My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)
Amendment No. 1 simply states that the words "British citizen" ought to be added to the Bill. I was surprised when I came to read the Bill to find that the legislation setting out the right of a citizen of this country to be on the electoral register did not include the words "British citizen". It says,
"either a Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland".
The words, "British citizen" do not appear.
At Second Reading I asked the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, how it came about that those of us who are British citizens managed to get a vote. He said that we were subsumed in the words, "Commonwealth citizen". I do not feel that that is satisfactory. I wager that there are few countries in the world where the voting rights of its citizens do not appear on the face of the legislation which sets up its democratic system and where its citizens are subsumed in a wider definition, such as the definition of "Commonwealth citizen".
That was the first point that struck me as odd. A second point about which I asked the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, was the position in reverse. In other words, if I went to a Commonwealth country, would I be able to register immediately on their electoral roll and therefore have a vote in their elections? The noble Lord kindly wrote to me listing the countries where I would find that I had reciprocal voting rights. It is an interesting list but it hardly includes the major Commonwealth countries.
It seems to be the case that the countries of the Caribbean--Antigua, Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines--give us those reciprocal rights. Can the Minister say whether they give us those rights on the same basis? In other words, if any of your Lordships were to go to those countries, would we be able to register immediately or would there be some other qualification? For example, in Malawi only after seven years' residence would your Lordships have the right to vote, in contrast to a Malawian citizen coming here who would have immediate rights to vote. I understand that a four-year residence period applies in Namibia.
However, I gather that the system in New Zealand--and I should like the Minister to confirm this--operates on the same basis as our system; in other words, if a noble Lord were to go there, he would be entitled to vote immediately as a Commonwealth citizen and if a New Zealander were to come here he would also be entitled to vote immediately. The position in South Africa is qualified by the words "in certain circumstances", but I am not sure what they may be.
Members of the Committee will notice that I have not mentioned those great Commonwealth countries, Canada, Australia, India and Pakistan, to name just a few, many of whose citizens come to this country. It seems to me that we do not have reciprocal rights. I wonder whether we are continuing with a pretty out-of-date concept in allowing those citizens to come here--that is, people who are not citizens of the United Kingdom--and register immediately. Indeed, are we not being rather foolish in not demanding a quid pro quo?
However, there is more to it than that. Indeed, if that had been all, I probably would not have tabled these amendments. We should think back to the referendum legislation at the beginning of this Parliament when we had great discussions as to who should be eligible to vote in the referendums on setting up the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Noble Lords will remember that we had quite a heated debate as to whether overseas voters on the British electoral register--in other words, British citizens who live overseas and are registered on the register--would be allowed to vote in those referendums. The Government decided that they should not be allowed to do so and chose to use the local government register for the referendums.
We have two registers. We have the parliamentary register, on which overseas voters are included, and we have the local government register from which they are excluded. It is the same register, but there are "marks in the margin". Of course, noble Lords are allowed to vote only in local government elections and not in parliamentary elections; indeed, noble Lords have a "mark in the margin". One day soon--that is, if the Government can ever pluck up enough courage--we may have a vote on whether or not the United Kingdom should join the euro. It seems to me fairly pertinent to ask: who should be entitled to vote in the referendum as to whether this country joins the euro? I can see the argument that would say that no citizen of the Union who is not a British citizen should be allowed to vote. Why should a citizen of France or Italy (countries which are already members of the euro) who is resident in this country have the right to decide whether we should join the euro?
Should overseas voters--people who live in European countries and have a right to vote in British elections because they are British overseas voters, like my daughter who lives in Italy--have the right to vote for or against the euro? They may actually know more about how the euro works than anyone in Britain. That could be a good thing or it could be bad, depending on their experience of how the euro is working in the European country in which they live. It is a very pertinent question. Moreover, should someone who is a citizen of any one of the Commonwealth countries I have mentioned--India, Pakistan, Australia or New Zealand-- have the right to decide whether we give up the pound sterling and join the euro? I submit that they should not. The only people who should have the right to decide whether or not we join the euro are those British citizens who are currently resident in Britain, not the other groups that I mentioned.
When and if we come to a euro referendum, we could only deal with such a situation if there were a clear delineation on the register specifying who is a British citizen, who is a Commonwealth citizen and who is not so much a citizen of the Republic of Ireland but a citizen of the Union. As far as I understand it--at least it was so this morning when I checked the position--the Republic of Ireland is a member of the European Union. In fact, I think it is also quite keen on the euro. I certainly do not think that citizens of the Republic of Ireland should have any say as to whether or not the UK joins the euro. After all, by the time we come to vote, the experiences of the Republic may be so dreadful as regards the euro that they will all vote against it. That would seem quite unfair. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats would not like that as a possibility, nor perhaps would the Government. As I said, I am puzzled as to what is the Government's current view on the euro.
It seems sensible that we should have some signal on the register to enable us to see clearly who are British citizens. It is right that the citizens of this country should know why they are on the register: they should not be on the register simply as, "Commonwealth citizens". But, much more importantly, if we have a referendum on the euro, whether the Government like it or not it seems to me that we shall be discussing who should be allowed to vote, just as we did when we discussed the referendums in Scotland and Wales. When we reach that point I shall be advocating, as the Government may wish to, that British citizens currently resident in this country ought to be the only people who can vote. If that is the situation, we need to have a register that identifies that particular group perfectly clearly. Therefore, I suggest that we add to this part of the Bill the words "British citizen". The consequential amendments will then ensure that the register is made up in such a way that one can identify who are the British citizens for that potential euro referendum. I beg to move.
I would not in any way object to Commonwealth citizens having voting rights within the United Kingdom. I hope that the noble Lord will agree with me that there is a contradiction here when it comes to passport control, especially at Heathrow airport. There is a fast-track entry process for British and European Union passport holders, but Commonwealth citizens--even those with ties to this country, having been born within the UK--are herded through yet another channel, with all the consequent delays.
In our view it is wholly appropriate that anyone who is on the register and entitled to vote and who can, therefore, vote in a parliamentary or local government election should be entitled to vote in a referendum in that part of the United Kingdom where he or she lives. Otherwise, the situation would be seriously discriminatory. I should add that the indication of Commonwealth voters on the register, however well intentioned, is something that could lead to an increased level of racism.
There is another issue which my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish did not quite cover. Those of us who have lived a political life in the years since the Second World War can remember occasions when, to put it mildly, the countries of the Commonwealth were not best pleased with the policies of the British Government. Indeed, like many noble Lords, I recall times when it was not an impossible thought that the countries of the Commonwealth might have voted to exclude Britain from the Commonwealth. It is to be hoped that those awkward days are behind us. I certainly hope so. However, if it was not impossible in the past, one is entitled to say that it is not impossible in the future.
Perhaps I may put to the Minister the following possibility. With an election pending, if it were a decision of the nations of the Commonwealth to expel the United Kingdom, it seems to me on reading part of Clause 1 of the Bill that that would at a stroke make it impossible for British citizens to vote in a parliamentary election. I say that because if British citizens were no longer Commonwealth citizens, they would be automatically excluded. Surely it would be wise for us to insert these words into the legislation so that, if such an unthinkable and awful prospect were to arise, a whole lot of changes in the law would not need to be made to ensure that British people could vote in a British election. Can the Committee think of a more absurd situation? However, this seems to me to be an implication which we ought to think about. I hope that the noble Lord will take this point on board and will accept the amendment, or at least tell us that he will think carefully about it.
I think that this is something, with respect, that one has to think about. One has to distinguish on the one hand quite clearly between the allegiance of Commonwealth countries--which is sometimes in question--and Commonwealth citizenship. I begin to wonder whether in the context of the purpose of this Bill, Commonwealth citizenship is well conceived as a qualification to register.
My noble friend Lord Jopling is right to put his finger on this matter. When I was first in the other place a Motion was, I believe, tabled by Rajiv Gandhi to the effect that Britain should be excluded from the Commonwealth. Sadly, that gentleman--I say this sincerely--is no longer with us. However, it is conceivable that that situation could arise. Therefore, it seems to me that the Minister will need to take the point seriously. I support my noble friend's amendment.
I refer to the sensitive subject of asylum seekers. I travel to Sri Lanka later this week and I am conscious of the number of Sri Lankans who seek asylum at this time. As I understand the Bill, we are moving towards a rolling register. Presumably someone who is in this country seeking asylum would qualify to go on the register almost from the date on which he or she arrived. I imagine that the Minister will be able to reassure us that that is not the case. However, that situation may not have been foreseen.
I support my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish in the caution that has been expressed with regard to the nomenclature of the Commonwealth embracing the United Kingdom and all other countries within the Commonwealth. We are, after all, talking about a sensitive designation; namely, the electoral roll. It implies an underlying community and shared commitment which is rather strained. The reality of the Commonwealth is of a diverse collection of countries and of historical coincidences largely related to a phase of British imperialism which has now passed away. What is left behind is potentially dangerous if it is invested with a potency and a collective identity that it clearly does not possess. It may be a gesture of good will or of convenience to use the term "Commonwealth" as proposed in the legislation. However, we are perfectly entitled to utter a word of caution in that regard. I welcome the debate.
One simple question puzzles me; namely, why we are so keen to advocate representation from Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa when we flatly refuse to introduce reciprocal agreements for Commonwealth pensioners. Any British citizens who live in Commonwealth countries receive only the pension to which they were entitled when they left Britain. The sad fact is that many such pensioners are in dire straits as they have never received the increases in their pensions to which they are entitled. Therefore, I am puzzled as to why the British Government are so keen to spend thousands of pounds on producing leaflets to canvass them on election matters. Will the Minister comment on the possible introduction of a reciprocal agreement for the pensioners I have mentioned?
I am fascinated by this discussion. If I recall correctly--I stand open to correction--the British Nationality Act 1948 conferred certain rights on Commonwealth citizens and British subjects. Those who came to this country after that date are entitled to participate fully in the government of this country. When Iain Macleod was colonial secretary, he confirmed that he intended to enable Commonwealth citizens to come to this country and to participate fully in the government of it. I hope that we shall not create two tiers of citizenship which discriminate between those who are here permanently and those who have come here to settle on a permanent basis. There is a residential qualification in this regard. No one flies from Ceylon, India, Pakistan or any other country and automatically goes on the register. They have to satisfy certain residential qualifications in this country to go on the register. Some of the arguments that have been advanced as regards the rights of people who come to this country are far fetched.
This has been a rather more fascinating debate than I thought it would be. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has spoken to his amendments with his customary vigour and entertainment value. I believe that we all enjoy that. However, the debate has strayed rather wider than I thought would be the case. Reference has been made to the euro referendum--I do not think it would be entirely appropriate for me to be drawn into that discussion this afternoon--and to reciprocal arrangements for Commonwealth pensioners. However, we are discussing the Representation of the People Bill. I shall attempt to address my remarks to that Bill.
When I consider some of the amendments that we shall discuss later, and what the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has said, I believe that he takes a rather narrower view of the Bill than he did at Second Reading, and than was taken by his colleagues in another place and, indeed, his party when considering the Bill and the proposals that have emerged from the all-party working party on which there was fairly unanimous agreement on most of those measures. As a consequence, we seem to have rather a large set of amendments before us this afternoon and I believe that the debate will range rather more widely than we had all anticipated.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps I can help him in this regard. Parliamentary scrutiny means scrutiny. There may be many amendments on the Marshalled List, but many of them are designed to tease out exactly what the Government mean by a measure. The noble Lord will have to get used to that if he is to continue to be a Minister and to present Home Office legislation.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reminder. I have no problems with scrutiny; the Government have no problems with scrutiny. However, I am concerned that some of the matters we are likely to discuss today go rather wider than that point.
The provisions in Clause 1 of the Bill, setting out who is entitled to vote in parliamentary and local government elections, simply replicate the existing rules. However, a necessary change is being made to reflect the fact that, with the introduction of rolling electoral registration, there will no longer be a single annual qualifying date. Among those entitled to vote in both parliamentary and local elections are Commonwealth citizens. Let us be quite clear that that includes British citizens. Indeed, given our key role in the Commonwealth, I do not believe that there could be any doubt on that point.
Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 7, 23, 63, 77, 121 and 122 seek to add the words "British citizen" before all references to Commonwealth citizens. That would imply that British citizens were not citizens of the Commonwealth. Apart from casting doubt on any other enactment, the use of the term "Commonwealth citizen" would also, I suggest, send a negative and unwelcome message to our Commonwealth partners. The term "Commonwealth citizen" has served us well for many years. Indeed, it has found its way into legislation brought before Parliament by both of the major parties in government. I urge the noble Lord to consider that there is no reason to depart from that term today.
Finally, Amendment No. 38 would require all non-British citizens to be identified on the electoral register with a special mark. I simply ask: why? Given that these people have the right to vote, they should be treated in the same way as everyone else. A special mark on the register would serve no purpose except to single them out. Worse, I suspect, certain far Right groups may find considerable use for lists which specifically identify non-British citizens. Do we really want to introduce that? The noble Lord opposite should think long and hard before he presses that particular point.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, raised questions about the countries with which we have reciprocal arrangements. As he quite rightly acknowledged, I have written to him extensively on that matter. As I set out in some of the correspondence, most of them do not--
I am grateful to the noble Lord. With the utmost respect, the Minister is not addressing his mind to the question. He is saying "as they have the right to vote" but, for the reasons that have been given, it is very much in question whether they should have the right to vote. The Minister referred to the existing rule; is not our function to examine the existing rule? He appears to assume that we have to accept that "what is, shall be".
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that intervention.
We take the view that Commonwealth citizens should have that right. Historically, they have always had that right; it has been established before in legislation. I am grateful that noble Lords opposite wish to spell out a difference on this issue. We have reciprocal arrangements with most Commonwealth countries and they work in a similar way. All the countries listed in the correspondence allow voting on much the same basis as we allow Commonwealth citizens to vote.
Although noble Lords opposite may take a different view, we believe that it is right that Commonwealth citizens should exercise the right to vote in the UK. I trust that, in the light of our discussions this afternoon--
Before the noble Lord finishes, perhaps he can tell the Committee about those countries I mentioned which are not on the list--Canada, Australia, Pakistan and India--which are, dare I say it, the major players in the Commonwealth. Do we have no reciprocal arrangements at all with them?
As I have set out in the correspondence, as far as I understand it, there are no reciprocal arrangements with the countries to which the noble Lord referred. But there is a fairly extensive list of countries with which we have reciprocal arrangements. I am happy with that; the Government are happy with that; and the party opposite was happy with those arrangements when it was in government: it did not raise any questions about those reciprocal arrangements. I trust that the noble Lord will now see fit to withdraw his amendment.
I am sorry, but, as far as concerns my earlier comments, the Minister's reply is 100 per cent inadequate. I raised a serious point and the Minister gave my comments about as much attention as he did at Second Reading. I insist that he responds to the point I made. If he did not understand it, I shall try to explain it a little more clearly and perhaps a little more slowly.
Let us assume that a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government was to be held during the autumn--such meetings often occur during the autumn--and that that meeting was to take place after Parliament had been prorogued for a general election. I and other noble Lords will know that the period of prorogation for a general election can often be for up to a month. If, during that month period--when Parliament was not in existence--a somewhat unhappy situation arose whereby the Commonwealth Heads of Government, in their wisdom, decided to exclude the United Kingdom from the Commonwealth, that would mean, as I understand it, that, at a stroke, British citizens would cease to be Commonwealth citizens because Britain was no longer a member of the Commonwealth. That would mean, as I understand it, that the law could not be changed to take account of that new situation because Parliament was not sitting and there would be no Parliament. Perhaps I may complete my argument as I am into the flow of it. As I understand it, that would mean that the only people who would be entitled to vote at a general election would be either non-British Commonwealth citizens or citizens of the Irish Republic.
Can the Committee imagine a more absurd situation than a British general election where the only people able to vote are citizens of the Irish Republic or citizens of all the other countries in the Commonwealth except the United Kingdom? I am happy to give way now.
I did not want to interrupt after the noble Lord indicated that he did not wish me to. It seems to me that his premise is incorrect. British law and the British courts would follow the British Nationality Act 1948, whereby Commonwealth citizens are so defined as to include all British subjects and all citizens of the United Kingdom. Therefore, even if the Commonwealth Heads of Government did do what the noble Lord suggested, all citizens of the United Kingdom would be entitled to vote under United Kingdom law at the general election posited by the noble Lord.
I am intrigued to hear that. It is a somewhat legalistic situation, of which I was not immediately aware because I am not a great expert on British nationality laws. I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation. However, I should like to hear it from the Minister, with the authority of a government stamp behind it. It is a serious problem. Although there may be a legal explanation, if the scenario I have mentioned were to occur, there would be the greatest possible consternation in the middle of a general election campaign among the British media and among the average British voters who, like myself, are not experts in nationality laws.
