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Lord Greaves: My Lords, once again we have the interesting paradox of the unelected House of Lords
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talking about electionsand no doubt we will talk about elections in great detail in relation to the Bill. As a Liberal Democrat, I must say that it has been a good week for elections, so I should not complain.
I have been involved in different electionsI have tried to tot it upat least 20 times in my life. The number of times that I have been an agent for candidates goes well into the hundreds. Following on from the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, I look forward to being able for the first timethe next time I am on the ballot paperto use the name "Tony" instead of the name that my mother, and nobody else, calls me. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, said that she used to be involved in these things, and I thought, "Lucky her that she used to do themsome of us are still in the thick of it".
This Bill includes a lot of absolutely fascinating detail. I am sure that many other noble Lords will think that we are all anoraks for talking about it in such detail. But it also includes a number of major issues of principle, one of which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has been talking about. I thank him for his kind words.
When we talked about postal voting under the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill two years ago, I felt when we started that I was to some extent a voice in the wilderness. I talked about the abuses that absent voting can lead toand, in the experience of some of us, had led to. I very much welcome the fact that the Government now accept that there is a problem and are taking some important steps towards stopping it and doing something about it. They have not got it completely perfect, but the fact that they are now regarding this as a major problem is a huge step forward.
I welcome a great deal of what is in the Bill on postal voting. To a large extent, those measures are the result of the Birmingham case, which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, talked about. The judge in that case, Richard Mawrey, said that the system would disgrace a banana republic. Whether or not he went slightly over the top in saying that, the issue clearly has to be tackled. The abuses that went to court in Birmingham and resulted in the removal of six councillors from office were almost exactly the same kind of abuses which, in my own area of Pendle, we saw nearly four years ago. Unfortunately, that case never got to court, but the abuses certainly took place and I still have a file, which is literally an inch thick, explaining exactly what happened there.
The cases that go to court of postal voting fraud and absent voting fraud are just the tip of the iceberg. The reason why they are the tip of the iceberg is that if you have been subjected to bribery, intimidation or undue influence by people who have a great deal of influence, authority and power over you, you will not want to stand up in court and give evidence against them. That is why it is difficult to take these cases to court. Nevertheless, by tightening up the system and introducing new rules, I believe that a great deal of the fraud can be stopped.
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The Government have set out three key objectives for what they are trying to do in this Bill: ensuring access to voting for all, the highest possible turnout and the lowest possible fraudwhat the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor summarised as access, participation and security. I suggest that these aims make sense only if they are taken together and if it is accepted that to some extent there has to be a trade-off between them. You cannot maximise all three. In particular, there is a clear relationship between the turnout and the level of possible fraud. You can have 100 per cent turnoutindeed, you can have 110 per cent turnout, as it was rumoured used to happen in some elections in Northern Irelandif you are prepared to accept a very high level of fraud, but we are not. The mere fact of clamping down on fraud will reduce the apparent turnout. I say "apparent", because if you stop people voting twice or three times, you are not reducing the real turnout.
I put forward an alternative view, based more on regarding the integrity of the ballot as fundamental. First, the maximum possible accuracy of the electoral register is important. The Minister was right to say that the level of inaccuracy in the register, particularly in many inner-city areas, is a scandal and a disgrace. It has got to be tackled in two ways: the people on it who should not be on it have to be removed, and the many people who are not on it who should be on it have to be put there. That is one of the most fundamental aspects to increasing participation. Of course, it will not in itself increase turnout. It may be that the people who do not bother to get on the register are those who have the lowest propensity to vote once they are. Having a fuller and more accurate electoral register might actually reduce the percentage turnout in some places, but it may increase the number of people who go to vote, which is more important than the percentage turnout.
Secondly, votes should be cast by the person to whom the vote belongs and they should be cast in secret. Those are the two fundamental principles of voting, which are more important than getting the turnout higher and higher regardless of other consequences. I am also a bit uneasy about the idea that turnout is a matter for government, or even for the returning officers. The choices that people have must include the ability not to vote and to make the decision, "I can't be bothered", "I don't like any of them; they're all a waste of time", or simply, "I don't agree with the system, therefore I'm not going to vote". The job of getting people interested and committed enough to a candidate or candidates to go out there and vote is primarily not the Government's; it is the job of the candidates themselves and their supporters. That particularly involves the political parties.
It is interesting that no one has talked about the political parties yet, as though the whole electoral system takes place independently of them and they are somehow separate, different and perhaps a nuisance. They are fundamental to it. Without the parties, we would not have a democratic system in this country and very few people would bother to vote, no matter what incentives the Government gave them to do so.
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I do not want to get it across that I am against high turnouts. I was integrally involvedalthough I was not the agentin a local election during the all-postal pilots that occurred in my part of the world two years ago, which got the percentage turnouts up. I believe that the Whitefield ward in Nelson in the borough of Pendle had the highest turnout in the whole country, at 82 per cent. Our party workers claimed at the endobviously people were voting every day and we were getting the liststhat there was no one else left whom they could persuade to turn out to votethat they were all either dead, abroad, in prison or they were not going to vote for us anyway. I believe that most of those who comprised the 82 per cent were honest voters.
