The Second Deputy Chairman:
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 30, in page 6, line 18, at end insert
'and to maximise the number of those entitled to register who do so.'.
No. 1, in page 6, line 26, at end insert—
'(ca) ensuring that registers are compiled in accordance with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 2001;'.
No. 28, in page 6, line 31, at end insert—
'(f) inspecting any records held by any person or organisation as designated by the Secretary of State.'.
No. 29, in page 6, line 36, at end add—
'"9B Duty to provide information to registration officers
The Secretary of State may require any person or organisation to provide all appropriate information to registration officers to assist them with the performance of their duties.".'.
We welcome the intention of the Bill and the Government's belated recognition that all is not well in our once-envied electoral system. It is in urgent need of attention because there is much work to be done following years of neglect. While we support many of the Bill's provisions, there are problems with what it fails to include. That is certainly the case with part 2, and specifically with clause 9. The Bill contains many ideas, but very little is offered in terms of immediate and substantive reform of the electoral system.
A survey conducted by MORI earlier this year found that 54 per cent. of the public think that postal voting has made it easier to commit electoral fraud. An even higher percentage thought that electronic voting would increase fraud: 74 per cent. thought that that would be the case with voting by text message and 55 per cent. with voting by website. What is needed is genuine reform that will re-establish the integrity of the electoral system. What is also needed is a Bill that will crack down on the fraud that is detracting from the electorate's faith in our democracy. What we have, however, is a Bill that promises a lot, but does not deliver as much as it promises.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the MORI poll, which I think was conducted in May and June. Is he worried that such scientific research was conducted during a period in which there was wall-to-wall coverage in the press and on radio and television about postal ballot fraud? Surely, if changes are going to be made on the back of such research, it would have been better to carry it out at a more stable time.
To answer the question put by Chris Ruane, yes, if a survey were conducted at a different time, it might produce a different answer, but he will appreciate that there are real concerns about the integrity of our voting system. I certainly do not think that the Government would deny that.
I hope that my question is precisely on the matter for debate. One issue involving clear mischief is the repetition of names, either because people have moved and should have come off the register at address A when they registered at address B, or because they have registered in the same name at more than one place. Do the amendments, or the Bill, deal with that mischief? If not, can we ensure between us that we do so? The Minister and I know that this is an issue not only in our borough but elsewhere.
That is an issue that we shall come to later.
We must be careful not to confuse the overriding need to preserve the integrity of the electoral system with the important but nevertheless secondary issue of increasing voter turnout. The registration process should provide an accurate, comprehensive and secure foundation for the conduct of elections. Registration is the building block on which all else rests. Without a credible system, talk of increasing voter turnout would only be counter-productive. We believe that British citizens should want to vote and should be proud of our democratic system. We also believe that steps need to be taken to facilitate that by making voting more secure and more accessible, but we do not believe in focusing on making it so easy to vote that people will vote just because it is easy to do so, rather than out of genuine democratic interest.
For these reasons, I want to focus on what needs to be done to ensure confidence in the integrity of our system. Preventing offences is clearly a more effective way to build public confidence than prosecuting offenders.
We believe that and we support the provisions that say it, but we want electoral registration officers also to be responsible for ensuring that people who should not be on the roll are not on it. Indeed, the integrity of the system is, from our point of view, the priority issue.
Registration is the biggest single issue about which the Electoral Commission receives inquiries from the public. Between the start of February this year and polling day, the commission fielded almost 36,000 telephone calls about registration, representing two thirds of all inquiries. There were a further 318,000 visitors to the commission's voter registration website. Young people are most likely to be unregistered, with 16 per cent. of 18 to 24-year-olds unregistered—double the national average. The figure is similar for ethnic minorities and the unemployed, among whom 17 per cent. are unregistered.
Among the groups in society where registration rates are below average, lower turnout rates have also been recorded. Younger voters—those aged 24 and under—are almost half as likely to vote as the population as a whole.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point that I will make on a later group of amendments. I believe that the answer is none or a negligible number.
On postal ballot fraud, can the hon. Gentleman give the figures for the number of successful prosecutions at parliamentary or local government elections over the past two or three years?
No, I shall make headway.
Longer-term analysis by the Electoral Commission suggests that there is a disfranchised generation that, as it gets older, will not turn out in greater numbers. We hear little as to what the Government propose to do about that. Increasing political awareness and interest must surely be at the heart of any attempt to increase turnout. If that issue is not tackled in conjunction with the Bill, increasing duties on electoral registration officers will, we agree, have little effect.
The commission raised particular concerns about the existing registration system, under which the head of household is much more likely to be registered than other eligible people in the home. My hon. Friend Mr. Heald will deal with that point later. We believe that individual registration is very much tied in with amendment No. 14, which is why I have taken some time to put the two together.
Clause 9, which will insert proposed new section 9A in the Representation of the People Act 1983, sets out a non-exhaustive list of the minimum steps that must be taken by the electoral registration officers to identify persons eligible for registration as electors—for example, making repeat house-to-house inquiries in connection with the annual canvass.
We support that clause and believe that there should be clear duties on registration officers to promote accurate registration. Nevertheless, the clause could go further in promoting not only registration, but an accurate register. We must recognise that over-registration and under-registration are both problems that need addressing.
We must all be clear about the fact that an accurate register that results in fewer people being registered is preferable, from our point of view, to a bloated, inaccurate register. If the registration system is secure and accurate, the risks further downstream in the electoral process are significantly reduced.
There is a fundamental difficulty with that. If someone's name is inappropriately on the electoral register and he votes, he may commit an offence, but if someone's name is not on the electoral register, he has no recourse and is precluded from voting by the absence of his name.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point—I agree—but our position is that the integrity of the register in itself must be the priority. If there is no integrity within the electoral register, people's confidence in the system will only decline over time.
Obviously, the rules can encourage under-registration or over-registration. Has the hon. Gentleman sized those two different problems? What is the percentage of over-registration compared with the percentage of under-registration for any one given register?
I do not have those figures, but I would be delighted to hear them from the Minister.
May I tell the hon. Gentleman that the figures for under-registration are in the public domain and were produced by the Electoral Commission in September? The figure is between 3.5 million and 4 million people. If single signature or unique identifiers go ahead, there could be a further 10 per cent. drop—another 4 million. We might have 8 million people off the register as a result.
The hon. Gentleman has been dying to give that statistic, and he has now given it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one can have under-registration and over-registration at the same time, because some people, as Simon Hughes suggested, might be registered more than once without such an entitlement? The Government were happy to introduce a Northern Ireland electoral fraud Bill that was designed to prevent the phenomenon of some constituencies having more people registered than there were electors.
