New Clause 1

Political Parties and Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at on 18 November 2008.

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Individual voter registration

‘(1) The 1983 Act is amended as follows.

(2) In section 10 (maintenance of registers: annual canvass), for subsections (4A) and (4B) there is substituted—

“(4A) Subject to subsection (4B) below, the information to be obtained by the use of such a form for the purpose of a canvass shall include—

(a) the signature of each of the persons in relation to whom the form is completed;

(b) the date of birth of each such person; and

(c) in relation to each such person—

(i) his national insurance number or a statement that he does not have one,

(ii) a statement of whether or not he has been resident in the United Kingdom for the whole of the three-month period ending on 15th October in the year in question, and

(iii) any address in the United Kingdom in respect of which he is or has applied to be registered (other than the address in respect of which the form is completed), and the power in subsection (4) above to prescribe a form includes power to give effect to the requirements of the subsection.

(4B) An electoral officer may dispense with the requirement mentioned in subsection (4A)(a) above in relation to any person if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way because of any incapacity of his or because he is unable to read.”.

(3) In section 10A (maintenance of registers: registration of electors)—

(a) for subsections (1A) and (1B) there is substituted—

“(1A) Subject to subsection (1B) below, an application for registration in respect of an address in the United Kingdom shall include—

(a) the signature of each of the persons to whom the application relates;

(b) the date of birth of each such person; and

(c) in relation to each person—

(i) his national insurance number or a statement that he does not have one,

(ii) a statement of whether or not he has been resident in the United Kingdom for the whole of the three-month period ending on the date of the application, and

(iii) any other address in the United Kingdom in respect of which he is or has applied to be registered, and the power in subsection (1) above to prescribe requirements includes power to give effect to the requirements of this subsection.

(1B) An electoral registration officer may dispense with the requirement mentioned in subsection (1A)(a) above in relation to any person if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way because of any incapacity of his or because he is unable to read.”,

(b) for subsection (5A) there is substituted—

“(5A) A person’s name is to be removed from the register in respect of any address if—

(a) the form mentioned in section 10(4) above in respect of that address does not include all the information relating to him required by virtue of section 10(4A) above; or

(b) the registration officer determines that he is not satisfied with the information relating to that person which was included in that form pursuant to that requirement.”.

(4) In section 13A (alteration of registers), for subsections (2A) and (2B) there is substituted—

“(2A) Subject to subsection (2B) below, an application for registration under subsection (1)(a) above in respect of an address in the United Kingdom shall include—

(a) the signature of each of the persons to whom the application relates;

(b) the date of birth of each such person; and

(c) in relation to each such person—

(i) his national insurance number or a statement that he does not have one,

(ii) a statement of whether or not he has been resident in the United Kingdom for the whole of the three-month period ending on the date of the application, and

(iii) any other address in the United Kingdom in respect of which he is or has applied to be registered, and the power in subsection (1)(a) above to prescribe requirements includes power to give effect to the requirements of this subsection.

(2B) The Chief Electoral Officer may dispense with the requirement mentioned in subsection (2A)(a) above in relation to any person if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way because of any incapacity of his or because he is unable to read.”’.—[Mrs. Laing.]

Brought up, read the First time, and motion made [this day], That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield 4:30, 18 November 2008

I remind the Committee that with this it is convenient to consider the following: amendment (a), in proposed new subsection (4A)(c) to section 10, leave out sub-paragraph (ii).

Amendment (b), in proposed new subsection (1A)(c) to section 10A, leave out sub-paragraph (ii).

Amendment (c), in proposed new subsection (2A)(c) to section 13A, leave out sub-paragraph (ii).

New clause 2—Registration of British citizens overseas—

‘In section 2 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 (c. 50) (registration of British citizens overseas), after paragraph (3)(b) there is inserted—

“(ba) the declarant’s passport number or a statement that the declarant does not have one.”’.

New clause 7—Opting in to the edited electoral register—

‘(1) The Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2001 (SI 2001/341) is amended as follows:

(2) In regulation 93 (edited version of the register), for subsection (2) there is substituted—

“The edited register shall include the name and address of any elector whose details are included in the full register only if a request has been expressly made in the form referred to in section 10(4) of the 1983 Act or in accordance with Regulation 26 above by or on behalf of that elector for his or her name and address to be included on the edited register.”’.

New clause 8—Personal identifiers at the ballot box—

‘(1) The Representation of the People Act 1983 (“the 1983 Act”) Schedule 1 (Parliamentary Election Rules) shall be amended as follows.

(2) The following shall be inserted after Rule 27(1) (ballot paper to be delivered to voter on application)—

“(1A) A ballot paper shall not be delivered to a voter unless he has produced a specified document to the presiding officer or a clerk.

(1B) Where a voter produces a specified document, the presiding officer or clerk to whom it is produced shall deliver a ballot paper to the voter unless the officer or clerk decides that the document raises a reasonable doubt at to whether the voter is the elector or proxy he represents himself to be.

(1C) Where a voter produces a specified document to a presiding officer and he so decides, he shall refuse to deliver a ballot paper to the voter.

(1D) Where a voter produces a specified document to a clerk and he so decides, he shall refer the matter and produce the document to the presiding officer who shall proceed as if the document has been produced to him in the first place.

(1E) For the purposes of this rule a specified document is one which for the time being falls within the following list—

(a) a current passport issued by the government of the United Kingdom or by the government of the Republic of Ireland;

(b) a current licence to drive a motor vehicle granted under Part III of the Road Traffic Act 1972 (or Part III of the Road Traffic Act 1988) (including a provisional licence), or under Article 12 of the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 or any corresponding enactment for the time being in force;

(c) a credit or debit card with signature;

(d) HM forces identification card;

(e) a medical card with signature on it;

(f) a local authority valid bus pass with signature on it;

(g) a valid book for the payment of allowances, benefits or pensions if it has a signature in it;

(h) a tenant book if it has a signature in it;

(i) a certified copy, or extract, of an entry of marriage issued by a Registrar General, where the voter producing the copy of an extract is a woman married within the period of two years ending with the day of the poll concerned.

In sub-paragraph (i) above “a Registrar General” means the Registrar General for England and Wales, the Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages for Scotland or the Register General for Northern Ireland,

(1F) Regulations may make provision varying the list in paragraph (1E) above (whether by adding or deleting documents or varying any description of document).

(1G) References in this rule to producing a document are to producing it for inspection.”.

(3) The following shall be inserted after Rule 38(1) (incapacitated voter’s vote to be marked on ballot paper on application)—

“(1A) Paragraphs (1A) to (1G) of Rule 37 shall apply in the case of a voter who applies under paragraph (1) above as they apply in the case of a voter who applies under Rule 37(1), but reading references to delivering a ballot paper to a voter as references to causing a voter’s vote to be marked on a ballot paper.”.

(4) The following shall be inserted after Rule 39(2) (blind voter to be allowed assistance of companion on application)—

“(2A) Paragraphs (1A) to (1G) of Rule 37 shall apply in the case of a voter who applies under paragraph (1) above as they apply in the case of a voter who applies under Rule 37(1), but reading references to delivering a ballot paper to a voter as references to granting a voter’s application.”.

(5) The following shall be inserted after Rule 40(1) (person entitled to mark tendered ballot paper after another has voted)—

“(1A) Paragraphs (1A) to (1G) of Rule 37 shall apply in the case of a person who seeks to mark a tendered ballot under paragraph (1) above as they apply in the case of a voter who applies for a ballot paper under Rule 37(1).

(1B) Paragraph (1C) below applies where a presiding officer refuses to deliver a ballot paper to a person under paragraph (1C) of Rule 37 (including that paragraph as applied by Rule 38 or 39 or this Rule).

(1C) The person shall, on satisfactorily answering the questions permitted by law to be asked at the poll, nevertheless be entitled, subject to the following provisions of this Rule, to mark a ballot paper (in these Rules referred to as “a tendered ballot paper”) in the same manner as any other voter.”.

(6) The following shall be inserted after Rule 40(4)—

“(5) A person who marks a tendered ballot paper under paragraph (1C) above shall sign the paper, unless it was marked after an application was refused under Rule 38 or 39.

(6) A paper which is required to be signed under paragraph (5) above and is not so signed shall be void.”’.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

This morning, we had considerable argument, discussion and constructive consideration about what has happened in Northern Ireland. However, I reiterate that we are discussing not what should happen or has happened in Northern Ireland, but what lessons are to be learned from Northern Ireland as a pilot for what might happen throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.

As I was saying at the end of the previous sitting, there are significant differences between the situation in Northern Ireland and that in the rest of the United Kingdom. For example, in Northern Ireland, the carry-forward that previously applied was scrapped, which meant that a number of people fell off the register when they failed to re-register, as more than one Labour Member pointed out. The temporary reinstatement of the carry-forward was responsible for some 70,000 people coming back on to the register. That is an interesting illustration but the fact is that what we propose in new clause 1 would not abolish the carry-forward, so that problem would not occur.

In Northern Ireland, the annual canvass was abolished. The annual canvass, as we discussed earlier today, is an important tool to get people to register, and its abolition would have prevented some eligible people from re-registering. That is another lesson to be learned from what happened in Northern Ireland. Again, we have no plans to scrap the annual register. It is very important that there should be an annual canvass and an annual register of voters. It is one way to encourage people to vote and give them the opportunity to do so.

