Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

In the literature on this subject, there has been much citation of the Northern Ireland experience, which it seems has been a success. There are two things to note. First, when the system first came in, there was an immediate fall of some 11 per cent in the number of registrations. Secondly, there was a requirement to register annually, which echoes the bit of paper that comes round with the rating list every autumn, giving the householder an opportunity to say who in the house is a voter. However, that was found to be unworkable because people became fed up with having to register annually. They asked, “Why have I got to do this every year?”, and so that was dropped. Therefore, one of the benefits of the household system—the regularity—was lost.

18 Mar 2009 : Column 259

The other point of interest is the general perception of the public. A survey—the BMRB research report—has recently been carried out for the current Committee on Standards in Public Life. I refer, without having it in front of me, to point 6.2 on page 63 of that report. Although quite a big majority of the people who answered the questionnaire—something like 70 or 80 per cent—said that they would favour a system of individual registration, they also said that it was likely that the number of registered voters would decline. That poses a real question, which has to be investigated.

I believe that the effect of introducing the system here and how it would work are matters for evidence. We are not Northern Ireland; we have a different community and a different make-up. Would individual registration work in an acceptable way in all sections of the community in this country? That is a serious question, which needs to be thought about. Would all men and women register their names? Would that be in accordance with custom and ethics and so on? We cannot just take it for granted that the experience in Northern Ireland would apply throughout England.

The other important question on which we require evidence is: what would it cost to set up this system? We have heard talk of bureaucracy. Will it involve a fair amount of bureaucracy and place burdens on local authorities? There was some mention of that at the meeting with the Electoral Commission that I attended the other day in this House; it was considered to need further thought. Therefore, I am saying that this is a serious matter and we need to have a proper debate about it. I suppose that it is impossible to reopen the Second Reading debate, but the clauses need to be considered very seriously in this House.

My next point concerns what I call the insecurity of the postal system. I refer to the 11th report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has nothing to do with me—it was produced years after I left. The report came out at the beginning of 2007 and is called Review of the Electoral Commission. Chapter 5 has the heading, “Integrity of the Electoral Process”. The committee was worried about the effect of the postal voting that had taken place. I shall read out one or two brief excerpts from page 79 of the report:

“The introduction of postal voting on demand without the need to present a reason for the application, has demonstrated the vulnerability of any trust-based electoral process”.

The report goes on:

“While it is clearly imperative for as many eligible individuals as possible to participate in the democratic process, we can no longer base our electoral system on trust alone if we wish to protect the integrity”,

of that system. Paragraph 5.8 states that,

A worrying feature that has accompanied postal voting is a change in public perception. In some areas of the country, fewer than 50 per cent of people thought that the system was safe. The report gives examples in table 5.1 on page 81 of some of the offences that have taken place between 2001 and 2006. There is no time to go into them all, but I shall cite some of them. In Hackney, there were hundreds of forged postal and proxy votes. In Havant in 2000, there were 22 forged

18 Mar 2009 : Column 260

postal votes. In local elections in 2004, there was a large postal fraud in Oldham and 43 postal votes were tampered with in Stoke-on-Trent. As I said, the report gives various examples.

People who write on this theme are concerned about fraud. I have the executive summary of a report that was commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and came out last year, which also refers to this worry. It states that,

It goes on to refer to the Birmingham case and to other evidence of rigging and quotes the 2008 Council of Europe report, which has already been mentioned this afternoon. That report states:

“It does not take an experienced election observer, or election fraudster, to see that the combination of the household registration system without personal identifiers and the postal vote on demand arrangements make the election system in Great Britain very vulnerable to electoral fraud”.

That was the pretty pungent criticism of three visitors from the Council of Europe who examined our system and thought that we had opened the way to fraud. It is a pity that no thought has been given to that in the Bill. It is one of its omissions.

On a different point, the Bill provides that there should be four nominated commissioners. The scheme as regards one, two and three is easy to see—each of the three major parties will nominate a commissioner. There is then room for another, as statutory provision says that there should be four commissioners. However, proposed new Section 3A is pretty woolly and hazy on who the fourth individual will be. It looks as if there might be a contest between various small parties that have managed to get two Members of Parliament elected. They might have a tussle on who gets the fourth place.