I agree with my hon. Friend: there can be over and under-representation on the same register, but the priority is to ensure that the register is as accurate as possible. That is the starting block of our democracy.
The amendment would ensure that registration officers had a clear duty to remove individuals from an electoral register who should not be on it. People who are no longer resident should be removed from the register, particularly in urban areas with a high population turnover. Keeping electors on the electoral roll who are no longer resident opens the door to election fraud. The amendment is designed to tackle the current problem of over-registration by creating this new duty for electoral registration officers to remove individuals from the register who are no longer eligible to be on it .
I thank the hon. Gentleman for getting on to the terms of amendment No. 14. I understand that, under the 2000 legislation, electors are removed from the register and safeguards are in place, especially where no electoral registration form is returned. What additional over-registration is the hon. Gentleman trying to reach with this amendment?
The hon. Gentleman will find that the situation varies dramatically from place to place. Best practice across the various electoral districts is a serious issue. The point of the amendment is that electoral registration officers should have a duty under the Bill in relation to those who should not be on the register, as well as in relation to those who should be on it. The wording of the amendment is no less important, if not more important, that that in the Bill.
Will my hon. Friend explain to the Committee how this amendment, which I broadly support, would work in the case of someone sentenced to imprisonment? Would that not impose a duty on registration officers to remove such an individual's name from the register for the period of his incarceration?
Yes, that would be correct. That is the law and electoral registration officers should be checking up on that.
No, I will make some progress.
We acknowledge that the Secretary of State is given powers to add to the list contained in clause 9 but believe that the Bill should go further and that EROs should have an obligation under the clause to ensure that proactive steps are taken towards an accurate register, which would include removing individuals from the register who are no longer eligible to be on it.
We also acknowledge that clause 61 provides for the Electoral Commission to set performance standards for electoral administrators and that it envisages that the commission will set further standards for EROs to complement the minimum ones set out in clause 9, but is that not just another example of a clause that talks the talk but does not quite walk the walk, of which we will see a lot during consideration of the Bill? Why should we not clearly set out those further standards and all the duties and expectations of EROs in this clause? Obviously, we accept that some flexibility to add or modify the duties is desirable. Why not be a little bolder and set clear duties on the EROs? They would work more effectively if they knew their role and if their responsibilities were clearly defined.
I acknowledge the excellent work done by registration officers and other electoral staff and administrators. We must realise that increased burdens require increased training and possibly increased staffing levels. Has the Minister done any impact assessment of the additional costs that could be involved and how exactly they will be funded? It must be said that the Government's record in introducing new duties for local government and then providing inadequate resources is renowned. There are many instances of local authorities having to subsidise new duties because of insufficient Government funding. These are the issues that need to be addressed if the Bill is going to work.
The increased level of under-registration has also been of concern to all those involved in elections, but it is a distinct issue. In their report "Understanding electoral registration: the extent and nature of non-registration in Britain" of September 2005, the Electoral Commission estimated that 3.7 million people across England and Wales who are eligible to vote are not registered to do so. That means that approximately 8 per cent of those eligible to vote are not registered. I shall discuss that in more detail later.
Under the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, there is an obligation on the head of the household to return the registration forms. Clearly, that is not being done and the fine that can be imposed is simply not being put into effect. Making individuals more accountable could be better achieved under a system of individual registration, where a duty to register would be easier to enforce and the obligations imposed by the amendment would be more easily enforced as well.
It is widely recognised that non-registration is not spread evenly across the population but is worse in certain areas and among certain sections of the population. That point demonstrates that individual registration will not necessarily increase voter turnout. Non-registration should be combated by targeting those parts of the population where it is particularly prevalent. If that is done in conjunction with the introduction of individual registration, we will be taking effective steps towards combating both over and under-registration.
We generally agree with the principle of the amendment tabled by Mr. Betts and with the idea that there should be duties on electoral registration officers both to keep an accurate register and to promote electoral registration. On a cautionary note, increasing political awareness and interest surely must be at the heart of any attempt to increase turnout. If the issue is not tackled in conjunction with the Bill, increasing duties on electoral registration officers may have little effect.
On the amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats, we welcome any amendments that have the potential to deliver better access to electoral registration and voting for disabled people. However, I wonder whether the reference to the Disability Discrimination Act 2001 is correct and whether it should be 1995 or 2005.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. We support the intention of the amendment and would appreciate it if the Minister looked further into the matters facing those with disabilities. The Bill should ensure that the voting process is accessible, from registration to the casting of the ballots, to all those with disabilities. We should certainly do all we can to ensure that the Bill complies with the disability equality duty contained in section 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe tabled amendments Nos. 28 and 29, and we support the general intention behind them, particularly in relation to how they could facilitate the better implementation of individual registration. On individual registration, we recognise that some form of roll-over measures may be needed, based on the experience of Northern Ireland. We concur with the views put to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee that we should move swiftly to individual registration with vigorous data swapping between electoral registration officers and utilities, the Post Office, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and others.
Amendment No. 28 places a welcome duty on registration officers to use the records and resources available to them to ensure an accurate register. As I have said, we believe that that should be the foundation of the electoral process. We also believe, however, that access to information should not be unfettered. While we support the intention of the amendment, it might be better to specify the type of information available for data sharing in this primary legislation. It may also be necessary to consider safeguards beyond the Data Protection Act 1998 to prevent unfettered access and possible abuse of information. I should be interested to hear the Minister's views.
We have similar worries about amendment No. 29. Effective and unencumbered data sharing would clearly make for an accurate register, but adequate safeguards would again be necessary. We support the use of data matching against other public registers to enable potentially eligible electors who are not yet registered to be identified and targeted more effectively. The implications of sharing information between local authorities, Departments and other agencies require detailed consideration by the expert agencies.
I was interested by the Opposition's approach. I was more heartened at the end of the speech by Mr. Djanogly than I was at the beginning, once he had made it clear that he broadly supported measures aimed at improving the level of electoral registration. The wording of amendment No. 14 suggests that the Opposition's remit is to get people off the register rather than on to it. That was the major problem that I, along with many other Members, raised on Second Reading.
Currently, electoral registration is not fair. It is biased, and discriminates against people in inner-city areas, people in housing with multiple occupation, people who are young, people who are black and people from the Asian community. We must therefore find a better system to achieve fairer registration that more accurately reflects people's entitlement to register. I accept that people who have no entitlement should not be on the register—that goes without saying—but we must address this major problem as well.
