New Clause 2 — Registration Officers: General Duty
Orders of the Day — Electoral Administration Bill
Harriet Harman (Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs; Camberwell and Peckham, Labour)
Mr. Heath has tabled new clauses dealing with increasing registration, and I strongly support his objective. However, we do not suggest that the House accept his new clauses.
New clause 2 would insert a new section 8A in the Representation of the People Act 1983, and would add additional elements to the duty in clause 9 of the Bill. Clause 9 places a new duty on registration officers to take steps, set out under the clause, to ensure that the electoral register is accurate. Subsection (1)(a) of the new clause specifies that the electoral registration officer has a general duty to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is registered. We believe that that is unnecessary. Clause 9 is already clear about the duties of electoral registration officers in ensuring that everyone who is entitled to vote is registered.
Subsection (1)(b) of the new clause specifies that the electoral registration officer has a duty to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote has the opportunity to do so. Again, we believe that that is unnecessary. The Bill includes several provisions to widen access to all electors as far as possible. Clause 19 provides for a review of polling places that must take place every four years. Clauses 36 and 37 respectively provide for translations of documents into other languages and Braille, and for assistance for certain postal voters to find information about translations.
Subsection (1)(c) would add a new step to those specified under the new duty, stating that electoral registration officers must remove from the register those who are no longer eligible. That is already enshrined in section 9(2) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and is reinforced by clause 12, which confers specific powers on electoral registration officers to remove from the register persons who are not, or are no longer, eligible.
We made the changes in clause 12 not because they lack the general obligation, but because at present it is not apparent that electoral registration officers can quickly remove persons who are already on the register except on the occasion of the annual canvass, or when a declaration-based registration lapses. The statutory provisions entitle a person to remain registered until such events occur; clause 12 changes that. Subsection (2) of the new clause attempts to place a duty on local authorities to provide the "necessary resources" to enable the electoral registration officer to do his duty. Again, I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. The same point has made been on many occasions by my hon. Friend Chris Ruane.
The current system of funding local authorities is designed to give them overall control of the amounts that they spend on different priorities, including elections. Different local authorities across the United Kingdom have differing needs in terms of election funding. It is difficult to establish a set definition of the "resources necessary" for electoral registration officers to carry out their duties. That is one of the problems that we identify in the new clause. However, we recognise that it is essential that returning officers and registration officers receive enough funding to be able to implement the measures in the Bill successfully and perform their duties effectively.
Clause 63 provides for the Electoral Commission to collate centrally information from local authorities on their spending on elections and registration. That is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd has been able to acquire information because the system is organised differently in Wales, but Members here cannot compare the amounts spent by electoral registration officers. Under the Bill, for the first time, information will be collected that will be crucial to the informing of future policy development.
"as soon as reasonably practicable".
The amendment is unnecessary, for the reasons that I gave in respect of the provision on removal.
Clause 9, the "new duty" clause, and clause 12 will build on section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to ensure that registers are complete and accurate. We support the aims of the new clause, but we believe that existing provisions in the 1983 Act are sufficient. We therefore ask the House not to accept the amendment.
I have two things to say about new clause 5. We appreciate that Mrs. Laing has sought an opportunity to submit the issue for debate, and we welcome that. However, I respectfully suggest that she ought not to ask the House to divide on her new clause, which simply re-states current law but in perhaps less well-drafted terms. She will not want those outside this House to think that there is a policy dispute between us, simply because we fail to support her new clause. I am happy to give way if she wants to ask a question.