Before the abolition of the household registration system electoral registration in Northern Ireland was 96.6 per cent. That is unrealistically high, by its very nature. Hon. Members look puzzled, but that figure is unrealistically high. It would be miraculous if proper registration were at that level.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

The hon. Lady says that the figure is miraculous. The figure for North-West Hampshire in 2003 was 103 per cent. of the 2001 census, and that for East Hampshire was 103.1 per cent. Are those miraculous or perhaps subject to some other explanation?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has come forward with that evidence, which proves my  point. It is not possible to have 103 per cent. so that truly is miraculous. I do not see how it can be possible for 103 per cent. of people to be registered.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

If we take the 2001 census and then use the on-year estimates from that census, in some seats where registration is consistent because the seats are stable, registration may exceed the total census figure that was recorded prior to the half-year figures going forward. In other seats, such as those in Brent, which is about 60 per cent. of the census figure, the opposite is the case. I do not believe that one is miraculous or that the other is because of feckless citizens failing to register.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

What the hon. Gentleman is saying is all over the place. No one is talking about feckless citizens failing to register. I do not understand what he is talking about. He referred to 103 per cent. but 103 per cent. of what? Did he mean 103 per cent. of the estimate based on the census? That is interesting but fairly meaningless, and it is not what we are discussing. We should get on with debating new clause 1. We are discussing what should be the most important part of the Bill and, quite honestly, Labour Members are wasting time.

The fact that electoral registration in Northern Ireland fell by 10 per cent. on the introduction of individual voter registration is evidence that the problem of fraudulent over-registration was tackled directly. That is the whole point. Individual voter registration and the accompanying personal identifier system worked in Northern Ireland. It is a good system. It is better and much tighter, and we ought to have it in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is important that we tackle over-registration in Great Britain, and that we restore the trust and integrity that we should observe in the ballot.

We should also note that, in its report, the Northern Ireland Select Committee stated that the

“Electoral Commission has concluded that the removal of the carry-forward mechanism is likely to be the most important factor by far in the decline in the level of voter registration following the introduction of the 2002 Act.”

All that shows that the lessons from Northern Ireland are there to be learnt, not to be copied, and that we should not dwell too much on what is happening in Northern Ireland. What matters is that the integrity of the electoral system is the very basis of our freedom under democracy. That is precious. We are here as elected representatives of the people to defend the process, and we should value it but it is under threat because of how registration is carried out. It is not more difficult to borrow a library book than it is to register to vote. In fact, we have to prove more to take a book out of a library than we do to cast our vote and influence who governs the country. Integrity could so easily be restored by introducing individual voter registration coupled with personal identifiers.

The Government have said on more than one occasion that they intend to introduce a scheme of individual voter registration. The Minister has said that he accepts the principle, as have his colleagues. If the principle had not been accepted, it would not have been suitable for Northern Ireland. The Government promised to put the principle into action, but what puzzles me is that  they have failed to take the opportunity to do so under the Political Parties and Elections Bill, the perfect vehicle for such a measure. That is why we put high store by the proposal and why the new clause, tabled immediately after Second Reading, is about individual voter registration.

In a report published just last week, the Committee on Standards in Public Life stated that, although levels of confidence in the electoral system are reasonably high,

“people are attracted to the greater security and accuracy of individual voter registration.”

It goes on to explain that it undertook a survey that showed that about two thirds of respondents—65 per cent.—in the United Kingdom thought that the electoral registration system in their own country was very or fairly safe from further abuse, but that only 15 per cent. of respondents felt that the system was very safe while 18 per cent. considered the system unsafe.

Should we not in the UK in the 21st century have a system that is very safe and utterly watertight? Of course, we should. Mediocre is simply not good enough. Nearly two thirds of respondents to the survey expressed an overall preference for the individual registration system in Northern Ireland, compared with 30 per cent. who preferred the household system in Great Britain. There is a 2:1 plebiscite in favour of an individual rather than a household system of registration.

I ask the Committee to imagine it. If we were giving advice to a newly emerging democracy on how to set up an electoral system in order to produce the best democratic results possible, we might say, “Here you are; get on with it. You set up your Parliament—it may have one House, it may have two—and you set up a system of voting.” The hon. Gentleman on my left would say that the single transferable vote or some other proportionate system was best, while I would say that first past the post was best. It would be decided one way or the other. Each system has its merits. But suppose that we then said, “How about copying the British system? You have a country full of free, individual people, and in order to be allowed to vote, each one of them has to go to the head of their household, who has the duty to fill in a form that gives them the right to vote or doesn’t.” How utterly ridiculous when it is looked at like that.

We have that system because it is left over from the Victorian age, when the paterfamilias did everything. It is left over from an age when only the men in the household voted. It is left over from an age when we did not have the technical or practical ability to carry out a canvass of individuals. It is an affront to the freedom of the individual and it is totally ridiculous to take away personal power and responsibility. No wonder lots of young people do not bother to vote or take their duties seriously. They have to get their mothers or fathers to fill in the form for them, as though they were children.

In thinking about it, I realised that it happened to me when I was living under my father’s roof and was a parliamentary candidate. I was the person on the ballot paper. I was the person for whom people could vote. All right, it was in Paisley, North and only 5,252 of them did vote for me, but I thought that that was quite a lot at the time. I was the name on the ballot paper, but before I could cast my vote for myself, my father had to fill in my name and sign the form as head of the household. How utterly ridiculous. That is the system that Ministers are defending. It is simply not right.

I speak jocularly about my situation because my father, being an honourable and responsible district councillor, filled in the form properly, but if I had tried to be a Labour candidate and not a Conservative one, you can bet your bottom dollar that my father would not have let me vote. Whether that is right or wrong— [Hon. Members: “It is wrong.”] Of course it is wrong.

I had better be careful about using my late and very honourable father as an example, because he did not do things that were wrong—well, not that sort of thing, anyway—and he would not have done that, but under the current system, we give the person who fills in the form the ability, if not the right, to disfranchise other people who live in that household. That is indubitably the case. It is not a right—it would be wrong for a person to fill in the form wrongly—but we give them the opportunity and ability to disfranchise other people. It might not happen often in families, but it might happen in other households in multiple occupation, such as student or bedsit accommodation or homeless hostels. It is wrong that one person should have the ability to prevent another from registering to vote. If we are talking about individual responsibility and individual duty, each individual must have the ability to register themselves individually to vote. By not adopting new clause 1, the Government are saying that they are content with the law of 100 years ago, under which the head of the household is the person who holds the power and individuals do not count. That is a disgrace in the 21st century.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General 4:45, 18 November 2008

Being as concerned with the rights of women as she has shown she is in this place and in various committees on which she serves, would my hon. Friend care to discuss how women have been disadvantaged by the existing system, compared with individual voter registration?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I thank my hon. Friend for that very helpful point. I jocularly gave the example of myself bowing to the greater political wisdom of my father, but fortunately I agreed with him, so there was no difficulty for me, but what if there was a difficulty? What if there was a difficulty in a culture in which men say that women should not take part in affairs of the outside world? I know of many households in and around my constituency and in other parts of our country where women are expected to undertake the domestic duties and bring up children. I am not saying that they are necessarily badly treated, although sometimes that happens, but the men in the household will frequently say, “Voting is a matter that men undertake; women don’t need to do that.” That may happen; it may not happen. In many cultures, that attitude prevails. The point with new clause 1 is that it should not be possible. By carrying on without individual voter registration, the Government are potentially allowing it to happen.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Chair, Parliamentary Labour Party

I think that the hon. Lady has said that she knows of cases in which that happens. Will she clarify that? If she does know of such cases, that is material to the debate that we are having, but why has she not done anything about it? As she has already pointed out, it is a criminal offence to fail to register, so it would be in her hands, in respect of the cases that she knows about, to have the matter dealt with properly. Has she done that?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I must explain something. The hon. Gentleman knows that I was not saying that I know of specific cases that I can name. I have said that I know of cases in which a household is set up in a certain way. It might be a large house with two families living in it, in perfectly happy and luxurious conditions, but the men, according to the particular cultural background that they pursue—it is entirely a matter of their free will for them to do that; I am not complaining about it for a moment—take part in the outside world and the women do not even speak English and stay at home, look after the children and undertake domestic duties. There is nothing wrong with that. I am not criticising. Every family and every person can choose to live the way they want to, but I am saying that keeping the current system of household registration instead of individual registration makes it possible for the head of the household, however right or wrong, not to put down other people on the form. I am not saying that that is being done vexatiously or even intentionally; I am saying that it can happen and we should stop it happening.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I have been enjoying the excursions into the hon. Lady’s family history, but I hope that she realises that under provisions that the Government introduced in 2001, what she describes need not be the case. Any voter can apply for an individual registration form, even if they have been left off the household form, so the hon. Lady need not have been excluded if her father had taken the route that was suggested.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I thank the Minister for that point, which brings us back again to the fact that the Government have accepted in principle that individual registration, by individual voters, is the right way forward. [Interruption.] I thank the Minister for confirming that. I do not want to go down other illustrative routes—I intended to make a small point and I have given away on too many occasions. I do not want to take up the Committee’s time. I am merely illustrating that things can go wrong under the current system which would not do so under a system of individual voter registration.

I am not the only person who thinks that; almost every organisation concerned with such matters agrees. The chair of the Electoral Commission, Sam Younger, said:

“Registration should be a matter for each individual rather than for heads of household and it is vital that a system of individual registration is introduced as soon as possible so that the register used at the next general election is secure, accurate and commands confidence.”

That is the most important statement made on behalf of anyone on the matter, and the Government should pay attention to it. A report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life said:

“Despite the simplicity and familiarity of household registration, on balance the Committee takes the view that, as there is agreement among all the major parties, it is the right time to recommend the introduction of individual registration.”

It recommended that

“A decision should be made and legislation developed to implement a system of individual voter registration immediately following the next General Election or by 2010 at the latest.”

The judge who looked into vote rigging during Birmingham’s 2004 local elections said that he had heard evidence of fraud that

“would disgrace a banana republic.”

It is embarrassing to have such a judgment of our electoral system in the 21st century.

