I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to improve electoral registration;
to introduce identification of voters and other measures to combat electoral fraud;
to widen the franchise to allow all those over 18 legally resident in the United Kingdom to vote;
to strengthen measures to control negative campaigns by third party groups and websites;
and for connected purposes.
There has been much comment recently about our electoral system and the way in which it works. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which will reduce this House to 600 Members and necessitate the complete upheaval of boundaries, has come into law; the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill is in the other place; and in a month’s time there will be a referendum on the voting system for parliamentary elections. Despite those sometimes controversial changes, there remain other matters that, in my opinion, are as serious or more serious and require urgent attention. The Bill before us is about three of those areas: electoral registration, the identification of voters and the prevention of fraud, and the safeguards against abuse by third-party groups and negative campaigns, including on websites.
“Under-registration and inaccuracy are closely associated with the social groups most likely to move home…under-registration is notably higher than average among 17–24 year olds (56% not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and black and minority ethnic (BME) British residents (31%).”
It also referred to
“a declining motivation to register to vote” among certain groups, and it said that
The situation since 2000 has got worse, and that year under-registration was at 18% in inner London and 11% in outer London, whereas it was at 6.9% in England, 6% in Wales and 7% in other English metropolitan areas. For new Commonwealth citizens and members of ethnic minorities, under-registration was at 17%. As a result, there are clearly problems with the accuracy of the register of electors in different constituencies, and, given the other legislation to which we have already agreed, there are potential difficulties with the elections that will probably be held in 2015. As a result, we will potentially be in a situation where the boundaries that are to be drawn up in the next two years will be based on figures that are not accurate, and as a result there will be, according to some estimates, up to 3.5 million voters missing from the electoral registers throughout the United Kingdom.
The first thing that I wish to do through this Bill is to place a greater obligation on local authorities, and electoral registration officers of local authorities, to ensure that the electoral registration process is carried out more accurately than it has been in the past. Some local authorities take these matters extremely seriously and get a 95%-plus return of forms from households in their constituencies. Others make less effort and put in fewer resources and get 80%, or even lower, and that then impacts on the nature of the population that is registered and, potentially, on the resources that come to that area to meet the needs of the community. There should be much greater obligations on local authorities. If we are not going to have a national registration scheme, then we should at least ensure that local registration is done more efficiently and effectively, and we need to make sure of that in legislation.
In addition, we have a very strange electoral registration system. Someone who is a British citizen, a Commonwealth citizen with leave to remain in the UK or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland can vote in all elections in this country. Someone who is a European Union citizen from any other EU state except the UK or Ireland can vote in local elections and European elections. However, someone who is a long-standing resident of the United Kingdom who happens to be Norwegian, Swiss, American, Mexican or Filipino, and who is married to a British citizen, has children born in this country and is paying taxes, can have no right to take any role within our democratic process. Those anomalies and inconsistencies need to be addressed. [ Interruption. ] Conservative Members may heckle, but are they content that people who have been living in Britain for 40 or 50 years, with grown-up children, making a contribution to our society, have no democratic rights? We need to address that issue and modernise our systems to bring it into play.
At the same time, we need to look at the measures on how we check against electoral fraud in the UK. Northern Ireland has gone further than England, Wales and Scotland, where the Electoral Commission has brought in a permissive approach. The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 talked about asking for voter identifiers and said that the issue would be revisited in future, but it needs to be taken further. There have been too many examples of people abusing the electoral system, impersonation and other kinds of activities. We need to check people’s IDs, not just requiring them to give a name and address when they go to vote but asking for a driving licence or a document of some kind with their name on it to ensure that impersonation is not going on.
The other matter that I wish to raise is what happens in so-called non-party campaigns in elections. Last year, the Electoral Commission published a document called an overview which sets out the laws relating to groups that intend to put out literature commenting on candidates or issues during an election campaign but are not fielding candidates. There is a regulated period and various other requirements, but they are not working. An enormous number of groups, local and national, do not register, and some organisations have websites. During the last general election, a group called the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK targeted Labour MPs and candidates, with downloadable leaflets and other material attacking people whom they were trying to get out of Parliament. It was able to put out tens of thousands of leaflets without any restriction—negative material arguing against sitting Members of Parliament and encouraging people to vote for other candidates. In some constituencies where the result changed, Liberal Democrats or other people were elected having been beneficiaries of this negative campaigning. We should tighten up the rules to regulate what can be put on the internet. We could also prosecute people who have downloadable material that does not have imprints. We need to ask the Electoral Commission to take these matters far more seriously, and that is why I am proposing this Bill.
