My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate, which takes note of the Government's policy on electoral registration. This is often a highly technical issue, but it is always an important one. The struggle for the right to vote defines the history of our democracy but electoral registration makes that right a reality. This debate is a timely one, as the Government have embarked on a significant change to electoral registration, with potentially profound consequences for the health of our democracy.
Many issues could be addressed under the rubric of this debate. For example, it would be possible to explore why the Government have been so dilatory in pursuing proposals put forward by the previous Government to ensure that service personnel serving in conflict areas can cast their votes themselves. It would be possible, for example, to discuss the abolition of the edited register. There is also a range of other more technical issues that could be discussed. I hope that the distinguished noble Lords who will follow me in this debate will address some or all of these issues.
I want to focus on the introduction of individual voter registration. Most people, in all political parties, believe that the Government are right to bring in individual voter registration. The previous Government legislated for it-and I declare an interest as the Minister who brought in that legislation. I did so because I believed that it was right to do so. It is right, as a matter of principle, that citizens should be responsible for their own eligibility to vote. Individual registration can help to tackle fraud, although, as I will discuss later, the extent of fraud should not be overstated nor is individual registration a cure-all for it where it does exist. However, there is widespread concern about the way that the Government are introducing this change. I am particularly worried by their abandonment of the bipartisan approach adopted by the previous Government. I am also worried about the damage that they risk doing to the efforts to secure a comprehensive register, which must be the foundation of our electoral system.
For all its merits, the introduction of individual registration carries with it the severe risk that significant numbers of people who are eligible to vote will not be registered to do so and so will be unable to vote. This was the case in Northern Ireland when it moved to this new system of registration a few years ago. The report by the independent Electoral Commission on the experience in Northern Ireland found that the new registration process disproportionately impacted on:
"Young people and students, people with learning difficulties and other forms of disability and those living in areas of high social deprivation".
That report concluded-and this is important, because of the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland-that:
"While these findings relate directly to Northern Ireland, they are not unique and reflect the wider picture across the UK. They present a major challenge to all those concerned with widening participation in electoral and democratic processes".
In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the House of Commons, Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission, said that it is possible that, under the Government's proposed changes,
"the register could go from around a 90% completeness that we currently have to around, say, a 60% completeness".
There is already a serious problem with the electoral register in the United Kingdom. The latest estimate from the Electoral Commission suggests that at least 6 million people who are eligible to vote were not registered to do so in December 2010. The fact that so many people who should be on the register are not, despite all the measures taken by the previous Government to increase registration-measures which I am pleased to see the current Government are taking forward-shows how intractable this problem is. It damages our democracy when so many eligible citizens cannot vote because they are not on the register.
The introduction of individual registration risks making a bad situation significantly worse. That is why its introduction was delayed for so long. The improvements it is likely to bring to the accuracy of the register are balanced by the deterioration it is likely to bring in the register's coverage. The previous Government sought to reconcile these competing objectives by tying the implementation of individual registration to the achievement of a comprehensive and accurate register by 2015, as far as it was practicable to do so. This timetable allowed for a phased introduction of the new system. However, that Government showed their commitment to meeting the timetable by giving the Electoral Commission the power to oversee the process independently and the obligation to report annually to Parliament, so that if Parliament wanted to make any changes as the system progressed it could do so. We also gave the Electoral Commission substantial new powers to carry out these objectives.
The previous Government spent a great deal of time and effort building cross-party agreement on this approach. In the debate in the other place on
That is not all. The Government threaten to make the register even less complete by proposing to remove the civic and legal duty to register to vote, and to abolish the annual household canvass in 2014. I am sure the Government will say that they are taking measures to mitigate these potential risks just as the previous Government did-and I give them credit for that: they are-but nobody can be confident that such measures will solve the problem.
So why have the Government abandoned the previous Government's careful, non-partisan approach to this important issue? They have suggested threats to the integrity of the register as a possible reason for this haste. In the words of the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, a few months ago in this place:
"for the first time certainly in my lifetime, the integrity of the voting system was starting to be called into question".-[Hansard, 31/10/11; col. 974.]
So, by implication, the Government appear to be arguing that the need is so urgent that there can be no delay in bringing in a measure that can help tackle electoral malpractice. But independent bodies tasked with safeguarding the integrity of our electoral system do not share this assessment. The analysis carried out by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission, for example, into the 2010 elections stated that,
"no evidence of widespread systematic attempts to undermine or interfere with the May 2010 elections through electoral fraud", was found. They said:
"we are not aware of any case reported to the police that affected the outcome of the election to which it related nor of any election that has had to be re-run as a result of electoral malpractice".
There is never any justification for complacency about even a single incident of malpractice, but the evidence does not suggest that the level of electoral malpractice justifies the risk that the Government are running with the electoral register.
A report in 2008 from an independent body, the Rowntree Reform Trust, concluded:
"It is unlikely that there has been a significant increase in electoral malpractice since the introduction of postal voting on demand in 2000".
It added that any malpractice that had taken place,
"related to a tiny proportion of all elections contested".
Nor will individual registration, for all its merits, address all the cases of malpractice. The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission have concluded that the very nature of recorded electoral malpractice changes; as measures are introduced to tackle one form of malpractice, the problem shifts to other forms of it.
Indeed, I would say that the Government themselves do not see the problem as disproportionately pressing, because they scrapped ID cards. Whatever the justification for scrapping ID cards, they did scrap them. Whatever problems noble Lords may see with them, ID cards would have helped tackle the single largest category of alleged malpractice, which is voting offences, which includes personation at a polling station. The Government scrapped ID cards despite a recommendation by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission that to strengthen the security of the electoral process, the Government should review the case for requiring proof of identity of voters at the polling station.
The weakness of the Government's case for their approach is matched by the damage they risk doing. They risk excluding millions from their democratic right to vote. Their approach junks the principle, followed for good reasons by successive Conservative and Labour Governments, that fundamental constitutional change, particularly when it relates to the electoral system-the very wiring of our democracy-should only proceed, wherever possible, on a bipartisan basis. Their approach means that the boundary reviews in 2015 will be conducted on the basis of a profoundly flawed register, and therefore will subvert all the high-minded principles that the Government have advanced for these boundary reviews.
The increasingly unrepresentative register that is likely to result from the Government's approach will restrict the pool of those available for jury service, and so it will threaten the quality of justice in our country. Scope has warned that,
"the transition process must be handled carefully so that it doesn't inadvertently exclude disabled people".
Finally, the Government's approach risks turning our electoral arrangements in this country into a matter for partisan dispute for the first time in over a century, and this is potentially toxic for our democracy. Most agree that those eligible voters not registered to vote are most likely to vote Labour when they do vote. It is true that the Liberal vote in the inner cities is also likely to suffer. The Electoral Commission has found that,
"under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds ... private sector tenants ... and black and minority ethnic (BME) British residents".
It also found that the,
"highest concentrations of under-registration [are] most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation".
The evidence suggests that the party that will suffer least, if at all, from a fall-off in registration is the Conservative Party. Electoral registration is only 90 per cent complete in Labour seats, but 94 per cent complete in Conservative seats.
Politicians and Parliament have been falling into disrepute in recent years-it is a matter of grave concern, I know, to everyone in this House and in the other place. I ask your Lordships to consider the impact on the health of our democracy if it turns out, as it might, that the outcome of a general election has been determined by the fact that millions of eligible voters could not vote because they were not registered to do so, and that this was the result of a government policy deliberately pursued despite all the evidence that it would have precisely this consequence. Whatever the motivation behind the Government's precipitous abandonment of a bipartisan approach to individual registration, they still have a chance to return to the approach adopted by the previous Labour and Conservative Administrations.
Independent bodies have now reported on the Government's approach and expressed concerns about it. The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, on which the Government have a majority, has noted,
"serious concerns that the Government's current proposals will miss an unacceptably large number of potential electors".
The Electoral Commission has argued that the UK Government and UK Parliament should make a number of changes, including requiring electoral registration officers to run a full household canvass in 2014, abandoning the government proposal to allow voters to opt out from registration, publishing a detailed implementation plan, considering how to ensure the change is delivered consistently and ensuring that sufficient funding is available for the activities involved in implementing the change from household to individual electoral registration.
I hope that the Government will now take the concerns of these independent bodies more seriously than they have done up until now. I suggest to the Minister that one way of addressing all the problems that the Government's approach risks creating would be to set up a working group, consisting of representatives of all the political parties represented at Westminster, to agree how best to tackle the problems that have been so widely identified and by independent bodies. There are many distinguished Members of your Lordships' House, many of whom will speak in the debate today, who I am sure could make a major contribution to such a working group. I recognise that the Minister may not be in a position to respond substantively to this suggestion today, but I would be grateful if he could agree to write to me with a considered response if he is not able to do so today. If he rejects this proposal, could he set out in detail whether he accepts that the introduction of individual registration will lead to increased numbers of eligible voters falling off the electoral register? If he does not, can he guarantee that this will not happen?
This is a technical issue but, as I hope I have indicated in these remarks, it is one with potentially profound consequences for our democracy. I hope the Minister will not brush these concerns aside, but respond to them constructively and in a way that can re-establish the bipartisan approach that should always characterise public policy on such constitutional issues.
My Lords, the initial language of speeches in debates such as this is conventional, even to the extent of seeming Chinese. However, on this occasion, which is also the 180th anniversary year of the Great Reform Act, convention can be thrown to the winds and the noble Lord, Lord Wills, can be thanked for and congratulated in an old-fashioned, John Bull-ish, Hogarthian way on the immense service that he has done to your Lordships' House in securing this debate and opening it so well, even if sometimes controversially.
