Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for introducing the Bill in the detailed way that he did. I am sorry that he may not be able to stay until the end of the debate. We understand that he has other duties, and are grateful that we still have a Lord Chancellor able to undertake those duties.

Much of the Bill arises as a direct result of concerns that arose from the pilots on all-postal voting, the security of the vote in those circumstances and a continuing desire to ensure that those entitled to vote do so. The now notorious attempts at vote-rigging in Birmingham on an all-postal vote were the most blatant example of what can happen if there is no secure system of ensuring that votes can be—

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I very much apologise for interrupting. Did the noble Baroness suggest that the allegations of "vote-rigging" in Birmingham concerned an all-postal ballot? I do not think that they did.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I do not think that I mentioned all-postal balloting; I mentioned vote-rigging. I beg the noble and learned Lord's pardon, I did mention all-postal voting. As I say, the notorious attempts at vote-rigging in Birmingham on an all-postal vote were the most blatant example of what can happen if there is no secure system of ensuring that votes can be delivered to the electoral registration officer except through the tried-and-tested means of the personal vote at the polling station.

In its publication Securing the Vote, which followed directly from that fiasco, the Electoral Commission made clear its view that all-postal voting should not be pursued for use at,

In the same report it made a number of recommendations for changes to the process of registering to vote, voting by post and voting in person at a polling station. About 80 per cent of the commission's recommendations have been incorporated in this Bill, but not all.

We welcome the Bill in the following respects. It actively encourages participation in elections through its proposals to add powers for electoral registration officers to encourage electors to participate in the electoral process. It allows electors to register after an election has been called—as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said—up to 11 days before
 
13 Feb 2006 : Column 1022
 
election day. It lowers the candidacy age to 18 to encourage young people's participation in politics. It goes some way to address the problem of fraud by introducing new offences, which the noble and learned Lord outlined, of providing false information about registration, applying for a postal vote or a proxy vote with the intention to steal a vote—an offence whether or not a false vote is achieved—and increasing the time the police can investigate electoral fraud.

The use of candidates' common names on the ballot paper is a welcome change, as is the move to allow candidates to pay their deposit by credit or debit card. But the Bill does not go far enough in some respects and causes great concern in others. Let us start with the latest of the Government's thoughts on universal registration on computer systems—the co-ordinated online record of electors (CORE). While this might seem innocuous at first sight, it is becoming increasingly apparent that centralised information systems are a serious worry, particularly as they could give rise to the Government utilising such information for purposes additional to that for which a registration is carried out, especially in the light of the recent debate on identity cards and the national identity register, with which—if either can be made to work—they could presumably be made to link. It also gives rise to security vulnerability.

The Bill provides very little idea of what shape and form the CORE database will take. The Bill makes provision for the protection of the data on the CORE system, and the Data Protection Act is involved. But, by definition, criminals do not abide by the law. Prohibiting data-sharing between electoral registration officers may discourage corrupt practices, which are not entirely unknown among electoral officers, but to put online details of every registered voter in the country would be to present identity thieves and fraudsters with a grand challenge, even if the Freedom of Information Act does not cough up the information, if sought. Furthermore, the provisions to prevent "function creep" are subject to the wide order-making powers of the Secretary of State. We are pleased that the orders are subject to affirmative resolution, but we would be far happier if the specific plans for the CORE computer schemes were described in the Bill. Have the Government given enough thought to the set-up prior to the publication of the Bill? I would be interested to hear the Minister's views on the security of the system.

Almost more important is whether people will have a say about whether they wish to be on the online register. In the light of the recent revelations that the DVLA has been selling information from its register, it would take a seriously dedicated voter to sign up to this system of online registration. The Government claim to want to encourage more and younger people to vote, and we have welcomed the measures that they have taken so far in the Bill, but I cannot think of anything that would be more off-putting to voters than to be told that in order to vote their name must be added to a computerised online register.
 
