Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mr. Tyrie: I am sorry that I missed a couple of minutes of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, but I listened attentively to what he had to say before the Divisions. He was right on the button in terms of identifying the key issues. He and I worked together for a long time on a Select Committee, and we also worked on the informal consultative group for the Electoral Commission. We know each other’s views and there is a good degree of agreement between us. I agree that the integrity of the register is important, but I differ slightly from him in one regard.
I have made this point repeatedly in different ways and it goes to the heart of a question that was asked by an hon. Gentleman who is no longer in his place—it is a pity that the Divisions have broken up the discussion as we had come to a very important point. The question was whether under-registration or fraud posed the bigger problem. However, I do not think that that is the crucial matter. The crucial question is, what is the public perception of the bigger problem? The essential—the necessary—condition for any electoral system, is that it should secure consent. Broadly speaking, after people have been upset about this, that and the other and have had a go at all and sundry, they finally get the chance to vote and—win or lose—they accept the result. That situation is not achieved lightly but is easily destroyed.
There is no point in thinking through clever wheezes to improve the situation such as electronic voting or publicity campaigns. I am not against a transition publicity campaign but I am nervous about having only a campaign that might sit there in perpetuity and create its own constituency, as Weber tells us that all bureaucracies do. The Electoral Commission has threatened to do just that unless it is reformed as a consequence of the investigation by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We must keep focused on the basic point of securing consent. The perception is as important as the reality.
I want to discuss a number of aspects to new clause 1 that have been touched on by others. Before I do so, there is a relationship between this point and that which I raised earlier concerning service voter registration; I promise not to dwell on it long, Sir Nicholas. If we introduce individual voter registration, we must think about how it will affect voters in the services. They have already been badly affected by one reform, and we do not want them to be affected by another. Has any preliminary preparatory work been done on that subject? Have we examined the effect that the introduction of individual registration and voter ID might have on the arrangements that are currently in place to try and secure higher levels of service voter registration? Have the services been consulted?
I ask those questions because, inadvertently, I did not give the accurate figures for the fall in service voter registration as a consequence of PPERA. I suggested that they had roughly halved but perhaps I can quickly give more accurate figures. In 2000, there were 483 service voters registered in Chichester, in my constituency. Two years after PPERA, there were 22. That gives an idea of the scale of the fall. Service voter registers are kept in Scotland, but are not kept separately for England and Wales. In Scotland in 2000, there were 18,226 such voters on the register. By 2004—the big drop was in 2003—that figure of almost 18,500 had dropped to 2,100, which gives an idea of the scale of what has happened. I cannot impress on the Committee too strongly how important it is that we think through carefully the changes for groups such as service voters, but that is not an argument for delaying the introduction of individual registration along the lines set out in new clause 1.
It is worth while putting the new clause into context. When the Government came to power, they were full of bright ideas for polishing up the constitution. Some worked and some did not: rolling registration has broadly worked, but postal voting on demand fell flat. In fact, it has been an absolute disaster. It led to the warehousing of votes and ended up with the notorious Birmingham court case. One of the key quotations from that case, which has already been given, was that it resulted in practices that
“would disgrace a banana republic.”
I had always assumed that that quote was “would not disgrace a banana republic”, but
“would disgrace a banana republic”
is actually rather worse, so the judge was clearly in a firm frame of mind when he wrote his judgment.
Before we go any further in working out how to address all this through the new clause, it is worth asking this: before the Government introduced postal voting on demand, just how big was the problem that three or four Labour Members have alluded to? The most detailed recent investigation of non-registration was by the Office for National Statistics, which did work on behalf of the Electoral Commission. Overall, it gave 8 to 9 per cent. as the best estimate for non-registration in England and Wales in 2000. That sounds quite a lot and it is not ideal, but it is worth bearing it in mind that that compares to an estimate of 7 to 9 per cent. in 1991, so it does not seem that there has been much change. There has been no sharp decline.
It is interesting to note that in two surveys, in 1981 and 1991, some 19 per cent. of those who were then unregistered to vote said that they did not wish to vote or that they could not be bothered, which is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest was making. By contrast, in 2004-05, a poll conducted by MORI showed that 14 per cent. said they were not interested in voting.
6.15 pm
I should add that the figures I have just quoted are not entirely comparable. The Electoral Commission has done its best to make them comparable, and those who are interested can look at its September 2005 report, pages 43 and 44. I only say that because there would be no point in the Minister coming back to me with detailed, technical points about the construction of that survey. The commission has concluded that the figures are broadly but not exactly comparable in the way in which the questions were asked.
Notwithstanding the assessment that we are still in the range of 8 to 9 per cent., I still think that there is a problem, and it is a problem that exists in particular constituencies more than others. I agree with the general point that has been made by Labour Members, but it is not an alibi for delaying the introduction of individual registration and voter identification.
Under the Electoral Administration Act 2006, the Government tried what I still consider was probably a stalling measure. I did not oppose it at the time, but it was not ever likely to deal with the problem. I am referring to the creation of the new offence of falsely applying for a postal vote. It was in the wake of the Birmingham case. I am not a lawyer, but I could not see the point of it. Falsely filling in a postal vote application form was already illegal, even before the Act. Those engaged in the warehousing in Birmingham already knew that such action was illegal. The whole response of the Government to that issue had the smell of display purposes only legislation, the sort of legislation that we have had too much of recently. However, I do not exempt my own party from such action when it was in government. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is perhaps the most salient example of the phenomenon.
