Second Reading

Part of Political Parties and Elections Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:07 pm on 18th March 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench 5:07 pm, 18th March 2009

My Lords, I declare an interest, which the Minister alluded to: I was chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The noble Lords, Lord Goodhart and Lord MacGregor, were also members. The other representative of a political party was the late lamented Lord Shore—Peter Shore. They were the trio who represented the three parties. We produced the committee's fifth report, which, as the Minister said, was substantially accepted by the Government, went through and led to the Act of 2000.

I will pick up on certain themes and talk about them briefly. The first is individual registration, which was mentioned by the previous two speakers. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, in 2003 the Electoral Commission advocated individual registration and said that it was essential. The commission put it on high ground; it said that it was a fundamental democratic right to register your own vote. We could argue about that, but that was the commission's position and it has been an important element in thinking about politics ever since. It is unfortunate that we in this House cannot, in this Second Reading debate, discuss the clauses that give effect to this idea. The Government said on Report in another place that they were bringing forward the clauses, as the Minister confirmed today. However, the process is very slow and the clauses are very late. I hope that we will not be in the position that I remember when a different Bill came from another place and one-third of it had not been debated there at all. Here we have an important part of the Bill that deserves consideration at Second Reading, but we have no specific clauses on which to focus. Having made that complaint and lament, I move on.

In the literature on this subject, there has been much citation of the Northern Ireland experience, which it seems has been a success. There are two things to note. First, when the system first came in, there was an immediate fall of some 11 per cent in the number of registrations. Secondly, there was a requirement to register annually, which echoes the bit of paper that comes round with the rating list every autumn, giving the householder an opportunity to say who in the house is a voter. However, that was found to be unworkable because people became fed up with having to register annually. They asked, "Why have I got to do this every year?", and so that was dropped. Therefore, one of the benefits of the household system—the regularity—was lost.

The other point of interest is the general perception of the public. A survey—the BMRB research report—has recently been carried out for the current Committee on Standards in Public Life. I refer, without having it in front of me, to point 6.2 on page 63 of that report. Although quite a big majority of the people who answered the questionnaire—something like 70 or 80 per cent—said that they would favour a system of individual registration, they also said that it was likely that the number of registered voters would decline. That poses a real question, which has to be investigated.

I believe that the effect of introducing the system here and how it would work are matters for evidence. We are not Northern Ireland; we have a different community and a different make-up. Would individual registration work in an acceptable way in all sections of the community in this country? That is a serious question, which needs to be thought about. Would all men and women register their names? Would that be in accordance with custom and ethics and so on? We cannot just take it for granted that the experience in Northern Ireland would apply throughout England.

The other important question on which we require evidence is: what would it cost to set up this system? We have heard talk of bureaucracy. Will it involve a fair amount of bureaucracy and place burdens on local authorities? There was some mention of that at the meeting with the Electoral Commission that I attended the other day in this House; it was considered to need further thought. Therefore, I am saying that this is a serious matter and we need to have a proper debate about it. I suppose that it is impossible to reopen the Second Reading debate, but the clauses need to be considered very seriously in this House.

My next point concerns what I call the insecurity of the postal system. I refer to the 11th report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has nothing to do with me—it was produced years after I left. The report came out at the beginning of 2007 and is called Review of the Electoral Commission. Chapter 5 has the heading, "Integrity of the Electoral Process". The committee was worried about the effect of the postal voting that had taken place. I shall read out one or two brief excerpts from page 79 of the report:

"The introduction of postal voting on demand without the need to present a reason for the application, has demonstrated the vulnerability of any trust-based electoral process".

The report goes on:

"While it is clearly imperative for as many eligible individuals as possible to participate in the democratic process, we can no longer base our electoral system on trust alone if we wish to protect the integrity", of that system. Paragraph 5.8 states that,

"evidence received by the Committee suggests that since the introduction of postal voting on demand there has been a growing perception that the electoral system is more susceptible to organised electoral fraud".

A worrying feature that has accompanied postal voting is a change in public perception. In some areas of the country, fewer than 50 per cent of people thought that the system was safe. The report gives examples in table 5.1 on page 81 of some of the offences that have taken place between 2001 and 2006. There is no time to go into them all, but I shall cite some of them. In Hackney, there were hundreds of forged postal and proxy votes. In Havant in 2000, there were 22 forged postal votes. In local elections in 2004, there was a large postal fraud in Oldham and 43 postal votes were tampered with in Stoke-on-Trent. As I said, the report gives various examples.

People who write on this theme are concerned about fraud. I have the executive summary of a report that was commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and came out last year, which also refers to this worry. It states that,

"cases tried since 2000 underline that the extension of postal voting clearly enhanced the vulnerability of UK elections to large-scale fraud. The likelihood of such fraud occurring could—and should—have been predicted on the basis of evidence of growing proxy vote fraud during the 1990s".

It goes on to refer to the Birmingham case and to other evidence of rigging and quotes the 2008 Council of Europe report, which has already been mentioned this afternoon. That report states:

"It does not take an experienced election observer, or election fraudster, to see that the combination of the household registration system without personal identifiers and the postal vote on demand arrangements make the election system in Great Britain very vulnerable to electoral fraud".

That was the pretty pungent criticism of three visitors from the Council of Europe who examined our system and thought that we had opened the way to fraud. It is a pity that no thought has been given to that in the Bill. It is one of its omissions.

On a different point, the Bill provides that there should be four nominated commissioners. The scheme as regards one, two and three is easy to see—each of the three major parties will nominate a commissioner. There is then room for another, as statutory provision says that there should be four commissioners. However, proposed new Section 3A is pretty woolly and hazy on who the fourth individual will be. It looks as if there might be a contest between various small parties that have managed to get two Members of Parliament elected. They might have a tussle on who gets the fourth place.

Is this really worth doing? On the Committee on Standards in Public Life, we had, as I said, a member of each of the three major parties. They acted in an entirely neutral way and not as representatives of their parties in the slightest, but each of the three brought their experience of politics. We always knew that, when somebody started talking nonsense, somebody else would say, for example, "It doesn't work like that in the House of Commons". We had the balance of that from three people and I raise the question of whether we need a fourth.

My next point refers to the increase in the figures: £200 going up to £500, £1,000 up to £1,500 and £5,000 up to £7,500. That is not really what the Electoral Commission wanted. It certainly does not like the look of £500, although maybe it was open to an increase in the £200.