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Those statistics show that there is a problem in areas where this system of electoral registration has been introduced. My amendments concentrate on where the problem exists. In my view, there is no problem in Cumbria. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, did not want to be absolutely clear on that matter because he knew that if he were to concede that, he would be conceding much of my argument.

Lord Henley: I speak purely as a lawyer: I cannot say categorically that there is no problem if I do not know whether there is a problem. I am not going to say that one county is clean and another county is not. We know where there are problems, but that does not mean there are not necessarily problems in other places that we think are okay.

Lord Campbell-Savours: But we do know that there have been no prosecutions in the county of Cumbria and that there are large swathes of the United Kingdom where there have been no prosecutions whatever. I suspect that there are no problems in probably 99 per cent of the UK land mass area. The problem exists in communities which carry a substantial ethnic minority population, and that is the reality. It is not racist to say that, because we live in the real world. In the debate in the other place some weeks ago, there were interventions from Members who were prepared to say that that was the case.

My case is very simple: why do we punish the whole nation for a problem that exists in a very small number of areas within the United Kingdom? Why are we prepared to create difficulties and administrative problems? Why are we prepared to waste public money on a national rollout of a system which affects the whole country when the problem is localised in very few areas within the United Kingdom? Government policy should target such areas with the amount of resource necessary to ensure that the problems are dealt with and should not waste money in areas like Cumbria, where we are already short of money in terms of local authority block grant. Why spend millions on administration?

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Why place electoral registration staff at risk in inner-city areas where there is violence? Parts of inner cities in the United Kingdom are no-go areas. On the electoral registration Bill, I interviewed EROs in various parts of the country and I was told about no-go areas where they have trouble sending in people to canvass.

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In the minutes of evidence given to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee when it dealt with the matter in 2004, a witness from, I think, the Northern Ireland Office, referred to the problem of getting people to go into areas of Belfast to gather the information required, although they managed to resolve the problem after a period of time.

What does my Amendment 126 do? It places a responsibility on local authorities where there is a problem to apply to the Secretary of State for the power under an order to introduce a scheme which would then operate within the local authority area. It would target the problem where it exists.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I am a little confused. Perhaps the noble Lord could explain the problem for me. We are talking about individual registration, about fraud and about postal votes. What is his identification of the problem?

Lord Campbell-Savours: The problem essentially, as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said, is fraud in the postal vote system. We are introducing a system of national rollout to deal with a problem of fraud which exists in very few parts of the country. The most recent case, if I remember rightly, was in Slough and was postal vote fraud. The cases which have been drawn to national attention in recent years have essentially been postal vote cases when people have sought to impersonate others by signing postal vote applications or have taken a number of postal vote ballot papers and signed them on behalf of others without those people knowing what was happening.

What would be the effect of the amendment? The local authority would avoid, at all costs, introducing a scheme and inconveniencing millions of people. It would try to sort out the problem locally without the use of the scheme. In the event that it could not sort out the matter locally without the use of the scheme, the local authority would apply to the scheme and it would probably concentrate its use on those wards with a problem, but not necessarily. It might want to apply the scheme throughout the whole of the local authority area. The Government would be able to concentrate additional money on areas with real problems. It would foster intra-ethnic community debate on the need to avoid corruption of the system. In ethnic- minority communities, a debate is going on where one group says that another group is not using the electoral system fairly. Arguments are already going on in those areas and individual groups which failed to agree could go to the local authority and ask for action. If the authority felt that there was a serious enough problem, it could apply for an order. It would stop piling up expensive legal responsibilities on local authorities.

So what are the arguments against my amendment? It would concentrate effort on ethnic-minority communities. What is wrong with that? We already single out ethnic-minority community areas for community support projects, employment support programmes, policing resources and literacy programmes, so anyone who somehow, as happened on a previous occasion when this amendment came forward, argues

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that there is some sort of racist overtone to this has completely misunderstood what is driving it on. It is not racism: it is a desire to deal with the problem in parts of the country where the problem exists.

I turn to the issue of data transfer.

Lord Greaves: The noble Lord will know that I agree entirely with his description of what goes on in many places. I have described it here and may do again this afternoon. But does he not understand that there is a danger if it is the local authority he is talking about rather than the local returning officer and their staff? A difficulty in some of these areas is that returning officers and election staff may not be sufficiently independent from the political control of the local authority. It is really the returning officers who need to sort these things out. Local authorities, because they are involved in the politics of it, may find it more difficult to do so.