The comments made by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s Monitoring Committee were even worse. It said:

“The voting system in the United Kingdom is open to fraud, and while it delivers democratic elections, this is despite vulnerabilities in the system which should urgently be addressed...In particular, registering voters without personal identifiers—such as date of birth or national insurance number—made it ‘childishly simple’ to register bogus voters”.

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust said that there is

“widespread, and justifiable, concern about both the comprehensiveness and the accuracy of the UK’s electoral registers—the poor state of the registers potentially compromises the integrity of the ballot.”

Outside ministerial circles, there is a widespread view that a fundamental overhaul of our system is necessary. Coupled with individual voter registration, we would need personal identifiers and that is laid out in new clause 2. I suggest that those could be the person’s signature, date of birth and national insurance number, but if the Minister were to come up with a better idea, we would support it. I am not wedded to the practicalities of new clause 2, but I am to the principle.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

For the purposes of the record, will the hon. Lady accept something else contained in the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust report? It also said:

“It is unlikely that there has been a significant increase in electoral malpractice since the introduction of postal voting on demand in 2000.”

Any malpractice that did exist

“related to a tiny proportion of all elections contested.”

Will the hon. Lady confirm that the report said that, and can she enlighten the Committee about how many cases of electoral fraud there have been in recent years?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Indeed I can. First, the part of the Joseph Rowntree report quoted by the Minister is just as bad if not worse than the part that I quoted. It means that we must do even more to tighten postal voting. There are some very questionable election results from the last general election, and since then, postal votes have been unreliable. The fact that the Government have done little to tighten postal voting is even worse. My understanding is that there have been 43 cases of electoral fraud over the past few years. That means that only one electoral district in England did not have a case of electoral fraud to look at. There are far too many.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

It is amazing that the Minister asked my hon. Friend how many incidents of fraud have taken place in this country. Perhaps he should be telling the Committee that. The figure of 43, mentioned by my hon. Friend, referred to cases taken to court, not cases notified to the authorities. The latter was, I think, 10 times that amount, not including the evidence given to this very Committee by one of the learned professors, who said that there had been under-reporting and that the true figures were not known. Why is that the case?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

My hon. Friend is right. In the intervening moment I have found my note on this. I was correct: in the past seven years there have been 42 convictions—not just cases brought—for electoral fraud. Only one of the 43 police authorities—I apologise, Sir Nicholas, a moment ago I said electoral registration authorities, but I meant police authorities in England and Wales—has had no case to investigate at all.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I just want to clarify something. When I was asking the hon. Lady to enlighten the Committee, it was not because I did not know the figures. I am very well aware of them and, in due course, with your indulgence, Sir Nicholas, I shall reveal them to the Committee at great length. The hon. Lady was making a hyperbolic speech about the extent of all this and I just wanted to be clear that she knew what the actual figures are. We have some idea of that, but I shall reveal more in due course.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Before the hon. Member for Epping Forest continues her speech, may I say that I have been somewhat upset by the Minister’s response. He indicated that he is going to talk at length. I had hoped that he would give us the information succinctly.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Thank you, Sir Nicholas. We look forward to the Minister telling us, at length, why this is relevant. Perhaps we are interpreting this rather differently, but I think that to have 42 convictions for electoral fraud over the past seven years is a high figure and not one that we ought to be proud of in Britain in the 21st century. We should not have any electoral fraud; it is bad enough that we can have electoral mistakes and that the occasional thing goes wrong, but to have 42 convictions for electoral fraud puts the integrity of the ballot in question.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

Is this not another case of the hon. Lady asking for something that we have already got? Just as she asked for individual registration, which is already available to people, it is generally agreed that the great majority of problems with fraud centre on postal votes. However, in the postal votes system that we have introduced, we already have signatures. In order to get a postal vote, one has to produce two signatures—one on the application form and another on the declaration. Surely the security that she is looking for is already there.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

The hon. Gentleman completely misses the point. Of course what he says is correct for postal votes, but it does not apply to votes in the polling station. It is more difficult to take a book out of the library than it is to go into the room next to the library and cast one’s vote.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

How many of these cases of fraud involve votes cast at the voting station?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I do not understand what the hon. Gentleman is hung up about here. Postal votes are different from those at the polling station. While we are on the subject of postal votes, let me say that there have been many instances that prove the inadequacy of the system for verifying signatures. Our postal voting system  calls into question the integrity of the ballot, which is all I care about. I do not care what the Minister uses. I do not mind if it is not national insurance numbers but something else—as long as it is not identity cards. If the Minister says not to use signatures, but thumb prints, I say let us consider it. It is the integrity of the ballot with which I am concerned, and not the process.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 5:00, 18 November 2008

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and I hope that she will not give me many more occasions when I feel that I have to intervene. I must correct something she said. She suggested that we on the Government Benches are proud of what happened. Of course we are not proud. No one can be complacent about a single instance. One instance is too many, and we agree on that. All that I have been seeking to achieve is that she try to put the matter in proportion.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I accept what the Minister says. Putting it in proportion by my reckoning means that 42 convictions for electoral fraud is 42 convictions too many. We should not have electoral fraud. It is so easy to commit electoral fraud.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

The Minister is getting dangerously close to suggesting that there is not a serious problem when we have all the experts in the field queuing up to tell us that the system is “fundamentally flawed”.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Yes. As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am beginning to worry about the Government’s motive for not introducing individual voter registration. The Bill is perfect for such a measure and everyone is calling for it, even Labour Back Benchers. Some have even been brave enough to sign the early-day motion along with the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Some 27 Labour Members had the audacity to stand up to their Government and sign that early-day motion. I am sure that many more would like to sign it and support the proposal, because there are no arguments against it.

What the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire said earlier about the reduction in the number of people registered in Northern Ireland is not an argument against bringing in individual voter registration. It is not an argument against saying that the individual is a free person and should have the right to register themselves to vote on every occasion—not just when they do it separately, because that takes a huge amount of effort.

It was mentioned a few moments ago that people can already register individually, but they would have to take the trouble to do that, knowing that for some reason they were not registered by the household by which they ought to be registered. That goes completely against what every member of the Committee and every Member of the House is saying about making it easier for people to register and to vote.

We want to encourage people to vote and to widen the franchise, not narrow it. That is what individual voter registration is all about. What are Labour Members afraid of? Are they afraid that some people in some marginal constituencies held by their colleagues will not  register to vote, which will mean fewer votes for the Labour party? Is that what they are afraid of? If not, they must be afraid of something. There is no argument against individual voter registration.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

As a Member who represents a very marginal constituency, I am afraid that non-registration will get even worse, as it did in Northern Ireland. Already in inner London, 18 per cent. are non-registered. Some 27 per cent. of private tenants are non-registered, and 37 per cent. of black Africans. In inner-London seats, there is huge non-registration. Even if the experience in Northern Ireland is replicated only partly as a result of an immediate blanket move to individual registration, there will be an even greater problem with under-registration in seats such as mine.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

So, it is about party political advantage. The hon. Gentleman is talking about inner-London seats, but almost every inner-London seat is held by the Labour party.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am not worried about Kensington and Chelsea—I said almost every seat. The hon. Gentleman is talking about an inner-London problem, but why do not people in inner-London seats register? I shall give way to him if he cares to answer that.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

Well, since I have been asked to intervene again, I think that the clue is in the categories in which under-registration is highest: 47 per cent. of people who share flats, 38 per cent. of people who live in unfurnished accommodation and 37 per cent. of black Africans. Those are the very categories of people who are least engaged in the political system. Those figures apply, regardless of party, to all seats in which there is a mobile population and where there are large proportions of people on low incomes or who live in tenanted properties.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

The hon. Gentleman makes my point far better than anyone else has all day. As he has just said most eloquently, the people in inner-London seats who do not register are those in shared flats, in rented accommodation and who are part of the mobile population. Those are the very people who depend on a head of household to register them. They live temporarily in shared flats and rented accommodation and do not register themselves. They do not register because they have to depend on someone else to register them— [Interruption.]

The hon. Gentleman makes my point perfectly, so I shall not give way to him again. This is exactly the point: if people should have the right to vote and to take part in the democratic system, they should have the right, the duty and the responsibility to register themselves. What he said a moment ago answers my question perfectly, and in the inner-London seats it is exactly the reason why people do not register.

Another reason why people do not register might be that they are not engaged in the political system, but that is up to them. Every individual has the right not to be engaged in the political system if they do not want to be. The reason why the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are so afraid of this fair system of registration is that  they think it might reduce the Labour party vote. That can be the only reason why they are against individual voter registration.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

On this point, hon. Members will want to study what happened in America recently with Obama’s campaign. He went to areas in which there was low registration and gave people a reason to register—some for the first time. The hon. Member for Battersea and other hon. Members could do that in their constituencies, but that is a separate issue from the need for individual voter registration.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

That is absolutely right. It was striking to hear people say in interviews for the American elections that they had never voted before. It is incumbent on us all to encourage people to register and to vote. A few weeks ago, I did an interview with a female journalist on this subject. A person in the audience said something about encouraging people to vote, and the journalist asked me, “Don’t you think it should be up to MPs to try to get people to vote?” I realised that she had not a clue what she was talking about because what do we all do, all the time, but try to get people to vote? We encourage them to vote first and foremost for us, or for whichever candidate we support, but my goodness, as a body of people we go out there—week after week, month after month—to encourage people to become involved in the democratic process.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

My hon. Friend may not be aware of my evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I suggested that it was our job to get the vote out, not that of some other institution. That is why I felt that that part of the Electoral Commission’s budget should be cut back and its role altered. The Government have accepted the principle, and the Electoral Commission is being remodelled to take account of exactly that point that I made to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The committee’s report set out why it agreed. In other words, it is our primary duty to interest people in politics. We should not be relying on other institutions. We should certainly not be relying on wheezes, such as maintaining completely out of date 19th century registration systems.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

My hon. Friend is correct. I shall move on, because we are also considering new clauses 7 and 8.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Has my hon. Friend heard the explanation that the problem in Northern Ireland results more from the number of voters exceeding the number of people resident in the constituencies?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Yes. Again, my hon. Friend makes a valid point of which the Committee should take note.