I have a view on the moves we should be making and the long-term objective of completely revised electoral registration, and my amendments conform with that view. The annual canvass with a bit of information coming from one or two databases—such as council tax information—is a pretty inefficient way of compiling an electoral register. Over two or three months, a great deal of effort is put into going around and offering people the opportunity to provide information that is already available to electoral registration officers because the form was filled in a year earlier and nothing much has changed.
The joint report of the Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee drew on evidence that we had seen in Australia, where electoral registration information is obtained from various databases and used to follow up individuals whose circumstances have changed. By doing that, rather than conducting an annual canvass of everyone, the authorities managed to produce a register which they told us they considered to be 98 per cent. accurate.
Yesterday I spoke to Sam Younger, head of the Electoral Commission. He shares my hon. Friend's view that filling in a form every year is not necessary, believing that once per parliamentary term or once every four years would be acceptable. Would my hon. Friend support that?
Yes, I would be content to move in that general direction. I also feel that the whole House should thank my hon. Friend for all the work that he has done, and for gathering information and statistics about the extent of under-registration.
If we adopted a system under which data from a variety of organisations provided the basis on which electoral registration was carried out, we could, if we wished, also conduct an audit check by means of a canvass, say every three years. Electoral registration officers could then use their resources more effectively and spread out the check over a period, rather than trying to target everyone, irrespective of whether their circumstances had changed, within three months. That is very inefficient. I am seeking, through my amendments, to strengthen the current arrangements with a view to moving gradually towards the situation that I have just outlined.
One issue that emerged strongly during our Select Committee's deliberations was electoral registration officers' concern about whether they have the right—let alone a responsibility—to encourage people to get their name on the register. Their worry was that they might at some stage face a legal challenge, and might be getting into the political arena. Amendment No. 30 seeks to make it absolutely clear that we are not merely encouraging but requiring them
"to maximise the number of those entitled to register who do so."
That would remove any doubt, making it clear that EROs will not face a legal challenge in encouraging people to register. When we consider later clauses, I shall make it clear that I want a duty to be imposed on EROs to produce for the Electoral Commission an annual report on the extent to which they have achieved that objective. Indeed, I want the requirement to maximise registration to be imposed on the commission, as well. The commission does a lot of good in giving advice, but it would be worth while imposing on it the duty positively to achieve that objective.
That excellent suggestion has my full support. However, local EROs should produce such reports not only for the commission but for their local electorates, to let them know how they are performing. That should be done on a national scale, and should perhaps involve a league table.
Perhaps, and if this House does not require that a league table be drawn up, someone doubtless soon will; perhaps my hon. Friend will have another job to do in that regard. Local council committees can scrutinise such reports annually, and it might not be a bad idea for the commission—should it be given this responsibility—to produce an annual report for Parliament, so that we can scrutinise how well it has performed overall.
On safeguards and scrutiny, our Select Committee hearing examined the idea of using a variety of databases. In general, data protection experts had no problem with that, so long as it is made clear that the information collected can be used for this purpose.
I am certainly prepared to listen to what my colleagues on the Government Front Bench have to say. The wording of my amendment may not be perfect, but I hope that they at least accept the thrust of the idea that we should make it clear that EROs have the right to access not merely information held by a council—it is clear that they already access council tax and benefits information, for example—but wider information. Let us consider a classic case. Local authorities used to have housing departments, whose information could be used by EROs. Housing departments as we traditionally understand them no longer exist, because stock transfers have taken place or arm's length management organisations have been created, as in the case of my Sheffield authority. It is not clear whether EROs have the right to seek information outside the council from arm's length, or completely separate and independent, bodies. It would clearly be wrong if the information historically used by EROs were suddenly removed as the result of a housing stock transfer.
I have in my hand responses from EROs throughout the country, and it may surprise my hon. Friend to learn that not all take advantage of their current ability to consult local government databases, so a duty needs to be imposed on them to pursue such information. Many of them have said that they would welcome access to central Government databases, in order to improve their registers.
The point that my hon. Friend makes is absolutely right. In Australia, for example, driving licence information is used, along with information from private companies, utilities and organisations in the public domain such as the post office. All those bodies have information about people changing their addresses. That is the fundamental basis on which electoral registration officers work, to ensure that the registers are as accurate as possible.
The amendments are not intended to be too prescriptive about precisely which information should be used; I am merely saying that we should broaden it beyond the information available to councils. I want to make it clear that registration officers should have the ability to use information from such individuals and organisations as the Secretary of State designates for that purpose.
My amendment No. 29 attempts to turn the position round by saying that it is not merely for electoral registration officers to have to seek the information; rather, certain organisations that have information about people's change of address—institutions such as universities, for example, which have information about individuals becoming 18 or moving to a particular area—should be required to notify the ERO. In the past, the two universities in Sheffield have adopted different approaches to supplying information about halls of residence. It is wrong if one set of students is more likely to be on the register than another, simply because of a particular decision of an individual officer within a university.
My amendments incorporate the various issues that I have mentioned. My Front-Bench colleagues may point to deficiencies in the wording, but I believe that there is a great deal of support for what the amendments are intended to achieve. We need to recognise that we have a serious problem of under-registration and that much data within councils, other public bodies, utilities and the private sector are readily available—all of which would make EROs' job much better and lead to a more accurate register. Many people not currently on the register could be on it in the future. I hope that Ministers are minded to accept, if not the precise wording, the intention behind the amendments.
I rise to speak to the group of amendments and, in particular, to the amendments standing in my name and that of my hon. Friends. I shall deal with the generality of the group of amendments first.
I am concerned that the Committee seems already to be getting into an either/or position: either we have to prioritise the integrity of the registration process and the ballot, or we have to maximise the number of people available. I have to say—not just because I am a Liberal—that there is a Goldilocks solution here. We do not want under-registration or over-registration; we want it to be just right. What we need, therefore, are provisions to maximise the integrity of the registration process, while at the same time ensuring that as many people as are eligible to vote are actually on the register and able to vote. I made that point on Second Reading.
That is not a controversial statement, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we introduce too many security measures, it may well have an adverse impact on the number of people prepared to climb the hurdles in order to register to vote?
I do, actually. If the hon. Gentleman listened to what I said on Second Reading, he would know that I disagreed with Conservative proposals relating to national insurance numbers. Not everyone in the country knows that number instantly, so it could prove an obstacle to registration, but that does not rule out the possibility of using other identifiers with which people are more familiar, particularly if they are more easily accessed. That could help to maintain confidence in the system.
"take all necessary steps to remove individuals from the electoral register who are no longer eligible".
Of course that should be a duty. However, making that the first duty, even before there is a duty to create the register, is not sensible. The first duty should not be to remove people from a register that is not yet created. The amendment certainly overstates the case a little.
