I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the crucial issue of ensuring that the electoral register, which is one of the engines that drives our democracy, is accurate and honest and works in the way in which it was designed to work. There is a problem in the country with regard to the integrity of parts of the electoral register, partly caused through ill-information and by deliberate abuse of the system. I accept that this is a tricky and difficult subject that has to be treated with sensitivity.
During the 2005 general election, one afternoon as I was canvassing in Waveney drive in my constituency in Chelmsford, a lady aged about 55 opened her door and told me that she would not be able to vote for me, even if she wanted to-although she did not express whether she wanted to-because she could not vote in a British general election. It came as a surprise to me. When I asked her about that, she said that, notwithstanding the fact that she had lived in Chelmsford for 25 years and had been married for 25 years to a Chelmsford man, she was a Swedish citizen, so she was not legally entitled to vote in a British general election, because she did not have British citizenship. I accept that that is right, because if she is not a British citizen she does not fit into the rules and she will not be able to vote in a British general election. However, I am concerned that numbers of people in Chelmsford-it is not restricted simply to Chelmsford; I suspect that in certain parts of the country it is far more extensive-are putting themselves on to the electoral register who have no right to do so, because they are asylum seekers or economic migrants whose status in this country has not been determined. Even though they may have come from a Commonwealth country, they are not entitled to go on to the electoral register.
The rules for those people qualifying to go on the electoral register say:
"Commonwealth citizens who are resident in the UK qualify to be registered if they do not require leave to remain in the UK, or if they do require leave and this has been granted."
Unfortunately, there are individuals who have come to this country seeking indefinite leave to remain who have not yet had that leave granted or may have been refused it and are appealing against the procedure. They may even have a deportation order issued against them, against which they are appealing. Such people may have placed themselves on the electoral register and I have no doubt that in some cases they have exercised their right to vote. I know of one definite case in my constituency a few years ago, in which someone with a deportation order was not only on the electoral register but voted in the last election. This is wrong, because these individuals are not entitled to vote.
People who play by the rules-that is, my constituent who is a Swedish national-do not vote in a general election. This matter should be looked into and sorted out, so that people who should not be on the register are removed and denied the right to vote until their status in this country has been regularised so that they comply with the law. I suspect that individuals sometimes put themselves on the register through ignorance. This is the first issue that I would like to raise with the Minister. On the forms going through letterboxes in recent weeks, throughout Chelmsford and the rest of the country, people are invited to renew their registration on the electoral register. The form asks people for their surname, first name and nationality, with the text in brackets stating that this should be
"as shown on your passport if you have one", which suggests that if they do not have one they do not have to complete that part. I also suspect that, if they do have a passport and forget to complete that part of the form, it will make no difference to their registration. The notes on the reverse of that form say:
"Who should be included on the form? Include the following people: All residents from Great Britain and qualifying citizens of the Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland and the European Union...who will be living at your address on
That is fine. However, it does not say that qualifying citizens of the Commonwealth should put their names on the register or renew their entry only if their status to remain and live in this country has been regularised and approved by the Government.
There is a similar situation in respect of the registration forms that people use to register in the first place. The form mentions Commonwealth citizens and lists the relevant Commonwealth countries in great detail, but nowhere does it say, "but only if your residency in the United Kingdom is regularised within the immigration law." Anyone who is not that familiar with our system will see that they come from a Commonwealth country-the form says that people "may register" if they come from a Commonwealth country-and will register, even if, at that moment in time, they have no legal status to live in this country or are fighting hard to get a decision on their remaining here reversed. More guidance should be provided on both those forms, so that people cannot use ignorance as an excuse or claim that they misunderstood the notes accompanying the forms and, in that way, not comply with the law.
If someone puts themselves on the register and they should not be there, it is remarkably difficult to get them off. There are a number of ways in which such a person can be discovered: just by talking with neighbours, and so on, for example, although it would be incredibly embarrassing for a neighbour or someone who knows the person to report them. Members of Parliament can find out relatively easily whether someone should legally be on the electoral register, but it is rather tricky to do so, because of the mechanisms by which one identifies individuals and the procedures that have to be adopted to determine whether they should be, or remain, on the register.