I shall move on, because I am conscious of the time and we have a lot to get through. However, I am not sorry for taking time over this group of amendments, because new clause 1 should have been the most important measure in the Bill. It still should be the most important, but I fear that the indications from the Minister are that the Government will not accept it, which is a great pity.

New clause 7 concerns opting in to the edited register. I merely propose it because, as we said when discussing the keeping together of so much information in the register, registers are used by many commercial organisations. Rather than giving people the right to opt out of the edited register, which then goes to mail order companies, charities and other such organisations, it would be more sensible to give people the right to opt in, if they so wished.

We should also consider, although not in the context of the Bill, the very principle of the electoral register being sold for commercial purposes. That is an argument for another day, and I do not propose to go down that route today.

New clause 8 concerns personal identifiers at the ballot box. It is incredible that a person can walk into a polling station, say, “I am John Smith and I live at 40 Acacia avenue”, and be handed a ballot to vote. They do not have to prove who they are or where they live; they do not have to prove anything at all. Most people think that they need their polling card. How often on polling day have we all encountered people and encouraged them to vote, but they say, “Oh, but I can’t find my polling card.” We have to explain to them, “Madam, you do not need your polling card. Just go down to such and such a village hall, which is where this street votes, say who you are and vote.”? It is incredible that it is easier to vote than to take out a library book.

There is no doubt that the system needs to be tightened up. The most ironic thing here is that it would be relatively easy to do. It has been done in Northern Ireland. For more than three years, the Government have been saying that they intend to do it, but they have not made proposals for individual voter registration, personal identifiers or any system that would take us forward to prevent fraud in the electoral system. That puts the integrity of the ballot itself in question.

If we were to have an election where, unlike any election in recent times, the majority in the House was small and some constituencies were decided on majorities of well under 1,000, as many were during the last general election, the integrity of our democratic system and of a future Government could be brought into question. That is unnecessary. If the Government introduced the safeguards that I suggest in new clauses 1 and 2, the system could be massively improved.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs 5:15, 18 November 2008

I will not take up as much of the Committee’s time as the hon. Lady, but I am glad that she moved amendments (a), (b) and (c). Apart from the problems identified by the Electoral Commission with the original drafting of new clause 1, there is also the problem that it appeared to bar all gap year students from the electoral register for at least three months. Given the hon. Lady’s strictures this morning about the importance of ensuring that students can get on to the electoral register, it would have been odd if she had proposed something that operated entirely in the opposite direction only a few hours later.

I am somewhat disappointed, however, by the interventions from the Government Benches on the question of individual registration. It seems clear that there is a serious problem with the accuracy of the electoral register, a problem that threatens the legitimacy  of the entire electoral system. What Richard Mawrey, the election commissioner, said in the Slough case—not the Aston case—is important. He said that electoral fraud was

“childishly simple to commit and very difficult to detect”.

The particular fraud that he was referring to in the Slough case was what the Australians call roll-stuffing: increasing the electoral register by inserting people who do not exist. There is a clear case for reform.

The arguments on the other side are not arguments against reform; they are arguments for doing reform carefully, in a properly considered way. For example, the arguments from Northern Ireland about how much the register went down and came back says that one can go too far in reforming and throw off the register people who are entitled to be there, but that is not an argument against the proper effect of reform, which was to throw off the register people who did not exist in the first place and should not have been there.

At this point, I part company to some degree with the hon. Lady. When the reform is introduced, as I am sure it will be, it needs to be accompanied by a Government-led, state-organised campaign to get the right people on the electoral register. It is not enough to say that individual Members of Parliament or politicians in general should take on that task; it must be the state’s role to get the register right.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I agree entirely. I said that this morning, but it might have been at a time when I was going on a bit.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs

I hope that I will be forgiven for having forgotten, because it was so long ago.

My interest in the matter, as I said this morning, comes from being in a university seat. Among the households that organise electoral registration are Cambridge colleges. They count as the head of the household and put everybody on the register. If we changed to individual registration, we would need some way to ensure that individual students were on the register. That would not be too difficult to organise—students have to sign up for lots of things at the start of term, and they could sign up for that as well—but we would need to ensure that it was carefully considered.

I believe that we are also discussing new clause 2. The hon. Lady did not say much about new clause 2, but its effect appears to be the opposite of new clause 1. New clause 2 seems to say that if one is an overseas elector and one does not have a passport, one does not have to present one’s passport number—it is enough to claim to have a passport. That seems to be the exact opposite of what the hon. Lady is trying to do with new clause 1. It seems that it is okay to stuff the roll with people who live abroad, but not with people who live in the UK.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I ought to clarify that point. I skipped over new clause 2 to try to save time, because I had given way so many times over new clause 1. I realised that was the only time that other Members would have a chance to participate in the debate.

The point of new clause 2 is simply to find a personal identifier for overseas voters and a passport number seems to be a perfectly sensible one.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs

I accept that a passport number is a sensible identifier, but the substitute, which is simply a declaration that one has lost one’s passport, does not seem to be adequate at all.

I return to the rather disappointing arguments from the Government Benches about why we should not go to individual registration quite yet. There is a kind of Augustinian aspect to this—we all accept that it is a good idea, but we do not want to be made virtuous right now.

The hon. Member for Battersea raised an argument about postal votes, saying that they are the real problem and that if one looks at the cases one can see that there is a serious problem. He said that there is not a problem—at least as far as we know—with personation, where people turn up at the polling station, pretending to be somebody else. There is some truth in that, but individual registration would make postal vote fraud more difficult because planning the fraud would take longer. At the moment, all one has to do is to decide to commit the fraud at the moment when one is trying to generate fake postal votes. That is the point at which one would generate the fake signature.

However, to commit the same postal vote fraud when the signature is on the register and each individual has signed the register to make sure that they are individually identifiable, makes the whole thing more difficult because it has to be planned further in advance. That does not make the system foolproof, and I fully accept that individual registration would not make the system foolproof. It does not seem to be a significant condition for increasing the security of the register to first-class levels, but it would make it better. In the end, what would make the system even better than simply a legislative change comes down to resources, which I touched on earlier when I talked about the need for a campaign of registration. One of the problems at present is that electoral officials do not have the resources to check signatures properly on postal votes—they are simply overwhelmed by the numbers.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that there is a problem with resources, although whether the service is better or worse depends on which part of the country one is in. It is also a question of the checking systems—the machines that help with the checking are apparently not up to scratch in many cases either.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs

I gathered the same thing as the hon. Gentleman, but it is a matter of resources in terms either of people, or of the equipment needed to make the system work properly, and we cannot do without that. It is therefore not right to say that simply passing a law to introduce individual registration would solve the problem—it would not. More would be needed, such as the investment of resources and a real commitment by the authorities to make the system work. Nevertheless, I am still convinced that the individual registration route is an important step forward.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I have been reflecting on the hon. Gentleman’s proposals for a state-run campaign. Can he clarify whether that state-run campaign is the Electoral Commission, which enables a transition from the current  system to individual registration to be conducted without people falling off the register, or is he primarily talking about a campaign with a substantial increase in public expenditure that will take place every year to achieve higher registration?

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs

There is definitely a need for a transitional campaign. The question is where to go after that. Having been a local councillor and seen how much money is devoted to ensuring that the register is up to date in particular authorities, I think that there might be a need for some permanent increase as well. My main point remains that even though we will not attain perfection by introducing individual registration, it will be an improvement. I support new clause 1 as amended by amendments (a), (b) and (c).

I do not support new clause 8 in its present form. The problem with new clause 8, with its list of personal identifiers, is that it is too inflexible. It does not allow for different circumstances in different parts of the country. The hon. Member for Epping Forest spent a lot of time talking about library cards, but I notice that library cards are not on the list. I have a British Library card. It has my signature on the back and a photograph on the front, and it seems a perfectly adequate identifier. New clause 8 is imperfect, and I urge the hon. Lady not to press it.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the principle of personal identifiers?

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs

Yes. I agree with what the hon. Lady said. It has always struck me as rather extraordinary that in the UK one can vote without any personal identifier at all, but there needs to be flexibility in how the system of identifiers works. What will count as an adequate identifier in some parts of the country will not exist in others. In my constituency, library and university cards would be good things to use.

I mentioned new clause 2, which goes in exactly the opposite direction to new clause 1. On new clause 7 and the edited register, I agree with what the hon. Lady said, but it does not seem to go far enough. I do not see why the electoral register should be used for any commercial purpose at all. It should be used only for electoral and political purposes. We should make that absolutely clear and try to get away from the situation in which the electoral register has become a tool for advertising and commercial organisations.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Before I call the next speaker, may I make an appeal for brief speeches? We have a tremendous amount of ground still to cover. I know that the usual channels want to break at a reasonable time this evening, and I hope that all the important parts of the Bill can receive proper debate and scrutiny in the Committee.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

I rise to make three points. First, we should be concerned about two things: the integrity of the register and the validity of the ballot. If the ballot loses its value and its resonance with people, confidence in the whole system will be undermined and the outcome, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest said, could eventually be called into question. The integrity and value of the ballot are important.

Secondly, the fact that someone can cast a ballot is important. That is why the integrity of the register is essential. It is not just that people who should be on the register are on it and people who should not be on it are not; there should be access to the register in the first place. It is an important part of our duty to ensure as nearly as we can that people can cast their ballots and that as many people are registered to vote as possible.

