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A recent Metropolitan police and national fraud initiative analysis, looking at 29,000 strands of identity data found on forged and counterfeit documents, showed that 45.6% matched electoral registration data, and a lack of any robust verification process is a tool that criminals use for creating fictitious identities to be used not in voting fraud but for financial crime, so we need to deal with that as well.

When police have electoral fraud drawn to their attention, and it is the responsibility of the police given that electoral fraud is a crime, they take such matters seriously. I recently met the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead on the issue and have discussed it with the Electoral Commission, and, if colleagues think that there is electoral fraud and report it to the police, the police will certainly take it seriously, but colleagues will be expected to stand up the accusations they make and be prepared to swear statements and to enable the police to take action. There is both a perception of a problem and a real problem with, in particular, financial fraud.

In amendments 20, 18 and 19, the hon. Member for Caerphilly sets out his concerns about our proposals. Amendment 20, which would extend the transition to individual registration by extending the carry-forward, focuses only on completeness, not on accuracy, and one problem with his suggestion is that, if we did what he wanted, by the time of the publication of the registers after the 2015 canvass, it might have been almost two years since EROs had actually heard from people—[Interruption.]

The Temporary Chair (Katy Clark): Order. Will Members refrain from chatting and enable the Minister to be heard?

Mr Harper: Thank you, Ms Clark.

The danger for the hon. Member for Caerphilly is that, in his proposals, he urges us to deal with completeness, but, if we accept his argument that they would increase completeness, and I am not sure that they would, we find that they may do so at the expense of accuracy. They would leave on the register people who were not likely to be at the address in question any more, because they would not have responded to an electoral registration officer for some time.

Angela Smith: If accuracy is more important than completeness, why is the Minister allowing the register to be used for the general election in 2015? If it is good enough for the election, it is good enough for the boundary review.

Mr Harper: There is a very clear answer: the register’s use in the election will be its first use, and we know that at the time of a general election people will be very focused on it. By the time of the publication of the registers in 2015, individuals who have not been confirmed automatically at the start of the transition will have had more than one year to register individually, had more than two canvasses, been contacted a number of times by the electoral registration officer and between canvasses had a general election, a time when awareness of politics and voting is at its highest.

Our intention remains that EROs will write to individuals who have neither registered nor been confirmed towards the end of the 2015 canvass to inform them that they

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will be removed and to offer them one further chance to apply. It seems to me that, for somebody to be eligible to be registered, at their property and not to have registered individually for the 2015 register, they will almost have had to go out of their way to avoid being contacted by an ERO, and almost deliberately have not registered. The steps that we have put in place are very robust.

Mark Durkan: Reflecting on the Northern Ireland experience again, does the Minister not recognise that one problem in Northern Ireland was that people thought, because they had voted in a recent election, that they were already registered automatically for future purposes? The amount of information actually created confusion and an assumption that if someone had a vote they were on the register in future.

Mr Harper: It is worth pointing out that, after the general election in 2015, there will be another full canvass of households to ensure that we get people on the register. The danger with just carrying everybody forward for ever and a day is that we just perpetuate inaccuracy; we might get completeness but it would be at the expense of ensuring that the data were accurate.

Sheila Gilmore: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Harper: Let me make some progress, because otherwise I will not be able to deal with the amendments that the hon. Member for Caerphilly tabled. I will see how things have moved on at the end.

We have announced that about two thirds of voters will be confirmed automatically, but the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), who is no longer in her place, said that the figure will not be uniform throughout the country, and that is quite right—I confirmed it on Second Reading. She also referred to funding, and we propose to deal with the issue by ensuring that better support for funding is available to areas with bigger challenges. In the summer, I will publish our proposals on how we allocate funding in order to receive feedback from electoral registration officers throughout the country so that they feel that the funding mechanism is sufficiently robust.

Amendment 18 and 19 are about the carry-forward of absent votes. If we were undertaking this process is a purist way, we would not bother having the carry-forward at all; we would just have individual registration and then test it out. But we have learned from Northern Ireland, so we are introducing the carry-forward to stop people dropping off the register.

We do not propose to extend the canvass to those who have an absent vote, because there is a risk in the system with absent voters: if registrations are fictitious in the first place, the checks and balances on identifiers for absent votes will not really add any security to the system. If someone can make up an identity, they can make up the identifiers, so we think that there is more risk involved in that process.

To deal with risk, however, we propose, first, to use data matching to undertake confirmation, meaning that two thirds of voters will be moved over automatically on the register, including two thirds on average of those who have an absent vote.

Secondly, as colleagues on both sides of the House will know, people with postal votes have postal identifiers, their date of birth and their signature, which they have

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to refresh every five years because signatures can change and deteriorate over time. We are therefore going to delay the postal vote identifier refresh in 2014 and bring forward the refresh from 2015, so all electors using postal voting methods whose identifiers are due to be refreshed in those two years will be asked to provide them as well as to register. Those whose entries on the register have automatically been confirmed will be asked to provide their refreshed identifiers when they get their letter. EROs will be communicating to anyone with an absent vote who is invited to register under the new system, to make it quite clear what happens if they do not register. If they do not register, they will be written to again and informed that they have lost their absent vote but given another opportunity. All the steps that we propose will make things very clear and it will be difficult for someone inadvertently to lose their absent vote.

The final point is about disabled voters. As I said on Second Reading, we are also going to look at having an online registration system; moving away from a paper-based system to one in which people can register electronically is a way of getting more disabled people registered.

Sheila Gilmore rose—

Mr Harper: I give way to the hon. Lady, who is on the Select Committee.

Sheila Gilmore: The Minister stated that concern about carrying forward the postal vote is to do with fictitious people. However, he appears to be happy to carry over other people, who might equally be fictitious. If a fictitious person is on the roll at the moment and carried over, come the general election someone using that identity could go to the polling station and vote; we do not check identity as people vote. If large numbers of people using fictitious identities are trying to vote, they can do that. Why is it thought that there is a greater problem with postal voting, for which at least some additional safeguards are in place?

Mr Harper: Those safeguards work only if the person with the postal vote is legitimate in the first place. The postal vote identifiers are very good for checking that the postal vote cast is the one for the person who has registered; there is a good check in that part of the system. That is not helpful, however, if the person who has registered has created a fictitious identity. We know that it is easier for somebody to set up a fictitious identity and cast a postal vote than vote in person using that identity. The hon. Lady seems to be arguing in favour of having ID cards before one votes, but the Government do not plan to introduce those.

I urge the Opposition to withdraw amendment 3 on appeals and not to press their remaining three amendments. The steps that I set out are robust. We are providing proper funding in the system for electoral registration officers to be able to communicate with voters and make sure that the system is sufficiently flexible. In parts of the country where there is a bigger challenge, for whatever reason, EROs will have access to more funding.

Frank Dobson rose—

Mr Harper: I probably should not give way to the right hon. Gentleman because it probably will not be worth it, but I shall.

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Frank Dobson: I thank the Minister for his snotty response. Oddly enough, I was simply seeking information. The Minister confirmed—I am glad that he did—that the current appeals machinery will cover people being knocked off the electoral register. Will that also apply to people being taken off the list of postal voters? If so, will they be informed in time to appeal?

Mr Harper: The provision for appeal against the decisions of registration officers are against the decisions of registration officers. If those decisions are made because a rule laid in statute is being followed, the appeal will not get very far. As I said, we will make sure that EROs contact people who are registered with an absent vote a number of times to encourage them to register individually. If they do not register individually, EROs will explain to them on a number of occasions the consequence for their absent vote, so that people are given the opportunity.

One would have to be trying hard to avoid knowing what was going on and avoid registering individually. Part of the reason for the confirmation process is to get the on average two thirds of voters moved to a new system, to enable electoral registration officers to focus on those who do not, to target resources better, to use public money more efficiently and to have a more efficient, complete and accurate register.

I hope that the Opposition will withdraw their amendment and let the schedule stand part.

Mr David: I hear what the Minister said about amendment 3 and I am pleased that his reassurances are clear. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) said, we are talking about a new system and it might not be possible simply to use the current system for a new system. I urge the Government to keep the issue under review, bearing in mind that, as has been said, more people might want to appeal against an ERO’s decision than have until now.

I am minded not to press amendment 3 to a vote, but we shall press amendments 20 and 18 at the appropriate time. We will leave amendment 19 to one side. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 2

Applications for registration and verification of entitlement etc

7.15 pm

Dan Rogerson: I beg to move amendment 1, page 2, line 44, at end insert—

‘(2A) Provision must ensure that application forms ascertain the eligibility of an applicant to register in another local authority area, and which local authority area or areas’.

The Temporary Chair (Katy Clark): With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 4, page 3, line 4, leave out from ‘(3)’ to end of line 9 and insert

‘will require a person to provide their date of birth and National Insurance number’.

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Dan Rogerson: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark.

Members who followed the discussion on Second Reading and in the Opposition day debate on individual electoral registration that we had some time ago will not be surprised to hear me talk about voting and electoral registration among those fortunate enough to own multiple properties.

I welcome the concept behind the Bill, as do Members across the House, except the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), who is no longer in his place but has been outed as a sceptic on individual electoral registration. However, it is absolutely right for us to take every opportunity to strive for accuracy and look at any ways in which we can generally improve the process. It strikes me that while we have the Bill in front of us, there is an opportunity to consider the issue of multiple registration by individuals.

If we are to have a system based on one elector, one vote, and a system that allows them to register for that vote, we need to resolve the position whereby people are entitled to more than one vote. If they are so entitled, we should look carefully at the reasons for that and make sure that the electoral administrators, who have to decide whether someone should be added to the register, have all the information to hand.

Mr Mark Williams: My hon. Friend highlights an important issue in many parts of the country, but is not the real issue the fact that electoral registration officers, were they so minded, do not have the mechanisms to cross-reference and check the situation?

Dan Rogerson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I shall come to that point a little later.

We have a residential qualification. Many who own property in my constituency, elsewhere in Cornwall and the south-west and in other rural areas will have other property as well. The same may apply in urban areas such as Tower Hamlets—around the Isle of Dogs, a large number of properties will be owned by those in the financial sector who occupy them in the week and return to their families at the weekends—so this issue covers many parts of the country.

