HC Deb 12 February 1993 vol 218 cc1209-72

Order for Second Reading read.

9.37 am
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second Time.

The Bill has two main parts; the first deals with electoral registration and the second relates to physical access to polling stations. There is a third part and two schedules, but they are consequential to the material contained in the first two parts.

I shall deal with the provisions in respect of electoral registers, but I wish to talk, first, about the problem that the Bill seeks to address. I shall then analyse the consequences of the problem and look towards a remedy. The Bill is part of the remedy, but other measures may also need to be taken in conjunction with this proposed legislation.

The problem with electoral registration is that there is a considerable shortfall in the number of people who are on registers, compared with the numbers who are entitled to be on them. It is clear from official figures that have been published that there is a shortfall of more than 1.9 million. That is the gap between the eligible population and the numbers who are on registers.

In 1987, and in preceding years, there was a rough and ready balance between the numbers entitled to be on registers and the numbers on them. The problem has grown considerably since 1987. At present, there is a rough and ready balance in Northern Ireland, where there is no great problem. One difference between Northern Ireland and Britain is that Northern Ireland did not have the poll tax. It is reasonable to assume that the poll tax had some impact on electoral registration.

Certainly the shortfall in Britain coincided with the introduction of poll tax. It developed first in Scotland and then moved to England and Wales, and is particularly noticeable among those known as attainers, who appear on a register for the first time because they could not be checked with any previous register. I believe that the Home Office now acknowledges that the poll tax had an impact on electoral registration.

I do not rest my case on the poll tax alone. There are many other reasons for the shortfall. There is increasing rootlessness in society, with people moving around—getting on their bikes to look for work, and others living in bedsit land who move from place to place. Homelessness is increasing, and it is difficult to get on an electoral register if one is homeless or moving around the country. There is considerable alienation and deprivation in society, which does not add to registration.

There is also a new complexity in life, in that masses of material arrives through people's letter boxes, and many forms have to be filled in. Some are completed, but others are ignored because they are included with a host of material that is of no great significance. It may be that some people filled in a poll tax form thinking that they would automatically be included on the electoral register and failed to complete the separate registration form.

Inadequacies in standard spending assessments also have an impact on local government and on the services that it can provide. Many electoral returning officers try valiantly to do a good job, but find that they do not have sufficient funds.

Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a principal cause of the problem to which he refers is inefficiency in certain local authorities?

Mr. Barnes

There was certainly inefficiency in Brent, where legal action was threatened against the electoral returning officer to ensure the level of canvassing required under existing legislation. The result was that an extra 15,000 people or more were added to registers. There are excellent examples of electoral returning officers using imaginative techniques in the run-up to the last election, especially in Leeds and Plymouth. I encourage other returning officers to follow those examples, to which I shall refer again later.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want the moment to pass without pointing out to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) that Brent is a Conservative-controlled authority and that the action that he mentioned was initiated by Labour councillors, to allow people the right to exercise their vote.

Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

I remind my hon. Friend that the councillor mainly involved was Mrs. Peggy Quirke.

Mr. Allen

She deserves commendation from all parts of the House and I am sure that many hon. Members will sign an early-day motion that would do that.

Mr. Barnes

Best practice by electoral returning officers should be encouraged and the Bill makes provision for a code of practice that would enable that. Many returning officers are keen to be efficient, but discover that they do not have the resources to ensure the efficiency of the past.

The problem is not limited to the 1.9 million people missing from electoral registers in Britain. Another factor is hidden from view—masked by the fact that the names of many people are no longer entitled to be on a particular register. I refer to those who have died or moved to other areas. It is reasonable to assume that the latter will not exercise a postal vote or return to their previous area to vote. If they have registered in their new areas, that means that their names will appear on two registers, when one is allowed to vote only once. Redundant names must be removed.

That situation hides from view also the other 1.9 million people who are missing from registers. I am sure that many hon. and right hon. Members are aware of that situation from their own canvassing activities.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Is not the practice of including non-eligible names on registers encouraged by local authorities whose grants depend on the size of their population, in respect of the distribution of business rates grant?

Mr. Barnes

That could certainly be true. Also, in some areas the shortfall of the 1.9 million people that I mentioned can have a serious impact on the funding available in some areas, because it is linked, for example, to calculations for standard spending assessments.

There is also an imbalance in the number of missing voters. The problem is serious in some areas, but is of less significance in others. Nevertheless, the impact of funding can be dramatic.

The masking problem was illustrated by a survey by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys in 1981. It showed that at the end of a register's life it was, on average, 16 per cent. out of date. There is no way of knowing how many people are missing from electoral registers beyond the figure of 1.9 million that I mentioned, but it is reasonable to assume that if 5 per cent. are missing as a result of developments in recent years—including the poll tax—at least as many were traditionally missing and are still missing now. Electoral registers, therefore, are short by as much as 10 per cent. That seems a reasonable assumption, but if any hon. Members want to make alternative assumptions or arguments, I shall be interested to have them added to the debate.

One consequence of that serious shortfall is a democratic deficit, which should worry us all. Even if the missing voters are a replica of those having the franchise and would vote in exactly the same way, the fact that they are missing is still of significance. They should have the right to vote—and often they want that right and are disturbed to discover that their names do not appear on the register.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

Has the hon. Gentleman considered that it may be a matter of democratic choice not to register? In a free society, people are entitled to decide that they do not want to take part in any of its democratic processes. We must surely retain for those people the right to express their opinions in that way.

Mr. Barnes

That is not the position in current law, which expects people to register. Action can be taken if an individual fails to complete a form or refuses to give the appropriate information to a canvasser who comes to the door. The hon. Gentleman's notion is very dangerous. It would lead to voluntary registration and to the type of situation that exists in the United States and which we had way in the past. We could end up with registration of only 60 per cent. of the franchise. We know where the biggest missing groups would be found—among the deprived and those living in depressed areas.

