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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It gives me great pleasure to move the Second Reading of the Overseas Voters Bill. The Bill was brought forward in the last Session of the last Parliament, in the run-up to the general election. At that stage, I had a very helpful response from Mr Gyimah who was then Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office, who said that the Bill’s key element would be incorporated in the Conservative party manifesto and implemented after the general election. As a result, we had in our manifesto a commitment to take action on this issue.
I brought the Bill forward because too many British citizens living abroad are not entitled to vote in general elections in this country. Although the Electoral Commission made a big effort towards the end of the last Parliament, in the run-up to the general election, to register overseas electors, an answer given to me on
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this Bill to the House’s attention. I am listening to his very good speech with huge interest. He said that 105,000 overseas electors are registered. What is the total number who could be registered were they all identified, as his Bill suggests they should be?
Just to clarify, the figures are a little unclear, as my hon. Friend says. It looks as though about 2 million may be eligible to vote at the moment, and another 3 million or 4 million on top of that might be enfranchised were we to get rid of the 15-year rule in due course. However, as I suggested, all figures should be treated with a degree of caution, because this is so uncertain.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. What he is saying is that, of the 2 million who are eligible at the moment, we registered only 100,000, and many fewer than that actually voted. There is potentially a pool of a lot more who could be registered if the Bill went through and we were able to allow all British citizens living overseas to participate in our democracy.
That, of course, is what happens in a lot of other countries. Some of those countries organise—indeed, facilitate—voting by their overseas citizens at embassies, consulates and other such places. In the recent Turkish elections, the President of Turkey, in a neutral capacity, spent a lot of time visiting other countries in Europe—mainly countries with a significant number of Turkish expatriates—to speak directly to them to encourage them to participate in the election.
So what would be the benefit of this? Apart from the benefit to democracy, it would assist in campaigns such as one that I very strongly support, which is the campaign for an end to the discrimination against British pensioners living overseas. It would mean that those who are campaigning to ensure that there is equal treatment between British pensioners living overseas and those living in the United Kingdom would have more clout. At the moment, there are a handful of these people in each constituency able to vote, and they cannot really make a difference in the general election, but if more of them were eligible to vote, and did vote, they would be able to lobby much more effectively and we might find that the Government were more responsive to their concerns than they seem to be at the moment.
The campaigns that my hon. Friend is mounting for electoral justice and pensioner justice are legendary. I am glad that he managed to persuade the Government to include in the manifesto a commitment on electoral justice. With regard to British pensioners living overseas, presumably Her Majesty’s Government know who these people are and where they live, and they are in receipt of at least some element of their pension. Therefore, given the terms of this Bill, it should not be too difficult for the Electoral Commission to put them on the list and get them registered.
My hon. Friend makes a really good point; as he says, it should not be too difficult. In the run-up to the previous election, I encouraged the Foreign Office to try to get people registered. I also tried to get information out of the Department for Work and Pensions about enabling it to communicate directly with pensioners. The 15-year rule makes it more difficult to run these registration campaigns, because the DWP does not know whether an overseas pensioner has been living overseas for more than 15 years, and removing the rule would make it much easier for it to campaign effectively. When I was at a meeting discussing these issues with a member of our embassy staff in Berlin, he told me of the efforts being made to try to get expats living there to participate in voting, and I am sure that such efforts were made. However, as is apparent from the figures, there is an enormously long way to go. When my hon. Friend the Minister responds, I am sure he will say that this Bill is premature, as most of my Bills are, but I hope he will also say what the Government are going to do about implementing their manifesto commitment.
It is currently a cause of a great deal of frustration for British overseas residents that they are going to find it very difficult to participate in the European referendum. Some cynics have said that it would be better if we did not allow large numbers from overseas to participate in that referendum, but I think it would be desirable for the maximum number of British citizens to be able to do so. After all, we are going to allow Commonwealth citizens and Irish citizens living in this country to participate, so why were the Government unable to bring forward the Bill to facilitate the extension of the 15-year rule sooner in this Session so that it could have had a part to play in the referendum eligibility campaign?
