Clause 4 — Annual canvass

Electoral Registration and Administration Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:30 pm on 18th June 2012.

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Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 8:30 pm, 18th June 2012

I beg to move amendment 6, page 3, line 39, leave out from ‘canvass’ to end of line and insert—

‘(1A) The annual canvass must be held during the month of October every year in relation to the area for which the officer acts.’.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 8, page 4, line 6, at end insert—

‘(3A) Each local authority must write once a year to each address in their Local Land and Property Gazetteer (in Scotland the local addresses in the One Scotland Gazetteer).

(3B) Local authorities must also write to those properties not listed in the Gazetteer but which the local authority believes have been built in the previous two years.

(3C) In addition, the local authority should write to every property from which an electoral registration form has been returned within the past 10 years, except where the officer has good reason to believe that the property is no longer residential or has been demolished, and

(3D) The local authority should write to each property to which it has served a notice for charges or taxes within the previous five years.’.

Amendment 7, page 4, line 9, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘must’.

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

Clause 4 is important because it restates the requirement for an annual canvass, which we feel strongly about. It acts as a safeguard against potential long-term deterioration in the accuracy of the electoral register. Indeed, during an evidence session of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Mrs Laing made the point that in two constituencies that she had looked at—neither of them her own—the number of electors in 2011 was

“approximately 3,000 fewer than in 2010 when the general election took place.”

Her conclusion was that many people do not bother to re-register once a general election has come and gone. That encapsulates, for me and other Opposition Members, why we still need the annual canvass.

It is also a proactive approach, rather than one based on council officers chasing the gaps—for want of a better phrase—looking at and trying to resolve the apparent anomalies, and dealing with absences in the register via data-sharing and pursuance of the individuals concerned. That latter approach takes place behind the scenes and suggests that we need permanently to coerce people to go on the register. Although it cannot be denied that some people in this country refuse to register—many such cases, unfortunately, date back to the days of the poll tax fiasco, when many voters deliberately fell off the register in order to avoid being detected and paying fines—we believe that the best approach is a proactive one that gives people the opportunity, on an annual basis, willingly to apply to be on the register. That is what democracy is about; it about saying to the citizens of any city, town or village, “We want you to exercise your right to vote, and to come forward with the information we need to put you on the register.” The annual canvass is a good and effective way of doing that.

As I have said, the clause restates the importance of the annual canvass, but it also deletes the current requirement that it be conducted on an annual basis every October. The key point is that it is 38 years since a general election took place in autumn or winter—that was the crisis election of October 1974. The one previous to that was another crisis election, that of February 1974. As we will all remember, that was triggered by a Prime Minister who wanted to call the miners’ bluff and asked who ran the country. Before that we had the March 1970 general election, which I am just old enough to remember. Prior to that were the elections in 1950 and 1951, which, of course, I am not old enough to recall—I thank God for that. The annual canvass should take place at a time of the year when we are least likely to have elections, and the EROs have the time and space to the job properly. They do not need to feel the pressure of an election coming in six or seven weeks’ time, and to be chasing their tails and worrying about the consumption of resources involved in ensuring that the electoral register that they are responsible for is as accurate and complete as possible.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion 8:45 pm, 18th June 2012

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady about the huge importance of the annual canvass—she is quite right. I wonder whether she has had the time to consider the Electoral Commission’s comments about the timing of the annual canvass. It has complimented the Government’s measures removing the 15 October date as an opportunity for greater flexibility and greater completeness, because the gap between the canvass and the election could be reduced. I appreciate what she says about the rarity of those elections, but the Electoral Commission seems to be saying something different from what she is saying.

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

I appreciate that point, and I have read what the Electoral Commission has said about it. However, the key point is the one I made a few moments ago, which is about the importance of getting it right. Secondly, the Electoral Commission has a certain perspective on this. A different perspective would understand the importance of stability at a time of radical change in the registration process. It has to be said that for as long as most of us can remember the culture of this country has seen us running an annual canvass in October every year. That is what people have come to understand, and under the new system there will still be a requirement for the head of the household, or someone in the household, to supply the information to the ERO to enable the sending out of the invitations to register. We will still have that culture of a form being filled in for every property, completed for every residence and returned to the ERO. Opposition Members feel it is important to continue the culture of running that exercise every October, not least because it is the time of year when further and higher education colleges enrol their new students.