It would be all right further down. That would be the right place, as it would suggest that the register's integrity was an important factor, but not one that outweighed any other consideration.
Mr. Betts was right, when speaking to his amendment No. 30, to stress the need to maximise the number of people entitled to register. I hope that the Bill contains a clear expression of that intention. I understand the objectives of his other amendments, and I admit that I am being pedantic, but the proposal in amendment No. 28 to give EROs not just a power but a duty to inspect
"any records held by any person or organisation as designated by the Secretary of State" might involve them in rather more work than they had anticipated. We need access to any record, and EROs, as part of their duty to maximise the number of people on the register, should use the information available in a sensible way. Although the amendment is not worded quite right, my criticism is minor and I do not want to take anything away from the hon. Gentleman's intention.
My difficulty with amendment No. 29 is similar. I think that organisations should have a duty to provide information on request, but bureaucratic meltdown might result if the duty were to provide any bit of information that might ever be of value to an ERO whenever a database somewhere in the country was changed. I think that the job that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe wants done would be achieved by inserting into the Bill a duty to provide information on request and by giving EROs the power of inspection, provided that that was in the context of an overall and overriding duty to maximise the numbers of people on the register who are entitled to vote, and to remove those who are not so entitled.
When we collect data, does my hon. Friend agree that we must ensure that things do not happen that we do not want to happen? For example, the names of people registered anonymously will not appear on the published register. If they move house, or if the details of their driving licences change, must not EROs be obliged to check out the facts, for reasons of personal security, before a name appears on the electoral register that should not appear there?
My hon. Friend is right. Multiple entries sometimes appear on the register that one would expect the ERO to notice. I have great respect for the EROs in my constituency, but my opponent in the general election did not register as a voter in my constituency until three months before the election. When he did, he appeared on the register at three different addresses in the same village. That surprised me a little.
I am especially concerned about how databases are gathered. My business is the creation of databases, and I can tell the House that most of them are almost useless. Accurate information is vital to the election process, so I want to offer a word of warning that EROs should be wary about how it is collected.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point—although I must say that my business is being a Member of Parliament. He is right to say that a lot of databases are corrupted and that when one puts rubbish into a database one gets rubbish out. The register is too important to have rubbish put into it, and I accept the point that he makes.
We have to get through many groups of amendments in the next couple of hours, so I shall not speak at length. I shall briefly introduce amendment No. 1, which I tabled. As the hon. Member for Huntingdon said, it has a typographical error and should read "2005", not "2001". I think that that is what the original text said. All I seek from the Minister is clear guidance for registration officers that it is important to look after people with disabilities in the registration process as well as in the voting process. We are getting it right more and more in the voting process, but I am less convinced about the registration process.
Communication with people with disabilities needs to be appropriate, and that is not always the case. Canvass officers need the appropriate skills to communicate with people with disabilities and registration officers may need to use means of communication that are not the obvious ones. Instead of advertisements in newspapers, they might need to be placed in specialised forms of media that will reach those who would otherwise not be reached. The whole question of household registration as opposed to individual registration also needs to be considered. If one or two people in a house have disabilities, they may need specific and separate treatment to enable them to register correctly.
The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 will—I think—impose a duty on registration officers as of December 2006, and that general duty may cover all the issues that I have mentioned. However, this is an opportunity to be explicit before that date and ensure that a sector of the community is not effectively disbarred from taking part in the democratic process. That is the purpose of my amendment. I do not intend to press it to a Division, but I hope that the Minister will respond positively to it.
I agreed with Mr. Heath when he said that this should not be an either/or argument between maintaining the integrity of the electoral register and making it as comprehensive as possible. I also agreed with my Friend Mr. Betts when he reminded us of the situation in Australia, where they have compulsory voting. As he told us, 98 per cent. of the population there is on the electoral register, so we should examine the Australian experience carefully. I would not adopt compulsory voting: instead, I would reward people for joining the electoral register. That may sound a little eccentric or zany, but we could tweak income tax codes or enhance benefits and reward people for participating in elections, which is of course a civic duty.
I agree with amendment No. 14 that registration officers should be under a duty to remove names from the electoral register. At the last election, my Liberal Democrat opponent, Shazad Anwar, circulated leaflets saying that he lived at 34 Kibble Grove, Brierfield, with his wife, Raisa. When we looked at the register it showed that he also lived with his brother and two sisters, who also appeared on the electoral register in Burnley. We went back a further year and those same relatives appeared on both the Pendle and the Burnley registers for that year. We took the matter up with the police, who told us that they had been in touch with the town hall in neighbouring Burnley and it was the practice that if electoral registration forms for an address were not returned, the names were rolled forward on the register for 12 months. I have the letter from the police in front of me. That practice is not good enough, because if people think that the integrity of the electoral register is corrupted in some way, they will soon stop accepting the results of elections, especially close ones. These are important issues.
I want more registration. Currently, there is huge under-registration, but we must do everything we can to maintain the integrity of the electoral register. On that I agree with Opposition Front-Bench Members.
I support my hon. Friend Mr. Djanogly in his amendment. I also agree with Mr. Betts that we need to increase registration, as there is undoubtedly under-registration. I thoroughly agree with the intention of his amendments even though, as he admitted, they may be not quite technically accurate enough for acceptance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon is right to try to get the balance right, whether it be at subsection (1) or subsection (5). There should be a balance between an increase in registration and getting the register right. Dr. Pugh and other Members pointed out that there is far more under-registration than wrongful registration. That is a valid point, but our view is that it is also a question of confidence in the security of the electoral system—the point made by Mr. Prentice—and individual results may be influenced in local authority elections, for example. In such cases, there would certainly be scandal or invidious press comment and the whole process would become a shambles. I am sure that the Government do not want that any more than Members do. It is not a quantitative question, but one of confidence, and my hon. Friend's amendment addresses that squarely. If we can find that balanced approach, I am sure that the House can reach consensus on the issue.
Secondly, I want to raise a point that was brought to the attention of the House and the Minister by Dame Marion Roe, who was formerly the Member of Parliament for Broxbourne, and who is happily not entirely disengaged from politics as she is one of my constituents. She pointed out that probably many foreign nationals on the register are not Commonwealth, European Union or Irish citizens and are certainly not British citizens. They may be immigrants whose cases are in a pending tray at the Home Office and who are not properly yet entitled to be on the register. Somehow they get on to the register, not necessarily with fraudulent intent—they may simply have filled in a form that was thrust through their letterbox because they thought that they should. They may not have completed the form accurately because they do not understand the language. They may have filled it in because they thought that if they were not on the register they would not be able to claim benefits or have access to a parking scheme. They may be Turkish, Kosovan or some other nationality and they are not allowed to vote.