Mr. Boateng

I thank my Friend for giving way and for initiating today's important debate. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) made a novel—and sinister and dangerous—proposition when he suggested that a democratic contribution could be made by breaking the law. That is especially true coming from a Conservative Government and a Conservative Member, when there are signs that Conservative council members are happy for registration to become a voluntary activity. That happened in the London borough of Brent and, as a result, 15,000 people dropped off the register. Had it not been for Councillor Peggy Quirke and her heroic action, 15,000 people would never have been recovered and there would have been a truly democratic deficit—however convenient that might have been for Conservative Members.

Mr. Barnes

A voluntary register would be detrimental to the democratic process. I am not in favour of compulsory voting; I favour people having a choice of whether they vote. Someone may decide not to register and later, during the election, may change his mind about what he wants to do. He may want to vote or may decide to abstain.

Registration should be a duty on people and electoral returning officers should work hard to ensure that they obtain all the necessary details. At elections, people can choose how and whether they vote. The alternative is dangerous.

Mr. Stephen Milligan (Eastleigh)

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) argued powerfully against voluntary registration. However, is not the problem with the Bill that, by setting up a rolling register, it makes part of the registration process voluntary? It will, to some extent, be a voluntary register, as those people who want to get on the register in the intervening period will be able to do so. That will have the disadvantages that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) has just outlined.

Mr. Barnes

I shall later explain what the Bill contains. I think that it will be seen that it contains a duty and reqirement to register, and that all sorts of action can be taken against those who do not.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)


Mr. Barnes

I shall take one more intervention and then I must make some progress.

Lady Olga Maitland

Am I not right in thinking that it is an offence, carrying a fine of up to £1,000, if a man or woman fails to register on the electoral roll?

Mr. Barnes

The fine is up to £400, but it is not an offence not to register—it is an offence not to respond to the inquiries made by the electoral returning officer. I am not keen that such action should frequently be taken against people, but it should provide a backdrop to encourage people to register.

Under-registration has various consequences. People who do not appear on the register do not constitute a random sample of society, but come from specific groups. That means that opinion poll surveys—which matter a great deal at elections in this country—are way out. Opinion pollsters investigate the population generally; they knock on doors and ask whether people are on the register, but they do not check the register. Therefore, opinion polls in this country are persistently out by a few per cent. Under-registration also causes boundary review problems. The maldistribution of the numbers of people missing causes a serious problem in some districts and means that the constituencies that are drawn up are much larger than they would otherwise be.

Under-registration is also likely to produce an electoral bias. I hope that I would make the same argument for full enfranchisement if the electoral bias were in another direction. I do not know whether I would, but it is fortunate for me that both the principle of the extension of democracy and the interests of those who do not support the Government begin to fall in line with each other.

A Warwick university survey done by Jeremy Smith and Professor Maclean found that Labour lost eight to 11 seats at the last general election because of the poll tax factor and the numbers missing from the register. The Conservatives took 22 seats at the last election with a majority of 1,000 or less in districts where the Conservatives would have been in danger had there been a full franchise. That could have made a dramatic difference to the make-up of the House. Therefore, I hope that Conservative Members will also be interested in that subject.

Mr. Stern


Mr. Barnes

I shall not give way now.

If hon. Members look at the list of sponsors of my Bill they will see that it has cross-party support. The list includes a Conservative, a Liberal Democrat, a Scottish Nationalist and a Plaid Cymru Member. One Conservative Member is sufficiently altruistic to support my Bill.

What remedies are there for the electoral shortfall? We should encourage electoral returning officers to engage in best practice, and my Bill contains a code of practice. What happens in Leeds and Plymouth should provide the example, not Brent. The electoral officers in Plymouth found that the Home Office material advertising the register was woefully inadequate, so they printed their own material and undertook imaginative campaigns to gain publicity, using local figures on the radio. In that way they greatly increased the numbers on the register. I hope that such an example will be followed by all electoral returning officers.

Political parties should also canvass; they should be alive. The Labour party should be active, carry out door knocking at all times, and check to see whether its supporters have registered. The same should be done by other political parties. After the Reform Act 1832, Sir Robert Peel said that the Tories must "register, register, register." When the fledgling Labour party was established, Keir Hardie said that the party should look to the electoral register to bring Labour to victory. We must take positive action, but legal improvements can assist the process.

The Home Office is conducting five surveys that follow the last election. One covers electoral registration and the political parties are involved in discussions with the Home Office. My Bill will assist the process and the results of the Home Office surveys could be used in Committee.

The Bill does not deal with referendums, the ending of expatriate votes and the banning of sales of electoral registers—all of which I favour and should like to have included in the measure—because they would make it much easier to defeat the Bill and would direct us away from the issues that I want to consider.

The Bill is not about fancy franchises and proportional representation. Those who believe in proportional representation base their belief on the principle of one person, one vote, one value. We cannot have one value for everyone unless we have one vote for everyone, so my Bill provides a logical first step towards any provision to reform the electoral system. I hope that that will be recognised by Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman has said. He talked about one-for-one value and the fact that there should be equity. How about the equity or inequity of constituencies such as the Isle of Wight, with 110,000 electors and Glasgow, Central, with about 40,000 electors? Is that not inequitable and should not that issue form part of the hon. Gentleman's brief?

Mr. Barnes

It follows on from the principle of one person, one vote that electoral districts should be as equal as possible. However, we have to remember that Scotland is a separate nation under the Act of Union and that different considerations might apply to Scotland. If hon. Members wish to tackle those problems, they must try to introduce a Bill to overcome them.

These provisions are not set in concrete. They ought to be considered seriously in Committee and developed within the framework of the Bill and the long title. Drafting inadequacies could be dealt with in Committee. It is impossible for me to introduce a Bill that is of constitutional significance and get it right in one fell swoop.

Under the provisions of the Bill, on 15 February 1995 or before, by order of the Home Office, the existing registers will be turned into rolling registers. Those registers will become the registers for the future. From then onwards, additions and deletions to the register can take place continuously. That is the rolling nature of the registers. In order to obtain additions and deletions, a duty will be placed on citizens to register and, when they move home, to tell the electoral registration officer that they are leaving the area and to inform the electoral registration officer into whose area they are moving. No great penalties are involved, apart from the serious penalty that if they refuse to provide full information to the electoral registration officer, he will enter the details in any case.