To genuflect towards the Great Reform Act, I remark in passing as a former Member of Parliament for the City of Westminster that my predecessor, Charles James Fox, required seven votes to be elected in Midhurst and 13 in Malmesbury, but was confronted by an electorate of 6,000 when he came to Westminster, on a property franchise so liberal that the electorate actually fell after the 1832 legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, will be aware that, although the House of Commons Library note on this subject was intended as briefing for an opposition day debate in the other place on individual electoral registration on
My noble friend the Minister who is replying to the debate is himself a living embodiment of the coalition. I am happy to say that voter registration is a subject on which the two coalition parties do not in principle seem to have differences of opinion. I can still recall, in opposition in your Lordships' House, my agreeable surprise in another such debate when my now noble friend Lord Goodhart, speaking after me, said that he had agreed with almost everything that I had said in preceding him. I also derive satisfaction for having spoken in the Second Reading debate during the passage of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 in your Lordships' House-a debate that precipitated the wholesale rewriting of the Bill at the behest of the late, great Lord Williams of Mostyn between Second Reading and Third Reading and the requirement therefrom for people registering to vote to provide their personal details, including a national insurance number, an event that provides forbear ancestry to this debate. The fall of 10 per cent in the Northern Ireland electorate was a consequence but not, in my view, an inexplicable one. The new electoral register involved a sharp reduction not only in duplications but in those removed to a higher place by death without having been removed from the electoral register as they crossed the bourn.
In Great Britain, after the boundary changes leading up to the 1983 general election, my inner-city seat had the lowest turnout in the country at 58 per cent, a level the country itself reached two elections ago; clearly, where Westminster leads, so goes the nation. I told my agent, the admirable Donald Stewart, who retired last year, that this position in the turnout list must never be repeated. Over my next three, and final, elections, we rose 24 places in the turnout list, overtaking not only other inner-city seats in the great cities of the nation but some Northern Ireland seats as well. Personally, I enjoy election canvassing, but I enjoy it the more when I am confident in the security of the register. I also have profound consequential admiration for inner-city postmen.
I hope that I am not telling tales out of school when I say that some years back the Conservative Party's research department's statistical side did some research into the electoral registers of marginal seats. As its motivation was primarily political, it did not go further and compare its data academically with those for other, less marginal, seats. However, the outcome was very similar to that which emerged from the post-2002 Northern Ireland data. One additional element was the significant number of aliens on the register not yet entitled by citizenship to vote. I am not in this regard implying fraud, although of course there may have been some. An alien with imperfect English might well feel that he was obliged by law to fill in the annual household electoral request from the local authority. Nor do I blame electoral registration officers for failing to conduct a full electoral canvass. Funding for electoral registration officers is not ring-fenced, to pick up where the Welfare Reform Bill Report stage left off last night. Moreover, as the House of Commons Library note says, the Electoral Commission,
"initially saw the change as being an essential 'building block' for e-enabled elections but individual registration was later seen as an important measure to guard against electoral fraud".
All this, however, militates in favour of a full 2014 canvass at this stage in the programme's evolution, rather than relying on an updated 2013 register.
One of the incidental consequences of the international détente of 1989 and the fall of both Communism and the Berlin Wall was the exposure of UK electoral experts, often as election observers, to the practices of the eastern European countries, where it transpired that voters very much had to prove who they were, not least in the Balkan imbroglio. My late first wife was a Brazilian citizen who also carried a British passport, but I did not then realise that in Brazil too you had to prove at the time of voting who you were. The majority of countries now require a photographic card or even a specific electoral registration card.
I realise the bias against identity cards in this land and the distaste for indelible ink on our hands, but I wonder whether we are not being offered the opportunity to learn from the experience from others. We had the first industrial revolution and other countries learnt much from it-indeed, improving on it in the process. We were, with the exception of Albania, the last country in Europe to create a modern national lottery and, as the Minister who introduced it, I can testify to how much we learnt from the experience of others to create what is widely regarded as the best lottery in the world. I know that we are the mother of parliaments, but perhaps humility might help us to make the giant leap to an electoral registration card ourselves. We are conscious of the importance that the coalition attaches to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. The same importance should be attached to a copper-bottomed improvement to the whole electoral procedure.
On a final elegiac note, one of the losses from 18th-century electioneering history is the gradual disappearance today of constituency agents from the ranks of our political parties. As the farm labourer disappears from the land, so does a great deal of knowledge of country lore. For the benefit of the Hansard writer, I spell that word with an "o". The same is true of agents -and I spell "lore" in that instance with both an "o" and an "a".
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, in congratulating my noble friend Lord Wills on raising this important issue. Like many Members of your Lordships' House, I spent many happy hours, extending to 50 years, using the electoral register for the purpose of canvassing. As my noble friend has said, the keystone of any working democratic electoral system is, of course, that there should be an accurate and comprehensive register. As he said, all political parties have subscribed to the view that individual registration is desirable, albeit that that necessarily involves much more work and perhaps more cost to ensure its efficient administration than the situation hitherto.
The electoral register primarily serves as a function of democratic politics but it also serves other purposes. We may well hear in this debate about the uses to which the register can be put-for example, in relation to jury service, the avoidance of fraud through the use of the register by credit agencies and the like. On the downside, there is legitimate concern about the use of the register by commercial organisations for the purposes of marketing and so on, but that is a subsidiary question to the one that we are addressing in your Lordships' House today.
Democracy ultimately depends on participation, and the attitude of the Government appears to be that inclusion on the register is to be voluntary-a sort of lifestyle choice. I suspect that most of us in your Lordships' House would take the view that inclusion on the register is in fact a civic responsibility. Many of us would go further and say that voting is a civic responsibility. Some of us might be tempted to say that voting should be compulsory, but that is not within the province of this debate and would no doubt be a more controversial proposition.
It is clear that there is a real risk of a significant decline in numbers registering under the present proposals. My noble friend has referred to the Electoral Commission's estimate of a 65 per cent effective register. The numbers have been declining in any event over recent years; 65 per cent would put us at less than the United States, whose record in these matters generally is regarded as pretty deplorable. In evidence to, I believe, the Electoral Reform Society at an event that it staged, the returning officer for Hackney predicted a reduction of 25,000 to 30,000 from an already low base of an electorate of 165,000. That is a very significant reduction.
Of course it is right, as noble Lords have already said, to create barriers to electoral fraud, but as my noble friend rightly points out, fraud essentially has been pretty minimal. There had been concerns around postal voting, but I have to say that postal voting has substantially sustained turnout in local elections. In my own authority in Newcastle, one of the experimental policies in 2004 was to have 100 per cent registration for postal votes. Since then, the turnout in local elections has resulted in 70 per cent of those with postal votes actually voting, with only a 15 per cent turnout among those not using the postal vote. There has been no evidence or even any suggestion of postal vote fraud in that authority. So postal voting, properly administered, can certainly help sustain turnout.
Making registration voluntary is surely a mistake. It is necessary to have the sanction of a possible fine-although very rarely, if ever, used. I think that perhaps a few more cases would engender more people registering now. If voluntary registration appears to be the order of the day, it is likely to engender a significant further fall, as has happened in Northern Ireland, as has already been said. When a few years ago the poll tax was a hot political issue, we saw a substantial decline in registration. People effectively sought to evade the poll tax by keeping their names off the electoral register at a time when there were potential sanctions to be applied. Without sanctions, there may very well be an even worse level of registration and therefore turnout. As my noble friend has indicated, this is particularly likely to be the case with young people, with people from ethnic minorities and with private tenants. When one goes canvassing, as I was doing last weekend, it is striking how in areas of private-rented housing one comes across a significant number of properties where there is no name on the electoral register; it is much less the case in local authority housing or in owner-occupied areas. That constitutes disenfranchising-admittedly by omission on the part of the residents-of a significant proportion of the population.
This has effects beyond just the turnout in individual seats. Potentially it influences hugely the drawing of parliamentary boundaries. Clearly, under registration, it could significantly distort the pattern of parliamentary boundaries that was determined under the legislation passed last year. The boundaries are now to be reviewed every five years instead of approximately every 10 years, and that could, of course, significantly affect the political outcome.
One area that has not really been touched on is the position of voters who, like Members of your Lordships' House, are entitled to vote in local elections but not in national elections. That includes EU residents. I do not think that their position has been canvassed-to use an appropriate phrase-at all in these discussions. It is perhaps a matter that ought to be considered. They are entitled to vote and there is no reason why they should not vote, since they are paying local taxes. It seems to me that it ought to be part of the responsibility of the electoral registration process to ensure that EU citizens in this country with the right to vote in local elections are included in the register.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons considered these matters and clearly took a strong view that the offence of failing to co-operate with the electoral registration officer should be retained; that the Electoral Commission should promote a public information campaign on a regular basis to inform people of their rights and responsibilities in this respect; that there should be, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, confirmed, a full canvass in 2014, which will be critical as we approach the next general election-assuming that we have to wait until then; and thereafter that the register should be adequately maintained.
There is a resource implication. Local authorities' budgets are under huge pressure and it is tempting to dispense with the necessary investment in keeping a register up to date. However, the temptation should be resisted and resistance would be facilitated if a grant were specifically ring-fenced for this purpose. I am not normally in favour of ring-fencing grants to local government, but this has implications for our whole political system and is a case for which I certainly would be prepared to make an exception. A project of data matching is also under way, and that should also be evaluated.
The Welfare Reform Bill, which has occupied the House-and will continue to do so-for some time, threatens to take us back in certain respects to the 19th century Poor Law. I hope that these changes in the electoral system do not take us back to a 19th century electorate.
Perhaps I may remind noble Lords that when the clock shows seven, they are already in their eighth minute.
My Lords, first I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wills, on securing this debate. It comes at a good time because the recent report by the Electoral Commission highlights a number of weaknesses in the current electoral registration process, especially in the completeness of the voting register. It suggests that perhaps 6 million or 7 million people who should be on the register are not. The current household-based processes for registering voters in Great Britain are not consistently applied. The system is not accurate system and is antiquated in that it requires action by someone acting as head of household-a position that does not exist in any household that I would recognise.
Any unnecessary change to the system beyond a simple switch from household to individual responsibility that might risk missing out many more voters while doing nothing to improve accuracy would be a very bad step in the wrong direction. I am pleased that any changes will now be open to very considerable pre-legislative scrutiny. Many representations have been made suggesting that the recent White Paper probably puts accuracy above completeness as a priority in the registration process. However, both principles are very important. Fraudulent entries on the register are abhorrent, but the absence from the register of people entitled to vote fundamentally weakens our democracy. I am pleased that the idea of encouraging voters in effect to disfranchise themselves through a so-called opt-out box on the registration form has been dropped; it would have sent a totally wrong signal about responsibility.
There is agreement among the parties on the principle of individual electoral registration, but, in considering any other changes to the process, clear evidence of the benefit of the changes to the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register must be shown if they are to be made. Many people consider that the main strength of our existing registration system, and the reason for widespread compliance, is that it is based on a legal requirement. Electoral registration officers clearly consider this requirement to be vital to the process, because the registration forms that each officer designs make the requirement clear above anything else.
