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Clause 6 — Power to amend or abolish the annual canvass

Bills Presented — Public Debt Management Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:52 pm on 25th June 2012.

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Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 24, page 5, line 27, at end insert—

‘(2A) If the Minister considers it appropriate to proceed with the making of an order under subsection (2), the Minister must lay before Parliament—

(a) a draft of the order, and

(b) an explanatory document explaining the proposals.

(2B) Sections 15 to 19 of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 (choosing between negative, affirmative and super-affirmative parliamentary procedure) are to apply in relation to an explanatory document and draft order laid under subsection (2) but as if references to section 14 of that Act were references to subsection (2).’.

Amendment 23, page 5, leave out lines 28 and 29.

Amendment 25, page 5, line 32, after ‘section’, insert

‘with the exception of an order made under subsection (2)’.

Amendment 27, in clause 7, page 6, line 7, leave out ‘give a copy of the report to the Minister’ and insert

‘lay a copy of the report before Parliament’.

Amendment 28, page 6, line 9, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

‘(4) The report must be laid before Parliament no sooner than three months beginning with the day on which the Commission is consulted, and no later than five months beginning with that same day.’.

Amendment 29, in clause 8, page 6, line 28, at end insert—

‘(3A) The Minister may only make a pilot scheme once written approval from the Electoral Commission has been received.

(3B) Any such written approval must be published by the Minister.’.

Amendment 26, in clause 10, page 7, line 34, at end insert

‘, with the exception of an order made under section 6(2)’.

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

Clause 6 and the amendments to it deal with the possibility of amending or abolishing the annual canvass, and with the arrangements for the accountability relating to any such decision.

It is worth going through, once again, the principles of the annual canvass, which were, to some extent, rehearsed last week in relation to clause 4 when we talked of the importance of proactive methods for encouraging registration, and of the exercise by individuals of the business of re-registering their presence on the electoral register. More often than not, the business of registering to vote is seen as an exercise in democratic participation, and as a right, enshrined in law and hard won over the centuries by many who made huge sacrifices to secure it, but the House should remember that it is also a duty and a responsibility.

We live in a society in which the relationship between the individual and the state is governed by democracy. We have, of course, government by consent, but implied in the concept of democracy and government by consent is the view that vital to the process is majority participation in the most important decision of all—who should govern our nation. That is why Labour Members were so appalled by the Government’s initial proposal that citizens should have the right to opt out of the democratic process, and it is why in turn it is right that there should be a civic penalty for refusing to acknowledge the responsibilities inherent within the concept of government by consent.

Registering to vote, therefore, is an important part of the democratic culture of our country, and I repeat what I said last week: we should always bear in mind the importance of perspective when considering the process of electoral registration. If we consider it important that citizens of this country see registration as an important right and an important duty, we should ensure that our approach to registration encourages the regular exercise of such a duty and the active involvement of the citizen in the process by way of the regular renewal of that right. That is why we have tabled amendment 22, which, along with amendment 23, would remove the Minister’s right to abolish the annual canvass.

At this point it is interesting to consider what the Minister said about the arrangements for 2014 before he conceded that an annual canvass was required. He said:

“Effectively, what we are going to do is a modified canvass, which focuses the resources exactly where you need to work harder. We will write to everybody individually who is on the 2013 register and ask them to register individually. Where we have any households where there is nobody on the register, they will receive the household form in the usual way. They will send it back. You will then approach each of the people on that form individually to register. Where electoral registration offices have information that people have moved, so for example from the day-to-day, already-used council tax records, housing benefit records, they will write to people directly to see who is at the household and then chase them up.”

It is clear that the Minister was planning what he refers to as a “modified canvass” in 2014 based on the 2013 register—compiled, of course, from a full annual canvass in October of the latter year.

The Minister needs to answer these key questions. Is what I have just mentioned the kind of arrangement that he envisages for the future under clause 6(1) and which he plans to introduce via the provisions in clause 6? If that is the case, the House would appreciate some detail about when he thinks the arrangement might be introduced. Are we talking about 2015 or 2016? Does he have plans to mix and match the approaches so that there are modified canvasses, with a full canvass perhaps every five years? The Committee would like to know before making its mind up about clause 6, given that it gives the Minister the right to make those changes.

If the Minister is considering a mixed approach, it stands to reason that he would be conceding the Opposition argument that the abolition of the annual canvass was likely to lead to a long-term drop-off in the numbers registered. Moreover, it is also likely to lead to distortions in the accuracy of the register. An annual canvass is a good way of spot-checking that the assumed stability of a given majority on any register is based on sound continuing evidence.

Finally, I draw attention to the views of the Electoral Commission. It is urging the Minister to confirm the commencement date for the new individual registration provisions, and it is recommending that the date be 1 July 2014. That begs a few questions. If we commence individual registration on 1 July 2014 with the modified canvass arrangements outlined by the Minister, which I cited earlier, when will the full canvass, which most Members have assumed will take place, commence? Are we looking at February that year? If not, when exactly are we going to move into the transition phase? What period will elapse before the Government move to the first phase of individual electoral registration in transition and the use of the carry-over provisions? All those questions are worthy of answers and underline how crucial it is for the Government to get on with the job of publishing an implementation plan.

