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Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I was disappointed by his response. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Brooke for his combination of support and history lessonit was important to show the antecedents to these mattersand to my noble friend Lord Bates. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, can be tempted out of his shell with a little assurance on the financial and fiscal tax aspects. I will obviously recap what the Minister said. For those who think that 15 to 20 years is long enough for people who retire abroad, an eminent
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Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: The amendment is prompted by a particular electoral circumstance. It is not intended as an aspersion on Northern Ireland practice. It is prompted by a circumstance and intended to be proof against it. It is a fact of historical political experience both in Ireland and elsewhere that there have been occasionsrare but occasionalin our history when someone elected has changed parties after the election.
My amendment, in which I have neither emotional capital tied up nor any pride in its precise wording, is intended to protect the electoral process from the rare consequences of someone changing sides, under certain rules, although I have no further certainty about the amendments efficacy to achieve that objective. The Minister has been good enough to draw my attention to the problem created under the present wording of the Bill by the decision of not one but two parties to nominate the same candidate in the European parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland. That patently also complicates my amendment. Resolving that other complication must await the Government's announcement of how they will resolve the complication just stated in Clause 19.
Lord Bach: I am grateful for the discussions that I have had with the noble Lord. If he would be good enough to withdraw his amendment, I should like to offer to take it away to consider it. Perhaps I may go a little further and invite him to meet my officials to discuss his amendment in the context of the clause as it stands. That is all I have to say about the amendment today.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: Although Byzantine, I sought also to be brief. I am most grateful to the Minister for the brevity with which he has conveyed the Governments invitation, which I am happy to take up. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
(a) the persons signature or, if the person is someone to whom subsection (2) applies, an indication to that effect;
(b) the persons date of birth;
(c) the persons national insurance number or, if the person has no national insurance number, an indication to that effect.
(a) maintaining registers under section 9 of the 1983 Act,
(b) conducting canvasses under section 10 of that Act, and
(c) determining applications for registration under section 10A or 13A of that Act,
must take steps to obtain identifying information from each person who is, or who claims to be, entitled to be or to remain registered in any of the officers registers.
(a) asking for the information, and
(b) explaining how collecting identifying information can help to improve the accuracy of the registers,
but in taking those steps a registration officer must make clear that it is not obligatory to provide the information.
(7) In this section and sections (Regulations amending or supplementing section (Voluntary provision of identifying information)), (Report by Electoral Commission on provision of identifying information) and (Provision supplementing section (Obligatory provision of identifying information))
Lord Bach: I know that noble Lords will be aware that, during earlier debate on this Bill in another place, my right honourable friend the Minister of State announced that the Government would bring forward amendments in this Committee to facilitate an historic shift in the system of electoral registration in Great Britain. The clauses that have been tabled for debate before this Committee by the Government are an important part of our approach to this issue. I will turn to them in a moment. Before I do so, I would like to briefly place them in context.
As noble Lords will no doubt agree, it is essential that all those who are eligible to vote are registered to do so. Those who are not registered are excluded from the democratic process and denied the right to participate. We must therefore always strive to ensure that the
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The other fundamental principle of electoral registration is accuracy. The register must be as accurate as reasonably possible, which means ensuring that only those who are eligible to vote are included in the register and that none of the information held about registered individuals is false. It is against the backdrop of these twin aims of comprehensiveness and accuracy that the Government have been considering the possibility of a move towards individual registration in Great Britain.
The Government believe that the proper way forward is to combine the implementation of individual registration on a carefully phased timetable with significant new measures to increase registration. The proposed timetable would see the provision of identifiers become compulsory for new registrations not before 2015, prior to which they will be collected on a voluntary basis. I will talk in more detail about the timetable in a moment, but before I do so, I emphasise that the Government intend to take all the steps they can between now and 2015, and beyond, to support the two fundamental principles of electoral registration; namely, comprehensiveness and accuracy.
We already have a number of proposals in train for how we can achieve this. We will pilot enhanced data- matching schemes under Clauses 22 and 23. These schemes will allow electoral registration officers to share data with other public bodies in order to maintain and update their registers. We will introduce secondary legislation to make it easier for electoral registration officers in areas with two tiers of local government to access information held by the higher tier. We are considering how we ensure that opportunities to register are made available to all sections of society. This will be increasingly important as we move towards a system of individual registration. The emphasis will increasingly be placed on individuals to take responsibility to register and vote, rather than putting the onus on a single member of a household, as under the current system.
