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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not sure that this is going to do my reputation any good at all. Not only is the Minister saying he has sympathy with the proposal, but also the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has some sympathy. One must accept these things with good grace, and I do. I am pleased to hear the Minister's assurance that he will look at this and I am sure he accepts that it is an unusual amalgam. No doubt 20 or 30 years ago nobody bothered too much about it because it was not an issue. But I am grateful to him for saying that he will take it away and look at it, and I look forward to hearing from him either by letter or by an amendment at Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw amendment.
Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 clarify the point that residence needs to be construed in accordance with Section 4. Amendment No. 39 reflects the fact that under rolling legislation an electoral register lasts indefinitely rather than for a year, as is presently the case, which means that removal of names from the register becomes necessary. Amendment No. 40 excludes prisoners on remand who are detained other than at a penal institution or mental hospital from the need to conduct a canvass.
I turn now to Amendment No. 44, which is tabled under two names on the Marshalled List. That combination may have raised some eyebrows during noble Lords' deliberations. As we have demonstrated this afternoon, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and I are perhaps something of an "odd couple". I suspect that our motives in seeking to remove the words on page 19 of the Bill may be a little different. I should like
Our reason for wanting to delete the power in new Section 10(7) of the 1983 Act is that the power reappears as new subsection (7) of new Section 10A, which is to be inserted by Amendment No. 46. The power of removal will appear as new Section 10A(6), and new Section 10A(7) qualifies that power. I hope that noble Lords managed to follow that explanation. The power in question is the one to make regulations enabling registration officers to keep names on the electoral register for a year in cases where the electoral registration form has not been returned.
It is an unfortunate fact that every year a large number of households fail to return their electoral registration form. As we know, electoral registration officers are assiduous creatures who chase missing forms, often paying several visits to the properties concerned. But, even then, there are some properties from which no information is forthcoming. A practice has evolved in such circumstances of keeping existing names on the register for a year, and sometimes longer, in the absence of any evidence that the people concerned have moved away.
We believe that that is right. In cases of uncertainty, the decision should always be to keep people on the register rather than disfranchising them. We believe that to be an important democratic principle. The Bill will simply put existing practice on a statutory footing and, at the same time, make it clear that names should be kept on the register for only a single year. I am sorry that the Opposition want to remove this provision, as to do so could result in denying people the right to vote.
Amendment No. 45 allows for someone who has changed address in the same area, and who is not on the register in respect of his or her new address, to be added to the register in respect of that address, as a result of the annual canvass.
Amendment No. 46 adds a new subsection to Section 10A, which concerns preparation of electoral registers. New subsection (5) makes provision as to the time at which an entitlement to be registered ceases. New subsection (6) requires the registration officer to remove a person falling within subsection (5). New subsection (7) qualifies that power. New subsection (8) disapplies these provisions in respect of those whose entitlement to be registered lasts for only 12 months. Amendment No. 48 is consequential on Amendment No. 46.
Amendments Nos. 64 and 141 reflect the fact that under new Section 1(1)(a) entitlement to vote depends on being registered in the constituency concerned. Amendments Nos. 65 and 66 are consequential on those amendments. Amendment No. 72 provides for the evidential effect of a registration officer's certificate that a person was--or was not--registered at a particular time. Amendment No. 74 is necessary because provisions relating to the registration of overseas electors are now contained solely in the 1985 Act. Amendments No. 75 and 76 are consequential on Amendment No. 64. They remove provisions relating to the effect of Section 49 from new Sections 2 and 3 of the 1985 Act. Amendment No. 79 applies Amendment No. 72 for the purposes of local elections in Northern Ireland.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I suppose that, initially, some Members of the Committee thought that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and I were absolutely on the same wave-length when they noticed our names attached to the same amendment. However, as the noble Lord very fairly pointed out, we are probably approaching the matter from entirely different directions. Indeed, we have probably ended up in quite different places. The noble Lord seeks to remove subsection (7) and to replace it with some alternative words; I have also sought to remove that subsection, but do not propose to replace it with any alternative words.
We are in a new situation with regard to the register. It is now not just a once-a-year exercise; it is a rolling register, which means that the electoral position will not be frozen for a whole year--indeed, for more than a year, as is really the case--but will roll on month to month. There will be a bit of a freeze in October and November, but that is all. Therefore, the question of removing names from the register becomes even more important. Moreover, it is also important if one is to judge the success of all the changes that we are now considering.
To put it simply, if an electoral register contains 100 names and 60 people vote, it is very obvious that a 60 per cent turn-out has been achieved. However, if 10 of those 100 names could not vote even if they wanted to--perhaps because they were dead or because they had moved away--but, nevertheless, remained on the register, the turn-out would look a staggering 66.66 per cent, which, on the face of it, might be claimed by the Government to be a great success as regards some other experiment being conducted. In fact, it would not be anything of the kind; it would simply be a reflection that we should not determine turn-out based just on the electoral register because it is not wholly accurate.
It may seem odd if I pray in aid some words of the party opposite, the Liberal Democrat Party and the Scottish National Party over the 20 years after 1979. Those noble Lords who remember these events will recall that there was a hurdle in the Welsh and Scottish referendums in 1979 (imposed by a Labour MP in the other place) of 40 per cent of those registered to vote. There was much argument beforehand, much argument at the time and there has been much argument since about the unfairness involved because, many people on the register on which that 40 per cent was based were either dead or had moved away to such an extent that they could not possibly vote there.
Therefore, the number on the register--the denominator--is a very important factor, not just for ensuring that everyone who can vote is on the register; but also for ensuring that everyone who can no longer vote is removed from the register at the first available opportunity.
Although my next piece of information is fairly "old hat", I do not believe that the situation will have changed. In fact, I suspect that it may possibly have got worse because the mobility of population, and so on, has actually increased over the past 20 years, or so, since the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs inquired into the Representation of the People Act in 1982 and 1983. At that time, the annual survey of the methods of compiling the electoral register carried out by the Office of Population Censuses & Surveys included data to the extent on which EROs (electoral registration officers) carry forward names from one register to the next.
The 1990 survey showed that 6 per cent of all EROs do not carry forward at all; 50 per cent carry forward only if there is good supporting evidence--and, of those, 7 per cent believe that "carried forward with good evidence" is, in effect, a policy of not carrying forward at all; 18 per cent carry forward for one year only; 6 per cent carry forward for two years only; and 20 per cent carry forward for three years or more. That really means that 44 per cent of all EROs carry forward most or all of the names in the absence of any good supporting evidence to the contrary. That is a fairly staggering number of names being carried forward. It is now time to ask whether that is sensible. Later in the Committee stage I shall propose that the electoral registration officer uses some of the tools that I believe are to hand in order to make sure that the register is up to date. I shall speak about those proposals when we reach them.
The point at issue here is that the Government, in seeking to remove subsection (7) that we have discussed and reinstating it in another form, are not dealing with the problem of carrying names forward when there is no justification for that. If we want the register to be an accurate, rolling reflection of who is entitled to vote, we must take all possible steps to ensure that people's names are not carried forward year after year when they have made no attempt--perhaps because they are no longer able to make such an attempt--to fill in the form and send it back. They may simply not be there any more. It is slipshod to allow that situation to continue in the future when our
While, initially, I was pleased to note that the noble Lord had added his name to my amendment, I rapidly detected that he was not going as far as I would have wished. I regret that the Government have not taken more vigorous steps in this regard. However, I shall reserve most of my fire for later when I shall make some helpful suggestions as to how they may be able to improve the clearing of the register.
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