The electoral officer can look into the matter, as hon. Members will know. Chelmsford is no exception in having an excellent electoral registration officer, whose team works hard. Those officers will be less than likely to know if someone has registered themselves but is not entitled to do so. I suspect that in most parts of the country, few electoral registration officers find many cases where someone has put themselves wrongly on the electoral register. They do not have the time to find out: it is a rather complicated issue.
If an individual finds out about someone who should not be on the register, they have to go through a set procedure to notify the electoral registration officer. They must make an objection to someone's being on the register in writing. The letter has to be signed and dated by the elector making the complaint and has to include the name, address and electoral number of the objector, as well as the qualifying address, and everything, of the person they are complaining about. That letter is, of course, in the public domain, which does not encourage people to draw to the attention of the authorities a situation where an error, deliberate or not deliberate, has been caused. That is a failing.
If an individual in Chelmsford, Swindon or wherever were to complain that their neighbour's hedge was going on to the public footpath too much and needed cutting back and trimming, the local authority would write to the owner of the property where the hedge was causing the problem and ask them to take that course of action. If the home owner then telephoned to ask who had made the complaint, the complainant would be guaranteed anonymity and the local authority would not disclose the complainant's name.
The Government have a social security benefit fraud hotline, and openly advertise the fact that confidentiality is guaranteed. If an individual suspects that someone is defrauding the benefits system, all they have to do is ring the hotline, provide the information and the grounds on which they believe that someone is defrauding the system, and it will be investigated with anonymity guaranteed. In electoral fraud, which may often be deliberate, why is anonymity not guaranteed? I suggest that it should be guaranteed for a complainant, because that might help to achieve an electoral register that is more accurate, fair and honest.
If someone goes through those hoops, what is the procedure for trying to remove someone from the electoral register if they should not legally be on it? The electoral registration officer must determine whether that person is on it illegally, and if their status in this country is involved, the UK Border Agency should be contacted. A few years ago, a local authority asked the Home Office, which then had responsibility for such matters, to check on someone who was on the electoral register and voting in elections when they should not have been because they were fighting a deportation order. The local authority wrote to the Home Office, but after six months it had not even received an acknowledgement of its request for information. It then stopped pursuing the matter, because October came along and the individual concerned did not re-register. If that is UKBA's record in responding to an electoral registration officer's request for information on an individual, it is pitiful.
Secondly, if the electoral registration officer receives such information, they must inform the person who allegedly should not be on the register, who may call for a hearing to argue that they should remain on it, even if the electoral registration officer has a piece of paper from the UK Border Agency stating that, for example, they have been refused indefinite leave to remain and should not be in this country because they are an economic migrant, or whatever the reason. Imagine the legal fandango if people who were the subject of complaints called for a hearing and lawyers became involved. It would spin out the whole process, which would become immensely costly, and I suspect that it would be months, if not years, in cases in which the lawyers were determined to string things out, before a decision was made.
Something must be done to improve procedures. Natural justice should not be denied, but if a decision on whether someone should remain on an electoral register boils down to someone's immigration status, that must be fairly clear when the UK Border Agency informs the electoral registration officer of their current status, and I do not understand why it is necessary to go through that costly and time-consuming effort for a matter that is relatively simple. Does the Minister have any ideas for improving and tightening the system without denying people natural justice? I have a proposal to put to him. I think that I am right in saying that until changes were made, if a complaint was made against an individual on the electoral register and it was not obviously a vexatious complaint, that person was automatically removed from the register until they could prove that they should be on it. I am not a lawyer, but that seems a sensible way to proceed. If someone should be on the register and wants to be on it, it is not difficult to prove their legal status in this country, and that would speed things up.
The final thing I should like to raise is a little more complex and grey. What happens to Commonwealth citizens of states that have been suspended from the Commonwealth? Are they allowed to be on the electoral register? Under immigration rules, a Zimbabwean may not be allowed indefinite leave to remain in the UK, but they are not being returned to Zimbabwe for very good and correct reasons, given the situation in that country. However, the Government's responsible attitude to that appalling situation should not mean that Zimbabweans get the right to vote in a general election in this country. I suspect that the Minister will say that if a country is suspended, and its citizens, who would not normally be allowed to remain in the UK, are staying here because of the situation in that country, until it improves and it is safe for them to return, they will be allowed to appear on the electoral register. That is illogical, and I hope that he will reconsider the issue. I am sure the Minister agrees that it is crucial that the system is not abused, and that measures should be taken to tighten the system and to minimise the opportunity for abuse. I hope that my modest suggestions are both logical and acceptable, and I look forward to his response.
