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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, this is the only amendment about which I feel it necessary to express some dissent. It is what I describe as one of those neuralgic amendments. Perhaps I may explain why that is and why I do not propose to do anything about it. Were I to seek to persuade your Lordships to reject it, we would play ping-pong and thus jeopardise the coming into force of the legislation when the most important thing is to get it through. However, I shall explain briefly why I am sad that the intelligence and security services have persuaded the Government that this amendment is necessary.
 
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It does not look good if the intelligence and security services appear to be shielding themselves against allegations of violations of human rights which otherwise would be investigated by the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights in its human rights work. Let us take the vexed question of extraordinary rendition. If the commission decided to look generally at that question in relation to the intelligence and security services, it could not do so on the basis of this amendment. It is true, as the Minister has said, that in a case by an alleged victim it could go before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal by way of judicial review. That is important and it alleviates the problem. However, as a matter of good public relations, as I have said, it does not look attractive to have a provision of this kind, especially given all the other national security exceptions that are already in place both in the European Convention on Human Rights, which more than adequately protects national security, and in the equality legislation. Both are littered with national security exceptions. This provision is therefore in effect a kind of belt-and-braces measure that is neither necessary nor desirable.

I am sorry that the intelligence and security services themselves do not have the intelligence to see that this kind of provision does not enhance their public image, but of course they are important bodies that must be entirely effective. I do not think that they would have been hampered in any way if the commission could have carried out general inquiries. There is no question of subpoena powers or anything of that kind and they could have protected their sources completely. The provision is unfortunate.

We have to be careful about any kind of immunity, even one affecting the intelligence and security services. Perhaps I may give two examples connected with gender, nationality and religion. In 1980-something, a Minister certified that 39 women in the Royal Ulster Constabulary could not have their sex discrimination claims determined in Belfast for reasons of national security. The case went to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, which said, "Rubbish", and the women finally won against the chief constable. The same thing happened in Northern Ireland in a case of religious discrimination—the case of Tinnelly, which went to Strasbourg. Again the European Court stated that we cannot have immunities of that kind because they are disproportionate. Equality claims come first and must be weighed against issues of national security.

Those are two examples where certificates signed by Ministers on grounds of national security were set aside by the European courts. The cases do not apply directly to the amendment, because it is not about a claim of right based on discrimination; it is about something much softer—a general inquiry into whether the intelligence and security services acted in a way incompatible with someone's human rights. Therefore, although the point that I have just made is of only tangential relevance, I make it to demonstrate the danger of overboard immunities even on the vital
 
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ground of national security. However, I do not intend to oppose the amendment except in the grumpy way that I have just set out.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I shall respond briefly to the charming though slightly grumpy remarks made by the noble Lord, because it is important to recognise that the Human Rights Act lays down an essential framework for the respect of people's human rights. It is right that it should apply to public authorities. The intelligence services are agents of the United Kingdom Government and the Government are answerable for their activities in front of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The reason for the amendment is that there could be a risk that proceedings against the intelligence services might involve the public release of information sensitive to national security. This is why the Investigatory Powers Tribunal was set up, so that cases could be fully heard without jeopardising national security. The amendment is small but, we believe, important. In order not to end on a sour note, however, I should say that it has been a privilege to be associated with this legislation.

On Question, Motion agreed to.


39 Schedule 3, page 79, line 8, at end insert—
"50A Section 49I (conciliation of disputes: rented housing in Scotland) shall cease to have effect."
40 page 80, line 9, at end insert—
"Housing (Scotland) Act 2001 (asp 10)
61 In paragraph 8(e) of Schedule 5 to the Housing (Scotland) Act 2001, for "Disability Rights Commission" substitute "Commission for Equality and Human Rights".
Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 (asp 01)
62 In each of the following provisions of the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006, for "Disability Rights Commission" substitute "Commission for Equality and Human Rights"—
(a) section 53(1)(g),
(b) section 65(4), and
(c) section 67(2)(b)(i)."
41 Schedule 4, page 82, line 10, column 2, at end insert—


"Section 49I."

