HC Deb 22 June 1992 vol 210 cc24-79
Mr. Darling

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 5, at end insert `provided that if the Commission is satisfied that the electorate in any area is to a significant degree different from the population in that area who are qualified to vote then they may delay submitting their report until they are satisfied as to the accuracy of the register.'. The amendment would allow the boundary commission to delay submitting its report if it was satisfied that the registers on which its calculations were based were inaccurate.

The whole system of the boundary commission's work is based on the electoral registers. If they are wrong in a particular area, that clearly throws the boundary commission's calculations. There is considerable concern about the state of the electoral registers in this country, for both parliamentary and local government elections. Section 8(b)(1) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 provides that the boundary commissions must have regard to the electorate, which is defined as the number of persons whose names appear on the register of parliamentary electors in force on the enumeration date under the Representation of the People Acts for the constituency. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed concern about the accuracy of the present electoral register. We know that it is inaccurate—that has always been the case—and it has been a particular problem in inner city areas, for obvious reasons. The turnover of people tends to be great and people arriving do not fill in the appropriate forms. Indeed, much evidence suggests that many people in different parts of the country simply do not receive the forms. Nor do they have in mind the necessity to get on to the electoral register. Many people assume that they are already on it and do not check to see whether that is so. In the last general election, many of us had the experience of people who thought that they were on the register because they had lived in the area for many years but then found that they were not and were denied the right to vote.

One of the many effects of the poll tax has been to make the electoral register even more inaccurate. It made breaking the law an acceptable act for many people who would never have contemplated such an act in the past. That is one of the legacies with which we must live for many years to come. Some people believe that the census carried out in 1991 will be inaccurate because people were in a state of mind that did not discourage them either from misrepresenting the position to the enumerator or simply not bothering to fill in the form. Indeed, many people have simply disappeared from the poll tax register or the electoral register and will not feature in the census.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

Will my hon. Friend take into consideration the situation that has developed in my constituency? In the late 1980s and 1990, new properties and housing estates were built and there was a general movement of the population, and a substantial number of people did not have the opportunity to register on the electoral roll. That shows that the register to which the boundary commission refers is totally inadequate and out of date. Will my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) bear in mind that parts of the population will be transferred from one district to another due to the new building works?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend raises an important point, which concerns me. If new building does not feature on the electoral register, one wonders at the state of registration of residents in old buildings. One would think that the electoral registration officer would notice substantial new building works and would be put on his or her guard to ensure that residents were placed on the electoral register.

However, that is not the first time that I have heard of substantial new building work being carried out and residents in occupation before 10 October of the relevant year finding that they were not on the electoral register. That is an example of how we know that the electoral register is inaccurate, yet we still expect the boundary commission to base its entire calculations on that register. That is one reason why the boundary commission should be given the power to delay submitting its report when it is satisfied that the electoral register for a specific district is inaccurate.

The anomaly arises in some districts where people who are on the poll tax register, having paid their poll tax, do not appear on the electoral register, even though they have done everything that the Government said they should. They then have no opportunity to vote in the general election in April. In many cases, the poll tax register is potentially more accurate than the electoral register due to the powers to registration officers.

In Lothian region, part of which is covered by my constituency, I do not understand why the registration officer, who is responsible for the poll tax and electoral registration, cannot simply compare the two registers and, if they differ, ask why. It seems odd that someone can be on one register but not on the other.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) received written answers that tend to confirm the suggestion that electoral registers are inaccurate. Columns 473 to 480 of 11 February 1992 of Hansard show that, when comparing those on the electoral register and the estimated number of those who should be on it, there is a discrepancy in England and Wales of 1.7 million. Those people do not appear on the electoral register, but should do so.

When we consider the figures in greater detail, we see that in Birmingham—which we are told may lose one seat as a result of the review process—31,000 people we might expect to be on the register are not. That factor should worry us as it makes a substantial difference for quota purposes when the commission decides whether Birmingham should lose one seat. Newcastle has a deficiency of 10,000. When I looked at the two London boroughs of Richmond and Kingston upon Thames, I found that the figures were 23,000 and 20,000. Under the rules, the boundary commission cannot generally cross London boroughs, so it could be argued that, in that case, the discrepancies would not make any difference. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), is present. He must ponder why, according to that parliamentary answer, 23,000 people who should have been able to vote for him or the other candidates in the general election were not able to do so. That seems to demonstrate that the electoral register for his constituency is seriously inaccurate; and the same applies to many other parts of the country.

We know that in 1976 the Government thought that the register was 97 per cent. accurate. Yet the Minister of State, on Second Reading, said that it was only 95 per cent. accurate in 1991. I take the figures with a pinch of salt; I do not know how anyone can ever be absolutely sure, given the nature of the statistics.

The electoral registration officer in my area told me that she was satisfied that the register was 95 per cent. accurate. My observations tend to suggest that that is not true. Ministers accept that the register is becoming more inaccurate, and that should worry us all. It may bring short-term benefit to the Government; but in the long term we should all be concerned that people who should be on the register cannot exercise their right to vote.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

It would be illuminating to hear the Secretary of State's view on the accuracy of these percentages. When I query them in Birmingham, I am told that they are based on dwellings. The problem is that one can never know how many people live behind those front doors and may be eligible.

Mr. Darling

That is what the poll tax was meant to find out, but we know that it never did reveal how many people lived in a dwelling.

Some of the figures for London make the same point. The Tower Hamlets electorate rose by 6,000 between 1991 and 1992, but the numbers fell in nearby Hackney by 20,000. The number rose by 5,000 in Croydon, but Hillingdon lost 9,000. That is curious. I do not believe that the population is moving around London in those numbers. The figures suggest either that the electoral registration officers are unable to compile an accurate register or that a growing number of people are removing themselves from the register because they perceive that to be in their short-term interest.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The figures throw up more and more anomalies. For instance, I noticed that the estimated population in my borough in 1990—I refer to people of 18 years of age or over—was 153,600; yet in 1987 158,000 people voted. In 1992, 157,000 voted. Obviously, we believe in voting early and often in Newham, but what is happening in my borough is the very reverse of what my hon. Friend is describing for other London boroughs.

Mr. Darling

I hope that the Secretary of State will deal with that point.

We have the figures for Scotland for each constituency, although we do not have them for England and Wales. It is clear that there is a discrepancy between the number of people whom we believe to live in a constituency and the numbers on the register. There are 141,000 missing persons in all, a great many considering the size of the Scottish electorate.

We now know that the 1976 register was not an entirely satisfactory one on which to base boundaries that did not come into force until 1983. We know that the 1991 register was not accurate even in 1991, so it would be even less accurate in 1992, or, for that matter, in 1995, when, if the Bill is passed, it is likely that the new boundaries will come into force.

The purpose of the amendment is to allow the boundary commission to delay submitting a report when it believes that its information is inaccurate. By definition, that will allow those who want to make submissions to the commission to submit evidence suggesting that there is under-registration. If the boundary commission is satisfied that there is under-registration, the electoral register notwithstanding, it is desirable that it should be able to base its findings or recommendations on its belief of the population in an existing or potential constituency.

I understand that it is open to the commission to take into account known planning consents when considering the likely population of a constituency. It should be able to take into consideration under-registration—if that is established. If it does not, it is difficult to see how it can obtemper rule 5 in the 1986 Act—the rule stating that the boundary commission has to try to ensure consistency while allowing it to depart from the quota by 25 per cent. so as to avoid excessive disparities. The question that arises is, disparity from what if the electoral registers are inaccurate? If the object is to produce an accurate register, at least at the start of the life of a constituency—of course, there will be changes later—the Government must recognise that there is no point in proceeding with the Bill if we know that the current registers are inaccurate, in some cases extremely so. When we start operating on the new constituencies, we will know that, in many respects, they have been drawn up on false information.

4 pm

We know that the number of those eligible to vote in Scotland, England and Wales has increased but that the number on the register has decreased between 1990 and 1991, particularly among first-time voters, and, as I said earlier, that should be of concern to us all. A growing number of young people now believe that there is nothing wrong in failing to temper an injunction to perform their civil duties or in failing to observe the law when it comes to registration and complying with requests to return forms to show that they live at a particular address. The Government may think that there is some advantage to be gained because young people, on the whole, tend not to vote for the Conservative party. However, it cannot be right that a growing number of people believe that they can opt out of civic life.

I remember canvassing a family in my constituency about a year ago which I knew for a fact consisted of the parents and three young adults—their children. When I spoke to the father, he said that just he and his wife lived there. I asked about the three boys and he replied, "They do not live here, if you know what I mean." The boys did live there, but by not appearing on the register the family saved £400 a head in poll tax for three people, which totalled £1,200—a sum that that family could ill afford to pay. The children were not on the register for either electoral purposes or for the poll tax. That is bad for the country.

What should be done? In addition to accepting the amendment, I hope that the Home Secretary will accept some other suggestions. The practice of electoral officers when compiling the registers varies in different parts of the country. In addition, some of them check the accuracy of the registers more than others.

Perhaps, the Government could also pay regard to the small amount that they spend on advertising. For example, in Scotland the boundary commission will start work on a register that will be drawn up in October, but £48,000 only will be spent on advertising. That would preclude any television advertising. In England and Wales, the sum is equally proportionately low. We do not see television advertisements encouraging registration. The House will remember that when many industries were privatised the Government were happy to spend millions of pounds on advertising public assets for sale at knock-down prices. We remember the advertisements on the sale of the gas industry and being told to "Tell Sid". I do not remember that Sid was ever invited to enrol on the electoral register. The Government should pay the same attention and attach the same importance to getting people to register as they apparently did to the sale of public assets to individuals. The Government need to step up their advertising campaign to ensure that people are placed on the register.

We also need to examine the procedures used when canvasses are carried out. We could learn from some of the methods used in the poll tax legislation, which ensured that people were sent notices reminding them again and again that they should be on the register. When the Home Secretary introduced the Bill, he issued a press release on 5 June which drew attention to the disparities in electorates and he said that "that cannot be fair". It is not particularly fair, but it is even more unfair if comparisons are made from registers that we know to be inaccurate. If that is unfair, will the Home Secretary tell us how he intends to remove such unfairness? What do the Government propose to do about the problem? What does the right hon. and learned Gentleman think that the boundary commission should do about the problem? If he will not accept our amendment, will he say how he expects the commission to pay heed to the fact that, in many cases, the registers on which it bases its calculations are highly inaccurate? We know that the population changes, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that we do not know by how much and to what extent in each constituency.

I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee want to contribute in what I think will be a fairly short debate, so at this stage I shall conclude by urging the Committee to agree to our amendment, which would be an acceptable way of ensuring that, when the boundaries are drawn up, we can be sure that they contain the number of electors that the boundary commission said that they did and on which it based its calculations.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Some of the points made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) are worth discussing, but the Committee should consider whether they can profitably be used as an excuse for delaying the progress of the Bill. As I understand it, his argument about people who are not on the register might affect 1,000 or 2,000 people in a constituency. In my constituency, where a fair amount of canvassing was carried on during the general election campaign, we did not find all that many people who were not on the register when they should have been. My guess is that some of the changes in the past few years have occurred because people who are entitled to dual registration have decided to maintain registration in one place rather than another. Those things may vary from one constituency to another.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

The problem is that there is bad distribution of those who are not on the register. If 1,000 to 2,000 people in each constituency had not registered, that would have no consequence on the redrawing of boundaries because each constituency would be affected in the same way. However, because lack of registration is so badly distributed, it has a serious affect on the distribution of parliamentary seats.

Mr. Bottomley

That is right, but the purpose of the amendment is to delay the boundary commission report, and I would argue against that. In my constituency of Eltham, there is a proposal to increase the size of a student village from 300 to 2,000 bedrooms, which would have a profound impact on the number of voters. Whether they would all vote Labour or all vote Conservative or, as is more likely, split down the middle is a matter for them. However, that is not a reason for delaying the boundary commission report. It is clear that we want that report to be submitted, considered by the House and brought into effect.

The point that I want to make goes beyond the amendment, so I shall make it only briefly. If parliamentary constituencies are kept within borough boundaries—that applies most of all in London and other large conurbations—problems arise. The quota for a constituency is supposed to be 65,000, but one borough may contain not enough people to entitle it to have three constituencies while the next-door borough, with 1,000 more residents, has enough for three constituencies. The result would be a difference in the size of constituencies in the two boroughs of 27,000 people per constituency. That swamps the considerations being used by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central as arguments for delay. I hope that the House rejects the amendment because it will delay matters, but there are serious points outside the Bill.

The Chairman

Order. Clause 3 covers local government boundaries. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not develop this point too far now, because if he does so he will be out of order.

Mr. Bottomley

I was on my ultimate sentence.

The arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central are worth discussing outside the Bill, because every hon. Member should be keen to ensure that everyone who should be on the electoral register is on it. However, I reject his contention that this is a ground for delay. The Bill is needed because the discrepancies between sizes of constituencies swamp the effect of his argument.

Mr. Maxton

We have recently been through a general election and, by canvassing in our constituencies, we have an idea of the accuracy or inaccuracy of the register. There are different degrees of accuracy because of, for example, the type of housing or the social mix that is to be found in individual constituencies.

One evening I was canvassing in my constituency with my wife. We were in a high-rise block of flats, working along each corridor. I rang the doorbell of one flat and heard a man's voice ask me from inside what I wanted. I told him that I was the Labour candidate and that I was looking for his vote. In two words, and without opening the door, he told me exactly what to do. I thanked him politely for his interest and moved on to the next door. The door was then flung open and the man charged out of the flat. I did not see it initially but he had a table lamp in his hand. My wife, who was canvassing along the corridor, was convinced that he intended to use it to smash in my head.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

It is called enlightenment.

Mr. Maxton

It so happened that the man was only about 5 ft 1 in. He decided that discretion was the better part of valour and walked past me. As he did so, he told me—again, in clear and positive language—exactly what I could do with the Labour party, with voting for me and all the rest of it. I then said, "Thank you very much, Sir, but you are not on the register so you cannot vote anyway."

The man whom I encountered was clearly living in the flat but he was not on the register. The register showed that a single woman lived there. It gave me some pleasure to be able to tell him that he could not vote, but the experience demonstrated the inaccuracy of the register. My canvassers returned on many occasions with the same sort of story. They found that two or three people were living in a flat, yet only one person was registered.

Registration is not as accurate as it should be, and we must ask ourselves why that is so. One factor in my constituency is redevelopment. Large parts of a housing scheme are being redeveloped—they are being pulled down. The register showed that 200 or 300 people were living in a series of flats, but when we went to them we found that most of the flats were boarded up and hardly a soul was living in the development. That is a short-term matter and does not have much to do with the registration officer, who cannot do a great deal about it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) said, poll tax comes into the issue. It does so for two reasons. First, as my hon. Friend said, some people deliberately avoided going on the register on becoming 18 so that they would not have to pay the poll tax. Others removed themselves from the electoral register to avoid paying the poll tax. Removal is more difficult to achieve, but it is possible to do so by moving house, especially by moving within certain areas.

Secondly, registration for the poll tax has made registration for electoral purposes much more difficult for those who are involved in the process. In the past, when canvassers employed by the registration officer were sent to check the electoral register and to get names on it, there was no great hassle. People were not worried about giving the necessary information to canvassers. With the introduction and implementation of the poll tax, however, many people linked poll tax registration with electoral registration. Many of those who were employed to keep the electoral register up to date found the job extremely difficult. They encountered a great deal of hostility. They were met with abuse on doorsteps. They were told exactly what to do with the registration process.

It has become more difficult for registration officers to find part-time staff to undertake the job. They may be able to find a sufficient number, but whether those whom they employ now are as good as those who were used in the past is questionable.

Canvassing is a well-paid job—I do not know the going rate exactly, but I understand that it is possible to earn quite a lot of money in an hour. We all know how many houses we can canvass in an hour and I think that a canvasser is paid about £1 for each house on which he or she calls. We know that we can call on 20, 25 or 30 houses an hour. On that basis, it is a reasonably well-paid job. Increasingly, however, dangers are attached to it. Some members of the public are extremely hostile and the work becomes increasingly difficult.