I do not think that it is reasonable in those circumstances to say simply, “Well, if people really want to register, they will.” We know from evidence gathered over quite a period that for various reasons, cast it how we will, there are enormous variations in the extent to which people living in a particular area of the country are able to cast their ballots. I mentioned earlier that registration figures in Hampshire in 2003 were 103 per cent. of the census. That is what one would expect from a registration system that works properly. The people on the census get to register, and more people register as they move into the area over the years. Within two or three years of the census, the number of people on the register will be in excess of the number recorded as resident in the area when the census was taken. That means that the system is working well. We should realise that the electoral registration offices in the area are working well, and we should reflect on the nature of the population living there.

In some parts of the country, over the same period, the electoral register collapsed by more than 20 per cent. I do not mean in relation to the census, but the electoral register itself. In 2003, almost 20 per cent. fewer electors were on the electoral register in Brentford and Isleworth than in 2001. In central Edinburgh, there were 10,000 fewer people on the register in 2003 than in 2001, and in Bradford, West, 7,000 fewer. Those changes related to, among other things, differing practices in electoral registration at local level. On a wider basis, if we look at the 2001 census figures for various parts of the country, as well as at electoral registration numbers, we see a different picture to that in north Hampshire. The registration figure for Brent in 2001 was 70 per cent. of the 2001 census figure, whereas for Hammersmith and Fulham, and for Brentford, it was 76 per cent. There is enormous variation in who is getting to vote.

My plea is not that we should not have individual registration, because that is very important, in the short, medium and long term, to ensure that the ballot is validated—the use of individual identifiers is an important aspect of validating the ballot. However, validating the ballot is about not just one issue, but a whole range of issues that ensure integrity in our electoral system. In some parts of the country, the system fails to deliver huge numbers of people on the electoral register, thereby denying them a vote. Under the current system, when we periodically divide our electoral boundaries, through the boundary commissions, the numbers of electors per constituency are taken into account. Over a period of time, not only will some people be denied the right to vote, but whole areas of the country will end up with lower levels of representation than they might otherwise have had, because of the way that the electoral system has worked.

We have a dual responsibility. First, we must ensure that the ballot has integrity. Our electoral system is  relatively clean, but even one case of fraud in a relatively clean system is too many. We must have a system that is as fraud-proof as possible.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Chair, Parliamentary Labour Party 5:30, 18 November 2008

My hon. Friend makes some important points, because there are two ways of getting the system wrong, one of which is when people fraudulently want more than their one vote. It is equally fraud of the electoral system when people cannot vote because they are not registered. In an earlier speech, it was said that information about that complaint was relatively light, but will my hon. Friend hazard a guess as to which is currently the dominant feature in modern Britain—fraud or under-registration?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

I hope that I am making the case that those elements are interlinked in a complete electoral system. I think that all hon. Members present agree that there is not widespread fraud in the British electoral system. We have a relatively clean electoral system. However, some aspects of our electoral system have always been as they are and always will be. For example, if one wished to be sufficiently corrupt, one could, to some extent, in principle, match up who has balloted and which way they have voted. Even with individual registration, it would not be possible to clean the system completely of fraudulent entrants.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that expert after expert, and report after report, have said that fraud is a significant problem in the UK? Is it not therefore the first issue to be dealt with?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

With respect, the expert evidence that has been given to the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, of which I am a member, and to this Committee has been that there are cases of fraud, particularly postal vote fraud, but that they are not an enormous proportion of the total system. Compared with a number of other systems, fraud is a relatively small element of our system. That is different from saying that the British electoral system itself is proof against fraudulent entry. There are two separate questions to be addressed. First, are people fraudulently entering or misusing the ballot on a widespread basis? Secondly, does the construction of our ballot system mean a low possibility of fraudulent entry, whether or not it is taking place? Fraudulent entry is possible now and could remain so in a future system.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

On the point about convictions for fraud, the total number of convictions under the Representation of the People Act 1983 was one in 2006, one in 2005 and none in 2004.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test

I thank my hon. Friend for those statistics, because they underline that while one is too many—we must make our system as fraud-proof as possible—the overall incidence appears not to be enormous compared with a number of countries in the world. That does not mean we should do nothing about it.

Essentially, a valid electoral system is, one might say, a three-legged stool: those entitled to vote should be able to vote; those who vote should be able to do so freely, anonymously and without threat; and those who vote should not feel that their vote has been devalued by casting their vote alongside those who are not entitled to vote. If we ignore any one of those three legs, the system will not work. That is why moving to individual voter registration and to individual signifiers has to take place alongside measures to ensure that the register itself is as good as we can make it. That should include, as has been undertaken with some other legislatures, voters whom we know as reliable entrants to the register being placed on automatically—perhaps sixth-formers at college, rising-18 voters, or those known to have proper data-protection safeguards, having identified themselves to public bodies in various ways. In addition to having reliable canvassing methods across the country rather than the huge variation in the quality of register compilation in different parts of the country, we should look at measures for strengthening the register.

The hon. Lady asked what the argument was against individual registration. There is not, and should not be, an argument against individual registration. The question is how complete we wish to make our electoral system. I am in favour of making it a complete system with those three legs of the stool thereby verifying it. We have to move towards individual registration with that understanding. That is how, overall, we shall give our system integrity for the century.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I am sorry that I missed a couple of minutes of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, but I listened attentively to what he had to say before the Divisions. He was right on the button in terms of identifying the key issues. He and I worked together for a long time on a Select Committee, and we also worked on the informal consultative group for the Electoral Commission. We know each other’s views and there is a good degree of agreement between us. I agree that the integrity of the register is important, but I differ slightly from him in one regard.

I have made this point repeatedly in different ways and it goes to the heart of a question that was asked by an hon. Gentleman who is no longer in his place—it is a pity that the Divisions have broken up the discussion as we had come to a very important point. The question was whether under-registration or fraud posed the bigger problem. However, I do not think that that is the crucial matter. The crucial question is, what is the public perception of the bigger problem? The essential—the necessary—condition for any electoral system, is that it should secure consent. Broadly speaking, after people have been upset about this, that and the other and have had a go at all and sundry, they finally get the chance to vote and—win or lose—they accept the result. That situation is not achieved lightly but is easily destroyed.

We have seen many countries with apparently perfect and sophisticated constitutions that have failed over time to find a means through which to establish a level  of consent, regardless of how many rough edges still exist in the electoral and voting systems. In Britain, we had a system that secured a very high level of consent. The tragedy is that some of that consent has been eroded because of the perception of fraud, even if the level of fraud is lower than the perception of it. That is why it is crucial to push through a measure such as new clause 1.

There is no point in thinking through clever wheezes to improve the situation such as electronic voting or publicity campaigns. I am not against a transition publicity campaign but I am nervous about having only a campaign that might sit there in perpetuity and create its own constituency, as Weber tells us that all bureaucracies do. The Electoral Commission has threatened to do just that unless it is reformed as a consequence of the investigation by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We must keep focused on the basic point of securing consent. The perception is as important as the reality.

I want to discuss a number of aspects to new clause 1 that have been touched on by others. Before I do so, there is a relationship between this point and that which I raised earlier concerning service voter registration; I promise not to dwell on it long, Sir Nicholas. If we introduce individual voter registration, we must think about how it will affect voters in the services. They have already been badly affected by one reform, and we do not want them to be affected by another. Has any preliminary preparatory work been done on that subject? Have we examined the effect that the introduction of individual registration and voter ID might have on the arrangements that are currently in place to try and secure higher levels of service voter registration? Have the services been consulted?

I ask those questions because, inadvertently, I did not give the accurate figures for the fall in service voter registration as a consequence of PPERA. I suggested that they had roughly halved but perhaps I can quickly give more accurate figures. In 2000, there were 483 service voters registered in Chichester, in my constituency. Two years after PPERA, there were 22. That gives an idea of the scale of the fall. Service voter registers are kept in Scotland, but are not kept separately for England and Wales. In Scotland in 2000, there were 18,226 such voters on the register. By 2004—the big drop was in 2003—that figure of almost 18,500 had dropped to 2,100, which gives an idea of the scale of what has happened. I cannot impress on the Committee too strongly how important it is that we think through carefully the changes for groups such as service voters, but that is not an argument for delaying the introduction of individual registration along the lines set out in new clause 1.

It is worth while putting the new clause into context. When the Government came to power, they were full of bright ideas for polishing up the constitution. Some worked and some did not: rolling registration has broadly worked, but postal voting on demand fell flat. In fact, it has been an absolute disaster. It led to the warehousing of votes and ended up with the notorious Birmingham court case. One of the key quotations from that case, which has already been given, was that it resulted in practices that

“would disgrace a banana republic.”

I had always assumed that that quote was “would not disgrace a banana republic”, but

“would disgrace a banana republic” is actually rather worse, so the judge was clearly in a firm frame of mind when he wrote his judgment.

Before we go any further in working out how to address all this through the new clause, it is worth asking this: before the Government introduced postal voting on demand, just how big was the problem that three or four Labour Members have alluded to? The most detailed recent investigation of non-registration was by the Office for National Statistics, which did work on behalf of the Electoral Commission. Overall, it gave 8 to 9 per cent. as the best estimate for non-registration in England and Wales in 2000. That sounds quite a lot and it is not ideal, but it is worth bearing it in mind that that compares to an estimate of 7 to 9 per cent. in 1991, so it does not seem that there has been much change. There has been no sharp decline.

It is interesting to note that in two surveys, in 1981 and 1991, some 19 per cent. of those who were then unregistered to vote said that they did not wish to vote or that they could not be bothered, which is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest was making. By contrast, in 2004-05, a poll conducted by MORI showed that 14 per cent. said they were not interested in voting.