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 39 to 41, to which I have spoken with Amendment No. 6.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Electoral Administration Bill

3.41 pm

The Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Ashton of Upholland, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Before I start, I should say that I have informed the noble Baronesses, Lady Hanham and Lady Scott of Needham Market, that I have to attend an event with
 
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the Chief Justice of Pakistan. I am very keen to be here for the winding-up speeches, but if I am not, I hope the House will forgive me for that discourtesy.

The legitimacy of our democracy depends on three things: first, all those who are eligible having the right to vote; secondly, everyone wanting to vote; and, finally, no one abusing the vote. Access, participation and security are the three principles that underpin the Bill. They are principles which deserve support from all sides of the House.

These issues are of great importance to the well-being of democracy. We all agree on the need for a democratic system which, in the way that it works, has the confidence of the people and is the envy of the world. We will not deal with this Bill in a party political way. It is a Bill for debate—maybe even for disagreement—but also one whereby, in the way Parliament approaches it, we must seek to increase confidence in the system.

The Bill aims to tackle the growing problem of under-registration in this country. The Electoral Commission estimates that between 3 million and 4 million eligible voters in this country are not registered to vote. This is a shocking statistic. It means that almost 10 per cent of the eligible electorate in Great Britain is disenfranchised. Furthermore, it is clear that this is a problem which affects some groups more than others. The concept of social inclusion—ensuring that all communities have access to decent schools, hospitals, housing and other services—is one with which we are all familiar. We are less likely to consider access to voting as part of the problem.

However, the statistics for non-registration are clear: more than 30 per cent in some black and minority ethnic groups but 6 per cent for white people; 18 per cent are unregistered in inner London, but 6 per cent in the south-east generally; 16 per cent of those between 18 and 24 years of age are unregistered, but around 4 to 5 per cent of those who are 45 and over; and 15 per cent of those who live in rented accommodation are not registered, whereas 3 per cent of home owners are not registered. So if you are a middle-aged, middle-class home-owner living in the suburbs, the chances are you are on the electoral register and you turn out to vote. If you are younger, living in rented accommodation in an inner city area and belong to certain ethnic minority groups, you are far less likely to be registered and therefore unable to exercise your right to vote.

The map of political engagement and participation in our country mirrors the map of social inequality in our society. All governments have and accept a responsibility to protect against this kind of democratic divide. The Bill includes measures to help ensure that those hard-to-reach groups are included on the electoral register. The key to tackling under-registration is giving electoral registration officers the powers, the duties and the resources they need. It is also about extending current best practice and ensuring that all registration officers take all the necessary steps to get people registered.
 
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We are introducing a new duty for electoral registration officers to take all necessary steps to ensure comprehensive registers. The Bill sets out that these steps must include: sending the canvass form more than once to any address; making house-to-house inquires on more than one occasion; making contact by such other means as the registration officer thinks appropriate with persons who do not have an entry in a register; data-sharing—that is, inspecting any records held by any person which the registration officer is permitted to inspect; and providing training to persons under the direction or control of the electoral registration officer in connection with the carrying out of the duty.

To improve convenience for the voter, the Bill will extend closing dates for registering to vote until after an election has been called instead of the current cut-off of around six weeks before the election. It is once the election campaign is under way that people often feel most motivated to get on the register, as anybody involved in elections will know. So the Bill allows them to register up to 11 working days before the election.

The Bill also includes provisions to establish the co-ordinated online record of electors—CORE—to improve the accuracy and integrity of electoral registers and support national access. CORE will provide for the joining up of all the information currently held on over 400 locally held registers. This will eventually provide a single point of access for voters, enabling them to check the accuracy of their own registration details and to request changes to be made to these data. CORE will also allow cross-checking between registers, which could be used to detect people illegitimately registered in more than one place.

