Individual Electoral Registration

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 15th September 2010.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 12:30 pm, 15th September 2010

With permission, I should like to make a statement on the Government's plans for the implementation of individual electoral registration in Great Britain-Northern Ireland having introduced such a system in 2002.

It is widely recognised on both sides of the House that the current arrangements for electoral registration need to change. At present, there is no requirement for people to provide any evidence of their identity to register to vote, which leaves the system vulnerable to fraud. Household registration harks back to a time when registration was the responsibility of the head of the household. Access to a right as fundamental as voting should not be dependent on someone else. We need a better system of keeping up with people who move house or who need to update their registration for other reasons. Individual registration provides an opportunity to move forward to a system centred around the individual citizen.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House are concerned when they read of allegations of electoral fraud, including those alleged to have taken place at elections this year. Although proven electoral fraud is relatively rare, we should be concerned about the impact that such cases have on the public's confidence in the electoral system. The most recent survey, which was taken after the general election in May, found that one third of people think that electoral fraud is a problem. We can be confident that any allegations will be properly investigated by the authorities, but it is right that we take steps to make the system less vulnerable to fraud, because tackling that perception is an important part of rebuilding trust in our democracy, which is why this Government are committed to speeding up the implementation of individual registration.

Individual registration will require each person to register themselves and to provide personal identifiers-date of birth, signature and national insurance number-which will allow registration officers to cross-check the information provided before a person is added to the register, which should tackle the problem of fraudulent or ineligible registrations.

However, I want to make it absolutely clear that there will be no new databases. The Government's commitment to rolling back the surveillance state will be demonstrated clearly later today when the House debates the remaining stages of the Identity Documents Bill. Electoral registration officers will check the information they receive from people applying to be registered with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the applicant is genuine. People seeking to access public services are already subject to various similar authentication processes, for example when applying for benefits, and I do not believe such a check, which will help to eliminate electoral fraud, is disproportionate or that it represents an invasion of privacy. Naturally, we will ensure that robust arrangements are put in place to ensure that personal data are securely held and processed by electoral registration officers. Personal identifiers will not be published in the electoral register.

The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 was passed in the previous Parliament with all-party support. At this point, it is worth paying tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve and my hon. Friend Mrs Laing, who worked tirelessly on promoting that. The Act gave us a framework for moving to individual registration. Introduction was to be on a voluntary basis before a further decision by Parliament-on the recommendation of the Electoral Commission-on whether to make it compulsory from later in 2015 at the earliest, but it is our judgment that that is a slow and very expensive way of doing things.

I am announcing today that we will legislate to implement individual registration in 2014. We will drop the previous Government's plans for a voluntary phase, which would have cost about £74 million over the Parliament. I believe that there is a far more cost-effective way to familiarise people with the new requirements for registration and-importantly-avoid any temporary drop in registration rates.

We propose that individual registration will be made compulsory in 2014, but that no one will be removed from the electoral register who fails to register individually until after the 2015 general election, giving people at least 12 months to comply with the new requirements, and ensuring as complete a register as possible for the election. From 2014 onwards any new registrations will need to be carried out under the new system, including last-minute registrations. We will also make individual registration a requirement for anyone wishing to cast a postal or proxy vote. That will tackle immediately the main areas of concern on electoral fraud, but it will ensure that people already on the register can vote at the next election and will have more than one opportunity to register individually.

Individual registration also provides us with an opportunity to tackle concerns about people missing from the electoral register, which are held on both sides of the House. But it is important to put this into perspective: the UK registration rate at 91% to 92% compares well internationally, including with some countries where voting is compulsory.

There is a significant number of people who are eligible to vote but not on the register. There is a variety of reasons for this and the move to individual registration provides us with an opportunity to do something about it. Whether a person chooses to register or not should be their individual choice. But we should do everything we can to ensure that people are not prevented from registering because the system is difficult to use or through ignorance of their rights. For example, research carried out by the Electoral Commission revealed that 31% of people believed that they would be automatically registered if they paid council tax. Many of those people may not therefore actually take the trouble to register to vote. As part of introducing individual registration, as well as improving the accuracy of the register, we will therefore take steps to improve its completeness.

I can also announce today that we will be trialling data-matching during 2011-that is comparing the electoral register with other public databases to find the people who are eligible to vote but who are missing from the register. The aim is to tackle under-registration among specific groups in our society and ensure that every opportunity is available to those currently not on the electoral register. These pilots will enable us to see how effective data-matching is and to see which data sets are of most use in improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. If they are effective, we will roll them out more widely across local authorities on a permanent basis to help ensure that our register is as complete as possible. The Electoral Commission will also play a key role in assessing and reporting on the pilots.