The Minister must apply himself to what is, in my view, a serious question--a question which he totally ignored in his reply.
I entirely support the words of my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish in expressing some surprise at the Minister's surprise. We are at Committee stage and, if I may say so, the noble Lord on the Front Bench is not the first to find these procedures something of an ordeal. I know that this is the first time that he has gone through these kinds of exchanges. On the whole, your Lordships' House is an extremely kindly place, given to mercy and pity on all occasions, but if the Minister cannot do better than his opening defence against these amendments, he will be in some difficulty.
When he rose to reply, the Minister said that the debate had been fascinating and had gone much wider than he expected. I cannot understand why he did not anticipate that or, if he did not personally anticipate it, why his advisers did not anticipate it. I hope that when he gets back to his private office he will address some stern words to his advisers and tell them that he found himself in a very embarrassing position in your Lordships' Committee and that in future he requires better advice and better briefs than he has had today. I am assuming that the words spoken by the Minister came from his brief--in which case he suffers from the appalling misfortune of extremely bad advice.
I should like to make another small point. Just because the matter has been accepted since the year dot, it does not mean to say that when a Bill is being read Members of the Committee may not suddenly be seized with a desire to change something. My noble friend Lord Mackay has tabled some simple, easily intelligible amendments, as one would expect. To quarrel with them, or even to appear to quarrel with them on the basis that they attempt to achieve something new and strange which the Minister's advisers did not expect, is rather meagre.
The Minister is fortunate in having the benefit of the advice of the Government Chief Whip so easily available. We all have profound respect for the Government Chief Whip and we have absolutely no reason to doubt the quality of his advice. The only matter on which I can congratulate the Minister this afternoon is his near proximity to the Government Chief Whip. If he would like to have a quiet word with him now--oh, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, looked as if he were going to depart. That would be an act of gross and gratuitous cruelty to his noble friend in his hour of need.
I am much obliged to the noble Lord for his explanation. Perhaps he will respond to my invitation and give his noble friend advice about the procedures we go through during Committee stage and what Ministers really must accept from Oppositions. I hope that my noble friend will forgive me and not believe that I am being at all rude to him when I say that this Opposition have so far been distinguished by their kindliness and patience in a way that the previous opposition were not. If the position had been reversed and a Minister had confronted the Committee with the kind of reply that we have had so far to the amendments, there would have been an uproar, not only from the Front Bench but from the gathered legions behind them. Today, I can say only that my noble friend has behaved with his characteristic civility and politeness, as have all other speakers from this side of the Committee.
If proceedings continue in that way, the almost legendary patience and tolerance of this side of the Committee will be tried almost to breaking point. I had not previously believed that there was a breaking point.
Before the Minister replies, perhaps I may say in a spirit of relaxed charity that one point has risen in the debate on which I should be grateful for elaboration; that is, the talk of Commonwealth membership being the subject of entitlement to vote and the discussion of reciprocity.
New Section 1(1)(c) states that eligibility is conferred upon:
"either a Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland".
Does "a Commonwealth citizen" refer unconditionally to Commonwealth citizens, or does it result from reciprocity between this country and some Commonwealth countries?
Perhaps I got off on the wrong foot earlier on the matter. I shall take the admonishments of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, to heart. I am grateful to him for his advice as to how Ministers should conduct themselves at the Dispatch Box. No doubt I shall learn my lessons quickly and, if I do not, he will come back and remind me for not doing so. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, for his kind words of support. These things always come in spades.
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, for being less than full in my response. I have had some researches undertaken since I sat down. My understanding is that, when, for instance, Nigeria and Fiji were suspended from the Commonwealth, their citizens did not lose their rights to vote as Commonwealth citizens. My understanding of the law in relation to the term "Commonwealth" is as my noble friend Lord Borrie ably explained in his intervention. I am inclined to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, that the situation would be fairly absurd if his interpretation were correct. I am grateful to him for his intervention. It has focused our minds neatly on the range of issues that this set of amendments seeks to address. I am grateful to Members of the Committee for the debate. It has been valuable for that reason, if not much more.
However, I have some concern about the amendments. We shall resist them. They would not serve much good purpose, but they would suggest a narrowness on our part. Commonwealth citizens have historically had the right to vote here. Members opposite clearly take a different view, but we hold to that view since the situation has been thus since the post-war settlement. I therefore suggest that it would be right and proper for the amendment to be withdrawn.
We have certainly had an interesting little debate. I can remember at the beginning of this Parliament arguing against the concept of referendums. I was told by Ministers that I was being old fashioned and that I had to enter the new world--I gather that "new" is the most commonly used word in Mr Blair's speeches--that referendums were part of the new world; and that I had to accept them. Then came Scottish devolution, in which we were to tear up a constitutional arrangement that had been in existence since 1707. But that was not good enough; it had to be questioned and abandoned. I was told I had to get used to the new world. When the Government turned to your Lordships' House, it had to be changed to as near as they could possibly make it to a "quango House".
When we said that we believed that was perhaps not quite the right way to go about it, we were told that we had to get into the new world. Today the Minister tells us that we must accept what has always been the case in the past. We must not even ask why. We must not say that it is time to change, or anything similar. I must say to the Minister that the convincing arguments for change advanced by his noble friends on previous occasions--largely by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn--were rather more compelling than his defence of the status quo.
His defence was made worse by the fact that he failed totally to address the point I made about a possible euro referendum. That is not theory. The Minister may not have been here in the summer of 1997, but we spent a long time then discussing the question of the legitimate register to use on referendum votes. The Government decided on that occasion that overseas electors should not be allowed to vote. Some of us believed that that was wrong, but that was the Government's position. The Government would not have been able to take that position if those people had not been so marked on the register. Indeed, if Members of your Lordships' House had not been so marked on the register, Members such as myself who live in Scotland might not have been able to vote. It was because the register had marks on it regarding people who were not allowed to vote in parliamentary elections, including overseas voters, that the Government were able to limit the franchise for the referendum.
The Minister has failed miserably to explain why I should not be concerned about a referendum on the euro and the possibility that we may want to limit the franchise. We may want to decide that European citizens who have a vote here at local elections should certainly not be allowed to decide whether this country joins the euro. It is an arguable case--I put it no higher than that--that citizens of Commonwealth countries such as Australia or Canada should not be allowed to decide whether we join the euro. They may be absolutely opposed to us joining the euro. When the day comes, the Government may in fact want to knock them out of the register--out of voting--in order to try to ensure they achieve the result they want. It was not good enough for the Minister simply to dismiss a major part of my argument about wanting to make sure that British citizens were included clearly on the register by saying that he did not want to become involved in discussing the euro.
I should have thought that the euro is the most important issue currently before the British people and will be so for some years to come. Whether one is for it or against it, it will be the major issue of the first decade of the 21st century. Who decides will be an important issue for us to address on the day the Government come forward with their referendum Bill on the euro.
We may come back to residential qualifications later. Perhaps I may give the Minister some advance warning. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, says that residential qualifications are necessary. We should like to know what those residential qualifications are. For the moment I shall seek to withdraw the amendment, but I cannot say that I am satisfied with the replies I have had from the Government on the substantive issue of referendums. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
This amendment seeks to delete the words,
"a citizen of the Republic of Ireland".
Before the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, gets on to his soap box, this is not me deciding to have a tilt at the Irish. I move the amendment simply because I want to know why the words are any longer necessary. With regard to voting in local government elections, new Section 2(1)(c) refers to,
"a Commonwealth citizen, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland or a relevant citizen of the Union".
The Republic of Ireland is a member of the European Union. Therefore, I should have thought that, just as citizens of Italy, France or Germany resident in this country are entitled to go on to the register as local government electors, so too are citizens of the Republic of Ireland. Why do we need the words "a citizen of the Republic of Ireland" there and further on? Surely, those words are unnecessary.
If the Minister says, "Oh no, we must not change anything", I ask him this question. Can he tell me who might be likely to qualify as "a citizen of the Republic of Ireland" but not as "a relevant citizen of the Union"? I beg to move.
I must point out to the Committee that, as Amendment No. 8 is being spoken to with this amendment, there is a misprint in Amendment No. 8 as it appears on the Marshalled List. The word "the" has been missed out. It should read,
"a citizen of the Republic of Ireland".
I must confess to being somewhat puzzled by Amendments Nos. 3 and 8. As I understand the position, their effect would be to deny citizens of the Republic of Ireland the right to vote in our local government elections.
I am sorry, but the Minister really must listen to my argument. I asked him this question. Can he name a citizen of the Republic of Ireland who is not a relevant citizen of the Union and therefore entitled to vote as a relevant citizen of the Union? That is what I asked.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that clarification. The term "relevant citizen of the Union" may help us. That is defined in Section 202 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and refers to the citizens of all EU member states apart from Britain and Ireland. The right of nationals of other EU member states to vote in the local elections of the country where they reside is enshrined in the Treaty of Maastricht, so this amendment would put us in breach of our treaty obligations. Just as important, there are good historical reasons for the voting rights that Irish citizens enjoy, which I stress are fully reciprocated. I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
If, by the deletion of these words, citizens of the Republic of Ireland would be denied the reciprocity which they have enjoyed over the years, I shall withdraw the amendment. But I am still puzzled to know why "relevant citizen of the Union" does not cover a citizen of the Irish Republic. After all, the Irish Republic is a member of the European Union. It is almost as daft as the situation of students from England who go to Scottish universities. This will give the Minister time to find a reply that may satisfy the Committee. Those students have to pay £4,000 when citizens of every other European Union country will be able to defer payment. They will have to pay £2,000 once they graduate. The answer from Mr Brian Wilson to that question was that England as a state is not a member of the European Union. For this legislation, perhaps the Republic of Ireland is not a member of the European Union. However, the Minister may have the answer by this time.
Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him this question. Whereas Irish citizens now have the right to vote in parliamentary elections, the effect of removing the specific reference to Irish citizens would be that they would only have the same right as other European citizens; namely, to vote in local and European elections.
The noble Lord is trying, as do all noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, to help the Government. If the noble Lord looks at where we are in the Bill he will see that new Section 2(1) begins:
"A person is entitled to vote as an elector at a local government election in any electoral area if on the date of the poll he ... is a Commonwealth citizen, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland or a relevant citizen of the Union".
We are talking about local government registers, not parliamentary ones.
That is actually the case. That is why at the outset I made the point that if we were to pursue the line taken in the amendment, we could end up denying citizens of the Republic of Ireland the right to vote in local government elections.
The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, asked about reciprocation with Ireland. That is the case. We have reciprocal rights to vote in Ireland's general elections and local elections. That has been the case for a long time. To pursue the line taken by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, could have a most confusing effect. On that ground I urge him to withdraw the amendment.
Perhaps I am just stupid but I am still totally puzzled by that answer. With regard to voting in parliamentary elections, new Section 1(1)(c) states,
"is either a Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland".
They have special rights. Other citizens of other European Union countries do not have the right to vote in our parliamentary elections. That is fine and simple. I think that I have it right at that point. We then come to the next part, which is about local government elections. Under that part, Commonwealth citizens are allowed to vote but also--because, as the noble Lord said, of Maastricht--in addition to Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Republic of Ireland, relevant citizens of the Union are allowed to vote. I do not understand why the Bill needs to mention the citizens of the Republic of Ireland and the relevant citizens of the Union. Unless something has happened in the past hour, Ireland is a member of the European Union.
The noble Lord has failed to explain--perhaps I have misunderstood him--how a citizen of the Irish Republic would not qualify for a local government vote here if he lived here as "a relevant citizen of the Union". If I can have that explanation, I shall be quite happy. If I do not have that explanation, what I might call "the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, mood" will come over me with regard to having unnecessary words in the legislation, words which make me wonder why we have them. It is a simple question. Perhaps I may have a simple answer at the third time of asking.
"A relevant citizen of the Union" is defined, as I said, as a citizen of one the 13 EU countries apart from Ireland, which is why it is necessary to refer specifically to Irish citizens. That is the explanation.
I think the Minister is telling me that the Maastricht Treaty makes the Republic of Ireland different from the other EU member states. I shall take advice on whether that is the case. It seems an odd situation to have got ourselves into at the time, but perhaps there was some good reason for it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, although, frankly, once I have checked the Maastricht Treaty I may decide to return to the point.
I hope that in this debate we shall be able to avoid the unhappy discomfort through which the Minister appears to be going. I hope that these amendments will give him the opportunity to be helpful to the Committee and to accept them.
Before going into detail, perhaps I may repeat the comments I made at Second Reading. I said that we must always remember, when changing the law relating to electoral procedures in order to encourage more people to vote--which I think everyone wants--that it is essential that we do so without significantly opening the door to electoral abuse in one form or another.
New Section 4(2) adds to the Bill a provision dealing with potential abuse in Northern Ireland. The subsection states that people cannot be placed on the register in Northern Ireland until they have been resident for the whole of the three-month period prior to the relevant date. As I understand it, the provision is included to avoid a situation in which people could pop over the border from the Irish Republic in considerable numbers and attempt to register as voters in Northern Ireland and declare either a temporary address or local connection under the guise of being homeless.
I hope that I have got the right end of the stick and that this is the main reason why the Bill includes special rules for Northern Ireland. I hope that, in responding, the noble Lord will tell us why the special provision has been included. Following the remarks of my noble friend Lord Peyton, I imagine that the Minister's brief will contain a full explanation.
Given that background, and assuming that I can start from that point, my amendments are intended to extend the special provision of three months' residence to the whole of the United Kingdom. Surely there is merit in that. It is right to attempt to treat the whole United Kingdom as one. My amendment seeks to apply the provision to new registrations within the United Kingdom. It applies only to people who have never previously been on the electoral register.
There are a good many reasons for tabling the amendments. First, while providing for those who tend to wander from one place to another, possibly sleeping rough or occupying squatter properties, the extension of the register to homeless people clearly gives rise to potential opportunities for abuse, and electoral abuse in particular. The second reason is that, in recent times, as the Government know only too well, there has been a huge increase in those coming to this country seeking political asylum. Therefore, the possibility of potential abuse arises.
I began by saying that I hoped the Minister would be able to accept these amendments. Since the Bill was printed and, indeed, since it came to this House from another place, two events have occurred which should make the noble Lord considerably keener to see my amendments incorporated. The first is the experience of the past few days; namely, the emergence of hijacking as a means of seeking political asylum. We must be aware, having followed the events of the past week, that there is a real danger of the United Kingdom becoming a target for considerable numbers of asylum seekers--economic and political refugees coming to this country, using the newly found device of hijacking aircraft as a means of doing so. My amendment attempts to go some way to delay those entering the United Kingdom illegally in that way from obtaining the right to vote without at least a three-month pause.
I make this point following the Minister's attack last week in response to my noble friend Lord Rotherwick. I have still heard no explanation from the Minister or any justification for the attack on my noble friend, saying that his points were fictitious. I hope that the Minister today will give a full explanation. It seemed to a good many Members of this place that my noble friend had used official figures. If he did not, we ought to be told. I hope that the Minister has considered his remarks and that he has become a good deal more conscious of the real trouble that we are in in this country given the dramatic rise in the numbers of asylum seekers already here waiting to have their applications considered.
Now that the Minister has had time better to understand the problem, I would have thought that the Government would welcome the extension of the provisions relating to Northern Ireland to the whole of the United Kingdom and insist that somebody cannot register unless he has been resident in the United Kingdom during the whole period of three months ending on the relevant date, provided only that it is a new registration within the United Kingdom. I beg to move.
I support my noble friend. I ask the Minister to reflect on what happened at Great Yarmouth during the Millennium. As one who lives in the eastern part of the country, to the best of my knowledge well over 1,000 New Age travellers--or whatever terminology is used to describe them--remained in Great Yarmouth for about two and a half weeks, not just a few days. One may have a situation--it is not entirely hypothetical--in which a by-election is pending in a marginal seat and, for one reason or another, the government of the day decide to delay it. Over the years, Great Yarmouth has been a marginal seat. The situation may arise in which a flood of homeless people decide to stay, register and vote. That seems to me to be a weakness. In their wisdom the Government have, rightly, decided that for a part of the United Kingdom a period of three months should apply. My noble friend makes a very powerful case that the arrangement should be extended to the whole of the United Kingdom.
I too support the sentiments expressed by my noble friend Lord Jopling. It is fascinating that in this particular instance legislation, which on the whole is designed to widen access to voting, imposes a restriction. One is entitled to ask what lies behind the bald print of this part of Clause 1. What is it about the situation in Northern Ireland which persuades the Minister to make this provision? Where do the dangers arise, and to what extent are they organised or spontaneous? One can elaborate this matter to a considerable extent to realise that the whole approach of more open electoral registration is one which, although in many ways commendable, carries dangers. These amendments give the Committee an opportunity to examine the dangers and, above all, an idea of what may develop in other circumstances over a longer period throughout the United Kingdom, as my noble friend suggests.
