With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 20, page 27, line 44, schedule 5, leave out ‘second’ and insert ‘third’.
Amendment 18, page 31, line 6, leave out ‘first’ and insert ‘second’.
Amendment 19, page 31, line 19, leave out ‘first’ and insert ‘second’.
Schedule 1 deals with the number of electors on the register, and amendment 3 relates to an appeals process. I should like some clarification from the Minister. Section 10A(3) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and regulations made in 2001 set out a clear appeals process for those who are not included in the register and think that they should be. We believe that people who are excluded under the new system should have a legitimate right to appeal against the decision made by the electoral registration officer.
We are also concerned about the implications for human rights. The ability to cast a vote is a fundamental human right: it is important not just in the context of domestic legislation, but in the context of the European convention on human rights. We are not convinced that the Bill in its current form will provide adequate recourse for those who feel aggrieved. I should like to hear what appeals process exists—if, indeed, there is any such process—for individuals who feel that they have not been dealt with properly.
Will that not be particularly important if the House opts for individual rather than household registration? Is it not likely that, at least at the outset, a disproportionate number of applications will be turned down?
Yes. It is important to put this amendment and the point that I am making in that context. As things stand, there is a clear appeals process. It is possible that a significant number of people—not too many, we hope—will be excluded from the electoral register and that some of them will feel aggrieved by the process to which they have been subjected. It is right, therefore, to consider the issue, because there are bound at least to be teething problems with such complex proposed legislation, especially when its introduction is based on pilot projects that have not been fully evaluated. There are bound to be problems and difficulties, and individuals must be reassured that the Government will be able to consider and address their concerns.
On a point of clarification, is it my hon. Friend’s intention to maintain the current protections and ensure that they are not lost as a result of the change, or does he want to enhance protections?
We are asking for a formal appeals process. The relevant legislative base is sufficient for the current system, but we are looking to the future and would like things to be spelled out crystal clearly so that the Bill explains the Government’s desired process.
Amendment 20 highlights our concern about the carry-over arrangements, to which we have already referred. The amendment would maintain the carry-over arrangements that the Government proposed initially and would delay the introduction of the fully fledged new register beyond December 2015. That is important because, as has been mentioned, we are concerned about the impact that a depleted register would have on the parliamentary boundary review. We are all aware of the legislation that resulted in the current boundary review, that a boundary review will take place every five years, and that the 2015 review will be conducted on the basis of the new electoral register.
The Opposition and many others, including a number of academics, have expressed concerns. Moreover, the Electoral Reform Society recently circulated a briefing expressing concern to all Members. It is very important from a democratic point of view that the parliamentary boundaries have the greatest possible support among all sections of the electorate. That can happen only if those boundaries are based on the largest possible number of electors being on the register so that the process is entirely legitimate. It would be nothing short of a negation of democracy if boundary reviews were conducted and boundaries redrawn when significant numbers of individuals who thought that they were entitled to vote were kept off the electoral register. Various estimates have been made of how that might affect the political geography of the country. On the basis of all the evidence provided, we could well see a shift towards more parliamentary representation for rural areas at the expense of inner-city areas. It is important that a simple principle is maintained.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that certain sections of the community, such as the student community, are relevant in this regard? I think we will discuss them in relation to later amendments. I represent a constituency with up to 12,000 students and it is essential that we get the arrangements right.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is right that we will come on to discuss provisions for students in detail. It is important to follow the principle with which both he and I agree, namely that everyone who is entitled to be on the electoral register should be on it. We should have in place means to make sure that that principle is upheld. Legitimacy and accuracy are important, but so is completeness. One of my overarching concerns about the Bill as drafted is that it does not make it easy for people to be on the electoral register. In fact, all too often it provides hurdle after hurdle, which I am sure will have a detrimental effect on those who are on the electoral register, particularly those who will be on it at the end of 2015 under the new system of individual electoral registration. Amendment 20 would, therefore, ensure carry-over arrangements and a greater chance for a complete register under the new system, which would be introduced at a slighter later date.
Amendments 18 and 19 relate to postal and proxy votes, on which the Bill is far from clear. We have concerns—again, they are shared by many—that the justification for what is essentially a byzantine arrangement is very shallow indeed. Judging by the Minister’s remarks on Second Reading, and certainly judging by the remarks of many a Government Back Bencher, the primary reason for having this different system for postal and proxy votes relates to concern about fraud. Let me be clear: we stand full-square on the need to take the greatest possible measures to ensure that no individual is on the electoral register if they should not be, and, most definitely, that no individual should cast a vote in a parliamentary or other election if they are not entitled to do so. It is also important, however, to keep the issue of fraud in perspective.
