The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, the Islamist extremist movement known as Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for many attacks in Nigeria. Ongoing intercommunal tensions have also led to conflict, which has recently been exacerbated by attacks on places of worship such as the one in Kaduna state on 17 June. The British Government utterly condemn such violence and work with the Nigerian Government and international partners to ensure the location of a comprehensive strategy to tackle security threats.
Baroness Cox: I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. Is he aware that I recently returned from Kano, Bauchi and Plateau states, where Christians are living in siege-like conditions, especially on Sundays, when many have been attacked and killed during church services; where it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christian leaders to sustain their commendable efforts to prevent retaliation, with the risk of escalating intercommunal conflict, as happened in Kaduna, to which the noble Lord referred; and where there are concerns over the possible destabilisation of Nigeria itself? Will Her Majesty's Government raise with the Nigerian Government the concerns of the Christian communities, including the frequent failure of the authorities to prosecute and punish the perpetrators of violence against them?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I am aware of the noble Baroness's recent visits and I was very grateful for the very informative report that she shared with Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials on the situation. The British Government are appalled as well as deeply and continuously concerned by what has gone on and by the situation that she described. I can only say that we are fully engaged with the Nigerian Government on these issues and on the essential need to protect minorities more effectively and to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: The Minister will be well aware that Boko Haram is only part of an Islamist tide sweeping across the Sahel. In northern Nigeria, a particular problem is the atrocities against the Christian community-the attempt, in effect, to cleanse northern Nigeria of Christians. What specifically are the Government doing to assist Nigeria, possibly in co-operation with our French colleagues because of the general nature of the problem, and to what extent do we fear for the unity of Nigeria?
Lord Howell of Guildford: The noble Lord is right that this is part of a larger series of trends and developments, some of them of a very ominous and dangerous kind -not least the instability in Mali and the attacks on Timbuktu that have been very much in the news. All those events reflect and connect with the activities of Boko Haram, to which the noble Lord referred. We are working with the Nigerians at all times to see how we can help them increase security. At the same time we are working with the French and other EU partners to address the whole issue of the Sahel, where all these dangers are arising. The noble Lord is absolutely right to call attention to them.
Lord Chidgey: If I may, I will take that point a little further, although my noble friend has just offered us an answer. What assessment have our Government made of the links between Boko Haram, AQIM in Mali and al-Shabaab in Somalia in their logistical, ideological and political operations?
Lord Howell of Guildford: We keep a very close eye on this in making assessments, as do our French colleagues-as I just mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson-our United States colleagues and others. The precise linkages are fluid and not always easy to identify, but there is no doubt that, where there has been potential instability and turmoil, al-Qaeda, or branches and franchises of al-Qaeda, tend to turn up like flies around any corpses. This is always the danger and we should watch it very closely. As for al-Shabaab, we cannot see a visible connection at the moment, but it too might be involved, although it is quite a long way away.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I have made nearly 70 trips over the past 30 years to Nigeria, many of which in the past few years have dealt with conflict management. Do the Government also remain committed to working with private and civil society organisations, particularly the churches and religious leaders-I am thinking of organisations such as the one run by the bishop of Kaduna, Bridge Builders-which in many ways have been especially effective in dealing with an issue that has religious elements?
Lord Howell of Guildford: The answer to the right reverend Prelate is indeed yes. To reinforce the point, although there are different religious groups in Nigeria we have always seen it as a state of tolerance rather than religious intolerance. That is not the main cause
24 July 2012 : Column 595
Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House appreciates the efforts made by Her Majesty's Government so far in trying to resolve some of these problems. Are the Government aware of the reports of the well-armed mercenaries who are operating in the attacks on Christian churches? If they are, are they doing anything to find out the source of the supply of the sophisticated weaponry that is being used against Christians?
Lord Howell of Guildford: We are aware of reports. We always seek more information. These are very important matters in which we take a very close interest. We take a particular interest in the arms trade issue, which we will discuss later on this afternoon in this House.
Lord Elton: Is my noble friend aware that although we in this country are very alert to Boko Haram and to the religious imbalance in this conflict, the media constantly report, particularly to other Muslim countries, that this is a reciprocal fight in which Christians and Muslims are equally engaged? How does he square that with the fact that it is almost always Christian churches that are blown up and Muslim mosques that are left untouched?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I cannot comment on the balance or lack of balance in any media reporting, but of course it is not always balanced, although my noble friend is right to say that there is no equality of violence. However, there are reprisals and it is true that mosques have been attacked as well as churches. We have no doubt that the new levels of horror, violence and atrocity that have been imported into northern Nigeria are initiated and have been provoked by Boko Haram.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, given that 600 people in Nigeria have already been murdered this year by Boko Haram, which states that it wants to extinguish all reference to western ideals, including democracy, why have we not proscribed it as a terrorist organisation in the United Kingdom? Has the Minister had a chance to look at the information which I have sent to his office about the links between funding organisations in the UK supporting Boko Haram?
Lord Howell of Guildford: On the first point, it is not HMG's policy to comment on which organisations may or may not be considered for proscription. On the funding issue raised by the noble Lord, I am very grateful to him for doing so. We were not aware before he raised it of the suggestion that funds were going from UK groups to Boko Haram. I have brought it to the attention of officials who are examining the issue, and I will write to him about it.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Henley): My Lords, the Government are conducting an extensive assessment of the benefits, costs and risks of introducing intercept as evidence in criminal proceedings. Lawful interception is a vital but complex area, and so it is crucial to get it right. The cross-party advisory group overseeing this work will be further consulted.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, it is now four and a half years since the committee was asked by the then Government to find a way of making intercept evidence available in court. It is two and a half years since the committee decided not to go ahead with the preferred solution, which is PII Plus, on the basis of certain legal advice which it had received. Since then, we have heard nothing. Will the Minister take what steps he can to make that legal advice generally available so that we can judge for ourselves whether it still has validity?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I may depress the noble and learned Lord a little when I tell him that it has actually been longer than four and a half years. I gather that seven previous attempts going back to 1993 have been made to try to resolve this issue, which gives some indication of the difficulty of dealing with it. We have made a coalition commitment that the Government will seek,
However, we must focus on the benefits, costs and risks of so doing, and that is why we want to get it right. As regards the legal advice, I can only say to the noble and learned Lord that it would not generally be appropriate to put into the public domain independent legal advice that had been offered by counsel.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, does the Minister agree that if the risks associated with making intercept evidence available in court could be make acceptable to the Government, surely the benefits of using such evidence in court would be enormous? We would bring to justice people who at the moment cannot be brought to justice. It would be a much better way of running these things than having control orders, TPIMs and what have you.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I think I can agree entirely with the noble Lord, but we have to accept that there are risks and that we have to find a balance between the risks and the benefits. That is what we are trying to do. As the noble Lord will appreciate, for a whole series of Governments going back to 1993, this is quite a difficult matter to resolve.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I do not doubt the difficulty of the subject, but when one looks to see what has been published over the past few years, there is nothing that is recent. Can the Minister give the House any reassurance that progress is being made, perhaps by publishing a further interim report?
Lord Henley: My Lords, it is for the committee of independent privy counsellors, the Chilcot committee, to consider what it can publish. I will certainly look to see whether there is anything that HMG can say, but I am not sure that there is at this stage. We want to get there; my noble friend knows we want to get there since she knows that it is part of the coalition agreement. However, I repeat that it is very difficult.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, so far as most countries in the developed world are concerned, particularly the English-speaking world-Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States-such evidence is admissible and used to good effect day in and day out? Why is it that, for the past 26 years, successive Governments have set their face so intransigently against the use of such evidence in our courts?
Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord is correct to point out that there are other countries that have similar common law legal systems that do use intercept as evidence. They do not have the constraints of the European Court of Human Rights-a point that ought to be made to the noble Lord. As I said, all Governments have been trying to get there since 1993. It is going to be a very long road.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I am scarred from two years of my Liberal Democrat friends slapping me around when I was in government because I took too long to do anything about this. I am glad that now they are in a coalition, they are finding this quite a difficult issue. Does the Minister not agree that some 25 years ago terrorists did not know that when they picked up a mobile phone we would get them straight away? Now there are techniques that, if exposed, would mean that we would not get the tip-offs that we get all the time which allow us to monitor whole teams of people who wish to do our nation harm.
Lord Henley: The noble Lord makes a very valid point about the importance of intelligence, and why we do not necessarily want to risk losing that intelligence by making use of it as evidence. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support, and I look forward to being slapped around on this by noble Lords from all sides of the House for months to come.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, the supposition seems to be that a large number of cases do not proceed to court because intercept evidence is not admissible. Could the Minister give us the Government's estimate of how many such cases there are that would have proceeded to court had this evidence been available?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord that, but I remind him of the remarks made by his noble friend Lord West about the number of cases that possibly would never have been pursued at all because of lack of intelligence. He must differentiate between intelligence and evidence. That is what we are trying to do-to make sure we still have the intelligence and do not lose it as a result of making use of it as evidence.
The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury (Lord Sassoon): My Lords, under UK guarantees the Government aim to kick-start major infrastructure projects that may be struggling to access private finance. Eligible projects will be subject to a detailed assessment process and the Government will conduct and consider the most effective form of guarantee based on the specific project risks. The Government have wide discretion over how a guarantee is structured, subject to the terms and dynamics of each individual project. The guarantees could cover key project risks such as construction, performance or revenue risk.
Lord Barnett: I thank the Minister, although his Reply might have been better as an Oral Statement. I welcome the infrastructure plan. However, with the Prime Minister talking about a 10-year austerity programme and with growth likely to indicate tomorrow that we are in a triple-dip recession, is that not one of the reasons why even companies with 100% guarantees will not want to borrow money? That applies to the main scheme and even the PPP. No one should be surprised. The Prime Minister originally said that the plan would come into force in 2014 at the earliest but, given the economic background, do we not need it now, not in 2014? In those circumstances, could he suggest to the Chancellor that he consider a quadruple U-turn and find a little cash to help kick-start the infrastructure plans, which are so welcome?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, I am very happy to correct the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. Some £40 billion of projects in the national infrastructure plan that are due to start construction before 2015 could well be eligible for guarantees under the scheme. We are inviting applications for guarantees now and, subject to legislation,
24 July 2012 : Column 599
Lord Wigley: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that this scheme will extend to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? That being so, will he confirm that there were discussions with the three Administrations before the announcement was made?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, the £40 billion infrastructure guarantee scheme is linked to nationally significant infrastructure projects. Typically, the promoters of those projects will not be SMEs, but of course there will be very many SMEs in the supply chain for the projects that will benefit. SMEs working in the public/private partnership space will also benefit from a possible £6 billion of additional loans that was also announced in this package, as will exporters, for whom a £5 billion export refinancing facility will be extended.
Lord Peston: My Lords, it is obvious that this loan guarantee scheme must involve immense risk because if there were no risk involved, the guarantee would not be required. How will the costs of meeting those risks enter into the public accounts, or will the Government try to fiddle the figures so that they do not eventually appear as public expenditure?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, there will be no fiddling of the numbers by this Government on this or anything else. The position is very straightforward: the financing markets for these projects are extremely difficult but there good projects are coming forward in the pipeline, and the beauty of the scheme is that we can use the strength of the government balance sheet. To answer the technical question, the infrastructure guarantees will be financial transactions and will have no impact on PSNB. A project would have an impact on PSND only if there was a non-negligible expected loss, which is not something that we anticipate. The guarantees will generally count as contingent liabilities, and that is very clear.
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, may I gently tempt the Minister to answer the second question asked by my noble friend Lord Wigley? I take it that there was no consultation. Why was that? Was there an intention to show contempt for the views of the devolved Administrations or did the Government just not think about it? What is the answer, please?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, we have come forward with a very positive financing package to help our infrastructure providers and our exporters. I believe that that will be welcomed very widely, as it has been, by business organisations. I hope that it will be welcomed by the devolved Administrations; as I have said, it extends to them.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of course we welcome this scheme but, as my noble friend Lord Barnett indicated, this is in the context of the UK being in a double-dip or, as he suggested, triple-dip recession. We certainly are the only country in the G20 apart from Italy that is in recession. This modest scheme is welcome. Will the Minister explain, therefore, why the Government axed the similar scheme to support public/private partnerships put forward by the Labour Administration in 2009?
Lord Sassoon: My Lords, again, I am happy to put the record straight. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, may not have noticed that this package includes £6 billion worth of facility available to public/private partnership projects that are ready to start in the next 12 months.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, would the Minister care to help the House by confirming or denying that there were discussions with the relevant Administrations in advance of the scheme being announced-and not announced to Parliament?
The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Henley): My Lords, the Public and Commercial Services Union's decision to call this strike on the eve of the Games is opportunistic and wholly unjustified. The Home Secretary has written to the PCS to express her concern and to make it clear that Her Majesty's Government are totally opposed to the strike.
Baroness Fookes: Is it correct that only 21% of the union members balloted actually voted at all and that only a very small majority of those who did vote voted in favour? In those circumstances, and given that lukewarm support, is there any responsible person in this country who supports this squalid little exercise that threatens the good name of this country?
Lord Henley: My Lords, I cannot believe that there is anyone who will support a strike of this sort other than that 12% of PCS members who voted for the strike. We are currently checking the legality of the strike and, if satisfied that it is illegal, we will take the appropriate remedies in the courts.
Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland: Is the Minister aware that the PCS has at least my full support? The reason is that every union in the public sector has been provoked beyond endurance by the present Government. The unions are fully justified in negotiating with the Government and it is the Government's duty to settle.
Lord Henley: I am interested that one person is prepared to put his head above the parapet on this matter and I note that the noble Lord's leader, Mr Ed Miliband, was in Durham at the Durham Miners' Gala speaking on the same platform as the PCS, presumably in support of this strike. It would be very interesting to hear his views on this matter.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the action proposed by the PCS is a serious matter, particularly when the world's attention is focused on the United Kingdom in matters relating to the entry, security and safety of travellers coming to this country. Although it is right not to interfere with any negotiations that may be going on, does my noble friend accept that, as tomorrow is the last day on which this House will be sitting, we are entitled to know what contingency plans exist if the situation were to deteriorate?
Lord Henley: As my noble friend will be well aware, we have full contingency plans in place, just as we did on the other four occasions on which the PCS has called one-day strikes. On all those occasions we managed not only to secure the border appropriately but to prevent excessive queues. We hope to do that again tomorrow, but we hope that the PCS will see reason. Our doors remain open to negotiations until the last minute but, as I said, we are also taking legal advice on this matter.
Baroness Smith of Basildon: My Lords, although we would all support an Olympic truce between the Government and the unions, I think the Minister does this House a disservice when he tries to imply that the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, supports the strike when he has made it quite clear, as the Minister and other noble Lords will know, that he does not support the strike. We also recognise that there are real long-term issues about queues at border controls, particularly for non-EEA visitors. Yesterday the National Audit Office blamed the Government for cutting too many staff-more than even the Government planned-far too quickly. We now have a Bermuda Triangle of lost asylum cases being written off, mounting casework backlogs, and even fewer foreign criminals being deported. I appreciate that there are shorter queues at border controls for the Olympics, but can the Minister guarantee that, following the NAO report, the Government will treat this issue as a priority and ensure that there are enough staff and resources to do the job in the long term?
Lord Henley: My Lords, if that was support for the Government's position, it was very strange support. What we want to hear is a thorough condemnation from the party opposite of the PCS's action, and I am not sure that I have quite heard that. The strike is due to happen tomorrow. As I said, it is opportunistic and unnecessary. Our doors are open and we continue to negotiate, as the noble Baroness knows full well. However, I want to make it clear that we will take appropriate legal action if it is possible, and that is why we are checking the legality of the strike that has been called with the support of some 12% of PCS members.
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I declare an interest as a pensioner of PCS. I do not support the strike; neither does my party. However, is the Minister aware that there is a serious problem with staffing within the border agency? Is he further aware that last week some of us met Deutsche Bahn, the railway firm, which has delayed introducing trains and competition into the Eurotunnel because of the problems over immigration and the inadequate number of staff being engaged by the Government to carry out the necessary border controls? This is losing business for the country and losing business for London, and it is time that the Government got to grips with it.
Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord's question goes slightly beyond that on the Order Paper. As he knows full well, it is not simply the problems relating to border force but also the problems relating to the layout of St Pancras Station. Those matters can be resolved between now and 2015, which is the earliest possible date that Deutsche Bahn is likely to bring trains in there. I am grateful for the noble Lord's condemnation of this strike.
To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress they have made in negotiations on the arms trade treaty taking place at the United Nations in New York, which are due to reach their conclusion on Thursday 26 July and what their ultimate negotiating position is.
Lord Judd: My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice. In asking this Question, I declare an interest as a trustee of the charity Saferworld and a former director of Oxfam.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, negotiations in New York are due to conclude on Friday 27 July. The negotiations are complex and sensitive, and at this stage it is not possible to predict the outcome. However, our ambitions remain unchanged. For the UK, success means a robust and effective legally binding treaty with strong provisions on international humanitarian law and human rights. The treaty must include everything from fighter planes to rifles, and bombs to bullets and ammunition. Arms brokering must be controlled and corrupt practitioners prosecuted. It should establish a
24 July 2012 : Column 603
Lord Judd: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he not agree that on matters of such vital importance for global security-as is being underlined every day in Syria, the Gulf, Africa, Asia and elsewhere-that it would have been better for the Government to come with a considered statement on how the negotiations are proceeding and on their position, so that there could have been full and proper exchanges in this House? Does he not accept that there is growing disillusion and indignation across the world that there are all kinds of aspirations but no firm and binding conclusions? If we do not achieve a firm and binding outcome from these negotiations, is there not a case that it would be better to have no treaty at all?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I understand the noble Lord's strong feelings. He has always been a robust fighter in this very important cause. However, we are at this very delicate and sensitive stage in the negotiations, when we are fighting to achieve a robust treaty and avoid what we would totally reject, which is having to sign a weak consensus. I am not sure that in the middle of the negotiations it would be better to discuss them. The noble Lord, with his experience, will possibly understand that. Although I fully applaud his feelings on this matter, we are at an absolutely crucial stage of mid-negotiation. This is something that has been fought for by officials under successive Governments for over six years. We are poised to achieve the very most that we can, as I outlined in my Answer.
Lord King of Bridgwater:Does the Minister agree that this will very soon represent the culmination of eight years' work by determined Ministers and officials of both the previous and the present Governments and that we wish them well in these final, concluding days? I have to say that it is very bizarre to have a Private Notice Question that asks for the Government's negotiating position two days before the final vote, after eight years' work. Nobody denies the enormous importance of this treaty-for all the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has given-so that responsible defence industries can operate in the proper, licensed way and so that the illegal shipment of arms which has caused such difficulty can be properly controlled under an international agreement. In these crucial last two days, is not the best thing for us to wish our negotiators the best possible success in this important undertaking?
Lord Howell of Guildford: My noble friend is absolutely right. I fully endorse everything he says. I believe your Lordships are at heart, and certainly have been in past statements, fully in support of these very difficult negotiations and this high ambition of the British Government and that we should today take the opportunity further to reinforce the support for what officials have struggled to achieve over the years under successive Governments.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, does the Minister recognise-and I am not asking what our negotiating position is-that between now and Friday
24 July 2012 : Column 604
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I have said that we are not going to sign a weak consensus. I know that the noble Lord, who is very versed in and a master of these negotiations, would not expect me to make statements about our negotiating position at this crucial stage. I repeat that a weak consensus or a feeble abandonment is not what is contemplated.
Lord Triesman: My Lords, we, too, wish the negotiators well, but I think the noble Lord will understand why we are apprehensive. On 13 July, the BIS Select Committee in the other place concluded that the Government seem to have adopted a different policy from that of the previous Administration and appear to be ready to weaken the arms trade treaty in order to placate the arms exporting countries, looking for what would emerge as a lowest common denominator approach. That apprehension is shared in New York. Any discussion with colleagues there will show that. They are deeply concerned that we did not sign the strong text of support calling for a strong treaty, already signed by 74 countries, and that we should consider showing that intent and good will now. Will the Government do so?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I think that that apprehension is ill founded. Ambassador Moritan, who chairs the process, obviously has had to manoeuvre. We have to be realistic that there are sceptics and that there are countries which, from the start, have been outright opponents of anything other than broad political agreements. We have to accept that. Our determination is not to be deviated from the pattern which was reflected under the noble Lord's own Government, and I repeat that we are determined not to sign a weak consensus but to go for a robust treaty. That remains our position.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that when in the past decade $2.2 billion-worth of arms have been sold to countries that are under an arms embargo, such as Iran, Myanmar and Zimbabwe, it is terribly important to get a text of some sort? I have to say, with all due respect, the Labour Benches have been fantastic about this treaty, but the binary question they pose to the House is that we either go for a treaty or, given that it is a consensus procedure, we go for nothing at all. Would it not be better to negotiate to the very last moment to get any text on the paper to build for an incremental future whereby we regulate arms than to settle for nothing, which is what I suspect they are posing?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I do not want to be involved in this polarised binary approach, as my noble friend rightly calls it. We are negotiating very hard. She is quite right that there are very high prizes to be achieved if we can get the robust treaty we want. I think I shall leave it there, except to observe that even with the treaty and, indeed, much more so without a treaty, illicit arms continue to swirl around the world and feed Syria, the killing and the murder, and they will continue to do so unless, step by step, we can move from the treaty to tighter and tighter controls.
