Electoral Administration Bill

– in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 20th June 2006.

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Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

LORDS AMENDMENTS

[The page and line references are to HL Bill 58 as first printed for the Lords.]

8: Insert the following new clause—

"REGISTRATION: PERSONAL IDENTIFIERS

(1) The 1983 Act is amended as follows.

(2) In section 10 (maintenance of registers: annual canvass), after subsection (4) insert—

"(4A) Subject to subsection (4B) below, the information to be obtained by the use of such a form for the purpose of a canvass shall include—

(a) the signature of each of the persons in relation to whom the form is completed, and

(b) the date of birth of each such person.

(4B) The Chief Electoral Officer may dispense with the requirement mentioned in subsection (4A)(a) above in relation to any person if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way because of any incapability of his or because he is unable to read."

(3) In section 10A (maintenance of registers: registration of electors)—

(a) after subsection (1B) insert—

"(1C) Subject to subsection (1D) below, an application for registration in respect of an address in England, Scotland or Wales shall include—

(a) the signature of each of the persons to whom the application relates, and

(b) the date of birth of each such person.

(1D) The Chief Electoral Officer may dispense with the requirement mentioned in subsection (4A)(a) above in relation to any person if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way because of any incapability of his or because he is unable to read.";

(b) in subsection (5), at the beginning insert "Subject to subsection (5A) below,";

(c) after subsection (5) insert—

"(5A) A person's name is to be removed from the register in respect of any address if—

(a) the form mentioned in section 10(4) above in respect of that address does not include all the information relating to him required by section 10(4A) above; or

(b) the registration officer determines that he is not satisfied with the information relating to that person which was included in that form pursuant to that requirement.";

(d) in subsection (6), after "above" insert "or his name is to be removed from it by virtue of subsection (5A) above,"; and

(e) in subsection (8), after "5" insert ", (5A)".

(4) In section 13A (alteration of registers), after subsection (2B) insert—

"(2C) Subject to subsection (2D) below, an application for registration under subsection (1)(a) above in respect of an address in the United Kingdom shall include—

(a) the signature of each of the persons to whom the application relates, and

(b) the date of birth of each such person.

(2D) The Chief Electoral Officer may dispense with the requirement mentioned in subsection (4A)(a) above in relation to any person if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way because of any incapability of his or because he is unable to read.""

The Commons disagree to this amendment for the following reason—

8A: Because it is not appropriate for personal identifiers to be collected as part of the registration process for all purposes

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 8, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason 8A.

I was re-reading in Hansard my contribution at the previous stage of the Bill when we talked about why we were dealing with personal identifiers in the way that we were, and I start today by going back over the reasons that I gave in your Lordships' House on that occasion. We all accept that the passage of this Bill has been an enjoyable experience in terms of our ability to work together in Parliament to tackle issues of electoral administration. We all agree that our democracy is very precious and that, when looking at the changes that we might make in electoral administration, we must do so with great care.

We considered personal identifiers, and noble Lords will recall either from our previous debates or from reading Hansard that we looked at two possibilities of what might be done about the issue. First, we considered whether to pilot; we talked about the possibility of piloting some form of personal identifier in up to 10 areas. There were many discussions, both in your Lordships' House and in another place, and in the end it was felt that there were significant difficulties, which noble Lords accepted, so the idea was dismissed and removed from the legislation.

We also considered the transitional arrangements and the idea that individuals could determine whether or not they wished to give additional information. I noted in my last speech on this subject that there were two significant difficulties with that proposal. The first was that it would make the form that had to be filled in potentially more difficult to understand. People would be given a choice: "Do you wish to give this information or not? You do not need to". We felt that that could create more difficulties for people in understanding what they were filling in. The second and significant problem with a transitional scheme is that only those people who choose to will give information. Although you may learn something about that self-selected group of people, you learn nothing about the people who do not give the additional information. Our concern is that that would lead us into difficulties in making sure that the register was as up to date and accurate as possible, and that people were not deterred from registering, which is a significant issue.