In what is often a five or six month gap between the completion of the canvass and the establishment of the new register and the election, the chances of that register being grossly inaccurate are reasonably small. The risk of that is smaller than the risk of a drop-off—a fall—in the number of registrations because we have messed about with the time of year when people will register. I do not think that any hon. Member feels that an annual canvass should be run in July, Easter or post-Christmas. Is there any point in the year, other than October, that makes sense? There is a reason why October is the date, and we think we should stick with it. Amendment 6 would reinstate the requirement that EROs run an annual canvass in October of every year.

Amendment 8 seeks to strengthen and improve the process; this is the belt and braces approach that I talked about earlier in relation to amendments 9, 10 and 11. The gazetteer is a very complete and up-to-date list of any property in a local area. We believe that EROs should write once a year to every property listed in the gazetteer, supplemented by those properties that they know to have been built in the past two years, when registration forms have been returned in the past 10 years and when a property has been involved in the charging of taxes by the local authority in the past five years. In all those circumstances, we believe that the ERO should send a form to the property concerned to ensure that we do everything we can to guarantee the highest possible level of completion of each new register.

Earlier we argued for the need to glean information from university institutions, sheltered housing providers and private landlords in order to aid the process of building a high quality and highly complete register. We also believe, however, that such an approach should be supplemented by our using the soundest possible sources of information about which properties are occupied in any area when the local authority qualifies as an electoral registration authority. If the House agrees to those requirements, that will mean that we have done our best to guarantee that the new individual registration process succeeds rather than fails. That is the key point that Opposition Members are trying to make.

Amendment 7 deals with house-to-house inquiries on which, in our view, the Bill is far too weak. It gives EROs the power possibly to conduct a few house-to-house inquiries, stating that they “may” do so, but in our view they must carry out house-to-house inquiries, particularly when citizens have constantly and repeatedly refused to register to vote. Given that we have included a penalty in the Bill and reinstated the principle of enforcing the requirement on citizens of this country to register to vote, it makes sense that we should require EROs to do their utmost to ensure that the law on electoral registration is complied with. “May” is only one word, but it is very important and saying to EROs that they may, rather than must, conduct house-to-house inquiries represents a watering down of the commitment in the Representation of the People Act 1983.

I am convinced that not only Opposition Members but Government Members are fundamentally democrats at heart who believe in people’s right to vote and in the importance of their registering to vote. Let me make a plea to the Minister, who I know to be a man of logic and reason. The replacement of the single word “may” with the word “must” is a small concession to make for the sake of this House doing its best to ensure that democracy in this country is properly served and is as legitimate as it possibly can be. I call on the Minister to concede this amendment and to put hon. Members’ minds at rest on this point.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

Thank you, Mr Amess, for the opportunity to comment, particularly on amendment 6 on the annual canvass, and the issues that it raises in relation to young people’s engagement in politics, and that of students in particular. I recognise that not all students are young people, but the vast majority are. Sadly, according to a million+ report produced recently, there are declining numbers of mature students as a result of the Government’s policies on higher education.

I represent a city where, as Members are aware, voters were turned away in large numbers at the general election. It is an issue which new clause 4 deals with later. Those voters were largely students or others who were affected by a surge in student voting, and those students were whipped up to vote by the fairly relentless campaigning of the Deputy Prime Minister on both our campuses, which are both in my constituency. Members will remember the “trust me, we’re different” initiative during the general election—the promise that

“We will resist, vote against, campaign against, any lifting” of the cap on tuition fees, with a plan to abolish tuition fees within six years. I notice Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches looking a little bit embarrassed, and understandably so. That was no subscript in the manifesto. In constituencies such as mine, it was at the very heart of their party’s campaign, as the president of the Hallam university union, Caroline Dowd, said at the time:

“We could not get” the Deputy Prime Minister

“out of our union before the general election.”

