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Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, this has been a highly informative debate into the very basis of our democracy. As my noble friend Lady Hanham mentioned, we welcome measures to tackle electoral fraud. But although the Bill creates new offences to prosecute fraud, that is not the same as acting to stop the scope for fraud in the first place, and fraud has emerged as a major talking point of public concern in the past eight years.

It is a cause of great sadness to me and, I am sure, to many others that constant messing around and tinkering with the voting system has undermined public confidence in what was the most respected and honest democracy in the world. Time and again, we hear Ministers pontificating about modernising Britain and parroting the cry of constitutional reform, but this is one area where, far from modernising, we seem to have gone backwards. Not for more than a century has the credibility of the electoral system taken such a severe knock among a large section of the electorate.

Where once we had simple voting procedures, the Government have complicated them, sometimes running three different voting systems together at the same election to the bafflement of voters. They have failed to maintain barriers to fraud, ploughing on with experiments here and pilots there, many of which have crashed ignominiously to the ground. As my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville reminded us, no one in this House will ever forget the stand that your Lordships made on the question of all-postal ballots and the banning of voting in secret in a ballot box at a traditional polling station. Five times your Lordships tried to defend the secret ballot and five times the Government overrode this House to impose an experiment that ended in predictable chaos and confusion. Events proved this House right and the
 
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Deputy Prime Minister wrong. How disappointing it is then to find in the Bill no retreat from that foolish and misguided position.

In winding up, can the Minister give an assurance that all-postal ballots will not be used again this country? Can she give an assurance that there will be no fiddling with election dates? Will she fully and finally rule out any idea that local elections in 2007 or 2008 might be delayed, or even dropped, as was recently reported? If not, we will certainly need to table amendments to address that question in Committee.

It is paramount in any democracy that people should believe that the electoral system is fair, acceptable and not subject to fraud. The Bill makes a number of proposals to prevent such things happening again. While we welcome measures to tackle fraud, this Bill could have gone a little further in allaying fears.

Perhaps it would be useful if I summed up our principal objections: the lack of tried and tested individual registration with national insurance numbers, as used so effectively to cut fraud in Northern Ireland; the continuing use of all-postal voting, despite many calls to scrap it; the ongoing lack of parliamentary scrutiny of pilot schemes, allowing the Government to fiddle with the electoral system at whim; the reduction in the threshold for forfeiting deposits in parliamentary elections to 2 per cent, which will boost extremist parties like the BNP in obtaining freepost mailings and broadcasts; the lack of provision to boost service and overseas voting; allowing independent candidates the freedom to decide any ballot paper description, but limiting registered political parties to just five permitted descriptions.

However, notwithstanding, we support a number of provisions: anonymous registration, for those whose personal safety is genuinely at risk, such as those fleeing domestic violence; requiring voters to sign before receiving a ballot paper at a polling station; providing marked registers for postal votes; lowering the candidacy age to 18, to be consistent with the voting age; allowing candidates to pay their deposits by credit or debit card.

The Government have already introduced two major changes to the electoral system, and this Bill will bring a third. The first was the introduction of rolling registration which, as far as we can tell, has gone reasonably well—although people have said that it may enable bogus voters to stay on the register indefinitely. The second was the relaxation of access to postal voting, which this House, led by my noble friend Lady Hanham, repeatedly warned against and which subsequently turned into a disaster. The third major change is registration, a major part of the Bill, with the switch from household to individual registration.

It is important that the Government clearly want one thing—a halfway house—while the Electoral Commission wants another: it wants the Bill to go the whole hog right from the start. I have the impression that the Government are dragging their feet on the
 
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Electoral Commission's original proposals. I am sceptical that the integrity of the electoral system will be seen to improve much with the Government's halfway house. The Electoral Commission wants a truly individual registration system. It believes that such a system is now a vital part of restoring credibility in the system, after the postal voting farrago. The Electoral Commission makes that clear in its briefing letter:

Clause 14 makes provision for the Government to introduce pilots for personal identifiers to be collected during electoral registration; namely, a person's signature and date of birth. The Government have ruled out introducing the tried and tested system of individual registration used in Northern Ireland. We share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, on Clauses 15 to 17, but maybe for different reasons. The Government's proposals for the adoption of a few local authority pilot schemes is wholly insufficient. There is no need for pilots, given that Northern Ireland has trialled the systems extensively over a number of years.