We were then presented with an amendment, which originally came from all sides of your Lordships' House but was eventually tabled by my noble friend Lord Elder, who is in his place. That enabled us, through taking forward the postal voting proposals, to have a universal test bed of a personal identifier, which would give us the opportunity to see what happens when we ask people for additional information. All members of your Lordships' House agreed that this was a useful proposal, and from the Government's perspective it enables us both to look at the security around postal voting, which is an issue of grave concern, and to have a real test bed for personal identifiers. I am delighted that the consensus in your Lordships' House and outside, as we had the opportunity to discuss this at length, was that we should take this forward.

The difficulty with the amendment that was presented and accepted in your Lordships' House, but which has now returned to us from the other place, was what would happen if we made personal identifiers universal. The Government feel strongly that that must be considered with enormous care. The only information, as I said before, is experience in Northern Ireland. I shall not reiterate all that I said before, except to say that we know that there were significant issues about what happened to the numbers on the electoral register. Indeed, legislation is currently going through Parliament to deal with some of the concerns that were raised.

That is the only experience that we have and it shows that there were difficulties. To move directly to a system of universal personal identifiers is something that we must consider very carefully. The Government believe that we should do so only when we have the knowledge and experience that can be given to us by the amendment that was passed in your Lordships' House and accepted in the other place, and which was tabled by my noble friend Lord Elder, and, I know, supported and probably drafted by both the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I think that I described them as a significant trio, which indeed it is.

We are in the right place in this set of circumstances to have a test bed. I say that because I believe that we should move carefully with our democracy to make sure that we do not cause difficulties by chance. Of course there are security issues about which noble Lords are worried. I reminded myself that in the Bill there are 10 ways in primary legislation and five more that will come in through secondary legislation. We need to test the effects of all the proposals. They are significant and are designed to tackle some of the issues that noble Lords and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, have raised as concerns.

We are also, as my honourable friend Bridget Prentice made clear in another place, keen that discussions of what happens as a consequence of this Bill do not end with the passage of the legislation. Rather, we have said that it is absolutely right for some sort of post-legislative review: the opportunity for both Houses of Parliament to carefully consider the consequences of the legislation and to revisit and review how effective it has been.

My honourable friend Bridget Prentice talked about the role of the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, and we will be picking this matter up with the right honourable Alan Beith as chair. I would be keen to see Members of your Lordships' House take part in that. There is no reluctance on the Government's part to involve all parties in discussions about how this legislation works. Our democracy belongs to all of us. We would want to take that forward as quickly as possible, and we hope that it will in some way ensure that noble Lords understand the relevance and importance of this legislation, and the commitment of the Government to work across parties to determine that we have the best possible legislation in place to tackle all the issues that we have discussed at all stages.

I am conscious of the amount of work that already exists for administrators within this legislation. We have had to look carefully at ensuring that the burdens that we put on them to implement everything in this legislation are appropriate. I am mindful of ensuring that we do not add to them.

I have written to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about time, because there is an issue with getting this legislation on to the statute book so that we can bring in everything within it. I do so in the spirit of giving information—nothing more than that. However, it is important that, when noble Lords make decisions on this Bill today, they understand the consequences of delaying the legislation. It effectively means that measures that we would have brought in later this year will not be brought in until 2007.

I have said everything that I want to say, because I am conscious that noble Lords have heard many debates on this subject. I hope that your Lordships will accept the good will and intent of the Government. We are clear that we wish to see the opportunity, through the amendments of my noble friend Lord Elder that have been accepted, to look at the question of personal identifiers. We wish to involve Parliament in the process of examining everything in this legislation, which will help to keep the votes secure and ensure that people can exercise their democratic right. I hope that noble Lords will also accept that to add something untried and untested is potentially difficult and dangerous, and could damage our democracy. On that basis, I hope that noble Lords will accept the Government's view.

Moved, that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 8, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason 8A.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Scotland, Shadow Minister, Transport, Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government 3:15 pm, 20th June 2006

rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end insert "but do propose Amendment No. 8B in lieu":

8B: Before Clause 13, insert the following new clause—

"REGISTRATION: PERSONAL IDENTIFIERS

(1) The 1983 Act is amended as follows.

(2) In section 10 (maintenance of registers: annual canvass), after subsection (4) insert—

"(4A) Subject to subsection (4B) below, the information to be obtained by the use of such a form for the purpose of a canvass shall include—

(a) the signature of each of the persons in relation to whom the form is completed, and

(b) the date of birth of each such person.

