Electoral Registration — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:04 pm on 12th January 2012.

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Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative 12:04 pm, 12th January 2012

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 9 November 2011, he will also be aware that that debate did not take place and never has since. So this debate is the subject's first parliamentary outing since the White Paper of last summer.

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".