I will be writing to all local authorities responsible for electoral registration to invite them to put themselves forward to take part in these trials and I strongly encourage them to work in partnership with the Government on this important matter. Much work is already done by electoral registration officers to raise awareness and encourage people to register, but I will be considering further how local authorities. Members of Parliament and the Government might work together to develop an approach that will make a positive impact on the level of electoral registration.

Registration should be a simple process. We will also be considering how electoral registration can be integrated into people's day-to-day transactions with Government, for example when they move house, or visit the post office, or apply for a passport or driving licence.

Our proposals will improve both the completeness and accuracy of the register. We will therefore seek to bring forward a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny in the current session followed by a Bill to introduce individual registration from 2014. The need to improve the accuracy and completeness of electoral registers is an issue on which there is cross-party consensus. As we move forward, it will be important for us to maintain consensus and we will be seeking to work closely on implementation with political parties across the House.

The steps that I am announcing today will achieve change over the lifetime of this Parliament that will safeguard the integrity of our electoral system and improve registration levels. They are an important part of rebuilding people's faith in our democracy and I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

I'm back again.

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, but not-I am afraid-for most of its content. Will he accept that his announcement today of the speeding up of individual registration, but without safeguards or any additional funding, could undermine the integrity of our democracy and lead to a repeat on the mainland of the Northern Ireland experience, in which the introduction of individual registration led to a 10% drop in registrations and many eligible voters effectively being disfranchised?

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, which was passed with all-party support, and he paid a fulsome tribute-entirely deserved, if I may so-to Mr Grieve and Mrs Laing, but why did he not go on to acknowledge the reasons the Conservative Front-Bench team endorsed wholly and specifically the detailed timetable in the 2009 Act and the special safeguards and the role for the Electoral Commission, which was spelt out in that Act? Has he forgotten what his own hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Epping Forest, said in the House and has repeated since the general election? She said that

"it is right to take this matter forward carefully and step by step. None of us wants to see a system introduced that would in any way undermine the integrity of our democratic system."-[ Hansard, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 108.]

And is he not also aware of the endorsement of the details in the 2009 Act by the then Liberal Democrat spokesman, David Howarth? He said:

"I do not think that anybody was suggesting that the timetable be artificially shortened"- exactly what the Minister is now proposing-

"or that any risk be taken with the comprehensiveness of the register."-[ Hansard, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 112.]

The Minister seeks to justify his announcement today principally by referring to electoral fraud. We all share concerns about electoral fraud, which pollutes and undermines the democratic process, and the last Government, not least in the Electoral Administration Act 2006, took active measures that are working to protect us better against fraud. However, that was not the principal reason for individual registration. That was about giving people rights as individual citizens just as these days people have rights to individual taxation. What is the evidence that initial registration is the principal point at which fraud takes place? In my experience, the principal problems have come not from that, but from personation at the polls of someone lawfully and properly on the register, or from misconduct over postal votes, where the 2006 Act provisions are working, but where further protection could easily be provided by the simple arrangement of banning the publication of the absent voters list in the immediate run-up to, and during, the election.

The Minister complains now about cost and complexity, but given that our scheme in the 2009 Act was the subject of detailed cross-party consultation by Lord Wills, then my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon, why was no such complaint made just six months ago? That system provided a key role for the European-I mean the Electoral-Commission- [Interruption.] I had Prime Minister's questions on the brain, but happily the European Commission is not involved in this at all. The system provided a key role for the Electoral Commission to certify that full steps had been taken, but the Minister's provisions seek to bypass the safeguarding role of the Electoral Commission. Why is that?

The arrangement set out in the 2009 Act included a voluntary process that the Minister now derides, but has he forgotten that the hon. Member for Epping Forest specifically endorsed voluntary registration in the first instance, making that subject to certification by the Electoral Commission that it was safe to proceed? The Minister claims that our overall registration rates are similar to other countries. They may be, but will he not accept that the overall average disguises the fact that, as the Electoral Commission showed, in many areas, especially in inner-urban areas and seaside towns, and among the young and those on lower incomes, levels of registration are much lower than the average, and less probably than in other countries?

So far as data-matching is concerned, there is no need, as the Minister implied, for further powers. They are already on the statute book and go back to previous Conservative Administrations, with powers for electoral registration officers strengthened by us, as set out in detail in a parliamentary answer given to my hon. Friend Chris Ruane. We will work carefully with the Minister to ensure that the data-matching arrangements are effective.

Overall, however, time and again the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have accepted that 3.5 million voters are missing from the register. The burden of the Minister's statement today represents an admission that the 2010 register will disfranchise millions of voters, yet he is planning to use that register for the new fixed boundary arrangements, which will eliminate any local independent public inquiries. Given that, what possible reason is there for rushing the boundary legislation, except the reason now helpfully and publicly put on the record by Mr Field and the right hon. Friend Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis): that this is being done solely for narrow, party political advantage?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

That was a rather grudging welcome, I thought, for our plans.

