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I so disagree with my noble friend that you can pick out some areas and not others. He said that people have identified that it might be racist to do this. It is not racist, but it is discriminatory. Therefore, I have some serious questions about being able to split things up in that way.

4.45 pm

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: Would it not also have the result of saying to a certain community that it was considered to be more criminal than others?

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Baroness Gould of Potternewton: The identification of some areas as areas where fraud has occurred would do that. But fraud does not only occur in those areas, although I appreciate that there are some basic problems. Having spent a lot of my time trying to sort out the membership of the Labour Party in some of these areas I can only say that some people come from a different background where electoral systems are different. Therefore, one has to do a lot of work explaining where we are at and what is the right thing to do. Most of the cases that I dealt with were not in any sense fraud; they were due to a lack of knowledge.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My noble friend says that it is discriminatory. But if a local authority itself has a problem and applies to the Secretary of State, in what way is that discriminatory? It is not the state saying, “We are making you do this”. It is the local authority itself saying, “We need additional powers to deal with our problem”. Local authorities do that all the time. They often go to the state and say that they need additional resources to deal with a problem in their areas. It may well be that they are dealing with problems that are ethnically based, but that is not discriminatory.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I disagree, because a local authority has a right to go to the Secretary of State within the context that this is a national scheme, but it has very specific problems that it has to deal with. It may have a higher level of multi-occupancy or whatever, and therefore it needs extra resources to help that process. But to pick out areas just because they happen to have a large Asian population, which is what my noble friend is saying, is discriminatory. I do not think that that is right.

I also need to respond on another matter. I intended to make this very short, but my noble friend has goaded me. In respect of Northern Ireland, he quoted a lot from the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report for 2004-05, but that is now so out of date as to be unquotable as evidence in real terms. Of course we have to learn from the Northern Ireland experience. Of course it was not right to begin with: there is no question about that. There were things that were not done as well as they should have been, and there were systems that were not done as they should have been done.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My noble friend says that the report is out of date. Perhaps I can give her the latest figures, which were published two months ago by Mr Wills, the Minister. Pre-2002, electoral registration in Northern Ireland was 1,192,000. The last figure was 1,142,000—down 50,000 over seven years of this so-called scheme. Meanwhile, the population over 18 in Northern Ireland in 2001 was 1,233,000 and in 2009 it was 1,327,000. Registration has dropped in those seven years and the population has gone up 100,000. Something is wrong somewhere.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: If my noble friend will have a little patience, I shall deal with that. The reason is partly because some of the initial processes in Northern Ireland were not right. For example,

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Northern Ireland decided to get rid of continuous registration; it got rid of the “carry forward” facility, which we have in our own registration; and it went for annual registration, so that people had to register every year. That caused many problems and contributed considerably to the low level of registration at that time. We do not intend to do that and it does not appear in the Bill. That was one of the fundamental differences between the two systems. The latest figures from the Electoral Commission show that, while registration is not back up to the same level, it is increasing every year as the carry-forward facility and the system of continuous registration have been adopted.

Lord Neill of Bladen: Perhaps the noble Baroness will allow me to intervene on the point about annual registration. I believe that that is how the system started in Northern Ireland and it produced considerable indignation. People said, “Why do we have to come? Why are we not trusted?” The system was altered so that it became possible to register for I am not sure how long, but annual registration ceased. That matter of detail must be ironed out to make the system more acceptable.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: Absolutely; I could not agree more with the noble Lord. That is why we have not introduced a system of annual registration in the amendments before us. By changing the system, Northern Ireland got rid of the negative impact of annual registration. Now, people have to reregister only when there is a change in circumstances, and that seems to be eminently successful.

One terribly important point about what happened in Northern Ireland is that the register published on 1 December 2007—I accept that that was 18 months ago—was 94 per cent accurate. For those of us who had some contact with Northern Ireland and its electoral system some time ago, the idea that a register could be 94 per cent accurate was unbelievable, because everyone knew that there were phantom voters and serious problems there. I found it fascinating to go to Northern Ireland and talk to the electoral registration officers about their problems. I have spoken to the current ERO in Northern Ireland, and he is very happy about the system and the way that it now works.

I wish to make a couple of final points, the first being the length of time for the introduction of the system. I have a little sympathy for querying whether there is a need to put the date in the Bill. I understand all the reasons for the Government and the Electoral Commission needing time to do the necessary work to ensure that the register is accurate, but I wonder whether it is necessary to put the date in the Bill.

One of the fundamental differences between the systems—this was mentioned by my noble friend when he introduced the amendments—is that in Northern Ireland, where much less time was allowed for the introduction, there is only one electoral registration officer, whereas in this country we have, I think, 402 EROs, all of whom have to have been trained and be working on the scheme before it can be introduced.

One thing clearly to have come out from the Electoral Commission is that the performance of electoral registration officers up and down the country varies

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considerably. That has to be sorted out. Also, if we are to start with a voluntary scheme, the Electoral Commission has to ensure that that scheme is working before starting on a compulsory scheme. The view of the Electoral Commission will be crucial and there has to be discussion with it about whether it thinks that it is necessary to put the date in the Bill.

For all these reasons, I think that my noble friend is completely incorrect in many of the things that he has identified as problems with individual registration. It could increase the names on our register and the number of people who are able to vote; it is much more democratic and should help to reduce fraud. We shall come back to fraud in other debates; I am not going to talk about postal votes, as that is a separate issue. If we can succeed in improving the level of registration in this country, I think that we should support it.

Lord Greaves: Follow that, really. In speaking to this group of amendments, I specifically support the amendments tabled by my noble friends on the Front Bench, although I do not want to speak to them specifically. Like the noble Baroness, I want to respond first to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. I am not as critical as she was of how the noble Lord raised these matters, not least because the questions and problems that he raised on individual registration are in many cases legitimate. For those of us who believe fervently in the concept and the practice of individual registration, we have to solve those problems if it is going to work. I welcome the fact that the noble Lord raised those issues, because it concentrates attention on them.

I was not quite sure where the noble Lord was going when he referred to binge drinking. I thought that he was coming back to the practice of personation parties that I mentioned briefly at Second Reading, which fortunately I do not have direct experience of in Pendle but I have heard reports of it in other parts of Lancashire. In fact, they are not known as “parties”, but I shall not use the word that people do use, which involves alcohol and is alliterative, but which it would be unparliamentary to put into Hansard.

Lord Campbell-Savours: Could I give the noble Lord the exact quote, because it is quite important that it is on the record? When the Prime Minister was asked to comment on binge drinking, he said:

“We have taken action to tackle binge and under-age drinking and it’s right that we do so ... But ... it’s also right that we do not want the responsible sensible majority of moderate drinkers to have to pay more or suffer as a result of the excesses of a small minority”.

How very apt in this case.

Lord Greaves: I heard what the noble Lord said and I hear what he says now, and I understand the point, although I disagree with it. The point that I was making is that there are things that involve binge drinking called personation parties, which are reported to me, whereby people who would not normally vote, who are from what might be called the lower echelons of society, are invited to come along to a particular

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location, are given a polling card and told to go and vote in that name and then, when they return having done so successfully, they take part in the personation party, which involves the provision of large amounts of alcohol. That is clearly not happening particularly in the Asian community—not in the Muslim community anyway.

There is no getting away from the fact, however, that electoral fraud, as it has mushroomed in this country, has unrepresentatively involved Asian communities. There is no point in beating about the bush in that regard. I am told that there has been personation in some West Indian communities as well. That is just a fact and, unless people grasp that fact and do something about it, it will continue to happen, and the people whose reputation suffers most are those people in those communities. However, I do not want to pursue that further at the moment, although I may do so later this afternoon.

However, there are other forces around in British politics, on the far right, which I would not trust to operate our electoral system fairly and reasonably. They are not involved as far as one knows in false registrations and postal vote fraud, but the BNP is, judging by reports, prone particularly to fraudulent filling-in of nomination papers. There have been a number of instances where BNP nomination papers have been found to contain names which have been filled in by people who were not the electors who were purported to have filled them in. I do not trust that particular section of the British party spectrum to continue to operate the system fairly. It is not just community practices from south Asia that we have to worry about; it is the fact that, as my noble friend Lord Rennard said, as people discover just how prone the British electoral system is to being fiddled, more of them will do it.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said that the main issue was in Asian/ethnic minority communities. I do not think that it is. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, that the main problem is the accuracy of the register. It is perfectly reasonable to say that this proposal for individual registration will make it worse, but the real issue is the accuracy of the register.

As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, I have never really seen a proper assessment of how much of the reduction in the number of people on the electoral register was due to the removal from it of people who should not have been there—the ghost voters, for example, to whom the noble Baroness referred. There is no doubt that there was considerable over-registration in Northern Ireland, which appears to have been significantly eliminated. If so, that is a good thing.

Individual registration will help us to clean up elections in practice, but the most important thing is that it is right in principle. People’s votes belong to them. It is surely their individual responsibility to make sure that the entry in the electoral register in their name is accurate, is in the right place and is not being manipulated by somebody else. However, it is not a panacea for postal voting problems. It is clear that in postal voting, where individual identifiers now

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exist, people fiddling the system are getting cleverer and more organised. They are taking notice of the information that people now have to provide and have changed as a result. However, individual registration will help considerably with problems of personation at polling stations, the level of which, as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said, we do not know. All that we have is anecdotal evidence from some areas.

To some extent, there are two separate issues. One is individual registration and the other is compulsory personal identifiers. Each could be brought in without the other. The two are being brought in together, which overcomplicates the issue. I would have preferred to see a system of individual registration, and all the problems associated with it, brought in first before compulsory identifiers, but other people will take a different view.

Some people are in a very difficult situation as far as registration is concerned. Homes in multiple occupation and other communal residencies are the classic example. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, said that the people in them would be disadvantaged by individual registration; I take the opposite view. At the moment, who fills in the form in an HMO? Who fills in the form in any sort of communal residency? The answer is that, in some cases—for example, university colleges and halls of residence—it works properly. It is done by the college and by the hall of residence officially. But there are some who refuse to do it. They say, “It is nothing to do with us. We are not here to register our students”. So in some areas it works and in others it does not.

One of my reservations about individual registration is that, in that kind of communal setting, there must be an onus on the people running it to ensure that the system is working, to get the individuals to sign their forms and send them in. That must be added to these proposals if they are going to work, or these people will just be missed off altogether.

I hesitate to use the phrase “doss house”—many HMOs are perfectly reputable and well run institutions—but who is responsible in that kind of institution? Who is responsible in a large family? The idea of the head of the household has gone, so it is no longer them. It is whoever gets the form and decides to bother filling it in. In a normal family it is probably a responsible person who might be the head of the household—or their wife, in a traditional way, because they are probably more efficient at doing it—but it works. However, in many places it does not.

If you are placing that responsibility on somebody at random, or on a landlord to whom people might not want to give certain information, then it is a difficult situation. In areas like HMOs, if the council or electoral registration staff are efficient and do it properly then the system will be more efficient and better in every way for the electors concerned. Special efforts must be made in such places, as well as safeguards for genuine institutions, such as colleges, hospitals, nurses’ homes, boarding schools or whatever.

Some things will be necessary in order for the fears put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, to be overcome. One is the question of resources, which has already been mentioned. There is no point in trying to do this unless the registration and returning

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officers have the resources to do so. I made the point before that there is already a separation of powers between the people who run elections and the council, but the council is responsible for providing them with the resources. That separation of powers needs to be strengthened to prevent political interference for whatever reason—perhaps just to safeguard the council’s budget, not nasty political reasons.

Lord Campbell-Savours: On that matter, no one has given us those assurances. The Official Opposition have not said that they are prepared to ring-fence those resources, which is absolutely critical. If they are not ring-fenced, they will be absorbed elsewhere and there will be cuts in budgets.

Lord Greaves: This is the extent to which I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and thank him for raising these issues. They are relevant. I am afraid that I cannot speak for the Official Opposition, and I cannot even speak for the Liberal Democrat Front Bench in this instance. I can speak for me and, like the noble Lord, I am saying what I think, which is the astonishing privilege that we all have in this Committee.

Secondly, the system of rolling registers must be reformed so that there is a genuine rolling register. We currently do not have one. We have an annual register which is topped up on a monthly basis by those who bother to do so, and those who are encouraged to do so by political parties when they go around and find that they are not on the electoral register when they ought to be. We need to move to a proper rolling register, topped up by an annual canvas, targeting the houses where people are not registered rather than the other way around. That could be tied in with the national core database.

As part of that, which may be controversial, people ought to be on the electoral register once within the United Kingdom. This has implications for votes in local elections, but people ought to say, “This is my principal place of residence, where I am going to be registered as a voter”, so that they are on the electoral register once and that is that. That is my personal view.

Lord Neill of Bladen: How does the noble Lord’s plan deal with death? You have a rolling register to which people add their names—spinsters, bachelors and so on—and people die. What happens to the accuracy of the register? Does not that particular route open the door to fraud?

Lord Greaves: This is exactly what happens at the moment. If someone dies and the local electoral registration staff do not pick it up, their names are rolled over to the next year at least and in some places possibly to years beyond, although that is not supposed to happen now. This is why I say that the basic system ought to be the rolling register, which people go on to when they go to live somewhere and come off when they move somewhere else. One of the problems—not a death problem—is that people go on the register in the place they move to, but do not come off the register in the place they move from. However, if they inform the people in charge of the register that they are going on to where they come from, the people in

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charge will send that information back to the local authority registration officers in the other place. That system should be tidied up as well. If you go on to the electoral register because you have moved to somewhere, you ought to have to say where you have come from and what registers you have been on previously. This will enable you to be taken off those registers.

As to deaths, many electoral registration officers scrutinise the local papers and receive council house information, council tax information and so on, and they manage to take many people off the register. It will always be hit and miss to an extent, but we have to get it as accurate as we possibly can. Basically, a rolling register with a system of annual checks and balances would be the best way to do it.

I would also extend the canvassing operation throughout the whole year. Electoral registration officers have to employ all the staff who are willing to do this—and they are not always easy to find—at the same time of the year. It may well be that electoral registration officers could find people who are quite happy to do electoral registration work for, say, one evening a week throughout the year. In that way, the canvass could take place throughout the year rather than annually.

The third major point I want to make is that the system should be piloted, as I said at Second Reading. I share some of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. It is so important to get this right that it should be piloted not only in areas where postal voting fraud or other fraud has been seriously reported or alleged but in a range of areas so that we can see how it works and what the effects are. I do not understand why this proposal has not been put forward. Pilots could be brought in much earlier than 2014. Rather than having a voluntary system, which seems much ado over nothing—it will create a lot of bureaucracy and will not result in anything positive in the next five years—perhaps 40 or 50 local authority areas should be piloted in a range of areas across the country. We could then iron out the problems and see how to make the system work.

My fourth point is that political parties will have to get much more involved again in electoral registration. At the moment, if you asked the Electoral Commission, it would probably say, “We do not want to do this because it is all part of political parties getting involved in the electoral process and potential fraud”. But local constituency associations started off in the 19th century as registration associations to make sure that everyone who voted Conservative or Liberal, as it was in those days, was on the electoral register. The register covered only a relatively small proportion of the adult population and it was crucial to get all your people on it. That was how they started off. When out campaigning, local parties should take much more responsibility on the ground for getting people registered. They should do that on the basis of individual registration, with the safeguards which have been put forward and which I am talking about built in.

5.15 pm

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I apologise for having arrived late. One of the hazards of the date of Grand Committee sittings changing is that one has

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diary conflicts which prevent one being punctual. I had assumed that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, would have something to say about Westminster. In the famous words of Willie John McBride, the Ulster forward in the British Lions team, I had intended to get my “retaliation in first”. However, I shall read carefully what he said. If I feel it is necessary to rebut any of it, and he refers to it on Report, I shall do so then. I have no intention of prolonging the proceedings by guessing what he said about my former constituency.

I shall say two generic things about my former constituency and one thing, which may be germane, arising out of my electoral experience there over 24 years. First, as a number of rude things have been said about Westminster, I say that when Charles James Fox fought Midhurst, he required seven votes to be elected; when he fought Malmesbury he required 13 votes to be elected; and when he arrived in Westminster he was confronted by an electorate of 6,000. So liberal was the franchise in Westminster, that after the Great Reform Bill, the electorate in Westminster fell because it had been more liberal than that which had been brought in in 1832.

My second point relates to the kind of constituency. I do not want it to be regarded as wholly typical of every constituency in the country. It is regarded by the European Union as the richest area in the European Union, due to a false statistical calculation under which it divides GDP by residents instead of dividing GDP by the number of people who work in the area. As 750,000 people come to work in my former constituency, that somewhat distorts the calculations of how much wealth is being produced.

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