Lord Browne of Ladyton: My Lords, those of us who follow these matters closely are hearing very strongly from New York that the sceptics are dominating the floor of this conference. We are constantly being impressed by the request that Britain speaks up more in this conference as a leader of those who wish to see a robust treaty. I shall repeat to the Minister the question posed to him by my noble friend Lord Triesman, about it not being too late for the UK Government to sign up to the statement signed by 74 countries setting out the humanitarian bottom line for a robust treaty. Are the Government prepared to consider doing that? It would send a very strong message to these negotiations.
Lord Howell of Guildford: Strong messages are going all the time. As I think the noble Lord knows, we have always said that we want to have a humanitarian dimension fully in this treaty. We have said that, but how we manage to secure our aims in this last vital stage is a matter of delicate negotiation, and I think I must leave it there, although I fully recognise the strong feelings on both sides of the House about this matter.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, I congratulate the Chairman of Committees on an excellent and sympathetic report. However, could he arrange for the Procedure Committee to look at another matter: namely, the accountability of Ministers to this House, particularly the accountability of the noble Lord, Lord Green? I have here a table that shows that his attendance in the current Session was less than 10%; whereas, just to take a random example, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, was here nearly 100% of the time. The noble Lord, Lord Green, was absent yesterday when there was a PNQ, which he knew was coming up, about his attendance. He is absent again today. I do not know where he is, but he is certainly not here. However, he is going to make a statement today, not to this House but to Jeff Randall on Sky television.
It is appalling and a discourtesy to this House and to Parliament as a whole when the noble Lord considers that it is appropriate for him to make a statement on television and not to this House. Since we have the noble Lord the Leader of the House here-I shall wait for a reply to the Committee-he will say that at a time
24 July 2012 : Column 606
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: I apologise for intervening on this issue, but I wish to say something. I address my remarks to the noble Lord the Leader of the House rather than to the Lord Chairman. In view of the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Green, is going to be on television this evening and that he has written a letter to Mr Chris Leslie in the House of Commons, I thought it pertinent to raise this matter on the Floor of the House.
However, in a letter to my honourable friend the shadow Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the noble Lord, Lord Green, does precisely that in giving, as a government Minister in an official letter from a government department, his views on HSBC and what he described as the "failures" of the bank, about which he says, "I share that regret". If the noble Lord, Lord Green, can make that kind of point in a government letter-let alone what he might say in an interview on Sky television at 7 pm this evening-he should come to this House and make those points here. I therefore invite the Leader of the House, in the light of the actions today of the noble Lord, Lord Green, to make arrangements for the noble Lord, as a Minister and a Member of this House, to take the opportunity to come to this House tomorrow to dispel the questions that are being posed about his ministerial role.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, I think that it is worth replying to this. The noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition was kind enough to give me notice that she would raise this issue. There are two accusations against my noble friend Lord Green. The first is that he has written to Mr Chris Leslie, who is a Member of the House of Commons. The only reason why my noble friend Lord Green has written to Mr Leslie is because Mr Leslie wrote to him and he has simply replied. That strikes me as being entirely the right and correct thing to do.
The second accusation is that my noble friend has not come to this House to answer questions. The reason why my noble friend has not come to this House to answer questions is because none has been put to him on this subject.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, made much of the table of attendance and referred to my noble friend Lady Anelay. However, she happens to be the government Chief Whip, and if she was not here practically every day, I would want to know why. Incidentally, I also want to know why the Minister for Trade should
24 July 2012 : Column 607
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: If the noble Lord the Leader of the House would care to check, he will find that the noble Lord, Lord Jones, attended here regularly. He answered question after question. Not only did he do so, but so did the Secretary of State, the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, who also attended regularly. The noble Lord, Lord Green, is the senior Minister from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in this House, but who has to stand in? The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, who comes very high in the table, gallantly stands in regularly to answer these questions; and if she is not able to do it, the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, stands in. However, we never see the noble Lord, Lord Green. I do not think that the noble Lord the Leader of the House understands that he is the Leader of the House, not of the Conservative Party. He is responsible for the whole House. It is a grave discourtesy for a Minister never to appear to turn up. He is not just responsible for trade and investment; he is the main Minister in that department, and he should be here answering questions.
Lord Strathclyde: I will not continue this for very much longer. All I can say is that if the noble Lord wants to put down questions on trade and investment, my noble friend Lord Green will be here to answer them.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, while the noble Lord is here and answering questions, I hope he does not mind my saying this, but I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Green, should have made from BIS the Statement on loan guarantees. For some reason, he was not here, although I gather he was in the House. Could the noble Lord inquire into why that happened? I would rather that the noble Lord, Lord Green, had answered, given that he was the Minister concerned.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I do not wish to prolong this either. I would merely say that I did not write to the noble Lord, Lord Green, because on a couple of occasions I asked for the noble Lord to come to this House, of which he is a Member, to answer questions. Next time I will write to the Minister responsible, because I know that Ministers do not think that it is fitting to come to this House and to be accountable to this House. Clearly, we have to do things by correspondence.
Lord King of Bridgwater: Can we get a better understanding of this issue? My own memory goes back to two excellent Ministers of Trade: Cecil Parkinson, who is now a Member of this House, and Richard Needham-both of whom will be familiar to many Members of this House. I was rude to them if I ever saw them, because their job was not to be here. At a
24 July 2012 : Column 608
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, my noble friend puts it extremely well. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, a Written Ministerial Statement on the loan guarantee scheme was made by my noble friend Lord Sassoon because it was a Treasury matter. The noble Lord was able to ask him a Question a few minutes ago.
The Chairman of Committees (Lord Sewel): My Lords, it seems so long ago, but if I remember correctly the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, began by commending the report. I thank him for those very few words on the report. He raised issues that have been dealt with by the Leader of the House. The only thing I should say is that if anyone wishes to take these matters further in light of the Procedure Committee, they can always write. I do not think that any points, let alone points of substance, have been raised on the content of the report, which makes a number of important advances in how we enable people with disabilities to contribute fully to the business of this House. I commend the report to the House.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, as is usual in these matters, I shall now read the following. I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the House of Lords (Cessation of Membership) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, very briefly, on behalf of the whole House, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for his perseverance in taking this Bill through. We shall have to see what happens in the
24 July 2012 : Column 610
Lord Steel of Aikwood: It is above my pay grade to answer that. I hope that it might be but we shall wait and see. In the mean time, like the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, on the previous occasion when we debated this, I quote Aristotle:
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Baroness Wilcox): My Lords, in our discussion of Clause 2 of the Bill on Report, I mentioned that we had identified that it would be sensible to bring Article 11 of the groceries supply order 2009 up to date to reflect the Arbitration (Scotland) Act 2010. I said that we would consider a minor and technical amendment to the Bill to facilitate this, and we are now proposing such an amendment. This was helpfully prompted by the amendment to Clause 2 proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, on Report.
The purpose of this amendment is to enable the Competition Commission to ensure that the order is updated to reflect the Arbitration (Scotland) Act 2010. The need for an amendment follows in particular from the fact that Article 11(8) of the order refers to Sections 67 to 69 of the Arbitration Act 1996 but not to the similar provisions of the Arbitration (Scotland) Act 2010.
Section 161(5) of the Enterprise Act 2002 prevents the order being varied unless the OFT advises that the variation is appropriate by reason of a change of circumstances. Clause 21(5) of the Bill already facilitates the updating of the order to reflect the Bill by disapplying Section 161(5) in the case of variations of the order which are consequential on the Bill. This amendment now extends the disapplication of Section 161(5) to cover variations which are consequential on the Arbitration (Scotland) Act 2010. Clause 21(5) will enable the Competition Commission to make these consequential changes in a straightforward way, following enactment of the Bill. I beg to move.
Lord Browne of Ladyton: My Lords, I welcome this amendment and I am grateful to the Minister who, as she indicated in her introductory remarks, had said that she would bring such an amendment forward. It is relatively simple and I am grateful to her for being as good as her word and achieving this before the Bill leaves your Lordships' House.
I am also grateful that she recognised that this arose from my worrying away at the arbitration provisions of the Bill. I was aided and abetted by the inestimable Michael Clancy, who is the law reform director of the Law Society of Scotland. I think we should call this the Clancy amendment, actually, because his work uncovered this lacuna in the Bill, which the Government have graciously recognised and corrected.
Of course, this provision anticipates that the Competition Commission will amend the order. The very process of amending the order, in the light of the next amendment that we come to, is a mouth-watering prospect and creates a great opportunity for the farmers of the United Kingdom to have some sort of step taken that protects their livelihoods for the future.
I do not want to anticipate that amendment, but we now know that the order will need to be amended because of this simple provision. I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which she has conducted herself throughout the consideration of this Bill, and her willingness-and the willingness of her Bill team-to listen to arguments for change to the Bill, and to allow them. I entirely support this amendment.
Lord Knight of Weymouth: My Lords, after a good Report stage last Monday, when we were grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, for some concessions, particularly her generosity to my noble friend Lord Browne, I did not think that there was anything left for us to do today at Third Reading, because we want this to get on the statute book as soon as possible. I share the comments of my noble friend Lord Browne in respect of the way in which the Minister has handled the passage of the Bill through this House, and I am grateful to her Bill team and to those who have assisted me.
Naturally, I was disappointed not to have persuaded enough of your Lordships of the need to give the adjudicator teeth but I naturally respect the clear will of the House and hope that that issue can be addressed in the other place. I was also disappointed that we gained nothing on the issue of a living code, but I also regarded that issue as settled.
However, all that changed at the weekend, which is why we are revisiting an issue raised in an amendment that was not moved on Report by my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark. The amendment is simple enough in ensuring in clear English that the groceries code supply order is defined to include, "any subsequent
24 July 2012 : Column 612
I would also be grateful for confirmation of a few other things following the events of the weekend. Following the blockading of dairy processors by farmers, crisis talks were held at the Royal Welsh Show on Sunday, led by Mr Jim Paice, the farming Minister. According to every news report I have seen, the Minister said that he would raise within government the possibility of a role for the grocery code adjudicator in providing a means of arbitration for a code governing the whole supply chain for the dairy industry. This means that the issue that we voted on last Monday is effectively being reopened by the Government. The Companion states at paragraph 8.146 relating to admissibility of amendments:
I merely want the Minister to use this opportunity to clarify the uncertainty around the Government's position. Has the noble Baroness spoken to Jim Paice about extending the role of the adjudicator since this weekend? On Report, she said:
"As the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, has said, the specifics of the dairy industry are being considered elsewhere in government. The adjudicator is not intended to address every problem in the sector, and the adjudicator's role is clearly limited to the relationship between retailers and their suppliers under the groceries code".