Let me run through the questions that the right hon. Gentleman asked. His key point, set out at the beginning of his response, was to say that we were planning to speed up individual registration without safeguards, but I do not think that he can have listened to my statement. He specifically referred to the Northern Ireland experience, but what we are doing is entirely because of the Northern Ireland experience, where there was a significant drop in the numbers on the electoral register, albeit one that most people thought was greater than what we could have expected from just removing those who were on the register who should not have been. Clearly we would expect some reduction with individual registration, because there are some people on the register who should not be. However, the Northern Ireland experience is exactly what we are trying to avoid, by not removing people from the register before the next election if they have not registered individually-as I set out right at the beginning of my statement-so I do not think that that issue is valid.

The right hon. Gentleman quoted my hon. Friend Mrs Laing as saying that she was clear that we did not want to undermine democracy. The whole point of the safeguards and the data-matching that I have outlined, along with the careful way in which we are going to proceed, is exactly so that we end up with a register that is more accurate and more complete than the one that we have today.

On fraud, the recorded statistics on electoral fraud, which come from the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission, show that fraudulent registration is one of the principal examples of electoral fraud, and there was cross-party agreement in the previous Parliament that it should be tackled.

As for the Electoral Commission and the safeguard to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, as I made clear in my statement, the Electoral Commission will absolutely be involved in the process, advising us on the data-matching pilots. We have worked closely with the Electoral Commission and yesterday, when the chair, Jenny Watson, gave evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, she welcomed individual registration, making it clear that it was an opportunity to give individuals responsibility for their vote. She also said that introducing individual registration would enable focused programmes to improve registration rates and gave some examples of programmes in Northern Ireland to encourage young people to vote. We will continue to work closely with the Electoral Commission, which has set out some important principles that we plan to follow.

As for under-registration, I made it clear in my remarks that we think that getting people who are eligible to vote on to the electoral register is as important as dealing with people who should not be on it. That is why we set out the proposal not to get rid of people in the first instance, but to improve data-matching, so that we can put some proactive plans in place to tackle under-registration. However, the boundary review will take place on exactly the same basis as the last one. We will use the existing electoral register, as with the previous boundary review, which took place under the previous Government, but under our proposals there will be more frequent boundary reviews-once a Parliament-so that we use the most up-to-date registration data and seats bear more relation to up-to-date electoral data.

On a positive note, I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's concurrence that he will work with us on the pilots. I shall write to those local authorities this week, and I shall be happy to work with all parties in the House to look at ways of improving electoral registration across the country, so that we have a more complete electoral register.

Several hon. Members:

rose -

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. A great many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, so I appeal for short questions and short answers.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I thank the shadow Lord Chancellor for his courtesy in telling me a short while ago that he was going to mention what I had said on this matter. As this might really be his very last appearance at the Dispatch Box-we hope for a Frank Sinatra-style comeback, of course-I should like to pay tribute to him and wish him well on behalf of Members on both sides of the House. He will recall that we have argued over this matter for more than five years. The previous Government delayed and delayed, but at the eleventh hour they at last brought in individual voter registration. However, they still built in delays. Of course I have said in the past that I do not want anything to undermine the integrity of the democratic system, and I stick to that, but nothing that the Minister has said today appears to undermine that integrity. On the contrary, he has said that he will proceed carefully, step by step, and he has assured us that he has learned from the Northern Ireland experience. Also, the new system that he has devised will save money as well as time.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments, and I agree with every word that she said, including her fulsome tribute to Mr Straw. I thank her for her intervention.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Labour, Nottingham East

Of course individual registration might improve security, but it will also raise the threshold for engaging in the voting process. Is the Minister today announcing a reduction in the amount of money that goes to electoral registration officers? In his statement, it sounded as though he was taking about £74 million away, but could he be more specific about the phasing of the budget for councils?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

What I announced was that proceeding with the voluntary phase was going to cost £74 million, and we are doing away with that. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House, and he would not expect me to announce things that are going to be announced in the comprehensive spending review. I am confident, however, that the funds that we need to implement this in a sensible way will be forthcoming.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats

The Minister's statement is very welcome. May I ask him to invite leaders of all parties in the House together to maximise our input into getting all those electors on to the list who should be on it? I should like to suggest that this November should be a democracy month, involving a campaign to do that, so that the register published in December has the maximum number of people on it for the immediate and long-term future.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. I said in my statement that I wanted to work with local authorities and with Members of the House to promote electoral registration. His second idea is a very good one, and I shall think about it some more and see what we can do, ahead of the registration for this December, to make a significant impact.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

In my constituency, five Conservatives were jailed or convicted following illegal registrations. They will probably be the last people to be convicted of that, because Lydia Simmons, whose seat was stolen, still faces a legal bill of hundreds of thousands of pounds, which were not available because the Conservative party did not pay the costs of their representatives. When looking at this issue, will the Minister see whether there are ways of making funds available to prosecute criminally illegal registration in such cases? I should also like to ask whether he is changing the law when he says:

"Whether a person chooses to register or not should be their individual choice."