Following the contributions made by several Members on Second Reading, I asked the House of Commons Library to prepare some information for me, outlining objectively how big a problem fraudulent action is. The Library provided, in its usual efficient way, a comprehensive summary of recent electoral offences in this country. The paper refers in particular to the report by the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers, published in March 2012. I have to say that even I, who originally thought that some Members had somewhat exaggerated the situation, was surprised to see in black and white just how small scale the issue of electoral fraud actually is.
The 2012 report notes that, in the majority of reported cases in 2011, the allegation of fraud had not been substantiated. Moreover, although there was an increase in the number of cases involving offences during electoral campaigns in 2011, they related, by and large, to the conduct of elections, not to how votes had been cast. Indeed, the report mentions specifically that there has been
“a decrease in the proportion of alleged voting offences”, and that such alleged offences accounted for 16%— 35 cases—of all reported cases in 2011, compared with 38% in 2010 and 40% in 2009. It is important that we see the facts for what they are. Although electoral fraud is, of course, absolutely wrong and should be rooted out, we should not blow the situation out of all proportion and use it as a spurious justification for taking other measures when a far stronger case for them should be put forward—if, indeed, there is a case. The chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson, put it well:
“The evidence suggests that proven cases of electoral fraud are rare. But this is a serious issue and nobody should be complacent: more can and should be done to prevent electoral malpractice.
We welcome Government plans to introduce individual electoral registration in Great Britain. This will strengthen our electoral system and reduce the risk of fraud. We also want the Government to make progress in reviewing whether voters should provide identification at polling stations.”
That is another issue, but I will not deal with it now.
My hon. Friend is setting out his stall clearly. It is important to balance the risk of electoral fraud with the risk of losing electors by moving too quickly on these changes. Does he think the Bill balances those risks correctly?
My hon. Friend puts it very well. This is not a question of right or wrong; this is not black and white, because it is a question of balance. I said that Jenny Watson rightly has a balanced approach towards the issue. My concern is that this legislation does not recognise the reality; the Government construct Aunt Sallies and then knocks them down, without coming forward with a legitimate basis on which to make its proposals. So I think that postal votes and proxy votes are important issues.
The hon. Gentleman makes a specific point about knocking down arguments and Aunt Sallies. I have found from my experience as a constituency MP that many black and minority ethnic communities, particularly migrant communities, came to this country because they wanted to live in an environment in which there was a belief in a robust democracy. Although this issue of highlighted cases of electoral fraud is important, the impression is being given that there is a laxity on this issue and that there is a question about how robust the system is. By putting forward this argument, the hon. Gentleman is undermining a lot of the faith and belief that we have in the robustness of the current electoral system.
With respect, I do not believe I am. I am trying to present a case that is, above all else, accurate. I am not denying that electoral fraud takes place and that it is a problem; all I am saying is that the problem is not on the scale that many Conservative Members and elements in the Government seem to believe it is. As my hon. Friend Nic Dakin said, we have to take a balanced approach to this issue. If public perceptions are that widespread fraud is occurring in certain areas, we have a duty to tell things as they are, to spell out the truth and to respond accordingly. In a modest way, that is what I am trying to do.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what really undermines confidence is when people make smeary remarks and no prosecutions follow because the remarks turn out to have no facts behind them?
Indeed, and that is one of the things to which I alluded earlier, as have ACPO and the Electoral Commission. Many people make complaints, be it in the heat of the moment or otherwise, but are then unable to substantiate their allegations, which often fall by the wayside, completely unproven.
I remember being in a radio studio for “Beyond Westminster”, where I heard a young lady of Pakistani descent talking about the amount of courage she needed to go live on radio to discuss this issue. She said that many dozens of her relatives would like to speak about this issue and how they had been pressured on voting, but did not wish to raise it because they felt it was too controversial and doing so would cause their communities harm. I actually heard her give this interview on radio.
I do not doubt what the hon. Gentleman says for a moment; all I am saying is that it is unwise to take a particular incident and extrapolate way beyond it, as hon. Members have done all too often, including on Second Reading. Speaker after speaker attempted to justify individual electoral registration and the particular procedure with regard to postal vote and proxy vote carry-overs on the basis that there was widespread electoral fraud. I simply do not think that that is a legitimate argument that can be substantiated.