I shall quote from some of the forms that I have been able to collect from different local authorities, which are sent to every household as part of the registration process. Exeter City Council's form says in bold near the top of the form:
"You are required by law to give the information requested on this form".
Wandsworth Council's form says in large print at the very top:
"You are required by law to provide the requested information even if you do not qualify to vote".
Elmbridge Borough Council's form says in large bold type under the address of the recipient:
"By law you must return this form every year even if there are no changes to make".
Edinburgh's form emphasises that the information is "required by law" by emboldening those three key words. Lambeth Council's form says at the top:
"By law you have to register every year", and this form, like many others, also leads with the fact that,
"You can be fined £1,000 if you do not reply".
Eastbourne's form also states most prominently in bold print the legal requirement to comply with the process and also features the sanction of a fine of up to £1,000 if you fail to do so. In fact, every single form that I have been able to collect strongly emphasises this point of legal requirement. I suggest that this is clear proof that the statement is considered to be of significant value by those most concerned with the detail of the process.
Of course, prosecutions for failure to comply are very rare, but the threat of legal sanction is considered to be very effective. The Electoral Commission has relayed to me the views of the Association of Electoral Administrators. These administrators are the people who employ those who go round visiting homes and chasing the forms to try to ensure that they are returned and that the register is as complete as possible. The association says that interrupting households to ask them to fill in a form is never easy, and if completion becomes a voluntary activity-simply a polite request-it does not think that the forms will be completed. The fact that it is a legal requirement is what persuades the vast majority of people to comply with the registration process.
The Electoral Commission clearly agrees. It concludes that:
"Without some form of sanction, we would expect a lower rate of response to requests for information than is currently achieved".
The threat of legal sanctions is what makes the existing register as comprehensive as it is. Without them, the completeness of the register is likely to fall considerably. Removing legal sanctions would put the quality of our democracy at great risk-for no benefit to that democracy. That is why I will not support any change that does not satisfactorily preserve this legal requirement to comply with the registration process on everyone who should fill in a form to register to vote. Registration to vote is not a personal choice in our system and it should not become one. It is voting or not that should remain a personal choice. This is not just about the fairness of elections but about the fairness of the way in which constituency and ward boundaries are drawn up.
I am sure that Ministers will remember the many occasions last year on which they defended the electoral register-as it now is-as the basis for drawing up constituency boundaries. They said that we could be proud of an estimated 92 per cent compliance with the registration process. They must now realise that if we change the basis of the register in fundamental ways, it may no longer be fit for purpose for redrawing boundaries.
There are many issues that I would like to raise in relation to this, particularly the need for a full and comprehensive canvass in 2014. We know how important that is, but for reasons of time I have chosen to concentrate on that specific issue, which I consider to be of paramount importance. I hope that my noble friend Lord Tyler will shortly take up some of the other issues about which I am also very concerned.
My Lords, our country has before it the prospect of a new system of individual electoral registration. That prospect has been widely welcomed, and rightly so. In one part of our country the new system is already a reality. It has operated for a number of years in Northern Ireland, for which I have a strong and enduring affection.
As a deeply committed supporter of Northern Ireland's union with Great Britain, I hold firmly to the view that, in matters affecting the UK as a whole, the same approach should be followed throughout it. In Northern Ireland, it is a criminal offence not to complete a voter registration form when asked to do so. No such provision is currently being proposed for Great Britain. A thoroughly undesirable distinction will, therefore, be created between the system in Northern Ireland and that elsewhere. Equity demands uniformity. As the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons noted last November in its report on the proposed new system:
"There appears to be no reason why failure to complete and return a registration form should be a criminal offence in Northern Ireland but not in Great Britain. The Government should take steps to remedy this inconsistency".
I hope that when my noble friend the Minister comes to reply to this debate, he will be able to tell us that the necessary steps will be carefully considered.
Action to establish better arrangements for electoral registration will be deficient and incomplete if it does not tackle a problem that has been allowed to continue for far too long. I refer to the position in which the vast majority of our fellow countrymen and women living abroad find themselves. Two simple statistics need to be borne constantly in mind. It is estimated by the Electoral Commission that 5.6 million British citizens are resident in other countries. Just 30,000 of them are registered to vote alongside their fellow citizens in the country to which they belong. Yet today, to a greater extent than ever before, many British expatriates retain close ties with their country and, in doing so, keep a strong feeling of attachment to it, however extensively they may involve themselves in the practical affairs of the communities where they reside. In the age of the internet, our fellow countrymen abroad can follow closely what is happening in their native land and contribute powerfully as online participants to developments taking place here, whether they reside in Berlin, Brisbane or Buenos Aires.
Sadly, however, for many expatriates a feeling of attachment to Britain cannot gain the full expression that it naturally seeks. After 15 years' absence, the right to vote ends. No one has ever argued that a sense of belonging to our country dies after 15 years' absence from it. The withdrawal of voting rights after a decade and a half rests on no clear, settled principle. Their termination could equally well occur after other periods of residence abroad-indeed, it has done so. Participation in our elections was originally closed after five years' absence. Then the qualifying period was quadrupled to 20 years. No rationale was offered for these sudden changes, nor for the decision to slice five years off the total, which has brought us to the present position. Our fellow citizens abroad are surely entitled to a firm, stable set of arrangements. Instead, they have been subject to arbitrary upheavals.
Other advanced democracies have not chopped and changed in this extraordinary fashion. The United States of America, France, Italy and the Netherlands, among others, all provide lifelong voting rights for their nationals living in other countries, as do Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It is true that some countries are more restrictive. Germany, for example, grants lifelong voting rights to its citizens living in other EU countries but voting rights for 25 years to those living outside the EU. However, no other leading democracy takes as restrictive an approach as our country. It is high time that the United Kingdom joined the international consensus.
How is this to be achieved? The forthcoming legislation to introduce the new system of individual registration can provide the perfect vehicle for change, as my friend Mr Christopher Chantrey, chairman of the British Community Committee in France, pointed out in his evidence to the Commons Select Committee. The unjustifiable time limit on the right to vote abroad should be swept away completely, bringing us into line with the United States, France and other countries.
Our fellow countrymen abroad already have individual voter registration but in a particularly cumbersome and inefficient form. The existing complex and time-consuming registration arrangements have deterred many who do meet the existing qualifying conditions from claiming their right to vote. As Mr Chantrey stated in his recent submission, overseas voters, as opposed to UK resident voters, can be positively identified through an official document: the British passport. A simple system, he went on, could easily be established to enable overseas voters to register electronically or by post, providing the basic information needed to confirm their identity. Once a general election or referendum was called, Mr Chantrey concludes, a ballot paper would immediately be electronically generated or printed, and e-mailed or sent by post to the overseas voter.
Great men and women-John Bright, Gladstone, Disraeli, in his idiosyncratic fashion, and the Pankhursts, among others-campaigned with vigour and conviction to make the franchise the birthright of their fellow countrymen and women. Of course it never occurred to them that, in a future age, over five and a half million British people would live and work abroad without the right to vote in the national parliamentary elections of their countries of residence. For far too long, far too many of them have been effectively disenfranchised. Now, a great opportunity has arisen to end their disenfranchisement. We should seize it.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Wills for initiating this debate about a very important aspect of our democracy. We take voting for granted in modern Britain and it is fundamental to our basic freedoms. We have, however, become rather sanguine about the downturn in voter turnout and casual about the ways in which the voting system is corrupted.
Vote-rigging is, in fact, much more widespread than some of our speakers have indicated, and there has perhaps been just too much complacency about the things that have gone wrong. It has been proven to have occurred in Birmingham, Slough, Peterborough, Reading, Bristol, Burnley, Blackburn, Halton, Guildford, Havant, Bradford and other towns and cities. The judge who presides over the Election Court, Mr Justice Mawrey, has much to say about the reasons why this has been taking place. In fact, he concluded in the 2004 Birmingham City Council case that the elections would have been a disgrace to a banana republic. I recommend to this House a booklet by Sam Buckley about the many cases that have taken place during the past decade and a bit.
I chaired the Power inquiry, and we looked at the reasons for the downturn in electoral turnout. One thing that we found was that the habit of voting was not being established in the young. When this was not established-certainly before people were 30-it was very unlikely, as used to be the case, that they would start voting once they had a family, a household and so on. Many people do not ever turn to it.
The recommendation before this House is that we introduce individual voter registration. I support this, but not as a sole response to problems. It should exist alongside the current system. It should be possible for somebody who somehow or other has failed to get their name on to the register to be prompted to do so-and to do so individually with much greater ease than is currently possible.
I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, when he says that he does not know households with a head. I think that now we would talk about heads of households where families take very different forms and where people may consider themselves, in marriages and partnerships, much more equal. What we want, however, is for one of the heads of a household to take responsibility for trying to get people's names on to the register. I, like the noble Lord, believe that there should be a legal sanction, because if there is not, the seriousness of being on the register will not be accepted.
The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, raised the question of why there is some kind of discrepancy between here and Northern Ireland. It is, of course, because the long history of gerrymandering in Northern Ireland has made it a sensitive issue. However, it should be becoming more of a sensitive issue here, given the history of hearings before the Election Court that have taken place in the past decade.
The Representation of the People Act 2000 was introduced because of falling voter turnout. In the 1997 election, only 71 per cent of those who could vote turned out, and it was the lowest since the Second World War. That led to an inquiry and, in turn, to the legislation. We would now be thrilled if we could go back to those figures. In fact, over the past 14 years we have seen participation hovering at around 60 per cent, so we have seen a serious reduction. Therefore, despite the remedies that have been sought, we have not managed to improve things considerably.
We have expanded postal voting, but I am afraid that I still see it as the wrong solution to the wrong problem. It was a misidentified problem because politicians always want to believe that the reason people do not vote is because they are too busy, it is too complicated, they are too preoccupied or some other such reason, when in fact most of the time it is because people do not see the point in doing it. In conducting the Power inquiry, we found that people did not vote usually because they felt that it did not affect the outcome. They believed that lobbyists and vested interests had more power than they had, along with many other different reasons, but it was rarely because it was too difficult to go across the road or to find the voting station. Postal voting has operated successfully in some areas-certainly for those with infirmities, those who are living abroad or are going abroad for a period, and for other good reasons. However, removing a rationale for using a postal vote and making it available on demand has, I am afraid, expanded fraud.