(4B) The registration officer may dispense with the requirement mentioned in subsection (4A)(a) above in relation to any person if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way because of any incapability of his or because he is unable to read."

(3) In section 10A (maintenance of registers: registration of electors)—

(a) after subsection (1B) insert—

"(1C) Subject to subsection (1D) below, an application for registration in respect of an address in England, Scotland or Wales shall include—

(a) the signature of each of the persons to whom the application relates, and

(b) the date of birth of each such person.

(1D) The registration officer may dispense with the requirement mentioned in subsection (4A)(a) above in relation to any person if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way because of any incapability of his or because he is unable to read.";

(b) in subsection (5), at the beginning insert "Subject to subsection (5A) below,";

(c) after subsection (5) insert—

"(5A) A person's name is to be removed from the register in respect of any address if—

(a) the form mentioned in section 10(4) above in respect of that address does not include all the information relating to him required by section 10(4A) above; or

(b) the registration officer determines that he is not satisfied with the information relating to that person which was included in that form pursuant to that requirement.";

(d) in subsection (6), after "above" insert "or his name is to be removed from it by virtue of subsection (5A) above,"; and

(e) in subsection (8), after "5" insert ", (5A)".

(4) In section 13A (alteration of registers), after subsection (2B) insert—

"(2C) Subject to subsection (2D) below, an application for registration under subsection (1)(a) above in respect of an address in the United Kingdom shall include—

(a) the signature of each of the persons to whom the application relates, and

(b) the date of birth of each such person.

(2D) The registration officer may dispense with the requirement mentioned in subsection (4A)(a) above in relation to any person if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way because of any incapability of his or because he is unable to read.""

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Scotland, Shadow Minister, Transport, Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

My Lords, before commencing my speech, I ask noble Lords to note that, in the amendment that we have tabled, we have corrected a technical error. There was a previous reference to the "chief electoral officer", but that has been amended to "electoral registration officer" throughout, as there is no chief electoral officer in England and Wales, only in Ireland.

In the light of the temperate way in which the Minister has introduced this debate, I say with absolutely no hostility at all that I return to the question of the identifiers on a general basis. I completely agree with the Minister that the debate on this legislation has been extremely co-operative and helpful. Although I rankle slightly when she keeps on referring to the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Elder—since we were all there together—I acknowledge that the noble Lord was given some government help to get the amendment right at the end. But it is fair to say that this was a truly cross-party decision, and we have made substantial amendments to the Bill already.

Last night, in Grand Committee, we considered a new electoral registration form, compiled with the help of a number of luminaries, including the Electoral Commission. Yet three of us at the Committee were still able to pick substantial holes in the form's comprehensibility. It was obvious that the information to be included on the form by the occupier was quite personal. Unless the household consisted of close family members, it would be difficult to ensure that the information was accurate. Some of it, relating to qualification by nationality, was not going to be easy for the occupier to obtain. That form does not arise from this Bill; it arises from previous legislation. It struck us as strange that it should be introduced at this juncture, when it will have to change to accommodate the requirement introduced by this legislation for personal identifiers for postal voters. However, we are where we are with that, but it underlined the ease with which incorrect information could find its way on to a registration form and from which personation could so easily arise.

When we last considered this matter, I quoted examples of personation given by the Times—the cases were also cited in the other place—of people who were known to be in Pakistan at the time of the election but who appeared in polling stations on polling day and voted: they voted not by post, but in person. Since no checks are undertaken at the polling station, there would be no means for an officer to identify that the people voting were not those registered.

It is a sad truth that there are people who do not act scrupulously with regard to voting and who do not consider it to be the precious right that I know the Minister and others involved in the Bill believe it to be. Those people do not believe that voting should be carried out with integrity, but are anxious for one reason or another to skew election results.

As the Minister said, we have during the passage of the Bill co-operatively made huge changes to the provisions that it contained at the outset. One of the most successful changes has been to ensure that individual identifiers must be supplied for postal votes. It would stretch the matter only a little further to require that that should be done in general. Each person should be registered individually and should provide at least two identifiers, namely a signature and a date of birth—those are what will be required for postal votes—which can be checked at the time of voting in the polling station or, as far as postal voting is concerned, on receipt of the vote by the appropriate electoral registration officer.