As expected, in putting his points to the Minister, my noble friend Lord Jopling made his case clearly. I hope that we can look forward to a reasonable reply. My noble friend Lord Biffen raises the interesting question: if for Northern Ireland, why not for the United Kingdom? I can hazard a guess why it has been done for Northern Ireland. I suggest to the Minister that, given increased mobility, the problems in Northern Ireland which brought about the need for the three-month period may also migrate to the United Kingdom.
One of the problems of my noble friend's amendment is that, for example, UK citizens who returned to this country from abroad, perhaps having worked in the European Commission or for British companies around the world, would have to wait three months before they could vote. If they had registered as overseas voters there would not be a gap between registration and the right to vote; if not, they would have to wait for three months. We must bear in mind that point when considering my noble friend's amendment. The same is true for somebody from Northern Ireland who had gone abroad to work. Many companies in Northern Ireland send people abroad to work. Currently, if they go home to Northern Ireland they will have to wait three months before they can register, which seems to be rather unfair to them. I look forward to the Minister's reply to my noble friend's points.
The Committee must consider these amendments in the context of the whole Bill. Although the Bill is a long one, a good part of it makes no change to existing law, and the matters on which these amendments touch are a case in point. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, made an interesting case in relation to asylum seekers. We shall turn to that matter in later amendments. I hope that he will take some comfort from what I say later when the Committee debates the amendments which are relevant to that issue. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, spoke about the possibility of migrating electors. We shall turn to that matter in later amendments. The noble Lord may find some satisfaction in what I say later when the Committee deals with those amendments.
As the law currently stands, those who wish to register as electors in Northern Ireland are required to have been resident there for a minimum of three months. There is no corresponding requirement for the rest of the UK, and the Bill makes no change in that regard. I believe most Members of the Committee accept that there are good reasons for the application of special conditions to Northern Ireland, which are widely supported by the political parties in that part of the UK.
The Home Office has carried out some research and detected no evidence that abuse of the kind that the extra conditions are designed to prevent takes place on the mainland. As far as I am aware, there is no real clamour among mainland political parties for similar extra conditions to be imposed there. Certainly, the Working Party on Electoral Procedures made no such recommendation when it looked at these matters. The working party had time to consider these issues at length and to make new proposals if it wished.
If these amendments were accepted, people who registered for the first time, or who changed their registration, would face an additional hurdle in trying to vote. With the best will in the world, sometimes it is difficult enough for people to understand the registration process and become involved. Given that we want to encourage more people to register and vote--after all, that is what the legislation is about--the amendments place another hurdle in their way, and we believe that that would be unwise. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, made the point for me when he spoke about those who returned from abroad. Students and those returning after working abroad would find it particularly difficult to register. For those very good reasons, I do not believe that these amendments should be accepted. I see no reason why we should seek to place additional obstacles in front of people who return from working abroad having performed good service there.
I also do not believe that, as a matter of principle, we should treat those who register by means of a declaration of local connection any worse than those who register in the normal way. I see no justification for Amendments Nos. 26, 27 and 35. There is already a perfectly satisfactory mechanism whereby people who believe that a name should not be included on the electoral register can appeal against it. That seems to me to be a much better avenue than to put in place unnecessary obstacles that make it harder for people in Britain to register. In view of what I have said, I hope that the noble Lord will not press his amendment.
One should put the gap between registration and coming on to the register in its proper context. The amendments which I have tabled mean that people from overseas who had not previously been registered would have to wait three months to get on to the register. However, at the moment people still have to wait three months, so there is no change. As my noble friend Lord Mackay said, it is open to individuals who have been registered previously in the United Kingdom to register when they are abroad. A rule of this kind would encourage them to register as overseas voters.
I am not convinced by the arguments. I wish to consider the issue and perhaps return to it on Report. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
On behalf of my noble friend, I beg to move government Amendment No. 9 and speak to Amendments Nos. 53, 59, 67, 80, 128 and 130. I make clear that the Government believe that none of these amendments makes any substantive change to the Bill. They are--although I hesitate to use the word, I do so--"technical" in nature.
Amendment No. 9 makes it clear that in order to be registered a person needs to comply with the appropriate regulations. Amendments Nos. 53 and 59 are drafting amendments which ensure that decisions on the alteration of registers are taken in accordance with regulations.
Amendments Nos. 67 and 80 are technical. They remove the requirement that regulations should cover the time at which a register is published since that is already dealt with in the Bill.
Amendment No. 128 is a drafting amendment to include a definition of local government area. Amendment No. 130 is also a drafting amendment. I beg to move.
These are fairly technical amendments which change some of the words. I am intrigued to know the difference between a registration officer determining something and a registration officer becoming satisfied about it. I wonder why the change is made in legislation which has already passed through the other place requiring the registration officer simply to be satisfied. I do not know whether the Minister can help me or whether I shall have to go to the dictionary.
moved Amendment No. 10:
Page 3, line 2, at end insert--
("( ) The date on which any application made for registration shall be entered against his name in the register; and until the date given in the entry he shall not by virtue of that entry be treated as an elector for any purposes other than those of an election the date of the poll for which is the date so given or date thereafter.").
We are moving to a new concept of electoral register: a rolling register. There will be additions to the register by way of an update. I imagine that some kind of document will be produced every month for 10 months--it may be nine months--adding to and deleting names from the electoral register. As at present, a wholesale review of the register will be made in the autumn. However, it will not be published at the beginning of the next year, as at present, but on 1st December. The register will become a rolling register. At present a correction register is published in December in which those names which have been added to or deleted from the register are indicated. People can check the register to see whether their names have been added. Political parties can check, as they do, to see which names have been taken off and which added. They can ensure that the names of their supporters--I was going to say "electors" but in reality I do not believe that the parties check all the electors but only the names of their supporters--are on the electoral register. That may sound awful to the Government but I believe it to be the reality. If anyone tells me that the Labour Party does not do the same, I shall not believe him.
With rolling addendums a different situation will apply. It will be clear month by month which names have been added to or taken off the register. But I understand that the changes made to the register published in the autumn will not be marked. Of course, the names taken off the register cannot be marked; but those added to the register will not be marked either. In the past, people have been able to check new additions to the register to ensure that they are correct and legitimate. The position will be more difficult with rolling registers. It will not be so easy to challenge entries and that is part and parcel of getting the register correct. If one says to the register officer, "Our information is that Mr and Mrs Bloggs do not live at that address. You have that wrong", he can do something about it.
On the major review of the register published on 1st December, there should be an indication as to when a person comes on to the register. We do so already with the dates of birth of 18 year-olds. No one seems to have a problem with that. One's date of birth is known. Eighteen year-olds are like Members of this House: they can never hide their age. I suspect that 18 year-olds are prouder to be their age than some of us are to be our age. Some of us may prefer to draw a veil over our age until, I gather from my mother, one reaches a great old age when one is happy to boast about it.
There is no problem about putting dates of birth alongside names on the register. There would seem to be no problem about entering a mark or a date beside new entrants so that those who check the register can concentrate on the new entrants without having to check the entire register for additions and deletions. I beg to move.
Initially I was somewhat baffled by the amendment. However, having heard the noble Lord's argument, I am a little wiser.
If I explain how the new electoral registration scheme will work, perhaps the noble Lord will feel satisfied with what we seek to do. There will still be an annual canvass conducted in the autumn but, in addition, people will be able to apply to be added to the electoral register throughout the year. This will, of course, be of particular benefit to those who move during the course of a year. That is the principle underlying a rolling register.
Once an electoral registration officer receives an application for registration he will need to consider it and decide whether it meets the prescribed requirements. If it does, he will include the name of the person concerned in the monthly list which he publishes on the 1st of every month (other than the months when the annual canvass is taking place) giving details of the additions to and deletions from his register. At the same time he will add the name of the person concerned to the register.
So the position is quite clear. There will be a monthly list. Names added and deleted will be published in that monthly list. On that basis, it should be clear to everyone how the register is working and how it will apply. Therefore I cannot envisage that the mischief the noble Lord hoped to deal with by the amendment will arise. I should have thought that the publication of the monthly list with additions and deletions would satisfy most of those concerned with and interested in the new register. With that assurance, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may ask him to clarify one point. At the moment the ANC list appears, if I am correct, at the February date after the October registration. I understand that there will be, in effect, a monthly ANC list. However, is there still to be a summary at the end of the year? Otherwise, I suspect that unless everybody is fully computerised, which a number of smaller, local charities will not be, they will have to go through the whole 12 months and work off the end-year register, whereas at the moment all they have to do is take the summary form in either October or February. I cannot remember when the summary is issued.
I am not quite sure that I can help the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, this afternoon on that point. My understanding is that the draft register is currently produced in December and the full register is produced in February. What we will have in December, of course, is a full register with the new system, and then additions and deletions thereto. Addressing the point that the noble Lord has raised, my belief is that the new arrangements will probably be more helpful than the current ones to those who have a concerted interest in the register, because the period to which it applies is continuous, rolling and updated, so that all the information will be there at some point during the course of the 12 months.
The question that I am asking is whether there will at any point in the year be a summary of all changes in the register, as there now is, or whether the public have to work from 12 individual returns.
My understanding is that there will not be a summary. They will have to work from the published register in December and then the updated supplementaries to it. That should provide almost up-to-the-minute accuracy. As I have said, I believe that that will be more helpful than the current arrangements.
I am grateful to my noble friend of intervening. He has spared me the effort of looking in the Bill for something else that I shall not be able to find. The Minister will no doubt be able to help me. My understanding is that a list will be published on the 1st of each month, clearly with the exception of 1st December, because that is the day on which a full list will be published. However, am I not right in thinking that that will apply also to 1st November? My recollection was that only 10 of those lists would go out. I am not sure either about 1st October or 1st January. I had understood that no addendum would be issued on 1st January and 1st November.
My understanding is that apart from the month when the annual canvass takes place and the publication of the register in its December form, there will be monthly updates and supplements to the register.
I am not disputing the logic of it. I am simply trying to work out which months we are talking about. The canvass is in October, but my recollection is that there is not one on 1st November, nor would I expect there to be, quite frankly, because at that stage the main register is being redone. What I cannot remember is whether it is simply 1st November, with the publication of the full register on 1st December, or whether it is 1st October and 1st January, one or other, as well. I can see the logic of 1st October.
However, that is not quite the point that I want to make. The point is that during the months of January, February, March, April, May, June, when we know that there will be a monthly published list of additions and subtractions, it will be easy for people to see who has been put on and who has been taken off. The problem will occur in October and November, when in the 1st December register it will not be easy at all, because there will be no indication. If it is right that there should be a clear indication for nine or 10 months of the year, it would seem sensible that there should be some indication on the 1st December register of who has been added. It is not a state secret. We shall know who has been added in the rolling register as the months of January, February, March and April proceed. Therefore, it would be convenient on 1st December. If the Minister can help my memory with regard to the months when the rolling additions will be published, I will then withdraw the amendment.
There certainly will not be a monthly update in October, and I can advise the noble Lord that neither will there be one in November. If it will help, I shall take on board the point made by the noble Lord in his argument and give it further thought between now and Report stage. I should not like to be held to that, but I shall try to be as helpful as possible.
In moving this amendment, I also speak to Amendments Nos. 12 and 20. These are technical amendments, I hope short ones, to clarify to which categories of persons under Sections 70 and 71 of the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1984 the new Sections 3A (Clause 2) and 7A (Clause 5) of this Bill apply.
Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 ensure that under the new Section 3A (Clause 2) a disfranchisement of offenders detained in hospitals in Scotland under Section 71 of the 1984 Act applies to persons serving a prison sentence who have been removed to hospital on mental health grounds.
Amendment No. 20 ensures that the provisions in the new Section 7A about residence of persons remanded in custody apply to those persons awaiting trial who have been transferred from prison to hospital under Section 70 of the 1984 Act and to those persons who are transferred under Section 71 of the 1984 Act from prison, where they are detained under the Immigration Act 1971, to a hospital on mental health grounds. I beg to move.
May I be allowed one query on Clause 2? I cannot understand the wording on page 4, lines 12 and 13, which, as far as I can understand it, appears to go into the Welsh language. I wonder whether the Minister can help me with this. I shall not attempt to put it in the Welsh language. It refers to the "Mental y yn Health (Scotland) Act 1984". Could we have an explanation of what this is about?
The noble Lord has made a perfectly respectable joke! It is undoubtedly a typographical error. I do not believe that I have ever known "Mental y yn Health". We apologise for this and we will make sure that it is accurate in the next print.
In moving Amendment No. 13, I shall speak to a number of related amendments. They are all concerned with the residence for purposes of registration. Members of the Committee will notice that every time that is referred to in the Bill, I have insisted that the lawfulness of the registration be marked as the test. My amendments are designed to ensure that only a lawful residence is a qualification for the purposes of registration. That would greatly help to reduce the risk of fraudulent registration, a problem experienced more in urban areas.
We have no problem with the principle that homeless people should be able to register. Special provision has been made and I shall deal with that later. However, understandably, we want to be sure that that special provision is tight because we want to ensure that there is no abuse of the right.
That change in the law has highlighted the point in Clause 3 to which I want to draw the Committee's attention. What is the position as regards squatters? If someone is squatting at an address, they are not legally supposed to be there. Therefore, they are doing something illegal at that address. Are they then classed as homeless or are they recognised as squatters? Do they come under the residence test or under the later clause relating to homelessness? We must get the position clear. It seems to some of us that if people are staying at an address illegally, they should not be able to register at that address as electors. If we allowed them to do so, we should be encouraging a contravention of the law.
I hope that we shall see much less of homelessness, but it is interesting that after two-and-a-half years of rhetoric all we have seen is an increase. It is not obvious to me, as I go about the streets of London or Glasgow, that there has been any great reduction in homelessness. Therefore, I am not surprised that the Government have decided to give such people a vote. I thought that they were going to remove homeless people from our streets, but trying to give them a vote suggests that they reckon they will fail in meeting that commitment.
Giving homeless people a vote is one thing, but giving people who are squatting illegally a vote on a residency qualification is entirely different. Perhaps the Minister will explain the present position. Do people in a squat have the right to be registered at that address to vote? If so, should that right continue? If they do not, should they be given that right? My amendments would ensure that squatters who are illegally resident in a house would not be able to use that residence as the basis on which they could vote. It is a simple and straightforward issue. I beg to move.
I have a problem with the way in which the amendment is framed. I understand that no one wants fraudulent registration, but many squatters have been on the register for many years. In a recent case in Lambeth, it took the High Court many years to determine whether the person was legally at an address.
I am particularly worried because the amendment proposes that a person who it is alleged is illegally in the premises should be unable to register or have his or her registration removed. I am not a lawyer and know little about the law, but I believe that squatting is a civil offence and I am worried that we are moving into forbidden realms.
Furthermore, I recall that, in relation to a number of people who were squatting at Greenham Common, the courts decided that they were legally entitled to register at that squat. Therefore, that is another complication which needs examining before we go down this road.
I am worried about the proposal that people who might be legally registered would be removed under the amendment. If they were found to be illegal, surely they would be evicted. The whole problem would then go away because they would no longer be living in the premises and would, unfortunately, come under the homeless category which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, believes is acceptable.
I also have a problem with Amendment No. 93. I cannot believe that anyone in our democracy is suggesting that the police should knock on doors to check whether the residents should be registered there. We would soon have cases, and quite rightly, of police harassment. I wonder whether, in tabling the amendment, the noble Lord has thought through its consequences. I am sure that he would soon be complaining that the police were not doing enough about crime because they were too busy going from door to door checking whether people should be on the electoral register. I hope that he will reconsider both amendments. Certainly, there is a case for ensuring that there is no fraud, but the amendments as they stand are not acceptable legally as well as morally, and I hope that he will withdraw them.
I very much hope that my noble friend will not reconsider the amendments because they carry with them a great deal of sense. I fully support them. I listened carefully to what the noble Baroness said; that many people illegally occupying squats are already registered. I am indifferent to whether they are or are not, but all we are proposing in the amendments is that they ought not to be.
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Is he saying that it should not be proven that they are illegal before the registration is removed, or that he takes it for granted that they are squatting and that therefore registration should be removed?
The noble Baroness took the next words out of my mouth and I am grateful for her prompt. I draw her attention to my Amendment No. 34, which states:
"A declaration of local connection shall be of no effect if the lawful owner of the premises at the required address can show that the declarant is occupying that address unlawfully".
He would have to show that to the registration officer. In my experience, most registration officers are local council officials and lawyers. They have access to legal advice within local authorities and it would be for the local council to satisfy itself that the owner of the property had shown that there was an illegal occupation. I imagine that it would then be open to the person illegally occupying the premises to appeal to the court. However, it is important that the owners of properties which are illegally occupied, having discovered that the occupants have registered on the electoral roll, should have the opportunity of going to the registration officer and saying, "Look, these people are occupying my property illegally. Here are the deeds which demonstrate that I am the owner. Come round with me and I shall show you the people who are occupying my property and show that I can't get rid of them. What else need I do to show you that my property is being occupied unlawfully?".
