Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mr. Tyrie: If the hon. Gentleman will permit me, I only have three minutes to go and I want to make only one more point.
Finally, the Electoral Commission has looked at the issue in great detail and it sent me an e-mail today. I asked for some advice on the Northern Ireland experience and whether the e-mail could be put in the public domain. It states:
“We commissioned a series of research reports to monitor the impact of individual registration on the numbers of people registered. The research clearly showed that the requirement to conduct an annual canvass tended to have a negative impact on the number of people registered by as much as 2-3% per year. It was this, rather than individual registration itself, which affected the numbers of people registered.”
That is crystal clear, and it adds:
“An analysis of the drop in numbers registered concluded that it was largely explained by the removal of duplicate names that had been contained in the household register.”
That is where the real fall came from; it is pretty unambiguous.
We should not have had to rely on this e-mail. I will make it available to the Committee and I am sure that the Electoral Commission will too.
Peter Wardle, in his oral evidence on 6 November said much the same. I will conclude with that quote, and I think that I will be nicely on time. He said:
“There are legitimate concerns about the impact on the comprehensiveness of the register...but in my view we can and should address those concerns and should not make them a reason for continuing to put off the introduction of individual registration and thereby putting off addressing the accuracy and integrity of the register...a 21st-century modern western democracy ought to be able to address both the integrity and accuracy of the register and its comprehensiveness, but we will make no progress on either of those things unless we get started.”——[Official Report, Political Parties and Elections Public Bill Committee, 6 November 2008; c. 59, Q153.]
I could not have put it better myself.
6.30 pm
Mr. Wills: Everyone on the Committee will agree that this has been an extremely important and useful debate. I want to address the new clauses in some detail and to make some general points of principle in response to comments, but I shall start by correcting some of what has been said during the debate.
We have heard several times from those on the Opposition Benches about a belief that there is a legal duty on an elector to take proactive steps to register to vote. That is not correct. A person is liable to be fined only if they fail to respond to a registration officer’s request for information. The next point was that the Government have taken no action on electoral fraud—I think I am referring to this correctly—and that, somehow, we are insouciant about that which exists. I shall briefly put the record straight.
On postal voting, in measures in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and associated secondary legislation, we have stipulated that postal voters must specify a reason if they want their postal vote to be sent to an address other than that at which they are registered. As administrators get more time to check postal vote applications, there is a requirement for electors to provide personal identifiers—signature and date of birth—if they wish to have a postal vote. The identifiers must be replicated by the elector when casting the postal vote, and they will be cross-checked with the original samples to ensure that the postal vote is valid.
There is a new offence of falsely applying for a postal or proxy vote, and new secrecy warnings on voting papers to deter attempts unlawfully to influence another’s vote. There is a strengthened offence of undue influence, which the hon. Member for Epping Forest alluded to and which will make prosecution easier. Ballot papers have a security mark to enable ballot papers to be validated. After every election, a list of all those who voted by post is published, so that individuals can check whether their vote was counted.
The police can check with any individual whether they voted by post or their vote was stolen. Police have been given more time to carry out investigations of electoral fraud—increased from one year to two years. There is a new criminal offence of supplying false information. There are clear new powers for electoral administrators to cross-check applications to register to vote against other information that the councils hold.
That brief list—brief in terms of time—shows how ridiculous it is to say that we do not take such matters seriously. Of course we do.
Mrs. Laing rose—
Mr. Wills: I am also under constraints. If it is a highly significant point, I shall happily give way.
Mrs. Laing: I agree with the Minister. We accept that the Government take those matters seriously and therefore are amazed that they are not going further with individual registration.
Mr. Wills: I am glad—a measure of consensus on that. I hope we achieve consensus on some other things that I am about to say.
Specifically, the hon. Member for Cambridge raised a detailed point about whether electoral registration officers have been given enough resources to check postal votes. It is an important point. We think that being able to check 20 per cent. is statistically robust. Most people would think that a reasonable argument. It is a good indicator of whether fraud is occurring. Obviously, if an electoral officer thought that there was a real risk of fraud, they could specify from the outset that all postal voting statements would be checked.
We are committed to the principle that 100 per cent. of returned postal votes need checking, but we need to ensure that electoral administrators have the necessary systems in place—that is a question not so much of resources, but of the systems to do it. We shall work with the Electoral Commission, electoral administrators and software suppliers to establish when it will be appropriate and safe to mandate 100 per cent. checking of postal votes. The opportunity is there—20 per cent. is statistically robust, but we are moving towards that 100 per cent., which I hope the Committee agrees is the desired goal.
