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Lord Campbell of Alloway: I should like to make a very short point in favour of this amendment. In the case of a rolling register, we have a new situation. It is not the old situation as it was. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will look at it in that light, without a backward glance to the previous position.
Lord Goodhart: I, too, support the amendment. Anyone who has canvassed as extensively as I have--and many have canvassed a good deal more so--know that it is embarrassing to the canvasser to knock on a door, meet an elderly woman and ask about her husband, only to be told that he died six months ago. Whether or not such incidents and the sending of leaflets lead to a loss of votes, they are painful for both the resident voters and the canvassers. Therefore, we support any reasonable steps that can be taken to ensure that people who have died are taken off the register as soon as possible.
Lord Jopling: I, too, am anxious to support the amendment for a reason that has not yet been mentioned. I was much taken with what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, about the problem of impersonation and by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, about the distress that is often caused during an election campaign. I am sure that many Members of the Committee have experienced the problem of knocking on a door and being told that the person's spouse had recently died. It is most distressing to meet a widow or widower or a son or daughter who is clearly upset by having to explain that grandpa is no longer alive.
However, the deceased may have been registered for a postal vote. I do not believe that I fought a general election--and I fought 10 in my time--without knocking on a door and being told, "Grandpa died some time ago, but we have got his postal vote behind the clock on the mantelpiece". You then have to tell them that there is no way that that vote can be used. However, I have often wondered whether people might be inclined to think that if they fill in the form no one will know. I have no evidence whatever that that happens, but it could. I imagine that it is almost impossible to trace and therefore it is important to keep the register as up to date as possible. The gist of my noble friend's proposal is therefore sensible. It will cause a little more trouble, but not much, and it is in everyone's interest to have an up-to-date register.
Lord McNally: My wife has stopped me eating strong cheese at night because it gives me bad dreams. There was a point today when I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, had eaten the political equivalent of that strong cheese because he seemed to be
Interspersed with all the hobgoblins, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, jumped on every one of his hobbyhorses. At one stage I was thinking of going into the Prince's Chamber and opening a book on how many he would ride today. We had the euro; student fees in Scotland; the competence of the Greenock sheriff; the Faslane nuclear debates; the European Convention on Human Rights; and CND. And the list is still open if someone wants to place a bet. We also had the statutory genuflexion to the wonders and glories of the Thatcher years.
It has been vintage Mackay today and I must say that when I saw the amendment I thought, "Oh, my God, we are now going to get the voting dead!", presumably all the deceased being firmly anti-Conservative. Therefore, I was reasonably surprised when I heard the reasoning behind the amendment and was sympathetic towards it. Anything that could prevent unnecessary upset to the recently bereaved is to be welcomed. However, can the Minister confirm that the Home Office and the study group which examined these matters found little evidence of the abuses from which the Conservative Front Bench have tried to save us from this afternoon? Will he confirm that he, like Members on these Benches, remains committed to a Bill which will try to encourage people to register and to vote rather than to find as many obstacles to that as possible?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his intervention. It was timely and brought a little lightheartedness to our considerations. I, too, had wondered how many more demons would emerge!
I have sympathy with the amendments and believe that they were honourably expressed. It would be strange if it were otherwise, because I was last elected for a ward which had about 8,000 voters, three cemeteries and two crematoria--so there were more deceased former voters than live voters. However, the live voters were always charitable and always returned me to the council and leadership of that great authority. I was very grateful to them.
The points which Members of the Committee made are well intentioned. Nothing can be worse than knocking on a door and asking for someone only to find that there has been a recent bereavement and having to offer instant casework in their terrible loss and sad tragedy. Everyone has great sympathy for such situations. Amendment No. 54 would require electoral registration officers to consult the local registrar of births, marriages and deaths with a view to removing the names of the deceased. Apart from the
Lord Norton of Louth: I understand the distinction made by the Minister here. However, the Bill as drafted states that the registration officer "may" consult, whereas the amendment tabled by my noble friend states that he "shall" do so. That would ensure consistency where, in the Bill as it stands, inconsistencies could arise. Registration officers may not use the powers available to them.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Lord, Lord Norton, has made a useful intervention. The clear intention behind the drafting of the Bill is that it is the Government's expectation that electoral registration officers would regularly access the relevant data. Indeed, I believe that is already done in all authorities where good practice is evident. Most local authorities are extremely good about carrying out these functions.
I shall now turn to Amendment No. 55. It addresses the issue of the accuracy of the register and returns us to an important issue. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, wishes to insert a provision allowing registration officers to carry out an enquiry or canvass at any time of the year. In principle, I feel that that would be unobjectionable. However, I question how realistic that might be in practice. Registration officers already find it difficult, costly and labour intensive to carry out even a single whole-town, whole-community or whole-area registration in any given year. I doubt very much whether they would have the resources or even the inclination to undertake a second canvass of the kind envisaged by the noble Lord, desirable though that may be.
Perhaps Members of the Opposition can tell the Committee whether, if they were in government, they would increase the grants provided to local authorities to pay for such exercises. I believe that considerable costs would attach to this proposal. On balance, the Government believe that the registration provisions in the Bill are about right and I hope that the noble Lord will see the wisdom of that opinion. We think that the system works well as it is and I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Finally, I should like to respond to a point made a little earlier by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Throughout our considerations and deliberations in this field, we have not detected any significant amount of abuse or fraud. I made that point earlier and I feel
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response and I thank all other noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. In particular, I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, kept count of the number of issues I could get in during my contribution. Perhaps we could come to an arrangement over the book he is running; I could then give him a suitable number.
Perhaps I can say to the noble Lord that I had not thought about dead people voting, although I understand that that was a traditional problem in the north of Ireland until steps were taken to prevent it. I encountered the problem with a constituent--a supporter--who tended to telephone me on a Sunday evening to give me a list of all those who had died in the previous week. He was totally convinced that they were all Conservatives. Occasionally I had to point out to him that some others who had died during the previous week were most certainly not Conservatives. That is my experience of the issue.
Perhaps I may turn first to Amendment No. 55. I take the point made by the Minister about expense. However, with respect, he could have given a little more information on the question of modern housing developments where an influx of people can make significant alterations to the register. There is a difference between that kind of circumstance and merely tidying up the register for no apparent reason.
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