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I beg to move amendment 12, page 4, line 32, at end insert—
‘(1A) A local authority must include a statement about the importance of electoral registration in its annual communication with residents relating to the payment of council tax.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 13, page 4, line 32, at end insert—
‘(1B) There will be a duty on local authorities to ensure that individuals are invited to register when those individuals move into the area of the local authority and register for council tax purposes.’.
Amendment 16, page 5, line 15, at end insert—
‘(9) Regulations under subsection (2) must require registration officers to include on electoral registration forms a clear explanation that the electoral register is used for other civic purposes.
(10) There should also be a clear explanation that the electoral register is used for assessing an individual’s credit worthiness and ability to sustain mortgage repayments.’.
Amendment 34, page 5, line 15, at end insert—
‘(9) Regulations under subsection (2) must require registration officers to include on invitations given under subsection (1)—
(a) a clear statement to the effect that the edited electoral register is available for general sale and is used by organisations for commercial activities, as well as for other civic purposes; and
(b) clear instructions on how to opt out of the edited electoral register.’.
The amendment is intended to ensure that it is clear to people who are invited to apply for registration that the edited register may be sold, and to ensure that people know how to opt out of the edited register.
Amendment 17, page 5, line 16, at end add—
‘(3) Government departments with responsibility for welfare payments, pensions, driving licences, revenue collection, National Insurance and passport applications must inform all individuals who apply for these benefits or services of their possible entitlement to join the electoral register.’.
This debate focuses on the arrangements established by clause 5. Clause 5 lays out in principle the arrangements for issuing invitations to register to unregistered persons known to electoral registration officers, via either an annual canvass or any other means. It is important that arrangements are made for the pursuit of such individuals, and the Opposition are pleased that the clause now includes provisions for a civil penalty—there was initially no suggestion of a civil penalty for failing to register to vote. The Government considered opt-outs from the duty to register, but we are pleased that they have changed their view and acknowledge that they have listened.
We have said that the annual canvass should remain as the cornerstone of this country’s approach to electoral registration, but we do not oppose the clause. It gives the green light to the establishment of regulations for hard-to-reach individuals, or for individuals who need to register outside an annual canvass because, for example, they are moving from one borough to another.
My hon. Friend Mr Jones mentioned some of the pressures experienced by people when they move property. They might be starting a new job as well as moving home, or their children might be starting at a new school. They will need to register with doctors and dentists, and with new telephone companies and energy suppliers. It is said that the stress of moving house is second only to the stress of changing job or losing a family member—it certainly ranks highly in that respect—and many people move home each day. The likelihood is that they will not have registering to vote at their new address high on their list of priorities. Hon. Members probably rate registration as a high priority when they move property, but that is because we are politicians—we do not reflect the general population.
I know from my experience of canvassing door to door in election campaigns that people often fail to register their vote. One can knock on someone’s door and establish that they would indeed support one’s political party, but then find that they are not the people registered as living at the address. Inevitably, they have moved from elsewhere, and then of course one must go through the rigmarole of advising them that if they want to register their right to vote, they must do so at their old address.
The Opposition feel that that situation can be improved. In many instances, people move but do not immediately want to re-register their right to vote. I was one such individual when I first moved to Sheffield way back in 1994. I stayed with family at that time, because I was busy trying to get my foot in the door and find work. I did not buy my first home in Sheffield until six or seven months after moving, which meant I was not on the electoral register for the city for a significant period. I was a member of a political party, but registering the right to vote was not my highest priority at that time—getting a wage and somewhere to live were far more important.
The system can be improved. The Opposition believe that every possible means must be used to encourage the completeness of the electoral register. To that extent, we believe that the regulations sanctioned by clause 5 should be supplemented with various new obligations which, taken together, will help to maximise opportunities for a higher level of completeness of the electoral register.
Amendment 12 would make it compulsory for councils to include a statement about the importance of registration in council tax demands. Council tax demands are the one occasion every year when a local authority communicates with most residents. The detail of the communication is not always welcomed by those who receive it—not many welcome the council tax demand that pops through the letter box every April. Most people look at the final figure and at the monthly payments, and make a derogatory statement about the quality of the services provided and the money they pay annually. Interestingly, when people are asked what they get for their council tax, many say, “All I get is my bins emptied.” I suspect that many Members have heard that time and again. On one level, that proves that when people get the council tax communication they do not read the details about how the income raised is spent.
Were the amendment accepted as a potentially valuable addition to making the register more complete, I would recommend that the statement about council tax payers’ right to register in a borough be placed in a prominent part of the communication and in bold print. That would make it clear to people that they have overlooked this matter and should register their right in order to have a say over how the income they hand over to the council is spent. It would involve no extra cost to local authorities, because the communication goes out every year anyway, and would have the advantage of reminding voters of the relationship between their choice of elected representatives and the spending priorities and choices of those representatives. At the very least, then, the amendment would strengthen the relationship between voters and their local authorities. If used effectively in council tax communications, it could also help to improve levels of voter registration.
Amendment 13 would give councils a duty to invite people to register when it contacts them mid-year to set up council tax payments, when an individual or individuals move into a new residence. From our experience of election campaigning, we all know that in real life there is always a degree of churn in electoral registration, because people have a habit of moving properties. Even in the most stable and enduring of communities, however, where there is little movement—my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham said that his area was particularly stable, and so is mine—people move. They move for work, family and social reasons; because they want to downsize or upsize; or to be in a particular school catchment area. People move for all sorts of reasons.
It is important to ensure, therefore, that under regulations arising from clause 5 electoral registration officers bear a responsibility for chasing these changes and, in so doing, play an important part in ensuring the greater accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. Furthermore, as with amendment 12, the coupling of the invitation to register with a council tax communication will help to remind citizens of the relationship between the right to vote and the decisions of elected representatives. It is important constantly to bear in mind the relationship between the right to vote and have a say, and the payment of tax. It goes to the heart of our democracy.
It is also important to remember that a duty to chase the registration of people who have moved property will enable electoral registration officers to ensure that a citizen’s registration is not duplicated in more than one local authority area, in cases where the individual has simply moved from one house to another. It should be easy for the Government to accept amendment 13, because it is not controversial, would involve no extra cost and would be a valuable addition to the armoury of the registration process.
Amendment 16 would require electoral registration officers to include on all registration forms key information designed to raise awareness of the importance of registration. This refers to the link between the register and the availability of mortgage and credit facilities, as well as jury service. The latter reflects the earlier point made during our debate on clause 6. Voter registration is not only a right but a duty, and jury service is one of the key duties of any citizen. It underpins our commitment to democracy and the rule of law, and our commitment to justice and the right of individuals to be tried by their peers.
Most Members, if not all, will know how much access to credit and mortgage facilities relates to the applicant’s ability to verify their identity. We all know about the difficulties arising if an applicant for a mortgage or loan cannot prove where they live. It makes things very difficult. There is also the business of having to produce the last three months’ utility bills and wage slips, and all the rest of it. Most of us will experience that at some point because, when one has moved house but not long lived in the new property, finance houses demand such extra information before providing access to a loan. It is a good thing in our society that financiers—the banks and building societies—run those rigorous identity checks before making available access to finance.
Callcredit, the UK’s second largest consumer credit reference agency, has pointed out that if the register is depleted, credit reference agencies’ ability to provide services to companies, local authorities and Government Departments in order to guard against fraud and identity theft will be significantly hampered. It is important to emphasise this point. One of my first pieces of casework as an MP involved a fraud case and the theft of the identity of someone who sadly had passed away. Their identity was stolen via utility bills from their property. Access to finance was almost secured, but was stopped at the very last minute following checks run by the postal service on delivery of the loan agreement. It is important to ensure, therefore, that the register is as complete as possible in order to minimise fraud and allow people access to finance.
The amendment will not place a burden on local authorities or electoral registration officers. It is already the practice of some local authorities to refer to the importance of registration in securing credit and mortgage facilities.
I would ensure it through the amendment. Local authorities should be under an obligation to draw local residents’ attention to the fact that access to finance and mortgages might depend on whether they are on the electoral register. Some local authorities already do that. Southwark council makes it clear on its website, on the page referring to the annual canvass under the heading, “What do I need to do?”, that
“If you are not on the register you may find it difficult obtaining credit for a loan or mortgage”.
That is a simple, straightforward sentence making it clear that if someone does not register to vote as a resident of the borough, they might be denied access to finance.
To show that I am not being partial, I shall mention a Conservative borough. Basingstoke and Deane council makes it clear on its website that access to finance will depend on registering to vote. Not every local authority does that, but it is a straightforward, lost-cost option. Local authorities would simply have to make it clear when they send out the forms for the annual canvass that registering is important not just for the right to vote but for accessing finance. That can also be put on local authority websites. As far as we are concerned, there is no excuse for local authorities not making that point clear to its residents. It is a simple reference on a form or on a website page; it is a simple request, and I am sure that the Government will want to accede to it. That applies to all our amendments in the group, as not one of them involves extra cost or any significant extra burden on the work of local authorities or electoral registration officers.