It is certainly the case, as the Minister may point out, that the recent change in the application form to require that people include their nationality should significantly deal with the issue. I think that requirement is on all the most recent application forms. That is good but it will not satisfactorily deal with the problem.
May I raise with the hon. Gentleman a concern expressed to me at the general election? I have several Greek constituents who are British citizens. When they filled out the section on nationality, they said, naturally enough, that they were Greek. As a result, they were not allowed to vote at the general election, even though they took their passports to show that they were British citizens. Because they had inadvertently filled out their nationality wrongly they could not vote at the general election.
Unfortunately, that shows that there is a downside to every improvement we try to make. On the whole, the inclusion of nationality on the form is reckoned to be a good thing and I support it. If there is a downside, it underlines the point I was making: it is not enough simply to register one's nationality; we must give EROs the right, and the duty if possible, to check it out. We need a checking process as well as a registering process. That is the way to deal with what is undoubtedly a problem.
I do not know how big the problem is. Perhaps the Minister knows.
I have not got the exact information, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman. Is not the greatest injustice that 37 per cent. of the black and ethnic population of this country are not on the register? He makes a point about keeping this or that nationality off the register, but if people must state their nationality, date of birth and national insurance number and if they must sign personally, each of those steps will take the 4 million unregistered people up to 8 million.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about the mathematical facts. Undoubtedly, under-registration is a bigger issue numerically than wrongful or fraudulent registration—he makes that point very well—but confidence is also an issue. Amendment No. 14 rightly points to the fact that the public's attitude is an issue in how an election may be decided in certain circumstances. The Government should take this issue seriously. They should consider those foreign nationals who may be on the register unwittingly, not intentionally or fraudulently, and therefore give electoral registration officers the right and duty to investigate such matters, and encourage them to do so. That is the way forward.
I rise primarily to endorse the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Betts, but before I do so I shall briefly comment on amendment No. 14 in the context of the way that it was moved: it was suggested that its rationale was that ensuring the register's security and accuracy should be given priority above all other considerations. Other hon. Members have spoken about the need for balance. I want to go further by saying quite clearly that what we have in this country is a crisis of under-registration. Over-registration may or may not exist—there are one or two constituencies where more than 100 per cent. of the estimated local electorate appear on the electoral register—and although I recognise that a balance and proper security measures are needed, we need to address the significant problem of under-registration.
The fact that somewhere between 3.5 million to 4 million people—about 9 to 10 per cent. of the population—are missing nationally from the registers has been mentioned already. In parts of the capital, particularly in inner London, the figure rises to somewhere in the region of 20 per cent. of the population. Although I accept some of the previous suggestions that perhaps we do not need an annual rolling register, there are certain parts of the country where it may well be necessary to keep such a register to achieve accuracy, and London is an example.
Has my hon. Friend taken cognisance of the fact that, particularly in London, a growing number of people have two homes? We should encourage them to be registered at both homes, especially as they have a legitimate interest in municipal government, but many of them will be exercised by the fact they could be twice required to serve on a jury in two jurisdictions. I wonder whether he and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister will consider allowing such people to opt for jury service in one of the areas where they have a home, rather than in both. Such a double requirement serves as a disincentive for people to register in London.
I note the point that my hon. Friend makes; the Minister may wish to respond to it later.
I shall take my constituency as an example of the consequences of under-registration. About 10,000 people who live in my constituency are not registered. As a result, we had to go through in a boundary redistribution, as did every constituency in the country. Although my area has the same number of seats—in fact, the changes made locally are relatively minor—a significant number of seats disappeared nationally. That leads to the conclusion that the number of people not registered significantly contributes to the reduction in representation in different parts of the country.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that such things as Government grant are based on the number of people whom the Government believe to be living in a place. The most deprived areas thus suffer from inaccuracies in the electoral register because although many people live there and are in need, there is a shortfall of people on the register.
Interestingly enough, we have no representative from the London borough of Westminster. Such a point about the borough's estimated population was raised at the time of the census. The situation causes real problems. The under-registration in my constituency means that we often do not get the central support that we would perhaps receive if everyone were on the register.
That situation is the backdrop to any consideration of the amendments. Of course, clause 9 is at the heart of what the Bill is trying to achieve. Everyone would agree with the proposal in amendment No. 14 that electoral registration officers should be aware that people who are ineligible to remain on the register should be removed from it. We should remind electoral officers of that, but it is not the primary focus of what the clause should achieve.
We are in a bit of danger of confusing two issues. Registration officers have a duty to facilitate registration, but encouraging registration is a completely separate issue. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such encouragement is perhaps a political activity, rather than a registration activity?
The hon. Gentleman will find that other measures give electoral registration officers the powers and resources with which they can try to ensure that as many people as possible are aware of their right to register for, and participate in, elections. A line must be drawn when an attempt to encourage people to register and participate shaves into political considerations. However, the Bill does a good job by drawing the line in the right place.
I did not want to comment on amendment No. 14 in any great detail. I hope that the Minister will treat it in the way in which the Opposition intended. We should remind electoral registration officers of their duty to ensure that they maintain an accurate register and I hope that that duty will be encapsulated in the final version of clause 9. However, that duty is not the essence of what the clause is about.
The amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe go to the heart of the concerns that many hon. Members have expressed. Clause 9 simply requires registration officers to maintain the register. We must, of course, ensure that the register is accurate and that people who wish to be placed on it may do so, but a greater sense of urgency and priority is needed, so we should encourage officers to maximise the numbers on the register, which would be the effect of amendment No. 30. Although the wording of that amendment might not be acceptable to the Minister, I hope that she will take on board the spirit in which it was tabled and the support that I suspect it would receive among hon. Members.
I am pleased that amendments Nos. 28 and 29 have been tabled because the question of data sharing goes to the heart of what we can do to try to maximise the number of people on the register. I have talked to my electoral registration officer at great length about what can be achieved by knocking on doors and sending letters. It is extremely difficult to boost the number of people on the register by using simply those mechanisms. We need information from data sources so that we can target the people who are not on the register more effectively. I accept that there might be data protection problems with that. Additionally, we should not set up a mechanism that would overload electoral registration officers because they can do only a certain amount of work with the limited resources available to them.
Research from the Electoral Commission shows that many of the 3.5 million to 4 million people who are not on the register are unemployed, so does my hon. Friend think that it would be a good idea to use the central Government's unemployment register? Many such people are poorly paid, so should we use tax credit registers, such as that for child tax credit? Many such people live in social housing, so would it be a good idea to use housing records on public, social and private sector housing, especially those for houses in multiple occupation and caravan parks?
