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Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gale. Although only half of my blood is Welsh, it enables me to say that I hope she derived as much satisfaction from yesterday's rugby international as I did.

Our normal patois would tempt one to describe today's Bill as a curate's egg. Because it has inevitably a regulatory flavour, I shall call it an archdeacon's egg.
 
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There is a whole series of provisions that the Electoral Commission welcomes. I approve so strongly of the Electoral Commission as an instrument for the greater good—I remark parenthetically that I only wish that the Government had not held it back from their original legislative programme until they had conducted a series of referendums under varying rules of their own choosing—that I, too, welcome those provisions.

On the central issues of postal voting on demand and fraud, I have been much more sceptical of the Government's modus operandi. Therefore, I would be hypocritical if I did not welcome the questioning nature of the Electoral Commission's response to Clauses 15 to 17 in its briefing to your Lordships' House, including its expression of an alternative option to which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred.

Of course I recognise the Government's concern about falling polls. In 1983, after boundary changes, the percentage poll in my former constituency of the City of London and Westminster, South was the lowest in the country at 52 per cent. I told my agent, who is still the agent for the constituency and therefore has seven parliaments' worth of experience of this very inner-city seat, that we must at the next election lift ourselves off the bottom, if only by a single constituency. But in the event, in the next three elections we moved ourselves almost 25 per cent up in the polling, and two dozen places off the bottom, generally passing other inner-city seats, mainly in London, and over several Northern Ireland seats. So I am familiar with transient and undiscoverable electorates. Anyone who has canvassed in central London is necessarily admiring of London's postmen.

The Government, mainly through the Deputy Prime Minister's obsession with all-postal voting pilots in areas where he wished to hold regional referendums, may have raised the level of polling—although I would not have gone as far as the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, once did in saying during one of the subsequent rows in your Lordships' House that the Government had made it possible for more people to vote who could not vote before; it had always been my impression that they had the ability to vote before—but they also raised the level of fraud. That said, I felt genuine sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, who had to defend the outcome of their initiatives in the form they took, as expressed in levels of fraud, especially when the Queen's Counsel who conducted the vote-rigging trial in Birmingham, commenting on a government statement to the effect that the current system was "working", opined in reply:

It was in the aftermath of that episode that Peers on the government Benches in your Lordships' House—no names, no pack drill, but Hansard identifies them—said that the events in Birmingham had nothing to do with the Government, despite the defendants in the case being Labour Party councillors. Of course I recognise that the Labour Party is subject to the law
 
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of the land, just like any other party, but unless members of the government party are candidates for sainthood, they do have an interest and an influence in what the legislation says. I recognise the traditional problems in these matters of Chinese walls, but saying that what happened in Birmingham had nothing to do with the Government implies that what separated the Government from the Labour Party in that instance was as monumental as the Great Wall of China.

In 2002, your Lordships' House examined the Northern Ireland electoral practices Bill. The Government had not found themselves ready to amend the Bill in the Commons, although I am genuinely delighted that the Parliamentary Secretary in charge of the Bill when in the Commons is now in the Cabinet as Chief Secretary. We had a spirited debate in your Lordships' House at Second Reading, a debate into which I introduced Winston Churchill's post-First World War quotation about,

the very counties where, in the 2001 general election, there had been the loudest accusations of electoral fraud.

To the immense credit of the late Lord Williams of Mostyn, then Leader of your Lordships' House, in whose charge the Bill was here, the Government rewrote the Bill in your Lordships' House, making massive improvements in fraud prevention to the extent that such accusations of fraud are far rarer now in the Province. We shall attend to the wider aspects of that achievement in Committee. It is because the Government are not prepared to do anything remotely similar in this Bill after the Electoral Commission in 2004 revised its views about all-postal voting, following the experiences of that summer, that we must regard this Bill as an archdeacon's egg. I gather that it is going into Grand Committee, which seems odd given the criterion of controversy and the fact that there is time for the National Lottery Bill to be taken in the Chamber. But there will be a great deal to discuss.