The electoral registration officers will still have certain duties to perform. Annual registration will continue, but that will be used to check the rolling register. Other information will be fed to the electoral registration officers. The registrar of births, deaths and marriages will supply information about deaths in the area. At the last election the Labour party in my constituency looked through the newspapers in advance for notices of deaths so that the names of those people were removed from the register. No leaflets canvassing for votes were therefore sent to the addresses of people who had died.

In addition, those with details of people's movements would be expected to send that information to the electoral registration officers. By that, I mean councils, housing associations and solicitors involved in conveyancing. Furthermore, if electoral registration officers believed that they needed to do so, they could seek information from public utilities that hold information about people.

Some would argue that worrying civil liberties considerations are involved. Therefore, the Bill provides for the protection of confidentiality. Any information that is sought by electoral registration officers will not be able to be used for any purpose other than the electoral register. Furthermore, they will only be able to pass that information to any other electoral registration officer to enable him to obtain fully up-to-date information. The Committee will have to consider carefully the protection of civil liberties and make sure that it has got it right.

The register will then roll on until an election is announced. After an election has been announced, the rolling register will be published within two days. There will also be annual publication of the register. However, it will be no more than a snapshot of the register at that time, because it will continue to roll. After the announcement of an election, those people in the area who are missing from the register can be added to it up to a week before the election. A supplementary list will be published of those names. However, no one will be able to be drafted on to the register by having come into the area from outside during an election period. We do not intend to have masses of people coming from outside into bedsit territory so that their names can be added to the register. That was one of the concerns of the Liberal Democrats. They put that concern to me. I was more than pleased to make sure that their concern was met by the provisions of the Bill.

Once an election is over, the register will continue to roll. The names on the supplementary list will be incorporated on the register. No name will be deleted during an election period, in case the wrong name is deleted.

How will people know that their names are missing from the electoral register? Polling cards will be issued two days after the announcement of the election. There will be publicity, urging people to check their polling cards. They will not need to take their polling card with them when they go to vote. However, they will be urged to check their polling card to make sure that their names are on the register. If they are not, those people will have the opportunity, up to seven days before the election, to get their names on the register. No one, however, will be able to get on to the register, unless they qualify to be on it when the election is announced.

Money will be needed for these purposes. There will not be just local newspaper publicity. There will be Home Office publicity and television publicity. If we are to get hold of the people who are missing from the registers, the best time to do it is when an election takes place. Everything should be done in advance, of course, to get the electoral register right. The more we get it right, the smaller will be the number of people who will need to be on the supplementary list.

Mr. Stern

I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's proposals. Has he considered what will happen in those areas, often just outside towns, where there are few local papers and where the circulation is very restricted? How does he propose to deal with the need for individual notification, particularly of absence from the register? If only one local paper comes out on a Friday and that has a restricted circulation, most of the people in that area rely solely on national media for their news.

Mr. Barnes

Reliance on the national media is something which the Home Office is expected to pick up under the provisions of the Bill. Therefore, there would be national publicity. Local publicity is not limited, however, to advertisements in local newspapers. Electoral registration officers will be encouraged to look at other means of publicity. They should consider using local radio and other means. The code of practice should include these means. However, we shall have to work out our ideas. I hope that the Home Office review will be valuable.

None of my proposals is problem-free. We must be careful to protect civil liberties. We must also remember by-elections. Although the Bill prevents people from being drafted into an area for a general election, it is often known well in advance that there is to be a by-election and we must try to ensure that we can handle the bedsit problem, to which I referred earlier. Furthermore, the Bill does not include provision for women's refuges. They were put on a second register for poll tax purposes and information about them was not available generally. We shall have to consider the need to protect those people and perhaps others. I shall be more than happy if those issues are dealt with in Committee.

Mr. Thomason

I seek some clarification. I do not understand how clause 2(3) and clause 8(1) will work together. I understood the hon. Member to say that the register would include people who had registered more than seven days before a general election. From my reading of those clauses, it seems that people cannot be registered for seven days after they have applied and it therefore follows that, to be able to vote, they would have to register more than 14 days before an election. Can the hon. Gentleman explain?

Mr. Barnes

I hope that the Bill is technically correct. If I have not got it right, it will have to be changed in Committee.

I intend that people who are entitled to be on the register should be able to register during an election campaign. However, their registration will not become operational for seven days. Therefore, people who registered during the final seven days before an election would not be able to vote, although their names would be placed on the register. One must register before the last week.

The details need to be hammered out in Committee. The system is not perfect, but it is as rigorous as I have been able to achieve in the time available. Other hon. Members who have promoted private Member's Bills have claimed tht it has taken too long to reach this stage, but I would have found another few months helpful, as the issue is so complex.

On physical access to polling stations, it is not enough for a person with disabilities to be on the register, as they also want to be able to exercise their franchise rights. Many registered disabled or infirm people want to go to the polling station, rather than use proxy or postal votes. Many elderly people say that they have always voted in that way and should continue to do so. However, many of those people find it difficult to exercise their rights. Part II of the Bill deals with that problem. Returning officers must consult disabled organisations in their areas, designate accessible polling stations and publicise them.

An accessible polling station must have at least one polling booth that is accessible for people in wheelchairs and the ballot box must be placed at the correct level for them. Those are minimum requirements. Schedule 2 contains a host of provisions that should be taken into account by returning officers, together with disabled organisations, so that adequate facilities may be provided.

The Bill states that there must be at least one designated accessible polling station in a constituency, which sounds rather meagre. However, the Bill contains that provision for logical reasons. If I had not included it, there might be no accessible stations in an area. I hope that, because of the Bill, pressure will increase to ensure that many accessible polling stations are designated.

If registered disabled people live in areas where there are no designated accessible polling stations, they can make arrangements with returning officers before the election to use the nearest accessible polling station to their homes, so that they may exercise their rights.

Many disabled organisations wanted access to be included in the Bill. The Spastics Society produced an excellent report during the last election which demonstrated the seriousness of the problem. I think that part II of the Bill is easier for Members to pursue. It is short and schedule 2 is associated with it.