We have to call it fraud and not just the word that was being used by my learned friend-malpractice. We have seen serious fraud taking place. The change to postal voting on demand was followed almost immediately by instances of fraud. Within a year, in local elections held in 2002, we had an instance of fraud where postal votes were being abused in local elections held in Birmingham. John Hemming, who is now an MP, showed that four fraudulent postal votes were cast in the Billesley ward, where the majority achieved by the candidate was three votes. We started seeing this happening with much greater frequency. I urge noble Lords to read the judgments of the Election Court. Of course, Birmingham in 2004 was the worst example. Some 70,000 postal votes were registered within days of the election, because you only have to register within five working days of an election and you do not have to give a reason. Suddenly, there was an inundation of applications for postal votes, 40,000 of which arrived within the marginal days of the deadline. In one ward, 8,241 people applied in the final days before the election. This is not about malpractice, mistakes or whatever; it is about crime and the stealing of elections, and it is a problem that we have to address if we take our democracy seriously.
I remind the House that some of the reluctance of people to register started with the poll tax. Noble Lords will remember that it was instilled in the minds of many people that being on a register to vote would affect other aspects of their lives and would have a financial impact on families. Lots of people did not want to register to vote. Until we have a secure and separate electoral register which people do not feel is going to impact on other aspects of their lives, we are going to see, particularly among the poorest in our society, people being unwilling to register.
However, what I really want us to consider is the business of postal voting because I think that it should be revisited. If we are going to look at ways of making our electoral system better, we have to revisit it. Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights requires Governments to hold free elections that will,
"ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature".
That is important whether it be for local elections, European elections or our general elections. In 2006, a motion was placed before the Council of Europe that there was enough fraud involved in the system of postal voting in the UK to make us fall foul of our duties under Article 3. I am afraid that we were criticised by the Council of Europe for the system that we have in operation, so it should be revisited.
I believe strongly in the democratic moment. I believe that going into the polling booth and putting your cross on the paper matters, and we have to instil the importance of that in new generations. As others have said, it is our birthright, and I do not think it should be treated like filling in a questionnaire or a consumer survey. If we want to look at registration, we have to look at it in the round of all the ways in which people come to vote.
My Lords, I would like to concentrate on postal voting, particularly postal voting from overseas, and on the comparisons between the previous general election and the AV referendum. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for giving us the opportunity for this debate. I should declare again that never in my life have I been able to vote in a general election, although I have been able to vote in other elections, so I have no interest to declare in that way.
In the 2010 general election, 6.9 million people-15 per cent of the electorate-were issued with postal votes, and 83 per cent of those issued with a postal vote returned it. That compared with six out of 10 people registered to vote at a polling station exercising their vote. Almost one in five votes at the count was a postal vote, so it is an interesting statistic which shows how successful postal voting is. In the recent referendum, there was an increase in the number of people voting by post to 7.2 million, which is around 16 per cent of the electorate, and 72 per cent of those returned their postal vote. That compared with fewer than four in 10 registered at a polling station actually turning up to vote. We can see that postal voting is increasing in this country and is likely to grow even more. Merely 11 months ago we had a debate on this issue and the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who answered for the Government, said that they would consider the issues of postal voting with urgency. I think that 11 months just about qualifies as "urgency" for any government.
One of the issues we discussed then was the depressing fact that in the 2010 general election, only about 500 soldiers out of 10,000 who were serving abroad, mainly in Afghanistan, actually managed to return a postal vote. The Minister gave assurances to your Lordships that he would try to improve on that before the AV referendum. I wonder whether the Minister who is to respond to the debate has any statistics to show whether he was successful or not. It was bizarre that there we were in Afghanistan trying to encourage the introduction of an electoral system into that country while our brave soldiers serving over there were unable to join in the electoral system in this country. I would be interested to know what the statistics are. The Minister also agreed that we should take a radical look at voting for overseas residents, and I wonder whether the Government have any statistics on how many people resident overseas voted by postal ballot in the AV referendum compared with the previous general election.
The Government have made a welcome proposal to extend the timetable for UK parliamentary elections from 17 to 25 working days from the dissolution of Parliament to polling day, with a longer period between the close of nominations and polling day. However, I am concerned that the full benefits of this extended timetable will not be available to all postal voters. The Government have not indicated that they intend to amend the relevant rules which specify that ballot packs cannot be dispatched until 5 pm on the 11th working day before polling day. We are concerned that they may not arrive in time. Perhaps I may quote a counting officer at the last election who said, "The timescale is too tight to allow sufficient time for overseas electors to complete and return their ballot papers. They are basically being disfranchised every time an election is held. One overseas elector called on polling day as he had just received his postal vote, despite an early turnaround and issue by airmail".
That is the problem, and as my noble friend Lord Lexden said, there were only just over 30,000 overseas voters on the register at the last election out of 5 million British citizens who live abroad, of whom at least 3.5 million are probably eligible to vote. We ought to do something in this country to encourage them to take part in the electoral system. Many people go abroad or work abroad, but that does not mean to say that they have lost interest in this country. They read English newspapers on the internet every morning, and indeed many of them want to return to this country at some point in the future. They should be able to take part in our electoral system.
My Lords, the debate has mostly been concerned with the direct application of the register and the changes that will be made in it to individual registration from the present system of head of household registration. We have asked what that means and whether it will make it more difficult to avoid fraud. But there is a secondary purpose that I want to mention in the debate, which is that for many years, at least 30 years to my knowledge, the electoral register has been used commercially to indicate the truth about residence, permanency of residence and so on, along with identification of people on the register by credit reference agencies. I hope my noble friend Lord Beecham does not mind me saying that they are commercial entities; they are in business for commercial reasons. But they provide a useful public purpose in that, both for creditors and indirectly for consumers, they indicate various pieces of key identification and household information to suggest the creditworthiness or otherwise of the consumers to whom credit providers are inclined to offer credit.
Credit reference agencies have for many years had the privilege of being entitled to have access to the full electoral register. They are approved or licensed by the Office of Fair Trading at the present time and in future by the Financial Services Authority, and that is an indication of the probity of the particular agencies I am talking about. There is a small reference in paragraph 13 of the White Paper on this subject to indicate the significance of credit reference agency use of the electoral register.
There is a change suggested by the Government in the White Paper to individual electoral registration but the Government propose to remove existing penalties for non-registration. As I understand it, admittedly from a sitting position, my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours does not think much of penalties because they are very rarely imposed and people are very rarely prosecuted. I would suggest, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, indicated in his useful speech, that if there are to be penalties, as there have been in the past, they will be quite useless unless, at least from time to time, there are examples of prosecutions and fines imposed and whatever other penalties it is thought desirable there should be for non-registration.
I am very concerned about paragraph 16 of the White Paper, which makes the point that it is not compulsory for anyone to vote in this country, unlike in Australia, and the Government do not intend to compel people to vote. It then goes on to say, displaying a bad sense of logic, that it is sensible that registering to vote should also be a choice for the individual concerned. I do not think one thing follows from the other at all. Surely one can be in favour of allowing people the freedom to vote or not to vote on election day and yet regard it as a valuable requirement to make the comprehensiveness of the register a reality. I think the noble Lord, Lord Rennard would agree that they are separate matters. From the point of view of the secondary value of the electoral register that I am referring to, I would say that it is a helpful indication in relation to the creditworthiness or otherwise of individuals. It would be a severe loss if the register was much less comprehensive than it has been, let alone more comprehensive. So I doubt the logic of the Government's view on this matter.
Others have said that this is not the subject of this debate but I may surmise that voting should be compulsory. There are indeed arguments to that effect. I am certainly saying that registration to vote is a public duty and should be enforceable by appropriate penalties. As I understand it, leading credit reference agencies as well as the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the House of Commons want registration to be mandatory. I entirely agree and I agree with the value of the 2014 household canvass that has been referred to by others in this debate.
In principle the move to individual electoral registration seems to me to be correct and we want to ensure that that principle is backed up by a greater reality than seems likely from the current proposals. As my noble friend Lord Wills has indicated, the reason why the proposals are inadequate at the moment is that the Government have rejected compulsion and various other ideas, especially those formulated by people outside the Government, and they have failed to go along a bipartisan route.
My Lords, this is a very timely debate that my noble friend Lord Wills has called for today. We were reminded of just how timely by the publication yesterday of the proposal by the Welsh Boundary Commission for the new Welsh seats-a proposal greeted with universal disbelief. There should not have been disbelief because it was an inevitable product of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act. It reminds us of the importance of the rules of the electoral game, which is what we are discussing today. That Act is on the statute book so there is no point in going over it. At least it was subject to a good deal of public examination, not least thanks to the reasonably extensive debate it received in your Lordships' House. By contrast, the Government's proposals on electoral registration, though scarcely less important in their potential impact, have received practically no public scrutiny. There was an excellent report by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the Commons, a useful seminar recently at the British Academy with experts and academics, and a well informed article-the only one I have read in the press-by Martin Kettle in the Guardian, but that is just about it. If you asked 100 electors what was proposed, I doubt you would get one coherent response.
The desirability of the change in principle is common ground across politics and across parties, with the main aim being to eliminate potential fraud. It is also common ground that the switch is likely to cause a drop in registration. The completeness of the electoral register has been declining gradually for a number of years, from north of 95 per cent at its best to perhaps 91 per cent or 92 per cent today. There was, however, one big drop, and that was when the Thatcher Government introduced the poll tax. According to estimates by the academics Iain Maclean and Jeremy Smith, this can account for slightly more than one-third of the estimated 1 million person shortfall between the electoral register and OPCS population estimates-in other words roughly 300,000 people stripped of the vote.
Estimates of how far registration will fall as a result of individual registration vary for two reasons. First, it depends on how it is done, and I will come back to this. If the Electoral Commission's excellent proposals for a household canvass and for compulsion are followed, there will be much less of a drop than if they are not. Secondly, however, we are in the field of the unknowable, and speculation is inevitable.
