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I have discussed the matter with electoral registration officers who believe that our concern is somewhat over-exaggerated. Nevertheless, it remains. The Minister, Mike O'Brien, said in the Commons that he would look again at the matter. My question to my noble friend is: have the Government looked again, and what is their conclusion?
Lord Bach: The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, may be doubly surprised after I have finished my brief remarks on his amendment. We can offer the noble Lord some comfort on this matter. The Government feel that the fears that he outlined may be exaggerated. We do not believe that the homeless have either the means or the inclination to travel around the country trying to influence the results of by-elections. However, real concern has been expressed both in this Chamber and in another place.
The Committee will not be surprised to hear that, right from the start of the Bill's passage through Parliament, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said that he was willing to listen to the views of other parties to see whether it could be improved. So I hope that the noble Lord will be satisfied when I say that we shall bring forward an amendment or amendments on Report, no doubt based on his amendment as drafted, to achieve the same purpose. In those circumstances, I ask the noble Lord to consider withdrawing the amendment.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I thank the noble Lord for that reply. I knew that I was probably on to a reasonable thing when I was backed by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, who knows a thing or two, or 10, about elections. Indeed, we agree on some other matters. If my memory serves me rightly, the noble Baroness was a member of the commission that looked into referendums. I have quoted its recommendations extensively and approvingly, and shall probably do so again in relation to the next Bill on electoral matters to come before this House.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. I am glad that we both agree. Although this may be a long-shot problem, it could be serious in a marginal seat. I look forward to the noble Lord's amendment, which I am sure will be different from mine. It will certainly cost more. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: I hope that I shall have as much success with Amendment No. 39A as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, had with the previous one. Paragraph 4(3) of Schedule 1 is concerned with the preparation of electoral registers. It replaces Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and creates a new Section 10A. Under that new section, subsections (1) and (2) require the registration officer to carry out an annual canvass by reference to residence on 15th October to establish who in his area is entitled to be registered.
My problem is that the canvass would not include mental hospitals, penal institutions or those registered by means of a declaration of a local connection. For that reason, I propose the deletion from subsection (3)(a) of the words,
As it stands, paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 to the Bill excludes psychiatric hospitals from the duty on electoral registration officers to carry out an annual canvass of electors in their areas. Evidence of the operation of the current law indicates that without such a duty many of those in psychiatric hospitals who are entitled to register are likely to remain unregistered. The Representation of the People Act
However, there is a problem. Between 1987 and 1990 MIND carried out a survey of patients in psychiatric hospitals in the north-west which demonstrated that those who completed electoral registration forms were few and far between. The survey found both low numbers of patients registering to vote and significant variations between hospitals. In 1990 only 8.3 per cent of patients in the region were registered to vote. This varied between 3.1 per cent at the lowest to 16 per cent at the highest. These variations could not be explained by differences in hospital populations: they reflected stark differences in staff practices.
The survey found great variation in the way in which hospitals distributed the relevant forms to patients. In one hospital staff visited every ward and explained the implications of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to each patient. Other hospitals, however, did not distribute any forms on the grounds that,
If the Government continue to rely on those in charge of the institutions to ensure that those entitled to register do so, a similar situation is likely to arise again. The amendment will ensure that all those who are entitled to register using the hospital address can do so. It will also ensure that there is consistent implementation of the Act across different institutions. Unless a clear legal duty is placed on someone to ensure that there is registration that will not happen. There is no reason to believe that the present situation of non-registration will not continue. To place responsibility on the EROs to see to it that patients who are eligible to register do so will ensure that the intentions of the Bill, which we welcome, are realised in practice. I beg to move.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: One of the most important purposes of this Bill is to make it easier for those who have traditionally been put at a disadvantage to register as electors. This includes the homeless, remand prisoners and mental patients. I know that these provisions have generally been widely welcomed. We understand the noble Lord's concern that the annual canvass which electoral registration officers are required to carry out will not include psychiatric hospitals, but we do not believe that this will result in those affected being under-registered, and I shall go on to explain why.
Most electors are able to register only in respect of their residence, and it is therefore important that an annual canvass is carried out to ensure maximum registration levels. By contrast, mental patients will be able to register in one of three ways. They will be able to register at the address where they would otherwise be living (which will be covered by the appropriate canvass); they will be able to register by means of a declaration of local connection; or they will be able to register in respect of the institution where they are resident. The availability of the first two options means that relatively few patients are likely to register in respect of the hospitals. The local electoral registration officer is unlikely to know which patients have registered using the first two options. Therefore, if he were to carry out a canvass in the normal way it could lead to a great deal of double registration.
The Department of Health intends to issue guidance to those in charge of mental institutions to make sure that they are aware of the new rules that govern electoral registration and that they can advise those resident in the institutions of their rights accordingly. I hope that, with those assurances, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
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