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13 May 2009 : Column GC387

Grand Committee

Wednesday, 13 May 2009.

Political Parties and Elections Bill

Bill Main Page
Copy of the Bill
Explanatory Notes
6th Report from DPC
4th Report from JCHR

Committee (5th Day)

3.45 pm

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Ullswater): If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.

Debate on Amendment 125A resumed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): Before we adjourned last Wednesday, I moved Amendment 125A and spoke to all the amendments in my name in this group.

Lord Henley: I start by expressing my thanks to the Minister for moving his amendment at some length; we are grateful for the comprehensive nature of the explanation that he gave of the amendments. We were also grateful for the explanation that we had from him and his officials the day before of the purpose of the amendments.

Having said that, I will repeat the point that we made on Second Reading and which has also been made by the spokesmen for the Liberal Democrat party; that it would have been helpful if we could have seen the amendments, or at least a draft of them, at a much earlier stage. I understand that the Government had agreed two amendments of this sort on Report in another place, and I think that is now probably two or three months ago. If we could have seen the amendments, or drafts of them, on Second Reading or before, that would have helped. As it is, we will have to spend quite a long time on them on Report, particularly dealing with the concerns that we, and I suspect the Liberal Democrats, have about them. Those concerns largely reflect the question of timing.

The noble Lord has put into his amendments something that is very unusual; a suggestion that the earliest possible date that this can come into effect is 2014, even if the Government, the Electoral Commission and all others in the run-up to that date think that everything is in place and ready to go. If the amendments go through as they are now, we cannot go any earlier than 2014 without amending primary legislation. I give notice that I have a strong suspicion that we will be tabling amendments, which I suspect will be supported by the Liberal Democrats, or the Liberal Democrats will table some similar amendment that will suggest not having a cast-iron date in the Bill but leaving it to such a moment when it is felt by the Electoral Commission and others who have an interest that we are ready to move forward with individual voter registration.

I make it clear to the Minister that we are not happy with the timing, and we will certainly seek an amendment on that. It seems very odd to have in statute a hard and fast rule with a time limit of this sort that binds the

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Electoral Commission and the Government, whomsoever they might be, to stick to that. It looks slightly as if the current Government, for their own particular electoral reasons, find it more convenient to make sure that nothing can happen until 2014 at the earliest.

Lord Campbell-Savours: What does the noble Lord mean by that phrase, “for their own electoral reasons”?

Lord Henley: Well, I would not like to go much further than the particular words that I used. I shall leave it to the noble Lord to interpret what I said. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Government have a desire to ensure that no individual voter registration can happen—obviously, it cannot happen before the next election, which has to happen before May or June next year at the absolute latest. That would imply that the next election after that would be some time in 2015 and would be excluded from this. It might be that the Government for their own reasons—which may be party-political reasons, although I would not like to suggest that—would prefer to put it off until that date.

Lord Campbell-Savours: But the noble Lord has suggested it. He has made an accusation that we wish to defer the measure for electoral considerations. He should spell out exactly what he means, because it brings me to the heart of my case. He should not duck the question that I am asking.

Lord Henley: I am not ducking the question; I am just putting it forward as a supposition to the Committee that that might be the motive behind what the Government are doing. The Government, being very honourable, have said very clearly that the reason why they are doing this is that they want to make it possible to get these provisions ready on time. We are saying that it would be perfectly easy to get them ready beforehand, if the Electoral Commission and others said so; if that was the case, we would move forward at that stage. I do not know what goes on in the Government’s mind and I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, as a Back-Bencher, does not know what goes on in the Government’s collective mind.

Lord Campbell-Savours: Perhaps I could be more blunt. Is the noble Lord suggesting that the Labour Party would be electorally disadvantaged through the introduction of individual registration? Is that what he is suggesting? If he is not suggesting that, what is he suggesting?