I am assured by registration officers in Scotland that their procedure is as foolproof as they can make it. They claim, rightly or wrongly, that they make use of poll tax registers and school leaving information provided by education departments. They also check the housing records of district councils wherever possible. They say that every house receives a visit from a canvasser. I rather doubt that. I am not questioning the quality of the canvassers, but I must question whether every house is visited. If no one is at home on the first call, the canvasser calls a second time. If no one is at home then, a form is put through the door for the person to fill in and send back. That appears to be a good procedure that should work, ensuring that there is a full register in each constituency.

4.15 pm

Canvassers may meet hostility on the first visit. Quite often they are middle-aged, middle-class women. I do not want to be unkind about parts of inner-city areas, but if such a lady went to a close in Glasgow—a block of flats in Glasgow terms—she might find a group of youths with cans of beer in their hands sitting at the bottom of the stairs. Indeed. they might be taking other substances. There might also be a couple of Alsatian dogs that did not appear to be under anybody's control. That lady might be unlikely to do anything more than the most cursory canvass of that block, and we all understand why.

Such difficulties inevitably lead to inaccuracies in the figures for the number of visits made. They also lead to an imbalance between middle-class and working-class areas. I hate to use the term "working-class areas" because that implies that those living there are in employment, whereas in fact very many of them are unemployed—often long-term unemployed—and have many problems.

That canvasser's second visit would probably be similar to the first—and even putting a form through the door would not receive much response. In my area of Hamilton, if someone is not on the register he would return his form, but that is not necessarily the case in other areas. That creates the sort of inaccuracies that concern us.

Whenever we raised the question of inaccuracies and questioned why people did not register, the Home Secretary said that it was an offence not to register. He is right; it is certainly an offence not to be on the electoral register if one is eligible to be so. Indeed, as part of the procedures for poll tax registration, the Government raised the fine level for non-registration from the minimum to the maximum. I shall be happy to give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman if he will tell me how many prosecutions there have been in England and Wales or Scotland for non-registration for electoral purposes. Quite simply, he cannot give me one example because there have not been any. There is no point in saying that it is an offence not to register—and that thereby the register is improved—if registration officers and the Government are not prepared to use their powers to enforce that. Some registration officers in Scotland tried to bring prosecutions, but procurators fiscal declined to pursue them because of insufficient evidence.

Mr. Rooker

I used to think that it was an offence not to register, but in the early hours of one July morning a couple of years ago, a Home Office Minister told me, in this Chamber, that was not so. The offence only arises if an individual is asked by a registration officer to register and refuses to do so. If a registration officer does not know of an individual's existence, he or she is not obliged to register. One is not required voluntarily to register and one does not commit an offence by failing to register voluntarily.

Mr. Maxton

My hon. Friend is right. The offence arises only if, having been asked to register, one refuses. If, however, the procedure which I described is followed, in theory at least one has been asked to register. If one fails to return the form, theoretically one could be liable to prosecution. The problem remains that those who want to bring the prosecution must provide proof that the form was delivered. If a form has not been returned, and if the authorities cannot gain access to a house to determine that a form is on the premises and has been torn up and thrown in the bin, it is impossible to obtain such proof.

The Government ought to do more to ensure accurate registration—particularly at a time when boundaries are being drawn on the basis of an electoral register that many of us believe is not as accurate as it should be.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

When was the last time that my hon. Friend heard any Minister express concern at the Dispatch Box at the absence from the electoral register of the names of individuals who should be on it?

Mr. Maxton

I cannot recall that ever happening, but perhaps we will hear such an expression of regret from the right hon. and learned Gentleman today.

People have a democratic right to vote, and they ought to be able to do so. Often, inaccuracies arise by accident. An 18-year-old can grow up to be a 22-year-old without his or her name ever appearing on the electoral register—never having been asked to register. The accuracy of the register is important when boundary commissioners are taking decisions about the number of seats that should exist in particular areas.

Glasgow may lose more seats than it ought if the register is as inaccurate as I and others believe. The Government should make every effort to ensure that cities such as Glasgow and Birmingham have accurate registers. If there is a genuine fall in population, fair enough; but seats should not be lost because of inaccurate registers.

Mr. Barnes

According to Glasgow's estimated population for 1990–91, the average electoral register in that city is 2,500 short. That adds up to a serious overall shortfall.

Mr. Maxton

My hon. Friend is right, and that means that across Glasgow about 30,000 people are not on registers who ought to be on them. That could be the difference between Glasgow having not 11 seats but nine or 10. Those 30,000 people could make all the difference.

Registration officers spend a lot of money on canvassers, but the Government are not prepared to spend money on television advertising in particular—as they have in respect of a range of other issues—to ensure the accuracy of electoral registers.

There is a question mark over one or two other points as well. The electoral register must be drawn up in the latter part of the year before that in which the May local elections take place and published in February. The timing may be fair enough as far as canvassing is concerned, but it is less fair on the elector. The draft registers are published at the end of November, after which the elector has only two weeks of some of the year's worst weather in which to check that his name has been included. After that, the register is finalised. I feel that the time of year is wrong and also that a fortnight is not long enough.

The Government were happy to provide—indeed, they insisted on legislating—for every poll tax payer to receive in the post, as the poll tax register was drawn up, a notice informing him that he had been included on the register and telling him where he could appeal against or alter the registration if he wished to do so. Why cannot the same procedure apply to electoral registration? Why cannot the registration officer, once the draft register has been prepared, send each household—or each individual within a household—notice that the person or persons concerned will appear on the register? The poll tax register included a form to be filled in if there were any new names to be added. Why should not the same be done in this instance? That might not ensure a universal return, but at least people would know whether they were on the register and what to do if they were not.

The Home Secretary may ask, "What about the cost?" The Government were happy to bear the cost in relation to poll tax registration; in any event, would the cost be so enormous? It would be a matter of sending a single letter. There would, of course, be printing and other costs, but in an area such as Strathclyde region the cost would probably be no more than £500,000 if the letter were sent to each individual, and half that if it were sent to each household. Is £250,000 too high a price to pay for ensuring that democratic rights are protected? That is what we are talking about—people's democratic right to take part in the processes of both local and central government and to have their entitlement sustained by a proper electoral registration system.

I am delighted to support the amendment, and I hope that the Home Secretary will consider my points.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

This debate highlights the narrowness of the issues covered in the Bill. The mischief of an inaccurate and incomplete register does not sit easily with the other mischief that the Bill seeks to address—the distortions that occur when there is too much delay between the boundary commission's reports.

The amendment is valuable, in that it draws attention to what I believe concerns more electors than perhaps any other single matter. What was said during the general election campaign made that very clear to me. Nothing gave rise to greater anger in my constituency than the complete exclusion from the electoral register of a fairly recently constructed housing estate. Strong representa-tions were made about it. I doubt, however, whether such an issue could usefully be taken into consideration by a boundary commission. It is a local administration issue.

4.30 pm

None the less, the Home Secretary has done democracy a great disservice by confining so tightly the long title of the Bill as to make it necessary to link the matter now under consideration with the duties of the boundary commission. It is not appropriate to take such a narrowly partisan view of the reform of our electoral law that it forces the debate into these unnatural channels, which inevitably it has to do if the issue of the inaccuracy of the register is to be raised at all. It would have been more sensible for the Home Secretary to have allowed the debate about the unsatisfactory nature of our electoral law to roam a good deal more freely than appears to be his intention. He may choose to take the opportunity afforded by this debate to answer the questions that have been raised about the unsatisfactory state of the register and not simply to explain to us that it would be inappropriate for the boundary commission to hold up its reports, as proposed in the amendment. He may also choose to explain what he proposes to do to correct the mischief.

It must be said, even if only en passant, that the message from Christopher Chataway's commission for the Hansard Society—that an electoral commission, with more wide-ranging powers than the boundary commission but to include the powers of the boundary commission —would be a better way to deal both with the question of the timeliness of reports and with the question that is linked with this amendment: the inadequacy of the registration process.

If the boundary commission were to enjoy the power proposed by the amendment, it is doubtful whether the mischief that it seeks ostensibly to address would be tackled effectively. The speeches that have already been made clearly suggest, both by their examples and by their general proposition, that those who are not on the register are not, in many cases, on the register because they do not wish to be on it. We could not sustain for very long the proposition that, because of an extraneous law—the poll tax—a substantial number of people do not wish to be on the electoral register, boundary reviews should be held up.

With the flux of time and the change in local government finance arrangements, that may prove to be a transient problem. I certainly hope so. I doubt whether we should embrace the amendment and the purposes towards which it is ostensibly directed, though I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) for drawing attention to an area of electoral law and electoral administration where speedy intervention by the Government is needed.

Mr. Winnick

I suggested on Second Reading that it would be preferable to have an overview debate on electoral matters before debating a Bill of this nature. I said, rather briefly, that a number of factors should be debated, especially after a general election, before considering this hastily moved Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) has done valuable work in spotlighting, almost from the beginning of the poll tax controversy, the number of people who were likely to be left off the register, and in fact have been. Tribute should be paid to him, because in doing so he has done a service not only to his party but to democracy.

One of the worrying features is the number of electors who are missing from the register. I do not believe that the Government are genuinely concerned about the problem —I know that this may be dismissed as a cynical view and the Home Secretary is muttering, but I believe that I am accurate—because, in the main, they work on the assumption that if such people were on the register and bothered to vote they would be more likely to vote Labour than Tory. That may be entirely wrong, but that is the assumption in the minds of Ministers.

From the outset, not only my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East but other Labour Members pointed out that one of the results of the poll tax, which destroyed Mrs. Thatcher, would be that many people would believe that they could avoid paying a tax that they regarded as unjust, penal and could not afford by staying off the electoral register. No matter how often one emphasised the fact that two registers were kept, the end result was what we feared.

If the Government oppose the amendment—there is little doubt that they will—the boundary commissioners will have no authority to take this important point into consideration. My hon. Friends have already spoken of the many people who are not on the register. Therefore, in carrying out their tasks, the boundary commissioners will make a faulty assessment from faulty figures. That is why I, unlike the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), believe that the amendment is important.

How can accurate decisions be made about boundary changes if data are far from accurate? As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) said, in a number of constituencies, certainly in inner-city areas, not a few but many people are missing from the register. Inevitably, there have always been some people who should have been on the register but were not, but the situation today is significantly different and far more alarming, unless one takes the view that it does not matter —that if people do not want to be on, so be it. That is not my view or that of Labour Members.

Press reports two or three days after polling day—I know that the Home Secretary will consider this to be another cynical view, but I believe it is accurate—showed that the Government are concerned about getting as much advantage out of boundary changes as possible. Why do we constantly read in the press that the Government are working on the basis that by the time of the next election there will be 10 or 20 seats to their advantage? On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said that the Government's optimism may be misplaced. I hope that it is, but that is not their thinking and we would not be debating the Bill now if they were not of that view.

I emphasise, as I did on Second Reading, that I do not believe that boundary changes should not be made. That would be a nonsensical point of view. I am not of course suggesting that once boundaries have come into being, they should never be reviewed. Of course they should be reviewed on a regular basis; that is right and proper. However, the haste of the Bill and the trailing of it just two or three days after the election on 9 April makes one suspicious about the Government's aims.

I believe that one of the Government's objectives is the reduction of inner-city constituencies and the creation of newer constituencies elsewhere, which would be to their advantage. One of the most important points in all this is the need for impartiality. In the existing system or in any other electoral system, such as the one favoured by the Liberal Democrats and by some others, there must be a review of boundaries. However, impartiality is also required. If that impartiality is broken down, mainly by the way in which the Government act, there will inevitably be much concern and suspicion, and a rather cynical view of what the Government are concerned about. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook said last week, the Government did not consult the Opposition on the Bill, which was previously normal practice.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) spoke about the difficulties of getting people on to the register. Why could the Government spend so much money on trying to ensure that people overseas who, in many cases, left the country many years ago and who had no remaining links with Britain were on the electoral register?

Mr. Maxton

I wonder how much it cost.

Mr. Winnick

My hon. Friend asks how much it cost. One should compare that effort with the lack of concern, attention, advertising and expenditure directed to getting people who actually live in Britain on to the electoral register. People may say that I am being cynical, that I am wrong to accuse the Government of ulterior motives because they are wholly innocent and that this is, yet again, just a cynical Labour view. Inevitably, the question arises why the Government have been so concerned about overseas voters. Is it because they have said to themselves, "How terrible it is that these people who, in many cases, have broken all links with this country, have been away a long time and have no intention of returning are not on the register. It is vital for British democracy that they record their votes in a United Kingdom election"? That could be the Government's view.

Alternatively, the Government may have worked on the assumption in the previous Parliament that the majority of such people, if they bothered to vote—I do not know how successful the Government were—would vote Tory rather than Labour. If one adopts a more impartial view, the Government should try their utmost to ensure that people living in Britain who are not on the register are brought on to the register.

I hope that the Home Secretary will refrain for a moment from talking to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education. I am sure that he is interested in what his colleague is saying and that it is of the greatest national importance.

The Secretary of State for Education (Mr. John Patten)

We are discussing the hon. Gentleman's speech.

Mr. Winnick

I am glad that the Secretary of State for Education, who has just walked in, is showing such interest in these matters. It is always interesting to see. Perhaps other members of the Cabinet will soon walk in and instead of gossiping—[Interruption.] I am willing to give way to the right hon. Gentleman if he wishes. He continues to make his remarks from a sedentary position. I hope that the Home Secretary can advise me. If the amendment is opposed—[Interruption.] The mutterings of the Secretary of State for Education may be heard by his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, but I cannot hear them. If he speaks a little louder, I might.

The Chairman

Order. Hon. Members speaking in Committee should address their remarks to me.

4.45 pm
Mr. Winnick

The Secretary of State for Education may wish to address his remarks to you, Mr. Morris. I am sure that that would be of some interest. I am not sure how we shall be able to continue the debate without the presence of the Secretary of State for Education, but we will try our utmost.

I want to ask the Home Secretary an important question. If constituencies are considered to be too few in number, if the boundary commissioners come to the view that certain constituencies, because of numbers, are to be abolished and if the figures on which the boundary commissioners have worked have not been accurate, especially in inner-city areas where significant numbers of people have been missing, what purpose will be served by making recommendations that are based on faulty data? If the amendment does not meet the Home Secretary's approval, I hope that he will table a Government amendment before the Bill makes further progress to meet the point that I and my hon. Friends are trying to make.

It was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East on Second Reading—he will correct me if I am wrong—that one way to overcome some of the difficulties of getting people on to the electoral register would be to have an electoral number.

Mr. Barnes

It was not me.

Mr. Winnick

I stand corrected. The idea was suggested by one of my hon. Friends. I should have thought that, just as one has a national health service number and other numbers, one could have a permanent number once one was eligible to vote. As long as it was clearly understood that people vote once, it would be a possibility. There would not then be the problems, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart mentioned, of people being afraid of intimidation or of people staying off the register because of the poll tax. I may be putting forward a suggestion that is not of my making, but I am willing to pick up suggestions of value. The suggestion of an electoral number should not be dismissed out of hand.

If we are really concerned about the democratic and electoral process and if we want to encourage people to vote, we should be worried by the fact that at least 25 per cent. of the electorate never vote in general elections. I am sure that the Home Secretary agrees that, in local elections, it is sometimes difficult to persuade to vote more than one third of those eligible to vote. That is alarming.

It is sometimes said that whatever happens in the United States is repeated in this country in due course. I hope that that does not always happen in view of the crime figures. In the 1988 presidential election there fewer than 50 per cent. of the people voted. We do not know what will happen in November this year. It would be alarming if that figure or any figure near it were repeated in the United Kingdom.

Obviously we want people to vote for our own party, but above all we want people to vote and we want people to engage in the electoral process. In some constituencies and, unfortunately, in some inner-city areas, the number who vote in a general election is less than 60 per cent. or 62 per cent. That too is alarming. There is an under-class who take the least interest in public affairs and who feel very alienated from the electoral process. I cannot go into all the reasons for that because you would soon call me to order if I did, Mr. Morris. The step of being on the register in the first place would be a start in encouraging such people to vote.