Surely the whole point about electoral registration is that we register people who we believe have the right to cast their ballot. We never register people on the basis of which way we think they might vote in a particular election or referendum.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Too often, we allow cynics outside to misrepresent our policy positions. I think that all democrats would say that the maximum number of British citizens should be entitled to vote and encouraged to participate in our democracy, and that, in essence, is what this Bill is about.
Clause 3 deals with internet voting. This is a controversial subject, but I think that if we are ever to go down the road of internet voting, the starting point should be people living overseas.
My hon. Friend and I have been very close friends for some while, but I am concerned that internet voting could be open to fraud. How would he seek to deal with that issue?
Fraud is rife in most electronic transactions, but despite that, a very large number of people are prepared to trust their banking arrangements to being dealt with online. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is now going to make it more or less compulsory for small businesses to do their tax returns online on a quarterly basis. My hon. Friend makes a perfect reasonable point: there is always scope for fraud. That is why I would not suggest massive internet voting on a universal basis from the outset, but it would be sensible to start off with a reasonable experiment. For example, we could perhaps start with members of our armed forces who are serving overseas. We might be able to develop a secure system for dealing with them.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think it odd that he wants to make it a lot easier for people living abroad to vote, but this Government want to make it a lot more difficult, through individual registration, for people to register to vote in this country?
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise. The Government are keen to ensure that we have individual voter registration so that there is less identity fraud at polling stations and through postal votes. I supported that when I was a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the previous Parliament.
Order. We are not debating UK domestic issues. I know the hon. Gentleman would not want to drift away from his point.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I am intrigued by his proposition on internet voting. As a fellow member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the previous Parliament, I can bear testament to his prowess and knowledge. He rightly mentioned utilising the armed forces in an experiment on overseas voting. Perhaps Skyping could be used as a method, because face recognition on computers is now very sophisticated; indeed, we use it in airports across this country and in Europe. Does he agree that this could be a way ahead for internet voting by armed forces in overseas territories?
I have to admit to not being an expert in this area at all. If my children were here, they would say to me, “When did you last Skype?”, and the answer would be, “Never.” I know that there is such a thing as Skyping, that other members of my family participate in it, and that it is a very inexpensive way of communicating with friends and family overseas. I imagine that it would fall within the term, “internet voting”. However, I do not have the expertise to be able to answer my hon. Friend’s question about whether it would be possible to secure a system of Skyping that would be proof against fraud or misrepresentations. I leave that to the Minister and his officials.
In clause 3 I do not try to set out a prescriptive arrangement for internet voting. That is because this is a really good example of where regulations should be brought forward by the Government using their expertise rather than relying on albeit gifted amateurs to do the job for them. The clause says that the Government “shall bring forward regulations”, and, in subsection (2), that they
“shall include provisions to prevent identity fraud and to ensure that only those eligible to vote can vote.”
I anticipate that clause 3 might cause most difficulty when the Bill goes into Committee. Is it not the case that it has never been easier to register an individual to vote and that increasingly that is being done over the internet? That will be of great encouragement to overseas voters, because they should be easily able to register themselves in this country.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Clause 3 addresses internet voting rather than internet registration, which is an important distinction. It is already possible to register on the internet, which, as my hon. Friend says, is a popular form of registration. A lot of young people used the internet to get themselves on the electoral register in the run-up to the last general election.
This is a short and relatively simple and straightforward Bill, and I commend it to the House.
I congratulate Mr Chope on promoting this Bill. I for one appreciate his determination, having promoted a similar Bill last year. Like that Bill, this one has three main provisions. First, it would require the Electoral Commission to register overseas voters; secondly, it would remove the limit on how long British people can live overseas before they lose the right to vote; thirdly, it would allow internet voting for overseas voters.
It is good that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are so eager to make progress on internet voting, but the Trade Union Bill, which is currently passing through the Lords, shows that the Government are wholly opposed to any suggestion of internet voting for the trade union movement. I say that merely as a point of clarification.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s interest in extending the franchise and in modernising the electoral system. However, given the Conservative party’s record on excluding voters through the rushed implementation of individual electoral registration and, indeed, its opposition to votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, I am somewhat perplexed that he has not done more to challenge his party on those particular issues.
