I beg to move amendment 21, in schedule 5, page 27, line 21, at end insert—
‘(6) The Government shall report to Parliament annually within two months of the end of the financial year on what money had been made available to local authorities to meet costs of transition to the new register and what safeguards have been put in place to make sure the money has been spent on the specified task.’.
I will refer specifically to the amendment and then more generally to schedule 5. On the financing of individual electoral registration, our concern is whether sufficient finance is being provided. The explanatory notes that accompany the Bill indicate that:
“A total of £108m was allocated at the Spending Review in 2010…This includes £85m resource funding in 2014/15 to fund registration officers to make contact with each potential elector individually” who hopes to be on the register.
The petitioners of individual electoral registration and those who work in the field have concerns. I cite in particular the comments of the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, Mr John Turner. I know there has been discussion between the Government and the association, which I welcome. However, Mr Turner made the following important point in his written evidence to the Select Committee:
“It is our view that the successful implementation of the new system will depend on the relevant funding going directly”—
I emphasise the word “directly”—
“to electoral services.”
This is critical. He continues:
“Any funding needs to continue post 2015 and should not simply be seen as one-off capital funding.”
Our concern is essentially in line with his comments. We are worried, for example, that there will be insufficient resources to provide electoral registration officers with the necessary new guidance and training, particularly in respect of data management. We recognise that it will be necessary to enhance the skills and knowledge base of officers, and we are concerned that money is not provided for that. In other words, a comprehensive training re-vamp is needed, along with a comprehensive skills analysis, in order to inform the appropriate provision of training and support for electoral administrators.
In addition, there is also the fear, as I said, that the money allocated by the Government will not eventually get through to where it is needed. We have tabled this amendment because, ideally, we would like these resources to be ring-fenced, so that the whole transition period and the implementation of a new system is properly financed with money that is guaranteed. The only way that electoral registration officers can plan effectively and do what is necessary is if they know exactly how much money is coming through.
One additional problem that will be faced, which has been discussed a lot in the course of the debate, is the differential involved in how various areas will find carrying out this process.
We already know how different that can be, even within parts of an area, but certainly between different areas. We have to be confident that this will be provided for.
That is a good point, because one of our concerns about the Government’s approach to this legislation is that it will not be a comprehensive one right across the country. We feel that where there is a perceived need for more resources to be allocated, those resources will not, in fact, be allocated to where they are required. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that.
That leads me to a specific question I have about the devolved institutions—the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I made inquiries the other day with the Welsh Assembly Government as to whether or not any agreement had been reached with central Government about an appropriate allocation of resources to the Assembly, because local government is devolved. I was concerned to be told that no such agreement had been reached with the Cabinet Office. So people in Wales are not sure exactly what sum will be made available and whether or not the Welsh Assembly Government will have the ability to do what they believe is necessary within the confines of Wales. So I would welcome any comments the Minister wishes to make about Wales and Scotland.
In the second half of my comments, I wish to refer more generally to schedule 5, which relates to the transition to the new system. The amendments that we tabled last Monday have already been discussed, but we have concerns about this schedule in particular. It is a vital part of the Bill, and we are very concerned about postal votes and the number of electors who will be on the register when the next boundary review takes place in December 2015.
It is not my intention to repeat the arguments I used a week ago, but I would just like to make a couple of points, the first of which relates to postal votes. Strong representations on postal votes have been made by a number of organisations. I particularly wish to cite the most recent joint circular given to Members of Parliament by Mencap, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Age Concern, Scope and Sense. Those organisations say:
“We believe that an appropriate balance must be struck between safeguarding individual registration against electoral fraud and ensuring accessibility. We remain concerned about the risks involved in the arrangements currently in place for dealing with postal votes during the transition to IER. Postal votes are disproportionately used by disabled and older voters.”
That is a very important point and, despite their listening exercise, the Government have not truly taken on board the points made by all those organisations which have united to speak with one voice to set out their concerns in moderate and reasonable ways.
Those organisations have supported our amendments 18 and 19, saying that our approach
“would give those people wishing to use postal votes time to register under the new system before the next election.”