Lord Henley: Of course I am not suggesting that. I am suggesting simply that within the minds of certain people within the Labour Party and the Government they might have thoughts of that sort. That is entirely a matter for them; I cannot comment on that. All that I am suggesting is that for some reason the Government want to make it absolutely impossible to bring this into effect before 2015, in effect. We believe that it might be possible for these provisions to be ready before that date. Whether that is the case I do not know.

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Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I hesitate to intervene on this, but it worries me that such an accusation has been made, and my noble friend is right to raise the issue. One could always stand what the noble Lord says on its head and say that the reason why he wants to bring this forward is because he believes that it will be of political advantage to the Conservative Party. One should be just a bit careful about these sorts of comments.

Lord Henley: As I have made clear to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours—and if the noble Baroness looks at my words, she will find that this is the case—I have made no accusation of that sort whatever. All that I have said is that it is very peculiar for the Government to insist on such a hard and fast rule that they write down a date. A word like “2014” does not often appear in statute; it makes it impossible to bring the provision in any earlier. If it is ready to come into effect before that and that is the advice, one should do that. There is nothing wrong with that, if it reduces the amount of electoral fraud. I could go into detail about the amount of electoral fraud that we have seen over the past few years. I could quote from that judge in the Birmingham case, and possibly we will get to that later when we discuss amendments on postal voting; he talked about the fact that what was going on would disgrace a banana republic. I am not going to do that. All that I am saying is that it is very peculiar to find a word such as “2014” in this legislation, when one could say, “at a time when the Electoral Commission thinks it appropriate”.

Lord Campbell-Savours: I am glad that the noble Lord is on his feet, because I want to ask him a question. He mentioned electoral fraud. Does he think that there is electoral fraud in the county of Cumbria, where he and I live? It is a typical rural county in England. Does he think that there is electoral fraud there?

Lord Henley: I am not aware of any electoral fraud in postal voting in the county of Cumbria. I am aware, from criminal cases that have been before the courts and which have affected, I am afraid to say, all three of the main parties represented here, that there has been electoral fraud in various parts of the country as a result of postal voting, with which we are particularly concerned. I am not aware of any in the county of Cumbria, but I will wait to see what criminal cases might or might not emerge from any other part of the country.

Having dealt with the interventions from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, I will say a word or two about Amendments 125BA and 132AA in this group, in the name of myself and my noble friend Lord Bates. They have been tabled to invite the Minister to make a response; in other words, they are probing amendments.

Amendment 125BA deals with our concerns about data protection implications. The introduction of individual voter registration will mean that a lot more personal information is held by the electoral registration officers and shared between both central and local

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governments. Therefore, before such schemes for individual voter registration are established by order, consultation should take place with the Information Commissioner, as well as the Electoral Commission, to ensure that adequate data security procedures are in place and that best practice is followed. We certainly do not want any further examples of large-scale data loss on our hands from local government at a time when we are trying to improve confidence in the electoral register.

Amendment 132AA deals with the fact that there is currently no provision for personal identification at the ballot box. That bit of electoral fraud arising from impersonation has not been dealt with. I appreciate that that is not a major problem. As will be obvious to the Committee from the exchanges between me and my fellow Cumbrian, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, most of the problems with electoral fraud are in relation to postal voting. There have obviously been problems with impersonation in the long distant past but, in the main, postal voting fraud is the principal problem. However, I would be grateful for the Minister’s response on the question of personal identification at the ballot box.

I hope that that is helpful. I look forward to further debates on this matter on Report. No doubt we will hear more from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, both then and later on this amendment. For the moment, however, I leave it at that.

Lord Rennard: I welcome, of course, the thrust of the government amendment to introduce personal identifiers, on the basis that some of us have been arguing for them for a long time. Indeed, they should have been introduced around 2000, when we changed many things, including allowing postal voting to be on demand rather than on the basis of a stated case. Our concerns are now that, although it is coming in better late than never, we would like it to come in sooner if at all possible. On behalf of my noble friend Lord Tyler and myself, I therefore speak to Amendments 125CA and 125CB.