I hope that my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish will not mind my saying this, but I believe that my amendment is one of the most important in this group. I hope that the noble Baroness feels that this particular amendment provides a satisfactory way of demonstrating to a registration officer, through the legal advice which is at his disposal, that this situation occurs, that it ought not to occur, and that such registration should be removed.
We on these Benches regard this group of amendments as mean-spirited and, indeed, frankly absurd. As we know, squatting is a trespass but not a crime, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, quite rightly said. Of course, this amendment applies not only to squatters. It applies, for example, to people who have taken possession of property perfectly lawfully, or people whose tenancies have been terminated but who remain in occupation because that gives them a better chance of being rehoused. We all know that that is a very common practice. Until the court makes a possession order and they leave, they are occupying that property unlawfully. Therefore, they, too, will be disfranchised.
However, the main point is that we should not, without good cause, deprive people of their civil rights, including the right to vote, which is one of the most important of those rights. Detention in prison after conviction is plainly a good cause. But why should squatters be deprived of their vote? They have not committed a breach of the criminal law. They are simply trespassing on someone else's property, and that seems to me to fall far short of anything that would justify depriving them of the right to vote.
How does one prove that someone is an unlawful squatter? Of course, many squats now are lawful because they are licensed. Where they are not, there are fast-track powers for removal by court order. With all respect to what the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said about Amendment No. 34, I believe that most owners will be much too busy getting the squatters out of their property to bother to look at the electoral register and to go to the registration officer to make sure that the squatters do not get a vote. That is not what the owners are interested in; they are interested in getting back their property.
Finally, and worst of all, Amendment No. 93 proposes that everyone who applies for a vote on the basis of a declaration of local connection will be checked by the police. That does not apply to people who register not by virtue of a declaration of local connection but because they are squatters who register as residents. Amendment No. 93 does not apply to them. However, the police will have to check everyone who is homeless and makes a declaration of local connection. What a waste of valuable and short police time. Coming from the party which always claims to be particularly strong on law and order, I must say that I find that completely ridiculous.
In my view, these amendments confuse two important issues: on the one hand, the unlawful occupation of property; on the other, the right to register and to vote. I believe that those two issues should be kept separate. I have read the amendments and given the matter some thought over the weekend. I have also read some press reports on the issue of squatters and voters. One would imagine that the Government are about to introduce a law which gives squatters the right to vote. It is clear, and has been apparent for a long time, that squatters have always had the right to vote. This amendment seeks simply to take away that right.
However, this is a broader issue. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, made the case perfectly well. These amendments are in danger of leading us into an oppressive situation. Frankly, I believe that noble Lords opposite are in danger of being accused of wasting police time: sending police officers round in the middle of the night to check whether someone is bona fide for electoral purposes seems to me to be somewhat heavy-handed.
Who is to say ultimately whether or not someone occupies property lawfully? In circumstances where someone is licensed to occupy premises, there may be some uncertainty. It may well be the case that someone's tenancy has come to a conclusion and, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said, they are attempting to exercise their rights as a homeless person and seek accommodation from a local authority. Therefore, I believe that these are heavy-handed amendments and, for the reasons which I have given, I believe that they should be rejected.
It is clear that the party opposite is, again, trying to narrow access and the civil right to the franchise. I cannot believe that that is right and proper. In general with this legislation, we are trying to make it easier for people to vote and to exercise their civil rights. That is the system which we have always had. We are trying to open up access and to create a more inclusive society. That is the purpose of this legislation: to bolster, and to give greater confidence to, our electoral system. It seems to me that, in these amendments, Conservative Members are trying to close that down. That cannot be right and it cannot be good for local democracy. We should be encouraging people to register and to exercise their right to vote. Whether they are lawful or unlawful occupants of a property is neither here nor there. That is a separate issue to be tackled. The noble Lord was a member of the government who did just that. In the past, Labour governments have attempted to close down opportunities for the illegal occupation of property. However, as I say, that is a separate issue.
I believe that in principle we should give people the right to vote and that we should try to extend that wherever possible. This legislation attempts to do that. I believe that noble Lords opposite are trying to create a kind of "squatter shock horror" story where it does not exist. I believe that they should consider most carefully before they move amendments, particularly those such as Amendment No. 93. I suggest to noble Lords opposite that they should reconsider their position and withdraw the amendments.
It is for those who live in that household to determine that issue. I have never had to fill in a form and it is a long time since I have been in that position. However, I believe that we are discussing the important issue of someone's right to vote, and that is the issue on which we should concentrate. I believe that noble Lords opposite are trying to narrow that right and access to it. That is regrettable.
The real issue here is that the clause is headed "Residence ... general". It refers to residence for the purposes of registration. It seems to me perfectly pertinent to ask whether the residence is legal or illegal. In an impassioned defence of the Government's position, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said that, from the point of view of registration, it did not matter if someone trespassed on someone else's property. However, it is precisely because they are trespassing on that property that they are asking for registration to vote. It is not unrelated to the fact that they are there illegally. They are saying, "Here I am. I want the right to vote from here".
Therefore, I do not believe that we have received an entirely satisfactory response. I believe that it is a little exaggerated to conjure up pictures of police being sent round in the middle of the night. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said that it is difficult to evict squatters. That, indeed, seems to be the case, particularly people who are squatters for political reasons as, for example, is the case at Faslane nuclear base in Scotland. It seems amazing that it should be suggested that they are legally entitled to a vote if they are in a squat of that nature.
It may well have been, but I do not agree with that decision any more than I agree with the recent decision at Greenock sheriff court which said that three women who had vandalised property of the British Government at Faslane nuclear base were guilty of no offence at all. That was an amazing decision. I presume that the Government whom the noble Baroness supports have also decided that it is an amazing decision because they have decided to appeal against that decision. Sheriffs are not infallible and can make wrong decisions as, indeed, I think the Government would agree the sheriff at Greenock has done.
The Government should not tempt me down the road of the European Convention on Human Rights because, for the third time in just about as many months, the Government are about to be found wanting in Scotland for having legislation which infringes that convention. Frankly, we shall have severe difficulty with those decisions if they stand up in the appeal courts.
That was not a good point to make on a day when I gather that the whole system of children's panels in Scotland, which we have heard being lauded on many occasions, may be found, to my mind in a quite crazy way, to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. It will be amazing if that convention becomes the tool by which that excellent method of dealing with young juveniles who have committed crimes must be changed adversely because of that decision.
I digress principally because the noble Lord invited me to be careful of the convention on human rights. I suggest that he should take that warning back to his friends in government. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My amendment seeks to leave out the words "for example". Much as I have searched, I do not believe that I have ever found before in legislation the words "for example". I have asked a fair number of my noble friends and they too are fairly puzzled. I suggest that it is an extremely bad example to set. I suggest that the Government should accept my amendment and delete those words so that the clause reads without the words "for example". I beg to move.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for explaining the reasoning behind the amendment. I hope that I can reassure him.
It is a long-standing principle that electoral registration officers determine who is resident in their area and, therefore, who may be entered on their electoral register. In the overwhelming majority of cases, that is a straightforward exercise. It is quite a simple matter of fact whether or not a person is living at a particular address.
But there is also a grey area. There are cases, perhaps involving people who are only temporarily in residence, which are less clear cut. In such cases, registration officers must reach a judgment. They must decide whether they are satisfied that a name should appear on the register. To make that decision, they must take account of knowledge of the circumstances, common sense and, indeed, the considerable volume of case law which now exists on this question.
Registration officers must also take account of whatever guidance the relevant legislation gives and the words of new Section 5(2) of the 1983 Act are to be inserted by Clause 3 and appear at line 10 on page 5. They are there to help them. But--this is the crucial point--the words in the Bill are not the only factor which must be taken into account. If local knowledge leads the registration officer to believe strongly that there should be a different decision, he should clearly do what he thinks right. Equally, if a court decision were to suggest that a different decision should be reached, we should expect that to be followed.
The words in the Bill are simply one of the factors which must be taken into account. That is why they are qualified by "for example". I trust that with that explanation, the noble Lord will see fit to withdraw his amendment.
I am puzzled by this. What do the words "for example" do? With respect, I do not believe that the Minister has explained that. It really had not crossed my mind, until my noble friend was speaking, that "for example" is rather unusual in statute law. If my noble friend is quite wrong about that, I am sure that the Minister will correct him immediately and say that "for example" appears frequently in many Bills and Acts of Parliament.
I have the impression that that is not the case. I do not quite know what a court of law would make of those words when it came to interpreting the will of Parliament. It would be a very odd idea if, in legislating, the government of the day were to illustrate what is meant by examples in the wording of the Bill. The Minister would be well advised to take this back to his legal advisers and ask them what they mean by it and what is its value.
I do not know whether it will help the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, but I recall that in the Consumer Credit Act 1974, there is a whole schedule--if not more than one schedule--in which, deliberately, the draftsman has given examples of factual situations to which certain basic provisions of the Act apply. Most people looking at that legislation have found it extremely helpful.
I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that it is an unusual situation. But being unusual is one thing; being unhelpful is another. As I say, most people thought that that example was extremely helpful.
I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has tabled further amendments which I have not yet noticed, but if the words "for example" are omitted, it does not make sense because the words following the words "for example" are simply an example of the words which precede them. I should have thought that that was helpful rather than otherwise, even if unusual.
In his answer, the Minister did not differentiate between primary and secondary legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, is right that it is not unusual to find "for example" in a schedule. But as one who in another place was responsible for five years for secondary legislation, I am mystified as to why the Law Officers have recommended that there should be a "for example" in this primary legislation.
It may be, but this is not in a schedule. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that we have seen it in a clause of a Bill. My noble friend on the Front Bench is asking why this has appeared in primary legislation in a clause. Is it on advice from the Law Officers that that is to be the way forward now in the new age, or is it that it has just appeared as an example? It will be incredibly difficult for the courts to interpret those matters. I suggest that the Minister should either tell the Committee that the Law Officers are recommending that it should be done in primary rather than secondary legislation for reasons given; or that they are not. Perhaps if we had an answer to that, we should accept it.
I am very glad to have provoked the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, to his feet because I am always interested to hear his contributions. But on this occasion he did rather invalidate the point he was making by quoting a schedule. I was asking whether there is a section of an Act of Parliament which uses those words "for example". If that is the case, I shall be very interested and I shall have had an educative day, which I do not always have. I am sure that my noble friend is correct to say that it is highly unusual to use these words in a clause. If I am wrong, perhaps the noble Lord will say so and I shall then be happy to withdraw my argument. However, if my noble friend is right, I believe that the Minister ought to look again at the advisability of using such a form of words here.
Given the huge volume of legislation that churns its way through Parliament, drafting is not usually famous for being immaculate. Indeed, it can be rather uneven and spotty.
I regret that the reply given by the Minister rather missed the point made by my noble friend. Either this is a new departure in legislation--and if it is a new departure, then why has it been done?--or the words have been put in only because someone thought they ought to put them in just for fun. We all know that such mistakes can happen. All we are asking for here is clarity and precedent. If precedent is to be broken, it should be broken for a reason. The Minister's response did not even attempt to respond to that point.
Will the Minister please answer the following two questions? First, is my noble friend right when he says that this form of words is unprecedented? Secondly, if he is right, why has it been put into the Bill? If the Minister does not know the answers to those questions, could he take them away and find out?
I am puzzled by most of the Minister's reply. I thought that I had attempted to delete lines 10 to 14. However, it appears that I have not done so and that they would remain in the Bill. Indeed, they are qualified by the beginning of subsection (2) where it states,
"Regard shall be had, in particular".
When I was a Government Minister I recall that I had to make the point constantly that I was reluctant to give examples because it then would be assumed that anything else would not be an example and would not fall within the scope of the legislation. For that reason, I find the use of the words "for example" most odd. Removing the words would not change the meaning of the following subsection; indeed, nothing would be changed.
When, nearly two hours ago, I suggested that certain unnecessary words should be removed from the Bill, the Minister persuaded me that I should not attempt to do it because of the Maastricht Treaty. I have now had an opportunity to look at the first Maastricht Treaty and it appears, so far as concerns the first treaty, that the position as the Minister explained it would not be the case. However, it may well be the case as regards the second Maastricht Treaty.
I do not believe that we should return to this matter, but I think that it is an important point. Why put in the words "for example" when there is no indication that they have been used elsewhere in primary legislation? They add nothing to the meaning of this part of the Bill. For that reason, I shall seek the opinion of the Committee.
moved Amendment No. 17:
Page 5, line 32, at end insert--
("( ) Subsection (3) above shall apply in relation to a person's absence by reason of his attendance on a course provided by an educational institution as it applies in relation to a person's absence in the performance of any duty such as is mentioned in that subsection.").
Amendments Nos. 17 and 120 and part of Amendment No. 140 are designed to rectify an anomaly. Students now routinely obtain absent votes, even though, strictly speaking, the law does not include attendance at an educational establishment as one of the grounds on which an absent vote may be granted.
We should be doing everything we can to enable this group of electors, particularly young electors, to vote. Allowing students who are studying at an establishment some distance from their parental home to vote by proxy is one way of doing so. I am sure that Members of the Committee will agree that this is something which they should continue to be able to do.
The amendments, therefore, simply allow for attendance at an educational establishment to be included as ground for obtaining a proxy vote. Postal votes will, of course, in future be available to all.
Amendments Nos. 131, 137, 138, 139, 142 and the rest of Amendment No. 140 are purely technical. They are consequential on the decision of the Scottish Parliament that provisions on absent voting in Scottish local elections should be included in the Bill. That is a matter with which we shall deal in more depth when we reach Amendments Nos. 118 and 119. A consequence of this is that references to local government elections in Sections 5 to 9 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 can be repealed as they will apply only to Northern Ireland but not to local elections. I beg to move.
moved Amendment No. 18:
Page 6, leave out lines 3 to 9 and insert--
("(3) A person registered in a register of electors in pursuance of an application for registration made by virtue of subsection (2) above is entitled to remain so registered until--
(a) the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the date when the entry in the register first takes effect, or
(b) another entry made in respect of him in any register of electors takes effect (whether or not in pursuance of an application made by virtue of subsection (2)), whichever first occurs.
(3A) Where the entitlement of such a person to remain so registered terminates by virtue of subsection (3) above, the registration officer concerned shall remove that person's entry from the register, unless he is entitled to remain registered in pursuance of a further application made by virtue of subsection (2).").
The amendments are technical in nature. It is hoped that they will serve purposes which will be appreciated by the Committee. They either make matters explicit on the face of the Bill rather than leave them to be settled in secondary legislation or simplify the drafting of the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 18 and 19 bring Clauses 4 and 5, which provide for the registration of mental patients and remand prisoners, into line with the new Section 7C, which is inserted by Clause 6 of the Bill. The effect of the amendments is to make entitlement to be registered for a 12-month period explicit on the face of the Bill as opposed to being included in regulations.
Amendments Nos. 37, 62 and 73 simplify the drafting. They relate to registration by means of a declaration of local connection by service voters (Amendment No. 62, to Schedule 1) and overseas voters (Amendment No. 73, to Schedule 2). I beg to move.
moved Amendment No. 19:
Page 6, leave out lines 41 to 47 and insert--
("(3) A person registered in a register of electors in pursuance of an application for registration made by virtue of subsection (2) above is entitled to remain so registered until--
(a) the end of the period of 12 months beginning with the date when the entry in the register first takes effect, or
(b) another entry made in respect of him in any register of electors takes effect (whether or not in pursuance of an application made by virtue of subsection (2)), whichever first occurs.
(3A) Where the entitlement of such a person to remain so registered terminates by virtue of subsection (3) above, the registration officer concerned shall remove that person's entry from the register, unless he is entitled to remain registered in pursuance of a further application made by virtue of subsection (2).").
On Question, amendment agreed to.
moved Amendment No. 20:
Page 7, line 15, leave out from ("order") to end of line 16 and insert ("under section 70 of the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1984 or a transfer direction under section 71 of that Act made in respect of a person to whom that section applies by virtue of subsection (2)(c) of that section").
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 5, as amended, agreed to.
moved Amendment No. 21:
After Clause 5, insert the following new clause--
(". After section 7A of the 1983 Act (as inserted by section 5 above) there shall be inserted--
"Registration and voting rights of asylum seekers.
7AA. A person who claims political asylum in the United Kingdom but has not been given leave to remain shall not be entitled to register to vote, or vote, until and unless he is granted such leave."").