People who own multiple properties have been writing to me saying, “No taxation without representation”—a great rallying cry. However, we do not have such a voting system. Those who pay business rates in my constituency but do not live there are not entitled to vote; they were once, but that was scrapped a long time ago. Those people writing to me have a nice soundbite, but it does not apply in this case. Our electoral system is based on people’s residency in a particular area, their affiliation to the community and their desire to have a say in its future and that of the wider country through their registration on the local electoral register.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said, it is right that we give electoral administrators the tools to do the job. When they are called in, as they increasingly are, to adjudicate on whether a person should be on the electoral roll, they need to have a basis on which to make that decision other than just the determination of that person to be admitted on to the roll. The data-matching exercises that the Government have undertaken offer one route

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to this. As I said on Second Reading, there may be other sources of data that have not been looked at, such as someone’s registration for tax purposes with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to determine which is their principal residence. We have famously seen some examples of people who have sought to move, or flip, that qualification around a little. If someone is registered for tax purposes with a particular place as their main residence, and is thus saying that that is their main residence as regards the state, then that is the place where they should be voting.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): This will affect not only people with multiple residences but students, who live in one place when at college but have what they would regard as their main home somewhere else. What is the hon. Gentleman’s view on what the main residence would be in those circumstances?

Dan Rogerson: That is a very good point. Students will spend roughly six months a year in each of those two locations. They will probably have a strong affinity with the place where they grew up, particularly in the case of those who have recently left school. Their family may still reside in the area and they may ultimately look to return to it and therefore want to have a say there. They may spend all their time working there during their vacations. Students often take an active position in the community by volunteering, and perhaps interacting with the local political scene as well. If our approach is to be based on this principle, which is currently in place, we need to get it right and make sure that the information is available for electoral returning officers. We must determine the basis on which registration in more than one place is legitimate and where there is a case for it. Students may be an example of a group for which such a case can strongly be made.

The current position is based on whether the person applying to go on the register can demonstrate equal residence. That is what Cornwall council is using as the qualification, having decided to take action on the issue. It is writing to people to say that if they are seeking to be on the register in more than one place for a property in Cornwall and a property elsewhere—usually the one at which they spend most of their time—they will need to demonstrate some sort of equal residence. They may be in the process of moving to Cornwall for their retirement and have bought the property in advance of that, and are spending time there getting it ready and gradually making the transition. In many cases, however, we find that people are spending only a few weeks, or perhaps a month at most, a year at the property, and for the rest of the time they are renting it out as a commercial let, particularly in the winter, or as a holiday let in peak season. In those circumstances, it is a source of frustration to people who live in communities such as mine that their votes have equal standing with somebody who is on the register for that purpose.

There is another dimension to this. At the moment, if circumstances allow somebody to be on two registers at once, and if electoral officers are happy with that, it is permissible for them to vote in local elections in the two places, even if those elections are on the same day, because they are seen as separate elections. However, they are not allowed to vote in two places on the same day in a general election, nor would they be able to do

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so in a European election or a referendum on a national question. However, postal votes are readily available now, and it is entirely possible that someone could cast a vote based on one address in the run-up to the election and still vote in person on the basis of the other. Of course, people will say that we can check that.

Mark Durkan: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that although it is not possible to vote in two constituencies in a general election, if there are by-elections in two constituencies on the same day it is entirely legal for someone who is registered in both places to vote in both by-elections? In January 1986 in Northern Ireland, people who were registered in more than one constituency were free to vote in as many by-elections as they were registered for.

Dan Rogerson: While the hon. Gentleman was speaking, it clicked into view that the period he was talking about was that of the Anglo-Irish agreement. I was not aware of that, but I am now. I thank him for his intervention, which was helpful to me in giving the example another scenario in which this is legitimate.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Obviously voting twice in the same election is illegal, and the number of people who are thought to have done it must be very small. Can the hon. Gentleman explain whether a Member of Parliament from, say, Devon, who spent four or five nights a week in London and three nights a week in Devon for 34 weeks of the year would be required under his system to say that London was their main home, not the place that they represented?

Dan Rogerson: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman credits me with having a system—a grand plan—but I do not, as yet. My amendment relates to specific issues that I will deal with soon, Ms Clark, because I know that you will want me to move on. He is right to observe that there will be Members of this House who are on the register in two separate places, as indeed I was for a while. I stay in hotels in this fine city when I am up here now, so that no longer arises. Some of the people who have written to me feel that the short amount of time they spend in Cornwall entitles them to be on the register because they happen to own the property, and I have pointed out that I probably spend more time in hotels in Westminster than they do in Cornwall, and that I should perhaps be petitioning to get on the register on that basis as it is not a property qualification.

How do we check that someone who is on the register in two places is not voting in the same election on the same day in two locations or, as that would be pretty hard to do if they are some miles apart, postal voting in one location in the run-up to the election and voting in person in the other? First, one would have to find out the other location at which the person is registered. Subsequent to the election, one would have to get hold of a copy of the marked-up register for both locations in order to check, and then one might be able to put a case together that the person had voted in two elections. I am sure that, as the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) suggested, people will say that this is a very rare occurrence, but that does not matter—the problem is that there is no way for anybody to check

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and challenge it. Whether it involves one vote, 10 votes or a few hundred votes across the country, it could still have an effect in some locations. I would venture to say that in some parts of the country where second homes are clustered, it will have more of an effect than in other areas, and it might therefore have an effect on an election result.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): The hon. Gentleman says that it is difficult to determine where this happens. I had a case in my constituency in which a couple of constituents were registered at two places. I had them registered as Labour party supporters on the basis of my own canvass. We checked the marked-up register and noted that they had voted in both places. We took the issue to the police but it was not followed up. There was no prosecution and not even an official caution—apparently just a word was had and that was it. What could we do?

Dan Rogerson: What action happens when the police and the courts get hold of this is a secondary point, but a fair one. The hon. Gentleman is talking about people who were registered at two locations in his constituency, and presumably he looked for them in another location because he had suspected that that might be the case. However, when the second property is at the other end of the country it is on a completely different electoral roll, and there is no way that one would know which Mr Tom Smith one was looking for unless, at the point of registration, they were asked to declare the other properties at which they were seeking to be on the electoral roll. That is what my amendment would do. Electoral officers would be able to check that, and members of the public who wished to challenge whether someone had done this at another election would also have a basis on which to check. Both electoral registers are public documents; my amendment would merely tally the two up.

Sir Peter Bottomley: My hon. Friend is perhaps trying to persuade us that a person who is prepared to break the law and vote twice is prepared to tell the truth when asked if they are registered in some other constituency.

Dan Rogerson: There would be pressure to make a declaration at that point. My amendment would tighten up the system a little. I am not saying that it is foolproof, but I think that it would improve matters.

As I am sure that the Minister is aware, this is a probing amendment to raise the subject again. We had a briefing from the Electoral Commission saying that it understands that the Government may be about to reconsider the issue and respond in some way through regulation, which I would certainly welcome. The point that I am seeking to make, which I have made before, is that given that electoral officers in some parts of the country are seeking to be tougher on this matter and to question people’s right to register in a certain location, we need to provide them with the tools to ensure that the electoral register is accurate. As I have also remarked before, if we are moving to a system of holding local referendums on matters such as setting a higher council tax rate or establishing a neighbourhood or community planning document, it is important that it is the people who live in the community who vote. That is not to say

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that people who own property, businesses or agricultural land in the area may not venture a view or be part of the consultation, but voting is a very different thing.

7.30 pm

The amendment seeks to ensure that the individual has a legal duty to declare where their other property is, so that the electoral officer can make a judgment and perhaps enter into a brief discussion with the electoral officer in the other location to ensure that they are not seeking to be on the electoral register illegitimately. For those who can make a case that they are doing so legitimately, it will be absolutely fine. They will go on the register and will be able to vote in local elections as normal. If there is a suspicion that somebody is voting in two places, for whatever reason, it will be much easier for the marked register to be checked and for any problem to be addressed.

Jonathan Edwards: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about stopping duplicate entrants on the electoral register. Has he given any thought to the impact of the amendment on the process of creating new constituencies with the same number of electors, in particular in constituencies such as Ceredigion, where there is a large student population?

Dan Rogerson: The amendment may well make a difference to the size of the electorate in places such as Ceredigion. It would also make a difference in Cornwall, which is being told that it must have five and a half seats, instead of the five that it used to have or the six that it currently enjoys. There will be a seat across the border between Cornwall and north-west Devon. The large number of second homes in north-west Devon and north Cornwall may have a bearing on the size of that constituency, so the hon. Gentleman makes a very good point.

As I said, this is a probing amendment, so I will draw my remarks to a close. I hope that the Government act on this issue, if not in this primary legislation, then in secondary legislation or the guidance for local authorities when they are designing the forms that people will fill in, to make people aware of its importance. Although it is more acute in areas such as mine than in other parts of the country, only through a joined-up approach can we get the information that is needed to resolve the situation. If the Government cannot respond positively today, I hope that they will indicate that they will look at it in the future.

Mr David: I will say a few words about the process of verification, because clause 2 gives significant powers to the Secretary of State to make secondary legislation; to determine what evidence should be on an application form for registration; to determine the form of those application forms; over the role and functions of electoral registration officers; and over local authorities and the Electoral Commission.

One of the most significant issues is the evidence of identity that individuals will have to provide. Paragraph 19 of the explanatory notes says of subsection (3):

“The required evidence may be specified in regulations or be determined by the Secretary of State, and such evidence may for example include a person’s date of birth and national insurance number.”

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My concern is about the lack of specificity in the words “may for example include”. My understanding was that the Government had all but decided that a person’s date of birth and NI number would be the two specific pieces of information that would be required. I am therefore worried that the Bill will give the Secretary of State the power to make broader decisions on other information.

Mr Mark Williams: I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about national insurance numbers. As he will be aware, at the briefing that he attended in which we talked about online registration, we advanced the debate beyond that matter because we were concerned about the access issue over people obtaining their national insurance numbers.

Mr David: I recall that briefing. That is an interesting point. I am sure that there will be an opportunity later in the Committee to talk about how online technology may be effective in some areas and problematic in others.

Returning to our reservations, the amendment proposes that there be specific references to the date of birth and the national insurance number, and that the extensive power for the Secretary of State to come forward with secondary legislation be removed.

My concerns about verification increased a little while ago when I read the Cabinet Office publication, “Individual Electoral Registration: Privacy Impact Assessment Report”, which indicated what information a potential elector will be asked to provide by the local electoral registration officer. If Members will bear with me, I will go through what it says. An individual will be asked to provide:

“Full name (first name, middle name or initial(s), Family name)”,

“Full residential address including postcode”,

their nationality, and a

“Declaration of truth—declaration that all information provided is true and correct.”

That is the same as at the moment. They will then be required to provide their date of birth and their national insurance number “where possible”, which are new requirements. There would also be new requirements to provide their

“Immigration status—if non-British or non-EU citizen”,

and a

“Declaration as to whether they are/have been registered elsewhere in the last 12 months”,

as well as any

“Previous address where registered in the last 12 months (new requirement – currently requested but not mandatory on annual canvass forms)”.

What is envisaged goes far beyond the bold headline, which states that there should be a requirement for the date of birth and the national insurance number.

Nick de Bois: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reading out that list, because I am magnificently reassured about the lengths to which we are going to secure the integrity of our electoral register. Is he suggesting that he does not welcome the proposals because of that? It is surely a good thing.

