Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Interestingly, and this is not surprising in an inner-city seat, the poverty statistics for my former seat are calculated by the percentage of households which meet the normal standard poverty indices. My former constituency was the 48th poorest constituency in the country and, therefore, it was a remarkable constituency to represent. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, would be doing the Grand Committee a mild disservice if he implied that it was typical of all constituencies in the country.

My third point relates to something which I heard the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, say. After the 1983 general election when, for the first time, the boundaries of my constituency went outside the boundaries of the old City of Westminster and took in parts of what had been St John’s Wood and St Marylebone, the constituency had the lowest turnout of any constituency in the country. I said to my agent, “I don’t mind if we move up only one place at the next general election, but it would be acutely embarrassing for me if we had the lowest turnout in the country two elections running”. Over the next 14 years, we moved upwards to where our turnout was the 25th lowest. We overtook 24 constituencies during that period, which I thought was an adequate effort by our canvassers. Canvassing in an inner-city seat makes me deeply proud of the British postman. To find all the addresses in an inner-city constituency is a remarkable achievement.

13 May 2009 : Column GC410

I march, in part, with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, in that the 24 seats which we overtook were all inner-city seats or they were in Northern Ireland. There was no exception to that at all. There is a problem which is concentrated in certain areas. That rise over 24 seats was also achieved against a steadily rising population. Again, one would have to look at all the figures to be sure that something significant was not to be derived from the fact that those seats constituted the categories to which the noble Lord referred, especially as inner-city seats are necessarily highly mobile.

I want to say one last thing about Northern Ireland. The noble Lord made much of the movement in the figures, and of course I understand what has happened in the past seven years. In Northern Ireland before the 2002 legislation, there was fraud going on, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, said. If you go back to the 2002 electoral figures, before that new legislation, you may well have an inflated figure from which there was a subsequent fall. I am not absolutely confident that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, made allowances for that in what he said.

Lord Campbell-Savours: The actual fall after the legislation was 119,000. All that I have ever argued is that it is wrong to attribute that reduction of 119,000 simply to fraud in Northern Ireland.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I am not—

Lord Campbell-Savours: I know that the noble Lord is not doing that, but others have. Something else came out when I looked into this. I looked into the famous “brown book”, where all the election results of Members of Parliament are, and I looked up the Northern Ireland seats. Something struck me as rather odd: in the constituencies where Sinn Fein had the opportunity of winning a seat, the turnouts were very high and electoral registration in those areas was very high. Sinn Fein is obviously involved—now, under the new system—in maximising the turnout and the number of people that register. That might be an argument in my favour, because it may be increasing the number of people registered who otherwise would not register if they were not nationalists.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I had sat down. This argument could go on all night, and I have no intention of prolonging it. However, I shall remark on one historical episode of exercise of continuity. Winston Churchill, after the 1918 election, alluded to the glories of peace, but then said that when we looked to Ireland,

continuing to rise above the bogs and the mist. It was in Fermanagh and Tyrone that the charges of malfeasance were strongest after the 2001 election, which then gave rise to the 2002 Act.

Lord Bach: We have had a substantial debate, quite rightly, on the major new clauses that we are proposing here; as everyone has agreed, whether they are for or against them. They represent one of the most significant developments in electoral administration for many years, so it is quite right that we should have debated it

13 May 2009 : Column GC411

at length this afternoon and equally right that no doubt we will do the same on Report in due course. I do not know whether it will be good or bad news for noble Lords, but I do not intend to take very long this afternoon in responding to this debate. There will be plenty of time later on to talk on these matters again.

There are people who are very much in favour of this change. There is almost a consensus for that. But there are those, among them prominently my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, who argue passionately against the changes. That is just as it should be, but I do not think that anyone can really say that the present position is entirely satisfactory. What we are looking for, which is why this should not be a party issue, is both an accurate register—that is absolutely vital—and one which is comprehensive. It is the trick of achieving both those things that has eluded us so far and that is what we intend to try to see happen in future. I cannot see how that can be a party point; surely all democrats want as full and accurate a register as possible. I emphasise that that is behind what we are trying to do.

As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, the current system of household registration, with one member of the household taking responsibility for electoral registration, is out of date. It takes away individuals’ responsibility for their votes—individual registration supports that. Thus far, therefore, I go with what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said.