If it is true that the Birmingham saga may run to a third election, we are back to the serial elections which, if not for the same reasons, are reminiscent of John Wilkes in Middlesex in the 18th century. To echo one of the greater effusions of that ubiquitous poet Anon:

In Committee and at Report, we must seek to ensure that he does.

It is important for the Minister to say whether, under the Government's proposals, there would be sufficient time to introduce full individual registration within this Parliament if all went well. Incidentally, although the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said that election staff would have the resources necessary to do the work needed, I would feel easier if the Electoral Commission decided what resources were needed rather than Her Majesty's Government. Birmingham City Council has been eloquent about the strain that its staff have been under.
 
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Are the amounts that the Lord Chancellor quoted incremental or absolute? Whichever the case, how does the new total compare with present provision?

My final point is smaller, but events may make it larger. At a moment when the Government seem to forget golden rules about not fighting on two fronts at once—in this instance, a fortiori, they are golden-plated golden rules because one of the fronts is Afghanistan—we shall also need to give attention to the Government's case for the present system of service voter registration, to which reference has already been made. All in all, there is much to look forward to. I hope that the Minister in charge of the Bill, whoever in the end he or she is, is luckier than the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, was.

4.51 pm

Lord Garden: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said in his opening speech that service voting, which has just been addressed again, is absent from the Bill. Both Front Benches have also drawn attention to the need to do something on that important issue. We are talking about a quarter of a million of our citizens whose voting rights have been adversely affected in recent years. When the Bill was debated in the other place, the Minister, Harriet Harman, after thanking Members of the House for highlighting the issue of service voters and their under-registration, said:

Looking at the list of speakers, I think that I am probably that "further debate" for today.

I have been involved in this issue on a cross-party basis since I arrived in your Lordships' House in 2004. Despite warnings of the cumulative effects of the change caused to service voter registration by the Representation of the People Act 2000, the Government at that stage were reluctant to acknowledge that there was a problem, and too little was done too late for the May 2005 election. I shall try to bring your Lordships up to date with what has happened after the election and the work that has been done between the Minister's department, the Ministry of Defence, interested parliamentarians, electoral registration officers and unofficial representatives of the services.

It is important to remember that when absent voting—both postal and proxy—was introduced in 1918, it was primarily for servicemen serving overseas. Similar arrangements were made at the end of World War 2. Postal voting was not extended to civilians until 1948. Until 2001, all service personnel had to register as service voters. Once a person had registered, that registration remained effective until he or she changed to a different address or left the Armed Forces. Their dependants could also use the scheme if they so wished.

Following the 2000 Act, service personnel and their families have had to register annually. The central register that looked after who was on the electoral register from the services was then closed. As a result,
 
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no one knows how many service people and their dependants fell off voting registers as the years passed and they moved from posting to posting. Electoral registration officers have reported how difficult it is to obtain access at some units despite the Ministry of Defence's view that they should have such access. They are not able to check even whether they are getting registration information at unit level.

I shall not repeat to your Lordships the sorry tale of the lack of urgency by the Ministry of Defence in the run-up to the May 2005 general election. I spoke in detail about that on 26 May 2005 during the debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on the workings of the 2005 election. Since then we seem to have had a welcome recognition by the Government that there is a real problem to be solved. I have attended two meetings with Ministers, for which I thank the noble Baroness and her department.

The first meeting was chaired by Harriet Harman, the Minister of State at the DCA, on 2 November 2005. The Ministry of Defence was represented by Don Touhig, the Defence Minister. Sam Younger, the chief executive of the Electoral Commission, was also there. On 11 January 2006 we had a second meeting, chaired on that occasion by the Electoral Commission. Again the DCA Minister was present along with officials from the Ministry of Defence, but not the Minister. We also had representatives from electoral registration officers. I should particularly like to commend Douglas Young, who also attended. He is the author of an excellent piece of research into the problem entitled Silence in the Ranks.

