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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): This is an important issue. Will the Minister tell the House whether an objection could be seen through to its conclusion, in time for the election? Thus if somebody objected five days before an election and if the objection were sustained, after checking by the relevant authorities, would that name come off the register five days later, on polling day?

Bridget Prentice: I see no reason why that should not be the case. If the ERO receives the information in time, reviews the evidence and believes the person to be falsely on the register, they will have the power to remove the person at that stage. If the process could be delayed, I will let the hon. Gentleman know, but that is my understanding of the purpose of that part of the Bill.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): We all know that sometimes contests are tight and that there can occasionally be grudge contests, such as the recent one in the east end of London. Must the ERO always investigate an allegation? One could envisage hundreds of challenges being made at the last minute because people realised that it might make a material difference to the outcome on polling day.

Bridget Prentice: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes and the mischief that could be created if that were to happen. But there is the five-day period, so people would not be able to try to disrupt things in that way on polling day. The ERO can take complaints up to five days before polling day. If there were a large number of complaints, he or she would take advice about how to respond—for example, if there was a particular issue in an individual ward.

We are also strengthening the law on the provision of false registration information. Clause 14 will make it an offence to provide false information to a registration officer at any time. In addition, we are making it an offence to provide false information in connection with an application for a postal or proxy vote. At present, the maximum penalty for the existing offence of providing false information is £1,000. The maximum penalty for the new offences under clause 14 will be £5,000, together with up to 51 weeks imprisonment. I am sure the House will agree that that should act as a significant deterrent.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Will the Government take responsibility for a comprehensive canvass, given Dr. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky’s evidence to the Committee on Standards in Public Life that there were 7 million errors on the register for England and Wales alone? He stated that there were 3.5 million names that should not have been on the register and that 3.5 million people might not have registered at all. Will the Government ensure that that is corrected?

Bridget Prentice: I am aware of that academic’s evidence to the Committee. The EROs with whom I have held discussions do not accept the detail of his evidence, although we are aware from a variety of sources that there are people who should be on the
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register but are not. Of course, if people are on the register who should not be there, they should be removed. We want a clean and secure register and the provisions in the Bill give the EROs more powers to ensure that that happens. I will look into the evidence in detail when it is publicly available.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Minister knows that I asked to see the responses to the Government’s consultation paper, “Electoral Administration. A Policy Paper for Discussion”, last October. They were placed in the Library on Monday, eight months later. Why did it take so long?

Bridget Prentice: I am not entirely sure of the relevance of that question to this part of my remarks. It takes some time to analyse properly the responses to consultation and to give them due weight. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman might make a more positive response by accepting that we have made the information available for everyone to see.

Mr. Heald: The Minister published a summary of the responses in October, but I wanted to see the actual responses. I cannot understand why it took eight months, from October to June, to produce the real documents.

Bridget Prentice: As I said, the documents are now available. It can take time to give due weight and to analyse in detail the meaning of such responses and what people are trying to get across to Government. I accept that eight months is a long time and we would have preferred the period not to be that long. There is, however, another aspect over which we have no control: we have to get permission from people to publish their documentation, which can take a long time. I am reminded of discussions with administrators about canvass returns; when we are canvassing people we sometimes need two or three attempts before we get a response. That is probably the biggest reason why it took longer than we wanted to publish those details.

I turn to the issue of fraud in polling stations. I accept that there have been allegations in Coventry recently, and they are being investigated and dealt with in the proper way. However, we must ensure that our response is proportionate. As the Electoral Commission said in previous briefings on the Bill:

In addition, the Bill includes a measure to tighten the rules about polling stations, by providing that in future people must sign for their ballot paper. That provision will mean that there is a better audit trail and it should also provide additional confidence in the system.

Signing in polling stations was piloted in three local authorities at the recent elections, including in my authority. Initial indications are that voters broadly welcomed the new measure, and we are aware of no allegations of fraud. The Electoral Commission will evaluate the pilots and we look forward to receiving its report.

The Bill includes a number of important changes to the way registration and elections will be run and we are confident that it will meet our objectives. However,
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as I have said before, the Department will keep the impact of the legislation under review and we will share the results of our evaluation with the House.

I want to say a little about implementation, and about the timing pressures being created by this parliamentary ping-pong.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Will the Minister give the House a little more information about the review? Does she envisage it taking place a year hence, or perhaps two or three years hence? What time scale needs to elapse before a worthwhile review could be undertaken?

Bridget Prentice: The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I think that we should allow for a variety of elections to take place so that we can have a fairly comprehensive view of the reaction to all the measures. I would not like to put a specific time on that, but I would like examples from a number of elections so that we can make a proper evaluation of the effect of the Bill.

I shall return to my remarks on timing. We hope to implement the postal vote identifier at the next elections in 2007. That includes elections in England and Wales, and indeed in Scotland. About 12 to 15 per cent. of people now vote by post, so we are talking about a major administrative challenge and it will take some time and a great deal of effort to get it right. We want to give the administrators and the electoral returning officers the best possible opportunity to get it right and therefore we are working to a strict deadline.

If Parliament is serious about addressing postal voting issues by the next elections, the Bill needs to be passed soon, without any further delays. Neither the personal identifier scheme, nor the Bill’s other important measures—such as the increased powers to secure a complete register and all the amendments on loans to political parties, which achieve transparency in party funding and which the whole House wants to see in order to regain the confidence of the electorate—will be in place until, at the very earliest, the elections in 2008 if the Bill is not passed by this House and in the other place in the very near future.

2.30 pm

Simon Hughes: If the Bill were to be passed in the near future—I share the Minister’s wish that it is—but with the Lords amendment included, can the Minister confirm that that would not delay the implementation and that we could still use it for next year’s elections?