It is right that we carefully consider our approach and ensure that we are guided by the need to support and enhance both the comprehensiveness and the accuracy of the register. We can also agree that provision for identifying information on this scale needs to be handled appropriately. We have looked carefully at the amendments laid before the Committee today. It was interesting to hear views on Amendment 125BA and how consulting the Information Commissioner may offer some benefits in our move towards individual registration through the voluntary collection of identifiers.

We believe that the Electoral Commission is best placed to deal with matters relating to our electoral system, including the design of forms and administrative processes affecting eligible electors. That does not mean that the Information Commissioner does not have a role to play in the development of individual registration, and we have consulted him, and will continue to consult him, on an informal basis as necessary. For example, we have already advised him of our planned move towards individual registration and the collection of identifiers, which he indicated that he welcomed in principle.

The Information Commissioner did not indicate any desire to be consulted further, but we will seek his guidance and expertise should any concerns arise around the handling of personal data. In Northern Ireland, where similar provisions for the collection of personal identifiers already exist, there is no requirement to consult the Information Commissioner every time a change in a form or in the identifiers collected is needed. We do not want to place an undue burden on the commissioner, particularly given that not all aspects of the regulations will relate directly to information concerns.

13 May 2009 : Column GC412

I remind the Committee that there is already awell established process of legislative scrutiny through parliamentary debate and committees. The House is in many ways best placed to decide when it is appropriate to draw on the expertise of the Information Commissioner, having the power to call on him to give evidence during the progression of any legislation through Parliament. I have set out our doubts about the amendment, but I shall undertake to consider further the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, between now and Report.

Amendment 126 proposes a radical solution to the problem. I am afraid that we in government cannot support it in any way, for the reasons set out by my noble friend Lady Gould and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, among others. It would be a mistake to allow for the collection of personal identifiers from electors in specified areas, targeted areas or parts of areas for a specified period upon request by a local authority to the Secretary of State.

The schemes would allow local authorities that have been subject to manipulation of the vote in the past or that anticipate a risk at a future election to apply for a personal identifier adoption scheme order, requiring electors to provide specific identifiers. On the surface, the scheme appears to offer some benefits, but, in effect, it would introduce individual registration in areas through the back door—which should never happen—without considering the impact on the electorate or registration rates.

Among the problems that we foresee are, first, that confusion would potentially be caused among the electorate, resulting in people being removed from the electoral register, and, secondly, that it would damage the electorate’s confidence in the electoral system, which could impact on turnout. We also suspect that, because the scheme would be run on a voluntary basis, take-up by local authorities would be low because participating in it could give the impression that some sort of performance issue was involved.

5.30 pm

Lord Campbell-Savours: My noble friend said that confusion might be caused. Would that be because some people might find themselves removed from the electoral register? In what circumstances would that happen?

Lord Bach: I suspect that, first, the area that was chosen would feel—I use this word carefully—discriminated against compared with the rest of the country, and that might have a severe effect on registration in any area that was chosen. People would feel that there was something in that area that drew the attention of the world to them and that that was unjustified. I think that we would very quickly find ourselves facing accusations of, at least, discrimination against an area, whether or not it was one with many ethnic groups. This has to be done on a national basis.

Lord Greaves: As the Minister knows, I am not arguing for the Campbell-Savours scheme of trying out the system in problem areas; I am arguing for a

13 May 2009 : Column GC413

representative series of pilots across the country. Does the Minister understand that there is increasing concern among ordinary voters at what is perceived to be the rigging of the postal vote system, and that, if this were put forward as a way of contributing to solving that problem, people might feel that they were being discriminated in favour of and not against?

Lord Bach: I do not think that they would. What would happen when the first local authority requested the Secretary of State—and the request was granted—to subject a particular area to individual identifiers when no other area in the neighbourhood was so subject? We would never hear the end of it. I do not think that that is the right way to approach this issue. I believe that we should move towards individual registration as a country, rather than doing it piecemeal.

Lord Campbell-Savours: Does that not completely misunderstand the nature of the debate that is going on in these communities? In the areas where these problems have arisen over ethnic minority, basically, vote-rigging, it dominates the local press. People everywhere say, “What are we going to do about it?”. They do not say, “What is the nation going to do about it?”; they say, “What are we going to do about our problem in our area?”. That is why I cannot understand the obsession with national rollout. Why do we not deal with it in individual areas?