I now turn to the detail of the proposals set out in the clauses. We need to introduce the change in a way that recognises the fact that this is a radical alteration to registration processes. It is a complex change, which will affect the more than 46 million people currently registered to vote, as well as the significant numbers not currently on the register. It will need to be implemented by more than 400 different EROs, working in different local authorities, in different parts of Great Britain, with different communities.
Lord Campbell-Savours: On that very matter, my noble friend has talked about the vastness and scale of the change. Will he consider the position now in the House of Commons, given that this measure has been introduced in the Lords and, as I understand it, we will technically vote on it when the matter is considered
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Lord Bach: This House will debate this issue, certainly in Committee and, I suspect, on Report. Of course, the House of Commons will debate this issue when the matter returns to it, as it must if these clauses get through. As my noble friend rightly says, these are new clauses introduced in this House. I concede that this is not the usual way of proceeding but, as my noble friend acknowledges, this is an important matter. The Government think this is the appropriate time to introduce these clauses to move towards individual registration, which, if these clauses are passed, will not happen for some years. If we miss this opportunity, individual registrationif that is the right thing to dowill not be in place for many years.
Lord Henley: As regards the point that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has made, I said at Second Reading that it would have been helpful if we had at least seen the amendments in draft at that stage so that we had some idea of what we would be looking at. I think that my honourable friends in another place asked to see them when the Government made the concession at Report, or whenever it was, in the Commons. As I understand our procedures in Grand Committee, we can insert these government amendments onlywe welcome them in partif the entire Grand Committee agrees to them. If there are any objectionsI do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, will object to themthey cannot be included and they would then have to be offered by the Government at Report. Bearing that in mind, and I seek advice from the noble Lord
Lord Bach: I have to interrupt the noble Lord. The Chair has invited me to interrupt him and I must do so because, as I understand it, this is a rule of procedure. He knows that I would not otherwise interrupt his speech. The question has not yet been put from the Chair and this is not the time for debate. If I was more familiar with the procedure, I would not have allowed my noble friend to interrupt me in full flow, let alone the noble Lord, Lord Henley.
Lord Henley: I will now intervene in the noble Lords speech because we are in Committee and the point I was going to make was that we have much greater freedom in Committee to debate in a much less formal manner; for example, by intervening when the Minister is speaking. If this amendment is not inserted in Committee and has to be brought in at Report, will the GovernmentI ask the noble Lord to consider
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Lord Bach: Let us see how the debate goes. Perhaps we can come to a view either later this evening, if the Committee is prepared to sit later, or when we continue the debate on the next occasion we are lucky enough to meet together. For the moment, I would be grateful if I could speak just to the government amendments and then move the first one.
We agree with this analysis. I have already outlined the steps that we have taken, and are taking, to enhance the reach of the register. We can have a register that is both comprehensive and accurate, but we will deliver that only if we frame the process in a way that prepares the public for the transition to a new form of registration and do all that is in our power to ensure that registration rates do not fallor we would have damaged the legitimacy of the electoral process and our democracy. We have brought forward amendments to put in place a statutory timetable for the introduction of individual registration; begin the rollout of measures to prepare both the public and the electoral system for that change; and put in place a series of tests that will be independently assessed by the Electoral Commission itself to ensure that the shift can be made only once the system is ready for it.
I know that there is concern among noble Lords about the timetable for the shift, which we propose should happen not before 2015 at the earliest. Let me address that point. Given the importance of safeguarding the electoral system against fraud, and the vital role that individual registration can play in achieving that, it is clearly understandable that noble Lords would be anxious to see progress made towards that end. However, as I have set out, a significant amount of work needs to be undertaken to ensure that the system is fully equipped to meet the challenges of such a shift. We know from experience in Northern Ireland that there is a real risk that numbers registered could decrease as a result of the move. Under individual registration many people will, of course, for the first time be responsible for their own registration. For all individuals, the requirement to provide additional personal information when registering will be new. We must ensure that the electorate have sufficient time to acclimatise to the new requirements.
The phased approach will enable us carefully to monitor progress at each stage, including using the commissions annual progress reports to better ensure that registration rates can be maintained during the change. It will also allow us to develop and test new measures to drive up registration rates, working closely with registration officers and the commission to determine what works best. The specific timetable set out in the clauses delivers on the phased approach. It has been developed very carefully with due regard to the magnitude of the change and the risks involved. It allows time for the detailed results of the 2011 censuswhich will be available in 2012to feed into any assessments of registration rates. Importantly, it also allows us to minimise any disruption to elections. The collection of personal identifiers will begin only after the next general election, which we know must be held by June 2010 at the latest.
