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2 Mar 2009 : Column 663

Dr. Whitehead: Is it my right hon. Friend’s intention to include in that timetable, with which I wholeheartedly concur, the piloting and rolling out of electoral registration and the inclusion, in the way he describes, of the information that he suggests is necessary? Does he therefore think that the timetable for piloting and for the national roll-out of data sharing, and the electoral registration drive, are central parts of a larger timetable, as far as individual identifiers are concerned?

Mr. Wills: If my hon. Friend bears with me for two or three minutes, I will come to that point, because the two things are linked, although not quite in the way that he suggests. In the early stages, to ensure that we take time to acclimatise the electorate to the radical change that is proposed, there would be no distinction drawn between those people who were registered to vote through having been included on a household form, and those who had voluntarily provided their identifiers. Household registration would effectively remain in place, but a base of identifier data would be being built up alongside it. I will work closely with electoral administrators and the Electoral Commission to ensure that the lessons of the Gould report are applied during the initial, permissive period.

Under the Bill, the provision of identifiers will become compulsory at the time of the autumn 2015 annual canvass. That lead-in would give the Electoral Commission time to consider the full weight of evidence on the collection of identifiers, help electoral registration officers to identify why certain groups might have difficulty providing them, and allow the Electoral Commission to start addressing those problems before any move to full individual registration.

Chris Ruane: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way yet again. Does he think that the timetable, with its end date of 2015, is long enough, bearing in mind that the changes that we made in 2006 to improve the electoral register have increased it by only 500,000? There are still 3 million people missing. It has taken three years to get 500,000 people back on the register; how long does he think that it will take to get 3.5 million people back on the register?

Mr. Heath: It is simple arithmetic.

Mr. Wills: No, it is not. [Interruption.] Good. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will just signal that in future. I will address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) in a moment; things are not quite as easy as that.

Mr. Love: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. My question relates to the Electoral Commission and its role of signalling whether individual registration should be undertaken. Will it be able to override the 2015 date if, in its view, we are not ready to move to individual registration?

Mr. Wills: I am coming to that point. If hon. Members will be patient for a bit longer, the full majesty of the scheme will unfold. The time scale should give the Electoral Commission sufficient time to assess whether we are ready to move to the compulsory system. It will also enable a decision to be taken on what the most appropriate identifier is after the move to the next stage.

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Mrs. Laing: On that point, and the point raised by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) about the timetable, when Mr. Peter Wardle, speaking for the Electoral Commission, gave evidence at the beginning of the Bill’s Committee stage, he said that he thought that individual registration could begin with the 2010 renewal canvass, and that from then, it would be a

I took that to mean that it was the view of the Electoral Commission that the whole thing could be put in place by 2013, or possibly 2014.

Mr. Wills: If the hon. Lady reflects on that, she will see that the two timetables are not too different. As always, there is an element of judgment involved, but we are talking about a profound shift. If we got it wrong and, as a result of shifting to individual registration, which we all agree is desirable, large numbers of people who were eligible to vote fell off the register, it would be a disaster. We must not botch it if we can possibly avoid doing so. A proper time scale enables us to ensure that we do not.

A crucial element that we have not discussed so far is the census; I am happy to try to reassure the hon. Lady on that point. The 2011 census will be helpful in determining the proportion of eligible voters who are registered. I am not referring to the absolute numbers, which I mentioned earlier. As the hon. Lady will be aware, it is methodologically extremely difficult to get a figure for the proportion of eligible voters who are registered. The figure of 91 per cent. was mentioned; that was the result of an extremely complex methodological exercise, and the figure is hedged around with caveats. However, we know for a fact that far too many people who are eligible to vote are not registered to do so.

The 2011 census will give us a valuable database. It is the first census that has a nationality question on it, so it will give the Electoral Commission a great deal of potentially very important data on which to make the assessment that I am about to discuss. It is worth remarking that, as I understand it, the data will not begin to be processed until well into 2012, after which lessons will have to be learned. If the hon. Lady does some simple arithmetic—she can borrow it from the Liberal Democrats—she will find that the two timetables are pretty close together.

David Howarth: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wills: I have found that I am about to answer a lot of the questions that I am being asked. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make some progress, he might find that he has the answer to his question. If not, I will be happy to give way to him.

From autumn 2015, all people making new registrations—for instance, if they are moving house and reregistering or entirely new to the register—will have to provide their identifiers to be put on to the register. Anyone already on the register in autumn 2015 who does not provide their identifiers will be carried forward for a further two years to 2017. From that point
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on, there will be full compulsion and we will have full individual registration. Everyone on the register will have provided identifiers.