I would endorse all those sources, but we could use other data sources, such as the comprehensive records of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea. Indeed, the judicious use of a mix of other local and national sources should make it possible not to overload electoral registration departments with too much work. That would be one of several mechanisms through which we could ensure that we were targeting people who were not on the register.
Problems would be likely to arise when drawing on data from other sources when individuals wished to protect their anonymity. The Bill makes sensible provision for anonymous registration in certain circumstances. How does the hon. Gentleman suggest that data from the register on child tax credit should be deployed? Should people's names simply go on to the electoral register, or should an approach be made not only to ensure that such people exist, but to determine whether they wish to have their names recorded in public or private?
Any information that goes alongside the name and address of a person claiming child tax credit should of course remain confidential and none of it should be shared with anyone. Before any such changes took place, we would need to ensure that people who put themselves on any of the registers about which we are talking were aware that basic information about their names and addresses could well be used for electoral registration purposes. It goes without saying that we would need to consult the data registrar to ensure that we were not falling foul of any of the many provisions that exist to protect an individual's anonymity. I would certainly not want this or any other Bill to tamper with such necessary protections. However, given all the different data sources that we have, surely we can find appropriate sources through which we would not fall foul of such provisions and that would give electoral registration officers the targeted information that they need.
I accept my hon. Friend's point about the need to get the right data sources. He mentioned resources. I am partly arguing that resources could be switched in the longer term from canvassing people whose circumstances have not changed, to getting more useful information from other data sources. In the meantime, does he accept that we might have to spend more money on our electoral registration process and perhaps even think about giving local authorities a specific grant in recognition of the fact that we are creating electoral registers throughout the country that will eventually be used for national purposes?
Yes, I accept that point. I am pleased that my hon. Friend raises that matter at such an appropriate time.
The Government have made an announcement on the money that will accompany the implementation of the Bill, which is welcome. I ask for two things regarding the resources that will be made available. First, when the Bill has completed its passage through Parliament there should be a recalculation so that the resources provided are adequate to ensure the implementation of powers to improve registration. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, those resources should be ring-fenced. Advertising resources will be ring-fenced to enable electoral registration officers to persuade people to go on to the register. However, all the resources for electoral registration purposes should be ring-fenced because there are great worries among local authorities that additional resources may, as happens on many other occasions, filter out of electoral registration into other local government services. However, we want to ensure that the resources dedicated to the Bill are spent on electoral registration.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Department does not know how much is spent by each electoral registration office, so if additional money is provided we do not have a baseline for judging how much has been given? We need to collect and collate information on how much each office spends per elector so that we can monitor the situation.
My hon. Friend is right that there has been a great lack of transparency in this area. I hope that by giving powers to the Electoral Commission the Bill will succeed in providing transparency, so that figures are available both locally and nationally and we can ensure that registration and the provision of resources are satisfactory.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, we commend the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe, which encapsulate the targets and priorities that Government Members and, indeed, many Opposition Members support. I do not have any difficulty with the other two amendments in the group, and I am sure that with some good will we can achieve a balance so that we can protect the register and ensure that it is accurate, while at the same time we can reach the largest possible number of people missing from the register and put them where they deserve to be—on the register and able to vote in local and national elections.
I do not intend to speak at length on this group of amendments. However, clause 70 does not apply to Northern Ireland. The Electoral Commission says that the Government intend to introduce legislation for Northern Ireland to deal with some of the problems that that entails, but it is essential that that legislation reproduce the propositions in clause 9. I wholeheartedly endorse the standards that the Government are attempting to apply to electoral officers in clause 9. If that standard had been included in legislation affecting Northern Ireland in the past few years, when electoral law was tested on us before it was tested on the rest of the nation, the number of people falling off the register would have been very different.
Will the Government confirm that clause 9 will be replicated in the Northern Ireland legislation that is to follow? Can they tell us whether that legislation will be introduced soon, because it would be wrong to head into a general election without all parts of the United Kingdom having the same standards of registration? Hon. Members have referred to the Northern Ireland experience, and Mr. Love is right to say that the issues that impact on GB are not entirely the same as the issues that impact on Northern Ireland. He said that there is a crisis of under-registration in Great Britain, but in Northern Ireland there was a crisis of over-registration.
The hon. Gentleman said that there is not a crisis of under-registration in Northern Ireland. When the changes were implemented there, registration went down to 86 per cent. Some of that reduction was about getting rid of guff on the register, but registration has since climbed to only 91 per cent., so 9 to 10 per cent. of the Northern Irish electorate are disfranchised because they are not on the register. Is that not a crisis?
No. The hon. Gentleman's case rests on an assumption. It was well documented that many people had registered themselves at a number of address throughout Northern Ireland, and there were also people on the electoral register who had died many years before but still managed to come out to vote. There are some dangers in not coming out in person to vote, but the dead could still do so by post. Those issues, however, can be dealt with by other legislative changes. Many of the people who were removed from the register should not have been on it in the first place.
I accept that the greater the number of personal identifiers included on the registration form, the more difficult and off-putting it is to fill in the form. I do not think that anyone can provide any precise statistics about the impact of such a measure, but in Northern Ireland people were not put off registering because they were asked to give their signature and date of birth. They were not even put off by being asked to include their national insurance number. I accept the Conservative argument that the national insurance number offers an advantage in cutting out fraud. There were two linked problems in Northern Ireland. The requirement for individual registration, rather than registration by the head of the household, reduced the numbers on the register considerably. The decision was right, but the requirement to register annually was problematic. If it is difficult to comply with all the additional registration requirements, it becomes increasingly frustrating to do so every year.
All the political parties in Northern Ireland supported the Government's decision to change the requirement for annual registration, as has been said. Annual registration may not be necessary if we tie down the requirements for personal identifiers. We will deal with many of those issues later in Committee, so I simply wish to secure an assurance from the Government that everything in the clause, which I fully support and which they are right to introduce, will be included in the Northern Ireland legislation.
There is no inconsistency between the clause and the Conservative amendment. It is entirely legitimate to attempt to comply with the two main requirements of the legislation. We should attempt both to increase participation in the democratic process by ensuring that as many people as possible are registered and to remove people who are fraudulently registered.
One may quibble about whether or not it is their first duty, but it is the electoral officer's duty to make sure the register is as accurate as possible. If the provisions in clause 9 had applied to Northern Ireland, the fall in registration would not have occurred. Such provisions, combined with an end to annual registration, could lead to a marked change in Northern Ireland.