We want the Northern Ireland scheme to be introduced in Great Britain. We believe that that is essential to ensure an accurate electoral register and curtail postal vote fraud. As Conservatives, we also believe that individual registration should be backed up by requiring proof of citizenship for non-UK voters, such as their passport, if they do not have a national insurance number. That reflects the fact that the electoral franchise is restricted for overseas citizens living in the UK.

We have had an experiment with postal voting. It went wrong and, to patch it up, we are about to embark on another experiment, with the Electoral Commission pulling one way and the Government another. Why do we need to take such risks with something as important as the credibility of the electoral system, which was working reasonably well before the reforms began?

We tend to hear quite a lot about how voter participation is in sharp decline; fears of voter apathy; and, as a consequence, of great dangers to democracy, and the like. Of course our system may have its imperfections but, as I have already intimated, the greater risk may lie with half-baked changes that further erode the electorate's confidence in the system. We must accept that no amount of meddling with the electoral system will dramatically increase turnout. That will come about only when the electorate goes into an election very uncertain of the result.

When the outcome was unclear and two parties were arguing vigorously with very different policy stances, we had one of the highest turnouts ever seen in this country. That was as recently as 1992. I do not think that the country has suddenly gone into a paroxysm of apathy since then. The case is greatly overstated that voter apathy and problems of participation have increased massively. Wherever the Government have introduced such proposals—whenever they have
 
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travelled down the road of electoral reform—we seem to be given further evidence of the law of unintended consequences. I fear that the Bill will be more of the same.

The Electoral Commission and the Government are full of grand schemes and noble projects, many of them costly, to improve voter registration and participation. I wonder whether we would not now do better just to stick to basics. For example, let us take fewer risks with postal voting. We have made quite a mess of it in the past few years; we now need to avoid further mistakes that could further erode the credibility of our electoral system.

As many noble Lords have shown, there is much to discuss in Committee and on Report but, as always, we on these Benches will attempt to improve the Bill as it passes through your Lordships' House.

6.03 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to an interesting collection, if I may describe it as such, of speeches on Second Reading. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that my ambition, rather than to leave scars in the Bill is to leave deep impressions. I suppose that I sit somewhere between the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, in his fear and concern about it being discussed not in Committee on the Floor of the House, and the passion and desire of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who cannot wait to see it in Grand Committee.

I am in the middle between those two. From my experience as a Minister in Grand Committee, I have found that that enables us to get to the heart of discussion. Because we do not vote, the quality of debate can sometimes be enhanced. From the government perspective, that enables us to have real discussion and to come back with solid proposals where that is appropriate. So I, for one, would argue that that enables us to have a better quality of debate and I am glad that, with the support of the House, the Bill may go into Grand Committee.

I also want to approach the Bill with as much cross-party support and camaraderie as I possibly can. One thing that is so important when we debate anything to do with our electoral system is to ensure that we inspire confidence in the nation that we, as parliamentarians of either House, recognise the critical importance of the issues before us. That is best done when we have our detailed discussions and debates and, yes, disagree, but do so in your Lordships' House rather perhaps than outside it. I very much look forward to that. I am also interested to know what names will emerge during the Bill's passage that only our mums seem to have called us. My mum used to call me Kate, as a matter of interest, so I would have had a very different name on my form if I had ever stood for any election, which, I have to confess, I never have.

I shall seek, in my winding-up speech, to address as many of the points that have been made as I can—always with the proviso that any I fail to address I will
 
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respond to in correspondence. I start with the three points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, which she asked me to confirm. She asked me whether I was prepared to rule out all-postal voting in the future. Obviously I would do so in the 2006 elections, but I shall not rule it out for ever in all circumstances. I cannot think of any circumstances at the moment, but it would be wrong to rule it out always and for ever. I recognise the history that has evolved around it, but I do not think that we should rule it out for ever.

On changing the dates of elections, we do not like to change them. Holding local and European elections together, for example, has increased turnout in both, and we need to think about that in the future. There are no plans not to hold elections in 2007. Press reports have been entirely speculative, and nothing else. I hope that that will be helpful.

On the threshold for deposits being lowered to 2 per cent and on independent candidates being allowed to use a description, both were removed from the Bill in another place. It was clear that there was widespread opposition to lowering the threshold for deposits, so it remains at 5 per cent. I hope that that is helpful to the noble Baroness.