Mr. Milligan

It is true that part II of the Bill is easier to pursue and it is a worthy cause. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that it would be good if disabled people found it easier to vote. However, has the hon. Gentleman studied the cost of adapting polling stations? Might it not be better to spend the same money to provide postal votes more easily, as many people do not know about them or do not find out until too late? If more money were spent on advertising postal votes, perhaps using television commercials, it might be a better use of the money. Many disabled people might prefer to vote postally rather than face the difficulties and inconvenience of getting into a polling station that was not built to accommodate them.

Mr. Barnes

Many disabled people wish to operate in society in the same way that able-bodied people do and they want the same avenues of access. Efforts should be made to put that right. We are not talking about serious expense. I believe that the Government already provide 50 per cent. of the cost of temporary ramps and other provisions. The measure extends such provisions and, with the agreement of the owners of polling stations, would provide for permanent access, which is sometimes less expensive than the temporary provisions.

I have been struggling for five years in the House over electoral registration. I first noticed the problem as a member of the Standing Committee, during the introduction of the poll tax. I envisaged that a problem would arise and have noticed evidence of it in many bits of legislation, Home Office circulars to electoral returning officers and finally in the statistics. When I was lucky in the draw for private Members' Bills, I was keen for the House to consider the matter seriously. It is a failing of many hon. Members that we forget the importance of the issue.

John Stuart Mill used to distinguish between what he called "living truths" and "dead dogmas". Some aspects of democracy have become dead dogmas. We all say that we are democrats and that the Government have a mandate, but the arguments over why we should have democracy and how it should operate died with the chartists and the suffragettes. The discussion has moved on to referendums, proportional representation and other fancy measures and we are not thinking about the basics and about who is entitled to be enfranchised. That is what the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884 and later measures were about. There must not be any further degeneration of electoral registration and the Bill is an attempt to move in another direction.

I must thank a great many people who helped me with the Bill, such as electoral registration officers and the Association of London Authorities which organised a conference involving many academics. I am like the author of a book—I have received a great deal of information and many ideas from other people, but I have been responsible for drawing up the Bill.

People worry about different aspects of the Bill, but my general intention has widespread support and increasing support within political parties. I hope that the Government will accept the intention and that I shall be allowed to make progress with the measure today.

10.19 am
Mr. David Evans (Welwyn, Hatfield)

It gives me great pleasure to debate an issue of such fundamental importance to our democracy. Unfortunately, all too often, as Members of Parliament, we are caught up in examining the fine detail of policy and are not usually given the opportunity to stand back to view the larger picture. The Bill offers us the opportunity to do just that and, at least in that respect, it should be welcomed. However, that is the last good thing that I have to say about the Bill.

As is often the case, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) has grabbed the wrong end of the stick. In fact, he must have more splinters in his hands than a transatlantic oarsman. I am a charitable man and could forgive him the Bill were it not motivated by what I can describe only as sinister intentions.

The Bill seeks to undermine some of the values at the very heart of our democracy and should therefore be opposed in the strongest terms. It is divided into two parts. The first deals with improving electoral registration and the second with improving access to polling stations for voters with a physical disability.

Things do not change. For the previous century and a half it has been left to Conservatives to resist damage to electoral reform and to promote far-sighted but practical alternatives. The year 1867 is rightly regarded as the watershed of the 19th century. After 1867 the liberty achieved through the great Reform Act was slowly but increasingly used to bring about a new social order, a process which continued into the 20th century. The period also saw—thank God—the decline of the Liberal party.

The Reform Act 1867 was a triumph for Disraeli, one of the great Conservative leaders. It was the crucial step in the adaptation of British institutions to rise to democracy. In short, it was Disraeli who turned the Conservative party and the country in the direction of universal adult suffrage which gave all men and women the opportunity to be represented by a democratically elected Member of Parliament.

The practice of representation in the United Kingdom is as old as the English Parliament itself. The great Tory Edmund Burke made the well-known distinction between representation and delegation: a delegate merely mirrors and records the views of his constituent, whereas a representative is elected to judge according to his own conscience. However, I am sure that everyone here will agree that if our conscience told us to disobey all petitions from constituents, we would not last long.

As representatives, we have a duty to listen to our constituents as well as a wider duty to obey the principles of this place and the constitution. In the same way, our constituents also have duties, and it is that aspect of our democracy which the Bill undermines.

Let us consider the background to the current policy. We have never left it solely to the individual to register his or her interest in voting, unlike the United States of America where the turnout in presidential elections is substantially lower than the turnout here for general elections. The Government impose a duty on citizens to provide the information requested by electoral registration officers. In effect, registration is compulsory. Those who receive the annual canvassing document, form A, have a duty to return it with accurate information and can be fined £1,000 for not complying.

There is a statutory duty on electoral registration officers to maximise registration and to publish an annual register of all those who appear to be eligible to vote. There are facilities for the public to check and correct the register.

Mr. Dunn

My hon. Friend makes a telling point. A few moments ago he referreed to the United States. Does he agree that many commentators on this side of the Atlantic often fall into the habit of assuming that a low turnout in an Amercian presidential election is a reflection of low registration? Fifty-six per cent. of people voted in the presidential election, but they were 56 per cent. of those entitled to register, which is a comment on the culture of voting in the United States compared with the United Kingdom.

Mr. Evans

My hon. Friend makes his point very well.

The Government estimate levels of registration at about 95 per cent. of the potential electorate and they also estimate that, every year, £40 million is spent in England and Wales on the process of electoral registration. The Government also launch each year a nationwide advertising campaign to encourage people to complete and return their electoral registration forms. In 1992 we spent £617,000 on that campaign.

I deal now with the community charge. We all know where the sympathies of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East lie in that respect—not with the millions of law-abiding people who have paid in full, but with those who stuck two fingers up to the rest of us and did not contribute a penny to their local services. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman was a sponsor of the National Action Conference Against the Poll Tax, which co-ordinated civil disobedience and mass non-payment of the community charge. They are hardly the best credentials of a so-called saviour of democracy.