Mr David: I am certainly not saying that those stipulations are inappropriate and should not be asked for. I simply think that it is worth pointing out that more information

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will be required than was suggested earlier. Already, we are talking not simply about a date of birth and a national insurance number, but about other items of information. If the Secretary of State were given powers to circumvent the democratic process in Parliament to request other information, it would be worrying. The word “balance” was used in an earlier debate, and a balance has to be struck between asking for information that ensures that a person’s request to be on the register is legitimate and asking for information that makes the whole process too burdensome and onerous for a person to bother with.

Nick de Bois: I intervene not to cause mischief but simply to say that I find the idea of asking people to submit their immigration status quite attractive for a number of reasons. One is that many forms come through people’s doors, and I have seen evidence that some people who come from other countries see a form and understandably feel that it must be filled out and returned, because of the heavy hand of the state in wherever they came from. It is not unreasonable to check their immigration status to ensure that no inadvertent mistakes are made.

Mr David: I am not making a case against that. I am saying that it would enhance our democratic process if all the details that will be requested were itemised in the Bill. Parliament itself should decide on that, not the Secretary of State. We are talking primarily about elections to the most exalted democratic place in the country, namely this House of Commons, and the House should have the say on what information is required from potential electors.

Bob Blackman: We are talking about registration for a multiplicity of types of elections, be they European, local government or general elections. Different statuses entitle people to vote in those different elections. My constituency experience is that a large number of people from eastern Europe get on the electoral register even though they are not British citizens and are not qualified to vote in our general elections. Because they do not understand that, they inadvertently get on the full register, and then there has to be a process for challenging them. Requesting someone’s date of birth is also extremely helpful, because it identifies when someone reaches voting age and also enables people to be removed from the list of those who can serve on juries.

Mr David: The hon. Gentleman makes a couple of valid points. One reason I am in favour of individual electoral registration in principle is that it allows us to identify which elections individuals are allowed to vote in. He is absolutely right that simply being on the electoral register does not give an individual carte blanche to vote in every election. It depends on which elections they are. However, at the risk of boring the Committee, I repeat that these matters are so central to the IER process that they should be specified in the Bill. That is why we have tabled amendment 4.

I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to my points, and whether there is any concern in Government circles about the burden on the individual becoming too onerous for us to get a reasonable level of response. Are we making a reasonable ask of potential electors?

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Nick de Bois: I will not take much of the Committee’s time, because of the interventions that I have had the opportunity to make.

Clause 2 provides the Secretary of State with a wide range of powers that may lead to secondary legislation. I welcome this opportunity to oppose amendment 4, which would effectively bind the Secretary of State’s hands by being over-prescriptive. The Bill allows him to specify key information that needs to be made available to electoral registration officers. As we have found, that could include people’s nationality or immigration status, even for non-EU Commonwealth citizens. In the spirit of the debate, I ask the Minister what proposals the Government intend to bring forward in that regard. Those proposals may be in the Library without my having seen any of them, but the Committee would welcome confirmation of that.

7.45 pm

I am wary of over-prescriptive legislation with too much set out in the Bill, simply because circumstances change. If the amendment were accepted, in three, four or five years’ time, or much longer, we could still be having to make adaptations to the Bill. My objection to the amendment is based on the need to leave flexibility when there will be no great democratic threat as a result. I hope I do not sound glib in saying that to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David).

In the context of amendment 4, may I ask the Minister what information and database access electoral registration officers will have to determine whether someone has put down their correct nationality? If someone says they are British, how will EROs be able to check whether that is correct? I am no doubt joining the Minister when I recommend opposing the amendment.

Mr Harper: As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) said, amendment 1 is largely a probing amendment. It concerns an important issue, and as I said to him when we exchanged words on the subject previously, it is of course right that people who are eligible to vote in more than one location because they genuinely reside there should be able to exercise their rights. We do not have any plans to change what elections someone can vote in once they are registered to vote. If they are on the register legitimately, they will be able to vote in those elections.

In the amendment, my hon. Friend probes whether registration officers should be able to ask people whether they are registered to vote elsewhere. I can confirm that the draft secondary legislation that I have published today, which is available in the Library, contains a provision to be made under the powers in clause 2 requiring that an application form for registration must ask for other addresses at which the applicant is resident. That will mean that registration officers can then perform checks to ensure that the applicant is genuinely resident there. It is not about owning property there; it is about being resident there. If they are, they should be able to be registered to vote there in accordance with the law and not otherwise.

We will need to design the paper forms carefully so that we do not make them too complicated and user-unfriendly, and the Electoral Commission will do so. I feel sure that my hon. Friend will be reassured if he

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examines the draft secondary legislation in the Library. Given that he said amendment 1 was a probing amendment, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw it.

Mark Reckless: The Minister may have reassured my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), but the issue that I raised was what happens when someone votes twice. The Minister suggested that ACPO took that seriously, but why does ACPO decide how seriously electoral fraud should be taken, and what can we do to see that there is proper enforcement when illegal behaviour has clearly taken place?

Mr Harper: I listened to my hon. Friend very carefully. I obviously do not know the circumstances of the case that he mentioned, but I can give an example of why the police may not have pursued the case beyond simply giving advice. The constituent in question may have voted more than once inadvertently, not understanding the rules. I do not know what the circumstances were, but that is entirely possible. For example, after the last election I received several letters from colleagues writing on behalf of constituents who were not British nationals or Commonwealth citizens, so were not legitimately able to participate in our general election but who had been erroneously registered as such. They had found that the electoral registration officer had been a bit more diligent and had suddenly told them that they could not vote in our general elections. They were writing because they were outraged, and one did not like to put it to them that they had actually been breaking the law for the past few years in casting a vote. If those cases were raised with the police, they might consider that the law had been broken, but they might also consider that the appropriate mechanism would be to explain matters to the person rather than pursue them.

If my hon. Friend has in mind a specific case, I suggest that he speak to the Crown Prosecution Service and ask why it did not pursue the case. There are two tests of course, one being an evidential one and the other whether a prosecution is in the public interest. I suggest that in this specific case it may be worth his doing that. If he does not get anywhere with the police or the CPS, I would be obliged if he would get back to me and I would be happy to take it up for him.

Amendment 4 would require details of the information that we would require to be put in the Bill. That would not be helpful for two reasons. First, the draft legislation that I published earlier today sets out the requirements and the information that individuals will need to provide. It is worth saying that although regulations are made by Ministers, all the regulations under this Bill are affirmative and will have to be debated and voted for by both Houses of Parliament. It is not a power only for Ministers—there is parliamentary control over it. We will ask for that information as set out in the draft legislation.

Secondly, as well as being unnecessary, the amendment would be unhelpful. Putting the details on the face of the legislation would make it difficult to change if it became preferable to use different evidence in the future. Although we expect the national insurance number and date of birth to be the standard information for the vast majority of the population, we have said that if there are people—it will be only a small number—who do not

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have an NI number, it should be possible for them to provide alternative evidence so that they may register to vote. Given that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) wants to be assured that no eligible elector would be disfranchised, putting the specific details in the Bill and not allowing any exceptions would be unhelpful.

Mr David: I note what the Minister says about certain exceptional circumstances in which an NI number cannot be provided, when additional evidence will be required. Will he give us an example of the form that such evidence might take?

Mr Harper: An example might be if someone did not have an NI number but had other evidence of identity. A citizen from another Commonwealth country who had never worked or claimed benefits in the UK, and did not have an NI number, might be able to use their passport. It is about providing a range of evidence that fulfils the accuracy test so that we can be confident about someone’s identity in that small number of cases in which people are not able to provide NI numbers. When the hon. Gentleman looks at the draft secondary legislation, he will see that it sets out that information in detail.

The hon. Gentleman read out the information in the privacy impact assessment, and my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) also picked up that point. The first piece of information will obviously have been provided already. It is worth saying that none of the extra information requested will be published or added to the electoral register. It will be used to confirm someone’s eligibility to vote—for example, the reason for asking for immigration status if someone is not a British or EU citizen is that Commonwealth citizens are eligible to vote in our elections only if they do not need, or have, leave to remain. At the moment, it is not clear in many of the forms that people have to fill in that that information is required, which may be one reason why people vote genuinely not understanding that they are not entitled to do so.

Nor is immigration status checked on any systematic basis. It is checked in Northern Ireland, where it is one of the checks that the electoral officer does. In answer to my hon. Friend, we are working with the Border Agency to se whether—in a scalable way, given that Northern Ireland has a much smaller population—that information can be checked systematically so that only those people eligible to vote can go on the electoral register. I know that will reassure him and others.

For the sake of completeness, the reason for asking people about their previous address—some electoral registration officers already ask for this—is so that we can ensure that we clean up duplicate registrations. If someone moves, the new electoral registration officer will ask where they previously lived and can then inform the previous electoral registration officer so that the person can be deleted from the old register. That sometimes happens now, but it is not done systematically. We received feedback during pre-legislative scrutiny that it would be good to ensure that we no longer had lots of duplicate registrations. It was one of the arguments made for a national register. We did not like that idea because we did not want to create a national database, but this is a way to deal with the problem without creating such a database.

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Mr David: I do not want to trespass into the next debate, but on the specific issue of students, presumably there will be a way to ensure that they are not captured by that provision.

Mr Harper: Yes. This is about people who have moved. People who legitimately reside in more than one place, which may well include students, are entitled to be registered in either or both of those places. It is up to them to choose. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall, we will also ask people if there are other locations where they reside and where they are registered or intend to be registered. That will not drive anyone away, but will help electoral registration officers to make sure that the register is more accurate.

I hope that with those assurances my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Dan Rogerson: I am delighted to hear what the Minister has to say and it was remiss of me not to have checked in the Library before I spoke. I am grateful to him for his remarks and for how he has listened over the past couple of years to me and my constituent Mr Angus Lamond, with whom he has corresponded on several occasions. My constituent was an independent council candidate in the elections and was incensed because he felt that second-home voters were being targeted and mobilised in some way. I am delighted that the Government are taking this issue seriously and dealing with it proportionately. I look forward to seeing the proposals that the Minister has put in the Library today come into effect, and I beg to seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr David: I just have a query on my amendment. The Minister was slightly cavalier in comparing primary legislation, and matters on the face of the Bill, with secondary legislation. Yes, both have to go through the House as part of the parliamentary process, but there is a world of difference. I would not like to think that the Minister was undervaluing primary legislation.

