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.