I have great respect for Mike Gapes, and I have no problem with some of his Bill, which has the worthy aim of improving electoral registration, together with other measures to combat electoral fraud. So it is with genuine regret that I must oppose it, as I have serious concerns about the last clause, which seeks to
“strengthen measures to control negative campaigns by third party groups and websites.”
Effectively, he is calling for regulation of the internet. He has built a Trojan horse of censorship under cover of making every vote count fairly. His proposal is wrong for two reasons: it would amount to a huge assault on individual freedom of expression, and it is unenforceable.
Last Friday, the hon. Gentleman said in an interview on the “Today in Parliament” programme—I almost choked on my hot chocolate—that he objects to so-called attack websites because they can be
“very effective in the modern world”.
I agree that all election materials must be sourced and that publishers must be clearly identified. He went further when he said:
“It is not just attack websites. I think there should be a framework whereby publishing materials about elections, about candidates—either promotion, or negative campaigning—needs to be brought within the normal election law.”
The interviewer put it to him:
“You do wonder if the cure might be worse than the disease on this. You might stop people who want legitimately to comment on an election, because they have to go through some massive registration process.”
His reply went precisely to the heart of the problem when he said:
“I am not calling for censorship. I am calling for regulation.”
That is a false argument, because when it comes to free expression, regulation is censorship by another name. With free expression, regulation is censorship of the worst kind, because it deters amateur enthusiasts, small neighbourhood groups and free-thinking individuals. Any increase in red tape and bureaucracy would leave the battle of ideas to special interest groups: the rich, the media establishment, those with extreme views, and professional groups such as trade unions and political parties. The hon. Gentleman justifies his reform by saying that
“other election literature is restricted”.
However, I believe that election literature is too restricted as it is. There are too many rules regarding second and third-party endorsements, for example, and the Electoral Commission regulations can be a minefield.
Let us take the case of Phil Woolas, which the hon. Gentleman raised in his interview on BBC Radio 4. He said that that case proves the need for “greater regulation” of election materials, “especially on the internet”. During the Phil Woolas case, I went on television to oppose his removal by the election court because I saw it as an outrageous attack on parliamentary democracy. I accepted that the judge acted under the law, but the law in this case is wrong—a sitting MP must be removed by voters, not unelected judges. The new recall system will help. If an MP has libelled his opponents, he should of course be sued for libel, but the election of MPs must be up to voters to decide.
My fear is that the Bill almost risks a throwback to the 1950s, when interviewers on television programmes had to ask Ministers, “What wonderful work are you doing today?” The hon. Gentleman’s Bill, if successful, would produce a 21st-century version of that: electioneering on the internet that is bland and without colour. Fortunately, we now live in an open society with social networking and blogging where communication is of paramount importance. The citizen is no longer a subject but an autonomous individual.
We are regularly criticised on Twitter and other social media sites—sometimes outrageous or even libellous things are written, and I have also been a victim of some of the things that the hon. Gentleman described—but that is mostly part and parcel of politics. I do not believe we should bring in a law to stop it, because it is the essence of a free society. Negative campaigning, however frustrating, is part of free speech and we must hope that the truth will ultimately shine through in a marketplace of ideas.
We must ask whether the criminal justice system is the right way of dealing with the problems that the hon. Gentleman has identified. Once we interfere with what happens on the internet, where will that stop? The loss of freedom rarely happens all at once; it is usually incremental. First, we restrict free expression on the internet at election times and then we restrict it altogether.
My second objection is that the provision is clearly unenforceable, as the hon. Gentleman said on BBC Radio 4. Web postings can be made overseas and domain names can be registered in different territories. Even if we restrict one individual from commenting, it will be like the Hydra’s head: another will pop up in its place.
We all know what Voltaire said, but as a good Tory let me quote Hayek:
“In any society freedom of thought will probably be of direct significance only for a small minority. But this does not mean that anyone is competent, or ought to have the power, to select those to whom this freedom is to be reserved.”
That is why, although I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman and support much of his Bill, I cannot let it pass through the House unopposed.