The Opposition believe that commencement should take place only when the Electoral Commission indicates that completeness is at such a level that we can feel secure about participation at the ballot box. It is therefore doubly important that we get that information on the Floor of the House sooner rather than later. To go back to the main point of the discussion, are we going to get a full canvass, as we understand it under the old system, at all in 2014, or is the Minister intending to proceed only on the basis of a modified canvass? I look forward to his response on those points.

The annual canvass has an important role to play in our democracy, and Labour Members believe that it is crucial that registration should be brought regularly to the attention of the people. However, we are not the only ones who believe that. Take the comments made by the Deputy Prime Minister himself, alongside Simon Hughes, in “Liberal Democrat Voice” in November 2010, when they said to Lib Dem members:

“In the light of today’s news that 3.5 million voters are missing from the electoral register, and in view of the forthcoming boundary changes based on the number of voters on the electoral roll as it stands next month, a timely e-mail reminder today to Liberal Democrat members from Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes:

I’m sure you will agree that we as Liberal Democrats need to play our part in helping to ensure that everybody who should have the right to vote is in a position to exercise that right come next May.”

They went on to say:

“Once you have made sure your form is safely completed please take a moment to check family and friends have filled out theirs too. Getting half a dozen of your friends signed up to vote could make the difference in a tight election next May.

Making democracy work is something all politicians should be committed to, and we are proud to encourage Liberal Democrats to play our part.”

It is therefore absolutely apparent that Liberal Democrat Members do place faith in the annual canvass and see that it has an important role to play in maximising completeness of the register.

Amendments 22 and 23 lie at the heart of Labour’s belief that we need a proactive approach to citizenship and a belt-and-braces approach to electoral registration. We believe, too, that there is no need for major concern over the potential cost and efficiency of the annual canvass. It has been mooted by the Minister that the cost of an annual canvass, if it is based on a form being filled in by the head of the household followed by invitations to register being sent to every household member listed on every form, would be in the region of £50 million. However, as we move away from paper-based approaches to this activity, it is entirely feasible for the annual check on registration to take place online. I am confident that Members believe that, in the long term, electoral registration processes should be moved online once it is secure and safe to do so. In those circumstances, a full annual canvass of the electoral register would not be an expensive or inefficient process to undertake. Just as at the moment individuals get regular reminders online about various important matters such as the need to renew insurance or TV licences, then equally it should be possible to make provision for annual online reminders to renew registration of the right to vote. That, surely, is where we all want to get to in order to ensure that the resources provided for registration can be concentrated on the hard to reach. The key point is that the possibility of cheap and efficient online processes would make the annual canvass easier to maintain in terms of cost and administration.

The amendments relate to clauses 7, 8 and 10, as well as clause 6, and are all designed to strengthen the role of Parliament in scrutinising any proposal by the Minister to amend the annual canvass. For the reasons I have outlined, we believe that it is important that any decisions taken are exposed to the strongest possible scrutiny by Parliament. Moreover, we believe that the Minister should be able to proceed with pilot schemes related to changes in canvassing arrangements only with the written approval of the Electoral Commission, hence amendment 29 to clause 8. This is a matter of major concern to the Committee. Labour Members expect the Minister to make a full and considered response to the points made in the debate.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion 5:00 pm, 25th June 2012

I concur with many of the sentiments expressed by Angela Smith, but as regards her quoting of the Deputy Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes, I think that the aspirations they alluded to are shared by everybody in the Committee.

As the Minister and others will be aware from the Liberal Democrat submission to the consultation on this issue, we believe that the annual canvass is important and that it should continue. I want to ask the Minister about his reasoning for the discussions that have taken place so far and what tests or standards will have to be passed before the annual canvass is abolished. I understand the point in the explanatory notes that in years to come the annual canvass may no longer be needed because of the online opportunities for registration, to which the hon. Lady alluded. I am a bit more of a sceptic about that because I represent a rural area where the internet is not universally available. It will also be difficult to deem the register perfect at any point as it is constantly changing. What test would have to be passed to deem the annual canvass no longer useful?

The Bill gives electoral registration officers a new duty to maintain the all-important accuracy and completeness, which I welcome. How will they fulfil that duty without a canvass? In other words, how will the Minister ensure that that duty on electoral registration officers is tested?

The Bill provides for the Electoral Commission to be consulted if the annual canvass is to be abolished. That is clear. However, I understand that the Electoral Commission has concerns about why it would not be consulted if the annual canvass were to be reinstated. The Government have said that it is conceivable that that might have to be undertaken in a short time frame. However, the Electoral Commission has said that it has often been required to respond to Cabinet Office consultations in a limited time frame and that it does not believe that the requirement to consult would delay the process unduly. More importantly, it is essential that there is a mechanism for external scrutiny of any step that is taken in a short time frame.

On Second Reading, I expressed concerns about the abolition of the canvass. I noticed my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House wincing slightly when I made that point. He said that there is an obligation, if it is necessary, to reinstate the canvass. That reassured me, but I am concerned about the mechanisms by which such a reinstatement would have the consent of the Electoral Commission. I also have questions about why the annual canvass may need to be abolished.

