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Lord Rennard: My Lords, this debate has been a welcome and rare opportunity to re-examine our electoral mechanisms. For too much of the past century, our democratic framework was based on legislation from the previous century and, as a result, our electoral laws failed to change as parties developed, lifestyles changed and new technology became available. It is to the great credit of this Government that since 1997 more attention has been paid to this important subject than has generally been the case with their predecessors—although, as my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market pointed out, we still have a method for counting votes at
 
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Westminster elections that was appropriate only for 19th century politics when there were but two voting blocs. For those of us who seek a 21st-century democracy, that issue is regrettably outside the remit of the Bill.

The issues in the Bill, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor outlined, include ensuring that everyone has access to voting, increasing voter participation and minimising fraud and unfair practices. It is to be hoped that there is a minimum of conflict between those worthy principles, but the problem is that they are sometimes in conflict, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has just pointed out; and our debate today has revolved—and the later stages of the Bill will, no doubt, revolve—around those conflicts. Indeed, a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, still bear scars from the debates two years ago on these issues. Let us hope that we have all learnt from them.

My noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market has already welcomed the Bill in principle and much of its content—in particular, the measures to increase registration, participation and security. She has suggested some measures to improve it—in particular, encouraging young people to vote by giving them the right to do so from the age of 16.

My noble friend Lord Garden raised important questions about the democratic rights of our servicemen and servicewomen. We accept that there are difficulties in ensuring fairness for them, and we hope that the Government will use their best endeavours to address those problems in the remaining stages of the Bill.

I would like to dwell on the main area of controversy, as I see it. I expect most of our future debates to revolve around postal voting and individual voter registration. For some years we have wrestled with the issues of facilitating the voting process while providing safeguards against potential fraud and preserving confidence in the integrity of the system. In my maiden speech to this House during the passage of the Representation of the People Act 2000, I welcomed the abandonment of having to state a reason for choosing to vote by post. I said that,

But, perhaps with hindsight, we should have thought more about those safeguards as parties began to use their resources to sign up increasingly large numbers of their supporters as postal voters.

Among the worst abuses of the system was in the Birmingham City Council elections of 2003. A "vote-rigging factory" was discovered where ballot papers were ripped open and altered. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred to that, as did the noble Lords, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville and Lord Greaves. The Lord Chancellor correctly pointed out that that problem occurred with ordinary postal voting, not all-postal voting. That illustrates my point that the problems that occur with postal voting can occur
 
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wherever you have postal voting and not simply with all-postal voting. There is a general problem with postal voting and a fundamental lack of security, which we have to address.

The scale of the problem is unknown. A number of noble Lords have said that it may be confined to a few areas. The noble Lords, Lord Elder and Lord Campbell-Savours, suggested that the problem may be confined to a few small parts of the country and that therefore we should have measures to address the issue just in those areas. But how do we know the scale of the problem in many parts of the country? Many of us in the House today have long experience of elections and we know how there can be many close results. A handful of votes can change the outcome in a handful of wards in the council elections and can therefore change control of the council. A handful of votes can change the outcome in parliamentary elections and could one day change the outcome in a general election. Therefore, it is not satisfactory to say that we should proceed as we are with postal voting without the tougher safeguards required.

A potential solution to the problem appeared to be agreed between all the parties. A short while ago, we all thought that individual voter registration would address most of the problems. A signature on the form that would allow you to go on the electoral register could be compared with the signatures on the form on which you applied for a postal vote and on the form accompanying that postal vote. Until recently, I thought that we were heading pretty much in that direction, as soon as it could be done.

Of course, there are some problems with that proposal. There could be a genuine fear that people would miss out on registering to vote if there were a change in the traditional system of household registration. But I do not have a problem with the principle of each household still having a form which every voter signs individually and on which their date of birth appears. I think that that would lessen any problem of a drop in registration that might arise. I always assumed that that process would be supplemented by the capacity of an individual to fill in a form separately either at the same time or subsequently.

It now appears, if I understand the argument correctly, that those on the government side fear that the requirement to provide a signature and date of birth will be a significant deterrent to people registering to vote in the first place. I can see why they thought that pilot experiments might be the way forward. But I also think that they should play close attention to the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours; that is, in many ways it is difficult for the Electoral Commission to assess those pilots, having declared emphatically after the experience of the past six years that individual voter registration is the way forward.

I know that some of the fears of the Government and the Labour Party are based on experience in Northern Ireland. However, I suggest that that is not necessarily an appropriate model for us to look at. In
 
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Northern Ireland the requirements go further. They go in the direction, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, pointed, of also requiring a national insurance number to be provided. Many people are unaware of their national insurance number and might even struggle to find out where they could obtain it. I think that the advantage of a little more security but too great disfranchisement might rule that out as an option.