I want to make a couple of brief comments on matters to which other hon. Members have not referred.
On over-registration and under-registration, my hon. Friend Mr. Love has referred to Westminster city council. I think that connecting the electoral register to other local government functions creates a problem. Westminster city council not only has a problem with people with two homes, but links residents' parking permits with the electoral register. The difficulty is that if someone with a parking permit moves on, it is definitely not in their interests to tell Westminster city council about the change of address, if they want to keep the permit.
Linking other functions to registration also creates under-registration. When electoral registration was connected to the payment of the poll tax, we saw the first catastrophic drop in registration. Those of us who campaign in elections know that it is common to visit a house in which a couple, or perhaps a family, live, but only the woman of the household is registered, which possibly allows people to claim a council tax discount by having only one adult in the household. It is interesting that Electoral Commission research shows that 8 per cent. of men are not registered, compared with 6 per cent. of women. If we want to improve the integrity of registers, which is an objective for all parties, we should make it clear that local government should start to split functions and not link items such as residents' parking permits with the electoral register, which causes problems.
I disagree with Adam Afriyie that encouraging registration is somehow a political activity. Encouraging participation and registration is a proper function of councils, and we must get over the idea, which some local government officers have, that it is not.
If registration officers can pull in other data sources and have a duty to encourage participation, I am concerned that they will choose a data source that matches the profile of a particular political party, because modern campaigning techniques give parties a clear profile of who votes for them.
I do not believe that that is an issue, because we are not into that territory, yet.
Last week, the Constitutional Affairs Committee held an evidence session with the Electoral Commission. Conservative Members have discussed either creating barriers to registration or encouraging participation, and the Electoral Commission is now inclined to discuss the situation in terms of a spectrum from creating barriers to registration to encouraging participation. It does not see one function as superseding the other; it sees the situation as a spectrum, and we should accept the existence of that spectrum. If we want to encourage participation and to get the maximum number of people registered—people cannot participate if they are not registered—we must focus on the barriers.
Some of the ideas that we have discussed would create barriers to registration. When the Electoral Commission conducted its research, it asked people why they did not register. Those people said that registration is "old-fashioned", "time-consuming" and "a chore". In some parts of the country and among some age groups and ethnic minorities, there are already people who do not register, because they think it "a time-consuming chore". We must be cognisant of that point, because everything that we add to the process makes it more of a chore and more time consuming. I cannot agree to proposals such as adding national insurance numbers to registration.
On electoral registration officers seeing it as their job to encourage registration and participation, it is key that the process is not understood: people assume that the council automatically registers people; they do not understand the process; they think that they are already registered; or they do not see the benefits. Encouraging registration is clearly an educational task and is in no shape or form a political activity.
We have had a wide discussion on the amendment. I shall begin by discussing the spirit of the Bill and how its objectives will be implemented.
The Government, working with electoral registration officers at a local level, are responsible for achieving three things, in the light of which we have considered all the amendments. Everybody who is entitled to vote should be registered to vote, and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have acknowledged that universal suffrage is the basis of the franchise. We are not discussing numbers or an abstract register—we are discussing an individual's right to vote.
We should be concerned about every individual who does not have the right to vote, because they are not on the electoral register. In discussing his amendment, Mr. Djanogly failed to give that point sufficient importance, because all other hon. Members who have spoken acknowledged it. He argued that the importance of ensuring that there is no fraud must be the priority and that everything else can be overlooked. We must have full registration and high levels of participation, and we must tackle fraud. Those are our three objectives, none of which is optional.
Some hon. Members have mentioned different numbers—my hon. Friend Chris Ruane is obviously the numbers guru in Committee. Hon. Members who represent constituencies with high registration levels must be baffled to hear us going on about the problems of under-registration. Electoral registration officers sometimes think that Electoral Commission estimates are exaggerated, so I conducted a survey in my constituency surgeries over a number of weeks.
I hold my surgeries in Southwark town hall and limit the number of people who attend to 60. I filled in people's names and addresses on a form and ended consultations by saying, "Sign here to go on the electoral register." Quite a few people said, "I am already on the register", to which I replied, "It doesn't matter. If you are already on the register, they will bin this application form. Sign here, and I will take the form down the corridor to the electoral registration officer." I put a big fluorescent "H" on each form to allow the electoral register officer to see how many people were not registered. Of people attending my surgeries, 30 per cent. were eligible to be on the register, but were not registered. We must always remember that those are real people who have the right to vote.
I understand the good intent with which the Minister conducted her survey. Does she agree that sometimes the same person is registered twice at an address simply because, for example, they use different forms of their Christian name for formal and informal activities—they might call themselves "John" in one context and "Jack" in another? The Minister's survey may have advanced that process.
When I took those forms along to the electoral registration officer in Southwark, she did not think that the names were not exactly the same or that the surname and the first name were in a different order. We must recognise the major problem of under-registration. One of this Bill's objectives is to tackle that problem, because we cannot have a situation in which people in our democracy do not have the right to vote.
The question involves not only individuals not having the right to vote, but social cohesion. Under-registration is not evenly spread throughout the community—it is a particularly worrying feature among black and ethnic minority communities, people living on council estates and poorer people. If we want our democracy to include everybody, we must go the extra mile to ensure that everyone is registered and that our democracy does what it says on the tin.
I take the Minister's point that everybody should have the right to vote, but surprising numbers of people are excluded because of incompetence and inefficiency. Can she assure me that she will review training to ensure that local government is properly equipped and resourced to undertake it?
That is certainly the intention.
We want to have full registration, to encourage participation and to be absolutely sure that no one fiddles the vote, which is important for the legitimacy of our democracy and the confidence that people have in it. I appreciate that we cannot play the numbers game on fraud. We cannot say that 3 million people are not registered but 3 million people are not committing fraud. Wherever fraud is identified it causes a real problem with public confidence. We must treat it with the utmost seriousness in every single ward and constituency where it occurs, because people must have confidence that those who are elected are their proper representatives in our democratic system.
My right hon. and learned Friend undertook an interesting exercise at her advice sessions. I did something similar by linking those who turned up with those on the marked register who had used their vote in the most recent election. In North-West Leicestershire, 70 per cent. of people vote and 30 per cent. abstain, but of the people who come to advice sessions nearer half do not bother to use their vote. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a lot of work to be done between registration and participation?
I do agree. Social inequality is a problem in terms of participation as well as registration. It used to be the case that although people's educational status and health status were very much affected by their socio-economic status, the one thing that remained equal was the likelihood of their participating in an election, which showed no class differentiation. Worryingly, that has changed in the course of the past three elections. The Institute for Public Policy Research has looked at the numbers and identified a growing gap in terms of the likelihood that those in poorer communities will not vote. In a socially cohesive country and an egalitarian democracy, we must pay attention to people being on the register and participating in the electoral system.