Labour consistently warned the Government of the dangers of removing the last Labour Government’s safeguards for the introduction of IER. We also warned of the dangers of bringing forward the date of the point of transition—
Order. As I said earlier, unfortunately this is about overseas voters. I can understand that we want to go over different ways of voting, but we have to remain on the issue of overseas voting. That is what the Bill is about.
That is absolutely first-class advice, Mr Deputy Speaker. On the parliamentary process and attempts to get individuals to vote, the latest Office for National Statistics figures and Electoral Commission data, which were published only this week and are really important, show that more than 1.4 million people have fallen off the electoral register since the introduction of IER.
Order. I am trying to be as helpful as I can. If the hon. Gentleman could combine that point with the number of overseas voters who have not been registered—that is the issue—and compare the two, that would be a way forward.
As ever, I accept your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wish I did have the figures for those living abroad, but, as has been said, it is very difficult to ascertain them. The only figures we have are those for individual voters in the UK, but I fully accept and understand what you have said.
Elections in May will include those to the devolved institutions in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, the London mayoral election, and the police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. Then—just in case somebody has missed this—at the end of June we will have a rather serious referendum to decide whether this country will continue to be a member of the European Union. The Electoral Commission will play an important role overseeing all those elections. Personally, I do not think it would be wise for this House to say that, in addition, the commission should make the registration of overseas voters a priority. I hope and expect that the commission will continue its grand efforts of previous years in encouraging British people living overseas to register to vote, which is so important, but if there is to be a priority, surely it must be to ensure that all prospective voters who live in the UK are on the list.
The figures I have cited are alarming, but I will not mention them again, for fear of being pulled up by you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is important, however, to recognise the changes taking place in our democracy. We have to understand that the voting process is a central plank of our democratic process, both at home and abroad.
Clause 2 proposes abolishing the current 15-year limit on an overseas voter’s ability to participate in UK elections. We have no objection to reviewing the time limits on eligibility. There is nothing sacred about the 15-year limit. It has not always been 15 years: it has been 20 years and five years in the past, but now it has settled at 15 years. As the hon. Gentleman has said, there are different rules in different countries. However, if we are to consider changing the limit, or even removing it completely, as has been argued, I do not believe that that should be done in isolation. It should happen as part of a wider review of how we can increase participation in elections in general.
The Conservative party made a manifesto commitment to abolishing the 15-year rule, and we are still waiting for the votes for life Bill to be introduced. Although we have no objection to that in principle, if we want to extend the franchise the Government should look again at giving the right to vote to 16 and 17-year-olds in this country. We should learn the lesson of what happened in Scotland, which enthused people and brought them into the parliamentary process. They felt that they were valued. We should take a leaf out of the Scottish book.
Clause 3 would give overseas voters a chance to vote online. We need to do more to make sure that our electoral process better reflects the busy lives that people lead. That could and should include trialling electronic and online voting. However, I am not wholly convinced by the hon. Gentleman’s arguments about why overseas voters should be the first to try out such a system.
We are unable to support the Bill, for the reasons I have given. I am sceptical of some of the clauses and the priority given to overseas voters, because of all our other concerns about electoral matters.
I understand that this is the hon. Gentleman’s maiden Front-Bench speech on a Friday; he is making a very good fist of it, if I may say so. He says that he does not believe the Bill to be a priority, but does he not think there is something really wrong with our democracy if some 6 million British citizens are not able to participate in it? Surely that should be a top priority.
I fully understand that, but I would not categorise it as a priority. Some 7.5 million people in the UK are not registered, and since the introduction of IER a further 1.4 million people have dropped off the register. The Opposition fully agree that we need to look at encouraging participation in voting, but we do not see overseas voting as a major priority. It should be part of a concerted effort to get as many people as we can to vote. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman and I are too far apart on that, other than on the question of what should be a priority.
