Amendment proposed: 31, page 14, line 17, at end insert ‘with the exception of Schedule 5, Part 2, which shall come into force by order only once—
(a) the data matching pilots for pre-verification purposes established by the Electoral Registration Data Schemes Order 2012 have been completed,
(b) the Electoral Commission has reported on these schemes as under the terms of that Order, and
(c) the Electoral Commission believes that the completeness of the register will not be negatively affected.’.—(Wayne David.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee proceeded to a Division .
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and shall ask for the matter to be investigated immediately.
The Committee having divided:
I now have to announce the result of Divisions deferred from a previous day. On the motion relating to the draft Sexual Offences Act 2003 (Notification Requirements) (England and Wales) Regulations 2012, the Ayes were 478 and the Noes were 9, so the Question was agreed to. On the motion relating to the draft Sexual Offences Act 2003 (Remedial) Order 2012, the Ayes were 290 and the Noes were 197, so the Question was agreed to. On the motion relating to European documents on European Semester in the United Kingdom, the Ayes were 285 and the Noes were 203, so the Question was agreed to.
[The Division lists are published at the end of today’s debates.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I thank Members from all parts of the House for their contributions to this debate. I speak not just as a Minister who is interested in the Bill, but as a business manager in saying that I am particularly gratified that we did not over-programme the Bill. We allowed the House the discretion to use the time sensibly, and it has done so responsibly. We have covered all the issues that are contained in the Bill and done them credit. I am grateful to Members from all parts of the House for that.
I believe that the electoral register is a key building block for our democracy. It is important that it is accurate and complete. I hope that my responses and those of the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Mr Harper in Committee have answered all the concerns and questions that have been raised, and shown that the Bill will make the register more accurate and at least as complete as it is now. I hope that it will make it more complete.
On the conduct of the Bill’s passage, I thank hon. Members who have taken the time to write explanatory statements on the amendments that they tabled. That will have helped to ensure that the pilot is useful to the Procedure Committee in deciding whether to adopt the change in the longer term.
At the risk of this sounding like an Oscar acceptance speech, I also thank members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for scrutinising the legislation before it was introduced to the House. They did an excellent job. The Bill is much better for their comments and the care they took over their work. That would not have been the case were it not for the receptive interest shown by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, and the team of officials who supported him, in responding sensibly to the suggestions that were made. That shows the value that pre-legislative scrutiny can add to the development of legislation. The way in which the House has debated the Bill has shown that it has responded to that approach, and it has dealt with the Bill in a timely fashion.
I look forward to the debate continuing in another place. I reaffirm that it is the Government’s intention to publish further draft secondary legislation by the time Parliament returns in the autumn so that we have all the necessary tools to understand what is proposed as we take the Bill forward.
The Bill will tackle electoral fraud by speeding up the introduction of individual electoral registration, which will require electors to register individually, rather than by household. In moving to that system, individuals will have to provide information to verify their application. The Bill will modernise our electoral registration system, thereby facilitating the move to online registration, and make it more convenient for people to register to vote. Our aim is to take steps to tackle electoral fraud, increase the number of people who are registered to vote and improve the integrity of the register. The safeguards that the Bill puts in place, such as the use of data matching to confirm and automatically retain about two thirds of electors on the register, the moving of the 2013 canvass to early 2014, and the introduction of a civil penalty for those who fail to make an application when required to do so, will help us to achieve that aim. As we have debated today, the Bill also includes provisions to improve the administration and conduct of elections, which will serve to increase voter participation and make a number of improvements to the running of elections.
That we have elections based on the highest integrity, with registers that are as complete and accurate as possible, is the bedrock of our democratic system. It is incumbent on all hon. Members to make that a reality, and I commend the Bill to the House.
Like the Minister, I commend the programme agreed for Committee, which was sensible and appropriate—all hon. Members have had plenty of opportunity to air their support or concerns. I hope that that sensible approach is continued for the next constitutional legislation that we will discuss, namely the House of Lords Reform Bill, and that there will be plenty of time for Members to consider all the more important issues.
As I thought I had made clear, the Opposition want plenty of time to discuss all the important issues, so that the House can come to a natural consensus. We do not want to be rushed in our consideration of a Bill that many believe is flawed. We support the principle of a referendum—want movement on it and will achieve it, despite the Government’s unreasonableness. [ Interruption. ] There will be plenty of time to discuss other matters.
A great deal of concern was expressed by many in the House and beyond when the Government published the draft Bill on individual electoral registration. I am pleased that, after some argument, a lot of discussion and much debate in this place and beyond, the Government proposed a number of changes. First, there were originally no proposals for an annual canvass in 2014, which would be the last opportunity before the 2015 general election. That has changed, and there will be a canvass in that year.