There are estimates, however, and they vary from the worrying to the simply terrifying. In Northern Ireland, individual registration caused a shortfall of roughly 11 per cent. In evidence to the Commons committee-the noble Lord, Lord Wills, referred to this in his introduction-the Electoral Commission floated an Armageddon scenario in which all those who do not vote in general elections do not bother to register either. On that basis, the fall would be from 92 per cent to perhaps 60 or 65 per cent-in other words roughly one in three of the people who appear on the register at the moment would not appear. That is not quite as bad as it may sound, because a lot of the people who do not register would not have voted anyway. As completion of the register goes down, the turnout figure will go up-no doubt we shall all congratulate ourselves on that-but it is still a worrying thought that a third of the people now able to vote might not be able to do so.
When a proposal about elections comes before Parliament it is the duty of this House to satisfy itself that what is being done is being done not for partisan reasons but for reasons of merit. The fact that individual registration has been the policy of successive Governments shows that nothing too wicked is being done, but I cannot emphasise strongly enough that the effect of the change in the system will be completely different from what it would have been under the previous Government's proposals, simply because of the parliamentary voting Act.
It is less likely that Labour voters will register than Tories because they are younger, and all the evidence is that younger voters register less. That will not affect the result of the general election much, because most of them would not have voted in any case. However, what it will affect greatly-on the Armageddon scenario -is the partisan distribution of constituencies, because when the Boundary Commission comes to work on the next review of boundaries, it will work on the basis of the register and will be obliged, as we all know, to make sure that constituencies have, plus or minus 5 per cent, the same number of registered electors. Labour constituencies, where registration is likely to be down greatly, will be too small; Tory constituencies, where registration will be reduced by less, will be too big. Labour constituencies will have to be abolished and Tory constituencies increased in number. It is likely that this will help to counter the current anti-Tory bias in the electoral system, which is a very good thing, but it may create a new pro-Tory bias which I am sure the whole House would agree would be as bad a thing as the present pro-Labour bias.
Here, I find myself slightly puzzled, because it sounds from that as if we have to worry greatly about partisanship. But what gives me pause for thought is that this is not an exclusively Tory Government, it is a coalition Government. It is a Tory/Lib Dem coalition. In allowing this change to go forward without the assurances required on compulsory registration and on the household canvass, the Lib Dems are committing electoral suicide. One thing to emerge from the Royal Academy's survey, with all the greatest experts present, is that it is Lib Dem voters-younger, mobile voters-who are the least likely to register, and therefore it is Lib Dem seats, particularly urban Lib Dem seats, that will be reduced most by the boundary redistribution resulting from this register.
Perhaps I may end on a slightly light-hearted note, though it may not seem so light-hearted to the Lib Dem Benches opposite. There are lots of predictions as to how many seats they will win in 2015. Some people think they may have enough to fill a minibus; others think that a London taxicab will suffice. I express no opinion on this, but when one looks to the election after this, and unless the necessary steps are taken to make sure that registration under the new system is adequate as the Electoral Commission proposes, I think that a Smart fortwo should comfortably suffice.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for securing today's debate. I agree that this is an incredibly important issue. However, I fear that I must begin with a confession lest I be accused of hypocrisy. Late last night, to my horror, I realised that I am not currently registered on the electoral register.
I moved flat a couple of months ago, so I am inaccurately registered. This is one of the ways in which we lose people permanently from the register. It got me thinking as I walked home about the question, "How do you trace me?". I thought, first, of my self-assessment tax return, but then thought that it might not be too wise to get HMRC involved in this issue. I then turned to my utility bills as a way of being traced, but they were not all in my name and I switched provider in the move. But I then came up with an idea that is perhaps worth the Government investigating. I redirected my post. How many people who move use this facility? Would it be worth requesting that the Post Office add to the form the question, "Do you wish to be added to the electoral register at the address to which you are redirecting your post?". With 13 to 15 per cent of people now missing from the electoral register, I ask the Government to consider whether this is worth investigating.
I realise that that is a very pragmatic beginning to a speech on an issue of the highest principle. I shall seek briefly to speak about the lack of party consensus on the matter and the current "nudge" philosophy of this Government. The Minister in the other place stated on
"The need to improve the accuracy and completeness of electoral registers is an issue on which there is cross-party consensus. As we move forward, it will be important for us to maintain consensus and we will be seeking to work closely on implementation with political parties across the House".-[Hansard, Commons, 15/9/10; col. 885.]
However, when I googled this issue, I found that there is anything but party consensus. So often during the past 11 months in your Lordships' House, I have been told, "You have joined at rather a strange time", or, "We are not normally this party political". If one were to think of elections and government as analogous to a board game then issues such as the number of MPs would be part of the game, and the system of voting, AV or otherwise, would be rather like the rules. However, the electoral register determines who gets to participate in the game. This issue is fundamental to our democracy and sits in a different category of issues, rather like judicial independence. Therefore, to see cross-party fault lines develop on this issue concerns me greatly. I know that this can then lead to the argument, "It was not we who party-politicised-it was you", but I believe that we must depoliticise this issue, and swiftly. If the Minister were willing to consider the working group suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, I would add that political parties should be supplemented by-or there should perhaps even be a majority of-independent representation, which would greatly assist in rebuilding public confidence in our system.
This is a Government who believe in the "nudge", a theory perhaps best explained by example. If you wish to apply for a driving licence, you must now answer the question whether you wish to be an organ donor before your form can be processed. If you do not answer the question, the form will not be processed, the theory being that there will be a higher level of organ donors as the system will have nudged everyone to answer the question. That being so, surely the Government would want to nudge people to ensure that there is the highest level of voters on the register and the highest level of people eventually voting. Had the behavioural insights team that now exists in No. 10 Downing Street been asked about the opt-out mechanism, I doubt that it would have been proposed.
In Northern Ireland, one has to complete the voter registration form, and I wonder why the British Government are taking away this minimal form of compulsion when undertaking the greatest change to UK elections since the granting of universal suffrage. Why do I have to fill in the self-assessment tax form and register my car, if I own one, with the DVLA, but not have to fill in this form? I would be grateful for further evidence from the Minister that making the whole system voluntary will not affect the completeness of the electoral register.
I note that the report from the Information Society Alliance states:
"Compulsory registration does not in all cases yield registration rates notably above those achieved in countries without compulsory registration".
But will it be so in our case? Were the four of us who shared a house alone in knowing that someone had to fill in that form so we could not leave it hanging around forever?
Finally, I have much sympathy with the need for a full household canvass in 2014, as the Electoral Commission has stated that about 20 per cent of people eligible to re-register will not actually be written to in the first write-out in 2014. I presume that that 20 per cent is in addition to the 6.5 million people who are not even on the register at all. I am not convinced that a full household survey in 2013 is more important than in 2014, if resources are the issue at stake .
Accuracy and completeness of the register are but a means to an end, that end being public confidence in the outcome of the election. Is it impossible for the UK to have problems? Let us look at the United States and the hanging chads of the presidential election in 2000. In 2015 it could be a tight race, again. It could be in poor economic conditions. We know that there will be a reduction of MPs to 600. Moreover, 2015 will be the first truly Twitter, Facebook, internet election, with potentially restless people in touch by smartphone. Any complaints or hyperbole, whether well founded or not, travel fast nowadays-August's disturbances taught us that if nothing else. Let us not take anything for granted, especially our free, fair and peaceful elections.
My Lords, like everyone else, I thank my noble friend Lord Wills for introducing this particular subject and for his excellent introduction. He has raised a subject that is at the very heart of our democracy: the people's right to vote and therefore to be on a register. That is more important than what appears to be the underlying theme behind what the Government are doing-a point that other noble Lords and noble Baronesses have remarked upon-that the prevention of fraud is more important than the right to vote. Electoral fraud appears to be the driving force behind this particular move, and the Electoral Commission makes that quite clear. That is wrong. It ought to be that people have the right to vote and we investigate if there is fraud. This is not new. Anyone who has studied history will know that people have been defrauding in that sense for some time.
It might not surprise many people here that I take the view that the register is just part of an outdated, very old fashioned electoral system. We now live in an age of hi-tech science and development. No wonder a lot of our youngsters do not go out and vote and are disillusioned with our electoral system; they consider it to be so out of date and old fashioned. They vote for their favourite characters in "The X Factor" and "Strictly Come Dancing" by mobile phone. They do not have to traipse along a road on a cold wet night, to be crossed off a paper register and given another piece of paper on which to put a cross after going into a booth, thus deciding how they are going to vote and putting it into a box. Afterwards, there is a long drawn-out process whereby those ballot papers are taken somewhere else and counted by various people. It takes long hours. I have been through this process. I was an MP for over five elections. We sat for night after night, waiting for the result to come in for our particular constituency.
Surely, in this day and age, it is time we started to use modern technology as part of our electoral system. Many of those who have opposed this measure so violently will disagree with me, but I am sorry to say that we have to have a national identity card and a national register to go with it. Then the electoral register could be drawn up on the basis of that national ID card register. It would be a smartcard. Smartcard technology has moved on so fast in the past four or five years that it is no longer the problem that it was even a few years ago. The cost is also considerably lower, because that is the nature of technology-the price comes down all the time. It also solves some of the problems of service voters. If you are in Afghanistan, why wait for a postal vote if you can vote using your ID card in some form of electoral machine that will allow you to do that?
The starting point for that register is an ID card that is compulsory: that everyone must have. They must update their address when necessary or the penalty will be severe, a measure which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, wants to apply to electoral registration anyway. He, of course, was massively in favour of the abolition of the ID card but is now in favour of it.
I should say in passing that I was the spokesman for the Opposition in the other place when the Scottish poll tax Bill was introduced. If the noble Lord is worried about the £1,000 fine, it was increased by the then Tory Government to deal exactly with the problem of people possibly coming off the electoral register. The fine used to be £50 if you did not send in the form. It then became £1,000 to deal with the poll tax problem.
The fact is that we should have such an electoral register. To start with, we would not move straight to electronic voting. That ought to be the way in which we are moving Instead, we seem to be standing still, not moving with the times, technology or science on this. Not just youngsters, but 75 year-olds like me, use smartcards, which we all have in our wallet, all the time. I do not think I bought anything with cash over Christmas. I used my bank card, which is a smartcard, or I bought online with it. Why should I not be able to vote in the same way, or at least prove my identity to electoral registration officers and those at the polling booth in this manner?