Mr Harper: I do not undervalue primary legislation. Indeed, it is because I recognise that the Bill contains significant secondary legislative powers that we have published the first tranche in draft today, and I have committed to doing so while the Bill is still in this House. It is important that colleagues on both sides are able to look at what we are intending to use those powers for and what we are intending to bring forward for approval. It is not sensible, however, to put all that detail in the Bill, because it would mean that every time we wanted to change something we would have to produce a Bill and take it through all its processes. On these important issues, it is right to have affirmative legislation so that it has to be debated and voted on in both Houses of Parliament. That gets the balance right between proper parliamentary control and the flexibility to change with changing times.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Schedule 2

Sharing and checking information etc

8 pm

Angela Smith: I beg to move amendment 5, page 18, line 27, at end insert—

‘(4A) In section 53 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (power to make regulations as to registration, etc), after subsection (1) insert—

( ) Provisions shall be made by regulations requiring local authorities to share data with a registration officer in Great Britain for the purpose of—

(a) verifying information relating to a person who is registered in a register maintained by the officer or who is named in an application for registration in, or alteration of, a register,

(b) ascertaining the names and addresses of people who are not registered but who are entitled to be registered, or

(c) identifying those people who are registered but who are not entitled to be registered.

( ) Registration officers in Great Britain are to be under an obligation to utilise such information for these purposes.”.’.

The Temporary Chair (Mr David Amess): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 9, in clause 4, page 4, line 13, at end insert—

‘(5A) All higher and further education institutions must cooperate with local officers in providing a comprehensive list of students in all forms of residential accommodation.

(5B) Such lists must be provided at the start of each academic year.

(5C) Local authority officers must write individually to all students with an electoral registration form.’.

Amendment 10, page 4, line 13, at end insert—

‘(5D) In all forms of sheltered accommodation the person with responsibility for managing an individual premises must provide a list on an annual basis of individual residents to the local authority officer.

(5E) The local authority officer must write individually to all residents whose names have been provided on such lists.’.

Amendment 11, page 4, line 13, at end insert—

‘(5F) All private landlords must provide the relevant local authority on an annual basis with a list of all individuals to whom they rent residential accommodation. The local authority officer must write individually to all residents whose names have been provided on such lists.’.

Angela Smith: Before I move to the amendments, I want to reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), when he said that the Opposition support the principle of individual registration—it is important to keep repeating that—but that we think it can be improved. To some extent, then, our amendments seek to test the Minister’s thinking on information sharing.

Schedule 2 deals with information sharing and checking, and provides a clearing-house approach, so to speak, to verifying applications to join the register and to ascertaining the correct information for those who have not applied or those who are registered but not entitled to be so. The schedule provides for an important role, allowing

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the Secretary of State to establish the boundaries of the process for collecting, processing and disposing of data once used for the purposes for which it was released.

The schedule also makes it clear that criminal penalties will be levied for disclosing information in breach of regulations yet to be laid. Paragraph 93 of the explanatory notes makes it clear that the Secretary of State may require the Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner and any other person he or she thinks appropriate to play a part in establishing the provision, and

“may also require the Commission to prepare a report on how data sharing arrangements have worked by a specified date.”

Furthermore, if a report is provided, it must be published by the Secretary of State concerned.

We consider that the right arrangement. We have laws relating to data sharing, which obviously is a sensitive issue, and those laws are rightly the law of the land. Nevertheless, we have some important questions. The Minister has committed in the legislation to funding the above provision. Will he commit to funding the provision properly, so that the work can be done efficiently and promptly? Will he share his thoughts about establishing the mechanism? Who will staff the new provision? Will it be another quango? Will it be another public body? If so, to whom would it be accountable? Who will oversee its work? And, importantly, will service-level standards be laid down in regulations? The last thing we want is for the right to register to be delayed unnecessarily because of backlogs or because data provided by applicants has not been verified by this new public body—if that is what it is.

Amendment 5, on data sharing, is slightly different: it is not about data sharing between one public body and another but about data sharing within a local authority. We want the Bill to oblige electoral registration officers, within local authorities, to use the data already available to him or her to verify as many applications as possible. We mostly know what those data are. The council tax database is one of the quickest and most effective means of verifying, in particular, the addresses of applicants. We also have council tenant lists and school rolls. All these databases, owned by every local authority in the land, can be used to help identify applicants.

There is no need, then, for the clearing-house mechanism in schedule 2 in relation to the data already held by a local authority. There is a clear distinction to make. A clearing-house mechanism is required, for example, when comparing Department for Work and Pensions data with the data supplied by applicants, but that is not the case within local authorities. That is an efficient use of public money. Many good electoral registration officers already follow this practice and make use of council tax databases to identify those who fail to register, but we need to strengthen that practice by obliging them to do it as a matter of routine.

Amendments 9 to 11 relate to clause 4 but have been grouped under schedule 2. We will come to clause 4 later in proceedings, but suffice it to say that the amendments relate to data sharing. A relatively superficial level of data could be shared by organisations such as universities, sheltered housing providers and private landlords.

Jonathan Edwards: Is there not a problem for sheltered accommodation, which has such a quick resident turnaround that the hon. Lady’s suggestion might prove difficult to implement?

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Angela Smith: Not necessarily, if we believe in the principle of the annual canvass, which covers whoever is in the accommodation at a given point in time. That is the key point.

Amendments 9 to 11 would be a common-sense approach to maximising the completeness of the electoral register under individual registration. They would require institutions such as universities, sheltered housing providers and private landlords to share with the ERO information on those resident in their premises—in other words, university residential accommodation, sheltered housing and homes rented out by private landlords. In two of those cases, the data would be simple addresses. Those addresses should be available via the council tax database, but nevertheless it would be a useful addition to the many strings that EROs need to do their job properly.

Schedule 2 also deals with much more serious data-sharing issues relating to more sensitive information, such as dates of birth, national insurance numbers, possibly passport numbers and information, and so on. There is a clear distinction, then, between clause 4, to which we will come and under which amendments 9 to 11 fall, and clause 2.

As I have said, amendment 9 relates to a requirement, which we think ought to be laid on universities, to pass over information relating to the students in their residential accommodation. The key point relates to an issue that was raised on Second Reading, when some Members clearly thought it ridiculous to suggest that students are somehow incapable of getting themselves registered once they go to university. However, the key point is that many students often assume that their parents register them at their home address—in other words, where they have come from to study. As the Minister said a few moments ago, however, most students are entitled to register at both—their home address and their university address—so it is important to do what we can to enable and encourage them to make use of that entitlement, so that they can choose where they exercise their right to vote.

Indeed, the response that the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) earlier this year illustrates the point perfectly. She asked the Minister:

“what assessment he has made of the effect that the introduction of individual electoral registration will have on levels of student registration.”

His response was:

“Research is currently being undertaken into the barriers young people face in registering to vote. This research will inform the development of our proposals for individual electoral registration …and in particular our approach to making the transition for students as simple and accessible as possible. In addition, we are working with organisations which represent students to establish the most effective methods of engaging students throughout the transition to IER. The Government will also be conducting further work to explore the potential of data matching for encouraging students to register.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 530.]

I think we would all be interested to hear this evening what progress is being made on that work. It sounds to me as though the Minister is at least sympathetic to the principles behind our amendments, which would make it necessary for those involved with the enrolment of students in an institution to make it as easy as possible for them to register.

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The importance of this issue cannot be overestimated. Constituencies such as Sheffield Central, which is my neighbouring constituency, have more than 30,000 students potentially eligible to register to vote. Indeed, constituencies up and down the country, in places such as Cambridge, York, Oxford and Manchester, will, I would have thought, have similar numbers of students potentially eligible to vote—they include Manchester, Withington and Leeds North West. I am absolutely convinced that the Members in most of those constituencies will be very exercised about ensuring that the maximum number of students register to vote in those areas. Indeed, I am sure that the students there will be determined to exercise their right to vote in 2015 and that the Members there will want to facilitate that.

The other key point to make before I move on is that students do not pay council tax. That means that the information about the residents of an area that is usually available to the local authority is not available for students, which perhaps makes amendment 9 more important than the other two amendments in this group, when it comes to the Government dealing with this issue and making it easier for students to register to vote.

Amendment 10 deals with sheltered housing. The point here is surely that, as things stand, the local authority will have to write to every unit—if Members will forgive my using that term—of housing within a scheme to establish who lives in those properties before issuing an invitation to apply to register. In a way, most of the residents of sheltered housing schemes will be living either on their own or, perhaps, as part of an elderly couple, so a great deal of duplication could be avoided by giving the provider of sheltered housing the responsibility for ensuring that the invitations to register are sent out accurately, by providing information on who is resident in the properties in the first place. The information is available on the council tax database, but all in all, amendment 10 would make the whole process easier to implement and should improve the accuracy of the scheme. The other point is that many elderly disabled people live in sheltered housing. For them, it is important that someone—either the warden of a scheme, where we have them nowadays, or the person in charge of it—should take responsibility for ensuring that the names of all the people in that accommodation are passed on to the ERO.

8.15 pm

As far as private landlords are concerned, the point to make is the one that the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards)—who is no longer in his place—made earlier. There are frequent changes of accommodation in private rented housing, with a great deal of transience. Many people take on rented property in the private rented sector while waiting to buy a house. They might be temporarily resident in an area for a job, and they might be in the property for only six months to a year. It is therefore important that we use the information available to private landlords to ensure accuracy on this point as well. There is a great deal of transience in private rented accommodation, with people moving on to owner-occupier status or local authority rented housing, or to a job elsewhere in the country. It is therefore important to maximise our

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checks on the accuracy of who is living in those properties, by placing an obligation on private rented landlords to provide that information annually.

I will not detain the Committee any longer. There is a great deal of business to get through, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Mr Harper: A number of points have been raised; let me go through them.

First, I shall respond to the hon. Lady’s questions about the IT service. Part of the point of developing the pilots, and particularly the set that we will be discussing in the delegated legislation Committee tomorrow—I do not know whether I shall have the pleasure of seeing the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) or for Caerphilly (Mr David) there—is to ensure, as I think I mentioned, that they are scalable. One of the things that came through in the original pilots was that they are quite resource-intensive. One of the things that we want to look at, in seeing how some of this data capture will work, is ensuring that the process is scalable. The final shape of how the IT service will operate is something that we will work on over the next period, although the service will definitely not be a quango, because, apart from anything else, we deliberately do not have the power to create quangos in this Bill. The final shape is yet to be decided, but we are not going to create another unaccountable non-governmental organisation that nobody will have any control over.

The hon. Lady’s amendments fall into two groups. Amendment 5 deals with local authorities, a point that divides into two parts. In two-tier areas, the ERO already has the ability to look at all the data that the local authority they were appointed by possesses. He or she can therefore look at council tax data and housing benefit data. The gap arises in two-tier areas where the ERO currently does not have the ability to look at the data held by the higher-tier authority. One of the things we will do—not in the pilots that we will debate tomorrow, but in a further set of pilots—is look specifically at how effective the sharing of data is between those tiers of local authorities. If the pilots show that it is effective, we would propose to enable it for local authorities through secondary legislation—that is, if it works, we enable it.