Secondly, there was a suggestion that there should be a permanent opt-out for individuals from the electoral register. It was proposed that, from 2014, an individual could indicate to an electoral registration officer that they did not wish to be chased during the canvass, which would mean that they could essentially opt-out of the rolling programme of registration. I am pleased that that proposal was reversed.
Thirdly, on civil penalties, to begin with, the Government said that engaging with an electoral registration officer was a matter of personal choice. Some interpreted that as saying that inclusion on the electoral register was a lifestyle choice. I am pleased that they relented on that and recognised the groundswell of opinion that registration is a civic responsibility and duty. They have also recognised that there should be not simply a criminal fine for a head of household who does not co-operate, which is the current penalty, but a civil penalty for individuals who do not co-operate. We welcome that, not because we want the large-scale introduction of civil penalties, which we do not, but because we need to underline the importance of registration to the individual, and a civil fine for non-co-operation would be an effective way to do that. All those things we welcome.
I am disappointed, however, because despite our in-depth consideration over the past few days, the Government have not relented on our other areas of serious concern. When in government, we legislated for individual electoral registration, which clearly shows that we were fully committed to the principle of IER, and we still are committed to it. We introduced the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 and were keen that it be introduced gradually to ensure that everyone entitled to be on the register was included on it. It saddens me greatly that the Government have not carried forward that approach.
As expressed by several Members on many occasions, we are particularly concerned about the boundary changes and the fact that the carry-over to the 2015 boundary changes will not happen. The boundary changes will be based on the new IER register. Our concern is that many might see that as a partisan measure. It is at precisely that point that independent commentators believe the register will be most vulnerable and that there will be the greatest possibility of a relatively small number of people entitled to be on the register not being on it.
I underline the point that I and other Members made earlier about when the results of the second round of data matching will be evaluated. Let us not forget that the first round of data matching was not wholly successful. The Government’s view of how successful it had been differed significantly from the Electoral Commission’s, but they agreed to a second round to prove whether their proposed systems were water-tight. However, the second round will not be evaluated until spring and early summer 2013—after the legislation will have reached the statute book. That is a concern. It is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse. We should have all the evidence in place first, and then move to the best possible system on the basis of that objective evidence. So that is a concern that I and many Members share.
I have referred to several academics who support my contention, but I must make one other citation. Professor Ron Johnston of Bristol university is one of the most eminent, if not the most eminent, political geographer in the country. The constitutional reform Minister and I attended a seminar at the British Academy at the end of last year. It was a Chatham House occasion, and afterwards a document was published giving a reasonable summary of the contributions from many eminent people. The contribution from Professor Johnston read:
“If, as many at the British Academy Forum suggested, the 2015 register differs significantly in its completeness and accuracy from the current one, it could have a major impact on the next new map of constituencies”.
“These changes arising from the interaction of the new rules for defining constituencies with the introduction of IER will contribute to a considerable alteration in the nature of British representative democracy.”
That, in essence, is why we are concerned. We are concerned about the legitimacy of the next boundary review in 2015, when many people who should be on the electoral register will not be on it, so a distorted electoral map will be drawn up. That will not be good for democracy—certainly not for representative democracy, as many people will effectively be removed from the electoral process.
We expressed in Committee our concern about the lack of full carry-over for postal and proxy votes. Many disability charities, including Scope, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Mencap and Sense have expressed about transitional arrangements for proxy and postal votes as they are worried that many of the people they represent and work for may be disfranchised. The Government rightly carried out a pre-legislative consultation and made some changes, but I really wish they had taken more heed of the people who work closely with those who are disabled and those who are members of disabled charities. I reiterate the collective response of the organisations I mentioned, which were concerned about the
“need to ensure that the requirement for absent voters to be registered under the new system does not inadvertently disenfranchise disabled voters who rely on postal votes to mitigate the inaccessibility of polling stations.”
If I recall correctly, the words in the box that has to be ticked for postal voting include “at all future elections”, but that will not apply at all future elections unless Parliament decides to play around and change the rules. Does my hon. Friend agree that this might disadvantage a great many people who would wish to vote in the elections but who have, quite frankly, been led down the garden path on this issue?
Yes, that is a real concern. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend was present when I referred to my own mother of 86. She ticked the box and assumed she would have a postal vote for the rest of her life. She will be surprised if she does not get through the data-matching exercise and finds she has to fill in a complicated form to be able to exercise the vote she thought she always had.
Those are our two real concerns, which loomed large in our Committee debate. We have other concerns as well. The role of the Electoral Commission has been referred to many times by a number of Members in debating different clauses and amendments. We think that the Electoral Commission should play a pivotal role in achieving the move towards individual electoral registration. We are concerned that the Government as a whole seem intent on undermining and degrading the Electoral Commission’s role.