Surely we must move to having some form of compulsory ID card in this country in order to ensure that we have as full a register as possible and do away with some of the electoral fraud that might take place. When going to vote, you would have to produce an ID card with your photograph on it. It could then be checked whether the right person was actually voting. Surely that is the way forward. Instead, we are tinkering around with a system that is increasingly old fashioned, out of date and not working properly. It really is time that we moved on rather than standing where we are at the present, using a system that is completely out of date.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, and not just for initiating this very timely debate. He has also had an impeccable track record of support for the advantages of individual electoral registration, against equally determined delaying tactics from some members of the previous Administration, for whatever reason. It is right that we should look very carefully at the extent of cross-party consensus on this issue. I agree with him and other Members of your Lordships' House who have made this point.
I should remind noble Lords that the Electoral Commission, to which I have been privileged to give informal and obviously non-remunerative advice with a cross-party group for some time, recommended the move to IER as long ago as 2003. If we reach that point in 2013, 10 years is an awfully long time.
One major change that we should recognise in the context of our debate is that there has been a tendency in recent years to think that the present system is pretty good. Yet the latest research that has just reached us in the last few days from the Electoral Commission has pointed out that it is very inadequate. The present register, far from being 90-plus per cent accurate is somewhere down in the 80s and has got appreciably worse since the 2010 general election. There are all sorts of reasons for that, but none of us should be satisfied with the status quo. That is probably an accepted point around your Lordships' House. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, said that the danger is that a "bad situation" could become "significantly worse". I directly quote what he said and he was spot-on. Of course, it also means that the urgency-or lack of it-in the last Parliament with the last Administration is frankly inappropriate. There is a greater urgency to move on and try to ensure that any new system is better than the existing system in all the respects that have been referred to across all sides of your Lordships' House.
I want to pick up on one or two points that my noble friend Lord Rennard was not able to address because of the time constraints. It is very important for the citizen to have confidence in the register and the consistency of the register throughout the country. If there is wild inconsistency from one area to another, think what effect that has on confidence in the jury system. It is a very serious issue if in inner cities it is thought that the pool available for jury service is very limited for various reasons-social, economic, age group and so on-and you get juries that frankly are not representative of the wider community. The role of the electoral register as the pool for jury service is extremely important. We cannot have a postcode lottery on something as important as that in different parts of the country and different social and economic circumstances. The register must have consistency.
That has very important implications for the powers, responsibilities and moderating role of the Electoral Commission. It has a role to ensure that there is a consistency of approach nationally, not just in general terms but in every different area. It may be that that means more resources have to be put into particular areas where there is more churning between general elections.
There is a particular issue about the use of the national insurance number. This is something that my noble friend Lord Rennard has referred to previously. The Electoral Commission estimates that 18 per cent of eligible voters will be less likely to register if required to give their national insurance number. Imagine circumstances in which this issue comes to the fore at the same time as, for example, a proposal to recall MPs. Imagine the circumstances in which triggering the recall of an MP-one of the considerations that all three parties have been looking at-has to depend on signatures. If there were no authenticated signatures on which to base that, you can see the considerable challenge that there could be to the whole process.
In all parts of the House-I have heard this from several noble Lords-there is a view on the absolutely critical importance of reinstituting the 2014 full canvass. The churning in some areas in a matter of months since the 2010 election makes it absolutely essential that there is a full canvass in 2014-again, the Electoral Commission made this clear. Of course there are resource implications, but let us recall that there is a statutory responsibility on the electoral registration officers and processers to make sure that their register is as accurate as possible. There will be cost implications there. If we do not have that canvass, those officers and authorities will have to use extra resources to try to make their register more accurate.
I will briefly address some of the positives about the principle of individual registration and about the progress that we can make by being more innovative about getting people on to the register. For example, the Electoral Commission should be specially told that it must find better ways of ensuring that the Armed Forces are given every possibility of being registered in good order and good time-a point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor. Frankly, that cannot be that difficult. The Electoral Commission should be asked to look at that urgently with the Ministry of Defence. I understand that the ministry has not been very enthusiastic about looking at that, for whatever reason.
We must ensure that, if handled properly, individual registration is an opportunity to revolutionise, modernise and improve registration, not just to mitigate some possible problems, to which others have referred. For example, instead of relying on parents to register 16 and 17 year-old children, we should facilitate registration at school, with each pupil signing their form as part of a citizenship lesson. There have been good examples of this-there is a good record of success in Northern Ireland. We should follow that up.
We need to ensure that the Electoral Commission can take a proper lead in ensuring best practice at registration with better designed forms. It is ridiculous that my noble friend Lord Rennard has to look at all these different forms from different parts of the country. Why can we not have a standard form? It should of course include the standard wording about the obligation and the penalty for failing to register. We are already seeing some attempts at pilots on data matching.
We should also ensure that the distribution of poll cards should be earlier in the process as that often prompts people to recognise that there is someone in the house who does not have one and so should be registered. We perhaps need to look at the late date for registration. Again I understand that Canada has been very successful with that in getting people involved when they start to see the battle hotting up in that constituency or in the general election generally.
As has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, businesses selling to customers, credit reference agencies and countering fraud could all be improved by this exercise if we get it right. There should not be a real downside in terms of social mobility, if exclusion from the register leads to exclusion from credit. For some of these reasons, I feel that the edited register should continue, although that is for another day.
I hope that my noble friend the Minister, when he responds to this extremely timely debate, will be able to give your Lordships clear reassurances that the Government are prepared to look very actively at the two most fundamental issues raised by so many noble Lords-the need for an individual legal obligation to register to remain with proper penalties and the need for a full canvass in 2014-and, if necessary, consult with other parties to make sure that the consensus continues. I hope that he will take forward with his colleagues the many excellent points made on many sides of the House today. This has been a timely debate but there is a remarkable consensus, too, about the obligation on the Government to make cross-party consensus a reality.
My Lords, I would like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Wills on securing this debate on government policy on electoral registration. It is a very timely debate, as other noble Lords have said. I am well aware of my noble friend's passion on the subject, and his desire to see individual registration properly introduced and for that to improve both the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register. I had the pleasure of working with my noble friend when he was the Minister responsible and it is to his credit that much was done in legislating for the introduction of individual electoral registration. We sometimes seem to forget in this House that individual electoral registration is already on the statute book, introduced by the last Labour Government.
I should advise your Lordships' House that I am a member of the Electoral Commission. I was appointed as one of the first political commissioners. Like other noble Lords, I want to ensure that we have the most accurate and complete registers possible. We should all work with the Government, the Electoral Commission, local authorities and the professionals on the ground-the electoral registrations officers-to ensure that we have the best and most robust system in place. The suggestion from my noble friend Lord Wills that there should be open, all-party talks on this matter, with a view to achieving a bipartisan consensus on the way forward is one that the Government really should take up and run with. Many noble Lords from all parties could play a decisive role if that offer was taken up.
It is also important that the Government are open to ideas and suggestions on what is best practice and that we get the widest possible consensus on where we are going on this subject, so crucial to the health of our democracy. I want to see real consultation with the Local Government Association, SOLACE and the Association of Electoral Administrators-the EROs' professional body.
Like other noble Lords, I want to refer to the research that the Electoral Commission published before Christmas. This research was funded by the Government and provided a very welcome wake-up call for us all. I hope that it will be used in a positive way to shape the Bill that will come before Parliament in the next Session and will seek to speed up the process and make a number of other changes. All noble Lords in your Lordships' House should work to ensure that nothing in the proposals from the Government, when they come before the House, weakens measures to improve the accuracy and completeness of the register. If we allow that to happen, we will have failed the citizens of the United Kingdom.
The research tells us that parliamentary registers are 82.3 per cent complete and local government registers are 82 per cent complete. This equates to 8.5 million people unregistered as of April 2011. I fully accept that not all those people are necessarily entitled to vote, but the research goes on to estimate that at least 6 million people who are eligible are not registered to vote. That is a really shocking figure.
I recall, not least when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was before this House, Members on this side of the House suggesting that there could be more than 3 million people missing from the register. That sometimes received a sceptical response from the government Benches opposite. I wonder how different the proposals from the Boundaries Commissions of the United Kingdom would be if all those people actually registered to vote. Is it really surprising that accuracy and completeness levels are lower where residents have moved since the previous canvass; or that the lowest level of completeness is recorded among 16 to 18 year-olds and 19 to 25 year-olds; or that in black and minority ethnic communities, completeness is 9 per cent lower than in white communities? I want to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, a real expression of willingness to work with everybody and anyone to improve the situation.
It is important also to incentivise people to return registration forms, as many noble Lords have mentioned, and to ensure that they understand that it is a civic duty to participate in our democracy. I recently thought that one possibility could be a scheme where every property that had an individual or individuals registered would qualify for a £50 discount in its council tax. I think it should be looked at. Of course other issues need to be addressed as well, but in the short time available cannot be covered in great depth.
We hear many debates and all noble Lords know that life is very tough for people at the moment. If we have more people falling off the register, life just gets tougher for them. Being on the register is one of the most important factors in respect of your credit rating. If you are not on, you are either not going to get credit or you will be forced to the more expensive end of the market. Noble Lords will be aware that I have raised the issue of financial inclusion many times. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, will give a commitment to the House today to speak to his colleagues in the business department about this possibly troubling, unforeseen consequence if this is not managed correctly.
In conclusion, I again thank my noble friend Lord Wills for calling this debate. It has been very worthwhile and I look forward to the contributions from my noble friend Lord Bach and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, from the Government.
My Lords, in speaking in the gap I would like to express the hope that Ministers and civil servants will very closely read the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, today in this Chamber. He set out a powerful argument which is supported universally-certainly within the Liberal party and the Labour Party-as to what the problem is with the proposed system. I do not intend to rehearse the arguments that I have used over many hours in Committee and on the Floor over two Bills, in which I expressed my total and unalterable opposition to this whole exercise, which I believe is going to be a disaster for the British electoral system.
Many of the arguments that have been deployed in the debate today were predicted-in fact, not just many of them but all of them. They were all predicted during the course of those previous Bills. Everything that has been said in terms of alerting the House to the dangers inherent in the proposed system were all commented upon in great detail over the course of a number of amendments. However, that is the past, and while I remain totally hostile, we have to move forward and find a way to try to make what I believe to be a stupid system work.
