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Ms Harman: The last general election took place on 5 May, but the closing date for registration was 11 March, almost two months prior to polling day and before the election had even been called. For the reasons given by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), that is a problem. The momentum to register often comes when parties are out and about on the doorstep. That is an important opportunity to get unregistered people on the register and it is frustrating if the deadline has already passed.
The clause to which the amendments relate seeks to correct the situation by moving the closing date for registration to 11 days prior to the day of the poll. The amendments would put the deadline further back, either by retaining the status quo under amendment No. 27, or by moving it to 13 days prior to polling day under amendments Nos. 10 and 11 or to more than 20 days before the day of the poll under amendments Nos. 16 and 17. Amendment No. 27 would also affect the correction of clerical errors, which I will mention later.
Setting the closing date for registration to vote involves finding the correct balance between making the system accessible to electors while not putting undue burdens on those administering the system. The
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proposal to move the deadline for registration to 11 days before polling day came initially from the Electoral Commission's report, "The Electoral Registration Process". The commission held a full consultation and concluded that the correct deadline for registration was the day on which nominations close. In parliamentary elections, that is 11 days prior to polling day.
Electoral registration officers will add names to the register only when they have made a determination that it is correct to do so. If they cannot make that determinationperhaps because of public objectionsthey will not add a person's name to the register. The clause therefore does nothing to weaken the protections in place to prevent fraud.
Mr. Love: Is not the critical factor that a general election, with all the general publicity and with field workers knocking on doors daily, presents an opportunity to put people on the register? If we close that opportunity too soon, we simply do not allow people to vote in that election.
Separately from the Bill, through secondary legislation in due course, we propose to move the closing date for applying for a postal vote back from six days prior to an election, which is the current provision, to 11 days prior. The change is intended to give administrators more time to perform checks on the veracity of applications and relieve the administrative burden on them in the period before polling day.
It has been argued that moving to an 11-day deadline for both registration and postal vote applications might create an unmanageable spike in administrators' work loads. I believe that that view is incorrect. The proposed change to the deadline for postal vote applications will give administrators significantly more time to consider and process applications. It will not be the case that they must all be processed en masse on the day of the deadline. After all, until nominations have closed, it will not be possible to print ballot papers and begin to post them out. The combination of deadlines should therefore pose no significant administrative problems.
Synchronisation will make the system clearer for electors. I fear that it will never be very clear, but at least it will be a bit clearer. Local authorities and the Electoral Commission will be able to publicise a single deadline for people to meet to secure their vote by registering and applying for a postal vote. That should make the process easier to understand and reduce the likelihood of a person being disfranchised due to either not registering or not applying for a postal vote.
I am happy to be able to reassure those Members who have expressed concern that the requirement to alter registers five days before the day of poll might create a burden on administrators over the weekend, as polling day is traditionally a Thursday. Sections 13B and 119 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 provide that, when we refer to a period of days of less than seven in this part of the Bill, we refer to working days. There is no possibility, therefore, of anything happening on a Saturday night.
As I mentioned earlier, amendment No. 27 also affects clerical errors. Clause 11 gives effect to an Electoral Commission recommendation to move the
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final date for correcting errors such as a misspelled entry on the register or an accidental omission to the day of poll. The amendment would have the effect of retaining the status quo of only allowing corrections up to five days prior to polling day. That is a considerable problem. Clerical errors can mean that quite large numbers of people cannot vote and that does not make sense. Given that clerical errors are most likely to come to light on polling day, when a person attempts to vote, the Government believe that it is right to allow registration officers to correct errors and allow a person to cast a ballot.
As with moving the registration deadline, there can be no question of this change opening the door to fraud. Firstly, it is not possible for a person purposefully to have their entry created incorrectly. Secondly, if the registration officer cannot determine that an error has been madefor example, by checking the information held on filehe is under no obligation to make the amendment. Freepost will not be affected.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con):
I beg to move that the clause be read a Second time. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] It is gratifying to hear such noises in the Committee; I have the sense that they may have come from more than one part of it.
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The purpose of the clause is simple to explain. It is to restore the armed services personnel scheme that used to exist and to take the armed services back to the position they enjoyed prior to the 2000 Act. It will mean that at the next election all service personnel will be registered to vote.
The fact that we need a clause such as this tells its own story. It is a story of a Government who took us to war in Iraq having just disfranchised a large proportion of the servicemen who were fighting in it. But it is worse than that. It is a story of a Government who were warned repeatedly that this would be the consequence of what they put on the statute book in 2000. I warned the Government repeatedly in the nine months prior to the election that as many as half of all service voters would be disenfranchised unless they took urgent action. I have discovered that a number of senior officers also warned the Government that their men did not have the vote, but no action was taken.
I fear that we may get some promises and assurances but nothing more concrete from the Minister and I really do not think that is going to be enough this time. We must not be put off with a few more assurances. It is all too reminiscent of what I heard from the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the then hon. Member for Hove, in a debate in Westminster Hall. He committed himself to discussions with the Electoral Commission and said he would come back to me. The fact is that he did virtually nothing more than sit on his hands. The Government and the Electoral Commission could, and should, have done much, much more.
To her credit, the Minister has admitted that a serious mistake has been made by the Government and, again to her credit, is now committed to trying to do something about it. Whether she can carry her Cabinet colleaguesI am told that there is not uniformity of view on the issueis another matter.
Nobody who knows anything about the scheme that I am proposing that we put back on to the statute book is suggesting that it is perfect. It carries the problem that the register can be out of date and that service personnel can lose any connection with the area in which they vote. It means that a higher proportion is likely to be voting by proxy. But at least they will be registered. It will force the MOD to track each serviceman and process their application. Of course, the MOD might prefer not to have that chore and I have no doubt that it will be briefing behind the scenes about polishing up the new arrangements, rather than going back to the old scheme.
I recognise the problems with the old scheme, but at least it worked. I do not think that we can take any more risks with service personnel registration. We cannot afford to go into another election, as we did the last, with so many off the register. I am worried that some clever scheme is in the process of being cooked up in an interdepartmental committee as an alternative to getting back to the old scheme. I put it to the Committee that the only sensible way forward is to put the clause into the Bill. At least we would then know that, at the next election, servicemen will get the vote.
The statute book is littered with faulty clauses, and the unintended consequences that flow from them, that were drafted on the hoof while legislation was passing through this House. On this issue, we cannot afford another such mistake and we cannot rely on a
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Government assurance about coming back to us and possibly drafting another clause in another place. That is why I hope the Committee will be able to support my new clause tonight.
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