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Schedule 5 — Transitional provision to do with Part 1

Part of Bills Presented — Public Debt Management Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 25th June 2012.

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Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 9:30 pm, 25th June 2012

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.