I should add that the figures I have just quoted are not entirely comparable. The Electoral Commission has done its best to make them comparable, and those who are interested can look at its September 2005 report, pages 43 and 44. I only say that because there would be no point in the Minister coming back to me with detailed, technical points about the construction of that survey. The commission has concluded that the figures are broadly but not exactly comparable in the way in which the questions were asked.

Notwithstanding the assessment that we are still in the range of 8 to 9 per cent., I still think that there is a problem, and it is a problem that exists in particular constituencies more than others. I agree with the general point that has been made by Labour Members, but it is not an alibi for delaying the introduction of individual registration and voter identification.

Under the Electoral Administration Act 2006, the Government tried what I still consider was probably a stalling measure. I did not oppose it at the time, but it was not ever likely to deal with the problem. I am referring to the creation of the new offence of falsely applying for a postal vote. It was in the wake of the Birmingham case. I am not a lawyer, but I could not see the point of it. Falsely filling in a postal vote application form was already illegal, even before the Act. Those engaged in the warehousing in Birmingham already knew that such action was illegal. The whole response of the Government to that issue had the smell of display purposes only legislation, the sort of legislation that we have had too much of recently. However, I do not exempt my own party from such action when it was in government. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is perhaps the most salient example of the phenomenon.

Such a measure was not an adequate response. We are now several years further down the line and we still have not got to the starting post for individual registration.  I do not know whether what I am about to say is correct, but a colleague told me that only one country has household voter registration. Officials might be able to supply me with a long list of such countries. I would be delighted if the Minister could supply additional names. I was told that the only country was Zimbabwe, but that country is not a good precedent.

In his evidence on 4 November, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life was unequivocal. He said:

“At the time my committee made the recommendation”— for individual voter registration—

“under my predecessor, it was well aware of the situation in Northern Ireland and of what has happened since the measure was introduced. That includes the much greater confidence that now exists in the integrity of the electoral system...if something is fundamentally flawed, as we now believe the electoral system in the country to be with the combination of household registration and postal voting on demand, we should not keep it because of concern about some other issue. One should address that other issue directly”.—[Official Report, Political Parties and Elections Public Bill Committee, 4 November 2008; c. 36, Q90.]

We could not have clearer advice than that given by the chairman of Committee on Standards in Public Life: “Fundamentally flawed” was his conclusion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest quoted the Council of Europe. I will not repeat her quotation about the United Kingdom being open to fraud and the system being childishly simple to fiddle, but it was worth pointing out. Those quotations can be found on page 12 of the House of Commons Library brief on postal briefing and electoral fraud. I implore members of the Committee to read the rest of what was said, which is set out over the page, and note who said such things. Politicians from Poland, Germany and other countries throughout Europe strongly recommended that we do not tarry with such matters but get on with changing the system in the manner that we are proposing under new clause 1 without delay.

Furthermore, those politicians were so concerned about such matters that they considered threatening us, as they might a hopeless banana republic. The briefing stated:

The UK should not face a full PACE monitoring procedure at this stage, the committee concluded—but special attention should be paid to these outstanding vulnerabilities during periodic monitoring reports on the UK. If they are not addressed, and start to have an impact on the overall democratic nature of British elections, a full monitoring procedure should again be considered.”

For Britain to be in the dock with the Council of Europe, which we helped to create—indeed we were integral to its creation—is deeply worrying.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea 6:15, 18 November 2008

Most European countries do not have electoral registers or annual canvasses for the simple reason that they have ID cards. There is no reason to draw up a separate register of voters every year because they already have a register of the population. One point that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest have not made is that Northern Ireland has electoral ID cards, which is the most effective security device. The logic of his argument, therefore, points to the fact that the most effective way in which to register voters is through an ID-card system.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I found that a deeply concerning intervention. No one else who has looked at this matter has arrived at that conclusion. I am talking about people who devote their professional lives to considering this and no other issue. It also seems to confirm what I fear, which is that the Labour party will cling to any counsel of delay. As everybody knows, ID cards are something for the very indefinite future, even if Labour were to win the next election. Frankly, the matter is probably for the birds because the cost would be so prohibitive, and the cost-benefit analysis simply does not stack up.

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

For clarity, I was not suggesting that progress on the road towards individual registration should be held up on account of the fact that Parliament may in future decide to adopt ID cards. I was merely saying that the hon. Gentleman’s international comparisons are beside the point. He is comparing us with countries that do not need to have electoral registers or annual canvasses.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

There are upwards of 200 countries in the world, of which 150 purport to have some sort of democratic system in place. I would not claim to know what their systems are, which is why I referred the point back to the Minister to consider in the fullness of time. I was not demanding that though.

The fact that several European countries use ID cards does not seem to take us very far in this debate. We do not have ID cards, but we have a method of dealing with the problem. All the experts and the overwhelming evidence suggest that we should go forward on that basis. [Interruption.] I have been passed a note that says that I must sit down in eight minutes. I have a long history in my party of being slightly independent. However, I am not so independent as to disobey such a clear message.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. The only message that the hon. Gentleman should obey is that from the Chair.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

There are all sorts of people whom I should obey, temporal and otherwise, but certainly you, Sir Nicholas, are very high on the list.

The remaining argument, to which I alluded earlier—we certainly had a heck of a canter around it earlier so I do not want to prolong it much further—is this question of the Northern Ireland experience providing an alibi for not acting now. Labour Members queued up to make that point. I would not suggest for one moment that some brief had passed among them. I doubt that it has because they made points from very different angles. It clearly is a very strongly felt point, and I am sure that Northern Ireland itself will be impressed by the depth of their knowledge and understanding of what was allegedly done. The truth is that Labour Members are clinging to a pretty poor life raft if they want to use Northern Ireland as an excuse for not getting ahead with this. It is such a waterlogged life raft that it is virtually sinking.

It is worth looking at what the Committee on Standards in Public Life said about Northern Ireland on page 94, paragraph 5.67 of its “Review of the Electoral Commission”, which I do not think has not been quoted in Committee yet. It states:

The Committee’s view is that individual registration in Northern Ireland has not led to the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters, as is widely believed to be the case.”

That is a direct reference to the earlier paragraphs. It continues:

“The Government is on record as saying that this drop owed to a combination of inaccuracy resulting from weaknesses in the household-based system and the withdrawal of the ‘carry forward’”

Paragraph 5.67 goes on to say:

There are...a significant number of individuals who, for various reasons, do not re-register during the annual canvass; therefore the withdrawal of the carry forward effectively meant that each year a sizeable number of individuals would fall off the register. There would be a similar significant reduction in registration under the household system if the carry forward was abolished.”

Therefore, we have the answer to the points that Labour Members were making. The lion’s share of the reduction in the numbers on the register was not caused by the introduction of individual registration. The report goes on to praise the Government. Although it does not use the word “praise”, it is fair to say that that is what it does. It says that the Government’s response, with the Miscellaneous Provisions (Northern Ireland) Act 2006, was to abolish

“the annual canvass in favour of a system of continuous registration.”— which the committee clearly supports. The main problem in Northern Ireland has been resolved. I would have thought that that would have been enough for anybody. It is clear and unambiguous advice.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

If the hon. Gentleman will permit me, I only have three minutes to go and I want to make only one more point.

Finally, the Electoral Commission has looked at the issue in great detail and it sent me an e-mail today. I asked for some advice on the Northern Ireland experience and whether the e-mail could be put in the public domain. It states:

“We commissioned a series of research reports to monitor the impact of individual registration on the numbers of people registered. The research clearly showed that the requirement to conduct an annual canvass tended to have a negative impact on the number of people registered by as much as 2-3% per year. It was this, rather than individual registration itself, which affected the numbers of people registered.”

That is crystal clear, and it adds:

“An analysis of the drop in numbers registered concluded that it was largely explained by the removal of duplicate names that had been contained in the household register.”

That is where the real fall came from; it is pretty unambiguous.

We should not have had to rely on this e-mail. I will make it available to the Committee and I am sure that the Electoral Commission will too.

Peter Wardle, in his oral evidence on 6 November said much the same. I will conclude with that quote, and I think that I will be nicely on time. He said:

“There are legitimate concerns about the impact on the comprehensiveness of the register...but in my view we can and should address those concerns and should not make them a reason for continuing to put off the introduction of individual registration and thereby putting off addressing the accuracy and integrity of the register...a 21st-century modern western democracy  ought to be able to address both the integrity and accuracy of the register and its comprehensiveness, but we will make no progress on either of those things unless we get started.”——[Official Report, Political Parties and Elections Public Bill Committee, 6 November 2008; c. 59, Q153.]

I could not have put it better myself.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 6:30, 18 November 2008

Everyone on the Committee will agree that this has been an extremely important and useful debate. I want to address the new clauses in some detail and to make some general points of principle in response to comments, but I shall start by correcting some of what has been said during the debate.

We have heard several times from those on the Opposition Benches about a belief that there is a legal duty on an elector to take proactive steps to register to vote. That is not correct. A person is liable to be fined only if they fail to respond to a registration officer’s request for information. The next point was that the Government have taken no action on electoral fraud—I think I am referring to this correctly—and that, somehow, we are insouciant about that which exists. I shall briefly put the record straight.

On postal voting, in measures in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and associated secondary legislation, we have stipulated that postal voters must specify a reason if they want their postal vote to be sent to an address other than that at which they are registered. As administrators get more time to check postal vote applications, there is a requirement for electors to provide personal identifiers—signature and date of birth—if they wish to have a postal vote. The identifiers must be replicated by the elector when casting the postal vote, and they will be cross-checked with the original samples to ensure that the postal vote is valid.