I congratulate Mr. Burns on securing this debate. That is the usual courtesy, but I mean it because the subject is enormously important, and it is to his credit that he has gone into it in such detail and so thoroughly. I hope that I can provide some reassurance.
The hon. Gentleman and I agree, as does every sensible person in this country, that the integrity of the electoral register is fundamental to our democracy. Everyone in this country must have faith in the processes, so the register must be comprehensive and accurate; otherwise its integrity is flawed. The Government have made huge efforts to ensure both. We have introduced measures for individual registration, which place those two requirements-comprehensiveness and accuracy-at the forefront of the electoral registration system.
It is worth noting in passing that the Electoral Commission estimates that 3 million to 3.5 million people who are eligible to vote cannot do so because they are not on the register. That is a huge problem, and a flaw in our democracy. We must do more to tackle it. We have taken measures, and we intend to ramp them up in the months and years ahead. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that that is fundamentally important. With every measure involving the register it is important to ensure that everyone who is properly eligible to vote should be able to do so. Equally, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the register is flawed if people on it are not entitled to be on it. He raised a number of issues that I want to address.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter is extremely serious. We have introduced a range of measures to protect the integrity of the postal vote, and the introduction of a system of individual registration will make fraud more difficult. It is also worth pointing out that recent studies by the Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers suggest that the incidence of fraud is declining. It is mutating, but it is declining. I do not want to sound complacent for one moment. Even a single incidence of fraud is one too many, and even being on the register inadvertently, without out-and-out fraud, but perhaps because of a mistake in the process, is unacceptable for all the reasons that the hon. Gentleman gave. We accept that. Therefore we are never complacent and are always looking for new ways in which to improve the system. That is why I am so grateful to the hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate: we will be able to make some progress.
Before dealing with specific points, I shall make some general observations about the process. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that under the Representation of the People Act 1983, there is a duty on electoral registration officers to maintain the register. That means that they must be responsible for its integrity. They must ensure that everyone who should be on it is on it, but also that people who are not entitled to be on it are not on it. The vast majority of electoral registration officers are extremely diligent in discharging that duty. We have given electoral registration officers increasing powers to ensure that they can do the job properly. It is not just a question of the will; it is also the means to discharge it. In 2006 we placed a statutory duty on electoral registration officers to take all necessary steps, which include sending the annual canvass form more than once, making house-to-house visits and inspecting records.
The hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned with a specific area, and I will come to that. He has raised the question of illegal immigrants-people who are here illegally-people who are facing deportation and people whose cases may not have been decided yet. None of them is entitled to be on the register. There is no doubt about that. If they are on the register, that is wrong. It may be a case of fraud or inadvertent error, but they are not entitled to be on the register and there should be no doubt whatever about that.
If such people are on the register, they are committing an offence, almost certainly. We have given electoral registration officers guidance-they are regularly issued with guidance-on how to identify fraud. They have the power to investigate any registration at any time, and they have the power to remove individuals from the register and report them to the police if they suspect them of supplying false information, which, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is an offence. As we move over the next four or five years to a system of full compulsory individual voter registration, that existing programme of work will be further enhanced and electoral registration officers will have a further range of mechanisms at their disposal.
The trouble is, though, that electoral registration officers in most areas will not know that someone is on the register who should not be unless someone tells them. There is a problem with that. For example, Members of Parliament are probably one of the groups of people who will be most likely to know, because of their dealings with those individuals and the UK Border Agency. However, given that people have to write to the registration officer to make the complaint, which Member of Parliament is going to do that, given that it might then get into the public domain that if someone goes to see an MP on an immigration case, the electoral registration officer might get in touch with them because they have wrongly put themselves on the register?