Amendment No. 21, tabled in my name, seeks to insert a new clause into the Bill. The purpose of the amendment is to try to clarify the position with regard to asylum seekers and whether or not they have the right to vote in this country. Indeed, in some ways this relates back to the first group of amendments debated today. Asylum seekers can be divided into two groups: those from a non-Commonwealth country and those from a Commonwealth country.
I have little doubt that those coming from a non-Commonwealth country do not have the right to vote in this country, nor will any provision in the Bill give them the right so to vote. However, I should like confirmation of that.
I am not so certain of the position as regards asylum seekers from Commonwealth countries. If one refers back to the first debate we had this afternoon, one must assume that such people will have the right to vote while they are here claiming asylum and before their cases are decided. As Members of the Committee will know, that can sometimes take a long time.
I imagine that when legislation began on rights to vote, this was not much of a problem. Indeed, in 1983 and 1985 when changes were made to the Representation of the People Acts it was probably not much of a problem either. But the position has worsened, if by that one means the number of people who arrive here asking for asylum and the length of time they wait until that decision is made. The Committee will know from previous exchanges in this Chamber that the position is now much worse than it has probably ever been. My figures date only from 1994, and the situation is certainly worse than it has been in the past decade or so.
The last government, thanks to some measures I piloted through your Lordships' Chamber, got the figures down to 29,640 applicants in 1996 and during the course of 1997 they went up to 32,500. That is probably not terribly significant, but they then went to 46,000 in 1998 and, as we know, in 1999 the figures exceeded 71,000. Many of those people have to stay in this country for a considerable time before a final decision is made on their application, one of the problems being that the appeals procedure is extraordinarily lengthy.
I had experience of the procedure as a Minister and find it hard to believe that Mr Jack Straw will be able to deal expeditiously with the Afghan asylum applicants who arrived at Stansted. While the Home Office may deal with them swiftly--a change from the way it deals with the usual applicant--if they get into the legal system of appeals and counter appeals it will take a considerable time before a final decision is taken. In fact, I wager that most of those people will be here for so long that they will eventually be granted exceptional leave to remain.
But that is beside the point. The number of asylum seekers who come to this country--a measure of the way Britain is perceived thanks to what this Government have said--is a problem. Of course, the Afghan asylum seekers are not eligible to vote while they are asylum seekers. They would be eligible to vote only if they were granted asylum. I am not sure what happens if they are given exceptional leave to remain and perhaps the Minister can help. Is someone from a non-Commonwealth country who is granted exceptional leave to remain allowed to register and vote in this country?
The important point is what happens when asylum seekers come into this country from Commonwealth countries. Are they allowed to vote while they remain asylum seekers? If so, we are literally facing two different ways. We have not come to a conclusion whether they should be allowed to stay in this country, yet we allow them to vote in this country. We must try to bring some logic--I believe it is called "joined-up government"--between one piece of legislation and another.
The other problem is, if asylum seekers are allowed to vote, does it mean that there will be a concentration of them voting, for example, in a constituency like Dover, which has been badly hit by the number of asylum seekers who end up there? I cannot quite understand how they get there without going through another member state of the European Union, but we can leave that to one side.
The question is that, if it had not been an Afghan plane at Stansted, but instead, for instance, the Indian hijacked plane of a few weeks ago which ended up on the tarmac at Stansted, and people on that plane had applied for asylum and been removed to Moreton-in-the-Marsh, would they have been allowed to register to vote as Commonwealth citizens? I have to be clear about this and at the risk of being accused by the Liberal Democrats of being hard-hearted, I do not feel that asylum seekers should have the right to vote in this country. That right should come to those who are eventually granted asylum. I am open to argument in relation to exceptional leave to remain and will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in that regard.
This Bill gives us an opportunity to clarify the situation with regard to the legal positions on the right to register and vote in this country, and if we feel like tidying them up, there is nothing wrong with doing that; after all, the Government will claim--and rightly in the case of the clause on people in mental institutions, on remand prisoners and on the homeless--that that is exactly what they are doing. We are entitled to look at other issues surrounding the right to vote and to ask the questions I have just asked. I look forward to clarification from the Minister, and on that basis, I beg to move.
We will no doubt be in a happy condition after this discussion. This will be a rarity, if not an unknown situation.
It seems only fair to answer the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, for starters. In relation to asylum seekers, the situation is pretty much as he said. Non-Commonwealth asylum seekers do not have the right to vote and this Bill will not confer any such rights--let us be absolutely clear about that. With regard to those granted exceptional leave to remain, they will not be able to vote unless and until they are granted citizenship. So the answer is clear on that issue also.
I can be brief in responding to the further points made by the noble Lord. I shall not go into endless reams of statistics on the asylum issue; that is not a debate for today, though it would, I am sure, be interesting. We have already discussed the Commonwealth citizens in this country and the fact that they are allowed to vote in our elections. That is just as it should be and we have no plans to change the situation. I accept that the position of people whose status is uncertain is rather different and I clarified the two points there. Accordingly, I should like to explore the possibility of drafting an amendment to the Bill which will achieve the same effect as Amendment No. 21 and explore with electoral administrators whether or not it will be enforceable in practice. That is an important question and we will need to consult with them as to how the effect of the amendment may be best achieved.
We have considerable sympathy with the amendment. It is going in the right direction and I hope that, with my undertaking, all corners of the Chamber will be satisfied and the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment this afternoon.
I am not sure that this is going to do my reputation any good at all. Not only is the Minister saying he has sympathy with the proposal, but also the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has some sympathy. One must accept these things with good grace, and I do. I am pleased to hear the Minister's assurance that he will look at this and I am sure he accepts that it is an unusual amalgam. No doubt 20 or 30 years ago nobody bothered too much about it because it was not an issue. But I am grateful to him for saying that he will take it away and look at it, and I look forward to hearing from him either by letter or by an amendment at Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw amendment.
This group contains technical amendments and I shall endeavour to provide a brief explanation of them and not detain the Committee too long.
Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 clarify the point that residence needs to be construed in accordance with Section 4. Amendment No. 39 reflects the fact that under rolling legislation an electoral register lasts indefinitely rather than for a year, as is presently the case, which means that removal of names from the register becomes necessary. Amendment No. 40 excludes prisoners on remand who are detained other than at a penal institution or mental hospital from the need to conduct a canvass.
Amendment No. 42 is a drafting amendment designed to give greater emphasis to the point that the power to alter the electoral register derives from the new Section 10A.
I turn now to Amendment No. 44, which is tabled under two names on the Marshalled List. That combination may have raised some eyebrows during noble Lords' deliberations. As we have demonstrated this afternoon, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and I are perhaps something of an "odd couple". I suspect that our motives in seeking to remove the words on page 19 of the Bill may be a little different. I should like to explain why the Government seek to do so, before explaining why what I believe to be the noble Lord's reasons for so doing are wrong.
Our reason for wanting to delete the power in new Section 10(7) of the 1983 Act is that the power reappears as new subsection (7) of new Section 10A, which is to be inserted by Amendment No. 46. The power of removal will appear as new Section 10A(6), and new Section 10A(7) qualifies that power. I hope that noble Lords managed to follow that explanation. The power in question is the one to make regulations enabling registration officers to keep names on the electoral register for a year in cases where the electoral registration form has not been returned.
It is an unfortunate fact that every year a large number of households fail to return their electoral registration form. As we know, electoral registration officers are assiduous creatures who chase missing forms, often paying several visits to the properties concerned. But, even then, there are some properties from which no information is forthcoming. A practice has evolved in such circumstances of keeping existing names on the register for a year, and sometimes longer, in the absence of any evidence that the people concerned have moved away.
We believe that that is right. In cases of uncertainty, the decision should always be to keep people on the register rather than disfranchising them. We believe that to be an important democratic principle. The Bill will simply put existing practice on a statutory footing and, at the same time, make it clear that names should be kept on the register for only a single year. I am sorry that the Opposition want to remove this provision, as to do so could result in denying people the right to vote.
Amendment No. 45 allows for someone who has changed address in the same area, and who is not on the register in respect of his or her new address, to be added to the register in respect of that address, as a result of the annual canvass.
Amendment No. 46 adds a new subsection to Section 10A, which concerns preparation of electoral registers. New subsection (5) makes provision as to the time at which an entitlement to be registered ceases. New subsection (6) requires the registration officer to remove a person falling within subsection (5). New subsection (7) qualifies that power. New subsection (8) disapplies these provisions in respect of those whose entitlement to be registered lasts for only 12 months. Amendment No. 48 is consequential on Amendment No. 46.
Amendment No. 51 simplifies new Section 13A(1)(a) because Amendment No. 46 defines the word "determines" as,
"determines in accordance with regulations".
Amendment No. 52 combines paragraphs (b) and (c) of new Section 13A(1) to deal with removal of names from the register generally. This will cover not only removal under new Section 10A(6), but also removal when a 12-month period of entitlement expires.
Amendments Nos. 64 and 141 reflect the fact that under new Section 1(1)(a) entitlement to vote depends on being registered in the constituency concerned. Amendments Nos. 65 and 66 are consequential on those amendments. Amendment No. 72 provides for the evidential effect of a registration officer's certificate that a person was--or was not--registered at a particular time. Amendment No. 74 is necessary because provisions relating to the registration of overseas electors are now contained solely in the 1985 Act. Amendments No. 75 and 76 are consequential on Amendment No. 64. They remove provisions relating to the effect of Section 49 from new Sections 2 and 3 of the 1985 Act. Amendment No. 79 applies Amendment No. 72 for the purposes of local elections in Northern Ireland.
I am sorry to have spoken at such length, but this group contains a large number of amendments. I beg to move.
I suppose that, initially, some Members of the Committee thought that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and I were absolutely on the same wave-length when they noticed our names attached to the same amendment. However, as the noble Lord very fairly pointed out, we are probably approaching the matter from entirely different directions. Indeed, we have probably ended up in quite different places. The noble Lord seeks to remove subsection (7) and to replace it with some alternative words; I have also sought to remove that subsection, but do not propose to replace it with any alternative words.
We are in a new situation with regard to the register. It is now not just a once-a-year exercise; it is a rolling register, which means that the electoral position will not be frozen for a whole year--indeed, for more than a year, as is really the case--but will roll on month to month. There will be a bit of a freeze in October and November, but that is all. Therefore, the question of removing names from the register becomes even more important. Moreover, it is also important if one is to judge the success of all the changes that we are now considering.
To put it simply, if an electoral register contains 100 names and 60 people vote, it is very obvious that a 60 per cent turn-out has been achieved. However, if 10 of those 100 names could not vote even if they wanted to--perhaps because they were dead or because they had moved away--but, nevertheless, remained on the register, the turn-out would look a staggering 66.66 per cent, which, on the face of it, might be claimed by the Government to be a great success as regards some other experiment being conducted. In fact, it would not be anything of the kind; it would simply be a reflection that we should not determine turn-out based just on the electoral register because it is not wholly accurate.
It may seem odd if I pray in aid some words of the party opposite, the Liberal Democrat Party and the Scottish National Party over the 20 years after 1979. Those noble Lords who remember these events will recall that there was a hurdle in the Welsh and Scottish referendums in 1979 (imposed by a Labour MP in the other place) of 40 per cent of those registered to vote. There was much argument beforehand, much argument at the time and there has been much argument since about the unfairness involved because, many people on the register on which that 40 per cent was based were either dead or had moved away to such an extent that they could not possibly vote there.
Therefore, the number on the register--the denominator--is a very important factor, not just for ensuring that everyone who can vote is on the register; but also for ensuring that everyone who can no longer vote is removed from the register at the first available opportunity.
Although my next piece of information is fairly "old hat", I do not believe that the situation will have changed. In fact, I suspect that it may possibly have got worse because the mobility of population, and so on, has actually increased over the past 20 years, or so, since the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs inquired into the Representation of the People Act in 1982 and 1983. At that time, the annual survey of the methods of compiling the electoral register carried out by the Office of Population Censuses & Surveys included data to the extent on which EROs (electoral registration officers) carry forward names from one register to the next.
The 1990 survey showed that 6 per cent of all EROs do not carry forward at all; 50 per cent carry forward only if there is good supporting evidence--and, of those, 7 per cent believe that "carried forward with good evidence" is, in effect, a policy of not carrying forward at all; 18 per cent carry forward for one year only; 6 per cent carry forward for two years only; and 20 per cent carry forward for three years or more. That really means that 44 per cent of all EROs carry forward most or all of the names in the absence of any good supporting evidence to the contrary. That is a fairly staggering number of names being carried forward. It is now time to ask whether that is sensible. Later in the Committee stage I shall propose that the electoral registration officer uses some of the tools that I believe are to hand in order to make sure that the register is up to date. I shall speak about those proposals when we reach them.
The point at issue here is that the Government, in seeking to remove subsection (7) that we have discussed and reinstating it in another form, are not dealing with the problem of carrying names forward when there is no justification for that. If we want the register to be an accurate, rolling reflection of who is entitled to vote, we must take all possible steps to ensure that people's names are not carried forward year after year when they have made no attempt--perhaps because they are no longer able to make such an attempt--to fill in the form and send it back. They may simply not be there any more. It is slipshod to allow that situation to continue in the future when our objective is to try to make the register as accurate as possible to ensure that as many people as possible vote and to ensure that we know exactly what the turn-out is. It should not be measured against a register which may be in part fictional, but should be measured against a register which is as accurate as possible.
While, initially, I was pleased to note that the noble Lord had added his name to my amendment, I rapidly detected that he was not going as far as I would have wished. I regret that the Government have not taken more vigorous steps in this regard. However, I shall reserve most of my fire for later when I shall make some helpful suggestions as to how they may be able to improve the clearing of the register.
I support the comments of my noble friend on this matter. I live in a central London borough. Many London boroughs have an annual population turnover of about 33 to 34 per cent. In some wards in my borough the figure is as high as 40 per cent. It is therefore extremely important that those who have left are taken off the register as soon as possible; otherwise, the register is meaningless. I support the amendment.
We are certainly an odd couple. However, I am warming to this odd couple. It is a relationship that could go far.
I return to the subject in hand. On balance we have tried to recognise in part the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. It cannot be right that names remain on the register year after year after year. We believe that there is a balance to be struck here. We believe that a period of a year is about right. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, makes a good point in this regard. She will probably recall that I was the leader of Brighton and Hove Council. As in the noble Baroness's own good borough, we have wards in Brighton and Hove which have phenomenal population turnovers in the course of a year. I believe that one of those wards had a turnover of 60 per cent. In those circumstances it is hard to keep track of people's movements. Often they shift simply to the flat next door or to another street.
However, I believe that it is right to enable registration officers to keep names on the list for a further year. That is in part what our amendments seek to achieve. I believe that by clarifying the matter and providing a cut-off--a cap, if you like--we have struck the right balance. However, I understand the point that both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, have made. Although our opinions may diverge with regard to what should happen to the amendment that stands in both our names, we share a concern to make the register accurate. In his usual entertaining manner the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, made some good points on the need for an accurate register. However, I trust that with those comments he will feel happy with what we are trying to do.
This amendment is an example of my desire to find ways to extend the opportunity for people to register and to vote, but at the same time to try to avoid as far as possible unnecessary abuses. That is what Amendments Nos. 24, 32 and 33, which stand in my name, are designed to achieve.
Clause 6 deals with the thorny matter of local connection. As my noble friend on the Front Bench has said, he has no objection to extending the opportunity to vote to homeless people. I do not object to the concept of local connection. However, it is an important new feature of our electoral law which we ought to consider extremely carefully as the creation of this concept of local connection gives rise to wide opportunities for abuse. I am sorry that the Minister has not been a little more understanding about the anxieties that I and others have had with regard to the danger of abuse in this area. When he replies to the amendment I hope that he will recognise that there are opportunities for abuse in this area. I hope that he will agree with me that it is essential to do everything possible to try to avoid that.
One can imagine that it is not impossible that people could appear apparently from nowhere and register multiple local connections in marginal constituencies at the time of by-elections or general elections. That is certainly what I am afraid of and what we need to safeguard against. I have drafted these amendments with a view to meeting that situation. I hope that the amendments achieve a variety of constructive objectives with regard to reducing the temptation to abuse the system.
I turn to Amendment No. 33. In my view, a potential elector should declare a local connection personally at the registration officer's office. The applicant should be required at that stage to produce proof of his identity. I am most anxious to be fair to potential voters. I have asked myself whether it is unreasonable to insist on that condition of personal appearance at the registration officer's office and proof of identity. However, I do not honestly believe that it is. I do not think that it should prove to be a problem. One of the conditions of a homeless person registering a local connection is to give an undertaking that he will be able to go to that office to pick up electoral documents. Therefore a homeless person who declares a local connection may well have to go to that office in the circumstances of an election. If he is prepared to collect that correspondence from that office--he has to say so--I do not think it is unreasonable that he should be invited to go there to register.