Lord Campbell-Savours: I think that the noble Lord has a case. However, if an electoral registration officer within the local authority is dissatisfied with the response of the local authority, and he or she maintains that there is a problem with corruption of the electoral system, they can go to the Electoral Commission or to a Member of Parliament. It is unlikely that the majority of members of the local authority would be so corrupt that they would be prepared to turn a blind to corruption of the electoral system in a particular area. A minority of councillors within that authority area would want to foster such corrupt activities; I would have thought that the majority would be very much opposed to them.

I turn to the issue of data transfer under the proposals. I understand that there are already within local authorities arrangements for the interdepartmental transfer of data—for housing benefit, council tax information and so forth. I am told that some local authorities are tardy over the use of such facilities. However, I am also told that it is the Government’s intention to pilot the use of data transfer from national databases such as the DVLA and DWP to local authorities for use in electoral registration. That is in the Bill. Perhaps before doing so, they should read the recent Joseph Rowntree report, rather provocatively called The Database State, to which my noble friend has referred on a previous occasion at the Dispatch Box. I recall his comments with great interest.

On page 32, the report sets out the scale of cross-referencing already within the system under the heading,

Reading between the lines, it is obvious that the need for cross-referencing is based on some risk assessment. It is quite conceivable that the data-matching service, which has been in operation for over 10 years and which includes DWP benefits, Royal Mail redirecting, TV licences and other services, which detects fraud and error in benefits and is applied to millions of claimants, must provide for flagging-up areas of risk. I contend that many of those areas will include among them areas of social deprivation among which there will be precisely the same areas that I seek to identify in my amendments.

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I therefore argue that a risk assessment, which at the end inevitably targets certain areas with high ethnic- minority populations, is more likely to breach discrimination considerations than an arrangement that allows those same areas themselves to voluntarily apply to central government for permission to adopt a scheme that deals with that same element of risk.

I should like to read into the record some information which has come from the other place. I refer to the report produced by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, which dealt with the whole matter of individual registration. In paragraph 18, the committee says:

“A pattern appears to be emerging for the number of registered electors to decline at each canvass only to show a slow increase thereafter as a consequence of rolling registrations. The Electoral Commission pointed to evidence suggesting ‘an emerging downward trend in the electoral register’. Although this evidence was limited because the new system had been in operation for 18 months at the time, the Commission considered that ‘nonetheless the available “like-for-like” comparisons indicate that the register is falling by about 1.5-2 per cent per annum’. This view is backed up by the 2004 canvass results, published on 1 December 2004, which show a further decline in the register to a registration level of just 83.9%.

This finding is a particular cause for concern in Northern Ireland because the adult population of Northern Ireland is increasing at a rate of 0.7% per annum. The Electoral Commission warned that: ‘...unless it is rectified, the downward trend in the register has the potential of embedding itself structurally in the registration process. If the register is in decline, then the number that can be canvassed will also tend to fall from one canvass to the next, thus reinforcing the cycle’”.

The committee goes on to say at paragraph 49:

“The shift from household to individual registration is one of the key changes resulting from the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. This change was essential to eliminate some of the possible sources of ‘phantom’ names on the register. However, this is now one of the key factors contributing to the low levels of registration in certain population groups”.

I repeat: one factor was the phantom vote. Paragraph 78 states:

“The second appears to be that a significant proportion of the eligible population does not register. There are several causes for this but there is little doubt that one of the most significant is the change to individual registration. The shift away from a system, where one person in each household registers the entire household to one in which each individual has the responsibility for their own registration requires individuals to be more pro-active if their names are to be included on the register”.

Paragraph 80 reads:

“We are deeply concerned by signs that the system of individual registration is causing a spiral of structural decline in the electoral register. This appears to occur because every year only those people who were registered the previous year are directly canvassed. While people are able to register outside the canvass periods through rolling registration, the number registering each year through this mechanism is lower than the number of people dropping out of the register in canvass registrations from one year to the next. Consequently, the register has been shrinking progressively. We believe that the level of electoral registration in Northern Ireland has now reached the point at which it will begin to have an adverse effect on public confidence in the integrity of the process”.

We will have a report like this in a matter of a few years. The question is: what would happen in those circumstances? The noble Lord, Lord Henley, appeared to be pretty frank about that. I think he was actually

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saying that he saw electoral advantage in individual registration, and I think he was suggesting that we might see electoral disadvantage. In other conditions, another Government might have that in mind. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, shakes his head, but I do not think that he can shake his head on behalf of his party when it comes to electoral considerations of that nature. I think that another Government might have other matters in mind in the event that they are required to make the changes which the Electoral Commission, under the legislation with which we are dealing, suggests to them concerning the further reforms that it feels are necessary prior to compulsory registration in 2014-15.

