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.