We are also concerned about the lack of ring-fencing of moneys for electoral registration officers—
Before my hon. Friend moves on to ring-fencing, I would like to say that the Electoral Commission has been pivotal over the past year or so in putting the case for the proper introduction of electoral registration. Does he think that that has upset the Government and explains why they want to reduce its role, as the Electoral Commission has come up with the facts and figures and supported the arguments of the civic societies and, indeed, my hon. Friend’s position as shadow Minister?
I cannot, of course, speak for the Government, and unfortunately I cannot read the Government’s mind, but I believe that there is some concern in Government circles about the role of the Electoral Commission. We strongly believe that the whole electoral process needs to be firmly depoliticised—that it needs to be outside and above the short-term interests of party politics—and we think that the Electoral Commission is the key organisation that can ensure that that happens. We therefore think it important for the commission’s role to be defended and enhanced whenever possible.
I was going to say something about the ring-fencing of resources. The chief executive of the association of electoral registration officers, whose views I have quoted previously, says that there should be a firm demarcation and ring-fencing of what resources are available, so that EROs know exactly where they stand when it comes to the resources they need to introduce a new system. It is not just a question of ensuring that the right systems are in place; it is also a question of ensuring that EROs themselves are trained and retrained, and are competent to make the system work effectively. We fear that the money may not be sufficient, and it certainly is not ring-fenced.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. About five years ago, when Labour was in office, I asked the Government to specify the amount spent per elector in each local authority area. The figure for England was not available, but I managed to obtain the figure for Wales from the Welsh Government, and lo and behold I found that the more a local authority spent on registration the greater the registration rates. I think that funding is crucial to proper implementation, and that ring-fencing the funding is crucial to the actual spending of it.
My hon. Friend makes his point forcefully and clearly. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done locally and among his colleagues here in Parliament in raising awareness of an issue that is central to our democratic process. We have all come round to his point of view that it is a vital issue, but he was the trailblazer, and I want to record our particular and general thanks, as a House, for his efforts.
Let me list, very briefly, a number of other matters that concern us. In its present form, the Bill gives Ministers the power to cancel the annual canvass at any time. The Government’s reasoning is based on the idea that an annual canvass will not be required as the register becomes more complete and accurate. We believe that, although a Minister might push that through Parliament, it gives Ministers far too much power to intervene in a crucial aspect of the electoral registration process. Removing annual canvasses risks causing a marked deterioration in the quality of the electoral roll.
If we are fortunate enough to move eventually—as I think it may well be, rather than straight away—towards an electoral register that is pretty complete, we need to ensure that it remains complete. That is why it is so important that we do not rest on our laurels but ensure that the annual canvass is in place, that as many people as possible are on the register, and that they stay there.
On the first day of the Committee stage, the Minister made great play of the publication of secondary legislation. He told us that some had been placed in the Library before the Committee stage had begun. Well, that was partly true. I went to the Library and found that some secondary legislation in draft form had been placed there minutes before the beginning of the debate, so that it had not been possible to have sight of it beforehand. There were only two pieces of draft legislation there anyway, both of which refer to verification. One addresses what alternative evidence might be required if an individual were unable to come forward with a national insurance number or a date of birth. The Government suggest that there should be a list of alternative documents. The first list mentions a utility or landline phone bill, a Post Office, bank or building society statement, a debit or credit card statement, and a mortgage statement. The individual will be asked to provide two or more documents from that list. It is perfectly possible that an individual will be unable to provide two such documents, however. As we all know, ever fewer people are using landline telephones, so they would not be able to produce that document—people increasingly rely solely on mobile phones. They may not have a bank account, or own a house either, so they will not have a mortgage statement, and they might not have a Post Office account. Such a person would have a moral right to claim they ought to be on the register even though they were unable to fulfil the criteria the Government have asked of them.
In respect of the second list, it is stated that:
“Proof of name and date of birth will also need to be provided. Currently our view is that this will involve one document from the list below”.
That list consists of Commonwealth or EU passport, Commonwealth or EU identity card, and a British passport. Again, it is perfectly possible that a British citizen might not have a passport. Therefore, yet again, the Government are being too prescriptive and are not allowing people to exercise their democratic right to be on the electoral register. I have concerns about the secondary legislation, therefore.
It is a pity that the constitutional affairs Minister, Mr Harper, has just left the Chamber, because I was hoping he would stay to hear about my next area of concern; I hope he returns before we vote. It is unfortunate that, despite his earlier utterances, he said that in his view, “Secondary legislation isn’t that important because we’re considering primary legislation here.” A key point we have been making throughout this entire debate is that this area of legislation is highly dependent on the fine detail of secondary legislation, as the Electoral Commission has said on numerous occasions. Therefore, the secondary legislation should have been produced in full for proper consideration, so we could have had comprehensive democratic scrutiny of what has been suggested. It is a great shame that the Government have not done that, despite our repeated requests over many months.