The Labour party’s position is that we would like to investigate the potential for that. As I have just said, it is important to remember that people have busy lives and they work. As well as online voting, there are other options that we would like to look at, which could play a major role. We have to try to open it up. Perhaps we need to look at polling day. Why is it on a Thursday from 7 am until 10 pm? How long has that been the case? It is generally accepted across the Chamber that we need to look at more innovative ways to encourage people—whether overseas or in this country—to vote and to take part in the democratic process. I do not think the hon. Gentleman and I are too far apart on those issues. It is perhaps, as I mentioned to the hon. Member for Christchurch, just a case of why one should be a priority and others not.
We need to look at the question collectively and try to come up with a way to encourage people to get out there and vote. As politicians, that is really what we want. There are 5.5 million British citizens living abroad, and I think the hon. Gentleman said that only 100,000 of them were registered to vote. To be honest, the figure that I have is 20,000, so it was news to me that that number had somehow multiplied by five. I am encouraged by that, but we need to encourage people into the process, and we can do that together across parties.
On a point of clarification, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the figure was closer to 20,000 about a year or a year and a half ago, before the last general election. In the run-up to the last general election, a huge effort was made to drive up the level of overseas registration, and it was pretty successful. The trouble was that we went from an absurdly low number to a pathetically low number. We are still only on about 5% of those who are eligible to vote. The figure is massively better and we should celebrate it, but we still have a heck of a long way to go.
I thank the Minister for that point of clarification. I thought I had got my figures wrong. We have, as the Minister correctly points out, some way to go. That is the case not just overseas, but here in the UK. Millions of people who are eligible to vote are not even registered. It is an electoral crisis, and we need cross-party agreement on how we can deliver something much more democratic than what we have at the moment.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that extending the franchise is no good for democracy if, in so doing, we encourage or allow fraud to take place? Does he agree, therefore, that in any widening of the franchise or in any proposal to bring forward internet use, we must make sure that it is copper-bottomed certain that fraud cannot take place?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Christchurch. If we are to look at an alternative means of voting in whatever type of election, it has got to be copper bottomed. It has got to be so secure that it contains no mechanism for failure. It is an innovative idea and a new vision, but we have got to get it right. People feel more secure now about internet banking and lots of other things that they do on the internet, and they have to feel secure if they are to participate in that way. It is really important that we get security right from day one.
As I mentioned, the hon. Member for Christchurch is to be congratulated on raising these issues, many of which will undoubtedly come back to the House in time. In reality, the Government do not have a good record when it comes to making changes to our democracy, and with the changes to the parliamentary boundaries, I fear that that record will only deteriorate. However, as I have explained, we in the Opposition should look to work together with the Minister and his colleagues in a cross-party way to ensure that when people go to vote, they feel that they are participating in a genuinely open and fair process.
I rise to support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend Mr Chope. I am grateful to him for allowing my name to appear as one of his supporters on the back page. I commend him for his excellent speech, but I want to condemn his remark that he feels as though his Bill is premature, because I do not think it is premature at all. He has introduced the Bill to advance a manifesto commitment in a week in which the Government seem to have backtracked on several manifesto commitments, especially with regard to our pledges on the renegotiation of our settlement with the European Union. I congratulate him on the fact that his Bill is commendably short and therefore highly understandable and digestible for everyone.
My right hon. Friend demonstrates that by his presence here today. I know that the subject of the Bill is being talked about in the pubs and clubs of Yorkshire, and he has brought the concerns of the people of Yorkshire to the House. On the south coast, where my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch comes from, the subject is the talk of the town. It is an extremely serious issue. The figures that my hon. Friend has revealed to the House will shock the nation.
I have been down to the south of France quite a bit to talk to members of Conservatives Abroad. Believe me, this is quite a big issue for them.
My hon. Friend’s speaking tour of the continent is famous, and I am sure will become legendary as time goes on. I have to disappoint him, however, because hedgehogs are not included in the Bill.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is talking about continental hedgehogs or world hedgehogs, not UK hedgehogs; otherwise he is going off the subject.
Hedgehogs overseas will not be eligible for registration, but I know that my hon. Friend Oliver Colvile is committed to the issue of overseas voter registration, as I am. He will share my shock, on behalf of our constituents, at the figures that have been revealed to the House today. Will the Minister be kind enough to intervene on me in a moment to give us the total number of electors in this country, so that we can establish the proportion represented by the 6 million potential overseas voters as a percentage of the total UK electorate?
I think the figure is roughly 44 million. If I get more precise divine inspiration, I may help my hon. Friend out a little more, but it is that sort of ballpark figure.
I am most grateful for that intervention, and that is the sort of figure that I had in mind. We are now aware that there are potentially 6 million British voters, in addition to the 44 million who are currently registered, who could take part in UK general elections but who are unable to do so because they are not registered. That is a shockingly large figure, and I am surprised that the Government are not giving the issue more priority. Surely, with our traditions of empire and of spreading good government and democracy around the world, we would at the very least want to encourage those 6 million British citizens who are living abroad to retain their franchise in this country and their ability to participate democratically in the future of what is still their nation. I think the nation would be very surprised by the fact that there are 6 million people living abroad whom most of us would like to take part in UK elections.
Clause 1 of this excellent Bill would enable those 6 million British citizens to take part only in
“United Kingdom Parliamentary elections if they were registered to vote”.
Although the provision is fantastic, I would want to take it further. It seems to me that it is important that British citizens living abroad should be able to take part in local government and mayoral elections if they want to do so. At the moment, an EU citizen living in this country quite rightly cannot take part in UK parliamentary elections, or at least they cannot do so yet—that may change if we decide to remain in the European Union—but they can take part in local government elections. It seems to me that British citizens, whether they live in this country or abroad, should be able to participate in all elections at every level of the democratic franchise. If I had the good fortune to end up on the Public Bill Committee, I would seek to amend clause 1(a) to extend the franchise to local government elections.
Does my hon. Friend not recognise that local government is about delivering local services? If people do not physically live in the place where those public services are delivered, it seems to me rather strange for them to vote in local elections.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. However, overseas voters do not physically live in this country, but that does not mean that they are not interested in its future direction. It is true that they do not receive specific local government services where they last lived, they would still be interested in the future direction of their former local area. Many overseas voters also have close family relatives living in the same local government area.
That leads me to another point, which is about where overseas voters should be registered. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will have received, as I and I am sure most Members have received, correspondence from British pensioners living overseas about the fact that they are not entitled to the full uprating of the state pension in some countries, which is an extremely important issue. I always go back to those who contact me to ask, “Can you tell me if you were previously a resident in Kettering, because I am not sure why you’re contacting me?” For those who say that they used to live in Kettering and give me their former address, I have been very happy to take up their cause with the appropriate Minister. When overseas voters are registered, it is very important that they are registered in the last place they lived in this country. It should not be too difficult to ensure that the system works in that way.
Hon. Members have spoken about clause 3. I have concerns about internet voting. However, it is quite clear that it has never been easier to enter oneself on the electoral register on the internet, and that should encouraged for British citizens living overseas.
I was interested in the remarks of the Labour spokesman, Ian Lavery. I congratulate him on his debut performance on the Front Bench. How refreshing it is to see that a man of his calibre—he is closer than most of his colleagues to the beating heart of the Labour party outside the Chamber—has made his way on to the Front Bench. It seems to me that there is hope for the Labour party when Members of his quality can represent it in that way, and I think that trend should be encouraged.
On all these electoral issues, we must make sure that as many people as possible who should be able to vote actually end up doing so. We should not try to predict which way people are going to vote on any particular issue. The important point is that British overseas voters should be able to fulfil their civic duty in retaining their right to participate in the British franchise. The Bill seeks to encourage that. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is not premature in bringing forward the Bill. I hope that the Government will respond positively to his crusade for electoral justice, and I am sure we all look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I join in the chorus of congratulations for my hon. Friend Mr Chope on introducing the Bill. I completely agree with my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone that it is not necessarily premature. I prefer the adjectives “forward-thinking” and “far-sighted”, if I may put it that way, because my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is absolutely right to observe that it was a manifesto commitment at the recent general election.