Mr. Barnes

When I argued against the poll tax, I took the line that I would not pay it, but I never advocated that others should not do so. I argued that as an elected representative of the people I had a particular duty, because the poll tax was undermining electoral registration. Acts should never he introduced that undermine electoral registration because such registration is part of our unwritten constitution. It is part of statute and has a higher legal priority according to people such as Blackstone, a past authority on the constitution. The line that I took was associated with my current argument that the register must be accurate. If we have a complete register, the argument that we should not disobey the law as a way of changing things begins to have much more relevance.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman may say that or he may say something else. All that I can say is that he welcomed the statement by Labour councillors backing illegal mass non-payment of poll tax, in addition to expressing his admiration and respect for the principled stand of someone who was imprisoned for refusing to pay the community charge. Not content to egg on such degenerate tax dodgers, he is now trying to introduce a system that would not penalise those who refused to pay their community charge or council tax. Why should people who avoid paying taxes such as the community charge be allowed the opportunity to remain on the electoral register until they die? That is what the rolling register would do.

It should be remembered that there was no conspiracy by the Government to have poll tax dodgers removed. The dodgers chose to withdraw their names so that, like outlaws, they could not be traced. They are down-and-outs in terms of civic responsibility. They are the democratically unwashed and I say good riddance to them. If they are not willing to pay, they should not have a say.

Everyone has heard of the old adage "No taxation without representation". What about "No representation without taxation"? As there can be no rule of law without the Government to sustain it, taxation becomes a crucial element in sustaining our society and way of life. Those who have the means to contribute but will not should be gagged.

What has the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East offered us? He offers a magna carta for delinquents. It is not surprising that a Labour Member of Parliament should seek to introduce such legislation because, having lost in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992, Labour needs the support of everyone possible, criminals or not.

Labour believes that it has been cheated. The hon. Gentleman says that the Conservatives won seats because some people were not on the electoral register or did not vote. I shall tell them why they lost. They had an awful leader. Down in Nottingham they were singing, "We are the champions", and fireworks were going off like a load of damp squibs—but they were all Roman candles. There was not a banger among them. Now they have this fool of a leader. What is he up to? He wrote a shadow budget for the nation. No wonder the people never gave him the chance to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. The hon. Gentleman's reference to the present leader of the Labour party and draft budgets is was beyond the realm of the Bill.

Mr. Evans

I withdraw my remarks about the current leader of the Labour party, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that he is called the wriggler from Monklands, East.

What I have described is the motive behind the Labour party's move towards proportional representation—the bolthole of minority parties throughout the world. It is typical of the Labour party to pick up an idea just when everyone else is discarding it. Even the Italians, who are fond of loony ideas, are thinking again about the issue.

The result of PR—and the Labour party knows it—would be to deliver to this country the sort of Government that we get locally in Derbyshire, Lambeth and Sheffield, in which extreme minorities run roughshod over people's lives. Furthermore, a representative is more likely to respond to the interests of those who appoint him if they are identified with a specific place—yet PR undermines the very idea of a constituency. If the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East really wants to enhance representation he should tell his comrades to drop PR as quickly as they dropped CND. If they want to win an election they will have to convince the electorate that beer and sandwiches at No. 10 is no substitute for sound policies.

When we look at this ridiculous Bill we see that the lesson still has not been learnt. The Labour party believes that some of its voters are being stopped from voting. It is right—but why has that happened? They have been stopped because they are cheats and have been caught out not paying their taxes.

If the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East really wanted to improve our representative system he should have dealt with the sums paid as deposits by candidates. Candidates in all public elections automatically acquire certain rights, privileges and advantages—the right to free post for their election addresses and the free use of publicly maintained buildings for meetings and the right to veto broadcast transmission of material related to the constituency election. In addition, they receive considerable publicity. Is it right that such benefits should be conferred on a candidate whose views are held by only a tiny minority of the electorate?

We need a deterrent to ward off the proliferation of fringe candidates who are now undermining the effectiveness with which the campaigns of candidates with significant support can be conducted. A deposit of £5,000 would certainly make fringe candidates think twice. The Bill would be even better if it required a non-refundable deposit of £15,000 from each representative of the Labour party. The money could be passed over to the Exchequer to pay it back for some of the damage done to this country when the Labour party was in power.

Part II of the Bill deals with physical access to polling stations. Let us examine Government policy on that subject before we go haring off into making expensive changes. In 1985 we made it a statutory duty for local authorities to choose polling stations that offer facilities for the disabled in preference to those that do not, where there is a choice. Admittedly, choice can be limited. Where the only building available does not provide good access for disabled voters, we provide a grant of 50 per cent. towards the cost of temporary ramps. Nevertheless, our long-term aim is for all polling stations to be accessible to disabled people. That is why we remind returning officers of their duty to choose accessible polling stations where possible.

The suggestion that disabled people should be allowed to vote at a more suitable polling station if their local station does not provide good access is being considered in the context of our post-election review. That suggestion has received a mixed reception from local authority representatives and in practice it might not be helpful to many disabled people, for whom travel to a more distant polling station would also be difficult.

There have been consultations with groups representing disabled people. Shortly before the general election the Royal National Institute for the Blind wrote to the Government with suggestions for making it easier for blind and partially sighted people to take part in the electoral process. The Government circulated to acting returning officers guidance provided by the RNIB on the layout of polling stations, the lighting, and the typeface to use on notices and ballot papers. Following more recent consultations with the RNIB, we have invited its representatives to attend a meeting of one of the post-election working groups to explain their concerns.

After the general election, the Spastics Society produced a report entitled, "Polls Apart", about disabled people and the election. It was critical of the standards of access to polling stations, claiming that 88 per cent. of those surveyed had one or more problems which would prevent disabled people from voting there independently. We wrote to the Spastics Society suggesting that if it provided material on mobility issues similar to that provided by the RNIB, we should be happy to circulate it to returning officers. There has been no response to that offer.

The Bill is unnecessary and it addresses no obvious problem. Most people understand their civic responsibilities and freely exercise their rights. Indeed, at the general election voter turnout increased. If there is a problem, it is a problem of individuals' own choosing. Democracy is not ideal. There will always be people who refuse to participate—on the grounds of conscience or because they want to dodge their responsibilities to the state. Why spend valuable time and money altering a system that works perfectly fairly? If we want to change things for the better we should outlaw those such as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East, who encourage law breaking and civil disobedience. It is they who undermine our representative democracy and, as outlaws, they should be barred from office.

10.37 am
Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

The House has been entertained to hear the hon. Member—the Rab C. Nesbitt of Welwyn Hatfield—voicing his prejudices again. There were a number of rather remarkable contradictions in his speech—not least of which was his extolling of the virtues of Disraeli, while seeking to reintroduce a property qualification for the vote. His speech will not have convinced many people who are interested in democracy as opposed to the more atavistic impulses from the wilder shores of Conservatism.

The Bill is a useful, important and timely measure. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) is to be congratulated on having introduced it with the support of hon. Members from so many parties. For several years he has carried on a personal crusade to rectify the deficiencies of our system of registration. As he rightly says, that system is fundamental to the effectiveness of our democratic system of parliamentary government. If we do not have a proper register, we cannot have a proper outcome and whatever the consequences of registration may be, it will be flawed if there are, as is the case today, such apparent discrepancies between the number of people who are entitled to vote and the number who have the opportunity to do so.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East has not made a partisan point. He has made a point that must appeal to all who are concerned about the efficacy of our deomocratic system. From the example of other countries where registration is worse than it is here, it is clear that a good registration system is the key to producing representative government.

We must ask why there has been a deterioration in registration in this country over the past decade. It is a subject on which the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government, a non-partisan body, focused in its publication of September 1991 entitled "Agenda for Change". The society took evidence from many sources and produced an authoritative report. Some of its recommendations are embodied in the Bill. We look forward with interest to hearing the Government's response to the Hansard Society's proposals for improving the system.

It is right to get the matter into proportion. The defects of registration are neither uniform nor universal. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East referred to two local authorities, Plymouth and Leeds, and there are other areas where there is high accuracy because local authorities have made great efforts to ensure that the register is a true reflection of those who are entitled to vote.

However, there has been a deterioration throughout the country as a whole. The Hansard Society report showed that whereas between 1951 and 1966 electoral registers were thought to be between 96 and 97 per cent. accurate, by 1981 the error rate had almost doubled. That was before the introduction of the poll tax. Whatever view one takes of the poll tax on the ground of equity, no one can seriously argue that it has not seriously exacerbated the problem of registration. The electoral registration lists were undoubtedly used by local authorities in the compilation of community charge registers. That fact was widely known and was widely seen by those who were opposed to the poll tax or who felt unable to pay it as a reason for not registering for elections.

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

The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point which involves a number of complex arguments. He took up the reference to Leeds made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) and said that it had a commendably high registration rate. I believe that one of the reasons why it achieved that rate was that it used the community charge list, which it had taken great trouble to get full and up to date, to check who had been left off the electoral register. The argument about the community charge cuts at least two ways. If electoral registration is efficiently carried out in a district, the community charge list can be positively helpful.

Mr. Maclennan

The Minister has linked the two lists together, although at all times during the passage of the community charge legislation the Government said that the lists would be kept separate.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maclennan

I shall just finish the point and I shall then happily give way.

I do not dispute the fact—indeed I made the point—that it was certainly the case that those who compiled the community charge lists referred to the electoral registers. The Minister has informed the House—I am sure that he did so on good authority—that in Leeds the system operated the other way round and I am sure that he is right. That shoots out entirely the argument deployed by Ministers during the passage of the community charge legislation that the community charge would have no effect on voting. That argument was always suspect and the Minister has finally nailed it in his intervention.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

I do not want to labour the point. The Government have recommended many times that electoral registration officers should use the community charge list to check that the electoral registers are up to date. The Government have given that advice. It is good advice and some electoral registration officers have used it very well.

Mr. Maclennan

I pointed out that I did not wish to dwell on the impact of the community charge on registration. Any fair-minded person who looks at what has happened will share the view of the Hansard Society that the community charge had an adverse effect on the level of registration across the country as a whole. However, that is an historical issue to some extent, as, not before time, we are seeing the demise of that tax.

We must concern ourselves more with the underlying reasons that pre-date the poll tax. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East made it plain that he was not resting his case solely on the poll tax. It is clear that there are variations throughout the country and we must ask the reason for that.

The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) wanted to place the blame entirely on ne?er-do-wells who had not taken the trouble to get themselves registered. The matter is not as straightforward as that. The window of opportunity for registration is narrow and it may require a considerable effort by someone who has been left off the register to discover how to go about getting himself on to the register again. People with language difficulties in some communities may find it even more difficult, which may account for some of the discrepancies in registration.

It is clear that local authorities that have made great efforts to improve the register have had success. They have achieved that success not only by campaigning and advertising widely, but by carrying out follow-up surveys in the community after the returns have been made. There is no doubt that that course must be followed.

We should look with favour at the core proposal of the Bill, which is that there should be a rolling electoral register. I understand that such a system has been introduced with success in Australia. No argument of principle can be deployed against it. The haphazard circumstances of the dates chosen for elections—

Mr. Stern

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a bit dangerous to make comparisons between this country and Australia because the fact that there is compulsory voting in Australia must devalue the importance of the timing of the register? Whether there is a rolling register or a fixed register in Australia, people still have to vote. We are talking about giving people the right to vote so we must consider the idea of a rolling register, which, like the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) I largely welcome, with rather more caution.

Mr. Maclennan

I view with caution any matters involving a change in our electoral law, but the example of Australia is certainly worth considering, because the new system appears to have worked well there. As the hon. Gentleman says, the circumstances of its introduction may have been different from those pertaining here, but that does not necessarily mean that it is not transferable. I hope that the Government will express their willingness to look favourably on that principle, because, whatever difficulties there may be in its operation, it certainly has a great deal to recommend it.

