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House of Commons

Tuesday 17 March 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Electoral Registration

1. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to reduce the incidence of electoral fraud. [263746]

8. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What plans the Government have to reduce levels of electoral fraud. [263753]

9. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What steps he is taking to increase levels of voter registration. [263754]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): The Government have committed to ensuring that the electoral register is both comprehensive and accurate and that we do everything possible to tackle electoral fraud. We have introduced new and strengthened penalties for electoral fraud for that reason and new requirements for personal identification for voting. Also for that reason, the Electoral Administration Act 2006 imposed a new duty on electoral registration officers to take all necessary steps to ensure that there is a comprehensive register. That has helped to increase voter registration for parliamentary elections by nearly 800,000 over the past three years. We recognise, however, that there is more that can be done in all those areas, and we will do it.

Mr. Burns: I am grateful to the Minister, but is he aware that the integrity of the electoral register can be maintained only if the people who are eligible to be on it are the only ones who can register? What can be done to prevent people who do not have indefinite leave to remain in this country from registering and voting? Does he believe that it is unsatisfactory for someone facing a deportation order not only to have registered to vote but to have actually voted in the 2005 general election in Chelmsford? When the electoral registration officer took the matter up with the Home Office—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is far too long a supplementary.

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Mr. Wills: If the hon. Gentleman has individual circumstances in his constituency that he wants me to follow up, of course I shall do so. His general point about the integrity of the register is absolutely right. We have already taken many measures to deal with that, and we are going to take further measures. That is why, for example, we are going to bring in a process of individual voter registration beginning next year.

Angela Watkinson: Will the Minister look at how the security of the postal voting system might be improved? Before each election, I am contacted by electors who say that they have not received the postal ballot paper that they have applied for, and when I ask the electoral registration office to issue them with a duplicate, it says that it is not allowed to do that because its records show that the ballot paper has been dispatched. That elector loses their vote, and nobody knows what has happened to it. Similarly, when completed ballot papers are returned to the electoral registration office, they are very often not received. Is there some way in which the security of that process can be tightened?

Mr. Wills: Again, I am very happy to look at any individual circumstances that the hon. Lady may want to bring to my attention. Of course, we are constantly looking at how we can improve the procedures. That is why we have brought forward measures in the past few years and will continue to bring them forward as needed. If she wants to write to me or come and see me about individual circumstances, I am always happy for her to do so.

Chris Ruane: Opposition Members rightly mention election fraud, which is serious. Does my right hon. Friend agree that an equally serious issue is the 3.5 million UK residents who are missing from the register? Measures introduced in Northern Ireland some years ago resulted in 13 local authorities there having the lowest registration rates in the whole country. What lessons has he drawn from the Northern Ireland experience?

Mr. Wills: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of maintaining the comprehensive nature of the register as well as its integrity. Those two things are fundamental principles for the electoral registration system in this country, which is the foundation of our democracy. Of course it is right that we must ensure that the integrity of the system is upheld and enhanced at every moment, but we must also ensure that the register is kept as comprehensive as possible. That is why we are bringing in new measures in the Political Parties and Elections Bill, which is currently going to the other place. It is why we brought in measures that have already driven up registration by hundreds of thousands of votes in the past three years and why I can assure my hon. Friend that the lessons of Northern Ireland will be taken on board. We will continue to do everything possible to ensure that the register is comprehensive.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Perhaps the Minister will agree that the single most effective measure to prevent fraud is individual registration. In that context, does he understand that many of us believe that the 2015 introduction date is too leisurely and should be brought forward?

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Mr. Wills: I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that individual registration is very important in ensuring the integrity of the register. That is why we are bringing it forward. However, I hope he will agree with me that it is very important that the introduction of that historic shift in how voters are registered in this country is not botched. By “botched” I mean large numbers of voters falling off the register who would otherwise be eligible to vote. I hope he agrees that that would be a blow to our democracy. We must ensure that the comprehensive nature of the register is maintained as we move with all due speed and caution towards a system of individual voter registration. We have discussed the matter at length during the progress of the Political Parties and Elections Bill through this House, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be well aware of the reasons why the 2015 introduction date has been chosen.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): Surely the lesson from Northern Ireland is that, when new security measures were introduced, not only did numbers on the electoral register fall but they stayed low, stubbornly resistant to increase. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that, before any steps are taken, we need to ensure that we have a comprehensive and robust system of electoral registration?