From all these meetings, I am convinced that the DCA wishes to achieve a solution to the problem that has arisen as a result of the 2000 legislation. Harriet Harman has spoken of "zero tolerance" in the area of voter registration. Yet there does not appear to be a clear consensus on how best to tackle the issue. Some have argued the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham—that we could return to the pre-2000 position. We could go back to the previous system where service voter registration lasted for someone's service life. It is the "better than nothing" option which some have described as at least a move forward, although in fact it is a move backward. It may be that it is the best we can do, but it would be unfortunate if that were the case. We need to seize the opportunity to make both registration and voting easy for service personnel and their dependants.

The Ministry of Defence must have a role in this. But when we talk to MoD officials at these meetings, it is clear that there is a great reluctance to take on specific responsibilities, particularly if they have resource implications. Nevertheless the department has undertaken some initiatives which I warmly welcome. The Secretary of State for Defence, Dr John Reid, wrote to me on 15 September 2005 outlining a number of moves. It has been made a requirement for each unit to have an officer responsible for voting issues. Payslips are now being used to convey messages about registration, something which might have been
 
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done before the May 2005 election. A survey has been put in hand to try to discover the scale of the problem. I was interested to hear the detailed statistics from the Lord Chancellor covering every possible decimal point on who voted, who is registered and so forth—and yet no one knows about service voters. That is very odd. The survey now being conducted by the Ministry of Defence is a postal survey which requires those selected to return their forms voluntarily. Cynics have suggested that this may distort the outcome of the survey a little towards those inclined to fill in forms and return them, and they may well be the people who tend to register to vote. In any case, the results will not be available until next month.

All these measures are helpful, but the reluctance of the MoD to take on a more proactive role is unfortunate. It deploys and posts troops, thus making it difficult for them to register and vote, yet it wants to act as though it is a normal employer. The department could take on the administration of the registration, and it must take on the mechanics of the voting process. For the mechanics of voting are just as important as the registration process. Whatever registration improvement we manage to get by amendment when the Bill is considered in Committee, we will still have the problem of how to make it possible for all deployed service personnel and their dependants when deployed to be sure that they will receive ballot papers in time for them to be returned.

During the May 2005 general election it was not just distant postings in Iraq and Afghanistan that proved impossible, there were reports of problems in Germany and Northern Ireland caused by mail delays over the bank holiday weekend. Nor should we accept the argument that it is the servicemen's fault because they can always opt for a proxy vote. Not only is a proxy vote sometimes difficult to organise, but in my view it is not democratic. We have a duty to make it possible for all service people to cast a secret personal vote. That means that the Ministry of Defence will have to provide the necessary logistics.

There are other issues which we shall address in Committee. The banning of canvassing on military units is out of date and is now much more restricting given that many barrack blocks and married quarters are within the widened defined secure area. Electoral registration officers need to think more about the needs of the service voter, and they need to establish a much closer relationship with their own military units. We need also to look at how the service voter can decide what their address is for registration purposes. The advice currently available is confusing and often contradictory.

The main issue remains that, nearly a year after the general election, we are still searching for ways to repair the damage of the 2000 Act. I am not at this stage attempting to detail the amendment that we will need to make to the Bill. We considered a number of options at our last meeting with the Electoral Commission. A participant suggested an amendment giving delegated powers to amend service voting arrangements later when we have seen how the MoD's new measures work. I hope that we will be able to come
 
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up with something more concrete than that. As a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Select Committee, I should say that we are never very enthusiastic about lack of policy thinking being an excuse for delegated legislation.

I agree with those who have said that the best must not be the enemy of the good. We need to produce a workable scheme and I look forward to hearing what the Minister proposes we should do to meet her department's undertaking to right this wrong. I hope we can all work together, on a cross-party basis, to rectify this important problem.

5.01 pm


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