My hon. Friend is therefore heading in a direction that we would wholeheartedly endorse. I will take issue with the details of how he proposes to do it—I have concerns about the practicalities—but we are absolutely on the same page about the principle and about not dilly-dallying and shilly-shallying, or generally not according it a high priority. I want to reassure him that a great deal of work is going on at the moment. I can tell him that parliamentary draftsmen are even now beavering away at high speed on a Bill with all sorts of different possible working titles, including the overseas electors Bill and the overseas voters Bill. We are definitely not hanging around; we are moving forward with it. As he will appreciate—he will be more aware of this than most, having introduced this private Member’s Bill—many important details need to be got right if we are to enfranchise this important group. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering is quite right to observe that this is a tremendously important extension of our franchise that will in many cases extend democratic rights to those whom people would think or expect to have the vote.
I should say up front that I was delighted to hear that the Labour party is very happy at least to consider, and has no objection to reviewing, the question of whether the rule should be set at 15 years. Ian Lavery is absolutely right to observe that other countries set that time limit at different points. In fact, our country has set it at different dates in the past, so there is not necessarily a right or a wrong moment. The figure of 15 years is quite arbitrary, so I am encouraged by the fact that he is willing to participate constructively in a review.
I thank my hon. Friend for saying that the Government wish to introduce such a Bill, but what is his timetable for producing legislation that might support much of what our hon. Friend Mr Chope is proposing?
I am afraid that I must fall back on the response “in due course”, to use that timeworn parliamentary phrase, rather than give my hon. Friend a firm date. However, I assure him that work is going on right now and that we are not hanging around. I will have to leave it at that, but I hope to be able to provide further clarity—in due course.
I am enjoying the Minister’s speech hugely and I am encouraged by what he has said so far. Will he do the House a service by placing the 15-year limit in context? We have not yet heard where it comes from, who imposed it and why. There is growing consensus that it needs to be abolished.
As the hon. Member for Wansbeck acknowledged, the 15-year rule is a bit of a hybrid. The limit has been as low as five years and as high as 20 years. Successive Governments have extended it or narrowed it over time. I do not want to be too specific about its history. The point behind the observation of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering is that, because the line has been moved about several times under successive Governments, it is inherently arbitrary to choose a particular length of time that people have been away. The Government made a manifesto commitment to enfranchise all British citizens, no matter how long they have been abroad, because we think that choosing
15 years, as opposed to 14 or 16 years, is inherently like sticking a dart in a dartboard. We need to say that if British citizens maintain British citizenship that brings with it rights, obligations and a connection with this country, and that that should endure.
I am encouraged by the Labour party’s view. I welcome the fact that it is willing to embark on a review of the 15-year rule. I also welcome the hon. Member for Wansbeck’s comments about the need for a cross-party approach to driving up registration among all under-represented groups, regardless of where they live—whether they are resident in the UK or abroad. He is absolutely right to point out that there are a succession of groups who are less represented and less registered than others. His colleague, Gloria De Piero, wrote to me recently about students. They are one of the less well-represented groups. Some black and minority ethnic communities are also less well represented. Ex-patriots are the worst of all in terms of the percentage of rates of registration—down at about 5%, as we have heard from earlier speeches. They are probably the least well represented of all the under-represented groups.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and others made the point that we cannot—we would all, as politicians or democrats, be diminished if we did—proceed purely on the basis of narrow party political advantage. It is far better, as the hon. Member for Wansbeck observed, to proceed on the basis of what is right for democracy. We must proceed on a cross-party basis without working out which particular groups might be more likely to favour his party or mine. If we all drive up registration in all groups on that basis, we will improve our democratic credentials and reduce voter cynicism very dramatically. That cynicism is perhaps one of the more corrosive influences not just in reducing levels of voter registration but levels of voter turnout—people who are registered but choose not to exercise their vote. We are all familiar with that problem, and cynicism about politics, the political process and politicians is a key driver of it.
One thing we are trying to do, in improving both the registration process and the reasons for encouraging people to register, is to make registration more convenient, simpler, easier, cheaper and more efficient—what we call the plumbing of registration. We want to make it less of a hassle to get registered.
I am happy to confirm that to my right hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. That has not been part of our democratic tradition in this country. It could, of course, be decided and introduced after debate, but it was not in our party’s manifesto and it is not part of our current plans.