Our concern is that many of these postal voters will not be able to vote at the next election. The circular goes on to say that our approach
“would have allowed for disabled and older people, who disproportionately make use of postal votes, time to familiarise themselves with the new system and ensure that they remain eligible for postal voting at the next election.”
We strongly endorse those points.
May I set this out in a genuine sense, through an anecdote? My mother is 86 years of age and she has a postal vote. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] She will very pleased. She has had her postal vote for many years and, as far as she was concerned, when she filled in the form to have a postal vote it was for the rest of her life. I hope that she will get through the Government’s data-matching exercise, as otherwise she will be asked to reapply for a postal vote at the ripe old age of 86—it will be a fairly detailed application, too. It is unreasonable to put such a burden on elderly people and the Government should, at the very least, ensure that the carry-over is the same as it is for other voters.
We are not making a partisan point. A number of people have said to me that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, owed his success in the recent mayoral election to postal votes. My point is simply that it makes sense for all of us who are concerned about democracy, participation and access for elderly and disabled people to the electoral system that they should have the same facility for postal and proxy votes as everybody else. They should not be singled out.
My second point about schedule 5 concerns the reference to the carry-over for the boundary review of 2015, or rather to the lack of a carry-over. In the transition to IER, there is concern that the new register will be at its most vulnerable at the very start. That concern has been expressed by a number of experts and academics and reflects the experience in Northern Ireland. Concern has also been expressed by the all-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. It has been suggested that the lack of carry-over represents what the Electoral Commission fears most of all.
It is most unfortunate that the Government have introduced IER before the second set of pilots, which we discussed in Committee the other day. It would have been far better if the results of those pilots had emerged and confirmed that, as we hoped, there would not be a problem. We could then all have proceeded happily. Many people have said that it is quite likely, as was the case with the first tranche of pilots, that that second tranche will show that there is a problem with IER, particularly at the start of the new system. We are concerned about that.
To illustrate once again that we are not taking a partisan approach, let me refer to a number of other organisations and academics who have made representations. In particular, I want to point out the evidence given to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee by one of the most distinguished academics in this area, Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, senior lecturer in social policy at the university of Liverpool and executive director of Democratic Audit. He said:
“If we do see a large number of people drop off the registers, even if in all likelihood they are not going to vote, that will have a profound implication for the redrawing of boundaries under the new rules that have just gone through. If there is going to be a political effect, that is where we could see it very, very significantly, because if the kind of groups we expect to drop off the register are the ones that we start to see drop off the register, it really could have profound effects for the redrawing of constituency boundaries next time round.”
He is not grinding any political axe; that is an objective evaluation of where we are.
Dr Wilks-Heeg referred to particular groups who were at risk of not being included in the electoral register, particularly as the new approach starts. Those groups include young people, disabled people, people from black and ethnic minorities, people in public and private rented accommodation and people who, for one reason or another to do with their lifestyle, are very mobile. If we look at the United Kingdom as a whole, we find that the greatest concentration of such people can probably be found in central London. It has already been suggested that, under the legislation passed last year, London will be under-represented. If the Bill is passed unamended, they will be further under- represented.
Having quoted an academic, I will now quote John Turner, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators—again, someone with no political axe to grind and someone with whom, commendably, the Government have been working. In his evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, he said:
“At the risk of provoking any of you, can I also make a point about the December 2015 register? If you have that sort of drop and your friends at the Boundary Commission then have to do the next boundary review on the next system, it is going to make another major difference to the way in which parliamentary boundaries are drawn, given that the 2015 register, with these potential drops, will be that which is used to settle the new constituency boundaries for 2020.”
There is another entirely objective view. It is notable—commendable—that, having received that sort of evidence, skilfully and objectively presented, the Committee reached a powerful conclusion regarding constituency boundaries. All hon. Members know, but I underline the fact that the Committee, although chaired by a Labour Member, is a cross-party body. It concluded:
“For the next parliamentary constituency boundary reviews to be fair and representative, electoral registers across the country need to be at least as complete—and as consistently complete—as they are now. The Government needs to ensure that its proposals will achieve this end.