We are concerned that this issue needs to be addressed. It has taken so long to get here since 2000 that it is clear that we should have started earlier. From where we are now, however, it may be possible to make quicker progress. I hope that when the Minister responds to Amendments 125CA and 125CB, he will not simply say that it is not possible. All that these amendments say is that, if it is possible, we would like to consider making more rapid progress. That seems as reasonable and as moderate an amendment as you could possibly table on this issue.

The issue requires some urgency. There have been discussions about the level of electoral fraud in this country. The truth is that nobody really knows what it is. It is not proper to try to assess the level of fraud simply by looking at convictions, because, as we know, most forms of crime in this country do not result in convictions. It is not a reliable approach.

4 pm

If more people knew how easy it was to commit electoral fraud in our system, there would probably be rather more of it. I have certainly come across some

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instances in the past. It is probably not very widespread, but any system that makes it possible easily to cheat and abuse the system must be reformed.

I shall not go on at length about my own experiences, but I recall the electoral abuses of the Militant Tendency in Liverpool, which I fought from the side of the Liberal Party and which I know the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, fought from that of the Labour Party. With all my experience of elections, I could not understand how it was turning out as many votes as it appeared to be doing given the level of its canvass returns—and I like to think that I am quite good at assessing these things. Eventually, I came to the obvious conclusion, confirmed subsequently by those on the Labour Party side who were investigating the tactics of the Militant Tendency, that it could turn out so many votes with such little support because a lot of people were going around the polling stations casting votes on behalf of people who they knew were not voting. It was very easily done. I am not suggesting that it is widespread, but it is so easy to do that we should move as quickly as we reasonably can to try to address it.

With hindsight, those of us who agreed to the extension of postal voting in 2000 probably should not have done so unless we had at the very least a clear and workable timetable for the introduction of the personal identifiers. We now see the whole political system discredited when elections come around, fraud in relation to postal votes and, just occasionally, impersonation at the polling stations.

My amendments suggest that if, in 2014 or any year prior to it, the Electoral Commission deems it appropriate, it should be able to make an assessment as to whether we can make more progress. We know that the issues are accuracy and completeness—that is not in dispute. We are saying simply that the Electoral Commission should be able to assess progress on accuracy and completeness and that the Government should pay due regard to its suggestions.

To go through two more Westminster general elections without a system of personal identifiers would be quite wrong. We may take a long time over it. Returning officers are hard pressed; they say that it is very difficult to collect those data; we may feel there are problems with both accuracy and completeness. But if we are reasonably satisfied on the principal tests of accuracy and completeness in the register—and the independent arbiter of it must be the Electoral Commission—we should make progress on reforming the system and ending the potential for abuse as rapidly as we can.

Lord Campbell-Savours: I might delay the Committee a little today because I want to speak in some detail on this issue, which is one of the problems with the whole legislation. I am totally opposed to the proposals being brought forward by the Government. I am opposed to the principle of national rollout of individual registration at any stage. I previously commented on these issues in Grand Committee on the Electoral Administration Bill on 21 March 2006 at col. 84 of the Official Report, but I shall today further embroider the arguments that I used then.

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I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe is unable to join us today. I am indebted to him for having tried to facilitate a dialogue between me and the department’s officials so that we could perhaps establish some common ground and agree on the statistical information which I want to produce and they may wish to contest. But this is only Committee, and I therefore have an opportunity prior to Report to meet his officials. I am indebted to him; he is one of life’s natural conciliators, as we have all learnt over recent months.

I am totally opposed to national rollout. It is a waste of public money. At a time when local authorities are being required to make economies—as indeed are government departments—and when everyone is being required to tighten their belts, we are throwing money at a problem that is marginal and only exists in certain parts of the country. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, has admitted that it does not exist in our county.

Lord Henley: I only know about one part of one county—a very large county. I do not know for a fact whether there is any electoral fraud in Cumbria or anywhere else. All we know about are the cases where people have been caught, and there have been quite a number, as the noble Lord will be aware. I admit, and the noble Lord will also accept, that this is something that has affected all three parties.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I feel that I must interrupt, because my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours made the point that this was a waste of money over a small issue—

Lord Campbell-Savours: It is a big issue.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: Yes, it is a big issue. I thought we were talking about electoral registration, and it is a big issue to me that 9 per cent of the electorate do not register.