Mr. Wills: I do agree, and my hon. Friend is right. We need to ensure that the register is comprehensive before we can move to a system, which, all the evidence suggests, could lead to many voters who are otherwise eligible to vote not being able to do so because they are not on the register. We must proceed with two principles firmly in mind and locked together: the comprehensive nature of the electoral registration system and its integrity.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I agreed with everything the Minister said until his last point. Of course comprehensiveness of the register is vital, but electoral fraud undermines democracy. We have called for individual voter registration and all the other measures for more than five years. If the Minister now recognises that that is necessary, he must also recognise that it is urgent. Between now and 2015, at least 13 important sets of elections will take place without individual registration and the other measures that he mentioned. If he genuinely wants to protect the integrity of the ballot, will he convert his new-found enthusiasm for the principle into action? He should give the reforms the urgency that they deserve: 2015 is too late.

Mr. Wills: I have great respect for the hon. Lady, and many of the points that she makes are true. However, I caution her against undue haste.

If any of us proceed with undue haste, the matter could be botched and many voters, who are eligible to vote, will fall off the register because of the problems. Let us consider, for example, people who are functionally illiterate—an estimate suggests that one in five of the population are functionally illiterate. I very much hope that Conservative Members are not proposing a deliberate policy of disfranchising such marginal and vulnerable voters— [Interruption.] I think they are suggesting they are not, in which case I hope they agree that it is necessary to proceed with caution to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is registered and can do so. That is important.

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The hon. Lady suggests that proceeding to individual registration is the only way of tackling fraud. It is an important method, but not the only one. We have produced many measures, and studies by the Electoral Commission suggest that, certainly in the past three or four years, incidence of fraud is declining, not increasing.

Burglary (Sentencing)

2. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of first-time offenders found guilty of burglary offences who are given custodial sentences; and if he will make a statement. [263747]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): According to figures recorded on the police national computer in 2007, 22 per cent. of first-time offenders convicted of burglary with no previous convictions were sentenced to immediate or suspended custody. With the Government’s active encouragement and the courts’ active involvement, household burglary has decreased by 55 per cent. since 1997.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, although I think that burglary has increased more recently. When I raised the matter on 3 February, the Justice Secretary said that the Lord Chief Justice had issued

He also said that there would be a “toughening up” of sentencing policy. However, the key points in that sentencing document include the following:

What exactly does that mean? It seems like a weakening rather than a strengthening of sentencing policy.

Mr. Hanson: I think I have made it clear that the Government and the judiciary feel strongly that we need to strengthen and encourage custodial sentences for burglars when appropriate. Under the previous Conservative Government, the average sentence for burglary was 15.8 months, whereas the average sentence now is 16.7 months. Indeed, 85 per cent. of those who commit a third burglary are now sentenced to custody.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): For first-time offenders who are found guilty of burglary and get a custodial sentence, a key component of ensuring that they do not, on their release, commit burglary again is their educational skills—illiteracy among prisoners is high. To stop first-time offenders becoming second-time offenders, what are my right hon. Friend and the Government doing about education in the Prison Service, which is vital?

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend is right to say that improving literacy and numeracy and the opportunities to learn new skills and gain employment are key to preventing reoffending. We have dramatically increased the amount of investment and the number of hours available both in young offender institutions and adult prisons to deal with education for literacy and numeracy. There is self-evidently more that can be done, but I give my hon. Friend an assurance that we will continue to do that, because those things are key to preventing reoffending.

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Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Instances of burglary tend to increase in times of recession. Given that prison places are at a premium and given the depth of the recession that we are going through, what steps will the Minister take to ensure that those who engage in criminal activity for the first time face extreme sanction and the knowledge that they should not carry out such actions, and that they do not repeat those offences?