I urgently suggest that the Home Secretary should accept the amendment or that he should table a Government amendment so that when the boundary commissioners decide on their recommendations the House will at least have confidence that those recommendations are based on accurate figures.

Mr. Barnes

I welcome the fact that the amendment distinguishes between those people qualified to register and vote and those people on the electoral register. There is considerable disparity between the number of people on the register and the number entitled to be there, as many hon. Members have argued.

I hope that the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) will accept that, in supporting the amendment, I am not supporting a device to delay implementation of the legislation. I have argued for four years in the House that the poll tax would cause serious problems for electoral registration, and the evidence has proved that to be the case.

I was not the first Member of Parliament to raise the problem of the poll tax. As far as I can judge from reading Hansard, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) mentioned it in the Committee that dealt with the poll tax legislation.

Mr. Maxton

I do not wish to question my hon. Friend's historical accuracy, but the Scottish poll tax Bill was pre-1987 and I can assure him that I and the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) mentioned the problem, as did other members of that Committee.

Mr. Barnes

I am sure that that is the case. I am referring only to legislation affecting England and Wales which was passed during my time in the House.

I am not even asking for an accurate register; I am asking that the register of people entitled to vote within each area should be as accurate as possible. It would be difficult to get accurate registers before redistribution as so much needs to be done to correct them: we must ensure that people who are on the register but are no longer entitled to be are removed and that other people who are entitled to vote are added. There is no reason why we should not be able to work out as accurately as possible how many people should be on the register.

Many hon. Members have quoted the latest 1991 statistics. The results are divided into constituencies in Scotland and into district areas in England and Wales. The Minister must tell us why we cannot act on those figures, rather than figures for electoral registration, given the serious problems affecting them.

I would welcome some statement on Home Office moves to ensure that electoral registration is improved, so that when this legislation affects future boundary reviews an accurate register will be used.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said that Ministers had never mentioned the problems affecting electoral registration, but there have been several limited comments on the subject. I shall quote the Minister of State, Home Office—the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd)—when he summed up the debate on Second Reading, saying: Rather more insistently, many Labour Members … complained that the 1991 register, which is the reference point for the English, Scottish and Welsh boundary commissions, is insufficiently accurate to form an acceptable base for redistribution. I have some sympathy with that view. Just as I believe that constituency boundaries should not be allowed to become too out of date, so I believe that registers should be as up to date and as complete as possible."—[Official Report 15 June 1992; Vol. 209, c. 742.]

Mr. Winnick

I heard the Minister say that, but it is the least that he could have said. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that the Minister acknowledges the problem, and we shall hear what the Home Secretary has to say about it later, but I am not aware that Ministers ever drew attention to it on their own initiative. The Minister was merely saying the least that could be said in the circumstances, in reply to Opposition Members.

Mr. Barnes

Even the expression of sympathy with "that view" is important. The logic of having sympathy with it should be that we shall receive some sign of what will be done to correct the manifest abuses in electoral registration. The Minister's statement was welcome, but we must prod the Secretary of State to tell us what the Home Office will do to put registers right.

Reference has been made to parliamentary answers given by the Scottish Office and the Department of Health to a question about the state of the electoral register. In a sense, every hon. Member represents a sort of rotten borough, because hosts of electors are missing from the register. In areas where Members have healthy majorities, which are far larger than the number of electors missing, it is not a serious matter. However, other Members have narrow majorities—especially Conservatives. The Government hold 22 seats with a majority of 1,000 or less, and in each of those seats well over 1,000 people are missing from the electoral register. If they are missing because of the poll tax and are an anti-Tory cohort, those hon. Members might depend on the poll tax to win their seats.

The written answer providing information on registra-tion in Scotland was given on 6 February 1992 in columns 293 to 296 of Hansard. It shows that there are 140,000 fewer people on the electoral registers than the estimated population taken at mid-1990 figures. The electoral registration figures are for 1991 and voters had to register by October 1990. Those June and October 1990 figures are the latest available. Neither the Scottish Office nor the Home Office will produce later figures because they are waiting to process the census figures and to relate them to electoral figures.

Unfortunately, everyone is aware that there were problems with the census, which was also affected by the poll tax. Legislation was used to try to inform people that there was no means by which census information could be used for poll tax purposes—whether that was generally believed is another matter.

The figures for Scotland, produced in the parliamentary answer, are for district council areas and for the 72 parliamentary seats there. In each constituency there is a shortfall in the number of electors compared with the estimated population able to vote. In 14 seats, the discrepancy is more than 2,700 and it rises to almost 5,000 in Strathkelvin and Bearsden. The discrepancies are maldistributed and 76,000—more than half—of the missing electors are in the Strathclyde region, although it does not contain half the electors in Scotland. As I said in an earlier intervention, the position in Glasgow is worrying. In each of the 11 seats, between 2,300 and 2,700 people are missing.

Unfortunately, the details are not so complete for England and Wales. The figures given on 11 February 1992 in Hansard are for only metropolitan districts and district council areas and are bundled together in shire counties. However, they show that in England 1,750,000 people were missing overall. Within each metropolitan district and shire county there is a shortfall, but it is a maldistributed shortfall.

5 pm

In London there are 10 boroughs in which more than 20,000 people were missing off the registers at the time for which the figures were given, even though efforts were made in certain parts of London to improve registration for the general election. However, we do not have comparative population figures for the time of the general election which we can use. The figures for 1991 will be used for the purposes of the Bill. The quota will be worked out on the basis of figures for 21 February 1991.

We have a problem in working out the quota of seats on the basis of which the various county areas will be divided. In later investigations it might be possible to talk about more recent electoral figures and make improvements so that the details can be adjusted. But the overall quota will be determined on the basis of the 1991 figures.

The problem is of some importance in Derbyshire where the quota that has been worked out is 10.49 seats. So only a slight adjustment, depending on what happens in the rest of the country, could bring the quota up to 11. However, once the review process has started, it will be too late because the quota will already have been determined, whatever people may argue about the shortfall in their area. The shortfall will help only to determine some detail about where the boundaries should be, rather than determining the number of seats that Derbyshire should have.

In Greater London, 482,000 people are missing from the electoral register. Areas such as Barnet, Camden, Ealing and Westminster all have more than 30,000 people missing. There is a serious maldistribution of the shortfall in England and Wales. In some areas of Wales such as Gwent, there seems to be no serious problem; only about 21,000 people are missing overall. But other areas, such as Greater Manchester, have 104,000 people missing and there is a serious problem.

We need to ensure that we act on the most accurate figures possible, both to determine the quota and to decide how areas should be divided. That problem must be handled with some urgency because there is some urgency about redistributing the seats. We cannot continue to have unequal electoral districts. Indeed, the Labour movement is greatly attached to equal electoral districts. Equal electoral districts were one of the six points of the charter which our forebears in the Chartist movement proposed —often with much opposition from Tory Members of Parliament.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. Will he put his comments in the context of paragraph 4(1)(ii) of the schedule to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, which deals with the London boundaries? I believe that I am right in saying that a borough with only one Member of Parliament could have an electorate of between 36,000 and 104,000, a borough with two Members of Parliament could have an electorate of between 53,000 and 87,000 and a borough with three Members of Parliament could have an electorate of between 59,000 and 81,000. That elasticity seems rather greater than the discrepancies to which the hon. Gentleman properly refers.

Mr. Barnes

Of course, there are other issues to be raised than the one which I am addressing. The notion that in some cases it should be possible to cut across London borough boundaries to achieve equal electoral districts is important. Undoubtedly, other hon. Members will make that case. But I am dealing with an overall problem in England, Scotland and Wales. I have not raised the different quota sizes for Scotland, Wales and England. Arguments could be made about that. It could be argued that smaller nations should have extra consideration. But even the quota sizes for Scotland and Wales under the current rules are affected by the general difficulty with electoral registration.

Mr. Maclennan

Would it be practical and possible to tackle the problems, to which the hon. Gentleman properly draws attention, within a time scale that allows a new electoral register to be drawn up before the anticipated date of the next general election, even if the Government's objections to the manner that the amendment proposes are too strong to allow the Committee to accept the amendment?

Mr. Barnes

It is possible to move ahead quickly on electoral registration reform. Indeed, I have a private Member's Bill which will come before the House on 12 February to tackle the matter. I have had consulations with the Home Office about it. Even if the Home Office wanted to change some of the details, if it agreed with some of the principles behind the Bill, the Bill could be a convenient vehicle for reform. But 12 February is still a long way away.

Discussions are being held between the political parties, other organisations and the Home Office about what happened at the last general election, including what happened with electoral registration. Investigations have been undertaken by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys which may allow more modern comparisons to be made. There is no reason why the Government could not take that information into account quickly and introduce the appropriate legislation instead of the measure before us now. The Bill could also be placed on hold until the electoral registration provisions have been corrected.

If the Government do not offer appropriate legislation and I have to go ahead with my private Member's Bill on 12 February to press the matter, it may still be possible to make adjustments to the Bill which we are considering which would improve the position. One possible adjustment is amendment No. 1. Alternatively, the Home Office could state that it would take into account the estimated population figures or that it would examine the figures closely to discover how accurate they are. It could make use of those more accurate figures and provide estimated population figures for not only Scottish but English and Welsh constituencies so that we could act on them.

There is no problem with electoral registration figures in Northern Ireland, where the estimated population figures are adhered to. One reason why there is not a problem in Northern Ireland is that the poll tax was never introduced there and did not mess up the register. Northern Ireland still has the problem of countervailing sets of errors in the register which exaggerate the numbers in some places and exclude people elsewhere. That problem has existed for a considerable time. It was referred to in an OPCS report in 1981.

Let us point out the problem created by the poll tax on the basis of the empirical evidence. On page 2 of Population Trends of summer 1991, the OPCS published a table showing that in 1987 the number of people on the electoral register was 99.2 per cent. of the estimated population. The figures for the years until 1981, plus 1976, were about the same. They sometimes slipped to as low as 98.4 or rose as high as 99.3 per cent., but were usually about 99 per cent. After 1987, the percentage began to drop year by year and, by 1991, it was 96.5—a fall of 2.7 per cent. since 1987.

Furthermore, the "attainers" group—those registering for the first time—cannot be found on previous registers. Those wishing to duck electoral registration to avoid payment of the poll tax were likely to be younger people. The figure for that category shows a fall of 4.7 per cent. The same does not apply to Northern Ireland, where the figure for that category has been increasing. In England and Scotland, the number registering was never so high compared with the estimated population. The explanation may be that there were more overseas visitors, a factor that must be taken into acount.

In 1987, the figure was 97.4 per cent., which is similar to the figure for previous years. After 1987, the figure starts to fall until it reaches 95.5 per cent.—the figure mentioned by the Home Secretary on Second Reading. That is a fall of 1.9 per cent. The figure for attainers shows a fall of more than 6 per cent., which shows that a serious problem must be tackled. It is not simply a slight statistical aberration but fits in with a host of information from electoral returning officers on how figures should be collected and how those should relate to poll tax registration in different areas. It also relates to the fact that Bills under discussion in the House had begun to interlink the poll tax and the electoral register. For example, a small Bill on Caldy island had only two clauses: one about poll tax registration and the other about electoral registration. That interconnection has always existed.

The electoral register's problems are not caused entirely by the poll tax. The poll tax has revealed serious difficulties and is itself a problem that needs to be tackled. But other problems are caused by growing numbers of homeless people, who feel that they do not belong to the system, and people who move around in search of employment. The latter are encouraged to get on their bikes to look for employment and, when they do so, they frequently change accommodation and are never firmly placed on a register. All those factors have added to the long backlog of what was already wrong with electoral registration. Those problems have often been hidden from view by other countervailing problems.

Let us show that we are trying to get the register right and, in the process, press forward to achieve equal electoral districts. Ideally, the right order would be to get the registers right first and then deal with the areas. However, if the Government are not willing to move in that way, they must say what they will do to overcome the current serious problem. They must obtain a decent set of rough and ready figures to show what electoral registration should be, so that the boundaries can fit in with those.

I hope that, even if we push the matter to a vote and the Government pull out their forces and make us lose, the Minister will promise to act on electoral registration and rectify the mess that existed at the last general election. There was little wonder that the pollsters got it wrong, because pollsters never take account of whether they are investigating the right people. Before the general election, pollsters were investigating those who could be on the electoral register rather than those who were actually on it, which is what gave the different result revealed in the ballot box.

5.15 pm
Mr. Rooker

The House of Commons does not deal with this important subject often enough. From my experience of the past two or three years, I believe that Home Office Ministers do not take electoral registration or administration matters anywhere near seriously enough to be proactive about them.

Evidence shows that, by and large, the British do not like registering. It is probably anathema to them in the same way as are identity cards. Press reports in the past couple of weeks show that people in Cornwall do not even like registering the dead, as a result of which Tory Members have been hiring taxis and scurrying around delivering proxy votes for the dead for Tory candidates. That is another twist to the problem of lack of registration. Similar problems occurred at the Plymouth by-election earlier this year. It seems that problems relating to registration in the west country need to be solved.

I wish to develop some points that I made in the early hours of the morning on 23 July 1990. I do not wish to repeat my speech, but I hope that the Home Secretary will at least say what the Government are doing about the areas where they know defects in electoral registration exist. I remind him that, two years ago, in the July Consolidated Fund debate, I gave examples of those known defects. That was just after the poll tax came into force and just before registration, in September 1990, for the key register of February 1991.

Senior officials and members of local government do not take electoral registration as seriously as they should. Electoral registration officers are starved of resources, and the "go-getters" in local government are not interested in the matter. As a result, it becomes a backwater. Without electoral registration officers, who are the bedrock of democracy—our democracy and its operation depend on their work—the whole system would be a farce. They do not receive sufficient political backing.

From Ministers and senior officers in local government downwards, there is an enormous amount of ignorance about the registration process and that should be dealt with. I accept that it is an administrative exercise, but it is also a political exercise. There were fewer electoral registration officers in the quill pen age than there were two years ago. I had the privilege of addressing the last two annual conferences of the electoral registration officers and I know that they are pleased that hon. Members on both sides of the House—I once attended the conference with a Conservative Member—take an interest in the mechanics, minutiae and technical aspects of registration.

Ultimately, however, if a person's name is not on the list, he or she cannot vote. If the name is not on the register, his or her town, ward or constituency may be deprived of proper and fair representation. It matters not whether someone votes; if he or she does not appear on the list of voters, when redistribution takes place a seat may be taken away from the town or borough.

Home Office research has identified another deficiency. It is a crying shame that the Home Office funds research on the effectiveness or otherwise of registration but never presents the House with proposals to solve the problems. It has issued the odd piece of guidance, but that is not good enough.

Anyone representing a district in which there are houses in multiple occupation will know that shared letterboxes prove disastrous for electoral registration; both research and practical experience show that. Occupants of dwellings that have been converted into flats and bedsits are more likely to be left off the register than those of other dwellings. Lodgers stand a good chance of being left off the register.

Several hon. Friends have referred to attainers, people over 16. Without wishing to be disrespectful, may I say that they are ignorant of the fact that even if they are only 16 years eight months this October they should be entered on the register because they will be 18 before February 1994. The average family, with a mother, father and a child who is not yet 18, or even 17, probably will not realise that the youngster's name should be on the list.

Well-substantiated research has shown that tenants of privately rented accommodation are more likely to be missed off the electoral register than owner-occupiers and local authority tenants. There is plenty of research to show that unemployed members of households are more likely to be missed off the register than people in work.

We all fight against public apathy. I found that 50 paid-up members of my constituency Labour party were not even on the electoral register two years ago—a not uncommon phenomenon in inner-city constituencies.

