New Clause 2 — Registration Officers: General Duty

Orders of the Day — Electoral Administration Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:03 pm on 11th January 2006.

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'After section 8 of the 1983 Act (registration officers) insert—

"8A Registration officers: general duty

(1) Each registration officer shall have the general duty of ensuring as far as is practicable that—

(a) every person entitled to vote is registered;

(b) every person registered to vote has the opportunity to do so; and

(c) no person is registered who is not entitled to vote.

(2) Each local authority which appoints a registration officer under section 8 shall have a duty to provide the resources necessary to enable him to carry out his duties.".'.—[Mr. Heath.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment (a) to new clause 2, No. (a), at end of proposed new subsection (1)(c) add—

'(d) any person registered to vote who is not entitled to vote is removed from the register as soon as reasonably practicable.'.

New clause 5—Prisoners voting—

'No person who has—

(a) been convicted of any criminal offence, and

(b) is currently serving a sentence of imprisonment and is detained in full-time custody in consequence thereof, shall be included on the register of electors.'.

Government amendments Nos. 47 to 51.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I hope that we will resume the consensual approach that we enjoyed during the previous group of amendments. There is a pressing need to improve the registration process, and I know that the Minister shares that aspiration—I am as alarmed as she is by the deficiencies in the current process. Earlier, she mentioned electoral registration levels in London, and she has been kind enough to send me a letter containing the details. It is a huge indictment of the system that more than 500,000 Londoners who are entitled to vote are not registered to do so, and it is simply not acceptable that that should be the case in our electoral system.

Although London has particular issues, I am sure that that situation is replicated in many constituencies up and down the country. In constituencies such as mine, it is relatively easy to achieve high levels of registration, but communities that contain large numbers of houses in multiple occupation experience a lower level of registration. Frankly, some local authorities do not provide sufficient resources to allow registration officers actively to pursue registration and achieve the results that we would hope and expect from them.

Photo of Geraldine Smith Geraldine Smith Labour, Morecambe and Lunesdale

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point. My constituency is one of those that he has mentioned—it contains a large number of houses in multiple occupation, and the local authority sometimes does not spend the necessary resources on electoral registration. When forms are just thrown into blocks of flats or houses, they do not reach the relevant people, and we must do something about that to allow people their legitimate right to vote.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is alarming that electoral registration officers often do not realise that it is not only their duty but their right to insist on the resources from their local authority to do the job properly.

There are huge variations. Many experienced EROs have some clout within their local authority; equally, many do not. Many are relatively junior officers who find themselves at the whim of cost-cutting administrations when times are hard. Electoral registration is, unfortunately, one of the areas that bear the brunt of the reduction in resources—wrongly, because by statute EROs have a right to those resources.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I have found the reverse to be true in my constituency. We have a conscientious returning officer who feels that his problem is that he does not have enough powers to pursue voter registration.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

There are instances of that kind. The Bill makes up some of the deficit in that respect, and I commend the Government for that.

We expect three things: as full a registration process as possible; opportunities for people who are on the register to be able to cast their vote effectively; and accurate registers to ensure that those who are not entitled to vote do not appear on the register in the first instance or at a later stage when they come to cast their vote. One of the points that recurred on Second Reading and in Committee was that we need to be absolutely clear about the duty on EROs, and on those who control their finances, to ensure that the process works effectively.

I agree with the Minister about the three legs of the stool as regards the legitimacy of the election process. To use slightly archaic language, an old political song in the Liberal tradition from the beginning of the last century says:

"Peace, Reform and Liberation

Be our triune aspiration".

The triune aspiration for us is to ensure that registration officers have a clear duty to maximise registration, that people who are registered have the opportunity to vote, and that those who should not be registered to vote are not on the register and do not have the capacity to affect the outcome of elections.

The difficulty is that that is nowhere to be found in the Bill. In clause 9, the Government have produced some duties to take necessary steps. There is an argument that clause 9 would become redundant were my new clause to be accepted, but I do not accept that. The new clause sets out the practical steps that we should expect registration officers to take. I want a declaratory statement of the basic duty of registration officers that they can put in front of the chief executive of their local authority and say, "Look—this is my duty, and I want to perform it on behalf of the electors in this constituency in this local authority area. Your duty, clearly stated, is to provide the resources necessary for me to carry out those functions." There is great merit in being so clear. Including the declaratory statement improves clarity for all registration officers and I hope that the Government will warm to it.