Mr. Hanson: As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), at the moment 22 per cent. of offenders convicted of burglary with no previous convictions are sentenced to immediate or suspended custody. Whatever response the courts make, I am clear that we need to ensure sufficient prison places for those for whom custody is an option in the courts. That is why we will build an additional 3,500 or so prison places in England and Wales this year alone and why we have an ambitious programme to get to 96,000 places by 2013-14. We currently have some headroom in the prison system, but we want to ensure that there will always be places for people who are sentenced. That is why we have the ambitious building programme that we do.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Has the Minister found some new evidence that short periods in prison make offenders less likely to commit further burglaries? If he has not, will he ensure that the courts have available to them community payback schemes, restorative justice and the means to address the original causes of offending, such as drug addiction, rather than spending lots of money on prison sentences that do not work?

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. A key issue is what we do with people who are sentenced to less than 12 months in prison, because going through the revolving door of prison gates is not conducive to preventing reoffending. We have a menu of options. Ultimately, it is for the courts to decide. Custody will be an option, depending sometimes on an individual’s persistence with burglary or another offence, but I want to see what works. On many occasions, a drug rehabilitation order or a strong and intensive community sentence will be just as important as a short custodial sentence in helping to prevent reoffending.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): What is the point of the courts sending burglars to prison, as the Lord Chief Justice recommended in January, if the Government let them out? Some 4,527 burglars have been let out under the Government’s hopeless and benighted early release from custody scheme. Why do the Government not do something useful for once? Most burglars are drug addicts, stealing to fund their addiction. Why do the Government not get them off drugs, either in prison or outside, and do the public a good turn?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. and learned Gentleman will know, because he takes these matters seriously, that a renewed and revised drugs strategy for the next three years will shortly be produced for the National Offender Management Service. He knows that we intend to terminate the end of custody licence scheme as soon as practicable and that we are working towards that end. Unlike the Opposition, who released 3,500 prisoners in a single
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day, we are committed to ensuring that there are sufficient prison places, that we tackle the causes of crime and that we support both strong community sentences and effective activity in prison. That is what we are doing and I am sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman does not recognise it.


3. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What recent representations he has received on his Department’s plans to exclude juries from some inquests. [263748]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): On Second Reading of the Coroners and Justice Bill, I told the House that the Government were open to amendments and suggestions about the proposals. Many hon. Members from all parts of the House have responded to that invitation. In consequence, I am this afternoon tabling amendments fundamentally to recast the proposals. First, the criteria for the Secretary of State’s certification will be significantly tightened. Secondly, the Secretary of State’s certificate will trigger consideration by a High Court judge sitting as a coroner. It will then be for the judge, not the Secretary of State, to decide whether it is necessary to hold an inquest without a jury or whether special measures with a jury would be adequate to protect the sensitive information concerned. There would in any event be a right of appeal to the Court of Appeal.

Mr. Harper: I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for the mini-announcement that he has made. [ Interruption. ] No, I am thanking him for it—it is good. He will know that his original proposals caused a great deal of disquiet, so I am grateful that he has tabled those further proposals. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friends will want to look at those amendments in detail as the Bill is discussed next week. Does the Secretary of State think that the amendment he will table reflects the concerns that people had about how removing the jury could effectively remove the reason for an inquest in the first place?

Mr. Straw: I in turn am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his response. I might be old-fashioned, but I take the view that the place to make announcements is in the House of Commons—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] One does one’s best in that regard.

Of course I understand that the whole House—not least those on the Opposition Front Bench and the Liberal Democrat spokespeople—will wish to reflect on the detailed wording of the amendment, but I hope and believe that it will meet the concerns that have been expressed. First, there was concern that the criteria for the initial certification by the Secretary of State were too wide. The criteria have been narrowed, and it will no longer be sufficient for the Secretary of State to have the opinion that a non-jury inquest is required; they will need to decide themselves that it is necessary.

Secondly—this is crucial, as this objection was raised on both sides of the House—the decision about whether to hold a non-jury inquest will not be a matter for the Secretary of State. It will be a matter for the High Court coroner, and I am sure that he or she will, in every case, look first at whether special measures of the kind adopted in the criminal courts—including the gisting of secret information to a jury—would be adequate. It is my hope that, in most cases, they will.

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