New System of Electoral Registration

Clause 1 – in the House of Commons at 11:51 pm on 8th March 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 23, after first ("a") insert ("qualifying")

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 12:16 am, 8th March 2000

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The amendment gives effect to a commitment that the Government made in another place to introduce amendments to ensure that those who have not been given leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom should not be able to register and vote here. Rolling registration will make it easier for people to get on the electoral register. I am sure that the whole House will agree—Opposition Members made the point in earlier debates on the legislation—that it would be wrong if those who have not been given leave to enter this country were to try to take advantage of that by registering. This group of amendments will ensure that that does not happen, and ensure that those who have entered the country illegally may not register. I am sure that the House will agree that illegal entrants should not have the right to vote.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

This is a very important group of amendments. It is one of 12 groups of amendments, which we now have only 50 minutes to debate. That is a great shame—(Interruption.] It is fine for the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), to try to make a joke about it, but the Bill is about the real crisis of democracy that is not outside this Parliament, but inside it.

We are grateful that the Government have listened to the suggestion made, in Lords amendment No. 4, by Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish. The suggestion deals with those who are commonly called asylum seekers. It is important that we should consider the legislation's full repercussions. Just now, the Minister rightly said that the overall thrust of the Bill is to make voting easier. We fully support the Government in that intention. However, in making voting easier, we want to ensure that only those who are eligible to vote are able to vote.

Although we support the Government in encouraging those who are legally eligible to vote to register and take part in the democratic process, we shall have to consider how the legislation will work in bad times as well as in good. Some Labour Back Benchers will remember that Opposition Members made the same statement when the Government of Wales Act 1998 was being passed, but that we were shouted down. The Government said that everything would be okay and that there would be no problems once that legislation had been enacted. Now that it has been enacted, we see the problems. I wish that we had had the requisite foresight then, but that would have resulted from greater scrutiny and the Government listening more carefully to the arguments. I hope that they will do that on these amendments.

My great fear about amendment No. 4 results from the fact that it has been grouped with the other amendments. The Electoral Commission was mentioned earlier and it will be discussed in the debates on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, which is to come before the House next week. The Government will consult the commission and it will become far easier for people to vote. I welcome that. Pilot schemes will examine mobile voting, weekend voting and earlier voting, and the Minister has issued a list in a written answer that appeared on 29 February. However, the details of the schemes have yet to be published.

I hope that the Minister will be able to put meat on the bone of the list that he has already issued. Of the schemes, 16 deal with early voting, two deal with the extension of the hours of the poll and four deal with mobile polling facilities. People normally vote by going to a fixed polling and saying that they are who they claim they are. They may show a polling card and their name is crossed off. However, they do not have to show a card, and we have already agreed that we do not want to make that an obligation. However, we are not certain how much personation takes places in local, parliamentary, European, Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament elections. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that proper research will take place into the problem of personation, particularly in regard to the areas where the pilot studies are being rolled out.

The ease with which people are able to vote causes a problem with asylum seekers. [Interruption.] The Minister of State should not heckle, but should listen carefully to what I have to say. Perhaps we will then ensure that the Bill is properly scrutinised and improved. The right hon. Gentleman was not present at the Bill's earlier stages, so he will not know that many of our amendments were taken on and made in another place. The Bill has returned to the House and further improvements can be made to it.

We know that, two years ago, 36,000 asylum seekers came into the country and that 71,000 came in last year. About 100,000 people are trying to claim asylum in this country. We seek assurances from the Government. The Minister says that people who are waiting to find out whether they have made a proper legal entry to this country will be able to vote, but until that point has been made clear they will not be able to register to vote. The Bill means that, with the local declaration of identity, people will be able to go to a registration officer and say that they live in a particular area. They may be homeless or of no fixed abode, but the Bill will make it easier for people to say that they have lived in an area without properly having to prove that they have done so. The Minister looks confused.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

This debate began some time ago and I have listened to the hon. Gentleman with great care and with my pen poised to try to note one serious point that he has made about the amendment. So far, I have barely used my pen. What point is he trying to make?

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I suspect that that may be more a problem with the Minister than it is with me. Had I been out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would have told me. The Government have introduced one of the severest guillotines that I have seen in my eight years as a Member of the House. They want us to rattle through each of the 12 groups of amendments. The Minister knows that, in the 50 minutes remaining to us after the debate on the guillotine motion, we will not be able to debate the ninth group of amendments, dealing with the free delivery of election addresses at the mayoral elections; that was his intention, so it is pointless making bogus arguments. We shall not be denied the opportunity of debate. It is all right for the Government. They have the numbers on their side. They are abusing their large majority. They can always win the vote, but they will not deny the Opposition their voice when Opposition Members have something to say. Back Benchers are also being denied a say, and they should be alarmed by that.