In his evidence on 4 November, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life was unequivocal. He said:
“At the time my committee made the recommendation”—
for individual voter registration—
“under my predecessor, it was well aware of the situation in Northern Ireland and of what has happened since the measure was introduced. That includes the much greater confidence that now exists in the integrity of the electoral system...if something is fundamentally flawed, as we now believe the electoral system in the country to be with the combination of household registration and postal voting on demand, we should not keep it because of concern about some other issue. One should address that other issue directly”.—[Official Report, Political Parties and Elections Public Bill Committee, 4 November 2008; c. 36, Q90.]
We could not have clearer advice than that given by the chairman of Committee on Standards in Public Life: “Fundamentally flawed” was his conclusion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest quoted the Council of Europe. I will not repeat her quotation about the United Kingdom being open to fraud and the system being childishly simple to fiddle, but it was worth pointing out. Those quotations can be found on page 12 of the House of Commons Library brief on postal briefing and electoral fraud. I implore members of the Committee to read the rest of what was said, which is set out over the page, and note who said such things. Politicians from Poland, Germany and other countries throughout Europe strongly recommended that we do not tarry with such matters but get on with changing the system in the manner that we are proposing under new clause 1 without delay.
Furthermore, those politicians were so concerned about such matters that they considered threatening us, as they might a hopeless banana republic. The briefing stated:
“The UK should not face a full PACE monitoring procedure at this stage, the committee concluded—but special attention should be paid to these outstanding vulnerabilities during periodic monitoring reports on the UK. If they are not addressed, and start to have an impact on the overall democratic nature of British elections, a full monitoring procedure should again be considered.”
For Britain to be in the dock with the Council of Europe, which we helped to create—indeed we were integral to its creation—is deeply worrying.
Martin Linton: Most European countries do not have electoral registers or annual canvasses for the simple reason that they have ID cards. There is no reason to draw up a separate register of voters every year because they already have a register of the population. One point that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest have not made is that Northern Ireland has electoral ID cards, which is the most effective security device. The logic of his argument, therefore, points to the fact that the most effective way in which to register voters is through an ID-card system.
Mr. Tyrie: I found that a deeply concerning intervention. No one else who has looked at this matter has arrived at that conclusion. I am talking about people who devote their professional lives to considering this and no other issue. It also seems to confirm what I fear, which is that the Labour party will cling to any counsel of delay. As everybody knows, ID cards are something for the very indefinite future, even if Labour were to win the next election. Frankly, the matter is probably for the birds because the cost would be so prohibitive, and the cost-benefit analysis simply does not stack up.
Martin Linton: For clarity, I was not suggesting that progress on the road towards individual registration should be held up on account of the fact that Parliament may in future decide to adopt ID cards. I was merely saying that the hon. Gentleman’s international comparisons are beside the point. He is comparing us with countries that do not need to have electoral registers or annual canvasses.
Mr. Tyrie: There are upwards of 200 countries in the world, of which 150 purport to have some sort of democratic system in place. I would not claim to know what their systems are, which is why I referred the point back to the Minister to consider in the fullness of time. I was not demanding that though.
The fact that several European countries use ID cards does not seem to take us very far in this debate. We do not have ID cards, but we have a method of dealing with the problem. All the experts and the overwhelming evidence suggest that we should go forward on that basis. [Interruption.] I have been passed a note that says that I must sit down in eight minutes. I have a long history in my party of being slightly independent. However, I am not so independent as to disobey such a clear message.
The Chairman: Order. The only message that the hon. Gentleman should obey is that from the Chair.
Mr. Tyrie: There are all sorts of people whom I should obey, temporal and otherwise, but certainly you, Sir Nicholas, are very high on the list.
The remaining argument, to which I alluded earlier—we certainly had a heck of a canter around it earlier so I do not want to prolong it much further—is this question of the Northern Ireland experience providing an alibi for not acting now. Labour Members queued up to make that point. I would not suggest for one moment that some brief had passed among them. I doubt that it has because they made points from very different angles. It clearly is a very strongly felt point, and I am sure that Northern Ireland itself will be impressed by the depth of their knowledge and understanding of what was allegedly done. The truth is that Labour Members are clinging to a pretty poor life raft if they want to use Northern Ireland as an excuse for not getting ahead with this. It is such a waterlogged life raft that it is virtually sinking.
It is worth looking at what the Committee on Standards in Public Life said about Northern Ireland on page 94, paragraph 5.67 of its “Review of the Electoral Commission”, which I do not think has not been quoted in Committee yet. It states:
“The Committee’s view is that individual registration in Northern Ireland has not led to the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters, as is widely believed to be the case.”
That is a direct reference to the earlier paragraphs. It continues:
“The Government is on record as saying that this drop owed to a combination of inaccuracy resulting from weaknesses in the household-based system and the withdrawal of the ‘carry forward’”
Paragraph 5.67 goes on to say:
There are...a significant number of individuals who, for various reasons, do not re-register during the annual canvass; therefore the withdrawal of the carry forward effectively meant that each year a sizeable number of individuals would fall off the register. There would be a similar significant reduction in registration under the household system if the carry forward was abolished.”
Therefore, we have the answer to the points that Labour Members were making. The lion’s share of the reduction in the numbers on the register was not caused by the introduction of individual registration. The report goes on to praise the Government. Although it does not use the word “praise”, it is fair to say that that is what it does. It says that the Government’s response, with the Miscellaneous Provisions (Northern Ireland) Act 2006, was to abolish
“the annual canvass in favour of a system of continuous registration.”—
which the committee clearly supports. The main problem in Northern Ireland has been resolved. I would have thought that that would have been enough for anybody. It is clear and unambiguous advice.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
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