direction to new clause 1. On new clause 7 and the edited register, I agree with what the hon. Lady said, but it does not seem to go far enough. I do not see why the electoral register should be used for any commercial purpose at all. It should be used only for electoral and political purposes. We should make that absolutely clear and try to get away from the situation in which the electoral register has become a tool for advertising and commercial organisations.
The Chairman: Before I call the next speaker, may I make an appeal for brief speeches? We have a tremendous amount of ground still to cover. I know that the usual channels want to break at a reasonable time this evening, and I hope that all the important parts of the Bill can receive proper debate and scrutiny in the Committee.
Dr. Whitehead: I rise to make three points. First, we should be concerned about two things: the integrity of the register and the validity of the ballot. If the ballot loses its value and its resonance with people, confidence in the whole system will be undermined and the outcome, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest said, could eventually be called into question. The integrity and value of the ballot are important.
Secondly, the fact that someone can cast a ballot is important. That is why the integrity of the register is essential. It is not just that people who should be on the register are on it and people who should not be on it are not; there should be access to the register in the first place. It is an important part of our duty to ensure as nearly as we can that people can cast their ballots and that as many people are registered to vote as possible.
I do not think that it is reasonable in those circumstances to say simply, “Well, if people really want to register, they will.” We know from evidence gathered over quite a period that for various reasons, cast it how we will, there are enormous variations in the extent to which people living in a particular area of the country are able to cast their ballots. I mentioned earlier that registration figures in Hampshire in 2003 were 103 per cent. of the census. That is what one would expect from a registration system that works properly. The people on the census get to register, and more people register as they move into the area over the years. Within two or three years of the census, the number of people on the register will be in excess of the number recorded as resident in the area when the census was taken. That means that the system is working well. We should realise that the electoral registration offices in the area are working well, and we should reflect on the nature of the population living there.
5.30 pm
In some parts of the country, over the same period, the electoral register collapsed by more than 20 per cent. I do not mean in relation to the census, but the electoral register itself. In 2003, almost 20 per cent. fewer electors were on the electoral register in Brentford and Isleworth than in 2001. In central Edinburgh, there were 10,000 fewer people on the register in 2003 than in 2001, and in Bradford, West, 7,000 fewer. Those changes related to, among other things, differing practices in electoral registration at local level. On a wider basis, if we look at the 2001 census figures for various parts of the country, as well as at electoral registration numbers, we see a different picture to that in north Hampshire. The registration figure for Brent in 2001 was 70 per cent. of the 2001 census figure, whereas for Hammersmith and Fulham, and for Brentford, it was 76 per cent. There is enormous variation in who is getting to vote.
My plea is not that we should not have individual registration, because that is very important, in the short, medium and long term, to ensure that the ballot is validated—the use of individual identifiers is an important aspect of validating the ballot. However, validating the ballot is about not just one issue, but a whole range of issues that ensure integrity in our electoral system. In some parts of the country, the system fails to deliver huge numbers of people on the electoral register, thereby denying them a vote. Under the current system, when we periodically divide our electoral boundaries, through the boundary commissions, the numbers of electors per constituency are taken into account. Over a period of time, not only will some people be denied the right to vote, but whole areas of the country will end up with lower levels of representation than they might otherwise have had, because of the way that the electoral system has worked.
We have a dual responsibility. First, we must ensure that the ballot has integrity. Our electoral system is relatively clean, but even one case of fraud in a relatively clean system is too many. We must have a system that is as fraud-proof as possible.
Tony Lloyd: My hon. Friend makes some important points, because there are two ways of getting the system wrong, one of which is when people fraudulently want more than their one vote. It is equally fraud of the electoral system when people cannot vote because they are not registered. In an earlier speech, it was said that information about that complaint was relatively light, but will my hon. Friend hazard a guess as to which is currently the dominant feature in modern Britain—fraud or under-registration?
Dr. Whitehead: I hope that I am making the case that those elements are interlinked in a complete electoral system. I think that all hon. Members present agree that there is not widespread fraud in the British electoral system. We have a relatively clean electoral system. However, some aspects of our electoral system have always been as they are and always will be. For example, if one wished to be sufficiently corrupt, one could, to some extent, in principle, match up who has balloted and which way they have voted. Even with individual registration, it would not be possible to clean the system completely of fraudulent entrants.
Mr. Djanogly: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that expert after expert, and report after report, have said that fraud is a significant problem in the UK? Is it not therefore the first issue to be dealt with?
Dr. Whitehead: With respect, the expert evidence that has been given to the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, of which I am a member, and to this Committee has been that there are cases of fraud, particularly postal vote fraud, but that they are not an enormous proportion of the total system. Compared with a number of other systems, fraud is a relatively small element of our system. That is different from saying that the British electoral system itself is proof against fraudulent entry. There are two separate questions to be addressed. First, are people fraudulently entering or misusing the ballot on a widespread basis? Secondly, does the construction of our ballot system mean a low possibility of fraudulent entry, whether or not it is taking place? Fraudulent entry is possible now and could remain so in a future system.
5.37 pm
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
6.1 pm
On resuming
Dr. Whitehead: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea.
Martin Linton: On the point about convictions for fraud, the total number of convictions under the Representation of the People Act 1983 was one in 2006, one in 2005 and none in 2004.
Dr. Whitehead: I thank my hon. Friend for those statistics, because they underline that while one is too many—we must make our system as fraud-proof as possible—the overall incidence appears not to be enormous compared with a number of countries in the world. That does not mean we should do nothing about it.
Essentially, a valid electoral system is, one might say, a three-legged stool: those entitled to vote should be able to vote; those who vote should be able to do so freely, anonymously and without threat; and those who vote should not feel that their vote has been devalued by casting their vote alongside those who are not entitled to vote. If we ignore any one of those three legs, the system will not work. That is why moving to individual voter registration and to individual signifiers has to take place alongside measures to ensure that the register itself is as good as we can make it. That should include, as has been undertaken with some other legislatures, voters whom we know as reliable entrants to the register being placed on automatically—perhaps sixth-formers at college, rising-18 voters, or those known to have proper data-protection safeguards, having identified themselves to public bodies in various ways. In addition to having reliable canvassing methods across the country rather than the huge variation in the quality of register compilation in different parts of the country, we should look at measures for strengthening the register.
The hon. Lady asked what the argument was against individual registration. There is not, and should not be, an argument against individual registration. The question is how complete we wish to make our electoral system. I am in favour of making it a complete system with those three legs of the stool thereby verifying it. We have to move towards individual registration with that understanding. That is how, overall, we shall give our system integrity for the century.
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