Amendment 17 is designed to extend the opportunities for getting through to those hard-to-reach individuals for individual registration purposes. The Electoral Reform Society strongly believes that when Government Departments such as the Inland Revenue and those responsible for welfare payments, pension payments, driving licences, national insurance and passport applications have contact with the people who apply for those things, it would be very useful if those agencies were required to make a registration form available. That is particularly relevant to 17 and 18-year-olds who apply for their first driving licence, for instance. It is typically the younger generations who do not think that seriously about registering to vote. They have far more interesting things on their minds for the most part. As things stand, the responsibility for their registration lies with their parents or the head of the household.
There is a real risk under the new system that those young people will not get themselves registered. We know from the low level of participation of young people in elections that there is a high risk of that happening. It is therefore entirely sensible for Departments and public sector agencies such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Passport Service to have a duty or responsibility to make young people, or anybody applying for a driving licence or a passport, aware of the importance of electoral registration.
Of course, but the system we have now and the one we want to put in place would provide safeguards on that score. Anyone applying for a passport has to prove nationality before being granted one. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there should be sufficient safeguards in any registration system to ensure that only British nationals with the right to vote are allowed to go on to the electoral register. Indeed, that lies behind many of the issues that we are discussing today.
Many other legislatures across the world use such a method of ensuring that the registration of eligible citizens is maximised—the United States, for example. Once again, Opposition Members can see no reason why the Government would want to resist amendment 17 in any way, as it is perfectly sensible. It is a practical, common-sense way of extending awareness of registration and of the duties and responsibilities that go with being an adult citizen in Great Britain. It provides a perfectly sensible and practical way forward for maximising awareness of those rights and responsibilities. I look forward to hearing the Government’s response, particularly to hearing that they are ready to accept all our amendments in the group.
It is a privilege to follow Angela Smith. Her amendments specify the steps that local authorities should pursue to register more people. Amendment 16 specifically reminds applicants of their civic duties. This raises the key issue of what information should be included in the communication, and she listed some reasonable mechanisms and steps that should be taken. I guess the substance of the debate will be whether these provisions need to be written directly into the Bill or whether, as clause 5 specifies, they can be made by regulation. That will be the focus of my brief contribution.
I believe it is good that clause 5 allows the Electoral Commission to standardise forms, which is my reading of that particular clause and it applies to some of the issues the hon. Lady mentioned. We heard on Second Reading, as we usually do, from Chris Ruane, who talked about the excellent experience in the county of Denbighshire. He mentioned the good work that had been undertaken there and the documents that had been created, which led to impressive rates of registration.
I would like to hear more from the Government about the onus they intend to place on the Electoral Commission—in preference to writing provisions directly into the Bill—in respect of the substance of those forms and the prominence in them of various messages, not least the civic duty and the penalty. The Bill as it stands says that the Electoral Commission should provide that information, but will the Minister ensure that it must provide it? We need additional clarity about the penalty and the implications if the application is not complied with. Will he confirm whether the Electoral Commission will be mandated to put information about the civil penalty on the forms? If we are to have good practice, will the usability of those forms be tested? Critically, if we are to rely on regulation rather than place these matters directly on the face of the Bill, when will those regulations be laid out? Critically, too, what detail will they specify? In short, what is the Electoral Commission’s role in these matters; what is its role in disseminating good practice; and what is its role in insisting on that good practice? The hon. Lady cited some good examples of good practice undertaken by local authorities from both political parties—I wish she had said from all political parties—but the reality is that that is not universal. I am interested—I suspect the hon. Lady and the Minister are, too—in ensuring that best practice is pursued.
I agree with hon. Gentleman, who makes a good point. I recall that Derwentside district council used to be responsible for registration in the Derwentside part of my constituency. It was clear from looking at the register that there were gaps of entire streets or parts of streets. That showed me that not a great deal of attention was being paid by the registration officer to information that could be seen just by flicking through the register.
I concur with the hon. Gentleman. I think we have nothing to be scared about in the Government’s legislation or in respect of the good practice that some local authorities are exhibiting. I am concerned that we spread good practice, and I believe clause 5 provides us with the mechanism to do that by requiring returning officers in the first instance to send the invitations to register and then by providing a secondary power to make regulations about the substance of the initial applications. Further to that, the regulations
“may confer functions on the Electoral Commission”.
I hope that the Minister can flesh out the role he believes the Electoral Commission should play in these matters.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Weir.
Before I deal with this important clause and set of amendments, let me say a few words about the role of those who have served on my Select Committee, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I believe that it did an exemplary job in examining not just clause 5 but all the other clauses, and I fear that had it not done so, and had the Government not engaged with it as they did, this Committee stage would have been much more fraught. It is because the Select Committee managed to clear away a lot of the undergrowth—a lot of the detail—during its close discussions with the Government that the real, strong political issues that should be debated on the Floor of the House are being so debated. Not only Mr Turner, who is present, but other members of the Select Committee have participated in the first two days of this Committee stage, and will probably participate in the third.
I was surprised to see how many amendments the Government had accepted. I had thought that we had done a reasonable job, but that co-operation has taken the Select Committee to a better place in the way in which we should, responsibly, seek to amend Bills. There can be nothing more important than what we have tried to do in respect of the right to vote, the registration of the vote, and the invitation to vote. It may sound very dry and technical, but the truth is that those issues are fundamental to our democracy. If we get this wrong, all the high-falutin’ phraseology about our freedoms and liberties, and our right to create our own Governments and dispose of them, will be rendered useless.
We need only read the history books, such as those that deal with the Jim Crow laws in the United States, to know that, even when there is a nominal right to vote, if registration is not got right—if, indeed, it is deliberately twisted so that it is difficult for people to vote—everyone is denied their right to democracy. As Lyndon Johnson is quoted as saying in a famous book by Robert Caro, which I would recommend to anyone, if people are given the right to vote they are given access to the whole panoply of the power of Government, and can then exercise their ability to change law by whatever means they wish to employ: through their political parties, and through other organisations. We have seen how vital it is for registration to be exercised in a responsible and comprehensive way in countries such as South Africa, which, in recent years, has done a tremendous job in fulfilling that requirement.
However, we also need to look a little closer to home. When we talk about registration, I always think of the old Shire hall in the middle of my city of Nottingham. Three blocks can be pulled out of the steps of the hall, and that is where the old tripod gallows used to be. It was used at the time of the Pentrich rebellion, only six generations ago, to execute people who were demanding the right to vote—demanding the right, in our own country, to exercise the mandate that would decide who should be the Government.
I go to those stratospheric lengths only to demonstrate that we are debating an extremely serious matter. We are not merely discussing the dry technicalities that electoral registration officers, who are almost always extremely capable and conscientious public servants, put into law and into our democratic process. We are discussing a fundamental issue.
As well as engaging with Government and producing a great many changes and evolutions in the original proposals, my Committee decided to table a couple of probing amendments that would keep the Government on their mettle, but would not be pressed to a vote. I hope that the Minister will approach our amendments in that spirit. The first is amendment 34, to which is appended an explanatory statement enabling any Member who should wander innocently into the Chamber and wonder what we are doing to understand exactly what the debate is about. The amendment does what it says on the tin. As the explanatory statement says:
“The amendment is intended to ensure that it is clear to people who are invited to apply for registration that the edited register may be sold, and to ensure that people know how to opt out of the edited register.”
That is crystal clear. I hope that we do not all suffer the wrath of the Chair of the Procedure Committee, but take his edict seriously, and begin to attach explanatory statements to all our amendments so that everyone can understand the business a little more readily.
The edited register is available for general sale, and is used by organisations for the purpose of commercial activities such as marketing, as well as for campaigning purposes by all of us here who are members of political parties. It is also used for purposes such as the tracing of missing persons. I am sure that Members who are in the Chamber have received a number of representations from certain bodies about that. Electors who do not want their details to appear on the edited electoral register need to opt out.
When my Committee conducted its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, it recommended the abolition of the edited electoral register. We did not feel that it was appropriate for personal details gathered by the Government for electoral purposes to be sold to commercial organisations. Sadly, on this occasion the Government did not accept our recommendation, and that is why I am pressing the Minister tonight. I want to understand this thinking and to establish whether he wishes to think about the issue further, either now or at a later stage. The Government did, however, say in their response that they were
“aware of and considering the finely balanced arguments on the future of the edited electoral register.”
My Committee feels that while the edited version of the register continues, it is important for people who are being invited to register to realise that it may be sold—I am sure that many do not know that—and that it could be used for commercial purposes. It is also important for them to know exactly how they can opt out of the edited register.
I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to respond to the points that I have made, and to tell us whether he has had any further thoughts of the sort that he outlined in his initial response to my Committee.
May I also say, Mr Weir, what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship?
I want to record my thanks to Mr Allen and his Committee for the work they have done. They have improved the Bill substantially, which demonstrates the power of Select Committees when it comes to pre-legislative scrutiny. I think that we should see more of that, because it would not only give Bills a smoother passage in this place, but allow external agencies to ensure that their voices were heard. I also think that the Minister should be commended for the spirit in which he has accepted the Committee’s report.
