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.