I welcome the fact that the legislation is to include a civil penalty, but the Government have not come forward with details about how much that civil penalty might be. We have moved forward slightly, as I was told I was not far wide of the mark when I referred to parking fines, but no specific details have been given.
We had an important debate about university accommodation and sheltered accommodation in particular. We are worried that multi-occupancy buildings such as halls of residence present a particular challenge that is not effectively met by the Government’s plan for individual electoral registration. The National Union of Students, among others, has expressed concern about the drop in electoral registration levels in university halls of residence. We share those concerns, and the Government have not come forward with any proposals that have convinced us that this potential problem will be effectively tackled.
Our very last debate was about queues at polling stations. My final disappointment is that, despite a cross-party consensus on the Floor of the House uniting, dare I say it, all reasonable people, the Government were unable to offer any convincing argument about why they did not accept the reasonable suggestion to ensure that all people could vote in general elections. I find that very disappointing.
As I have said time and again, we welcome individual electoral registration, as we legislated for it and we are convinced it is a sound principle, but we are concerned that the Government have not moved beyond their initial concessions and have not responded to the concerns that hon. Members have expressed in Committee. Therefore, I feel that we have no alternative but to vote against Third Reading. We believe that completeness and accuracy are important concepts, and we certainly support them, but the Government have not done anything near enough to make them into meaningful reality. The Bill is flawed and therefore it is unable to command our support this evening.
First, may I emphasise how different the Bill that we have deliberated on in Committee is from the one that was first initiated and from the Bill that was expected to be initiated when we had the Opposition day debates on these matters earlier in the year? The Government have made this Bill better. The opt-out would have made it difficult for my party to support the Bill. Concessions were made on the annual canvass and the penalty, matters that were also of great concern to those who served with me on the Lib Dem Back-Bench constitutional reform committee. I thank the Government for those huge concessions, as they are significant. They illustrate the fact that the Government have listened, that the pre-legislative scrutiny process has worked and that we have had the necessary response. To be fair to Wayne David, throughout the Committee stage he has acknowledged the extent of those concessions, appreciating and applauding them. I, too, have concerns about the release of the draft secondary legislation, although I applaud the fact that it came, albeit a little late in the day. We are told by my hon. Friend the Minister that that draft legislation will appear before the deliberations in another place.
The aspirations of completeness and accuracy are shared by all of us, on both sides of the House—or they should be. As the Bill leaves this place, I wish to make some observations. I welcome the fixed penalty. We had a good debate on the scale of the penalty and whether it should be £100—we had a probing amendment from the hon. Gentleman on that. The Chairman of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, Mr Allen, dared to suggest that it should be as much as £500. For the people who may stumble into the prospect of having to pay this—some of the hard-to-reach groups we are talking about—a £500 penalty would be dangerous. The debate should be much more about the prominence of the penalty notice, the extent to which the invitations to register reach the people they should and the messages on those invitations, rather than the size of the fine. To some extent it has been about those things, but it should be about the size of the font, rather than the size of the fine. We wait with interest to see what figure the Government come up with, but I tend to agree with the hon. Member for Caerphilly that it should be of the order of a parking fine.
I wish to discuss the position of the annual canvass. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I still think there is a huge premium in politicians and agents of Government or local government actually knocking on people’s doors. The annual canvass is not just about those poignant messages on the literature or about reminding people of those all-important implications of non-registration and their civic duty; it is about getting out to those hard-to-reach groups in practice.
We talked about the student community, and the houses in multiple occupation, and my area’s 147 villages mean that there are challenges of rurality that make groups hard to reach. Someone with a serious physical disability who lives in the Cambrian mountains has added difficulties. More prominence should be given not only to their difficulties in accessing polling stations but to the means by which they register. It is important that those in the other place focus on those questions, too.
We debated the dissemination of good practice and the role of the Electoral Commission. I am glad that Chris Ruane is in the Chamber. He has been in the Chamber a lot, but every time I have tried to congratulate Denbighshire on the excellent work it has undertaken, which he has brought to the attention of the House, he has not been present. I am glad to be able to say again that some really good work has been undertaken in Denbighshire and I look forward to the Electoral Commission’s being in a position to spread that practice around the country.
Had we made it a little further through today’s business, we would have reached my new clause 10 on ring-fenced resources. I hesitate to call it a probing amendment, because I am quite aware of what happened to my last probing amendment at the hands of the Opposition. New clause 10 was an intentioned attempt to have a debate on the significance of ring-fenced resources. If we agree on the goal and the aspiration, it is that this is about guaranteeing and ensuring that local authorities have the means to undertake the job they need to do.