I do not dissent from the sentiments of amendment (a) but it is otiose. It adds a fourth duty that

"any person registered to vote who is not entitled to vote is removed from the register as soon as reasonably practicable."

I agree with that but it is encompassed by subsection (1)(c) in the new clause, which provides that

"no person is registered who is not entitled to vote."

If one is not entitled to vote, one should either not be registered in the first instance or not be allowed to remain on the register.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality)

The hon. Gentleman is not wrong. We tabled amendment (a) to clarify and improve the new clause. However, if he does not accept it, we will not push the point. I agree with him and we will continue to support the new clause.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and I hope that she accepts that I agree with her sentiments. Does Mr. Binley wish to intervene?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Gentleman may be wide eyed but I doubt that he is bushy tailed or innocent.

Let me deal briefly with the other amendments in the group. I look forward with interest to Conservative Members' comments on new clause 5 about prisoners, and with even more interest to the Minister's reply. The European Court of Human Rights has made a judgment on the issue and there is a legitimate and sensible argument for prisoners' rights to vote. There is no obvious correlation between the deprivation of liberty and that of other civil rights that prisoners hold. We maintain several citizens' rights in the case of prisoners. We currently deprive them of their right to participate in the democratic process, but in many countries that does not apply. In recent years, I have been an election monitor in countries in the developing democracies of central and eastern Europe. I have visited some pretty filthy prisons there. I remember one in Tblisi where prisoners had the right to vote and were voting. It was happening under extraordinary conditions, but nevertheless they had the opportunity to exercise their franchise.

Let us not assume that, simply because it is not the practice in this country to give prisoners the right to vote, it is necessarily wrong to do so. It is sometimes argued that it is a good thing to do in preparing for release. I look forward to the Minister's reply because that will tell us what the Government intend to do about the adverse finding, which they need to address at some stage in future, if not now.

I have no argument with the Government's application of the safety test to others. It derives from discussion in Committee and I am grateful to them for tackling the matter.

New clause 2 constitutes a desperately important declaratory statement, which would mean that no one had any doubt about the principal duties of registration officers and the importance that we, as a Parliament, attach to their duties in franchising the citizens of this country. Woe betide any local authority that does not provide the encouragement or the resources to enable them to do that job even more effectively than they do it now.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for the delay but I was deferring to the Minister in my usual deferential manner.

I shall be brief, given that we are nearing the end of our excellent debate. Mr. Heath has made a good case for the new clause, which we support. I shall not take up the House's time in reiterating his arguments, which were well put.

I hope that the Government, and the House, will support new clause 2, as it will add to the Bill. We also strongly support Government amendments Nos. 47 to 51 and Government amendment No. 68. The Minister has been very reasonable and courteous in the way in which she has consulted throughout the Bill and taken on some of the arguments put by hon. Members on both sides of the House. We asked for these amendments, and we are pleased that the Government have now tabled them. However, that is where the consensus ends. We shall have a rather more robust debate on new clause 5.

We have tabled new clause 5 to clarify what might become an anomaly in our system. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has just argued against it. I shall now put the case for it. When someone is convicted of an offence that is serious enough to require a custodial sentence, part of the punishment is the loss of freedom and the loss of certain freedoms. Fortunately, the kind of prisons that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has seen in other countries do not—I hope—exist here. Of course we believe in upholding the personal human rights of prisoners, but the loss of the privilege of taking part in the democratic system does not come into that category. It is part of the punishment for a serious crime. I am not talking about people who are on remand, but about people who have been convicted of a serious crime. Such people should have their freedom withdrawn and should lose their right to participate in the democratic process. That is a simple argument, and for the sake of brevity I shall not go into it in any more detail.