In this House and in the other place, one of the objections raised by the Government to extending postal voter identifiers to general registrations is that that might reduce the number of people on the register, at least in the short term. Having seen the new form last night, I am convinced that it will make it much easier for the person required to make the return for, for example, a house in multiple occupation to leave people off or to put them on incorrectly. I therefore do not accept that to have a register that is even more accurate than at present, even if the number of people on it is reduced in the short term, would be a world-shattering disaster.

We have debated this matter on several occasions. We on this side of the House are convinced that, if the Government do not accept our amendment today, they will have to concede to it at a later date. We all know how hard it is to get legislation through, so that might be a long time coming. So I ask the Minister: if it is going to come, why not now? I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end insert "but do propose Amendment No. 8B in lieu".—(Baroness Hanham.)

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, our debates on this issue have revolved around the issues of principle and timing. I am particularly grateful that the Government have confirmed recently and repeatedly that they accept the principle behind individual voter registration. Indeed, only last week, the Minister in the other place, Bridget Prentice, said:

"On Lords amendment No. 8, we have said previously that we accept the principle behind individual registration".—[Hansard, Commons, 13/6/06; col. 661.]

So it is simply a matter of timing. Two opposition parties and the independent Electoral Commission think that now is the right time to introduce the measure. The Government clearly think that the best time is some time in future, when Members of another place may feel reassured that they will not lose many supporters from the electoral rolls as a result of such a measure.

However, everyone else thinks that we need to deal with the potential for electoral fraud, especially in the postal vote system, as soon as practically possible. We need to deal with the sort of problems to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, just referred, which arose during the recent local elections. There is no value in checking someone's signature at a polling station if you do not have their signature on the voting register in the first place.

It will reflect badly on Parliament if we do not do all that we reasonably can to deal with such problems before the next general election. Many sensible and fair political commentators, such as Peter Riddell writing in the Times last week, urge that we have a duty to act in this matter. With hindsight, we made a mistake in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to allow postal voting on demand without proper safeguards when the system was so considerably expanded. The sooner we properly rectify that mistake, the better.

In this Bill, with agreement, we have worked together to build in some measures to improve the security of postal voting. Those measures are welcome and worthwhile, but they do not go as far as they should. It would be better to get those things right now than to have many allegations of electoral fraud at the next general election—either in the postal voting system or at the polling station—clouding results or the outcome and bringing politicians generally into a lower level of regard than would otherwise be the case. Now is the time to act: before the general election.

Photo of Lord Elder Lord Elder Labour

My Lords, I had not intended to intervene, but as I have been named a couple of times in whatever capacity, I thought that I might. I just want to reflect on those last comments, which might be taken to imply that in some way, unless an amendment is made today, postal voting will remain at issue. The great thing is that postal voting has been clarified. There will be no fraud in postal voting because of the steps that have already been taken. That is an important basis on which to go forward, because it is there and there alone that the Electoral Commission has, quite correctly, identified problems that need to be dealt with.

As has been said, there are potential problems. However, once we have seen the effect of the introduction of individual registration for postal voting and all the other things on which my noble friend has commented in the Bill, it will be possible to assess the best way to move forward across the piece. My proposal has never been to stop individual registration; it has always been to introduce it on a sensible basis which electoral registration officers and everyone else can comfortably manage. We have dealt with postal voting; the Bill deals with that. On a proper timescale, we will get where we want to be, but I very much doubt that rushing it at this stage is wise or sensible.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Scotland, Shadow Minister, Transport, Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I gather that the Minister has nothing further to say. I heard what she had to stay at the start. I have read carefully the debate in the other place, so I know precisely what the Minister there said, which was an acknowledgement that, in due course, it is more than likely that identifiers will be introduced for everyone who registers to vote. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. As I said in my opening remarks, we need to take advantage of legislation as it goes through this House. The matter needs to be dealt with at this stage. I hope that we will win the vote on the amendment. If we do not, I can tell the House that we will be back with it—I know that we will—probably in a co-operative way, in future. For today, I think that I should test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 156; Not-Contents, 147.

Division number 1 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Electoral Administration Bill

Aye: 154 Members of the House of Lords

No: 145 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.

Motion, as amended, agreed to.