I did not think that that was the case in law at present, and I wonder whether his statement is announcing a legal change

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Lady would not seriously expect me to comment on individual cases, particularly when I do not have the details of them. On her second point, people are not legally obliged to register to vote. If they receive inquiries from the local authority-the household registration form or some other inquiry-they are legally obliged to respond to them accurately, but there is no obligation on individuals to register at all. When registration is a household matter, and a person is responsible for registering other people, it is right that that should be obligatory, but when individuals take responsibility for their own registration, it is perfectly reasonable to say that it is up to them whether they choose to register- [ Interruption. ] We live in a free society, and people are entitled to decide whether they wish to be registered to vote and to cast their vote. That is the position today, and it will remain unchanged.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

I very much welcome the Minister's statement today. He mentioned the checking of national insurance numbers. These are of course available to people who are not citizens of this country or other eligible countries. What sort of citizenship or nationality checks will be carried out on those people?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Electoral registration officers already have to undertake a number of checks to confirm that people are eligible to vote, particularly in different sets of elections. My hon. Friend will know that, for example, in order to vote in a general election, a person has to be a citizen of the United Kingdom or a qualifying citizen of the Irish Republic or the Commonwealth. Those checks will remain as they are now. The checking of the date of birth, signature and national insurance number will enable the registration officers to be confident about someone's identity, which will enable those other checks to be more accurate.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

In these days of value for money and cost effectiveness, does the Minister see any merit in people who are in receipt of a state benefit, and thereby already encountering an arm of the state, automatically being registered to vote? The same could apply to people paying council tax, as he mentioned in his statement.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

While we are looking into data-matching, we are also going to look at other public databases-the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned a couple-to see whether, using that information, we can contact people who are eligible to vote but who are not on the register. They could then be contacted to check their further eligibility-their citizenship, for example-and encouraged to register to vote. The hon. Gentleman has made a useful and worthwhile point.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee, Chair, Treasury Committee

I warmly welcome this statement. It is long overdue, and I am very glad that we are now going to have individual voter registration. I hope that the Government will also make a statement shortly on postal voting. Postal voting on demand has undoubtedly increased fraud. Will the Government look into that, and will they take some action to curb it?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My hon. Friend would not expect me to anticipate future announcements. Today's proposals represent one stage in improving the electoral system, and we shall be looking at others in the future. I have heard what he has said, and I shall think on it some more.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

There are currently 3.5 million people missing from the electoral register, many of whom are the most needy people in the country, and they form a significant part of our work load. Measures have been put in place by the previous Government and this Government, and I welcome the proposals to improve registration announced today. The issue is one of timing. These measures will take time to settle in, and the freeze date for the boundary review is December. In the interests of fairness, bipartisanship and an equitable work load for MPs, will the Minister consider using estimated eligible electorates as the basis for the calculation of new seats in December? Those voters could then be registered when the new measures came into effect, and there would be no fiddling.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I take exception to the hon. Gentleman's use of the word "fiddling". The boundary review proposed in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill will be carried out on exactly the same basis as previous reviews, using the same electoral register and based on the same data. I acknowledge that there are people who are eligible to vote who have not chosen to register, and that is why we have put in place measures to deal with that. My hon. Friend Simon Hughes has made some helpful suggestions about what we could do this year, and we plan to fix this. When Chris Ruane raised this matter on Second Reading, I responded by saying that we would put in place measures to tackle under-registration, and I hope that he will be happy with what we have announced today.