However, the specific pieces of data that the hon. Lady mentioned, such as council tax—I think she also mentioned housing benefit—are already available to the ERO. Interestingly, not all of them use those data to the extent that they are able to, but they absolutely have access to it. Clearly, it is more sensible to use those data, because they map quite considerably across the population and there is access to them. In fact, one of the factors determining registration is people moving. When people move, they generally get registered for council tax purposes. If the EROs are doing their job properly, they will use those data to ensure that their register is up to date.

The situation is slightly different in other circumstances, however. The hon. Lady mentioned further and higher education institutions. Under regulation 23 of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, registration officers already have the power to

“require any person to give information required for the purposes of that officer’s duties”.

They can, and do, use that power to require FE and HE institutions to provide such information. That is the

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legal basis on which it is provided to EROs by, for example, universities with student accommodation. Otherwise, the institutions would not have a legal basis on which to disclose it. So that amendment is unnecessary, as the power already exists.

The hon. Lady asked what we were doing specifically about students. We are working with groups that represent students, such as the National Union of Students. From memory, I think that I have a meeting in my diary this week to discuss this issue with the relevant NUS officer, who has written to me about it. We are also working with organisations that interact with students, such as the Student Loans Company, to look at ways of using the information to ensure that students are given every opportunity, and that it is made as easy as possible for them, to register to vote. It is worth remembering that the existing block registration applies only to university students in halls of residence. It does not apply to those living outside the halls, and the situation will obviously vary across universities. We are absolutely taking this issue seriously.

The question of sheltered accommodation has been raised by a number of organisations. EROs already have the power to require the managers of sheltered accommodation to provide the relevant information to them. Their duty then obliges them, once they have the information, to write to those people. We are also working with organisations that represent people who live in sheltered accommodation, to look at ways of simplifying the process and making it more straightforward. This information will be considered in our second round of data-matching pilots.

The hon. Lady’s final point related to private landlords. I do not think that her proposal adds a great deal, however. The main reason that those in private rented accommodation are less likely to be registered is not directly related to their being private tenants; it is related to the fact that they move more often.

Angela Smith: That is what I said.

Mr Harper: Yes, I know that the hon. Lady said that, but it is because they are likely to move more often that they are also likely to miss the annual canvass. She will know that relatively few people use rolling registration to register to vote. Also, asking those landlords to provide an annual update—assuming that local authorities had a full list of all their private landlords—would have exactly the same flaws as the annual canvass. It would be unlikely to add anything to the process, except a lot of bureaucracy.

The hon. Lady referred to the barriers to registration. The work that we are doing with under-represented groups in that regard is well under way, and I will be in a position to publish it before the summer recess. What we really want to do is develop some of these proposals with evidence. We want to look at the barriers that prevent the various groups from registering. We know who the groups are, from the quantitative research carried out by the Electoral Commission, but our qualitative research, which will tell us why they are not registered, will be ready in the not-too-distant future. At that point, we will be able to consider how to tackle those barriers in a systematic and co-ordinated way.

I hope, therefore, that the hon. Lady will see that the necessary legal powers for electoral registration officers in all those circumstances are already available. We are

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doing the research, which will be published before the summer recess, and we are already working with most of the organisations that work with the under-registered groups. To be fair, she acknowledged that. On that basis, I urge her to withdraw the amendment.

Angela Smith: I thank the Minister for his response. I acknowledge that any scheme to enable data-sharing—particularly when those data are sensitive—will be IT-based, but I have never yet heard of an IT system that works without having the necessary people to put in the data in the first place. The Minister did not give a response about the cost, or about the commitment to funding the scheme properly to ensure that the service runs smoothly and without unnecessary delays. That is the key point, but he did not respond to it. If data sharing is to be used to verify applications in this way, we need to ensure that it does not lead to unnecessary delays, particularly in the run-up to the general election in 2015.

Mr Harper: The hon. Lady is quite right; I did not respond to that point. I had written down all her other points, but I simply omitted to mention that one. The transition to IER is fully funded by the Treasury for this comprehensive spending review period; we are confident about that. We did not inherit a budget for this, incidentally; this was a budget that we had to put in place. I am confident that that is covered and that there are not going to be any issues relating to it. As I said, part of our work in the data-matching pilots involves ensuring that the project is scalable and that it works. We are conscious that, particularly when there is high demand for registration in the run-up to an election, we need to ensure that it all works. One element that will help EROs, particularly at high turn-out elections, is the fact that we know when the next general election is going to be, so it will not be sprung on them at short notice. That should help them with their planning and preparation.

Angela Smith: I thank the Minister for that very full response. I think that there was also an acknowledgment that the Government are relying on the data-testing pilots to ensure that the system runs properly. There is also, however, a refusal on the Government’s part to acknowledge the need to complete that testing work before we stop using the carry-over data for the boundary review in December 2015. There is therefore a potential problem, as we discussed earlier, in relation to the amendments. I am sure that we will come back to that matter.

On amendment 5, I entirely take the Minister’s point about the two-tier authorities; he is absolutely right. Nevertheless, he will be well aware that a large number of authorities are now unitary or metropolitan authorities. I said that a degree of data-sharing was already taking place internally within local authorities, but it remains the case that not all EROs are making use of that facility or using those data effectively to raise levels of completeness in their electoral registers. The amendment is about placing an obligation on EROs to use those data to make life easier not only for people wishing to register but for the EROs themselves in the long run.

On amendment 9, the Minister made the point that the power already exists to require higher and further education institutions to supply the relevant information to EROs. Again, that power is not necessarily being

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used. Now that we are introducing a radical new way of registering people to vote—namely, individual registration —it is even more important that that power should be properly used. We shall not therefore allow that amendment to lapse; we will seek to press it later.

As for the amendments relating to sheltered housing and private landlords, we believe that amendment 9, which deals with the provisions for universities, is a test of the Committee’s feeling on this key point about the sensible and common-sense sharing of data and the placing of obligations directly in the Bill to maximise the use of data-sharing practice without requiring complicated IT provisions or the verifications of the more sensitive data referred to in the schedule.

Opposition Members are receptive to the Minister’s point about barriers. Our deepest concern is that we might end up with an electoral registration system that effectively discourages and discriminates against those parts of the population that are the least likely to register. That is a great concern to us. That is why we believe we need a belt and braces approach to maximising registration and that that approach should be placed as much as possible on the face of the Bill.

8.30 pm

The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) raised a similar point about the registration of armed forces personnel and overseas voters, and I would argue that it is the same principle here. At that point, the Minister thought this represented a well thought through model for maximising voter registration for overseas voters and armed forces personnel. If the principle is right for those groups in society, surely it is right for people in sheltered housing, students in higher education institutions and people in private tenanted housing.

With your agreement, Mr Amess, we will put amendment 9 to one side for now and press it later. I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment 5.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the schedule be the Second schedule to the Bill.

Mark Durkan: I appreciate your indulgence, Mr Amess, and I hope the Minister will be able to offer some assurances about the concerns I raise.

This schedule is entitled “Sharing and Checking Information etc” and it clearly relates to the integrity of the registration process per se. I briefly consulted the draft secondary legislation, which the Minister advertised in response to previous invitations to establish whether the matter about which I am concerned is addressed in that secondary legislation. It is not addressed in the Bill, certainly not in schedule 2.

Issues about the sharing and checking of information arise not just at the registration stage, but during the key phase in the conduct and management of any given election process itself—whether it be a local government election, a general election, elections to health authorities or for police and crime commissioners, local referendums or whatever. A number of different votes now take place, and those charged with electoral management have to go to the market quite often to procure the

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services and supplies from companies that are in a position to support them. It is a growing and significant market, so the whole question of datasets is hugely important in that context. If suppliers cannot have proper access to the relevant datasets because somebody else says that they are really in control of them and leans on electoral registration officers to say that another firm will not get access to their formats or that access will not be made easy, it makes it hard for other suppliers to compete fairly.

That has been an issue in the past, and I have raised it previously. There is a very successful firm in my constituency, which has developed its position in electoral management services. It is a firm called Opt2vote. Local government officers here told the company that they were not in a position to procure from Opt2vote simply because it would cause them difficulty—in respect of time and for budgetary reasons—to issue the contract as another company, Express Ltd, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Electra of Electoral Reform Services Ltd, has ability to access the data formats. Registration data should by its nature be deemed to be in the public interest and to be public property, and it should be fully and readily accessible to any firms competing to provide services. That is in the interests of both fair competition and best-value public procurement.

I hope that the Minister will address the whole question of open data standards in the Bill, because it would be odd if it were not addressed there. I have looked at the draft secondary legislation, in which the Minister has provided a list of other issues that he intends to address in that legislation and others that he does not intend to address. The issue that I have raised appears in neither list, which reinforces my request to him. The Cabinet Office evaluation of data matching pilots in 2011, published in March 2012, noted—on page 33—that there were also issues relating to the consistency of data sets with EMS systems, and that the formatting of some of the data sets meant that match rates were not always as high as they could be. The key way in which it suggested that that could be improved was the standardising of address and name formats throughout national data sets. Recommendation 4 stated:

“Where possible there should be greater consistency between the national datasets and the electoral register/EMS”

—electoral management system—

“to ensure compatibility. In particular improved standardisation of data formats and the use of UPRNs in national datasets would improve match rates, in addition to more sophisticated algorithms.”

We may have to be cautious in interpreting that recommendation. It does not imply that all electoral management systems should use the same data format; it simply implies that the national data set used should be compatible with all electoral management systems, which is substantially different. The Minister might consider it unreasonable to expect data from, for instance, the Department for Work and Pensions to be made available in three different formats to suit each of the electoral management systems. Perhaps the problem would be resolved more easily if only one data format were used.

Given that the Government have invested a substantial amount in developing a common interface electoral mark-up language to meet the objective of introducing a uniform and reliable way of allowing systems that support the running of elections to inter-operate, could

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the Government use the Bill as a vehicle to ensure that a common data standard is applied across all systems? That would end the anomalies that are inherent in the current market, which lead to abuses or, at least, to allegations of abuse, in which data standards are not common and access is not guaranteed to be open.

If Electoral Reform Services Ltd tries to refute the allegations that I have made about it tonight, and the insinuations that I have made about it in the past, I will suggest that the best way in which a company of its kind could be protected from such allegations—and the best way in which a company such as the one in my constituency could be protected from any future abuse—would be for us to address the issue properly in the Bill. It would be a dereliction of duty for that not to be done.

Mr Harper: I will not go into the issues in quite as much detail as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), but I will make a couple of points.

The mandating of the data standards that local authorities use for their individual electoral registers is a matter for them. We have been clear about the fact that theirs are local databases, and that we are not trying to recreate a national database. However, the hon. Gentleman made a good point about interoperability and the exchange of data. In terms of data matching, existing national databases such as the DWP database have a consistent format. We are working with all the electoral management service suppliers who are contracted to local authorities in Great Britain as part of the process in order to optimise the working of the system.