An important aspect of registration in Great Britain is that the electoral register is a public document that is open to public scrutiny. However, while respecting this principle of openness, we must also ensure that the system properly provides for vulnerable people—for example, those under witness protection schemes or victims of domestic violence—so that they are not effectively barred from registering and exercising their right to vote for fear that their details could be traced. The Bill provides for a system of anonymous registration for those whose own safety, or that of another member of their household, could be compromised if their details were published on the electoral roll.

The Bill says nothing about service voters. This is a very important issue. Concern has been expressed that the ability of service personnel to vote has been reduced as a result of changes introduced in 2000. The Electoral Commission and the Ministry of Defence are working to identify the effect of those changes but I welcome the opportunity the Bill provides to debate whether further legislative change is appropriate now.

Ensuring that everyone has the right to vote also means ensuring that everyone who is eligible and registered to vote is then able and encouraged to participate. To promote equal access to elections, the
 
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Bill requires that all polling places are reviewed over a four-year cycle to ensure they provide proper access to all people. This provision will complement and strengthen existing legislation under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. Noble Lords will be aware of the powerful intervention made by the honourable Member for Aberdeen South, Anne Begg, who described the problems she had going round her constituency during the general election; she herself could not get into many polling stations.

We are also enabling returning officers to provide guidance for voters in languages other than English and Welsh, and in alternative formats, as recommended by the Electoral Commission.

The Bill also introduces common-sense measures to help tackle the problem of what the Electoral Commission has termed the "Generation no X"—young people, aged from 18 to 30, many of whom are not registered and have never established the habit of voting. Not voting when you are young is the greatest single indicator that you will not vote as you get older. There are many complex reasons for this lack of engagement, but for some it is the simple fact that they feel they do not know how to vote or that they are in some way "unqualified" to take part. The Bill makes provision to allow parents to take their children into the polling station with them, which will enable parents to show their children how to vote and familiarise them with the habit of voting.

Participation is not just about who votes; it is also about who can stand at election. The Bill lowers the age for candidacy in all elections from 21 to 18.

Finally on this aspect, the Bill clarifies the power for returning officers to encourage participation at elections, and it provides for a ring-fenced fund to be established to support their work in this area. It aims to extend the type of local-level, targeted publicity and outreach work that is already undertaken by some local authorities as a matter of best practice, and it will complement the national campaigns already undertaken by the Electoral Commission.

In addition to introducing this Bill, the Government are continuing to look at ways to modernise our electoral system and to increase the opportunities that people have to vote. To test the effectiveness and robustness of these innovations and to build confidence in them, we are continuing to conduct a programme of pilots in 2006 which maintains the momentum that was started in 2000.

Earlier today—so that this House could debate it at Second Reading and later in the process—the Government announced that they had accepted 16 applications from local authorities to hold pilots at the May 2006 local elections. A background paper providing further details on the pilots has been placed in the House Library.

The local authorities will pilot innovations including: voting in alternative locations such as shopping centres and rural locations to allow us further to test how voting in different locations and at different times can enhance access; and electronic counting of ballots, which will build on past work and
 
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test how this can be refined to ensure confidence, as well as support future use of technology to gain efficiencies in the administration of elections. The pilot will enable us also to identify how technology can support counting in the different voting systems that are used in local authority and regional elections.

The pilots will also test some of the measures included in this Bill, such as the use of barcodes and signatures in polling stations to improve security. This will provide valuable lessons for the successful implementation of these measures.

Falling turnout at elections and disengagement in democracy are complex issues which cannot be tackled by legislation alone. Above all, what the politicians stand for and the way they engage with the public affect these issues. However, the steps included in this Bill, and the work that we are doing in piloting new ways of voting, provide a valuable and important platform for future improvements.

I move to the important issues of security and public confidence. People have a choice about how to vote in this country. Whatever their choice, they should have confidence that the system is secure. A democracy desert is a place not just where people are not registered and do not vote but where people fear that the system is open to abuse and that their vote will not count.