There is another fundamental difference with the Northern Ireland experience. It seems to me that, to obtain this accurate register, we are willing to have very thorough doorstep canvassing, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor outlined. For reasons of security, in many places in Northern Ireland widespread individual doorstep canvassing is less likely to take place, but I would not see that as such a problem in Great Britain.

The transitional arrangements proposed by the Electoral Commission seem very sensible to me, and I do not think that they would lead to the problems foreseen by the noble Lord, Lord Elder. That is because it would not be compulsory to provide a sample signature unless you wanted to vote by post in the future. If you ever did want to vote by post, you would have to provide a signature on an application form in any event. You would then have to provide a further signature on a form that accompanies the ballot paper. It is not an intolerable burden to require a signature at the early stages, but some problems remain.

I understand the point made privately to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, that people may decide that they want to vote by post at a later date. I hope that many of them will have provided a signature on the registration form. I believe that this issue could be explained clearly on the registration form. These days, people are used to providing a signature on many forms; indeed, these days it is very rare not to have to sign any official form. If a postal vote is to be sought at a later date, according to a letter from the chairman of the Electoral Commission, Mr Sam Younger, it would be possible. I have discussed this issue with him in some detail. He says:

In reality, individual voter registration, with the requirement for a signature and a date of birth, should become compulsory requirements to be included on the electoral register within the next few years. After careful consideration, I am not therefore attracted to the idea of piloting this requirement. It is a very unsatisfactory process. The idea of different authorities picking and choosing different ground rules for the conduct of elections in such very controversial areas is simply not a good way forward. The process of analysing such pilots and the need to legislate based on them is another most unsatisfactory point. The Government's overruling of the Electoral
 
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Commission and the views of every other party on the postal voting experiment in 2004 still leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of quite a number of us.

The issue of personal identifiers has been considered carefully by the Electoral Reform Society. It says that,

I agree with that. The case for needing some basic security against the potential of postal vote fraud and the need to demonstrate that we have acted to safeguard the integrity of the ballot process is such that we should not be piloting the minimum safeguards required. If there is a case for piloting anything, and where I have a genuine dilemma, it is in relation to household forms requiring individual signatures as necessary—or simply having individual forms. A powerful case is made on behalf of many of the leading groups representing disabled people that we should simply go straight to individual voter registration. There is, therefore, something to be said for piloting the forms of registration but not the principle of what I believe is a minimal check against fraud.

Finally, another issue which is relevant to the Bill, but which has not been considered so far, concerns constituency election expense limits and trying to get back to the principle that huge financial advantage should not enable one to buy particular constituencies. For anyone unaware of how the parties are changing their practices on spending in individual constituencies, I would recommend the closing chapters of the book by the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, Dirty Politics, Dirty Times, which was part of my Christmas reading. What a sad life some of us lead. I believe that the Government have a worthy aim in suggesting new rules to cap local spending over a four-month period before polling day. This is based on the worthy aim of restoring the essential principles established by the Representation of the People Act 1883 that there should be a constituency spending limit. It was, I believe, an inadvertent consequence of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 that candidates became able to spend unlimited sums in support of their campaign provided that they did so before the dissolution of Parliament. The four-month period may prove problematic for general elections, as we have not yet had the good sense in this country to legislate for fixed-term parliaments. However, it has probably become necessary, and if we have not got fixed-term parliaments within the next five years or so, I expect that we will return to this issue and possibly propose a 12-month period to deal with it.

However, the proposal in the Bill fails to address a much larger part of the problem. The distinction between national and local spending has become blurred in recent elections. Letters addressed to individual voters from party leaders are no longer generally treated as constituency expenditure provided that they do not mention the name of the constituency. In the last general election campaign that meant, for example, that my friend Sue Younger-Ross received no fewer than four letters from Mr Michael Howard
 
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urging her to make her husband, the Liberal Democrat MP for Teignbridge, redundant by voting Conservative. The technique was not effective—perhaps the targeting was not very good—as his majority increased tenfold. But it is not right that not a penny of the cost of those letters from a party leader—four to one individual—appeared against the constituency election expense limit, while a letter from Richard to his wife—admittedly not a very romantic one—saying "Please vote for me again" would have counted against the constituency election expense limit. We have also seen expensive targeting of poster boards to particular constituencies, as opposed to national coverage in previous elections spread across all constituencies.

So, in conclusion, I ask the Government to consider seriously how this issue can be properly addressed. If we are to improve the health of our democracy, we must do more about this problem. More fundamental issues remain to be considered about the health of our democracy, but the Bill offers a welcome way forward to address some of the problems.

5.52 pm


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