Clause 1 — Individual registration

Electoral Registration and Administration Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:23 pm on 18th June 2012.

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Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 4:23 pm, 18th June 2012

I beg to move amendment 2, page 2, line 8, at end add

‘if the Electoral Commission believes that the new electoral system is operating effectively’.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 30, in clause 25, page 14, line 17, at end insert—

‘(1A) Before making an order under subsection 1, the Secretary of State must seek the views of the Electoral Commission as to whether the establishment of an electoral register made up solely of electors who have registered individually would help or hinder the achievement of the registration objectives.

(1B) For these purposes the registration objectives are to secure, so far as is reasonably practicable—

(a) that persons who are entitled to be registered in a register are registered in it,

(b) that persons who are not entitled to be registered in a register are not registered in it, and

(c) that none of the information relating to a registered person that appears in a register or other record kept by a registration officer is false.

(1C) The Commission must submit its assessment, with a recommendation, in a report to the Secretary of State, which must be laid before Parliament as soon as possible by the Secretary of State.

(1D) If—

(a) the recommendation in the Electoral Commission’s report is that the establishment of an electoral register made up solely of electors who have registered individually would help the achievement of the registration objectives, and

(b) the recommendation is approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament, the Secretary of State may make an order bringing Parts 1 and 2 of this Act into force.

(1E) The Secretary of State may not make such an order if those conditions are not met.

(1F) If—

(a) the Electoral Commission’s report does not contain a recommendation to proceed to establish an electoral register made up solely of electors who have registered individually, or

(b) the report does contain such a recommendation, but it is not approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament, within 12 months after the day on which the report is submitted by the Electoral Commission (in the case mentioned in paragraph (a)) or disapproved in Parliament (in the case mentioned in paragraph (b)), the Secretary of State must require the Commission to submit, by a specified date, a further report under this section containing the terms mentioned in subsection (1A).

(1G) For the purposes of subsection (1F)—

(a) a report is disapproved in Parliament when either House decided against resolving to approve the report (or, if both Houses so decide on different days, when the first of them so decides);

(b) the date specified by the Secretary of State must be at least one year, but no more than two years, after the day on which the requirement under that subsection is imposed.’.

Amendment 31, page 14, line 17, at end insert

‘with the exception of Schedule 5, Part 2, which shall come into force by order only once—

(a) the data matching pilots for pre-verification purposes established by the Electoral Registration Data Schemes Order 2012 have been completed,

(b) the Electoral Commission has reported on these schemes as under the terms of that Order, and

(c) the Electoral Commission believes that the completeness of the register will not be negatively affected.’.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Labour Members support the principle of individual electoral registration, as we indicated on Second Reading; indeed, we legislated for it in the last Parliament. We believe that it is desirable to have a complete and accurate electoral register. We also believe that IER is a system that is compatible with modern society, and we recognise that it is outdated to rely on the head of the household. However, we have genuine concerns, and the amendments we have tabled reflect them.

Clause 1 will amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 to enable local registration officers to add individuals to the electoral register under the new system. Let me make it clear that we accept the need for clear guidance to be given during the early stages of the new system’s implementation, but we are extremely concerned about the huge power that the Bill will give to Ministers. It would be better for the Secretary of State to issue guidance, under section 52 of that Act, and for action to be taken following a recommendation from the Electoral Commission to follow certain guidance. We fully accept that that would not involve parliamentary scrutiny, but it would take us beyond the five years stipulated in the clause.

The mention of five years brings me to my next point. The Bill’s explanatory notes state in relation to clause 1(5):

“Subsection (5) provides that the requirement for registration officers to have regard to guidance about determining applications to register will cease 5 years after coming into force. This provision is included because after five years the new registration system, and the process for determining applications, is likely to have reached a steady state and guidance will no longer be necessary.”

I want to emphasise the word “likely” in that second sentence; there is no certainty about this. It involves a possibility, or perhaps a probability. This is “likely” to happen. Furthermore, the explanatory notes use the term “steady state”. I recall the captain of the Costa Concordia suggesting that his ship was in a steady state as it lurched on to its side before being beached. Is that similar to the state of this legislation? In view of the lack of clarity in the explanatory notes, we feel that it would be far better if the Electoral Commission were to determine whether the system was working effectively.

Photo of David Wright David Wright Opposition Whip (Commons)

Has my hon. Friend had any indication from the Government that they would be willing to consider a system in which the Electoral Commission could step in, and perhaps use a traffic light system to determine whether each area could proceed effectively under the terms of the Bill? Surely that would be better than having a five-year cut-off, which is likely to leave some authorities’ registration processes behind?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. One of our general concerns about the Government’s approach to this legislation involves the way in which the Electoral Commission’s role has been undermined. The commission is an apolitical statutory body, operating outside the political system, with responsibility for electoral matters, and, as our amendments suggest, we believe that it would be far better if the commission were allowed to reach objective decisions on many of these issues.

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

There seems to be quite a lot of concern about the role of the Electoral Commission, in relation to the Westminster Government and the Holyrood Government. Does my hon. Friend know of any reason why those Governments should not encourage the involvement of the commission in discussions and debates on these matters, as such involvement would only strengthen the legislation introduced in either place and make it better?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I can think of no good reason for the Governments here and in Holyrood not to set much greater store by the use of the expert advice and guidance provided by the Electoral Commission. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper will answer that question later.

Amendments 30 and 31 to clause 25 also relate, as my hon. Friend Gordon Banks has, in a sense, already suggested, to the role of the Electoral Commission. Amendment 30 makes it clear that we believe that it would be a good idea if the Electoral Commission were to make an objective assessment

“as to whether the establishment of an electoral register made up solely of electors who have registered individually would help or hinder the achievement of the registration objectives” set out by the Government, with which we concur. This quite long amendment also states:

The Commission must submit its assessment” of the progress of the recommendation

“in a report to the Secretary of State, which must be laid before Parliament as soon as possible by the Secretary of State.”

That is important for the recognition of the Electoral Commission’s role, as well as of the close relationship that should exist between the Secretary of State and the commission. Critically, too, it recognises that Parliament should have a crucial role in monitoring the progress or otherwise that we make on the new system.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest 4:30 pm, 18th June 2012

For the sake of clarity, how, under amendment 30, could the Electoral Commission make a report about whether the new registration system had achieved its objectives or not before the Act came into force? I do not understand the timing. The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest in the amendment that before the Act comes into force, the Electoral Commission has to make a report about whether the effects of the Act have achieved the goals or not. How could that happen when the Act, and therefore the new system, has not come into force?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

We are, of course, talking about a transition period, which is catered for in the Bill. As the Government have correctly argued, the new system is not going to be introduced on a big bang basis, but on an incremental one. As our deliberations on the Bill continue, the hon. Lady will see that we have tabled a number of other amendments that intervene progressively on the transition arrangements. This amendment essentially reinforces, as I said, the role of the Electoral Commission, the relationship between it and the Secretary of State, and the involvement of Parliament as we move as quickly as possible towards a complete electoral register. The amendment goes on to say that the recommendation should be approved

“by a resolution of each House of Parliament”.

