HC Deb 04 April 1989 vol 150 cc27-9 3.57 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restore a full franchise. Signs that electoral registration is not as healthy as it ought to be come from three sources: first, an examination of recent returns from electoral registration officers; secondly, comments from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys—although I shall mention only one of them now; thirdly, an assessment of the impact and purposes of the poll tax legislation. Those combined sources show that we are heading for a democratic and constitutional crisis over the state of the franchise.

As to the evidence from electoral returns, in Scotland —where the poll tax has been a serious issue since the 1987 general election, causing the Tories to suffer many crushing defeats in that election—there has been an alarming drop in electoral registration. In each year from 1979 to 1987, there was a steady increase in the size of the Scottish electorate, yet 62,000 names have disappeared from the registers since 1987. That includes a drop of 25,000 in Glasgow, or 4.4 per cent. in the number previously registered. The loss of electors in Scotland seems to have little to do with demographic factors such as the balance between the death of electors and new 18-year-old electors being added to the register.

Commenting on the loss of electors between 1987 and 1988, when there was a loss of 27,500 in Scotland, the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, in its "Electoral Statistics", published in 1988, said: this does not appear to have arisen from demographic causes", such as I have already mentioned. There has been little change in the number of 18-year-olds coming on to the register and no dramatic fall in the total population.

England and Wales have not yet been subjected to massive agitation on the poll tax but, with poll tax registration starting, that concern will dominate the coming county council and European elections. A drop in registration in England and Wales could follow. A recent MORI survey in Manchester showed that up to 10 per cent. of the people would refuse to register electorally as the poll tax and electoral registers are seen as linked, and are in fact linked. But even now, there could be something to hide about the 1989 electoral registration figures. Given that district council registration figures are to be published at the end of this month and constituency figures at the end of May, why can the House not be supplied with at least the district figures which are shortly to be published and which have been available locally since 15 February?

I raised this matter during business questions on 16 March and in a question for written answer on 28 February, when no information was supplied. It is also a matter that I have since pursued with the Leader of the House with no success. There are indications in areas such as Liverpool of serious worry about the number of people appearing on the electoral register, with perhaps as many as 10 per cent. having disappeared in the past year. This information is available and should be published and made available to the House so that hon. Members can examine its implications.

The main purpose of my Bill is to separate the poll tax register from the electoral register, making it illegal for poll tax registrars to make use of electoral registers. This will only partly overcome the problem that I have highlighted, for poll tax registrars and electoral registrars can be the same persons, carrying information from each register in their heads. Only a full repeal of the poll tax legislation, which would be a major money Bill, can remove the evil of the inevitable link between the poll tax register and the electoral register.

The whole aim and purpose of the poll tax has been to attempt to fiddle the democratic and constitutional structure of this country. It has pushed poorer people off the register and continues to do so. It is taxing people to qualify them to vote, something which we have not seen since universal franchise was established here in 1918 and 1928—although before those dates there were such things as 40-shilling freeholds in the nineteenth century. It will destroy local government and civil liberties and will manipulate local government election results. It contains a centralising power of an outrageous kind. It taxes people against the norms of all western democratic systems, which is itself an abuse of democratic and constitutional government.

It is utterly disgusting that forms filled in for electoral registration purposes should be used for purposes not included on those forms. That principle extends beyond the poll tax, so my Bill will also outlaw the sale of electoral registers for commercial purposes or for any reasons other than electoral purposes. Many people add notes to their electoral registration forms, asking for their names to be kept away from commercial interests, but there is nothing that a returning officer can do about such requests. The law should respect that wish for all people, without their needing to ask for a special dispensation.

Past Government policy on local government finance and the current poll tax legislation also hit at the funds available for electoral registration officers to conduct their essential work. My Bill will ensure that registration officers receive adequate back-up facilities in terms of canvassing provisions to contact potential voters and assist them to complete their electoral returns.

Further encouragement can be given by positive leading advertising campaigns for registration by the Home Office, and my Bill will provide for that. Let us compare the limited advertising poster campaigns and leafleting on electoral registration with the campaign being conducted by Abbey National to get people to vote on turning the company into a plc. Let us compare the Government's expenditure on advertising the poll tax, the Education Reform Act and numerous other measures with the amount spent on extending the franchise. Money is often spent on measures before they become law. Let us compare the advertising expenditure on privatisation—for instance, on softening up the market for water and electricity—with what we spend on encouraging people to have the right to vote. Should not advertising the franchise be given similar attention?

I ask all democrats to support by Bill, which seeks to establish a universal franchise as far as is currently possible. To achieve its full aim, however, another Bill will have to be added to it, for the repeal of the poll tax—and its time will come.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Barnes, Mr. Martin Redmond, Mr. Max Madden, Mr. Eric S. Heller, Mr. Ken Livingstone, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. Chris Mullin, Mr. Bernie Grant, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mrs. Maria Fyfe, Mr. Jimmy Wray and Mr. Harry Cohen.