There is a risk that the electoral registers in December 2015 will be particularly varied in their levels of completeness: this matters because they will be used under current legislation as the basis for the next boundary review. We recommend using instead the registers as they stood on or before general election day in May 2015.”
That is a perfectly reasonable position expressed by the Select Committee. I hope that Government, given that they have rightly been congratulated on making a number of moves—perhaps even concessions—on key areas, will consider doing so again, even at this late stage.
The strongest thing to happen now in the interests of democracy would be cross-party agreement on this important measure to modify and modernise our electoral registration system. That requires political consensus. Throughout this process, we have been more than happy to engage in dialogue with the Parliamentary Secretary. He has listened to our concerns and there has been movement on some of them, but until now, on the crucial issue of the potential impact on boundaries, the Government have decided not to listen. We are concerned not only that a number of people will not be able to vote, but that they will not be able to exercise their democratic rights in a host of different ways.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this provision is the last remainder of what was essentially a gerrymandering Bill and that not removing it will affect the boundaries? Can he see any reason why Liberal Democrats in particular should vote for it, given that it would be one of those rare occasions when turkeys vote for Christmas?
My hon. Friend’s concern for the Liberal Democrats is touching, although I cannot say that I share it. To answer his first question frankly, yes, at the start of the legislative process, strong words were used, not least by me, because we were worried by the overtly and crudely partisan nature of the Bill of that time. But—and it is an important “but”—the Government modified their position. I give them credit for doing so. As my hon. Friend implies, if they have made concessions in a host of areas already, why not go the whole hog and let us have a proper consensual approach?
I listened intently to what the Minister said in the debate on our amendments last Monday. He did not produce any convincing arguments why the timetable that we established in legislation when we were in power could not be followed, and why we need to move hastily towards the Bill. If the Government do not take heed of what we are saying from the Opposition Front Bench, let them at least take note of what many people outside the House have said—the Electoral Commission, academics and the cross-party Select Committee. Many people drawn from a range of different organisations have made the same point: this is probably the most important change to our electoral system since the advent of universal suffrage. It is far too important to be the victim of crude partisanship. We want a consensual approach that will unite all democrats.
Finally, the Bill is important in terms of people’s ability to decide whether to cast their votes or not, but it is important in other respects as well. This underlines the civic responsibility point—people need to be on the electoral register for reasons other than to vote. One of the most important reasons is that those who are eligible for jury service are drawn from the electoral register. When we talk about the completeness of the register, we are not talking only about our democratic system and the voting system, important though it is. We are talking also about the criminal justice system and its credibility.
We all saw the terrible riots which scarred English cities last summer. That is all the more reason to ensure that all groups in our society are effectively represented on our juries. The last thing we want is an electoral register which contains a disproportionately large number of white middle-class people who are in turn represented on the juries that are selected. That is no way to enhance the credibility of our criminal justice system.
It is important to recognise that electoral registers are used to establish people’s creditworthiness. Whether they may have a mortgage is quite often defined by their presence on the electoral register. Also, it is seldom mentioned that the police make great use of the electoral register. It is important for the development of our society, as well as for our democracy. In a modern democracy, being on the electoral register is a civic duty and a civic responsibility. That is why we want accuracy in our electoral register. Although we all want accuracy, it is important to recognise that standing alongside it there must be completeness as well. Those are the twins that should go together in the legislation.
Despite the debates that we have had, our concern is that the Government place far too much emphasis on accuracy at the expense of completeness. We want to see the two going together. That is important not just when we reach a fully fledged individual electoral registration system, but in the transition system. Schedule 5 is a vital part of the legislation. It takes us through the transition and ensures that when individual registration is introduced it has the support of the people of this country, including potential and actual electors. I hope that the Committee will consider the schedule carefully and give careful consideration to the amendments for which we argued passionately last Monday—
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order,
The Chair put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Amendment proposed: 20, page 27, line 44, leave out ‘second’ and insert ‘third’.—(Mr David.)