Fraud in any area, in any election, undermines public confidence in the integrity of our system. Every person in every community in this country is entitled to be sure that he can cast his own vote and that it will be fairly counted as he casts it; that no one's vote will be stolen and no result perverted by fraud. That is a basic right for all. To protect that individual right and to restore public confidence, we are taking a series of measures to enhance electoral security which include: primary legislation—namely, the measures in this Bill; secondary legislation, which will be debated in the other place on 15 February; on the ground, work at a local level in "at risk" areas; and extra resources for electoral administrators and registration officers. These measures are part of an overall strategy to improve electoral security.

The Bill creates two new electoral fraud offences: for supplying false information or failing to supply information to the registration officer at any time; and for falsely applying for a postal vote. We are also strengthening the current offence of undue influence to make it easier to prosecute, and toughening up the penalties for both new and existing offences, moving from a fine of £1,000 to one of £5,000 or up to six months' imprisonment.

In polling stations we will be requiring voters to sign for their ballot paper, to act as a deterrent to fraud. This measure is also going to be piloted in a few authorities at this year's local elections. We are extending the time in which the police can undertake investigations into suspected fraud by up to 12 months.

We recognise that it is when voting is by post that we need the greatest focus on security. We must enhance the current position. Again, we are tackling this issue
 
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through various means. In this Bill, we will require all postal vote literature to include statutory secrecy warnings, underlining the secrecy of the ballot to deter people from attempting to influence another's vote; we will provide for barcodes as well as serial numbers to be included on ballot papers, protecting against the loss or theft of postal ballots and enabling a new ballot paper to be issued to the voter; and we will establish a marked register of postal votes received, similar to that used in the polling station, to help prevent fraud.

The Electoral Commission also recommended that the existing provisions relating to personation should be extended to give the police the power of arrest, based on "reasonable suspicion" of personation at any location, not just at polling stations. This change to the law is already provided for in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005.

In secondary legislation, we will require administrators to write to everyone who has applied for a postal vote to confirm it. That way, unless someone is living in your house and opening your post, your postal vote application will be secure; we will require voters to give a reason if they want their postal vote to be redirected to a different address from that on the electoral register; we will move forward the deadline for applying for a postal vote, to give electoral administrators more time to check and process applications; we will enable postal ballots handed in at the polling station to be securely collected ahead of the count; and we will make it clear that electoral administrators have the power to check signatures on applications to vote by post. These secondary legislation measures will, if passed, be in effect in time for the May 2006 council elections.

Also in the Bill, we are providing for local authorities to pilot the collection of individual signatures and dates of birth at registration, to see what benefits such a system could bring. The Electoral Commission recommended individual registration. We appreciate the principles behind this recommendation. However, we must proceed on the basis of solid evidence. We have therefore decided that, rather than going straight to national rollout, we should pilot the system first to see what benefits such a system could bring. We will pilot with an open mind. The Electoral Commission will have a key role to play in supporting and evaluating the pilots. From this evaluation, the decision will be brought back to Parliament.

If the pilots show that this is the correct way forward, we will roll out individual registration right across the country. Individual registration, as a minimum requiring every member of the household to sign, may reduce further the numbers on the register. If there was such a reduction, would it be justified by the increase in security? We do not know whether there would be any reduction and, if so, what size it would be. The benefits for security are that the signature on the register can be compared first with the signature on the application for the postal ballot and then with the signature on the returned ballot paper—three
 
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signatures rather than two. The pilots will test the effect on registration and what difference the system of three signatures makes.

We all agree that we must safeguard the security of our electoral system. We all agree that we need tough anti-fraud measures, more than were in place at the last general election. We are taking such measures, both in the Bill, in regulations, and through other practical, non-legislative steps. Individual registration is a means to an end, so we have committed to testing it, to find out whether it achieves the end that we all want.