There is a new offence of falsely applying for a postal or proxy vote, and new secrecy warnings on voting papers to deter attempts unlawfully to influence another’s vote. There is a strengthened offence of undue influence, which the hon. Member for Epping Forest alluded to and which will make prosecution easier. Ballot papers have a security mark to enable ballot papers to be validated. After every election, a list of all those who voted by post is published, so that individuals can check whether their vote was counted.

The police can check with any individual whether they voted by post or their vote was stolen. Police have been given more time to carry out investigations of electoral fraud—increased from one year to two years. There is a new criminal offence of supplying false information. There are clear new powers for electoral administrators to cross-check applications to register to vote against other information that the councils hold.

That brief list—brief in terms of time—shows how ridiculous it is to say that we do not take such matters seriously. Of course we do.

Mrs. Laingrose—

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am also under constraints. If it is a highly significant point, I shall happily give way.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I agree with the Minister. We accept that the Government take those matters seriously and therefore are amazed that they are not going further with individual registration.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am glad—a measure of consensus on that. I hope we achieve consensus on some other things that I am about to say.

Specifically, the hon. Member for Cambridge raised a detailed point about whether electoral registration officers have been given enough resources to check postal votes. It is an important point. We think that being able to check 20 per cent. is statistically robust. Most people would think that a reasonable argument. It is a good indicator of whether fraud is occurring. Obviously, if an electoral officer thought that there was a real risk of fraud, they could specify from the outset that all postal voting statements would be checked.

We are committed to the principle that 100 per cent. of returned postal votes need checking, but we need to ensure that electoral administrators have the necessary systems in place—that is a question not so much of resources, but of the systems to do it. We shall work with the Electoral Commission, electoral administrators and software suppliers to establish when it will be appropriate and safe to mandate 100 per cent. checking of postal votes. The opportunity is there—20 per cent. is statistically robust, but we are moving towards that 100 per cent., which I hope the Committee agrees is the desired goal.

We had a whole series of hyperbolic statements about banana republics and all the rest of it. I would urge all hon. Members—

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, he might want to hear the point I am making, then I shall be happy to give way.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, who is saying from a sedentary position that he has heard the point, he has not.

We have had hyperbolic statements from those on the Opposition Benches—I am referring to a small amount of what they said. All I say to them is that they should be extremely careful when they use such language to ensure that they are putting it in the correct context. Hyperbole does not usually help a reasoned argument.

The hon. Member for Chichester in particular—I will give way to him—has shown over and over again that he is well capable of making an extremely logical and intellectually consistent argument. I urge him to be careful about ruining it with hyperbole.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

The Minister seemed to backtrack a fraction there. If I may say so, he is a very good chap, too, and a very thoughtful fellow. It is a bit rich to describe a High Court judge as exercising hyperbole when he came out with the phrase

“would disgrace a banana republic”.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, I was at great pains to point out that I was not accusing the High Court judge of hyperbole; I was accusing the hon. Gentleman of hyperbole in the context in which he was describing this. If he reads Hansard, he will see that  I was urging him to be extremely careful about that. I do not think that any objective—[Interruption.] I ask hon. Members to consider, from their own experience of elections in this country, whether they think it is appropriate to describe their own participation in the electoral process as analogous to what goes on in a banana republic. That is all I ask them to consider.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

Will the Minister give way? That point really is outrageous.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. The Minister is not giving way. Will the hon. Gentleman resume his seat?

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

We have spent a great deal of time on the new clause. I have many important points that I want to make. If I may say so, we can consider the question whether we are or are not a banana republic as outside the purview of the Committee.

The hon. Member for Chichester again raised a serious point about service voters. That is a significant issue that we take seriously, and the revised figures that he gave us underline how important it is. Of course we take it seriously. As far as I am aware, there have not been any detailed discussions with regard to the effect of individual registration, but as I said this morning, there are continuing discussions involving the Ministry of Defence, electoral administrators and Ministry of Justice officials on that issue. We will certainly bear it in mind as we move forward in this area.

Before I come to the substance of my remarks, let me say this. A lot of comparisons with other countries have been made. Without wishing to go into great detail, I ask all hon. Members, when they listen to the hon. Gentleman, to bear it in mind that in this country we have a democracy of extremely long standing. We are almost unique in the world in that sense. Obviously, our circumstances are different. As a constitutional theorist of great distinction, he will know that our constitution evolves. It evolves organically and it is right that it should do so. The Bill is part of that organic evolution. I hope he can agree at least on that.

Photo of Andrew Tyrie Andrew Tyrie Conservative, Chichester

I want to make a couple of quick points. The Minister accused me of hyperbole, but the record will show that it was a High Court judge who came out with the only phrase that the Minister has identified to justify the remark.

I would also like to point out that when I opposed the poll tax, which I did quite vigorously from the inside, I pointed out that only two countries had one—Guinea-Bissau and Papua New Guinea—and they had widespread civil unrest and had to turn it into a hut tax, which is a bit like a council tax. What I am trying to point out is that I do not know the answer to the international comparison point. I said at the time that I had not looked at it closely, but someone had pointed it out to me that Zimbabwe has household registration and he thought that it was probably the only country to have it.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Finally, you will be relieved to hear, Sir Nicholas. If the hon. Gentleman examines Hansard tomorrow, he will see that I was referring to hyperbole as a matter of context as much as to the exact remark. That was the point I was trying to make. I think he will agree, as a great expert in these matters, that that is also possible.

I come to the substance of the debate. The hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks that this is the most important proposal, and he may well be right. The time that we have taken to discuss it and the distinguished contributions that we have heard from the hon. Member for Epping Forest and from my hon. Friends show how important it is to the Committee. I hope that we can make progress.

I shall set out broad principles that I think should underpin our discussion—although not at great length, you will be relieved to hear, Sir Nicholas. The debate has raised important issues of principle that I think everyone agrees are fundamental to the health of our democracy. I hope that we can also agree that no party has a monopoly on either wisdom or propriety in these matters.

I hope that we can agree on a number of basic propositions. First, I agree with everything that has been said on the question of fraud. We can all agree that fraud is corrosive of our democracy and that we must do everything we can to tackle it. That is not at issue. However, it is also clear, and the evidence suggests it, that fraud is not systemic and not widespread. That is completely compatible with everything that we have heard from Opposition Members. We have heard a lot of figures today, but research by the Electoral Commission has found 23 convictions for offences set out in the Representation of the People Act between 2000 and 2006, with the figures peaking in 2001. However, as I have said, we cannot be complacent about even a single instance of such fraud.

The second proposition that I hope we can all agree on is that democracy is undermined when significant numbers are not able to participate in elections because they are not registered to do so. Again, the figures can be disputed, but it is commonly agreed that about 3 million people are not able to vote because they are not registered, although they are otherwise entitled to do so. Having said that, we can also agree, whatever else we may disagree on, that the electoral system itself must be beyond partisan dispute. While elections will always be vigorously disputed, and rightly so, the foundations of the electoral system should not be the subject of controversy.

Securing consensus on change to the electoral system can be challenging and we all recognise why that is. Political parties inevitably draw support from different parts of society and different parts of the country. That is inevitable—axiomatic, almost. However, it inevitably produces an asymmetry of interest from time to time in pursuing particular solutions to problems, and we have to recognise that that is the case.

Therefore, however justifiable any proposal may be in its own terms, we must always be wary of seeking to implement solutions to any given problem and implementing any given principle if, in doing so, it creates, however inadvertently, a biased outcome in the electoral system as a whole.

With those opening remarks in mind, I hope that we can also agree as a Committee, and as a House of Commons, that any changes to improve the electoral system—we recognise that it needs improvement; that is consensual between us—should be subject to four tests: that of the level playing field, being open, being fair and being transparent.

Any changes should always be directed towards the fundamental goal of creating a level playing field for all democratic political parties. Anything that undermines that principle is axiomatically partisan and risks illegitimacy. If the securing of one principle or another, no matter how desirable in its own right, tilts the playing field in one direction or another, without any countervailing action, it must, inevitably, risk that perception of illegitimacy.

The hon. Member for Chichester made an important point about securing consent from society as a whole. I agree with him that that is of paramount importance. If we do not have in our minds always the need to pursue a level playing field, we will risk the securing of that consent.

The second, third and fourth principles are quite obvious. Any changes should clearly aim to make the system as open as possible so that all voters entitled to vote should be able to do so.

Any changes should aim to make the system as fair as possible, so that all opportunities for systemic corruption and fraud are rooted out, and they should aim to make the system as transparent as possible so that everyone can see that it is open and fair. I hope that we can all agree that such transparency is the best guarantor of openness and fairness. Whatever changes are made should therefore be made in the interest of the legitimacy of the system as a whole and not be subject to claims that partisan advantage is being pursued. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, that would damage the chances of securing consent to the system as a whole. Whether partisan advantage is actual or perceived, we need to be extremely careful.

To that end, having as complete a register as possible is a starting point to ensuring in so far as is practicable that all eligible voters are registered and able to exercise their franchise. I shall come to individual registration in a moment, but as the Committee on Standards in Public Life has been quoted several times and Sir Christopher Kelly’s evidence mentioned, I remind the Committee of my exchange with Sir Christopher. I asked him whether he was aware that the Government share his committee’s view that, in principle, individual registration is a good thing. Sir Christopher said, “I am.” I then asked him if he recognised that we share his worry that any moves leading to further disfranchisement would be a serious democratic problem. I asked him:

“In moving forward on this, as everybody wants to, do you agree that it would be a good idea to take every step we can to improve the register as part of any process of moving towards individual registration?”

He said:

“There can be no answer to that other than yes, of course.”——[Official Report, Political Parties and Elections Public Bill Committee, 4 November 2008; c. 38, Q94.]

That is why we have taken steps to improve the register.