Does that extend to Jim Paice? I know he does not know the price of milk but does he know about the independence of the competition authorities from Ministers? Is there any question of him now asking the competition authorities to extend the code or to come up with an additional one?
The Minister persuaded the House, including an impressive solid turnout from the Lib Dems, as ever, with their effective new Chief Whip, to defeat any notion of extending the code. This amendment merely seeks to be helpful in case Jim Paice is driving a policy on this from Defra rather than the noble Baroness or Norman Lamb driving it from BIS. I doubt whether the Minister will accept it but I would be grateful for answers to three simple questions. First, has she spoken to Jim Paice about this since the weekend? Secondly, is it still government policy that the code will apply only to the relationship between direct suppliers and large retailers? Thirdly, will the Government be asking the Competition Commission to revise or devise a code to cover prices across the dairy supply chain?
Lord Knight of Weymouth: Yes, I am moving an amendment. But it is also a way to allow the Government to resolve an uncertainty around the role of the groceries code adjudicator, which is the subject of the Bill that we are hoping to pass today. I beg to move.
Lord Browne of Ladyton: My Lords, I was not present at this weekend's negotiations, so I rely upon the reporting in farming publications and on the BBC for what took place. My understanding is that, as a result of those negotiations, it was agreed that an order was necessary to cover the issues that had arisen in the pricing of milk provided by suppliers to processors. We understand that the Government intend to assist in the negotiation of an order similar to the groceries code order which is at the basis of this legislation. I also understand-it was covered liberally in the media-that the farming Minister, Jim Paice, told all and sundry that he would consider whether that order required an adjudicator. We are legislating for an adjudicator in this area and setting out the framework for the adjudicator to operate. As the Competition Commission will now have to amend the order at the basis of this Bill, could it be persuaded, once an order is negotiated, to incorporate this agreed order into the new order that it promulgates? By that simple stroke, we would get an order that covered this area and the adjudicator that the Minister apparently wants. Is that possible?
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, the relationship between this Bill and the groceries supply order is evidently an important one. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, has proposed a technical amendment to ensure that references to the groceries supply order will refer to the order as varied, if that order is subsequently varied. There is no general rule of construction as to whether references to an instrument include references to any future variations of that instrument. This depends on the details of the context and the drafting in each case. In this case, the Government are confident that the current drafting of the Bill would already have the intended effect, which is that references in the Bill to the order include any future variations made under Section 161 of the Enterprise Act. It would not make sense for the adjudicator to exercise his or her enforcement and compliance functions by reference to a version of the order which was different from the version binding the retailers at the relevant time.
As further evidence of this position, perhaps I might also direct the noble Lord towards Clauses 16(4) and 21(5), which contemplate amendments to the groceries supply order. This makes it clear that the references to the groceries supply order are also meant to include any future variations in this case.
I will now turn briefly to the other issue which the noble Lord has raised and on which I am happy to give him the reassurance he wants. The Government share the natural concerns of noble Lords about the situation of dairy farmers. In light of the obvious interest in this matter, my noble friend Lord Taylor
24 July 2012 : Column 614
Our adjudicator will, of course, be able to intervene to address any instances of supermarkets breaching the groceries code in their dealings with their dairy suppliers. Dairy farmers who are indirect suppliers will also be able to bring issues to the attention of the adjudicator, for instance if they believe that an intermediary processor who is being treated unfairly under the code might in turn pass pressure on to them. Colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are deeply concerned about the situation of dairy farmers and are considering a range of ways to help them. We will of course continue to listen carefully to any concerns raised by farmers themselves or by colleagues in government or Parliament. I cannot comment further on the specific points raised by the Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, as these statements were made only recently and he has not yet made any suggestions to me or my department.
However, as noble Lords are aware, pricing is not within the code's remit, and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, referred to this in his opening remarks. The code addresses contractual relationships between the large retailers and their direct suppliers, not those elsewhere in the supply chain. Concerns in the dairy sector specifically require a different kind of intervention from that provided by the code and adjudicator. That is why Government are seeking swift agreement from the milk industry on a voluntary code of practice for dairy producers specifically.
Colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be able to provide more details on this important issue, including in the Written Statement to be made by my noble friend Lord Taylor tomorrow. However, I can tell noble Lords that farmers and dairy processors have already agreed the main points of a dairy industry voluntary code of practice on milk contracts. The finer details of this code are expected to be finalised by all parties by the end of August. In addition, the Government are providing direct help for dairy farmers in the form of £5 million additional funding under the rural development programme to increase competitiveness and marketing skills.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will continue to work closely with the industry. Tomorrow, Ministers from that department will be meeting retailers individually to talk about increasing dairy industry sustainability through greater sourcing and promotion of British dairy products. The Government are committed to continuing to work with all parts of the industry to ensure that it has a sustainable, profitable future.
I hope that I have been able to reassure noble Lords that dairy farmers are not being forgotten. Having moved away from the terms of today's amendment to address these broader points, I reiterate that the Government are confident that the Bill as it stands already achieves implicitly what the amendment would make explicit. References to the order and the code in this Bill can already be understood to mean the order and the code as updated from time to time. I therefore ask the noble Lord, Lord Knight, to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Plumb: My Lords, I support the Minister's response. I waited for her comments before I spoke because I was not sure of the exact position now. I tell the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that the negotiations did not take place on Sunday. They took place yesterday. I declare an interest: I was there-not at the negotiations but not far away-and I had a long talk with the Minister, Jim Paice, afterwards and with many of those present who are directly concerned with this issue.
Following the answer given by the Minister, I do not honestly see any need for the noble Lord's concern or, in fact, the amendment. It would be advisable to wait for the Written Statement due tomorrow because, as my noble friend said, milk will not be left out of this package. Anyone who is appointed to a job as an adjudicator or is concerned with the grocery trade will realise that within it we have a voluntary code of practice that has virtually been agreed by all parties, and which we have been waiting for for some considerable time. Now that the code is there, the dairy trade will inevitably be not only included but prominent in the concern of any adjudicator or in any response that one might have after the appointment of an adjudicator.
I therefore feel confident that there is at the moment no need for the amendment. We should accept the statement made by the Minister here, and we look forward to the further report from the Agriculture Minister tomorrow on the whole situation of the dairy trade.
Lord Knight of Weymouth: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her clarifications and to the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, who is never far away from where things are at on these matters and who always speaks with authority on them. I certainly have no wish to interfere with the negotiations or with the voluntary code that is being agreed. I very much applaud the negotiations and the agreements that are coming forward. Clearly, we had a job to do-to scrutinise the Bill-and there was some uncertainty I was looking to be resolved. I am surprised that the Farming Minister did not think it was appropriate to give the Bill Minister in the Lords a call regarding these things because it was fairly obvious these issues might come up today, but that is for the noble Baroness and her colleague to resolve. I think I heard her say correctly from a note that there would be a separate adjudicator if there was to be an adjudicator for the voluntary code. We would subsequently want to explore the efficiency of that arrangement and exactly how it would be drawn up and what status it would have.
We look forward to the Statement from the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, tomorrow. I respectfully ask that some consideration be given as to whether that could be an Oral Statement and not just a Written Statement, because Members of this House may have some questions they would like to be able to ask. Perhaps the noble Baroness could take that back and discuss it with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in their office. In the mean time, I am very happy to withdraw my amendment.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, the aim of the Bill is to tackle electoral fraud, to increase the number of people registered to vote, to give people greater ownership of their own registration and to improve the integrity of the register. The Bill also includes provisions to improve the administration and conduct of elections, which will serve to increase voter participation, and to make a number of improvements to the running of elections.
Last year, the Cabinet Office funded the Electoral Commission to carry out a detailed analysis of the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register in Great Britain. It showed that as of December 2010 the electoral register was 85% to 87% complete and by April 2011 was 85% accurate. This translates to there being over 6 million people missing from the electoral register compared with some 3 million estimated 10 years earlier.
To provide some perspective, Northern Ireland, which introduced individual registration in 2002, now has an electoral register which is also 85% complete but is 94% accurate. This Bill, by facilitating the use of such things as online registration and data matching, will help tackle the problem of declining registration. In doing so, the Government place equal importance on the completeness and accuracy of the register.
Britain is one of the few countries in the world still to rely on a system of household registration, inherited from the period when only heads of household voted. A system that relies on this notion of the head of household does not engender any personal responsibility for being registered or promote a person's ownership of their vote. It is increasingly unsuitable in multi-occupation dwellings, where it may not even be clear who the head of household is.
As well as the current problem with completeness, the system is also unacceptably open to fraud. There is widespread concern about electoral fraud in this country. If citizens do not have confidence in the integrity of the electoral register, they will not have confidence in the integrity of election outcomes. For a number of years, observers of UK elections have highlighted concerns about the registration system. In its election assessment mission report on the general election of 2010, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights described the voter registration system in Great Britain as the weakest link in the electoral process because of the absence of safeguards against fictitious registrations. It recommended:
That is why in the Bill we are legislating to speed up the introduction of individual registration. The register published after the 2015 annual canvass will consist of entries that, with the exception of some of those for the Armed Forces, have all been individually verified. This is a position that the Electoral Commission supports. Jenny Watson, chair of the commission, when commenting on alleged malpractice in the London mayoral elections, said:
"The Electoral Commission wants to see our registration system tightened up and it's good that the Government plans to introduce new laws to do this which will apply to any of us who want to vote by post before the 2015 General Election".
Some individuals have advocated introducing a requirement for electors to provide some form of ID at a polling station. In considering any such proposal, we need to maintain a balance between security and accessibility, and to avoid introducing measures that would risk disenfranchising legitimate electors. The Electoral Commission is looking to carry out a review of the existing policy and is not asking for any changes to be made at this stage. The Government therefore have no plans to introduce ID at polling stations at this time, but will give careful consideration to any findings that emerge from the commission's review.
Before I set out what we plan to do to reach individuals who are not registered, I will briefly set out the transition from the current to the new system and the steps we are taking to ensure that legitimately registered electors will not be removed from the register in the transition to individual registration. The last canvass under the current system will be postponed from autumn 2013 to spring 2014. This will ensure that the register will be as up to date as possible before the transition to the new system in 2014.
We plan to confirm about two-thirds of existing entries by matching the names and addresses of every elector on the register against the Department for Work and Pensions' customer information system. Following this data match, electoral registration officers will carry out an amended canvass in the summer and autumn of 2014. The remaining one-third of electors whose details have not been confirmed through data matching will be sent a personal invitation to register under the new system. At the same time, the Electoral Commission will run a publicity campaign to inform the general public of the change to the new system.
If an individual fails to make an application after the first invitation, the registration officer will send them another invitation to register. If they fail to apply, the registration officer will be required to send a door-to-door canvasser to encourage their application. The registration may also, in specified circumstances, require an individual to make an application by a certain date-and if an individual fails to do so, a civil penalty may be issued.