Is this really worth doing? On the Committee on Standards in Public Life, we had, as I said, a member of each of the three major parties. They acted in an entirely neutral way and not as representatives of their parties in the slightest, but each of the three brought their experience of politics. We always knew that, when somebody started talking nonsense, somebody else would say, for example, “It doesn’t work like that in the House of Commons”. We had the balance of that from three people and I raise the question of whether we need a fourth.

My next point refers to the increase in the figures: £200 going up to £500, £1,000 up to £1,500 and £5,000 up to £7,500. That is not really what the Electoral Commission wanted. It certainly does not like the look of £500, although maybe it was open to an increase in the £200.

Lord Bach: My Lords, it is time for a mea culpa, because I was wrong and I want to apologise to the House, so I should do so at this stage. The Electoral Commission did not recommend the increase as I thought it had. The decision to raise the amount was taken by the Government—I can justify it at a later stage if I have to. The Electoral Commission did not suggest it and I was wrong to say that it did.

18 Mar 2009 : Column 261

Lord Neill of Bladen: My Lords, I thank the Minister for putting that right. I was not quite sure whether it would accept some increase, but my position is that I do not think that any of these figures should be increased. There is no justification for it. We talk about this leading to bureaucracy, but I do not see why it causes more bureaucracy to enter a small figure than to enter a large figure, and I do not think that it gives the public the right feeling in days when those with money are regarded with some suspicion.

I shall put down my position on a point that has been touched on today: public funding. In the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s fifth report, we went into public funding. At that stage, the Labour Party put in a written submission opposing it. One of its arguments was that public funding was not something that we ought to be looking at in times of financial stringency. Talk about financial stringency! Turn over a few pages of the scrapbook and get to 2009, and that is exactly what Mr Jack Straw said the other day in another place. He said that the public would not look with a kindly eye on public funding for Members of Parliament. That is completely correct, I think. If the issue comes up, we will probably have a debate about it when an amendment is moved.

The final thing that I want to mention is a hobby-horse of mine. The Bill refers to civil sanctions to be given to the Electoral Commission. In substance, they are not civil at all, but completely criminal. They are fines imposed for committing an offence. They are a fixed monetary penalty, a variable monetary penalty and a non-compliance penalty, as set out on page 37. The standard of proof is the criminal standard—it must be beyond reasonable doubt—and what is being alleged is the commission of an offence. They are really criminal in nature. That is all that I have to say.

5.22 pm

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, in welcoming the Bill, I must declare an interest as chair of the HS Chapman Society, an organisation that brings together from all parties high-level experts on election procedures, regulations and practices to examine and make proposals to maintain the integrity of all aspects of our electoral process. I welcome the Bill because it puts right many of the weaknesses and omissions of the 2000 Act. I have suggested the need for an Electoral Commission since 1991, after listening to the views of the Association of Electoral Administrators, which believed that many aspects of the electoral process at that time were insufficiently rigorous and in many cases little more than ad hoc. The establishment of the Electoral Commission was a milestone, but its remit in the 2000 Act was too wide and lacked sufficient regulatory control.

Last year, the HS Chapman Society held a seminar to consider the recommendations on the future role of the Electoral Commission proposed in the Eleventh Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and to hear the response of the Electoral Commission. That report stated:

“An effective Electoral Commission is a necessary and vital part of the modern institutional architecture. Its core duties should be as a regulator to ensure integrity and public confidence in the electoral process and in the framework that governs the political party funding and campaign expenditure”.

18 Mar 2009 : Column 262

I believe that the regulatory proposals in Clause 1, based as they are on those principles, will enable the Electoral Commission to be a proactive regulator of party funding with stronger control over electoral administration. However, this has to be accompanied by full implementation of the sanctions outlined in the Bill, which I believe will be adequate when we get the proposed amendments that will recast the current criminal offences into ones based on compliance models and fines.

The 2000 Act placed too great a burden on political parties and particularly on voluntary treasurers. The sanctions proposed will ease that burden by enabling the Electoral Commission to respond to breaches in a more proportionate and flexible way. Offences will be those committed without reasonable excuse, while those who have honestly made a mistake in reporting incomplete donation returns will be treated fairly. The training by the Electoral Commission of treasurers on compliance with the law should also ease that position.

The original writing of the Bill went too far in allowing the Electoral Commission to have powers to search donors’ premises. The provisions finally arrived at will protect both the donor and the commission by making it the decision of a judge, based on a reasoned request from the commission, that any relevant document should be released, and only on further refusal would the police be able to carry out a search. This gives the donor every reasonable opportunity to comply.

I come now to what was previously a controversial subject when we discussed the 2000 Act: allowing some commissioners to have direct political experience, as in Clauses 4 and 5. As noble Lords will recall, in the debate on the 2000 Act all sides of your Lordships’ House felt that it was wrong for there to be no direct political experience on the commission. As the Lord Chancellor said in the other place when introducing the Bill:

“With hindsight ... that was an error”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/08; col. 46.]

It will be of immense value to the commission to have four commissioners directly nominated by, but not representative of, the political parties in the Commons. It is important that the Speaker’s Committee, which will confirm the appointments, ensures that there is absolute transparency in the making of those appointments, not least in how the fourth commissioner from the qualifying small parties will be determined.

The reduction of the restriction on involvement in political activity from 10 years to five years for all commissioners will provide a layer of experience that has been missing. The same principle applies in respect of the staff by reducing the current prohibition on employment from 10 years to one year, except for the post of chief executive, which is reduced to five years. In no way am I suggesting that the staff cannot be impartial, but I understand the desire of the commission for some flexibility so that, if necessary, it can apply to the Speaker’s Committee for the five-year ban to be applied also to a small number of other posts, particularly to someone who might be acting on behalf of the chief executive.

I fully appreciate how difficult it has been to arrive at the necessary consensus on candidate spending limits but, without doubt, it was an unintended

18 Mar 2009 : Column 263

consequence of the 2000 Act that, in seeking to establish a clear definition of when someone has become a candidate, it seriously weakened controls on candidate spending. This has caused a dramatic increase in targeted spending by candidates. As outlined by my noble friend, Clause 14 removes the original triggering proposals from the Bill and replaces them with new controls on candidate spending at those Westminster parliamentary elections held more than 55 months after a Parliament first met. That is four and a half years, and I have some questions about that period. The proposal has the benefit of clearly defining when time controls will be in place.

I have been advocating since I was a party official that we ought to have fixed-term Parliaments, but this is not the Bill to deal with that position. However, I have some concern about the situation for shorter-term Parliaments. Having looked at the detailed explanation of the candidate spending amendment, I urge that the Electoral Commission, in its guidance to parties, spells it out in simple terms, with clear examples for each of the different outcomes depending on when an election is held. I found it more than a little complicated and felt that I ought to sit down with a pencil and paper and work it out. I am sure that voluntary party members will feel the same. It is important that it is spelt out clearly.

The new average limit of £30,000 per seat seems sensible. When I first became an agent we thought £2,500 was an enormous amount to spend. I therefore find £30,000 difficult to imagine, but I am sure it is right.

As my noble friend said, the increased reporting thresholds for donations should alleviate the compliance burden on political parties, which we also have to take into account. Importantly, the Bill clarifies the position on unincorporated associations and will increase the transparency surrounding large political donations. This will close the loophole which has allowed a breach of the principles of the 2000 Act and which currently allows wealthy donors to make anonymous donations to political parties above the amount which has to be reported. Actions like those also cause concern among the public, while we have to look seriously at the issue of foreign donations; I look forward to seeing whether that comes up in Committee. Having read Clause 10, about the compliance officers, I have one query for my noble friend. Could he clarify a little better exactly who can and should be a compliance officer, and what their particular role would be?

I turn to an important part of the Bill, which others in your Lordships’ House have raised although it is not quite in the Bill yet. It is the question of individual registration. For far too long, there has been a democratic deficit arising from the 3 million eligible people who, because they are not registered, are not able to vote in this country. Ninety-one per cent registration is not acceptable. On polling day we are, all too often, confronted by people who want to vote, then discover that they have not registered and so cannot. It is such a simple thing; “No registration, no vote” should really be the sign that goes on all of our posters.

The Electoral Commission, as has been said, has long argued the case for individual registration to replace household registration, as has my own

18 Mar 2009 : Column 264

organisation, the HS Chapman Society. It is good news, then, that the Government are to produce an amendment for this House to discuss bringing in a scheme for individual registration. We will have to consider carefully the points within that amendment and look at it in some detail, but I support the Government in this; it is better to have it later than never. I am really glad that the Government have now come around to that thinking, but I appreciate why they had reservations that individual registration might result in a drop in the registration level, as in Northern Ireland. The process has to be rigorous enough to make sure that does not happen, which is why the timescale of allowing that work to go on until 2015 is absolutely right.