Is it not also true that the Electoral Commission can deal only with the issues brought before it? The hon. Gentleman says that there is no proof, but in Northern Ireland when postal votes were being carried by post office individuals to homes, certain parties followed the postman and people never received them. Why was there no proof? Those people were too afraid to provide it.
I have been careful to keep my remarks particular to Great Britain and not refer to Northern Ireland. [ Interruption. ] With all due respect, it is not covered by this Bill. I think that the situation in Northern Ireland is different. I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but, again, it would be wrong to extrapolate from what is happening or what has happened in Northern Ireland to what is happening in other parts of the United Kingdom.
I have concerns, because my objective is simple: to ensure that as many people as are entitled to be on the electoral register are on the electoral register. All hon. Members will uphold that simple democratic principle. My concern about the detail of this Bill—and we have not seen the secondary legislation yet—is that it provides all kinds of unreasonable hurdles to individuals to prevent them from exercising their legitimate decision when the time comes to vote or not to vote. That is worrying, and it is part of the motivation behind our amendments.
Let me develop my argument about postal votes. One welcome thing that we have seen in the past few years is that more people are finding it convenient to be on the register and have a postal vote. However, many people, particularly those who are elderly or disabled, are concerned about the Bill. That is why all hon. Members have received representations from a range of different organisations spelling out in detail their concern; for example, a circular has been distributed by organisations that have come together to speak with a collective voice. These organisations include disability charities, Scope, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Mencap and Sense. They all expressed concerns about the transitional arrangements for postal and proxy votes because they believe that the effect will be to disfranchise many disabled people who are entitled to be on the register.
I raised concerns about that point on Second Reading, as did the hon. Gentleman. Does he take some comfort from the fact that the same organisations he mentions—Mencap, the RNIB, Scope and Sense—have also welcomed the Government’s constructive approach to engagement on these proposals? They have recognised that the Government are talking and are listening to the concerns that I think he is about to raise.
Earlier, I made a point of saying that I congratulated the Government and commended them, as the Minister acknowledged, on their pre-legislative consultation and on their rethink on a number of key issues. However, with all due respect to the Government, that is not enough. There are still real concerns and I hope that the Government have listened not so much to the Opposition but to the legitimate concerns expressed by people outside this place, with whom they have been engaged for some weeks and months. Those people still have concerns, which I have expressed. Let me quote specifically what they said in one of their circulars, which was about:
“The need to ensure that the requirement for absent voters to be registered under the new system does not inadvertently disenfranchise disabled voters who rely on postal voting to mitigate the inaccessibility of polling stations”.
Objective comments on the proposals have been made by such organisations and by outside academics, but a Select Committee of this House also gave a trenchant criticism of the Government’s proposals. The Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform’s report on IER states:
“We recommend that the Government look closely at applying the same carry-forward arrangements for the 2015 General Election to postal and proxy registrations as to other registrations, to avoid inadvertently disenfranchising vulnerable electors.”
That is a succinct and apt way of putting that very important point.
The Government made legitimate changes to their position—I do not like to use the word “concessions”—before the final draft Bill was published and I hope that they will listen to the cacophony of reasonable opinion expressed beyond the confines of the Palace of Westminster and change the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is that many people will be on the register as it carries forward and they will have become accustomed in recent years to postal votes being sent to them every time, which they might not have been in the past? They will therefore assume that the same will happen the first time this provision comes into effect, which will presumably be at the next general election, only to discover that they are unable to vote.
Yes, that is the concern, in essence. The Minister has confidently predicted that the carry-over will be 66%, but I have yet to hear on what he bases that figure. The Electoral Commission is bemused, too. I mentioned that earlier and I will be interested to hear whether he reiterates the totally unsubstantiated figure of 66% for postal and proxy votes.
I am sure that my hon. Friend has had many conversations with Government Members about the Bill. Will he enlighten us about what will happen if the figure in areas such as mine fall drastically below that figure of 66%, as I expect that they will? Are the Government proposing any safety net?
It is for the Government to speak for themselves about their proposals. The Electoral Commission has said that it is concerned about that potential problem and believes it should be tackled through the allocation of resources. We will consider the matter when we discuss the provisions that fall much later in the Bill, but I do not think that the Government are taking the question of addressing the problem at all seriously. If they were, the simplest thing would be to do what the Select Committee recommended and ensure that the same carry-over arrangements apply to proxy and postal voters as to everybody else. The case has not been made for treating postal and proxy votes differently.
How will this impact on local government? We might see a significant fall in registration in certain wards, so would that lead to boundary changes? What will happen to the boundary changes at local government level that are implemented before we see individual voter registration?
That is a big issue. One of the concerns I expressed earlier was about the impact a depleted register could have on the next boundary review in December 2015. From a democratic point of view, if many people who are entitled to be on the register are not, that will have a knock-on effect on how the new boundaries are drawn up. That will have an impact on other boundaries, too, as it will be taken into account in one way or another.
So, what would the impact be when the number of people registered in a ward dropped below 66%? Does anything in the Bill or in my hon. Friend’s conversations with the Government suggest that that would have an impact?
The objective analysis of likely voter depletion shows that there is unlikely to be uniformity throughout the county. We are likely to see a marked contrast between the rural and urban areas, as I said earlier. If my hon. Friend wants to break it down to regions, I think that there will be a great contrast between the number of electors who will be able to vote in the north-east of England and the number in the south-east of England. That reflects the differences in movement, in demographic trends and in the social and class structure.
A particular concern has been expressed about London. Greater London has the greatest amount of movement of individuals and is thus likely to be the area where the greatest number of people who are entitled to vote are not on the electoral register. I would contend that the greatest contrast is likely to be between Greater London and more affluent parts of the south-east of England; let us be blunt about that.
One thing that concerns many of us regards the fact that it is already perfectly possible for electors who wish to register for postal votes to do so for just one election. Is there not therefore a presumption that people who want the long-term postal vote for reasons of sickness, old age or working away will want it more permanently? Surely the presumption is already there, so it is bizarre that the Government are even thinking of changing it.
That is an excellent point. The presumption among many people—indeed, dare I say it, among most people—is that once a person is on the electoral register, they are there not for one or two elections but permanently. Most people in this country will not have a clue about this profound change in the nature of the electoral registration system. We need only to consider the lack of press interest and coverage on the subject for months to see that. Given that the Bill was one of the key pieces of legislation in the Queen’s Speech, there has been virtually no press coverage of it, and it is from the press that most people get their information. There is indeed a potential problem here.
We will discuss financing in greater detail later, but when the responsibility is placed very much on the shoulders of local authorities and electoral registration officers, and the resources that are likely to be allocated will not be ring-fenced and will be pretty small anyhow, the concern is that local authorities will not have the capacity to make the superhuman effort needed to chase up those people who they manage to detect have not re-registered under the new system, even though they are entitled to be on the register. There is a host of interconnected problems before us and I thank Members for their interventions. In their different ways, they have highlighted the complexities and the potential problems that lie ahead. The way forward for postal vote carry-overs was clearly set out by the all-party Select Committee, and I very much hope the Government will have second thoughts.
I shall speak briefly to amendment 20, which would increase the length of time that those on the current electoral register remained on the revised register after the introduction of individual electoral registration. The current proposal from the UK Government is that existing registrations will be removed at the end of the second new canvass if people have not provided the required data for individual electoral registration. The effect will be that concerns about a cliff-edge drop in the completeness of the registers, as we saw when they dropped by 11% in Northern Ireland, will be postponed until after the 2015 Westminster general election. This means that the first elections to be held without the roll-on from the pre-IER electoral roll will be the National Assembly for Wales elections in May 2016.
Although I recognise that one election must, at some point, be the first election to be held wholly under IER, I am concerned that the elections to the National Assembly for Wales will be the guinea pig, particularly because if the proposals in the Green Paper on electoral arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales are implemented, the electoral roll arrangements will be used as the basis for determining constituencies. I shall give my opinion on that very interesting Green Paper on another occasion.
The change-over from the current system to IER is fraught with difficulties, and the length of time for the change-over should be as long as necessary to ensure that there are no adverse effects, and certainly should not be rushed. As I say, I am particularly concerned about the possible effects on the National Assembly elections in 2016, and I hope the Government will take this opportunity to push back the final date for the removal of all pre-IER registrations to ensure that the handover is as smooth as possible, without the cliff-edge drop in registration that we fear.
The hon. Gentleman is clearly as concerned about his area and the effect on voter registration as I am about mine. Does he think that his local authority will have the resources to deal effectively with the problems that will arise and to keep on the electoral register as many people as possible who are entitled to vote?
That is an interesting point. On the way down on the train this morning, I was reading a report on the experience in Northern Ireland. It said that it was difficult to envisage the changes being pushed through uniformly in a short period. A longer period of introduction would therefore be better for all concerned.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark.
I shall speak briefly, mainly to underline the importance of getting the change right. Given that there is cross-party consensus on the introduction of individual voter registration, it ought to be possible to carry it out in a way that minimises and manages risk, avoiding the negative consequences that we can foresee. The debate has made it clear that one of the foreseeable consequences of getting it wrong is that fewer people will be on the register, although they are still eligible. The change must be managed to take account of people who are not sufficiently on the ball to get their registration in place.
I do not see what the rush is. It is better to implement the change carefully and with consideration and get it right than rush it and find the numbers on the register falling off a cliff edge, as my hon. Friend Jonathan Edwards said. If we get it wrong, the number of people participating in very significant future elections will drop substantially. Any significant drop would be a travesty of our democracy. We therefore need to work together to prevent such a drop.
I am especially concerned about the risks involved in the arrangements currently in place for dealing with absent voters by means of postal and proxy votes. The difficulties were well set out by my hon. Friend Mr David from the Front Bench. It is important that we get the changes right and that they are handled in a way that protects people. There is a real danger that people who have been signed up as postal voters or proxy voters for some time will not be alert to the changes that are taking place and will not realise that those changes have taken place until it is too late.
In previous elections all of us have had the experience of knocking on doors and finding that people have a perception that they have a postal vote, although in fact they do not. They may have signed up for just one election. That will happen in greater volume if the proposals go ahead. There is significant risk in postal and proxy votes not being transferred for the 2015 elections. Carrying them forward would mitigate the risk considerably, although as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr said, that transfers the risk to another time. The longer we have to deal with the transfer, the more able we collectively, and electoral registration officers in particular, will be to get it right. We rush at our peril.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly, I welcome the modifications that have been made along the road by the Government. That is a good thing and there is further opportunity for modifications in order to get the change right. If the desire is to rush pell-mell, we will get things wrong. The situation of absent and proxy voters would benefit from more risk minimisation and less haste.
Although there is apparently a consensus on moving to individual electoral registration, I declare that I do not subscribe to that consensus. I think I had been in the Commons for about a month when there was a vote on which both Front-Bench teams were agreed on some principle. Bernard Braine, an old Tory MP, said to me, “Come on, let’s vote against, because when both Front Benches are in agreement, somebody is being swindled out of their rights.” There is a real danger that in implementing the general proposal, many people will be swindled out of their rights.
We should bear it in mind that estimates of the number of people currently entitled to be on the register but who are not on the register vary between 3 million and 6 million, but no one queries the fact that at least 3 million of our fellow citizens who are entitled to vote are not at present on the electoral register. We are now contemplating a change that will make it more difficult to register. Logically, it would appear that the 3 million will be added to, rather than reduced. We are also talking about the non-carry-over of many postal votes. The people who are on that list are not exclusively disabled and disadvantaged, but many of those who have a postal vote for several elections, which as far as they are concerned is indefinite, are among the most disabled and disadvantaged. It is difficult to see how we can be complacent about knocking them off the register or the list of postal voters, particularly when there are doubts about the appeal arrangements, as my hon. Friend Mr David said. The Government, on behalf of the House of Commons, need to address those points, because so far that has not been done.
Another point I will make for Tory Members is that their party has always been the best, by miles, at getting people postal votes, so there is every possibility that once in a while it will be quite a lot of Tory voters who lose the right to a postal vote. I urge Government Members, in their own self-interest, to consider whether that is a good or a bad idea.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly also talked about the application of the new arrangements to the electoral register which will be used for the next round of boundary changes. I must admit that I am opposed to the whole approach to boundaries at the moment. Members used to represent a locality, but in future they will represent an anonymous agglomeration of people and there will be little sense that they represent a particular area. Indeed, we could reasonably start talking about constituency No. 10 or constituency No. 245 rather than the place they allegedly represent, because it will no longer be a place; it will be just a group of people. I think that there is a real danger—in fact, almost a certainty—that the introduction of individual electoral registration will mean that the boundary changes that will be considered after the next general election will be mean a smaller number of voters than were on the register at the previous general election.
Apart from a very limited number of people who are paid to support what is proposed, I have yet to meet anyone who does not admit in private conversation that the likely consequence of introducing individual electoral registration is a reduction in the number of people who are registered. We need to get things in perspective. If between 3 million and 6 million people are entitled to be on the register but are not on it, knocking some people off because there might have been a limited amount of fraud seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse.
I can reassure Frank Dobsonthat he can simultaneously support his party and oppose individual registration, because it says it is in favour of it but then votes against the Bill, so he can have his cake and eat it. To pick up on the central thrust of his remarks, I simply do not accept his proposition on the number of people who will be on the register. In Northern Ireland, where individual electoral registration was introduced, what went wrong—after all, it was introduced by the Government of whom he was a member—was its introduction overnight with no carry-forward process, which caused a number of people who were eligible to be registered to drop off the register. That was recognised and the carry-forward process was reinstituted. We have learned from that. If we look at the status quo, the register is more accurate in Northern Ireland than it is in Great Britain; fewer people who are not entitled to vote are on the register and it is at least as complete as it is in Great Britain. In other words, there are at least as many people who are entitled to vote on the register under individual registration. I am not going to start comparing people who live in different parts of the United Kingdom, but if in Northern Ireland they can manage to register under an individual electoral registration system and have a register that is both as complete and more accurate, it should be perfectly possible for citizens in the rest of the United Kingdom to manage that, too.
The information comes from a very good piece work that we commissioned the Electoral Commission to do so that we had a clear understanding of the electoral registration system’s starting position before we introduced individual electoral registration. We mean to carry out that piece of work after we have introduced the system so that we can demonstrate that the right hon. Gentleman’s fears are groundless. As I have said, the system is working very well in one part of the United Kingdom, and without all of these problems. We have learnt from Northern Ireland’s transitional experience so that we do not repeat the mistakes—mistakes that were introduced under the Government of whom he was a member. I think that he really exaggerates the fears.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman, although I am not pleased to, that the figure was 6 million. I can confirm, therefore, that under the previous Government 3 million people disappeared from the register, so I will take no lectures from the Opposition on that. I am confident that, under the proposals we have set out, we will not see the problems that they have suggested there will be. The brutal truth is that when they were in Government they commissioned no research to help them understand the position post-2000 and so they did not know what was going on. Having commissioned that work and had the Electoral Commission carry it out, we now know that the problem actually got worse and the previous Government did nothing about it. We are confident that our proposals are robust, and I will set some of them out and respond to the amendments in a moment. We know that the system works well because it works perfectly well in Northern Ireland and we have learnt from the problems that occurred during the transitional process.
The Minister says that he is confident about his proposals, but the sure way to test whether his confidence is well placed would be to delay the introduction of the process until the second tranche of pilot schemes have been assessed. Why does he not allow that assessment to take place before deciding, because then he would see whether or not his confidence is well placed?
We have hardly rushed in the way we have conducted this legislation. I announced our decision in September 2010 and we then published the legislation with the pre-legislative scrutiny. We have been doing this in a very deliberate and careful way, as I think most people would accept.
The Minister has referred to the experience in Northern Ireland, but does he accept that the dip that took place there was not just a temporary blip after which the numbers were immediately recovered following one step, because it took some time to recover? Does he also accept that there is something qualitatively different about the current proposal because for the first time individual electoral registration will be used to determine a boundary review? That is an overnight use of a new system.
There are two points there. I accept that there was a problem and that it took some years to get the register back after that drop, and that is precisely why we have learnt from the experience and put the carry-forward process in place so that we do not get the drop in the first place. That point is quite right. I will address the hon. Gentleman’s second point directly when I refer to amendments 20, 18 and 19. If he does not think that I have done so, he can come back to it.
On amendment 3, Nic Dakin talked about the appeals system and asked very perceptively whether Mr Davidwas trying to keep in place the existing system or to put in place a new one. I think that the answer, which the hon. Gentleman obfuscated, is that he is after keeping in place the existing system, and I can confirm that sections 56 and 57 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 already make provision for appeals against the decisions of registration officers in Great Britain, including those to remove people from the register.
Paragraph 17 of schedule 4 to the Bill makes the necessary amendments to ensure that that provision continues to apply under the new system, and I refer hon. Members in particular to the proposed insertion of paragraphs (azd) and (aa) in section 56(1) of the 1983 Act, which would deal with appeals against decisions under proposed section 10ZE.
That sounds very complicated, but basically it means that the existing appeals system will continue as now but under the new system. It is quite complicated and not easy to follow because this Bill amends the 1983 Act, but I hope that, with that reassurance, at least on amendment 3 the hon. Gentleman will not feel the need to press it to a Division.
Electoral fraud came up in the debate, and I now have in front of me the quotation from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Its office for democratic institutions and human rights undertook an election assessment mission report in 2010, on page 11 of which it describes the voter registration system in Great Britain as
“the weakest link of the electoral process due to the absence of safeguards against fictitious registrations.”
So there is a real problem, and about 36% of voters think that there is a real problem with electoral fraud. Indeed, the problem is with not just electoral fraud, but the use of the electoral register, which has been identified as an important stage in identity fraud and financial crime.
I remind the Minister that I have reported to the House on two occasions, last year and this year, that from a random sample of 100 people who came to my constituency and had no entitlement to vote, more than 20% were found on the electoral roll—for a number of reasons, I concede, which backs up my hon. Friend’s point.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Let me continue with my point about fraud.
A recent Metropolitan police and national fraud initiative analysis, looking at 29,000 strands of identity data found on forged and counterfeit documents, showed that 45.6% matched electoral registration data, and a lack of any robust verification process is a tool that criminals use for creating fictitious identities to be used not in voting fraud but for financial crime, so we need to deal with that as well.
When police have electoral fraud drawn to their attention, and it is the responsibility of the police given that electoral fraud is a crime, they take such matters seriously. I recently met the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead on the issue and have discussed it with the Electoral Commission, and, if colleagues think that there is electoral fraud and report it to the police, the police will certainly take it seriously, but colleagues will be expected to stand up the accusations they make and be prepared to swear statements and to enable the police to take action. So there is a problem: both a perception of a problem and a real problem with, in particular, financial fraud.
In amendments 20, 18 and 19, the hon. Member for Caerphilly sets out his concerns about our proposals. Amendment 20, which would extend the transition to individual registration by extending the carry-forward, focuses only on completeness, not on accuracy, and one problem with his suggestion is that, if we did what he wanted, by the time of the publication of the registers after the 2015 canvass, it might have been almost two years since EROs had actually heard from people—[ Interruption . ]
Thank you, Ms Clark.
The danger for the hon. Member for Caerphilly is that, in his proposals, he urges us to deal with completeness, but, if we accept his argument that they would increase completeness, and I am not sure that they would, we find that they may do so at the expense of accuracy. They would leave on the register people who were not likely to be at the address in question any more, because they would not have responded to an electoral registration officer for some time.
There is a very clear answer: the register’s use in the election will be its first use, and we know that at the time of a general election people will be very focused on it. By the time of the publication of the registers in 2015, individuals who have not been confirmed automatically at the start of the transition will have had more than one year to register individually, had more than two canvasses, been contacted a number of times by the electoral registration officer and between canvasses had a general election, a time when awareness of politics and voting is at its highest.
Our intention remains that EROs will write to individuals who have neither registered nor been confirmed towards the end of the 2015 canvass to inform them that they will be removed and to offer them one further chance to apply. It seems to me that, for somebody to be eligible to be registered, at their property and not to have registered individually for the 2015 register, they will almost have had to go out of their way to avoid being contacted by an ERO, and almost deliberately have not registered. The steps that we have put in place are very robust.
Reflecting on the Northern Ireland experience again, does the Minister not recognise that one problem in Northern Ireland was that people thought, because they had voted in a recent election, that they were already registered automatically for future purposes? The amount of information actually created confusion and an assumption that if someone had a vote they were on the register in future.
It is worth pointing out that, after the general election in 2015, there will be another full canvass of households to ensure that we get people on the register. The danger with just carrying everybody forward for ever and a day is that we just perpetuate inaccuracy; we might get completeness but it would be at the expense of ensuring that the data were accurate.
Let me make some progress, because otherwise I will not be able to deal with the amendments that the hon. Member for Caerphilly tabled. I will see how things have moved on at the end.
We have announced that about two thirds of voters will be confirmed automatically, but Lyn Brown, who is no longer in her place, said that the figure will not be uniform throughout the country, and that is quite right—I confirmed it on Second Reading. She also referred to funding, and we propose to deal with the issue by ensuring that better support for funding is available to areas with bigger challenges. In the summer, I will publish our proposals on how we allocate funding in order to receive feedback from electoral registration officers throughout the country so that they feel that the funding mechanism is sufficiently robust.
Amendment 18 and 19 are about the carry-forward of absent votes. If we were undertaking this process is a purist way, we would not bother having the carry-forward at all; we would just have individual registration and then test it out. But we have learned from Northern Ireland, so we are introducing the carry-forward to stop people dropping off the register.
We do not propose to extend the canvass to those who have an absent vote, because there is a risk in the system with absent voters: if registrations are fictitious in the first place, the checks and balances on identifiers for absent votes will not really add any security to the system. If someone can make up an identity, they can make up the identifiers, so we think that there is more risk involved in that process.
To deal with risk, however, we propose, first, to use data matching to undertake confirmation, meaning that two thirds of voters will be moved over automatically on the register, including two thirds on average of those who have an absent vote.
Secondly, as colleagues on both sides of the House will know, people with postal votes have postal identifiers, their date of birth and their signature, which they have to refresh every five years because signatures can change and deteriorate over time. We are therefore going to delay the postal vote identifier refresh in 2014 and bring forward the refresh from 2015, so all electors using postal voting methods whose identifiers are due to be refreshed in those two years will be asked to provide them as well as to register. Those whose entries on the register have automatically been confirmed will be asked to provide their refreshed identifiers when they get their letter. EROs will be communicating to anyone with an absent vote who is invited to register under the new system, to make it quite clear what happens if they do not. If they do not register, they will be written to again and informed that they have lost their absent vote but given another opportunity. All the steps that we propose will make things very clear and it will be difficult for someone inadvertently to lose their absent vote.
The final point is about disabled voters. As I said on Second Reading, we are also going to look at having an online registration system; moving away from a paper-based system to one in which people can register electronically is a way of getting more disabled people registered.
The Minister stated that concern about carrying forward the postal vote is to do with fictitious people. However, he appears to be happy to carry over other people, who might equally be fictitious. If a fictitious person is on the roll at the moment and carried over, come the general election someone using that identity could go to the polling station and vote; we do not check identity as people vote. If large numbers of people using fictitious identities are trying to vote, they can do that. Why is it thought that there is a greater problem with postal voting, for which at least some additional safeguards are in place?
Those safeguards work only if the person with the postal vote is legitimate in the first place. The postal vote identifiers are very good for checking that the postal vote cast is the one for the person who has registered; there is a good check in that part of the system. That is not helpful, however, if the person who has registered has created a fictitious identity. We know that it is easier for somebody to set up a fictitious identity and cast a postal vote than vote in person using that identity. The hon. Lady seems to be arguing in favour of having ID cards before one votes, but the Government do not plan to introduce those.
I urge the Opposition to withdraw amendment 3 on appeals and not to press their remaining three amendments. The steps that I set out are robust. We are providing proper funding in the system for electoral registration officers to be able to communicate with voters and make sure that the system is sufficiently flexible. In parts of the country where there is a bigger challenge, for whatever reason, EROs will have access to more funding.
I thank the Minister for his snotty response. Oddly enough, I was simply seeking information. The Minister confirmed—I am glad that he did—that the current appeals machinery will cover people being knocked off the electoral register. Will that also apply to people being taken off the list of postal voters? If so, will they be informed in time to appeal?
The provision for appeal against the decisions of registration officers are against the decisions of registration officers. If those decisions are made because a rule laid in statute is being followed, the appeal will not get very far. As I said, we will make sure that EROs contact people who are registered with an absent vote a number of times to encourage them to register individually. If they do not register individually, EROs will explain to them on a number of occasions the consequence for their absent vote, so that people are given the opportunity.
One would have to be trying hard to avoid knowing what was going on and avoid registering individually. Part of the reason for the confirmation process is to get the on average two thirds of voters moved to a new system, to enable electoral registration officers to focus on those who do not, to target resources better, to use public money more efficiently and to have a more efficient, complete and accurate register.
I hear what the Minister said about amendment 3 and I am pleased that his reassurances are clear. However, as my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson said, we are talking about a new system and it might not be possible simply to use the current system for a new system. I urge the Government to keep the issue under review, bearing in mind that, as has been said, more people might want to appeal against an ERO’s decision than have until now.
I am minded not to press amendment 3 to a vote, but we shall press amendments 20 and 18 at the appropriate time. We will leave amendment 19 to one side. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Schedule 1 agreed to.