Nor, I believe, can it be unreasonable to suggest that homeless people, or anyone else trying to produce a local connection, should be asked to produce some form of identification. I cannot believe that people who wanted to vote could not provide some kind of identification, whether it be a pension book, unemployment document or something of that nature. I do not think that that is unreasonable.
In cases where they cannot identify themselves at all as to who they are and what their names are, it is difficult to understand why they should be allowed to register to vote. It is difficult to justify cases where people who are unable to identify themselves should be allowed to vote; clearly that would be a potential source of electoral abuse.
Turning to Amendment No. 24, I believe that potential voters declaring a local connection should say when they register where and when they were previously registered. That would help. I shall come on to this point shortly when I move to my next group of amendments. It may be that a homeless person seeking to establish a local connection would say "I was never previously registered". While that should not be a bar to people going on the register, they should be asked where and when they were previously registered. If they say that they have never been registered, I am not for a moment saying that they should not be put on the register, but at least the registration officer would be making some effort to find out the background of potential voters to ensure that there were not multiple applications. That would be some guard against abuses.
Amendment No. 32 seeks to require that at the point of registration persons wishing to establish a local connection should, when they go to register, be given a certificate by the registration officer. Such a certificate would verify their registration. Potential voters would be required to prescribe their signatures on the certificate in order that it could be presented at a polling station to verify that the person claiming the local connection was properly who he said he was.
I know that this lays conditions additional to those in the Bill on people seeking to establish a local connection. As I said earlier, I have asked myself repeatedly whether they are unreasonable conditions. I do not think that they are. There are justifiable suspicions that abuses of the electoral system could arise. That a person seeking to establish a local connection should be asked to identify himself or herself with a certificate from the registration officer, which is signed by himself or herself, would be a safeguard against some such abuses.
I hope that the Government are able to accept the amendments. I believe that they are helpful; they are not onerous; and they would give confidence to those who look at the electoral system that it is not easy to skirt around and to cheat. I beg to move.
I have sympathy with my noble friend's amendments; there is a potential for abuse.
I am particularly keen on the availability of the new declaration of local connections in order to ensure the right to vote of homeless people. It seems to hit the right balance between how we prevent abuse and how we allow homeless people the right to vote. However, I have concerns with these specific amendments, in particular with the one in regard to obliging people to say where they came from previously. I am concerned, for example, about the problems that this would cause battered wives. They may have become homeless as a result of being battered wives, and it would be a considerable problem for them if they had to declare their previous registration in this process. We must be concerned about that.
I sympathise particularly with the amendment in regard to parliamentary by-elections. There may be a considerable period of time between a parliamentary by-election becoming known and the date by which one may wish to be registered. That is a sensible consideration.
My main concern is about the necessary proof of identity for those who do not have a red-and-white striped badge. It is difficult for homeless people to prove their identity beyond doubt. Satisfactory evidence of identity to the registration officer would be a sensible provision.
I support what my noble friend Lord Rennard said about proof of identity. A similar provision to the one envisaged by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, was introduced in relation to benefits in the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997. It is causing considerable problems. The House to some extent foresaw this, but not in sufficient numbers to prevent the measure going through.
To take my noble friend's example, if it is applied to battered wives, very often they have perhaps had to leave the house in the middle of the night, in their night-dress, as fast as they could possibly go. They do not have time in that situation to pick up their passports, credit cards and all the other identification documents. The same applies to people who have to leave their houses because of fire, which continues to happen even in the most well ordered society.
In its report Still Running, the Children's Society has drawn attention to the difficulties encountered by 15 and 16 year-olds who have been thrown out by their parents in being able to produce proofs of identity. They cannot go back to ask the parents who threw them out for their birth certificates. If we all lived such well-ordered lives as the amendment envisages, it would be a reasonable and perhaps a necessary provision. But as it is, it may do a good deal of harm.
I accept the point of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, about the accuracy of the register, but people are in such a continual state of flux that it is inevitable that any register is going to be inaccurate. The question is whether one would rather have it inaccurate by including people who should not have been included or by excluding people who should not have been excluded. We have a simple choice: not of getting it right but of which mistake we would rather make.
I listened to the noble Earl with care, as I always do, and I am little puzzled by the example he gave of the battered wife. All that my noble friend's Amendment No. 24 seeks is that the lady, when she asks for a registration at a new address, tells the electoral registration officer where was her previous address and where she was previously registered. Unless I am misreading my noble friend's amendment, I do not see necessarily that that information will get out. It will not be news to the husband if the lady's name is removed from the electoral register; after all, she has left him and he knows that. The question is how he would get to know where she now was simply by her telling the ERO that she had come from another address. Perhaps the noble Earl can help me.
There are cases where the name has got out from even such an elementary thing as the local police station being informed. Some such cases have ended in murder. There is a need for care.
I accept that point, but I find it hard to understand how the ERO could possibly release information about the wife to the pursuing husband--if I may call him that. I see the problem, but I would have to be persuaded that it was a real one in respect of telling the ERO the whereabouts of the woman's last address. My noble friend has a general and fairly good point in suggesting that people should say, when applying for a new registration, whether or not they have had a registration previously and, if so, where it was. I actually believe that everyone should be asked to do so, but those in this group in particular should be because obviously it is not as easy to register them as someone with a residence. I have great sympathy with that aspect of my noble friend's amendment.
I should like also to say a few words about Amendment No. 33. My noble friend suggests that the person concerned should go to the registration officer's office to make the application. I shall come to the phrase,
"accompanied by proof of identity", in a moment. Perhaps the Minister will help us by telling us how the Government envisage that such a person may make an application. It is quite different from the current arrangement where once per year canvassing forms come in through our front doors which we fill in and return. People who move address are among the people whom the ERO must identify when they ask to be registered at their new address. That is done through a form. I wonder how the individual is going to accomplish his registration. I do not believe that going to the registration officer's office is a particularly onerous thing to do. I notice that in new Section 7B(3)(a)(ii) one of the options given to such a homeless person is,
"that he is willing to collect such correspondence periodically from the registration officer's office".
The Government themselves therefore envisage that at least some homeless people will make their point of contact the registration officer's office, although I accept that some others may make it the homeless hostel where they tend to reside or the hostel with which they have the greatest amount of contact. I understand that point, but it does not seem any great problem to make the registration officer's office the important point of contact.
As to proof of identity, I am more inclined to listen to my noble friend than to the noble Earl, although I appreciate his point about fire, flood and fleeing in the night. The fact is that anyone going through fire, flood and fleeing in the night will have to obtain some form of identification rather quickly. I was about to say that for most of us that might be a bank account or something of that nature, but we are talking about homeless people. For a homeless person it might well be the social security documents which entitle him to continue to claim social security. I suspect that a battered wife in the situation described earlier would be looking for social security documents. There will be some documents around that the registration office could check. My amendment is perhaps more acceptable to the Government--dare I say, having had a small success a little while ago--in that I do not specify what it should be. All I say is that the registration officer should have the responsibility to take whatever measures he deems necessary and reasonable to verify a declaration of local connection.
In addition to my support for my noble friend's amendment, I suggest that my amendment would make it clear that the ERO has the power and the responsibility to make checks. If the Minister tells me that he already has such powers and that he would make checks, I shall be quite content. I suggest that my amendment would go at least some way to relieve the concerns of my noble friend Lord Jopling without perhaps getting into the difficult territory of the noble Earl, Lord Russell.
This has been a useful discussion. I want us to try to concentrate our minds a little on the benefits of the Bill and why it is drafted in this way. The whole purpose behind the Bill is surely to make it easier for the homeless, remand prisoners and mental health patients to be registered as electors. That is what we are trying to achieve. We are trying to be more inclusive and to encourage people to participate in democracy. While I understand the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, to ensure that we root out any abuse and fraudulent intent within the system, we stick to that fundamental principle. Trying to achieve greater participation is one of the purposes behind the legislation. The electoral system in this country bears comparison with all others. Our system is remarkably free from corruption and abuse. I believe that most of us would subscribe to that point of view.
In general, the provisions have been welcomed by all parties and that is as it should be. But having decided that those categories of people--the homeless, remand prisoners and mental health patients--should be allowed to register, it would be quite wrong if we were then to try to treat their registrations as different from everyone else's. Yet that is what these amendments seek to do: to discriminate between one set of electors and another.
Ordinary electors do not have to be issued with identification certificates or have to produce such documents when seeking to vote, so why should we place an additional requirement on those who register by means of a declaration of local connection? I shall try to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. A person who wants to register by means of a declaration of local connection will need to complete a form. He will have to do some form-filling in the same way as everyone else; such as a person who registers normally and wants to change his registration mid-year. A person may fill in the form and return it directly, or by post. That is how the procedure will work.
Although I imagine that most homeless people will go to the town hall in person to register--which seems a logical consequence and a sensible way to behave--there is no reason to require them to do so when a similar requirement is not imposed on anyone else. I therefore cannot invite the Committee to accept Amendments Nos. 32 and 33.
In that context, while the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is phrased in perhaps slightly friendlier and looser terms, I cannot invite the Committee to support it either. Imagine for a moment what happens in the case of those who register in the normal way. If the annual canvass form comes back with an extra name of a person who was not registered the previous year, or if an extra person applies to be registered during the course of the year, the registration officer takes that on trust. He does not call round to check that the new person really lives at the address in question. There is no justification for treating in a different way those who wish to register by means of a declaration of local connection. There is no reason to believe that such people are more prone to fraud or dishonesty, although I should point out that paragraph 17 of Schedule 1 to the Bill makes it quite clear that submitting a fraudulent declaration of local connection is an offence.
Whenever any name appears on the electoral register, whether in the normal way or through a declaration of local connection, there is a proper procedure for objecting to it. Another safeguard is therefore built in. That seems a much better approach than singling out those registering by means of a declaration of local connection and imposing an additional and heavy burden on already busy registration officers.
Finally, I turn to Amendment No. 24, about which I can perhaps be a little kinder. A feature of rolling electoral registration is that people will be able to change their registration during the course of the year. They will be able to register in respect of their new address and be removed from the register in respect of their old address. For that system to work, the registration form will need to ask them for details of their previous registration. Exactly the same question will need to appear on the form for registering by means of a declaration of local connection. The Bill as drafted will allow for that to happen.
Before I sit down, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for his contribution. He made a valuable point about domestic violence. We too want to ensure that the system we are putting in place protects those who are victims of aggression in any shape or form; in particular, those who are victims of racist attacks. There would be some equally telling vulnerability if we were to adopt the course recommended in the amendments.
In the light of what I have said, and bearing in mind the reasonable points made by some of our colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, I hope that the noble Lord will decide that at this stage the amendments are not worth pursuing, although, as I said earlier, I recognise that we must be vigilant in tackling fraud and ensuring that there is no abuse of the system.
I have listened carefully to the Minister's reply. I repeat what I said in my earlier remarks. I remain unsure about whether the Government are being sufficiently prudent in dealing with the dangers of abuse in the registration and voting of the electorate. We may be able to discuss that further as time goes on.
However, leaving the Minister's comments aside, I have to say that I was somewhat amused by the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Russell. He quoted the example of the battered wife who escapes in her night-dress in the middle of the night on to the frozen winter streets. The thought that he left in my mind was that the first thought of an unfortunate lady in that situation would be to ensure that she had registered her vote by demonstrating a local connection--no thought of going first to the hospital, if that was necessary; no thought of trying to find somewhere to live temporarily; no thought of trying to find some clothing; and no thought of trying to get assistance from the social services! He seemed to imply that that was the first thing, or very nearly the first thing, the lady would do. The noble Earl shakes his head. I am perhaps saying this rather flippantly and I do not want to be taken too seriously.
I was heartened by what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said. At Second Reading I had the enormous pleasure of congratulating him on his maiden speech. I detected a good deal more sympathy in his remarks than I detected in the remarks of the noble Earl. It occurs to me that there are the seeds of co-operation between the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and myself over this matter. Whether that would compare with the new relationship across the Front Benches about which we heard, I am not entirely sure. In the course of the next few days perhaps I may have a discussion with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, to see whether there is any way in which we can find a compromise amendment. I see that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, wishes to intervene. I once worked for the noble Lord many years ago. I am not sure what words he is breathing into the ear of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.
I shall not delay the Committee for very long with this amendment. In new Section 7B(7)(b), it is enough to say that if a person makes more than one declaration of local connection, the declaration or declarations shall be void. I do not see the need for the words in lines 12 and 13. I do not want to argue in favour of my Amendment No. 30, which seeks to take out the words "or declarations". That is not necessary. But would it not make more sense if subsection (7)(b) stated merely that if a person makes more than one declaration of local connection, that declaration shall be void? I beg to move.
My noble friend Lord Jopling has a good point. I can understand the Government not being keen to accept more than one declaration stating different addresses on the same day. However, if I read the provision correctly, someone could make a declaration on one day for one place and then make another declaration the next day for another place, in an adjacent ward or constituency. There should be some limit on the number of declarations someone can make. Therefore, I believe that my noble friend's amendment bears careful study by the Government.
I accept that someone may make a declaration today and that in three or four months' time he may have moved sufficiently far away to want to make another declaration, but he should not be able to run two declarations at the same time. That brings us back to the protection offered by my noble friend's previous amendment--if someone makes a declaration, he should be asked (as I think we should all be asked) whether he has made a previous declaration and whether he is voting anywhere else using a declaration. That may be a way to get round the problem.
It is a long-established principle that a person may appear on the electoral register more than once. People who have two residences are entitled to be registered in respect of both of them. That is a facility of which many Members of another place take advantage and, for all I know, the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, may have been registered in both London and Cumbria during his distinguished service there. The Bill does nothing to change that position.
However, the Bill does introduce the new concept of a declaration of local connection. It will be used by mental patients, remand prisoners and the homeless who would have difficulty in establishing residence in the normal way. Given that such declarations will be used by those who are unable to register in the normal way, it would be quite wrong, as the noble Lord said in moving the amendment, if such people were allowed to register more than once. A person who has difficulty establishing a single residence can hardly claim two residences.
It was for precisely that reason that the Government brought forward an amendment in another place to ensure that nobody who is registered by means of a declaration of local connection may appear on the electoral register more than once. If Members of the Committee care to look at new Section 7C(2)(c), which appears towards the bottom of page 9 of the Bill, they will see that as soon as another entry appears in the register--whether an entry in the normal way or by means of a declaration of local connection--the person's existing entitlement to registration is deemed to have lapsed. The effect of that is exactly as I set out. It means that no one who is registered by means of a declaration of local connection can be registered twice.
I believe that that takes care of the problem which the noble Lord highlighted. With that assurance, I trust that that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation. For the record, I was for many years registered in three places, but of course I never voted in more than one. The noble Lord has gone some way to explain the background to this matter. It is a complicated business. We shall have to get used to the concept of local connections. I shall digest the words which the noble Lord was kind enough to utter. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 31:
Page 9, line 20, at end insert--
("( ) A declaration of local connection shall be of no effect if that declaration states an address within a constituency which is not represented by a Member of Parliament at the time when that declaration is received by the registration officer.").
I am concerned about people moving into a constituency when they know that a by-election is pending. The difference between by-elections and general elections is that the Prime Minister normally gives four or five weeks' notice that a general election will be held and the matter is tightly controlled. A by-election is different. A Member may resign or, unfortunately, from time to time, a Member may die, and the by-election is possibly not held for three months after that event. Between the time when the by-election is first announced and the time when it takes place, three different dates might pass when the rolling register could be updated.
A good example is the by-election for the Scottish Parliament which is to take place in the borough of Ayr. It will be held on 16th March, if memory serves me correctly. It has come about in rather mysterious circumstances: the sitting Member resigned in December--basically, so far as I can see, because he was not given a job by the First Minister, Mr Dewar. If that were a basis for resignation, quite a lot of Members of the other place would resign every so often!
Knowing that the by-election will occur, people could roll on to that register on 1st January, 1st February and 1st March. People who have a house somewhere else are unlikely to move to Ayr deliberately to vote in the by-election--although, given the size of the majority, I imagine that the political parties are looking carefully at who is registering. Indeed, given the narrowness of the majority--a mere 25--the MSP's decision to resign the seat looks even more peculiar.
It is the local connection problem that causes me the greatest concern. Ayr is not far from Glasgow, and people could move there in an attempt to bring enough votes to bear to make a major difference in the seat. Earlier, I mentioned those who are resident at the so-called "peace camp" at Faslane, in the Gareloch, who have a bee in their bonnets about nuclear weapons and who are protesting today. They might all decide to decamp to Ayr, register their local connection and try to influence the by-election. Their problem nowadays, of course, is that they cannot even go there to vote for the Labour Party, as Labour no longer believes in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament--although it is interesting that some Labour MSPs and MPs still do. I am pleased to say that my noble friend Lady Thatcher led us to victory in that general battle in the 1980s and the issue has by and large gone from the political debate.