We had a whole series of hyperbolic statements about banana republics and all the rest of it. I would urge all hon. Members—
Mr. Tyrie: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Wills: Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, he might want to hear the point I am making, then I shall be happy to give way.
Mr. Tyrie: I have heard the point.
Mr. Wills: With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, who is saying from a sedentary position that he has heard the point, he has not.
We have had hyperbolic statements from those on the Opposition Benches—I am referring to a small amount of what they said. All I say to them is that they should be extremely careful when they use such language to ensure that they are putting it in the correct context. Hyperbole does not usually help a reasoned argument.
The hon. Member for Chichester in particular—I will give way to him—has shown over and over again that he is well capable of making an extremely logical and intellectually consistent argument. I urge him to be careful about ruining it with hyperbole.
Mr. Tyrie: The Minister seemed to backtrack a fraction there. If I may say so, he is a very good chap, too, and a very thoughtful fellow. It is a bit rich to describe a High Court judge as exercising hyperbole when he came out with the phrase
“would disgrace a banana republic”.
Mr. Wills: With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, I was at great pains to point out that I was not accusing the High Court judge of hyperbole; I was accusing the hon. Gentleman of hyperbole in the context in which he was describing this. If he reads Hansard, he will see that I was urging him to be extremely careful about that. I do not think that any objective—[Interruption.] I ask hon. Members to consider, from their own experience of elections in this country, whether they think it is appropriate to describe their own participation in the electoral process as analogous to what goes on in a banana republic. That is all I ask them to consider.
Mr. Tyrie: Will the Minister give way? That point really is outrageous.
Mr. Wills: Not at the moment, because I want to raise—
Mr. Tyrie rose—
The Chairman: Order. The Minister is not giving way. Will the hon. Gentleman resume his seat?
Mr. Wills: We have spent a great deal of time on the new clause. I have many important points that I want to make. If I may say so, we can consider the question whether we are or are not a banana republic as outside the purview of the Committee.
The hon. Member for Chichester again raised a serious point about service voters. That is a significant issue that we take seriously, and the revised figures that he gave us underline how important it is. Of course we take it seriously. As far as I am aware, there have not been any detailed discussions with regard to the effect of individual registration, but as I said this morning, there are continuing discussions involving the Ministry of Defence, electoral administrators and Ministry of Justice officials on that issue. We will certainly bear it in mind as we move forward in this area.
Before I come to the substance of my remarks, let me say this. A lot of comparisons with other countries have been made. Without wishing to go into great detail, I ask all hon. Members, when they listen to the hon. Gentleman, to bear it in mind that in this country we have a democracy of extremely long standing. We are almost unique in the world in that sense. Obviously, our circumstances are different. As a constitutional theorist of great distinction, he will know that our constitution evolves. It evolves organically and it is right that it should do so. The Bill is part of that organic evolution. I hope he can agree at least on that.
Mr. Tyrie: I want to make a couple of quick points. The Minister accused me of hyperbole, but the record will show that it was a High Court judge who came out with the only phrase that the Minister has identified to justify the remark.
I would also like to point out that when I opposed the poll tax, which I did quite vigorously from the inside, I pointed out that only two countries had one—Guinea-Bissau and Papua New Guinea—and they had widespread civil unrest and had to turn it into a hut tax, which is a bit like a council tax. What I am trying to point out is that I do not know the answer to the international comparison point. I said at the time that I had not looked at it closely, but someone had pointed it out to me that Zimbabwe has household registration and he thought that it was probably the only country to have it.
Mr. Wills: Finally, you will be relieved to hear, Sir Nicholas. If the hon. Gentleman examines Hansard tomorrow, he will see that I was referring to hyperbole as a matter of context as much as to the exact remark. That was the point I was trying to make. I think he will agree, as a great expert in these matters, that that is also possible.
I come to the substance of the debate. The hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks that this is the most important proposal, and he may well be right. The time that we have taken to discuss it and the distinguished contributions that we have heard from the hon. Member for Epping Forest and from my hon. Friends show how important it is to the Committee. I hope that we can make progress.
I shall set out broad principles that I think should underpin our discussion—although not at great length, you will be relieved to hear, Sir Nicholas. The debate has raised important issues of principle that I think everyone agrees are fundamental to the health of our democracy. I hope that we can also agree that no party has a monopoly on either wisdom or propriety in these matters.