Clause 5 deals with the maintenance of the register, a topic we touched on earlier in the context of ensuring it is as accurate and up to date as possible. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said, this goes to the heart of our democracy. People must have the democratic right to be on the register. My hon. Friend referred to Lyndon Johnson, and I, too, have just finished reading the latest version of Robert Caro’s fourth book on Johnson, which I recommend as essential reading to all Members. It is important to ensure that citizens have the right to vote for their local representative, whether at parish, district or county council level or in parliamentary or European elections.
Clause 5 covers regulations governing electoral registration officers. It is important to give clear steers, either in the Bill—as suggested by my Front-Bench colleagues —or in regulations. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on that. As Mr Williams said, there are onuses on EROs to do certain things, but there must be consistency in this regard, as well as the will to do those things. The Bill states:
“A registration officer in Great Britain must give a person an invitation to apply for registration in a register maintained by the officer if—
(a) the officer is aware of the person’s name and address,
(b) the person is not registered in the register, and
(c) the officer has reason to believe that the person may be entitled to be registered in the register.”
Under current legislation, there are certain onuses on EROs. The Representation of the People Act 1983 was amended by the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which added a new section, 9A, setting out the steps that must be taken by EROs to identify people eligible for registration as electors. The steps include:
“(a) sending more than once to any address the form to be used for the canvass under section 10 below;
(b) making on one or more occasions house to house inquiries under subsection (5) of that section;
(c) making contact by such other means as the registration officer thinks appropriate with persons who do not have an entry in a register;
(d) inspecting any records held by any person which he is permitted to inspect under or by virtue of any enactment or rule of law;
(e) providing training to persons under his direction or control in connection with the carrying out of the duty.”
It may be claimed that many of those steps are already in place, but I come back to a point made earlier: the key is how they are implemented by local EROs.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has done a lot of good work in highlighting low registration across constituencies in the UK, and what he says is right, as I know from my own experience in County Durham. We could see obvious mistakes on the register, such as large gaps in streets—numbers 12 to 15 might be entirely missing, for example. A member of the council staff should have said, “Wait a minute; it can’t just be a matter of chance that all the residents in that sequence of addresses haven’t registered. A mistake must have been made.” Another example involved a sheltered accommodation property. It was run by a local councillor, but it was not included on the register at all. The new county council has made a determined effort to address such mistakes through a canvass, and we added about 12,000 people to the electoral register. That was a result of Durham county council looking at council tax records and other resources and of door-to-door canvassing, which will still be key.
My constituency has quite a stable population, but, as I said earlier, in certain parts of it—including parts of Stanley and Chester-le-Street—and especially in areas with a lot of private landlord accommodation, the names on the register change fairly often. The Electoral Commission report says:
“Incompleteness and inaccuracies on the registers are strongly associated with population movement.”
That comes as no great surprise. My right hon. Friend Frank Dobson talked earlier about the transitory nature of much of his constituency’s population, and any Member representing a constituency with a large student population could make the same point.
The Electoral Commission report also makes it clear that there is a decline in registration in the most densely populated urban areas. It states that that decline may be
“as much as 10–15 percentage points over the lifetime of the registers.”
That, too, will come as no great surprise to anyone who has been involved in local government or in elections.
All EROs must make the accuracy of the register a top priority, and we must take steps to ensure that measures that are already in place are put into effect. We will wait and see whether that is pursued through the Bill or through regulations. If these amendments are not agreed to, there must be regulations that deal with this matter.
My experience in local councils tells me that we must do more than just rely on local EROs. Councillors must have the political will to take these steps, as must the chief officer. It must be seen as a key priority, for the reasons my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North outlined.
As amendment 12, tabled by my Front-Bench colleagues, makes clear, the new council tax bill that is sent out every year presents a golden opportunity. Durham county council is running a trial that enables people to tick a box if they want to apply a postal vote. Again, the good councils are doing that, and I think the Minister will agree that good councils will use such measures. This aim is to ensure that councils that are not mandated to use that process will in fact do so, as permitted under existing law.
It never ceases to amaze me that when new housing estates are built, people are not automatically registered. I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge said earlier—that when people move into a new house, there are more important things to do than making sure they are on the electoral register. They have to change their children’s school, sort out their electricity and bank details, and so on. However, moving home provides a good opportunity to address this issue. About 10 years ago I moved into a new house, and, as I discovered on doing so, people soon receive a demand from the local council. That provides an opportunity to ensure that people are registered, whether by letter or e-mail. Indeed, increasingly, people are registering to pay council tax and other bills by e-mail and other such services. That would ensure that a resident on a new housing estate is registered.
The situation with new council housing and social housing residents—again, it varies from authority to authority—also never fails to amaze me. When residents move in, local councils know who they are, and that information should automatically be used to get them on to the register. In my constituency, two organisations that are separate from the council—Derwentside Homes and Cestria Community Housing—now run all previous council stock. I am sure that they would be happy to co-operate in ensuring that people are on the register when they move in. As the Minister and others have said, there is a lot of information there—it is a question of the will to deal with it.
Another issue, which I mentioned earlier, is people in residential care. Again, local councils have the power to deal with this. Many such people make a contribution to their fees. However, to judge by the experience of residential care homes and sheltered accommodation in my constituency, unfortunately, the register is often outdated. Because of the nature of such places, there is quite a regular turnover—if I may tactfully put it that way. However, social services and care providers could work with the electoral registration officer to ensure that people are registered. Moreover, there is nothing more upsetting than people getting letters addressed to recently deceased relatives. Such a provision would be a way of taking off the register those who are no longer entitled to be on it because, unfortunately, they are no longer with us.
The point was also made, in the context of amendment 16, about the broader civic duty to vote. It is difficult to convince people that there is such a duty. Some of my older female constituents remember fighting for the vote and make sure they are registered and vote every time. It is not the same with younger voters; sadly, the struggles that a lot of women went through to get the vote are perhaps not recognised by younger generations. Trying to promote that civic notion would be very difficult.
As I said earlier, people in my constituency and others thought that a way to avoid paying the old poll tax was to get themselves off the register. I have to say that most constituents who come to see me never use the phrase “council tax”; they still call it the poll tax.
The system that we have had up to now has worked for good councils, but unless the Bill or regulations force councils to take such action, I doubt whether anything will actually happen.
Another issue is the training of electoral registration officers. In my experience, some of them are very good and see it as their role to ensure that the register is as up to date as possible, and take pride in doing so. Others—and other councils—see it as something of an afterthought. That issue needs to be looked at.
Amendment 17 is a common-sense provision that examines some of the other ways in which central Government, who interact with many of our constituents, can help in the electoral registration process. I am big fan of Directgov, through which, two weeks ago, I renewed my driving licence. It is a simple way to pay car tax or to renew a driving licence. The one thing that people have to provide is an address, and, as part of the process the website could ask whether people are registered at that address. When I moved house a couple of years ago, I had to go through that process to change my address. The Government could easily make use of that opportunity, and the same point applies with passports, as was mentioned earlier. It is about making sure that the mechanisms exist to capture such information. Directgov would be an excellent way to ensure that people are registered. Perhaps the Minister can say whether it is currently possible to register through Directgov. Once a number has been generated, it links together a person’s interactions with Government. That would be a simple way to address this issue.
Another issue is the contents of the form and the invitation to vote. We need to think a little bit outside the box in deciding how we are going to deal with this issue. In 11 years as a Member of Parliament, I have noted, as most Members have, that the way in which people interact with MPs has changed. The days of getting large postbags of handwritten letters are coming to an end. We receive an increasing number of e-mails, including, surprisingly, from older people. Councils have the e-mail addresses of those people who register for council tax through that method. Perhaps that could be used as another way of encouraging people to register. We do not necessarily have to use the old-fashioned, traditional form through the door. Here, however, we return to my earlier point about the will of individual councils and officers to adapt to some of these ideas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge also talked about using the electoral register to reduce fraud. That would make a big difference to the ability of local registration officers to spot individuals who are registering illegally, or those who are using the existing register for identity fraud purposes. That is an increasing problem: as recent figures show, such fraud runs into hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Making provision in respect of the actual need to have an accurate register lets people know that this is important in reducing fraud.
I am not sure that many people know that, as has been mentioned, being on the electoral register helps them to establish credit worthiness. Those who move addresses often may find that difficult to get, but at least this is a way of giving information that agencies can use. Most people think that being on the register is just about voting. We need to work out how we get the message across that it is important to register for that purpose, too.
In addition, the use of verification procedures when goods are being ordered online is becoming increasingly obvious. The use of postcode and address details is one of the important aspects of the secure procedure when ensuring that the right people get the right goods when ordering online.
My hon. Friend rightly says that people are increasingly using the internet for things such as ordering goods online. Again, I doubt whether many young people know that being on the electoral register is an important source for those types of thing, so that is another good reason why the amendment is important. The terminology is perhaps a bit loose in terms of civic responsibility—I am not sure that many people see it from that point of view—but we could set out a practical reason for young people to register.