Photo of Tessa Munt Tessa Munt Liberal Democrat, Wells

At the moment, we send national insurance numbers to young people who are approaching their 16th birthday, yet, on the declaration form that goes to the local authority, only those who are 17 and older are identified. How can we ensure that we pick up those who are 16 and over and put them into the registration process in anticipation? Would it be possible to promote this through the schools system? The other thing I would like to ask is about the arrangements that are going to be made to check up on those living abroad. What will happen? Is there any capacity to-

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. May I gently explain to the hon. Lady that on these occasions, Members should ask a single, short supplementary question? She has had a good run, but we will leave it there for today.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Lady's first point was valid. This is indeed something that the chief electoral registration officer in Northern Ireland has been doing-working with schools and also picking up the points the hon. Lady makes about national insurance numbers. In her evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform yesterday, the chair of the Electoral Commission drew attention to the work in Northern Ireland that has been particularly effective at getting younger voters on the register. That is exactly the sort of thing that we will be able to do once we introduce individual registration and make individuals responsible for registering to vote.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

As my right hon. Friend Mr Straw said, under-registration disproportionately hits the poorest, the youngest, the most mobile and ethnic minorities in our communities. I welcome the data-matching pilots, but surely it cannot make sense to go ahead with a radical redrawing of parliamentary boundaries before those pilots have taken place. If the Minister is sincere in wishing to conduct a cross-party review, let us have that review, look at the evidence and only then look at a radical redrawing of parliamentary boundaries.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point. The last boundary review that came into place for the recent general election was done using the existing electoral registers, and at least some people not on them were eligible to vote. I have already responded to that point. I am very pleased to work with colleagues on both sides of the House to ensure that more people who are eligible to vote are on the register. I set that out in my statement and I made it clear that the Government are as interested in the completeness of the register as they are in ensuring its accuracy.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

My hon. Friend is taking steps that go a considerable way towards restoring integrity to individual voting, but may I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend Mr Tyrie, that, given that we value individual booths for privacy at the polling station, the over-extension of postal voting destroys that degree of privacy, at least within households? The Minister should look at this question again. People should have postal votes because they need them, not just on demand.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I hear what my hon. Friend-and, indeed, my hon. Friend Mr Tyrie-says, and I will think further on it. I hope my hon. Friend Dr Lewis will welcome the announcement in my statement that although we are going to leave people on the register who have not individually registered ahead of the general election, those who want to exercise a postal or proxy vote-the areas of greatest concern-will have had to register individually, ensuring an extra safeguard.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

The Minister has outlined some changes in electoral reform, which we are glad to see happening. Whenever we go knocking on doors, as we do every time there is an election, people always tell us at the last minute that they thought they were on the list, but they have moved house and so forth. Is it possible to allow late registration even beyond the time currently allowed?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Our proposals in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, which will set fixed parliamentary terms so that election dates become more predictable, should enable organisations such as the Electoral Commission and local authorities to run campaigns to improve registration ahead of specific elections. We will know when the date of the election will be. The hon. Gentleman thus makes a valid point. Under our fixed-term Parliament proposals, it should be easier to deliver what he suggests.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

Does the Minister have any plans to improve the process of checking the identity of voters at the polling station in order to reduce the risk of impersonation?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

That suggestion has been put forward, and it happens in Northern Ireland. We are thinking about and considering it further. If the Government decide to bring forward any such proposals, we will announce them in the House.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

If the Minister wants data-matching, it is not a few paltry pilots that he needs; he could do it right across the country. As to his statement that whether a person chooses to register should be an individual choice and in light of his answer to my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart, I thought that it was a citizen's duty to register to vote. Is this for ever going to be known as the Harper doctrine-"If you don't feel like registering to vote, don't bother"?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that citizens should register to vote. I said in my statement that we want a complete register, so the Government clearly want the maximum number of people to register. The issue is whether we believe the law should say that someone should register and whether there should be a criminal sanction if they do not. I do not think that there should be. Indeed, in her evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee yesterday, the chair of Electoral Commission said:

"I think the idea that your vote is yours and it is not somebody else's-you need to take some responsibility for it-will help and enable registration officers to do more work."

The Government are very clear: we think people should register to vote and we want them to do so, we just do not think there should be a criminal sanction if they choose not to.

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Conservative, Pendle

I welcome what the Minister said about individual voter registration, which I believe is long overdue. Two of my hon. Friends have already raised the issue of restricting postal and proxy votes, and I would like to add my voice to theirs, urging the Minister to consider reintroducing the restrictions-they were never removed in Northern Ireland-as the key way of tackling electoral fraud in this country.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Again, as with my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester and for New Forest East, I have clearly heard what my hon. Friend Andrew Stephenson has said. I cannot add anything to what I said before-that I will reflect further on the matter.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne Central

Only 84% of registration forms are returned in Newcastle because we are a large city with a large student and deprived population. I have always considered it to be a crime that people should lose their right to vote because of a moment's inattention. In view of the coalition Government's "big society", is the Minister saying that there is no obligation to register to vote?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

No, I did not say that at all. What I said was that with the current household registration, where one is not just responsible for one's individual vote but for other people's too, the law requires that when sent a form or approached for information, one has to give it. When this becomes one's individual responsibility and the only person affected is yourself, I simply said that I did not think that it should be a matter for the criminal law.

