Political Parties and Elections Bill

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Mr. Djanogly: To put the Minister right, one reason that the Government have previously given for not pursuing individual voter registration was the problem of overseas voters. New clause 2 is an attempt to address that problem. It is meant not to encourage overseas voters, but to get around the problem that his Department raised a few months ago.
Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks, and for the constructive spirit in which he intervened and in which the new clause was tabled. We are willing to look at the issue in connection with everything else. This case was raised specifically on Second Reading. It goes to our concern about constantly improving the register, including for expatriates. We want to do that and, with the consent of the hon. Member for Ludlow, I will copy my letter to him to all members of the Committee.
I come rapidly to new clause 7, which would reverse the current arrangements by requiring electors proactively to state on a canvass form or individual rolling registration form that they wanted to be included in the edited register. It would effectively introduce the need to opt in. Members of the Committee will know that the Government asked Dr. Walport and Mr. Richard Thomas to undertake an independent review of the framework for the use of personal information in the public and private sectors. They produced a report on 11 July, and recommendation 19 of that report called for the edited version of the register to be abolished.
We understand the concerns about the sale of personal details through the supply of the edited register. It is a sensitive matter and often goes to the heart of how people feel that our democracy should operate. However, it is complicated. There are issues for the British economy as a whole, and for businesses, charities and the general public. We intend to hold a consultation on those issues and to set out the problems, while recognising what Dr. Walport and Mr. Thomas recommended and acknowledging that there is widespread public concern about the issue. We will then proceed accordingly. I hope that hon. Members agree that we should wait for the results of that consultation before deciding how to move forward on the issue.
Finally, new clause 8 would strengthen the security of the voting process at polling stations. Of course, we take the integrity of that process extremely seriously, and we see some merit in the new clause. Over recent years, we have introduced measures to address issues of secrecy and security, which, together with other factors such as more robust sentencing of convicted fraudsters, are having an effect—we can see the results. Allegations of fraud have reduced over recent years and the Electoral Commission has acknowledged that the identifiers used in postal voting, for example, have had an effect in reducing those allegations. In its 2007 report on local government elections in England, the Electoral Commission found that
“the volume and scale of offences are both considerably down on 2006.”
It continued:
“The low level of reports and allegations of offences this year is encouraging.”
As I have said, any perception that fraud is widespread is not supported by the facts. Voting at polling stations has traditionally been conducted without the need for personal identification to be produced, but it is an offence to attempt to vote in place of another elector—the offence is personation, as you are aware, Sir Nicholas. Staff at polling stations are given training and guidance on how to spot people who attempt to cast fraudulent votes.
Any proposal to require voters in polling stations in Great Britain to produce ID as envisaged under the new clause would need to be considered carefully. The new clause provides for a wide range of potential documents, but it is not inclusive. We would need to consider what the practical implications of the proposal might be and what barriers it might present to voting at elections, particularly as the requirement to produce evidence of identity would be a significant change to the electoral system.
I reassure members of the Committee that we are constantly examining ways to strengthen the integrity of our electoral system. That is in everybody’s interest. We will keep the matter under review and explore the options for ensuring that votes in polling stations are cast safely and securely. I hope that, on that basis, the hon. Member for Epping Forest will withdraw the new clause.
Mrs. Laing: I thank the Minister for the constructive way in which he approached the new clauses, which were tabled to help the Government—that was the whole point. I am pleased that, at the end of this long and sometimes heated but very constructive debate, we find that, on both sides of the Committee, there is a large element of agreement in principle.
7 pm
When the Minister said that he would come back to the Committee or the House shortly on some of the issues that he mentioned under new clause 1, did he mean before the next stage of the Bill, or at some time in the future?
Mr. Wills: I used the word “shortly” advisedly.
Mrs. Laing: That is fair enough. I will not push the Minister any further at this late hour. There is quite a difference between coming back during the passage of the Bill and coming back at some stage in the future, but I appreciate that he has a lot to think about after today’s debate.
As far as new clause 8 is concerned, the Minister has agreed in principle to look at matters and I am pleased about that. The same goes for new clause 7, which is about abolishing the edited register completely—I appreciate that the Information Commissioner is looking at that. We are looking at it too and it needs further consideration. New clause 2 was intended to be helpful and I am glad that it has been taken in that spirit. I shall not press new clauses 2, 7 and 8, but new clause 1 is such an important matter of principle that I shall have to ask the Committee to divide on it.
David Howarth: I hope that the hon. Lady will move her amendments (a), (b), and (c), because if she does not, we will not be able to vote for them.
Mrs. Laing: I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridge.
The Chairman: Order. May I advise the hon. Lady? If she seeks to move her amendments (a), (b) and (c), as has been suggested by the hon. Member for Cambridge, unfortunately I have to put it to her that the new clause must be read a second time, but she has already asked the Committee not to press the new clause.
Mrs. Laing: On new clauses 2, 7 and 8, the Minister has been helpful and constructive, but new clause 1 is so important that I would like to divide the Committee. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge, who, as I said before, is a better academic lawyer than me by a long way. Amendments (a), (b) and (c) must be in new clause 1 in order for it to make sense. However, I do not want to cause too many Divisions.
The Chairman: Order. If the hon. Member for Cambridge wishes to support new clause 1 he should vote for it, hoping that it will get through. If it does, we can then put amendments (a), (b) and (c). That is advice, not guidance.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.
Division No. 6]
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Duddridge, James
Howarth, David
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Reid, Mr. Alan
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew
Wishart, Pete
Ainger, Nick
Grogan, Mr. John
Hesford, Stephen
Kidney, Mr. David
Linton, Martin
Lloyd, Tony
Lucas, Ian
Sharma, Mr. Virendra
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Wills, rh Mr. Michael
Question accordingly negatived.