Given that the hon. Gentleman has raised a number of issues, the best thing for me to do is reflect on them and then either write to him or, if it is not appropriate to do just that—given that he mentioned a specific company in his constituency—arrange a meeting with him, which might be more helpful, to make sure that I have addressed his points.

One of the things that we are doing in the pilot—I alluded to this in relation to confirmation—is making sure that the process whereby electoral registration officers send data to the DWP, and vice versa, is scalable. The hon. Gentleman referred to issues in the first set of pilots whereby a lot of EROs found the process resource-intensive. That is one of the things we want to focus on in the second round of pilots, in order to make sure that the process is scalable and does not generate lots of resource issues. Some of that may be about having open standards and making it easier to transmit the data. Let me reflect on the issue further, however. I will then write to the hon. Gentleman and, if necessary, we can have a meeting. I hope that that is a satisfactory response.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 2 accordingly agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Annual canvass

Angela Smith: I beg to move amendment 6, page 3, line 39, leave out from ‘canvass’ to end of line and insert—

‘(1A) The annual canvass must be held during the month of October every year in relation to the area for which the officer acts.’.

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The Temporary Chair (Mr David Amess): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 8, page 4, line 6, at end insert—

‘(3A) Each local authority must write once a year to each address in their Local Land and Property Gazetteer (in Scotland the local addresses in the One Scotland Gazetteer).

(3B) Local authorities must also write to those properties not listed in the Gazetteer but which the local authority believes have been built in the previous two years.

(3C) In addition, the local authority should write to every property from which an electoral registration form has been returned within the past 10 years, except where the officer has good reason to believe that the property is no longer residential or has been demolished, and

(3D) The local authority should write to each property to which it has served a notice for charges or taxes within the previous five years.’.

Amendment 7, page 4, line 9, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘must’.

Angela Smith: Clause 4 is important because it restates the requirement for an annual canvass, which we feel strongly about. It acts as a safeguard against potential long-term deterioration in the accuracy of the electoral register. Indeed, during an evidence session of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) made the point that in two constituencies that she had looked at—neither of them her own—the number of electors in 2011 was

“approximately 3,000 fewer than in 2010 when the general election took place.”

Her conclusion was that many people do not bother to re-register once a general election has come and gone. That encapsulates, for me and other Opposition Members, why we still need the annual canvass.

It is also a proactive approach, rather than one based on council officers chasing the gaps—for want of a better phrase—looking at and trying to resolve the apparent anomalies, and dealing with absences in the register via data-sharing and pursuance of the individuals concerned. That latter approach takes place behind the scenes and suggests that we need permanently to coerce people to go on the register. Although it cannot be denied that some people in this country refuse to register—many such cases, unfortunately, date back to the days of the poll tax fiasco, when many voters deliberately fell off the register in order to avoid being detected and paying fines—we believe that the best approach is a proactive one that gives people the opportunity, on an annual basis, willingly to apply to be on the register. That is what democracy is about; it is about saying to the citizens of any city, town or village, “We want you to exercise your right to vote, and to come forward with the information we need to put you on the register.” The annual canvass is a good and effective way of doing that.

As I have said, the clause restates the importance of the annual canvass, but it also deletes the current requirement that it be conducted on an annual basis every October. The key point is that it is 38 years since a general election took place in autumn or winter—that was the crisis election of October 1974. The one previous to that was another crisis election, that of February 1974. As we will all remember, that was triggered by a Prime Minister who wanted to call the miners’ bluff and asked who ran the country. Before that we had the March 1970 general election, which I am just old enough

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to remember. Prior to that were the elections in 1950 and 1951, which, of course, I am not old enough to recall—I thank God for that. The annual canvass should take place at a time of the year when we are least likely to have elections, and the EROs have the time and space to the job properly. They do not need to feel the pressure of an election coming in six or seven weeks’ time, and to be chasing their tails and worrying about the consumption of resources involved in ensuring that the electoral register that they are responsible for is as accurate and complete as possible.

8.45 pm

Mr Mark Williams: I agree entirely with the hon. Lady about the huge importance of the annual canvass—she is quite right. I wonder whether she has had the time to consider the Electoral Commission’s comments about the timing of the annual canvass. It has complimented the Government’s measures removing the 15 October date as an opportunity for greater flexibility and greater completeness, because the gap between the canvass and the election could be reduced. I appreciate what she says about the rarity of those elections, but the Electoral Commission seems to be saying something different from what she is saying.

Angela Smith: I appreciate that point, and I have read what the Electoral Commission has said about it. However, the key point is the one I made a few moments ago, which is about the importance of getting it right. Secondly, the Electoral Commission has a certain perspective on this. A different perspective would understand the importance of stability at a time of radical change in the registration process. It has to be said that for as long as most of us can remember the culture of this country has seen us running an annual canvass in October every year. That is what people have come to understand, and under the new system there will still be a requirement for the head of the household, or someone in the household, to supply the information to the ERO to enable the sending out of the invitations to register. We will still have that culture of a form being filled in for every property, completed for every residence and returned to the ERO. Opposition Members feel it is important to continue the culture of running that exercise every October, not least because it is the time of year when further and higher education colleges enrol their new students.

In what is often a five or six month gap between the completion of the canvass and the establishment of the new register and the election, the chances of that register being grossly inaccurate are reasonably small. The risk of that is smaller than the risk of a drop-off—a fall—in the number of registrations because we have messed about with the time of year when people will register. I do not think that any hon. Member feels that an annual canvass should be run in July, Easter or post-Christmas. Is there any point in the year, other than October, that makes sense? There is a reason why October is the date, and we think we should stick with it. Amendment 6 would reinstate the requirement that EROs run an annual canvass in October of every year.

Amendment 8 seeks to strengthen and improve the process; this is the belt and braces approach that I talked about earlier in relation to amendments 9, 10 and 11. The gazetteer is a very complete and up-to-date list

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of any property in a local area. We believe that EROs should write once a year to every property listed in the gazetteer, supplemented by those properties that they know to have been built in the past two years, when registration forms have been returned in the past 10 years and when a property has been involved in the charging of taxes by the local authority in the past five years. In all those circumstances, we believe that the ERO should send a form to the property concerned to ensure that we do everything we can to guarantee the highest possible level of completion of each new register.

Earlier we argued for the need to glean information from university institutions, sheltered housing providers and private landlords in order to aid the process of building a high quality and highly complete register. We also believe, however, that such an approach should be supplemented by our using the soundest possible sources of information about which properties are occupied in any area when the local authority qualifies as an electoral registration authority. If the House agrees to those requirements, that will mean that we have done our best to guarantee that the new individual registration process succeeds rather than fails. That is the key point that Opposition Members are trying to make.

Amendment 7 deals with house-to-house inquiries on which, in our view, the Bill is far too weak. It gives EROs the power possibly to conduct a few house-to-house inquiries, stating that they “may” do so, but in our view they must carry out house-to-house inquiries, particularly when citizens have constantly and repeatedly refused to register to vote. Given that we have included a penalty in the Bill and reinstated the principle of enforcing the requirement on citizens of this country to register to vote, it makes sense that we should require EROs to do their utmost to ensure that the law on electoral registration is complied with. “May” is only one word, but it is very important and saying to EROs that they may, rather than must, conduct house-to-house inquiries represents a watering down of the commitment in the Representation of the People Act 1983.

I am convinced that not only Opposition Members but Government Members are fundamentally democrats at heart who believe in people’s right to vote and in the importance of their registering to vote. Let me make a plea to the Minister, who I know to be a man of logic and reason. The replacement of the single word “may” with the word “must” is a small concession to make for the sake of this House doing its best to ensure that democracy in this country is properly served and is as legitimate as it possibly can be. I call on the Minister to concede this amendment and to put hon. Members’ minds at rest on this point.


Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Amess, for the opportunity to comment, particularly on amendment 6 on the annual canvass, and the issues that it raises in relation to young people’s engagement in politics, and that of students in particular. I recognise that not all students are young people, but the vast majority are. Sadly, according to a million+ report produced recently, there are declining numbers of mature students as a result of the Government’s policies on higher education.

I represent a city where, as Members are aware, voters were turned away in large numbers at the general election. It is an issue which new clause 4 deals with later. Those

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voters were largely students or others who were affected by a surge in student voting, and those students were whipped up to vote by the fairly relentless campaigning of the Deputy Prime Minister on both our campuses, which are both in my constituency. Members will remember the “trust me, we’re different” initiative during the general election—the promise that

“We will resist, vote against, campaign against, any lifting”

of the cap on tuition fees, with a plan to abolish tuition fees within six years. I notice Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches looking a little bit embarrassed, and understandably so. That was no subscript in the manifesto. In constituencies such as mine, it was at the very heart of their party’s campaign, as the president of the Hallam university union, Caroline Dowd, said at the time:

“We could not get”

the Deputy Prime Minister

“out of our union before the general election.”

Afterwards, when she was being held to account, she pointed out that they could not get him in.

The broken pledge on tuition fees has not simply damaged the Liberal Democrats’ party; it has damaged trust in politics for a whole generation of young people. All the people who were persuaded to vote, queuing in Sheffield Hallam because they believed the pledge, they believed in a fresh approach, they believed that when people signed a solemn promise, they would keep it, feel betrayed by the trust that they put in politics. So many of them whom I have spoken to are now saying, “Why should we vote?” I have knocked on many student doors during subsequent local elections. This is precisely the time when we should be making extra efforts to engage students, not reduce their participation. Amendment 6 and the annual canvass in October specifically address that issue.

Mr Mark Williams: On a more positive note and with reference to amendment 7, which refers to the importance of face-to-face dialogue with students, will the hon. Gentleman endorse the comments of his hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on the Front Bench that simply sending communications to students, many of them in halls of residence, and getting post through to students is a particular difficulty, and face-to-face dialogue is extremely important in building trust and building students’ confidence to sign up to the electoral register?

Paul Blomfield: The hon. Gentleman is right. It is necessary to complement an annual canvass in October and support that process with face-to-face contact. It is a point that I will come to in a moment.

My city is associated with steel and still produces steel and engineering products, as it always did, but it is now also a major student city. As I said, both of our great universities are in my constituency. At the last count, 31,800 students live in Sheffield Central, and they are very much part of the place. They live there for at the very least 31 weeks a year, and many for 52 weeks on full accommodation contracts. For all of them, it is their main place of residence. They contribute to the economy and the life of the city and they have a right for their voice to be heard in elections.