The funding of registration is also important. There is a great discrepancy in the extent to which local authorities fund registration and I am not altogether sure that that is desirable. We have a national interest in ensuring a high level of registration and that should not really turn on local choice. I believe in the principle of subsidiarity, and that effectiveness and efficiency should be the test of the level of government at which decisions are taken. But given that there are extraordinary discrepancies—several percentage points between the best and least good—we must ask ourselves whether the intervention of central Government is required to achieve better results. We cannot be satisfied that our national interests are being adequately protected at present.

Following advice from the electoral registration officers about the differences to which I have alluded, the Hansard Society report said that there was a case for increasing the resources devoted to canvassing and advertising for registration, preferably through a system of central funding of electoral registration. At present, only the cost of administering elections is paid centrally. I should be interested to hear the Government's view of that recommendation.

The Bill highlights the widespread concern that there is a deterioration in registration, which it would not be wise of the Government to shrug off. The position varies across the country. I have not had access to the most recent figures, but I note that, over a decade ago, in 1981, Wales had a non-registration rate of 9.2 per cent; England, of 6.5 per cent; and Scotland, of 5.4 per cent. Office of Population Censuses and Surveys annual reports suggest that there has been an increase in the number of registration officers reporting lower response rates to their surveys.

The Bill will do a great deal of good. Although details remain to be worked out and there are certain problems—the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East fairly drew attention to them as Committee points—I support the thrust of the Bill and I am delighted to have the opportunity to support the hon. Gentleman today.

Part II of the Bill deals with the problems of disabled voters—a matter which is not insignificant. It was not only severely disabled electors in the royal borough of Wick in my constituency who felt angry when, at the last general election, they discovered that they were required to vote in polling booths on the second floor of a Victorian town hall with no lift access. Elderly, as well as disabled people, were inadequately cared for as a result of that serious oversight.

Such matters are important and cannot be dealt with exclusively by postal vote arrangments, because, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East said, many people want to participate fully in the electoral process. They are entitled to have their needs taken care of. I hope, therefore, that the measures in part II of the Bill, which covers physical access to polling stations, will be given a fair wind by the House so that we may tackle the problem at root.

10.55 am
Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

I am grateful to you for calling me at this point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because, for constituency reasons, I may be unable to stay until the end of the debate. I apologise in advance to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) and my hon. Friend the Minister.

In following the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and in welcoming the Bill, let me start with a note of caution. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland referred to a number of difficulties in the Bill as Committee points. I think that he underestimates some of the difficulties to which the Bill gives rise.

I welcome the Bill because, if it receives its Second Reading today, it will enable us to consider, in Committee and on Report, a number of detailed questions. I must say, however, that I have little faith that, in the context of the private Member's Bill procedure, it will be possible to resolve those points so as to allow effective legislation to be passed. I welcome the Bill as part of the discussion process that will inform the studies currently taking place in the Home Office, which will, in due course, lead us to the necessary revision of electoral law. I am sure that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East is realistic enough to know that that is the likely outcome and that he, like me, has no great expectation that the Bill in its present form or in a similar form will eventually become law.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East has rightly introduced a Bill which would make it easier for people to register and so minimise involuntary non-registration. That is wholly to be applauded. In a democracy, there is no excuse for people who wish to vote, and who comply with the law in their wish to vote, having barriers put in their way. I entirely accept that. In drafting the Bill in its present form, however, the hon. Gentleman has accepted the principle that there should be some form of legal compulsion, if not in respect of registration itself, certainly in respect of an aspect of registration—the provision of information to enable someone to be registered.

I am a little worried about that principle. If we accept in a democracy that someone is entitled to be registered but not to vote—a point that the hon. Gentleman made in his opening remarks—I can see no justification for not going a stage further. If someone who lives in a democracy is sufficiently unenamoured of the democratic process that he wishes to declare publicly that he will take no part in it, I see no reason why there should be a legal barrier to prevent that person from making such a declaration.

Mr. Dunn

It is not simply a matter of those who may be disaffected by the democratic process or the choice of available parties. Some people do not wish to register on religious grounds. We are all aware of people in our constituencies who would not vote because their strong beliefs tell them not to. They should have an opportunity to say that they wish to have no part in the process because they want their futures to remain in hands higher than the Government or democracy.

Mr. Stern

I entirely accept that point and I was about to consider that issue.

Mr. Maclennan

The duties of citizenship and the relationship of the electoral register to those duties do not simply relate to voting. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) should bear in mind the fact that jury service depends on registration. Whatever may be one's religious beliefs, one may not opt out of all the civic duties associated with the electoral register.

Mr. Stern

The hon. Gentleman is right, although his example of jury service depends on several factors other than entry on the electoral register. Indeed, I am always somewhat embarrassed when I argue about the duty of jury service in the House, which has exempted itself from that duty.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

My hon. Friend has made an interesting observation. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) has made a proper point. Citizens have duties which, to some extent, flow from electoral registration. A number of people in my constituency belong to the Exclusive Brethren or are Jehovah's Witnesses. They choose not to vote. However, they come to see me as their Member of Parliament when they want me to lobby Ministers on their behalf, and naturally, I do that. However, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland is right. There is a duty to register. If individuals choose not to exercise their vote having registered, that is a matter for them.

Mr. Stern

I have a similar constituency background, but I am forced to disagree with my hon. Friend. Like him, I consider that I represent members of the Jehovah's Witnesses or Exclusive sects although they do not vote. They come to see me from time to time when they feel that their beliefs are affected by legislation, proposed legislation or by administrative actions of the Government. Quite rightly, they expect me to take up their concerns on their behalf.

The people to whom I have just referred accept that although they are in an anomalous position in that they take on many of the duties of citizens, in so far as being registered is considered a duty, they do not like that duty. They would be considerably more at ease in our society if they could declare that they were not part of the process in which people expect them to take part. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) would find that a religious exemption from the duty to register would make such sects more at ease in our society.

There is a philosophical difficulty about the thrust of the Bill in respect of whether we should be reinforcing a legal duty, under pain of monetary penalty, to register in the first place. The main point of the Bill is to encourage by all means the registration to vote. Although I accept the principle and am interested in some of the proposals, I foresee some difficulties. Those points must be considered in Committee and on Report and will, in due course, form part of the Home Office deliberations.