I want to make a proposal which the Government might wish to consider. Over the coming few years, as more and more evidence surfaces as to the inability of this system to secure what was its original intention, why do the Government not introduce a grant to local authorities-and we will come to the funding of that grant in a moment-whereby local authorities are paid per elector who is registered? In other words, for every elector who is registered, they will receive a sum of money-it might be £10 per elector; I do not know, but that is the figure that comes to mind. I have discussed this with some people in offices of local authorities, and they are concerned about how it would be funded-because it would probably be funded in part by a reduction in revenue support grant elsewhere. However, it is the only way I can see whereby we can build into the system an incentive to encourage local authorities to carry out this requirement.
Furthermore, local authorities could then advertise in local newspapers explaining that individual registration meant more money for local authorities, and that it was the duty of each citizen to register so as to enable that authority to secure that sum of money. It would help the elector identify more directly with local authority expenditure. I hope Ministers will consider that proposal.
My Lords, I would like to make two brief comments in the gap: one about the short term and one about the medium to longer term. In the short term, the Government have found themselves in a problem largely because they are trying to row in two directions at the same time. I agree with the short-term measures to patch up the electoral registration system and the voting system that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, mentioned earlier on. They are sensible if we are going to stick with the present system. However, to do it in the context of the introduction of legislation which is going to have a counterbalancing and opposite effect seems to be completely non-productive. We have a plus and a minus, and I cannot see how, in the context of the present legislation, even the introduction of the advantageous advances mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, would compensate for that.
It is really about the medium and longer term that I want to speak. When I read and listen to these debates, the elephant in the room has been ridden by every other component in our society, such as retail trade, financing trade and social networks. It is electronic communication. It seems to me absolutely inconceivable that we can be planning for a future without three elements using modern information technology: first, individual registration; secondly, ease of access to voting; and, thirdly and very importantly because the first and second require the volunteering of information, the protection of information should it be lost or stolen or otherwise accessed by others.
I know the controversy that surrounded this, but it was precisely that third element that lay behind voluntary ID cards. That is because online registration is now prevalent for bank accounts and necessary to receive benefits. The amount of information that one supplies to the Government which is sitting there in huge data banks will be added to by any form of electoral registration, particularly if national insurance numbers are added. That electronic information, just like paper information, is going to be lost or stolen. When and if it is lost or stolen, it is not an argument against biometrically protected ID cards. It is an argument for having biometric identification, because in those circumstances, no one can access that information. No one can go into your bank account unless they happen to have your five fingers and your iris. It is precisely about the protection of the individual.
Therefore, I would suggest that at least some serious consideration is given to online registration and the introduction in the medium to longer term of some form of identification that protects the individual's identity through their iris and fingerprints. I do not entirely agree with my good and noble friend Lord Maxton; I have never been in favour of compulsory ID cards. However, I am in favour of compulsory registration. I believe that the future is having an ID card in your pocket. I have one and it was massively convenient in allowing me to walk into France and Germany without a passport, giving inviolable proof of my identity to anyone, unlike every smart card in my pocket.
My Lords, I start from the Front Bench with a cry from the heart. Unlike the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, I have been lucky enough to be able to vote in general elections, but that right has been taken away from me and I have a severe grievance about it, as do many noble Lords around the House. It would be good to think that the Government might consider that issue when they come to their Bill in the next Session of Parliament.
My noble friend Lord Wills deserves huge praise for and congratulations on securing this debate in the first place and praise because he has expertise in this field that is matched by very few. As a fellow Minister of his-now a little time ago-I was always impressed by his clear-sightedness and forward thinking. We saw that again today. I have also been extremely impressed by the experience and expertise of all the other speakers in the debate. The House has a huge amount of expertise in this field and I very much hope that the Government will listen. I know that the Minister will listen and pass on what has been said but I hope that the Government as a whole will listen to the points made largely consensually, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, in today's debate.
I had the privilege of taking the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 through this House. It had been made clear in the other place by my noble friend that the then Government intended to add clauses to the Bill to introduce individual registration. The manner in which this was to be done was carefully thought through. While the accuracy of the register would be improved by the introduction of individual registration, this had to be balanced by the equally obvious proven risk that the completeness of the register might well be harmed by introducing individual registration too soon. How to marry these contradictions was the issue for government. That is what we attempted to do with a gradual introduction-a voluntary start, followed by compulsion, with final decisions to be taken, as I remember, in 2014. It seemed then-as it does to me now, I must confess-an excellent solution. My noble friend is right when he reminds the House that the then opposition parties in another place, when this matter went back there, agreed too. I have quotations here from what they said in that important debate but I will not waste the House's time with them now.
I am not sure why there is the change in timescale, why there is no voluntary part of this process or why that was agreed by the two coalition parties when agreeing their programme for government some 19 months ago. I wonder whether it was slightly the result of a somewhat desperate effort to find as many items as possible on which those parties agreed rather than any great matter of principle.
The Statement made by the Minister, Mr Harper, on
As has been said, registration covers much wider areas than just elections, important though they are. There are the issues of juries and credit agencies, which arise under this argument. Of course the act of voting can reasonably be regarded as a personal choice, not least because of the secret ballot. However, we believe that registration is and should remain a civic duty and we were pleased when the Deputy Prime Minister said some months ago that he is minded to change the position on that when the Bill is published. However, I hope the Minister will forgive me if I press him to find out what the latest position is on that. Can he tell us whether the Government have made up their mind about what they intend to put in its place? We hope that they will just remove that part of their thinking completely.
My next question is about the 2014 canvass. Strong arguments have been made around the House that there should be such a canvass under the system that the Government are proposing. I do not need to repeat them now. I should be grateful if the Minister could, in summing up, tell us what the Government's position now is on the need for a full canvass in 2014.
I move on to my next item, about which I should like some information from the Government. As has been raised in the debate, it is a matter of concern that, while the draft legislation contains a safeguard to ensure that the next general election, in 2015, is not undermined by a significant decline in registered electors, there is no such safeguard for the boundary review that is due to take place later that year. If people registered under the old household system are to be carried forward for the general election, it is surely sensible to ensure that they are also carried forward for the boundary review a few months later, or that the May 2015 register is used for the purpose of the boundary review. I wonder whether the noble Lord can say anything about the Government's thinking on that.
We believe that funding for local authorities should be ring-fenced for electoral services. Do the Government also believe that there should be ring-fenced funding for that crucial matter? Once that funding starts to disappear, all the problems that have been raised today will just get worse. I also ask the Minister about data-matching pilots. We know that they have been tried and we welcome that. We wonder how well they have gone and whether the Minister can tell us something about that, too.
We have praised the Government for the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. That is something that we encouraged, and we encourage the Government to do it on all occasions. Alas, they have not done it for all constitutional Bills but they are doing it for this one, so let me be generous about it.
The point about broad consensus is of crucial importance. If I may say so, I was very impressed by the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, on this point. If the Government of the day, whatever their political colour may be, do not look for consensus in this sort of field, anarchy potentially reigns. In other words, it can get completely out of hand: points are taken that are simply partisan and we do not look for the better solution for the country. I am delighted that around the House there is the feeling that what is needed here is consensus if it can possibly be achieved.
I am about to sit down. We have a real and pressing problem in this country. Six million to 7 million of our fellow citizens who are all eligible to vote in elections are not at the present time on our register. This is a grievous problem. Indeed, it has been worked out that that is the equivalent of the electorate of 79 of the new constituencies set up under the controversial Act last year. It is a scandal. I hope and presume that the Government will respond in all that they do to that scandal and will try to remove that huge number of people from being unregistered in our system. We need as many citizens as possible to vote and they cannot vote unless they are registered.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wills, very much for giving us the opportunity to have this debate, which, as one or two noble Lords have remarked, was intended to take place in the other place some months ago. It is very good that we are now focusing on this important matter.
We are one of the very few countries left in the world that has a household basis for registration. I think it dates from the Reform Act 1867 and is possibly a little outdated by now. The case for moving from household to individual registration was in every party manifesto and is generally accepted. The question is how we do so while ensuring that we end up with as complete, accurate and trusted a register as possible. I wish to stress those three aspects as being very important. The register has to have integrity-it has to be trusted by everyone and must not be subject to too much fraud; it has to be as accurate as possible; and it has to be as complete as possible. Those three things are difficult to achieve together and the question of balance is always a very different one.
The system of registration also has to have the support and confidence-that is part of the question of integrity-of all those concerned. We now have the Electoral Commission as a non-partisan, trusted umpire for us all to listen to. The research paper that it has just produced has been a very valuable contribution to the debate. One of the things that it shows us is that we are not half as good in the current system as we thought we were. The current system does not itself provide full registration. It was not at 90 per cent, as the study in 2000 suggested. Last year's study suggested that we are now down to between 82 and 85 per cent. We are right to ensure that when we move to the individual system we are at least as good as that.
Let us recognise that we are not necessarily losing vast numbers of people as we move from one system to another: we have already suffered to some extent from a range of social and other trends. We all need to recognise that one reason why electoral registration has fallen is that popular commitment to the electoral process has also fallen. Popular alienation or disengagement from politics is part of the problem, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said. All parties share a duty to respond to that disillusion rather than to concentrate on Westminster games.
I can assure everyone that the Government will listen to and read this debate. I will take back and discuss with others the question of a working party. I will certainly also include in that the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, that, if we are to have a working party, it must include not just the beneficiaries of the current system-the two parties to which the noble Lord, Lord Wills, referred so frequently in his references to bipartisan agreement-but the wider group of those who do not support either of the two main parties. I remind noble Lords that in the last two elections the number of people voting for the two major parties slipped well below three-quarters and down towards two-thirds of those voting. In his rather uncharacteristically sour speech, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, was obviously hoping that we would go back to a two-party system. I think that that is one of the things least likely to happen in the future.
We all have partisan interests in this. We recognise that the Labour Party is deeply concerned about the boundary review. I heard-again, from the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey-the argument that Labour represents the unrepresented and the unregistered. It is an interesting but untestable conclusion. The Conservatives are a little partisan in the assertion that the voting rights of overseas citizens are very important. This is another very large issue, and I simply remind the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, that the American system is that citizens abroad should all vote but should all also pay full tax on their global income-no representation without taxation. We will perhaps need to consider that issue in parallel with any extension of the rights of overseas voters. The Liberal Democrats, as noble Lords will know, are very concerned about the fairness of the current voting system-something about which the Labour Party has very mixed views.