I begin by talking about CORE, as we shall come to call it and love it. As noble Lords will know from what my noble and learned friend said and from the background to the Bill, the principal aim of CORE is to provide national access to the information that is currently in over 400 locally held electoral registers. I think this will be very important to statutory users of this information—registration officers, the Electoral Commission and, of course, political parties. It may be able to offer additional benefits in the future, including for individual voters, but it is not proposed—the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, made the important point about data protection, and I declare my interest as the Minister responsible for data protection issues—that normal members of the public or anyone else not specifically authorised should be able to access details on any individual.

Detailed provision on what version of the registers may be provided and to whom and for what purpose are set out, as noble Lords will know, in the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001. The schemes that we are proposing will not detract in any way from the right of objection to the disclosure of information held under such schemes for commercial marketing purposes. It is critical that the infrastructure that supports CORE will be vigorously tested to ensure that it meets the security requirements appropriate for such information. I am sure that we will debate this as we take the Bill through further stages in your Lordships' House.

It is also important to realise that CORE will simply mirror the information that is already held on local registers principally, as I have said, for the use of large-scale users such as political parties and the Electoral Commission. So any registered person appears on CORE, but the existing ability to opt out of the register that is available for sale, will of course remain. It is not
 
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a case of signing up to CORE; it will simply mirror those registers. Such a person will be able to sign up to change their details online if they so wish—a mechanism similar to the one used for Internet banking, for those who are familiar with that.

My noble friend Lady Gale talked about the provision of the Welsh language in CORE. These issues will be fully considered in the detailed technical specifications for CORE that will be set out in regulation. Again, it is important to note that CORE is not making any changes to the data collected and held for registration; it is merely a question of by whom and in what manner it will be held. Those issues will be taken on board.

I shall spend most of my winding-up speech on the pilots versus the transitional arrangements. I shall begin with some of the comments that were made about the Electoral Commission. My noble friends Lord Elder and Lord Campbell-Savours talked, in slightly different ways, about what I would describe as political experience, to which my noble friend Lord Elder referred in terms of the Electoral Commission. In particular, further issues were raised about membership of the commission in view of recent political experience. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, raised that, in particular.

As noble Lords will probably know, the Committee on Standards in Public Life will do a general review of the Electoral Commission this year, focusing on overall performance. In addition, the Speakers' Committee will review the efficiency of the Electoral Commission in a more limited, technical sense. I am sure that the comments made during the passage of this legislation will be borne in mind in its approach.

My experience of the Electoral Commission is quite limited. It will no doubt grow during the passage of this Bill. I do not accept that because the commission has a particular viewpoint, it cannot objectively evaluate the pilots. Many institutions and organisations take very strong views, but are capable of looking at the evidence before them. I am quite sure, too, that the way in which we lay out how that will happen will ensure that that is the case. So I do not accept that principle: it is possible to do that.

I have not yet seen the amendments proposed by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours. They are not available, but I look forward to discussing them in Committee and during later stages of the Bill. My noble friend talked about the hostility that the Electoral Commission has to pilots. I met Mr Younger today and I did not sense real hostility to the pilots. He said that he saw transitional arrangements and pilots working side by side. I am not sure that that would be precisely his position. I am sure that when he reads Hansard he will correct me if I have misinterpreted him in any way.

I want to give a view on transitional arrangements versus pilots and to raise a few issues of concern. It is important that we think about that carefully. Anything that will change the system must be looked at in a very clear and precise way. Although I am not
 
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by nature a great fan of piloting initiatives, confidence, and aligned to that, certainty, are important. If a pilot states, "We are going to ask you to do this as a matter of course", we are able to evaluate clearly the consequences of that action. Noble Lords will know that we have only the Northern Ireland experience. I accept that it is probably inappropriate to just translate that across because a whole range of factors will be involved. None the less, it will have resonance to political parties and to Parliament when one looks at what happened.

The difficulty with the transitional arrangements described is that it is an either/or situation. It is very difficult to limit the number of variables with which one is dealing. You obtain a form, which indicates that you can put your signature or not, and give information or not: it does not really matter either way. In my view, it would cause confusion for people trying to deal with the form. From research, clarity for the person being asked to do something is of critical importance in getting the result that you want.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, described himself as an anorak. I join the noble Lord in aspects of that. Perhaps we are a House of anoraks. In this debate, in one sense, we are. We understand and we know what we seek to achieve. But an individual may receive information about voting which may be a new phenomenon to him—there may be no family history of voting or he may live in an area where there is low turnout, and so forth. He may receive something that is less than clear about what he should and should not do. I am not sure that we would get from that the kind of results that we need.

