Electoral Administration Bill
Baroness Hanham (Deputy Chief Whip, Whips; Conservative)
My Lords, before commencing my speech, I ask noble Lords to note that, in the amendment that we have tabled, we have corrected a technical error. There was a previous reference to the "chief electoral officer", but that has been amended to "electoral registration officer" throughout, as there is no chief electoral officer in England and Wales, only in Ireland.
In the light of the temperate way in which the Minister has introduced this debate, I say with absolutely no hostility at all that I return to the question of the identifiers on a general basis. I completely agree with the Minister that the debate on this legislation has been extremely co-operative and helpful. Although I rankle slightly when she keeps on referring to the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Elder—since we were all there together—I acknowledge that the noble Lord was given some government help to get the amendment right at the end. But it is fair to say that this was a truly cross-party decision, and we have made substantial amendments to the Bill already.
Last night, in Grand Committee, we considered a new electoral registration form, compiled with the help of a number of luminaries, including the Electoral Commission. Yet three of us at the Committee were still able to pick substantial holes in the form's comprehensibility. It was obvious that the information to be included on the form by the occupier was quite personal. Unless the household consisted of close family members, it would be difficult to ensure that the information was accurate. Some of it, relating to qualification by nationality, was not going to be easy for the occupier to obtain. That form does not arise from this Bill; it arises from previous legislation. It struck us as strange that it should be introduced at this juncture, when it will have to change to accommodate the requirement introduced by this legislation for personal identifiers for postal voters. However, we are where we are with that, but it underlined the ease with which incorrect information could find its way on to a registration form and from which personation could so easily arise.
When we last considered this matter, I quoted examples of personation given by the Times—the cases were also cited in the other place—of people who were known to be in Pakistan at the time of the election but who appeared in polling stations on polling day and voted: they voted not by post, but in person. Since no checks are undertaken at the polling station, there would be no means for an officer to identify that the people voting were not those registered.
It is a sad truth that there are people who do not act scrupulously with regard to voting and who do not consider it to be the precious right that I know the Minister and others involved in the Bill believe it to be. Those people do not believe that voting should be carried out with integrity, but are anxious for one reason or another to skew election results.
As the Minister said, we have during the passage of the Bill co-operatively made huge changes to the provisions that it contained at the outset. One of the most successful changes has been to ensure that individual identifiers must be supplied for postal votes. It would stretch the matter only a little further to require that that should be done in general. Each person should be registered individually and should provide at least two identifiers, namely a signature and a date of birth—those are what will be required for postal votes—which can be checked at the time of voting in the polling station or, as far as postal voting is concerned, on receipt of the vote by the appropriate electoral registration officer.
In this House and in the other place, one of the objections raised by the Government to extending postal voter identifiers to general registrations is that that might reduce the number of people on the register, at least in the short term. Having seen the new form last night, I am convinced that it will make it much easier for the person required to make the return for, for example, a house in multiple occupation to leave people off or to put them on incorrectly. I therefore do not accept that to have a register that is even more accurate than at present, even if the number of people on it is reduced in the short term, would be a world-shattering disaster.
We have debated this matter on several occasions. We on this side of the House are convinced that, if the Government do not accept our amendment today, they will have to concede to it at a later date. We all know how hard it is to get legislation through, so that might be a long time coming. So I ask the Minister: if it is going to come, why not now? I beg to move.
Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end insert "but do propose Amendment No. 8B in lieu".—(Baroness Hanham.)