That is very important because at the end of the day we are talking about a fundamental change in our democratic process—arguably the most important change since the achievement of the universal franchise. We believe therefore that it is essential that Parliament is fully involved at every step of the way as we move towards the new and path-breaking system.

Amendment 31 relates to the important issue of data matching. Let me provide a little background. In 2011, the Government introduced 22 pilot projects in a range of local authorities in England and Scotland. These pilots were based on a range of national datasets and the Electoral Commission carried out a statutory evaluation of the pilots to assess the extent to which such schemes could help electoral registration officers improve the completeness and accuracy of their registers.

The Government, and particularly the Minister, have said on a number of occasions that these projects went very well indeed, and that the pilot schemes showed that 60% of the current electors should be carried forward. However, in contradistinction, the Electoral Commission is quite scathing in its assessment of the schemes. According to the key findings and conclusions of the Electoral Commission’s evaluation report,

“Our main conclusion is that these pilot schemes do not provide sufficient evidence to judge the effectiveness of data matching as a method for improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers.”

That is a pretty damning indictment of pilot schemes which were intended to point the way to a fundamentally important revision of our electoral process, and it contrasts sharply with what the Government have said—rather complacently, in my view.

Because of that criticism, the Government agreed to conduct further data- matching exercises, and a delegated legislation Committee will meet tomorrow morning to discuss a statutory instrument to introduce the second tranche of data-matching pilots. Obviously we do not know what those further pilots will show, but they may reveal the likelihood of a problem with the new electoral register in the short term. The Government’s own assessments indicate, or at least hint at, that distinct possibility. According to the impact assessment which the Minister himself signed on 8 May this year,

“It is not yet certain what the short term impact on the accuracy of the electoral register will be because there is no clear evidence on the accuracy of electors that are placed on the 2014/15 electoral roll through data-matching. The government is running a second round of pilots to understand the precise impact on completeness”.

That is certainly delicately worded, but even our fantastic civil servants are unable to help the Government much. What they are basically saying is “No evidence is available. The pilot projects that we have organised so far have not shown that the evidence is there. We will organise more pilot projects, but we do not know exactly what they will show. We will proceed on a wing and a prayer.”

Photo of Gordon Banks Gordon Banks Labour, Ochil and South Perthshire

Would my hon. Friend be concerned about any register that was compiled with the use of this data transfer information, especially if this was used in a decision on whether Scotland should become an independent nation?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

My hon. Friend is encouraging me to go way beyond my brief, as you probably agree, Mr Evans, so with all due deference to his incisive comment, I had better return to my original text.

Given the uncertainty that exists, it would surely be sensible to wait for the results of the second pilots, but, for reasons best known to themselves, the Government are intent on introducing a new individual electoral-registration-based register by December 2015. That date may be of significance to some Members. Coincidentally, some would say, it is when the next boundary review will take place. It could be a coincidence, of course: who am I to say otherwise? I am sure that the Minister will give a clear explanation, and that he will give it without smiling. No doubt he will tell us that there is a specific reason, which everyone except him has missed, for the fact that the pilot projects must be assessed after the legislation has reached the statute book.

I want the legislation to succeed—as I have said, we are in favour of individual electoral registration in principle—so it would be common sense and far better if we waited a few months for the certainty provided by the evidence from the second set of pilot schemes. That would also give the Government an opportunity to propose new measures if the schemes raise questions. At the end of the day, what all of us, as democrats, want is as many people who are entitled to be on the register to be on it. That is our objective, and we must ensure that everything possible is done to make that happen. It disturbs me slightly that the suggestion—made not just by Opposition Members, but by the Electoral Commission and many others—that the sensible thing to do would be to wait a few more months to ensure that as many people as possible are on our electoral register has not been taken up.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

The hon. Gentleman is right to set out an aspiration on behalf of us all that everyone who is entitled to be on the register should be on it. Does he also agree that those who are not entitled to be on the register should not be on it?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Yes, absolutely, and we will discuss that in more detail later. I am happy to say that people who are not entitled to be on the electoral register should not be on it, but I am very concerned that many people who are entitled to be on the electoral register might not be on it.

I am glad that the Government have moved away from their original, outrageous position of saying that the decision about whether to be on the electoral register will be a lifestyle choice, and that they have recognised that that is, after all, a civic duty and civic responsibility. The crucial point, however, is that being on the register is not an end in itself; it gives people in a democracy the chance to exercise, whether they want to or not, their right to vote. That is why it is so important that everybody has the opportunity to be on the register so that they can make the choice, when the time is right, whether or not to exercise their vote.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I recently met the chair of the Electoral Commission to discuss the under-representation of black and Asian people on the electoral register. Does my hon. Friend believe that the proposed measure would enable that very important issue to be looked at? My fear is that, unless we get this right, there will be gross under-representation on the register.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I agree that there is concern that many groups in our society—so-called hard-to-reach groups, for example—might be excluded from the electoral register. A more reasonable time scale for the completion of the new electoral register would certainly give opportunities to many of the people mentioned by my right hon. Friend to be included on the register. One of the noticeable aspects during the long, pre-legislative consultation—I pay tribute to the Government for that—is that a high proportion of those who have participated and made concrete suggestions and proposals are from the groups mentioned by my right hon. Friend. It is vital that their voices are listened to carefully during this crucial stage of the Bill’s passage.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

Is not the real concern that, while we used to think that 2 million people were missing from the register, recent research by the Electoral Commission shows that the figure is almost certainly double that? Moreover, if we consider the Northern Ireland example, it would appear that a further 15% of people may fall off the register. How far will we allow registration to drop before action is taken?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

My hon. Friend is correct. It is vital that various steps are taken to ensure that as many people as possible are on the register. I would not belabour the comparison with Northern Ireland, which is very different. However, individual electoral registration was introduced there and the evidence shows, as has been confirmed again by the Government, that when the new register was introduced a lamentably low number of the potential electors—the entitled electors—were actually on it. That re-enforces our concern about what the situation will be in December 2015 if we proceed according to the time scale indicated in the Bill. That is why we have tabled the amendments. We hope that the Minister will feel able to respond positively to our concerns.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales) 4:45 pm, 18th June 2012

I shall speak briefly on this group of amendments, which we broadly support, on the role of the Electoral

Commission. The Electoral Commission is, of course, strongly in favour of individual electoral registration as a means of fighting electoral fraud, and I commend it for taking that position. However, the commission’s role needs to be used as a safeguard to ensure that IER will work as intended—this should be prior to its introduction —and for continued monitoring afterwards.