Bridget Prentice: I am not sure that I can give that confirmation. As I mentioned in reference to the postal vote identifier, which will cover 12 to 15 per cent. of the electorate, the work that has to be done by the EROs and the administrators in order to get things up and going is quite enormous as it is. I am not confident that they feel that they would be able to do that in time for the 2007 elections if there was a blanket personal identifier measure. That is why I ask the House to oppose the Lords amendment. We have an excellent Bill and everyone has added to it in some way. It would be a great tragedy for those important measures to be lost on the basis of a single point.

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Mr. Heald: I congratulate Baroness Hanham on her success in prevailing again in the other place. The background to our first debate in October was the widespread electoral fraud in Birmingham, which had led a judge to say that the systematic fraud there

Bridget Prentice: I am usually reluctant to intervene on the hon. Gentleman in his opening remarks, but that is the second time in this debate that he has used the banana republic example. That was the 2004 election and, after that, we put in place a number of measures to secure the system. Birmingham responded to that excellently. He ought to stop using old evidence relating to a system that no longer exists.

Mr. Heald: The hon. Lady is right to say that there have been some improvements and there are some improvements in the Bill, but the overwhelming voice of opinion—from people other than her and a few of her colleagues—is against what she is saying and in favour of individual voter registration and personal identifiers. It is extremely worrying and sad that the Government will not accept that. Even she has to admit that it is alleged that people who were in Pakistan voted in the local elections in Coventry. That is an obvious allegation of impersonation. It really is not good enough for her to say complacently, “Oh well, we’ve solved the problem” when the fact of the matter is that the allegations continue. As I said last time we debated the issue, there are eight election petitions currently ongoing. The Electoral Commission argued in its document “Voting for Change” that it was necessary to have individual voter registration and individual identifiers such as signatures and dates of birth. Its advice—it is an independent body, set up by the Government for that purpose—was pretty clear.

In November, I asked the Minister whether she would let me see the actual responses the Government’s consultation, “Electoral Administration: A Policy Paper For Discussion”. The responses were placed in the Library this Monday and they make interesting reading. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) said that he felt

The London borough of Merton—at that time Labour—said that the introduction of individual identifiers

The metropolitan borough of Bury—Labour—said:

The borough of Telford and Wrekin—Labour—said:

Adam Gray, a former Labour councillor and the Labour party’s election agent in the London borough of Wandsworth said:

that is, the Government—

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Mr. MacNeil: What about the possible situation of merchant seamen in my constituency, who might be away for voyages of five months and then find themselves coming home just before an election? How would the proposal for signatures affect those kinds of people?

Mr. Heald: The people whom the hon. Gentleman represents would register to vote in October, I imagine, as others do. At the moment, they do not have to provide a signature at that point; in future, they would. When they voted, they would also have to provide a signature, because that is what the Bill says in the schedule. I do not think that there is any problem. Most people can sign their name.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that, in any case, in such circumstances an electoral registration officer could take a view on that and dispense with the requirement? That is part of the amendment.

Mr. Heald: Yes. I was not sure whether the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) was suggesting that some of his constituents cannot sign their names, because clearly there would need to be provision for that, which is what we have suggested.

I will continue with the long list. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith)—Labour—supported individual voter registration with identifiers. The hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell)—a Minister—said:

Redcar and Cleveland council gave its support, saying:

The Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), will have to explain herself to her council. The council where Labour was accused by the judge of systemic electoral fraud was Birmingham, which the Minister has already mentioned. The council's evidence supports collecting individual identifiers and calls that a “useful safeguard”. The respected commentator Peter Riddell in The Times has described the Minister’s arguments as “false”. He says:

He described our case as “overwhelming”—and rightly so.

I could continue, but instead perhaps I should say to the Minister that all the political parties support the case that I am making—yes, even the Labour party. I will quote from the official Labour party response to the Department for Constitutional Affairs policy paper. The head of the constitutional and legal unit said, on behalf of his party:

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So, it is not just Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe observers, the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Reform Society, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the other parties, Cross Benchers and the other place who agree, but even the Labour party.

Mr. MacNeil: Just for the record, we are with the Government on the amendment.

Mr. Heald: Is not that marvellous? One Member from another party supports the Minister. She must be proud—she can stand tall.

The Labour party is serially incompetent. Its treasurer did not know about the main source of funds for the election, and the Minister is contradicting her party’s stated policy. It is time that the Government stopped looking ridiculous and made the concession. Such measures have worked where they have been tried and are an obvious protection. The measures in the amendment are supported by every Opposition Member who has examined them—with one exception. It is time that the Minister learned the lesson from the other place and abandoned her foolish motion.

Simon Hughes: This debate comes round again. Some of us are serving on a Joint Committee of both Houses that is examining the conventions of the House of Lords. Whatever we discover they are, or are not, one thing that incidentally comes into our discussions is a consideration of rules that might be more sensible than those that we have at the moment. An idea that is clearly up for discussion and has a lot of support is the suggestion that once a Bill has moved up and down the corridor between the Commons and the Lords a few times, there might be wisdom in establishing a Joint Committee of both Houses so that the people who know what they are talking about can sit down and try to reach an agreement. However, we cannot yet do that, so we are involved in the annual, occasional—it is not terribly frequent—and important process of finding out whether we can reach a compromise after hearing what both Houses have said.

There has been no great delay so far. The Bill was introduced into Parliament in November 2005. It came out of the Lords only on 7 June. We considered it on 13 June, it went back to the Lords for consideration on 20 June, and it is back with us today. Only two weeks have passed since this House first had the chance to consider the great volume of work done by the Lords, to which we pay tribute. As the Minister indicated, nearly all of it was consensual. All of us are clear that we are considering a significantly good Bill that will allow us to make a lot of good progress, yet we are left with one remaining disputed issue.

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