Finally, I paint a scenario that is a worry, but it is not a worry that leads me into the hands of the Opposition or into the Lobby with them tonight. My worry leads me to remind the Government, as I support them, that it is urgent that we get the resources, responsibilities and delivery of accuracy and completeness right. I have 12,000 students in my Ceredigion constituency, largely living in HMOs and halls of residence. Some 11 Members of this House—two on them on the Labour Benches—have been students at Aberystwyth at some point in their careers. If we do not ensure that all those students have the capacity to register individually, that will have a huge and detrimental effect when we next have boundary changes. The Ceredigion constituency is likely to be altered significantly by the boundary changes, and the prospect of another large, beautiful chunk of mid and west Wales being added to it because we have not registered hard-to-reach groups in HMOs and our student halls of residence is a huge worry. That is why the Government need to tackle that with energy, enthusiasm and vigour and to get it right.
I hope that my friends on the Opposition Benches will not take offence if I say that in the early stages of the debate there was an air of conspiracy theories. I applaud the positive way in which the Opposition have tackled issues of concern, many of which I share, but I regret that that principle of consensus will not be carried forward in the vote tonight.
As always it is a pleasure to follow Mr Williams. I want briefly to outline where my party stands on the Bill.
Although we support the principle of individual electoral registration, we believe that the changes to electoral boundaries that are set to affect Westminster constituencies and possibly even National Assembly constituencies in Wales make the Bill far more contentious than it should have been. In an Opposition debate on this issue earlier this year, on Second Reading and in Committee, I warned that completeness of the register was now the major issue because of its effect on constituency sizes, a point that was made by the hon. Gentleman. Accuracy is important, but the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 has effectively moved the goalposts of electoral registration. This means that, more than ever, completeness of the register is more important because those who are not on it will have an impact on parliamentary representation for the whole community. It will not just impinge on their own rights to choose their MP or Assembly Member. That is why I believe that the EROs and the Electoral Commission have a very important role in getting completeness of the register and why they must have the resources to do so. That is why the ring-fencing point is so important. It is disappointing that we did not have a chance to debate that amendment in more detail.
I want to repeat the concerns about the possibility of a cliff-edge drop in electoral registration ahead of the next National Assembly elections in 2016. I hope that there will be regular updates via the Electoral Commission on the success of the EROs and the work they are doing on individual electoral reform to ensure that a cliff-edge drop in electors does not take place as it did in Northern Ireland when those reforms were implemented some years ago. That continues to be a major concern for us even at this late stage.
We have had a good debate on the principles and implementation of this legislation, although the concerns that I have consistently placed on the record—mostly about the effects of the 2011 Act—have, disappointingly, not been fully answered by Government Front Benchers. We will therefore be voting against the Government tonight.
It is a pleasure to speak on Third Reading—the final part of this long debate. My interest in these matters goes back not just over recent years but over the past 10 years.
Mr Williams mentioned that there was a feeling of conspiracy on the Opposition Benches and he is right. There are just reasons for that because there was a settled consensus in 2009 that this legislation would be introduced with support of both sides of the House by 2015. During that six-year period there was to be an opportunity to raise electoral registration levels to their maximum so that we could have a full analysis of the drop and get people back on the register. It was all agreed and cut and dried after many years of debate that the date would be 2015, but the first act of the coalition was to bring that consensual date forward by a year. That might have been happenstance or coincidence, or it might have been that it would benefit them.
Like my hon. Friend, I am not a conspiracy theorist, but one does not need to be a conspiracy theorist to look at the facts and see where this change and the redrawing of the boundaries came from. The Conservative party has learned from the United States, where the American Legislative Exchange Council, which backed and funded the Atlantic Bridge scheme in which senior Government members were involved, did exactly the same thing to make it more difficult for people to vote in local elections.
Absolutely. It was my hon. Friend himself who put me on to relevant websites. There are specific examples across the whole of the United States, and lo and behold they happen in Republican states. They call it voter frustration or voter suppression. There are examples of the poor and the black being kept off the register going back to the 1950s.
There is a feeling of conspiracy on the Opposition Benches because the date has been brought forward by one year. As I said, it might have been happenstance or coincidence, but I think it was a deliberate attempt to gain maximum political advantage first for the 2015 election and secondly for the redrawing of the freeze date for the next Boundary Commission in December 2015. There was particular concern on the Opposition Benches, and, I hope, on the Government Benches as well—I know that some senior Liberal Democrats were concerned—when the Electoral Commission said that the number of current unregistered voters was 6 million, not 3 million. I informed the House that I had told the Electoral Commission that two years previously and that it had said, “No.” Then it did the research and said, “Yes, you are right—it is 6 million but it is a different 6 million” from the figures I got from Experian. When it predicted that that 6 million would go to 16 million unregistered voters, we were at risk of becoming like a banana republic, with 40% of our electorate being off the register.
