Electoral Registration and Administration Bill — Committee (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 29th October 2012.

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Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Labour 3:30 pm, 29th October 2012

My Lords, as always it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and particularly so on his birthday. I should like to take this opportunity to wish him many happy returns. I am surprised, though, that in his interesting history of the previous Government's legislation in this area he omitted to mention that the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, to which my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer referred, was agreed as being the best way forward by the Conservative Front Bench in opposition and by the Liberal Democrat Benches in opposition. We have still not had any explanation of why that agreement has been ditched and we have to spend the time of this House and the other place on this new legislation. Perhaps he will return to that in due course and explain to those of us who are still mystified by it exactly why that was the case.

I support these amendments, which have been so ably spoken to by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. They all go to mitigate what many of us think are the risks of a decline in levels of registration as a result of this legislation. There is no certainty that the levels will decline, but we feel that there is a risk of that. We do not know whether the Government agree because so far they have studiously avoided saying whether they think there is any risk, but what we do know is that they are commendably committed to a comprehensive register. They have said that many times and I think we all agree on that. We also know that, again commendably, they are bringing forward a number of measures to that end, and they have the support of almost everyone in the House for those measures. But what we have also learnt is that they seem to feel that a level of registration of 85% to 87%-in other words where there would be 6 million people who would be eligible to vote but who would not be on the register-is a level of completeness that, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, in an email to me, is, "as complete as is reasonably possible". That at least indicates that they think there is some considerable difficulty in achieving a truly comprehensive register. We do not know exactly why the Government will not say whether they think there is any risk of a decline in levels of registration as a result of this legislation. It may be because they actually think that there is no such risk but that it would be imprudent for a Government to commit themselves in that way. It may be that they have done some work which shows that there are considerable risks inherent in the legislation, but again they do not want to tell us.

Governments are not infallible. Amendment 36, which I particularly support, offers Parliament the opportunity to assess the Government's record in this area. This amendment would commit not only this Government but subsequent Governments. This Government may not be in power after 2015 so this amendment would commit a future Labour Government to bring before Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise levels of registration and, if necessary, to produce remedial measures. I think Parliament should have that opportunity.

This is not a minor technical matter, although some of the details are technical; it is about the very wiring of our democracy. The outcome of general elections depends on electoral registration. There are worries on this side of the House that this legislation, coupled with the PVSC Act, will lead to partisan outcomes in levels of electoral registration. These are important issues and Parliament ought to have the opportunity to scrutinise them regularly.

The Minister may say that the Electoral Commission will do its usual good job in bringing forward annual reports on the state of electoral registration and then it may be for Parliament to discuss the matter if it so wishes, but I hope that the Minister will not rely on such an argument. That would be to downplay the importance of this issue and the risks inherent in this legislation. I hope that the Government can agree with what is actually a modest amendment and allow Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise levels of registration on an annual basis.


K Hodgkinson
Posted on 31 Oct 2012 10:46 am (Report this annotation)

In considering reasons why numbers of electors have reduced, one might helpfully consider some of the evidence put in response to the data matching provisions of the draft local audit bill, and the evidence to the ad hoc committee.

Hundreds of thousands of innocent entitled families would, if the Audit Commission has anything to do with it, be subjected to statistically based council tax discount fraud investigations simply because in all good faith they put their oldest child, who, being disregarded, did not affect entitlement to a discount fo the appropriate amount, on the electoral register.

Ironically in one room Parliament is bemoaning the reduction in voters and in another debating measures designed to allow the electoral register to be allowed for fishing trips within fishing trips in an attempt to draw up a smaller 'sample' or 'pool' of families to be trawled through in search of fraud.

One might reasonably argue that there is a lack of joined up thinking here.