Amendment 30 particularly interests me because of the proposal for registration objectives in the Bill. As hon. Members will know from my contributions to the Opposition day debate on this subject and on Second Reading, my primary concern is for the inclusion of as many eligible registrations as possible on the electoral roll. I am sure that that aim is shared by all hon. Members. The Electoral Commission’s most recent estimate was that about 6 million eligible adults were missing and that registers were between 85% and 87% complete. Therefore, these changes, which we can expect will further diminish the completeness of the electoral register, and which as we saw when IER was introduced in Northern Ireland, may well be counter-productive in terms of including people on the electoral register.

I would like to see a duty on the Electoral Commission and on individual electoral registration officers for their principal aim to be that registers are as complete as possible and that there is a presumption in favour of inclusion on the roll, rather than deletion. As we have discussed previously, there is the opportunity for electoral fraud, but the number of convictions for that offence has been small. That is not to say that there is not a problem, but I believe it is more important that we get people on to the electoral register and entitled to vote. That is especially the case now, given the equalisation of constituency electoral rolls being introduced for Westminster elections and the new proposals from the Secretary of State for Wales for boundary reforms for elections to the National Assembly for Wales. No change is not an option now in terms of the National Assembly for Wales; even if we retain the 40:20 split, there will be new, equal-sized constituencies for the 40 seats.

Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill should clearly not be brought into force until IER has been trialled, and until the Electoral Commission is convinced that any adverse impacts will be as limited as they can be and that the completeness of the register will not be affected.

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

I should say at the beginning that I was slightly surprised that Mr David said that the Opposition were in favour of individual registration, as I could have sworn that on Second Reading they not only tabled a reasoned amendment, but voted against the Second Reading of the Bill. That was strange; it is difficult to see how they are in support of it. If they had only voted for the reasoned amendment, I could have accepted it as a principle, but it seems to me that they are opposed to our fundamental position.

I wish to make one or two points that I hope are helpful to the Committee. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the lengthy period of pre-legislative scrutiny we have had. Not only did we have that, but, as I think he has acknowledged, we made a number of significant changes to our approach as a result. All I say to the Committee is that I hope the progress of the Bill reflects that considerable pre-legislative scrutiny. It is probably also worth saying that, as the Committee may have noticed, we deliberately decided not to use knives in the programme motion for the first two days of debate in order to enable it to focus on points that hon. Members thought were important. I hope that the flexibility that that gives the Committee is used properly and that we make reasonable progress that focuses on where the Committee thinks the important issues are.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) for the amendments that they have led on. They have participated very well in the experiment that the Procedure Committee has asked us to undertake. This Bill is an example of it, because all hon. Members tabling amendments were asked to include explanatory statements to enable hon. Members to better understand the nature of the amendments. I am pleased that they have done so, as it is very helpful to the House. It is just a shame that the official Opposition appear to have ignored the fact that we are conducting that experiment and have not taken that opportunity. I am sure that the Procedure Committee will draw the appropriate conclusion.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I thank the Minister for expressing his gratitude. Does it occur to him that the official Opposition might not have wished to publish explanatory statements to support their amendments as they do not want to explain their effects because they are trying to have their cake and eat it by opposing the Bill while saying that they do not oppose it? The more smoke and mirrors that are involved and the less clarity there is about their amendments, the better it is for their purpose.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I am more than happy to provide an explanation. Resources are extremely limited for Opposition Members and the Minister will have noticed how many amendments we have tabled. That shows our concern about the fine detail of the Bill. However, we thought it was far better to follow the time-honoured practice of tabling amendments and using the facility of being at the Dispatch Box to explain our points and that is precisely what we are doing.

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

I am sure that the Committee will thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I simply observe that my hon. Friends the Members for Epping Forest and for The Cotswolds do not have the benefit of £6 million or so of Short money to provide resources, but they seem to have been able to draft very good explanatory statements for the benefit of the House.

I said on Second Reading that I intended to publish secondary legislation in draft for the House to consider. I was criticised by Opposition Members—indeed, I think that it was in their reasoned amendment—for the fact that we had not done so by Second Reading. I said that we would do so while the Bill was in Committee and I drew the House’s attention to the fact that the Opposition were responsible in government for two similar Bills, but they published no draft secondary legislation before those Bills received Royal Assent. I can confirm that I have placed in the Library of the House the first tranche of draft secondary legislation, which will be available on the Cabinet Office website tomorrow morning, for Members to consider while the Bill is in Committee. We have published the first tranche of documentation and will publish it all while the Bill is still going through Parliament and by the time the House returns in the autumn. I hope that that is helpful and it is a useful example of something that the Opposition did not do at any point when they were in government.

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

Of course I will give way, so that the hon. Gentleman can explain.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I hope that the Minister will explain—after all, that is the Government’s job. If there is to be full and proper scrutiny, there is no point in publishing some of the draft legislation—we do not know which pieces—in the middle of our consideration in Committee. I raised this matter as long ago as last November and surely it would have been better for secondary legislation to have been prepared so that we could have proper parliamentary scrutiny in Committee; the Electoral Commission made the same point. It is no good producing part of the secondary legislation halfway through when we do not even know which legislation it is.

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

The first tranche was published before we started our consideration this afternoon—on day one, not halfway through. As I said, with two similar pieces of legislation, both of which delegated significant powers to Ministers, the Labour party published no draft secondary legislation at any point during the passage of either Bill through either House of Parliament. It was all published after the Bill had received Royal Assent. I accept that this Government might not be perfect, but on this issue we have made enormous progress compared with the Labour party.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

Is it not a bit rich for the Front-Bench spokesman of the Labour party to make a fuss about this issue? When the Opposition were in government, I remember spending hours and hours in the House when they virtually rewrote entire Bills, not only by rafts of amendments as late as Report stage, but sometimes by secondary legislation after Report? I congratulate my hon. Friend on attempting to improve the procedures of the House.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that point to the attention of the Committee. As I said, I think we made a useful step forward with pre-legislative scrutiny. We have been publishing the secondary legislation in draft so that people can read it and look at the Bill in the light of it, and I think that is a step forward. We may not be perfect yet, but we are getting there. We are getting an awful lot better.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

Prior to the general election, when my right hon. Friend Mr Straw moved his legislation introducing individual electoral registration, he made every effort to achieve cross-party agreement. That does not seem to be the case with the present Government.

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

I am sorry, but that is a rewriting of history. If I get any details wrong, I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest will correct me.

When that Bill was introduced in the House, it did not contain any provisions about individual registration, which is why we tabled a reasoned amendment and voted against the Bill. Those clauses were not in the Bill when it left the House. They were added in the other place under enormous pressure from the Conservative Members there, so this House did not even get a chance to debate them until we considered Lords amendments. I am afraid that Bill was not an example of good parliamentary practice.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I agree with my hon. Friend’s recollection of the history of a couple of years ago. The Bill to which he refers was massively changed and we had very little time in this Chamber to discuss the provisions. They were ill thought out and it is fortunate that this Minister has managed to make sense of the previous provisions introduced by the Labour Government.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point.