The advantage of piloting is that if, in asking people to do more, we see an effect which we do not want—bearing in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about the balancing act—but it is very specific because it is happening in the pilot area, we can try to correct it in other ways. That might include giving more reassurance to people, redesigning the form, or electoral registration officers and political parties going out to talk to people. We can try to counterbalance negative effects. But if it is an either/or situation, we will never know.

If I receive a form which states that I should fill in my date of birth but I can choose not to, I may choose not to. How would anyone know whether I would have filled it in if it were compulsory? So, reflecting my talks with Mr Younger earlier today, while I would like to believe in the transition arrangements I simply do not think that they will get us anywhere. All they will do is create more confusion. We know that it is important that the form is as clear and concise as possible. Given that I find forms incredibly difficult, I am the first to say, "Give me something that is clear and states: 'I want you to do this and this is why I want you to do it"'. It should not say: "I want you to do this, but you don't have to". That is hopeless and would not work for me.

The results of a positive approach are clear and enable us to think quickly and carefully about what needs to be done if the effect is to lower the number of
 
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those who register and participate. We can do that only against a backdrop of absolute clarity. For those reasons it is important to stick with the pilots, recognising that what noble Lords want to see in Committee is greater clarity on their timetables and our ambitions for them. We are all heading in the same direction here, but are arguing about how we travel. There is no quarrel about the end product, which might be the case with other legislation. I am keen to see this Bill pass out of your Lordships' House so that we can begin to pilot as soon as possible and thus gather answers to some of the questions.

That noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, expressed her concern about the proposals for the pilots that were addressed today. The pilots will not include tests of electronic voting in any form, but will include an extension to the voting period to increase accessibility and encourage participation. We shall test taking ballot boxes into residential homes on polling day, and test electronic counting methods so that we can further refine the systems previously used in order to get them right. Moreover, local authorities have come forward and asked to participate in these tests, on the basis of what they know about their own areas. The pilots are being designed with that in mind, which I hope provides reassurance that we are not moving into other areas such as texting. The noble Baroness referred to the "Big Brother" element in the different kinds of voting systems, but we need to think about how people vote; I do not suggest in any way that we should move in that direction. It is important to ensure that people are inspired to take up their vote. The pilots will be helpful in showing how changes to accessibility may help to achieve that.

My noble friend Lady Gale sought to ensure that the National Assembly for Wales was consulted before any pilots were conducted in Wales. The Assembly is not included as a statutory consultee because both registration and the conduct of local elections in Wales are reserved matters. However, if a Welsh local authority applies, we will engage with the Assembly on the detail of any proposed scheme. I hope that goes some way to addressing her concerns.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, asked when the age of 18 begins. You must be 18 years of age on the day that the nominations are made. The position is the same for all other elections, so everything will be brought into line. The rule will apply for all elections held in the future. At this point I will not engage in the argument on whether the voting age should be 16 or 18. I have a 16 year-old at home, so noble Lords will understand that I have a particular view on it.

The noble Lords, Lord Garden and Lord Brooke, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and others rightly raised the issue of service voters. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, has been terrier-like in making sure that the matter does not go away. I am grateful to him. We are all trying to find the right solution. I noted the noble Lord's words about an order-making power. One or two of those have proved useful of late, but I take the point that it is better to define this. The noble Lord knows that we are engaged on this at the DCA,
 
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and that my noble and learned friend will be talking to his opposite number to ensure that we can reach a shared response. I look forward to discussing the matter with the noble Lord in Committee and I hope that we will find a solution to these well recognised issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, asked about funding and whether the amount was incremental or absolute, what the current position is and how the totals compare. We are trying to work with the electoral administrators to assess the financial implications of the measures in the Bill, particularly on local authorities. We have agreed a transfer of £21.1 million per year for each of the next two financial years to authorities in England and Wales. This will go via the general local government grant and will be entered into the baseline to become ongoing funding beyond 2008. That is all I can say about the issue. That is the approach we have taken and we think it will address the particular needs.