The point is that people could move during the three-month period. If it were the right three-month period, they could possibly obtain three updates. That cannot be right. The amendment seeks to ensure that the moment a constituency becomes vacant and a by-election is to take place, no more declarations of local connection will be taken.
If I have read his previous replies correctly, I suspect that the Minister will say that we must treat the homeless vote in the same way as the resident vote. I understand the logic in that, but it might well lead us to say that in regard to a by-election the register should be frozen at the date of the Member's resignation or death. I should not like to go that far because people have genuine reasons for moving. However, we should watch out for those who might abuse the electoral system in a marginal constituency and migrate for the purposes of voting in what can often be a key by-election for the political parties--as the by-election at Ayr will be for the Labour Party and the Scottish Executive. I beg to move.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, may be surprised to learn that I have some sympathy with his amendment. At Second Reading, I said that in this regard I felt that it was possible for there to be tactical voting in a very real sense, and that we needed to examine the provision carefully. I am convinced that this is the one area of the Bill--probably the only one--under which registration could be abused. In a by-election such as the one that will take place at Ayr, where there is narrowness in the voting and the seat is keenly fought, people become terribly excited. I can see why they might want to move into the area to vote in the by-election.
I have discussed the matter with electoral registration officers who believe that our concern is somewhat over-exaggerated. Nevertheless, it remains. The Minister, Mike O'Brien, said in the Commons that he would look again at the matter. My question to my noble friend is: have the Government looked again, and what is their conclusion?
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, may be doubly surprised after I have finished my brief remarks on his amendment. We can offer the noble Lord some comfort on this matter. The Government feel that the fears that he outlined may be exaggerated. We do not believe that the homeless have either the means or the inclination to travel around the country trying to influence the results of by-elections. However, real concern has been expressed both in this Chamber and in another place.
The Committee will not be surprised to hear that, right from the start of the Bill's passage through Parliament, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said that he was willing to listen to the views of other parties to see whether it could be improved. So I hope that the noble Lord will be satisfied when I say that we shall bring forward an amendment or amendments on Report, no doubt based on his amendment as drafted, to achieve the same purpose. In those circumstances, I ask the noble Lord to consider withdrawing the amendment.
I thank the noble Lord for that reply. I knew that I was probably on to a reasonable thing when I was backed by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, who knows a thing or two, or 10, about elections. Indeed, we agree on some other matters. If my memory serves me rightly, the noble Baroness was a member of the commission that looked into referendums. I have quoted its recommendations extensively and approvingly, and shall probably do so again in relation to the next Bill on electoral matters to come before this House.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. I am glad that we both agree. Although this may be a long-shot problem, it could be serious in a marginal seat. I look forward to the noble Lord's amendment, which I am sure will be different from mine. It will certainly cost more. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 37:
Page 9, line 42, leave out from ("Where") to ("to") in line 44 and insert ("the entitlement of such a person").
On Question, amendment agreed to.
Clause 6, as amended, agreed to.
Clauses 7 and 8 agreed to.
[Amendment No. 38 not moved.]
I hope that I shall have as much success with Amendment No. 39A as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, had with the previous one. Paragraph 4(3) of Schedule 1 is concerned with the preparation of electoral registers. It replaces Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and creates a new Section 10A. Under that new section, subsections (1) and (2) require the registration officer to carry out an annual canvass by reference to residence on 15th October to establish who in his area is entitled to be registered.
My problem is that the canvass would not include mental hospitals, penal institutions or those registered by means of a declaration of a local connection. For that reason, I propose the deletion from subsection (3)(a) of the words,
"or mental hospitals (within the meaning of section 7 above)".
This Bill removes the current bar on the use of a psychiatric hospital address for registration purposes and enables both voluntary and detained civil patients to register either at that address or another address outside the hospital with which they have a local connection. I welcome that as a major step forward in ensuring that people in psychiatric hospitals are able to exercise their right to vote. However, these rights will be meaningful only if those in hospitals are fully advised of their rights and steps are taken to ensure their proper inclusion on the register.
As it stands, paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 to the Bill excludes psychiatric hospitals from the duty on electoral registration officers to carry out an annual canvass of electors in their areas. Evidence of the operation of the current law indicates that without such a duty many of those in psychiatric hospitals who are entitled to register are likely to remain unregistered. The Representation of the People Act 1983 enables informal patients in psychiatric hospitals to register either at their home address or by means of a patient's declaration, for which an address outside the hospital is also required. Guidance on this matter was issued to health service staff.
However, there is a problem. Between 1987 and 1990 MIND carried out a survey of patients in psychiatric hospitals in the north-west which demonstrated that those who completed electoral registration forms were few and far between. The survey found both low numbers of patients registering to vote and significant variations between hospitals. In 1990 only 8.3 per cent of patients in the region were registered to vote. This varied between 3.1 per cent at the lowest to 16 per cent at the highest. These variations could not be explained by differences in hospital populations: they reflected stark differences in staff practices.
The survey found great variation in the way in which hospitals distributed the relevant forms to patients. In one hospital staff visited every ward and explained the implications of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to each patient. Other hospitals, however, did not distribute any forms on the grounds that,
"the initiative should be taken by the patient".
In those hospitals patients were effectively disenfranchised despite having the right in law to register. Patients received differing levels of support from staff in completing the different forms. Some made sure that patients understood the forms and helped those who were not literate to complete them; others felt that patients should complete them unaided.
If the Government continue to rely on those in charge of the institutions to ensure that those entitled to register do so, a similar situation is likely to arise again. The amendment will ensure that all those who are entitled to register using the hospital address can do so. It will also ensure that there is consistent implementation of the Act across different institutions. Unless a clear legal duty is placed on someone to ensure that there is registration that will not happen. There is no reason to believe that the present situation of non-registration will not continue. To place responsibility on the EROs to see to it that patients who are eligible to register do so will ensure that the intentions of the Bill, which we welcome, are realised in practice. I beg to move.
One of the most important purposes of this Bill is to make it easier for those who have traditionally been put at a disadvantage to register as electors. This includes the homeless, remand prisoners and mental patients. I know that these provisions have generally been widely welcomed. We understand the noble Lord's concern that the annual canvass which electoral registration officers are required to carry out will not include psychiatric hospitals, but we do not believe that this will result in those affected being under-registered, and I shall go on to explain why.
Most electors are able to register only in respect of their residence, and it is therefore important that an annual canvass is carried out to ensure maximum registration levels. By contrast, mental patients will be able to register in one of three ways. They will be able to register at the address where they would otherwise be living (which will be covered by the appropriate canvass); they will be able to register by means of a declaration of local connection; or they will be able to register in respect of the institution where they are resident. The availability of the first two options means that relatively few patients are likely to register in respect of the hospitals. The local electoral registration officer is unlikely to know which patients have registered using the first two options. Therefore, if he were to carry out a canvass in the normal way it could lead to a great deal of double registration.
The Department of Health intends to issue guidance to those in charge of mental institutions to make sure that they are aware of the new rules that govern electoral registration and that they can advise those resident in the institutions of their rights accordingly. I hope that, with those assurances, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister for that response. However, that explanation still does not explain the kinds of discrepancies found in the survey. Perhaps it is possible for the Minister to consult mental health bodies in order to relay the concern and see whether something can be done. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendments Nos. 42 and 43:
Page 19, line 41, leave out from ("shall") to second ("as") in line 43 and insert ("make such alterations in his registers as fall to be made in accordance with section 10A below").
Page 19, line 44, at end insert--
("( ) In this section "residence" means residence for the purposes of section 4 above.").
On Question, amendments agreed to.
We dealt with the issue in an earlier debate. I believe that we were the odd couple on this, and I hope that we continue to be so. The words are much the same.
moved Amendments Nos. 45 and 46:
Page 20, line 14, at end insert ("in respect of that address").
Page 20, leave out lines 28 to 35 and insert--
("(5) Where the name of a person ("the elector") is duly entered in a register in respect of any address, the elector is entitled to remain registered in the register in respect of that address until such time as the registration officer concerned--
(a) determines, on the conclusion of a canvass under section 10 above, that the elector was not resident at that address on the 15th October in question, or that because--
(i) the form mentioned in section 10(4) above was not returned in respect of that address, or
(ii) for any other reason, insufficient information was obtained as to whether the elector was resident at that address on that date, the registration officer is unable to satisfy himself that the elector was then so resident at that address, or
(b) determines, in any prescribed circumstances, that the elector has ceased to be resident at that address or has otherwise ceased to satisfy the conditions for registration set out in section 4 above.
(6) Where the entitlement of a person to remain registered in a register in respect of any address terminates by virtue of subsection (5) above, the registration officer concerned shall remove that person's entry from the register once the officer has satisfied any prescribed requirements applying in relation to the removal of that entry.
(7) Subsection (6) above does not apply if, or to the extent that, regulations so provide in relation to any prescribed circumstances; and regulations may, in particular, authorise a registration officer to retain entries in his registers for the prescribed period if he thinks fit in cases where the form mentioned in section 10(4) above has not been returned in respect of any address.
(8) Nothing in subsection (5) or (6) applies in relation to the registration of persons in pursuance of--
(a) applications for registration made by virtue of section 7(2) or 7A(2) above; or
(b) declarations falling within section 10(3)(b) above.
(9) In this section--
"determines" means determines in accordance with regulations;
"resident" means resident for the purposes of section 4 above.").
On Question, amendments agreed to.
[Amendment No. 47 not moved.]
This group of amendments relates to the correcting of clerical errors which may have been made in the electoral register after the close of nominations at an election. This is an issue which was debated in the other place and these amendments respond to concerns that were expressed there. They also follow discussions which Home Office officials have had with officers of the Association of Electoral Administrators and SOLACE.
We believe strongly that candidates and political parties need certainty about the electoral register that is to be used at an election. They need to know how many and which electors will be eligible to vote. Accordingly, in line with the existing practice, the Bill provides that no changes to an electoral register to be used at an election can take place after the closing date for nominations. The Government believe that Members of the Committee would agree that that is right.
However, it does not seem right that a person should be denied the right to vote as a result of a clerical error made by electoral registration staff. Such errors are likely to come to light only in the course of the election probably because the voter realises that he has not received a poll card. There can be no one in the Committee today who has not experienced such an eventuality during the course of canvassing during an election, and the upset it causes to the voter when he realises that he is not registered. We therefore think it would be right to make an exception to the general rule.
These amendments make it possible for an alteration to an electoral register to be made after the closing date for nominations at an election where the registration officer is satisfied--those are important words--that this is for the purpose of correcting a clerical error in the register. They also allow alteration to a register to be made during an election period following a decision of the courts. I beg to move.
I have no objection in principle to the amendment, but I have one query.
In a number of places new Section 13B refers to something happening before the date of the poll. Under Clauses 10 and 11 it will be possible to have polls over more than one day. Should not the provision refer to "the date of the poll", or "the first day of the poll" if it takes place over more than one day?
moved Amendment No. 50:
Page 21, line 20, at end insert--
("( ) On publication or alteration to the register, any person registered within a borough or district shall have the right to make a challenge to any inclusion, alteration or omission to the said register; and regulations shall apply the provisions of section 56 in respect of any such challenge.").
The objective of the amendment is to make clear on the face of the Bill that the present method of challenging the electoral register is to continue in the way currently carried out on the publication of draft registers. Members of the Committee will remember that I explained that one of the major differences between the old and the new systems will be that we shall not have draft registers. We shall have a register on 1st December. That will be "the big bang". Then monthly (except for one or two months) a supplementary register will show the names added to or deleted from the register.
Members of the Committee who have been involved with elections will know that the only point at which challenges can be made to the inclusion of a name on a register is when the draft register is published. However, with a rolling register the position changes dramatically. I believe that with a rolling register we should ensure that we keep the existing system for challenges. That provision should be on the face of the Bill. My amendment would mean that someone could challenge the inclusion, alteration or omission of someone from the register on 1st January, 1st February and so on. When the supplementary roll is published, political parties and individuals could check whether they are included in or omitted from the list.
It would be useful to have clarification on how the Government envisage challenges to work under the new arrangement. While my amendment may not contain the exact words required, the Government may consider it sensible to put on the face of the Bill or in a schedule provision for challenges as the register rolls on. I beg to move.
My noble friend's amendment goes to the heart of the reason for a published register. In considering the history of electoral registers in this country, he raises a fundamental point. We did not have an electoral register in this country before 1832; there was seen to be no need. It was only as a consequence of the 1832 Reform Act that the need arose because of the number of electors. Because of the inefficiency by which it was compiled and because the qualifications for the franchise were extremely complex, it was necessary to publish the register. Access was required so that people could challenge omissions from or entries in the register. That goes to the heart of the reason that we have an electoral register in this country.
I shall return later to a related point about why we continue to publish the register. It may be less necessary given the current method of data collection. However, so long as we continue to publish a register, the rationale for it must be access so that people can check and challenge. Therefore it is important that such a provision is on the face of the Bill, and I support my noble friend's amendment.
In responding, it would be useful if the Minister is able to give us figures of the extent to which challenges to the register have taken place. It is relevant in the context of my noble friend's amendment. It is also relevant to a point that I shall raise later. I have pleasure in supporting my noble friend's amendment.
I have listened with interest to the argument that the provision should be on the face of the Bill. I shall give that further consideration. I am not sure that I can answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, about the number of challenges. No doubt challenges take place, and rightly so. I shall have to write to him on that point after we have undertaken some research. We may need to carry out a survey with the registration officers. I am sure that he appreciates that that will take some time.
Our position on this is quite simple: we do not believe that this provision is entirely necessary. If your Lordships look at line 15 of page 20, you will see that it says:
"A registration officer shall also determine all objections to a person's registration made in accordance with the prescribed requirements by another person whose name appears on the register in question".
It is therefore quite clear that any registered elector in the area concerned can object to any entry in the register. I am sure that in the vast majority of cases the registration officer will be able to resolve the matter locally. Should he be unable to do so, Section 56 allows for the matter to go before the courts. From time to time, people have used and will continue to use that facility. I hope that that is reasonably reassuring to the Committee, and I therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful for the support that I have received from the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I am presently trying quickly to read the paragraph to which the Minister has referred. As I see the words "15th October" above it, I presume that this is for more than the main update, the big bang, and that it is in fact for all the updates that take place throughout the year. The Minister has been helpful in this respect, and we shall have to study what he has said, relating it to Schedule 1, page 20, to ensure that it does not refer to the big bang but to the monthly updates. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendments Nos. 51 to 53:
Page 21, line 29, leave out from ("made") to first ("that") in line 32 and insert ("by any person in accordance with the prescribed requirements, determines").
Page 21, leave out lines 34 to 39 and insert--
("( ) is required, by virtue of any provision of this Part of this Act, to remove a person's entry from the register;").
Page 21, line 44, leave out ("becomes satisfied") and insert ("determines").
On Question, amendments agreed to.
moved Amendment No. 54:
Page 21, line 45, at end insert--
("( ) Each registration officer shall each month, or seven days before any poll, contact every registrar of births, marriages and deaths covering the area for which he is responsible in order to ascertain the names and addresses of those persons deceased within the previous month and the registration officer shall remove such deceased persons from the register within three working days of ascertaining this information.").
In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 55. This takes us back to the issue of the accuracy of the register. Amendment No. 54 is not concerned with adding names to the register, but, I regret to say, with deleting them. Amendment No. 55 is a little different. It could deal either with people who are not on the register and who perhaps should be on it, or with people who are on the register and who the electoral registration officer has reason to believe should no longer be on it.
I am trying to standardise the principles of registration across the whole country. Although it is not a direct quotation, my recollection is that the Minister said in as many words that the ERO should use all the sources of information that he can make available to himself in order to ensure that the register is up to date. I do not believe that there is anything between us on that point. However, it seems to me that in the other place some doubt was cast on the registration officer contacting the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths to keep up to date with the deaths that had occurred in that area. I submit that this is not just about making sure that the register is accurate or about the problem of the denominator, as I described it earlier. I believe that it is also about the fact that people who have passed on ought to be taken off the register as quickly as possible.
When I was involved in trying to be elected and then to keep a fairly marginal seat in the other place--it certainly turned out to be very marginal!--we had a small team of people making sure that we kept the register up to date with regard to people who had died, which is easy to do in a country area, where virtually all deaths are notified in the local newspapers. Our purpose in doing that was so that, come an election, we would not be sending communications to people who were dead. It is not a very pleasant matter for someone to have an election communication addressed to a late husband, a late wife or late parents. We all understand the problem and I am sure that all the political parties try not to do it. The last thing we want to do is to upset electors who may decide not to vote for us because they are annoyed about the fact that we have not been aware of a death.