At the university of Sheffield there is a block registration scheme for all eligible students in university accommodation, which will end with this legislation. The Government

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claim that individual electoral registration is about preventing fraud. I assume that they do not think the university of Sheffield is guilty of electoral fraud. Therefore, one wonders why the Government think it necessary to remove the opportunity for block registration in this legislation. But they are pressing ahead, so I think that amendment 6 and the need for an annual canvass would go some way towards mitigating the damage that will create.

9 pm

The National Union of Students has said:

“It is clear that the removal of joint registration for university halls of residence could have a very negative impact on electoral participation among the student population. There remain numerous and significant barriers to getting young people registered to vote”—

a point the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) made in his intervention—

“The onus is on the Government to demonstrate that these proposals will not undermine longstanding efforts to increase turnout and registration among students and young people… Without clear evidence to the contrary, we can assume that large numbers of students will fail to register under the proposed model”.

Mr Mark Williams: The hon. Gentleman might have guessed that I share an interest in higher education; I, like him, have two universities in my constituency. Might not an alternative approach be to have the students register to vote when registering for their college courses? Is that not an opportunity to maximise student participation in the electoral register?

Paul Blomfield: I think that that is an opportunity; there might be innovative ways to combine the registration process with other processes. However, there are certain difficulties because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, many universities now have fairly sophisticated online registration processes at the point of joining the institution, rather than the face-to-face contact to which he refers, so there are potentially some difficulties. In essence, we need to look creatively at every opportunity, and that would indeed be one of them.

The point the NUS makes is that, if we are to avoid a fall-off in registration, considerable information, communication and investment are needed. I must say that I think it would be simpler all round if we retained block registration, but the Government, whether or not they think that universities are guilty of electoral fraud, are pressing ahead. When I raised that issue on Second Reading, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) challenged me, suggesting that I underestimated the ability of students to complete forms, but that is not actually the point. I have been lobbied strongly by students on the issue. Only today the newly elected officers of the University of Sheffield students’ union met me in Westminster, along with their outgoing predecessors, and made the point again. One of them, Harry Horton, summed up the difficulty—the hon. Member for Ceredigion will appreciate this—and explained that when students first arrive at university and live in halls, among all the other things going on in their lives, registering to vote is not necessarily a priority, so it is comforting for them to know that it is done automatically. If that changes, registering becomes another form to fill in during the first few whirlwind weeks away from home when their

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whole lives are being turned upside down. As a result, the fear is that some students, particularly those who do not come with a commitment to engagement in democracy, will not register.

Nick de Bois: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I have four children, the youngest of whom is currently at university, and so have shared with them all the experience of their first term. They were sprinkled with the occasional lesson and tutorial but they were hardly overwhelmed, and I regard the students as responsible and intelligent individuals. I think that there is too much here that is nanny-stating them to the ballot box and the voting forms. Surely they are quite capable of taking responsibility themselves.

Paul Blomfield: I, too, consider students to be responsible, intelligent and able individuals—all 31,800 in my constituency and indeed the rest in our universities and in higher education across the country. But for those students there are so many different things to register for, such as the health service and course modules, and there are all sorts of choices to be made in their lives, and many of them are also uncertain about where they stand in relation to electoral registration. They assume that their place of registration is their family home, as indeed it is, not what is in effect their primary place of residence, where they study at university, so that additional effort is needed to ensure that they are fully aware of their opportunity to register in their place of study.

For those students in private accommodation in Sheffield, the student unions of both universities run vigorous electoral registration campaigns, and the unions’ experience is pertinent to the issue, because their students, like many people, leave electoral registration until the point when they need it. The unions’ registration campaigns do not work in November or December; they work in February, March and April—just before elections. So the Bill will effectively, when taken alongside the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 exclude them not only from the electoral roll for upcoming elections, but from the redrawing of boundaries and the reshaping of our constituencies, thereby depriving them of their voice in general.

In that context, the annual canvass in October will provide students with a focus to register at the point when they join—and if it is complemented by face-to-face contact so much the better—and with an opportunity to join the electoral register at the point when it can make a difference not only in their entitlement to vote but, crucially, when it comes to redrawing parliamentary boundaries.

The students whom I met from the university of Sheffield told me that they have tried very hard to meet their other constituency MP, the Deputy Prime Minister, to talk about voter registration. In fact they have been trying since October, but unsuccessfully, so I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to reaffirm their desire to meet the Deputy Prime Minister to discuss the issue both in his leading role on the matter and in his role as their constituency representative.

Although amendment 6 and, indeed, 9, which was considered earlier, would not go as far as I should wish and restore the right to block registration, they would

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work entirely with the grain of the Bill, so the Government should not have any difficulty accepting them and recognising that they are a modest attempt, among their other objectives, to address the potential drop in electoral registration and to ensure that electoral registration officers contact students in the first term of each year.

If the amendments are not accepted, I will conclude only that the Government do not want students to vote in the next election or to have a voice in the reshaped parliamentary constituencies.

Sheila Gilmore: I shall address primarily the issues around undertaking a good door-to-door canvass, because the experience of various electoral registration officers throughout the country is that, when that happens, they end up with a much more complete register than when any number of letters are simply sent out to drop on people’s doorsteps.

That is true of various other bureaucratic interventions that a local authority or, indeed, any other authority might want to make. I remember having much the same discussion about how to collect rent arrears effectively from tenants when I was the convenor of housing on Edinburgh city council. The habitual process was to send out letter one, letter two, letter three, but people who for whatever reason were not minded to pay much attention to that tended to disregard them and did not take them seriously—however well or clearly they were framed. That is a lesson in the fact that dropping lots of letters through people’s doors is not necessarily particularly effective.

When the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee was considering the Bill, we had evidence from some electoral registration officers who had achieved a much higher level of registration than others—largely through such things as regular door-to-door work. They put in that additional effort so they were gaining, even in areas, comparable with areas with much lower levels of registration, where it was otherwise difficult to register people. It was not that the EROs were in leafy suburbs where it is easy to get people registered; there was a return on the work put into some quite difficult areas.

In the inner-city areas of Edinburgh, there is the problem of a lot of multi-occupation—not just students, although there are student flats, but a large number of other shared accommodation. The Government want far more shared accommodation for young people, certainly in respect of the benefit system, so the issue will become even bigger.

We know what happens when letters come through the door of such households; they get stacked up somewhere. We also have issues, which I hope will be resolved, with how the addresses are labelled. Anybody who has done door-knocking and leafleting in some of our traditional tenements in Scotland invariably finds a little pile of undelivered mail sitting on the stairs; it has not been accurately addressed or people may have moved on. Trying to find out whether they are still there can be very confusing, partly because of the bizarre numbering system for our tenement buildings.

We call the first flat on the third floor, for example, 3F1. We also have PF1, PF2 and so on, which is the ground floor, although I still do not know what “P” stands for, while in other flats the ground floor is referred to as “G”. Traditionally, people called them something completely different. In shared accommodation,

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where people might well not pass on letters, the knock on the door—a personal approach—may yield results. It is important that we do not just say that it can be done, but that it should be done. A further issue is how we put the resources into doing that; it is resource-intensive, which some local authorities might find difficult.

However, I am reassured that the Minister has told us that he will look at the allocation of resources for electoral registration this summer; I hope that he will take the issue that I have mentioned into account when he divides up the resources to be made available for that purpose. If we do not take the resources into account, even saying “must” rather than “may” will lead us into problems.

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): Mr Amess, I apologise for not having been present for the other part of the debate; I was detained elsewhere. I also apologise for my tie, a father’s day gift from my six-year-old son. I promised him I would wear it in the Chamber at some point. [Interruption.] He is not watching me from home, I hope; I expect him to be in bed, but you never know.

I want to speak briefly to amendment 7 because I genuinely believe that it goes to the heart of our long debate about the importance of electoral registration and of voting itself. When I was first elected, one of the first failed campaigns on which I embarked was to try to persuade the then Government to make registering to vote compulsory. That will sound odd in the current context, but, as was the case 10 years ago, most people today are under the impression that it is against the law not to register to vote. Of course, it was always compulsory to return a completed electoral registration form, but it was never compulsory, and still is not, to register to vote and have one’s name on the list. That is wrong. I am absolutely opposed to compulsory voting, but it would send an important and powerful message to the country if the Government were to say, “It is entirely up to you whether you wish to vote, but we must use all our powers to make sure that when polling day comes you have an opportunity to vote even if you do not wish to take it up.” That commitment should have the force of law and perhaps a financial penalty attached for someone who does not vote.

9.15 pm

Nick de Bois: Does not the hon. Gentleman think that by, in effect, criminalising people if they fail to register—[Interruption.] I will be grateful if the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) lets me finish my point. Putting the heavy hand of the state into the system again could have the counter-productive effect of switching more people off from the system.

Mr Harris: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has intervened, because I wanted to refer to comments that he made in an intervention a few minutes ago. As my hon. Friend said, it is already a criminal offence not to return a completed registration form, for which there is a potential fine of £1,000. The hon. Gentleman may well not agree that that should be the case. That speaks to a fundamental difference between how his party and my party see civic activity. I believe that although voting should not be compulsory, it is a civic duty that, in the past, we took for granted. Turnouts in the elections following the second world war were about 80% because voting was something that everyone did. That is no

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longer the case, and we in this House have to bear some responsibility for that increase in the lack of activity and engagement in the political process. The Government have an important role to play in making sure that when it comes to polling day, every adult in this country has the right to decide whether to vote.

It is not remotely, in any way, shape or form, a compromise of civil liberties to say that everyone should be on the electoral register. Apart from everything else, there is an important argument for that in relation to financial inclusion. Often, credit card and finance companies will not give someone credit unless there is some proof that they exist, and that often comes from the electoral register.

The clause betrays the Government’s very lax approach towards voter registration. It is not enough merely to say that electoral registration officers may conduct an annual canvass. I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), because it was in her company that I first canvassed for the Labour party in 1985; that makes us both sound extremely old. The importance of a local authority canvass cannot be overstated. I remember as recently as the late 1980s hearing a knock on the door in the evening, when a local authority officer would hand me my form and ask me to stand there, fill it out and give it back to him. That was not seen as an intervention that was alien to our traditional way of doing politics but as a core element of the democratic process.

The Bill must include an absolute legal obligation for electoral registration officers to conduct a house-to-house canvass, whether it is every year or relates to a longer period. I have worked for local authorities, and I guarantee that “may” will inevitably come to be translated as “won’t”. Unless we put “must” into the Bill, I fear for the future of democracy in this country. On the strength of the arguments that we have heard since 6 May 2010, that state of affairs will concern Labour Members a lot more than Government Members.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): It is a pleasure finally to partake of the Committee stage of the Bill and of your chairmanship, Mr Amess.

I say to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) that I do not think that a great deal divides our intent on these matters. We are clear that we want the most comprehensive register that we can achieve and to ensure that electoral registration officers do their job effectively in bringing that about. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) had a little silliness along party political lines, but most Members have made positive points about the need to ensure that as many eligible people as possible are registered.

Some of the criticism of the Government proposals comes a little ill from the party that passed the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, in which there was no requirement for an annual canvass and which abolished the annual canvass, and that said in government that there would be no block registration at Queen’s university Belfast or the university of Ulster because it was no longer necessary. Perhaps some of the points that have been made by Labour Members would have been better addressed to their own Ministers when they were proposing legislation from this Dispatch Box.

Mr Tom Harris rose

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Mr Heath: I will give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman, but I will not give way many times.

Mr Harris: It is slightly disingenuous of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that Northern Ireland is exactly the same as everywhere in Great Britain, given the threat that there was in 2002 to local authority canvassers, particularly in parts of east and west Belfast. Since there are different electoral registration arrangements in Northern Ireland and have been since the late 1960s, he is being a little ungenerous to the former Government.

Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman is wearing a lovely tie, but his point is not entirely logical. The arguments for getting rid of the door-to-door annual canvass in Northern Ireland were nothing to do with the security situation and everything to do with the system of individual voter registration that was being introduced. That is precisely analogous to what we are doing.

Let me deal with the substance of the points that have been made. There is one clear misapprehension among those who have spoken, which is to assume that there is currently a requirement for the annual canvass to take place in October. That is not the case under current legislation. There is a reference date of 15 October. That is the point at which people are asked to consider where they are resident. That is quite a confusing requirement. I know for a fact that people who are trying to register get confused by it. They think, “Hang on a minute. On 15 October I plan to be visiting my Aunt Gladys in Carlisle. Where should I put myself down as being resident?” The reference date is therefore not necessarily helpful to the process of registration. There is not a requirement for the canvass to take place in October. It can take place at any time and is divorced from the reference date.

The canvass usually takes place around October because of the other factors that electoral registration officers have to consider, such as the deadline for the publication of the register, the performance standards set by the Electoral Commission, the data return that electoral registration officers are required to provide to the Office for National Statistics and the usual timing of elections in May. Electoral registration officers will still have to take those factors into account when making arrangements for the canvass.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has discussed this matter with an expert panel of electoral registration officers and electoral administrators. It has welcomed the removal of the reference date, which it agrees is confusing, and sees the advantage of the requirement for an annual canvass as it is put forward in the Bill. It provides flexibility, but at the same time there is an implied date that officers can work around. They can extend the canvass period if it will help the completeness of the register, but they will still be canvassing at approximately the same time. I hope that that at least helps Members understand what is proposed.

Amendment 8 is about what factors the electoral registration officer takes into account in preparing the canvass. Proposed new section 9D(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which will be inserted by clause 4, states:

“Each registration officer in Great Britain must conduct an annual canvass in relation to the area for which the officer acts.”

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That follows the wording of the canvassing obligation in existing legislation. Registration officers are therefore already required to canvass their whole area, and we do not need to set out in new primary legislation the precise categories of property that a registration officer must contact to comply with the requirement to canvass their area. The electoral register and the local land and property gazetteer use the same address data.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Will the Deputy Leader of the House give way?

Mr Heath: Yes, I will. I know I will regret it, but I will.

Chris Ruane: I thank the hon. Gentleman. The obligation of door-to-door canvassing was set out in, I think, the Electoral Administration Act 2006, but many authorities did not take it up. Year after year, they were asked, “Are you doing this?”, and responded, “No.” We need firmer legislation. We were not firm enough in 2006, and here is an opportunity to state firmly in legislation that officers have to go out door-knocking year in, year out, because that is what gets results.

Mr Heath: I do not regret having given way to the hon. Gentleman as much as I often do, because his point is pertinent, but it is pertinent to amendment 7 rather than to amendment 8, which I am addressing at the moment and which is about the areas of information—

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): How about answering the point?

Mr Heath: I prefer to answer it at the point in my remarks where I reach the relevant amendment, rather than suddenly plucking a piece of information out of the air. I think that is helpful to the House.

We expect registration officers, as part of their canvassing duty, to write to all properties of which they are aware and at which people may be resident, including all the categories mentioned in amendment 8 and any other properties containing potentially eligible electors. The difficulty with specifying categories in primary legislation at the level that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge suggests is that it could inadvertently narrow the scope of what electoral registration officers are expected to do. Such details are difficult to change if they are set out in primary rather than secondary legislation.

I move on to amendment 7, so the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) will be pleased to know that his point is now relevant. I am grateful to hon. Members of all parties for highlighting the benefit of conducting house-to-house inquiries as part of the canvassing process. Section 9A of the 1983 Act already requires registration officers to take all steps necessary to maintain their electoral register. That includes the requirement to make house-to-house inquiries on one or more occasions. That will remain in the 1983 Act, so it is not necessary to make the suggested amendment.

In addition, the Electoral Commission’s performance standards set out the steps that a registration officer must take to comply with their duty, and we expect full compliance with those standards. Registration officers can carry out house-to-house inquiries to obtain information when no canvass form has been received, or to supplement such information, but the Bill will also

18 Jun 2012 : Column 703

enable them to make use of house-to-house inquiries before sending out canvass forms. That is an important distinction. Such inquiries may not be appropriate in every area, so we would not want to amend legislation to require registration officers to conduct them, but they will be particularly useful in ensuring the effectiveness of the canvass in areas of high population turnover such as we have discussed this evening. What I am really saying is that existing requirements remain, but they will be supplemented by this legislation.

Chris Ruane: The Minister mentions the provision in the 1983 Act. The 2006 Act re-emphasised that and gave it greater status. Will that now be superseded, because even when it was given greater status it was not properly implemented? Here is an opportunity to make the 2006 Act even stronger. Will he take it?

Mr Heath: Nothing is being superseded. The arrangements that we are putting in place will strengthen the requirement. I do not accept that changing the word “may” to “must” would make the slightest difference to those recalcitrant councils that simply do not do their job properly, and those are the ones that we and the Electoral Commission need to address. We will do so, and I am confident that at the end of the process we will have a better registration process than we have at the moment, and it will be much more inclusive of those who should be registered.

I heard the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) explain the numbering system in Edinburgh on Second Reading and I heard her again this evening, and I am afraid that I am still no more confident that I could understand how to deliver anything there. That is a matter that the electoral registration officer in Edinburgh needs to take very seriously.

I invite the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge to withdraw the amendment and to work with us to ensure that the arrangements in the Bill work most effectively.

Angela Smith: It has been a long night. I have listened carefully to the contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) and for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore). The points made about amendments 7 and 8 should be taken very seriously, but I will leave it to the other place to discuss them in greater detail. We intend to press amendment 6 to the vote, because we believe that it is crucial to have an annual canvass at the right time of the year—the time when people understand that it takes place by tradition.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee proceeded to a Division.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.

The Committee having divided:

Ayes 211, Noes 287.

Division No. 17]

[9.32 pm

AYES

Abbott, Ms Diane

Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Ashworth, Jonathan

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Banks, Gordon

Barron, rh Mr Kevin

Beckett, rh Margaret

Bell, Sir Stuart

Benton, Mr Joe

Berger, Luciana

Betts, Mr Clive

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blears, rh Hazel

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Brown, Mr Russell

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Caton, Martin

Chapman, Mrs Jenny

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creasy, Stella

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

David, Mr Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

Davies, Geraint

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobbin, Jim

Dobson, rh Frank

Docherty, Thomas

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Doyle, Gemma

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Maria

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Engel, Natascha

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flint, rh Caroline

Flynn, Paul

Francis, Dr Hywel

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Goggins, rh Paul

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Mr David

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harris, Mr Tom

Havard, Mr Dai

Healey, rh John

Hendrick, Mark

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Heyes, David

Hilling, Julie

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hopkins, Kelvin

Hosie, Stewart

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jamieson, Cathy

Jarvis, Dan

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Susan Elan

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lavery, Ian

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leslie, Chris

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

Mahmood, Shabana

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCarthy, Kerry

McClymont, Gregg

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Jim

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

McKinnell, Catherine

Meacher, rh Mr Michael

Meale, Sir Alan

Mearns, Ian

Michael, rh Alun

Miliband, rh David

Miller, Andrew

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morden, Jessica

Morrice, Graeme

(Livingston)

Morris, Grahame M.

(Easington)

Munn, Meg

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Owen, Albert

Perkins, Toby

Phillipson, Bridget

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reeves, Rachel

Reynolds, Jonathan

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robertson, Angus

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Mr Frank

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Sarwar, Anas

Seabeck, Alison

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheridan, Jim

Shuker, Gavin

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Owen

Spellar, rh Mr John

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Vaz, rh Keith

Vaz, Valerie

Watson, Mr Tom

Watts, Mr Dave

Weir, Mr Mike

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Wicks, rh Malcolm

Williams, Hywel

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Phil

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Wood, Mike

Woodcock, John

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Ayes:

Lyn Brown and

Yvonne Fovargue

NOES

Afriyie, Adam

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Baker, Norman

Baker, Steve

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, Gregory

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Brake, rh Tom

Bray, Angie

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Steve

Brokenshire, James

Brooke, Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, Conor

Burrowes, Mr David

Burt, Lorely

Byles, Dan

Cairns, Alun

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carmichael, Neil

Cash, Mr William

Clappison, Mr James

Clark, rh Greg

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Crabb, Stephen

Crockart, Mike

Crouch, Tracey

Davies, David T. C.

(Monmouth)

Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duddridge, James

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Jonathan

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Fallon, Michael

Farron, Tim

Featherstone, Lynne

Field, Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freer, Mike

Fullbrook, Lorraine

Fuller, Richard

Gale, Sir Roger

Garnier, Mr Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gilbert, Stephen

Glen, John

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, Damian

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, rh Mr Philip

Hancock, Matthew

Hands, Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Harvey, Nick

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, Mr John

Heald, Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, Mr Gerald

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Huhne, rh Chris

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Huppert, Dr Julian

James, Margot

Javid, Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Laing, Mrs Eleanor

Lamb, Norman

Lancaster, Mark

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Leigh, Mr Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lewis, Dr Julian

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Long, Naomi

Lopresti, Jack

Luff, Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Maude, rh Mr Francis

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McCrea, Dr William

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, Esther

Mensch, Louise

Menzies, Mark

Mercer, Patrick

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mulholland, Greg

Mundell, rh David

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Nokes, Caroline

Nuttall, Mr David

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Opperman, Guy

Ottaway, Richard

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Phillips, Stephen

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Raab, Mr Dominic

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reid, Mr Alan

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Shepherd, Mr Richard

Simmonds, Mark

Simpson, David

Simpson, Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Sir Robert

Soames, rh Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stunell, Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Syms, Mr Robert

Teather, Sarah

Thurso, John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Truss, Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Walter, Mr Robert

Ward, Mr David

Watkinson, Angela

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Mark Hunter and

Mr Philip Dunne

Question accordingly negatived.