J

Dear Mrs Laing You are fundamentally wrong to say "Of course we believe in upholding the personal human rights of prisoners, but the loss of the privilege of taking part in the democratic system does not come into that category.". Taking part in the democratic process is a human right enshrined in law and not a 'privilege'. Loss of liberty is quite a separate issue from loss of other human rights. Imprisonment clearly removes many personal rights by its very nature, but it is the act of imprisonment that is the punishment - a person does not go to prison 'to be punished'. In fact, the Prison Service has an equal duty to rehabilitate as well as to incarcerate and fails quite spectacularly in the former since most people are re-convicted within two years of release. It is appalling that given the minds that have addressed themselves to the matter of prisoners voting rights, both in the UK and in Europe, you saw fit to reduce the issue to an insertion of an amendment of a Bill. Of course you are as entitled to your opinions on whether or not a prisoner should maintain his/her right to vote as any other person. But your own opinion as such does not the law make and with respect I would urge you to read the full transcrpits of the ECHR rulings so that you might gain a better perspective....

Submitted by Julie Wright Continue reading

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality)

I will give way to the hon. Lady, because I recall that on Second Reading she made a passionate case against this proposal, and that she is personally acquainted with the gentleman who brought the case that might give rise to the anomaly.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson PPS (Mr Stephen Timms, Minister of State), Department for Work and Pensions

That is right. Mr. Hirst, who took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, is a constituent of mine. Would the hon. Lady look favourably on the idea that, when passing sentence at the end of a court case, a judge might rule that someone's right to vote should be removed? That could be an alternative to the blanket provision of removing the right to vote from all prisoners.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality)

I take the hon. Lady's perfectly reasonable point, but I happen to disagree with her. I would argue that the passing of a custodial sentence implies that a serious crime has been committed, and that it deserves a serious punishment involving the loss of liberty and of certain other rights, including the right to participate in the democratic system.

I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will consider allowing a separate vote on new clause 5, because this is a serious matter that deserves proper consideration on its own by the House this evening.

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

Mr. Heath has tabled new clauses dealing with increasing registration, and I strongly support his objective. However, we do not suggest that the House accept his new clauses.

New clause 2 would insert a new section 8A in the Representation of the People Act 1983, and would add additional elements to the duty in clause 9 of the Bill. Clause 9 places a new duty on registration officers to take steps, set out under the clause, to ensure that the electoral register is accurate. Subsection (1)(a) of the new clause specifies that the electoral registration officer has a general duty to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is registered. We believe that that is unnecessary. Clause 9 is already clear about the duties of electoral registration officers in ensuring that everyone who is entitled to vote is registered.

Subsection (1)(b) of the new clause specifies that the electoral registration officer has a duty to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote has the opportunity to do so. Again, we believe that that is unnecessary. The Bill includes several provisions to widen access to all electors as far as possible. Clause 19 provides for a review of polling places that must take place every four years. Clauses 36 and 37 respectively provide for translations of documents into other languages and Braille, and for assistance for certain postal voters to find information about translations.

Subsection (1)(c) would add a new step to those specified under the new duty, stating that electoral registration officers must remove from the register those who are no longer eligible. That is already enshrined in section 9(2) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and is reinforced by clause 12, which confers specific powers on electoral registration officers to remove from the register persons who are not, or are no longer, eligible.

We made the changes in clause 12 not because they lack the general obligation, but because at present it is not apparent that electoral registration officers can quickly remove persons who are already on the register except on the occasion of the annual canvass, or when a declaration-based registration lapses. The statutory provisions entitle a person to remain registered until such events occur; clause 12 changes that. Subsection (2) of the new clause attempts to place a duty on local authorities to provide the "necessary resources" to enable the electoral registration officer to do his duty. Again, I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. The same point has made been on many occasions by my hon. Friend Chris Ruane.

The current system of funding local authorities is designed to give them overall control of the amounts that they spend on different priorities, including elections. Different local authorities across the United Kingdom have differing needs in terms of election funding. It is difficult to establish a set definition of the "resources necessary" for electoral registration officers to carry out their duties. That is one of the problems that we identify in the new clause. However, we recognise that it is essential that returning officers and registration officers receive enough funding to be able to implement the measures in the Bill successfully and perform their duties effectively.