However, we also intend to provide that that shift will proceed in 2015 only if two statutory tests are met. Those tests will be on the state of preparation for the change and the robustness of the existing registration system, which the Electoral Commission will assess no earlier than January 2014. The commission will have to have a reasonable expectation that the move to compulsory provision of identifiers would not compromise the accuracy or comprehensiveness of the register by the point of full individual registration being introduced in 2017. It must believe that the electoral register is both as comprehensive and accurate as is reasonably practicable, and that the effectiveness of the registration system is improving across Great Britain. That finding will have to be supported by performance standards data and other measures.

It will be for the commission to determine whether those tests have been passed. However, we expect that it will not just assess the situation at national level but ensure that patterns of improvement are consistent right across the country, and that registration officers are succeeding in reaching out to those groups that are currently, and have historically been, under-represented on the electoral register.

David Howarth: My query is about the previous part of the plan, the point at which the provision of identifiers is not yet compulsory. I have a number of concerns about that. What the Minister is announcing is immensely important, and by the time identifiers become compulsory we must have learned as much as possible about what the pitfalls might be. How will the system work during that run-up period? Will different areas do different things? Unless they do so, surely we will not be able to learn the possibilities of the scheme. For example, a student library card might be an identifier in a student area, but not in a different area. What will happen so that we get experimental data in that period?

Mr. Wills: I addressed that point earlier when I mentioned the criteria for the pilot, but I am happy to say a little more about it. We genuinely want to consult and take views on it, and we will be interested in the hon. Gentleman’s views about how we should structure the scheme. He is right in principle, and we intend to set up the piloting in such a way that it gathers all useful evidence. We are open to what that might be, and his constituency experience will be valuable.

The hon. Gentleman is right that we need information about how willing people are to give up their personal information. That will be crucial in deciding how to maintain the comprehensiveness of the register. Some people will be daunted by the requirement, and some will think that it is too much bother. We have to work out how real those problems are and what we can do to address them. We must consider whether public information will work, or whether there are other ways in which we can reach out to people. Those are complex issues, and that is the whole point of the piloting. Some of the databases that we will be using might be very useful for the purpose and some might not, but finding out about all those things will provide invaluable data. That is why we are anxious about rushing the scheme. We certainly do not want to delay it unnecessarily, because it is an
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important change. We agree that the system is desirable and have tried to strike a balance between ensuring that we get it right, and that people do not fall off the register, and moving with due speed towards implementing it.

Mr. Hogg: The Minister is right that a comprehensive register is an important object of policy, but so is establishing a register that prevents fraud and abuse, particularly with regard to absent voting. What troubles me in listening to him is that it appears that the Electoral Commission, in making its adjudications, will concentrate primarily on gaining comprehensiveness. In the criteria that the commission will be given, how important will the objective of preventing fraud be? That does not necessarily work in tandem with ensuring comprehensiveness, and for me, preventing fraud is more important.

8.15 pm

Mr. Wills: Again, I had hoped that I had made this clear. I said that they were both fundamental problems, and the whole problem has been that they have been prioritised differently. We are saying that they cannot be. They must both be absolute priorities, as they are both too fundamentally important to be compromised. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right that we cannot compromise on the integrity and accuracy of the register, but neither can we compromise on its comprehensiveness. Both are fundamental to the health of our democracy. There is no choice or trade-off. The language is clear: there is to be comprehensiveness and accuracy, with no prioritisation.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is right to spell out just how historic this shift is, but when it comes to the crucial decision about when the whole thing goes live and household registration ceases to have any validity, it is one thing to say that the Electoral Commission will tell us what has happened and advise us, after which the decision will be taken by Ministers accountable to the House. It is another thing to say that the whole thing will be put under the commission’s control. Which are the Government proposing?

Mr. Wills: It is not the latter, but I am limping towards the end of my speech and I will address these points.

Chris Ruane: The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) said that different areas do different things, which is true. I shall illustrate that point graphically. When the former leader of the Liberal Democrats in Islington was challenged to go on an electoral registration drive prior to an election, he refused. He said that not having registration drives was how Liberal Democrats won elections. [Interruption.] What measures can be taken to prevent political interference? All the measures that my right hon. Friend the Minister takes will mean nothing if there is political interference from the top, and if people deny the opportunity for promotion and deny electoral registration officers resources. What can he do to ensure that there is no recurrence of such Liberal Democrat electioneering?