I mentioned driving licences earlier, and new drivers provide an obvious opportunity in this regard. I am not suggesting that everyone applies for their licence when they are 17, but new licences are an obvious way to engage young people and ensure that they are registered to vote and know the importance of that. We should not miss that opportunity.
The penalty has been mentioned, and I welcome the work of the Committee and the Government in ensuring that the penalty is set out. Again, the test will be whether or not it provides an incentive for people to register. My hon. Friend John Mann has asked a question on this, and it was answered by Mr Streeter on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. His answer stated that, based on the data that were available in March 2010, only
“67 prosecutions were initiated in relation to a failure to provide information in response to the…annual canvass.”—[Hansard, 26 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 166.]
The Bill’s penalty for not registering will not be meaningful and effective unless it is enacted and enforced. However, it is important to include it in the Bill as a sanction; again, it can be publicised to ensure that people know that there is a potential sanction for not registering to vote.
The Government have got it right overall on the armoury they will give local returning officers to ensure that the register is as accurate as possible. The proof of the pudding will be in how that is actually used. As I said, the Bill provides a lot of ways in which councils can ensure that people are registered, but councils are not using them. I will be interested to hear how the Minister is going to ensure that the provisions—and his hope that councils and returning officers will use some of these different ways of not only interacting with the public, but using the information they already have—will mean that the register is as accurate as possible. It would be sad to miss this opportunity to ensure not only that more people are registered to vote, but that the registration is accurate as possible.
As has been mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr Jones, local government has many ways of contacting electors. It can do so by way of housing benefit, council tax, disabled parking badges, the people it puts in residential care, the home helps who visit people in their homes, contact when people are placed in council and social housing, contact when enforcement and registration is carried out in respect of houses in multiple occupation and contact when new houses, be they private sector or public sector, are built. Local authorities are not extending the invitation to register to many people who use those things. A lot more can be done, but it will take time, effort and resources, and that has been used in the past as an excuse not to act. This Bill and other Bills are bringing about huge constitutional changes, which could dramatically alter the constitutional landscape, and local authorities need to do everything in their power to maximise the registers in their areas by using the previous legislation and this Bill.
The Government also hold databases, as outlined in amendment 17; they relate to
“welfare payments, pensions, driving licences, revenue collection, National Insurance and passport applications”.
All those offer an opportunity for national or local government to extend that invitation to register to people using those things at critical moments in their life. We need to address an issue about sharing national Government databases with local authorities, but there is no issue involved in using local databases within the remit of a local authority. Local authority databases can be used for the purpose of registration, and we need to examine ways in which we can improve those channels of communication between national Government and local government to open up those databases. I realise that people have concerns about losing databases; Department for Work and Pensions databases have been found on roundabouts in the past, and that caused a national outrage as it hit the national press—
Indeed, as my hon. Friend reminds us. We need to keep that in perspective, because although losing those databases was bad, I am sure that new systems can be implemented to allow secure access to those databases for the purpose of registration.
I also want to talk about the rights and responsibilities of Assembly Members, MPs, councillors, MSPs and Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland in respect of putting pressure on electoral registration officers to ensure that the existing legislation and this Bill are monitored, not only by the Electoral Commission, but by us as parliamentarians—as elected representatives. Last week, I e-mailed 250 Labour Members with a specific list of questions that the Electoral Commission had designed for MPs to put to their ERO. I have circulated those questions to Labour MPs and asked them to go to see their ERO with their Assembly Member, with their local group leader to put pressure on the ERO to ensure that everything is being implemented. That should also be examined in this Bill to ensure that elected representatives at least have that invitation to work with EROs to maximise the register. I have done this in my constituency, where we have a fantastic ERO, Gareth Evans, who has increased the registration in my constituency from 47,000 to 57,000 in a two or three-year period. That is excellent and I pay tribute to Gareth for his work on that.
On the invitation to register, we also need to ensure that there is no political interference by politicians who do not want people to be registered. Liberal Democrat Members will be aware—I have mentioned this in the past—that when the ex-Liberal leader of Islington council was asked by the Labour group to have a registration drive to get the unregistered on to the register, he said, “No, we are not doing that. Keeping people off the register is how we win elections.” If there is such a degree of political interference within a local authority, it needs to be tackled. The case might have been isolated, if high profile, but we need measures to tackle political interference if it occurs.
Such interference could be tackled in a number of ways. There does not necessarily need to be political interference; there could be political, bureaucratic or administrative incompetence. If the job is not being done and the mustard is not being cut, a solution is needed to allow registration to take place. I ask the Minister to consider, in the final analysis, transferring the rights of a local authority’s underperforming electoral registration department to that of a neighbouring authority that is achieving or letting the Electoral Commission carry out the registration in emergency circumstances. Alternatively—I say this as a Labour Member—there is perhaps a case for using the private sector. Experian has built the databases and knows exactly where the unregistered are, so perhaps there is an opportunity for its involvement if local authorities are too lazy or if there is political interference.
A number of the amendments would put the onus on the local authority to explain why it is important for an individual to be on the register. More needs to be done and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham that the question of civic duty might fall on deaf ears. Having said that, I am very glad that the Government, who initially talked about downgrading the civic duty to a lifestyle choice, listened to the avalanche of complaints from across the country, from the civic sector and from Opposition parties and decided to keep the civic duty. The explanation from Ministers, from political parties and from the ERO of the reasons why someone should be on the electoral register and the benefits that it brings in getting a mortgage and credit is important. If members of the local population are not on the register, they will not have access to proper credit and will be forced into the hands of loan sharks.
A great deal more education and explanation are needed from EROs and us. I am pleased that a lot of progress has been made. I pay tribute to the Ministers, whom I have hounded over the past two and a half years with hundreds of written parliamentary questions and oral outbursts in Committee and in the Chamber. I make no apology for that. A group of dedicated MPs from all parties have pursued the issue and progress has been made, specifically on the issue of fixed penalty notices. I pay tribute to Ministers for that but I maintain that the whole Bill is unnecessary. These things could have been done with all-party support, through Labour’s Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. I did not support it—I voted for it, but it was not in my heart— but I accepted it as a political reality and necessity. These things could have been achieved with all-party parliamentary consensus in 2015.
I recently asked in a parliamentary question why Labour’s Act was negated and the 2015 deadline was brought forward to 2014. The answer was that it was imperative to go through all this turmoil and upset and to take up all this parliamentary time because there is great concern out there among the Great British public, 36% of whom believe that there is electoral fraud, that meant we must tackle the issue. I also asked how many cases of electoral fraud there were, and the Minister replied that there were a couple a year.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Electoral Commission’s report on the pilots a few years ago, which was buried following outcry from the Daily Mail and others, said that in most of the pilots—including e-voting, text voting and, to give an example from my constituency, full postal voting—fraud was negligible?
The question I drafted on the train from Rhyl to Euston this morning expands on my hon. Friend’s point. It asks what assessment the Minister has made—he might want to think about this overnight—of the reasons why 36% of the British public think that there is electoral fraud, on the impact of Ministers and Government MPs talking about electoral fraud and on its coverage in the media—
Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to come back to the amendments. I have been rather lenient, but he is going very wide of the subject now.
You have been very lenient, Mr Weir, and have let me rabbit on for a few minutes.
I give the Government credit for their recognition of representations from both sides of the House, civic society, the police, the Electoral Reform Society, Unlock Democracy, the courts and so on. They have listened, but this was all unnecessary. If they had stuck to Labour’s 2015 timetable, we would not have been discussing the matter today and would perhaps have been discussing the economy, growth or other such issues.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir.
I should acknowledge the very charitable comments—for him—made by Chris Ruane. It was pleasant to have such a polite outburst, compared with some of his previous ones. I acknowledge straight away that he is right that we all have a responsibility to help get these matters right. As Members of Parliament, we are in a very powerful position when it comes to talking to our electoral registration officers, asking what they are doing and checking that they are doing everything that is necessary. The same applies to senior councillors. I often hear anecdotal evidence that EROs say that they have trouble getting the resources to do the job properly, but the EROs and returning officers are often the more senior officers in the council. Councillors are very interested in ensuring that the electoral register is done properly and we as Members of Parliament have an opportunity, which the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should take, to ask EROs what they are doing. When the Bill becomes law, as I hope that it will, it will be incumbent on us all to talk to our EROs, to check that they are doing all the work and to ask how they are progressing in implementing the provisions.
I thank the hon. Members for Vale of Clwyd and for North Durham (Mr Jones) for what they said about the Select Committee chaired by Mr Allen and the excellent work it did in pre-legislative scrutiny. I also thank the hon. Member for North Durham for what he said about our response to that scrutiny. There is not much point in its being done only for us to ignore all of it, and we made a number of significant changes before we introduced the Bill. I should also praise the hon. Gentleman for mentioning accuracy as well as completeness. They are of equal importance and the Government have focused on both.