Lord Greaves: On the same question, I merely wish to make the Minister an offer: if the opportunity arose, I believe that Pendle would like to be the first to take it up and that it would meet with great public acclaim within the borough.

Lord Campbell-Savours: There you are.

Lord Bach: That is a very generous offer, which we shall have to consider. I must move on.

In any event, the Government have already announced the timetable leading to the implementation of individual registration, which will be supported by measures to maximise and maintain registration rates. The noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Greaves, agree that there is a degree of voter fraud. There may not be as much as they think there is, or there may be more than they think there is, but the fact that it exists is the reason why we want to take our time to ensure that the system that we set up not only gets rid of the fraud but also keeps up the number of people on the register, as we must. Our timetable allows us to proceed with care and caution and get the right systems in place. I will say more about that in a moment.

Amendment 132AA would require electors to produce evidence of their identity in order to be issued with a ballot paper in polling stations at an election. The purpose is to strengthen the security of the voting process at polling stations. Of course, everyone takes the integrity of the electoral process seriously. Voting at polling stations has traditionally been conducted without the need for any personal identification to be produced. Of course, it is an offence to attempt to vote

13 May 2009 : Column GC414

in place of another, and staff at polling stations are given training and guidance on how to spot people who are attempting to cast votes falsely.

The report published recently by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission found that the May 2008 elections were,

It is consistent with earlier findings that the scale and volume of allegations of fraud have been decreasing. The police recorded 103 cases of electoral malpractice at the 2008 elections. Of these, 13 related to impersonation and in six of these cases no further action was taken. All this must be seen in the context of the 16 million votes which were cast at the May 2008 elections.

Any proposal to require voters in polling stations in Great Britain to produce identification would need careful consideration. The amendment provides for the Secretary of State to designate, by order, documents that may be produced as evidence of identity. However, we would wish to carefully consider the practical implications of the proposal and the barriers that it might present for voting at elections, particularly as the requirement to produce evidence of identity would be a significant change to the electoral system.

In addition, the amendment does not include any provision for checks to be done on the ID produced or for the details on the ID to be validated against another source. Again, that could undermine the effectiveness of the scheme. We understand that the Electoral Commission has indicated that it does not favour the use of ID by voters in polling stations at this time, so we have no plans to require electors in polling stations to require identification. However, this is an issue we will wish to consider in the context of our plans in relation to the electoral registration process, and we will look at it further once an overarching structure for individual registration is in place. We keep the matter under review and explore the options for ensuring that votes in polling stations are cast safely and securely.

Liberal Democrat Amendment 125CA provides the Electoral Commission with discretion to make an assessment before 2014 of whether the registration objectives would be helped or hindered by a move towards the compulsory collection of personal identifiers. In tandem, it also provides the Commission with the ability to make a recommendation before that date on whether the provision of identifiers should be made compulsory. This is in contrast to the Government’s proposal, which requires the Electoral Commission to make such an assessment only in its 2014 report and to make a clear recommendation on whether or not to proceed to compulsory provision of identifiers to the Secretary of State.

Of course, there are noble Lords who would like us to move more quickly towards a system of individual registration, and it may be worth saying a word or two about why we have chosen the timetable that we have and put it before Parliament. A phased approach is the only way to ensure that what I have described as a radical change is made effectively. It cannot be rushed. Our specific timetable delivers on this phased approach. It has been developed carefully, with due regard to the

13 May 2009 : Column GC415

magnitude of the change and to the risks involved, some of which were set out by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours.

It is a long time since last Wednesday evening, when we first set out on this group, but it is worth reminding noble Lords of why we are taking this course. There is concern about the timetable for the shift, which we propose should not happen before 2015 at the earliest. Given the importance of safeguarding the electoral system against fraud and the vital role that individual registration can play in achieving that, it is understandable that noble Lords would be anxious to make progress soon. However, a significant amount of work needs to be undertaken to ensure that the system is fully equipped to meet the challenges of the shift. We know from the experience in Northern Ireland, which did not start as well as it might—although I would argue that it has improved a lot—that there is a real risk that numbers registered could decrease as a result of the move. Under individual registration, many people will for the first time be responsible for their own registration; for all individuals, there will be a new requirement to provide additional personal information when registering. We have to ensure that the electorate has sufficient time to acclimatise to the new requirements.

