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.