Electoral Registration

Oral Answers to Questions — Constitutional Affairs – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 15th November 2005.

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Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:30 pm, 15th November 2005

What her policy is on the use of national insurance numbers as an identifier in electoral registration.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Outside of Northern Ireland, we have no plans to require national insurance numbers to be required as a condition of electoral registration.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous Opposition Whip (Commons)

But if a presiding judge believes that the evidence of electoral fraud that he has seen would disgrace a banana republic, and also accuses the Government of being both complacent and in denial, why will the Government not introduce the tried-and-tested system of individual registration with national insurance numbers, which has worked so effectively to cut electoral fraud in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Gentleman refers to the comments of Richard Mawrey QC following his electoral court investigation into local government matters in Birmingham. We have gone through that judgment very carefully indeed. The 10 measures to increase security in elections that we have included in primary legislation, in the Electoral Administration Bill that is before the House, and the four measures that will be in secondary legislation arise from that judgment, so we have taken it on board and introduced primary and secondary legislation to address it. We will pilot individual identifiers because we want to test whether the increase in security that can come from stricter requirements as a condition of being on the register are not outweighed by a fall in registration. I have taken the opportunity of looking at the South-West Bedfordshire register. There is not a problem of under-registration there. The hon. Gentleman should be careful before he makes suggestions that would not be a problem on the register of electors in his area, but which might have catastrophic effects in areas where there is a shortage on the electoral register.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that such a requirement would be a bureaucracy too far, would prevent and deter large numbers of electors from registering to cast their vote, and as such would be contrary to our wish for more people to participate in our democratic processes?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My hon. Friend is right. Commensurate with security that is as tight as possible so that we have confidence in the integrity of elections, we must ensure that more people are on the electoral register. The estimate is that about 3.5 million people who are entitled to vote are not on the electoral register and therefore are not able to vote. Those are not people in South-West Bedfordshire, but it should concern all of us that so many people are not registered. We do not want to create hurdles that result in even fewer people on the electoral register. We intend to pilot tougher security measures, but we must go about it on the basis of evidence and deal with it carefully.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee

Since there is no agreement on national insurance numbers, will the Minister re-examine the transitional arrangements proposed by the Electoral Commission, under which a signature would have to have been lodged at the time of registration or later for anyone who wants to claim a postal vote? The postal vote could therefore be more effectively verified than under the present arrangements.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

As the right hon. Gentleman knows because of his long experience and his excellent chairing of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, people who apply for a postal vote must provide their signature. Let me respond to him in a way that I hope other hon. Members will understand. The suggestion is that the collection of a signature should be voluntary when the application to register is made. I raise two questions with the right hon. Gentleman in response to that. First, if the scheme is voluntary, does it provide better security? Secondly, how would it be possible to encourage people to give their signature in such a way that it did not make them think the form was incomplete if they did not provide the signature, and at the same time encourage enough people to do it? My worry is that the proposal is a halfway house: it does not provide enough security; nor does it inhibit access. The House would agree that the way in which we are going about it—piloting in areas that can then be evaluated, so that we can increase security without that having a catastrophic effect on the register—is how we should go about dealing with the issue.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Linlithgow and East Falkirk

My right hon. and learned Friend does not want to use national insurance numbers, but security is a problem. Hopefully, we are all involved in a campaign to persuade our electoral registration officers to scour all available registers. I have corresponded with electoral registration officers from Lothian and Borders and from Central Scotland, who assure me that they go through all records, including council house tenancies. At that point, however, they send out a form, and there is no way to verify whether the people who fill it in are the people on the register, so security is still a problem.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which is that even where electoral registration officers use data checking to discover whether somebody is actually present at an address in order to fill a gap in the register, they do not have the power to put them on the register and must still obtain a signature. He is right on that point, but it is still helpful when electoral registration officers check whether someone is present at an address. The Electoral Administration Bill requires electoral registration officers to use the available data, which some of them have not been doing. On fraud and data sharing, data matching and data checking mean that electoral registration officers can use existing data not only to ensure that gaps in the register are filled, but to check against fraud.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

May I urge the Minister not to rule out the possibility of introducing national insurance numbers as identifiers in Great Britain? The policy has been more than piloted in Northern Ireland, where I believe that it worked—it provides accurate registers, which is an important factor. I do not believe that the Minister is right that it would significantly reduce electoral registration. The main problem in Northern Ireland was annual registration rather than the use of the national insurance identifier.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

We listen carefully to the hon. Gentleman, given his experience in Northern Ireland. We have not ruled out the use at some future date of national insurance numbers as a condition of registration. Just as I expect him to know that I will listen to him on Northern Ireland—he knows about the electoral situation in Northern Ireland, the fraud, the duplications on the register and over-registration; I do not know about those things—I hope that he accepts that my hon. Friends and I know about our own constituencies, where sometimes up to 30 per cent. of the people who are entitled to vote are not on the register. Northern Ireland had a different set of problems, which was addressed by specific primary legislation, and we must introduce legislation in this country that suits all the different constituencies. We do not want to introduce legislation that works well in South-West Bedfordshire but has the catastrophic effect of disfranchising constituents such as mine.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Under-registration has been a scandal throughout this Government's period in office. Nothing has been done, and Labour councils are responsible for the areas concerned. What will the Minister do about under-registration and, equally importantly, accuracy, which is the point raised by the hon. Members for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson)? The Electoral Commission and international observers have both said that we must have an urgent national response, not little pilots. Why has she not introduced individual voter registration? And why has she ignored the transitional scheme proposed by the Electoral Commission? She is kicking under-registration into the long grass, rather than tackling an urgent national problem.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am not kicking it into the long grass—I am proceeding by way of pilots so that we have an evidence-based approach to policymaking. The hon. Gentleman implies that we are doing this too late. I shall not comment on that.

As the hon. Gentleman says, it is important that we have an accurate register as proof against fraud; that is why we have introduced 10 measures in primary legislation and four in secondary legislation. We need to have it as proof against inadvertent inaccuracies; that is why we will have a central online record of electors and use data sharing. It is important not to be absolutist and ideological about this.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House must surely agree that measures against fraud should be as tough as possible and that everybody who is eligible should be on the register. I hope that they accept that that is what, in good faith, my Department, my fellow Ministers and I are trying to do.