I was coming to the hon. Gentleman's point about the ability to report possible abuses anonymously. I see some merit in that; it is a perfectly reasonable point of view. I can say straight away to him that we will look into it, but in doing so we must be careful to strike a balance. We must be careful to protect against malicious, vexatious complaints. They could be made because of neighbour disputes; they could be made for all sorts of malign reasons. I do not think at all that the idea is without merit. I want to look into it and I want to say some other things in a moment that will give comfort to the hon. Gentleman in this context.
I was coming to that. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that these are categorically different issues. Both relate to fraud and are extremely serious, and of course, there could be malign intent and vexatious issues in relation to social security as well. However, I hope he will accept that there is something else at play regarding the electoral register, which is politics. This is a difficult issue and we must be careful that we do not open up our electoral system to being the plaything of party politics. That is all I shall say to him on the matter.
This is not an open-and-shut case. As I said at the beginning, we must be vigilant all the time. We must never be complacent, and I give the hon. Gentleman my assurance that we will consider the matter that he has raised. I will come back to him on that and some of the other issues that he raised. I still have a few more minutes to address them, but just in case I run out of time, let me say straight away that we will take up all those issues with his local electoral registration officer. We want to get to their experience of what has been going on in Chelmsford. As a result of that, we shall come to a view about what needs to change, if anything. If he would like me to do so, I will then meet him to go through what we have found and the reasons why we have come to the decisions. That will be the start of a dialogue if he so wishes. It will not be just me telling him what we think. I will still be open to further representations from him privately. Perhaps it will not be in Westminster Hall, but I am very anxious to pursue that issue and every other concern. I suspect that other MPs have similar concerns, and I hope that they will all come to me as well.
The hon. Gentleman referred to a local authority-he did not name it-not getting a response from a Government Department. That is unacceptable in all circumstances; there is no defence for it whatever. It sounds as though it is a historical case and it may not be worth pursuing. If the authority wants to come to me, I will take the matter up. Generally, it is worth sending a message to all local authorities that they should expect to get replies from Departments, as every citizen should, but if they do not get them-sometimes Departments are not as deft at dealing with their correspondence as they should be-they do have local Members of Parliament, who should be able to get such responses and whom they can approach, so I would urge all of them to do just that. The situation is unacceptable and should not have arisen.
It is worth saying a little more about the powers that electoral registration officers have, because they are considerable and the hon. Gentleman, in his understandable concern about the issue, may have not quite registered just what powers are available to them. It is an offence to give false information to an electoral registration officer, and the penalty is six months in prison. It is not a slap on the wrist; it is a serious punishment for something the Government take very seriously. Officers can investigate any registration at any time. The Electoral Commission's guidance to electoral registration officers makes it clear that if they have any doubts about the eligibility of any applicant, they have the power to require any person to provide information relating to the eligibility of that applicant: age, nationality, residence and whether or not they are disqualified in any way. If the officer has any doubts about that, they can also require the person to provide evidence demonstrating that they meet the requirements.
Regulation 24 of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 provides that if the electoral registration officer is not satisfied about an applicant's nationality, they have the power to require the applicant or the elector to provide specified documentary evidence confirming it. As we move to a system of individual registration, clearly much of that information will have to be provided anyway, which is why it is such an important guarantor against fraud.
I shall touch briefly on the question of the Swedish citizen who could not vote. I know that the hon. Gentleman was not raising that particularly, but it is worth saying that we keep these things under constant review. Parliament has regularly expressed views on which foreign nationals should be eligible to vote. It is always worth reminding constituents-we all have constituents in the situation of that Swedish citizen-that in the circumstances described, they would almost certainly be eligible for dual nationality, depending on the regulations in their country of origin. That would enable them to vote in this country. I would have thought that if they wish to take a stake in this country by voting in it, the acquisition of nationality would be appropriate in those circumstances. It is always worth responding to people such as that, because it is a frequent cause of complaint that I have; I see frequently as a Minister that people who have contributed a lot and pay taxes in this country wonder why they cannot vote in general elections. There are avenues open to them to vote, should they choose to do so.
I hope I have given the hon. Gentleman enough comfort so far. This is not the end of the story. He has raised serious concerns and we will pursue them with the electoral registration officer in Chelmsford. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman on this issue as soon as possible-I am talking about weeks, not months-so he will get a reply from me and then, if he so wishes, I will be happy to meet him and discuss any remaining concerns that he has.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (