House of Lords
Lord Newby: My Lords, the Funding for Lending scheme is not specifically targeted at particular regions or sectors of the economy; it is designed to incentivise banks to increase lending in aggregate, which will of course have a positive effect on the economy as a whole. The early indications have been encouraging but it is too soon to judge the impact of the scheme. The Bank of England will publish quarterly net lending figures for each participating bank from 3 December.
Lord Sharkey: I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, the fact is that the Bank of England’s last quarterly report shows that the stock of lending to SMEs continues to decline. It also shows that the number of loan applications themselves is down. I note that only 50% of SMEs had ever heard of Project Merlin. Could the same lack of awareness of Funding for Lending be contributing to the problem? Do the Government know how many SMEs are aware of this scheme? What are the Government doing to make sure that they are aware of the scheme?
Lord Newby: My Lords, the figures so far published do not take account of the impact of Funding for Lending, which only opened in August, and not least because it takes some time for loan approvals under the scheme to be finalised. I absolutely agree that promoting the scheme will be crucial. We are encouraged by the steps that the banks and building societies have already taken to do so, including double-page advertisements in national newspapers and promoting mortgage products very actively, not least through their websites. The Bank of England is administering the scheme but the Treasury is directly involved in monitoring it via a joint oversight board with the Bank.
Lord Mitchell: My Lords, Funding for Lending is the very latest of a whole plethora of programmes announced by the Government to stimulate SMEs. But here is the truth: very little of the money is getting through to the SME community. Why is that? It is because the chosen method of distribution is through the high street banks, and their interest is more in stuffing their own balance sheets rather than advancing
funds for SMEs. When will the Government realise that the banks are chronically risk-averse and ill suited to this important task?
Lord Newby: My Lords, it is simply not true that the banks are stuffing their balance sheets as a result of this scheme. This scheme gives the banks incentives to lend, not to stuff their balance sheets. There is considerable evidence that the banks are offering loans to SMEs at significantly lower interest rates and offering new mortgage products. These are already beginning to generate new business.
Lord Newby: My Lords, it is a very sensible approach for large companies to provide credit down the supply chain. It is not just Rolls-Royce—many other companies are doing the same, and I think that they should be encouraged to do more of it.
Baroness Wall of New Barnet: My Lords, I agree with the Minister that the banks are lending to small and medium-sized business. However, they cannot get the money for progressing their businesses where they are situated. I have recent experience in visiting a number of small engineering companies which are being offered money to move and establish bigger premises but not to develop where they are. It is becoming quite a problem for such companies.
Lord Newby: I do not think there is any general principle involved in that. The new products being designed under Funding for Lending would enable SMEs to get additional capital where they are. For example, RBS has introduced a new scheme under this programme that will cut the rate of lending by between 1% and 1.6% for small businesses and abolish arrangement fees for new loans. Those are not limited to companies that are moving but apply equally to companies which want to expand where they are.
Lord Flight: My Lords, the scheme makes lending very attractive to banks because the cost of funding is remarkably low, but there are many situations where what is wanted is equity rather than loan capital. Will the Government review some of the changes to the EIS arrangements for providing equity, where the changes in loss relief and the latest FSE changes in marketing EIS are discouraging the raising of equity capital for small businesses under the EIS scheme?
Lord Newby: My Lords, there has been a long-standing problem in small businesses raising equity in the UK. The EIS is one component in doing that. Of course, as we look towards next year’s Budget, we are reviewing all programmes that might offer any capacity to increase the flow of funds into small businesses.
Baroness Brinton: My Lords, given that the ITEM club has just predicted that lending to SMEs by banks will fall to a six-year low this year, with 38% of applicants being rejected in quarter 1, and given that banks seem to be using money from the Bank of
England to lend rather to homeowners with equity, will the Minister consider ring-fencing a good proportion of the Funding for Lending scheme funds specifically for SMEs?
Lord Newby: My Lords, I think that a large proportion of these funds will be used for SMEs. That is why the banks have introduced new products specifically for SMEs following the introduction of the programme. I have already referred to RBS. Lloyds has done a similar thing and is reducing the interest that SMEs pay by 1%. Lloyds has placed double-page ads in some of the papers, which noble Lords may have seen. So the banks are directly targeting at SMEs a significant proportion of the funds that will now be available.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, given the urgent need for lending now, how soon does the Minister expect the first scheme to be in operation? Are the banks likely to offer 100% guarantees or will they require deposits?
Lord Newby: The scheme is already in operation and the process under which the loans are approved is going through. I do not know whether the noble Lord meant 100% in respect of mortgages as opposed to loans but, for mortgages, the scheme is being made available for first-time buyers, particularly in respect of the Government’s new buy scheme.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the recent Panorama programme about the scale of alcohol-related illness among the over-65s, when they will make a decision regarding plans for a minimum price per unit of alcohol.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Taylor of Holbeach): My Lords, it is clear that harmful consumption of alcohol affects all age groups, not just the over-65s. The alcohol strategy published earlier this year sets out the Government’s commitment to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol. The Government will consult on this and a number of other proposals in the strategy this autumn.
Baroness Bakewell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I should declare an interest. I was the journalist who made the “Panorama” programme. Last week, there was an indication that the plans to announce the minimum pricing of alcohol were being delayed and considerable concern about that was expressed by, among others, the BMA. Will the Minister press the Government to move urgently on this matter to stop wholesalers who are flooding the market with cheap ciders and cheap vodkas, which do a great deal of damage?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: Although I missed the programme the first time around, I have been able to view the noble Baroness’s programme on iPlayer, and I congratulate her on the way she drew graphic attention
to the issue. She makes a very good point. We are not dragging our feet on the issue, but we want to go out for consultation with all the details of an impact assessment to go with it, which will help inform the debate about at what level the minimum unit price should be set.
Baroness Coussins: My Lords, I declare my interest as an adviser to two drinks companies. Details are in the register. Is the Minister aware that the BBC has now withdrawn the programme from its iPlayer service, having acknowledged that in the original broadcast wildly inaccurate and exaggerated claims were made about the likely impact of minimum pricing? Can he assure the House that when the Government finally come to their conclusions on the issue, it will be genuinely evidence-based policy?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I thank the noble Baroness for drawing that to the House’s attention. I saw it this morning, so it must have been a pirated copy or something. I apologise if I misled the House, but, none the less, the programme did contain a particular inaccuracy about the calculation of the number of deaths that might be saved by a minimum unit pricing policy. Of course, that is the whole point of getting impact assessments right: so that we can consult on facts. But that does not reduce the effectiveness of the programme.
Lord Taverne: My Lords, having regard to strong results from Canada and from the Sheffield University research, which seem to indicate a very strong link between prices and the beneficial effects on hospital admissions, crime, absence from work because of alcoholism, and unemployment due to alcoholism, will the Government also consider a minimum price per unit of 50p, and will they link that with banning discounts, because the joint effect is all the more beneficial?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: The consultation is likely to cover both those elements—when I talk about discounts, I mean the multi-buy type of arrangement. That may well be included. The Scottish Government have already come forward with the 50p figure, but there could be different figures. We need to ensure that we are getting the maximum benefit without unnecessarily impeding the business of retailing alcohol, which is a perfectly legitimate one, or the pleasure that most people get from restrained consumption of alcohol.
Lord Winston: My Lords, as a contributor from time to time to the BBC, I ask the Minister to recognise that occasionally the BBC withdraws programmes from iPlayer on the basis of just a single complaint, often not really related to the content of the programme. That may be important in the case of my noble friend Lady Bakewell.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I think I have made it clear that that does not, in my view, detract from the central thrust of the noble Baroness’s Question and, indeed, the programme: that excessive consumption of alcohol can be harmful and that we should take what measures we can to restrain it.
Baroness Greengross: My Lords, in acknowledging that there is a huge problem regarding older people and their intake of alcohol, will the Minister assure us that if the Government go through with these plans, the treatment that older people need to give up their habit will be at the same level as that for younger people with alcohol-related conditions, particularly given the change in the law since the beginning of October, which bans discrimination on the ground of age?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: The noble Baroness raises an interesting question, which arose in the programme: a lot of people drink because they are lonely. The Government’s alcohol strategy is part of a broader strategy that needs to take into account the social support that is given to older people and indeed, if I may also say so, the rehabilitation of people who have had a lifetime of drinking to excess.
Lord Naseby: As the BMA consistently supports the moderate consumption of red wine, how will this measure affect those retailers who normally sell by the case, particularly, though not exclusively, in the wine trade, the unit price thereby quite often being considerably below the normal price of a single bottle, whether that be wine or beer?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, that was one of the assertions in the programme—that the number had indeed increased—and it is a matter of concern. Although we have amused ourselves with this issue to some degree, there is a serious context in which we are discussing it.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, at the risk of spoiling the consensus, will my noble friend explain how it can be right to make responsible drinkers pay more for their drink in order to deal with a problem that is perhaps best addressed specifically rather than by putting up the price for everyone?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: Perhaps it is not so much a matter of putting up the price as of stopping the price dropping. The real price of alcohol has halved over recent years, which is a substantial reduction. I think the noble Lord would agree that some of the offers that are available to people are there to tempt them to buy more alcohol than they need.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Baroness Verma): My Lords, government policy for the long-term safe and secure management of higher-activity radioactive waste in the UK, excluding Scotland, is to place it deep underground in a geological disposal facility. Our approach to implementing geological disposal is community-led. The Government are committed to voluntarism, working in partnership with areas that have come forward to take part in the site selection process. To date, three local authorities in west Cumbria have expressed an interest in that process, but the invitation for other communities to come forward remains open.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. However, as she will be aware, the local authorities have sent a letter, which I have seen, asking for a pause in the process of agreeing how this radioactive waste agreement might be reached. The letter recognises that:
Will she assure the House that the outstanding issues listed in the letter are currently the subject of serious and positive negotiations? Given that it has been the policy of successive Governments that they,
“need to be satisfied that effective arrangements exist or will exist to manage and dispose of the waste”,
Baroness Verma: My Lords, I congratulate the three councils in Cumbria. They are robustly engaged with the Government in ensuring that it is a community-led approach. We are also working closely with key decision-makers such as business, the unions and local Members of Parliament. As my noble friend knows, it is a staged process, and this pause has come about because the councils require some clarifications to be addressed. I am pleased that they are taking this issue so seriously. The process will take many decades, so a rushed response would actually not be helpful to anyone.
Viscount Hanworth:My Lords, our stock of plutonium waste would represent a valuable resource for power generation if we were to consider burning it in fast breeder reactors. Could the Minister tell us whether or not there are any genuine intentions to pursue this recourse?
Baroness Verma: My Lords, we are very serious about underground disposal. We are going to ensure that all the questions that are being asked are answered. We are working very closely with local authorities in Cumbria. We welcome other local authorities coming forward, but making sure that we safely secure radioactive waste is a serious question. That is the mission of this Government.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, I think my noble friend is aware that originally it was stated that the cost of storing plutonium was commercially confidential, but the Secretary of State wrote to me this morning saying
that the cost is £1.9 billion, presumably only as far as 2020. When my noble friend receives the report from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority on how to dispose of the plutonium, including the cost not only of storage but of credible alternative options, will that report be laid before Parliament and before the Select Committee on Science and Technology so that Parliament can have an opportunity of expressing its opinion before the Government make the final decision?
Baroness Verma: My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State would have given my noble friend a date of 2120, not 2020. The cost of storing plutonium is commercially confidential, but my department has assessed the cost of long-term storage alongside other options, such as MOX. Based on a discounted lifetime of 100 years, the cost is around £8 billion. My noble friend asked about the report being laid before Parliament. Once we have received the report, I am sure we will consider that.
Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My Lords, the noble Baroness has just taken on responsibility for this area. Will she share with us her first impressions? Most people who have followed this issue know that for decades there has been muddle, confusion and delay which, more than anything else, is likely to prejudice the voluntarism of a number of communities in west Cumbria that recognise, perhaps more than anyone else, the economic importance of proper and orderly disposal. That is not an excuse for delay. Will she please try to make this process move a lot more quickly so that the uncertainty can be removed?
Baroness Verma: The noble Lord is right that I have been in the department for seven weeks. My first mission was to go to meet people from Cumbria and Sellafield. It is important that we get some clarity, but it is also right that this process is community-led. If there are clarifications that need to be made, it is right that they are made. We do not want delays further down the process, so it is best that we get clarifications and sort out people’s worries and concerns at the beginning.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, given the time that these discussions are clearly going to take, the absence of a plan B in the answer to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and the importance of ensuring that nuclear materials, whether waste or otherwise, are kept secure from those who might steal them, is the Minister satisfied with the resources available to the civil nuclear police to protect those nuclear materials, and is she satisfied with the arrangements
whereby they can call on the assistance of Home Office forces in the event of any challenge to the security of those materials?
Baroness Verma: My Lords, to reassure the noble Lord and all noble Lords in the Chamber, I can say that safety and security are paramount to everything that we do. While we build consensus for underground disposal, it will be very important that everything kept above ground will be secure and safe. Of course, we will always be looking at security as time progresses.
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the chairman and secretariat of the Iraq Inquiry about possible delays in publication of its report due to responses from officials of the government of the United States.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): None, my Lords. The drafting of the inquiry’s report and the contents are entirely a matter for the inquiry, which is independent of government.
Lord Dykes: We remember, of course, the many thousands of Iraqi civilians, including women and children, who were killed after this illegal invasion. Will my noble friend the Leader of the House reassure the House that the Government will attach every meticulous attention to the contents of the report when eventually it is published? It is a very long process and the sooner it is published the better, but there is still a considerable delay. The particular implications of eventual submissions to the ICC should also be borne in mind.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, my noble friend is correct to draw attention to the report. I can confirm the seriousness with which the Government will accept the report. It perhaps is worth pointing out that Sir John Chilcot, the chairman of the inquiry, has advised that the inquiry will be able to submit its report to the Prime Minister once it has given those who may be subject to criticism in the report the opportunity to make representations to the inquiry before the report is finalised. The inquiry has concluded that it will be in a position to begin this process, known as Maxwellisation, by the middle of next year.
Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, in replying to the Question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, the Minister gave no reaction to the noble Lord’s use of the word illegal. Was that an oversight or does he agree with that analysis? If he does not agree with it, will he confirm that it was a quite legal action that we were engaged in?
be published in several volumes. At that stage, we will be able to take a far better and more rigorous view as to exactly what happened.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, the inquiry has said that it is determined to be rigorous, fair and frank. It soon expects to be in a position to begin this process of Maxwellisation. Once that process is complete, the inquiry will submit its report to the Prime Minister. It is understood that that is unlikely to be until the latter part of next year.
Lord Cormack: My Lords, I share the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson. Does the Minister share my hope that at a very early opportunity after publication this House will have an opportunity to debate the report?
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I think that the House will have a great deal of interest in it—in fact, not just this House but another place as well. However, it is far too early to jump the gun on this issue. When the report is published, no doubt the usual channels will get together and I cannot imagine the circumstances in which we would not wish to give it a full debate.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, so many noble Lords are leaving—this is a disappointing reaction to such an interesting Bill, which goes to the very heart of our democracy. And still people leave, in such numbers that there is a blockage at both doors.
We on these Benches support the principle of individual electoral registration, as we indicated at Second Reading. Indeed, as has been pointed out on a number of occasions, we legislated for it in the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, in the last Parliament. We believe that it is desirable to have a complete and accurate electoral register. We also believe that individual electoral registration is a system compatible with modern society, and we recognise that it is outdated to rely on the head of the household. In essence, the issue between us and the Government in this respect is how you introduce it, and the timing of how you introduce it. You have to make very sure that you are not losing too many people off the register before you introduce it.
Moving to individual electoral registration is a significant change; it is the right change, but it must be implemented correctly. The risks to British democracy if it is not are too great. So despite supporting the principle, as I have made clear, we have genuine concerns. Our amendments, to be debated over the coming three Committee days, have been tabled to reflect those concerns.
Data published by the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society and acknowledged in the Government’s impact assessment for this Bill show that anything between 3.5 million and 7 million people are missing from the electoral register. That is an unsatisfactory base to start from, but the Electoral Commission also predicts, and the Government have acknowledged, that the shift to individual electoral registration could see an initial further hit to the completeness of the register by up to 30%. Experience from Northern Ireland bears this out, although I accept that there may be special factors that apply in relation to Northern Ireland that may not apply on the mainland.
We need to do all that we can to address these issues and to ensure that the electoral register is as accurate and complete as possible. So the guidance provided for in Clause 1 is good, especially during the transition from one system to the other and in the early stages of the operation of individual electoral registration. We welcome the specific requirement on the face of the Bill, but our concern is over why the role of the Electoral Commission has been undermined. The Government’s Bill gives a very significant amount of decision-making power to the Minister while bypassing the Electoral Commission and Parliament. We feel that a five-year transitional period for issuing guidance may be too short; the Bill’s Explanatory Notes are no more certain than deeming it “likely” that the new system will have reached a “steady state” in five years. And how do the Government define “steady state”? Given the levels of uncertainty associated with the transition, we argue that at the very least the Minister should be advised by the Electoral Commission on whether the system is operating effectively before guidance is withdrawn.
The Electoral Commission is an independent statutory body operating outside the political system with responsibility for electoral matters. We feel that it has a proper role in reaching an objective decision on these issues and that this should be written into the Bill before us today. Amendment 36 calls for annual registration reports to be produced by the Electoral Commission, presented to the UK Government and laid before Parliament with time set aside for Parliament to debate each report. In keeping with the theme of this group of amendments, which is related to improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register, Amendment 36 also addresses our concerns about unchecked ministerial power and the bypassing of the Electoral Commission.
Finally, Amendment 59, which is the third amendment in this group, calls for the results of the ongoing data-matching pilots, to which the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, referred in his opening speech at Second Reading, to be reported and evaluated before the full transition from the old to the new register takes place. According to the Government’s implementation plan for the Bill published in July, data-matching pilots have been running since August 2012, and data-mining pilots to identify potentially eligible voters who are currently missing from the register will begin in early 2013. I anticipate that the Minister will reject our call for a delay until the results of these pilots are known but will argue that a second set of data-matching pilots be commissioned. We accept that the second set of data-matching pilots should be commissioned but will the Minister acknowledge the concerns of the Electoral Commission about the findings from the first? In its evaluation report, the commission wrote:
“Our main conclusion is that these pilot schemes do not provide sufficient evidence to judge the effectiveness of data matching as a method for improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers”.
We are serious about the status of the electoral register and believe that all action should be taken to ensure that it is kept as up to date, complete and accurate as possible. We are serious about the most appropriate bodies and individuals being given the power to advise and issue guidance. We are serious about proper parliamentary scrutiny of an exercise of ministerial power, particularly in an area that is absolutely crucial to the effective working of our electoral system, as everybody agrees. We look forward very much to hearing what the Minister has to say in response. I beg to move.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I did not have an opportunity to participate at an earlier stage in this Bill but these amendments, particularly Amendment 1, which relates to the role of the Electoral Commission, about which the noble and learned Lord has spoken so eloquently, is very important.
The Bill sets out the rules that would apply for Great Britain. In replying to these amendments, will my noble friend give us guidance on where the Government are in respect of the changes which are being promised by the Scottish Government in the conduct of the referendum on independence? This is
important because at the Scottish National conference the First Minister of Scotland said that he would bring in a Bill which would provide for a new electoral register which would include 16 year-olds. It would not provide for 16 year-olds being able to vote in the referendum who were already on the electoral register: that is, the so-called attainers who reach the age of 18 at a subsequent election in respect of the existing roll. My understanding is that the publicly declared policy of the Scottish Government is to create a new register, which would be based presumably on individual registration by 16 year-olds, expressly for the purpose of the referendum on independence. This seems to me to drive a coach and horses through what this Bill is about, which is establishing a uniform system throughout Great Britain. I just wonder what the Government’s attitude is.
Ministers are on record as saying that it would not be possible to have a new electoral register. I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, suggested this from the Dispatch Box in answer to a question from me during a Private Notice Question. However, my understanding is that that is the intention of the First Minister and that this is being done without any oversight by the Electoral Commission. What is the Government’s attitude to that, because the election for the House of Commons will take place a few months after the proposed date of the referendum? We will therefore have one register of 16 year-olds who will be able to vote on whether to smash up the United Kingdom, and then another when six months later the self-same people are told, “There is a different register of electors for elections to the United Kingdom Parliament, European elections and the rest and you can’t be on it”.
We seem to be getting into a bit of a mess here as regards whether the conduct of the register and its content is or is not a devolved matter. It seems to me that it is a reserved matter. However, by virtue of a private negotiation, Ministers have cleared the way for the creation in Scotland of a register that would include 16 year-olds and a change in the franchise that would have an impact, not just on people’s aspirations as to the franchise elsewhere but the register itself. One would have thought that the body which has responsibility for the conduct of elections, the Electoral Commission, would be central to ensuring that this kind of confusion does not occur.
I therefore have considerable sympathy for the noble and learned Lord’s amendment, which seeks to prevent any further dilution of the role of the Electoral Commission. I do not want to get out of order here but, for example, people keep telling me that the commission will be responsible for the referendum question. That is not what has been agreed. What has been agreed is that the Electoral Commission will be consulted as to the intelligibility of the question, not to its fairness, appropriateness and the rest.
I hope that my noble friend will give consideration to what the noble and learned Lord has suggested in looking at the role of the Electoral Commission. Perhaps my noble friend may be able to give us some reassurance as to what exactly the Government’s attitude is towards
ensuring that we have a single, coherent, fair and properly co-ordinated electoral register throughout the United Kingdom for the purpose of carrying out all democratic procedures. I understand, of course, that referenda have been conducted on a different basis in the past, but this Bill, which is an attempt to try and pull this together, is somewhat remiss in not observing the elephant in the room—or, in this case, the elephant that is north of the Tweed.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, in the course of the Committee’s deliberations, it will become clear why I have considerable sympathy with what this group of amendments seeks to achieve. However, it is not right for the Electoral Commission itself to decide whether the arrangements for individual registration have been completed sufficiently well for the new system to be fully introduced and those registered only under the old system to be dropped from the voting registers.
A later amendment, Amendment 58, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler proposes to put this responsibility where it belongs—with Parliament. I accept, however, that many of us would in any event be properly guided by the Electoral Commission’s view as to the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register at the time. What is most clear to me is that we simply cannot proceed with elections and boundary reviews based only on the new individual election registration processes if the voting registers resulting from these new processes are significantly less complete than they are now. I discussed this very point with the former Minister, Mr Mark Harper, who said that he understood the difficulties of trying to conduct elections in 2016 if the voting registers were essentially “not fit for purpose” at that point.
There are of course important elections in 2016 to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and many English local authorities, as well as the next review of Westminster parliamentary constituencies, that should, under the terms of this Bill, be based on voting registers exclusively compiled on the basis of individual voter registration as at 1 December 2015. We cannot be sure at present that the new registration system will be working sufficiently by then. I should therefore be grateful if, later, the Minister could tell the Committee what consultation there has been with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Local Government Association over the major changes to electoral processes that are due to have come into effect in full by May 2016.
Lord Rennard: That is exactly my point. I am unaware of any consultation on this issue. I have asked a number of times by correspondence what consultation there may have been with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly or the LGA, which is responsible for
local elections. It seems that these bodies are unaware that, through the Bill, there will be significant changes to the electoral arrangements for those elections in May 2016. I believe that they should be aware of them and their view should be part of our consideration of this Bill.
As I said, the principle of IER is not really in dispute between the parties. All the parties agree the principle of it, and they agree that a household-based system is insecure, inadequate and leads to inaccuracy. However, the question is how you get from that system to a more secure and more rational alternative without losing from the register lots of people who are legitimately entitled to vote.
In that objective, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and I are all agreed, but the question is: what if we have not achieved our objective by 1 December 2015? I am convinced—and the Electoral Commission warns us of this—that there is a real possibility that we will not have achieved our objectives by 1 December 2015. Furthermore, I am convinced that the possibility of failure will be lessened if we do not in this Bill sign up to full implementation by then, irrespective of what progress is actually made on implementation in the next few years. In other words, a strong signal will be sent to government if they have to make this system work before it is fully implemented. I think that it would be invidious to expect the Electoral Commission, on its own, to push the “go” button on the final parts of the transition to IER. Therefore, to help to ensure that the stated objectives are met, I would prefer to see provision made to permit Parliament effectively to extend the carryover of voters from existing registers for a further period if, in the judgment of Parliament, the register is not in a sufficiently complete state on the basis of individual registrations alone. On that basis, we do not support Amendment 59, as we believe that there is a better, alternative approach, which we will set out when we reach a later group.
Turning briefly to Amendments 1 and 36, I should like to see the Electoral Commission reporting in this way, as it would inform our future debates. However, these reports themselves would be of little value if there were no possibility of Parliament providing for carryover to continue beyond 2015. Likewise, the capacity of Ministers to give guidance to electoral registration officers is of little value if the law says that electors on existing registers in their area should be removed from future registers, even if Parliament is not satisfied that we have been able to get a proper alternative registration system in place.
In due course, I hope that all concerned will accept that Parliament should have the final say on whether we are succeeding sufficiently well in our aims of having an accurate and complete electoral register before we exclude unnecessarily from the voting rolls perhaps several million people who will still be legitimately entitled to vote. We will not be able to make that judgment until we see how the new system is working.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, I regret that I was unable to take part on Second Reading, but since that debate the Constitution Committee, which I have the privilege of
chairing, has issued its own report on the Bill. The report very much echoes some of the points that have just been made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. Overall, the Constitution Committee sought to impress on today’s Committee that the Government need to do everything possible to ensure that the completeness of the electoral register is matched by its accuracy. Concerns were raised—I know from reading the Second Reading debate—about the way in which the impact might fall heaviest on areas of urban population where, for example, many people in private rented accommodation—ethnic minority people, the young, and so on—might be unnecessarily excluded in the pursuit of the completeness, which might not necessarily reflect the accuracy and vice versa of the new register.
Although I take the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, that there may have been special concerns and reasons in Northern Ireland, it is worth noting that the accuracy of the register fell by nearly 10% when individual registration was first introduced. The other major point that applies to this group of amendments—again I am echoing the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and the concerns raised by the Constitution Committee—was about the necessity not to express many of these important concerns in guidance. The committee was concerned that there should be much greater parliamentary oversight of the introduction of the new register and that these matters should be put in regulations. We felt that for the Secretary of State to be able to determine requirements for exercising the right to vote without effective parliamentary oversight would indeed be constitutionally improper.
Lord Maxton: My Lords, I begin by apologising to the Committee because like the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, I did not speak on Second Reading. I had a specific reason for not doing so. I was on the list to speak but unfortunately I was in the Information Committee. I thought that the business would go on longer but I suddenly realised that I could not make it into the Chamber in time to hear the beginning of the Minister’s opening remarks. I was therefore asked not to speak on Second Reading. I apologise to the Committee for making that mistake. The danger is that now I will fall into the trap of making the Second Reading speech that I would have made.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in particular, roused me to my feet as I have one simple point to make. The Bill is designed to stop fraud and ought to be designed to encourage people to vote, and there is one simple way to deal with that. Unfortunately this House and the other place both voted to get rid of that simple way of dealing with this matter, which was the introduction of an identity card—a general register of all people. It would have been a compulsory identity card for everyone. It would have ensured that everyone was on the central register and we would not be in this position. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, led the campaign, as much as anybody did, against ID cards, which was a major error on his part. By the way, the technology on ID cards, or smart cards, has moved on extensively even since we abolished the proposal less than two years
ago. Now we could have a smart card that would ensure that people were on a central register and the register itself would divide and set up online registers for the whole of the country. Each constituency would have a register, not completed by a registration officer or by individual registration but automatically: by pressing a series of buttons on a computer it would come up with the right answers. Each individual would be able to vote only by producing an ID card. This would stop a great deal of fraud, provide a workable system and, I hope very rapidly, we would move to voting electronically and using the ID card to register our votes.
It is absurd that on “Strictly Come Dancing”—where although the results are announced on the Sunday they are known on the Saturday—every individual voter can use their mobile phone, their home phone, their computer or whatever it might be to register their vote. However, what do we do when voting in a general election? We go traipsing off to a school and are given a pencil with which to put a cross on a piece of paper. To many young people—and to people like me who are perhaps more technologically aware than others in this place—that view of how we should operate in this country is out of date and old fashioned. As a result, we are making ourselves—and, unfortunately, our system of democracy—look foolish.
We are in danger of damaging or threatening our democratic structures if we do not move toward reintroducing an ID card, reintroducing a central register and then moving quite quickly towards people voting electronically—first perhaps in one place and then, secondly, wherever they are capable of using an ID card which identifies them as being eligible to vote.
I remember being on the Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee in the other place when the contract for the lottery came up for renewal. Camelot, of course, retained it, but one of the companies said that it would introduce a system which would not only enable people to play the lottery on their computers but also to vote using their computers, should the Government eventually move towards that facility. I left the other place 11 years ago, so it was probably possible to do this 13 or 14 years ago. Technology has moved on fast since then. Surely the Government should withdraw the Bill, look again at ID cards and see what they can do in regard to a central register.
I was looking forward today to a tour d’horizon by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, with historical analogies, assessments and context, because, as it happens, I am celebrating my birthday today and I thought this would be highlight of the day. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, is not in her place because she shares my birthday but is not sharing the wonderful experience that we usually have.
of IER. There is unanimous support and—dare I use the word?—consensus in this House that we have to move. The previous Government said so and this Government say so. It is a question of timing and getting it right, a point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. I am therefore disappointed that he did not refer to the past history and how we got to where we are. It was in 2003 that the Electoral Commission advised Parliament that it was necessary to move in this direction to improve the accuracy and completeness of the register and it took five years, as the noble Lord, Lord Wills, will know only too well, for the previous Government to take this issue seriously. We would not be having the suggested problems if it was not for the fact that that delay took place under the previous Administration. It is disappointing that the Labour Benches have not been able to recognise that that delay has made it more difficult to achieve success.
That is not least, of course, because during the nine years since 2003, the existing register based on household head registration has dropped dramatically. It is less complete and less accurate than it was when the Electoral Commission first made its recommendation. Until a matter of months ago we had all assumed that the existing register was something like 90% accurate; it is somewhere around 80% accurate. As I pointed out during the Second Reading debate and as the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, has said, in some areas it is much lower than that for the reasons she so eloquently expressed. The delay has made the situation more difficult, and in assessing the progress we must now make, your Lordships have to take that into account.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Do the experiments in Glasgow and elsewhere not show that if the local authority is given the necessary resources to go around and canvass to make sure that there are returns, the percentage is much higher? Is it not because of the cuts in local authorities’ expenditure that they are not able to do that as effectively as they used to?
Lord Tyler: That is for a later part of the Committee stage, but I have sympathy with the point made by the noble Lord. Indeed, I pointed out at Second Reading that the London Borough of Hounslow has done incredibly well over recent years, despite the difficulties that most local authorities have been facing. Hounslow has used a whole number of positive and negative ways to encourage people to register. It is not just where these things happen; it is the degree of attention that the local authority is able and willing to give to these matters.
As my noble friend Lord Rennard has indicated, we have a later amendment which we think would bring back to Parliament the last word in pressing the go button, particularly for 2016. I think that that is more appropriate than asking the Electoral Commission to be, as it were, judge and jury in its own case.
Lord Wills: My Lords, as always it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and particularly so on his birthday. I should like to take this opportunity to wish him many happy returns. I am surprised, though, that in his interesting history of the previous Government’s legislation in this area he omitted to
mention that the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, to which my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer referred, was agreed as being the best way forward by the Conservative Front Bench in opposition and by the Liberal Democrat Benches in opposition. We have still not had any explanation of why that agreement has been ditched and we have to spend the time of this House and the other place on this new legislation. Perhaps he will return to that in due course and explain to those of us who are still mystified by it exactly why that was the case.
I support these amendments, which have been so ably spoken to by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. They all go to mitigate what many of us think are the risks of a decline in levels of registration as a result of this legislation. There is no certainty that the levels will decline, but we feel that there is a risk of that. We do not know whether the Government agree because so far they have studiously avoided saying whether they think there is any risk, but what we do know is that they are commendably committed to a comprehensive register. They have said that many times and I think we all agree on that. We also know that, again commendably, they are bringing forward a number of measures to that end, and they have the support of almost everyone in the House for those measures. But what we have also learnt is that they seem to feel that a level of registration of 85% to 87%—in other words where there would be 6 million people who would be eligible to vote but who would not be on the register—is a level of completeness that, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, in an email to me, is, “as complete as is reasonably possible”. That at least indicates that they think there is some considerable difficulty in achieving a truly comprehensive register. We do not know exactly why the Government will not say whether they think there is any risk of a decline in levels of registration as a result of this legislation. It may be because they actually think that there is no such risk but that it would be imprudent for a Government to commit themselves in that way. It may be that they have done some work which shows that there are considerable risks inherent in the legislation, but again they do not want to tell us.
Governments are not infallible. Amendment 36, which I particularly support, offers Parliament the opportunity to assess the Government’s record in this area. This amendment would commit not only this Government but subsequent Governments. This Government may not be in power after 2015 so this amendment would commit a future Labour Government to bring before Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise levels of registration and, if necessary, to produce remedial measures. I think Parliament should have that opportunity.
This is not a minor technical matter, although some of the details are technical; it is about the very wiring of our democracy. The outcome of general elections depends on electoral registration. There are worries on this side of the House that this legislation, coupled with the PVSC Act, will lead to partisan outcomes in levels of electoral registration. These are important issues and Parliament ought to have the opportunity to scrutinise them regularly.
The Minister may say that the Electoral Commission will do its usual good job in bringing forward annual reports on the state of electoral registration and then it may be for Parliament to discuss the matter if it so wishes, but I hope that the Minister will not rely on such an argument. That would be to downplay the importance of this issue and the risks inherent in this legislation. I hope that the Government can agree with what is actually a modest amendment and allow Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise levels of registration on an annual basis.
Lord Dobbs: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wills. I always listen very carefully to what he says but on this occasion I must take a rather different view of him. The cat was rather let out of the bag this morning by the BBC, which said that many Members of this House, and indeed the other place, regard this Bill as being a partisan, party-political Bill—a conspiracy on the part of the Conservative Party to extract maximum electoral advantage. This Government have been accused of many things but being part of a Conservative Party conspiracy to extract maximum electoral advantage is not a characteristic that they display daily.
Clearly the Bill is of considerable importance. It gives more effective meaning to the principle of “one voter, one vote”. It is just too important to be played for party-political advantage. Indeed, from my point of view, it stands alongside redistribution of boundaries in ensuring that elections are fair and balanced. Surely it is no fault of this side of the House—at least this party—that at the next election the principle of “one voter, one equal vote” may not apply, although I live in hope that my colleagues in the coalition may yet see the way to a liberal dose of common sense and just a smidgen of consistency even on that issue.
Of course, the important question is: how do we measure the success of this Bill? I share the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, and other noble Lords that numbers are falling as a result of the current system of electoral registration. Figures of 3 million or 6 million missing voters have been mentioned. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, mentioned 7 million, which is a figure that I had not seen before, but I suspect that voters are rather like those pesky badgers: every time you turn around there are more of them than you thought.
The noble Lord, Lord Wills, is right that everyone who has a right to vote should have a vote. It is that simple, yet surely it is not just a matter of numbers, which he concentrated on; it is also a matter of accuracy—that those numbers should be the right numbers. So many of the amendments that have been put down to this Bill emphasise completeness rather than accuracy; for instance, Amendment 36 talks about the Electoral Commission producing,
“a report on the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register”,
problem is going to grow with the increasing growth in the private rented sector. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the Constitution Committee have implied that fraud is rare. However, I go back to stating that proven cases of electoral fraud are rare but of course it is incredibly difficult to prove that electoral fraud has taken place. Whether such abuse happens is not entirely the point. Our electoral system should be made as secure as possible. My concerns are not entirely hypothetical, as we can all quote cases of politicians of all political colours who have been convicted recently—
Lord Maxton: What the noble Lord is saying agrees with exactly what I have said. It seems that the identity card solves both the problems he is talking about. It ensures both accuracy and that the person who is registered is the person who is registered and not somebody else. It eliminates fraud.
Lord Dobbs: I recognise the noble Lord’s commitment to the identity card, but he is making a Second Reading speech rather than dealing with this amendment. There are many different ways to justice on this. I am sure we are all interested in having a robust electoral system at the end of the day but I am not sure that we have that at the moment. When postal votes are handed out like ice cream on a summer’s afternoon, it is not surprising that we have discovered cases where various people get their hands rather sticky.
We also seem to be tying ourselves in knots in this country in an attempt to prevent criminals from getting the vote. However, for a criminal to vote under the present system is the easiest fraud in the world. There are no checks in our electoral system as it is at the moment to see whether anybody on that electoral system should no longer have the right to vote because of a conviction. I hope that the Minister will be able to give attention to this and introduce some effective form of data-matching to make sure that that is no longer a problem.
I do not want to delay the Committee, but I want to give a couple of meaningful statistics that have been kindly provided to me from the Library. Postal votes nowadays account for a huge chunk of electoral turnout. In most constituencies the number of postal votes average around 10,000, which sometimes amounts to well over 20% of the total turnout. In some constituencies it is more than 30% of the total turnout. The 25 most marginal seats in the country are decided on majorities of around 500 votes or fewer. Quite clearly, it is more than possible for a fractured postal voting system to decide the outcomes not only of many constituencies but of an entire general election. We cannot turn a blind eye to the possibility that all the efforts we put into general elections could be turned over simply because of a very poor postal voting system.
Those who emphasise the need to get the maximum number on the register have all my sympathy. Let us by all means talk about numbers and get those numbers up. However, let us make sure that they are the right numbers.
Lord Wigley: My Lords, I apologise also for having missed Second Reading, for family reasons on that occasion. I will just throw in two or three examples of the dangers of fraud that have arisen from the comments of several noble Lords this afternoon and which any revision to the system must take into account.
First, whichever way a register is compiled, if it involves a canvass, those who are involved in undertaking that canvass could be open to pressure or could indeed be exerting influence. Forty years ago this year, I won a seat on a local authority by just some 50 votes out of a register of 8,000. To our great surprise, when the next register came out there was a reduction of several hundred voters in our ward. We attempted to see the correlation between our votes and those that had disappeared; there was something like a 70% correlation. What had happened was, yes, that forms had been dropped into every house, as they should have been, but in certain houses the knock on the door to pick them up was very light and they were not picked up. They had a right, of course, to take those forms in or to post them in but people did not do so. That was one avenue of fraud.
Another example, which noble Lords will be well aware of, is the pressure that is put on people with postal votes in a personal manner. In certain elections in my own area, I am aware of a motorcade following the postal van that was going around. As the postal votes were dropped, there would be a knock on the door: “Hello, Mrs Jones, can I help you? Do you want a witness? Do you want me to post this for you?”. The pressure that can be put on in that way obviates all the efforts that are made to ensure that we have a fair and reasonable system.
The third example that I would mention is, again, one that your Lordships will be very much aware of: the pressure that people felt at the time of the poll tax. Many people wrongly thought that there was a correlation between the right to vote and being on the register and there was a massive reduction in the number of people on the register. The outcome of the following general election was held to be because of the reductions in key constituencies that would have made a difference to that outcome. Often, as has been mentioned, those in private rented houses may have thought that they might avoid having to pay so much poll tax and were, in that case, avoiding being on the register. Other circumstances as well could lead to people wanting not to be seen at certain addresses. All these factors have to be taken into account when dealing with these sorts of changes.
I welcome the provision in Amendment 36, particularly its second half, to make sure that there is a relationship with the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly because there is a bearing on the elections that take place there, particularly in 2016. Careful thought needs to be given as to how things roll out in that year. However, we need to look even further at how we can ensure that the system is absolutely watertight.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we have almost been having another Second Reading debate. Since this is the beginning of Committee, perhaps I might be allowed to say a few general things before answering
on these amendments. As a number of noble Lords have already said, across the parties we all share an interest in restoring as far as we can the accuracy and completeness of the register as we go through this transition. We also share the principle of that transition: that we should be moving away from a household system of registration dating from the 19th century, when only the head of the household was allowed to vote, to one which is much more appropriate to the more varied households and the different relationship between the citizen and the state which we have today.
Over the summer, I have talked to a number of electoral administrators and read a fair amount. I would like to say a few things on that. I was struck by the strength of feeling that some electoral administrators have about making a faster shift to individual electoral registration than the previous Government proposed. It is faster, cheaper and clearer but we all understand that how we manage the transition is key. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Wills, that the transition in Northern Ireland was a big bang; here, we are taking it over more than two years. We all share the interest in getting this right, which is what these and some later amendments touch upon.
I hope that noble Lords will have seen a couple of interesting pieces of research that were published over the summer. There was, for example, the article published by Parliamentary Affairs in August on The Quality of the Electoral Registers in Great Britain and the Future of Electoral Registration.
“the estimated level of completeness of the December electoral registers has fallen since 1950: dramatically so over the last 10 years”.
“so far as is reasonably practicable”,
but that recognises that we may not be able to get back to the wonderful period of the 1950s when the level was up to an estimated 95%. However, we certainly hope to restore as far as we can a percentage in the high 80s rather than the one in the low 80s to which we are heading.
Another weighty piece of research, undertaken for the Government and published in July, is on Under-registered Groups and Individual Electoral Registration. Among other things, it states that the motivation to register is closely associated with the motivation to vote, which should be sobering for all of us. Those who are not interested in voting are, of course, not interested in registering either. That is one of the strongest correlations in lack of interest or resistance to registration. We all recognise that turnout has fallen during the past 25 years. Party membership has fallen remarkably during the past 25 years. That is a much wider issue, which we again all share, of regaining the confidence of our electorate and persuading people to vote.
Both pieces of research show some interesting things. Age is the biggest single differentiator of registration; social class is not—I say this to Labour Peers in particular who may worry that there is a real differentiation
between classes. However, we know that housing tenure and frequency of moving are a major differentiator and that young people in private rented accommodation are the hardest group to get at. There is some evidence that recent immigrants to Britain—people who are not British citizens but are EU or Commonwealth citizens—represent a disproportionate percentage of those who are not currently on the register but should be.
There are also some large issues around social change which I have discovered in talking to people who are concerned with this. Doorstep canvassing was much easier a generation ago than it is now. Fewer people are in; both members of a household are working; or it is a single-member household and that person is out working. People actively resist talking to a doorstep canvasser and think that they are interfering. Among the reasons why we think the annual canvass will in the long run have less utility are precisely those sorts of social change. Gated communities are more common. We were told that 24,000 households in Wandsworth, many of them the new flats going up along the river, are behind gated entrances. All of us who deliver leaflets and canvass know how much more difficult it has become in recent years to get into private accommodation and blocks of flats. That also makes it more difficult to discover who is there.
There are difficulties of communicating with young people. I have been told robustly, not only by electoral administrators but by friends and other parents, that young people do not answer letters. In particular, young men do not even pick up letters addressed to “The Householder” or “The Occupier”; you have to get at them if you can via their iPhone because that is something that they are more likely to answer. That is one of the reasons why among the experiments which we are undertaking is the introduction of online registration. A number of noble Lords came to see the demonstration that we offered. That is clearly the direction in which we have to go, in particular to catch the younger generation.
The data revolution itself offers real potential. We are attempting to reach that potential with data matching and mining at the moment. I was offered an extremely valuable briefing by the head of the Government Digital Service last week about what will be possible within the next four or five years in closer data matching and mining. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, that some large questions will be raised with the liberties and privacy lobbies about how far public and private data sets are compared. So a number of things are changing. The data-matching pilots that we have conducted so far have been remarkably successful and have enabled us to match a good two-thirds of the names on the register with those provided on the DWP database.
However, we are dealing with voluntary registration. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, wants to move us towards, in effect, compulsory registration. I note that he also wants us to move from local registers to a central register. Those are large changes in the traditional and established relationship between the citizen and the state. I think they go wider than this Bill. I was
struck by that as I had to answer a Question some months ago on the wonderful experimentation in Georgia in the caucuses. Computers have been introduced there whereby the citizen can interact with every single agency of the state with which the citizen operates. Some enthusiasts for that system, including the Cross-Benchers, did not seem to understand that that would mean the state had all the information on you pulled together in one single entity. That is, again, not something that the citizens of this country would be entirely happy about. The outcome of the data-matching pilots so far has been very encouraging.
On the Scottish issue, I assure my noble friend Lord Forsyth that the agreement on 16 year-olds voting is limited entirely to the Scottish referendum. It does not apply to UK voting the following year. On the amount of consultation with the devolved Administrations, the Scottish Government have passed a legislative consent motion and the Welsh Assembly responded to the consultation on IER—so there has been consultation. Of course, there has been a great deal of consultation with local authorities within England as well.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: I asked my noble friend a specific question. I fully appreciate that the agreement reached by the Prime Minister in Edinburgh allowed for the Scottish Government to extend the franchise to 16 year-olds, but I think that my noble friend’s namesake, our noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, told the House that the Scottish Government would not be able to have a new electoral register: they would have to use the existing register. So I asked what the Government’s view is of the declaration by the First Minister that he intends to bring forward a Bill to create a new register for all 16 year-olds who would be able to vote on the referendum. For the first time in this country, we would have a devolved register that applied to the referendum and a register that applied to general elections. That is a constitutional nonsense. Are the Government content for that to happen?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I said that registers are compiled and kept locally. We do not have a single, central national register—to the deep regret of the noble Lord, Lord Maxton. There is some room for at what stage one puts what we call the attainers—those 16 and 17 year-olds—on the register. There are some differences already between local registers. I am struck by the strength of the difference between the electoral registration forms that I have seen from different local authorities. We do not have in the United Kingdom a single centralised approach to electoral registration.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: I do not think the Minister quite understands what is happening in Scotland. It may be that, whereas the UK Government are consulting with the devolved Administrations, perhaps a devolved Administration are not consulting with the UK Government. As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said, our understanding from the media is that the Scottish Government are publishing a Bill that will allow people who are 16 years old on the date of the referendum—that is, some time in October 2014—to vote. That means an entirely new cohort of people on the register. It means going round to find out where people who are now
14 and 15 year-olds are, getting them on to a register, publishing the register—locally, as the Minister said. How is that to be done? Has he been consulted about that? Has he made any comments about it? Does he know what is going on in Scotland?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I do not follow the Scottish media as closely as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and it is very difficult for the Government to ask to be consulted on reports in the Scottish media. I will have to write to him on the detail of something which may or may not be what the Scottish Government are proposing if it has so far appeared only in the Scottish media.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, let us forget about the Scottish Government for a moment and think about this Government. I was given an assurance by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, that the extension of the franchise to 16 year-olds would apply only to attainers—that is, to people on the existing register. Is that correct or not?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: To be absolutely sure that I am entirely consistent with my namesake, I will write to the noble Lord when I have checked as thoroughly as I can to ensure that I am entirely accurate.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: To follow up the original question of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, which is a question of constitutional relevance, however the register is achieved—whether the attainers are dealt with from one particular date or another—is not the point the inconsistency between that referendum franchise and the one then applicable for Westminster elections and how will that be dealt with?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: In allowing 16 year-olds to vote in a Scottish referendum, we are making an exception. That is evident; that is part of what has now happened. We have a register which has various people on it with different circumstances. There are those EU citizens who are entitled to vote in local and European elections but not national elections; there are Members of this House, who are entitled to vote, similarly, in European and local but not in national elections. So there are already some variations between categories on the register. I will check as thoroughly as I can on this to ensure that I am entirely accurate on a point which, I fully understand, is important.
Perhaps I may now turn to the three important amendments. The issue at stake for all of us is how confident we are that we will manage the two-year transition and what we do when we reach the end to ensure that we have gone all the way through the transition. The reason for having a two-year transition is precisely to ensure that we are successful as we come to the outcome. The Electoral Commission will be following that very closely. We will be reporting back to the House on how the new system operates, so we are confident that by the autumn of 2015—with, as the noble Lord, Lord Wills, correctly pointed out, a different Government, or certainly a new Government, in place—we will be able to make a full transition.
Amendment 1 asks for guidance to be maintained for registration officers beyond the five-year period. Again, we are into questions about central direction and local autonomy for registration officers. Having spoken to a number of electoral administrators, I have considerable sympathy for the strains under which they work and the efforts which they put in to maintain as complete and accurate a register as possible. We will come back to the issue of how electoral registration is maintained on our third day in Committee.
We will of course continue to monitor and assess the effectiveness of the system during the five-year period, but we are confident that at the end of it the transition will have been fully taken through and we will have achieved a relatively stable system. When I say “stable system”, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, that I am also confident that we will have moved to a considerable extent towards an online system. I recall telling the House some months ago that the DWP expects that the number of its customers who interact with it online will have moved from some 20% to some 80% over the next 10 to 15 years, so we are in a system in which we will be moving from paper and letters to online interaction. I am also confident that we will find that data matching and data checking will become more and more constructive and accurate as a means of checking whether someone who registers is precisely who she says she is.
Lord Maxton: Surely the point about data matching and so on ought to be that people go on the register rather than the other way round. Rather than checking whether or not someone is accurate, there ought to be a way of putting people on to a register and then saying to them, “Are you the person who the register says you are?”.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: The noble Lord is asking some very large questions that of course relate to his preference for having a central register for all citizens, which would mean an ID card. That is rather larger than the remit of the Bill, as he well knows. Over the two years we will be conducting some further data matching and data mining to confirm existing electors. There will be individual invitations to those who are not confirmed by this process—in other words, concentrated individual canvassing rather than an overall individual canvass—a full household canvass in 2015 and a carry-forward to protect those who have not been contacted by the 2015 general election. There will be a civil penalty to encourage applications and the change will take place at the time of the next election when there will be the highest amount of popular interest in politics. I think I recall correctly that in the run-up to the previous general election some 500,000 additional voters registered in the two to three months before the election. That will bring a number of people back on to the register. We are confident that the efforts that will be made during the period of transition will complement each other to a point where we have reached at least the current level and, we hope, a great deal more.
give us an after-measure using the December 2015 measures. We are confident that we can rely on the Electoral Commission to give us the figures that we need.
Lord Wills: Before the Minister leaves that amendment, will he say why, as I gather he is resisting it, he wants to deprive Parliament of the opportunity to debate what the Electoral Commission finds and propose remedial measures if necessary? Is he so confident in what he is producing, or is there some other reason why he does not want to give Parliament the right to scrutinise that report?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I envisage that Parliament will continue to scrutinise this as it goes through. I recognise that this is a concern for the whole House, and it may well be one of the things that we need to discuss off the Floor between Committee and Report. The Government are not convinced that we need to have an absolute point at which Parliament says yes or no to the entire transition, partly because, if we have gone through the two-year to three-year transition, there is the question of what the alternative should be if you have not gone far enough. That would mean a much more out-of-date register, which we would know would be extremely inaccurate by then if we failed to carry through. For myself and for the Government, we prefer a process in which a dialogue will be continuing as we go through the transition. A number of experiments will be taking place at that time to ensure that we achieve the aim that we all need. We are confident—
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Will the Minister remind the House of the legal provision in the Bill which would allow the Government to retreat from compulsory individual electoral registration if everybody agrees that the transition has not worked and there is an unacceptable reduction in the completeness of the register? The Minister is talking as if the transition is bound to succeed, but everybody accepts that it might not. What happens if it does not?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I said at the beginning of my speech that we have been suffering from a decreasingly complete and accurate register over the past 15 to 20 years. The current register is very imperfect. That is the reason why I hope that we all agree that we need to make this transition. If we were to come to a point halfway through the process where we recognised that there were some severe problems, we would have to look at those problems because the current register is increasingly suffering from inaccuracy and incompleteness.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I will have to consider that and come back to the noble and learned Lord. I recognise that part of the reason that we are resisting this is because if you then say no to the transition, what do you go back to? That is something that we clearly need to think through.
Lord Rennard: There is a precise and important point that relates to this amendment. Will the Minister confirm that there is no provision in the Bill if we come to that conclusion that the system is less satisfactory than the present system? We know that the present system is far from satisfactory at about 82% complete. If under the new system IER is only 65% complete and there is no provision in the Bill to deal with that problem then, would it not be better to have some provision so that Parliament could look at the issue rather than just the Government deciding whether to start again with a new Act?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I think I need to take that away as well. If we were to go back to the old system, we would face the risk that we were retaining a much larger number of inaccurate and fraudulent entries in the system. Part of the reason for this Bill is to remove those fraudulent entries.
Lord Rennard: I do not wish to sound pedantic in relation to this issue, but it is not a question of going back to the old system rather than using the new one. The amendment that I have tabled for discussion later on is about whether the carryover from the old register needs to be continued for longer. It may be that if we have not succeeded with IER in the way that we hope, we might continue with the carryover for rather longer. That is a decision that Parliament should take at the appropriate time. It cannot take it during the passage of this Bill because we will not see how the data matching and data mining pilots have succeeded. We will not have that information, but we should have that information, and decide on it, before full implementation, by which I mean ending the carryover.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: I recognise that we shall come back to some of the issues that have been raised when we come to debate the noble Lord’s Amendment 58, which we have almost been debating. The question of a further carryover at that point will unavoidably involve carrying over a large number of names about which we will all have less and less confidence because they will be people with whom electoral administrators have had no contact for the previous two years, in spite of considerable efforts—letters and attempts to canvass—to check their data. The Government would be very reluctant to carry over further than that, but I take the degree of concern that we hear around the Chamber seriously, and we will consider that further. Having offered these responses to a very wide-ranging debate, which has touched on almost everything from Scottish devolution to central registration and the authoritarian system of identity cards that the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, loves so much and a little on the computer revolution, I ask the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment. We will continue to discuss many of these very important issues as we go through Committee and into Report.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My noble friend has offered to write to me, which I appreciate, and I do not want to detain the Committee with too many matters Scottish. However, Amendment 36 suggests that a report should be brought by the Electoral Commission,
“on the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register in each part of the United Kingdom, which will detail variations in registration rates within and between the different parts of the United Kingdom”.
I have no idea what the First Minister of Scotland is proposing but it sounds to me like he is going to bring a Bill before the Scottish Parliament that will allow for individual registration by 16 year-olds on a voluntary basis. That would result in the political parties campaigning. No doubt he thinks that the Scottish nationalists will be able to get more 16 year-olds to be on the electoral register than otherwise. If, as my noble friend was suggesting in his earlier remarks, he sees that as being akin to the present situation where you have Peers on the electoral register who are allowed to vote in some elections but not others, I am deeply shocked by that. The reason why Peers do not vote for elections to the House of Commons is that we are our own representatives in Parliament, which is entirely consistent.
Are we not in danger here of ending up with a complete dog’s breakfast of an electoral register in Scotland which is not consistent with England because the Government appear to have washed their hands of responsibility for the electoral register and the conduct of elections? I thought that that was a reserved matter. It has nothing to do with devolution but everything to do with the Minister’s responsibilities.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I recognise the importance of that issue, which has grown up, so to speak, since we began the parliamentary discussion of this Bill. I think it is fair to ask that I might take that back and check very completely, including the accuracy of these stories in the Scottish media, and that we should return to this issue later.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is being rather unusually moderate in what he is saying. As the referendum is not until October 2014, it will be the current 14 and 15 year-olds whom they will be trying to get on the register. The significance of this is very substantial. I am grateful that the Minister has given an assurance that he will write to us about this. I hope that it will be after consultation with the Scottish Executive and that it will be a detailed response.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: Before the noble and learned Lord either withdraws or presses his amendment, perhaps I may say a few words. I have held back to hear the noble Lord speak from the Front Bench. We have had a very interesting debate. We have covered all sorts of aspects, from the Scottish aspect to whether we should return to the debate about central register and identity cards. We have discussed the nuts and bolts and the administrative problems that arise from the Bill.
believe that it is worth getting on the register and worth going out to vote. I am of an age when the register was about 90% accurate of those who were entitled to be on it. However, that has fallen considerably. People were on the register then because they wanted to be on the register, and they insisted that they were on it—and God help the registration officer if his or her name was not on the register.
Something has gone wrong, because people now do not do that. I go back—because I have fought many elections in my life, as other Members of this House have done. I remember the election of 1955 when in Reading Ian Mikardo was under pressure. In that election, because people were motivated to go out to vote and to be on the register, we got an 85% turnout—and of course he won. He was not supposed to win, but he won because of the people’s motivation. That was a good word that the Minister used. It does not matter what we say about going around and getting people on to the register; what we really need is the motivation of the people themselves to go on to the register and to believe that it is worth going out to vote because it makes a difference. At the moment, they see no difference between the political parties. They believe that it does not matter what they say or what they do because the Westminster and Whitehall elite will do what they think. As well as being concerned in this Bill about the nuts and bolts, the administration and even Scotland, we should really be thinking about whether the political class is doing sufficient to make people enthusiastic about getting on the register and going out to vote.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, refers to a golden age when he himself sought office by election and when everybody was very keen to vote. Now we are in a different age, or so he identifies—maybe because he is no longer seeking election and, as a result, there is not that motivation on the part of people to vote.
It has been a very interesting and important debate. At its heart was the issue of what steps would be taken to ensure that the move from household to individual electoral registration would not lead to an undue reduction in the number of people registered. At the heart of our amendments was the idea that you have to have independent assessments made of that. What emerged in the debates was that the Government were so supremely confident that all would be well that they were removing the involvement of the Electoral Commission in giving independent advice, and there is no mechanism, other than a new Act of Parliament, to ensure—
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: It is important to understand that the concern is to prevent a further reduction in the completeness and accuracy of the register. I stressed very heavily in what I said at the beginning that part of the problem that we face is that the register has lost a good deal of completeness and accuracy over the past 20 years.
The debate was very marked by the forensic power of some of the interventions. That of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, was very effective, because I have to say with respect—and I do not blame the Minister for this—no answers were given to the points that he raised. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, gave a very well informed analysis of what the effect may be. My noble friend Lady Jay indicated what the constitutional importance of it is, while the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, urged us to vote in the way in which we vote in “Strictly Come Dancing”, although that may not necessarily be what we have in mind. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on his 71st birthday, for not flagellating myself for my own historic failures. I can see that that was what he had in mind, and it would have been a birthday treat.
The noble Lord, Lord Wills, is dead right when he says the critical issue is how we check that there is no undue reduction and what we do if there is. The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, rightly pointed out that completeness and accuracy are both important and indicated how important registration and the boundary changes are in that respect because they are obviously linked. The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, treated us to a trip round Wales in relation to registration, which is important.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving us an interesting update of general points in relation to this area. However, with respect to him, he has to deal with the basic point that has been made all round the House: namely, that you have to explain why you are doing this much quicker than you did before and what happens if it goes wrong or there are inconsistencies between the positions throughout the United Kingdom. Those were the questions that were being asked right round the House in this debate. There was real concern that there will be problems in relation to the intervention of individual electoral registration. With respect to the Minister, he gave me the impression that the Government had not given any thought to what would happen if those problems materialised. That is why these amendments are designed to get as much information as possible before Parliament before the final decision is made and to investigate what we do if this matter goes wrong.
The Minister has indicated that he will write to a large number of noble Lords. Therefore, it is obviously sensible to wait to see what he says. I will not press this amendment to a vote. However, real concerns have been expressed and the Government should take note of them. With the leave of the House, I wish to withdraw Amendment 1.
Schedule 1 is about the registration and removal of electors on the register and Amendment 2 relates to an appeals process. We on this side of the House believe that people who are excluded from the register under the new system should have a legitimate right to appeal against the decision made by the electoral registration officer. The ability to cast a vote is a fundamental right and a key part of civic society. As the Government’s own implementation plan states:
“Registering to vote matters. It is the building block of our elections and an important civic duty. It provides people with an opportunity to elect their Member of Parliament, their local Councillor or Member of the European Parliament and is used as the basis for important activities like Jury Service”.
We believe that as many people who are eligible to be registered should be. I believe that the higher the turnout at elections, the better. I say that not just because I speak for a political party. As we have already mentioned today, and as I am sure will come up again as your Lordships’ scrutiny of this Bill progresses, there are known risks associated with the move to individual electoral registration. People will fall off the register, especially in the interim, and especially under this Government’s plan as so many of the safeguards that were in the 2009 Act, which my noble friend Lord Wills was instrumental in introducing and was referred to in the debate, have been scaled back.
In the spirit of tackling voter fraud, which we know is the key motivation behind this Bill, and behind its speeded up implementation plan, some of those who fall off the register will do so legitimately because they should not have been there in the first place. Of course, that is right and that is what should happen, but some people will be removed in error. Given the importance of the right to vote, and so the importance of being registered, those who do fall off should have an opportunity to appeal. Given the importance of the method, I would like to say a few things about the appeal.
At the moment, under the current system of registration, there is a clear appeals process. It derives from new Section 10A(3) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, and regulations set out in 2001. The relevant legislative base is sufficient for the current system but will these provisions be suitable once the transition has been made to individual electoral registration? Could they be fully applied, will any amendment be needed to the appeal provisions, and does the Minister see any merit in incorporating the 2001 regulations into the Bill, so as to provide assurance that there is a valid appeal process that Parliament has dealt with and approved? It is a probing amendment and I should be interested to hear the Minister’s answers. I beg to move.
record straight in relation to the 2009 Act. There was not unanimity, despite what was said earlier, about the previous Government’s timetable for the introduction of IER. Both my noble friend Lord Rennard and I, during the Second Reading of the Bill on 18 March 2009, made it clear that we hoped there would be an acceleration of the programme, which is of course what the present Government are doing. Since then we have found that the previous register was so incomplete that there was a greater case for accelerating the process.
Lord Wills: I am sure that the noble Lord would not want to distort the historical record on his birthday. I do not know whether he and his noble friend were speaking on behalf of the Front Benches in that case but, certainly in the House of Commons, what actually happened was that the Front Benches agreed on the Political Parties and Elections Act and the timetable for that legislation. That is a matter of record in Hansard.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, as may often be the case, your Lordships’ House was wiser than the other place on this issue, and I invite the noble Lord to look at Hansard for 18 March 2009, cols. 257 and 284.
Returning to the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, I too have some concerns. It is important to make sure that there is some form of transparent judicial appeal process in which everyone has confidence, not least because removals can be serious, not just to the individual concerns but more generally. I draw attention to the fact that the implications, not least in terms of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, could mean that a donor is found to be illegitimate because he or she has been removed from the register. There could be considerable consequences from any form of removal. Therefore, although I do not have a strong view about whether the tribunal process would be the right one—doubtless, the Minister’s officials may already be providing reams of advice on the cumbersome problems that could be caused by a new tribunal—will my noble friend consider extending the existing tribunal process that relates to the civil liability issue under the Bill?
I do not have a magic answer to this but surely if there is already a tribunal process under the Bill, perhaps it might be extended to deal with appeals of this sort. That would seem to be a neat way to deal with this issue, and I look forward to hearing whether my noble friend would find that a helpful way forward.
Lord Gardiner of Kimble: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for highlighting the important issue of individuals having a right of appeal if they feel that they have been incorrectly removed from the register. This is similar to an amendment tabled by the Opposition in the other place, and on that occasion Wayne David accepted that there is an appropriate appeals mechanism in place. Indeed, he said he was pleased that the Government’s reassurances were clear.
I therefore confirm that Sections 56 and 57 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 already make provision for appeals against the decisions of registration officers in Great Britain, including decisions to remove
electors from the register. Paragraph 17 of Schedule 4 to the Bill makes the necessary amendments to ensure that this continues to apply under the new system. I refer noble Lords in particular to the proposed insertion of new paragraphs (azd) and (aa) into Section 56(1) of the 1983 Act dealing with appeals against decisions under new Section 10ZE.
My apologies to noble Lords for the technicalities involved in that. However, there is provision within the Bill which I hope will reassure the noble and learned Lord and, on that basis, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.
(a) require a person who has made an application under section 10ZC or 10ZD to provide evidence that he or she is the person named in the application, or
(b) require a person who has made an application under section 10ZC or 10ZD, or any person who has an entry in a register, to provide evidence for the purpose of enabling the officer to determine whether a person is entitled to be registered in a register maintained by the officer,
must specify the kind of evidence that a person may be required to provide (for examples, see paragraph 3ZA(5)).”
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 6, 8 and 9. Noble Lords will be aware that Amendment 7, in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is also in this group. These amendments all cover the question of what forms of acceptable evidence can be used to verify entitlement to register. The Government are responding to earlier criticisms that this should not just be left to ministerial guidance but should be prescribed in secondary legislation. It has always been the Government’s intention that the evidence required in an initial application will be prescribed in regulations; nevertheless, the Bill introduces permitted guidance to be used.
There is an important distinction between the evidence provided in an initial application, which we might call primary forms of evidence, and the alternative forms of evidence that may be used if an applicant cannot supply the primary evidence or if it is not possible to verify their identity without further evidence.
As set out in the Bill and in the proposed draft secondary legislation, published in September, the forms of evidence used in initial applications will be the applicant’s date of birth and national insurance number. We had intended that the accepted alternative forms of evidence, examples of which are set out in the
proposed draft secondary legislation, would be set out in guidance by the Secretary of State. This was to allow flexibility to respond to any potential threat to the integrity of the register resulting from the security of a form of evidence becoming compromised by fraudsters with excellent skills offering to sell well designed things on the internet or whatever. In the case of evidence used in applications, this is most pertinent in responding to an increasing risk of fraud if a previously accepted form of evidence is found to be compromised and open to fraud. In such a situation, action must be taken quickly, and we felt that this justified the use of guidance in prescribing these forms of evidence.
However, in its report on the Bill, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee expressed concerns about the lack of a requirement for forms of evidence to be set out in regulations. This was echoed by the Electoral Commission and the Constitution Committee of this House. We recognise these concerns and are therefore seeking to amend the Bill to ensure parliamentary scrutiny of the prescription of forms of evidence, while allowing for flexibility.
The amendment will ensure that the list of evidence that is acceptable for the verification of applications is set out in regulations subject to the affirmative procedure. To attain flexibility in responding to extraordinary situations and unforeseen circumstances, we have also provided in the amendments that regulations removing allowable forms of evidence will be subject to the negative procedure. This will allow the Government to act quickly in response to information that an accepted form of evidence is no longer suitable for use in verifying applications. We feel that this strikes the right balance between parliamentary scrutiny and flexibility in response to potential threats to the integrity of the register. I beg to move.
Lord Tyler: My Lords, I shall speak briefly to this group. Because I am referring to the advice given by the Electoral Commission I should put it on record that I have served as a member of the cross-party informal advisory group for the Electoral Commission in the past.
The government amendments are very welcome and specifically take the advice of the Electoral Commission and the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House about the list of forms of evidence that could be used in the electoral registration process and how they should be set out. However, Amendment 7 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, would make the Bill less flexible in this respect by setting out that the national insurance numbers and dates of birth should be the primary evidence required when applying. Many of us may have some sympathy with that because it is obviously such a fundamental building block and it may be thought by Members of your Lordships’ House that at least that has the advantage of some clarity at the outset. However, there is clearly a danger that if the national insurance numbers prove more cumbersome than all of us hope, and certainly than the Government
intend, the only way to alter that primary evidence would be by primary legislation, which is clearly very bureaucratic and perhaps a matter of administrative overkill.
I suppose that one’s judgment on the merits of Amendment 7 will depend on how paranoid we all are about future Governments and whether the likelihood is that the list might ever be changed to set too high a bar. For example, it might suddenly be required that not just the national insurance number but some other form of identity, such as a library card or a bus pass, in my case, should also be available. That may seem unlikely and the regulations would anyway be subject to affirmative procedure, but on the whole I prefer the Government’s rather more flexible approach. I look forward to hearing what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the Minister have to say. Inflexibility is something that your Lordships’ House is rather good at identifying in advance, so avoiding the bureaucratic nightmare that may result.
Lord Maxton: My Lords, first, I take the opportunity, if I may, to say to my noble and learned friend on the Front Bench that I was not suggesting that we should vote in the same way as on “Strictly Come Dancing”. I was suggesting that we are still voting in a very conservative and old-fashioned way, whereas in other forms of national life, we do it differently.
I am a little concerned that there has been great opposition to my idea of a national register of some sort, but we are now talking about national insurance numbers. Who holds them? Where are they registered? Who keeps them? Who says, “That is your national insurance number”? Is that not a form of national register?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, this is an interesting and important debate. The original draft of the Bill in effect allowed the Minister to determine, without parliamentary scrutiny, what the identifier should be. The amendment advanced now by the Government in effect says that Parliament has to approve the Minister’s choice, as it must be approved by the affirmative procedure. Our Amendment 7 would provide that Parliament has to decide in primary legislation what the individual identifiers must be.
Everybody agrees, including the Government, that the first proposal is not acceptable and that it would be wrong for the Minister to be able to determine it. People would be worried about the extent to which it might be used for political advantage. The second option has the problem that statutory instruments are rarely rejected by Parliament, so it gives pretty big power to the Minister. The third option has precisely the problem identified by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler—it is very inflexible. I recognise completely that the identifiers chosen might turn out not to be sensible at the end of the day, depending on how the system operates.
This is such an important issue that we on this side are loath to give the Minister the power that comes from being able to determine it him or herself or by statutory instrument. Subject to the Minister’s no doubt persuasive arguments, I currently favour our amendment, but I wait to hear what the noble Lord has to say.
Lord Martin of Springburn: We are all in a learning process but I am concerned about Amendment 7 and the requirement for a person to provide their date of birth and national insurance number. A register is tied in to a constituency and it would be irrelevant if someone’s date of birth and national insurance number alone could get them on to a register because that has to be tied in with their place of residence. I believe that an electricity or rates bill would provide more proof of whether a person was entitled to be on a constituency register than their age or national insurance number—although that may be in the list that was not available before now.
The Minister has touched on other evidence but I believe that there are more ways for a person to prove that they are a bona fide elector than by giving their date of birth. For example, I live in London for several days a week—many of us do; I am not the only one. But my main home is in Glasgow, and if I sought to get on the electoral roll somewhere in London just by turning up and saying, “My name is Michael Martin and my date of birth is 3/7/1945 but I cannot recite my national insurance number”—I can never remember it—that would not prove that I was entitled vote in a given constituency.
Perhaps there is something in the legislation that ties an individual into a constituency, but if I went to an electoral officer and said, “Here is an electricity bill, gas bill or community charge bill”, that proof would tie me in more than my date of birth.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we are getting into some of the technical complexities of the Bill. One of the reasons for preferring national insurance numbers is that it is possible to buy off the web electricity bills that are specially designed for you. We are looking for ways of ensuring as far possible that we have accurate identifiers.
The noble Lord, like many of us in this Chamber, is one of the difficult exemptions of people who wish to be registered in two different places because they have two different homes and therefore do not entirely match with the first identifier, which is that your national insurance number is likely to have your current address attached to it; these naturally go together. I am told that some voters do not have their date of birth in their head either. There is a tendency in some of our ethnic communities to assume that your date of birth was 1 January of whatever year it was that you were born.
None of these things entirely matches everyone’s predicament and we are therefore attempting to design something which is as flexible as possible while recognising the importance of parliamentary scrutiny. The changes we have made between the draft legislation in 2011 and the Bill’s introduction into the other place in May this year and these further amendments acknowledge the concerns raised most recently by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee that we need to make sure that there is some parliamentary scrutiny. However, when it comes to the alternative evidence provided, we believe that, because of the changing circumstances in which we are operating, some flexibility is needed. We do not wish to box everyone into simply the NINo and the
date of birth. I can almost remember my national insurance number—there are two numbers in the middle that I cannot quite get straight—but I must learn it off by heart.
The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, as he did earlier, wants to raise some much wider questions. I have considerable sympathy with where he is coming from. In 20 years’ time it is unlikely that we will vote using pencil and paper in polling stations, but that is a larger concern for the longer term, and as we have seen in some other countries, on occasion electronic voting is not without its own problems. We are retaining the principle of local registers. When talking to electoral administrations, something I am told immediately is that they have for many years used council tax registration as a means of checking where people live and whether these are accurately placed on the register. The council tax, of course, only gives the head of the household. Indeed, perhaps I should have said in responding to the previous debate that one of the reasons given in recent research for incomplete registration is that the single person’s discount for council tax encourages some people not to put down the others living in the household because that would raise the level of council tax. We have moved on from the poll tax as a disincentive, but the single person’s discount is, we are told, is a disincentive in a number of ways. There is a whole range of different factors to look at as we go into the details of the register.
The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, and the rest of us will enjoy debating the impact of the data revolution on the way the citizen interacts with the state. I find it fascinating myself, and I think that it will revolutionise that interaction over the next 10 years. However, noble Lords in this House may be among those who are slower to take part. I am sorry that the noble Lord was unable to come to our demonstration of online registration. The Government are considering many other options in terms of how one puts various things online. For example, some experiments show that if, when someone reregisters their car online, they are also offered the choice of transferring to their local authority and checking for a parking ticket, that increases radically the number of people who apply for a ticket.
Lord Maxton: As someone who is of the age where they have to renew their driving licence every three years, I can inform the noble Lord that when I do so, all I have to give is my passport number. The photograph that is used on my passport is then automatically used on my driving licence as well.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: The noble Lord makes a useful point. That is precisely the sort of direction in which we wish to go. The noble Lord will also know, of course, that a large proportion of our population does not hold a passport.
I hope that the Committee will be happy to accept these government amendments. We think that they strike the right balance between flexibility and scrutiny. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, will also accept that while we understand the direction in which his amendment is going, it threatens to make us a little too inflexible. It is important to retain a
degree of flexibility in terms of the alternative forms of evidence because the most appropriate alternatives may well change over time.
4: Clause 2, page 2, line 32, after “description)” insert “, and must require a registration to an officer to impose a civil penalty (under section 9E of the Representation of the People Act 1983) where a person refuses to give information prescribed in regulations under this section”
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I wish to speak also to Amendments 5, 21 and 22 tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler. These amendments concern the detail of potential civil penalties. From the outset of the consultation on the draft Bill, I argued strongly that the existing legal requirement to fill in a registration form when invited to do so must continue under individual registration.
At the moment, electoral registration forms have something like an 80% response rate. Although that is not as high as we would like, it is a clear indication of the value of the statement on the form that there is a legal requirement to complete it and to return it. The civil penalty is a distinct arrangement for individual registration as opposed to the household inquiry form. In my view, the present criminal offence for failing to fill in a household form is proportionate in that failing to do so can prevent others from having the right to vote. That criminal offence will remain for the household inquiry forms under IER. The civil penalty associated with the follow-up individual registration process should be welcomed by electoral registration officers since it retains a serious sanction for them to use as a last resort when someone fails to fill in an individual registration form, but one that would be less cumbersome than having to initiate a full criminal prosecution.
I am very pleased that the Government have given us the benefit of seeing in draft form the regulations that will govern the operation of the civil penalty. Like all our amendments, Amendments 21 and 22 are there simply to encourage the Minister to look at whether the civil offence of not filling in the form when requested to do so by an electoral registration officer should be one of strict liability; in other words, can not knowing or not understanding that you were supposed to fill it in and return it be a proper defence? I am sceptical that anyone, after a registration officer has gone through all the steps set out in the draft regulations, could not know or understand that there is a legal requirement for them to register. A great deal of time and money could be wasted with people claiming that in fact they did not know or understand.
Ministers have talked about the level of the civil penalty being akin to a parking fine. I see that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, wishes to address that in his Amendments 23 and 29. I suggest that if it is to be like a parking fine, the idea that you can escape it by simply saying that you did not know you were responsible or you did not understand
the rules is misplaced. As anyone who has received a parking fine—as I suspect many of us will have done at some point—will know, not understanding or not knowing that you have to pay it is not a defence. If we could all claim ignorance, many more of us would park illegally with impunity. I would be most grateful for the Minister’s comments on that point in his response to Amendments 21 and 22.
Amendment 5 deals with trying to ensure that people are indeed fully aware of the potential fine. If it is made a strict liability matter, as it probably should be, it is clearly even more important that people are informed at every opportunity of the risk of a fine if they do not register. To that end, we believe that this fact must be spelled out on the individual registration form itself. The draft regulations before the House suggest that the prospect of a penalty will be mentioned only in the “invitation to register”, which is effectively a covering letter to the form. Clearly, there is a risk that any covering letter could be set aside in haste and that an elector would not know of the legal requirement to register if it is not printed clearly on the form as well.
Finally, Amendment 4 seeks to equip electoral registration officers with a civil penalty as a means of obtaining necessary information from people when they request it. The Government’s present plans, as I understand them, are for the civil penalty to be imposed only if someone fails after several times of asking to return a form. However, there is a risk that someone may not provide enough information to permit the electoral registration officer to proceed with a registration. The Government’s position is that someone who has not provided enough information should not be subject to criminal prosecution under the present offence of failing to provide information when requested, yet the Bill and the draft regulations do not provide any way for the established alternative to criminal prosecution—the civil penalty—to be used instead. We believe that this needs to be addressed. In tabling all these amendments, we are seeking some reassurances for the record—to see in Hansard—that these issues will be dealt with and remedied in the final version of orders which come before this House.
Commenting briefly on Amendments 23 and 29, I do not personally think that it would be right to put the level of the penalty in the Bill. Clearly, it will need to change from time to time, just as the previous criminal penalty changed many times, from £20, I think, when it was first introduced in 1991 to £50, £400 and then to £1,000 over the years. Since this will change from time to time, I am not sure we should fix it now for ever at £100. However, if the process does work, people will ultimately find that it is simply easier to register than it is to pay any fine. All I would hope in this part of our deliberations is that the Committee will be told the latest government thinking on the level of penalty.
Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town: My Lords, I will address the two amendments in this group in my name and that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. They concern the new civil penalty in the Bill, separate from the criminal offence, with, as we have heard, a possible penalty of £1,000. The civil penalty is for failure to co-operate with the electoral registration officer.
It remains a serious civic matter for people to be on the register, not least of course for jury service, for which nearly all are eligible, although not myself and my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. Having been on the judicial bench—in a small way in my case, as a magistrate—we are I think are excluded from jury service. However, for the vast majority, of course this is the important source for identifying those who will serve on juries. Also, as democrats, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, it is an important right that everyone who has the vote—for which many have fought in the past—is able to exercise that right. They need to be on the register because they need to be able to vote at the moment at which the mood so takes them. Often, that may be only days before an election, when they suddenly want to kick out whoever is there or, on the contrary, maintain the incumbent; or in some way influence the Government or the local authority. However, it is only if they have registered at the appropriate point, rather than a day or so before the election, that their right can be exercised. It is for this reason that it is so important for us to get this registration accurate and complete as early as possible.
We will hear—and already have heard—a lot about the importance of the register being complete, but it behoves all of us to play our part in that by responding to the request for information from an electoral registration officer, so that we can, if eligible, be correctly entered on to the register. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, suggested it could perhaps be done by statutory instrument but the significance of Parliament writing it into law in the Bill and deciding the penalty for failure to comply with this part of our civic responsibility should not be underemphasised. For that reason, Amendment 29 would remove from Schedule 3 the power to determine the amount of the civil penalty by regulation and Amendment 23 would write into the Bill that it should be £100.
The exact amount perhaps need not detain us this afternoon, although it surely should be at the very least the same as a parking ticket, which some in the Committee may find themselves frequently having to pay. We can perhaps discuss the exact amount some other time but surely the principle is that Parliament, with this new system of registration, should fix the amount clearly in the Bill as an indication of the seriousness with which it views registration. That is the point that we want to make.
I shall speak to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and his birthday compatriot the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I also wish him a happy birthday, and I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, is not here to pass her wishes on; if she is watching, we can wish her a happy 80th birthday today. I will add emphasis to what has been said about those civil penalties and their use by registration officers. Particularly for the initial use of this brand-new system of registration, it will be important to impress on registration officers the significance and importance of the task that they are undertaking on our behalf, in part so that they communicate this effectively to all those with whom they will have dealings in obtaining and then registering relevant information. If individual electoral registration is to be the success that we all hope for, everyone must play their part. With the
penalties being the only real weapon in the hands of those on whom we will depend to produce the register, we must give the EROs the backing to employ civil penalties if need be, and particularly the ability to have the threat of using them to the full.
Lord Martin of Springburn: My Lords, we are in Committee and it is therefore good to explore these matters. I am worried about there being a penalty because when I was first allowed to vote at the age of 21 I was a journeyman on a journeyman’s salary. Now, however, people can vote at 18. We are talking about a young person of 18 having a fine imposed on him or her for not co-operating, and I worry about that. If the amendment said that it was to be someone over 21, I would be less concerned, but I worry because I have had experience of arguing and campaigning against the poll tax. Bearing in mind that boys and girls of 18—young adults—had to pay that the poll tax, which was had changed from a household debt to an individual debt, one of our big worries was that they would not have the assets to do so. We were proved to be right: when a youngster went into arrears, the parents would bear the responsibility of the cost so that the family would not be shamed by the sheriff’s officers turning up.
The danger here is that we are going to impose fines en bloc on anyone who is an elector. It might be argued that, previously, the householder had responsibility and that there was a fine there anyway. However, when someone takes a on home they realise that there are responsibilities tied to it. At 18 years of age, however, I can tell your Lordships that there was not much in the way of assets in my situation. Usually, as an apprentice, when you got your wages on a Friday, they were spent by Monday morning. That is what is going to happen to some of these youngsters.
Another thing is that when trying to get some young people to co-operate with filling in a form, we might cast our minds back to when we were 18 ourselves. The form that we got every year was a tax form and we usually did not bother filling it in because someone would tell us, “If you don’t fill it in, they tax you as a single person”, and we were single people. This amendment would cause problems to the registration officer because it is a catch-all. We are going to have concerns about those between 18 and 21. I would certainly be worried about supporting anything that would impose a fine on young people. The thing with electoral registration is that if you are not on the electoral roll, you cannot exercise your right to vote. I know that if a youngster should complain, “I’m not able to vote and I’m not happy with our Member of Parliament or local councillor”, their parents or someone else—even the electoral officer—might put this to them: “That’s your fault because you did not bother to fill up the forms”. But to impose a fine and to compare it with a car parking fine is erroneous. When you get a car, you have at least made a certain amount of funds available to yourself; that is not necessarily the case with a young person. When you go on the road in a car, you run the risk of putting it in a place where it should not be and getting a parking fine. If you put two hours’ worth of money in a meter and you are there for two-and-a-half hours, you take the chance
that a parking warden will catch you. It is not a comparison of like with like. For those reasons, I would be uneasy to support a fine for that age group.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we are now navigating the delicate area between voluntary and compulsory registration. I think that we all recognise that, for a British state which is by tradition a limited-government state in which citizens have a right not to be too closely engaged with it, this raises a number of very delicate issues.
The purpose of the civil penalty is to encourage citizens to fulfil what we all regard as their civic duty and to make it clear that there are consequences for them failing to do so. It is not intended that it should be imposed on every single person who for whatever reason fails to go through to the complete process. Indeed, the evidence is that prominent inclusion on the registration form of the words, “This is your civic duty. You are subject to a fine if you do not fill in the form”, significantly increases the number of people who fill in that form. That is particularly valuable. But to move on from there to pursuing everyone who fails to fill in the form accurately, or who refuses point blank after many attempts to fill in the form, takes us a little further down the road from voluntary to compulsory voting than many of us wish to go.
I think that we all recognise that one of the important aspects of the transition, which again takes us outside the immediate focus of the Bill but draws on the Northern Irish experience, is that we need to pay more attention to citizenship education—getting into schools and telling young people between the ages of 16 and 18 about what citizenship really involves. We should get them to want to make sure that they are on the register, which too few of them now do, while also perhaps explaining to them that, if they want to obtain credit in future, being on the register is one of the prerequisites for getting a good credit rating. So we are negotiating our way around a range of different factors.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that not understanding that you have to fill in the form as a defence for not applying is also a very delicate area. We know that there are not a insignificant number of voters who are functionally illiterate. We know also that there are a number of voters whose knowledge is English is not ideal. So there is a range of limiting factors. This part of the draft secondary legislation is aimed at those who generally have issues about understanding the requirement being placed on them, whether it is matter of literacy, learning difficulties or knowledge of English. We will look at the language very carefully between Committee and Report to take the noble Lord’s points into account.
In relation to the noble Lord’s Amendments 4 and 5, I emphasise that the civil penalty is intended above all to serve as an encouragement to apply. The Government’s preferred approach to reforms is to keep details of this sort out of the Bill, instead using secondary legislation and guidance to ensure flexibility. It will be for the Electoral Commission to design the
forms and the envelopes used in individual electoral registration. Having collected a number of these forms from different electoral administrators over the summer, I am struck by the current diversity in the forms provided, some of which put the importance of civic duty and the potential threat of a civil penalty very prominently and others have it down in the bottom left-hand corner where people are much less likely to see it.
These proposed draft regulations set out a small number of requirements for the content of paper application forms and the invitations that are sent to voters. They include mention of the civil penalty in the invitation but it will be for the commission to decide how best to approach the prominence and wording. For example, it may be that testing shows that a gentle mention of the penalty in the initial invitation works best, increasing the prominence of the message with successive invitations. We are currently undertaking targeted consultation on this publication and we welcome views on the contents. A certain amount of testing is under way on how best to design the forms.
The Government are firmly resistant to Amendments 21 and 22, which seem ultimately to force registration officers to impose the civil penalty on any person who does not make an application to register. Their purpose is the same as that of my noble friend’s other amendments. They would reduce the capacity of registration officers to use their own discretion in judging whether to issue a requirement to register to a person who has failed to make an application to register after being issued with an invitation. Again, we feel that this would take us too far down the road towards compulsion. After careful consideration with key stakeholders, we do not think it appropriate to create a new civil penalty for individuals who, after being required to make an application, fail to do so. We therefore urge my noble friend to withdraw his amendments.
On Amendments 23 and 29, the noble Baroness will recognise the very firm reasons why, in an age where—happily at the moment—inflation is low we nevertheless do not wish to put details of this sort firmly into primary legislation. I am sure that the noble Baroness is too young to remember the old notice that one used to see in trains:
When that was first established in railway legislation, £5 was a great deal of money. By the time I was in secondary school, it was rather less money than before—although, when I went out to tea in the local manor house and was tipped £5, it seemed an awful lot of money at that time.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: Of course I did not. I would never have thought about it while the train was in the station. I am sure that noble Lords will be as familiar with the song around that as I am.
intention is that the amount of the fine should be set out in secondary legislation so that it is flexible. We do not intend and no Government would wish to have to introduce primary legislation on the electoral registration system every two or three years.
Lord Martin of Springburn: I understand what the Minister says here, but the non-payment of a fine can lead to other court actions. Is he not worried that we will get into a wrangle if someone digs their heels in and says, “Look, I do not want to register. I do not want anything to do with registering”? Non-registration is a right that can be exercised by a person, ensuring that their name is kept off the roll—but now we are changing things. Does that then mean that if they refuse to pay the fine, there will be other penalties imposed on that person—even imprisonment?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: The noble Lord has been testing the difference between the Government’s approach and that of my noble friend Lord Rennard—who I think wants to be much fiercer on imposing civil penalties. The Government’s position is that the civil penalty is there as a backstop but should not be used to enforce compulsory registration. It should be very much a means of ensuring that forms are returned, not of insisting that everyone registers. That then takes us over into a different situation which, again, would be a change in the traditional, established relationship between the citizen and the state.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, as I said, the amendments are probing. We seek to continue a dialogue with the Government about the regulations to try to ensure that the system works as well as it should. As we said at the beginning of Committee, we are concerned about what we do if it does not work. Our major concern in considering the Bill is to try to ensure that it does, so the register is accurate and complete.
It is particularly valuable in the new process that the Electoral Commission will be designing the forms for registration, rather than individual registration officers. However, I would still like to press further with the Minister at some point that if those forms are in future to be centrally designed and the Government are laying out in regulations what is required to be on the form, it is important to state on the form the legal requirement that if you do not return this form you could be subject to civil penalty. Thinking in particular about the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Martin, it is clear to me that legislatures at either end of the building are unaware of the existing rules. For example, at the moment, a young man of 20 in, say, Glasgow, is subject to a fine of up to £1,000 if he does not return the form, because if he lives on his own, he is the householder responsible.
Lord Martin of Springburn: I agree, but a young person of 20 acquiring accommodation and, in effect, creating a household, realises that he or she is taking on the responsibility of a householder. That is different from the carefree attitude that a young person of 18 would have in a house where there is mum and dad and the only worry they have is the price of getting out
to the disco and making sure that they have a good time. I accept that once a person becomes a householder, they take on a different type of responsibility.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, as someone who became a householder at the age of 17 through my family circumstances, I understand the point about responsibility at a young age, but I do not accept that 18, 19 or 20 year-olds will necessarily be worse off under these arrangements. The fact is that they will no longer necessarily be subject to the £1,000 fine if they are on their own in a household; it will be a civil penalty of much lower value. We have talked about that being akin to a parking fine. The obvious point for the 18, 19 or 20 year-old is that all they have to do is to register to vote and then they will not be subject to the fine. That will be a simple and easy process. In future, they can do it online as well as by returning the form. That should not be difficult, and then they avoid the penalty.
My point is that the form should spell that out so that someone of any age or with any language as their first choice can easily see what are their obligations. Some direction is required on that. Looking further on at Amendment 24, tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, I am not sure that they have appreciated that those forms will in future be centrally designed by the Electoral Commission and that it will no longer be the job of the individual 400 or so electoral registration officers to design their own form. That is why I am so keen to ensure that this form follows the best possible practice and to continue discussion with government. We have seen how in Denbighshire, Hounslow and a number of other authorities, that the paperwork has been of great effect in persuading people that they should register, of greater effect than in some other places.
“(2C) Regulations made for the purposes only of omitting a particular kind of evidence from the kinds of evidence that a person is or may be required to provide by virtue of regulations under paragraph 1(2A) or 3ZA(3) of Schedule 2 shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament (and subsection (2) does not apply to regulations made for those purposes only).””