Before I come to the amendments, let me say something about the tone adopted by the hon. Member for Caerphilly, a point to which my hon. Friend Dan Rogerson drew attention. One of the things that I have been very clear about all the way through is that the Government are as focused on completeness as they are on accuracy, but both of those—getting on to the register everyone entitled to be on the register, and also making sure that no one is on the register who is not entitled to be on the register—are equally important. One is not more important than the other. The hon. Gentleman’s amendments, in this grouping and elsewhere, all seem to be focused on completeness, with no sense that accuracy is equally important.

Jonathan Edwards went further than that and explicitly said that he was not particularly bothered about accuracy; it was all about getting people on to the register. Getting people on to the register who are not entitled to be there is a problem. That is why 36% of the public think there is a problem with electoral fraud. It is also why, when the groups from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe come and inspect British elections, they say that if we have low levels of electoral fraud, it is not because of our electoral system, but in spite of it. That is not good enough, and it is why we need to fix the system. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall is right: we should be as focused on completeness as on accuracy. That has informed the proposals that the Government have put forward, and that is why they were well received during pre-legislative scrutiny and why we made the changes that we have.

Mr Love asked when it would be right to take steps if the number of people on the register fell precipitously. We do not think that that would be the effect of our proposals. I will set out a little more about our proposal for confirmation and say why we think we can successfully move two thirds of electors over to a new register. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that it was under the previous Government that 3 million people ceased to be on the electoral register., and we know that from the research that this Government commissioned. The previous Government were unaware of that fact because they commissioned no research and did not know what was going on. As a result, they took no action at all. So Government Members will not be lectured about large numbers of people falling off the electoral register, because it happened under the previous Government and no action was taken in response.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

To return to the previous point on accuracy, amendment 30 suggests that the Electoral Commission’s report, if it was drawn up,

“would help the achievement of the registration objectives”,

one of which is accuracy, so the amendment would take care of that point.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 5:00 pm, 18th June 2012

The hon. Gentleman is quite right in one respect. There are two objectives: one is to get everyone on the register who is entitled to be on it; and the other is to ensure that no one is on it who should not be. Both are central to, and inform, everything we are doing. That is partly why we put the carry-forward proposals in place. If anything, they do a little of what the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr suggested, which is to ensure that for the 2015 general election—the first for which the new register will be used—people do not inadvertently fall off the register and become unable to vote. I think that that is a sensible proposal.

Amendment 2, tabled by the hon. Member for Caerphilly, proposes that we should not be able to commence with these provisions if the Electoral Commission does not say that the new electoral system is operating effectively. It relates to the guidance issued by the Secretary of State. The reason we thought it appropriate to have guidance issued by the Secretary of State is that there will be important operational details that registration officers will have to think about, particularly on how the new IT service for verifying applications will operate. We therefore thought that the transitional period should effectively switch off after five years.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly tried to make a big hoo-ha about the use of the word “likely” and the choice of five years. It seemed to me to be a sensible period of time. I could have written “certain”, but then he would have criticised by arguing that I could not possible know the future. It is a sensible set of proposals. We are working closely with the Electoral Commission on all these matters, and it is represented on the programme board. We worked closely with it during pre-legislative scrutiny and listened carefully to its advice, but I am clear that, ultimately, Ministers are responsible for the implementation of the system—they have the advantage of being accountable to Parliament—which I think is right.

Amendment 30, which the hon. Member for Edmonton spoke to earlier, would ask the Electoral Commission to pronounce on the state of the register or the proposal. My first point on that is that the chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson, has welcomed our move and, indeed, the timetable. She said:

The Electoral Commission wants to see our registration system tightened up and it’s good that the Government plans to introduce new laws to do this which will apply to any of us who want to vote by post before the 2015 General Election.”

I see no great value in the commission producing a report on the basis set out in the amendment. It refers to

“an electoral register made up solely of electors who have registered individually”,

but one of the things we have learned from the experience in Northern Ireland, to which the hon. Member for Caerphilly referred, is that the register used for the 2015 general election will not entirely consist of people who have registered individually because we have a carry-forward proposal to ensure that those who are on the previous register and failed to register individually do not drop off the register and miss out on their opportunity to vote. That is an important safeguard, and one that we inserted, having learned from the experience in Northern Ireland, and it has been generally welcomed outside the House. When Northern Ireland Members have commented on that, they have also welcomed the fact that we have learned from it. I do not think that amendment 30 is justified by the evidence.

Finally, let me turn to amendment 31. It appears implicitly to support the Electoral Registration Data Schemes Order and the pilots it will set up, so I look forward to the support of the hon. Member for Caerphilly for the order tomorrow in Committee. Again, I think that the use of that order is very sensible. When we did our first set of pilots, more than 2 million records were matched against Department for Work and Pensions data. That showed us that we could check the accuracy of the information against the DWP database and, therefore, be confident that those people really existed and lived at those addresses. Therefore, that is a good way for moving two thirds of the electors on to the new register, thereby reducing the risk and enabling electoral registration officers to focus on the remaining third of electors. The Electoral Commission said that because we had drawn those conclusions from pilots where that had not been the intention of the pilots—they had been about using data matching to look at increasing the number of people on the register and at people who had not previously been registered—it felt that we should run a further set of pilots with that specific objective in order to be absolutely certain that confirmation would work.

We are very confident that confirmation will work, and we think that what the Electoral Commission said was very sensible, which is why the order we will be debating tomorrow will enable us to run that set of pilots. That will do two things: first, it will confirm to our satisfaction and that of the Electoral Commission that confirmation will work; and secondly, it will enable us to refine the process so that we make the process as efficient as possible for electoral registration officers. I think that is very sensible.

Photo of David Wright David Wright Opposition Whip (Commons)

When does the Minister expect the process to be complete? Will the Government assess whether the process has been effective, and what happens if it is not? Will we have to go through a further phase of piloting, or will the Government proceed anyway?

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

The hon. Gentleman asks some very good questions. The pilots will run this year and then be assessed not just by the Government—we will of course assess them—but by the Electoral Commission, as the previous set of pilots was. We will then publish our assessment, and the commission will publish its assessment, so we will be very transparent about the process and Members will be able to see what has happened.

Based on the pilots that we have already run, we are pretty confident—I am not going to say “certain”, because that would be complacent—that the process will work and that confirmation will enable us to move a significant number of electors on to the new register in a way that is much less risky, increases confidence and, very importantly, enables EROs not only to focus their efforts on the electors they cannot confirm, but to do some work with electors who may not be on the register—people who perhaps move more frequently. That is important, and that is how we have set up the funding mechanism. We have been very transparent about the process, which will be published, and it will enable us to take sensible decisions.