What about people who have pots of money—those who have second homes? Would it not be more equitable to have dual registration so that people vote where they spend most of their time, instead of being able to choose where to vote, perhaps in a marginal where it would count for more?
Most of those who are registered in two places are students. Because we do not know when the election will fall, it is not sensible to require people to choose in which of two places they will ultimately vote.
The spirit of the Bill is all about encouraging registration and participation and countering fraud, and we are establishing a framework on which to do that. We will place new duties on electoral registration officers, give them new powers, and have a new performance standards regime backed up by adequate resources. Several of the issues that hon. Members raised focused on the electoral registration officers' duties and powers and, until now, their lack of performance standards and inadequate resources.
The Minister is right to mention resources. During the recent general election, several people came to me having realised that they were not registered to vote and said that they had not registered because they were expecting a knock on the door from the local authority. That knock never came, because for several years the local authority has not been conducting annual censuses on a door-to-door basis. Does the Minister think that that should be addressed?
I can assure my hon. Friend that those people will get a knock on the door, not once but twice if they do not fill in the form and get registered the first time. It is right that we have independent electoral registration officers, but the performance standards that are laid down in the Bill will ensure that we have common high standards for electoral registration, as well as transparency and accountability.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd rightly said that we do not know how much each individual registration officer spends in their area or the total amount spent on electoral registration. Under the Bill, electoral registration officers will be required to report to the Electoral Commission on what they are doing, how it is working, and how much they are spending on it. That transparency will enable us to compare neighbouring authorities, to see what is working and what is not. It is a basic building block to ensure that the citizens of this country become enfranchised by being on the register and able to vote.
Data sharing is very important, as my hon. Friend Mr. Betts said. A basic commonsense issue is involved here. People are exasperated if they turn up to vote and are told, "You can't vote because you're not on the electoral register." They say, "How can the council say that I don't live there—they sent me a council tax bill yesterday?" We must be cognisant of data protection issues but also use common sense. People do not understand why an electoral registration officer in a local authority does not use the information that it holds. That is a question not only of the legal powers to use data but of operational practice. Such practice varies because individual registration officers interpret the rules differently—for example, some might interpret them as permissive but decide that they are not going to use the data. They should have a clear understanding of the data that it is right for them to refer to, because those data will help them to understand where there are gaps on the register.
Will the use of local government databases be monitored on a national scale? Can we be specific about which ones we would like electoral registration officers to see, and can they be specific about which ones they use?
Will the Minister consider—I have pushed her about this in the past—introducing secondary legislation to give EROs access to central Government databases as soon as possible, and not leave it until two or three years down the road, so that we can move forward at the same time at local and central Government level?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that we will do that as well as ensuring that electoral registration officers use the information that is already available to them for cross-referencing. They can already examine council tax records, housing benefit registers, council rent records, and the records of the planning, education and social services departments. No primary or secondary legislation is needed for that. They can also examine Royal Mail records, because they are allowed to do that by custom and practice.
We will consider the records that existing powers do not cover but which could be covered by secondary legislation, and whether such legislation is a good idea. That is, therefore, already on our agenda. Such information includes records held by other local authorities, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, TV Licensing, the Inland Revenue, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Land Registry. Indeed, a woman whose daughter had just become 18 but was not on the electoral register asked, "How come my daughter's not on the register? You know she's 18 because you've just written to tell me that her housing benefit's being stopped." People do not understand that.
I believe however that data sharing is important not only to get people on the register and fill the gaps in it but to tackle fraud. Proper data sharing should have solved the problem that my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice identified. The records should have been checked to work out who was there and the appropriate action should then have been taken. Data sharing is for preventing fraud as well as ensuring full registration.
I accept the spirit of the amendment that Mr. Heath tabled on disability. Electoral registration officers are already covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 2001, which will be fully implemented, as he said, by December next year. The amendment is therefore unnecessary for changing the law, but he was right to table it. We are not simply considering one's right to participate on the day, but electoral registration officers going the extra mile to ensure that people with disabilities that might impede their registration are registered.
Amendment No. 14 would provide:
"Each registration officer must take all necessary steps to remove individuals", and so on. That already happens. Electoral registration officers' responsibility is not simply to have loads of people on the register but to ensure that it is complete and accurate. That is implicit and explicit in their duties.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe asks us to make it a duty for electoral registration officers to "maximise" the number of people entitled to vote who do so. I believe that our approach of requesting a complete and accurate register and setting out on the face of the Bill the extensive steps that must be taken to achieve that, including sending more than one form, knocking on the door more than once, inspecting the records, and training officials to find hard-to-reach voters, will mean a culture change. That will be effected by the Bill and the performance standards, which will be keenly examined by hon. Members of all parties. For the first time, we shall be able to see what is happening because of the greater transparency. I therefore believe that the spirit of the amendment will be enacted.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider that including the word "maximise" in the Bill might make it absolutely clear that we are intent on that aim? I acknowledge that all the steps that have been taken lead in that direction, but I believe that there is a general feeling in the Committee that specifying "maximise" might be helpful.
I take it that my right hon. and learned Friend will not accept my specific amendments on data sharing and is considering introducing secondary legislation. Will she give me an assurance that she will examine the range of possibilities that has been mentioned today? I am especially concerned about cases of, for example, one local authority having access to its council housing records when another does not—that means different approaches—and, as happens in Sheffield, of electoral registration officers having access to information from a sixth form in a school but not in a college.
We shall consider both the information that electoral registration officers use and information that they might not currently have the power to use but which, we believe, they need. Those points are already well understood. We are determined to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote is on the register. Whether we call it "maximising" the register or having a complete register is simply a matter of words, but I agree with the spirit of my hon. Friend's amendments, which is embodied in the Bill, that no one who is eligible should be denied the right to vote. Everyone who is eligible should be able to vote by being on the electoral register.
Our debate has been useful as well as lengthy and we have considered the matter widely. There is a large measure of agreement, but I ask hon. Members not to press their amendments.
I shall be brief. If there is no integrity in the register, there is little on which to base a democratic system. Hon. Members have agreed with that point today. The Minister implied that our amendment was exclusive from the Government's proposal, but that is not what I said. We believe that the amendment is complementary. We support the Bill but believe that it does not contain the balance, which all hon. Members have discussed. We want that to be addressed. However, given that we will cover the matter again when we consider individual registration, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.