I am heartened by what Ministers have said about the data-matching pilots and by the aspiration for online voting. However, we have a long way to go and, in the interim, I believe that we still need the annual canvass.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

The annual canvass has been, and for the moment still is, the principal method by which we keep the electoral register up to date and accurate, in so far as it is up to date and accurate. I do not think that anyone believes that the current situation is satisfactory, but what we want is improvement, not reduction.

My constituency is rather strange in nature, not simply because it has elected me in eight successive elections, but because it has a huge electorate. It numbered some 87,000 people at the last general election and I understand from the registration officer that the total is now 94,000 electors. That gives me 26,000 more electors than the Deputy Prime Minister and, remarkably, 26,000 more than the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper.

Equally different is the turnover of electors, which in my constituency is phenomenal. It has always been high, partly because of the large number of students and young people in the area. People arrive and get a job, and then they decide that they would be better off doing the same job in Lincoln, Scunthorpe or Bolton, usually because the cost of renting or buying a house would be much lower.

We have a massive turnover all the time, and the Government’s proposed housing benefit changes, which will be introduced at the same time as proposals in the Bill, will also lead to an increased movement of people—they will certainly move out of the area, but I am not sure whether they will come in—so the coalition’s social cleansing policies will have an effect on the need for the canvass. The Prime Minister’s latest essay—he wants to knock off housing benefit given to anyone under 25—is also likely to increase turnover in my area.

It is worth reporting that, last year, for the whole of Camden, the annual canvass added 27,000 electors, but also deducted 27,000 electors, which reflects the massive turnover in both my constituency and the Hampstead and Kilburn constituency. It also indicates that the annual canvass is important from the point of view not just of numbers, but of accuracy—it is the principal means by which people who are no longer entitled to vote disappear off the register. The Government and some outside the House who are fanatical about their proposals seem to ignore that.

The annual canvass is the bedrock of the current system—it is not peripheral; it is at the heart of it. Any other means that the Government propose to improve electoral registration, both so that the 6 million people who are entitled to be on the register get on it, and so that the register is accurate, must be introduced only to augment the annual canvass. The canvass still does an important task, and is likely—this is my opinion, and no more—to carry it out more effectively than the proposals.

It seems totally improper to suggest that the annual canvass could disappear before we know the overall effects of all the new changes. Even if the Opposition have tabled no amendment to that effect in Committee, we should perhaps table one on Report. I would hope all hon. Members agree that an annual canvass must be carried out if the numbers come down as a result of the changes, and that we cannot accept a reduction in the number of people on the registers.

Government Members have once or twice quoted judges who have said that registration is currently like something we might find in a banana republic. I suspect that most banana republics would like to give a Minister, without parliamentary approval, the right to end an annual canvass. Nothing should be left to the Minister’s discretion. If anything, the decision should come straight to the House from the Electoral Commission.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

Any hon. Member who has played the role of election observer in different parts of the world will know that electoral observation organisations apply themselves to one key thing: ensuring the accuracy of the electoral register. As my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson said, the canvass is an integral part of the electoral system, not only to ensure that there is no fraud—cases in certain communities have been highlighted—but to ensure that the register is as accurate and up to date as possible. As an ex-local councillor and an MP, I think it would give the person elected at a local council or other election confidence if they knew that the majority of electors were registered to vote. I accept that the annual canvass is more difficult to undertake in certain parts of the country than in others, but it will concentrate people’s minds on ensuring that they are on the electoral register.

On leaving it to the individual, having had many years’ experience as a local councillor, a Member of Parliament and an election agent, I know that modern life is busy and that people ignore forms when they arrive. It might come as a big surprise to many hon. Members to learn that most of our electors do not sit around waiting for their electoral registration form; they do not see it as important. Likewise, it is not top of people’s list of things to do when they move house, along with the electricity and everything else.

In the communities described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras, there is a massive turnover in the electorate, but even in rural constituencies such as mine there are areas of huge turnover, owing to demographics and the type of housing. In parts of Stanley, in my constituency, which has many private sector landlords, the housing turnover is remarkable—it can change two or three times a year. I do not have his general problem with massive turnovers, but we have pockets of high turnover, and ensuring that they are on the electoral register is not the first thing people do when they move from one social landlord to another.

That leads to another issue. Unfortunately, some of those private sector tenants are in the poorest parts of my constituency, and are the people who need representation the most. They need to ensure that they cast their democratic vote at the parish, town or, in the case of Durham, county council election, and for their MP at a general election. It is important that we hear their voices. I am not sure whether this is the Conservative party’s thinking, but I fear that the areas most disadvantaged by there not being an annual canvass will be among the poorest in the country. That will have a knock-on effect on the redrawing of constituency boundaries and the nonsense we will have to go through every five years because of this coalition Government’s proposals. It is just as important, however, that the redrawing of local county, district and town council boundaries provides an adequate indication of the local electorate.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent 5:15 pm, 25th June 2012

I support my hon. Friend’s emphasis on the annual canvass. I used to work as agent for my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson, and I well remember the fluid population and our efforts to support voting, electoral registration and the annual canvass—efficient though the canvass, organised by Camden council, was. Does he agree that it is important to work with the private sector, particularly in these fast-changing times, to support data matching, particularly in respect of records that could support electoral registration? Such data matching could only boost electoral registration and get more people involved in the democratic process.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

I agree with my hon. Friend, although data matching has its limitations, given the turnover in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras and in pockets of my constituency. We cannot leave it entirely to data matching, which is a useful tool but it will not get over the key problem of ensuring that the local register is as accurate as possible.