On the issue of why people choose not to register to vote, the most common reason given is that people have moved house so that voting was not high up on the list of things to be done. For an awful lot of people-almost a fifth of those not registered-it happens because they have not bothered. As MPs and politicians, we all have to persuade electors that they should bother to register. Then, when they have registered, the next challenge is to give them a reason for coming out and using their vote at elections-something that does not happen enough today.

Photo of Duncan Hames Duncan Hames Liberal Democrat, Chippenham

Under the Minister's plans for individual registration, does he intend local authorities to collect as a matter of course individuals' titles so that those using the electoral roll respectfully to engage with the electorate can do so with due courtesy?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

That is not something I thought of announcing today, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that for politicians it is sometimes frustrating when we do not have people's correct titles and we end up with our individual computer programmes guessing what they are, often getting them wrong. I will think further about this, but we should remember that in view of all the pieces of information we already ask local authorities to collect, process and deal with, which are not essential for voting, we must be careful not to impose extra burdens. As I say, I will think further about it.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

Despite my reservations about individual registration, I welcome what the Minister said about data-sharing pilots and I hope he will consider Glasgow as a candidate for such a pilot. However, if we are going to all this great effort to share all these databases in order to identify people who have deliberately chosen not to register to vote up until now, what is the point of the exercise if, having identified those people, we are not going to oblige them to register? What is the point of that exercise?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

There are two questions there. On the first, I shall be writing to all local authorities responsible for registration suggesting that they engage with the pilots. The best thing the hon. Gentleman can do is to speak to his council and his registration officer and encourage them to participate. On his second point, quite a lot of people have not deliberately chosen not to register. As I said, one of the key reasons is that people have simply moved and have not got around to registering. Some people do not know how to register. Many would do so if it were easier, and if they were clearer about what they had to do. I think that if we approach them, tell them that they are eligible to vote and explain how they can do so, we will improve the rate of registration. However, in a free society, if someone deliberately chooses not to register to vote, that is a matter for them.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Parliamentary democracy cannot function at its best if nearly 10% of our citizens are not registered. May I urge my hon. Friend to think again? I think most people believe that registration is a civic duty, and that they would be surprised by what he has said today. May I encourage him to make it a legal requirement for people to register when he introduces legislation?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I made it clear that I, too, think that registration is a civic duty. However, making it a legal requirement presents the challenge of deciding what sanctions should apply to those who do not register. I do not think that, in a free society, it would be right to imprison someone who chose not to register to vote, or to hit them with a huge fine. In a free society, people should be free not to register to vote without incurring a criminal penalty.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

I cannot help thinking that we are making voting more difficult for people, and placing more and more barriers in their way, when we ought to be making the process easier. We have all observed that during general elections. It applies not just to the young, the elderly and the disabled, but to people who lives in houses in multiple occupation, especially those living in flats in Glasgow and some industrial areas. It will be difficult to carry out data-matching in such circumstances. I am glad that it is to be piloted, but, as my hon. Friend Mr Harris pointed out, unless it is followed up and the electoral registration officers are much more proactive than they have been so far, it will be a wasted exercise.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Lady makes a good point. One of the reasons for the data-matching pilots is to enable electoral registration officers to identify people who may be eligible to vote but are not on the register. They can then focus their efforts on that. As I have said, there is evidence that specific procedures to target younger voters and others who are not currently on the register have been very successful in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry The Second Church Estates Commissioner

A significant number of United Kingdom citizens living overseas are entitled to vote, but at the last general election a not particularly significant proportion registered or, indeed, voted. How will my hon. Friend ensure that more of them are encouraged and able to register? Could UK embassies, high commissions and consulates be better used to encourage them to register individually?

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow South

I have received and replied to a number of written questions along the same lines recently. The Government are considering those issues, and if we have proposals to present we will, of course, announce them to the House first.

D

Shouldn't this reply be attributed to Mark Harper?

Submitted by David Wright

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee

Resources will obviously be crucial to the success of the project. A significant proportion of British and Commonwealth citizens in my constituency do not have English as a first language. What additional resources will be given to local authorities such as Leicester to enable them to deal with that important issue, and will the Minister meet a delegation to discuss it?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I should, of course, be pleased to meet a delegation from the right hon. Gentleman or, indeed, from any other Members who wish to discuss these issues. As for the right hon. Gentleman's first question, he will know that local authorities receive funds from their revenue support grant and other resources enabling them to carry out electoral registration. He would not expect me to make specific announcements about the proposals for funding this project before the spending review, but I am confident that it will be properly resourced.

Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles Conservative, Grantham and Stamford

Is my hon. Friend as puzzled as I am by the argument of Mr Straw, which appears to be that we cannot adopt fully equal constituencies until we have dealt with the inadequacies of the register over which his party presided, and we cannot do anything to introduce the improvements in the register at any more than a glacial pace? Is not this obstructionism the real attempt to use the electoral system for partisan advantage?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

It seemed a bit churlish to point out in my statement that if there were problems with the state of the electoral register, it was not the parties on this side of the House that had been in government for the past 13 years, which is, I think, the point that my hon. Friend was making. Let me make it clear that we want to improve the state of the register, but the fact that it is not perfect should not mean that we cannot continue with the boundary review. The last Government conducted a boundary review, and we are conducting the review of the register on exactly the same basis.

It is worth pointing out that our electoral register contains the names of about 91 or 92% of eligible voters. In that regard, we compare very well with other comparable democracies. However, we are not complacent, and we want to improve our registration levels still further.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Labour, Alyn and Deeside

My right hon. Friend Mr Straw gave the example of Northern Ireland, where individual registration saw dramatic falls, especially in poorer areas. What extra resources will the Minister give local authorities, and-this is very important-will he ring-fence those resources to prevent authorities from spending them on other things?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman has raised two issues. The fact that individual registration was implemented overnight in Northern Ireland led to that sharp drop, not all of which was accounted for by the removal of people who should not have been on the register because they were not eligible to vote in the first place, which is one reason for introducing individual registration. It is because we do not want to see a similar dramatic fall here that I announced the safeguard that we would not remove people from the register immediately, and certainly not before the next general election.

As for the hon. Gentleman's second point about resources and ring-fencing, it is a difficult argument. Local authorities generally take exception to central Government's giving them ring-fenced amounts and micro-managing what they do. I know that it can be argued that central Government should say that this is a different area, but that is not a view that has been taken so far. I will think about the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, but I do not think that the Government will pursue it.

Photo of Paul Uppal Paul Uppal Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

Without simply reiterating the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), I ask the Minister to take on board my deep concern about postal voting fraud. Although I welcome individual registration, I fear that it will not wholly tackle that problem, to which I have referred before.

In my constituency-I must choose my words carefully, because the case is currently being investigated by the Electoral Commission-200 more votes were cast than electoral ballots were issued. I want to impress on the Minister a point that was raised with me recently by a constituent. He said that Labour Members were going from door to door asking if people wanted them to help them to fill out postal voting forms.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My hon. Friend would not expect me to comment on an ongoing investigation, and I will not do so, but he has raised the issue of why it is important to make the accuracy of the electoral register more secure. We intend to deal with the public perception as well as the reality of the fraudulent registrations that have occurred. As I said in my statement, a third of the public are worried about the security of registration in our voting system, and it is important to the maintaining of confidence in our democracy for us to deal with those real concerns.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The Minister has said that the proposed carry-over from 2014 to 2015 is designed to avoid the adverse effects experienced in Northern Ireland, but he has also said that those who carry over will be disqualified from postal or proxy voting. Will that disqualification be noted on the register? Among the groups who lost out in Northern Ireland were the long-term sick and disabled, who made the mistake of believing that being on the standing list for postal votes was the same as being permanently registered.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Those people will not be disqualified from postal or proxy voting, but if they wish to have a postal or proxy vote, they will have to supply their personal identifiers. Those who are already signed up for postal or proxy voting and have already supplied their signatures and dates of birth will have to renew those details from time to time and undergo a verification check. The information will be due at some point in the future in any event, and we are investigating whether we can synchronise the processes to avoid duplication.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I warmly welcome the step to speed up the process of individual registration, but the overwhelming majority of people in the UK do not move from one year to the next. Although I completely agree with having security for the initial registration-supplying national insurance numbers and, most importantly, signatures-because the vast majority of people do not move every year, will the Minister consider sticking with the current position of allowing annual renewals on the list to be done by, for instance, the internet or telephone, rather than having to supply a signature every year?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

My hon. Friend makes a good point. People who are on the register, and who have supplied the identifiers and where verification has taken place, will not have to supply the identifiers and go through that check every year if there are no changes to their details. I thank him for making that point, which has enabled me to make that clear to the House.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Communities and Local Government Committee

Data-matching and data-sharing will be key if we are to ensure that thousands of people are not removed from the register as a result of this process. Will the Minister therefore confirm that the pilots will look at as wide a range of data sources as possible? Will he give an assurance that he will look at sources from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Department for Work and Pensions, for instance, and from universities, colleges and schools as young people are often not registered? Will he also consider looking at sources from utilities in the private sector, given that they form an important part of the registration process in Australia?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I thank the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee for raising that point. As well as writing to local authorities, I will write to a number of other organisations, including civil society bodies, in looking for ideas on how to tackle this issue. I said in my statement that we will look at public databases. Other issues arise if we want to look at private databases, but we are considering that too as we want to use a wide variety of sources. As I will be writing to local authorities, I urge hon. Members who are concerned about registration to speak to their local authorities and to encourage them to participate in those pilots. We want a wide range of authorities to take part, and we want to look at a range of data sources because we want to discover which of them are the most effective before we roll this out across the country.

Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the statement. I have listened to what hon. Members have said, and it seems to me that while nobody will be removed from the register, there is a certain amount of uncertainty in respect of eligibility to vote. Through these various registration documents, will the Minister consider giving people a particular number that could be annexed on to the national insurance number?

Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale

No, not an ID card. Far from it; it will be a number, and that number will transfer with them if they move addresses. That would be-

Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale

It would not be an ID card. It would be a number that was unique to each person.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The whole point of using the national insurance number as the check is that it is a number that is attached to the individual. I think my hon. Friend and Mr Harris were in danger of anticipating the debate to come on removing ID cards and the national identity register.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Given that one in five people in Britain are functionally illiterate and therefore incapable of filling in forms, and that many more cannot even speak English, does the Minister accept that there will be a systemic deregistration of people? Therefore, will he undertake to ensure that his review of boundaries is done on the basis of population taken from the census, rather than on a corrupted registration based on individual-and, we now hear, voluntary-registration of certain social groups?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

If the level of functional illiteracy in our country is as high as that, it does not say very much for the education policies of the Labour party, which was in power for the last 13 years. The whole point-

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

The Conservative party has been in power for 40 of the last 60 years.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The whole point about- [Interruption.]

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. May I just say to Chris Ruane that anybody would think he was auditioning to be a television sports commentator judging by the frequency of his sedentary interventions? He had his go much earlier-he did very well out of me. He should now listen to the Minister's reply.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The whole point of using the data-matching pilots and so forth is so that the electoral registration office can identify eligible voters and encourage them to register to vote. It would not be right to use population data because constituencies should be based on eligible voters and not everyone who lives in a certain area is eligible to vote in parliamentary elections. That is why it is not right to use census data. We should use electoral registration data instead.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Liberal Democrat, Leeds North West

Will the Minister look at the specific issue of college and university students who live at both a term-time address and a different address during the rest of the year? Some are registered in both places, some in one place, and others in none. The result is that, as in Leeds North West, the turnout figures are misleading because quite a number of those people have voted elsewhere. I feel this needs particular consideration. May I have a conversation with the Minister about it?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is, of course, perfectly lawful for individuals to be registered in more than one place-they may do so if they occupy two properties, for example-although it is not lawful for them to vote more than once for the same body. The much-quoted survey about people who are not registered did not address one particular aspect of that issue: quite a lot of students who it said were not registered to vote at their term-time address are, of course, registered to vote at their home or parental address. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I would be very pleased to meet him to discuss it.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I am not sure whether the Minister is aware that there is considerable concern about the answers he gave to my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), and that that concern appears to be shared by Members of the coalition parties. The Minister has regularly mentioned the Electoral Commission. What consultations did he have with it prior to making his statement? Is it his intention that it will continue to have, as the Opposition Front-Bench team has said it would, the role it was given in the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009? If he is serious about avoiding the consequences that arose in Northern Ireland, will he be flexible about the imposition of compulsory individual registration in order to take into account the difficulties that may arise?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

We have, of course, been working closely with the Electoral Commission. My officials have been working with its officials, and both the Deputy Prime Minister and I have met its chair and chief executive to discuss these matters. I think I can accurately say that they are content with our approach. We plan to keep them involved in the process: we want them both to assess the data-matching pilots and, as we move forward, to comment publicly on the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register so that there is an independent check on the progress the Government make.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

The experience in Northern Ireland has been mentioned on a number of occasions, and one of the lessons from our experience has been that resources need to be put into the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland-or the local councils here in Britain-to get to people who are hard to reach in terms of registration. Can the Minister give a commitment that resources will be available? Also, I welcome the fact that he says his proposals will be achieved on the basis of consensus-building, working with other political parties and having pre-legislative scrutiny, but why does he not adopt the same approach on other important issues such as fixed-term Parliaments?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The right hon. Gentleman asks a number of questions. On the point about pre-legislative scrutiny, I hope hon. Members will be encouraged by that approach. Whether we can have pre-legislative scrutiny partly comes down to timing. Both my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I have explained that point: early in a new Parliament Governments simply have to get on with some things and cannot delay everything. However, we plan to legislate to bring in these proposals in 2014. We will introduce proposals in a draft Bill. Colleagues on both sides of the House will have the chance to scrutinise them, and we will listen to what they have to say before introducing a Bill for scrutiny in both Houses.