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Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): Did not the G20 communiqué argue that advanced economies should pursue fiscal consolidation at a pace appropriate to support recovery? Why, then, is the Prime Minister pursuing fiscal consolidation at a pace that has contributed to a double-dip recession?

The Prime Minister: We are pursuing fiscal consolidation at a pace that is right for the British economy, which is why our interest rates are as low as they are.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): Was the Prime Minister surprised to hear quite a lot of questions about stand-up comedians but that neither Tony Blair nor the Leader of the Opposition have ruled out joining the euro?

The Prime Minister: To be fair to the Leader of the Opposition, he has said that whether or not they will join the euro depends on how long he is Prime Minister, whereas the shadow Chancellor has said that they will not join the euro “in his political lifetime”, which gives us an interesting conflict—[Interruption.] For once, the shadow Chancellor has said something from a sedentary position with which I agree. He said that his political lifetime could be quite short—here’s hoping.




Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): On a more serious note—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. This outbreak of amity is very welcome, but I am sure that Members are united in wanting to hear Mr Mark Lazarowicz.

Mark Lazarowicz: On a more serious note about the euro, Greece now has a new Government, which indicates that it will accept the bail-out but wants some flexibility in how it is implemented. What will the G20 and other institutions do to meet that request? Of course Greece must accept its responsibilities, restructure its economy and all the rest of it, but at the same time is it not important that we show flexibility, so that we do not run the risk of the new Greek Government collapsing along with the deal and, as a result, bringing down not only Greece, but many others in the world community?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. It will be a decision for the Greeks to make in collaboration with the members of the European Union that have extended that money to Greece, of which we are not one, and of course the International Monetary Fund. The problem is that any delay in the terms of the memorandum effectively means more money going from those predominantly eurozone members to Greece, so those discussions have to be had; but other countries that are on track with the programmes that have been put in place will, I think, feel very uneasy about one country getting special terms. In the end, it will be a matter for the eurozone members and Greece to hammer this out between them.

Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on facing down the Argentine President and pointing out that we will not be bullied or have any silly stunts. Does that not contrast starkly with either giving away huge European rebates

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or cosying up to African dictators, and show once again that if we want someone to stand up for sovereignty and British interests, we need a Conservative Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. It seemed to me important to try to make that point, not just to Argentina but—almost more to the point—to other countries, which sometimes go along with motions proposed at various international gatherings that are against the interests of the Falkland islanders because they have not heard their voice. People are now going to hear that voice, and I hope the world will listen.

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Is not the Prime Minister’s influence in and prescription for the world economy fatally undermined by the first double-dip recession in 37 years in this country?

The Prime Minister: The point about what we are saying about the world economy is that, in fact, we are part of the consensus on the need to stop the march to protectionism, to regulate the banks properly, to have credible fiscal plans so that interest rates are kept down, and to have proper monetary activism and structural reforms to deliver growth. That is what the world signed up to at the G20 and it is a consensus that the Labour party is completely out of.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Given that the Leader of the Opposition seems to have identified the President of France as his special friend, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is worth reminding the right hon. Gentleman of the words of President Hollande, who said that growth cannot be generated by means of further public spending, because that needs to be reined in?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right—that is exactly what the President of France said. He knows that a credible plan to reduce the deficit is necessary to generate growth in any country, and that one is fatally undermined by the lack of that credibility. It is only the left in this country that thinks we can borrow our way out of debt.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): May I register the deep disappointment that the Prime Minister did not make the extra journey to attend the Rio+20 Earth summit? Given his remarks about growth, may I ask how he is making the links between the need to go beyond GDP and the importance of natural capital in the arguments and the growth objectives on the G20 agenda?

The Prime Minister: That is a perfectly fair question. My judgment was that having done the G8 and NATO summits, then the G20 and an important bilateral visit to Mexico—we should be linking up with the fastest-growing economies in the world—it was better to ask the Deputy Prime Minister to attend the Rio summit, which I believe made some important progress. This Government believe that, as well as GDP, we should be thinking about other measures of sustainability and

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well-being, and we are measuring those things for the first time in this country, which is giving something of a lead to others.

Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s support for free trade at the G20, and like him I believe that the free movement of peoples is important to free trade, but does he agree that it was a great dereliction of responsibility by the previous Government not to introduce transition arrangements in relation to those states that joined the EU in 2004?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. It was the Conservative Opposition who warned that it was a bad decision to allow unencumbered access to British labour markets from countries such as Poland. We well remember being told, “You can’t talk about these things”, that it is somehow racist to discuss immigration, and all the rest of it. Year after year we had to put up with that nonsense, and to get a half-baked apology now is simply not good enough.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): It was interesting to see that the Prime Minister treats correspondence from the President of Argentina in the same way as he treats correspondence from Members of the House. Will he make it clear beyond any equivocation that not only is the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands not open for negotiation, but it is not open for discussion in any forum whatever, and that the wishes of the people of the Falklands to remain British will prevail?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. The referendum of the Falkland islanders will help us to deliver that in practice as well as in theory. Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that if he writes me a letter, I shall try to respond to it very speedily.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): I share my right hon. Friend’s concerns about the sovereignties and powers that may be given over by some of the weaker countries. I am concerned that we are not having a debate about what sort of chimera will be created by those who will mop up those powers and sovereignties, and I urge my right hon. Friend to speak up strongly on the European Council this week. May we have a debate when he returns from the Council, to inform the House exactly how we are being protected against this newly created large superstate?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course there will be consequences if the eurozone members go ahead and form a more integrated eurozone, and it is very important that we protect Britain’s interests, particularly our interest in having a fair and open single market. On the issue of how we debate these things in Parliament, the Backbench Business Committee took over all the days for Back-Bench debates including, as I understand it, the time that was previously allotted by the Government for European debates in advance of European summits. So if the Backbench Business Committee wants to put in such debates, I am sure Foreign Office Ministers would be only too happy to answer those debates, which would help inform me before I go off to European Councils.

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Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is grossly hypocritical of the Argentine Government to demand talks on the Falklands, while at the same time refusing to accept a letter from the Falkland Island Government about talks?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are a number of things about which the Falkland islanders would like to have proper discussions with Argentina—about the links between the Falklands and countries in Latin America; ordinary conversations that the Falkland Islands should be having with neighbouring countries. What is absolutely clear is that for that to happen, countries need to respect the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands and the decision that people there make.

Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): What benefits might my constituents see from an EU-US free trade agreement?

The Prime Minister: If we expanded trade between Britain and America as part of the EU expanding its trade with America, the benefits would be more goods and services and more jobs in the UK, and more opportunities to export. We might find particular advantages to Britain in some of the services fields, where we have very good companies that do not always get full access to US markets. In that way my hon. Friend’s constituents would benefit.

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Despite the economic headwinds of the eurozone crisis, in the west midlands in the past year 4,000 jobs were lost in the public sector, but 81,000 jobs were created in the private sector. Does that not vindicate the Government’s strategy of reducing the deficit and keeping interest rates low?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said, there are 400,000 more people in work than there were in May 2010. Of course we have seen some job reductions in the public sector, but they have been more than made up—several times made up—by the jobs that have increased in the private sector. That is the sort of rebalancing that our economy needs.

Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend encourage business to look also beyond the EU to secure growth and future orders, and will he ensure that Government policies are designed to support business to do that and to break down often hidden protectionism in other markets?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right. Part of the Government’s strategy is to link Britain with some of the fastest growing countries in the world, and that is why I have personally taken trade missions to almost all of the G20 countries now, apart from Brazil and Argentina, and I hope to go to Brazil later this year. One of the most effective ways to break down trade barriers is through the EU trade deals. We have done one with Korea; we now need to do one with Japan, and there are many others in the pipeline.

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): The Prime Minister has talked a lot about eradicating the debt. At the start of the Parliament he said he would eradicate it by the end of the Parliament. How is that timetable going?

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The Prime Minister: The deficit has been reduced by a quarter in two years.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): The Argentine Government and the media often repeat the claim that Argentina wants the Falkland Islands back. Does my right hon. Friend agree that no one can have something back that has never been theirs? Argentina has never had legal possession of the Falkland Islands, and unless it is the wish of the Falkland islanders themselves, it never will do.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend puts it very well; I could not have put it better myself. The key point is self-determination, and that is what the referendum will prove.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that the relative strength of the German economy is partly derived from the fact that it has a sensible approach to public finances, and that we should continue to promote that across Europe? Does he also agree that the importance of the European Central Bank needs to be further enhanced?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, there is an enormous amount of pressure on Germany to do more to back the eurozone, and I understand and support some of that pressure, but we should remember that the German economy is so strong because it went into the recession with a budget surplus, whereas we had a budget deficit, and it had spent the previous 10 years getting more competitive, building up its industry and making sure its economy was balanced. Sadly, under the last Government we spent too much time imitating Greece, and not enough time imitating Germany.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): It seems that 655 Argentines lost their lives in the Falklands war. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if Argentina were to restore proper sea and air links to the Falkland Islands, the families and loved ones of those in the Argentine cemetery would be able to visit it properly, which is what should happen?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is the air link with Chile. Obviously, if there were better relations, there could be air links with Argentina, but that has to be on the basis that Argentina respects the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands and the decision that the people of the Falkland Islands are going to make. Another reason why the referendum is important is that it will put that beyond doubt, and perhaps that will allow better conversations to take place.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Is it not right that international problems such as tax avoidance should be dealt with internationally at meetings such as the G20 summit, particularly as in the UK tax avoidance by individuals and corporations increased massively during the past decade? Is it not wrong and morally repugnant for anyone to attack, belittle or undermine the Prime Minister in dealing with this, particularly as the Leader of the Opposition did in his remarks earlier?

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The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for what he says and make the simple point that tax evasion is illegal and should be pursued properly. Of course there are things that people do to minimise their tax bill, whether it be investing in a pension or an ISA, but as the Chancellor has said, and I totally agree, there are some aggressive tax avoidance schemes that should be roundly condemned, and that is exactly what the Government are doing.

Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): The Prime Minister has put support for British exports at the heart of Britain’s economic recovery. What comfort can industries in my constituency that export globally take from the Prime Minister’s work at the G20?