On the use of the private sector, let me provide the example of the new Durham county council. Before the formation of the unitary county council three years ago, seven district councils were responsible for electoral registration in County Durham. I have to say that their performance was patchy—some were good and some were bad. One benefit of the new county council taking responsibility for the register is a uniformity of approach. The county council put in extra effort when it was formed and contracted a company to do a full canvass to ensure that the register was as accurate as possible. That process—credit to the county council for doing it—put an extra 12,000 people on to the electoral register. I must thank the council, as that affected the size and the distributions when the parliamentary constituency boundaries and the new county council wards were redrawn. With 12,000 added through an intensive canvass, it shows what can be done in a rural county such as County Durham. I am not sure what would happen if that were not done in a constituency such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras, for example. As I say, this has proved to be useful for the process.

The county council went down the road of ensuring as full a canvass as possible for another reason. I and others had noticed that entire streets or parts of them were missing altogether from the register. Was it that people living there suddenly decided in sequential order that they were not going to register? I do not think so. It was the consequence of errors made in the data inputting, so the canvass helped to identify the streets affected. I was aware of the problem and so were councils, and I believe that the gaps were raised by all political parties. The annual canvass is important for areas such as mine that have elections only every four years. Political parties out canvassing can sometimes spot mistakes and draw them to the attention of the electoral returning officer. Having an annual canvass becomes more important where elections are not annual, when these problems are likely to be less visible to the various political parties that are standing.

An annual canvass is important, too, for care homes and residential homes, some of which, alas, have quite a large turnover, with residents coming in and out of respite care and, unfortunately, with people dying during the year. If we are not careful, the register will get badly out of shape in respect of people living in residential and sheltered accommodation and in care homes. It might be said that it affects only 30 or 40 people at a time in each care home, but if we add that up across County Durham, it means a lot of individuals. I am not criticising any individuals running care homes and similar organisations, but when a resident unfortunately dies it is not the top priority to write to the electoral registration officer to say that someone has passed on and that they are going to re-register the new individual living there. This is another example, therefore, of where an annual canvass helps. In my experience, the residential care manager or owner can be quite helpful in ensuring that the information provided is as accurate as possible. It is obviously not nice for any political party to send direct mail, as we all do, to homes where people are deceased, so an annual canvass could be an effective way of helping to ensure that that is prevented.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras Friend touched on the issue of students. My constituency does not contain a large student population, but the city of Durham certainly does, and any Member whose constituency contains a large number of students will know that there is quite a high turnover. I am thinking not just of the halls of residence that exist in parts of Newcastle that I know very well, and in parts of Durham, but of the fact that students move around and may not stay in the same house for two or three years. Members of that large population—who, I hasten to add, are using local services—are not reflected in any of the data, not only in terms of voting but in terms of electoral boundaries. They are nowhere to be seen. I think that the annual canvass has helped in that regard. Durham county council undertook an exercise to ensure that its register was as up to date as possible, and found that the number of voters in the city of Durham had increased by nearly 4,500. I suspect that most of them were students.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned welfare benefit changes. People with an extra bedroom are to lose their right to a proportion of their housing benefit, which I expect to increase the amount of movement, certainly in my constituency. I do not know what will happen in parts of London, where people are on a kind of merry-go-round, moving constantly from one type of social housing to another. That increase in movement will make the annual canvass more important. In parts of my constituency, such as Stanley and Chester-le-Street, there is a large concentration of private sector landlords. Once the benefit changes come into effect, people will move, because they will no longer be able to afford to live in their homes. How can we reflect that in the register?

What I am going to say now may sound strange, but it is a fact. In the north-east of England, the legacy of those infamous old days of the poll tax remains. People used not to register because they thought that that would be a way of getting out of paying the tax. In parts of my constituency that thinking remains, and people still refer to council tax as “the poll tax” . That did a lot of damage to people’s awareness of the civic duty to register, which I have always found to be very strong among older members of the population. They tend always to send in the forms and to vote, but that poll tax legacy is still there. I suspect that the only way of tackling it is to knock on people’s doors and ask them who lives in their houses.

There is another issue, which does not affect my constituency. I was very saddened by the way in which the last Government reacted to the Daily Mail agenda. Mine was one of the few constituencies that experimented with all-postal ballots, which were very successful. According to the Electoral Commission’s report, there was, overall, a very small amount of fraud, and the fraud that did occur was concentrated mainly in certain types of community in such places as Birmingham and Bradford. In one county council by-election in my constituency there was a 67% turnout under the postal ballot system. Sadly, however, the last Government and the Electoral Commission took fright following headlines that focused—rightly—on fraud that had taken place in some inner-city, mainly Asian, communities.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Opposition Whip (Commons), Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. The key is finding a way of increasing turnout. If turnout increases, fraud becomes far more difficult, because it is not so easy to influence the result. Low turnouts, and low registration, make fraud easier.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I was about to make the following observation: if we want to clamp down on fraud, we must ensure that the register is as accurate as possible. The only way of doing that is by knocking on doors and actually talking to people in the communities concerned. If we have a more accurate register, that will lead to less electoral fraud.