Lord Campbell-Savours: I am not altogether convinced that we will see an increase in registration as a result of this legislation. Indeed, I argue that it will lead to a reduction. If anyone wants to revisit the arguments, they need only refer to the 2005 report of the Electoral Commission, which sets out the groups that would be penalised under a system of national rollout. This information is taken from that report. The five groups are: deprived groups in areas of deprivation, people living in metropolitan areas, unemployed groups, certain housing tenancy groups, and people who live in houses in multiple occupation. I do not want to read out all of the sections in that report that are relevant to electoral registration proposals in the Bill, but for the record, in case there are people who read our proceedings, they should read paragraphs 234, 237, 242, 244, 245, 248, 251 and 254 because the information in that Electoral Commission report points the way forward as to the problems that will inevitably arise if national rollout takes place.

There are another two reports. There is the first report from the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for Session 2004-05 and the special report

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of that committee on the Government’s response to the Northern Ireland Committee’s first report. I shall refer to both those reports. We have to consider what has happened in Northern Ireland, and I want to produce figures that may be of interest to the Committee.

If you take the Committee’s figures identifying the 20 worst local authorities for electoral registration in the United Kingdom in 2004, the worst authority in the country out of 442 was Kensington and Chelsea, which disputes the figures. The second worst, at 441, was Westminster, which also disputes the figures and sent me a letter disputing why the council is at the bottom of the list in terms of electoral registration. The letter states:

“I attach as background the analysis of the City of Westminster electorate as last published on 1 December 2008. This gives you more information than you requested, but I hope you will find it useful as background. The December 2008 register was based on forms returned from just under 87 per cent of Westminster households. Further forms returned since then have raised this, so we currently cover register based on a return from over 92 per cent of Westminster households.

The letter continues:

“Any comparison of Westminster’s registered electorate against its estimated adult population fails to take account of the high proportion of foreign nationals resident in Westminster who are ineligible to register (e.g. citizens of the US, Russia, China and many other countries)”.

At 440th on the list is Forest Heath, which, I understand, is an area in which many American and foreign servicemen live, distorting the figure. Then you hit a group of areas in the United Kingdom where there are no excuses to justify their low levels of registration.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: Does the noble Lord also accept that in areas such as Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster there are a number of people who also have houses in the country?

Lord Campbell-Savours: Yes.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: I started my canvassing career in north Kensington, which at the time was a marginal Labour seat, and it was extremely annoying to meet on their doorsteps people who were clearly quite affluent and who assured one that they were going to vote in Gloucestershire. They clearly did not think that north Kensington was the place where they really lived, but we could have done with their votes there. They were virtually of no value to us at all in Gloucestershire, where we had enormous majorities anyway.

Lord Campbell-Savours: I am glad the noble Lord has raised that valid point because it draws further attention to the invalidity of the statistics that were published on those three authorities.

However, 439th, Belfast; 438th, Camden in London, which has the same characteristic foreign population; 437th, Antrim; 436th, Limavady in Northern Ireland—they are all Northern Ireland now—434th, North Down; 433rd, Derry; 432nd, Coleraine; 431st, Carrickfergus; 428th, Castlereagh; 427th, Newtownabbey;

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426th, Lisburn; 425th, Craigavon; 424th, Down; 423rd, Ards; 422nd, Omagh. In other words, at the bottom of the electoral registration tables within the United Kingdom at the time that the Northern Ireland committee in the other place was doing its work, all these Northern Irish local authorities came bottom of the list in electoral registration.

The percentages have been calculated, according to our source, using the mid-2007 population estimates for local authorities in the United Kingdom of those aged 18 and above and the numbers of people registered to vote in local government elections on 1 December 2007. I correct myself, I said 2004 before; I meant 2007.

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