The Bill strikes the right balance between completeness and accuracy, both of which are very important, but the amendments would tilt that balance in an unhelpful direction.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

The Government seem in something of a rush to bring all that in by December 2015, so I ask the question that was asked earlier: why the rush? Is there not room for flexibility should it prove not to be as easy to register people as the Government currently presume?

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

I am not really sure that there is an enormous rush. The Electoral Commission likes to point out that it has been calling for individual registration since 2003—nine years ago. We made it very clear that, as the hon. Gentleman now knows from what I and my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest said, when his Government were legislating for individual registration, having been forced to do so because of pressure from, among others, my hon. Friend, we said that we thought they were going incredibly slowly and we could speed them up. Indeed, it was a commitment in our manifesto.

We have not suddenly speeded up the process. We said from the beginning—in the previous Parliament—that we thought it could be done much more quickly. That is important, because—[ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that we did not object, but actually we did. When the proposal was finally included in the Bill in the other House, my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest gracefully accepted that the Government had moved, and it would have been a bit churlish if, having got the stuff on the statute book, she had then started cavilling about it.

We made it very clear at the outset, however, that the proposal should have been in the Bill from the beginning, but it was not, which is why we voted against the Bill by way of a reasoned amendment. The proposal was inserted in the other place only at the eleventh hour. We have been very consistent; we think that the provision should have been introduced some time ago, and the Electoral Commission has been calling for it for the best part of a decade. No one can really accuse us of going at break-neck speed.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

With all due respect, Mr Love is wrong about what my party did in opposition. I happened to be speaking for the Opposition on this issue, so I know what we did. What the Minister has said is absolutely correct.

We accepted the last Government’s proposals because they were better than nothing, but we always said that the matter should be dealt with more quickly and that the relevant measures could be implemented more quickly than the last Government wanted. We always said that we would have a view not only to the accuracy but to the comprehensiveness of the register, and that we would proceed at the right pace. The fact that this Government are very much more efficient than the last one in implementing a necessary policy is a matter on which to congratulate the Government and the Minister in particular, not criticise them.

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

I have not yet finished answering my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, but of course I will give way before I ask the Opposition to withdraw their amendments.

On pace, I should say that we have hardly rushed this matter. In September 2010, I made an announcement at this Dispatch Box about our proposals. We then published draft legislation. We have conducted pre-legislative scrutiny, which I think even the hon. Member for Caerphilly admitted has gone at a reasonably leisurely pace. We have hardly been bounding through. Unlike the previous Government, we have not at the drop of a hat introduced Bills that no one had ever seen and then rammed them through the House. We have conducted ourselves in a thoughtful way, and we have hardly been rushing.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

In 2009, Mrs Laing said:

“That is one of the reasons why we will not oppose the timetable the Minister has suggested this evening…the Electoral Commission…and others who will be involved in the implementation of the Government’s current plans are concerned that this should not be rushed, but taken step by step to ensure that the integrity of the system is protected—and not only protected, but seen to be protected”—[Hansard, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 108.]

Will the Minister explain the change in point of view?

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

There has not been a change in point of view. I did not want to bother the Committee with this again, but I am going to have to now. On Second Reading of the previous legislation in 2009, my right hon. Friend Mr Maude made it clear that we approved of the decision to proceed with individual registration, but we thought that it could be accomplished earlier. We said at the time that it could be done earlier, and on page 47 of our 2010 manifesto we made a commitment to implement it swiftly. This is not new news.

As I said, when the Bill for which the Labour party was responsible left the House, it contained no provisions about individual electoral registration; they were inserted in the other place. When the Bill came back, it seemed to me that, having got the Government at least to move on that issue, it would have been churlish to have started cavilling about it.

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

On that point, I shall allow my hon. Friend to put the record straight.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene once again.

I do not understand why Angela Smith thinks she is making a clever point by quoting what I said three years ago from where she is now sitting. My position has not changed; I have been perfectly consistent. The fact is that the last Government put obstacles in the way of bringing this important legislation into practice. The current Government have rightly concluded that it can be accomplished more quickly than the last Government said—they were saying that they would do it, but looking for every reason to delay doing it. That is the point. There is no point in the hon. Lady’s trying to assert that I have changed my position or said anything wrong. I have been perfectly consistent; it is her Government who were wrong.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I gave the hon. Lady a lot of latitude to correct the record, but she needs to do that only once.

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

My hon. Friend has corrected the record and put the matter straight. I heard Angela Smith talking from a sedentary position, so let me say that we are working very closely with the Electoral Commission on this matter. It is represented on the programme board, as are the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Association of Electoral Administrators.

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

No, I will not. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman several times, and I am concluding my remarks.

The Government are responsible for delivering this proposal. It is better that such things be the responsibility of Ministers, who are accountable to Parliament and to Members of Parliament, than to give the responsibility to bodies that, yes, are statutory, but are not really accountable to this House in that way. I urge the hon. Member for Caerphilly to withdraw his amendment and to support clause 1 standing part of the Bill.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 5:15 pm, 18th June 2012

I have listened with great care to what the Minister has said, and I have to say that I am not reassured. Much of the discussion that we have had during the past 10 minutes concerned the past; I am concerned about the future. We can all argue about what the previous Labour Government did or did not do and who said or did not say certain things, but what is important is that the Minister has totally failed to come forward with any justification or explanation or reason why the Government have adopted the timetable that they have.

Our starting point is that we support individual elector registration because we want as many people legitimately on the electoral register as possible and to see a modern, streamlined system. We believe that all the evidence from the experience of Northern Ireland and from what may happen with the pilot schemes indicates that there may well be a difficulty when the new system starts properly in December 2015. We therefore respectfully suggest that, in all common sense, we should have a more effective timetable that would ensure the probability of more people being on the electoral register than is the case at the moment.

I am therefore unable to withdraw the amendment. I understand that there will be votes later on amendments 30 and 31, but we would like to press amendment 2 to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 209, Noes 291.

Division number 16 Electoral Registration and Administration Bill — Clause 1 — Individual registration

Aye: 209 MPs

No: 291 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an aspect of overseas voter registration. I also draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that I have tabled new clause 3 on an associated matter—to eliminate the cut-off for overseas voting. On this matter, I urge the Minister to bring forward secondary legislation, under clause 1(3), relating to regulations to introduce improvements to the registration system, which could result in a far higher number of participants in our elections at a time when the number of registered voters is falling.