The Electoral Commission’s role has been mentioned. I have some interesting leaflets in front of me showing how the Electoral Commission has been trying to improve registration. We are working with the commission. As a consequence of the 2006 Act, we are placing a new duty on electoral registration officers, and we have seen results in the past year. In the past two years, the registration figures for parliamentary elections increased by 371,000 in 2006 and 307,669 in 2007. The registration figures for local government elections also increased by 513,054 in 2006 and 463,000 in 2007. We are making progress and actively considering further steps. I hope to be able to come back to the House with further proposals shortly.

Alongside all that work on individual registration, work has begun with the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators to examine how individual registration may effectively be introduced, and that work will continue. It is clearly necessary to involve parliamentarians from all parties in that if we are to do it by consensus, and we will introduce proposals shortly.

Some form of consultation or legislative proposals may follow that work, but the work itself is essential if we are to ensure that any proposals introduced are thoroughly thought through by all those who need to contribute. That may involve some use of pilots to identify issues and how they can be addressed, consideration of a phased roll-out for collection and use of identifiers and so on. I think that everyone would agree that if we make a fundamental change to the system, we should do so with care and caution, and ensure that we get it right. Obviously, that cannot be achieved before the next general election.

There has been considerable debate, as Opposition Members have said, on the need to prepare carefully, the need for clear policy development and the need for any subsequent legislation to be well developed. The hon. Member for Chichester mentioned the Dangerous Dogs Act. We are all conscious of lessons from legislation passed by all Governments—it is not particular to any one party—that legislation should be thoroughly prepared and implemented in good time.

The process will be complex; it is radical and unprecedented in this country. At every stage, we must be sure that we are subjecting it to the proper degree of careful scrutiny. We will ensure that it meets the four fundamental tests that I described. It must involve a level playing field, and be open, fair and transparent. I hope that all parties can agree that that is the way forward.

If I may, I shall deal with the detail of the amendments. I am conscious that I am taking some time, Sir Nicholas, but this is fundamentally important. I hope to secure your indulgence to explain why I must, I am afraid, resist the amendments. That will not be a surprise to the hon. Member for Epping Forest, but I will say why I must do so.

New clause 1—as it stands and as it would be if amended under amendments (a), (b) and (c)— would require eligible electors to provide personal identifiers when they registered to vote either through an annual canvass or on a rolling registration form. I note that the hon. Lady has specifically excluded voter ID cards from any such personal identifiers. On registration, the personal identifiers to be provided by electors would be their signature, date of birth and national insurance number, although they could theoretically also include their ID card.

We believe that the integrity of the electoral system is of the utmost importance. Of course, we recognise the benefits of electors providing such personal identifiers, but further thought and preparation on that are needed. As we move forward on the issue, we have to ensure that proper work is done to explore ways to reach the significant groups and categories of voter who have traditionally and historically been under-registered. We have to be sure that we are including them before there is any risk of their being further excluded from this fundamental democratic process.

As the new clause would not affect the conduct of the annual canvass, every household would continue to receive an annual canvass form for completion, but the person who completed the form would be required to provide personal identifiers for all the eligible electors living in their house. That might not be a problem in many cases, but I ask Conservative Members to consider that it might be difficult to collect such personal identifiers—now we are talking about the detail—if eligible persons were at university, on a lengthy holiday or working away.

There might also be difficulties for people living in shared accommodation, who might not want the person completing the canvass form to have their personal identifiers.

All those issues require further careful consideration. I am not ruling out giving them that consideration, but we are not at the right stage to make a judgment on the new clause. I have consistently said that we agree with the principle of individual registration, so there is no difference between us on the principle, but there is a difference regarding the detail of how we should bring it forward. On that basis, I hope that Conservative Members will withdraw new clause 1.

New clause 2 would insert a new sub-paragraph in section 2 of the Representation of the People Act 1985, after paragraph (3)(b), setting out the information that British citizens who reside overseas would have to provide when making an overseas declaration. Regulation 18(5) of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 provides that an overseas elector need provide their passport number only if they are not registered or have not previously been registered as an overseas elector.

An elector making a first-time application for registration must have their application attested by another British citizen residing overseas, who must also provide their passport number. Having passed those strict security arrangements, the elector is not required, in subsequent years, to hunt for their passport number or to seek another attestation.

On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) suggested that the Bill should do more about the relatively low levels of registration among expatriates, but a new requirement to provide a passport number every year might deter eligible electors from re-registering during the annual canvass. We want the registration process for overseas electors to be secure, but simple enough to ensure that people will register to vote. The current regulations achieve that aim.

I understand the concerns about expatriate registration. Now that this issue has arisen, I might copy to hon. Members the letter that I wrote to the hon. Member for  Ludlow, with his consent. In the letter, I set out the measures that we have taken, are taking and intend to take to increase registration among those voters.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General 6:45, 18 November 2008

To put the Minister right, one reason that the Government have previously given for not pursuing individual voter registration was the problem of overseas voters. New clause 2 is an attempt to address that problem. It is meant not to encourage overseas voters, but to get around the problem that his Department raised a few months ago.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks, and for the constructive spirit in which he intervened and in which the new clause was tabled. We are willing to look at the issue in connection with everything else. This case was raised specifically on Second Reading. It goes to our concern about constantly improving the register, including for expatriates. We want to do that and, with the consent of the hon. Member for Ludlow, I will copy my letter to him to all members of the Committee.

I come rapidly to new clause 7, which would reverse the current arrangements by requiring electors proactively to state on a canvass form or individual rolling registration form that they wanted to be included in the edited register. It would effectively introduce the need to opt in. Members of the Committee will know that the Government asked Dr. Walport and Mr. Richard Thomas to undertake an independent review of the framework for the use of personal information in the public and private sectors. They produced a report on 11 July, and recommendation 19 of that report called for the edited version of the register to be abolished.

We understand the concerns about the sale of personal details through the supply of the edited register. It is a sensitive matter and often goes to the heart of how people feel that our democracy should operate. However, it is complicated. There are issues for the British economy as a whole, and for businesses, charities and the general public. We intend to hold a consultation on those issues and to set out the problems, while recognising what Dr. Walport and Mr. Thomas recommended and acknowledging that there is widespread public concern about the issue. We will then proceed accordingly. I hope that hon. Members agree that we should wait for the results of that consultation before deciding how to move forward on the issue.

Finally, new clause 8 would strengthen the security of the voting process at polling stations. Of course, we take the integrity of that process extremely seriously, and we see some merit in the new clause. Over recent years, we have introduced measures to address issues of secrecy and security, which, together with other factors such as more robust sentencing of convicted fraudsters, are having an effect—we can see the results. Allegations of fraud have reduced over recent years and the Electoral Commission has acknowledged that the identifiers used in postal voting, for example, have had an effect in reducing those allegations. In its 2007 report on local government elections in England, the Electoral Commission found that

“the volume and scale of offences are both considerably down on 2006.”

It continued:

“The low level of reports and allegations of offences this year is encouraging.”

As I have said, any perception that fraud is widespread is not supported by the facts. Voting at polling stations has traditionally been conducted without the need for personal identification to be produced, but it is an offence to attempt to vote in place of another elector—the offence is personation, as you are aware, Sir Nicholas. Staff at polling stations are given training and guidance on how to spot people who attempt to cast fraudulent votes.

Any proposal to require voters in polling stations in Great Britain to produce ID as envisaged under the new clause would need to be considered carefully. The new clause provides for a wide range of potential documents, but it is not inclusive. We would need to consider what the practical implications of the proposal might be and what barriers it might present to voting at elections, particularly as the requirement to produce evidence of identity would be a significant change to the electoral system.

I reassure members of the Committee that we are constantly examining ways to strengthen the integrity of our electoral system. That is in everybody’s interest. We will keep the matter under review and explore the options for ensuring that votes in polling stations are cast safely and securely. I hope that, on that basis, the hon. Member for Epping Forest will withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I thank the Minister for the constructive way in which he approached the new clauses, which were tabled to help the Government—that was the whole point. I am pleased that, at the end of this long and sometimes heated but very constructive debate, we find that, on both sides of the Committee, there is a large element of agreement in principle.

When the Minister said that he would come back to the Committee or the House shortly on some of the issues that he mentioned under new clause 1, did he mean before the next stage of the Bill, or at some time in the future?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

That is fair enough. I will not push the Minister any further at this late hour. There is quite a difference between coming back during the passage of the Bill and coming back at some stage in the future, but I appreciate that he has a lot to think about after today’s debate.

As far as new clause 8 is concerned, the Minister has agreed in principle to look at matters and I am pleased about that. The same goes for new clause 7, which is about abolishing the edited register completely—I appreciate that the Information Commissioner is looking at that. We are looking at it too and it needs further consideration. New clause 2 was intended to be helpful and I am glad that it has been taken in that spirit. I shall not press new clauses 2, 7 and 8, but new clause 1 is such an important matter of principle that I shall have to ask the Committee to divide on it.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs

I hope that the hon. Lady will move her amendments (a), (b), and (c), because if she does not, we will not be able to vote for them.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridge.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. May I advise the hon. Lady? If she seeks to move her amendments (a), (b) and (c), as has been suggested by the hon. Member for Cambridge, unfortunately I have to put it to her that the new clause must be read a second time, but she has already asked the Committee not to press the new clause.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

On new clauses 2, 7 and 8, the Minister has been helpful and constructive, but new clause 1 is so important that I would like to divide the Committee. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridge, who, as I said before, is a better academic lawyer than me by a long way. Amendments (a), (b) and (c) must be in new clause 1 in order for it to make sense. However, I do not want to cause too many Divisions.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. If the hon. Member for Cambridge wishes to support new clause 1 he should vote for it, hoping that it will get through. If it does, we can then put amendments (a), (b) and (c). That is advice, not guidance.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 10.

Division number 6 Nimrod Review — Statement — New Clause 1

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.