On registration, a point I have made many times—it fell on deaf ears in the coalition Government; I hope that will not be the case today—is that those in almost all under-represented groups will have had some contact or multiple contacts with Government agencies of one sort or another, whether in relation to benefits, passports, applications for this or applications for that. Why can we not have a simple cross-governmental rule that every time somebody comes into contact with a Government agency they are asked the question, “Are you on the electoral register?” If the answer is no, they could then be told how to register.
My hon. Friend gave a good example with regard to pensions, saying that the Department for Work and Pensions will inevitably have a list of people to whom it is paying pensions. That one cogent example should therefore allow an opportunity to provide the kind of nudge he talks about. I can confirm that we have trialled a series of links on various Government website pages to do what he describes. We are currently investigating whether that can be extended more broadly across more Government services, so that any time anybody living abroad or in a domestic under-represented group comes into contact with the British state we can provide a nudge for them to get registered. We are looking at that extremely carefully, as it seems like it could be a very sensible way of proceeding. It may not be the whole answer—in some cases it may not be a very effective answer and in others it may be highly effective—but it is certainly something we want to pursue.
As my hon. Friend may know, I represent a naval garrison city with a large military presence. How can we ensure that more military personnel are registered? I have to say that I have found registration levels to be very disappointing.
Special registration arrangements for service personnel and Crown servants are already in place. Special registration systems allow them to register in a slightly different, and I hope more convenient, way than other ex-patriots living in other parts of the world.
What we have encountered, not only in relation to service personnel and Crown servants but other ex-patriots, is that for those people living abroad who are registered to vote and have also enrolled for a postal vote, which they need to do as well, the two processes are not necessarily as linked up as they might be. They may be registered to vote but not automatically registered for a postal vote, even if they thought they were. Sometimes postal vote forms have arrived too late, depending on where they are in the world and the efficiency of the postal service. What we have tried to do more recently, therefore, is change the guidelines, in conjunction with the Electoral Commission, to ensure that postal vote forms are sent out earlier, with sufficient postage on them and so on, and that the overseas postal vote forms can in future be sent out among the earliest batches in each local constituency to make sure that the chances of them arriving in time in every part of the world are maximised. All those measures will help to drive up both registration rates and voting rates.
This issue is not just about the plumbing of registration and voting. Those things are important and I am sure we can make significant improvements to them and get more people in under-represented groups to register and, with any luck, help them to vote. This is not just about plumbing, however; it is also about poetry. There are some groups who are not registered, not because it is inconvenient or because they have not got around to it, but because they view the political process with cynicism or suspicion. Again, this is where a cross-party approach to try to enthuse, convince and persuade people that the answer to their cynicism about the way politics and the democratic process works is to get involved, not to avoid the whole process. If one party tried to do that on its own, it would be far less effective than if we joined hands. Indeed, it is not just up to politicians. We need to joins hands not just across the political spectrum but with civic society groups right the way across the spectrum. We are already doing some of those things. Incidentally, the Electoral Commission is also trying to work in this fashion, too. I welcome the Labour party’s offer of a cross-party approach. I absolutely and would dearly like to pursue that with it if I can. I have already mentioned this to the hon. Member for Wansbeck’s Opposition Front-Bench colleague. The hon. Member for Ashfield is not here today, but she and I have had conversations in the past. It is absolutely the right way to go.
The Electoral Commission understands the importance of not just the plumbing but the poetry, if I may use that analogy. For example, it announced in the course of the past week a collaboration with the writers of “Hollyoaks”. I understand—I hope I am not acting as a terrible plot-spoiler here, Mr Deputy Speaker—that they intend to blend through the storyline of that soap an encouragement to register and information about why it is important to register, how to register and so on. That is something I would hope we all support.
Does my hon. Friend also recognise that “The Archers”, and not just “Hollyoaks”, has a significant part to play? It is a very good soap opera, and would it not be wonderful were it to start talking about people abroad?
I think it is time I joined in. Whatever we do, we are not going around the soaps. We are talking about overseas registration, not plots about registration in the UK.