The integrity of the register is paramount and must be comprehensive and accurate, which means that electoral registration officers have to make special and increased efforts but have to be provided with the right tools and resources to make it happen. The Minister, Michael Wills, indicated that he would be coming forward with proposals to provide the extra resources needed. Experience has shown that money, unless ring-fenced for its intended purpose, is likely to be lost in other local government expenditure. The money has to be spent for the purpose for which it was allocated, but account must be taken there of the additional dimension of asking for personal information identifiers—such as date of birth or national insurance number—as well as a signature. The public will almost certainly want reassurance when providing that information. Equally, provision has to be made for reaching people living in multi-occupancy accommodation, those with literacy problems and other hard-to-reach groups. The decision to allow two-tier local government, as well as one-tier, to receive relevant data from other sources will greatly assist, but must clearly be done in compliance with the Data Protection Act 1998.

I appreciate that the Electoral Commission’s monitoring of current standards and expenditure on registration by local authorities will give an assessment of performance variability throughout the country; those details will, I believe, be available shortly. That information should be the basis for starting the planning process towards individual registration. As my noble friend said, equally important will be the judgment of the Electoral Commission in determining whether sufficient time has been given to allow full implementation of the scheme or whether a further period, perhaps two years, is required.

The introduction of individual registration is a major breakthrough and should provide greater protection against electoral fraud while enhancing the legitimacy of the electoral process and the integrity of the ballot. Whether it is in the provision and expenditure of funds or the validity of our election, our electoral procedures—as the noble Lord, Lord Bates, said—need the proposals in this Bill. I will fully support its progress through your Lordships’ House.

5.34 pm

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: My Lords, I support the points that the noble Baroness has just made about the burden on local parties, particularly the treasurers,

18 Mar 2009 : Column 265

that was implied in the 2000 Act and was originally going to be increased in the current Act. I welcome the Government’s pull-back with the restriction of investigatory powers, which will be an important aspect in encouraging local people to serve as officers of their local parties. All too often, as many of us know, it is not a question of who is going to carry out these roles but how we will get anybody to do it at all. We want to find ways of encouraging them. In Committee, we will need to explore whether the changes the Government made achieve what it says on the tin.

Since this is a Second Reading debate, I shall step back from the detail and look at two issues which I describe as the elephants in the room. The first is the maintenance of public confidence in how our elections are run; the second is the maintenance of public confidence in the way in which our political parties are financed. If we get those two building blocks right, most other issues fall into place. Several noble Lords have remarked on the evidence of declining electoral confidence on both counts and the consequent dangers to the fabric of our democracy. That will be even more important at a time of considerable economic stress such as we are apparently going to have. People are at work; they are impoverished; it is more than ever important that they feel that their democracy represents their views and aspirations as a means of avoiding other and much less attractive ways of expressing them. Some people have said that this is primarily an issue for the other place, but I do not think it is any more, if it ever was. The waves of cynicism and disbelief are beginning to lap against the foundations of your Lordships' House as well.

On how elections are run, the Government’s response to the decline in electoral turnout was to make it easier to vote, hence the introduction of pretty wholesale postal voting. But any dispassionate observer would have said that that was an experiment doomed to failure. Those of us who have fought general elections will recall travelling up and down streets on election night, asking people to vote. The person says that when they have finished washing the car or mowing the lawn or when their television programme comes to an end, they will go and vote. You say, “For goodness’ sake, go and vote—for me, preferably—but above all, go and vote”. Even so, you have a pretty clear idea that they are not going to.

Postal voting will not change that aspect of behaviour; rather the reverse, in my view, because the easier it becomes to vote the less people value it. There may be some argument for saying that voting should require at least some effort on the part of our fellow citizens in order to participate in our democracy. It happens, after all, only once every four or five years, and of course one should provide safeguards for the old, the infirm and the ill. However, as my noble friend on the Front Bench pointed out, it was worse than this because the cases of electoral fraud undermined confidence in the whole process, and participation decreased rather than increased.

I was extremely disappointed that there was nothing about this in the original Bill, but I welcome the Government’s Damascene conversion on 2 March. God loves a sinner who repenteth. We have a very

18 Mar 2009 : Column 266

interesting set of proposals to consider. Of course we shall need to look at them in detail. If I heard him aright, the noble Lord, Lord Neill, set a few torpedoes running about the nature of them, which may well yet take those provisions amidships. I congratulate the Government on the Bill; certainly there is a cheer for having got that first part of the task in hand.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page