I mentioned that young voters of 18 constituted a category that presented problems, but independent studies funded by the Home Office have shown that up to 30 per cent. of 17 to 19-year-olds are missed off the register. A high proportion of people of 20 to 29 years of age are also easily missed off the register. Those problem sectors mean that the names of about 7 per cent.—at any one time, 2 million people—are missing from the register. That is an enormous number, and we must take action.

I shall repeat two important issues which I have raised before as no action has been taken on them: we must have political and administration action. I visited Scotland to listen to the assessor—the director of finance—for the Lothian region in the early months of 1988, when the poll tax for England was being debated in the House. I took it upon myself to listen to what the experts in Scotland were saying as legislation was introduced there first. The dual functions of electoral registration officer and assessor are embodied in the same person. It was explained to me that it was the norm in Scotland for the assessor, in his role as electoral registration officer, to contact secondary schools automatically. He did not merely issue a grubby notice to be stuck on the school board to warn 16-year-olds to register but targeted the pupils and obtained dates of birth.

I see nothing wrong with electoral registration officers being proactive and obtaining dates of birth from schools and local education authorities so that when it is crucial for the names of those young people to appear on the register—as young as 16 years eight months—they receive a personal letter from the electoral registration officer inviting them to register. It should not be left to the young people to register voluntarily.

Such a system has since been tried in my city, where I explained what was happening in Scotland and said that if it was good enough for Edinburgh it was good enough for Birmingham. The electoral registration officer in Birmingham met with some success and was welcomed by some of the head teachers, but some did not even bother to respond to his inquiry. That matter will be pursued. The electoral registration officers must be proactive and more work must be done. I am talking not about any breach of privacy but about obtaining dates of birth so that people can be warned in time to register.

We must obtain more information about multiple-occupation dwellings. That information is also needed for other reasons such as public health, housing policy and fire prevention. Details of bed-and-breakfast accommodation can be found from housing benefit records and can be easily obtained by electoral registration officers. That information should be used.

Hostels and refuges are used mainly, although not entirely, by women and children who have suffered domestic violence. I hope that the Home Secretary is aware of the problem. Under the poll tax legislation, anonymous registration is possible. Most, but not all, victims of domestic violence are female. It is possible for them to be registered anonymously. They pay their poll tax, but their names are not public knowledge so that they cannot be tracked down by a violent spouse, boyfriend or partner. There is no such procedure in the electoral registration legislation.

I have talked to electoral registration officers who say that they know where the refuges are. Such places do not have boards outside, but the officers know the addresses of the establishments. There should be a way to ensure that those people gaining shelter from violence, whether in local authority or voluntary sector homes—which have led the field in recent years—are not deprived of their right to vote simply because of the fear of having their name on the electoral register. Obviously, they cannot use the location from which they have sought refuge as the local polling station would be known by the violent partner. I know that there would be dangers in anonymous registration, but EROs say that it would be possible to introduce a registration procedure to ensure that people sheltering from violence do not lose their right to vote. There is no such provision under present electoral law.

People who genuinely have no fixed abode—a fairground worker or a tramp who uses the same ditch on the night of October each year—can register from that locality. The Greenham women were registered from the common. If such people can register, those in refuges should be able to do so. People do not have to live in bricks and mortar to register; they merely have to be in the same place at the same time of year, whether that be a fairground or a ditch. It is important that peripatetic citizens have the right to vote. We should have a mechanism to deal with cardboard city and those sheltering from violence.

I have said nothing tonight that I did not say two years ago, but the Home Office appeared to take no action following that July 1990 debate—the fact that it took place early in the morning is no excuse.

There was an action plan. The Minister of State, who wound up the Second Reading debate last week, said a word or two about it. Nevertheless, these are the real reasons why the accuracy of the register is at risk. The poll tax was certainly an added burden. Some people voluntarily absented themselves for all the wrong reasons. My party never encouraged them not to register, but they took themselves off.

5.30 pm

The redistribution that has become necessary since 1976 shows that the number of people Registered to vote has increased by a net 2.4 million, but the fact that they all live in the English shires worries me. Those shires will gain 20 seats at the expense of the cities. I know that, for reasons of housing and social policy, the density of population in our cities was always likely to decrease, but it is remarkable that the increase in the shires should be so large—it will result in a considerable redistribution of seats in the House of Commons.

The recent census was itself affected by the poll tax, but it tells us enough to know that the electoral register is inaccurate to a degree that should concern the commissioners. They ought to be able to take account of those factors.

Redistribution has to take place and the sooner we all know how seats are to be redistributed, the better. In general terms we know that the register is inaccurate and in detailed terms we know why—yet the Home Office has initiated no programme of action. The former Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold), now vice-chairman of the Conservative party, has been hovering around the Chamber today. Last year in September, I tried to persuade her to place some advertising in respect of absent voters. I said that that could make the Home Office popular—as opposed to drugs, prisons and inner cities. The issue was about democracy and giving people the right to vote, and it could make Home Office Ministers voter-friendly. I saw that I had struck gold with her—

Mr. Tony Banks

Which is why they moved her.

Mr. Rooker

The right hon. Lady was standing for a marginal seat, so I knew that I was striking home.

Although the Minister's face began to glow, the faces of her civil servants fell. I offered her a programme of action; I offered to share a platform with her; I even offered her a quote in a joint press release, showing that this was not a partisan issue. The mechanism whereby we are elected must, after all, be absolutely clean, open and above board. We are the only people who can ensure that it is.

The civil servants talked of the money that this would cost. It is, after all, only a few thousand pounds—chicken feed. We could lose the required money just adding up the third column of decimal places in the public expenditure accounts. It is nothing compared with the vast sums for which the House of Commons votes.

It is difficult, therefore, to believe that money is the problem. The problem is the inertia of the Home Office. I hope that this Home Secretary will overcome it. He has all the evidence from the research done by the Home Office, and he has heard or read our speeches today and on Second Reading. I hope to goodness that he will do something. If he does, he will serve democracy, which is ultimately what the Bill is all about.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has spoken of how registration officers in local government are being starved of the resources that would help them go about the important business of keeping the electoral register up to date and ensuring that the names of those entitled to vote are on it.

I concur with my hon. Friend's view that there is a need for more resources to help these officers carry out their work. We all know that all local authorities, because of capping and other restrictions, have problems employing enough people in their registration offices to carry out the necessary exercise to maintain a full register.

I hope that the Home Secretary will take note of our anxieties about the limitations placed on people in local government who are trying to carry out this work. The amendment gives the commission additional powers to enable it, if it is not satisfied because the electorate in a given area seems significantly different from its population, to delay submitting its report until it is satisfied with the accuracy of the register. That is an entirely constructive move. Nothing in the amendment is offensive to the work of the boundary commission. Indeed, it strengthens the democracy embodied in the commis-sion's work. We all want to ensure that everyone entitled to register to vote at elections should be included on the register.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

A county may contain 16 or 18 seats and may include urban areas scattered throughout its length in which there is a material fall in the number of those registered. But just as urban areas can be affected by the failure to take account of the true numbers who should be on the register, because of the manner of redistribution, the whole county and all the seats in an area will be affected too. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Mr. O'Brien

I intend to inform the House of a situation identical to that described by my hon. Friend. I refer to the county of West Yorkshire, which contains a large number of cities—Bradford, Leeds, Kirklees and Wakefield. There are also rural areas in the county. The population is not centred on any one area; it is spread across the county. The approach of the boundary commission is to take the number of registered in February 1991 and divide it so as to leave just over 90,000 electors per constituency.

The five metropolitan districts in west Yorkshire have 12 seats, but the boundary commission suggests that, theoretically, it should be entitled to 11.41 constituencies. That suggestion is made on the basis of the figures in the electoral register of February 1991.

According to the figures, the 23 constituencies in west Yorkshire are made up of an average of 68,540 electors in each constituency. The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) suggested that 1,000 electors could be missing from each constituency register. That is a conservative estimate, but if we accept it and add that number to the average of 68,540 for each constituency in west Yorkshire, the figures would be in line with the recommendations of the boundary commission. The amendment substantiates the point made by the hon. Member for Eltham and by Labour Members.

I reiterate that we must be fair and that we must be seen to be so. The boundary commission must also be fair when it submits its report and its proposals, particularly those for west Yorkshire. I do not see how any justification can be made for reducing the number of seats in west Yorkshire when we take into account other events of the past five years, such as the introduction of the poll tax. In that time, the number of people adding their name to the electoral register has reduced significantly. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) said that, five years ago, 99 per cent. of those eligible registered to vote. However, on Second Reading, the Home Secretary accepted that that figure had decreased to 95 per cent. When that decrease in registered voters is taken into account, I see no reason why the 23 seats in west Yorkshire should not be retained. The Home Secretary must take into account the extenuating circumstances of the past five years.

We must ensure that those who are entitled to vote add their names to the electoral register. It has been suggested that it is important that the report is published speedily —no one wants a delay before the boundary commission's proposals are published. It is important to speed up the process, but if that report is produced earlier than expected, the Home Secretary and Conservative Members should take account of the amendment, as it would help to solve the problems that we have outlined tonight.

5.45 pm

The review that we are discussing is based on the electoral register of February 1991. Some counties will be divided by the electoral quota. We have been advised that there will always be discrepancies in the number of electors in various constituencies. For example, the Isle of Wight would equate to 1.4 constituencies according to the figures provided by the boundary commission. However, if another constituency were to be created, it would mean that one Member of Parliament represented constituents on the Isle of Wight and on the mainland. For that reason the boundary commission said that an additional constituency would not be permissible.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) referred to rural areas where the population is widely scattered. That leads to discrepancies in the number of people on the electoral register for each constituency. If we accept that discrepancies exist, west Yorkshire, which is made up of cities, conurbations and large rural areas, would be justified in retaining its existing number of seats.

Earlier, I pointed out that, on average, 68,540 voters make up each constituency in west Yorkshire. If we accept those figures and the geographical location of the communities, the boundary commission would be justified in spending some time on its review of the distribution of seats in west Yorkshire. If the boundary commission feels that it needs more time to consider the issues, it should be given it, so that its report is accurate and in the best interests of the people of west Yorkshire. The amendment would provide such accuracy.

If the Home Secretary is unable to accept the amendment, I hope that he and other Conservative Members will take account of our arguments. Reference has been made in the debate and on Second Reading to constituencies crossing boundaries. Some constituencies cross the boundaries of London boroughs. My constituency, which crosses the boundary between Leeds and Wakefield, is made up of a part of Leeds and a large part of Wakefield. That is necessary to give Leeds and Wakefield their full allocation of seats. In 1987, Leeds had 8.25 constituencies and Wakefield had 3.75 constituencies —12 seats between the two district authorities. On the basis of the February 1991 register, it has been suggested that Leeds is entitled to 7.5 constituencies and Wakefield to 3.5—a total of 11. In that way the boundary commission would reduce the number of seats in west Yorkshire from 23 to 22.

I hope that I have explained in detail the concerns that I and others in west Yorkshire have about the need for the boundary commission to review the situation before taking a decision to reduce the number of representatives to the House of Commons from west Yorkshire.

Mr. Bermingham

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in 1979–80, when the boundaries in Yorkshire were dealt with —I declare an interest because I had something to do with them—Leeds was entitled to 7.25 seats and Wakefield to 3.75, with the result that, taking the two metropolitan districts together, there were 11 seats, one across boundaries? The position now is that Leeds should have 7.5 seats, and Wakefield 3.5, so if one adds the two together one still gets the same total—11—and the redistribution should logically take place on that basis.

Mr. O'Brien

That is exactly what the concern is. The suggested electorate of 90,500 results in a reduction of one in the number of constituencies. Because of the extenuating circumstances such as the rural areas in the county and the fact that there are at least 1,000 people missing off every electoral register—I think that that is an underestimate, and that the figure is nearer 2,500—we have every justification for supporting the amendment.

The Home Secretary should allow the commission the opportunity to present a factual report. In its press release, the commission said that it considered that time is limited in the present circumstances and that it would have difficulties in presenting its report by 1995. When I intervened in the Home Secretary's speech on Second Reading, and pointed out that the boundary commission had said that it would be pressed for time if it had to present the report in 1995 and he is now asking it to report 12 months earlier, the House was told that the commission would be given additional resources to help it to make up the shortfall and to ensure that it could report in 1994. We have heard tonight that only limited resources will be made available.

We should consider carefully what we have heard from the Home Secretary and what is happening on the ground. We need to ensure that the boundary commission, which will be limited in its resources, can report its findings. I hope that pleas that I have made on behalf of west Yorkshire will persuade the Home Secretary to accept this constructive amendment, which will give the boundary commission additional powers and solve many problems in west Yorkshire.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

Like a number of my colleagues, I voted against Second Reading last week, and the debate tonight proves how right we were to do so. We are debating the narrow nature of the Bill. Even if there is accommodation on both sides of the Committee about the progress of the Bill, and even if there is agreement about how we proceed with electoral registration, it will be impossible to make an accurate assessment that will assist local authorities and communities, in this current round of constituency redistribution, to gain access to the commission in a way that will ensure that the final decisions correctly represent the number of people who should be on the register.

The amendment is about who is eligible as compared with who is on the register. In Greater Manchester, there are about 104,000 potential members of the electoral register who, for various reasons—local circumstances or wider circumstances—are not reflected in the numbers on the register. Yet a document already produced by the boundary commission implies a decrease of two constituencies in the Greater Manchester area, from 30 to 28.

Therefore, even if, during the progress of the Bill, my hon. Friends or, more importantly, people in the community such as community representatives can find more information to show that a less than accurate view has been taken of the number of electors in the area, that will be insufficient to secure additional seats in the Greater Manchester area. The implied change has already taken place. The theoretical entitlement has already been fixed and two seats will have been taken from the Greater Manchester area.

At this stage, it is vital that the Bill is held up until the Government give the basic commitment that, in those areas where there is already a declared, or implied, intention to reduce the number of constituencies, there will be a registration census to ensure that the boundary commission does not fix, in advance of its inquiries, the entitlement for a county, whether it is in the London area or a shire area. If entitlement is fixed at the beginning of the boundary commission's proceedings, we can have all the debate that we like in this place about the improvement in registration, but the reality will be a reduction in the number of parliamentary seats, despite the clear evidence that the population has not fallen significantly and that a substantial number of people who are entitled to register have not done so for various reasons. That is why the amendment is so important. It will make it clear that, if the boundary commission is to remove seats, it must do so not on the basis of the implied information but on practical information about population trends and those who are entitled to register.

I have a question for my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling). I hope that now, or later, he will tell me whether the population area referred to in the amendment is that of a particular constituency or that of a particular county. That is vital because, if the amendment is just about the population in an area, that will not resolve the problem that I am raising because the boundary commission will already have fixed the absolute number of seats in any area. Therefore, even if the Government accept the amendment, it would not go far enough in protecting areas such as that which I represent, where there is a significant under-representation, for various reasons, of those entitled to be registered.

My hon. Friends the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) have spoken about the practical steps that need to be taken to improve electoral registration. That is not new. For a decade or more, hon. Members, both inside and outside the House, have argued for an improvement in both the practicalities of registration and the way in which electoral registration officers are required to carry out the registration procedure. Depending on the constituency or borough in which one lives, one may have an electoral registration officer who makes efforts to canvass for registration. In our area, that does not happen. People are therefore dependent on the importance that a borough places on their right to vote.

There are widespread discrepancies throughout Britain in the way in which the register is produced. That has to end. There must be a method of enforcing procedures throughout Britain that are consistent between boroughs. There must be a code of conduct also for registration, and the electoral registration officer or the local authority should not be able to put such a document aside. It should set out clearly and specifically the rights of individuals to be registered and the methods that the registration officer has to follow to ensure that the entitlement of registration is upheld. That must apply whether the individual is in a home of multi-occupation, in student lodgings, or in temporary accommodation which is the subject of housing transfer between a local authority and a housing association or of a transfer to an elderly persons' home. If there is a transfer from ownership of a home to another form of home, the right of electoral registration must not be lost. We must ensure continuity of the right to vote.

The same goes for employment. Why should someone who changes his employment status lose his ability to vote? To use a buzz term, why should not the citizens charter ensure that electoral registration takes place?