How many asylum seekers come from Commonwealth countries? Of the 100,000 who are awaiting adjudication, how many would be eligible to register should they be allowed to stay here? Registration officers will have to deal with many changes to the registration system. The rolling registers, which we back, will be expensive for local authorities. What resources will be made available in that respect? What guidance will registration officers be given on dealing with inquiries from people in this country who have not been given leave to stay? There may be a large number of such people. As I say, 100,000 are awaiting adjudication on their claim for asylum. What guidance will registration officers be given on how to determine whether people are eligible for inclusion on the register? There may be others who are not claiming asylum but who are here as Commonwealth citizens; they will not be eligible but will nevertheless ask to be registered.

The local declaration is also important. Will each registration officer ask the person who comes to the town or city hall whether he or she is a bona fide British citizen, and what sort of proof of identity will the registration officer ask for? Those are important questions that need to be answered.

We are extremely grateful that the Government have listened and for the amendments suggested in the other place by Lord MacKay. But we want to ensure that the legislation will be effective and that the registration officers have the tools to do the job.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The amendments are sensible and we support them.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said that he is pleased that the Government have listened. He said that the thrust of the Bill is to make voting easier, and that the Opposition fully support that. In view of the debate that we had earlier, I am pleased that he has decided that the Government listen and that he supports the general thrust of the Bill.

The provisions will bite on all port applicants, overstayers, illegal immigrants and those with no leave to remain in the United Kingdom. Asylum seekers with leave to remain and who are Commonwealth citizens may well be in a different category. We will have to do the calculation to let the hon. Gentleman know how many asylum seekers there are from Commonwealth countries.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 12:30 am, 8th March 2000

Is the Minister saying that the Commonwealth citizens on the list of 100,000 who are waiting for adjudication will be able to vote in general elections?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

There are obviously people who have come here lawfully, who may have good reasons for being here and who have, quite properly, been granted the right to enter, and who may then, for their own reasons, have decided to apply for refugee status. That puts them in a somewhat different category. They have the right to be here in the first place. If they are Commonwealth citizens, they may well be in a different category from those who have entered illegally, for example.

The hon. Gentleman asked about guidance for electoral registration officers. We will certainly discuss with them what guidance they will need in order to determine some of the issues, but we do not anticipate that issues such as local connection will create much controversy.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 2 agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 3, in page 2, line 44, at end insert— ("(ii) compliance with any prescribed requirements; and")

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.—[Mr. Mike O'Brien.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 5, 6, 8 to 11, 13, 40, 44 to 51, 53 to 55, 59, 61 to 65, 69 to 73, 75, 76 and 86.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Although these are described on the amendment paper as minor and drafting amendments, I ask the Minister to consider some points carefully, because some of the amendments add substantially to the text of the legislation. Some of them have been discussed in another place. I refer hon. Members who have not looked at the Lords Hansard to the number of occasions on which the Minister, Lord Bassam of Brighton, had to concede ground both to Liberal Democrat Lords and to my noble Friend Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish.

It is clear that the Government have been in a terrible mess over this legislation and have been trying to rush, in the past few days, to get it into order in the other place. That is why we have such a huge group of amendments to correct mistakes that were made earlier. We shall come later to even more substantive amendments that the Government finally accepted in another place.

Lords amendment No. 69 refers to matters that need to be proved. What advice has the Minister been given by his officials on the standard of proof? The amendment is to insert a new section 180A, which says:

The certificate of a registration officer that any person is or is not, or was or was not at any particular time, duly registered in one of the officer's registers in respect of any address shall be sufficient evidence of the facts stated in it; and a document purporting to be such a certificate shall be received in evidence and presumed to be such a certificate unless the contrary is proved. In certain circumstances, that could be an important matter. Will the standard of proof for the contrary being proved be the civil standard, on the balance of probabilities, or the criminal standard, beyond a reasonable doubt? I am sure that officials will advise the Minister about that. I rather presume that it is likely to be the civil standard, but these are important matters relating to the certificates of registration officers and I hope for an answer.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

What background information do we have about the nature of proof that will be required and the definition of sufficient evidence?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

My hon. Friend is right to query that point, because the amendment is so recent and has been brought forward at such a late stage—I referred earlier during the debate on the guillotine motion to the fact that the other place was considering amendments to the Bill as recently as Monday—that we have no background information. That is why I am asking the Minister to respond. My hon. Friend is on to a good point because the provision is potentially draconian, in that it says that the certificate of the registration officer will be conclusive.

