Previous Section Index Home Page

2 Mar 2009 : Column 669

Mrs. Laing: We welcome these new clauses. The Minister has stressed several times during his speech the fundamental principles, and we agree with him on those principles. Indeed, the Opposition said from the very beginning, when the Bill was first introduced, that there was no point in having a Bill about political parties and elections without the sort of provision that the Minister has introduced this evening. Although I understand his explanations about the practical difficulties that he has faced in introducing his proposals tonight, what is sad is that, if the provisions had been included at the beginning of our scrutiny of the Bill, by this point in the proceedings—we are minutes away from the debate on Third Reading—he would have had the consensus that he asked for. As far as I can tell from long and detailed consideration in Committee, we are all in agreement about what we are trying to achieve. The question is how, and what the balance is between the needs of the individual, of privacy and of preventing fraud and so on, and the integrity of the ballot.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Lady knows that we have had this argument before, with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats strongly advocating the need for personal identification and individual registration and the Government rejecting it, but does she not agree that taking such action at this stage, with nothing relating to any Government proposals on the amendment paper for us to vote on, is simply unsatisfactory? Does she agree that the best course of action would be for the Minister now, with a manuscript amendment, to recommit the Bill with his new amendments, so that it can be reconsidered in Committee and we can do the job that the House is elected to do, rather than giving it to another House that is not elected?

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point; of course, I agree. Indeed, I agree with the Minister, and we all agree that we want to improve the integrity of the ballot and the electoral system, and to enhance and indeed restore confidence in that system. At the same time, however, I want the integrity and supremacy of the House of Commons to be protected, so I object, as do Liberal Democrat Members, to the proposals being introduced so late.

Nevertheless, I will not oppose these new clauses. I will not encourage the Conservative party to vote against them, because half a loaf is better than no bread at all, and it is better that these provisions should be introduced at a time when at least they can be scrutinised in another place than that they should not be introduced at all.

David Howarth: I caution the hon. Lady to distinguish between new clauses 21 and 22, which are before us tonight, are about data sharing and have not yet been properly debated, and all the proposals the Minister announced, which sound very good, but are not before us tonight. Those two things are entirely separate, and I ask her not to come to any final conclusions on the new clauses until the debate has finished.

Mrs. Laing: No, I shall not do so. The hon. Gentleman is correct: the Minister has this evening put before us a set of new clauses that pave the way for further reform and which we welcome in principle, but he has explained matters to us only in words and with no legislative
2 Mar 2009 : Column 670
provision. This is not a debate about principles, however; it is the Report stage of a Bill that has already been scrutinised for many months, and we are only minutes away from moving on to Third Reading. It would have been much better if the House had been able to consider these matters properly. It might be constitutionally correct by the letter to introduce such measures in, effectively, the other place and not in the House of Commons, but it is not constitutionally correct in principle.

Mr. Hogg: To reinforce what my hon. Friend has just said, I point out that the programme order provides that amendments from the House of Lords may themselves be programmed, and it is therefore likely that if substantive amendments come from the other place, we will be given a very short period in which to comment on them.

8.30 pm

Mrs. Laing: As ever, my right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely correct. Indeed, the method of dealing with the Bill, with the timetables introduced over several months now, has been a disgrace to democracy. [Interruption.] Ministers may laugh, but I am trying to help them, because in principle what they say they wish to achieve is also what I wish to achieve. However, we have no way of knowing its precise details and by what method it will be achieved.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) mentioned timetabling, and I am currently particularly concerned about that, because this evening we have only 29 minutes of Report left and there are some very important matters that we are unlikely to have time to address because we have suddenly had to deal with this other group of new clauses. I am thinking in particular of the very important new clause 23, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and which deserves to be debated and voted upon by this House, although that is unlikely to happen.

Mr. Wills: I do not want to delay the hon. Lady, but I ask her to reconsider her comments about the timetabling being a disgrace. The reason why there have been so many new amendments and changes is that we have approached these matters openly; we have listened to what the House has said, and we have changed things in response. We have not rammed the measure through; if we had made up our mind without listening, rammed it through and done exactly what we first proposed, this process would all have been much simpler and easier. It is precisely because we have listened and decided to proceed on the basis of consensus that the timetabling has been the way it has. May I also reassure the hon. Lady that we will do whatever we can to ensure that the House has an opportunity to debate these important points on their return from the Lords? We will do whatever we can, as we always have.