13 Feb 2006 : Column 1023
 

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred to the matter of individual registration of members of a household. The question of the identity of those voting came into focus as a result of concerns over postal voting and the ability of electoral registration officers to be reasonably confident that the vote returned had been completed by the person to whom it had been sent. The Electoral Commission researched this matter and came to the conclusion that the most satisfactory solution would be for every member of the household to complete a registration form individually, providing a surety of a supporting identifier; a signature at the least or a signature and date of birth. That is included under Part 3, but under Clauses 15 to 17 it is included only after an application for a pilot has been made in an electoral area by a local authority. By that definition, it could be years before individual registration and identifiers became generally applied. The Electoral Commission wishes to see at least a transitional national scheme whereby identifiers are mandatory for those requiring postal or proxy votes. We support that, and we will be moving amendments to that effect.

The Opposition have been calling for individual registration, supported by effective identifiers, since the Bill was published and during its passage in the other place. We proposed that personal identifiers should include signature, date of birth and national insurance number, as already required in Northern Ireland. Fears that requiring a national insurance number as a personal identifier would discourage electors from registering have not proved to be founded. The scheme has been a great success in Northern Ireland, where 92 per cent of those on the census still registered. We appreciate that there are concerns that people may be reluctant to fill in the registration form individually and that there may be a resulting drop in the registered electorate, but that will be a matter for electoral registration officers to address, particularly as part of their remit will be to ensure that the register is made up of bona fide electors, which cannot be guaranteed under the current arrangements of household registration, which includes someone signing up people in houses in multiple occupation.

Regrettably, the Bill does not preclude the possible use of all-postal voting, which was widely discredited during the pilots, and we had many discussions on it in this House. The Electoral Commission believes that it should not be pursued for future elections, and we support that view. The Bill strangely fails to reinstate the special provision for postal voting for those in the services. I am glad that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has said that this matter will be discussed and considered. It was debated at length in the other place and the Government appeared to suggest that they might move appropriate amendments at this stage to rectify that, and to restore the armed services personnel scheme that existed before the 2000 Act. I understand from what the Minister said that those amendments will not be laid and we will, therefore, have to nudge that part of the
 
13 Feb 2006 : Column 1024
 
Bill into existence for discussion. We put down those amendments because the tragedy of this matter is that the Government were warned repeatedly in advance of the last election that the consequence of the 2000 legislation was that the Armed Forces would be disenfranchised. In practice, at the last election, they were; this House has held many debates on that matter and it must not be allowed to happen again.

We welcome the simplification of the declaration of donations. It makes sense that Members of Parliament will now make declarations only to the House and not to the Electoral Commission as well. But we believe that proposals to assess election expenses retrospectively from an arbitrary date four months prior to the election are not only unworkable, but would put serious pressure on already hard-pressed constituency party workers and agents. How, in any event, can anyone know when a general election is to be held—after all, we recently had one after only three years—so that a record is kept of any literature or material published, or so that it is limited in a way appropriate to expenses? This is a nonsense that must be changed.

Finally, no amount of changes to electoral administration can get over the fact that constituency boundaries are a mess. The number of electors in constituencies in the UK ranges from 21,000 to 107,000. In Labour seats the average number of voters is 67,562, and in Conservative seats, 72,985. According to the Boundary Commission guidelines, Wales has eight too many seats and Scotland two. There are three boundary commissions in the UK and the last boundary review was conducted in 2000; but those findings will be implemented only in the 2009-10 election and population changes will have been drastic during that time, so that, whatever happens, there will still be significant discrepancies. It is all very well for the Government to claim to want to improve voter participation, but the electoral system is not adequately supported by constituency boundaries. This Bill does nothing to address those problems; it may not be capable of doing so, but while we are talking of elections, it is worth putting that on record.

There is, however, a good deal to talk about within the Bill. I have outlined some of the major areas of concern and my noble friend Lady Seccombe will outline others; but there are other areas, such as the role and responsibilities of electoral registration officers, which we will also want to address in Committee. I look forward to those discussions, so that the Bill, which already covers a number of important changes to the administration of elections, is as near as possible 100 per cent perfect.

4.18 pm


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page