Second Reading

Part of Electoral Registration and Administration Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:59 pm on 24th July 2012.

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Photo of Lord Dobbs Lord Dobbs Conservative 6:59 pm, 24th July 2012

My Lords, this Bill is part of the coalition's ongoing search for constitutional change. We have had a Bill on how we vote, with AV. We have had a Bill on who we vote for, with the House of Lords reform. Now we have a Bill to decide whether we can vote at all. Let us hope that this Bill is rather more useful than the others.

In essence this is a good Bill, although it will need a great deal of work in Committee if it is to become as sound as it is important. It is a paradox, is it not, that, as so often, it will be this unelected House whose duty it is to sort it? Many of us party politicians-someone suggested today that we should call ourselves party-linked parliamentarians, which is a much nicer phrase-have political backgrounds, although I hope that we can approach this in a non-partisan fashion. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, suggested that this was a partisan Bill. I do not agree with him on that. He did not provide much evidence. I much preferred his points about funding.

Let us face it, none of us owns this or that group of voters and no party has entirely grime-free hands in these areas. Earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, showed himself to be a past-master in the dark practices of electoral fraud, as befits a former Conservative Party chairman. If that has come out wrong, I am sure that the Hansard writer will find a way to make it slightly more acceptable. Of the many instances he gave, we have to acknowledge that some of those involved Tories.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is far too young to remember 1969 when the late Lord Callaghan, who was then simply known as Jim, buried a boundary review simply because it did not benefit the Labour Party. I have even heard outlandish rumours that some Liberal Democrats are threatening to do the same now. I wait in expectation for one of them to jump up and say that this is not the case. But we must move on from the suggestion that this is a partisan measure.

The vote was a right that our forefathers and mothers fought for with too much sacrifice and too much suffering for it to be cheapened by this Bill being turned into a game of musical chairs, waiting for others to be shoved out of the way and off the register when the music stops. We all of course have our differences and preferences but I think that we are all agreed that some measure of change is needed.

The current system is open not just to inaccuracy but to fraud. As Judge Maurey has said, the postal voting system is one which,

"would disgrace a banana republic".

That must change. But I entirely understand the anxieties expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that change that is too rapid or too ill thought through might disadvantage various minority groups. We must take that seriously and study it in Committee, although I have to say that the arguments are frequently overdone. For example, if a student is capable of registering for a loan, he or she is equally capable of registering for a vote. We must test the provisions of this Bill to make sure that they are fair and balanced.

We have heard much in this good and very informative debate. Perhaps I may share with noble Lords my experience of the last election. It is well known that I am a man of limited imagination. As a result, I named my second son Michael. Therefore, in our household we had two Michael Dobbs on the register in Wiltshire. As it happens, some nameless, faceless registration officer decided, quite sensibly perhaps, that there were too many people with that name on the register. But, without any checks or thought, on a personal crusade to implement data matching, my son's name was crossed off the register. He found himself unable to vote. After many years of being on the register, he was unable to vote last time around. Fortunately, it was of no great consequence. The admirable John Glen was elected in Salisbury with a handsome majority.

However, that is not the point. Under the current system, some who should be on the register are not and some who are on the register should not be. We need to change that. In Committee, we will deal with many issues. This evening, I want to highlight only one; namely, Clause 13, which extends the timetable between dissolution and polling day. The Bill suggests that this should be lengthened from 17 days to 25 days, which sounds innocuous. The reasons for this seem to be to make life easier for returning officers. I believe it is suggested that it delivers a small cost saving. But there is a bite in the tail, and not simply that of voters being bored to death, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Baker.

Of course, it is not simply 25 days. There are "dies non" which refer to weekends and bank holidays. In fact, those 25 days stretch to five and a half weeks. We recently passed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which, in normal circumstances, means very predictable elections every five years. But not all circumstances are predictable. Let us imagine a national crisis-for example, a desperate economic and financial collapse in Europe, and political paralysis here at home. Let us further imagine a Government no longer capable of commanding a majority and losing a vote of confidence; and there being no agreement on a replacement and an election being called. Because of the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, that cannot be for another two weeks. Five and a half weeks becomes seven and a half weeks, which adds to the political and economic crisis that has created this situation.

We are talking of a potential situation of political paralysis and governmental chaos at a time of national crisis that could stretch into months. We cannot always predict political crises, let alone avoid them. But we can prepare for them better than the straitjacket of Clause 13. We need to look at it again, and I hope that Ministers will take a look at this and allow us to discuss it in greater detail.