It is relevant to amendment 34, standing in the name of the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, to confirm that the Government have concluded that the edited version of the electoral register should be retained. We have discussed whether it should be abolished with interested parties on both sides of the debate and received numerous representations. The previous Government consulted, but did not have the opportunity to take a decision before leaving office. There are those, particularly in the electoral community, including the Electoral Commission, who argue that having an edited register acts as a disincentive to people registering, but we have seen no convincing evidence of that. On the other side of the argument, some argue that it provides significant wider social and economic benefits, and in the previous Government’s consultation, 7,447 of about 7,600 responses favoured the edited register’s retention for those reasons. On balance—it is a finely balanced decision—the Government believe that keeping the edited register from which voters can choose to opt out is the right decision. I know it will be disappointing to some and welcomed by others, but that is the decision the Government have made.
The group of amendments have a theme of inserting various prescriptions about what local authorities should do and the information on the forms. A general point is that putting that sort of stuff in the Bill is not the right approach. In many cases, there is detail in some of the secondary legislation we have already published in draft, and I think that that sort of specific provision is better there than in the Bill.
My hon. Friend Mr Turner is no longer here, unfortunately, but in an intervention on Angela Smith, he referred to British citizenship, and I think it worth stating for the record that the franchise for parliamentary elections consists of British citizens, Irish citizens who are resident in the United Kingdom, Commonwealth citizens who are resident here and either have or do not need leave to remain and, of course, British citizens who live overseas and are registered to vote; and for local elections, to that list is added European Union citizens resident in the United Kingdom. It is a complicated franchise and perhaps not what would have been produced had we started with a clean sheet of paper, but as I have said before, we have reached that position because of our complicated history, and when Parliament has considered the matter previously, it has decided to stay in broadly the same place. Given my hon. Friend’s comment, I thought it important to make that clear on the record.
Amendment 12 is about putting a statement on registration in the council tax communication. My first point—I think the hon. Lady alluded to this—is that I am not sure that the council tax document is read cover to cover by every voter, even though this year many will have been able to read that their council has frozen their council tax, thanks to the policies of this Government, which I am sure would have come as very welcome news. As well as not being enormously well read, the document tends to be looked at, if it is looked at by anyone, by the head of the household or the person who pays the council tax. I suspect it does not reach into every part of the home.
The hon. Lady is right to say that councils and registration officers have to contact people who are not on the register. That is why we are continuing the annual canvass and placing a new obligation on registration officers to invite unregistered people to register when they become aware of them, which applies all year round. In the second set of data-matching pilots, later this year, we will look for good ways to spot such people. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd made the point that local authorities have access to council tax data. If the database lists someone who pays council tax but that person is not registered to vote, under the proposals registration officers have a legal duty to use that information to write to that person to invite them to join the electoral register. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, all the other databases the local authority has can be used as well. That may be a good way of promoting electoral registration and some local authorities may think it effective, but it is not necessarily something we want to specify in the Bill. I therefore urge the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 13 would give local authorities a duty to invite people who move into the area and register for council tax purposes to join the electoral register. Local authorities have access to their council tax records and so are aware of such people, and the Electoral Commission’s guidance states that when they send out council tax bills, they should send rolling registration forms, but again, that will capture only the bill payer—the person who pays the council tax—and will not help to identify other people. However, the hon. Lady is right about the need to find ways to capture people who move home, as they are the group of people who are least likely to be registered and there is a direct link between the length of housing tenure and electoral registration. We are looking at various solutions, in particular solutions relating to the sorts of transaction people engage in when they move home. Registering for council tax may be one of those transactions, but again, I am not sure that we want to specify it in the Bill.
Amendment 16, to which the hon. Lady spoke as well, is about putting on electoral registration forms
“a clear explanation that the electoral register is used for other civic purposes” and alluding to the financial checks for which the electoral register is used. Having seen the draft secondary legislation that we published last week, the hon. Lady will know that the IER forms will carry a statement about the processing of the data that the individual supplies, which will set out clearly what the information is used for, both on the full register—for purposes such as credit checks and fraud prevention—and on the edited register.
Several hon. Members spotted that we intend to work with the Electoral Commission on designing the forms. Several Members spotted that in clause 5 there is a power to give that responsibility to the Electoral Commission. When the Electoral Commission designs forms, it carries out user testing in order to produce forms that are clear, brief and to the point, and to ensure that they are properly understood and properly completed. We want to use that work to decide what should be on the form and whether there should be some other documentation with the forms. When the Electoral Commission has done that work, we have the powers in clause 5 and in paragraph 18 of schedule 4 to require registration officers to provide that information. We would want to do that if, for example, there are aspects of the forms that the Electoral Commission identified as effective.
The information could also be in the campaigns that are run by the Electoral Commission or the local authority. I live in London, in the borough of Lambeth, and I have seen some of the council’s advertisements, which focus—
May I make a suggestion concerning the registration form? There should be a simple tick-box for people to register for a postal vote. In some cases, they have to register to vote, and on a different form register for a postal vote. A tick-box on the registration form would be much easier.
Let me conclude my previous thought and I will come to that.
Some local authorities already use the register for the other purposes for which it can be used—for example, to run credit checks, or when people want credit for a mobile phone—as a positive method of encouraging people to be registered. This is where is it important to give EROs the power to consider their local circumstances. Depending on the area, depending how many people move, how often and the kinds of people, there are different messages that may work with different groups of people. The ERO should have the opportunity to do that. The Electoral Commission will be doing some work with us on this. When the commission suggests that certain things should be on the form and should be mandated, we have the powers to do that.
On postal votes and the point made by the hon. Member for North Durham, a separate form must be completed. In order to prevent fraud, people have to provide identifiers, such as date of birth and a signature for the electoral registration officer—[Interruption] The hon. Member for North Durham says, “On one form.” If we are moving towards allowing people to register electronically, a postal voter would still have to provide a hard copy signature, so the process cannot be made completely seamless. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Some local authorities may want to collect all the information, including date of birth, at one time. I will take his suggestion and see whether there is anything in our regulations which would prevent that. It may be one of the things that we can ask the Electoral Commission and some of our stakeholders to investigate to see whether that would be helpful for voters.
I am grateful for the Minister’s response. I accept that a signature and date of birth are needed, but surely those could be provided on one form. That would save council administration and encourage people who want to apply for a postal vote to do so more easily.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, and, as I said, I will take it away and look at it. We will make sure that there is nothing that prevents such a suggestion, and we will also investigate it with our stakeholders, including the commission, administrators and a lot of the groups, particularly focusing on those who might find a postal vote helpful. We can perhaps trial some of that and see whether it is effective. That is a helpful suggestion from the hon. Gentleman.
Amendment 17 links Government Departments with responsibility for welfare payments, pensions, driving licences, revenue collection and national insurance with information about the electoral register. I agree with that up to a point and we will already be doing some of that. However, it would not be helpful to mandate that, given that most voters are already on the electoral register and quite a lot of people do not move about all the time. We do not want to insist on making every transaction with each of those Departments more complex. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge about signposting and making that kind of linkage more effective.
The hon. Member for North Durham mentioned driving licences, and we are working with the Department for Transport on that. He also mentioned Directgov, and the Government Digital Service, which is working with us on developing the online registration tool, is also responsible for Directgov, so they will work seamlessly together. Where Departments deal with people who move about or new voters, we are considering signposting and giving people prompts. If we did that electronically and people needed only to tick a box, potentially they could be redirected straight to the site where they could register online. For some voters, that would be an effective way of driving up registration.
Directgov would be a good system, because the identifier is down to the individual, and it allows one to do a whole range of things. To be able to register to vote through it, accepting that a form may be required to obtain a signature later, would be much easier for a lot of people, especially when they move house. A lot can be done through Directgov in one place, which is always useful.
The hon. Gentleman makes some good points. Once we have an online method of registering in the first instance, that will be very effective. It already works very well in a number of local authorities for re-registering each year. I have just received my form in my constituency of the Forest Dean and I was able to re-register in a matter of minutes on my BlackBerry, putting in the code and ticking the opt-out box for the edited register. That worked very smoothly and a confirmation e-mail arrived. Many local authorities already do that. What they cannot do, because they are not empowered to do so, is effect new registrations in that way. Once we can do that, many people will move to that, either doing it themselves, or, if they need assistance, through an assisted digital method. It is important that people have that assistance and I think that is where people will start going.
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, like Members beforehand, raised concerns about younger voters, particularly attainers—16 and 17-year-olds who get registered. I have been to Northern Ireland and seen how they register young people directly in schools. The chief electoral officer’s staff do a presentation, focusing on the civic side and the need to register to have a vote and to have one’s say, but they are not above looking at some of the other reasons that young people might want to be registered to vote, such as credit. Northern Ireland has a voter ID card and electoral staff run also through some of its practical uses, such as proof of age. Interestingly, as I have said in debates before, now that younger voters are engaged with directly, a higher percentage of them are registered to vote than in Great Britain, where we rely on mum and dad to do that.