Afterwards, when she was being held to account, she pointed out that they could not get him in.

The broken pledge on tuition fees has not simply damaged the Liberal Democrats’ party; it has damaged trust in politics for a whole generation of young people. All the people who were persuaded to vote, queuing in Sheffield Hallam because they believed the pledge, they believed in a fresh approach, they believed that when people signed a solemn promise, they would keep it, feel betrayed by the trust that they put in politics. So many of them whom I have spoken to are now saying, “Why should we vote?” I have knocked on many student doors during subsequent local elections. This is precisely the time when we should be making extra efforts to engage students, not reduce their participation. Amendment 6 and the annual canvass in October specifically address that issue.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion

On a more positive note and with reference to amendment 7, which refers to the importance of face-to-face dialogue with students, will the hon. Gentleman endorse the comments of his hon. Friend Angela Smith on the Front Bench that simply sending communications to students, many of them in halls of residence, and getting post through to students is a particular difficulty, and face-to-face dialogue is extremely important in building trust and building students’ confidence to sign up to the electoral register?

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is necessary to complement an annual canvass in October and support that process with face-to-face contact. It is a point that I will come to in a moment.

My city is associated with steel and still produces steel and engineering products, as it always did, but it is now also a major student city. As I said, both of our great universities are in my constituency. At the last count, 31,800 students live in Sheffield Central, and they are very much part of the place. They live there for at the very least 31 weeks a year, and many for 52 weeks on full accommodation contracts. For all of them, it is their main place of residence. They contribute to the economy and the life of the city and they have a right for their voice to be heard in elections.

At the university of Sheffield there is a block registration scheme for all eligible students in university accommodation, which will end with this legislation. The Government claim that individual electoral registration is about preventing fraud. I assume that they do not think the university of Sheffield is guilty of electoral fraud. Therefore, one wonders why the Government think it necessary to remove the opportunity for block registration in this legislation. But they are pressing ahead, so I think that amendment 6 and the need for an annual canvass would go some way towards mitigating the damage that will create.

The National Union of Students has said:

“It is clear that the removal of joint registration for university halls of residence could have a very negative impact on electoral participation among the student population. There remain numerous and significant barriers to getting young people registered to vote”— a point Mr Williams made in his intervention

“The onus is on the Government to demonstrate that these proposals will not undermine longstanding efforts to increase turnout and registration among students and young people… Without clear evidence to the contrary, we can assume that large numbers of students will fail to register under the proposed model”.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion 9:00 pm, 18th June 2012

The hon. Gentleman might have guessed that I share an interest in higher education; I, like him, have two universities in my constituency. Might not an alternative approach be to have the students register to vote when registering for their college courses? Is that not an opportunity to maximise student participation in the electoral register?

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I think that that is an opportunity; there might be innovative ways to combine the registration process with other processes. However, there are certain difficulties because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, many universities now have fairly sophisticated online registration processes at the point of joining the institution, rather than the face-to-face contact to which he refers, so there are potentially some difficulties. In essence, we need to look creatively at every opportunity, and that would indeed be one of them.

The point the NUS makes is that, if we are to avoid a fall-off in registration, considerable information, communication and investment are needed. I must say that I think it would be simpler all round if we retained block registration, but the Government, whether or not they think that universities are guilty of electoral fraud, are pressing ahead. When I raised that issue on Second Reading, Mrs Laing challenged me, suggesting that I underestimated the ability of students to complete forms, but that is not actually the point. I have been lobbied strongly by students on the issue. Only today the newly elected officers of the University of Sheffield students’ union met me in Westminster, along with their outgoing predecessors, and made the point again. One of them, Harry Horton, summed up the difficulty—the hon. Member for Ceredigion will appreciate this—and explained that when students first arrive at university and live in halls, among all the other things going on in their lives, registering to vote is not necessarily a priority, so it is comforting for them to know that it is done automatically. If that changes, registering becomes another form to fill in during the first few whirlwind weeks away from home when their whole lives are being turned upside down. As a result, the fear is that some students, particularly those who do not come with a commitment to engagement in democracy, will not register.

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

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I have four children, the youngest of whom is currently at university, and so have shared with them all the experience of their first term. They were sprinkled with the occasional lesson and tutorial but they were hardly overwhelmed, and I regard the students as responsible and intelligent individuals. I think that there is too much here that is nanny-stating them to the ballot box and the voting forms. Surely they are quite capable of taking responsibility themselves.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I, too, consider students to be responsible, intelligent and able individuals—all 31,800 in my constituency and indeed the rest in our universities and in higher education across the country. But for those students there are so many different things to register for, such as the health service and course modules, and there are all sorts of choices to be made in their lives, and many of them are also uncertain about where they stand in relation to electoral registration. They assume that their place of registration is their family home, as indeed it is, not what is in effect their primary place of residence, where they study at university, so that additional effort is needed to ensure that they are fully aware of their opportunity to register in their place of study.

For those students in private accommodation in Sheffield, the student unions of both universities run vigorous electoral registration campaigns, and the unions’ experience is pertinent to the issue, because their students, like many people, leave electoral registration until the point when they need it. The unions’ registration campaigns do not work in November or December; they do work in February, March and April—just before elections. So the Bill will effectively, when taken alongside the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 exclude them not only from the electoral roll for upcoming elections, but from the redrawing of boundaries and the reshaping of our constituencies, thereby depriving them of their voice in general.

In that context, the annual canvass in October will provide students with a focus to register at the point when they join—and if it is complemented by face-to-face contact so much the better—and with an opportunity to join the electoral register at the point when it can make a difference not only in their entitlement to vote but, crucially, when it comes to redrawing parliamentary boundaries.

The students whom I met from the university of Sheffield told me that they have tried very hard to meet their other constituency MP, the Deputy Prime Minister, to talk about voter registration. In fact they have been trying since October, but unsuccessfully, so I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to reaffirm their desire to meet the Deputy Prime Minister to discuss the issue both in his leading role on the matter and in his role as their constituency representative.

Although amendment 6 and, indeed, 9, which was considered earlier, would not go as far as I should wish and restore the right to block registration, they would work entirely with the grain of the Bill, so the Government should not have any difficulty accepting them and recognising that they are a modest attempt, among their other objectives, to address the potential drop in electoral registration and to ensure that electoral registration officers contact students in the first term of each year.

If the amendments are not accepted, I will conclude only that the Government do not want students to vote in the next election or to have a voice in the reshaped parliamentary constituencies.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

I shall address primarily the issues around undertaking a good door-to-door canvass, because the experience of various electoral registration officers throughout the country is that, when that happens, they end up with a much more complete register than when any number of letters are simply sent out to drop on people’s doorsteps.

That is true of various other bureaucratic interventions that a local authority or, indeed, any other authority might want to make. I remember having much the same discussion about how to collect rent arrears effectively from tenants when I was the convenor of housing on Edinburgh city council. The habitual process was to send out letter one, letter two, letter three, but people who for whatever reason were not minded to pay much attention to that tended to disregard them and did not take them seriously—however well or clearly they were framed. That is a lesson in the fact that dropping lots of letters through people’s doors is not necessarily particularly effective.

When the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee was considering the Bill, we had evidence from some electoral registration officers who had achieved a much higher level of registration than others—largely through such things as regular door-to-door work. They put in that additional effort so they were gaining, even in areas, comparable with areas with much lower levels of registration, where it was otherwise difficult to register people. It was not that the EROs were in leafy suburbs where it is easy to get people registered; there was a return on the work put into some quite difficult areas.

In the inner city areas of Edinburgh, there is the problem of a lot of multi-occupation—not just students, although there are student flats, but a large number of other shared accommodation. The Government want far more shared accommodation for young people, certainly in respect of the benefit system, so the issue will become even bigger.

We know what happens when letters come through the door of such households; they get stacked up somewhere. We also have issues, which I hope will be resolved, with how the addresses are labelled. Anybody who has done door-knocking and leafleting in some of our traditional tenements in Scotland invariably finds a little pile of undelivered mail sitting on the stairs; it has not been accurately addressed or people may have moved on. Trying to find out whether they are still there can be very confusing, partly because of the bizarre numbering system for our tenement buildings.

We call the first flat on the third floor, for example, 3F1. We also have PF1, PF2 and so on, which is the ground floor, although I still do not know what “P” stands for, while in other flats the ground floor is referred to as “G”. Traditionally, people called them something completely different. In shared accommodation, where people might well not pass on letters, the knock on the door—a personal approach—may yield results. It is important that we do not just say that it can be done, but that it should be done. A further issue is how we put the resources into doing that; it is resource-intensive, which some local authorities might find difficult.

However, I am reassured that the Minister has told us that he will look at the allocation of resources for electoral registration this summer; I hope that he will take the issue that I have mentioned into account when he divides up the resources to be made available for that purpose. If we do not take the resources into account, even saying “must” rather than “may” will lead us into problems.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Mr Amess, I apologise for not having been present for the other part of the debate; I was detained elsewhere. I also apologise for my tie, a father’s day gift from my six-year-old son. I promised him I would wear it in the Chamber at some point. [Interruption.] He is not watching me from home, I hope; I expect him to be in bed, but you never know.

I want to speak briefly to amendment 7 because I genuinely believe that it goes to the heart of our long debate about the importance of electoral registration and of voting itself. When I was first elected, one of the first failed campaigns on which I embarked was to try to persuade the then Government to make registering to vote compulsory. That will sound odd in the current context, but, as was the case 10 years ago, most people today are under the impression that it is against the law not to register to vote. Of course, it was always compulsory to return a completed electoral registration form, but it was never compulsory, and still is not, to register to vote and have one’s name on the list. That is wrong. I am absolutely opposed to compulsory voting, but it would send an important and powerful message to the country if the Government were to say, “It is entirely up to you whether you wish to vote, but we must use all our powers to make sure that when polling day comes you have an opportunity to vote even if you do not wish to take it up.” That commitment should have the force of law and perhaps a financial penalty attached for someone who does not vote.

Photo of Nick de Bois Nick de Bois Conservative, Enfield North 9:15 pm, 18th June 2012

Does not the hon. Gentleman think that by, in effect, criminalising people if they fail to register—[ Interruption. ] I will be grateful if Angela Smith lets me finish my point. Putting the heavy hand of the state into the system again could have the counterproductive effect of switching more people off from the system.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has intervened, because I wanted to refer to comments that he made in an intervention a few minutes ago. As my hon. Friend said, it is already a criminal offence not to return a completed registration form, for which there is a potential fine of £1,000. The hon. Gentleman may well not agree that that should be the case. That speaks to a fundamental difference between how his party and my party see civic activity. I believe that although voting should not be compulsory, it is a civic duty that, in the past, we took for granted. Turnouts in the elections following the second world war were about 80% because voting was something that everyone did. That is no longer the case, and we in this House have to bear some responsibility for that increase in the lack of activity and engagement in the political process. The Government have an important role to play in making sure that when it comes to polling day, every adult in this country has the right to decide whether to vote.

It is not remotely, in any way, shape or form, a compromise of civil liberties to say that everyone should be on the electoral register. Apart from everything else, there is an important argument for that in relation to financial inclusion. Often, credit card and finance companies will not give someone credit unless there is some proof that they exist, and that often comes from the electoral register.

The clause betrays the Government’s very lax approach towards voter registration. It is not enough merely to say that electoral registration officers may conduct an annual canvass. I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend Sheila Gilmore, because it was in her company that I first canvassed for the Labour party in 1985; that makes us both sound extremely old. The importance of a local authority canvass cannot be overstated. I remember as recently as the late 1980s hearing a knock on the door in the evening, when a local authority officer would hand me my form and ask me to stand there, fill it out and give it back to him. That was not seen as an intervention that was alien to our traditional way of doing politics but as a core element of the democratic process.

The Bill must include an absolute legal obligation for electoral registration officers to conduct a house-to-house canvass, whether it is every year or relates to a longer period. I have worked for local authorities, and I guarantee that “may” will inevitably come to be translated as “won’t”. Unless we put “must” into the Bill, I fear for the future of democracy in this country. On the strength of the arguments that we have heard since 6 May 2010, that state of affairs will concern Labour Members a lot more than Government Members.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

It is a pleasure finally to partake of the Committee stage of the Bill and of your chairmanship, Mr Amess.

I say to Angela Smith that I do not think that a great deal divides our intent on these matters. We are clear that we want the most comprehensive register that we can achieve and to ensure that electoral registration officers do their job effectively in bringing that about. Paul Blomfield had a little silliness along party political lines, but most Members have made positive points about the need to ensure that as many eligible people as possible are registered.

Some of the criticism of the Government proposals comes a little ill from the party that passed the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, in which there was no requirement for an annual canvass and which abolished the annual canvass, and that said in government that there would be no block registration at Queen’s university Belfast or the university of Ulster because it was no longer necessary. Perhaps some of the points that have been made by Labour Members would have been better addressed to their own Ministers when they were proposing legislation from this Dispatch Box.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I will give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman, but I will not give way many times.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is slightly disingenuous of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that Northern Ireland is exactly the same as everywhere in Great Britain, given the threat that there was in 2002 to local authority canvassers, particularly in parts of east and west Belfast. Since there are different electoral registration arrangements in Northern Ireland and have been since the late 1960s, he is being a little ungenerous to the former Government.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman is wearing a lovely tie, but his point is not entirely logical. The arguments for getting rid of the door-to-door annual canvass in Northern Ireland were nothing to do with the security situation and everything to do with the system of individual voter registration that was being introduced. That is precisely analogous to what we are doing.

Let me deal with the substance of the points that have been made. There is one clear misapprehension among those who have spoken, which is to assume that there is currently a requirement for the annual canvass to take place in October. That is not the case under current legislation. There is a reference date of 15 October. That is the point at which people are asked to consider where they are resident. That is quite a confusing requirement. I know for a fact that people who are trying to register get confused by it. They think, “Hang on a minute. On 15 October I plan to be visiting my Aunt Gladys in Carlisle. Where should I put myself down as being resident?” The reference date is therefore not necessarily helpful to the process of registration. There is not a requirement for the canvass to take place in October. It can take place at any time and is divorced from the reference date.

The canvass usually takes place around October because of the other factors that electoral registration officers have to consider, such as the deadline for the publication of the register, the performance standards set by the Electoral Commission, the data return that electoral registration officers are required to provide to the Office for National Statistics and the usual timing of elections in May. Electoral registration officers will still have to take those factors into account when making arrangements for the canvass.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Mr Harper has discussed this matter with an expert panel of electoral registration officers and electoral administrators. It has welcomed the removal of the reference date, which it agrees is confusing, and sees the advantage of the requirement for an annual canvass as it is put forward in the Bill. It provides flexibility, but at the same time there is an implied date that officers can work around. They can extend the canvass period if it will help the completeness of the register, but they will still be canvassing at approximately the same time. I hope that that at least helps Members understand what is proposed.

Amendment 8 is about what factors the electoral registration officer takes into account in preparing the canvass. Proposed new section 9D(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which will be inserted by clause 4, states:

“Each registration officer in Great Britain must conduct an annual canvass in relation to the area for which the officer acts.”

That follows the wording of the canvassing obligation in existing legislation. Registration officers are therefore already required to canvass their whole area, and we do not need to set out in new primary legislation the precise categories of property that a registration officer must contact to comply with the requirement to canvass their area. The electoral register and the local land and property gazetteer use the same address data.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Yes, I will. I know I will regret it, but I will.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the hon. Gentleman. The obligation of door-to-door canvassing was set out in, I think, the Electoral Administration Act 2006, but many authorities did not take it up. Year after year, they were asked, “Are you doing this?”, and responded, “No.” We need firmer legislation. We were not firm enough in 2006, and here is an opportunity to state firmly in legislation that officers have to go out door-knocking year in, year out, because that is what gets results.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I do not regret having given way to the hon. Gentleman as much as I often do, because his point is pertinent, but it is pertinent to amendment 7 rather than amendment 8, which I am addressing at the moment and which is about the areas of information—

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

How about answering the point?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I prefer to answer it at the point in my remarks where I reach the relevant amendment, rather than suddenly plucking a piece of information out of the air. I think that is helpful to the House.

We expect registration officers, as part of their canvassing duty, to write to all properties of which they are aware and at which people may be resident, including all the categories mentioned in amendment 8 and any other properties containing potentially eligible electors. The difficulty with specifying categories in primary legislation at the level that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge suggests is that it could inadvertently narrow the scope of what electoral registration officers are expected to do. Such details are difficult to change if they are set out in primary rather than secondary legislation.

I move on to amendment 7, so Chris Ruane will be pleased to know that his point is now relevant. I am grateful to hon. Members of all parties for highlighting the benefit of conducting house-to-house inquiries as part of the canvassing process. Section 9A of the 1983 Act already requires registration officers to take all steps necessary to maintain their electoral register. That includes the requirement to make house-to-house inquiries on one or more occasions. That will remain in the 1983 Act, so it is not necessary to make the suggested amendment.

In addition, the Electoral Commission’s performance standards set out the steps that a registration officer must take to comply with their duty, and we expect full compliance with those standards. Registration officers can carry out house-to-house inquiries to obtain information when no canvass form has been received, or to supplement such information, but the Bill will also enable them to make use of house-to-house inquiries before sending out canvass forms. That is an important distinction. Such inquiries may not be appropriate in every area, so we would not want to amend legislation to require registration officers to conduct them, but they will be particularly useful in ensuring the effectiveness of the canvass in areas of high population turnover such as we have discussed this evening. What I am really saying is that existing requirements remain, but they will be supplemented by this legislation.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister mentions the provision in the 1983 Act. The 2006 Act re-emphasised that and gave it greater status. Will that now be superseded, because even when it was given greater status it was not properly implemented? Here is an opportunity to make the 2006 Act even stronger. Will he take it?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Nothing is being superseded. The arrangements that we are putting in place will strengthen the requirement. I do not accept that changing the word “may” to “must” would make the slightest difference to those recalcitrant councils that simply do not do their job properly, and those are the ones that we and the Electoral Commission need to address. We will do so, and I am confident that at the end of the process we will have a better registration process than we have at the moment, and it will be much more inclusive of those who should be registered.

I heard Sheila Gilmore explain the numbering system in Edinburgh on Second Reading and I heard her again this evening, and I am afraid that I am still no more confident that I could understand how to deliver anything there. That is a matter that the electoral registration officer in Edinburgh needs to take very seriously.

I invite the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge to withdraw the amendment and to work with us to ensure that the arrangements in the Bill work most effectively.

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

It has been a long night. I have listened carefully to the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) and for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore). The points made about amendments 7 and 8 should be taken very seriously, but I will leave it to the other place to discuss them in greater detail. We intend to press amendment 6 to the vote, because we believe that it is crucial to have an annual canvass at the right time of the year—the time when people understand that it takes place by tradition.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee proceeded to a Division.

Ayes 211, Noes 287.

Division number 17 Electoral Registration and Administration Bill — Clause 4 — Annual canvass

Aye: 211 MPs

No: 287 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: 9, page 4, line 13, at end insert—

‘(5A) All higher and further education institutions must cooperate with local officers in providing a comprehensive list of students in all forms of residential accommodation.

(5B) Such lists must be provided at the start of each academic year.

(5C) Local authority officers must write individually to all students with an electoral registration form.’.—(Angela Smith.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 209, Noes 291.

Division number 18 Electoral Registration and Administration Bill — Clause 4 — Annual canvass

Aye: 209 MPs

No: 291 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

The occupant of the Chair left the Chair (Programme Order, 23 May).

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Progress reported, Committee to sit again tomorrow.