Mrs. Laing: I understand what the Minister is saying, but I am unsure whether his colleagues who deal with the business of the House will agree with him. I must point out that the principles set out in my new clause 16, which we will not now have time to debate, attempt to achieve what he now says he is attempting to achieve, and I am delighted that he has once again embraced Conservative policy, which has been right since the
2 Mar 2009 : Column 671
beginning of our consideration of the Bill. Indeed, I recall standing at this Dispatch Box proposing a very similar measure in 2005, when we debated what is now the 2006 Act. I have been asking for these things for more than four years. [Interruption.] Did the Lord Chancellor say, “Be gracious”?

Mr. Wills rose—

Mrs. Laing: Well, I shall indeed be gracious by giving way again to the Minister.

Mr. Wills: I also want to be gracious to the hon. Lady, who is, in fact, being very gracious about these matters. However, all the measures she and her party have brought forward have been silent on one of the great fundamental principles: how we drive up the comprehensiveness of the register. We are in agreement on accuracy, integrity and individual registration, but until tonight, we have not been in agreement on comprehensiveness. I am delighted that we now are.

Mrs. Laing: I am happy to confirm that we are in agreement; of course we want the register to be comprehensive.

I should like briefly to make some progress, because I know that other hon. Members wish to speak on this matter, although many of them have already intervened. We welcome these specific new clauses, as they pave the way for much more that needs to be done to improve and secure the integrity of the ballot. The principles of individual voter registration and the use of personal identifiers are absolutely fundamental to the aim of improving the integrity of the ballot.

Martin Horwood rose—

Mrs. Laing: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but he must understand that his Liberal colleagues will not have time to make their wonderful speeches.

Martin Horwood: I am astonished by the Conservative party’s failure to oppose these new clauses. Surely the principle here is the concentration of power in the hands of the few. That used to mean Tory aristocrats trying to buy constituencies with their wealth—perhaps it still does—but the important principle at stake is the concentration of information in the hands of the state, and that is especially worrying in the case of a state as careless with people’s personal data as this one. Surely the hon. Lady should be opposing these proposals.

Mrs. Laing: I am coming to the point about data security. I am also being careful to stay within the rules and not speak to the next group of amendments.

David Howarth: The Minister did.

Mrs. Laing: Well, had I had a chance to do so, I would have extolled at much greater length the virtues of individual voter registration and personal identifiers. Some in this House will know that we dealt with those matters at great length in Committee, so I am satisfied that the principles have been thoroughly examined. The Committee was more or less unanimous in agreeing that individual voter registration, personal identifiers and all the other matters that I would have proposed in the next group of amendments have now been accepted
2 Mar 2009 : Column 672
in principle by the Government. I am delighted about that; I would even go so far as to call it a U-turn, and I am delighted that it is a U-turn in the Conservative direction. We appreciate, of course, that the new clauses are necessary in order to ensure that as many people as possible who are entitled to vote are properly registered to vote. Just as importantly, people who are not entitled to vote should not be on the register, and it should not contain any names that are not those of real people—the integrity of the register itself is so important.

Mr. Love: May I again point out the Conservatives’ focus on ensuring the integrity of the register to the exclusion of its comprehensiveness? Can the hon. Lady tell us how many cases of individual registration fraud, if any, there have been in the past five years?

Mrs. Laing: I do not have the exact number at my fingertips, but that is not the point. The hon. Gentleman has made his point a few times this evening, and I do not entirely agree with him. He says that one side of the argument should take precedence over the other, but I do not believe that it should. Surely we can devise a system that ensures that all those who are entitled to vote are registered and are encouraged and able to vote, while also stopping fraud in the register. They are equal aims, goals and principles, and one should not take precedence over the other.

Chris Ruane: Is the hon. Lady on record anywhere stating her belief in the importance of the comprehensiveness of the register? Is that an important aim for her party?

Mrs. Laing: I believe that I am on the record as saying that, but just in case, I am happy to go on the record right now and say it. Of course, I agreed with the Minister on the fundamental principles that he put forward. Some 91 per cent. of those entitled to vote are registered to vote, and that is not good enough. Every single person, especially those who, because of disability or other reason, have difficulty in registering to vote, should be helped to register to do so. That is extremely important and in our own personal campaigning in our constituencies we do all we can to ensure that all the people whom we can reach register to vote and do vote, especially—no, I shall not say any more about which way they vote. In principle, we want everyone to be registered to vote, and I am happy to go on the record on that.

I take the Minister’s point about two-tier local authorities, for example. It is therefore important that the measures that he has proposed should come into force. However, most importantly, it is the individual who has the right to vote, not the householder. It is the individual who has the right, and indeed the duty, to participate in the democratic system, and therefore the system should recognise the individual. We want to improve the integrity of the ballot and restore the security and accuracy of, and the people’s confidence in, our electoral system.