Lords amendments Nos. 71 and 73 delete the words "the principal Act". Will the Minister confirm whether that corrects a mistake in the original drafting? I do not believe that those words appear anywhere else in the Bill, but I would like the Minister to shed light on what the "principal Act" was.

Lords amendment No. 76 deletes the word "time" and I hope that the Minister will shed light on why that deletion has been made. The original words of the 1983 Act, mentioned in schedule 3(4) of the Bill, referred to the time, place and manner of its publication. Why will only "place and manner" be left in the Bill?

Lords amendments Nos. 8 to 11 deal with the position of patients in mental hospitals and prisoners on remand. It has been accepted by the Home Affairs Committee, on which I served, and by the Government's review, chaired by the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) and which led to the introduction of the Bill, that the provisions for both those categories should be revised. Those issues received much debate in the House and in the other place. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley pointed out that the amendments have been rushed through at the very last minute, and we fear that the Government will have to come back to the House and amend the legislation yet again.

There have been so many amendments relating to previous mental health legislation and legislation on remand prisoners that I wonder whether the Minister is certain that the Government have finally got it right. Are they confident that the legislation is in the correct form in respect of the amendments needed to previous legislation on those issues? When I practised at the Bar, I dealt with several cases connected with mental health issues. Of course, all practising lawyers in the criminal law have been concerned about the rights of remand prisoners, so I simply want the Minister to reassure us that we will not find that the last-minute rush will lead to more confusion that will need to be corrected.

It struck me as an extraordinary irony that amendment No. 6 contains the words page 4, line 13, after 1984, insert. The guillotine proceedings tonight have been yet another example of how this has become a truly Orwellian Labour Government, in which a word means what they want it to mean. The Government specialise in newspeak, so it struck me as ironic and appropriate that Government amendment No. 6 refers to things happening after 1984. It is precisely because Conservative Members worry so much about the Government's Big Brother style that we wish to query so many matters.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I am saddened by that attitude. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) clearly said that the Government were listening, but the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) went on about matters Orwellian, saying that the Government are in mess because they have made concessions and have not got their act together. Throughout the debate on the Bill, the Government have shown that we are prepared to listen to sensible points. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has just presented himself as the king of yah-boo-sucks politics, which does not give the debate the credit and the importance that it deserves.

Some of the matters that have been raised are quite technical, so I shall deal first with amendments Nos. 8 and 9, which bring clauses 4 and 5 within the scope of the provisions for the registration of mental patients and remand prisoners. Those provisions are thereby brought into line with new section 7C, which is inserted by clause 6.

The amendments will make entitlement to be registered for a 12-month period explicit on the face of the Bill, whereas that entitlement was to have been included in regulations. In the course of our deliberations, Conservative Members have asked for matters to be included on the face of the Bill, the Government have listened to the points that have been made and have sought to respond. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley acknowledged that, and I welcome his approach. However, I think that the yah-boo-sucks politics exhibited by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath does the House no credit.

Amendments Nos. 11 and 45 also clarify that the word "residence", in this context, needs to be construed in accordance with new section 4. As to whether the Government consider that we have got the matter right, I can tell the House that we would not have brought it forward if we did not think that we had.

Amendment No. 69 provides for the evidential effect of a registration officer's certificate that a person was, or was not, registered at a particular time. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath asked about the standard of proof, but we are dealing with a simple, factual statement by a registration officer. How that statement is used will determine the standard of proof that is required. Therefore, if the statement were to be used in a civil case, the standard of proof will be the civil standard. If it were used in a criminal case, the situation could be different if a prosecution were under way. Matters would then have to be proved to the normal standard of proof. That is fairly straightforward.

Amendment No. 71 is necessary because provisions relating to the registration of overseas voters are now contained solely in the Representation of the People Act 1985. Amendments Nos. 72 and 73 are consequential on amendment No. 62, as they remove provisions relating to the effect of section 49 from new sections 2 and 3 of the 1985 Act.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath asked about the principal Act. The proposals relate to matters arising from the 1985 Act.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

What about amendments Nos. 76 and 65?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I apologise for omitting those amendments. Amendments Nos. 76 and 65 remove the requirement that regulations should cover the time at which a register is published. That is already dealt with elsewhere in the Bill, so the amendments are merely technical to remove the requirement to deal with that matter in regulations.

I hope that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will consider that my remarks have clarified those technical but no doubt relevant issues.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 4 to 6 agreed to.