At the same time, properties with no registered electors, and properties where a registration officer believes that there are unregistered residents, will be sent a household canvass form to help identify potential new electors whom the registration officer will invite to register, and follow up, as I set out. Following this canvass, a register will be produced, and only where a registration officer determines that an existing elector is no longer eligible will they be removed from the register. In other words, there will be a "carry forward" provision for existing electors so that, even if they have not had their details confirmed, and they have not made a successful new individual application in 2014, they will still be able to vote at the 2015 general election. However, any individual who wishes to vote by post or proxy at the 2015 general election will have had to have made a successful new application or have been confirmed and retained on the register through data matching. The electors who lose their postal or proxy vote will be informed and encouraged to register individually.
Following this canvass, and up to the 2015 general election, individuals will be able register at any time. After the 2015 general election, registration officers will carry out another full household canvass. The new household canvass form will be pre-populated-that is, the names will already be on it-with the names of those electors who have successfully applied to be registered under the new system and those confirmed through data matching.
Before the end of the 2015 canvass, registration officers will send personally addressed application forms to existing electors who have not yet made a new successful application and whose details were not confirmed at the beginning of the transition. This acts as a final reminder for the individual to make an application before their name is removed from the register. Following this canvass, registration officers will remove all electors, except some service personnel, who have not made a successful application to register under the new system and whose details were not confirmed through data matching.
Let us be clear that, by this stage, this group will have been data matched to try to confirm them automatically in 2014, invited to register with a follow-up by post and in person in both the autumn of 2014 and the autumn of 2015, and received a final notification that they will be removed from the register. They will also have had the opportunity to register when political awareness was at its highest prior to the 2015 general election. The transition that I have just outlined, particularly the use of data matching to retain automatically the majority of electors on the register, will ensure that the registers created during the transition to individual electoral registration will be robust.
We are not aiming merely to stem the decline in the proportion of electors registering. The move to individual registration will also open up opportunities to improve the completeness of the register in Great Britain. The Bill will, for example, facilitate online registration. This will make it more convenient for individuals to register to vote; more accessible for people with visual impairments; and easier for young people. It will also make the whole process of electoral registration more efficient. We intend that the online system will be fully operational when the transition to individual registration begins.
Following the example of Northern Ireland, the Bill will also enable the use of data mining to find potential eligible electors who are missing from the register. Last year, we ran pilots for the first time to test this process in Great Britain and, subject to parliamentary approval, we plan to run a further set in February and March 2013 to test their use for identifying key target groups. The results of these pilots will allow us to see which data sets can be of most use for electoral registration officers.
We are also currently taking steps to maximise registration among under-registered groups. This will include working with a range of partner organisations, including Bite the Ballot and Operation Black Vote, to reach groups currently under-registered by testing a range of activities. Officials have also recently met the National Union of Students.
I want to touch briefly on some features of the Bill that were debated in the other place. The first of these is the new civil penalty. It is our intention that the warning on invitations to register, well before the question of imposing a civil penalty arises, will help encourage people to do their civic duty and register to vote. The Bill provides that after a registration officer has followed specified steps, they can require an individual to make an application. We have already published draft secondary legislation which sets out these specified steps. The Bill also sets out that the size of the civil penalty will be stipulated in regulations. We are of the view that the penalty should be within the parking fine spectrum, and the draft regulations set out the arguments for it being at the lower end, at around £40, or at the higher end at around £130. We will shortly be engaging with relevant stakeholders to seek views as to the appropriate level and we will make a decision based on these discussions.
It is also the Government's intention to produce further iterations of the draft legislation by the time this House returns from the Summer Recess. These will include the regulations setting out the appeal procedure for any civil penalties issued and the enforcement mechanism. This will enable the House to debate the details of the civil penalty scheme while the Bill is in Committee.
Another issue that aroused debate when the Bill was in the other place was Clause 6, which provides for a power to abolish or amend the annual canvass. I want to put it on record that the Government have no current intention to abolish the annual canvass. It is, however, sensible to take this power now as it will allow future Governments to keep pace with technological
24 July 2012 : Column 620
I hope that noble Lords will accept that this Bill, which has already undergone pre-legislative scrutiny and significant consequent changes, represents a reasonable set of proposals which will safeguard the completeness of the register during the transition to individual electoral registration.
I turn now to the clauses in the Bill concerning the administration and conduct of elections. They address issues that have been raised by parliamentarians and stakeholders and make a number of practical and sensible changes that will help to deliver more effective electoral administration. The Bill includes provisions that extend the electoral timetable for UK parliamentary elections from 17 to 25 days. At present, postal voters have a maximum period of two calendar weeks to receive and return their postal ballot pack, but that shrinks when the time taken to print and distribute the packs is factored in. This creates a particular problem for service voters based abroad, their families and other overseas voters. The changes will address these problems by increasing the time period to up to four calendar weeks.
To assist with the understanding of this proposal and the related proposal to require electoral registration officers to publish two additional updates to the electoral register in the run-up to an election, I will today place in the Library of each House a paper which sets out in detail the current electoral timetable, our proposed extension of that timetable, and the benefits it will bring. The Bill also includes provisions that relate to postal voters whose votes are rejected at an election because their postal vote identifiers do not match with the identifiers stored on record. The Bill will enable regulations to be made that will place electoral registration officers under a duty to inform electors, after the election, if they fall into this category. However, electoral registration officers will continue to be able to use their discretion not to inform such persons if any impropriety is suspected.
Alongside this measure, the Government plan to introduce secondary legislation to require that postal vote identifiers are checked for 100% of postal votes,
24 July 2012 : Column 621
In sum, the Bill will help to stem and reverse the recent decline in the completeness of our electoral register, to tackle fraud and to improve the integrity, administration and conduct of elections. I commend the Bill to the House.
This Bill is important. Once bitten, twice shy, as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned. We understand from what the Liberal Democrat leader says that, depending on what happens in relation to House of Lords reform, they may renege on one of the other Bills that came out of the coalition agreement, namely the now Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act. I do not know whether this Bill fits within the same category. The two other constitutional Bills that have come out of the coalition agreement are the House of Lords Reform Bill, which is widely regarded as poor, and the now Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which is also widely regarded as poor.
The significance of these points-apart from a little dig at the Liberal Democrats-is to indicate that this House has an especial responsibility in relation to a Bill such as this because we know it is the product of a rather unsatisfactory political arrangement. Therefore, the role that we should perform in this House is to see whether it has a detrimental effect on our democracy or genuinely promotes a proper democratic situation. I am glad that we will hear from noble Lords from Northern Ireland who have had some experience of individual voter registration. I am glad that we will hear from my noble friend Lord Wills, who had responsibility for introducing individual voter registration. I am also glad that we will hear from people on all sides of the House who have been engaged in the process of running election campaigns on behalf on individual political parties.
The Bill does two things. First, it changes the timetable and the approach to the introduction of individual voter registration. Secondly-and separately-it makes provision for the administration and conduct of elections. I will restrict my remarks to the first, which is the first part of the Bill. There is no dispute between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party
24 July 2012 : Column 622
The current registration process is essentially a combination of household registration and rolling registration. With household registration, a form is sent to each household and one person fills it in with the names of all the people there. Once the form gets back to the electoral administration, all those names remain on the register for as long as the ERO believes that the people still live at that house. There is also a process of rolling registration whereby individuals can either change their existing registration or make a new application if they are not on the register. That system involves producing no proof as to who you are; it involves very little trouble to be on the register.
Individual electoral registration means that you have to fill in a form individually and produce proof-including a national insurance number, date of birth and something else-that you are the person who lives at the particular address. This is much more difficult-not remotely impossible but more difficult-and the consequence is almost bound to be that fewer people will register.
What is the wrong that we are seeking to right by making it more difficult to register? We are seeking to deal with electoral fraud. Mr Mark Harper, the gentleman in the other place who is responsible for promoting this Bill, describes electoral fraud in this country as "rare". Anecdotally, the feeling is that electoral fraud does take place in this country but it is much rarer here than in almost any other country-
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, my recollection is that he said it was "rare" but I will check that, if I may, and see precisely what he said. My reading of Mr Mark Harper's case was not that there was actually a lot of fraud; his point was that one wanted to increase confidence in the system. My recollection of Mr Mark Harper's speech was that he was saying that fraud was rare, but an opinion poll says that 36% of people are worried that there is fraud in the system. The Bill is to deal with confidence in the system. We on this side of the House are not averse to trying to increase confidence. As long as it does not have a damaging effect on the number of people who participate in our democracy, it is a sensible way to go.
The proposal-indeed, it became law in 2009-was to allow individual registration on a voluntary basis. Each year the Electoral Commission would report on how that was going; then in 2014, after the process had
24 July 2012 : Column 623
When this House last debated the issue of how many people were not registered, we proceeded on the basis that the register was probably 91% or 92% accurate. To their great credit, the Government financed the Electoral Commission to do further research in relation to that. This was published at the end of last year and showed that in fact we were underestimating the level of under-registration. From my reading of that research, at its peak the level of registration appears to be 82%, meaning that at certain times of the year, depending on how far away you are from an annual canvass, as many as 18% are not registered in this country. By my calculation that is some 8.5 million people. I would have thought that the consequence of making registration more complicated is bound to increase the number of people who are not registered.
What is wrong with making sure that, before one gets there, one has done as much as one can to get as few people as possible to drop out? Why has the programme been changed? Why are we not taking care of this? We will propose first, by way of amendment, that there should be monitoring as to how the process is going; and secondly, that we as a Parliament should get advice from the Electoral Commission as to whether it is sensible to do such a thing.
Following the points that the transition is being made too fast and that there is no monitoring of its effect, the next point is the boundary review. As I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, there will be a canvass during 2014, and the only people who will be knocked off the register will be people who the electoral registration officer is satisfied are not resident at the address. Even if you do not make an application and even if you do not provide any identifiers, you will not get knocked off the register in 2014 unless the ERO believes that you do not live there. Can the noble Lord confirm that in his winding-up remarks? However, as I understand the position, in 2015 those who can be data-matched with the DWP material will be put on the register without having to make an application. Again, I hope that the noble Lord will confirm or deny that in his winding-up remarks.
In relation to the noble Lord's estimate, which I have no basis for challenging, from 1 December 2015 the one-third of the electorate who are not data-matched with the DWP material will get knocked off the register unless each one of them makes an individual application and produces the necessary identifiers. That is my understanding of how the transition and the system will work. If I am not one of the two-thirds of the electorate, if I am one of the one-third, I will have to fill in a form and provide the individual identifier-indeed, I think it will be three individual identifiers, one of which will be my national insurance number. If I do
24 July 2012 : Column 624
Am I not also right in saying that the boundary review that will take place for the election in 2020-if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 leads to five-year elections-will be based on the electoral register that will come into existence on 1 December 2015? In those circumstances we will have new constituencies brought into existence on the basis of the first shot at individual electoral registration.
There is no dispute, from anybody who has looked at this, that the people who are least likely to register are the young, the very old, the disabled, those from black and minority-ethnic communities, and those in private rented accommodation. The danger of all this is that you end up with your social class, your colour or your capacity determining whether you are registered or not. We should be doing our best as a nation to have individual electoral registration-but surely on the basis that it applies right across the board. Everybody agrees that it is worth while, but I am completely unable to understand why a sensible, monitored introduction is not taking place. What is the motivation for not doing what people regard as sensible, in a sensible way? The Liberal Democrats say that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act is a piece of legislation that was designed to help the Conservative Party-and that came out of the coalition agreement. Is this the same? We need an explanation as to why this important building block in our democracy is being dealt with in what appears, on the face of it, to be a rather cavalier way. Would the sensible thing not be to stick to the timescale, with annual monitoring and the report to Parliament, so we know where we stand in relation to it?
There are three other matters. First, I am unable to understand why those who are currently registered for a proxy or postal vote are not carrying forward their right to a proxy or postal vote for the purposes of the 2015 election. That appears both an unnecessary regulation and one that is very difficult to justify.
Secondly, additional resources will presumably be required in order to achieve the handover or transition that we have been talking about. The Cabinet Office has been kind enough to publish something called the high-level implementation timeline, which involves this year, 2012, for local authorities. Those involved in local delivery will be asked to plan for the introduction of individual electoral registration at a local level, which will include working out what resources they need. They will also be asked to play an important role in developing and testing the new capability to be rolled out more widely in 2013. Will the Minister tell the House how that is going? That is at paragraph 7 of the notes accompanying the high-level timeline. For 2013, the timeline envisages that:
that is, by the end of 2013. Can the noble Lord indicate what budget has been set aside to put those capabilities in place, what progress has been made in relation to the development of the IT systems required, and whether he anticipates any teething difficulties in relation to it? Can he also tell this House the extent to which the Government's proposals depend on their IT systems working properly?
Finally, we on this side of the House will take care to examine these proposals in considerable detail. If they go wrong, there could be a substantial reduction in the number of people on the register. Currently, it could be as low as 82%. What would be the consequences to our democracy if it went to somewhere in the low 70s or even the high 60s? That would be extremely damaging. The question that underlies our approach to this Bill is: why on earth are the Government taking this risk with our democracy?
Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, it is entirely appropriate that this unelected second Chamber should be debating, probing, examining and questioning the electoral system in our country. As none of us is elected, we can approach this with a degree of objectivity and dispassion, which was how the noble and learned Lord began his remarks. I welcome that; it is a sort of oblique argument in favour of not having an elected element to this House, but I leave that debate for another day.
The independence of this House in electoral matters was very much evidenced in 2004 when postal voting by demand, introduced by the Labour Government in an Act in 2001, was eventually implemented that year by another Act. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, was involved at the time, as was one of his colleagues. This House insisted that there should be proof of identity in postal voting. That was resisted by the House of Commons again and again, and there was an episode of ping pong. Eventually a proof of identity was put on to the statute book, which I think is entirely appropriate. Anyone who has fought in an election, as have seven or eight speakers in the debate, knows how important the register is. They will also recognise how out of date and inaccurate it is, and how frustrating it is to be met by your supporters during an election campaign who say, "I'm afraid I am not registered". We have all had that experience. There might be a case for late registration, which should be looked at by the Electoral Commission and possibly by the Government.
The purpose of the Bill is to try to suppress fraud. Fraud in election comes in many shapes and sizes. The old traditional one was a straightforward impersonation in the ballot room-you turned up and said that you were somebody you were not. I think it was derived from the old Irish custom of polling the dead, but wherever it came from that was the most likely method. If you look at the recent fraudulent cases, you will see that that rarely happens now. Fraud in elections has become much more sophisticated, and the real fraud now in elections takes place as a result of having a postal vote by demand. There is a good case for that in trying to increase the number of people who are going
24 July 2012 : Column 626
The original cases in 2005-06 were principally between the Labour and Liberal Parties in the northern cities. The Conservative Party was no slouch in this. It quickly got in on the act and there was really no difference between the various parties in this matter: all parties have engaged in that sort of fraud.
Lord Wills: I am very grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Perhaps he could help the House by saying two things. First, what percentage of total votes cast were represented by those challenges in that long list that he outlined? Secondly, is he familiar with the 2008 Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust study on postal voting? If he is not, I suggest he familiarises himself with it. I am going to quote extensively from it later in my speech. I will not tire the House with it now, but I hope that the noble Lord will stay around to hear exactly what it said about the extent of postal vote fraud.
Lord Baker of Dorking: I am familiar with the Rowntree report and I intend to quote something from it which rather refutes it, so we will have an exchange of quotations later. On percentages, the point about the list I have read out is that this particular fraud has certain characteristics. It is urban and it is in marginal seats. In many seats where there is a clear majority, either for the Labour Party or the Conservative Party, there is no fraud because it is unnecessary: it will not affect the result. It will affect the result only in marginal seats where a small balance of a small number of votes can determine who is going to win at a local election or at a general election. That is the comparison that one must make.
This fraud takes place in high-density communities with crowded premises in towns and cities. There is a high turnover because people are moving all the time from flat to flat and from residence to residence. There is often a floating population which can generate what has been described by some electoral pundits as clan loyalty whereby people want to see their immediate friends and colleagues elected. Many of these cases have landed up in court and there has been the imprisonment and bankruptcy of some of the people involved. Mayors and councillors have been involved, and reputations have been destroyed. It has been a very sad episode. It is in the interests of all our parties to try to eliminate this as much as we can.
In May 2010, the Sunday Times reported that 27 people were registered in a single property in Southall and in February this year the Evening Standard reported that dozens of flats in Tower Hamlets were registered with eight people per bedroom. The quotation that I shall use, which is rather later that the Rowntree report,
24 July 2012 : Column 627
I remember when I first stood in a council election back in the 1950s. In those days, if you wanted a postal vote or a proxy vote-fellow parliamentarians will remember this-you had to justify it and explain that you were elderly, housebound, bedbound, were going to be abroad or out of town, or worked in a town that was different from the town in which you were registered to vote. There was a variety of reasons. You had to have that application signed by a magistrate, an MP, a doctor or a professional person. I well remember-and I am sure my noble friend Lord Rennard will remember because in these matters I look upon him as a professional expert-that in those days in all constituency fights you had a committee of people who sought out postal votes for your party. I think the Liberal Party was the first to do so, but we followed quite quickly. You identified people who you knew were going to be abroad and got them registered. I would go back to something like that, but that may be a little unrealistic unless the checks and balances that we create are effective.
If this business of postal fraud continues-and I think we are going to try to stop it with this Bill, very imperfectly, if I may say so-what can one do? The basis of the previous system was verification by an outsider. Under postal vote by demand the verification is by the registered person and, as the Minister said and the noble Lord confirmed, there will be three qualifications: a signature, a date of birth and a national insurance number. This is going to be a matter for the Secretary of State to lay down in regulations after the Bill. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that the national insurance number will be added. That would certainly deal with the problem of illegal immigrants because the national insurance number is the closest thing we in this country have to a national number.
Other checks are important. The canvass is important. There is going to be a canvass in 2014. That means that returning officers will have to carry out a canvass. I remember this happening once in Dorking. It surprised everybody. People were visited by people from the council who knocked on doors to see who lived there and who they were, but it happened only once during my 30 years-plus in the House of Commons. I think it is an important step in the verification of electoral registers, and there is a possibility that it could be suspended, postponed or done only partially, and that is quite wrong.
The other check is the verification of postal votes by returning officers. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, answered a Question last year or the year before about the 2010 election. In only two-thirds of the cases had returning officers checked the signatures on the ballot papers. Those of us who have postal votes know that you have to sign them, having previously registered
24 July 2012 : Column 628
One other matter I would draw to the attention of the Government is the spate of fraud from about 2005 to this year, mainly based around postal votes, and only partially on proxy votes. There have been one or two cases of late where the fraud seems to have moved to proxy voting. There was one case where somebody turned up with 50 proxy votes; that is just like the 18th century. The Duke of Newcastle turned up with a number of votes and said, "That's it". I would have thought that there is a case for saying that anybody who has a proxy vote should have a vote for only one other person-not for another 50-to bring to the poll. That is not in the Bill; perhaps the Government might consider that carefully, to see whether such an amendment could be introduced.
I would make only these further points. This Bill also extends the length of the campaign from 17 days to 25. I do not know where this proposal came from; I always thought that 17 days was quite enough for a campaign. One of the great virtues of our system is that we have a short, sharp campaign. In America, it lasts for a year or 18 months, but in Britain, 17 days was absolutely ideal. I do not why we need another eight days for campaigning, when one counted and ticked off the days and the hours and hoped for polling day. That will be a big expense for the parties; they will need quite a bit more money to run the campaign for another week. It seems to be government policy and also I suppose coalition policy, too. It was-good Lord. In that case, I support it, although I do not really see the justification for it.
The other point I shall touch on is the extraordinary civil penalty which has been created: that the returning officer imposes a civil penalty on people who do not register. That reminded me of the Anglican confession:
It seems extraordinary to create a civil penalty and a fine for not doing something. It would face enormous trouble in the courts. I am sure the Minister is aware that there are very strange religious cults in our country, which are not remotely concerned with the electoral system here; they are mainly concerned about the accessibility of the next world. They will certainly tell their supporters on no account to bother to register. Sure enough, there will be a case with some awkward person who will actually go to court and challenge this, and almost certainly end up in a human rights court, challenging whether his human rights have been denied by not registering. He would be hauled up because he had not performed his civic duty. Civic duty is another extraordinary concept of this Bill and I have not come across this previously in legislation. I know it as a concept. When the human rights court gets such a case before it, it will almost certainly find in favour of the litigant. After all, it was prepared to disregard civic duty to the extent of allowing prisoners- who have abandoned their civic duties-to have votes. I think this will be a big problem area for the Government; I do not know where the problem arose.
In conclusion, it is in the interests of all parties to ensure that there are no obvious areas of fraud. I believe that in spite of the checks and balances introduced by this Bill, there will be scope for elaborate and very ingenious fraud through postal and proxy voting. That should be checked. It was checked in the 19th century and the early 20th century; we have made it much looser. That is not in the interests of democracy or fairness.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for some of his kind remarks about me. However, in many decades of organising elections, I was always sceptical about how far many candidates actually understood the details of the process. A number of those remarks have not reduced my scepticism about how far candidates have appreciated the detail of elections. I remember the period when, I think, the noble Lord was the chairman of the Conservative Party and the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, was Prime Minister. It was during that period that the fine for not complying with the registration process was increased from £50 to £400. There was great concern that people were not following their proper duty in being on the electoral register; they were possibly seen to be avoiding the poll tax-which we all remember-and therefore the fine was £400. There is sometimes a lack of consistency in the way that some Conservatives argue about the civic duty to be on the electoral register and it being a legal requirement that is, therefore, subject to a fine.
In general, at almost every point in the recent discussions on voter registration, I have asked Ministers to confirm that the aims of making changes to the process are at least as much about improving the completeness of the register as they are about improving its accuracy. However, the impact assessment of the Bill suggests that successful implementation of the move to individual electoral registration may mean only around 85% completion, which is little better than the situation is now. In other words, successful implementation may be deemed by the Government to be based on making the register more accurate but not necessarily more complete. The Government may be aiming rather modestly to do little more than halt the significant decline in registration levels that we have seen over the past 10 years. Therefore, the aims of the Bill are not very ambitious in respect of maximising registration. I should like them to be more ambitious and I believe that we need to know how successful the implementation of a new registration scheme has been before it can be declared fit for purpose for all elections and boundary reviews after 2015.
I welcome the changes to the Government's approach that have been made since the publication of the White Paper in June last year. However, more detail on the proposed changes is still required and more could be done to improve, rather than weaken, the health of our democracy. I particularly welcome the significant change in the approach to obligations to register from that initially outlined in the draft legislation. The initial proposals would undoubtedly, whether wittingly or unwittingly, have had the effect of depriving millions
24 July 2012 : Column 630
There is a significant problem with the existing system, caused by the inconsistency of individual electoral registration officers designing their own forms in every case. The degree of prominence given to the legal requirement has varied and the fact that you can, under the present system, be fined as much as £1,000 for not complying with the registration process is not even mentioned on many of the forms. Best practice requires making the legal requirement and the potential level of fine explicit and prominent on the household registration forms. I am very grateful to the Minister for confirming in the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, on 12 July, that in future,
It will be even more important that we adopt the best possible methodology for the individual registration forms that will follow the household inquiry ones. The Bill establishes the principle of individual forms but the crucial detail about implementation will be in the secondary legislation. Therefore, in considering the principles of the Bill, I ask the Minister to confirm some of the issues of principle behind the implementation that are not featured in the Government's implementation plan, which was published last Friday, and which I assume are still under consideration.
It seems important that the civil penalty for non-compliance with the individual registration form must not be seen as a one-off fee for exemption from inclusion in the voting register. I agree with the Minister that the level of fixed penalty should be akin to that deemed appropriate for parking offences. However, repeatedly and wilfully refusing to comply with the process should attract repeat penalties. Subsequent compliance with the registration process should then lead to the cancellation, at least, of further penalties and possibly the reduction, or even cancellation, of the original fixed penalty.
Perhaps the Minister will tell us more about exactly how this process will work, and how and when we will know how it will work. He will understand that many of us will want to understand these details properly before we approve the Bill. He should be aware that it
24 July 2012 : Column 631
We would also like to hear more detail about how we will avoid the fundamental problem that different local authorities tend to have quite different levels of diligence when it comes to the registration process. While we often argue that government processes are too centralised in this country in many respects, the basis for the electoral administration systems that underpin our democracy across the country should be the same across the country. This is necessary both to ensure a democratic outcome in the elections for those local authorities overseeing the process, and also for every set of elections based on using that electoral register.
The electoral register is also important for jury service, for credit referencing and for the purchase of goods and services, the supply of which may be linked to presence on the electoral register. It should not be up to individual local authorities or electoral registration officers to decide how assiduous to be in trying to make the register complete and accurate. The best practice of repeatedly writing to and visiting people who are known to be eligible to be on the register but who have not registered should involve explaining carefully to people four different principles.
First, they are not automatically registered. Many people believe, quite wrongly, that they are automatically put on the voting register. Secondly, there are important reasons for registering, including access to credit and to buying goods and services, often over the internet. Thirdly, it is a legal requirement, subject to fines and penalties, to comply with the process, as now. Fourthly, registration is a very simple process. Explaining these principles in writing and through doorstep canvassing must be not just the best practice but should be a universal requirement if our electoral register is to be in good order.
The Minister has accepted in other debates that the success of the data-matching pilots will be crucial to the successful implementation of individual electoral registration. There are certainly doubts about the effectiveness of the first round of data-matching pilots. I hope that the Minister will confirm that all possible national government or local authority databases will be used to identify individuals eligible to be on the register and that follow-up procedures will then try to ensure that they are registered. These should include, for example, databases such as those of the DWP, the DVLA and the Student Loans Company. Such data-mining exercises should go no further than providing names and addresses of people believed to be eligible for the electoral register. But to make a sufficient success of the changes to the system to enable the register to be fit for purpose, I believe that the Government will have to go further. They will have to show that they are really sincere about their stated aims of making the electoral register accurate and complete.
I believe that they could do so by applying the same principles of data mining that they will use for publicly held records to those held by the credit reference
24 July 2012 : Column 632
The Bill team has advised me that nothing in the Bill prevents the use of private data in this way. I believe that it could make a substantial difference to the success of implementation. But I would like to know from the Minister whether the Government are engaging with the credit reference agencies to see how, with proper safeguards, we can ensure that people entitled to be on the electoral register, but absent from it, are invited to register without compromising any private or personal information. Quickly confirming existing registration details might be more effective for this database or these databases than simply using things such as the DWP database alone. For example, queries about duplicate registration might be more quickly and easily dealt with by the returning officers with access to these data.
Much of the work to improve electoral registration should have been done decades ago. The fact that it was not done is not a reason for not doing it now. Our existing processes are now known to be rather more flawed than we thought only a few years ago. Above all, we cannot be complacent about the outcome of the process and we cannot let the Government simply say that they have done their best by the time of the next election and reluctantly accept that many fewer people will be able to vote in future.
The changes that will result from the shift to individual electoral registration may not affect any elections until after May 2015. But the local elections in England in 2016, and those to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly elections, should all be based on the new voting system. I am not sure how far the local authorities, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly are aware of these changes or have been consulted about them.
After 2016, all elections should be based on this new system. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said earlier, the next parliamentary boundary review, as I am sure he well remembers from very lengthy debates, will be based on the register as it is on 1 December 2015, using the new system with no carryover from the old one. The Government accept that there are risks in making changes to this process. We must therefore be satisfied that the processes have been substantially successful before we can say that it would be safe to proceed to use the new system for elections or for boundary reviews.
Lord Trimble: My Lords, I shall start with a personal reminiscence. I went into the other place after a by-election in 1990. I managed to persuade my party to make me Home Affairs spokesman shortly afterwards with the result that, after the general election in 2002, I found on my desk an invitation to go to the Home Office's regular post-election wash-up. I decided that I would
24 July 2012 : Column 633
They went on to say that in these areas the register is completely unreliable and that there is great difficulty in checking it because in some cases you are dealing with large numbers of people whose surname is merely based on the fact that they all came from a certain village on another continent. That was in 1992. The noble Lord, Lord Baker, referred to cases that were more than 10 years later. More than 20 years have passed since that comment was made in the margins of a meeting-it certainly was not made formally-but the problem has not passed and it should be addressed.
I also recall that once, at an election in Portadown, I came to a narrow, dilapidated, boarded-up house. Those who were with me with a copy of the electoral register drew my attention to the fact that there were six persons on the register for it. That is completely dwarfed by the figures that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, mentioned earlier, but it impressed me at the time that someone thought they could put so many persons into such a small house.
There is clearly a problem. In Northern Ireland, where photo ID is now required for voting, the quality of the register is the main source through which electoral fraud can occur. Mention was made earlier of how individual electoral registration was introduced in Northern Ireland and I want to refer a little to that experience. Individual electoral registration was introduced in 2002; individuals registering to vote had to include personal details, including National Insurance and a signature, and registration was done de novo with no carry-forward of names from the existing register, which had a 12-month life.
The immediate effect was a fall of over 10% in the number of voters. The figures are as follows: in 2002 there were a total of 1,198,504 persons on the register in Northern Ireland. That dropped in 2003 to 1,072,425, a drop of just over 124,000. It dropped further in 2004 to 1,069,000, a drop of 3,000, and in 2005 there was a drop of a further 23,000 to 1,047,601. There are a number of reasons for the decline and, in the absence of any detailed research, which I do not think anyone has undertaken, those reasons are speculative. False registrations were responsible for a significant number, though we cannot quantify it. There were also many people who preferred to be off the register for a variety of reasons, such as not wanting to have their name accessible, though it is not necessary to go into these. There would also, of course, have been those who could not be bothered.
Because of the continuing falls after the initial one, there was concern over this situation and, starting in 2005, a number of measures were adopted to curtail the decline. First, carry-forward was reinstated in 2005 for that year and then permanently. Secondly, a system of rolling registration was introduced in place of the requirement to register annually. Thirdly, provision was made for data matching and, as the Minister says, data mining, though I would have thought that was included in data matching. Fourthly, provision was made for a canvass to be held in 2010 and every tenth year thereafter although, significantly, provision was also made for additional canvasses where the chief electoral officer requested it and the Secretary of State was satisfied that it was in the public interest. Fifthly, the chief electoral officer was given access to the identities of 16 and 17 year-olds in schools and further education so that they could have their attention drawn to the desirability of registering.
These measures have resulted in an increase in the register. In 2006 it increased by roughly 10,000 to 1,157,000 but dropped, funnily enough, the next year to 1,075,000. In 2008 it went up to 1,125,000, an increase of over 50,000, and increased by another 16,000 in 2009 to 1,142,000. In 2010 it was 1,170,000 and finally, by 2011, it reached 1,202,000 and got above the 2002 figure. It has increased in the latest register by a further 2,000. As the Minister said in his opening speech, it is indicated that this is roughly 85% complete.
In 2007 the Electoral Commission, commenting on this experience, said that the fall in numbers reflected the removal of the carry-forward, which had the effect of removing inflationary factors from the register. That lovely phrase "inflationary factors from the register" is a way of avoiding the use of the word fraud, but that is what it was. Significantly, the commission said that it had the effect of "restoring integrity" to the registration process. That is hugely important, and I hope that that integrity has been sustained.
I am slightly uncomfortable, though, because one has heard rumours-I can say only "rumours" because they cannot be proved-about a certain political party in a certain constituency, when it has its post-election get-together, awarding a special prize to the election worker responsible for the most votes. I am not sure what the mechanics of that are these days and I am not going to identify the constituency, but I am sure that if this is happening, and given its discipline and organisation, the political party will have ensured that the number of votes claimed by its election workers is accurate.
It will have been noticed that the Bill retains the annual canvass, has provision for data matching and introduces a civil penalty for failing to register when required to do so. The carry-forward will continue until 2015, by which time the register should have been thoroughly checked. One hopes that these measures may work in maintaining on the register persons entitled to be there but, if there is a reduction, we should not jump to the conclusion that it means that people entitled to be on the register have been removed-one has to remember that it is possible that there is significant fraudulent registration. Not all the measures adopted
24 July 2012 : Column 635
Finally, I wish to mention another matter, although I will not be in complete agreement with party colleagues. A welcome side effect of the extension of the electoral timetable occurred in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 2011 when the early dispatch of poll cards resulted in more than 17,000 changes to the register, of which some 11,500 were new registrations. The extension to the electoral timetable may produce more new registrations, and they would indeed be welcome.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, the Minister told us that the Bill's purpose was to create a system designed to reduce electoral fraud and increase the integrity of the register. Clearly, individual registration rather than household registration, by removing intermediaries, should go quite a long way to achieving the aim of reducing fraud. That is crucial.
However, equally important should be the aim to increase the level of electoral registration and thereby ensure that the maximum number of eligible people are entitled to vote. That aim was not evident from the Minister's words in the Commons, when he said:
There was no specific reference to the 6 million or 7 million people currently not on the register. Talking in percentages actually undermines the reality, because we are talking about some 6 million to 8 million people who do not have the right to vote. I do not really care about the percentage. I am much more interested in talking about people, and they are missing from the register. Nor have we heard how the Bill will ensure a vast reduction in that number while providing safeguard mechanisms to ensure that the change to IR does not result in eligible electors falling off the register. With respect to the Minister, I have to say that I am not convinced.
Having such a large gap in the electoral role has to be completely unacceptable. Surely the goal in any democracy must be to achieve a complete and accurate register. I completely agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, when he talked about the completeness of the register-not only its accuracy-and its consistency across the country. I should say that over many years the noble Lord and I have worked together as electoral apparatchiks. I am glad that we are on the same wavelength. However, I really want to concentrate on registration.
Before going further, I must declare in an interest as chair of the HS Chapman Society-a society made up of representatives from the main political parties, ex-apparatchiks like me, party lawyers, the Electoral Commission, and electoral registration officers. We aim to ensure that registration and elections are run effectively and are fraud-free, and we genuinely believe that individual registration is a key component to achieving those aims.
However, given that we had an effective Bill-now the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, which received cross-party support at that time-I find it puzzling why it was necessary to change in the coalition agreement what had already been agreed. It was a Bill that covered both the elimination of fraud and safeguards on registration. I cannot understand why we just have not followed that Bill through. It could have been well on its way to doing its work now.
Rather, we have a new Bill speeding up the process-a Bill that is flawed in many ways and which is causing grave concern among many practitioners. I appreciate that adjustments have been made to the original proposal such as withdrawing the chance of an opt-out for individuals who did not wish to register-I find it absolutely unbelievable that could even be suggested-the agreeing of the annual canvass in 2014, reversing the Government's original position, and retaining non-registration or providing false information as an offence. In spite of those welcome changes, they do not provide the assurances and safeguards necessary to overcome those concerns.
This brings me to my first concern about this Bill: the proposal to amend the current Section 9A(1) of the RPA 1983-as outlined in paragraph 6(2) of Schedule 4 of the Bill. Currently, Section 9A(1) requires an ERO to take,
However, as the Minister said, this duty is extremely important to ensure that the EROs do all that is necessary to improve the accuracy and completeness of the register, including conducting house-to-house inquiries where other steps have not yielded the necessary information. We may be told that the change of wording is intended only as a technical amendment. Clearly it is not-not only is the proposed amendment confusing but it has the potential to dilute the effect of the existing duty. Surely there is a good reason not to reduce the duty at this time, when the accuracy and the completeness of the register is so critical.
This brings me to the crucial canvasses being conducted in 2014-canvasses that also, of course, have to be complete and accurate. The Minister mentioned that there was going to be a wide advertising campaign. How is that campaign going to be conducted? I am pleased to hear that the campaign will not be aimed just at the general public but will use different approaches to different communities, be they home movers, the BME community or young people. I would like to hear much more about how much money is going be put into that campaign, what the process will be, and who will be conducting the campaign and be responsible for it, whether it be the Electoral Commission or not.
I need to also ask, appreciating how important canvasses are, whether it is the right time for the Minister to have the power to cancel annual canvasses. I know that the noble Lord said that it would not happen with this Minister, but it could give the ability to other Ministers to cancel those campaigns. I think that is what he said. He will tell me if I have got that wrong. I cannot honestly see why there is any need to put that into this Bill, particularly as it is estimated
24 July 2012 : Column 637
Clearly, all that raises the question of funding for this job to be done effectively, as the financial impact assessment states that it will require significant investment, not least as a substantial part of the implementation will depend on the ERO having the right tools in place to be able to do the job, whether it is electoral software or IT solutions. This means that we must consider how much money it will cost. The Minister in the other place stated that £108 million would be provided for the transition to IER. I do know what that includes. Will it buy the sort of equipment that EROs will need? How has the figure been identified and what will the money be spent on? It also means that there must be timely-almost immediate-provision of funds for the initial planning, overall design, tendering and implementation. I would like more detail about how and when the £108 million will be spent.
I appreciate that the funding allocated will be paid under Section 31 of the Act, which covers direct grants. That means it will not be ring-fenced. There is therefore no guarantee that it will be used for the purposes for which it was allocated. From experience, money given in this way often finds its way into other local government expenditure, not least at a time when local authorities are facing cuts. What guarantees will there be that the money will be spent for the purposes for which it has been allocated? The Minister's reply on this point in the Commons was not in any way adequate. He indicated that the Government would consult about the mechanism, and that local authorities with specific needs would bid for extra resources. There was no detail of what the mechanism or the specific needs would be, what criteria would be used and what would happen if the bids failed and the local authority were left with a funding shortfall.
Another query relates to data matching, which has already been mentioned. Of course it can be useful and helpful against any decline in registration during the introduction of individual registration. While 22 pilot schemes have taken place, they have not yet been evaluated. However, in spite of the electoral registration officers who were involved in the schemes indicating that using government databases to identify new electors had had limited effectiveness, the Government are still steaming ahead with the Bill. Following completion of the Bill, what will be the process for rectifying flaws when the pilots are eventually evaluated in 2014 and changes have to be made?
One of the most disturbing things in the Bill relates to postal and proxy votes. It is right that during the transition phase people without a postal or proxy vote who fail to register under IER will be carried forward to the 2015 register, thereby enabling them to vote in the 2015 general election. However, it is absolutely not right that those with a postal or proxy vote will have to register under the new system in 2014 or forfeit their absentee vote-they will have to vote in person or not at all. The speed of introduction of the process will deprive EROs of the necessary time to verify all applications. This will create a discriminatory situation, particularly against the elderly and the disabled who, through no fault of their own but because of the
24 July 2012 : Column 638
I will say a brief word about fines for non-registration, which have always been in place, as has been said. I am confused about the relationship with a parking fine, and about how one will work within a spectrum. I would have thought that what was needed was a national fine that would be imposed across the country. Perhaps it will be explained that that is the case, but I am confused about what is meant by "spectrum". It would also be useful to know whether there are any ideas about what the civil penalty will be in that system, because that will affect its effectiveness.
In conclusion, I want to say a word about the 2015 parliamentary boundary changes. As others have mentioned, they will be based on the new electoral register at the end of the transitional period on 1 December 2015 when, under this Bill, the size of the electorate could be temporarily diminished. Under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, if there is a decline in the number of electors in certain constituencies, for whatever reason, the parliamentary boundaries must be redrawn. This will apply at a time when the electoral register will be at its most variable because of the flaws in this Bill, and many invisible citizens will not be accounted for. It will cause a great deal of concern in certain parts of the country that will be affected more than others. Therefore, while I support the principle of this Bill-I did when the Labour Government introduced the question of individual registration-I hope that it will be amended in Committee so that it not only eliminates fraud but diminishes the possibility of any reduction in the register and provides a substantial increase in the number of people on the register.
It might also be useful to consider amendments to achieve what might be called a registration revolution. I appreciate that we are now registering online but there are other ways in which the registration process could happen. We need to examine new opportunities to make registration easier, such as registration forms, perhaps at government offices or in the Post Office. I disagree firmly with the Minister about registering on election day. If voters have personal identifiers and evidence of who they are, fraud is prevented by registering on the day. A growing number of countries register on the day. In the early 1990s, I worked a great deal in the new democracies in eastern Europe. We established that those people who had not been able to register previously would always be able to register on the day. However we deal with this Bill in Committee, I hope that, in the end, we are able to achieve an increase in the number of people who are entitled to vote.
Baroness O'Loan: My Lords, I wish to bring three brief points to the attention of your Lordships' House. I welcome the attempts in the Bill to reduce electoral
24 July 2012 : Column 639
The first matter I wish to consider in detail is the power contained in Clause 2(2) of the Bill, which would insert a new paragraph into Schedule 2 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. This relates to Section 53 of that Act. Those provisions are unexceptional. They permit the Secretary of State or the Lord President of the Council to make regulations, subject to the affirmative procedure, about the registration of voters and arrangements for postal and proxy voting. However, the new provisions pursuant to Clause 2(2) will give power to the Secretary of State by determination, not by affirmative resolution or regulation as is the pattern elsewhere in the Bill, to require that a person seeking registration as a voter must provide specific evidence of identity to prove that he or she is the person named in the application and to enable the registration officer to determine whether that person is entitled to be registered. There is a new sub-paragraph, to which some reference has been made, which states the kind of evidence required, including a person's date of birth and national insurance number. On the face of it, that sounds quite normal and what one might expect of legislation. However, this provision goes to the heart of the exercise of the right to vote. It removes from any formal parliamentary oversight or challenge the nature of the evidence ultimately required to be permitted to vote. It is left to the Secretary of State to decide by determination. The question here must be: why not by regulation?
There is already confusion about which documents permit one to be able to register as a voter. Searching the web does not always reveal a clear and coherent statement in answer to the question. Moreover, there are many in our society who do not have access to the web and thus to the information that may be available. I think of the elderly, those with a disability, those from the ethnic minorities with language difficulties, and even the very young voter. The explanation given to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, of which I am a member, of why the Secretary of State should be allowed to decide by determination what evidence should be required was that:
"The question of what information or documents have sufficient evidential value to be relied upon is a technical one, and one which changes over time as the technology used by various entities changes ... this information may need to be changed at short notice".
That is the justification for removing from any form of parliamentary scrutiny that part of the process which will enable intending voters to become registered. We all know that it is possible for primary legislation to be made in the course of a day, let alone amending regulations. In its sixth report, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee stated that the arrangements set out in the Bill are inappropriate.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|