At the same time, I do of course have concerns about data sharing, which several hon. Members have mentioned. That is why I am concerned that we will not be able to scrutinise properly the new clauses before us. Neither will we be able to scrutinise the Minister’s proposals, as they are not before us in any way. As my right hon. and
2 Mar 2009 : Column 673
learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham said earlier, it is all very well for the Minister to say that these matters will come before the House under the affirmative resolution procedure, but an affirmative resolution is not amendable and usually gives rise to a debate of one and a half hours—

David Howarth: If that.

Mrs. Laing: Indeed. That is not sufficient to scrutinise such proposals properly, so I wish to put it on the record that we are concerned about that. Although we want to work with the Government to bring about the aims towards which we are all working, there are better ways to do it than this. There are better ways to improve democracy through the democratic system.

If the Minister can give us undertakings that this measure is specific and has a finite purpose, I would simply ask for his assurance that these provisions could not be used to increase data sharing generally. He said that they were for the provision of specific information and for a sole purpose, and that is very important in terms of data sharing, security and protection.

Mr. Wills: These are important points and I can give the hon. Lady exactly that assurance. I know that she is very exercised about the amount of time that the House has for debate and about the amendments that we will not reach tonight. They are important and we will do our best to accommodate the points that have been made through the usual channels. We accept that it is important that the House has proper time for discussion and I hope that the usual channels will make time available in due course.

Mrs. Laing: I take that as an assurance from the Minister on behalf of the Government that we will have proper time for debate. This is extremely important. It is not just a political argument for the sake of it. The Minister rightly says that he wishes to take the issue forward by means of consensus.

Mr. Hogg: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Laing: In a moment.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), the Minister and I have spent many hours reaching some consensus on the principles that we are discussing. If the Government want consensus, they must give the House an opportunity to come to a consensus. Consensus cannot just be reached, but must be seen to be reached—to coin a legal phrase, which I see the Lord Chancellor appreciates. I give way to my right hon. and learned Friend, who, I hope, will agree with me on the legal principle.

Mr. Hogg: I did not intend to touch on that. We have been told by the Minister that we will be given proper and appropriate time for consideration. Who will be the judge of that? May I suggest to my hon. Friend that the best thing is to extract an undertaking from the Minister that the time spent on the House on Lords amendments will be agreed by all the parties before the timetable motion is tabled?

2 Mar 2009 : Column 674

Mrs. Laing: I will attempt, as my right hon. and learned Friend suggests, to extract that undertaking from the Minister. I will be surprised if I get it.

Mr. Wills: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been in the House far longer than I—

Mr. Straw: He was a Whip, too.

Mr. Wills: Indeed. He is asking for something that he knows he is not going to get. However, what the hon. Lady says is right—we have demonstrated time and again that we want consensus on the matter, so I can give the assurance that we genuinely want that. I agree that we will not get it until there has been a proper opportunity to debate the matter in the House. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should be satisfied with that reassurance. The hon. Lady’s argument is right. The matter will be decided collectively through the usual channels, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman well knows.

Mrs. Laing: I appreciate that the Minister’s undertakings are genuine, and I believe him when he says that he wants to achieve what we all want to achieve. Whether he will succeed in getting the usual channels and the Leader of the House to give the amount of time that we—I think I speak for everyone on the Opposition Benches—consider to be realistic and necessary is another matter. For a moment even the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and I agree. However, I believe that the Minister will try. [Interruption.] The Minister asks how long. The answer is long enough for all the hon. Members who have expressed concern this evening and throughout the passage of the Bill to express them properly about data.

Mr. Wills: To guide us in our reflections, can the hon. Lady tell me how much time she thinks will be a proper amount of time?

Mr. Hogg: Six hours.

Mrs. Laing: The principle is so important that I had hoped that tonight we might have several hours on new clause 16, the principles of individual voter registration and so on. When I saw the Minister’s new clauses, which we are discussing, I had hoped that we would have a few hours on those as well. I would say that we need at least six hours.

Mr. Heath: Does the hon. Lady agree that it is a matter not of time, but of process? What would be ideal would be a Committee stage, followed by a period for reflection, followed by a Report stage and Third Reading.

Mrs. Laing: The issue is about more than the hours. We should be able to scrutinise the legislation line by line, with amendments—including probing amendments. We need to consider it very carefully. As the Minister says, the Bill has been considerably improved during its passage through the House. That is the point: it has been improved because we have scrutinised it—the Minister said that himself. It would be further improved if we could scrutinise the new proposals that he has put forward this evening.

Next Section Index Home Page