So, I am a bit more hopeful. Having spoken to young people when I visit schools, as I am sure have many Members, I think that such direct engagement is a way to get them not just to register to vote but to use their vote. One of the depressing points is that young people, even when registered, are the least likely to cast their vote. In a sense, getting lots of people registered just to see them not vote is not very encouraging, so I think that we can all do a better job on that. However, as I said, I am more hopeful about younger voters engaging directly. There is some evidence that if we can engage with voters directly, rather than relying on one person in the household, we might all be pleasantly surprised.
Last but not least, let me turn to amendment 34, tabled by the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Mr Allen, on behalf of a number of its members. In passing, I congratulate him and my hon. Friend Dr Offord on the explanatory statements to their amendments, which were very helpful to Members. The hon. Gentleman can explain to his Front Benchers how to produce such statements, because they did not manage to produce any for their amendments, meaning that we had great difficulty following what they were on about, which caused a little altercation earlier in the debate. As we would expect from a Chair of a Select Committee, he offers an exemplar of good parliamentary procedure.
With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s specific request, in our draft secondary legislation, which I hope he will note we have published while the Bill is still going through the House—that was one of the questions I was asked when I appeared before his Committee, and we have already done that in a number of areas—we have said that the application forms will include a statement on the processing of data, so that it will be very clear what the information and the full register and the edited register can be used for. The Electoral Commission will ensure that the forms are as user-friendly as possible.
Of course, if people are to be able to opt out of the edited register, it is important that that is a very clear choice for them. Again, some local authorities currently have very clear forms and are clear about what the data are used for, but some do not. Some, I am told—I have seen evidence of this—slightly misrepresent what the information is used for in order to encourage people to opt out, and some do not provide very clear information on what the decision is about. We are looking at that, and the Electoral Commission will do some user testing to make sure that the forms are clear and that people are clear about what the register is used for and what the decision to opt out is about. The hon. Member for Nottingham North is absolutely right that it is very important that they do so.
Part of our thinking behind keeping the edited register was making sure that the information on voters’ decisions to opt out is not more widely available. That is acceptable. If they are not sure and they are not given a clear decision, that is clearly not a satisfactory position, so we will be working closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure that the forms are clear and straightforward. On that basis, I urge the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge and for Nottingham North, respectively, to withdraw and not press their amendments.
May I echo the comments of other Members in the Chamber and say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir?
Indeed, it was a pleasure to listen to the contributions from my hon. Friend Mr Allen, who chairs the Select Committee. As other Members have said, he did a superb job in the report that the Committee produced. I also appreciated his comments about the importance of the registration process to democracy—a point we have made repeatedly from the Front Bench over the two days in Committee. He mentioned the sacrifices that have been made in the name of democracy by people in the Nottingham area in the past. I would add to that record the campaign waged by the Levellers, no less, many of whom were shot in the churchyard in Burford in Oxfordshire. And to that list we can add the suffragettes. The history is long and it is one that we should be proud of in some ways.
My hon. Friend Mr Jones outlined perfectly the importance of extending the ways in which people can register to vote, particularly online, and talked about the importance of the amendment relating to credit and mortgage facilities.
I put on the record once again the long and arduous campaign that my hon. Friend Chris Ruane has waged not so much to get this legislation and approach on the statute book, as to get it right. My hon. Friend talked about the rights and responsibilities of elected Members, and I join the Minister in underlining the responsibilities of elected representatives at every level on that score. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I and my colleagues from the city of Sheffield have done exactly as he has recommended in the past, and it has had an impact on the work carried out by our local electoral registration officer.
I have been quite heartened by the Minister’s response to the four amendments before us in my name and that of my hon. Friend Mr David. It has been made absolutely clear that there is a place one way or another—via secondary legislation, guidance issued by the Electoral Commission or its work in designing the necessary forms for the new process—for the points that we have made in our amendments, and that the Government take them seriously and have listened to them, so the Opposition’s response has to be that we will watch very carefully to see how the Minister’s comments play out as the process unrolls, unwinds and is implemented over the next few months and years.
On amendment 17, the signposting principle that the Minister outlined, particularly in relation to new voters and people who move, is important, and the Opposition take his points about young people. The point about electoral registration officers, or their staff in a big authority area such as Sheffield, Leeds or Manchester, going into a school to educate young people and encourage them to participate in the democratic process—perhaps as part of citizenship classes—is a very important one which makes a valuable contribution to the debate, but it will require resources.
Electoral registration officers and their staff will have to feel that they have the time and money to spend on undertaking such work. In a city such as Sheffield, there are almost 180 schools, 27 or 28 of which are secondary, so we are talking about a significant commitment on the part of EROs and their departments to make the process work, but I take the Minister’s point and accept that citizenship classes in schools could benefit enormously from such engagement with the local democratic process. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment 33, page 5, line 12, after ‘penalty’, insert ‘of £500’.
The amendment would provide that the fine for failing to comply with a requirement to make an application to be on the electoral register would be set at £500.
It is a great pleasure to speak again on these very important issues and, in particular, on the amendments before us, regarding the civic duty that we all have to vote, and the question of what a society does when, in a voluntaristic democracy, some individuals consistently refuse to play by the rules, to play their part and to carry out their share of the democratic duty that should fall on all of us.
We have heard a lot about the sacrifices that people have made, and I will not go over those issues again, but, when one looks at the history books and sees what sacrifices people made to achieve the vote, one finds that it adds great resonance to our debate. We have all had the experience of people who say, “Well, I don’t bother. I don’t even register. A plague on all your houses —it doesn’t mean anything to me.” As far as I am concerned, that is breaking the social contract that we all have when we commit to serving our democracy. If we do not maintain, hone and develop that social contract, we leave the door open for those who would take away our very democracy.
Therefore, on behalf of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I am taking what might at first sight appear to be a rather draconian view. It is that, in extreme circumstances, after many warnings and much discussion, there should be a power—a reserve power—to fine those who deliberately flout the rules and regulations of registration.
How did the hon. Gentleman’s Committee come up with the figure of £500?
I do not think that any science was involved in coming to that figure; the Committee felt that it should be pitched at a reasonable level. If it were pitched lower—at a parking or traffic-offence level—it might be regarded less seriously. Where it is actually pitched is a matter for debate and for the Government, but I hope that they will listen to people who say that, on the very rare occasions when a prosecution takes place, such offences should be met with an adequate fine.
I am not suggesting that everyone who fails to register should be fined £500. We heard that in a whole year in this country, people were prosecuted for non-registration only 67 times. That is not quite one in a million, but such prosecutions are a very rare occurrence. However, we need the power to fine so that people understand how seriously we take the matter.
I congratulate the Government again on how they have moved on a number of these issues. I am delighted to be joined by a member of my Select Committee, my hon. Friend Sheila Gilmore, who participated in our debates and made sure that so many of our proposals were put in a way that allowed the Government to accept them and take the Bill forward.
Like the other Committee members, my hon. Friend will remember the early days when it appeared that our electoral system was almost being marketised or commodified by some of the phraseology around at the time. Our right to vote—our democracy—is, in the Committee’s opinion, a civic duty and I am delighted that the Government have reaffirmed that. It is not a consumer choice; it is not a punt, a bet or going down the shops—it is about how we run our society. There are alternatives to democracy; it is important that it is healthy and strong and that everybody participates in it.
From my hon. Friend’s perspective, would the £500 represent more of a preventive measure, which, hopefully, garners so much registration that it would never have to be used? A lower figure might mean that many more people would not register and would be taken to court.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. If someone is fined for failing to register, that is a symbol of failure for us all—Government and non-Government Members, those on Select Committees and those who are not. We want everybody in our democracy to participate. Many of us have said on visits to schools and other places, “Yes, of course, in a partisan way we care about the way you vote, but we come and do these things because we feel you’ve got to exercise your rights in a democracy and as a citizen.” The lessons that we give to our children, particularly teenagers, when we talk to them in those terms apply to everybody.
It would be a failure if we fined people every time, but as my hon. Friend said, there needs to be a preventive, deterrent effect that encourages people to vote who might otherwise say, “Well, nothing will happen if I don’t, so I’m not going to bother.” If the thought that something might happen is in the back of their mind, a lot of people will be encouraged to register who otherwise would not do so. If they then choose not to vote or decide to go to the polling station and spoil their ballot, that is their decision, but they are enabled to make that decision by the very fact that they are on the register, and disabled from doing so if they are not on the register or encourage others not to be on the register.
I, too, welcome the Government’s direction of travel on the penalty. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that rather than becoming too hung up about the figure, we should consider how to communicate the fact that there is a penalty at all? It is about the size of the font and the prominence given to the wording in the documentation that is sent out as much as the scale of the fine.
At the risk of summoning the ghost of my hon. Friend Chris Ruane, the hon. Gentleman makes that point far more articulately, and perhaps more often, than I do. If we can persuade people to vote because they have got this message clearly from the panoply of paperwork that we send out to get them to register, then that in itself is a good thing, and it will mean that the threat of deploying a fine is not acted on.
As the Minister said, members of the Select Committee are trying to be as good as we can in giving the Committee an explanatory statement of the amendments so that Members can wander into the debate and know exactly what we are talking. The statement is straightforward. We hope that the deterrent would be used only very sparingly and rarely, if ever, but it says, in effect, that the concept of registering to vote is not about marketisation or convenience but about values—the values of which we in this place must be the guardians at every conceivable opportunity. The amendment is about the right of every qualified individual in this country to vote for the governance of their choice, and we believe that it would safeguard and extend the possibility of all of us enjoying that right.
The burden of the argument in the earlier part of the speech by Mr Allen seemed to be that there should be a fine for not voting. If I have misunderstood that, I apologise.
In the long history of these islands, people have sought to accomplish the very thing that we represent here—a representative democracy that is their check on autocratic government and all the things that go with it. I profoundly believe in exercising the right to vote. I have never not voted, with the exception of the time when I was abroad as a student, when it was not possible to vote as such a person. However, I also believe that with a sense of liberty goes the right not to vote. This is a clear choice of citizens. When I first stood for election during the 1980s, most of the polls in my area, which is in the west midlands and is not the wealthiest of regions any more, we had turnouts of between 79% and 81%. As we know, the collection of data for the electoral register—the very thing that we are talking about—is under-recording numbers because of movements or deaths. Therefore, 79% to 81% is a very good turnout. Only in the most recent years has the turnout collapsed. Who is to say why?
May I reassure the hon. Gentleman, whose record is second to none in this House in the service of democracy, that nothing in my amendment indicates that someone should be fined for not voting? The sanction would apply to people who do not register and should apply only in rare cases as a way of encouraging individuals to get on the register. People may then choose to not vote, to spoil their ballot paper or to vote for the party of their choice.
I stand for a complete register. I do not know that I would go as far as to force people to register, unless it was for census purposes. I see the failure of the census as often as not.
Will the hon. Gentleman muse on the new Boundary Commission rule that a minimum number of electors has to be found in a ward, and that if the number is even one short, a whole other electoral ward must be brought in to make the constituency up to the correct size? We could therefore have a situation in which that happens because of the non-registration of one person. That is how the rules are written, as I understand them. In that scenario, the registration of one voter becomes vital.
I would think that the truth of the matter is that the rough must be taken with the smooth. It is the particularisation that I do not like.
I agree that having a correct census is fundamental to a democracy, and yet that is not universal. There are not many fines in relation to the census and we still do not have a complete one. However, I am very cautious about the idea of forcing anyone to do anything in their relationship with the democratic process, whether it is voting for parties or anything else. Australia has a fine for not voting, in theory, but I do not think that that is appropriate for us. It would be an inhibition on liberty. If I do not wish to be part of a process, as a free-born Briton, surely I have that right. That is the essence of what being British was about once upon a time.
I am not going to get excited, because I have been here a long time and I have heard all the passing nostrums. I am not saying that this is a nostrum, because the hon. Member for Nottingham North is trying to address a genuine worry; I do not doubt that. However, I have the sense that I am free born and that I may do what I wish, with my view of public officials, because that is entirely a matter for me, and that I should not be required to register with the possibility of a penalty if I do not vote. That seems to me to be the other side of the coin to liberty.
To follow on from the point that has just been made, I believe that in a democracy everybody should be able to choose whether to exercise their right to vote, but to do that they have to be on the register. That is what this debate is about. People must be on the register so that they are able to choose whether to vote in an election.
The Government are committed to continuing with the fine under the current legislation of £1,000 for households that refuse to co-operate with the electoral registration officer. However, they have had second thoughts on whether it is appropriate to introduce a fine or civil penalty for individuals who refuse to co-operate.
Like other hon. Members, I welcome that change, because initially the Government suggested in the draft Bill that registration would be a matter of personal choice. Many argued that to register is a civic duty and responsibility, and that there should be a civil penalty attached for individuals who do not co-operate.
I also welcome the fact that the Government intend to use the fine sparingly. Their impact assessment states:
“Currently the criminal offence of not responding to a household registration form is used to encourage compliance and thus maintain the completeness of the electoral register. It is sparsely applied in practice and 150 prosecutions are actually initiated annually. It is intended that the new civil penalty will be used in the same way thus the propensity to issue fines should not increase,” which is perfectly reasonable. The important thing is the declaration—I take the point made by Mr Williams on that. It is important to make such a stipulation prominent, so that people are aware of their responsibility. The threat—the incentive—to comply is important, not the penalty.
The penalty is not the first but the last resort. People can do a range of administrative things, including visits, letters and calls, which hon. Members use within political parties to get people out to vote, before a fine is levied. The penalty will enable people to register. It would not be fixed in the sense that a bureaucrat will say, “I see Mrs Smith hasn’t registered. Send her a £500 fine.” It will be the last in a very long chain of events.
My hon. Friend makes the point extremely well. He mentions in passing his proposal for a £500 fine. The official Opposition are proposing a £100 fine. Both probing amendments were tabled because we are disappointed that the Government, despite the encouragement we have given them, have not proposed a figure for the fine. We are told that the figure will be in regulations in the not-too-distant future.
As I have mentioned regulations, Mr Weir, may I make a point in passing? The Minister referred a number of times to the draft regulations placed in the Library last Monday. I went to the Library after our debate last Monday and was told that the regulations were placed there at 4.1 pm, or 22 minutes before the debate began. As he well knows, it is impossible for any reasonable person to discuss such regulations with such access. In addition, the existence of the draft regulations is more theoretical than real—only two appeared, when the others would have been directly relevant to the debate. We must wait for the publication of the other draft regulations, but the communication placed in the Library was clear that there are no draft regulations in six important areas.
Mr Shepherd spoke of affronts to liberty, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is an affront to liberty that Ministers can set the level of the fine by diktat outwith the processes of the House? All Governments have introduced such provisions—I am not making a partisan point—but we should take that power by amending the Bill this evening. All hon. Members would understand that, and the Government would have the ability to adjust the fine over the years, because of inflation or because a different view is taken of the offence.
My hon. Friend makes his point very clearly. That is precisely what we would have liked: full parliamentary scrutiny, with the figure having been presented to us in the Bill or at least in regulations that we could have considered in parallel. In fact, we put that request to the Government months ago, so I am disappointed—not from a partisan point of view but in the interest of scrutiny and democracy—that it has not been possible. There are several gems in the regulations. I do not want to digress, but there is a reference to “agile methodology”. That is a new one on me. Perhaps the Minister could write to me about what it means with regard to verification.
We do not know the size of the civil penalty the Government have in mind. The Minister was reported as saying that it would be something like a parking fine, but that does not take us very far forward. As I said on Second Reading, in Westminster local authority, the higher-rate parking fine is £130 and the lower-rate £110; in my own area of Caerphilly the higher rate is £75 and the lower rate £30; and next door, in Rhondda Cynon Taff, the higher rate is £50 and the lower rate £25. I could go on, but the point is that there is a tremendous national variation. We know that these fines will not vary, but to say that they will be like a parking fine does not tell us much at all.
That is right. A balance has to be struck. We had hoped to debate whether the Government had struck that balance, but unfortunately we cannot come to that decision. Perhaps before the end of the debate the Minister will tell us what level of fine the Government have in mind.
I want to say one or two words about the draft secondary legislation. I do not apologise for when I laid it in the Library, because we are not debating it; we are debating the Bill. I put it in the Library so that Members could see it. I know I said this last week, but I will repeat it, because Wayne David needs to think it through: I will take no lectures from him about secondary legislation. Two similar Bills delegating significant powers to Ministers on electoral matters were introduced in the previous Parliament. I shall tell the House when the previous Government published the secondary legislation. It never published any in draft during the parliamentary passage of the Bill. The first any Members saw of any secondary legislation was after royal assent. I have published the draft secondary legislation while the Bill is still before this House, let alone the other one, and I have said that the rest of the secondary legislation will be published by the autumn, before the Bill has finished its passage through the other place. It might not be perfect and we might not be paragons of virtue, but we are doing an awful lot better than the previous Government. He ought to think about that before makes that point again.
Does the Minister accept that the difference between the two previous Bills, which, I admit, were certainly not perfect, and this Bill is that the former were not highly politicised? The 2009 legislation had cross-party support, but this Bill is highly contentious. We believe it to be highly politicised and the Conservative party’s ticket to winning the next election and the one afterwards. There is polarity there, which is why we need to see the fine print.
That is a good steer, Mr Weir. Let me make the point in passing that the 2009 Act to which Chris Ruane referred was not uncontroversial. We voted against it by way of a reasoned amendment because it did not include provisions on individual electoral registration. They were put in only when the Bill went to the other place, so I think we have done very well. Let me clarify what we have done. We have added to the secondary legislation and put in provisions setting out the steps the registration officer should take before insisting on a penalty and we have set out some information about the penalty, to which I shall return in a few moments.