Clause 63 provides for the Electoral Commission to collate centrally information from local authorities on their spending on elections and registration. That is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd has been able to acquire information because the system is organised differently in Wales, but Members here cannot compare the amounts spent by electoral registration officers. Under the Bill, for the first time, information will be collected that will be crucial to the informing of future policy development.

The Opposition's amendment (a) to new clause 2 adds a further subsection 8A(1)(d). It is designed to require electoral registration officers to remove ineligible persons from the registers

"as soon as reasonably practicable".

The amendment is unnecessary, for the reasons that I gave in respect of the provision on removal.

Clause 9, the "new duty" clause, and clause 12 will build on section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to ensure that registers are complete and accurate. We support the aims of the new clause, but we believe that existing provisions in the 1983 Act are sufficient. We therefore ask the House not to accept the amendment.

I have two things to say about new clause 5. We appreciate that Mrs. Laing has sought an opportunity to submit the issue for debate, and we welcome that. However, I respectfully suggest that she ought not to ask the House to divide on her new clause, which simply re-states current law but in perhaps less well-drafted terms. She will not want those outside this House to think that there is a policy dispute between us, simply because we fail to support her new clause. I am happy to give way if she wants to ask a question.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality) 5:45 pm, 11th January 2006

The consensus that the right hon. and learned Lady reasonably seeks on this issue may not actually exist. The hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) disagree with me on it, so perhaps there is a policy difference. I appreciate that, in the light of recent judgments, the Government may not have had a chance to consider my new clause, and that, in strict legal terms, it perhaps does what the right hon. and learned Lady says it does. However, it might help the Government's thinking on this issue if we vote on it, so that the opinion of the House can be known.

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

We do not normally use consideration of Bills on Report to vote on provisions that simply repeat the current legal position. The hon. Lady's new clause would not change the current legal position, which is that no convicted prisoner can vote. There is no proposal before the House to change that position. Her new clause would simply reinforce and repeat existing law, and inviting us to vote on a draft version of one part of current law is not sensible. I appreciate the intention behind bringing such a provision before the House for debate, but voting on a new clause that would simply reinforce the current legal position and make no change whatsoever makes no sense.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I am not sure that I share the right hon. and learned Lady's absolute confidence that the current law is as she describes. The point is that the law has been brought into question: it may well allow prisoners to vote, in the light of her Government's Human Rights Act 1998, so it would be very useful if the position were clarified once and for all through a vote in this House.

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

The law as it affects elections in this country is laid down in electoral legislation passed by this House. Although the European Court's judgment might cause us to reflect and reconsider—we must address that judgment, which we have yet to do—it does not of itself change the law of this country. The laws of this country are made by this House. We are considering the Electoral Administration Bill, and there is nothing in it that changes the law of this country relating to the circumstances in which prisoners can vote. They can vote when on remand but not after conviction and when serving their sentence, so any vote in the House on this issue would be otiose.

If, as a result of the European Court judgment, we were introducing a provision that changed the voting rules for prisoners, it might be sensible for the hon. Member for Epping Forest to press to a vote a provision that would keep the old law, but we do not plan to change the law on prisoners through this legislation. I welcome her bringing her concerns to the House, but it would be nonsensical to press her new clause to a vote, given that we would vote against it simply in order to keep the current law, which is that those on remand can vote, but those who are convicted cannot. I do not know whether anyone is any the wiser after that, but I hope that the hon. Lady understands what I have said.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality)

I do understand what the Minister has said, but still believe that there would be a benefit in the House dividing on this very important point of principle. The European Court of Human Rights judgment in the Hirst case criticised Parliament for not discussing this issue. The minority of dissenting judges noted that:

"it cannot be said that there was any substantive debate by members of the legislature on the continued justification in light of modern day penal policy and of current human rights standards".

This debate has been brief, but it is a test of the opinion of the elected representatives of the British people. I do not mind—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I think that the hon. Lady is still making an intervention, and that we should perhaps bring it to an end.

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

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I understand her better now. She is saying that the ECHR has suggested that we should consider the matter further, that the new clause has been proposed to precipitate that consideration, and that the matter will be sorted out when we vote on it.