6 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central has not taken the opportunity to respond to the question which I posed, and I do not know whether he will do so. The issue to which it relates, however, is important to many of us on the Opposition Benches. Does the amendment, in terms of the review, relate the area of population to the area of a constituency or to the area within a county boundary to which a constituency is attached?

Is the Home Secretary prepared to provide additional resources, either through the boundary commission or to electoral registration officers in counties where there are large discrepancies between those who are registered and those who are residents, to overcome a problem that could lead to a reduced number of parliamentary seats? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman prepared to provide additional resources to enable a census to take place? When the boundary commission comes to consider major conurbations such as Greater Manchester or London, it should be in receipt of up-to-date information about potential electors and those who are actually registered. Without that information the Bill will do no more than enable the Government to put a date in their diary on which they can proceed to push through electoral redistribution for party political reasons. If that happens, no account will be taken of the practical and, more importantly, the political way that we redistribute parliamentary seats.

We must ensure that votes have equal value wherever they are cast, and that means up-to-date electoral registers. Areas such as Greater Manchester must not lose two constituencies merely because 104,000 potential electors have been left off the register. The loss of those electors threatens one-and-a-half constituencies. The people are living in the area but they are not registered. Why should we lose two seats in Greater Manchester 12 months from now, whether they be held by the Labour, Liberal or Conservative party? The people of Greater Manchester are entitled to 30 parliamentary seats and we must ensure that that entitlement remains.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The House will not be surprised when I say that I support amendment No. 1. I shall be brief because the arguments have been well covered. When the Home Secretary replies to the debate it would be helpful if he were to respond to some of the anxieties that have been expressed. There would be no need for the amendment if we, the Opposition, felt that the Government were taking seriously the discrepancies in the political register—in other words, the many potential electors who are slipping through the democratic net. It is obvious that the Government are not.

The electoral register, voting methods and the number of people on the register should surely concentrate the minds of all hon. Members. Along with research and secretarial allowances, for example, the electoral register should surely be the second greatest issue for us. Au contraire, with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), all those who have contributed to the debate have risen from the Opposition Benches. It could be said, perhaps, that not enough Labour Members have spoken. I cannot understand why consideration of the Bill in Committee, as on Second Reading, has not sufficiently engendered the interest of hon. Members. We are talking about those who put us in the House in the first place. Perhaps there is too much complacency in the House. Perhaps hon. Members are saying, "We are here to decide the issue. As we are here, ergo, the register must be working all right. Why spoil it? If we bring a few more people on to it, perhaps we shall not be sitting in the Chamber, perhaps the additional electors will vote Tory, Labour, or for another party." I am worried that we are not showing sufficient concern. We, the Opposition, are showing more concern than Conservative Members but we are not showing the degree of concern that we should for something as crucial as the electoral register and the number of people who are on it.

Mr. Rooker

There is a warning for the future. It is far better and more honourable to show concern now than after one's constituency has been abolished. It is better to discuss the issues now than to moan about democracy after abolition. To complain afterwards will seem, as it will, to reflect a narrow, vested interest. My hon. Friend has made a telling point.

Mr. Banks

It seems that Newham will lose one seat. So be it; I am not here to argue necessarily that that seat should not be lost. I take my hon. Friend's point of principle. We are talking about the very stuff of democracy. We are not discussing whether X is a Member or Y is not. That is not the issue. Similarly, we are not really discussing whether this is a carve-up in the interests of the Conservative party. It seems to some of us, however, cynical though it might be, that the Tories are interested in rushing the Bill through, not to do something about representational levels in constituencies, but to grab for themselves an extra 20 seats, perhaps, in time for the next general election. Unless we hear something from the Government about the appalling state of the electoral register, especially in city areas, we shall be able to say only that our cynical interpretation of the Government's actions is correct.

Mr. Barnes

The stuff of democracy that interests most Members includes proportional representation and referendums. There is nothing wrong with that. If those are key issues, however, the correctness of the electoral register must have prominent significance. That must be so if, logically, it is tied to the other two considerations. Let us say that we had a referendum and the result was similar to the Danish one. If our register was 5 per cent. inaccurate, for example—in fact, the inaccuracy is greater than that—the impact on the result of the referendum would be enormously significant.

Mr. Banks

I acknowledge my hon. Friend's sterling work. He has set an example that the Government should follow. He has used his time in the House to draw attention to something that should be worrying us all. He has support on the Opposition Benches but at times he seems to be ploughing a lone furrow. The private Member's legislation that he seeks to introduce deserves some support from the Government. He is right to say that everything hangs on the register. For the sake of 1,000 voters in 11 constituencies, we would have a hung Parliament. I am not suggesting that we are concerned about the register because, but for the 1,000 voters in those constituencies the Labour party, would be in government and the Conservative party would be in opposition, or that somehow we would all be milling around in the middle of the Chamber. That is not the issue.

I return to the principal consideration. We should all be concerned about 2 million of our fellow citizens who appear to have dropped through the democratic net. We need to find out where they are. We must ascertain why they were not placed on the register and then do our damndest to get them on it. We should sit in the Chamber as Members of a Parliament that is genuinely reflective of the wishes and needs of the people. That brings me to proportional representation, but this is not the time to discuss the matter fully. It is always an attendant factor, however, when we have anything that affects the electoral register.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) is right when he argues that we make allowances in the quota for rural areas because they are large geographic areas. Accordingly, we might not go for the quota of about 70,000. If we can make those allowances, why cannot we make similar allowances for deprived inner-city areas? The electorate in my constitu-ency is nearly 47,000, but I put it to the House that my constituents bring me two or three times the weight of problems that come to a Tory Member who, perhaps, has 90,000 on his electoral register.

The Tory Member will say, "Never mind that. You may have more problems but we are electing a Government." Only if we think about proportional representation can we find some way eventually of balancing out the discrepancies between different cosntituencies. I accept that we should not debate that issue when considering the amendment before us, but I wish to emphasise and underline the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East.

Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the amendment is accepted we would want the commission to examine the procedure that allows a large number of people who have not lived in this country for 20 years to appear on the register? Should not the commission investigate the way that their names were added to the register just before the last general election?

Mr. Banks

That is a good point. Indeed, after every general election there should he an examination of what happened during it. That should not be restricted to Labour Members wondering why they did not win; it should be an overall investigation. There should he a full discussion in the House so that we can all give evidence of our experiences as canvassers and campaigners in our constituencies. We have genuine information that we want to share in the interests of wider democracy—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr with such effect.

We need to consider voting habits. The "Panorama" programme to be screened on television tonight apparently will show that a Tory councillor in St. Ives has been signing up poor old biddies—indeed, even the dead —for proxy votes. I know that voting is important, but I did not realise that it was more important than life and death—although it obviously was for that councillor. Such malpractices should be weeded out. If the "Panorama" programme proves to be as juicy as has been trailed, a number of matters will be weeded out—perhaps even the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). Who knows?

Mr. Winnick

That programme is actually to he shown on "Newsnight".

Mr. Banks

Quite so—and it is another excellent investigative programme.

We hope that the Government will make an announcement about additional resources. The Secretary of State must accept that it is a crazy way to organise matters. Why is not each person given an electoral number that follows him around, rather like his national insurance or national health service numbers? We obviously think it important to have those fixed reference points, but it is no less important to have a fixed reference point for voting. Voting underpins everything that we do in this place.

We know that the way that electoral registration is operated, especially in inner-city areas, is bad. There is an inaccuracy in our registers of up to 17 per cent. The Secretary of State must know that registration is far more difficult in a mobile area. Communities in inner-city areas, such as London, are more transient than those in more stable communities elsewhere. In boroughs such as Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Haringey and Ealing, the electoral registration officers have to work much harder to get people on to the electoral registers than they do in other areas. We need to equalise not only the voting quota, but the resources available to electoral registration officers throughout the country.

Mr. Winnick

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that during my speech I suggested that on Second Reading my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) had made that very point. I now realise that, in fact, it was my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) who said it. I hope that he realises that when he makes such excellent suggestions they fall on fertile ground, at least among Labour Members.

Mr. Banks

I am always at my hon. Friend's disposal to give him a few good ideas. He has plenty of his own, but a few of mine might make him an even more formidable parliamentarian.

There is a degree of dissatisfaction on the Labour Benches, and I suspect that if we scratched the surface we would find a similar feeling on the Conservative Benches, about the way that these matters are organised. If the Government accept the amendment, they will show that they are prepared to do something about registration. If they do not, perhaps the Secretary of State will tell us what additional resources he will make available to ensure that the next general election is fought on the maximum possible number of those eligible to vote, and not on an inaccurate register as in 1992.

Mr. Bermingham

I shall not repeat all that has been said about electoral registration numbers as that matter has been covered in depth, and I agree with all that has been said. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) said, an important feature of the argument has been overlooked, and that is how we define an area. In electoral terms, are we referring to a shire county and taking that as the skin? Are we talking about a metropolitan district and taking that as the skin? Or are we talking about a London borough and taking that as the skin?

Mr. Darling


6.15 pm
Mr. Bermingham

That leaves me a little confused because one area plus another area equals a third area, so which area do we take?

Mr. Darling

The intention behind the amendment is that if, when considering the numbers living in a county or a constituency, the commission is satisfied that the register is inaccurate, it may delay the process until it knows exactly how many are in both. It is clear that the same problem arises in both, which is the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney).

Mr. Bermingham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that elucidation, which goes to the heart of the matter. Unless it is known what the electorate will be within the largest skin—which will be a county in the forthcoming review—the correct number of seats cannot be worked out. Unless the norm factor—68,000, 69,000 or whatever —can be divided into the totality of the electorate, we cannot work out how many seats the area should have. It might be 10.2 or 10.3—or it may be 10.5, which would mean 11 instead of 10 seats. We cannot work out what the average constituency should be.

Another feature about the size of the electorate is often overlooked by the commission and should be taken into account in the forthcoming review. In an inner-city area where there is a considerable amount of demolition following compulsory purchase, there will be consequen-ces for the number of electorate who will be in that area when the constituency comes into force. The converse of the coin, which is equally important, is an area where there is continual new build—[Interruption.] I hope that the Home Secretary will interrupt his conversation with the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley). These points are important to Richmond and to many other areas. If an area has continuing housing redevelopment, it is obvious that there will have been a population movement between the time that the reviews first began —1991—and the time that the recommendations come into operation in about 1995 or 1996. Distortions will be built in to the commission's findings unless it takes those trends into account.

At the last commission hearings—and I again declare my interest in that matter—it was our experience that the commission did not always take into account the demographic trends, nor the development in some areas and the demolition in others. All those factors can affect the totality of the skin and the number of seats within an area. They can also affect the size of constituencies within a county, where there will be a deviation from the norm if those factors are not taken into account. I hope that the Secretary of State agrees that they should be taken into account. Where there is a predictable trend, either because of demolition or because of new build, those trends should be reflected in the way that the skin is constructed so that at the commencement of the next parliamentary round for the new boundaries there is equality of numbers within the county, metropolitan district, borough or whatever.

My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) were right to say that the key factor is getting the system right and fair so that there is an equalisation of votes. If we use a little common sense—which is not beyond the wit of man—and take into account demographic trends because of demolition and new build, there is some hope that we shall achieve constituencies that are somewhere near the same size, which should be the aim of us all.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

It is a mistake—although this is almost inevitable on the Floor of the House—to read into an argument a point of view that is too partisan. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) followed the hon. Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), and for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) in claiming that the red meat of party politics is behind all this. I do not believe that that is true, or that those hon. Gentlemen are necessarily pursuing their party advantage—although they may think that they are—in using the arguments that they do.

On Second Reading, there was no serious dissent— certainly not between the two Front Benches—from the proposition that the boundary commissioners should proceed promptly, according to a timetable aimed at the end of 1994. That would make it likely that the next general election will be based on up-to-date boundaries.

No one argues either against the proposition that constituencies should be based as far as possible on equal boundaries. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East invoked the Chartists in support of that principle. We are all Chartists in that respect today.

There is no party difference between us as to the desirability of people registering to be eligible as electors, and of them casting their votes—if we could persuade them all to do so. I do not recall all the occasions when Ministers of any party allegedly fell short on that proposition. It is the first instinct of parliamentarians to attach particular importance to democratic politics. We should ensure as far as possible that everyone is registered, and encourage all to vote.

In the last election, I appeared on a programme with representatives of other parties before an audience of young people who had been selected by the researchers precisely because they had said that they did not intend to vote for any party. The hon. Members for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and myself all said that we would rather those young people voted against our respective parties than take the cynical view that they should not cast their votes at all. My guess is that practically every right hon. and hon. Member would have made the same response.

We are proposing a fair electoral system based on single member constituencies and on accurate registers that record as many of the electorate as possible. We have already started the process in England without any controversy. There was no protest about the English boundary commission or its timetable. The Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish commissions must start work shortly to meet the timetable on which we have all agreed.

It is necessary for the English commissioners to base their electoral quotas, as they are, on the 1991 electoral register. The other commissioners will work to the 1992 registers.

The amendment says that if, on reflection, the commissioners were to discover particular problems with the registers, delay should intervene. The nature of that delay is not clear from the amendment. Is it suggested that the review should be stopped altogether, until we are persuaded that we have a better register? The amendment urges delay, but that would be inconsistent with the Bill.

Most of the debate centred on the administrative machinery of local government. Without widespread dissent in the past, we have always delivered electoral registers on which to conduct our parliamentary elections. There has been a slight reduction in the proportion of the population who, on the best estimates, appear to be registered—but that pre-dates the community charge, which was widely cited as the reason for that reduction.

In 1991, 95.5 per cent. of the population of England and Wales appeared to be registered, and the figure for Scotland was 96.5 per cent. It appears that there are no figures for Northern Ireland, although one hon. Member gave Northern Ireland top marks for having a high level of registration.

By any international standards, those percentages reflect a very high level of registration. It is a good record. Anybody—including the electoral registration officer— should be alive to any proposal for improving registration still further. I will touch in a moment on what we should do to support electoral registration officers in their work.

For a variety of reasons, a proportion of the population does not register. Scarcely an inhabitant of these islands does not know that he or she is entitled to vote in an election. However, a number of potential electors do not vote because they are not interested. We must have an administrative system that gets them on to the register. We are talking only about administrative steps that might improve the system.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend clarify what would happen if the Local Government Boundary Commission decided to restore the historic county boundaries after the parliamentary commissioners have made their first report? Would they be able to make an interim report, to take such a restoration into account?

Mr. Clarke

Clause 3 emphasises that one of the Bill's main aims is to stipulate a cut-off date for local government changes that the boundary commissioners would have to take into account in making their reports. Changes that come into effect before June 1994 will be taken into account by the parliamentary boundary commissioners. In England, that is likely to mean that counties already reviewed will find that the new county boundaries are taken into account. If the Local Government Boundary Commission reviews some counties after that date, it will still be possible at any time for the parliamentary boundary commission to make an interim report—though I imagine that it will concentrate first on publishing its main report.

Mr. Barnes

I am sorry that the right hon. And learned Gentleman has no figures for Northern Ireland, because I obtained some from the Library. They show that since 1987, Northern Ireland's electoral register has increased by 1.2 per cent. and that registration by attainers—a massive problem in England, Wales and Scotland—has risen 7 per cent. Why is it that between 1987 and 1991 the figures improved in Northern Ireland but collapsed in England, Scotland, and Wales?

Mr. Clarke

They did not collapse. They fell by a comparatively small percentage. The hon. Gentleman is one of those who has long campaigned that the community charge would have that effect. It may have done in respect of a few people. I do not deny that some people—partly because of all the publicity attached to the community charge—decided not to register because they thought that they would thereby avoid paying the community charge. They were misguided if they believed that, as everyone knows. It was not particularly reputable for such people to go to such lengths to avoid paying for their local government services, and to give up their votes. Although I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman is sincere, he has never convincingly made the case that the community charge damaged the accuracy of the electoral register.