The Prime Minister: I very much enjoyed the visit that I made to my hon. Friend’s constituency and to BAE Systems where his constituents are doing excellent work in building the Typhoon aircraft, and we go on supporting the sales of that aircraft. There are a number of important contests at the moment, and the Government are absolutely behind BAE Systems in all of those.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Manufacturers in my constituency have told me of the important help that they have had from UK Trade and Investment recently—for example, the setting up of webinars in British high commissions and embassies to speak to customers overseas. What more can we do to help British business sell even more around the world?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He heard the figures earlier; some massive increases during the last two years to different countries. UKTI is doing a good job. Members on both

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sides of the House can help link UKTI to small and medium-sized enterprises in their own constituencies. I think that the figure is that if one in five of our SMEs that currently export moved to one in four, that would probably eradicate our trade deficit. That is an important agenda and I urge all Members of Parliament to help businesses in their constituency in this way.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): Given that no amount of moving the eurozone debt around the system, between bank and Government, can hide or conceal its scale, does the Prime Minister agree that the most important thing eurozone Governments can do to narrow the gap between what is spent and earned is introduce sweeping supply-side reforms and free up small businesses from the dead weight of regulation?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right. Whether it is trying to make the eurozone work better, trying to increase growth in the European Union or trying to compete with the rest of the world more effectively, all those pathways lead back to supply-side reform, structural reform and deregulation initiatives to help make European countries more competitive. That is what Britain is standing up for in Europe. At the summit this Thursday and Friday I very much hope that in the growth plan there will be the very strong commitments we secured at the last two European Councils for these deep structural changes: completing the single market in services, in digital and in energy. All these can add to our GDP and mean jobs and livelihoods for people in our constituencies.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the Prime Minister and Members of the House for their succinctness, which enabled 41 Back Benchers to question the Prime Minister in 34 minutes of exclusively Back-Bench time.

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Point of Order

4.46 pm

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Work and Pensions questions, the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said in reply to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) that he had not been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority for misusing statistics. His memory might have failed him, because he was chastised for using misleading statistics on nationality and national insurance data, on work capability appeals and, while in opposition, on violent crime. How can the record be corrected?

Mr Speaker: I think that the hon. Gentleman has just done it. I hope that he will rest content with his efforts.

Bills Presented

Public Debt Management Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Ben Gummer, supported by Steve Baker, Karen Bradley, Damian Collins, Matthew Hancock, Margot James, Paul Maynard, Priti Patel, Mr Dominic Raab, Nicola Blackwood, Mr Marcus Jones and Jacob Rees-Mogg, presented a Bill to limit government budget deficits; to introduce a ceiling on public debt; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 9 November 2012 , and to be printed (Bill 29).

Ports Act 1991 (Amendment) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Charlie Elphicke presented a Bill to make provision for the Ports Act 1991 to cease to have effect or application in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 November 2012, and to be printed (Bill 30).

Human Rights Act 1998 (Repeal and Substitution) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Charlie Elphicke, supported by Nadhim Zahawi, Matthew Hancock, Priti Patel, Mr Dominic Raab, Karen Bradley, Guy Opperman, Nicola Blackwood, Chris Heaton-Harris, Charlotte Leslie, Stephen Barclay and Harriet Baldwin, presented a Bill to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and related legislation; to make provision for a bill of rights and responsibilities to apply to the United Kingdom; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March 2013, and to be printed (Bill 31).

Property Boundaries (Resolution of Disputes) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Charlie Elphicke presented a Bill to make provision for the resolution of disputes concerning the location or placement of the boundaries relating to the title of an estate in land; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 November 2012, and to be printed (Bill 32).

25 Jun 2012 : Column 50

Children (Access to Parents) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Charlie Elphicke presented a Bill to require courts, local authorities and other bodies, when determining or enforcing issues of residence and contact, to operate under the presumption that the rights of a child include the right to grow up knowing and having access to and contact with both of the parents involved in the residence or contact case concerned; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 November 2012, and to be printed (Bill 33).

Energy Companies (Minimum Tariffs) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Thomas Docherty, supported by Mrs Mary Glindon, Iain McKenzie, Mr Andy Slaughter and Susan Elan Jones, presented a Bill to require energy companies to provide the cheapest available tariff to customers aged 75 or over; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 January 2013, and to be printed (Bill 34).

Financial Literacy (Curriculum) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Thomas Docherty, supported by Mrs Mary Glindon, Mr George Mudie, Mr Andrew Love and Pat Glass, presented a Bill to make provision for the inclusion of financial literacy in the national curriculum; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 January 2013, and to be printed (Bill 35).

Wild Animals in Circuses Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Thomas Docherty, supported by Mrs Mary Glindon, Angela Smith, Iain McKenzie, Mr Andy Slaughter Susan Elan Jones and Jim Fitzpatrick, presented a Bill to prohibit the use of wild animals in circuses; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 January, and to be printed (Bill 36).

Water Companies (Social Tariffs) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Thomas Docherty, supported by Mrs Mary Glindon, Iain McKenzie, Mr Andy Slaughter and Susan Elan Jones, presented a Bill to require water companies to provide social tariffs for low income families; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 January 2013, and to be printed (Bill 37).

Water Companies (Minimum Tariffs) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Thomas Docherty, supported by Mrs Mary Glindon, Iain McKenzie, Mr Andy Slaughter and Susan Elan Jones, presented a Bill to require water companies to provide the cheapest available tariff to customers aged 75 or over; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 January 2012, and to be printed (Bill 38).

25 Jun 2012 : Column 51

Commercial Lobbyists (Registration and Code of Conduct) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Thomas Docherty, supported by Paul Flynn and Iain McKenzie, presented Bill to establish a public register of organisations and individuals that carry out lobbying of Parliament, the Government and local authorities for financial gain; to introduce a code of conduct for those on the register; to introduce sanctions for non-registration and non-compliance with the code of conduct; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 February 2013, and to be printed (Bill 39).

Armed Forces (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Thomas Docherty, supported by Mrs Mary Glindon, Ms Gisela Stuart, Derek Twigg and Sandra Osborne, presented a Bill to provide that certain offences committed towards members of the armed forces shall be treated as aggravated; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 February 2013, and to be printed (Bill 40).

Executive Pay and Remuneration Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Thomas Docherty, supported by Sheila Gilmore, Katy Clark and Ian Lavery, presented a Bill to require that companies’ remuneration committees have employee representation; to require that companies hold an annual binding shareholder vote on executive remuneration; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 February 2013, and to be printed (Bill 41).

Train Companies (Minimum Fares) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Thomas Docherty, supported by Sheila Gilmore, Iain McKenzie, Katy Clark, Geraint Davies and Graeme Morrice, presented a Bill to require train companies to offer customers the cheapest available fare as a first option; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 February 2013, and to be printed (Bill 42).

Homeowners’ Mortgage Interest Rates Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Thomas Docherty, supported by Mr Andrew Love, presented a Bill to require that mortgage interest rates paid by homeowners change by at least the same percentage as mortgage interest base rates; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 February 2013, and to be printed (Bill 43).

Offshore Gambling Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Matthew Hancock, supported by Miss Anne McIntosh, Brandon Lewis, Simon Hart, Mr Gerry Sutcliffe, Mr Don Foster, Sandra Osborne, Ben Gummer, Nicholas Soames

25 Jun 2012 : Column 52

and Charlie Elphicke, presented a Bill to amend the Gambling Act 2005 to regulate remote gambling on a point of consumption basis; to require all operators selling into the British market, whether in the United Kingdom or overseas, to hold a Gambling Commission licence to enable them to undertake transactions with British consumers and to advertise in the United Kingdom; to provide that all relevant operators contribute to the Horserace Betting Levy; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 January 2013, and to be printed (Bill 44).

Land Value Tax Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Caroline Lucas, supported by Mr Adrian Sanders, Kelvin Hopkins and Martin Horwood, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to commission a programme of research into the merits of replacing the Council Tax and Non-domestic rates in England with an annual levy on the unimproved value of all land, including transitional arrangements; to report to Parliament within 12 months of completion of the research; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 9 November 2012, and to be printed (Bill 45).

Micro Businesses and Energy Contract Roll-over Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Caroline Lucas presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to make provision to limit energy contract rollover for micro businesses to 30 days; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 January 2013, and to be printed (Bill 46).

Landlord Accreditation Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Caroline Lucas presented a Bill to require local authorities to operate landlord accreditation schemes; to set those schemes according to minimum standards; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March 2013, and to be printed (Bill 47).

Football (financial Transparency) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Damian Collins, supported by Dr Thérèse Coffey, Philip Davies, Thomas Docherty, Paul Farrelly, Mrs Mensch, Penny Mordaunt, Steve Rotheram, Mr Adrian Sanders, Jim Sheridan, Mr Gerry Sutcliffe and Mr John Whittingdale, presented a Bill to require a football club playing in the top four tiers of English and Scottish professional football to disclose the identity of its owner, the identity of the owner of its home playing ground, training ground, any intellectual property associated with the club or a third party stake in its players and the identities of outstanding creditors; to require all creditors of a football club to be compensated equally should the club go into administration; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 January 2013, and to be printed (Bill 48).

25 Jun 2012 : Column 53

Electoral Registration and Administration Bill

[Relevant documents: The Tenth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2010-12, on Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration, HC 1463, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 8245.]

[2nd Allocated Day]

Further considered in Committee

[Dawn Primarolo in the Chair]

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Power to amend or abolish the annual canvass

4.52 pm

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): I beg to move amendment 22, page 5, leave out line 27.

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Dawn Primarolo): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 24, page 5, line 27, at end insert—

‘(2A) If the Minister considers it appropriate to proceed with the making of an order under subsection (2), the Minister must lay before Parliament—

(a) a draft of the order, and

(b) an explanatory document explaining the proposals.

(2B) Sections 15 to 19 of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 (choosing between negative, affirmative and super-affirmative parliamentary procedure) are to apply in relation to an explanatory document and draft order laid under subsection (2) but as if references to section 14 of that Act were references to subsection (2).’.

Amendment 23, page 5, leave out lines 28 and 29.

Amendment 25, page 5, line 32, after ‘section’, insert

‘with the exception of an order made under subsection (2)’.

Amendment 27, in clause 7, page 6, line 7, leave out ‘give a copy of the report to the Minister’ and insert

‘lay a copy of the report before Parliament’.

Amendment 28, page 6, line 9, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

‘(4) The report must be laid before Parliament no sooner than three months beginning with the day on which the Commission is consulted, and no later than five months beginning with that same day.’.

Amendment 29, in clause 8, page 6, line 28, at end insert—

‘(3A) The Minister may only make a pilot scheme once written approval from the Electoral Commission has been received.

(3B) Any such written approval must be published by the Minister.’.

Amendment 26, in clause 10, page 7, line 34, at end insert

‘, with the exception of an order made under section 6(2)’.

Angela Smith: Clause 6 and the amendments to it deal with the possibility of amending or abolishing the annual canvass, and with the arrangements for the accountability relating to any such decision.

25 Jun 2012 : Column 54

It is worth going through, once again, the principles of the annual canvass, which were, to some extent, rehearsed last week in relation to clause 4 when we talked of the importance of proactive methods for encouraging registration, and of the exercise by individuals of the business of re-registering their presence on the electoral register. More often than not, the business of registering to vote is seen as an exercise in democratic participation, and as a right, enshrined in law and hard won over the centuries by many who made huge sacrifices to secure it, but the House should remember that it is also a duty and a responsibility.

We live in a society in which the relationship between the individual and the state is governed by democracy. We have, of course, government by consent, but implied in the concept of democracy and government by consent is the view that vital to the process is majority participation in the most important decision of all—who should govern our nation. That is why Labour Members were so appalled by the Government’s initial proposal that citizens should have the right to opt out of the democratic process, and it is why in turn it is right that there should be a civic penalty for refusing to acknowledge the responsibilities inherent within the concept of government by consent.

Registering to vote, therefore, is an important part of the democratic culture of our country, and I repeat what I said last week: we should always bear in mind the importance of perspective when considering the process of electoral registration. If we consider it important that citizens of this country see registration as an important right and duty, we should ensure that our approach to registration encourages the regular exercise of such a duty and the active involvement of the citizen in the process by way of the regular renewal of that right. That is why we have tabled amendment 22, which, along with amendment 23, would remove the Minister’s right to abolish the annual canvass.

At this point it is interesting to consider what the Minister said about the arrangements for 2014 before he conceded that an annual canvass was required. He said:

“Effectively, what we are going to do is a modified canvass, which focuses the resources exactly where you need to work harder. We will write to everybody individually who is on the 2013 register and ask them to register individually. Where we have any households where there is nobody on the register, they will receive the household form in the usual way. They will send it back. You will then approach each of the people on that form individually to register. Where electoral registration offices have information that people have moved, so for example from the day-to-day, already-used council tax records, housing benefit records, they will write to people directly to see who is at the household and then chase them up.”

It is clear that the Minister was planning what he refers to as a “modified canvass” in 2014 based on the 2013 register—compiled, of course, from a full annual canvass in October of the latter year.

The Minister needs to answer these key questions. Is what I have just mentioned the kind of arrangement that he envisages for the future under clause 6(1) and which he plans to introduce via the provisions in clause 6? If that is the case, the Committee would appreciate some detail about when he thinks the arrangement might be introduced. Are we talking about 2015 or 2016? Does he have plans to mix and match the approaches so that there are modified canvasses, with a full canvass perhaps every five years? The Committee would like to know before making its mind up about clause 6, given that it gives the Minister the right to make those changes.

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If the Minister is considering a mixed approach, it stands to reason that he would be conceding the Opposition argument that the abolition of the annual canvass was likely to lead to a long-term drop-off in the numbers registered. Moreover, it is also likely to lead to distortions in the accuracy of the register. An annual canvass is a good way of spot-checking that the assumed stability of a given majority on any register is based on sound continuing evidence.

Finally, I draw attention to the views of the Electoral Commission. It is urging the Minister to confirm the commencement date for the new individual registration provisions, and it is recommending that the date be 1 July 2014. That begs a few questions. If we commence individual registration on 1 July 2014 with the modified canvass arrangements outlined by the Minister, which I cited earlier, when will the full canvass, which most Members have assumed will take place, commence? Are we looking at February that year? If not, when exactly are we going to move into the transition phase? What period will elapse before the Government move to the first phase of individual electoral registration in transition and the use of the carry-over provisions? All those questions are worthy of answers and underline how crucial it is for the Government to get on with the job of publishing an implementation plan.

The Opposition believe that commencement should take place only when the Electoral Commission indicates that completeness is at such a level that we can feel secure about participation at the ballot box. It is therefore doubly important that we get that information on the Floor of the House sooner rather than later. To go back to the main point of the discussion, are we going to get a full canvass, as we understand it under the old system, at all in 2014, or is the Minister intending to proceed only on the basis of a modified canvass? I look forward to his response on those points.

The annual canvass has an important role to play in our democracy, and Labour Members believe that it is crucial that registration should be brought regularly to the attention of the people. However, we are not the only ones who believe that. Take the comments made by the Deputy Prime Minister himself, alongside the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), in “Liberal Democrat Voice” in November 2010, when they said to Lib Dem members:

“In the light of today’s news that 3.5 million voters are missing from the electoral register, and in view of the forthcoming boundary changes based on the number of voters on the electoral roll as it stands next month, a timely e-mail reminder today to Liberal Democrat members from Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes:

I’m sure you will agree that we as Liberal Democrats need to play our part in helping to ensure that everybody who should have the right to vote is in a position to exercise that right come next May.”

They went on to say:

“Once you have made sure your form is safely completed please take a moment to check family and friends have filled out theirs too. Getting half a dozen of your friends signed up to vote could make the difference in a tight election next May.

Making democracy work is something all politicians should be committed to, and we are proud to encourage Liberal Democrats to play our part.”

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It is therefore absolutely apparent that Liberal Democrat Members do place faith in the annual canvass and see that it has an important role to play in maximising completeness of the register.

5 pm

Amendments 22 and 23 lie at the heart of Labour’s belief that we need a proactive approach to citizenship and a belt-and-braces approach to electoral registration. We believe, too, that there is no need for major concern over the potential cost and efficiency of the annual canvass. It has been mooted by the Minister that the cost of an annual canvass, if it is based on a form being filled in by the head of the household followed by invitations to register being sent to every household member listed on every form, would be in the region of £50 million. However, as we move away from paper-based approaches to this activity, it is entirely feasible for the annual check on registration to take place online. I am confident that Members believe that, in the long term, electoral registration processes should be moved online once it is secure and safe to do so. In those circumstances, a full annual canvass of the electoral register would not be an expensive or inefficient process to undertake. Just as at the moment individuals get regular reminders online about various important matters such as the need to renew insurance or TV licences, then equally it should be possible to make provision for annual online reminders to renew registration of the right to vote. That, surely, is where we all want to get to in order to ensure that the resources provided for registration can be concentrated on the hard to reach. The key point is that the possibility of cheap and efficient online processes would make the annual canvass easier to maintain in terms of cost and administration.

The amendments relate to clauses 7, 8 and 10, as well as clause 6, and are all designed to strengthen the role of Parliament in scrutinising any proposal by the Minister to amend the annual canvass. For the reasons I have outlined, we believe that it is important that any decisions taken are exposed to the strongest possible scrutiny by Parliament. Moreover, we believe that the Minister should be able to proceed with pilot schemes related to changes in canvassing arrangements only with the written approval of the Electoral Commission, hence amendment 29 to clause 8. This is a matter of major concern to the Committee. Labour Members expect the Minister to make a full and considered response to the points made in the debate.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I concur with many of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), but as regards her quoting of the Deputy Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), I think that the aspirations they alluded to are shared by everybody in the Committee.

As the Minister and others will be aware from the Liberal Democrat submission to the consultation on this issue, we believe that the annual canvass is important and that it should continue. I want to ask the Minister about his reasoning for the discussions that have taken place so far and what tests or standards will have to be passed before the annual canvass is abolished. I understand the point in the explanatory notes that in years to come

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the annual canvass may no longer be needed because of the online opportunities for registration, to which the hon. Lady alluded. I am a bit more of a sceptic about that because I represent a rural area where the internet is not universally available. It will also be difficult to deem the register perfect at any point as it is constantly changing. What test would have to be passed to deem the annual canvass no longer useful?

The Bill gives electoral registration officers a new duty to maintain the all-important accuracy and completeness, which I welcome. How will they fulfil that duty without a canvass? In other words, how will the Minister ensure that that duty on electoral registration officers is tested?

The Bill provides for the Electoral Commission to be consulted if the annual canvass is to be abolished. That is clear. However, I understand that the Electoral Commission has concerns about why it would not be consulted if the annual canvass were to be reinstated. The Government have said that it is conceivable that that might have to be undertaken in a short time frame. However, the Electoral Commission has said that it has often been required to respond to Cabinet Office consultations in a limited time frame and that it does not believe that the requirement to consult would delay the process unduly. More importantly, it is essential that there is a mechanism for external scrutiny of any step that is taken in a short time frame.

On Second Reading, I expressed concerns about the abolition of the canvass. I noticed my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House wincing slightly when I made that point. He said that there is an obligation, if it is necessary, to reinstate the canvass. That reassured me, but I am concerned about the mechanisms by which such a reinstatement would have the consent of the Electoral Commission. I also have questions about why the annual canvass may need to be abolished.

I am heartened by what Ministers have said about the data-matching pilots and by the aspiration for online voting. However, we have a long way to go and, in the interim, I believe that we still need the annual canvass.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): The annual canvass has been, and for the moment still is, the principal method by which we keep the electoral register up to date and accurate, in so far as it is up to date and accurate. I do not think that anyone believes that the current situation is satisfactory, but what we want is improvement, not reduction.

My constituency is rather strange in nature, not simply because it has elected me in eight successive elections, but because it has a huge electorate. It numbered some 87,000 people at the last general election and I understand from the registration officer that the total is now 94,000 electors. That gives me 26,000 more electors than the Deputy Prime Minister and, remarkably, 26,000 more than the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper).

Equally different is the turnover of electors, which in my constituency is phenomenal. It has always been high, partly because of the large number of students and young people in the area. People arrive and get a job, and then they decide that they would be better off doing the same job in Lincoln, Scunthorpe or Bolton, usually because the cost of renting or buying a house would be much lower.

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We have a massive turnover all the time, and the Government’s proposed housing benefit changes, which will be introduced at the same time as proposals in the Bill, will also lead to an increased movement of people—they will certainly move out of the area, but I am not sure whether they will come in—so the coalition’s social cleansing policies will have an effect on the need for the canvass. The Prime Minister’s latest essay—he wants to knock off housing benefit given to anyone under 25—is also likely to increase turnover in my area.

It is worth reporting that, last year, for the whole of Camden, the annual canvass added 27,000 electors, but also deducted 27,000 electors, which reflects the massive turnover in both my constituency and the Hampstead and Kilburn constituency. It also indicates that the annual canvass is important from the point of view not just of numbers, but of accuracy—it is the principal means by which people who are no longer entitled to vote disappear off the register. The Government and some outside the House who are fanatical about their proposals seem to ignore that.

The annual canvass is the bedrock of the current system—it is not peripheral; it is at the heart of it. Any other means that the Government propose to improve electoral registration, both so that the 6 million people who are entitled to be on the register get on it, and so that the register is accurate, must be introduced only to augment the annual canvass. The canvass still does an important task, and is likely—this is my opinion, and no more—to carry it out more effectively than the proposals.

It seems totally improper to suggest that the annual canvass could disappear before we know the overall effects of all the new changes. Even if the Opposition have tabled no amendment to that effect in Committee, we should perhaps table one on Report. I would hope all hon. Members agree that an annual canvass must be carried out if the numbers come down as a result of the changes, and that we cannot accept a reduction in the number of people on the registers.

Government Members have once or twice quoted judges who have said that registration is currently like something we might find in a banana republic. I suspect that most banana republics would like to give a Minister, without parliamentary approval, the right to end an annual canvass. Nothing should be left to the Minister’s discretion. If anything, the decision should come straight to the House from the Electoral Commission.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Any hon. Member who has played the role of election observer in different parts of the world will know that electoral observation organisations apply themselves to one key thing: ensuring the accuracy of the electoral register. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) said, the canvass is an integral part of the electoral system, not only to ensure that there is no fraud—cases in certain communities have been highlighted—but to ensure that the register is as accurate and up to date as possible. As an ex-local councillor and an MP, I think it would give the person elected at a local council or other election confidence if they knew that the majority of electors were registered to vote. I accept that the annual canvass is more difficult to undertake in certain parts of the country than in others, but it will concentrate people’s minds on ensuring that they are on the electoral register.

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5.15 pm

On leaving it to the individual, having had many years’ experience as a local councillor, a Member of Parliament and an election agent, I know that modern life is busy and that people ignore forms when they arrive. It might come as a big surprise to many hon. Members to learn that most of our electors do not sit around waiting for their electoral registration form; they do not see it as important. Likewise, it is not top of people’s list of things to do when they move house, along with the electricity and everything else.

In the communities described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras, there is a massive turnover in the electorate, but even in rural constituencies such as mine there are areas of huge turnover, owing to demographics and the type of housing. In parts of Stanley, in my constituency, which has many private sector landlords, the housing turnover is remarkable—it can change two or three times a year. I do not have his general problem with massive turnovers, but we have pockets of high turnover, and ensuring that they are on the electoral register is not the first thing people do when they move from one social landlord to another.

That leads to another issue. Unfortunately, some of those private sector tenants are in the poorest parts of my constituency, and are the people who need representation the most. They need to ensure that they cast their democratic vote at the parish, town or, in the case of Durham, county council election, and for their MP at a general election. It is important that we hear their voices. I am not sure whether this is the Conservative party’s thinking, but I fear that the areas most disadvantaged by there not being an annual canvass will be among the poorest in the country. That will have a knock-on effect on the redrawing of constituency boundaries and the nonsense we will have to go through every five years because of this coalition Government’s proposals. It is just as important, however, that the redrawing of local county, district and town council boundaries provides an adequate indication of the local electorate.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): I support my hon. Friend’s emphasis on the annual canvass. I used to work as agent for my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), and I well remember the fluid population and our efforts to support voting, electoral registration and the annual canvass—efficient though the canvass, organised by Camden council, was. Does he agree that it is important to work with the private sector, particularly in these fast-changing times, to support data matching, particularly in respect of records that could support electoral registration? Such data matching could only boost electoral registration and get more people involved in the democratic process.

Mr Jones: I agree with my hon. Friend, although data matching has its limitations, given the turnover in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras and in pockets of my constituency. We cannot leave it entirely to data matching, which is a useful tool but it will not get over the key problem of ensuring that the local register is as accurate as possible.

On the use of the private sector, let me provide the example of the new Durham county council. Before the formation of the unitary county council three years

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ago, seven district councils were responsible for electoral registration in County Durham. I have to say that their performance was patchy—some were good and some were bad. One benefit of the new county council taking responsibility for the register is a uniformity of approach. The county council put in extra effort when it was formed and contracted a company to do a full canvass to ensure that the register was as accurate as possible. That process—credit to the county council for doing it—put an extra 12,000 people on to the electoral register. I must thank the council, as that affected the size and the distributions when the parliamentary constituency boundaries and the new county council wards were redrawn. With 12,000 added through an intensive canvass, it shows what can be done in a rural county such as County Durham. I am not sure what would happen if that were not done in a constituency such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras, for example. As I say, this has proved to be useful for the process.

The county council went down the road of ensuring as full a canvass as possible for another reason. I and others had noticed that entire streets or parts of them were missing altogether from the register. Was it that people living there suddenly decided in sequential order that they were not going to register? I do not think so. It was the consequence of errors made in the data inputting, so the canvass helped to identify the streets affected. I was aware of the problem and so were councils, and I believe that the gaps were raised by all political parties. The annual canvass is important for areas such as mine that have elections only every four years. Political parties out canvassing can sometimes spot mistakes and draw them to the attention of the electoral returning officer. Having an annual canvass becomes more important where elections are not annual, when these problems are likely to be less visible to the various political parties that are standing.

An annual canvass is important, too, for care homes and residential homes, some of which, alas, have quite a large turnover, with residents coming in and out of respite care and, unfortunately, with people dying during the year. If we are not careful, the register will get badly out of shape in respect of people living in residential and sheltered accommodation and in care homes. It might be said that it affects only 30 or 40 people at a time in each care home, but if we add that up across County Durham, it means a lot of individuals. I am not criticising any individuals running care homes and similar organisations, but when a resident unfortunately dies it is not the top priority to write to the electoral registration officer to say that someone has passed on and that they are going to re-register the new individual living there. This is another example, therefore, of where an annual canvass helps. In my experience, the residential care manager or owner can be quite helpful in ensuring that the information provided is as accurate as possible. It is obviously not nice for any political party to send direct mail, as we all do, to homes where people are deceased, so an annual canvass could be an effective way of helping to ensure that that is prevented.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras Friend touched on the issue of students. My constituency does not contain a large student population, but the city of Durham certainly does, and any Member whose constituency contains a large number of students

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will know that there is quite a high turnover. I am thinking not just of the halls of residence that exist in parts of Newcastle that I know very well, and in parts of Durham, but of the fact that students move around and may not stay in the same house for two or three years. Members of that large population—who, I hasten to add, are using local services—are not reflected in any of the data, not only in terms of voting but in terms of electoral boundaries. They are nowhere to be seen. I think that the annual canvass has helped in that regard. Durham county council undertook an exercise to ensure that its register was as up to date as possible, and found that the number of voters in the city of Durham had increased by nearly 4,500. I suspect that most of them were students.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned welfare benefit changes. People with an extra bedroom are to lose their right to a proportion of their housing benefit, which I expect to increase the amount of movement, certainly in my constituency. I do not know what will happen in parts of London, where people are on a kind of merry-go-round, moving constantly from one type of social housing to another. That increase in movement will make the annual canvass more important. In parts of my constituency, such as Stanley and Chester-le-Street, there is a large concentration of private sector landlords. Once the benefit changes come into effect, people will move, because they will no longer be able to afford to live in their homes. How can we reflect that in the register?

What I am going to say now may sound strange, but it is a fact. In the north-east of England, the legacy of those infamous old days of the poll tax remains. People used not to register because they thought that that would be a way of getting out of paying the tax. In parts of my constituency that thinking remains, and people still refer to council tax as “the poll tax” . That did a lot of damage to people’s awareness of the civic duty to register, which I have always found to be very strong among older members of the population. They tend always to send in the forms and to vote, but that poll tax legacy is still there. I suspect that the only way of tackling it is to knock on people’s doors and ask them who lives in their houses.

There is another issue, which does not affect my constituency. I was very saddened by the way in which the last Government reacted to the Daily Mail agenda. Mine was one of the few constituencies that experimented with all-postal ballots, which were very successful. According to the Electoral Commission’s report, there was, overall, a very small amount of fraud, and the fraud that did occur was concentrated mainly in certain types of community in such places as Birmingham and Bradford. In one county council by-election in my constituency there was a 67% turnout under the postal ballot system. Sadly, however, the last Government and the Electoral Commission took fright following headlines that focused—rightly—on fraud that had taken place in some inner-city, mainly Asian, communities.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. The key is finding a way of increasing turnout. If turnout increases, fraud becomes far more difficult, because it is not so easy to influence the result. Low turnouts, and low registration, make fraud easier.

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Mr Jones: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I was about to make the following observation: if we want to clamp down on fraud, we must ensure that the register is as accurate as possible. The only way of doing that is by knocking on doors and actually talking to people in the communities concerned. If we have a more accurate register, that will lead to less electoral fraud.

I do not understand why this measure has been proposed. I will support any step that helps to ensure the register is up to date, such as data matching, but the annual canvass should be our fall-back position. Whatever system we use—telephone calls, data matching or even door knocking —will we never achieve 100% elector registration, but the canvass will help us spot homes that are being used for electoral fraud.

We sometimes find that there are children as young as five or six on the electoral register, because parents have misunderstood the form and entered their names on it. [Interruption.] Well, I am sure they do vote in some places, but knocking on doors and conducting the annual canvass is a way of preventing that. I therefore do not understand why the annual canvass is not seen as an exercise that should be welcomed. From speaking to the individuals who carry it out, it appears to be difficult to do, however. Indeed, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras it must at times be near-impossible to keep track, and to gain access to some of the properties.

Angela Smith: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to maintain the annual canvass because although a local authority might know who the council tax payers are within a household, there might also be lodgers living there? If the annual canvass is abolished, such people may well not get on to the electoral register.

Mr Jones: My hon. Friend makes a very good point.

I do not think I have a single high-rise block in my constituency—the highest buildings are about four storeys—but there are such blocks in the part of Newcastle I used to represent, and the turnover of residents was often very high. Finding out who pays the council tax gives an idea of who is living in any given household, however. We must also recognise that modern-day families and lives can be very complicated.

5.30 pm

We all know from our experiences of canvassing for our political parties that even getting into some tower blocks can be difficult. One advantage councils have is that they can gain access, so they can get inside and talk to people, but that can be done only if we have an annual canvass.

Some people say we should use the telephone for canvassing, but in certain parts of my constituency telephone ownership is still quite low. Ownership of mobile phones is sometimes higher than use of static lines with numbers that people can declare in their local telephone directory. That presents a problem, too.

I want to end where I began. We in this country pride ourselves on having the mother of Parliaments and a long democratic tradition, and any Member who has performed election monitoring duties around the world will know that one of the key points we always emphasise is the importance of the accuracy of the register. Any step that leads to our register not being as accurate as

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possible will damage both our electoral processes locally and the international reputation of our country as being somewhere where we ensure elections are free and fair and everyone has their democratic right to vote.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Primarolo, and to return to what is a very important Bill. We have reached clause 6, and it is important for Members who have not had the opportunity to study the Bill in as much detail as they might like to realise that the clause is qualified by those that follow, so they need to be read together.

The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) has tabled a series of amendments this afternoon, none of which has an explanatory memorandum. Back-Bench Members—for example, the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord)—could manage an explanatory memorandum but apparently the official Opposition could not. That is a great shame, given what the Procedure Committee has asked us to do, but never mind—let us address the issues.

A casual observer of this debate would believe that the Government are proceeding willy-nilly with the abolition of the annual canvass and that the Labour party has a principled opposition to abolition, whereas in fact, neither of those propositions is correct. First, we have made it abundantly clear that we do not intend to get rid of the annual canvass, certainly in the immediate future. In fact, only one Government have abolished the annual canvass: the last Labour Government, who abolished it in 2006 for Northern Ireland. So, we are talking about the canvass for Great Britain only, not for the whole of the United Kingdom, because Labour did not feel that all these pressing arguments in favour of the annual canvass applied when they peremptorily removed it in Northern Ireland’s case. We must therefore listen to their arguments in that context.

Mr Kevan Jones: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Heath: Of course I will give way to the hon. Gentleman—who voted for the removal of the annual canvass.

Mr Jones: I am not taking any lessons from the Liberal Democrats, who, frankly, promised a lot of things and then voted against them in this place. Come on—the Minister knows why that was done in Northern Ireland: it was a question of the practicalities of doing the canvass. To draw an analogy between that and today’s proposal is absolute nonsense.

Mr Heath: I am afraid that it is simply incorrect to say that the argument was about anything other than the introduction of individual electoral registration. That was the argument and the reason why the previous Government acted as they did, and they made no attempt to bring the provision back.

Setting aside that argument, we have also had assertions that Ministers intend to remove, by decree, the annual canvass. However, anyone who actually reads the legislation can see clearly that the procedure as set out first requires a report of the Electoral Commission—uniquely—and affirmative resolution. Therefore, it is Parliament, not

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Ministers, who would decide whether it was appropriate to take such action, an important safeguard that the House really should not ignore.

Angela Smith rose

Mr Heath: The hon. Lady made the assertion, I think, that Ministers would take such action by decree; so she can now justify that.

Angela Smith: There is no need for us to justify anything in this regard. Through our amendment, we are saying that we believe that the super-affirmative and regulatory reform procedures should be deployed if there is any plan to abolish the annual canvass. In the end, there is a provision in clause 6 to abolish the annual canvass. All we are asking for is the strongest possible scrutiny of any such decision—a reasonable thing for any Opposition to ask for—and that any report made by the Electoral Commission be laid before Parliament and not just sent to the Minister.

Mr Heath: I wish that that was what the hon. Lady had put forward in her amendments, but she goes rather further than that. On that specific issue, a super-affirmative procedure is set out in the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006—it is rarely used in this jurisdiction—and the reason for it is to make sure that proper consultation takes place on a proposal, so that Parliament is in the best possible position to make up its mind on an issue. That is set out clearly in the Bill, because before any order can be brought forward there has to be a report from the Electoral Commission. So a form of super-affirmative procedure is set out in this proposal. It allows Parliament—both Houses of Parliament—to take a decision, having had the evidence placed before it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) made an important point in supporting what we are proposing when he said that the annual canvass serves a valuable purpose. I believe that too, as do the Government. He accepts that there may be circumstances in which we would want to change, but he wants to know what hurdle the House and the Government would wish there to be. I have to say to him clearly that the only argument for abolishing the annual canvass—this is unlike what happened in Northern Ireland under the previous Government, where it was peremptorily done—is because we believe, with evidence to back this up from the Electoral Commission and from others, that other arrangements, which have been trialled through pilot schemes, are more effective, or certainly no less effective, than the annual canvass in ensuring both the accuracy and the completeness of the register. That is the Government’s intention, as it has been throughout this legislation. We are aiming to ensure both completeness and accuracy. We often do not hear about the second point from the Opposition, although I accept that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who has a lot of experience in this field, rightly mentioned it. So often we hear a lot about completeness from the Labour Front Benchers, but little about accuracy.

Angela Smith: The Minister is yet to answer the key points we raised in tabling these amendments and speaking to them. First, if the Government are so confident of their arrangements for making a change to individual

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registration, why do they not publish the implementation plan and put it in the Bill? Secondly, given previous comments made by the Deputy Leader of the House and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), it would be good to hear exactly what the Government mean by “annual canvass”. Labour Members take that to mean the usual, traditional approach, which involves writing to every household and then, under individual registration, invitations to register on the basis of the members of any household whose details are returned to the electoral registration officer. What exactly will the annual canvass in 2014 consist of?

Mr Heath: I am not exactly clear what the hon. Lady even means by her first question. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I do not know what an “implementation plan” is in the context of primary legislation. The Bill is clear about what we are proposing. The implementation of that is not a matter that is normally set out in primary legislation—the intent and the outcome is what is there. She mentions the canvass, and I would have thought that it was abundantly clear what we mean: there is the basis of the canvass, with which we are all familiar, but it will have additional purposes and additional mechanisms under what we are proposing—in order to improve its accuracy and its completeness—which we have already set out. So additional data matching will take place—the sort of thing that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) was talking about. It will inform the canvass and ensure that the right questions are asked to the right people in the right places, to make sure that as many people as possible who are entitled to vote are put on the register.

Angela Smith: The Minister is being generous with his time. May I therefore press the point? Will the annual canvass promised in 2014, on which the general election in 2015 will be based with the carry-over provisions that have been made available, be carried out in the traditional way understood by every Member of this House?

5.45 pm

Mr Heath: Yes. The canvass that would have been carried out in 2013, which we have moved to early 2014, will be done in the traditional way. The hon. Lady knows that we are taking advice from the various political parties and others about the exact date that will be most effective. That will be a full household canvass and during 2014, after the European elections, we will move on to the other components of the proposals so that we have the use of all available material and can, as I have repeatedly said, make the register as complete and accurate as possible.

Frank Dobson rose

Mr Heath: I thought that the right hon. Gentleman made a late but very compelling argument for the equalisation of parliamentary constituencies, and I am grateful to him for that. I invite his participation.

Frank Dobson: I seem to attract snotty remarks from those on the Government Front Bench. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I have been snotted at by better men than him.

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If the Government are so confident that the new methods of putting all this together, which they described in their evidence to the House of Lords as providing a more efficient means of obtaining information rather than a more effective one, and believe that the system will result in registers exceeding the numbers presently arrived at by the household canvass, will they guarantee not to proceed until they have the registers up to the level that the previous household canvass produced?

Mr Heath: I repeat again to the right hon. Gentleman that we are not getting rid of the household canvass and it is very difficult to answer his question, which is based on the premise that we are removing it, when we are not doing so. Incidentally, were the circumstances to occur in which this part of the Bill was used to remove the duty for an annual canvass—as I have said, that would happen only if we, the Electoral Commission and both Houses of Parliament were satisfied that other mechanisms were in place that would be as effective or more effective than the annual canvass—the situation would continue to be monitored. If, despite the advice of the Electoral Commission and the best intentions of Ministers and this House, it unexpectedly proved that the proportion of the population that registered was substantially reduced, there is provision within the Bill to reinstate the canvass. Unfortunately, amendment 23, tabled by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, would remove that power. The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) asked a specific question and I can give him an absolute assurance that the power to reinstate the canvass is in the Bill, should it be needed.

Frank Dobson rose

Mr Heath: I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, of course, and I hope that I do so charmingly.

Frank Dobson: The hon. Gentleman has said that there is a power to reinstate the canvass, but is there an obligation to reinstate it if the new system is not working?

Mr Heath: I do not think that Parliament is normally required to do anything, and this will be a power for Parliament, not for Ministers. We would be treading a strange constitutional path if this Parliament were to require any future Parliament to make any enactment. The power is there to reinstate the canvass without the need for further primary legislation in order to enable the then Government, whoever they are, to react promptly and effectively if necessary. I honestly do not believe that will apply because there are no circumstances in which the annual canvass would be removed without its being absolutely clear, from all the information to hand, that it would not have a detrimental effect on the completeness and the effectiveness of the register.

Mr Kevan Jones: The effect of a more efficient method may be different in different areas. In my more rural static communities, the result of removing the annual canvass might not be a greater drop in accuracy than in my right hon. Friend’s Holborn and St Pancras constituency. The Liberal Democrats seem to vote through whatever this coalition Government want, but what would the Minister say if a future Government received an indication that registration dropped in constituencies held by their

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opponents? There would be no onus on the Government of the day or on Parliament to insist on the annual canvass being reinstated in a certain constituency.

Mr Heath: I repeat: this is a power for Parliament and I expect Parliament to use it sensibly because I believe—contrary to all the evidence—that most Members of Parliament want our democratic system to work as effectively as possible. Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right that there are differences between constituencies. The electorate in my constituency is almost the same as the electorate in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras, but demographically the two are very different and a comparison between them would be almost meaningless in those terms. The right mechanism in his constituency might be completely wrong for mine and there may be better and more effective measures we can deploy—as long as we are clear that our intention is to have in every constituency a register that is as complete and as accurate as we can manage.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab) rose

Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman was not here for the early part of our discussion of the amendments, but I happily give way to him.

Chris Ruane: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so graciously. Earlier, he said, “We would not move forward unless we—no, not just we: the Electoral Commission and both Houses—were satisfied.” Let us imagine that on one side there was the Government and both Houses—one of them, this place, in an unholy alliance and the other stuffed with Liberal and Conservative peers—and on the other side the Electoral Commission saying, “No, things are not right.” Who would win?

Mr Heath: I do not remember any Government of any complexion introducing proposals on electoral law on which there was not a measure of agreement with the Electoral Commission, but the whole purpose of the Bill is to ensure that the first word—not the last word—lies with the Electoral Commission. The commission has the duty in the first instance to assess any proposal and to do so in the light of the evidence from pilot schemes run in the interim. It is inconceivable to me that a Minister would put forward a proposal using the mechanism in the Bill that did not have the full approval of the Electoral Commission. A future Government could decide to write their own primary legislation and abolish the canvass overnight—that is exactly what the Labour Government the hon. Gentleman supported did—but we do not intend to do that, because we think there is a better mechanism, based on evidence and on the views of the Electoral Commission, and that is what we have proposed.

Let me go though the amendments in the group. Amendment 22 would remove the possibility of the Government proceeding with the abolition or the amendment of the annual canvass. We have no immediate intention of doing either, but I believe that that is a valuable power to be available to both Houses, provided there are safeguards and it is used on the advice of the Electoral Commission. It would be a great shame to be unable even to consider following the example set in Northern Ireland if that is the best way to achieve completeness and accuracy of the register.

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Amendment 24 deals with the mechanism within Parliament. As I said, the mechanism proposed is unique because of the requirement to have the advice of the Electoral Commission before starting. I hope that the House is satisfied that the two-stage process—a report by the Electoral Commission followed by the normal affirmative procedure in both Houses—provides sufficient scrutiny and safeguards.

Amendment 23 would remove the ability to reinstate the canvass, which seems a little perverse, given the comments made by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras. I hope that the House will reject it.

Under clause 6(5), an order to amend or abolish the annual canvass would include provision to create further secondary legislation. I think that makes sense. If amendment 25 were made, it would prevent subsequent orders, so everything would have to be in primary legislation. I do not believe we need to use such an unwieldy method and that regulation and subordinate legislation are better. On reflection, I suspect the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge will agree with me that that is not the most sensible way of setting about our business.

Clause 7 sets out the requirement, when a proposal is made, for a report by the Electoral Commission containing an assessment of the extent to which registration officers are currently able to ascertain those unregistered people who are entitled to be registered and those who are registered but are not entitled to be so; the extent to which proposals in the order meet that objective; and the merits of alternative methods of meeting it. If amendment 27 were made, that report, instead of going to the relevant Minister, would go direct to Parliament. That does not necessarily make sense, because if such a proposal were to meet with a negative response from the Electoral Commission, it would not proceed to Parliament—Ministers would not entertain the suggestion. If the report were positive, however, it would be presented to Parliament and would necessarily form part of the process. In any case, I would expect the Electoral Commission to publish such a report, irrespective of whether it was to be presented to Ministers or to Parliament; the report would appear on the website and be available for general view and consideration. The amendment is therefore unnecessary.

Amendment 28 would set arbitrary limits on the time the Electoral Commission had to produce a report. It is unnecessary to place such a restraint on the commission.

Amendment 29 relates to the important matter of the commission’s role in relation to schemes to pilot proposed changes to the annual canvass. If we are to have a successful system, the pilots are extremely important. Without them, proper evaluation of schemes proposed by registration officers for their areas will be impossible. This covers the point raised by the hon. Member for North Durham about, in effect, horses for courses. The instigation comes from the registration officer for the area, it is agreed by the Minister, and Parliament must agree it by the affirmative resolution procedure. To insert yet another hurdle into the process is unnecessary because, in practice, the Electoral Commission would play a part in the design of any pilot scheme and would be responsible for evaluating it in due course. At the end of the day it is Ministers who are responsible to the House for schemes that are introduced.

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6 pm

Lastly, on amendment 26, removing the requirement for such an order to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure or, indeed, any parliamentary procedure is a mistake, and I urge Members not to proceed with it.

The amendments do not add to what is a very thorough evaluation process. I repeat that our sole intent is to have a complete and accurate register so far as that can be achieved. We should use every possible means to do that. It would be quite wrong to lose arbitrarily the usefulness of the annual canvass, but we should not seek to preserve that in perpetuity if there are better ways of doing the same thing more efficiently and more effectively. That is why the procedure with all its safeguards is in the Bill. I urge the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge to withdraw the amendments.

Angela Smith: In drawing the debate to a close, I begin by pointing out that amendment 22 deletes the proposal to give the Minister the power to abolish the annual canvass. Amendment 23 is consequential on amendment 22. That should be clear to everybody. It is therefore duplicitous of the Minister to suggest—

Mr Heath: I beg your pardon?

Angela Smith: I withdraw that remark. It is misleading of the Minister to suggest that amendment 23 takes away the power of Parliament—

The Temporary Chairman (Mr Lee Scott): Order. Will the hon. Lady withdraw that comment, please?

Angela Smith: I withdraw the comment. It is unfair of the Minister to suggest that the Opposition are in any way trying to deny Parliament the power to reinstate an annual canvass, when in fact we are trying, through amendment 22, to ensure that the Minister is not given the power to abolish the annual canvass in the first place.

Mr Heath: Mr Scott, I should have welcomed you to the Chair. I apologise for not having done so.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. We would have understood her amendments more clearly had she produced an explanatory memorandum. Amendment 23 does abolish the power to reinstate. I accept entirely her intention that it should be read along with amendment 22.

Angela Smith: There has been very little by way of explanation from the Minister in his response to the amendments that would give us any confidence in the potential alternatives to the annual canvass that have been repeatedly mentioned from the Government Benches. We have had references to alternatives that may be developed in the future, which may at some point in the future give the House the confidence to agree to a ministerial proposal to abolish the annual canvass. It would have helped the Committee in its deliberations if the Minister had outlined clearly what some of those alternatives might be.

As I indicated in my initial comments on the amendments, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), suggested previously in oral evidence that modified

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versions of the annual canvass could be available in the future. It would have helped the Committee if we had had more detail from the Minister about what some of those alternatives might be. It is clear that Ministers are thinking through some of these proposals. Nothing in what we have heard today gives us the confidence to believe that the part of clause 6 that gives the Minister the right to abolish the annual canvass is anything other than a threat to the democratic process in this country.

The Committee is being asked to agree something completely in the dark. In his response, the Minister indicated that in early 2014 there would be a full annual canvass, and I thank him for that. He also made it clear that it would be carried out in time for the European elections, which take place in June that year, as we understand it. The local elections in 2014 are likely to take place at the same time. He then indicated that the new individual registration process would commence shortly afterwards.

May I take it that the Electoral Commission’s recommendation is that the commencement date for the new IR process should be 1 July 2014? We have had no response to that, but from what the Minister said, there is clearly a plan to go ahead with implementation of IR in the late summer of 2014. However, no information has been laid before the Committee today and no commitment has been given that the data-matching pilots which are part of the legislation will be completed and evaluated by the Electoral Commission before commencement of the new provisions.

It is reckless to commit to a new system of electoral registration and to commit to commencement in 2014 when we have no certainty that the pilot schemes designed to test whether the new processes work will have been completed. It is the Opposition’s view that the new scheme for individual registration should be introduced only when the Electoral Commission is satisfied that it will guarantee a high level of completeness and accuracy. Nothing that we heard today gives us confidence that that will be the case.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) made good contributions in which they described in detail the complexity of people’s lives and the impact that an annual canvass may have in reducing levels of completeness precisely because of those complexities. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham referred in particular to the problem of registering students.

Last week we had a debate about student registration. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) pointed out that there are 31,800 students living in his constituency alone. Without the annual canvass it is entirely possible, for all the reasons outlined in the debate, that registration in a constituency such as Sheffield Central could be substantially reduced. Given that the majority in Sheffield Central stands at only 165, it is obvious that before we make any radical changes to our electoral registration processes we should ensure that we have guarantees that any new system works properly, is based on sound evidence and is guaranteed and given the stamp of approval by the Electoral Commission.

We have heard a lot today about how the new system will work, but we have not heard the detail. We have had superficial reassurances that it will work, but we have

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heard nothing of the detail. We have had no significant reassurance on whether new systems will eventually be so robust that we will be able to abolish an annual canvass.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I wanted to check this information before I responded to the hon. Lady, but the assessment of the data-matching pilots to test the confirmation process by the Government and the Electoral Commission will be done by June 2013, well in time for us to have a clear picture before we commence the IER process.

Angela Smith: I thank the Minister for that, but can he confirm that all the data-matching pilots and necessary testing will be complete before the Government move ahead with the new scheme?

Mr Harper: The only one that we have to have tested before we move ahead is that to do with confirmation. The pilots that we will be doing, subject to the approval of Parliament, to see whether some of the data matching can help us to identify people not on the register concern things that we would want to know if we proposed to get rid of the canvass. As we do not propose to do that, we do not need to have that information before we move ahead with IER. We will know the results of the confirmation testing pilots by June 2013.

Angela Smith: The key point is that the new register, and the one used for the boundary review in 2015, will not be as complete as it should be, because those people carried over for the general election will not be carried over for December 2015. I therefore do not take a great deal of reassurance from that.

We have had a lengthy debate. The Opposition will not seek to press the amendment to a vote. We believe that the House of Lords will engage in a lengthy and detailed debate on the issues that we have raised today, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 7 and 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Piloting registration provision

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): I beg to move amendment 32, page 7, line 29, at end add—

‘(7) An order under this section may require registration officers to record at the point of registration—

(a) a voter’s access needs in relation to any document which is required or authorised to be given to voters or displayed in any place for either registration or election, and

(b) a voter’s access requirements to the polling station.’.

This amendment would allow for pilots which could assist disabled people both to register to vote and to cast their vote. It would achieve this by allowing electoral registration officers to establish the level of demand for (a) documents in alternative formats and (b) additional accessibility mea

s

ures at polling stations. It is estimated that there are approximately 15,000 disabled potential voters per Parliamentary constituency.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott.

The issue of disability concerns many hon. Members and, as demonstrated by the Government in bringing forward the legislation, the issue of effectual electoral registration also concerns the majority of hon. Members. Therefore, the amendment seeks to address two concerns for Members. First, it seeks to introduce a better system of individual electoral registration, which identifies every person eligible to vote, and it seeks to identify the needs of disabled voters participating in the electoral process. The Bill introduces an opportunity to achieve that by seeking information at the time of registration.

Recording disabled voters’ access needs at the point of registration can be used to improve the accessibility under the current system during the transition to IER and over the longer term. To put the issue in some context, it is worth establishing how many people it could affect. There are more than 10 million disabled people in the UK, with each parliamentary constituency containing approximately 15,000 disabled voters. That is almost a fifth of the total electoral roll. Polls Apart research has found that despite existing legislation aimed at improving the accessibility of election material, the experience of many disabled people has been that insufficient provision is made to provide information, forms and notices relating to the electoral process in alternative formats. Where this information is not available or is not sufficiently signposted, the election process can be considerably more difficult for these people to access.

The Electoral Commission has responsibility for monitoring the extent to which the electoral registration officers comply with a series of performance standards. One such standard is focused on accessibility, more specifically on the extent to which EROs have taken into account the different needs of voters in their local community. The commission’s first analysis of EROs’ performance against the standards in 2009 highlighted a lack of consideration of the need to provide documents in alternative formats and raised concerns that attention by EROs had been focused primarily on the provision of documents in various languages. I am concerned at the evidence that the provision of accessible formats to voters has not had the same focus, as the lack of it excludes disabled people who require information in a format other than the standard print from the electoral process. The Electoral Commission’s subsequent assessment against the standard has revealed a worrying trend that EROs’ performance on accessibility has remained poorer than for any other standard.

It can be said that we are currently placing the linguistic needs of people whose first language is not English above those for whom English is their first language but who, as a result of an accident or complication at birth, are being disfranchised from the electoral process. Consequently, individual registration has a potential to transform disabled people’s experiences of the electoral process if their access needs are recorded at the point of registration. The amendment seeks to achieve that by introducing a pilot project that can be rolled out on a national basis. The Government would need to ensure that such a pilot would be properly evaluated before any roll-out of the proposal goes nationwide. I am pleased to be able to inform the Minister that the Electoral Commission is prepared to carry out such an evaluation if the amendment is agreed.

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6.15 pm

Mr Kevan Jones: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on tabling the amendment. How will electoral officers be able to identify the individuals? Will it be through the canvass, which is the main issue, or another method?

Dr Offord: It will be through the canvass. I hope, as I continue with my speech, that it will become clearer to the hon. Gentleman and the Minister what I seek to achieve by tabling the amendment.

The introduction of individual registration allows blind and disabled electors to specify at registration the format in which they wish to receive the information, including Braille, tape, large print, easy read, and so on. That would mean that a blind elector could specify when registering to vote that they would need to receive a polling card in a Braille or other format, or that they would require an audio postal vote application form. Allowing individuals to specify what format they need enables EROs to plan more effectively and meet the needs of a variety of disabled people who all encounter different barriers. Gathering data on voters’ preferred formats would enable EROs to send forms and information in that appropriate format and avoid having to make assumptions about voters’ needs. For instance, while Braille is used by some blind people, other formats may be just as important for blind and partially sighted people, including large print.

The registration form could also capture requirements to enable physical access to the polling station or for the support that voters may need in casting a vote. Provided that such information is shared with a returning officer, it could be used to ensure that those needs are met in the run-up to polling day and on polling day itself. It should be obvious, for instance, which voters may need a large print ballot paper and how many copies need to be provided at one or other polling station.

Recording information on access needs could not only be used to inform planning by electoral administrators, but is consistent with the Government’s goals in introducing individual registration to encourage individuals to take responsibility for registering themselves to vote. It should also be up to an individual to specify what alternative format they prefer. It is well known that the transition to IER is taking place in a climate of significant pressures on electoral budgets. Providing alternative formats involves some cost, but it is important to recognise that such a provision would not place any additional duties on EROs other than those they already have. Rather than increasing costs, such a measure would allow existing resources to be used more effectively.

I have tabled the amendment to support the recommendation made by the Electoral Commission for a scheme to be piloted that would involve EROs asking for individual access needs of electors at the point of registration. Piloting that would provide valuable guidance to EROs on the most suitable system for maintaining registration forms and their associated access needs records, as well as allow the Government to assess the merits for such a provision to be rolled out.

I hope that the Minister decides to accept the amendment, because I remain unaware of the validity of any claim that under the current legislation the Government already have sufficient powers to introduce the pilot—a view supported by the Electoral Commission and disability

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groups such as Scope, which have already impressed it on the Government. However, if it is asserted that that power already exists in other legislation, I can tell the Minister that the amendment would specifically ensure that the registration process itself is used to identify and meet access needs. No other legislation provides for the registration process to be used for that purpose. Given that, I believe the registration process to be the most effective mechanism for achieving both improvements for disabled people and benefits for electoral staff.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend for tabling the amendment and wish that I had had time to sign it, because I am with him entirely—in spirit if not on the Order Paper. Is not the function of this probing amendment, as he says, to identify the need to husband our existing resources far more effectively, rather than taking a more scatter-gun approach that will not address the fundamental needs of disabled people?

Dr Offord: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is entirely right. This will be an opportunity to define what people need so that we can ensure that EROs’ resources are used most effectively and that the electoral registration process is suitable for blind and partially sighted people.

It may be asserted that such a provision already exists in the Bill, under the power to make regulations in clause 2. That will give the Secretary of State the power to prescribe the type of evidence that a person must provide to establish eligibility to register to vote. The Government could argue that that includes a power to ensure that access needs are recorded at registration, but I believe that the clause is limited to prescribing evidence that is needed to establish eligibility and therefore cannot be used to achieve the same purpose as my amendment.

I believe that the Minister is a considerate man. If he chooses not to accept the amendment, will he please explain where he believes the power currently lies for the Government to carry out a pilot scheme in order to provide assurances about how information, forms and notices relating to the electoral process in alternative forms will be provided to blind and disabled people at future elections, and will he indicate when that will be achieved?

Mr Kevan Jones: May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Scott, and say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on tabling the amendment. It has two aspects: first, it is clearly about people’s right to vote, and secondly, it rightly raises the issue of registration in the first place. It is often assumed that people who are disabled, partially sighted or who have no sight will fill out the registration forms when they receive them or have someone else do it for them, so what he proposes is very important.

The key point, to return to the previous debate, relates to the annual canvass, because the only way of finding some of these individuals is to knock on doors and assess their needs. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the format of ballot papers and the information people receive on how to register. He said that there are potentially around 15,000 disabled people in each parliamentary

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constituency, so we are not talking about a small number of individuals. It has long been one of my gripes that in certain areas where I have acted either as an agent or a candidate, many returning officers have only recently taken note of accessibility to polling stations, let alone of the suggestion for making registration information and ballot papers more accessible.

The reason for having a pilot is that it would show some new methods for achieving that and indicate whether they could be rolled out nationally. We also need to think a little out of the box on this. I know the Electoral Commission has done that before, but it has always shied away from postal voting and e-voting, for example, which for many partially sighted people would be better than going to a polling station. My mother is partially signed but does not read Braille, so the suggestion that she could vote by computer, for example, would be a good one for her.

Such pilots would be worth doing. We had a pilot in Durham several years ago and, overall, texting, a full postal ballot and e-voting were very successful. The Electoral Commission’s report was very positive, but unfortunately, as I said in the previous debate, it got cold feet because of some of the headlines about electoral fraud. I think that allowing the possibility of electronic voting for disabled people would be a step forward and that what the hon. Gentleman proposes would be a way of trialling it in certain areas.

It would be important to involve not only the major national charities so that they can talk about this, but the many local voluntary groups that support disabled individuals in the home. Care workers and local authorities could certainly play a role, and housing associations and others could identify where there might be large concentrations of people with physical or visual impairments, which would be very valuable. I wonder whether part of the pilot could put an onus on electoral registration officers to work with care homes, sheltered accommodation and local charities and support groups to be able to identify these people, first to ensure that they are registered in the first place—I am sure that many should be but are not—and secondly to explain the process to them.

When canvassing, it never ceases to amaze me how many people I come across who clearly need a postal or proxy vote because of a physical disability but who do not have them, either because they do not understand how the process works or because they think that they would somehow have to struggle to the polling station and know that physically they could not get there. Therefore, the pilot could be not only for testing the different methods for providing information in the largest type and Braille or for e-voting and other things, as the hon. Gentleman said, but—the Minister should take this on board—for explaining to many disabled people the different ways in which they can vote, because from my experience I do not think that many understand postal voting or recognise that they can apply for it.

I remember that under the old system someone had to tick a box and get a doctor or state-registered nurse to sign it, which was a bit of a palaver, but this would be a way of extending access to a group of people who, as the hon. Member for Hendon rightly identified, are perhaps not at the top of people’s priorities in the

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electoral process. They are—I think he would agree with this—a constituency that has a lot of issues that local councils, MPs and others need to take into account. The one way they can hold their elected officials, whether councillors or MPs, to account is through the ballot box, but if they cannot cast their vote or do not know how to do that, or if it is physically impossible for them to access that process, that constituency is hindered.

I support the amendment. It would be a valuable thing to pilot the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions in areas so that lessons could be learned. It would be a useful process to have ongoing pilots because they would provide a body of evidence for electoral returning officers, not only showing new ways of doing things but, in some cases. making them mandatory to ensure that, as he said, people are asked about disability, because if they are not how will a returning officer or anyone else know what the individual’s needs are?

6.30 pm

The amendment would provide a very valuable lesson, and I hope that the Government do not push it aside, but look at it as part of the pilot process so that we obtain evidence that can then be rolled out, and so that some of those new methods, either for e-voting or for getting information to people on registration, become a normal part of electoral registration and, at elections, voting.

Angela Smith: I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on tabling a very important amendment, which we support for all the reasons that he and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) have outlined.

The measures are supported by Age UK, Mencap, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, Scope and Sense, and by the Electoral Commission, which importantly reminds us, however, that the Government would need to ensure that the pilots were properly evaluated before any wider roll-out of the proposal. The commission has also made it clear that it would be prepared to carry out such an evaluation.

The Bill provides an opportunity to go as far as we possibly can in securing opportunities to improve significantly participation in the democratic process by disabled and older voters, and the amendment would do so in two parts. It outlines proposals for pilots on the format used in the initial registration process, and, on the need for a variety of formats when it comes to registering to vote, the obvious example is that of partially sighted and blind citizens.

There are those beyond the partially sighted and the blind, however, who will not be able to sign registration forms or documents for one reason or another—perhaps because they have a physical disability that makes it hard for them to write or to use a pen. We have to remember also that, beyond the more severe and profound disabilities that unfortunately many citizens have to cope with, there are those who suffer from the more minor disabilities, such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, which mean that in many instances the completion of a form would be a major obstacle to claiming the right to register to vote.

Many people suffering from, for instance, dyslexia find the use of IT incredibly helpful in overcoming their disability. It is surprising, but I saw it when I was the

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local authority cabinet member for education in Sheffield, where I was lucky enough to witness the introduction of interactive whiteboards in classrooms and the use of IT tablets for participation in classroom learning. It was incredible to see how helpful IT could be in overcoming something that to many of us seems a minor disability, but which to those who suffer from it can be a major obstacle to participation in the right to vote.

Over and above that, I have also seen how individuals on the autistic spectrum benefit significantly from access to IT, and we in this House need to acknowledge that a wide range of formats could undoubtedly be adapted and used in the registration process.

Polls Apart research has found that many disabled voters experience difficulty in receiving information, forms and notices relating to the electoral process in a format that they can access, so the evidence is not just anecdotal but on the record. The Electoral Commission has recognised its existence and would like Parliament to act on it.

On polling stations, every Member will be more than aware of the problems experienced by a range of people with disabilities when claiming the right physically to register their vote on polling day, and I am sure that we, as politicians involved in election campaigns, have all taken voters to polling stations in our cars to exercise their right to vote. We know what it is like to see voters coping with crutches, wheelchairs and sometimes, because of infirmity due to age or disability, just the sheer effort of walking from the car to the polling station.

The partially sighted and the blind, equally, are presented with problems when physically presenting themselves at the polling station in order to claim the right to vote.

Mr Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that a surprising number of elderly people, in particular, who become housebound through age or disability do not know about their right to a postal vote? As part of the assessment proposed by the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), should they not have that explained to them and be given help to apply for a postal vote?

Angela Smith: I completely agree. Back in 2004, south Yorkshire was selected as the pilot area for elections in which every vote was cast by post; we had an all-out postal ballot, as we called it. Not only did participation increase, but the process was particularly beneficial to those voters who, however accessible the polling station was, were never going to be physically able to get to it in the first place.

It is an indictment of our democracy that so many disabled voters should have to rely on lifts from political parties to exercise their democratic right to vote. That is not healthy, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right when he makes the point that we should do whatever is necessary to encourage the disabled to access postal votes and proxy voting so that they secure their right to a say in who their elected representatives are.

One disappointing feature of the Bill and an important part of the debate is that, when it comes to the carry-over provisions for the general election in 2015, postal votes will not be carried over to the register. That is worrying for democratic participation in the next general election, and more concerning is that its impact will probably be felt more deeply and profoundly by the disabled, the

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partially sighted and all the people whom we have been talking about. Labour Members have constantly made representations in this Committee about the removal of the entitlement to a postal vote for those citizens who are carried over to the register for the 2015 election.

One of the major problems in our democracy is that many polling stations are not accessible to the physically disabled. The obvious thing to do is to use new-build public buildings, such as schools, as they would be totally accessible. However, schools are increasingly resistant to being used as polling stations, partly because it disrupts the school day. There are also concerns about security, given that strangers are allowed to wander on and off the school premises to exercise their right to vote.

There is a major issue about accessibility to polling stations. I do not pretend that the amendment would deal with the whole problem, but it would at least place the onus on the Government. We are talking not about party politics, but about something profoundly important —the onus on the Government to ensure that they do their utmost to deal with problems of physical access to polling stations.

Mr Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that the number of polling stations is important as well? On accessibility, we should not go down the road taken by Newcastle city council when the Liberal Democrats were in charge—to save money, it reduced the number of polling stations. When I went back to my old ward to canvass during elections, I was amazed at how few polling stations there were and at the distances that certain people had to travel to cast their votes.

Angela Smith: Again, my hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I represent the city of Sheffield and the borough of Barnsley in Parliament. As anybody who knows south Yorkshire will be aware, it is probably one of the hilliest areas in the country; Sheffield is probably the hilliest city in Great Britain. As my hon. Friend is well aware, it is built on seven hills; there are constant arguments about who lives in the hilliest part.

The key point is that the arguments about access to polling stations in the city are often entirely about how far away people are from their nearest polling station. The issue is not physical distance, but whether people have to climb up a hill to exercise their right to vote. That is a major issue in my area. Indeed, in this year’s elections, the problem was so acute in one of the polling districts that the local authority agreed to have a new polling station in a funeral parlour, which raised a few eyebrows locally. The local authority was desperate to increase levels of participation and given the difficulties due to the hilliness of the district, it was felt that the funeral parlour was the best solution to enable people to participate in the democratic process.

On the main point, there is a major issue of accessibility to polling stations in terms of distance and terrain. My hon. Friend is right: we need to maximise the number of polling stations in the first place, but we also need to think more carefully about how accessible those polling stations are.

Finally, I want to make a few comments about e-voting. The House has an ambition to move eventually towards a system of e-registering for the right to vote. Online registration has to be the way forward in the long term.

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I take the point made about broadband and rural areas, but many broadband problems are not to do with rural areas but with where BT has made infrastructure investments. Some of the urban areas in my constituency do not have superfast broadband, whereas some of the rural areas do.

Nevertheless, in the long term, e-registering is the way forward as we move towards the comprehensive electronic age. Equally, if we accept that e-registration is a legitimate way of encouraging the completeness of the electoral register, e-voting also has to be the way forward. My hon. Friend outlined some of the many ways in which we could introduce e-voting on a comprehensive scale. Whichever system people choose to use—voting online via the PC at work or voting by mobile phone or iPad—it must be right for us to begin properly to pilot access to e-voting. E-voting immediately improves accessibility to voting, particularly for disabled people. People with dyslexia and dyscalculia would also benefit from e-voting procedures.

6.45 pm

Pilot work has been done on e-voting. There are concerns about security, but I am sure that they can be overcome. We live in an age when people can transfer money from one bank account to another through a mobile phone—well, they can with certain banks. Pingit is an innovation. If the banking system feels that e-banking is secure, it is about time that we as a country recognised that e-voting offers a credible, secure way forward for improving accessibility for disabled people to the democratic process. We support the amendment and, like the hon. Member for Hendon, we hope that the Government accept it in the spirit intended.

Mr Heath: I genuinely welcome what the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) had to say about the amendment, for two reasons. First, he makes an extraordinarily important point about our electoral law and arrangements —that they should be inclusive. Secondly, on a personal note, he probably does not know, although some do, that in a former life I was an optician who had a lot to do with the visually impaired. I set up the all-party group on eye health and visual impairment because I thought the issue needed a higher profile. So the issue of accessibility is dear to my heart—certainly as far as the visually impaired are concerned, although of course it goes wider than that and other disabled groups are involved.

Providing accessibility to the registration process is important, and the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) made points about the voting process as well—whether at a polling station or by other means. It is nice that everybody in the House wants progress on the issue. What we have put in train by virtue of the Bill will allow and provide for yet more work to be done to make sure that the register is as complete as possible, and that includes the needs of people with disabilities.

The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned the importance of the canvass but added that other means must be available. I entirely agree. The suggestions on data matching in the Bill provide electoral registration officers with a wider palette of opportunities to consult the register of blind and partially sighted people

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—they can consult it now, although they do not necessarily do so. The evidence that local authorities have of people with disability or impairment will enable them to do a more complete job of ensuring inclusion.

Mr Kevan Jones: I totally agree. Another source that local authorities could use is the blue badge scheme, which most administer.

Mr Heath: Precisely. As the hon. Gentleman will know, in the Bill there is a duty on electoral registration officers to use a variety of means with the sole duty of ensuring that the register is as complete and accurate as possible.

I shall slightly disappoint the hon. Member for Hendon by saying, as he anticipated, that I do not believe that the amendment is necessary, because the Bill already provides for what he wants. Clause 9 allows for the new registration system to be piloted in advance of commencement, and there is no reason why it should not include the information that is collected from application forms. The clause enables electoral registration officers to propose pilot schemes in their areas to test how the new system will work in practice. We expect that to test the robustness of the individual electoral registration digital service in advance of nationwide implementation. There is no obstacle to a proposal’s using the power in the Bill in order to include the collection of a voter’s accessibility needs. That would be a very good use of that power.

Mr Kevan Jones: I accept that these powers are in the Bill, but I think that what the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) is trying to get at is that this should not necessarily be left to local EROs. Yes, they might take it into account, but in order to get the body of evidence, it would be helpful if the Government said to particular areas, “Could you pilot this proposal on disabled people?”, so that lessons could be learned from the pilots. If it is just left to EROs, some of the better ones might do it, but we might not get the data or learn the lessons that are needed.

Mr Heath: This involves two things. First, we need to have pilots to see how we can most effectively secure the information; the Electoral Commission might want to take a view on that. Secondly, we need to ensure that that is reflected in the secondary legislation—the regulations that specify what needs to be collected. There is already quite a long list of things that are specified; indeed, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) has complained that it is too long. Despite his reservations, I think that accessibility issues would be a useful addition. Provisions elsewhere in the Bill provide specific powers to add other requirements. For example, new paragraph 3ZA(1)(a) to the Representation of the People Act 1983 provides the power that the hon. Member for Hendon is concerned about. It seems that his view is shared by the Electoral Commission, which slightly worries me, but I will come back to that.

Chris Ruane: If a local authority offered to pilot such an initiative, would it receive additional funding?

Mr Heath: We want to make sure that every authority has the funding it needs to do the job properly. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a duty on local authorities

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to make available to electoral registration officers the funding that is necessary for them to do their job. He also knows that some authorities do that very well but some, frankly, do not, and in those cases the ERO ought to be saying, “You, Mr Chief Executive”—or Mr County Treasurer, or whatever—“are not providing the resources necessary to do the job effectively.” We will support every time EROs who lack the resources to do the job properly.

Chris Ruane rose

Mr Heath: I will give way once more to the hon. Gentleman.

Chris Ruane: If such a pilot is of national significance because it could influence national policy, and it is above and beyond what an ERO or a local authority is already doing, surely it is incumbent on the Government, in a time of cuts, to recognise that and make additional funding available to it.

Mr Heath: I repeat that every electoral registration officer has a duty—a very important duty—to make sure that the register in their area is as complete and as accurate as possible. That is their duty, irrespective of this Bill.

Dr Offord: I am gratified by some of the Minister’s comments, if not all. I hope that I made it clear that I do not believe that the amendment would be an additional financial burden on EROs. I said that although providing alternative formats would introduce some costs, it is important to recognise that no additional duties would be placed on EROs. It would be more cost-effective in terms of the money that they spend in relation to registration rather than costing local authorities more. I would very much hope that local authorities would be willing to take out a pilot scheme.

Mr Heath: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. We have previously provided additional resources for pilot schemes where that is justified. However, as he says, his suggestion would simply encourage EROs to do their job more effectively using the information that they ought to have available, and that is why it commends itself to me.