I hope that we can agree on a number of basic propositions. First, I agree with everything that has been said on the question of fraud. We can all agree that fraud is corrosive of our democracy and that we must do everything we can to tackle it. That is not at issue. However, it is also clear, and the evidence suggests it, that fraud is not systemic and not widespread. That is completely compatible with everything that we have heard from Opposition Members. We have heard a lot of figures today, but research by the Electoral Commission has found 23 convictions for offences set out in the Representation of the People Act between 2000 and 2006, with the figures peaking in 2001. However, as I have said, we cannot be complacent about even a single instance of such fraud.
The second proposition that I hope we can all agree on is that democracy is undermined when significant numbers are not able to participate in elections because they are not registered to do so. Again, the figures can be disputed, but it is commonly agreed that about 3 million people are not able to vote because they are not registered, although they are otherwise entitled to do so. Having said that, we can also agree, whatever else we may disagree on, that the electoral system itself must be beyond partisan dispute. While elections will always be vigorously disputed, and rightly so, the foundations of the electoral system should not be the subject of controversy.
Securing consensus on change to the electoral system can be challenging and we all recognise why that is. Political parties inevitably draw support from different parts of society and different parts of the country. That is inevitable—axiomatic, almost. However, it inevitably produces an asymmetry of interest from time to time in pursuing particular solutions to problems, and we have to recognise that that is the case.
Therefore, however justifiable any proposal may be in its own terms, we must always be wary of seeking to implement solutions to any given problem and implementing any given principle if, in doing so, it creates, however inadvertently, a biased outcome in the electoral system as a whole.
With those opening remarks in mind, I hope that we can also agree as a Committee, and as a House of Commons, that any changes to improve the electoral system—we recognise that it needs improvement; that is consensual between us—should be subject to four tests: that of the level playing field, being open, being fair and being transparent.
Any changes should always be directed towards the fundamental goal of creating a level playing field for all democratic political parties. Anything that undermines that principle is axiomatically partisan and risks illegitimacy. If the securing of one principle or another, no matter how desirable in its own right, tilts the playing field in one direction or another, without any countervailing action, it must, inevitably, risk that perception of illegitimacy.
The hon. Member for Chichester made an important point about securing consent from society as a whole. I agree with him that that is of paramount importance. If we do not have in our minds always the need to pursue a level playing field, we will risk the securing of that consent.
The second, third and fourth principles are quite obvious. Any changes should clearly aim to make the system as open as possible so that all voters entitled to vote should be able to do so.
Any changes should aim to make the system as fair as possible, so that all opportunities for systemic corruption and fraud are rooted out, and they should aim to make the system as transparent as possible so that everyone can see that it is open and fair. I hope that we can all agree that such transparency is the best guarantor of openness and fairness. Whatever changes are made should therefore be made in the interest of the legitimacy of the system as a whole and not be subject to claims that partisan advantage is being pursued. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, that would damage the chances of securing consent to the system as a whole. Whether partisan advantage is actual or perceived, we need to be extremely careful.
6.45 pm
To that end, having as complete a register as possible is a starting point to ensuring in so far as is practicable that all eligible voters are registered and able to exercise their franchise. I shall come to individual registration in a moment, but as the Committee on Standards in Public Life has been quoted several times and Sir Christopher Kelly’s evidence mentioned, I remind the Committee of my exchange with Sir Christopher. I asked him whether he was aware that the Government share his committee’s view that, in principle, individual registration is a good thing. Sir Christopher said, “I am.” I then asked him if he recognised that we share his worry that any moves leading to further disfranchisement would be a serious democratic problem. I asked him:
“In moving forward on this, as everybody wants to, do you agree that it would be a good idea to take every step we can to improve the register as part of any process of moving towards individual registration?”
He said:
“There can be no answer to that other than yes, of course.”——[Official Report, Political Parties and Elections Public Bill Committee, 4 November 2008; c. 38, Q94.]
That is why we have taken steps to improve the register.
The Electoral Commission’s role has been mentioned. I have some interesting leaflets in front of me showing how the Electoral Commission has been trying to improve registration. We are working with the commission. As a consequence of the 2006 Act, we are placing a new duty on electoral registration officers, and we have seen results in the past year. In the past two years, the registration figures for parliamentary elections increased by 371,000 in 2006 and 307,669 in 2007. The registration figures for local government elections also increased by 513,054 in 2006 and 463,000 in 2007. We are making progress and actively considering further steps. I hope to be able to come back to the House with further proposals shortly.