At present, some 5.6 million British subjects live abroad, of which it is estimated that some 4.3 million are of voting age. But in December 2011 a mere 23,388 overseas voters were registered to vote, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

Will my hon. Friend give those figures again? Did he say 23,000 out of 4 million?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

My hon. Friend heard me correctly, but for the sake of clarity and emphasis, I shall repeat the figures: there are estimated to be about 4.3 million overseas citizens of voting age, a mere 23,388 of whom, in December 2011, were registered to vote, according to the ONS electoral statistics.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

What a contrast that is with the French, who have created a parliamentary constituency covering London and northern Europe because of all the thousands of French voters in London. They can now vote for a Member of the French Assembly.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, but actually it is more dramatic than that. The French gave away two Members of Parliament, in Paris of all places, who are now specifically responsible for all French overseas voters. I am not going anything like as far as that, but I want my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the regulations in the way I will set out.

It is certainly not that British people living overseas have no interest in taking part in our elections, so the figures I have now quoted twice surely suggest that the system for registering overseas voters actively deters voters from registering. Otherwise, would not more of them want to register? If I explain to the House the rather protracted process for becoming an overseas voter, perhaps my point will become clear.

To apply to become an overseas voter, a person must obtain and complete a registration form, and send it to the electoral registration office for the area in which they were last registered to vote. So they have to find out where they were last registered to vote and precisely which district council and registration officer to send their form to. To confirm that the person is a British citizen and that they are not living in the UK when they apply, the application must be witnessed by another British citizen living abroad, who can be hard to find, particularly if the person lives in a rural area.

Here, then, is the first of my sensible suggestions to the Minister: an alternative would be to use a person’s passport number as proof of identity. The current system is potentially time consuming and undoubtedly puts people off registering to vote in the United Kingdom. Instead, a simple system for overseas voters involving the help of, and co-operation with, the Home Office and Foreign Office could be implemented. All potential overseas voters hold a British passport, details of which are held by the Identity and Passport Service, which is part of the Home Office. Passports do not contain addresses, although the IPS holds a delivery address for the passport when last issued. Where these people live is immaterial, however; what counts is their known UK address before moving abroad, because that determines the constituency in which they are entitled to be registered.

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Conservative, Burton

Does my hon. Friend recognise the stark difference between the situation in the UK and that in the United States of America, where they have the principle of “forever an American and forever an interest in the country of your birth”? Both the Democrats and Republicans run successful outreach schemes that get a huge uptake in the UK and across the world.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

My hon. Friend anticipates me and makes a sound point. As hon. Members have mentioned, the USA, France and Germany have much better systems for their overseas voters.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office encourages British citizens living overseas to register with its LOCATE database. Even more should be done, however. Although the database’s primary objective is to facilitate the identification of and contact with British citizens living overseas in the event of a natural, political or other disaster, LOCATE’s resources could also be used to harness the cause of overseas voter registration. One could imagine a simple, streamlined overseas voter registration system based on data-matching and functioning in the following manner: when giving a non-UK address in applying for a passport, British citizens living overseas could be asked on their application form to state whether they wish their application to be treated simultaneously as an application for overseas electoral registration and, if so, to give the address of their last UK residence. Questions could then be added to the LOCATE online questionnaire to ascertain whether applicants wish their application to be treated as an application for overseas electoral registration and, if so, to ascertain their last UK residence.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

Does the hon. Gentleman think it would be a good idea to add to the form a declaration of when the person concerned last paid any United Kingdom tax?

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

I hesitated before giving way to the right hon. Gentleman. I thought it would be a frivolous intervention, and indeed it was.

When it comes to registering to vote each year, a security- protected e-mail could be sent to each voter containing their registration forms—perhaps bar-coded—which would then be returned by post in the normal way. Were this or a similar system implemented, I have no doubt that we would significantly increase the participation of overseas voters in our elections.

According to research by the Institute for Public Policy Research, 55% of British emigrants who left the country in 2008 did so for professional reasons. Many of those who left the UK to work abroad—for British businesses, international organisations, and UK Departments and agencies—play an important and active part, bolstering the UK’s position internationally. Many others retire abroad, but nevertheless have a close interest in UK political matters.

Photo of Nick de Bois Nick de Bois Conservative, Enfield North

Perhaps my hon. Friend would consider adding to the list those who work for charities or churches and missionaries? Many cannot necessarily afford to retain a property back here in the UK or even have a proxy vote. They are completely disfranchised by the current system, so we must urge the Government to have a simpler registration process for them.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

My hon. Friend is right. Again, if there are categories of people who live abroad but do not qualify to vote in this country, they, too, should be included in the system.

In answer to the question that my hon. Friend Andrew Griffiths asked, when people fill in their voter registration form, they should be asked whether they want their details kept on the database, thereby opting in for permanent overseas voting until they opt out of it. That is the way of dealing with the system that he mentioned.

I think we should recognise the loyalty of many of these subjects who live abroad—bearing in mind that there may be 4.3 million of them—and ensure that they are not disfranchised by the voting system, but are able to take an active part in our democratic elections. It was the complication of the system for voters in the armed forces that led to the situation in the 2010 election whereby—these figures are also startling—only 564 votes were received from British military personnel in Afghanistan, even though nearly 10,000 were able to vote. Many people regard that as a national scandal. These brave people risk their lives on a daily basis in Afghanistan and elsewhere to protect this country’s interest and the international norms of behaviour. Surely the least we can do in this Parliament is ensure that they are able to participate in our elections in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

Is my hon. Friend aware that many of us asked the last Government over and over again whether they would take steps to ensure that our armed forces, especially those serving in Afghanistan, could be given the opportunity to vote in the 2010 election? However, the last Government took no action until late 2009, by which time it was too late. Indeed, the figures that he has just quoted prove that they let down our armed forces in a very serious way.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not want to alienate Opposition Members, because I want their support on this matter, but she raises a serious issue. Indeed, it is, I would say, frankly a moral issue that we should do something to amend the system, so that what I have described can never happen again. I know that the Minister is aware of this issue, and, in light of what I have said today, I hope that he will consider bringing forward regulations under proposed new section 10ZC(3) of the 1983 Act to improve the system of registering overseas voters. There was method in my madness when I intervened on the Minister, in response to an intervention from the Opposition spokesman, to urge him to bring forward regulations and to praise him for doing so swiftly under this Bill. I know that my hon. Friend perspicaciously knew what I was going to say today, so I will close by urging him to publish the secondary legislation as soon as possible.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall 5:45 pm, 18th June 2012

I have been prompted by Geoffrey Clifton-Brown to speak briefly in the debate. I understand his aspiration to encourage participation in political life by those who are temporarily abroad for good reasons. A couple of points have occurred to me, which I am sure the Minister will have considered. Our first-past-the-post system— which we seem likely to retain for some time, and of which the Conservative party is a great supporter—is based on electorates in individual constituencies. It is therefore important for the individual voter to have a relationship and an affinity with the geographical location concerned, and the communities within it—boundary changes notwithstanding. If an overseas voter is voting in a US presidential election, for example—or perhaps in congressional elections, which are closer to our parliamentary ones—they are voting on issues that affect the whole of their country. Their ties with a particular small locality might be less important in those circumstances.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

My hon. Friend is right. Our whole system is predicated on the basis of the voter having a connection with the place in which they last registered. I would point out to him that, although parliamentary boundaries are changing, those for district and municipal councils—where the electoral registration officers sit—will probably not do so.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

That is probably true, but I am thinking about the relationship that Members of Parliament would have with their overseas constituents. If they are electors, they are in a sense also constituents. I question how the relationship would work in relation to overseas voters, especially if there were a large number of them compared with the local electors who have a more traditional relationship with their Member of Parliament.

