My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said, particularly the first four or five minutes of his contribution, when he was talking about the need to enthuse and involve people in the democratic political process. That is a major problem for all of us who are involved in political activity and who care about active democracy. I very much agree with what he said about that. It has also been said by other noble Lords in this debate.
I should start by declaring some interests. I notice that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, declared that she has been a member of the Labour Party for 30 years. I am not sure that we should declare that level of interest. However, I worked out when I first joined the Liberal party and regret to say that it is almost 50 years ago. When I heard the noble Baroness's remark, I thought "What it is to be young like her and some other noble Lords".
I am an elected member of Pendle Borough Council, which is an electoral registration authority. I have also been an election agent for many hundreds of candidates over the years; indeed, I am an election agent for a candidate in a by-election at this very moment. My noble friend Lord Tyler was bragging, I think, that he has stood in 12 elections and won half of them. If I have my arithmetic right, I have stood in 20 and won 80 per cent of them. However, I defer to my noble friend because he got elected to the House of Commons, which I failed to do on several occasions.
I want to talk about two nitty-gritty issues: individual registration and postal voting. On individual registration, I join those who welcomed the announcement made at Report stage in the House of Commons. We look forward with interest to see what the government amendments actually say. I join those who have urged the Minister to ensure that the amendments are here in time for Committee stage, when they can be thoroughly discussed and properly gone over without the constraints of the more formal procedures on Report.
I, too, join my noble friend Lord Goodhart in expressing concern that it will take eight years before the system comes in if all the hurdles are passed. That seems a very long time. Like him, I understand that there are many interesting and intricate hurdles to be passed before it can be brought in, and indeed that it will cost money. But eight years is a long time. Looking round your Lordships' House, I think that some of us may not be here in eight years. The way things go, projects like this slip, they do not speed up once a timetable has been put in place. The Government say eight years but it might be 10 or 12 years—who knows?—unless someone puts a bit of oomph behind it. I believe that electoral registration is necessary in principle. I think that it is necessary to help stamp out some kinds of electoral fraud that do or can take place.
The noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, talked about the different culture in England, Scotland and Wales as opposed to Northern Ireland. He may be right. If people were asked which part of the United Kingdom would most easily take to such changes, I do not think that most would necessarily choose Northern Ireland first. It has undoubtedly been a success in Northern Ireland and there is no reason at all why it cannot be a success here. If the Government are putting forward a timetable for this, let us have some pilots. Let us pilot individual registration in different parts of the United Kingdom, or in England, Scotland and Wales, and see what the difficulties and results are in practice without trying to overcome possibly very real hurdles or making assessments on the basis of what might happen. I have not always been in favour of the concept of piloting in elections in other areas but it really could happen in electoral registration. Pilots could go ahead in some areas in two or three years. Those could identify, thrash out and resolve the difficulties and that experience could then be used.
I do not believe that individual registration will on its own stamp out fraud through postal voting; I shall explain why in a minute. However, I do believe that it is vital to stamp out possibilities for personation at polling stations. Not a great deal of publicity is given to personation at polling stations, but there is evidence that it exists on an unacceptable scale in some parts of the country. I suppose that one case of someone personating another elector would be an unacceptable scale, but I am referring to a scale at which elections can be changed. For example, I have quite a bit of information from my honourable friend John Hemming MP that personation is a problem in Birmingham. I believe that it is a problem in at least one town in Lancashire, though fortunately not in the areas where I am politically active.
In principle, individual registration is right because people ought to be responsible for their own votes. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, who brings some youth to the Chamber—compared with some of us, at least; and she can read Hansard to see what that is all about—referred to the "head of household", a description that has not actually been used, at least since the Electoral Administration Act of two or three years ago, to which my noble friend Lord Goodhart referred. The truth of the matter now is that the electoral registration form for a household is filled in and sent back by whoever bothers to do it—whoever picks it up and decides to fill it in. This is utterly and totally unacceptable, particularly in multi-occupancy housing, where the person filling in the form may be someone who you do not know much about. That is not an acceptable practice. The idea that there is a male head of household is outmoded in even the most conventional households. Individual registration is right in principle and has benefits in practice.
I do not want to say a lot about postal voting. The first time that I tried to tell your Lordships about some of the problems of postal voting was when we were discussing the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill back in 2003, and I recounted some of the utterly unacceptable practices in relation to postal voting and what became known as "warehousing" of voting in the infamous case in Birmingham. At that time, many noble Lords around the Chamber did not really believe me. How could this level of electoral fraud and malpractice in British politics be practised and be quite so prevalent in some areas? We now know, partly from the court cases to which the noble Lord, Lord Neill, referred, that this problem is widespread and totally undermines the democratic process in those areas. There is absolutely no point in beating about the bush; most organised postal vote fraud is in areas where there are large south-Asian communities. There is a cultural problem there and there is no point in pretending that that is not the case, because it is. Unless we tackle the problem at its roots in those communities, we will not sort it out.
Postal voting, by its very nature, is not and never can be secure. My answer would be to start by saying that there should be no postal voting, and then by asking who really needs it. My bottom line, or perhaps my top line, would be to return to the system that existed before 2000, but I would restrict its use to people who needed it for medical reasons or reasons of disability because they physically could not get to the polling station to vote. In this modern day and age there are other ways of providing voting facilities for people who are simply away from home.
In the future, it should be possible to arrange to cast your vote anywhere in this country, given the computer and communications systems that exist nowadays. Obviously, that would have to be organised and thought about carefully, but such a system is possible. Systems of advance voting, were used in America before the presidential election, when many of us discovered to our astonishment that in some areas between 25 and 30 per cent of the electorate had already voted before polling day—but they had voted in a polling station.
I was not in favour of pilots for postal voting because I was not in favour of postal voting on demand, but pilots for advance voting systems could be looked at in this country to provide a means by which people can vote, even if they will be away on polling day.
So there are other ways of doing it. We should look at other ways of voting that are secure. The problem with postal voting is that you can never guarantee whether the person who has had the voting paper sent to them has filled it in and sent it back. Even if identifiers are used and verified, and even if there is individual registration, that problem does not fundamentally change. In particular, you cannot guarantee, even if the correct person is filling in the ballot paper, that there is not someone standing next to them making sure that they are voting the right way. Even if that does not happen, you cannot prevent people doing what someone did to me at the last election—they knocked at my door and said, "Can I give you our postal vote?". I said, "If it's sealed up I shall take it back, but I really don't see why you can't just post it". They said, "Oh no. We want to show it to you to make sure that you know that we voted for your man". That is inherently possible in postal voting and it totally and utterly undermines the secrecy of the ballot box.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and others, I think that this Bill misses an opportunity to turn back the clock from 2000 and place much greater restrictions and security measures on postal voting.