Alongside all that work on individual registration, work has begun with the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators to examine how individual registration may effectively be introduced, and that work will continue. It is clearly necessary to involve parliamentarians from all parties in that if we are to do it by consensus, and we will introduce proposals shortly.
Some form of consultation or legislative proposals may follow that work, but the work itself is essential if we are to ensure that any proposals introduced are thoroughly thought through by all those who need to contribute. That may involve some use of pilots to identify issues and how they can be addressed, consideration of a phased roll-out for collection and use of identifiers and so on. I think that everyone would agree that if we make a fundamental change to the system, we should do so with care and caution, and ensure that we get it right. Obviously, that cannot be achieved before the next general election.
There has been considerable debate, as Opposition Members have said, on the need to prepare carefully, the need for clear policy development and the need for any subsequent legislation to be well developed. The hon. Member for Chichester mentioned the Dangerous Dogs Act. We are all conscious of lessons from legislation passed by all Governments—it is not particular to any one party—that legislation should be thoroughly prepared and implemented in good time.
The process will be complex; it is radical and unprecedented in this country. At every stage, we must be sure that we are subjecting it to the proper degree of careful scrutiny. We will ensure that it meets the four fundamental tests that I described. It must involve a level playing field, and be open, fair and transparent. I hope that all parties can agree that that is the way forward.
If I may, I shall deal with the detail of the amendments. I am conscious that I am taking some time, Sir Nicholas, but this is fundamentally important. I hope to secure your indulgence to explain why I must, I am afraid, resist the amendments. That will not be a surprise to the hon. Member for Epping Forest, but I will say why I must do so.
New clause 1—as it stands and as it would be if amended under amendments (a), (b) and (c)— would require eligible electors to provide personal identifiers when they registered to vote either through an annual canvass or on a rolling registration form. I note that the hon. Lady has specifically excluded voter ID cards from any such personal identifiers. On registration, the personal identifiers to be provided by electors would be their signature, date of birth and national insurance number, although they could theoretically also include their ID card.
We believe that the integrity of the electoral system is of the utmost importance. Of course, we recognise the benefits of electors providing such personal identifiers, but further thought and preparation on that are needed. As we move forward on the issue, we have to ensure that proper work is done to explore ways to reach the significant groups and categories of voter who have traditionally and historically been under-registered. We have to be sure that we are including them before there is any risk of their being further excluded from this fundamental democratic process.
As the new clause would not affect the conduct of the annual canvass, every household would continue to receive an annual canvass form for completion, but the person who completed the form would be required to provide personal identifiers for all the eligible electors living in their house. That might not be a problem in many cases, but I ask Conservative Members to consider that it might be difficult to collect such personal identifiers—now we are talking about the detail—if eligible persons were at university, on a lengthy holiday or working away.
There might also be difficulties for people living in shared accommodation, who might not want the person completing the canvass form to have their personal identifiers.
All those issues require further careful consideration. I am not ruling out giving them that consideration, but we are not at the right stage to make a judgment on the new clause. I have consistently said that we agree with the principle of individual registration, so there is no difference between us on the principle, but there is a difference regarding the detail of how we should bring it forward. On that basis, I hope that Conservative Members will withdraw new clause 1.
New clause 2 would insert a new sub-paragraph in section 2 of the Representation of the People Act 1985, after paragraph (3)(b), setting out the information that British citizens who reside overseas would have to provide when making an overseas declaration. Regulation 18(5) of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 provides that an overseas elector need provide their passport number only if they are not registered or have not previously been registered as an overseas elector.
An elector making a first-time application for registration must have their application attested by another British citizen residing overseas, who must also provide their passport number. Having passed those strict security arrangements, the elector is not required, in subsequent years, to hunt for their passport number or to seek another attestation.
On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) suggested that the Bill should do more about the relatively low levels of registration among expatriates, but a new requirement to provide a passport number every year might deter eligible electors from re-registering during the annual canvass. We want the registration process for overseas electors to be secure, but simple enough to ensure that people will register to vote. The current regulations achieve that aim.
I understand the concerns about expatriate registration. Now that this issue has arisen, I might copy to hon. Members the letter that I wrote to the hon. Member for Ludlow, with his consent. In the letter, I set out the measures that we have taken, are taking and intend to take to increase registration among those voters.
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