The other point that occurred to me is that, given the importance of encouraging all candidates at every election to engage with the people in their voter base, it is much harder to do that if those voters are overseas. We cannot go and knock on their doors, and we sometimes do not even know where they are. We need to resolve that issue if this proposal is to be introduced. We will need information to tell all the candidates seeking election exactly where those electors are. That does not always happen at the moment.

Photo of Mark Menzies Mark Menzies Conservative, Fylde

Perhaps we could learn something from Australia, which operates a constituency-based system. I believe that Australia House in London is the largest single Australian polling station, and anyone who goes along there on polling day will see a plethora of candidate information being given out.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

I would argue that, in an election campaign, one would hope to have more engagement with the voters before polling day. If we are to have a more meaningful discussion with the electorate, the candidates will need to know where their electors are, so that they can send them literature or perhaps telephone them.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Is the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s argument that he is happy for the system of overseas voting to remain intact when only a relatively small number of overseas electors is involved, but that if that number became so large that it could make a profound difference to particular results, he would be more concerned about the proposal put forward by my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown?

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

I can see why the hon. Gentleman might think that, but no—this has been a source of frustration to me when I have been a candidate at local and national elections and it has not been easy to engage the overseas electors. It would be even more of a problem if their numbers were much greater. This is more about the principle than the number, however, although in some constituencies—and certainly in some local council elections—the majority involved could be very small indeed. Those numbers could affect the outcome in those circumstances. I hope that we can find a process whereby those voters’ addresses could be provided, if the proposal is adopted.

The proposal could also affect electoral spending limits. For example, the hon. Gentleman’s constituency might well contain many people who are involved in finance and travel all over the world. Similarly, the military garrison town represented by my hon. Friend Sir Bob Russell will contain much greater numbers of overseas voters. That might need to be taken into account when the limit on election spending is being set.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

The issue in my constituency is not so much one of overseas electors, although there is the potential for that; it is more one of the electors having second homes, many of which might be in North Cornwall.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to speak to the amendments to clause 2; the lead amendment, which I have tabled, covers that very subject.

Photo of Andrew Griffiths Andrew Griffiths Conservative, Burton

Has my hon. Friend had any thoughts about the role of the internet? He talks about getting information to the elector, and all candidates now have web pages, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, so it is much easier to communicate with people overseas now than it was a few years ago.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If that sort of information were provided to candidates, it might help to overcome the situation. In the recent past, another group of people emigrating, shall we say later on in their years, would have been less likely to have access to those facilities. Nowadays, however, with grandchildren and great grandchildren wanting to contact them through Skype or whatever, they will be encouraged to make contact in that way.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

May I say two things to the hon. Gentleman? First, on changes to the number of overseas voters, in view of the opt-in I mentioned, making people fairly permanently registered as overseas voters—depending on the cut-off time that may or not be negotiated through the Bill—there would not be the churn problem. Secondly, people would be registered at the beginning of each calendar year, so there would be plenty of time before an election to get hold of them by electronic means or even by postal means. The difference between overseas voters and postal voters is that the former are more permanently registered.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

My question to the Minister is: if such a process is to be extended and codified in a new way, can we ensure that we provide information to candidates about how to contact those electors through whatever means is appropriate? It is important to examine the question of how a constituency MP or even a local councillor is to represent people in this category who have elected them. It is not just a question of the election alone, as the role of representing such individual people is also important.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

I rise to support my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown. We all know the history—that the first Thatcher Government implemented legislation, which was then watered down in the wash-up, as a result of which overseas voting has never really taken off. For the reasons already set out, it has seemed to be too difficult and too complicated. Given that there are a potential 4.3 million people abroad who could vote, yet only 23,000 are registered, we ought to be ashamed of the fact that we are not engaging with so many of our citizens.

We live in a global economy. Our future lies in exports and in our companies going abroad. We all know that in getting and undertaking export contracts, we have people in the middle east and elsewhere working for British interests sometimes for years. It is totally wrong if people without a home in the UK who are nevertheless working for British interests abroad do not have the opportunity to vote. Let us not forget that even those who retire to the Costa Blanca or other areas in Spain will have spent a lifetime in the UK working and paying taxes. They will often have family in the UK and still take an interest in what goes on here. Many get British pensions and some in the Costa Blanca even get winter fuel allowance. We seem to be able to pay benefits to retired people abroad, but we have not given enough priority to making a few simple changes in order to empower them by giving them the right to vote.

My hon. Friend argued powerfully about overseas voters registering their last address in the UK, but I am rather attracted to the French system of putting them all into one category and perhaps having an MP at large to represent certain areas abroad. That would make life somewhat easier than Dan Rogerson having to e-mail 25 people in Alicante. It is better if the MP represented these people’s concerns, as it might be necessary for the MP to make representations to Spanish local government about what it is doing to the health service.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Does my hon. Friend agree that if all 4.3 million overseas electors were to be registered, it would be a matter of some concern that some 7,000 electors would be added to each and every constituency in the UK? Going down the route of designated MPs might well be the right model, as there will be a trigger point somewhere between the current 23,000 and the 4.3 million.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

Absolutely, but we would be winning even if got a few hundred thousand registered to vote. What we need from the Government are assurances that they will not only look at the law, but have a long-term campaign to keep those leaving registered and to re-register those abroad. People abroad buy British newspapers, watch Sky television and take an interest in what goes on. I believe that they still have beliefs in what is right for their country. We could argue about modern democracy, electoral reform and proportional representation, but it ill behoves a party that has argued for PR to deny 4.3 million people abroad their vote.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

I congratulate my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown on leading this debate. To have 10,000 service personnel in Afghanistan who were either not registered or unable to cast their vote at the last election was a disgrace—one for which we should all apologise. Rather than wait for this Bill to pass and for the regulations to be laid, we should ask Defence Ministers to make it the responsibility of adjutants in every unit to ensure that people are registered and to make arrangements so that voting papers get to them in time.

I am on record as saying that the move to individual registration is not necessarily such a brilliant idea. We know from Northern Ireland that it helped to reduce the inflation on the electoral roll, but we do not know how many of those who should have registered did not do so under the new system—but I do not want to go into that now, as it requires separate legislation.