If returning officers are to be given the task of getting the turnout up, there is a real risk that they will intervene in such a way as to favour one candidate or party over another candidate or party in an electoral area. There is a real risk that they will be accused of intervening in a way that discriminates against one party or candidate. I suspect that those accusations will come from all quarters over time. We should look at that issue more carefully in Grand Committee.
Many other fascinating issues in the Bill will be discussed. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, I think that it is an ideal Bill to go into Grand Committee. In Grand Committee we will be able to tackle what some of us consider the fascinating intricacies of the Bill in a way that we would find more difficult in the context of the whole House. However, we shall want to look at important issues of principle on Report and perhaps have some interesting arguments about them. I welcome the Bill very much indeed. Sad person as I may be, I very much look forward to taking part in its remaining stages.
Under-registration has been an abiding problem in the UK. There are worries that we are slipping into a situation of institutionalised under-registration. Some of the measures in the Bill will genuinely help to ensure that that will not happen. Introducing performance standards for election officials will start to bring confidence that the registration process is being taken seriously and that all areas will be forced to ensure that they compare with the best. The flexibility of late registration is welcome and very helpful in that context, notwithstanding the difficulties that officials might have in dealing with it. The increase in registration is a necessity in a modern democracy. It is also high time that election offences were taken more seriously, so the new offences, in particular on fraudulent applications, are also greatly to be welcomed.
I wish to concentrate my remarks on two issues in the Bill: individual registration and the pilot areas, which my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours talked
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about; and postal votes, which, although not directly related to the former, are related in the minds of the Electoral Commission at least.
The Electoral Commission has been a very strong supporter of individual registration. I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours that it has put itself in a very challenging position in terms of any future assessments of the benefits of that by declaring so wholeheartedly in advance that it is entirely committed to it. That is unfortunate. However, the commission accepts that the problems are real andalthough it is not perhaps appropriate to go into the matter in detailthat they are very political.
Individual registration is unlikely to have an even impact on all political parties. That inevitably makes some political parties rather more nervous and more concerned about the consequences than others. In the context of people freely admitting that the level of registration may, at least initially, fall as a result of individual registration, we ought to be very wary of going down that road. We already accept that there are something like 3 million to 4 million people not registered at the moment. To introduce something that at least in the short term might increase that number seems to be rather difficult.
The proposal for pilot areas emerged largely, as far as I can see, because a compromise was sought between what the commission wanted and what the Government were prepared to accept. Now that the commission is opposing pilot areas for the range of reasons that it has set out in the very full briefing that it has sent usnot least because of the difficulties of having any kind of mass advertising campaign, which would not have a mass impact because it would be able to reflect only the small areas that were trying to introduce pilot schemesI doubt whether there is any particular advantage in continuing with pilot schemes as they stand. The Electoral Commission is no longer in favour of them and it is not obvious what the benefit would be.
One of the problems with both the enthusiasm for pilot schemes and the new transitional arrangements is that the Electoral Commission has been entirely thirled to the notion that the only way to deal with the perceived and real problem with postal voting is to introduce individual registration over the whole system. That is demonstrably not the case. It is perfectly possible to deal with fraud in postal voting by introducing the necessary personal identifiers for postal voting and making sure that across the whole country electoral registration officers have experience of that system of postal voting without having to extend the scheme any further at this stage.
I look hopefully to individual registration. However, if the measures in the Bill for increasing registration, sorting out registration and dealing with the accepted problem of under-registration had already been introduced and people had the resources and the statutory right, power and necessity to do something about the problem, we could have seen how registration had gone in the present system before we
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went any further. I accept that there is an absolute case for going further in relation to postal voting, because there has been definite evidence of fraud in some areas. I would be prepared to live with that, but it does not seem to me that the case for rolling out individual registration has been made.
I am sure that all these areas will be gone into in great depth when we get into Grand Committee. It is extraordinary, but there are an awful lot of people around here who will take a great deal of pleasure in the Grand Committee. Perhaps denying us a vote is really a bit of a nuisance; we could get rid of all these enthusiasms in other areas if we still had the vote. Some of the issues that have come out of this debate about attitudes to individual registration and the attitudes of the Electoral Commission come back to a more general question, which the powers that be might wish to consider. Here, I am echoing some of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made on the exclusion of political parties from discussion of the political process, which is a curious phenomenon.
Some of the difficulties that the commission has faced could have been handled differently if it had had more political advice. I know why this House moved amendments to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act to exclude people with political experience from the commission, and maybe it would be going too far to change that, although there is a case for doing so. Some kind of additional board, not as at present comprised of officials from the various parties but at a more senior level, with the sort of experience that abounds in this House, might be very helpful as a sounding board for the commissioners. I know that the Speaker's Committee already exists, but that has a different function. Itor the commission, or the Governmentmight consider whether there would be some benefit in going down that road. A lot of the issues that have come out in this debate could have been dealt with at an earlier stage if that had been the case. Indeed, when the original legislation was being considered, some of us felt that the exclusion of political parties was not of great benefit.
The Bill is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. I look forward to the Grand Committee, when many of these issues can be discussed in more detail. I will strongly support the Government's moves to increase registration and access to voting, which are essential to any democracy.
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