New Clause 14

Moratorium on electoral modernisation pilots
‘No electoral modernisation pilot scheme which uses electronic voting and electronic counting systems under section 10 (pilot schemes for local elections in England and Wales) of the 2000 Act shall be commenced for a period of five years beginning on the day on which this Act is passed.’.—[Mrs. Laing.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mrs. Laing: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss
New clause 15—Review of electoral modernisation piloting
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall appoint a Committee to conduct a review of electoral modernisation piloting.
(2) The Secretary of State shall appoint no fewer than five and no more than ten members of the Committee, who have, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, relevant knowledge and experience.
Mrs. Laing: The new clauses propose a moratorium on a review of electoral modernisation pilots. The point is that it is wrong for the Government to continue to bring forward gimmicks to try to encourage people to register, to vote and take part in the democratic process. Gimmicks are wrong. Those who are looking at electoral reform need time to consider the sort of matters that we dealt with in the last group of amendments. That is why we have proposed a moratorium on electoral modernisation pilots and review of them.
One need look no further than last year’s Gould review of the Scottish elections, which came up with so many criticisms of the system that was piloting electronic voting and counting. For the sake of time, I will give just one example. In Airdrie and Shotts, Labour’s majority of 1,446 was less than the 1,536 rejected ballots under a very complicated system. Our electoral and voting systems must be simple, straightforward, and understood by every member of the electorate and all the candidates. It is wrong to mess about with gimmicks, saying that they are to modernise the system. The system does not need to be modernised in that way. It needs to be reformed in the way we have discussed.
Mr. Wills: Having achieved a large degree of consensus on the principles on which we should move forward in reforming our electoral system, it saddens me to have to resist the new clause. It is entirely unnecessary and would fetter our attempts to make our democracy more accessible and improve the efficiency of electoral administration. That is not an alternative to the sorts of reforms that we were talking about earlier—it is something that we should be considering anyway.
As it happens, the Government have no plans at present to conduct further pilots at this stage, and none was conducted in 2008. None the less, it would be wrong to place a limit on the Government’s ability in future to test pilots promising new technologies or new techniques. Governments must be free to investigate possible innovations and pilots when appropriate. Pilots allow for new technologies to be tested in controlled environments and in real-life situations. Incremental testing over time permits issues to be identified and solutions to be adapted as a consequence, with retesting to prove that the issues have been resolved. That is a matter of prudent process, and to fetter it in such a way is quite wrong. If new clause 14 were to be approved, it would only prevent piloting from taking place from under the provisions of the Representation of the People Act. It would do nothing to prevent the London mayoral and assembly elections from being electronically counted again, as they were this year, or Scottish local authorities from continuing to count their elections electronically. It would serve only to prevent the Government from taking the lead, as they should, in improving electoral administration.
We proceed with pilots only following consultation with the Electoral Commission. All pilots are evaluated after the event by the local authorities that ran them, and by the Electoral Commission. The commission’s recommendations are taken into account when considering further pilots and moving forward. We already receive expert advice on piloting programmes, and we are considering whether to establish a panel of recognised and respected experts from the academic, technical and electoral administration fields to advise on policy, technical issues and testing and, indeed, what we should be piloting, should we decide to do so in the future. With a combination of such issues, there is no need for the new clause.
It is worth pointing out that we in the UK are far from alone in piloting new systems in electoral administration, and testing their benefits. Many countries do so. We have heard about international comparisons, and I can give some to the Committee. Australia has piloted e-voting for specific groups, such as service personnel on deployment, which I know will be of interest to the hon. Member for Chichester. The system has been piloted for visually impaired voters. Other countries have made e-voting more generally available, and some have rolled it out more widely following pilots—in Estonia, for example. Others have decided to discontinue e-voting following problems that led to a loss of public confidence.
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Prepared 19 November 2008