Let me explain, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned it, that “agile methodology” is a way of developing information technology—the way it is done in the private sector—in order to avoid complicated and massive IT systems that cost a fortune, do not work and then have to be scrapped. We have learned much from how the previous Government operated; this is the way in which this Government will develop IT systems, and I think that they will be much more successful.
Picking up on the point raised by my hon. Friend Mr Shepherd, let me be clear from the beginning that we are talking about registration; we are absolutely not talking about imposing a penalty for not voting. Voting is voluntary and it will remain voluntary. While this Government are in office, there will be no proposals to change that. I am always disappointed when people do not vote, but they absolutely have the right not to, and it is our job as politicians to give them reasons for going out to vote or use their postal vote and to ensure that there is no obstacle to their doing so. If they do not vote, it will be because we have not given them sufficiently compelling reasons either to vote for us or against us, depending on their point of view. That remains the case.
It is worth setting out—it is a bit of a stand part debate, but it is relevant to the amendments—how we have arrived at this point. Members will know that it is not now and will not be in the future a specific offence not to register to vote in the first instance. The current position is that if people do not respond to the household form or, indeed, other inquiries that the electoral registration officer makes—this is the current way of getting on the electoral register—it is a criminal offence with a penalty of up to £1,000. We have no plans to change that; it will remain in place.
The question we faced with the invitation to register was whether to have a penalty. The hon. Member for Caerphilly is quite right that when the draft Bill was first published, it did not include a penalty. Several hon. Members have touched on the public policy reasons justifying a penalty. Some aspects of registration affect other people. First, the register provides the source of jurors, and it is important to have balanced juries made up of a proper cross-section of adult electors. Secondly, electoral registers can affect boundary changes—not just parliamentary boundary changes, but local ones as well, as highlighted by several hon. Members. That is why we decided it made sense to have a civil penalty, which was also in response to the Select Committee’s report and some of the evidence that was taken.
As for the amendments—the Select Committee’s amendment 33 and amendment 14 from the hon. Member for Caerphilly—regardless of the amounts specified, I do not believe it sensible to put the civil penalty directly in the Bill, as this would be better done through secondary legislation. I hesitate to correct Mr Allen, the Chairman of the
Select Committee, but these matters are not at the diktat of the Minister. All the Bill’s powers are made by Ministers, but they all have to be approved by way of affirmative resolutions by both Houses. There is proper parliamentary control over the exercise of that Executive power.
I hope that both hon. Members will withdraw their amendments; as I said, it is not appropriate to put the figures directly on the face of the Bill rather than implement them through secondary legislation. As for how we get to the figure for the penalty, I am afraid that the hon. Member for Caerphilly is going to remain disappointed for today, as I do not propose to pluck a figure out of the air. The process we want to adopt is one that we have done all the way through—we are going to listen to people. We have explained how we will go about this. We think that the analogy with parking fines is sensible. The hon. Member for Caerphilly observed that there was a range of parking fines across the country, but the range is fairly narrow. A parking fine is not £500; it is about £40 at the lower end and £130 at the higher end.
There are some good arguments in favour of setting the fine at the higher level, for instance to reflect the importance of the matter and to ensure that it is a proper deterrent, but there are also arguments in favour of setting it at the lower level. Unlike the £1,000 fine issued by magistrates who can take into account the circumstances of voters—both the extent to which they believe them to be culpable and their financial resources—this will be a fixed penalty. It should also be borne in mind that although the criminal penalty involves a maximum fine of £1,000, the fines that are actually issued are usually much lower. During the 2011 canvass, the London borough of Hounslow successfully prosecuted 10 people for not providing the information required, but the average fine issued was £125. That was because magistrates were able to take various factors into account. This penalty will be fixed throughout the country, and when it is issued it will not be possible for the electoral registration officer to alter it.
We have listed a number of factors that should guide the arguments in favour of a higher or lower level, given broadly the same range as that which applies to parking fines, and we will do some targeted work with our stakeholders and consider their responses. I suspect that some will favour a reasonably high number for encouragement purposes, while others will be a little concerned about the potential impact.
I have listened carefully to the arguments that have been advanced today. I think that the hon. Member for Caerphilly’s proposal is at least in the ball park of the parking fine system, while the figure suggested by the hon. Member for Nottingham North on behalf of his Select Committee is rather on the high side. We will draw our conclusions, and Members will be able to see what we have come up with.
I should also say, in response to a point made by both the hon. Member for Caerphilly—who referred to the impact assessment—and the hon. Member for Nottingham North, that this is not the first course to which electoral registration officers should resort. We do not want them running around the country handing out fines like confetti; indeed, in an ideal world we would not want fines at all.
Those who receive parking fines can usually reduce them by paying promptly, but they cannot reduce them to zero. In this instance, everyone who incurs a civil penalty—and we hope that the number will be no more than the 100 a year or so who incur criminal penalties—will be able to reduce the amount to zero by registering to vote. If they register as a result of incurring the penalty, the electoral registration officer will be able to waive it. The purpose is to persuade people to register, not to issue fines. The Bill will prevent registration officers from keeping the money, so that they are not tempted, and so that people do not think that they are issuing the fines in order to use them as a revenue generation exercise, which would be just as bad.
We will specify—and have set out in draft regulations—what registration officers must do. They must issue the invitation, send reminders and send a door-to-door canvasser, and they must be satisfied that the individual has received the invitation and still resides at the address involved. Only when they have done all that can they tell people that they will issue a notice, and that if they do not register after that, a penalty will be incurred.
The Minister touched on an important point earlier. He will know that some London boroughs, in particular, have given parking attendants an incentive to issue tickets by offering payment by results. Will he include in secondary legislation a methodology that would preclude such activities in areas where the level of registration is usually low in the first instance, so that there is no incentive to fleece the taxpayer?
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend was present when I said this, but we have included in the Bill the important provision that any revenue from fines does not go to the ERO and is not kept by the local authority. It must go to the centre. The purpose of the fines is to encourage people to register to vote, not to generate revenue for local authorities. Therefore, the process of issuing a penalty will come with a cost to, and a burden on, the local authority. We do not want this to become a means of revenue generation for local authorities, as some people think is the case in respect of parking and speeding fines. I am confident our proposals strike the right balance.
Many constituencies with large numbers of unregistered voters cover some of the poorest areas of the country, where cuts in other areas will loom large. EROs will be under a lot of pressure. If they legitimately raise finance through fines, should they not be allowed to keep a proportion of that, to reflect the additional work they will have to do? Will every step be monitored? Further, will there be an increase in bureaucracy, and if so, how will it be paid for?
I shall make two points in response to the hon. Gentleman’s questions. First, some of our stakeholders are concerned that many people who are not registered to vote may well be poorer people; they do not want people without much money being hit with fines and being financially penalised. We thought about this matter when drafting the legislation, and my view was that it was better to make sure there was not a financial incentive. Everyone who gave us feedback, including
EROs, said they wanted a penalty. They do not want to issue any penalties, however; rather, they want to be able to write a scary notice on the form saying, “If you don’t do this, something will happen, so you can’t just ignore this form and put it in the bin.” That goes back to a point made by Mr Williams.
We will work with the Electoral Commission on how to set out the description of the penalty so that it has the desired effect. It will test that in the design of forms, through user testing. If we come up with forms that are effective in this regard, we will be able to make it mandatory that they are used, which is important because at present authorities do these things in a variety of ways.
On this question, may I refer the Minister to the example set by Denbighshire county council, which stated in the middle of its form for registration, “If you do not fill this form in, you will be fined £1,000”? The warning has to be prominent and at the centre of the page, so that the recipients of these forms clearly understand that they must fill them in.
The Electoral Commission will consider such issues when addressing the design of the form, and I am sure the points the hon. Gentleman raises will be taken into account.
Having set out why I do not think the level of the fine should be stated in the Bill, and having drawn attention to the draft secondary legislation and the approach we plan to take in coming up with that figure—rather than just making it up, we will listen to what stakeholders have to say—I hope the amendments will be withdrawn so we can allow the clause as currently drafted to stand part of the Bill.
First, may I name-check another member of the Select Committee, Mrs Laing, for her attendance and contribution? She made an epic contribution, and she was extremely helpful to me when I was indisposed, in making sure the Committee carried out its scrutiny duties effectively. Secondly, may I give credit to the Government, as they have moved on this issue? At the outset, there was not to be any fine whatever, and it takes courage, and some cost, to listen, and the Government should be commended in this Chamber and outside it for having done so. There is more to do, of course, but we are now in a position from where we can move forward.
There were a couple of references in the debate to Robert Caro’s mammoth biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who, from a very difficult position, became the leading promoter of civil rights, including civil rights legislation. At the beginning of those enormous volumes, the scene is set by a black woman in the south seeking to get registered to vote. We need to remember, particularly in discussing registration and clause 5, that she was prohibited from participating in the democracy of the United States not by being prevented from voting, but because she could not even register in order then to participate in the voting process. That is why this clause is important, and why I hope the Minister will listen to the arguments that have been made tonight. In order to ensure that he listens even more carefully than he normally does, I will withdraw my amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 3 agreed to.