I am therefore trying to help all the political parties by suggesting that the registration officer should--I have provided a time--towards the end of each month be prepared at some stage to contact the registrar and ask for a list of the people who have died in the area over the past month, in which case he would be in a position to remove their names from the register and keep it very much up to date, prevent the political parties doing some work on registers and, perhaps more importantly, prevent us sending communications to people who have died in a way which would be fairly hurtful to the relatives who remain at their address. All of your Lordships who have been involved in elections will know exactly what I am seeking to do in this regard.
Amendment No. 55 would underline in legislation that the electoral registration officer should canvass a part or all of the register if he thinks that he ought to and if he thinks that in that way he will gain more accurate information. In this case, it could be additions and deletions. We have never previously faced the sort of problem (except in October/November) that might arise where, for example, a new housing development becomes occupied by new people in the spring of the year. It seems to me that the electoral registration officer ought to decide at that point to inquire who they are, add them to the register, and, one hopes, remove their previous registration.
We are in a whole new ball game with a rolling register. This is quite different from the situation that we have had in the past. In the sort of example that I have mentioned, it is often the case that over a few months in the spring and summer a lot of extra people can come into an area because of a new housing development. It seems to me sensible to give the electoral registration officer the power to take steps to ensure that those people are on the rolling register. I beg to move.
I very warmly support my noble friend. These two amendments are very sensible. Quite apart from the issue of accuracy, I endorse what my noble friend has said about the hurt and distress that can be caused when party workers inadvertently make contact with relatives and appear not to know about the death of someone very much loved by them. It causes considerable upset. Furthermore, my previous experience as a Member of Parliament has been that, in towns, this is very hit and miss. It is unlikely that one would know of a death. Whether or not party workers know about a death depends very much on the thoroughness of their canvassing. I therefore believe that there is every reason to allow the electoral registration officer to make inquiries about whether anyone has been registered as dead. As I understand it, that information is public. The registration of a death is not a private matter. Therefore, I can see no objection whatever to inquiries being made by one official of another, if indeed it is correct that the propriety of this was questioned in the other place.
The other point is less pleasant. We know that there is always a possibility of someone impersonating another. This will be less likely if the information is brought very much up to date. For that reason also, it is important that information should be made available as quickly as possible.
I, too, support the amendment. Anyone who has canvassed as extensively as I have--and many have canvassed a good deal more so--know that it is embarrassing to the canvasser to knock on a door, meet an elderly woman and ask about her husband, only to be told that he died six months ago. Whether or not such incidents and the sending of leaflets lead to a loss of votes, they are painful for both the resident voters and the canvassers. Therefore, we support any reasonable steps that can be taken to ensure that people who have died are taken off the register as soon as possible.
I, too, am anxious to support the amendment for a reason that has not yet been mentioned. I was much taken with what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, about the problem of impersonation and by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, about the distress that is often caused during an election campaign. I am sure that many Members of the Committee have experienced the problem of knocking on a door and being told that the person's spouse had recently died. It is most distressing to meet a widow or widower or a son or daughter who is clearly upset by having to explain that grandpa is no longer alive.
However, the deceased may have been registered for a postal vote. I do not believe that I fought a general election--and I fought 10 in my time--without knocking on a door and being told, "Grandpa died some time ago, but we have got his postal vote behind the clock on the mantelpiece". You then have to tell them that there is no way that that vote can be used. However, I have often wondered whether people might be inclined to think that if they fill in the form no one will know. I have no evidence whatever that that happens, but it could. I imagine that it is almost impossible to trace and therefore it is important to keep the register as up to date as possible. The gist of my noble friend's proposal is therefore sensible. It will cause a little more trouble, but not much, and it is in everyone's interest to have an up-to-date register.
My wife has stopped me eating strong cheese at night because it gives me bad dreams. There was a point today when I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, had eaten the political equivalent of that strong cheese because he seemed to be summoning up all kinds of hobgoblins to frighten us. We heard about New Age travellers moving into marginal seats; jet-setting hijackers carefully landing at the appropriate time to be put on the register; the standard Irish tinkers; and the nefarious students. They were all distorting the vote presumably in an anti-Conservative fashion. It is not paranoia; it is just that they have a lot of enemies!
Interspersed with all the hobgoblins, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, jumped on every one of his hobbyhorses. At one stage I was thinking of going into the Prince's Chamber and opening a book on how many he would ride today. We had the euro; student fees in Scotland; the competence of the Greenock sheriff; the Faslane nuclear debates; the European Convention on Human Rights; and CND. And the list is still open if someone wants to place a bet. We also had the statutory genuflexion to the wonders and glories of the Thatcher years.
It has been vintage Mackay today and I must say that when I saw the amendment I thought, "Oh, my God, we are now going to get the voting dead!", presumably all the deceased being firmly anti-Conservative. Therefore, I was reasonably surprised when I heard the reasoning behind the amendment and was sympathetic towards it. Anything that could prevent unnecessary upset to the recently bereaved is to be welcomed. However, can the Minister confirm that the Home Office and the study group which examined these matters found little evidence of the abuses from which the Conservative Front Bench have tried to save us from this afternoon? Will he confirm that he, like Members on these Benches, remains committed to a Bill which will try to encourage people to register and to vote rather than to find as many obstacles to that as possible?
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his intervention. It was timely and brought a little lightheartedness to our considerations. I, too, had wondered how many more demons would emerge!
I have sympathy with the amendments and believe that they were honourably expressed. It would be strange if it were otherwise, because I was last elected for a ward which had about 8,000 voters, three cemeteries and two crematoria--so there were more deceased former voters than live voters. However, the live voters were always charitable and always returned me to the council and leadership of that great authority. I was very grateful to them.
The points which Members of the Committee made are well intentioned. Nothing can be worse than knocking on a door and asking for someone only to find that there has been a recent bereavement and having to offer instant casework in their terrible loss and sad tragedy. Everyone has great sympathy for such situations. Amendment No. 54 would require electoral registration officers to consult the local registrar of births, marriages and deaths with a view to removing the names of the deceased. Apart from the fact that people do not always conveniently die in the area in which they are registered, the amendment is unnecessary. Perhaps your Lordships will turn to paragraph 23(3) of Schedule 1--it is at line 20 on page 26. You will see that registration officers will in any event be able to inspect records kept by,
"any local or public authority".
That encompasses not just records which are publicly available, such as the local register of births, marriages and deaths, but also those to which they would not otherwise have access. For that reason, we believe that this issue is already covered. However, if any point has been missed here, I shall be happy to listen to further proposals to cover any other eventuality.
I understand the distinction made by the Minister here. However, the Bill as drafted states that the registration officer "may" consult, whereas the amendment tabled by my noble friend states that he "shall" do so. That would ensure consistency where, in the Bill as it stands, inconsistencies could arise. Registration officers may not use the powers available to them.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, has made a useful intervention. The clear intention behind the drafting of the Bill is that it is the Government's expectation that electoral registration officers would regularly access the relevant data. Indeed, I believe that is already done in all authorities where good practice is evident. Most local authorities are extremely good about carrying out these functions.
I shall now turn to Amendment No. 55. It addresses the issue of the accuracy of the register and returns us to an important issue. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, wishes to insert a provision allowing registration officers to carry out an enquiry or canvass at any time of the year. In principle, I feel that that would be unobjectionable. However, I question how realistic that might be in practice. Registration officers already find it difficult, costly and labour intensive to carry out even a single whole-town, whole-community or whole-area registration in any given year. I doubt very much whether they would have the resources or even the inclination to undertake a second canvass of the kind envisaged by the noble Lord, desirable though that may be.
Perhaps Members of the Opposition can tell the Committee whether, if they were in government, they would increase the grants provided to local authorities to pay for such exercises. I believe that considerable costs would attach to this proposal. On balance, the Government believe that the registration provisions in the Bill are about right and I hope that the noble Lord will see the wisdom of that opinion. We think that the system works well as it is and I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Finally, I should like to respond to a point made a little earlier by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Throughout our considerations and deliberations in this field, we have not detected any significant amount of abuse or fraud. I made that point earlier and I feel that I should repeat it now. When the working party examined these matters, the issue of fraud hardly arose. By and large, registers are well put together; generally the dead do not vote--though perhaps some would have liked to have done so. I believe that the balance of these provisions is right and does not overly burden local services. I hope that noble Lords will feel able to support the provision as it stands.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response and I thank all other noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. In particular, I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, kept count of the number of issues I could get in during my contribution. Perhaps we could come to an arrangement over the book he is running; I could then give him a suitable number.
Perhaps I can say to the noble Lord that I had not thought about dead people voting, although I understand that that was a traditional problem in the north of Ireland until steps were taken to prevent it. I encountered the problem with a constituent--a supporter--who tended to telephone me on a Sunday evening to give me a list of all those who had died in the previous week. He was totally convinced that they were all Conservatives. Occasionally I had to point out to him that some others who had died during the previous week were most certainly not Conservatives. That is my experience of the issue.
Perhaps I may turn first to Amendment No. 55. I take the point made by the Minister about expense. However, with respect, he could have given a little more information on the question of modern housing developments where an influx of people can make significant alterations to the register. There is a difference between that kind of circumstance and merely tidying up the register for no apparent reason.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I return to the point I made about good practice. It is the Government's expectation that--as in my own local authority area--when a new housing development is built, electoral registration officers will conduct a canvass to see whether those new residents are entitled to be included on the register. With the new rolling register that will of course be extremely important. Perhaps this is a point that might best be dealt with in guidance. I hope that satisfies the noble Lord.
That would satisfy me and I am pleased to hear the noble Lord make the point. If an appropriate form of words could be devised for guidance and for inclusion in Home Office circulars, then that would be a step forward.
As regards Amendment No. 54, it was interesting that the Minister drew the attention of the Committee to the schedule set out on page 26 of the Bill which provides that the registration officer "may" consult with local or public authorities. Obviously that would include the registrar of births, deaths and marriages. However, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth referred to a problem here; namely, that "may" means that some EROs will consult and some will not. My amendment seeks to standardise the procedure throughout the country and I still feel that that would be a useful step.
Perhaps, in the spirit of conciliation, co-operation and agreement that we have enjoyed over the past few minutes, the noble Lord and the department could consider putting in a form of words to cover use of the registry of births, deaths and marriages in guidance or circulars sent out to electoral registration officers. In that way, we would avoid the position where, in one area the exercise is carried out perfectly adequately while in another area it is not done at all.
The noble Lord has made a reasonable point, following on the comments of his noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. It costs me nothing to take this matter away to see whether, by perfecting the wording, we might come up with a form of words that would satisfy all sides.
moved Amendments Nos. 56 to 60:
Page 22, line 1, leave out ("subsection (4)") and insert ("section 13B(1)").
Page 22, leave out lines 18 to 22 and insert--
("( ) Subsection (2) above also does not require a registration officer to issue a notice under that subsection in a case where section 13B(3) below requires him to issue a notice under that provision.").
Page 22, line 25, at end insert ("and section 13B below").
Page 22, line 26, at beginning insert ("For the purposes of subsection (1) above "determines" means determines in accordance with regulations; and").
Page 22, line 28, at end insert--
(""Alteration of registers: pending elections.
13B.--(1) An alteration in a published version of a register of electors which takes effect under section 13A(2) above after the final nomination day in the case of an election to which this section applies shall not have effect for the purposes of that election unless the alteration--
(a) is made in consequence of a decision or determination falling within section 13A(1)(d) or (e) above; and
(b) takes effect on or before the fifth day before the date of the poll.
(2) Subsection (3) below applies where--
(a) at any time before the appropriate publication date in the case of an election to which this section applies, section 13A above applies to a registration officer, by virtue of subsection (1) of that section, in connection with a decision or determination--
(i) falling within subsection (1)(d) or (e) of that section, and
(ii) in consequence of which a person's name falls to be entered in (or removed from) the register in respect of an address in the relevant election area; and
(b) no alteration made in consequence of that decision or determination--
(i) has already taken effect, or
(ii) is due to take effect, under subsection (2) of that section on or before the fifth day before the date of the poll.
(3) In such a case the registration officer shall issue, in the prescribed manner, a notice specifying the appropriate alteration in the register; and--
(a) the notice shall be so issued by him on the appropriate publication date; and
(b) the alteration shall take effect as from the beginning of that day.
(4) This section applies to the following elections--
(a) parliamentary elections,
(b) elections to the European Parliament,
(c) elections to the Scottish Parliament,
(d) elections to the National Assembly for Wales,
(e) elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and
(f) local government elections in England, Wales or Scotland.
(5) In this section--
"the appropriate publication date", in relation to a registration officer and an election to which this section applies, means either the sixth or the fifth day before the date of the poll, as the registration officer may determine;
"the final nomination day", in relation to such an election, means the last day on which nomination papers may be delivered to the returning officer for the purposes of the election;
"the relevant election area", in relation to a registration officer and such an election, means--
(a) the area for which the registration officer acts, or
(b) if the election is held in only part of that area, the part of that area in question.
(6) Section 119 below shall apply for the purposes of this section as if--
(a) it were contained in Part II of this Act; and
(b) each of the days referred to in this section were the day on which anything is required or permitted to be done by or in pursuance of that Part of this Act." ").
On Question, amendments agreed to.
moved Amendment No. 61:
Page 22, line 28, at end insert--
("Accountability of registration officers to Electoral Commission.
13B. Electoral registration officers shall be accountable to the Electoral Commission in relation to the compilation, production and accuracy of the electoral register.").
This amendment looks forward to the next Bill that will come to your Lordships' House in due course. It is likely that that is the answer I shall receive from the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, and perhaps I shall table the amendment again at that point. The amendment simply states that we should take account of the fact that an electoral commission will be brought forward shortly, which I very much welcome. However, at present all the work of electoral registration officers is governed by primary legislation, Home Office guidance and, indeed, by council and local authority pressures of various kinds.
The electoral commission, once it is established, would provide a focal point for establishing the minimum standards required for electoral registration; standards that would be free from political influences of any kind. It could also provide an authority to which complaints might be addressed. I certainly hope that the commission, once it is set up, will be one whose judgment will command respect and for that reason I feel that that body should be given some of the powers currently held by the Home Office, local authorities and others. I beg to move.
The noble Lord has anticipated part of my response to his amendment. However, he has done the Committee a favour by raising an important issue.
Although this Bill does not refer to the electoral commission, noble Lords will be aware that soon we shall have a piece of legislation to create just such a body. The question of the relationship between the commission and local electoral officials is important. That is why the matter was specifically addressed in the Government's White Paper, The Funding of Political Parties in the United Kingdom. The Government's view is set out in that document. I believe that it may be helpful if I quote reasonably extensively from it to remind the Committee exactly what we said:
"In some but not all ... countries which have Electoral Commissions, voter registration and the actual administration of elections are in the hands of the Commission. This might be a natural model to adopt if starting from scratch. But the current arrangements command public confidence. A change-over would be a very large legislative and administrative project, at the expense of other priorities, and neither the Neill Committee nor any other authoritative body has suggested that it is necessary. The Government does not, therefore, propose to alter the present arrangement in [any such] far-reaching way ...
We believe, however, that the Electoral Commission will quickly become the natural focal point for the provision of guidance to electoral administrators and for promoting best practice in how they discharge their statutory duties. The Electoral Commission, for its part, may be expected to look to the cumulative knowledge and expertise of registration and returning officers to inform its reviews of electoral law and practice. By this two-way process the Government anticipates that the Commission will, as the Neill Committee envisaged, develop a close working relationship with the electoral administrators which will enhance the efficiency and effectiveness with which our elections are conducted".
That remains our view. It is an important development. It exists in other countries. The relationship will no doubt evolve and lines of accountability will develop over time. However, at the moment we are building on an existing and proven system. We believe that we can place our confidence and trust in that. I hope that the noble Lord will take some comfort from the close relationship which we see developing between the Commission and local electoral officials. In the meantime, given that this matter will be "coming along later", as it were, I invite him to withdraw his amendment.
I believe that I can tick that off in the box of "a mildly encouraging reply". Perhaps we shall come to the issue again when the next Bill relating to the electoral commission is debated. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 62:
Page 22, line 42, leave out from ("Where") to ("to") in line 43 and insert ("the entitlement of such a person").
On Question, amendment agreed to.
[Amendment No. 63 not moved.]
moved Amendments Nos. 64 to 69:
Page 23, line 29, at end insert--
("( ) Omit subsections (1) and (2).").
Page 23, line 30, at beginning insert ("In subsection (5),").
Page 23, line 32, leave out ("this section") and insert ("subsection (5) above").
Page 23, line 44, leave out ("any such special lists or records,") and insert ("the place and manner of its publication, and
(ii) the procedure to be followed in the preparation of any such special lists or records,").
Page 24, line 9, leave out ("section 13A") and insert ("sections 13A and 13B").
Page 24, line 14, leave out ("or 13A(2)") and insert (", 13A(2) or 13B(3)").
On Question, amendments agreed to.