We have to be concerned, above all, with the question of how we re-establish the trust of our voters and our citizens in the system that we have. The register is much less complete than it was, and we therefore need now to look at how we might improve it. There are some philosophical issues underlying this, such as questions of citizens' responsibilities as well as their rights, how far the act of registration and the act of voting ought to be considered something which every citizen should do, the relationship between the individual citizen and the state, and the concept of civic duty. We all share a broad interest in addressing the extent to which our citizens now talk about rights but not sufficiently about responsibilities and seem to think that they may have contact with the state without having obligations, in return, to the state. One of the issues that we have been talking about in looking at data-matching with regard to the DWP database and others is how you might provide incentives. As people meet with their benefit office or apply for a driving licence, or whatever, you remind them that now is also the time to consider the other part-what you contribute to your public, national community as well as what you get out of your state.
We are looking carefully at the issue of compulsion. As noble Lords will be aware, at the moment it is not an offence not to be registered; it is an offence not to return the household registration form. To extend the compulsion to the act of registration itself would be extending the degree of compulsion. I hear very clearly what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said and I note that this is widely supported around the House. That is something that the Government will consider further.
To my great surprise, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said that this proposal had received very little scrutiny. It has received full pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government will provide a response to that very shortly, which will take us a degree forward. The Deputy Prime Minister has already responded to a number of concerns. This is an area where the Government are still listening. We all know that we have to have a dialogue about a new system which will command the support and trust of all those concerned.
The question of how far registration should be compulsory takes us on to the issue of nudge and whether we can push people without frightening them at the same time. Uncharacteristically for a deep liberal, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, wants to frighten people with large notices on the top of their forms. That may perhaps be necessary, as with cigarette smoking and other examples but, again, it is an area at which we need to look a little more. We do not see that moving to individual registration will necessarily lead to a net reduction in those on the register.
Although we support individual registration, many of us are concerned about the young-the 18 year-old who is not in school. I very much support the idea of doing some work in schools, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, suggested, but what do you do about the poorest who are not in school and who therefore may not be registered? The provision on households helped, whereby it was the single-parent mother-or whoever's name was on the lease-who put all the names on the registration form. How do we deal with that issue?
The Government and the Electoral Commission are both looking at this. Regarding the question of where canvasses are concentrated and how far one looks at suggestions such as the need to supply postal addresses on envelopes, council tax bills and utility bills, other Governments have experimented with, for example, the need to provide utility bills. This is part of the issue of asking what relevant data one might be able to use to help to pick up, as the noble Baroness said, particularly those who are young and unmarried, who move much more often or who live in private rented accommodation-those who, as we all know, are in the vulnerable sector.
One thing that we have done is to publish draft legislative provisions to extend from 17 to 25 working days the timetable for registering to vote in parliamentary general elections. This will take effect in time for the intended 2015 general election. Part of the reason for that is that we have discovered a surge in late registrations once an election has been announced. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, remarked, once polling cards are sent out, people living in multi-occupancy accommodation sometimes think, "Oh dear, I didn't get a polling card. I am not on the register, and I must register". On the other hand, that of course opens opportunities for fraud, particularly regarding late applications for postal votes. Therefore, there has to be sufficient time for some checking of late applications in those terms. That is the game we are attempting to negotiate, so to speak.
The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, says that voting is rather old-fashioned in the electronic age and that we should be using much more modern technology. The Government propose to move towards electronic registration, but we are approaching somewhat more cautiously the issue of moving towards electronic voting. Once I had been briefed on cybercrime, cyberwarfare and the ease with which one can hack, I was a little less enthusiastic than I had been previously about moving immediately to electronic voting.
As to the problems of citizenship engagement, I have some sympathy with the preference of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, for the democratic moment in which the majority of people-
I take that point on board and we will feed it back into our considerations, as and when the issue of electronic voting comes up.
I was commenting on whether the physical act of voting in a particular place, within a particular community, or-for those who are deeply committed to single-Member constituencies-within a particular constituency, ought not to be part of the way in which the citizen relates to his community and thereby to his state. We should not entirely rule out the importance of that.
A number of noble Lords asked about pilots. The Government, in their response, will discuss some of what has been learnt through the attempts at data-matching-comparing different databases, not integrating them. A certain amount has been learnt and this is part of the way forward for picking up those who would otherwise have been missed. Again, we have been looking at international comparisons of electoral systems and the Electoral Commission has produced a useful paper on them.
Other uses of the register were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, and others, ranging from the letter I received from a number of charities, which talked about the importance of access to the register in order to send out fundraising letters, to commercial use and credit checks, as well as jury service, which is also part of the citizen's obligation to the state.
The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, asked about members of the armed services. The new employment model for the armed services will enable many more armed services members to have a longer-term home base. We already know that a number of service members are registered from their home base, and the number of those who are voting from abroad by postal votes may therefore indicate that the system is underestimating those who are able to vote. A number of us have family members serving abroad. My wife currently has a proxy vote for our son, who is on postdoctoral study in the United States. That issue also extends to the armed services. The new employment model will therefore help considerably with the levels of service registration.
The question of fraud has been raised. That is part of the issue of integrity. There is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, remarked, some not insignificant fraud in particular constituencies, and I am well aware that it takes place. Therefore, we have to maintain an effective system of checks, and that is part of the reason why we have to close down late registration and late applications for postal votes some days ahead of each election in order to provide sufficient time for adequate checks.
The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, raised the question of-
Before the Minister leaves the question of fraud, does he accept the repeated judgments and findings of independent bodies such as the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Electoral Commission and the Rowntree Reform Trust about the very limited extent of systemic fraud in our elections?
Instances of fraud are very much localised in particular communities and constituencies; they are not systemic throughout the country. That is not to say, however, that they may not be significant in particular constituencies and in particular instances. To say that this is not widespread is not to say that it may not be significant.
I am not familiar with those particular reports. We wish as far as possible to prevent fraud in the system. That is an important part of any approach to the electoral system. We have to have the maximum degree of trust in its integrity.
On the question of the full household canvass in 2014 and ensuring that for 2015 we have as complete a register as possible, the Electoral Commission has suggested carrying out a canvass in early 2014, rather than in late 2013. These subjects are still under full discussion, but the Government are of course well aware of the importance of having as complete a register as possible, both through the transitional period between 2013 and 2015 and after the election, as a basis for the new boundaries.
Lastly, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, asked when Peers would be allowed to vote in general elections. I rush to assure him that that is of course an issue that will be caught up with the House of Lords Reform Bill, which I know he is much looking forward to-as are so many other Members of the House.
I had my ear bent at considerable length by an electoral registration officer in Wandsworth two days ago, when I phoned him up about something else, on precisely how Wandsworth does this. We will look at ring-fencing. However, I believe in localism and I am against ring-fencing in principle. But the question of how much it will cost-
Both the Government and the Electoral Commission are looking at how we manage to ensure that an adequate canvass is maintained throughout the transition period and after. There are regular consultations between electoral registration officers, the Electoral Commission and the Government, and they will of course continue.
This has been a useful debate and I just wish to end where I began. The Government are still in listening mode. We are all committed to a transition from a household system of registration to a system of individual registration, and we all have a strong interest in ensuring that the new system which emerges is accurate, complete and widely trusted. That is our aim; we shall continue to consult and will then take the Bill through both Houses while continuing to listen as the Bill goes through both Houses. I trust that when the new system emerges we will find that we have achieved those aims as far as is possible in a highly mobile society. We live in a country where a substantial proportion of those who have contact with the state are not necessarily British nationals, and some of those who have contact with the state and fill in forms are functionally illiterate or do not fully understand English. Nevertheless we aim to overcome those problems as far as we can and achieve, we hope, as complete and accurate a register as we can, both for the next election and as a basis for the next boundary review.
We have had a very wide-ranging and useful debate. I am grateful to all those noble Lords who have contributed their experience and wisdom, and in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, some valuable historical insights as well.
There is a consensus across the House that this is an important issue, and I think there is also agreement on the diagnosis of the problem. My noble friend Lady Kennedy placed this in the wider context of the state of our democracy. There is widespread agreement, which I am glad to see the Minister has noted, about the importance of the 2014 canvass. We heard some very powerful speeches in favour of the legal requirements and graphic illustrations from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, as well as powerful speeches from my noble friends Lord Borrie, Lord Beecham and Lord Bach. There has been a widespread feeling that it is very important that this subject is approached on a bipartisan basis. We heard that from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, from the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge-
The noble Lord is quite right to correct me on that. When I say bipartisan, I actually mean a cross-party, all-party basis. We heard a very important speech from my noble friend Lord Lipsey illustrating the dangers of the Government's approach. I very much hope that the Government and all Members of this House will study his speech in Hansard because he illustrated with great precision the dangers of the approach that the Government are taking on this. My noble friends Lord Kennedy and Lord Bach also placed great emphasis on this.
The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, quite rightly raised the question of overseas voters, and although there are issues about expatriates and those who do or do not pay tax, there is a very real issue about those who are on international service working for international organisations or studying abroad but particularly those who are working for organisations such as the United Nations. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who is not in this place today, raised this with me when I was a Minister. We were looking into how we could address this problem. I am not sure where the Government have got to on this, but maybe the Minister will take that away and look at it.
The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, very importantly raised the question of service voting. There were plans to deal with this issue under the previous Government but they seem to have been put on the shelf by this one. I hope the Minister will take them off and get on with it. It is a very important issue, as I think all sides of this House recognise.
I am grateful to all those who came forward with positive solutions-the important issue of ring-fencing mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and the useful and helpful contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, on trying to get electoral registration tied into the way that citizens interact with the state. These were both measures that I tried to introduce as a Minister and I regret to say that I failed. I failed to get ring-fencing and to secure the sort of measures that the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, was advocating. I hope that this Government will be much more successful than I am in taking these measures forward. They are very important. We heard some far-sighted contributions from my noble friends Lord Maxton and Lord Reid about the importance of electronics and information and communication technology. This has to be part of the future.
Finally I am grateful to the Minister for his constructive and reasoned response. I am slightly surprised about how insouciant he appears to be about the risks of the register being damaged significantly by the approach the Government are taking. There is no evidence to support such insouciance, but I welcome his understanding to explore further this question of a cross-party group. I particularly welcome the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, for a more independent component as well as the cross-party complexion of it. I hope he will set this up quickly so we can deal with all these issues.
I am not sure how I am meant to conclude this new form of debate, but I have said all I should so I am now going to sit down.