I do not understand why this measure has been proposed. I will support any step that helps to ensure the register is up to date, such as data matching, but the annual canvass should be our fall-back position. Whatever system we use—telephone calls, data matching or even door knocking —will we never achieve 100% elector registration, but the canvass will help us spot homes that are being used for electoral fraud.

We sometimes find that there are children as young as five or six on the electoral register, because parents have misunderstood the form and entered their names on it. [Interruption.] Well, I am sure they do vote in some places, but knocking on doors and conducting the annual canvass is a way of preventing that. I therefore do not understand why the annual canvass is not seen as an exercise that should be welcomed. From speaking to the individuals who carry it out, it appears to be difficult to do, however. Indeed, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras it must at times be near-impossible to keep track, and to gain access to some of the properties.

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

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to maintain the annual canvass because although a local authority might know who the council tax payers are within a household, there might also be lodgers living there? If the annual canvass is abolished, such people may well not get on to the electoral register.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point.

I do not think I have a single high-rise block in my constituency—the highest buildings are about four storeys—but there are such blocks in the part of Newcastle I used to represent, and the turnover of residents was often very high. Finding out who pays the council tax gives an idea of who is living in any given household, however. We must also recognise that modern-day families and lives can be very complicated.

We all know from our experiences of canvassing for our political parties that even getting into some tower blocks can be difficult. One advantage councils have is that they can gain access, so they can get inside and talk to people, but that can be done only if we have an annual canvass.

Some people say we should use the telephone for canvassing, but in certain parts of my constituency telephone ownership is still quite low. Ownership of mobile phones is sometimes higher than use of static lines with numbers that people can declare in their local telephone directory. That presents a problem, too.

I want to end where I began. We in this country pride ourselves on having the mother of Parliaments and a long democratic tradition, and any Member who has performed election monitoring duties around the world will know that one of the key points we always emphasise is the importance of the accuracy of the register. Any step that leads to our register not being as accurate as possible will damage both our electoral processes locally and the international reputation of our country as being somewhere where we ensure elections are free and fair and everyone has their democratic right to vote.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 5:30 pm, 25th June 2012

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Primarolo, and to return to what is a very important Bill. We have reached clause 6, and it is important for Members who have not had the opportunity to study the Bill in as much detail as they might like to realise that the clause is qualified by those that follow, so they need to be read together.

Angela Smith has tabled a series of amendments this afternoon, none of which has an explanatory memorandum. Back-Bench Members—for example, Dr Offord—could manage an explanatory memorandum but apparently, the official Opposition could not. That is a great shame, given what the Procedure Committee has asked us to do, but never mind—let us address the issues.

A casual observer of this debate would believe that the Government are proceeding willy-nilly with the abolition of the annual canvass and that the Labour party has a principled opposition to abolition, whereas in fact, neither of those propositions is correct. First, we have made it abundantly clear that we do not intend to get rid of the annual canvass, certainly in the immediate future. In fact, only one Government have abolished the annual canvass: the last Labour Government, who abolished it in 2006 for Northern Ireland. So, we are talking about the canvass for Great Britain only, not for the whole of the United Kingdom, because Labour did not feel that all these pressing arguments in favour of the annual canvass applied when they peremptorily removed it in Northern Ireland’s case. We must therefore listen to their arguments in that context.

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

Of course I will give way to the hon. Gentleman—who voted for the removal of the annual canvass.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am not taking any lessons from the Liberal Democrats, who, frankly, promised a lot of things and then voted against them in this place. Come on—the Minister knows why that was done in Northern Ireland: it was a question of the practicalities of doing the canvass. To draw an analogy between that and today’s proposal is absolute nonsense.

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

I am afraid that it is simply incorrect to say that the argument was about anything other than the introduction of individual electoral registration. That was the argument and the reason why the previous Government acted as they did, and they made no attempt to bring the provision back.

Setting aside that argument, we have also had assertions that Ministers intend to remove, by decree, the annual canvass. However, anyone who actually reads the legislation can see clearly that the procedure as set out first requires a report of the Electoral Commission—uniquely—and affirmative resolution. Therefore, it is Parliament, not

Ministers, who would decide whether it was appropriate to take such action, an important safeguard that the House really should not ignore.

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

The hon. Lady made the assertion, I think, that Ministers would take such action by decree; so she can now justify that.

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

There is no need for us to justify anything in this regard. Through our amendment, we are saying that we believe that the super-affirmative and regulatory reform procedures should be deployed if there is any plan to abolish the annual canvass. In the end, there is a provision in clause 6 to abolish the annual canvass. All we are asking for is the strongest possible scrutiny of any such decision—a reasonable thing for any Opposition to ask for—and that any report made by the Electoral Commission be laid before Parliament and not just sent to the Minister.

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

I wish that that was what the hon. Lady had put forward in her amendments, but she goes rather further than that. On that specific issue, a super-affirmative procedure is set out in the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006—it is rarely used in this jurisdiction—and the reason for it is to make sure that proper consultation takes place on a proposal, so that Parliament is in the best possible position to make up its mind on an issue. That is set out clearly in the Bill, because before any order can be brought forward there has to be a report from the Electoral Commission. So a form of super-affirmative procedure is set out in this proposal. It allows Parliament—both Houses of Parliament—to take a decision, having had the evidence placed before it.

My hon. Friend Mr Williams made an important point in supporting what we are proposing when he said that the annual canvass serves a valuable purpose. I believe that too, as do the Government. He accepts that there may be circumstances in which we would want to change, but he wants to know what hurdle the House and the Government would wish there to be. I have to say to him clearly that the only argument for abolishing the annual canvass—this is unlike what happened in Northern Ireland under the previous Government, where it was peremptorily done—is because we believe, with evidence to back this up from the Electoral Commission and from others, that other arrangements, which have been trialled through pilot schemes, are more effective, or certainly no less effective, than the annual canvass in ensuring both the accuracy and the completeness of the register. That is the Government’s intention, as it has been throughout this legislation. We are aiming to ensure both completeness and accuracy. We often do not hear about the second point from the Opposition, although I accept that Mr Jones, who has a lot of experience in this field, rightly mentioned it. So often we hear a lot about completeness from the Labour Front Benchers, but little about accuracy.

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

The Minister is yet to answer the key points we raised in tabling these amendments and speaking to them. First, if the Government are so confident of their arrangements for making a change to individual registration, why do they not publish the implementation plan and put it in the Bill? Secondly, given previous comments made by the Deputy Leader of the House and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper, it would be good to hear exactly what the Government mean by “annual canvass”. Labour Members take that to mean the usual, traditional approach, which involves writing to every household and then, under individual registration, invitations to register on the basis of the members of any household whose details are returned to the electoral registration officer. What exactly will the annual canvass in 2014 consist of?

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

I am not exactly clear what the hon. Lady even means by her first question. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I do not know what an “implementation plan” is in the context of primary legislation. The Bill is clear about what we are proposing. The implementation of that is not a matter that is normally set out in primary legislation—the intent and the outcome is what is there. She mentions the canvass, and I would have thought that it was abundantly clear what we mean: there is the basis of the canvass, with which we are all familiar, but it will have additional purposes and additional mechanisms under what we are proposing—in order to improve its accuracy and its completeness—which we have already set out. So additional data matching will take place—the sort of thing that Nick Smith was talking about. It will inform the canvass and ensure that the right questions are asked to the right people in the right places, to make sure that as many people as possible who are entitled to vote are put on the register.

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

The Minister is being generous with his time. May I therefore press the point? Will the annual canvass promised in 2014, on which the general election in 2015 will be based with the carry-over provisions that have been made available, be carried out in the traditional way understood by every Member of this House?

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 5:45 pm, 25th June 2012

Yes. The canvass that would have been carried out in 2013, which we have moved to early 2014, will be done in the traditional way. The hon. Lady knows that we are taking advice from the various political parties and others about the exact date that will be most effective. That will be a full household canvass and during 2014, after the European elections, we will move on to the other components of the proposals so that we have the use of all available material and can, as I have repeatedly said, make the register as complete and accurate as possible.

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

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman made a late but very compelling argument for the equalisation of parliamentary constituencies, and I am grateful to him for that. I invite his participation.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

I seem to attract snotty remarks from those on the Government Front Bench. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I have been snotted at by better men than him.

If the Government are so confident that the new methods of putting all this together, which they described in their evidence to the House of Lords as providing a more efficient means of obtaining information rather than a more effective one, and believe that the system will result in registers exceeding the numbers presently arrived at by the household canvass, will they guarantee not to proceed until they have the registers up to the level that the previous household canvass produced?

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

I repeat again to the right hon. Gentleman that we are not getting rid of the household canvass and it is very difficult to answer his question, which is based on the premise that we are removing it, when we are not doing so. Incidentally, were the circumstances to occur in which this part of the Bill was used to remove the duty for an annual canvass—as I have said, that would happen only if we, the Electoral Commission and both Houses of Parliament were satisfied that other mechanisms were in place that would be as effective or more effective than the annual canvass—the situation would continue to be monitored. If, despite the advice of the Electoral Commission and the best intentions of Ministers and this House, it unexpectedly proved that the proportion of the population that registered was substantially reduced, there is provision within the Bill to reinstate the canvass. Unfortunately, amendment 23, tabled by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, would remove that power. Frank Dobson asked a specific question and I can give him an absolute assurance that the power to reinstate the canvas is in the Bill, should it be needed.

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

I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, of course, and I hope that I do so charmingly.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

The hon. Gentleman has said that there is a power to reinstate the canvass, but is there an obligation to reinstate it if the new system is not working?

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

I do not think that Parliament is normally required to do anything, and this will be a power for Parliament, not for Ministers. We would be treading a strange constitutional path if this Parliament were to require any future Parliament to make any enactment. The power is there to reinstate the canvass without the need for further primary legislation in order to enable the then Government, whoever they are, to react promptly and effectively if necessary. I honestly do not believe that will apply because there are no circumstances in which the annual canvass would be removed without its being absolutely clear, from all the information to hand, that it would not have a detrimental effect on the completeness and the effectiveness of the register.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

The effect of a more efficient method may be different in different areas. In my more rural static communities, the result of removing the annual canvass might not be a greater drop in accuracy than in my right hon. Friend’s Holborn and St Pancras constituency. The Liberal Democrats seem to vote through whatever this coalition Government want, but what would the Minister say if a future Government received an indication that registration dropped in constituencies held by their opponents? There would be no onus on the Government of the day or on Parliament to insist on the annual canvass being reinstated in a certain constituency.

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

I repeat: this is a power for Parliament and I expect Parliament to use it sensibly because I believe—contrary to all the evidence—that most Members of Parliament want our democratic system to work as effectively as possible. Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right that there are differences between constituencies. The electorate in my constituency is almost the same as the electorate in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras, but demographically the two are very different and a comparison between them would be almost meaningless in those terms. The right mechanism in his constituency might be completely wrong for mine and there may be better and more effective measures we can deploy—as long as we are clear that our intention is to have in every constituency a register that is as complete and as accurate as we can manage.

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

The hon. Gentleman was not here for the early part of our discussion of the amendments, but I happily give way to him.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so graciously. Earlier, he said, “We would not move forward unless we—no, not just we: the Electoral Commission and both Houses—were satisfied.” Let us imagine that on one side there was the Government and both Houses—one of them, this place, in an unholy alliance and the other stuffed with Liberal and Conservative peers—and on the other side the Electoral Commission saying, “No, things are not right.” Who would win?

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

I do not remember any Government of any complexion introducing proposals on electoral law on which there was not a measure of agreement with the Electoral Commission, but the whole purpose of the Bill is to ensure that the first word—not the last word—lies with the Electoral Commission. The commission has the duty in the first instance to assess any proposal and to do so in the light of the evidence from pilot schemes run in the interim. It is inconceivable to me that a Minister would put forward a proposal using the mechanism in the Bill that did not have the full approval of the Electoral Commission. A future Government could decide to write their own primary legislation and abolish the canvass overnight—that is exactly what the Labour Government the hon. Gentleman supported did—but we do not intend to do that, because we think there is a better mechanism, based on evidence and on the views of the Electoral Commission, and that is what we have proposed.

Let me go though the amendments in the group. Amendment 22 would remove the possibility of the Government proceeding with the abolition or the amendment of the annual canvass. We have no immediate intention of doing either, but I believe that that is a valuable power to be available to both Houses, provided there are safeguards and it is used on the advice of the Electoral Commission. It would be a great shame to be unable even to consider following the example set in Northern Ireland if that is the best way to achieve completeness and accuracy of the register.

Amendment 24 deals with the mechanism within Parliament. As I said, the mechanism proposed is unique because of the requirement to have the advice of the Electoral Commission before starting. I hope that the House is satisfied that the two-stage process—a report by the Electoral Commission followed by the normal affirmative procedure in both Houses—provides sufficient scrutiny and safeguards.

Amendment 23 would remove the ability to reinstate the canvass, which seems a little perverse, given the comments made by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras. I hope that the House will reject it.

Under clause 6(5), an order to amend or abolish the annual canvass would include provision to create further secondary legislation. I think that makes sense. If amendment 25 were made, it would prevent subsequent orders, so everything would have to be in primary legislation. I do not believe we need to use such an unwieldy method and that regulation and subordinate legislation are better. On reflection, I suspect the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge will agree with me that that is not the most sensible way of setting about our business.

Clause 7 sets out the requirement, when a proposal is made, for a report by the Electoral Commission containing an assessment of the extent to which registration officers are currently able to ascertain those unregistered people who are entitled to be registered and those who are registered but are not entitled to be so; the extent to which proposals in the order meet that objective; and the merits of alternative methods of meeting it. If amendment 27 were made, that report, instead of going to the relevant Minister, would go direct to Parliament. That does not necessarily make sense, because if such a proposal were to meet with a negative response from the Electoral Commission, it would not proceed to Parliament—Ministers would not entertain the suggestion. If the report were positive, however, it would be presented to Parliament and would necessarily form part of the process. In any case, I would expect the Electoral Commission to publish such a report, irrespective of whether it was to be presented to Ministers or to Parliament; the report would appear on the website and be available for general view and consideration. The amendment is therefore unnecessary.

Amendment 28 would set arbitrary limits on the time the Electoral Commission had to produce a report. It is unnecessary to place such a restraint on the commission.

Amendment 29 relates to the important matter of the commission’s role in relation to schemes to pilot proposed changes to the annual canvass. If we are to have a successful system, the pilots are extremely important. Without them, proper evaluation of schemes proposed by registration officers for their areas will be impossible. This covers the point raised by the hon. Member for North Durham about, in effect, horses for courses. The instigation comes from the registration officer for the area, it is agreed by the Minister, and Parliament must agree it by the affirmative resolution procedure. To insert yet another hurdle into the process is unnecessary because, in practice, the Electoral Commission would play a part in the design of any pilot scheme and would be responsible for evaluating it in due course. At the end of the day it is Ministers who are responsible to the House for schemes that are introduced.

Lastly, on amendment 26, removing the requirement for such an order to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure or, indeed, any parliamentary procedure is a mistake, and I urge Members not to proceed with it.