Mr. Barnes


Mr. Clarke

I will not exchange anecdotal evidence. We are all experienced campaigners, and we have all had anecdotal experiences. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) related quite an amusing anecdote about people who are not on the register. Usually, the basic reason is that they do not realise that, to be on the register, they have to be resident at the address in question on 10 October, or 15 September in Northern Ireland. In any election campaign, one meets a lot of people who are not living at the address at which they ought to have been registered on the date in question.

Others fail to complete the registration form, or do so frivolously—which is a criminal offence. Most elections produce local newspaper pieces about, for example, a budgerigar that was given the vote because its owner thought that it would be witty to register it. We are dealing with those on the fringes who are not very keen on registering, not necessarily because of the community charge.

When I am canvassing, I always remind myself—and opinion pollsters would do well to remind themselves—that about one fifth of those who register will not bother to vote in any case. Many will not want to vote, perhaps for religious reasons. We hear counsels of perfection in regard to putting names on to the register, but a sizeable proportion of the population could not care less whether their names are on it. It is our duty as politicians, whatever our party, to seek to overcome that, and to encourage people to register for the sake of democracy—conceding that they can vote for our opponents if they wish to. Given the background of sheer apathy and active refusal, I think that 95.5 per cent. is not a bad score.

6.30 pm

Other hon. Members have given examples from their electoral experience. In my constituency, one sector of the population is particularly badly represented on the register: members of the armed forces. Most of the inaccuracies in the register concern the RAF station at Newton, and that is the source of most of the complaints from people who find that they are not entitled to vote. When election day comes, the overall high turnout in Rushcliffe is pulled down because the Newton turnout is low: by that time, most of those who are on the register are serving elsewhere.

That is a practical difficulty, which can be set against the claims that the names missing from the register are all those of inner-city Labour voters who are avoiding the community charge—people from Hackney and Newham, North-West. We need to tackle the difficulties that face electoral registration officers by ensuring that the names of serious, willing voters—whatever their background—are put on the register. In 1990, only about 65 per cent. of those in the armed forces were registered. Matters have improved, but I urge the military authorities to make greater efforts. Perhaps their new computerised system will make that possible.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

The overall figures are pretty impressive. The Home Secretary has urged the military authorities to make a special effort. What similar action is he taking in regard to authorities in difficult areas, and what resources is he providing to ensure that one vote equals one value? Unless he can reassure us, we shall begin to suspect that the Government are concerned about time rather than achieving an accurate register.

Mr. Clarke

I was coming to that, because I believe that it represents the substance of the debate. Hon. Members have made practical suggestions about possible improve-ments, but, given the discrepancies over figures that have been cited—overall figures, and figures relating to specific parts of the country—only a few of those suggestions are likely to have much impact. Clearly, it is for the Home Office—and, most important, for electoral registration officers in the local areas concerned—to have regard to such matters, and I am sure that they do.

A typical electoral registration officer—or the best of such officers—goes in for postal and hand deliveries of the forms, and most canvass personally as well. That needs to be supported by publicity campaigns, which have been mentioned already. Such campaigns have always been used to encourage registration. This year, the Home Office proposes to spend £617,000 on them; the Scottish Office will also become involved. Some local authorities have their own campaigns. We shall continue to advertise to encourage eligible people to complete and return their forms. I have my doubts: I believe that the people concerned know perfectly well that they are entitled to vote, and that the forms are being sent out. Nevertheless, reminding them to find out whether they have a form and are registered may jog their consciences.

We must also continually revise and update our code of practice for electoral registration officers. At present we are doing that, while also producing a series of individual practice notes designed to maximise the efficiency of the process. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who follows such matters closely, is probably one of the few hon. Members who are familiar with the practice notes.

Mr. Tony Banks

I am a little annoyed with the Home Secretary. He had a go at me when I was not in the Chamber, and he had another go at me a moment ago. I can survive that, but, as we are in Committee, I should be grateful if he would allow me to intervene now.

I realise that the Home Secretary is a great Secretary of State and I am only a grubby oik—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I thought that that would go down well. In my speech, however, I was not trying to plead in a partial way for Newham, North-West; I said that I was raising a major issue. It is no good the Home Secretary saying that the Home Office will advertise, pointing out that voting is part of people's duty. There is a penalty for non-registration. Why not copy the television licence advertising, which tells viewers that if they do not fill in a form they will probably have to pay a fine? Will the Home Secretary tell us, statistically rather than anecdotally, how many people have been fined for not filling in a registration form?

Mr. Clarke

That was dealt with earlier; again, the hon. Gentleman was not in the Chamber. I congratulate him on his first insight, but I cannot congratulate him on his second. If he considers that he was not making a partisan speech, and was not suggesting that the Bill was aimed particularly at the Labour vote in Newham, North-West, he must underrate his ability to introduce a partisan fire and fervour to almost every point that he makes.

We in this country go so far as to operate compulsory registration and rightly—so: no one here would want to go back on that. Hon. Members have already contrasted the position here with that in the United States, where registration is voluntary and the parties must try to enrol specific groups. That is a very poor system, compared with ours. The criminal offence is failure to send back the form, or putting inaccurate information on the form, but as far as I am aware the prosecuting authorities have not considered it sensible to bring any prosecutions on that ground.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West may believe that the way in which to raise the registration figure from 95.5 per cent. to 100 per cent. is to prosecute people who register their budgerigars, but I do not think that that is the most practical approach. More effective measures are contained in the individual practice notes that we have started to produce in recent years. The first two, on performance indicators and publicity, were published in 1989. The third, on the community charge register, was published in 1990, and gave advice on how electoral registration officers should make the most effective use of their statutory right of access to the community charge register at each stage in the compilation of the electoral register. Some electoral registration officers used the community charge register to increase the number of registered electors for electoral purposes.

The fourth, on the pre-printing of names on the electoral form and the carrying forward of names on the register, was issued in 1991. In the longer term, we have produced a leaflet on electoral registration and the electoral process, aimed at 16 and 17-year-olds. It was distributed to electoral registration officers, and publicised by means of a press advertising campaign aimed at teachers, together with a new leaflet on voting by post or by proxy.

Hon. Members may claim that even that has not achieved more than a 95.5 per cent. registration, but, in my opinion, the likely practical effect of that list of steps taken by the Home Office in the past two or three years exceeds that of most of the proposals that have been made in the past three hours of debate.

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

When my right hon. and learned Friend prepares the next set of practice notes, will he consider the problems that arise when returning officers send out registration forms as early as the end of August, six weeks ahead of registration date? In my view, that leads to more under-registration than almost anything else.

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend's suggestion and the suggestions made by the hon. Members for Perry Barr and for Derbyshire, North-East can be taken into account as we put out the practice notes.

To return to the amendment, we are talking about the means by which we can help good electoral registration officers to improve their performance by getting people on to the electoral register. That is not a matter for the Bill. It will continue to be done, I am sure, in all those local authorities where electoral registration is given the priority that it ought to have. The amendment is wide of the point. It caused the hon. Member for Makerfield to ask his hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) what it meant—a perfectly sensible question.

Without being pedantic, there are other questions that one could ask about what exactly the amendment means. Whatever its precise effect may be, the amendment is based on the argument that if the parliamentary boundary commission, which is not responsible for the registration process, is satisfied that there is some inadequacy in the register, delays should then occur. Whether that means that one should stop the redistribution in that part of the country, or that one should wait until someone discovers whether any of these measures can increase registration, is left unsaid. The amendment is impracticable.

The House agreed on Second Reading that it wants the parliamentary boundary commissions to proceed on the timetable that is expected by most people: that the end of 1994 is reasonable and that the new boundaries should come into effect at the next general election. The amendment is inconsistent with that timetable. We can continue to take on board sensible suggestions about how to improve the registration process and the matters to which the boundary commissions should pay regard at inquiries. The amendment serves no worthwhile purpose. It would cause needless delay. I ask the Committee to reject it.

Mr. Darling

The Secretary of State has followed a well-established court room technique by rubbishing the amendment. He went so far as not to read it, therefore misquoted what it says and then suggested that the Committee should reject it for that reason. I agree that there is no serious dissent that a review is inevitable, but to claim that my hon. Friends were disingenuous when they said that the Government were seeking party-political advantage is going a bit too far. Does anybody imagine that the Government would have introduced the Bill if they did not smell party-political advantage? It is not right to say that there have been no protests so far. Ever since the poll tax legislation was introduced in Scotland and then in England, people have realised that one inevitable effect would be a reduction in the number of people on the electoral register.

The amendment is different from the way in which it was represented by the Secretary of State. It proposes that if the Commission is satisfied that the electorate in any area is to a significant degree different from the population in that area who are qualified to vote then they may delay submitting their report until they are satisfied as to the accuracy of the register. That means that if the boundary commission believes, on the evidence before it, that there is evidence to suggest that it is working on a false assumption as to the electorate, it is open to it to delay submitting its report until it is satisfied about the accuracy of the figures. That seems to me to make sense and to be absolutely straightforward. I told my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) that it will not matter whether the boundary commission is considering the quota for county purposes or the actual numbers within the constituency. The boundary commis-sion can hear evidence and can decide to delay making its final report until it is absolutely sure that it is working on something like an accurate register.

6.45 pm

The debate has made it clear that more people are convinced that the registers are inaccurate than those who are convinced that they are accurate. It is time that the Government accepted that in many cases the registers need to be updated and made accurate. It is wrong for the Secretary of State to say that we are dealing with people who are not very keen about registering. In many cases we are dealing with people who are very keen indeed to do so but who, for some reason, have been missed off the electoral register. To say that a lot have been left off for religious reasons seems to me a pretty low reason.

This is a fundamental, not an administrative, issue. If the boundary commission is working on the wrong figures, it will get everything else wrong. If it does not know how many people live in a county or in a region in Scotland, it cannot get the quota right. If the boundary commission does not know how many people live within one of its proposed constituencies, it follows that the discrepancy will be even greater than it is now.

A number of reasons have been advanced for this inaccuracy. As has already been said, it has become socially acceptable to avoid registration. I do not believe that it should be acceptable to avoid registration. Some of my hon. Friends drew attention to the discrepancy between the way in which we treat poll tax registration and the way in which we treat electoral registration. When it comes to the poll tax, every effort is made to follow up those who are not on the register. There is a real incentive to register. A penalty will be imposed on those people who are not registered.

While the onus is on the poll tax payer to prove that he or she ought not to be on the register, the electoral registration officer would have to satisfy the court that he had sent out the form in the first place in order to prove that it had not been returned and that therefore an offence had taken place. All we ask is that exactly the same enthusiasm should be shown in ensuring that people are on the electoral register. If Parliament decides that it should be an offence not to be registered, all reasonable means at our disposal should be used to ensure that the register is accurate and that people who ought to be registered are on the register. It was done for the poll tax; it ought to be done for the electoral register.

Mr. David Cleland (Tyne Bridge)

Although the Secretary of State may be right when he says that there will never be 100 per cent. registration, that is no excuse for not trying to get as full registration as possible. The Secretary of State has acknowledged today that he knows that 4.5 per cent. of the people in England are not registered. When the boundary commission draws up its proposals for constituency boundaries, ought it not to take that figure into account?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend makes precisely the point that I was seeking to make. The boundary commission ought to take into account the fact that it is common ground that overall the electoral register is at least 4 per cent. inaccurate. The Minister who wound up the Second Reading debate said that he sympathised with those who believed that the register is inaccurate.

The hon. Members for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) and for Makerfield made the point that when calculating the quota for Glasgow and Manchester it is important to know how many people are on the electoral register. The hon. Members for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) and for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) suggested that it was simply an administrative matter. Both hon. Members referred to housing estates in their constituencies that had not been included on the electoral register. When deciding whether constituencies are either above or below the quota, every person who is eligible to vote ought to be considered. I would say to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland, yes, it is possible to tackle the issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) drew my attention to one case where the electoral registration officer in Grampian had written to people with foreign-sounding names to find out whether they ought to be on the register. It is up to him, apparently, to decide whether to do that. I wonder why on earth he is spending so much effort on it. If he has got so much time on his hands, there are other things that both he and other electoral registration officers could be doing to ensure that the registers are accurate.

We have suggested many things that we believe that the Government ought to do. However, they have been dismissed by the Secretary of State. We suggested that advertising ought to be stepped up, not just to jog people's memories but to remind them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, of the penalties that might be visited upon them if they do not register. If the Government are prepared to spend money on advertising the facility for overseas voting, they ought to spend money on advertisements to encourage people to ensure that their names are on the electoral register. If the Government thought that they could get more Tory voters on to the registers, I am sure that they would spend public money. If there were ever to be a referendum here on Maastricht, or anything else, a good number of Conservative Members would, I believe, want to make sure that the register of electors was up to date.

We have put forward many suggestions that would make electoral registers more accurate, because it is a fundamental matter. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West said, some areas may gain seats while others lose them. If we are to embark on that process, it is important to make sure that we have the right figures to start with. It is also important to know on what basis we are doing it. We should not simply hazard a guess.

I think that we were absolutely right to table the amendment. The Secretary of State's dismissive response showed that the Government are not interested in whether people are registered to vote. For that reason, we shall press the amendment to a Division.

Mr. Rooker

I want to deal with a couple of points, one of which was not raised in the debate. Only the Home Secretary made international comparisons. He said that our rate of registration—95 per cent.—compared well internationally.

Our register must be more accurate than most others because it is done from scratch each year for a single-member, first-past-the-post system. In other words, there is more scope for distortion in our allocation of seats than under other European systems. That is not an argument against other electoral systems but a fact.

Italian electoral registers are compiled at constituency level and are revised annually over three months. Our registers are compiled from scratch at the end of the year. In Italy, whatever we might say about its Government, the names of people who do not vote without a justifiable reason are noted for five years on the public record.

Electoral registers in Switzerland are compiled and revised continually. Our poll tax register, unlike the electoral register, is revised continuously and is bound, therefore, to contain more people. Electors in Switzerland can abstain if they have a justifiable reason, without which they are subject to a small fine.

Electoral registers in Denmark, the most quoted country in the House in recent weeks, are compiled on the basis of a central register of persons, but it is revised continuously; it is not an annual snapshot. The chances of it being accurate, therefore, are greater than in this country, where voting is not compulsory. Electoral registers in Belgium are continuously kept up to date and voting is compulsory.

Those are just a few examples of where the mechanism and administration of the system are so different from ours that they make nonsense of the Home Secretary's point that our 95 per cent. registration rate compares well internationally.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in saying that our registers are compiled from scratch every year; they start with the previous year's register. Sometimes, electoral registration officers have to go through the registers removing people whom they kept including but who had moved away. The hon. Gentleman has not produced a figure comparable to my 95 per cent. Although I have no facts to knock him down with about the electoral registration system in the wilds of Apulia being better than Britain's, I am surprised by his glowing description of Italian and Spanish levels of administration of the electoral system. We must try to improve our system, but it is nonsense to say that it compares badly with others.

Mr. Rooker

I do not accept that. If our electoral system were the bee's knees, it would have been used for the poll tax, which has a continuously rolling register. That is not the electoral registration system that we use.

I do not accept the Home Secretary's argument, which we first heard during the passage of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, which established the poll tax. No intellectual argument was advanced for our having two different registers. The electoral register is a snapshot and is set up from scratch because of electoral registration officers' discretion to dead-wood the register. The use of more modern computer practices in recent years has caused massive shifts in the electoral register. It is set up from scratch each year and the Home Secretary cannot gainsay that. He seeks to give the impression that it is a one-off register—that once people sign they remain on it for ever, which is not true.

Mr. Barnes

The chance to establish a rolling register will present itself on 12 February, when I shall introduce my private Member's Bill, which will tackle the problems that the Home Office is refusing to tackle.

Mr. Rooker

The Home Secretary read out the practice notes, which are to be applauded and I do so willingly, but the Home Office cannot say what it does to monitor the effect of those notes. There is no systematic means of it discovering whether new notes and ideas work. The Government's refusal to monitor the advice that they give leads me to believe that, for party-political reasons, they do not want to know.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 244, Noes 303.