Further on, under “Political Discrimination”, the report says:

“Research by the Electoral Commission has shown that the highest decline in electoral registration occurred in the top 20 most deprived wards of which 69% are catholic and 27% protestant. This represents a serious adverse impact on the catholic/nationalist community in particular and exposes the highly political motivation behind the electoral legislation. Those who supported this legislation must look to the effect it is having, not just in terms of denying large numbers of people their right to vote, but in the categories of people being affected: the poorest within the nationalist community and to a lesser degree the poorest within the protestant community. It has affected the young, the old, those with disabilities and ethnic minorities. The pattern emerging across the north is that this legislation is producing a two-tier system whereby affluent areas are returning high registration uptake and the poorest areas, mostly in deprived catholic and protestant wards, are alarmingly low”.

4.30 pm

Can we see the writing on the wall? Can we see, as we proceed with this project, that there are huge dangers inherent in this whole approach? We may well effectively be disfranchising very large numbers of people in the inner cities who cannot be canvassed, who will perhaps simply be ignored in the future for political reasons. I am particularly concerned about that.

I refer to a speech by Fiona Mactaggart on 20 October on this Bill. She is the Member for Slough, which has a large ethnic population. She said:

“In places where there is evidence of such corruption, there might be a case for individual voter registration. I would not support its introduction universally at the moment, because when it was introduced in Northern Ireland the number of people registered to vote went down by 10 per cent. That is not a tolerable consequence”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/08; col. 79.]

She is a former Home Office Minister in the Labour Government. She went on to deal with problems in her constituency in this area in some detail. We have a Member of Parliament who is a former Minister expressing concerns over electoral registration national rollout. She said that it should be dealt with on an individual basis. I understand that she is prepared to take my amendments, perhaps remodel them in some way and, if it is possible procedurally in the other place, to move them. She would have to do so under the somewhat truncated procedure whereby, on this huge issue, there is no Second Reading in the Commons, there is no Committee stage in the Commons, there is no Report stage in the Commons, there is no Third Reading in the Commons; but our Bill simply goes back for them to consider, if I am not mistaken, in one

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stage. I think that is grossly unreasonable. Unless someone can correct me, that is the case. That is completely wrong.

Finally, I will turn to what happened some weeks ago on binge drinkers. I raise binge drinking because when Sir Liam Donaldson made his proposals for a tax on the basis of so much per millilitre of alcohol, he argued that we should change the tax system on alcohol nationally, across the board, to deal with binge drinkers. The Prime Minister very quickly leapt in to say, “Oh no, we are not going to do that”. He said, “Let us deal with the problem in the area where it exists. Let’s deal with the problems of that particular group of people who are binge drinking. Let’s not punish the whole nation with a greater level of taxation, because that is unreasonable”. I have lost the quote, but I am sure that noble Lords will remember what he said at the time. If we are prepared to isolate binge drinkers and deal with them as a group, why cannot we do that in this case? Why cannot we isolate the problem in the areas where there is a problem and deal with that in isolation and not, if I might say so once again, punish the whole nation?

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has failed to convince me on this subject. It seems to me that he has stacked up his whole argument on some rather tentative agreement between himself and my noble friend Lord Henley that there was no election fraud in Cumbria. With all due respect, neither of them knows whether there is electoral fraud in Cumbria. All we know about the convictions for electoral fraud is that they are probably the tip of a very big iceberg. Therefore, I do not think that anyone can say, “There is electoral fraud in this area but not in that area”, because no one is in a position to know.

I congratulate the Government on this legislation. Addressing the issues of identifying people in terms of their registration as voters is long overdue. If there is a Labour advantage in the status quo, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, then he is saying that many of his colleagues in another place were voted in on fraudulent votes, and I do not think he would be comfortable with that.

Let us consider the date. I very much support the Liberal Democrat Amendment 125CA. It is quite incomprehensible to me why we have to put a fixed date of 2014 on the enactment of this legislation. We do not know what the outcome of the next election in 2010 will be. One party or another may win by a relatively small majority and may copy the Labour Government of 1964 and go to the country two years later. That means that they may well be re-elected in 2012 and might serve the full five years, so we would be talking about 2017 before this legislation comes into force. I do not understand what the point is. I have great sympathy with the view of my noble friend Lord Henley that it looks a little suspicious that the Government are digging in on this when it may well be possible for this legislation to be brought in earlier. Why do we need a fixed date? The onus is on the Government to explain their thinking. It seems to me that it could be brought in earlier and, if so, it would be much to the benefit of everyone in this country.