To go back to my hon. Friend’s previous point, does he share my surprise—astonishment, actually—that Government Front Benchers have never managed to come up with a decent reason why the carry-over register cannot be used for the boundary review in 2015?
I will come on to that point when I conclude my speech, but I share my hon. Friend’s concern.
There was a lack of co-operation at the start of this process. The Government were sure that they were absolutely right and that the independent Electoral Commission’s figures were nonsense. They initially dismissed the concerns of civic society, including Unlock Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society and Age Concern.
We can compare the Government’s approach with Labour’s attitude on the constitutional changes that we made during our 13 years in government. People may say that we did not do enough to get those who were unregistered back on the register. I would agree with them entirely, because I was knocking on Ministers’ doors—and Prime Ministers’ doors—to say that there was a problem, but it was not properly addressed. However, Labour cannot be accused of using those changes for party political advantage.
Let me set out a list of the constitutional changes that Labour implemented and the way in which we approached them. We changed the position in 2001 so that if someone did not put their name down for two years on the trot, they were taken off the register. That was the cause of the first big drop. Some 1 million to 2 million people came off the register as a result of the Labour Government’s action, and they were our voters. I thought it was daft, but we did it, even though it went against us.
In Scotland, a consensus was in place five years prior to devolution, meaning that everything had been squared with all sections of society. We introduced proportional representation for European elections when we did not need to, and we went from four Labour MEPs in Wales down to one.
Politically, they were all mistakes, but constitutionally it may have been the right thing to do.
When PR for local government was introduced in Scotland, Labour lost its natural base. Had we not introduced the change, we could have been in control of local government in Scotland. We also introduced devolution for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In 1997, we had a huge majority of 180, so we could have railroaded those proposals through and used first past the post for the devolved Administrations, but instead we used proportional representation. All Labour’s constitutional changes were neither party political nor politicised, and that is the big difference compared with this Government’s constitutional changes. The Deputy Prime Minister said that his proposals were the biggest constitutional change since 1832, and House of Lords reform is probably the biggest constitutional change since Magna Carta or 1066, but they are all being rushed through for party political advantage. A Government who use party political advantage on constitutional measures set a dangerous precedent because the party that comes in after them might do exactly the same thing, so it becomes a zero-sum game. Such measures should be taken forward with party political consensus.
I give some credit to the Government—this is the nice part of my speech, although there will be a sting in the tail—because, despite their initial position of intransigence, their Ministers then listened. That was only because the Opposition’s excellent Front-Bench team took the issues out to wider society, such as the Electoral Reform Society, Unlock Democracy and Age Concern. Those organisations held meetings in the House of Commons, took evidence and contacted the Government. The Electoral Commission, the independent monitoring voice, had massive concerns about the proposals. I also pay tribute to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee under its excellent Chair, my hon. Friend Mr Allen, which took evidence and produced a consensual report containing strong recommendations. Our Front-Bench team has shown strong leadership throughout the process.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned Denbighshire county council, and while I am giving out plaudits, I pay tribute to the council and its electoral registration officer, Gareth Evans, for increasing elector registrations in Vale of Clwyd from 47,000 to 57,000 over five years. I pay tribute also to the leadership of the chief executive, Mohammed Mehmet, who was the one who issued the letters to the non-responders, saying that if they did not fill in their electoral registration form, he would turn them over to the county council’s solicitors and they would be fined £1,000. That had a big impact and increased registration. Even in the Rhyl West ward, one of the poorest wards in the whole country, with 900 houses in multiple occupation, registration increased from 2,500 to 3,500 electors.
Now for the sting in the tail. I am pleased with the concessions made so far, but there are two outstanding concessions that we want. If the Minister were to say that he was prepared to listen to us on this, we may not vote against Third Reading. The first concession that we seek is on the next boundary date—2015. There needs to be a carry-over from the old register to the new register. The second is a carry-over for postal ballots. There can be no reason whatever for not accepting this, except party political advantage. I warn the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition to be very wary. The advantage will be for the Conservatives, and it will come up and bite the Liberal Democrats from behind in the inner cities, where they have some presence, and in the south-west, if they do not sort the issue out.
The House of Lords Reform Bill was printed today. It states that the freeze date for that election will be December 2011, so there will still be 6 million people missing from the register. Remember, those who are elected—the new Lords or senators or whatever they are—will be elected for a 15-year period, so if those 6 million people cannot participate in the first vote, they will have to wait about 18 years before they can have any influence on who represents them in the other place.
On electoral registration and issues to do with election, there has always been a degree of consensus in the House, which has ensured that it is not a political issue and that there is cross-party support for any changes that are introduced. But on the Bill and the boundary changes, we have seen a politicisation of the arguments.
