Electoral Registration — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:39 pm on 12th January 2012.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 1:39 pm, 12th January 2012

My Lords, I start from the Front Bench with a cry from the heart. Unlike the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, I have been lucky enough to be able to vote in general elections, but that right has been taken away from me and I have a severe grievance about it, as do many noble Lords around the House. It would be good to think that the Government might consider that issue when they come to their Bill in the next Session of Parliament.

My noble friend Lord Wills deserves huge praise for and congratulations on securing this debate in the first place and praise because he has expertise in this field that is matched by very few. As a fellow Minister of his-now a little time ago-I was always impressed by his clear-sightedness and forward thinking. We saw that again today. I have also been extremely impressed by the experience and expertise of all the other speakers in the debate. The House has a huge amount of expertise in this field and I very much hope that the Government will listen. I know that the Minister will listen and pass on what has been said but I hope that the Government as a whole will listen to the points made largely consensually, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, in today's debate.

I had the privilege of taking the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 through this House. It had been made clear in the other place by my noble friend that the then Government intended to add clauses to the Bill to introduce individual registration. The manner in which this was to be done was carefully thought through. While the accuracy of the register would be improved by the introduction of individual registration, this had to be balanced by the equally obvious proven risk that the completeness of the register might well be harmed by introducing individual registration too soon. How to marry these contradictions was the issue for government. That is what we attempted to do with a gradual introduction-a voluntary start, followed by compulsion, with final decisions to be taken, as I remember, in 2014. It seemed then-as it does to me now, I must confess-an excellent solution. My noble friend is right when he reminds the House that the then opposition parties in another place, when this matter went back there, agreed too. I have quotations here from what they said in that important debate but I will not waste the House's time with them now.

I am not sure why there is the change in timescale, why there is no voluntary part of this process or why that was agreed by the two coalition parties when agreeing their programme for government some 19 months ago. I wonder whether it was slightly the result of a somewhat desperate effort to find as many items as possible on which those parties agreed rather than any great matter of principle.

The Statement made by the Minister, Mr Harper, on 15 September 2010 really started this new phase of the debate. In that Statement, he argued for the opting out from registration itself. That is when the issue first raised its head. I have to say that I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and other noble Lords said about it. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, also referred to it. We are absolutely opposed to any such step for a number of reasons. One is the erosion of civic duty. At a time when there is concern about the decline in public participation in the formal political process, it would seem an absurdly retrograde step to remove one of the few legal obligations in this area.

As has been said, registration covers much wider areas than just elections, important though they are. There are the issues of juries and credit agencies, which arise under this argument. Of course the act of voting can reasonably be regarded as a personal choice, not least because of the secret ballot. However, we believe that registration is and should remain a civic duty and we were pleased when the Deputy Prime Minister said some months ago that he is minded to change the position on that when the Bill is published. However, I hope the Minister will forgive me if I press him to find out what the latest position is on that. Can he tell us whether the Government have made up their mind about what they intend to put in its place? We hope that they will just remove that part of their thinking completely.

My next question is about the 2014 canvass. Strong arguments have been made around the House that there should be such a canvass under the system that the Government are proposing. I do not need to repeat them now. I should be grateful if the Minister could, in summing up, tell us what the Government's position now is on the need for a full canvass in 2014.

I move on to my next item, about which I should like some information from the Government. As has been raised in the debate, it is a matter of concern that, while the draft legislation contains a safeguard to ensure that the next general election, in 2015, is not undermined by a significant decline in registered electors, there is no such safeguard for the boundary review that is due to take place later that year. If people registered under the old household system are to be carried forward for the general election, it is surely sensible to ensure that they are also carried forward for the boundary review a few months later, or that the May 2015 register is used for the purpose of the boundary review. I wonder whether the noble Lord can say anything about the Government's thinking on that.

We believe that funding for local authorities should be ring-fenced for electoral services. Do the Government also believe that there should be ring-fenced funding for that crucial matter? Once that funding starts to disappear, all the problems that have been raised today will just get worse. I also ask the Minister about data-matching pilots. We know that they have been tried and we welcome that. We wonder how well they have gone and whether the Minister can tell us something about that, too.

We have praised the Government for the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. That is something that we encouraged, and we encourage the Government to do it on all occasions. Alas, they have not done it for all constitutional Bills but they are doing it for this one, so let me be generous about it.

The point about broad consensus is of crucial importance. If I may say so, I was very impressed by the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, on this point. If the Government of the day, whatever their political colour may be, do not look for consensus in this sort of field, anarchy potentially reigns. In other words, it can get completely out of hand: points are taken that are simply partisan and we do not look for the better solution for the country. I am delighted that around the House there is the feeling that what is needed here is consensus if it can possibly be achieved.

I am about to sit down. We have a real and pressing problem in this country. Six million to 7 million of our fellow citizens who are all eligible to vote in elections are not at the present time on our register. This is a grievous problem. Indeed, it has been worked out that that is the equivalent of the electorate of 79 of the new constituencies set up under the controversial Act last year. It is a scandal. I hope and presume that the Government will respond in all that they do to that scandal and will try to remove that huge number of people from being unregistered in our system. We need as many citizens as possible to vote and they cannot vote unless they are registered.