Sticking with money, if I can put it that way, the noble Baronesses, Lady Hanham and Lady Scott, asked about election expenses and the four-month proposal. I sent a message to my officials asking, "Can I say that we are listening?", to which they replied, "Yes, you can". I am aware of the concerns that have been raised today and in the other place. Indeed, I mentioned this to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, when we had a brief conversation. The question is how to maintain transparency and integrity in this area and how to achieve a workable system that does not place undue burdens on party workers. We are very keen to return to this issue at the appropriate moment and I hope noble Lords can see what we are trying to do with the Bill. I would be keen to discuss—both in Committee and outside your Lordships' House—any ideas and proposals that people may have. But that is our workable proposition at the moment, although I am very open to considering other aspects.

I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, about expenditure being recorded at national or local level. Obviously we need to consider that. We want to make sure that expenditure is recorded in the right category—either national party campaign expenditure or candidates' election expenses—but we are very happy to look at that issue, too. I suggest that we should have discussions outside the Committee as well because there is much to talk about and, of course, across the political parties there will be agreement and, possibly, disagreement.

My noble friend Lady Gale asked about deposits paid by credit or debit cards, and whether agents could pay instead if constituency parties did not have cards. The answer is yes; that is not a problem. We are trying to clarify that you can use credit or debit cards because the current legal status is not clear. It is not compulsory—people can do other things—but we have to make it clear that we actually allow them to do that.

As to the question of candidates being accompanied by a person of their choosing even though not a spouse or a civil partner, we are very open to considering
 
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proposals in this area. The law at present has a discretion for returning officers to allow others to attend the count, but it is true that the Bill removes the discretion as part of the new poll arrangements relating to observers. We are considering suggestions raised in another place to modify the proposals regarding observers and it is quite possible that we could consider the change suggested by my noble friend if it is appropriate. Again, I shall be happy to receive the views of other noble Lords who will be participating in the Committee on how we should approach the matter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, thought that the Electoral Commission was going overboard and demanding too much detail on election expenses returns. As she will see, Clause 30 gives the Electoral Commission greater flexibility in prescribing the form which candidates will use for their submissions. The current procedures seem to be complex and confusing. We want to ensure that candidates more readily understand what the requirements are when submitting election expenses returns, and it is to be hoped that this will reduce the risk of error in completing the form. We believe that it should be comprehensive and clear but not place an undue burden on candidates and agents.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, raised a point in which he has a great interest—policy development grants. During our presidency I spent quite a lot of time with his colleagues in the European Parliament. As he rightly pointed out, in its report of 2004 the Electoral Commission referred to extending policy development grants. I have a sense of déjà vu because I am sure I have read this out before in another debate at another time. As the noble Lord said, parties with two or more Members in the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly would be eligible. It was recommended that a further £1 million should be allocated to the scheme, making a pot of £3 million, and each of the six new parties should then receive a basic £125,000.

My department has looked at and taken soundings on this recommendation, and has the scheme under active consideration. "Active consideration" can be interpreted as your Lordships wish and I am happy to discuss that with the noble Lord outside the Chamber. Quite a bit more work needs to be done to make these proposals workable, but I am happy to continue that dialogue, because I know that he attaches great importance to them, for obvious reasons.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his anorak speech, as it will now become known, raised fundamental issues about turnout, the role of government, parties and candidates. It is really important that government—by which I also mean Parliament in this context—makes sure that people understand the importance of the democratic system. The citizenship programme in schools is an example of how people can begin to understand how lucky we are to live under a democratic system. We know of
 
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countries all over the world where democracy has arrived. For me, the pictures from South Africa of the long procession of black people waiting in the blazing sun to vote—something which we take for granted—for the first time will always be one of the most poignant symbols of democracy. Governments, whoever they are, must continually remind people that they have a choice: they can kick us out and should exercise that choice if that is what they want.

It is also critical to find opportunities to talk about the relevance of politics to people's lives. People sometimes say that politics is irrelevant; it is not. It is about everything that we do and the way in which we live our lives. It is also important that we make sure that people have the means to register, vote and express what they think. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, if people choose not to vote, that is fine, but let it be a choice, not because they do not know how to or have not had the information. I accept that candidates have a big part to play—they must sell their policies and themselves in a sense to put across their ideas to the electorate. They should not, however, replace the Government's role in explaining to people the democratic value and importance of voting.

I hope that I have answered some, if not all, of the points raised. I was going to say that I very much look forward to piloting the Bill, but that is probably a bad thing to say. We have tried to make it clear that the Bill is fundamentally about three different things: access to voting, participation and security. All those are essential for the health and legitimacy of our democracy—they are not options. I very much look forward to discussing the issue in future.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.


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