The last time I spoke on voting I said that we have a responsibility to ensure that people in prison are registered to vote, but whether or not they can will depend on future decisions in the House. However, I would be interested to hear whether, if the law is changed, the Bill will allow for the registration of people in prison. If so, would that be done through individual registration, or would there be a responsibility on the Prison Service or the Ministry of Justice to make the arrangements?

The major group of people referred to by my hon. Friend are the more than 4 million people abroad who are not registered but should be. We must make sure not only that they can be, but that they are, registered to vote. That brings up another of my campaigns—that we need to get rid of the anomaly whereby half of our overseas pensioners do not get increases in their state pension while the other half do. The ones who do not receive it are probably the ones who need it most. We need to understand the effect of registering overseas people to vote, and it is right to ensure that people are not excluded.

One of the newer democracies is Tunisia—I have been there twice, first for its constituent elections and then to help with training for parliamentary activities. Tunisia has overseas voters and Members of Parliament representing Tunisians overseas. Whether we choose to follow that approach or to get people to vote in their existing UK constituencies is a matter for debate and decision. What is certainly not a matter of debate and decision is the fact that if we leave 4 million people—roughly 10% of those who should be eligible to vote—off our voting list, we will have failed. It does not bother me whether people are abroad because they have retired, because they are working there or simply for enjoyment. The fact is that they should be entitled to vote; it is our job to make sure that they can be registered. Having done that, it is then our responsibility to make sure that they use their registration and cast their votes.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

I entirely agree with what Sir Peter Bottomley said. It seems to me—and, I think, to him—that it requires no change in the law for the Army or the Ministry of Defence to take the necessary administrative steps to make sure that our troops serving abroad get on the electoral register. No change in the law is needed; it just needs some action by those in a position to do something about the problem.

One further complication might arise. I strongly support the view that anyone registered abroad should be registered in a particular constituency. Because of the youth of a large number of men and women serving in the services abroad, some will not have previously been registered anywhere, as they would not have been old enough to do so. If we need a change in the law to help with service registration, it would be on that sort of issue. Generally speaking, however, certain people taking electoral registration for servicemen and women seriously ought to be enough to sort it out without Parliament being required to do anything.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 6:00 pm, 18th June 2012

Frank Dobson and a number of others raised a point about service personnel. About 75% of our service personnel are registered to vote. I will not be quite as harsh to Labour Members as one or two of my hon. Friends were, because, admittedly, their Government made some progress, on that as on many other issues involved in the Bill. Some of my hon. Friends took every opportunity to harry Labour Members, but they did make progress, although, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend Mrs Laing, who has now left the Chamber, they did so only at the last possible moment. At the time of the most recent general election, they made specific arrangements to enable our service personnel stationed in Afghanistan to vote.

One of the problems involves the electoral timetable, which, for general elections, is quite tight. I will not go into that in detail now, because we will deal with it when we reach clause 13, but one of our reasons for wanting to extend the timetable is our wish to ensure that overseas voters, both service personnel and others, have a much more realistic chance of casting a vote themselves, by post, rather than having to rely on appointing a proxy. I think that if they could vote by post and had an opportunity to make their votes count, more of them would feel incentivised to do so. When our troops are deployed overseas in significant locations, we will repeat the exercise that the Labour Government organised for the general election and we organised for the referendum on the alternative vote, and take specific steps to enable our service personnel to participate. Like my hon. Friend Dan Rogerson, I am very pleased that we are retaining the first-past-the-post system for the foreseeable future.

P

Overseas voters have a real problem with paper ballot papers in receiving them, marking the voting paper and then posting the paper back to the relevant voting station. The vaguaries and delays with the UK postal service and the overseas postal services are not fit for purpose for voting in local and general elections.

Voting by internet can be done for political party national executives and even the national executive of the National Trust, so why can't UK voters overseas be allowed to use a secure internet system of voting?

Submitted by Peter Morris

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

Is not one of the good by-products of five-year fixed Parliaments the fact that everyone will know the most likely date of a general election well in advance? That will make electoral registration for central and local government, and the build-up to it, much easier to deal with.

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

Yes, that will make a difference. My hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown gave some statistics. In the December 2010 register, which followed the most recent general election, 32,000 electors were registered to vote overseas—which, admittedly, is not a huge number in comparison with the 4.3 million cited by my hon. Friend—but by the following year, the figure had fallen to 23,000. It appears that the incentive of the general election is a spur to registration, as it is for domestically residing voters. I think that knowing when an election will take place will help both registration officers and people living overseas.

My hon. Friend referred to the attestation requirements involved in the registration process. I know that they can pose difficulties, especially in countries where there are not many other British citizens. We are trying to establish whether there is anything that we could do. If we need to alter the requirements, we can do so by changing secondary legislation. We are also considering a trial of online registration, which I think could help not just voters living in the United Kingdom, but those living overseas.

That brings me to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall about communication. The Government are currently trialling—without universal approbation from Members on both sides of the House—a website featuring statements from all the candidates for the police and crime commissioner elections, which will then be promoted by the Electoral Commission and in the material that goes to voters. We may consider a similar procedure for a general election, with an eye on overseas voters.

I should also say to my hon. Friend that overseas voters can vote only in parliamentary elections. That makes their relationship with their local councillors slightly less consequential, but it also means that their votes are not just about who their Member of Parliament will be but about what flows from that, namely who will govern their country—and they are, of course interested in that.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds made the important point that most British citizens overseas are working there, winning orders for Britain and working for British companies that bring wealth into this country. It is important for them to have an opportunity to contribute to the decision on who will govern the country.

Photo of Mark Menzies Mark Menzies Conservative, Fylde

The Minister is absolutely right. I have several hundred BAE Systems constituents who are out in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I want to ensure that they are not disfranchised.

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

That is a good point. One of the ways in which we can grow our economy is to win orders abroad. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke of those who work hard for many of our companies overseas. That means basing British citizens abroad, sometimes temporarily but often permanently, so that they can work with companies to win orders and install and support equipment, and it is very important for them not to be disfranchised.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Chair, Committee of Selection

My hon. Friend has heard the fairly strong opinions held by, at least, Conservative Members. He has said, adeptly, that the attestation requirements could be changed by means of secondary legislation, but he has not said whether they would be changed by that means. Will he give us some idea of the action that he will take following the debate?

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

My hon. Friend has anticipated my closing remark. As he knows, we have been considering the matter. Along with my officials, I am continuing to think about ways in which we could replace the attestation process with a process involving appropriate levels of security—my hon. Friend’s thoughtful proposals touched on that—and also making it much easier for people to register. I will add my hon. Friend’s well thought through model to my current thinking. I have listened carefully to the thoughts that have been expressed in the House. If we decide to make changes, which I hope to be able to do, the House will have to vote on them in the usual way. I hope that that reassures him.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.