You are absolutely right, Mr Deputy Speaker, although I would observe that many of these soaps are also watched by overseas and expatriate voters living abroad, but I shall move on before I try your patience any further.
The Bill also deals with internet voting, which is potentially a very important area. It is interesting that we all increasingly take for granted the use of the internet for more and more things. If someone said 10 years ago that a large proportion of us—if not yet a majority—would be using internet banking or shopping, people would have been very surprised, yet here we are, and it is increasingly a part of normal life in this country. If online voting is not already happening—some, like him, are already asking the question—it will certainly start to happen in due course. People will start to ask, “Why can we not vote online?” The trade union movement has already asked the question, while other organisations are starting to use internet voting for some issues.
That said, my hon. Friend Oliver Colvile rightly asked about the fraud issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has built this into clause 3. There is an important point here about fraud prevention. While we are increasingly used to online banking and shopping, and those sorts of things, if, in those cases, something goes wrong, broadly speaking, the bank or credit or debit card company—or whoever it might be—will usually stand behind the transaction and take the risk from the consumer. That is perfectly acceptable for commercial transactions. The difficulty is that it is extremely hard to work out whether a vote has been intercepted and potentially subverted—switched from a vote for Labour to a vote for the Conservative party, or from an aye to a no in a referendum—especially given that we have secret ballots, which are an essential part of our democracy. At the same time, the stakes could not be higher. Clearly, stealing the government of a country is an incredibly serious issue, and one that it would be extremely hard to unpick afterwards, in the way we can unpick a faulty commercial transaction, make good the money and undertake a forensic analysis.
I am not saying we do not expect online voting to happen in due course, but I believe that the fraud issues are not yet resolved. I am sure that the technology will continue to advance and be ready at some point, and that we will have a robust and transparently solid political and democratic process that will allow this to happen, but we are not yet there. However, given the way the world is moving—it is happening in more and more areas of our lives—it would be a brave man who said it will never happen, even if, like my hon. Friend, they are not that familiar with Skype. I suspect it is a question of when, not if, but I am afraid that, at the moment at least, the answer is, “Not yet”.
I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch on introducing the Bill, and I reassure him that we are working extremely hard and hope to bring forward a Bill that will do many of the things that his proposes, including getting rid of the 15-year rule and enfranchising British citizens living abroad. In parallel to but separately from the Bill, we are trying to drive up registration among under-represented groups, including expatriates.
I will clarify that: it is not currently part of our proposals, because we do not yet think the technology is safe enough. We will keep the technology under continual review, and at some point there might be a democratic consensus that it has become safe enough, but that moment is not now.
To conclude, we welcome the intention behind the Bill and remain committed to the manifesto pledge.
We will introduce our version of it, which I hope will be different in technicalities but congruent in direction with getting rid of the 15-year rule and therefore enfranchising all missing voters. In parallel, we will introduce new measures, on a cross-party basis if possible, to find those under-represented groups, whether they are overseas or domestic voters, and to drive up registration wherever we can. With that, I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured and feel able to withdraw the Bill, while he waits for our Bill to arrive, which I hope will not be too much longer. 10.35 am
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his response, and I am delighted to hear that, even as we speak, parliamentary counsel are struggling with the detail of what I hope will be not just a Government Bill, but Government regulations to go with it, so that there is not a long gap between the Bill and the regulations. It is often much better if the draft regulations can be produced at the same time as the Bill. If that is the reason for the delay, I will be prepared to accept that, because it is much easier for the House to consider a Bill when it has the regulations—the detailed implementation scheme—before it. I can understand that it has not been possible to do that. I was disappointed with the expression “in due course”, but I can assure him that, if we have not made progress by the time of the next Queen’s Speech—whenever that might be—I shall seek to resurrect the Bill in the next Session and to keep the pressure on the Government.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone for his generous remarks, but I am not sure I agree with his views about extending clause 1 to local government elections. That would involve a complex interaction, because, at the moment, EU citizens resident here can participate in local elections—the trigger is their residence here. If we said that non-British people not resident could participate in local government elections, that would be a significant extension and might have serious implications. Before we knew it—although this will, I hope, be sorted out on
With those remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.