The other advantage of a phased approach will be that it enables us carefully to monitor progress at each stage, including using the commission’s annual progress report—there is to be one from the commission each year from 2011—better to ensure that registration rates can be maintained during the change. That will 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. Part of this is to increase registration at all times, as well as to move to individual identifiers. We will expect electoral registration officers and the system to work all the time towards increasing the number of people registered. That has been happening over the past few years.

Lord Campbell-Savours: I do not expect my noble friend to answer directly now my two questions. Is it true that EROs are paid on the numbers of persons registered? If so, will that arise under this new arrangement? In other words, are they paid on the numbers that they manage and the local authority has registered? Perhaps my noble friend will drop me a note about that. Furthermore, will there not be an incentive in some areas for EROs to leave on the register electors who have moved on, for whatever reason, to compensate for failure to gather new individual registrations? Perhaps my noble friend will also comment on that in writing.

Lord Bach: Of course, I shall write to my noble friend with the answer to the first question, but for an ERO to do the second thing would be in breach of every part of the responsibilities of the job, which is surely to compile as accurate a register as he or she possibly can for the area for which they are responsible. I shall write on the first point, but I would have thought that the ERO was paid as a local government officer under normal terms and conditions. I see those who are still very much active in local government nodding.

13 May 2009 : Column GC416

As to the dates and their relationship to elections, let me repeat what I said last week. Should the shift to compulsory provision of identifiers take place in 2015, it would take place after both the 2014 European parliamentary elections and the spring 2015 elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of course, we do not know the dates of future general elections, but I was very interested in the hypothesis that the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, put forward in the debate. Placing the potential change in that time frame would manage partially the risk of making a shift in the period immediately before a national or sub-national election. We think that this change is so important—and it seems that the Committee does too—that we want as far as possible to investigate all the potential issues fully before the provision of identifiers becoming compulsory.

I go back to the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. The timetable, which is designed to give certainty to this process, which we believe is an important point, would give sufficient time for the public to acclimatise to the change; time for each and every one of the—I take the word of my noble friend Lady Gould on this—402 electoral registration officers in Great Britain to adapt to the new system and to ensure that all are working at the level of the best; time to investigate and test which public sector databases would be of most assistance to registration officers; and time to design the infrastructure of the validation of national insurance numbers that will underpin the system. It will also allow us to minimise disruption to elections by avoiding, so far as is possible, national and sub-national elections.

5.45 pm

We must take heed of the Northern Ireland experience. The registration rate fell significantly when individual registration was introduced. We intend to do all that we can to mitigate the risk of that happening in Great Britain—that is at the heart of our phased implementation programme. The points that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours makes indicate precisely why we need to make sure that we get it right in Great Britain. We believe that this objective is most likely to be achieved by building in time to ensure that the factors I just mentioned can be fully taken into account. That is what we are attempting to do. Accepting this amendment would put the successful pursuit of that objective in jeopardy.

The purpose of the phased implementation is to ensure that we take the necessary time to bolster, adapt and improve the current system for registration in readiness for this major shift in the process. For that reason, any attempts to introduce individual registration at a faster rate might risk damaging the integrity of the system and, worse still, the public’s confidence in it. If that were to happen in the run-up to a general election, the consequences for democracy and engagement could be quite serious.

The second amendment in the noble Lord’s name is Amendment 125CB, which provides that, in making an order commencing the compulsory collection of identifiers, the Secretary of State must have regard to any recommendation by the Electoral Commission of any system changes that are needed ahead of the shift

13 May 2009 : Column GC417

to compulsory individual registration. The amendment proposes that, in that event, the Secretary of State should have the power to make an order to amend the provisions in our Amendment 125D, which provide for the obligatory provision of personal identifiers, in line with those recommendations. There would then need to be an affirmative resolution.

In essence, the effect of the amendment would be to allow the commission to recommend changes to the system of full, obligatory individual registration that we are setting in place in the Bill and give the Government of the day the power to change the system by order. These changes could be fundamental and might even include the replacement of the substance of the new clause introduced by our Amendment 125D with something very different. We have reservations about that proposal. First, the discretion that it would confer on the commission and on government would be very wide. Essentially, it would create a power to make changes not envisaged in this legislation and invest that power in the Secretary of State by enabling him to make secondary legislation. The scope of the power would be limited only by the Electoral Commission’s views, and that might hand the initiative to the commission from Parliament in quite a novel way.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page