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Mr. Wills: I assume that the chorus of noises from the Liberal Democrats means that they agree with my hon. Friend that that comment by the Liberal Democrat leader in Islington was disgraceful. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether they agree—they will speak for themselves about that in due course. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I am announcing certain measures today, and more will be announced by the end of June, so all will be in its due place.

As I have said, the decision will be for the commission to make. However, if it concludes that the tests that I mentioned have been met, it will recommend that the shift to full individual registration should proceed, subject only to a vote by Parliament on whether to accept the recommendation. If the commission recommends not making that shift, or if Parliament does not endorse a positive recommendation, further legislation will be required.

David Howarth: This point is important, and it is related to what the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said. Does the Minister envisage that there will be an unamendable order to bring the new scheme into force? I guess that there will be a lot of debate about which identifiers are acceptable and which are not, so a simple up-down vote at that point would be the wrong procedure.

Mr. Wills: I will consider that point carefully. There are issues about the identifiers. My instinct at the moment is that there should be a straight yes or no. We have set in place a process that we want to deliver an end, subject to a fundamental test. I do not think that there is any disagreement in the House about the desirability of the end—full, comprehensive individual registration. I do not really detect, despite all the interventions, any disagreement that the register must be as comprehensive as possible. So far, I think that the entire House agrees that those are both immutable priorities.

Mr. Heath: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wills: I will give way, but all that I can say is that these proceedings finish at 9 o’clock and that, at this rate, I will not even be able to reveal the full details of our proposals.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the Minister, but it is precisely the fact that he will not able to reveal the full details that is the problem. This is the single biggest thing in the entire Bill, and it is not in the form of a Government amendment before the House is asked to pass the Bill to another place. That, frankly, is not satisfactory, and he must realise that.

Mr. Wills: If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish my remarks, he can make a speech, saying exactly what he thinks of them; but until he has heard them, he might do me the justice of listening to what I have to say, and then he can comment on it. All that I can say is that the amendments will be debated in the other place. They will then, no doubt, come back to the House, and he will have plenty of opportunity to contribute to this process. It is a process; it is not happening now, it is beginning now. There will be plenty of time for this to happen. We are quite clear that this proceeds fundamentally only on the basis of consensus. It must endure. There is
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no point in going ahead unless there is broad agreement not only on the ends—I think that there is—but on the modalities. If it goes wrong, we will all do great damage to democracy.

Mr. Hogg: The right hon. Gentleman says that he wants consensus. I understand him to be saying that these fundamentally important amendments will be introduced in the other place. They will then come back to the House, where they will be debated probably for an hour. That is not a proper way in which to get consensus. It is extraordinarily late to introduce amendments of this moment, but to do so in the other place and then have them debated in the House for an hour is scandalous.

Mr. Wills: I do not agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s use of that adjective. He may have a relatively minor point about the process, but I should like to focus on what we are trying to achieve with these new clauses.

Mr. Heath: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wills: I will not give way for at least two minutes.

I think that we have reached agreement on the broad principles, if not yet on the modalities. I hope that this goes without saying, but I should say for the record that all this will be subject to available resources, and I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise that fact. Given that it is so important that this historic move is non-partisan, we have put the Electoral Commission at the centre of the move to individual registration, although, crucially, as I have said, Parliament will have the final say. We have consulted the Electoral Commission about its role, and it is content with it.

For too long, the debate on electoral registration, which is the foundation of our democracy, has focused either on one or the other of these two fundamental principles—either on the reach of the register, or on its integrity—and as a result, we have persisted with a system that no longer has any place in Britain today. The time has come to make this change.

The proposals that we are announcing today and the strategy to carry them forward will introduce individual registration as soon as it is possible without damaging the reach of the register. That link between the system of registration and its reach ensures that this historic shift, if and when it takes place, will ensure a level playing field for all political parties. That is the guarantor of the legitimacy of the change, and it is what will ensure that it endures.

For all those reasons, I hope that the House will support the new clauses and, in doing so, endorse the strategy that lies behind them. We have an opportunity now, no matter what the concerns about the process. I understand the concerns, but we will do whatever we can to mitigate them. I have no theological problem with the concerns about modalities that have been expressed by Opposition Members. What is absolutely fundamental—I hope that the House will agree on this today—is that we endorse the fundamental principles and that we move to individual registration on the basis of a register that is as comprehensive and accurate as possible, and these new clauses are the start of that process.

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