The amendments do not add to what is a very thorough evaluation process. I repeat that our sole intent is to have a complete and accurate register so far as that can be achieved. We should use every possible means to do that. It would be quite wrong to lose arbitrarily the usefulness of the annual canvass, but we should not seek to preserve that in perpetuity if there are better ways of doing the same thing more efficiently and more effectively. That is why the procedure with all its safeguards is in the Bill. I urge the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge to withdraw the amendments.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 6:00 pm, 25th June 2012

In drawing the debate to a close, I begin by pointing out that amendment 22 deletes the proposal to give the Minister the power to abolish the annual canvass. Amendment 23 is consequential on amendment 22. That should be clear to everybody. It is therefore duplicitous of the Minister to suggest—

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

I withdraw that remark. It is misleading of the Minister to suggest that amendment 23 takes away the power of Parliament—

Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Conservative, Ilford North

Order. Will the hon. Lady withdraw that comment, please?

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

I withdraw the comment. It is unfair of the Minister to suggest that the Opposition are in any way trying to deny Parliament the power to reinstate an annual canvass, when in fact we are trying, through amendment 22, to ensure that the Minister is not given the power to abolish the annual canvass in the first place.

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

Mr Scott, I should have welcomed you to the Chair. I apologise for not having done so.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. We would have understood her amendments more clearly had she produced an explanatory memorandum. Amendment 23 does abolish the power to reinstate. I accept entirely her intention that it should be read along with amendment 22.

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

There has been very little by way of explanation from the Minister in his response to the amendments that would give us any confidence in the potential alternatives to the annual canvass that have been repeatedly mentioned from the Government Benches. We have had references to alternatives that may be developed in the future, which may at some point in the future give the House the confidence to agree to a ministerial proposal to abolish the annual canvass. It would have helped the Committee in its deliberations if the Minister had outlined clearly what some of those alternatives might be.

As I indicated in my initial comments on the amendments, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper suggested previously in oral evidence that modified versions of the annual canvass could be available in the future. It would have helped the Committee if we had had more detail from the Minister about what some of those alternatives might be. It is clear that Ministers are thinking through some of these proposals. Nothing in what we have heard today gives us the confidence to believe that the part of clause 6 that gives the Minister the right to abolish the annual canvass is anything other than a threat to the democratic process in this country.

The Committee is being asked to agree something completely in the dark. In his response, the Minister indicated that in early 2014 there would be a full annual canvass, and I thank him for that. He also made it clear that it would be carried out in time for the European elections, which take place in June that year, as we understand it. The local elections in 2014 are likely to take place at the same time. He then indicated that the new individual registration process would commence shortly afterwards.

May I take it that the Electoral Commission’s recommendation is that the commencement date for the new IR process should be 1 July 2014? We have had no response to that, but from what the Minister said, there is clearly a plan to go ahead with implementation of IR in the late summer of 2014. However, no information has been laid before the Committee today and no commitment has been given that the data-matching pilots which are part of the legislation will be completed and evaluated by the Electoral Commission before commencement of the new provisions.

It is reckless to commit to a new system of electoral registration and to commit to commencement in 2014 when we have no certainty that the pilot schemes designed to test whether the new processes work will have been completed. It is the Opposition’s view that the new scheme for individual registration should be introduced only when the Electoral Commission is satisfied that it will guarantee a high level of completeness and accuracy. Nothing that we heard today gives us confidence that that will be the case.

My right hon. Friend Frank Dobson and my hon. Friend Mr Jones made good contributions in which they described in detail the complexity of people’s lives and the impact that an annual canvass may have in reducing levels of completeness precisely because of those complexities. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham referred in particular to the problem of registering students.

Last week we had a debate about student registration. My hon. Friend Paul Blomfield pointed out that there are 31,800 students living in his constituency alone. Without the annual canvass it is entirely possible, for all the reasons outlined in the debate, that registration in a constituency such as Sheffield Central could be substantially reduced. Given that the majority in Sheffield Central stands at only 165, it is obvious that before we make any radical changes to our electoral registration processes we should ensure that we have guarantees that any new system works properly, is based on sound evidence and is guaranteed and given the stamp of approval by the Electoral Commission.

We have heard a lot today about how the new system will work, but we have not heard the detail. We have had superficial reassurances that it will work, but we have heard nothing of the detail. We have had no significant reassurance on whether new systems will eventually be so robust that we will be able to abolish an annual canvass.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I wanted to check this information before I responded to the hon. Lady, but the assessment of the data-matching pilots to test the confirmation process by the Government and the Electoral Commission will be done by June 2013, well in time for us to have a clear picture before we commence the IER process.

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

I thank the Minister for that, but can he confirm that all the data-matching pilots and necessary testing will be complete before the Government move ahead with the new scheme?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The only one that we have to have tested before we move ahead is that to do with confirmation. The pilots that we will be doing, subject to the approval of Parliament, to see whether some of the data matching can help us to identify people not on the register concern things that we would want to know if we proposed to get rid of the canvass. As we do not propose to do that, we do not need to have that information before we move ahead with IER. We will know the results of the confirmation testing pilots by June 2013.

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

The key point is that the new register, and the one used for the boundary review in 2015, will not be as complete as it should be, because those people carried over for the general election will not be carried over for December 2015. I therefore do not take a great deal of reassurance from that.

We have had a lengthy debate. The Opposition will not seek to press the amendment to a vote. We believe that the House of Lords will engage in a lengthy and detailed debate on the issues that we have raised today, and on that basis we beg to seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 7 and 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.