Division No. 38 [6.55 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Enright, Derek
Adams, Mrs Irene Etherington, William
Ainger, Nick Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Alton, David Fatchett, Derek
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Armstrong, Hilary Fisher, Mark
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Flynn, Paul
Ashton, Joe Foster, Derek (B'p Auckland)
Austin-Walker, John Foulkes, George
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Fraser, John
Barnes. Harry Galbraith, Sam
Battle, John Galloway, George
Bayley, Hugh Gapes, Michael
Beckett, Margaret Garrett, John
Bell, Stuart George, Bruce
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Gerrard, Neil
Benton, Joe Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Bermingham, Gerald Godman, Dr Norman A.
Berry, Roger Godsiff, Roger
Betts, Clive Golding, Mrs Llin
Blair, Tony Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Boyce, Jimmy Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Boyes, Roland Grocott, Bruce
Bradley, Keith Gunnell, John
Bray, Dr Jeremy Hain, Peter
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Hall, Mike
Burden, Richard Hanson, David
Byers, Stephen Hardy, Peter
Caborn, Richard Harman, Ms Harriet
Callaghan, Jim Harvey, Nick
Campbell, Ms Anne (C'bridge) Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Henderson, Doug
Campbell, Ronald (Blyth V) Heppell, John
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Canavan, Dennis Hinchliffe, David
Cann, James Hoey, Kate
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry) Home Robertson, John
Chisholm, Malcolm Hoon, Geoff
Clapham, Michael Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Clark, Dr David (South Shields) Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Hoyle, Doug
Clelland, David Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Coffey, Ms Ann Hutton, John
Cohen, Harry Ingram, Adam
Connarty, Michael Jackson, Ms Glenda (H'stead)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Jackson, Ms Helen (Shef'Id, H)
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Jamieson, David
Cousins, Jim Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Cryer, Bob Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn)
Cummings, John Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Jones, Ms Lynne (B'ham S O)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Cunningham, Dr John (C'p'I'nd) Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Dafis, Cynog Jowell, Ms Tessa
Darling, Alistair Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Davidson, Ian Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C & S)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Kennedy, Ms Jane (L'p'I Br'g'n)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Khabra, Piara
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Kilfoyle, Peter
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I) Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil (IsIwyn)
Denham, John Kirkwood, Archy
Dewar, Donald Leighton, Ron
Dixon, Don Lewis, Terry
Dobson, Frank Litherland, Robert
Dowd, Jim Llwyd, Elfyn
Dunnachie, Jimmy Loyden, Eddie
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Lynne, Ms Liz
Eagle, Ms Angela McAllion, John
Eastham, Ken McCartney, Ian
MacDonald, Calum Randall, Stuart
McFall, John Raynsford, Nick
McKelvey, William Redmond, Martin
McLeish, Henry Reid, Dr John
Maclennan, Robert Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)
McMaster, Gordon Roche, Ms Barbara
McNamara, Kevin Rogers, Allan
McWilliam, John Rooker, Jeff
Madden, Max Rooney, Terry
Mahon, Alice Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Mandelson, Peter Rowlands, Ted
Marek, Dr John Ruddock, Joan
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Sheerman, Barry
Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S) Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn) Short, Clare
Martlew, Eric Skinner, Dennis
Maxton, John Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Meacher, Michael Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Meale, Alan Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Michael, Alun Soley, Clive
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute) Spearing, Nigel
Milburn, Alan Spellar, John
Miller, Andrew Steinberg, Gerry
Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby) Stevenson, George
Moonie, Dr Lewis Stott, Roger
Morgan, Rhodri Strang, Gavin
Morley, Elliot Straw, Jack
Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Tipping, Paddy
Mowlam, Marjorie Trimble, David
Mudie, George Turner, Dennis
Mullin, Chris Vaz, Keith
Murphy, Paul Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Wallace, James
O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire) Walley, Joan
O'Brien, William (Normanton) Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
O'Hara, Edward Wareing, Robert N
Olner, William Watson, Mike
O'Neill, Martin Wicks, Malcolm
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Patchett, Terry Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Pendry, Tom Wilson, Brian
Pickthall, Colin Winnick, David
Pike, Peter L. Wise, Audrey
Pope, Greg Worthington, Tony
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Wray, Jimmy
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E) Wright, Tony
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Prescott, John
Purchase, Ken Tellers for the Ayes:
Quin, Ms Joyce Mr. Thomas McAvoy and
Radice, Giles Mr. Eric Illsley.
Adley, Robert Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Booth, Hartley
Aitken, Jonathan Boswell, Tim
Alexander, Richard Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Amess, David Bowis, John
Ancram, Michael Brandreth, Gyles
Arbuthnot, James Brazier, Julian
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Bright, Graham
Ashby, David Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Aspinwall, Jack Browning, Mrs. Angela
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Budgen. Nicholas
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Burns, Simon
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Burt, Alistair
Baldry, Tony Butcher, John
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Butler, Peter
Bates, Michael Butterfill, John
Batiste, Spencer Carlisle, John (Luton North)
Bellingham, Henry Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Bendall, Vivian Carrington, Matthew
Beresford, Sir Paul Carttiss, Michael
Biffen, Rt Hon John Cash, William
Blackburn, Dr John G. Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Body, Sir Richard Chaplin, Mrs Judith
Chapman, Sydney Heathcoat-Amory, David
Churchill, Mr Hendry, Charles
Clappison, James Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif) Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)
Coe, Sebastian Horam, John
Colvin, Michael Hordern, Sir Peter
Congdon, David Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Conway, Derek Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Cormack, Patrick Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Couchman, James Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Cran, James Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Jack, Michael
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Jenkin, Bernard
Day, Stephen Jessel, Toby
Deva, Nirj Joseph Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Devlin, Tim Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Dickens, Geoffrey Jones, Robert B. (W H'f'rdshire)
Dicks, Terry Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Dorrell, Stephen Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Key, Robert
Dover, Den Kilfedder, Sir James
Duncan, Alan King, Rt Hon Tom
Duncan-Smith, Iain Kirkhope, Timothy
Dunn, Bob Knapman, Roger
Durant, Sir Anthony Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Dykes, Hugh Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Eggar, Tim Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Elletson, Harold Knox, David
Emery, Sir Peter Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Evans. David (Welwyn Hatfield) Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Legg, Barry
Evennett, David Leigh, Edward
Faber, David Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Fabricant, Michael Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas Lidington, David
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Fishburn, John Dudley Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Forman, Nigel Lord, Michael
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Luff, Peter
Forth, Eric MacKay, Andrew
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Maclean, David
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) McLoughlin, Patrick
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Freeman, Roger Maitland, Lady Olga
French, Douglas Malone, Gerald
Gale, Roger Mans, Keith
Gallie, Phil Marland, Paul
Gardiner, Sir George Marlow, Tony
Garnier, Edward Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Gill, Christopher Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Gillan, Ms Cheryl Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Mates, Michael
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Gorst, John Merchant, Piers
Grant, Sir Anthony (Cambs SW) Milligan, Stephen
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Mills, Iain
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW)
Grylls, Sir Michael Monro, Sir Hector
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Hague, William Moss, Malcolm
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Needham, Richard
Hampson, Dr Keith Nelson, Anthony
Hanley, Jeremy Neubert, Sir Michael
Hannam, Sir John Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Hargreaves, Andrew Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Harris, David Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Haselhurst, Alan Norris, Steve
Hawkins, Nicholas Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley
Hawksley, Warren Oppenheim, Phillip
Hayes, Jerry Ottaway, Richard
Heald, Oliver Page, Richard
Paice, James Stern, Michael
Patnick, Irvine Streeter, Gary
Patten, Rt Hon John Sumberg, David
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Sweeney, Walter
Pawsey, James Sykes, John
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Pickles, Eric Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Porter, Barry (Wirral S) Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Porter, David (Waveney) Temple-Morris, Peter
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Thomason, Roy
Powell, William (Corby) Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Rathbone, Tim Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Redwood, John Thurnham, Peter
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Townend, John (Bridlington)
Richards, Rod Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Rifkind, Rt Hon. Malcolm Tracey, Richard
Robathan, Andrew Tredinnick, David
Roberts, Rt Hor Sir Wyn Trend, Michael
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S) Trotter, Neville
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Twinn, Dr Ian
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Viggers, Peter
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Walden, George
Sackville, Tom Waller, Gary
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim Ward, John
Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Shaw, David (Dover) Waterson, Nigel
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Watts, John
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Wells, Bowen
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Wheeler, Sir John
Shersby, Michael Whitney, Ray
Sims, Roger Whittingdale, John
Skeet, Sir Trevor Widdecombe, Ann
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick) Wiggin, Jerry
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Wilkinson, John
Soames, Nicholas Willetts, David
Speed, Sir Keith Wilshire, David
Spencer, Sir Derek Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset) Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'Id)
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Wolfson, Mark
Spink, Dr Robert Wood, Timothy
Spring, Richard Yeo, Tim
Sproat, Iain Young, Sir George (Acton)
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Tellers for the Noes:
Steen, Anthony Mr. David Lightbown and
Stephen, Michael Mr. David Davis.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Darling

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 9, leave out from 'words' to end of line and insert '12 years'.

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. GeoffreyLofthouse)

With this it will be convenient to consider the following amendments:

No. 14, in page 2, line 9, leave out 'twelve' and insert 'fifteen'.

No. 18, in page 2, line 9, at end insert 'and the addition at the end of that subsection of the words "save that a Boundary Commission shall not submit such a report if less than ten years has elapsed since the date of the last General Election based upon new boundaries.".'. No. 19, in page 2, line 9, at end insert 'and the addition at the end of that subsection of the words "save that where more than two years have elapsed since the first General Election to be held after the eighth year in which a General Election was held on new boundaries, a Boundary Commission shall not submit such a report until another General Election shall have been held.".'.

Mr. Darling

This group of amendments deals with the aim canvassed for the Bill—the time that should elapse between boundary reviews. The Government propose that a review should take place between eight and 12 years after the previous review, whereas at present it takes place between 10 and 15 years. The amendment proposes a fixed review every 12 years.

Since 1945, an average Parliament has lasted about 3.8 years. The purpose of our amendment is to ensure that boundaries remain in existence for about three Parliaments. That has some importance, as there ought to be a link between Member and constituency. During the past few weeks, discussions have taken place about the appropriate method of electing Members to the House and to other places, and those discussions will continue. I feel strongly that, whatever the system, there ought to be a link between the Member and the constituency. Clearly, if the nature of a constituency changes too often, the link will diminish in importance. If the Government's amendment to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 is carried, in some cases boundaries might remain intact for only two Parliaments, which does not seem to be a very long time.

It is interesting that there have been wide fluctuations during the history of boundary reviews. When Parliament reviewed the situation in 1944, it decided that a review period of between three to seven years would be appropriate to get rid of the anomalies that had arisen. During the 1950s, when reviews were carried out by the then boundary commission, it was decided that it was not practical to carry out a review in that short time. In 1958, the period was increased to between 10 and 15 years—quite a big jump.

The Government are proposing a compromise of between eight and 12 years. There is not much difference between three and seven years, if one consider the old upper limit of seven, and the eight-year period, which is the lowest that the Government anticipate.

When the Minister replies to the debate, it would be interesting if he could let us have the Government's thinking as to why a period of between eight and 12 years is thought appropriate. We all know that the population has changed significantly since 1976 in some areas, but I am not sure that it will continue to change that dramatically. An alternative would be a rolling register as used for the poll tax, with continuing reports instead of the occasional interim report by the boundary commission.

I wonder whether the Government are contemplating that the boundary commission will prepare several reports during the eight to 12-year programme rather than one report for the whole of the United Kingdom. It has been suggested that, even with the increased resources anticipated by the Bill, the boundary commission will find it difficult to produce a report for the United Kingdom every eight to 12 years. If it has to produce an entire report after eight years, it will require a considerable amount of work, not merely to make the report but to deal with all the local inquiries and to hear the representations required and allowed in the 1986 Act.

Are the Government considering several reports, perhaps dealing with parliamentary constituency boundaries in the same way that the Government are dealing with local authority reviews in England, where it is envisaged that reports will have five tranches—to use the Government's phrase? The Government could be proposing one report for the United Kingdom every eight to 12 years. If that is the case, I should be interested to know whether they are satisfied that it can be produced.

Our amendment suggests a fixed term of 12 years, which would have the advantage of reducing the scope for a Government to vary the term to seek political advantage. As became clear during debate on amendment No. 1, it has been suggested that that is what the Government plan to do. If a fixed term were chosen, the Government would not be able to advance or delay it, although they could invite the House to vote down the report, which is also an option at present.

7.15 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

It is up to the boundary commission to decide when it produces a report, within the window of years allowed by the law. It is not up to the Government to decide when it should do so.

Mr. Darling

I appreciate that, but the Government are the architect and sponsor of the Bill and I therefore wonder if they have any idea of what they want.

For example, the English boundary commission could produce one report for England within eight years, or it might decide that it could not do so, and produce two reports for a group of counties instead, thus carrying out a rolling programme. In time, all the counties would be reviewed every eight to 12 years, but not all at the same time.

If the Minister is making inquiries, could he tell me whether the piecemeal approach would be possible under the Bill as drafted? If not, I should like to know about it, because it has been suggested that it may be a tall order to expect an entire review every eight years. Perhaps the commission will decide to carry out a review every 12 years, which is the upper end of the scale, in which case it will be doing what many people think it ought to have done within the 10 to 15-year period allowed at present.

It is probably common ground that the present situation is not entirely satisfactory. One of the principal problems is that the boundary commission started work in 1976, but an election was not fought on those boundaries until about seven years later. When it was fought, the boundaries were seven years out of date. The April 1992 election was fought on boundaries that are about 15 years out of date.

I should be grateful if the Minister would let us know why the Government chose a period of eight to 12 years. When the Select Committee on Home Affairs last considered the matter, it thought that the lower period in force during the 1940s and 1950s was far too short. It recognised some of the difficulties with a long period and came down against a fixed term of 12 years because that circumscribed room for manoeuvre. I am not sure that the Committee was right, because if there is an injunction requiring the production of a report within any fixed period, the commission has to be tied to it, especially if it is to produce one report. Clearly, if it is going to produce a rolling programme, the flexibility to do so within a four-year period allows it to do that. There is something to be said for having a fixed term, so that we know where we are and when the report will be produced and we can proceed on that basis.

I do not wish to say much more on the subject. I am not sure how much interest hon. Members have in the time allowed. I think that there is far more interest in some of the other difficulties with which we have dealt and in those with which we shall deal later. However, there are several questions for the Government to answer and part of the purpose of the amendment is to explore them.

Mr. Maclennan

I rise to speak to amendments Nos. 18 and 19 tabled in my name and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Government's purpose in changing the frequency of reviews from 10 to 15-year intervals to eight to 12-year intervals may mean that some constituencies will exist for only two Parliaments before new constituencies are formed. More frequent changes to the constituency that a Member of Parliament represents could have the not altogether desirable effect of undermining the development of a long-term relationship between a Member of Parliament and all the parts of a constituency.

A degree of stability of parliamentary constituency boundaries is desirable, even though it is obviously sensible to move towards more frequent changes than take place at present. However, if the Bill is enacted as drafted, every second Parliament some Members of Parliament may be uncertain about the boundaries that they will face at the forthcoming general election. I doubt whether that is altogether good for representation; certainly, it would not be good for the democratic process where it involves the party organisations preparing to offer a choice at each general election.

Amendment No. 18 aims to ensure that no review can be implemented within 10 years of the date of the last general election to be based on new boundaries. Ideally, I should have preferred a differently worded amendment which would enable enactment to take place at a time that was separate from the date of the report. However, I understand that such an amendment would have offended against the long title of the Bill, so I have drafted the amendment to tackle the problem in a different way and to prevent the boundary commission from reporting if the consequence of doing so is to produce a review in fewer than 10 years. The Government are probably right to argue that infrequent reviews lead to wide discrepancies in electorates. However, stability should also be recognised as a desirable end.