We do not have to look very far to see where that came from. Individuals in the Conservative party were determined to use this Bill and the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill to gain political advantage. They learned that from the United States. One has only to look at the organisation called the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been trumpeting these changes which, as my hon. Friend Chris Ruane said, has made it more difficult for other people to register to vote or actually to vote in elections. That is exactly where the policy came from. What was the connection? The Atlantic Bridge, of which senior members of the Government were members, was supported and paid for by that organisation, which is sponsored mainly by wealthy right-wing neo-cons in the United States.
Has the Bill been improved? Yes, it has, because of the outrage that has been generated. I do not include in what I have just said the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper. He is increasingly becoming the Minister for dealing with sticky sticks. He is obviously going to—
I certainly did. I am far too polite to suggest anything other of the Minister. He is a fine gentleman. He dealt with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, he has had this Bill to deal with and he has Lords reform to deal with.
I look forward to the long debates that we will have on that. Overall, the hon. Gentleman has tried to do the right thing.
Has the Bill been improved, or have the most radical and extreme parts of it been expunged through the process of pre-legislative scrutiny and Committee? Yes. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd, I pay tribute to the Select Committee for the work that it has done, to the various outside bodies, such as Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society, and to the Electoral Commission, which focused on the fact that if the Bill had remained in its original format it could have changed democracy in this country. The idea of being able to opt out of the register was clearly designed to make things harder and push down the register in certain areas. Just by chance they are the inner-city seats that are mainly represented by the Labour party.
My hon. Friend refers to the fact that if the Bill had gone through in its original form it would have damaged democracy. Does he agree that we could have been looking at a British coup?
Yes, and that is what is sad about what the Bill has done. When any legislation to do with elections or boundaries came before the House it was always consensual. This has been highly political, as the opt-out clearly was.
The Liberal Democrats’ position is very strange. As I said the other day, it is the first time I have seen turkeys voting for Christmas. They are doing it yet again on this Bill. They think that they will get some advantage out of it, but I just do not see that at all.
I am still concerned about how the Government will deal with the penalty. If it is a derisory amount, will it be effective? I do not think that it will be. I wait for the Government to come forward with that. The measures were clearly designed to hamper registration and make it difficult for people to register to vote. As democrats, we should not only be encouraging people to vote, but also to get on the electoral register. As I said on Monday, the important thing is not only to get people on the register, but for it to be accurate.
A lot of things have changed since the last general election when the Liberal Democrats were in opposition, but I want to read what the then Liberal Democrat Member for Cambridge, David Howarth, said in the House on
“The validity and credibility of democratic elections depend both on the register being comprehensive and on its having a great deal of integrity. If the register is not comprehensive, it is not the electorate who are making a choice but some subset of the electorate. If it is not secure and we cannot be sure that the people whose votes are being counted are electors, that people are not voting more than once or that there is not fraud going on, equally there is a threat to democratic credibility…I do not think that anybody”—
[ Interruption .] If the Minister is patient, I am coming on to the issue around changing the date in terms of using the register for the 2015 boundaries.
The hon. Gentleman went on to say:
“I do not think that anybody was suggesting that the timetable be artificially shortened, or that any risk be taken with the comprehensiveness of the register.”—[Hansard, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 111-2.]
But that is exactly what the Government are doing and that is exactly the situation we will face if the carry-over is used for the 2015 boundaries. The Conservatives know exactly what they are doing. They know that the register will be depleted and, as my hon. Friend Wayne David said earlier, if the money assigned for electoral registration is not ring-fenced, in certain parts of the country no real effort will be put into ensuring that the register is as complete as possible, no matter how much guidance and encouragement is given nationally to local councils, and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd gave an example the other day relating to the leader of Islington council.
I also have great fears about the data matching. I think that it is a good idea to rely not just on the annual canvass, but to use other methods as well. Durham county council has pioneered that and my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly raised another good example. But if local councils are faced with budget cuts and they can get out of doing the annual canvass, they will, which will deplete the register even further. I think that the annual canvass will be more important in the early stages of individual registration than it is today. The only way to get to hard-to-reach communities practically will be through individual canvasses of those electorates, as my hon. Friend Dr Offord said excellently yesterday when speaking to his amendment, particularly in relation to disabled people and those who have difficulty either accessing the registration forms or filling them in. Therefore, I fear that there are things in the Bill that will be used by certain people to ensure not only that it is harder to get on the register, but that there are disincentives for doing so.
The most scandalous thing in the Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly has already said, is the carry-over relating to the 2015 boundary changes. It will be interesting to see what the Government do if there is a big drop, which is clearly possible. Clearly such a drop will not be in the more affluent areas represented mainly by the Conservative party. As my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson, said, it will be in the inner-city London constituencies such as his and others where the register will drop substantially. That will then affect the figures that will be used to draw up the new boundaries. They will therefore be artificial and will not truly reflect the electorates.