The Electoral Commission has raised a third possibility—what it calls a transitional approach. This would give people the option of giving their signature and date of birth on the registration form. If they did not and the head of the household gave their names, they could still vote at the polling station. However, under the Electoral Commission's proposal, signing would allow them to apply for a postal vote. Not signing would not prevent them under this scheme subsequently applying for a postal vote. The Electoral Commission's proposal is that a decision should be made to institute this transitional proposal now. The concerns about it are that it means a more complicated form, which might reduce registration, with only a limited increase in security. The transitional proposal could still allow a person to get a postal vote with only two signatures as protection, which is the current position.

The Government's position is that this is such a significant matter that we should pilot compulsory individual identifiers, and, on the basis of the material that comes from that, decide whether there should be a national rollout. If the conclusion is that there should, and the Electoral Commission will be involved in the evaluation, we will roll it out. If it is not, we will not. On an issue of this importance, evidence is required.

We have said that the health of our democracy relies on three things: access to voting for all, participation by all, and security for all. These are the principles at stake. We cannot focus exclusively on any one of these to the detriment of the others. We will not take risks with the security of the vote and we are not willing to take risks with the register or with people's right to vote.

The next elections will take place in May this year. Officials in my department are already working closely with local authority chief executives, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Electoral Commission, electoral administrators and local parties to support the efforts in those wards that are at risk of fraud. In most areas these fears will not be felt, but where there is a history or a particular threat of fraud we will back up those who will be taking action at local level. Underpinning these measures for better access and security, the Bill also includes a number of sensible measures to simplify electoral law and improve the way elections are conducted. Those changes will benefit the political parties, electoral administrators and, most important of all, the voters themselves.
 
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We recognise that many aspects of our current electoral law and procedure are no longer appropriate for today's environment. In some cases the powers given to returning officers are unclear, and this can lead to inconsistencies in the type of service provided across the country. For this reason the Bill will clarify some of those powers: the power of the returning officer to offer translated guidance for voters; the power to encourage participation at elections; and the power to correct administrative and clerical errors in the run-up to the election and on polling day. These are sensible, practical measures that will play a big part in enabling administrators to respond effectively to voters' needs.

To help administrators manage their own elections effectively we are simplifying the way that parliamentary elections are funded, reducing micro-management by central government. We are scrapping outdated practices by, for example, removing the need for the stamping instrument to validate the ballot paper, and by allowing for the use of credit and debit card payments for candidates' election deposits. These changes will be supported by new measures to promote best practice and consistency in the provision of electoral services. These include a requirement for administrators to provide data on their electoral spending to the Electoral Commission to establish transparency on costs. This will be the first time that such data are collected centrally, and will be extremely valuable in informing future policy developments in this area.

Everything in this Bill will be underpinned by provisions for performance standards for electoral services. These standards will help local authorities by setting clear standards for what is expected of them, and will enable the commission to monitor performance and promote best practice. They will be set and monitored by the Electoral Commission following consultation with the Secretary of State.

The key to improving registration, and to improving security, is to give electoral administrators the powers, duties and resources they need to carry out their greater responsibilities and exercise their wider powers. The Government have allocated £21.1 million per annum to local authorities in England and Wales to fund the measures in the Bill and the accompanying package of secondary legislation. Scotland has around £2.9 million in Barnett consequentials for the implementation of these measures in Scotland.

The political parties play a vital role in engaging people in our democracy. Legislation introduced by this Government in 2000 has also ensured greater transparency around the work and financial accounts of parties. This Bill includes measures to simplify the regulatory framework for parties established by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. These changes will ease the regulatory burden on parties, while ensuring that the chief virtues of the system—openness and transparency in the financial affairs of political parties—will not be lost or diluted.

I have discussed in detail the key provisions of the Bill. I do not think that I need to summarise the effect of every part of it. The Bill is about improving access
 
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to democracy, promoting participation and enhancing security. We approach the Bill as we did in the Commons—keen to address issues in a cross-party way and, above all, keen to improve participation, security and democracy and increase the confidence of all in our electoral system. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)

4.05 pm


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