Should the shift to compulsory provision of identifiers take place in 2015, it would take place after both the 2014 European Parliament elections and the spring 2015 elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We cannot, of course, know at this distance the timing of future general elections, but placing the potential change in this timeframe seeks to at least partially manage the risk of making a shift in the period immediately before a national or sub-national election. We regard this change as so important that we want, as far as possible, to investigate all the potential issues fully prior to the provision of identifiers becoming compulsory. The data-matching piloting provisions in the Bill are a key example of this. We intend to use the pilots to establish which public sector databases will be of most assistance to EROs in targeting people to be registered to vote. The alternative approach of rushing to implement without any evidence base would risk wasted investment.
We also need to bear in mind that in Northern Ireland electoral registration has been delivered since the 1960s by a single body; in Great Britain, there are more than 400 registration officers. That has two significant implications. First, we need to ensure that each of those EROs is ready for the shift to individual registration and is performing as effectively as they can to maintain and build the register. Secondly, we need to consider how best to design the infrastructure for the validation of national insurance numbers that will need to underpin the system. For these reasons any attempts to introduce individual registration at a faster rate might risk damaging the integrity of our system. The purpose of this phased programme of implementation is to ensure that we have time to bolster, adapt and improve the current system of registration in readiness for such a fundamental shift in process.
I shall now turn to the detail of the clauses. The new clause introduced by Amendment 125A provides for the voluntary collection of personal identifiersdate of birth, signature and national insurance numberfrom electors alongside the existing process of household registration. It makes it obligatory for electoral registration officers to take steps to obtain this information from 1 July 2010 and sets a minimum level for those steps.
The new clause to be introduced by Amendment 125B contains two sets of order-making powers, which will enable the voluntary provision of identifying information to take place. The first set of order-making powers set out in subsection (1)(a) and (b) of the proposed new clause allow us to amend the identifiers collected, which might become necessary if, for example, technological advances require a different type of identifying information to be used and to make consequential amendments. This power is subject to affirmative resolution and the Electoral Commission must be consulted before it is used. In consulting the commission, the Secretary of State must seek its view on the impact on the register of the changes to identifiers in the event that provision of identifiers were to become compulsory. This is intended to act as a safeguard to ensure that any amendments to the identifying information provided would not impact negatively on underrepresented groups.
The second set of order-making powers, set out in subsections (1)(c) and (2) of the proposed new clause, allow us to make supplementary provision to enable the collection of identifiers on a voluntary basis. It provides for the Secretary of State to make provision for the kinds of forms that could be used to collect identifiers, what those forms should say, how they should be kept, how data matching with the national insurance number database would work, and for the charging of fees for the provision of data. In addition, it allows us to make provision for what steps an ERO should take if he or she suspects that the identifying information provided is false. That is important in terms of enabling the system to tackle fraud. While the intention is that, during this phase, no one will be removed from the register for failing to provide or for providing inaccurate identifiers, we will take powers to set out in regulations the steps EROs must take in the event that false or inaccurate identifier information is provided.
The first set of regulations made under these powers will be subject to affirmative resolution. Subsequent regulations will be made under the negative resolution procedure because it is considered that they will be technical, such as adjustments to forms as we establish what works, and less likely to warrant a full parliamentary debate. Much legislation relating to registration is already made by order under the current system.
The new clause to be introduced by Amendment 125C provides for annual progress reports to be published by the Electoral Commission between the years 2010 and 2013 inclusive. It also provides for the commissions report in 2014, in which it makes a recommendation on the shift to individual registration, subject to the tests I mentioned earlier and the vote by Parliament on whether the shift should be made. The provision of identifiers will not become compulsory before the autumn 2015 annual canvass. This lead-in will give the Electoral Commission time to consider the full weight of evidence on the collection of identifiers to help EROs identify why certain groups might have difficulty providing them and to start addressing those problems ahead of any move to full individual registration. It is very important that those who represent hard-to-reach groups are given the opportunity to contribute to the consideration of the move to individual registration.
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The tests are set out in new subsections (3) and (4) of Amendment 125C. They provide that the annual progress reports undertaken by the commission must contain an assessment of the adequacy of the registration system in meeting the registration objectives and whether any changes are needed ahead of a shift to individual registration. This is essential if we are to build up a clear evidence base on the health of the registration system and its readiness to be subjected to such a significant change.
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