We should be encouraging people to get on the electoral register, but what the Government are aiming for here—we know why the Conservatives are doing it—is to ensure that those people are not taken into account when the new boundaries are drawn up. I will give an example from the present redrawing of the boundaries. Durham county council, when it came into being, took responsibility for electoral registration; before it was a unitary council, seven district councils were responsible. Registration was patchy in different parts and the councils all did it in different ways. I described the other day how in some areas, such as Derwentside, it was obvious to see that there were mistakes in the register but the council made no effort to address the gaps. When the county council took responsibility, it made a real effort to ensure that the register was as accurate as possible. It put over 12,000 missing electors on the register, and that had an impact on the boundary commission’s deliberations for the recommendations in the latest redrawing of boundaries. In the city of Durham, for example, a lot of students were not on the register, but they were put on and that had an effect, so there is clearly going to be an effect if we do not have such a carry-over. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee was very clear about that, and its Chair said:
“There are real risks in moving to a new system, not least that people with the right to vote could fall off the electoral roll in large numbers. This would be damaging to democracy, to public engagement in politics, and to the fairness of the basis on which MPs are elected.”
That is fundamental, and if we read the report we find that, even though the Committee has a Labour Chair, those sentiments are shared across the political spectrum.
Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg of the university of Liverpool said in evidence on
“If we do see a large number of people drop off the registers, even if in all likelihood they are not going to vote, that will have a profound implication for the redrawing of boundaries under the new rules that have just gone through.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly asked, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd did earlier, I think, whether the Government have provided a good explanation for introducing the measure. No, they have not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly said that, in the previous Parliament when we introduced individual registration, there was consensus on the timetable, and it is more important to get the measure right and to make the register comprehensive than it is to do what the Conservative party in the coalition is doing, which is to make it more difficult to create an accurate register, meaning that the boundaries will be affected when they are redrawn.
The other strange thing that I cannot understand is why those who have postal and proxy votes will not be carried over, either. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly referred to his 86-year-old mother, and her situation will be replicated throughout the country by disabled people and people who have had postal votes for many years, as they will think that, because they have one, it will continue on and on. It will not. If we do not engage with those individuals, we will find that large numbers of a very vulnerable section of society, are disfranchised. My hon. Friend said that MIND and other pressure groups dealing with that section of society have argued against the measure, but the Government seem to be ignoring them, and in Committee of the whole House I did not hear any explanation for it.
Major changes have been made to the Bill, and it is better than the one we started with, but it still has within it that bit of poison, which the Conservatives will use in their attempt to gerrymander the next boundary review, and that is why I will not support it on Third Reading.
On behalf of members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who have taken part in various stages of the debate, I acknowledge the thanks that have been given to the Committee for the job that we have done. It is a good example of how to deal with legislation, and I hope that there will be many more such opportunities.
I am not sure that we will offer ourselves up for the next piece of constitutional legislation, however, because that might delay it even further, and if we spent several months on it, as we could, it would definitely be kicked into the long grass. Therefore, I can see why the Government may not be so keen to send it to the Committee, but in general such scrutiny is important, because it gives people the opportunity, in a much less stressed and antagonistic atmosphere, to go through the difficult bits of legislation and to get people in to explain what really would not work. We should do more of that.
As with many of these things, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. If not enough resources are put into the effort to carry out individual voter registration, it will be extremely difficult. We know how different various parts of the country are. We even know how different various parts of a city or a constituency are. In some parts of my constituency, one can go down a road of bungalows or other houses and find that virtually every household is registered; the only one that might not be is where somebody has only just moved in. In other places, it is almost frightening how few people are registered. In some cases, the household has been registered in the past but those people have moved away and the next lot of tenants have moved in.
There is no doubt that getting people registered is very challenging, especially if local authorities do not put the effort and resources into it because they themselves are not properly resourced. I see the benefit of ring-fencing in that respect. In a debate earlier today, I spoke about council tax and council tax benefit. Ring-fencing is not a bad thing—it can be very useful, and this might be an occasion when it would be. The differential resources and the different sorts of efforts that will be needed to keep registration up will be a crucial factor. It is important to give people the chance to vote. We have all encountered people on election day who suddenly discover that they cannot vote because they are not registered, although they wanted to do so and had been listening to all the coverage. We might say, “Ah, well, if people haven’t registered they probably won’t vote anyway, so it doesn’t matter”, but it does matter.
Registration is important in terms of changes to the size of constituencies as part of the difficult process of boundary changes. People will understand that there is a worry, particularly with differential registration, that the next round of boundary changes will be affected. I still hope that the Government will be prepared, even at this late stage, to reconsider the Select Committee’s recommendation on the next set of boundary changes.
Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The House proceeded to a Division.
I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the Aye Lobby.
The House having divided: