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Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps I may advise her that the example I quoted concerned a state in America. It is my understanding that, if a resident went to the polling station with a neighbour who was on the register and could vouch for that person, that was an acceptable mechanism for registration and, on the basis of that registration, the resident could vote. I cannot believe that, with modern information technology that enables us to interrogate our bank accounts from some distance away and be paid money instantly, we cannot devise an electoral registration system that can do the necessary instantaneous checks.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I shall not be drawn to cite particular cases, but there are people who vouch for others who apply for inclusion on the electoral register when the application is not necessarily bona fide. Some cases are before the courts at this very moment.

In relation to the issue of absent voting and the timetable, I am aware that a number of people have expressed frustration at finding themselves unable to vote because they have missed the deadline for returning their applications for an absent vote. That point was made by a number of noble Lords. The current deadline is 13 working days before polling day. During the remaining time electoral staff must complete a great deal of work in checking and verifying claims and dispatching postal ballot papers. The Government have recently looked again to see whether there is scope for relaxing the timetable but we have not yet reached a firm view.

The levels of electoral registration have not for a number of years kept pace with increases in the estimated eligible population. That trend pre-dates the introduction of the community charge in England or Wales. However, as the table to which I shall refer indicates, 1992 saw the first increase in the proportion of eligible people registered since 1987. The latest return shows the largest number of electors registered. The percentages of the eligible population who registered from 1976 were as follows: 1976, 97.1 per cent.; 1981, 97.4 per cent.; 1982, 97.6 per cent.; 1983, 97.7 per cent.; 1984, 97.7 per cent.; 1985, 97.3 per cent.; 1986, 97.3 per cent.; 1987, 97.2 per cent.; 1988, 96.8 per cent.; 1989, 96.1 per cent.; 1990, 95.7 per cent.; 1991, 95.2 per cent.; 1992, 95.3 per cent.; 1993, 95 per cent.; and 1994, 95 per cent.

Looking at those figures—and I have had some fun playing around with them—there appears to be a peak at general elections and then a dropping away after general elections, as opposed to any link with the taxation system.

A straight comparison between the total number of electors registered and the OPCS revised estimate of the total resident population cannot take account of a

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number of hidden factors. For example, the electorate total contains much dead wood and legitimate duplication of names. A study of electoral registration in 1991 by Stephen Smith of the social survey division of the OPCS estimated that between 7.4 per cent. and 9 per cent. of people in private households in England and Wales eligible to vote at the time of the 1991 census were not on the electoral register. However, a few of those people would still have been on the register at an earlier address elsewhere and not identified. Furthermore, the resident population includes people who are not British, Commonwealth or Irish citizens and are ineligible for inclusion on the register. We believe that there are possibly over a million such people over voting age in the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, referred to weekend voting. At present, the only restriction on polling day is that it must be a working day. It is merely convention that polling days are on Thursdays. Under the law as it stands it is not possible to hold a parliamentary election at a weekend. I am not convinced absolutely, nor are all the political parties, that polling on a Saturday or Sunday would necessarily improve the turn-out. Many people choose weekends to go away and they would need to obtain a postal or proxy vote in much larger numbers. There are also a number of groups who would refuse on the grounds of religion or conscience to vote on Saturdays or Sundays. It would be wrong to disfranchise them for that reason.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, referred to the celebrated case of the "Literal Democrat." It is an important issue which is receiving close attention. A meeting has been held recently between my officials and representatives of the main political parties to determine whether there was support for change to existing nomination procedures, and if so, whether there was consensus on any change which might be required. As the noble Lord may understand, it is difficult to get a consensus on such a difficult issue.

There is a consensus as regards dissatisfaction with the practice of wilfully misrepresenting a political party or another person. Three proposals received a degree of support at the meeting. First, a party logo could be introduced in addition to the candidate's name, address and description which are already included on the ballot paper. This would allow challenges to be made under existing copyright law. A second proposal was that existing legislation could be extended to make it an offence to make a false statement of description, as well as in relation to a candidate's personal character or conduct. Another proposal which received some support was the introduction of an additional stage in an election which would allow a draft statement of a candidate's nominations to be published and challenged. None of these proposals alone would be sufficient to prevent a recurrence of the Literal Democrat problem. However, my officials are currently preparing a paper examining the options in detail and a further meeting will be held with the political parties when that paper is published to discuss the options.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I hope the noble Baroness will allow me to say that I am grateful for that answer. I take it that officials will be considering

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the laws in other jurisdictions referred to by the Divisional Court in the Literal Democrat case as a possible model for change.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I was going to say that it would be helpful, if people have ideas about what might work and what would eliminate this kind of wilful behaviour, to pass those on. We would of course be receptive to such ideas.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked about the response of the working group. Ministers are currently considering the findings and conclusions of the report and therefore I am not able to say any more at the moment. With regard to the design of forms, that is kept under continuing review. Officials constantly consult administrators and indeed political parties. The registration form "A" is not a compulsory format and registration officers can, and indeed do, modify it within limits. I must say that some do it rather better than others.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, also referred to selling the register. There are no plans to change current requirements on local authorities to sell the register. It is a public document and it would be impractical to restrict access by not selling it on. It is also worth recording that there is a mail preference scheme which allows people to opt out of receiving junk mail. We would encourage people to use that.

As regards the suggestion about ballot papers written in Braille, this has been advanced by a number of organisations representing visually handicapped voters.

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There are, of course, a number of difficulties. Braille ballot forms would inevitably need to be printed on different paper from that of the other ballot forms to accommodate both the Braille and the overprinting necessary for the counters to read them. In a small polling district the limited number of such votes would lead to an increased risk that the secrecy of the individual's vote could not be ensured. That is an important point to take into account.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, referred to the spending on overseas electors in 1992 being more than that spent on advertising in this country. Nothing was spent in 1992 on advertising for overseas electors. In fact, nothing at all has been spent since 1990 when money was spent on advertising the extended franchise from five to 20 years, but since that date nothing at all has been spent. The noble Baroness questioned central funding for registration. As I have already said, this exists through the revenue support grant and it is up to local authorities themselves to decide how much of that they wish to allocate to registration.

This has been an interesting and informative debate. I am sure that I have not covered every single point raised, but I can assure the House that the Government welcome the debate and the interest in the subject. I believe that we shall continue to have healthy and lively discussions with the political parties on such matters.

        House adjourned for the Spring Bank Holiday at four o'clock.

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