HC Deb 14 May 1992 vol 207 cc735-7
5. Mr. David Atkinson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many registered electors did not vote in the recent general election; and what percentage this represents of the total number of registered electors.

9. Mr. Barnes

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will produce a report on the state of electoral registration at the 1992 general election; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

There are more than 43.7 million people on the 1992 electoral register—the highest number of people ever registered in the United Kingdom, and representing over 95 per cent. of the estimated eligible population. Preliminary figures show that the total number of votes cast at the general election was about 33.6 million, so about 23 per cent. of electors on the register did not vote.

Mr. Atkinson

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his well-deserved promotion. Was it his impression of the general election that many more of our constituents failed to meet the deadline for applications for postal and proxy votes and were thus unable to vote on polling day because they were away on holiday? Can my hon. Friend confirm that the deadline was 16 days before polling day? Will he now enter discussions with the appropriate authorities to seek a more convenient arrangement under which electors can exercise their democratic rights?

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend knows that the rules for postal votes were simplified some years ago. It is my impression that the new procedures were more frequently used in this election than before in that more people voted by post. I am well aware that in my constituency and, I am sure, in others there were complaints that people did not realise that they had to get their applications in on time. The deadline was 23 March, which was 13 or 17 days before the election, depending on whether one counts weekends. We were informed that that time was needed by the local authorities to process the applications, to check them, to send out the ballot papers, to have them back and to ensure that they could be included in the count.

We will have discussions with the local authorities and with the political parties on the lessons to be learnt from the election. I have no doubt that postal votes will be a significant part of those discussions.

Mr. Barnes

I object to the fact that two questions were linked together and that my question was not given an answer. An answer was given merely to the first question. My question asked whether the Home Office would be involved in a report about the state of the electoral register in the 1992 election. I should like an answer to that as well as to the supplementary question that I am about to put.

There is a sense in which most hon. Members represent rotten boroughs. At the previous election, 1–5 million people were missing from the electoral register, according to the Registrar-General and to reports by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. That is a huge democratic deficit. What are the Government and Home Office going to do to correct that? Shall I have to use a private Member's Bill to deal with the matter myself?

Mr. Lloyd

I expect that the hon. Gentleman—I know that he takes an interest in the subject—knows that the OPCS is undertaking special research on the accuracy of the registers. It will have at its disposal the results of the 1991 census, so it is an especially good time to carry out such research. When we have the results, we shall decide what steps, if any, need to be taken. Our discussions about keeping up the register will, no doubt, be part of the inquest which, as I said earlier, we shall hold with the local authorities and with the political parties later this year. The methods used to get people on to the register are advertising and publicity, and there is also the research on and review of the practices of local authorities. Like the hon. Gentleman, we want everyone who is eligible to be on the register.

Mrs. Peacock

What directions are given to electoral registration officers to enable them to compile a fairly comprehensive and factually correct electoral register?

Mr. Lloyd

We provide a considerable amount of advice, but under the law it is up to the officers to do it. The main way is the form to be filled in that is delivered to every household. As there may be another supplementary question from the Opposition Benches, I must say that the community charge register has been very useful in some constituencies as an extra source of information for the electoral registration officer to discover where people may not have put themselves on the electoral register. For example, in the eight constituencies in Leeds, the local authority, using those means to update the register, added 26,000 to the electoral register last year.

Mr. Darling

I congratulate the Minister on managing to remain in the Home Office in the recent reshuffle and I welcome his undertaking to consider postal votes. Many hon. Members believe that more time should be allowed for people to get postal votes. Is the Minister aware that the registers in some constituencies are grossly inaccurate? There were some cases of people being on the poll tax register, having paid their poll tax, but not on the electoral register. Does he accept that the Government must do far more to advertise the fact that the electoral register is compiled each autumn and encourage people to ensure that their names are on the electoral register so that they are not disenfranchised? Will he undertake to put a little more effort into advertising, in contrast to the half-hearted effort pursued by his predecessors?

Mr. Lloyd

We advertise every year; that amounted to some half a million pounds last year and it will be at least that sum this year. The most important task lies with the electoral registration officer to devise all means locally to ensure that everyone who should be on the register is on it and that those who should not be on it come off it.

Sir John Hannam

Is my hon. Friend aware that there are reports that many disabled people found that polling stations were still inaccessible? Will he consider carefully the suggestion that disabled people should be able to vote at a polling station that is accessible to them and not be unable to vote, as is the case at the moment?

Mr. Lloyd

I am not sure whether we would want necessarily to adopt my hon. Friend's solution. However, he raises a very important issue which must form part of the discussions that I have said are being carried out. A disabled person who is likely to find it difficult to gain access to a polling station is exactly the type of person who should apply for a postal vote.