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Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I am distressed to say that I cannot accept a word of what my noble friend said. He knows how much I disagree with him on this. I know we have spent some time talking about fraud and I know that this is part of the issue, but it is only part. We should concentrate more on one of the other reasons why this Bill is important. Perhaps I may quote from day two of Report stage on the Political Parties and Elections Bill in the House of Commons when the Minister, Mr Wills, introduced this. He said:

“In Public Bill Committee, we discussed—and, it is fair to say, we all agreed—that democracy is undermined when significant numbers of people are not able to participate in elections because they are not registered to do so. Registration is the source from which democratic participation flows. Those who are not registered are denied that participation, so we must all be concerned that it has been estimated that more than 3 million eligible people are not able to vote in this country because they are not registered”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/3/09; col. 653.]

To me, that is a crucial part of why it is necessary to have individual registration. To compare that with binge drinkers is completely unacceptable.

Individual registration—I declare an interest as chair of the HS Chapman Society—has been supported by the society for some years now, as it has been supported by the Electoral Commission since 2003. It is also fair to say that it was backed by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. This has not just appeared out of the blue; people have given a great deal of consideration to it. I go back to the HS Chapman Society, which is made up of all the political parties, ex-apparatchiks like myself, party lawyers, the Electoral Commission and electoral registration officers. I make that point on purpose because they have supported the concept of individual registration in the HS Chapman Society and they are the officers of the electoral registration association. That is very important. The whole question of registration has been covered on television in the past few weeks. The adverts have been very effective at pointing out that if you do not register you do not have a vote; they emphasise the importance of registration.

When the Minister introduced the debate at our last sitting, he emphasised that this was a major change to our electoral process, and that, of course, is absolutely right. What, to me, is fundamental about this, and why I believe that it can make a difference in terms of fraud, is that it removes intermediaries from the process and provides a direct contact between the individual and the state, and no one in between can affect what people are attempting to do.

I am sure that individual registration will reduce the level of fraud. I do not say it will eliminate it, because I do not know that you can ever eliminate fraud. There are other ways of committing fraud, as we have heard today, such as through postal voting, as some people believe. In the judgments on the cases in Birmingham and Slough, Richard Mawrey QC advocated the case for individual registration. There were other factors, of course, but he came out very strongly in favour of individual registration.

I am sure we all agree that it is terribly important that the change receives proper, careful preparation—I shall come to the timing in a moment—because the

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integrity of our registers is absolutely crucial, as is the authenticity of the applications. I support the concept of the three identifiers—the signature, the date of birth and the national insurance number.

However, I say to my noble friend the Minister that we have to make sure that the EROs have the resources to be able to do the job effectively. I strongly urge that because, after the 2006 registration, money was given to local authorities to help the EROs produce better registers. I met with the Minister who was then responsible, Harriet Harman, to discuss this, and I said that just putting the money in would not work. What actually happened to the money is that a lot of it went into local government general funds. Any money allocated for this purpose must be ring-fenced so that how it is to be spent is clearly identified. Otherwise, the EROs will not be able to do the job properly.

One matter that the EROs will have to consider is the state of the cross-referencing with data information. Looking at the amendment, I have some sympathy with the Information Commissioner because, as I said at Second Reading, I hoped that that data, which I fully support in principle, would be in absolute conformity with the Data Protection Act so that there could be no challenge afterwards about where the information came from. I hope something will be done to ensure that that is the case.

My noble friend referred to the low level of registration. The reason for this, basically, is because the job is not being done properly. Obviously there are problems in some areas—I appreciate that—but, in the main, it is because the electoral resources have not been there and partly because either the 2000 Act or the 2006 Act reduced what electoral registration officers had to do. At one time, it was clear that they had to not only try to get the information by post but to go door to door.

I understand that in some areas that might be difficult and that it means that sometimes they have to go in twos because the areas are not sympathetic, but that is something that can be countered. That level of contact must be made.

What will also be important is the Electoral Commission’s review of what is actually happening and what work is being done by electoral registration officers so that we can identify the really bad cases of electoral registration. They relate to levels of multi-occupancy, people with literacy problems and harder-to-reach groups. There is no doubt that extra resources and effort must be put into those areas to make sure that everybody gets the right to register. We must not forget that this is a right. It is not something that they should do: it is a right to be on the electoral register.

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