However, we must look carefully at what that further consideration suggested by the ECHR involves. I am almost certain that a debate on a new clause tabled on Report, important though it is, is inadequate for the purpose of satisfying the court that we have visited the matter afresh after wide consultation and proper consideration in Committee. Her intention is helpful, but the new clause will not do the trick in this regard, especially when the Bill as drafted does not contain a similar proposal. Therefore, no purpose would be served by pressing the matter to a vote.

Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Labour, Livingston

I seek clarification on this matter. Does my right hon. Friend believe that, in a Division, both sides would be voting for the status quo?

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

I do not think that new clause 5 exactly repeats the current law, as it does not employ the same statutory language. I would not want to replace the existing provisions with a hand-drafted proposal that is less precise.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

I want to help Mrs. Laing. Is she saying that the existing provisions might eventually have to be given further consideration in light of the ECHR judgement? Does she agree that accepting new clause 5 would mean not that the existing legislation had been given further consideration, but that an alternative form of words had been adopted in its place? Would that not mean that we might end up with two potentially conflicting formulations that could cause greater confusion in the courts in the future?

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

My hon. Friend makes a very helpful point. He has said that the consideration of new clause 5 is likely to be insufficient and defective. The debate has been useful, but it would not be appropriate to press the new clause, as it is drafted, to a vote. It would not satisfy the European Court, and it would not be acceptable to us because it does not contain the right repeals. We would therefore have duplication, with two versions of the law on the statute book at the same time, one being inferior and one the current position.

Anyway, the hon. Lady will have to make her own decision on what to do. Let me turn to the court judgment. Under section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which remains the law and is unchanged by the European Court's judgment, convicted prisoners are barred from voting while serving their sentences. In April 2001, John Hirst challenged the ban on voting by way of judicial review. He was unsuccessful in the UK courts and subsequently sought redress at the European Court of Human Rights. The court found in its initial judgment, given in March 2004, that there had been a breach of article 3 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights, which provides for states to hold elections

"under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people."

The Government challenged the judgment and requested that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. That heard the case afresh in April 2005, delivering its judgment in October. It found in favour of the applicant and that the blanket ban on convicted prisoners was a breach of article 3 of protocol 1 of the convention.

We are considering how to respond to that judgment. We have brought forward no proposals, and the current law stands. The court does not make a finding as to what measures would be considered incompatible with the ECHR. The judgment simply implies that any decision must be fully debated and emerge from a discussion that considers modern-day penal policy and current human rights standards. With the best will the world, I do not think that we have had the opportunity to give the issue the consideration that it clearly deserves and which the court has clearly indicated it would like us to give it.

The court has not said that all convicted prisoners should have the right to vote. The majority of the judgment is about process and whether or not we have given the right balance to the question of the right to vote compared to deprivation of liberty following a court judgment. We will have to revisit our consideration of the matter. The judgment raises a number of complex issues about what consideration we will need to give it if we are to bring the UK into ECHR compliance.

I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw the proposed new clause. It would be confusing for people were we to vote against something that purports to reinstate the current legal position. I hope that she will accept my reassurance that she does not need to reinstate the substantive law as I have expressed it and which she supports.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Women and Equality)

The right hon. and learned Lady is a very astute lawyer and an eloquent Minister. I appreciate that she is in an awkward position, but we shall nevertheless press the new clause to a vote. It is a chance for an expression of the opinion of the elected representatives in the House, and that can do no harm to the further consideration that may well be necessary of this extremely important matter.

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

Although I understand that the hon. Lady's draft is a correct repeat of section 3 of the Representation of the People Act, on which I have asked for advice since she said that she intended to put the new clause to a vote, it does not include section 3A, which refers to prisoners in Broadmoor, and it does not use the correct terminology. So, frankly speaking, I do not want my colleagues and I to be in the position of looking as if we are voting against the current law, when in fact we support it. However, if she puts the new clause to the vote, we will have to vote against it, because of the drafting problems and the Broadmoor issue. That will not help people outside understand the will of the Government or the House.

It being Six o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [25 October].

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 237, Noes 310.

Division number 121 Orders of the Day — Electoral Administration Bill — New Clause 2 — Registration Officers: General Duty

Aye: 237 MPs

No: 310 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Deputy Speaker then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour.