Schedule 2 — Repeals

Orders of the Day — Electoral Administration Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:17 pm on 11th January 2006.

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Amendments made: No. 73, in page 101, line 40, in column 2, at end insert—

'In Schedule 1, in rule 6(3)(a) the words "(of not more than 6 words in length)".'.

No. 74, in page 102, line 10, at end insert—

'Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (c. 60) In Schedule 2, the entry relating to the Representation of the People Act 1983.'.

No. 75, in page 102, line 12, in the second column, at end insert—

'Section 25(1).'.

No. 76, in page 102, line 36, at end insert—

'This Act Sections 13 to (Repeal of personal identifier provisions).'.

No. 77, in page 102, line 36, at end insert—

'This Act Section 64.'—[Ms Harman.]

Order for Third Reading read.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 6:31 pm, 11th January 2006

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill is an important step in the very big task of restoring health and legitimacy to our democracy. Our democracy is not working properly unless everyone eligible is registered to vote, everyone participates in elections and no one fiddles the vote. The Bill takes forward measures on all of those three legs of the stool on which democracy depends.

I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend David Cairns, for his excellent work on the Bill. I said at the outset that we would listen and respond to points made on the Bill from all parts of the House. Our approach has been non-party political and non-partisan. In that spirit, I particularly thank the Opposition—the hon. Members for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—for their helpful suggestions, many of which have found their way into the Bill.

I acknowledge and thank our Whip on the Committee, my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan, and my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend Martin Linton.I acknowledge the work of Select Committees, above all the Constitutional Affairs Committee, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the Standards and Privileges Committee, all of which have had a substantive input into the Bill.

I thank Back Benchers from all sides, particularly those who served on the Committee. We were helped by the assistance of Mr. Robinson. I single out my hon. Friend Chris Ruane, because much of the discussion that we have had in the House and in Committee was informed by the fact that he has asked a great many parliamentary questions, elicited answers and done a great deal of research. I also thank hon. Members who did not serve on the Committee, but who none the less played a large part in producing the substance of the Bill. I thank Sir Patrick Cormack for introducing what I call the Cormack amendments. I also thank hon. Members in all parts of the House, particularly the hon. Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who highlighted the issues of service voters and their under-registration. I look forward to further debate on that in another place.

Much of the Bill has been agreed, and much of it has been changed, often at the suggestion of Back Benchers or Opposition Members. One thing that has not changed, however, is the position of prisoners, who are not entitled to vote if they have been convicted.

Although we agree with the official Opposition about convicted prisoners, we do not agree with them about the roll-out of personal identifiers as a condition of registration, which they think should happen immediately. The Government have decided that that must be piloted before a national roll-out, so we agree on the principles, but disagree on implementation. Our approach has remained non-partisan, consultative and evidence-based, which is why we have stuck with the pilots and will insist on them before any roll-out.

After Third Reading, we will send the Bill from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, and I look forward to hearing their lordships' views. I know that their lordships will acknowledge that the Bill is about elections and bear in mind that consideration by the elected House has been thorough and non-partisan. I am sure that my noble Friend Baroness Ashton will share the approach adopted by me and my ministerial colleagues by taking an open-minded and non-partisan approach to amendments introduced in the Lords.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State 6:36 pm, 11th January 2006

I join the Minister in thanking all those involved with the Bill on both sides of the House. I particularly thank the Minister and the Under-Secretary for being constructive and prepared to consult.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) and for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who have done all the hard work. I also pay tribute to our Whip, my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham, who is sadly not here today, but who has worked hard on the Bill. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, who has already been mentioned and who has happily been returned to us, and my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for Blaby (Mr. Robathan).

The Electoral Commission has briefed us throughout the process, and I pay tribute to Sam Younger and Lisa Watch, who have provided us with excellent back-up.

I do not agree with the Minister about prisoners. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the blanket ban is not compatible with the European convention on human rights, and one of the reasons that it gives for that opinion is that the ban has not been properly discussed in the House, so we cannot be criticised for introducing an amendment drafted in similar terms to the current law to allow that to happen. The Minister's colleagues in another place may want to consult on the matter, but we feel that we have pushed the process forward. We are sad that Ministers did not join us in the Division Lobby, because the two main parties should be united on the matter—we know that the Liberal Democrats take a different view, but the responsible parties should unite on the issue.

As I said on Second Reading, we welcome the improvements to the Bill such as the new offence, the marked register for postal votes and anonymous registration, all of which we have discussed this evening. I am also pleased about the changes that we called for on Second Reading such as assurances about CORE, fairness on the descriptions allowed for independents and party candidates, clarifying the election expenses rules, not reducing the threshold for the loss of deposits, which would have helped extremist parties, and a firmer test regarding safety for those who are at risk when it comes to anonymous registration. The Government have examined all those matters and acted upon them, and we are grateful.

However, we are still unhappy that the Government have been unable to help on individual voter registration, which is a vital, urgent and much-needed protection against postal vote fraud. It is sad that they are still not prepared to make the tiniest concession on that beyond the pilots, which are not an answer to the problem. It is also a pity that they are still not prepared, despite all the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, to rule out all-postal vote elections for the future.

We would like some concrete measures on service voters. I will not speak for too long in the hope that other hon. Members will be able to say a few words about that.

There is more to be done with the Bill in the other place. When the Northern Ireland voting system was being considered, the advocacy of my noble Friend Lord Glentoran persuaded the Government to overcome their original objections and introduce a secure system. I hope that that might happen again with this Bill.

Photo of Rosemary McKenna Rosemary McKenna Labour, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East 6:40 pm, 11th January 2006

I very much appreciate the opportunity to welcome the Bill despite the fact that my amendment was not selected.

I want to put it on the record that the Minister has assured me that the circumstances that arose in my constituency at the last election will not arise again. Five hundred ballot papers were ruled out as ineligible because the polling clerk had written on the ballot paper the identifying number of the electors. That was a scandal and a disgrace. The returning officer was absolutely right that according to the law they could not be allowed. What worries me is that that is all right with an 11,000-plus majority, but it would have a significant effect in a by-election or a council election in my constituency, or anywhere.

This particular individual in Kirkintilloch had been a presiding officer in a polling station in the past, had had extra training, as had all the others, and had been given the information from the Electoral Commission, yet he still made this mistake. The Minister has assured me that the separation of the ballot paper from the identifying marks means that it cannot possibly happen again, and I am delighted to have that reassurance. It is crucial that it does not happen again—the 500 people who voted in Oxgangs primary school had their votes taken away.

The terms of the provision could have been reinforced a bit more, and I will be watching its operation carefully. I very much welcome all the other changes that have been made in the Bill.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 6:43 pm, 11th January 2006

I add my thanks and congratulations to those that have already been put on the record. I welcomed enormously the approach taken in Committee by Ministers and by Conservative colleagues, and by my hon. Friend Dr. Pugh, when trying to put forward constructive proposals to make a good Bill better.

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

I forgot the hon. Gentleman when I was paying my tributes. I apologise, because he has played a very big part in these proceedings and should definitely have been included. Perhaps he will put in a leadership bid—who knows? [Interruption.]

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

My odds are 33:1 with a leadership run, which will not happen. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. I will just about forgive him the fatuity of the last vote, which was an exercise in pointlessness as it asked the House to divide on two positions that amounted to the same thing.

On the principal objectives, we have striven for consensus whenever possible, even if we have not always achieved it. That is as it should be. We have made the point over the years, including in the previous Parliament when we considered electoral reform, that such issues should not be partisan and that we should agree a common framework for our essential democratic processes. It is important that we listen to each others' points of view and accommodate them as far as possible. That has happened during the Bill's passage.

Changes have been made through our consideration and as a result of the points that were made not only by Sir Patrick Cormack, but by Sir George Young, who chairs the Standards and Privileges Committee and made the point about reporting donations to hon. Members. A minor consideration on imprints was also taken into account. There has been a retreat on descriptors, thus preventing us from holding a difficult debate on whether "annibynnwr" is a better description than "annibynnol" for independent candidates on Welsh ballot papers. A minor amendment was made when the Government finally understood my point about arrests within polling stations. I was right and the Minister eventually accepted that the original wording did not convey what the Government intended.

Clearly, we need to make more progress on the four-month issue, which we debated. Progress has been made on deposit thresholds. The definition of election material is important and will be introduced probably through secondary legislation. The Government accepted the point that Rosemary McKenna made.

It is a shame that we did not reach the amendments that Mr. George tabled. He has been my colleague on many occasions on Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitoring expeditions. He well knows the requirements of international organisations that we do not yet fulfil.

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

We accept the spirit of the amendments of my right hon. Friend Mr. George and we will table amendments in another place that will effect his proposals on independent observers.

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

Again, that is welcome. I made points in Committee that the right hon. Gentleman intended to make today in good faith to ensure that our systems were compatible with the international treaties that we had signed. The Minister therefore gives us good news.

I also welcome the fact that we will deal with the service voter issue in another place. That is an important matter and I hope that we will not have hard travail to reach a conclusion.

As far as possible, we have dealt with matters in this elected House rather than the other place. That is important because such decisions should be made here. Notwithstanding the wealth of experience in another place, we are responsible to our electors for ensuring that our democratic system is in place.

There is one outstanding issue: how we maintain the integrity, especially of the postal ballot, but also of our wider electoral arrangements. I am not convinced by the Government's proposal for pilot schemes. We need personal identifiers but we must continue that argument elsewhere and it may revert to us for determination. In other respects, the Bill is a good measure, which I commend to the House.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe 6:48 pm, 11th January 2006

I welcome the Bill, especially the way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary have conducted discussions on it. They have listened not only to Opposition Members but to Labour Back Benchers. I thank them for their approach.

Clearly, it is a national disgrace that 4 million people who are entitled to vote in this country are not even registered. It is also undemocratic and discriminatory because a disproportionate number of those who are not registered come from inner-city areas, are young, are members of black and other ethnic minority groups or live in private rented accommodation and houses in multiple in occupation. It is right that the Bill seeks to address that deficit in our democratic system.

I particularly welcome the powers and responsibilities given to registration officers in clause 9. However, I still want further reassurance about the powers of officers to obtain information from organisations that are not within the council for which they work, especially when houses are transferred from a local authority to arm's length management organisations or housing associations. Organisations such as local colleges, the Post Office and even private sector organisations such as utility companies might have to give information to registration officers.

The Bill represents a welcome step forward, but I believe that we shall eventually have to move to a system similar to that in Australia, in which most of the information comes to returning officers automatically from various organisations, and in which canvassers are used on a periodic basis to back that up. That would turn our system round to some extent.

I welcome the setting of a national standard for the way in which officials operate. It is clearly right that general elections be conducted on registers that are drawn up on a similar basis in every local authority in the country. Having a national standard is important for that reason, if for no other. I also welcome the powers given to the Electoral Commission to ask for reports from various officers, to assess how different authorities are doing and to draw comparisons between them. I hope that such reports will be made annually and that we shall also encourage the scrutiny committees of local authorities to engage with their registration officers and others in considering how they compare with the work being done by their counterparts in other authorities. We must have scrutiny at local level, as well as information produced by the Electoral Commission at national level, so that Members of Parliament can ensure that our registers are much more accurate and democratic.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 6:51 pm, 11th January 2006

We often pass imperfect legislation, but legislation is always improved by proper consultation. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, who has conducted herself in an exemplary manner in that regard. I am particularly grateful for her help, support and encouragement with the amendments that I tabled. I am also grateful for the great help that I received from my hon. Friend Mr. Heald, who has led so ably from our Front Bench, and from Mr. Heath.

This has been a good exercise in co-operative working in Parliament and the law is being significantly improved as a result. I am also grateful to Mr. Devine, who looked after my interests in Committee. I appreciate that, because his predecessor, Robin Cook, was one of the sponsors of my private Member's Bill, which led to the amendments that I tabled.

I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, and I hope that my hon. Friend Mr. Tyrie will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because he has done valiant work on service voters, although he has yet to see a result. I hope, however, that as a result of the Bill's consideration in another place, he will.

Photo of Jim McGovern Jim McGovern Labour, Dundee West 6:53 pm, 11th January 2006

I particularly welcome amendments Nos. 59 and 60. I thank the other members of the Committee. I have served on a few Committees now and have thoroughly enjoyed it.

I particularly want to thank the Minister of State for getting back to me so quickly and efficiently on the point that I raised in Committee about possible charging for postal voting. I believe that democracy should be free and open to all, although I understand that some hon. Members have concerns about postal voting. However, if we are to have postal voting, it must be free and open to all.

Before it was amended, the Bill would have allowed the Secretary of State to impose a charge for postal voting. While I am confident that the present Secretary of State would not have done so, I want to protect people in the future, and the amendments address that point. Should any future Secretary of State try to introduce a such charge, they would have to do so through primary legislation, and such a proposal would have to be debated and voted on by all right hon. and hon. Members. I am confident that the House would not let us down on that issue.

I have served on several Committees since I arrived here in May and, as I said earlier, I thoroughly enjoyed it, once I managed to decipher the intricate details of the Bill in question. If my initial inquiry has led to an amendment that has strengthened the Bill, I will be delighted.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West 6:54 pm, 11th January 2006

I thank the Minister for telling us that the thrust of the new clause on election observers tabled by Mr. George, which we did not reach today, would be dealt with in another place. I also welcome the new section 6D in clause 31, which deals with observers at polling stations and counts. I pay tribute to Tim Sheehy, whom I first met through his work on democracy in southern Africa at the Catholic Institute for International Relations. He and his colleagues, who have done similar work in central America and elsewhere, have drawn attention to the inconsistency in the fact that we expect to go to other countries and see what goes on at polling stations, while registered observers have not been able to do the same in this country. I welcome a change that I consider right, proper and balanced.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, who joined the House after the general election some weeks after the rest of us. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Tyrie, who persisted in pursuing an issue which, if I may be slightly partisan, I will describe as a scandal. The changes in the electoral registration requirements for service voters should not have been made, and I am glad that the position is to be put right. I hope that when I visit our service personnel around the world, they will all say, "I know that I am registered, and I know that I can vote."

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester 6:56 pm, 11th January 2006

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend Peter Bottomley said about service voter registration. I shall make three brief points about that.

First, having campaigned for about 18 months, I am now certain that the Minister has understood the problem and really wants to do something about it. That is a huge plus. Secondly, I have the strong impression that the whole House is convinced that we need to do something about it. All parties agree that we cannot stay where we are. Thirdly, we have not yet cracked the problem because not all parts of the Government agree on what should be done. My strong impression is that the Ministry of Defence never liked the old service voter registration scheme. It feels that it has better things to do than to act, effectively, as a returning officer. That is a perfectly reasonable attitude. The MOD would much rather try to muddle through with the existing scheme and see whether it can be made to work. I do not think that it can, and I do not think we should accept that approach.

There are two other possible routes. One involves trying to devise a much better piece of legislation, which I do not think will be possible in the time available to the other place. If we are to try to find the best solution, that will mean putting enabling powers on the statute book that the Minister can then activate through secondary legislation. As a legislator, I do not like that approach, but I realise that it may be necessary. That was the purport of an amendment that was tabled by the Opposition, but not debated today.

The other possible approach is one that I recommended originally and have not yet abandoned. It involves repealing the relevant clause in the old legislation and returning to the status quo ante, so that at least during the next few years and at the next general election, 250,000 service voters will be back on the register. That would give us time to work out together what is the best scheme, but the best must not become the enemy of the good. We cannot allow the scandal of service voters who work for democracy in countries such as Iraq finding themselves disfranchised at home to continue. We cannot allow it to happen at an election again. I salute the Minister for reaching that conclusion and hope that she will emphasise, with all possible vigour, the need to resolve the issue in a sensible way.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.