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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.)