Amendment No. 19 addresses another problem: reviews that are completed just before a general election and implemented almost immediately after. Changes which were finalised only late in 1982 were implemented in the 1983 general election. That is an example of the mischief with which the amendment seeks to deal. If we leave the Bill as it is, the future shape of some constituencies could be known for less than a year before a general election. That would also be detrimental to effective representation and democratic choice.

I propose that we consider basing the Bill on the principle that the commission should complete a review within two years of a general election. Assuming that a Parliament lasts for four or five years—of course, that is a little longer than the average—that would allow local parties and Members of Parliament to prepare for the new boundaries. Although both my amendments inevitably refer to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 rather than the Bill, I hope that they are clear and acceptable to the Government.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I wish to refer to amendment No. 14, tabled in my name and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends. The points have largely been made by the hon. Members for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) and for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). It is a question of finding the right period. Indeed, the Secretary of State spoke in those terms. Obviously, the objective of moving forward what has just been referred to as the "window" within which the boundary commission has to report from between 10 and 15 years to between eight and 12 years is to allow more frequent changes to boundaries. I agree that more frequent changes are not necessarily a good thing. There is a need for a degree of stability in constituency boundaries. It is desirable to allow a degree of identity to grow up within a constituency, especially if it operates on a single-Member basis.

We boast about the link that is supposed to exist between a Member of Parliament and a constituency. If the boundaries are changed too rapidly and fundament-ally, that link is destroyed. It takes some time for the link to develop. If there have been major changes, it usually takes one or two elections before people become completely familiar with the new boundaries. The Government's objective seems to be that boundaries should change after every second election. That would mean that people would never become familiar with the boundaries. It is desirable to allow a little more time between changes. We have tabled our amendment to increase the window from eight to 15 years in an effort to give the boundary commission more time, largely in the hope that that will result in greater stability. I find amendments Nos. 2 and 18 equally acceptable and I would support them if there were a Division.

When boundaries change, a certain degree of change has to take place within constituency associations. That may not be a great problem for Members of Parliament from Great Britain because the local government units under which they operate are more sensible. Unfortunately, the legislation in Northern Ireland is such that we regularly find that when constituencies change we have to break up branches and re-form them. I hope that we shall tackle that problem when we discuss another amendment tabled in my name, which seeks to allow us to operate on more sensible local government boundaries for the purposes of the Bill. The objective of amendment No. 14 is to create a little more stability.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

I should like to deal with each amendment in turn, but before doing so I shall answer several of the questions that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) asked. If I understood his questions correctly, I can cover them quickly. There will be four boundary commission reports—one each for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There will not be one report for the whole of the United Kingdom. That stems from the legislative arrangements in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986.

Mr. Darling

The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that there will be one report for each country at the same time so that all the reports are with the relevant Secretary of State at the end of 1994. It is the Government's intention that the new boundaries will be in operation before the next election. That is the point that I made. But I asked whether it would be open to the commission to produce a report every two or three years on a rolling basis for England, which is much bigger than the other countries.

Mr. Lloyd

I was coming to that point. No, it will not be possible. Under the 1986 Act, there must be a report for the whole of England. The final report cannot be produced piecemeal, although, of course, the provisional recommen-dations are produced piecemeal.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central also asked why we had chosen 12 years. The best that I can do is to refer him back to what I said in reply to the Second Reading debate. We have chosen 12 years because 15 years has allowed too great a disparity between electorates as a result of population movements in that period. The size of constituencies ranges from 42,000 electors to more than 90,000 in England, from 32,000 to 70,000 in Wales, and from 23,000 to 78,000 in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman might question whether 12 years is short enough when population movements are so substantial, but we have picked 12 years as the period which gives the continuity of constituency boundaries and Members' relations with them to which several hon. Members referred.

Indeed, we have adopted the period suggested to the Select Committee by the deputy chairman of the English boundary commission some time ago. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central said, amendment No. 2 requires the commission to submit its report on the twelfth anniversary of the previous report. I accept that that proposal has some attractions. It would ensure that reports were not so frequent as the new minimum period of eight years would make technically possible, and it would avoid the possibility of upheavals in constituency boundaries more than once a decade. In some ways, it would also be convenient for everyone to know in advance when D day had to be.

7.30 pm

However seductive the idea, alas I fear that such a fixed date would present some real problems for the commissions. They would feel obliged to start their work just as early as they would with the eight to 12 years rule because they would never be able to tell in advance how long they might be held up by local inquiries or judicial challenge, let alone the exigencies of their own work. The open and responsive rules that the commissions must follow mean that completion dates do not finally lie in their hands, nor can they be accurately predicted.

Indeed, a look back to the timing of previous commission inquiries and reports shows that they have usually slipped back towards the latter end of their reporting window. There is no reason to think that that would change in the future. Indeed, quite the contrary, because that built-in uncertainty in their timetable is why the commissions have always been given a period of years in which they are required to submit their reports. It gives the commissions the elbow room which experience shows that they need.

The major effect of amendment No. 2 would be to make it inevitable that the commissions would have to sit on their report for a period before presenting it. If the review had gone smoothly, that might be a year or two. If a general election were called during that time, it would have to be fought on old boundaries—out-of-date boundaries based on out-of-date registers—when more up-to-date proposals were available. That would defeat the central purpose of the Bill: to secure as up-to-date boundaries, based on the latest electoral registers, as reasonably practicable. For that reason, I ask the House to reject amendment No. 2.

Mr. Darling

The Minister said that for each country there could be only one report under the parent Act of 1986. May I draw his attention to section 2(1) of that Act, which provides: For the purpose of the continuous review of the distribution of seats at parliamentary elections, there shall … be four … Commissions". Section 3(1) says: Each Boundary Commission shall … submit to the Secretary of State reports —in the plural— with respect to the whole of that part of the United Kingdom —and goes on to say what those should contain. Subsection (2) also refers to reports in the plural. Given the language used, how can the Minister be so certain that the commissions cannot produce a multiple number of reports? Whether that is desirable is another matter. Have I missed a provision that would require the commissions to produce just one report for the whole of England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland?

Mr. Lloyd

We have both missed that provision and I shall not find it in the few seconds available to me. However, where the Act refers to parts of the United Kingdom it means England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and not parts of England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. As usual, the hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point and I shall try to supply him with the exact reference, or references, in the Act before the end of the evening.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) urged on me amendment No. 14. The amendment would change the cycle of eight to 12 years to eight to 15 years. I do not know whether that is what the hon. Gentleman intended, but, if so, I must discourage him. I have some sympathy with his motive of allowing more time between reviews to place more emphasis on the continuity of connections between a Member of Parliament and his constituency and between constituency associations and their constituencies than on equal numbers. But the period of eight to 15 years that he proposes is considerably less satisfactory than the present range of 10 to 15 years.

Obviously, the commissions need elbow room for unexpected delays, complications and the unpredictable. The time-consuming process of local inquiries and possible court proceedings mean that a range of time must be allowed, but to expand that period from the current five years to seven years, rather than reduce it to four years as the Bill proposes, is to move in the wrong direction. It would increase uncertainty about when the next reorganisation would be introduced. I agree that frequent reorganisations would be unwelcome.

However, the amendment would also give an undesirable latitude to when the commissions' reports should be ready. The commissions may feel obliged to make judgments on whether it would be politic to complete their reports, thus being drawn into political controversy. For that reason, and because the amendment flies directly in the face of the intention of the Bill to ensure that the commissions' work is speeded up, I ask the Committee to join me in rejecting amendment No. 15.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) tabled amendments Nos. 18 and 19. As always, I listened to him carefully but especially so this time as the wording of his amendments, particularly amendment No. 19, was as complex and testing as if it had been drawn up by a talented and experienced Government draftsman. He explained that he wanted to protect the practice of more frequent reviews but, within that, the continuity of relationships within constituencies and between a constituency and its Member of Parliament. He also wanted to avoid changes just before a general election, but, on a quick reading of his amendments, I am not sure whether he would necessarily succeed in doing that.

I have some sympathy with the idea that there must be at least two general elections between a review and much sympathy also with the belief that there is value in continuity in the relationships between a Member of Parliament and his constituents. However, all commis-sions seem to report nearer to the end rather than the beginning of the time allowed, so some of the hon. Gentleman's concerns would, in practice, be answered by the commissions' behaviour, the timetable that they set themselves, and the time taken by the inquiries that they hear after receiving objections.

However, I have more substantial reasons for saying that I cannot accept the amendments. Amendment No. 18 would seek to ensure that no report could be made sooner than 10 years after the date of the first general election held on the existing boundaries. Depending on the timing of the report in relation to that first general election, that could mean that no new report would be submitted for up to 14 years. The fact that that could happen was shown when the boundary commission reported in 1969 with recommenda-tions based on 1965 registers, but the first election under its proposals did not take place until February 1974. If the amendment had been in place then, the next proposals would have had to wait until 1984–19 years after the base date of the previous review.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland also proposed an amendment with the same objective. However, it, too, could delay reports for up to 14 years and possibly a little longer. I have some sympathy with what he is trying to achieve. A balance must be drawn between equality of electors in constituencies where there are rapid movements in population. and continuity between Members of Parliament and their constituents and within constituencies. I believe that we have drawn the line in the right place. In so far as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland seeks to ensure that change is not disturbingly frequent, I agree with him, but believe that the exigencies of the process will ensure that.

My basic objection to his amendments is that they could lead to gaps and would frequently lead to gaps that were close to the present ones, which it is the Bill's intention to close. We would be back where we are now, with periods that are too long. For that reason, I invite the Committee to reject those amendments.

Mr. Maclennan

I am grateful to the Minister for giving some thought to my amendments. I was also pleased to hear that he accepts the underlying intention of amendment No. 18—that there should be a gap of two Parliaments before change is implemented. I find it difficult to believe that it is beyond the wit of parliamentary draftsmen to achieve the objective that he and I apparently share. If my amendment is defectively drafted, I take full responsibility as I drafted it. However, the Minister's response to that amendment is somewhat encouraging and I ask him at least to consider, between now and Report stage, whether it might he possible to meet our common aim of not allowing the electoral boundary map to be redrawn within a period of two Parliaments.

The purpose of amendment No. 19 was certainly not to protract the process in the manner adumbrated by the Minister. He is doubtless right in saying that it could have that effect. I readily acknowledge that part of the reason for that is the tightness of the Bill's drafting, which has made it impossible to do what I believe would be more sensible: require the Government to lay an Order in Council implementing the boundary commission's recommendation close to the date on which it is finalised. Had it been possible to do that, we could have avoided the difficulties to which he rightly drew attention.

Does the hon. Gentleman share the view that it is undesirable to produce a boundary change flat up against a general election, and that it is better for democracy and stability for those who organise elections—the political parties, all of which are equally affected—to have some time in which to operate within the new boundaries before the election date is decided?

Mr. Lloyd

I certainly think that it is more convenient for political parties to have a longer period in which to organise matters. However, I am not so sure that it is necessarily greatly in the interests of the electorate or the working of parliamentary democracy, although there are arguments both ways. If one of the amendments were adjusted—as presently drafted it would not succeed—it could ensure that there was no election within two years of a boundary commission report being produced. However, one must bear in mind—it certainly weighs heavily with the Government—that to put on ice the proposals for more up-to-date boundaries while an election is fought on older, more out-of-date boundaries is not necessarily in the interests of parliamentary democracy and the smooth running of the system.

The hon. Gentleman asked me nicely to reconsider and I shall not refuse. Although I have some sympathy with his desire for continuity, I suspect that it would be impossible to devise a way of ensuring that continuity without allowing for the period between reviews coming into effect to be drawn out to much the same length as at present. I think that he encountered that difficulty in his amendments. I shall reconsider the matter, but I am not optimistic of finding a solution that satisfies both of us.

7.45 pm
Mr. Darling

I was hoping that, by now, the Minister might have received the advice that I was seeking. While he was speaking, I thought that he received a piece of paper containing that advice. If that is not so, perhaps we shall have to wait.

Section 3 of the 1986 Act states: Each Boundary Commission shall … submit, to the Secretary of State reports"— plural— with respect to the whole of that part of the United Kingdom". That means that each boundary commission will produce reports in respect of that part of the United Kingdom for which it is responsible and seems to suggest that they can produce multiple reports. If I have missed something, perhaps the Minister will intervene.

Mr. Lloyd

There was something that I missed—the arrival of a piece of paper while I was talking. If I can read the handwriting, I believe that it states that section 3(2) of the Act refers to a period of 10 to 15 years from the last report. Under section 3(1), each boundary commission has to submit a single report on its last periodic review. If the hon. Gentleman will wait until later in the debate, I shall check those references myself. I said that he might have the answer before the end of the evening. The night is still young and I still hope that I can oblige him. He can refer to the reference while listening to other hon. Members speak, as will I.

Mr. Darling

Subject to any ruling by you, Mr. Morris, or whoever occupies the Chair for the debate on the next group of amendments, I think that the matter might still be in order then as it relates to reports.

Subsection (2) appears to refer to reports produced in accordance with subsection (1), which does not rule out multiple reports. It states that each commission may produce reports—plural—with respect to that part of the United Kingdom for which it is responsible. Subsection (2) merely states that the commissions must report between 10 to 15 years after they last did so. That could be taken to imply that there will be only one report, but the Minister should consider that aspect.

If there is to be a possibility of reports being produced every eight years, at some stage in the future the boundary commission may say that it cannot possibly deal with the matter for the whole of England and would prefer to produce a series of reports. Such an approach has been heralded by the local government attitude and is expressly taken into account when dealing with clause 3.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) raised the issue—as I did —of the frequency with which reports should be considered. Like him, and possibly the Minister—I may be stretching a point there—I think that there is something to be said for allowing constituencies to last more than two elections.

If there is to be a regular review, I assume that there will not be dramatic changes such as we might see in the reports that we shall consider in two years' time, although it is conceivable that there will be. In my constituency the last time around—it was not my constituency then—a large community was transferred from it into another constituency, and a correspondingly large community was transferred into it. Clearly, there is something to be said for fostering the links between a Member and a constituency—hence there is something to be said for leaving a constituency intact for some time.

Large rural constituencies are different. I am not sure that the boundary of Caithness and Sutherland has changed in recent memory—it has merely encompassed the two counties. But in urban constituencies such as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) and myself there is a measure of community feeling and people need to identify with their Member of Parliament. That is difficult enough given the natural movement of people, but eight years is also a rather short period.

The Minister did not hold out much of change. He could more bluntly have said that there was no hope at all, but he was being nice to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland and said that he would think again—before rejecting the idea on Report or Third Reading.

I am prepared to accept that my suggestion of fixed terms of 12 years is not without its defects, but my purpose was to ensure that as long as we have single-Member constituencies and set great store by the link between a Member and a constituency, a decent period is needed before they are changed.

The Minister complained legitimately that constituen-cies based on electorates that no longer exist undermine the whole concept, but the problem that we face arose 10 or 15 years ago when the boundary commission considered boundaries on the basis of the electorate in 1976 and the relevant constituencies did not come into force until seven years later, in 1983. So they were seven years out of date when the first election based on them was fought. The 1976 electorate was in turn based on registration in October 1975. We need to shorten the period between the start of the process and the making of the boundary commission's report. That would deal with many of the Minister's objections.

There is much to be said for dealing with each country as a single unit in boundary reviews. There is a danger in picking and choosing, selecting parts of the country which may be advantageous. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a Conservative Home Secretary would consider it right to review the parts of the country that he thought could disadvantage his oppenents, leaving alone the areas where he considered his strength lay. There is some suggestion that that is precisely what the Secretary of State for the Environment is up to.

Whatever advice the Minister receives, I hope that he will reconsider the possibility of amending the Bill. A period of eight years represents a problem even worse than might be supposed, because half way through a second Parliament a Member might have to transfer his attention to constituents he hoped to have and away from those he already had. It is already not uncommon for Members to start canvassing people whom they know will enter their constituency, in anticipation of a review—

Mr. Lloyd


Mr. Darling

I am about to say something that may stop the Minister wanting to intervene. These matters have been canvassed at some length. I readily accept that this was a probing amendment, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Back to
Forward to