I want first to consider the Bill's resource implications. Although it is often parroted from the Opposition Benches that the first thing that Government supporters consider in respect of any measure is the cost, the fact is that the cost is important. It is even more important when central Government impose additional costs on local government.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East has, like me, on many occasions been told by his local representatives, "Look, you expect us to do these things, but you don't provide us with the resources. How on earth do you expect to continue to increase the responsibilities of local government without providing the resources?"

With respect to any new measure, we have a duty to consider what we would like local government to do and also exectly what it will cost local government to do it. There is then the separate argument of whether we give that area of expenditure a sufficiently high priority that we would wish to provide the extra funds to enable local authorities at least to have a chance to act properly.

The resource implications of the Bill are considerable. At the moment, the electoral registration system, for which I have a very high regard, works on the basis of an annual register. There is a clear calendar and clear staffing implications during the year in respect of the duties of the electoral registration officer and his assistants.

A rolling register would destroy that timetable. The basic timetable might still exist, but the duties that can now be slotted into different times in the year by the electoral registration officer would be continuous. Clearly, the resource implications are bound to be considerable.

In addition, the Bill requires electoral registration officers to look much wider for sources of information for the register and, in particular, for the rolling register. That must also have resource implications. I do not necessarily say that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East is wrong to extend the work of the electoral registration officer in that way. However, I do not believe that it would be proper for the House to approve measures of this potentially expensive nature without having greater regard to the additional costs that we would place on local authorities.

Mr. Barnes

There are resource implications in clauses 10, 17 and 20 which, essentially, fall on the Home Office. Those resource implications would have to be taken into account. Therefore, if the Bill receives a Second Reading, it would require a money resolution at a later stage. There are not necessarily resource implications for local authorities in addition to the moneys that would begin to become available from elsewhere. In so far as there are resource implications, some of the computer hardware and software already exists with regard to the community charge register. As that register will no longer exist, the computer hardware and software could be used for electoral registration purposes.

Mr. Stern

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It is unusual to hear praise from Opposition Benches for the community charge collection machinery. However, I must offer the hon. Gentleman a word of caution. I represent the city of Bristol, which is notorious for not collecting the community charge. It has one of the best records of not collecting the community charge of any local authority in the country. The horrific thought that that creaking, outdated, antiquated and unused machinery was to be transferred to electoral registration would be the greatest reversal of democracy that this country has seen for a hundred years. As the hon. Gentleman has admitted, there are resource implications. He said that they might be overcome, but I have some doubt about that.

I am also a little troubled by the frequency of alteration to the register that the hon. Gentleman's proposals would require. Again, I am a little troubled by some implications. There are, of course, resource implications in more frequent amendments to the register, which the hon. Gentleman and I have just discussed. In addition, the fact that we currently have an annual register, albeit one with an annual programme for correction, builds into the system certain checks and balances which would be rather more difficult under the rolling register.

I have always represented an urban seat. Before I represented that seat, I stood as a candidate in another urban seat, Derby, South—very close to the hon. Gentleman's constituency. One problem that is observed in any urban election—it is extremely difficult to pin down, but it is at least suspected in almost every election in which I have ever been involved—is that of impersonation. Electoral registration officers have suggested to me that, to check the possibility of false registration, they need time to make adequate checks within the electoral registration system to enable them to decide for themselves whether a registration at a house in a particularly mobile neighbourhood is justified.

I am worried that if we move towards forcing the electoral registration officer to take much speedier decisions on a person's entitlement to registration, we might be reducing that officer's ability to ensure to his own satisfaction that the entry or the removal of an entry is correct.

Mr. Dunn

Surely there is another point to consider in the context of the rolling register, not just the valid point that my hon. Friend is making. If it were known that a Member of Parliament was ill or was liable to give up to go to the European Commission on some appointment or other, what is to stop any party gradually moving in some of its more determined zealots to form part of that rolling register for the by-election that might take place?

Mr. Stern

My hon. Friend is slightly unfair to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East; he referred to that point as a problem. Like my hon. Friend, I am not sure whether the problem can easily be resolved. It is certainly one for which no resolution appears in the Bill, although I accept that the hon. Gentleman said that that point would need to be considered in Committee. I am not sure whether the problem can be resolved so easily when there is often a three-month delay between the need for a by-election and the date of the by-election and when the actual need for a by-election is often predated by a period of increasing certainty that a by-election will take place. That is a problem, particularly in towns with mobile populations and in which the addition of a few extra voters to the electoral rolls could easily go unnoticed until the names are published in the up-to-date rolling register.

Another problem in connection with the frequency of updating, which is inherent in the Bill, is in the clause relating to publication of the final list of amendments seven days before an election. In terms of postal votes, canvassing, the organisation of transport, particularly for the disabled, and all the other processes in a normal general election in particular, and even more so in a by-election, a seven-day notification of a list of new names is an impossible target for an adequate electoral process as we know it.

If our tradition in this country were like the German tradition in which there is very little mass canvassing and great general publicity, that process might be accommodated. The hon. Gentleman is saying that our traditional methods of contacting voters during a general election will no longer apply to a significant number of the electorate. I am not sure whether the House should lightly change that.

Mr. Barnes

We are talking about a significant number only if other measures in the Bill are not working very well. It is a final check. Some areas would undoubtedly have large supplementary lists and others would have small supplementary lists. A large supplementary list would be a sign that extra action might be needed by the returning officers to correct the shortfall. We are talking not about extensive lists but about short additions as a backstop.

Mr. Stern

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Only time will tell. We are dealing with probably more of an urban problem than a rural problem. Nevertheless, I can foresee areas of my constituency—I shall refer to this point later—which would be seriously affected by a rolling register. I am talking about areas in which, in any normal year, there could be a turnover of about 20 per cent. of the register. Therefore, any political organisation needs considerable time and effort to be able to contact that continually changing electorate.

Another matter in respect of which I have some concerns is the criteria for registration. Again, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East was right to highlight the fact that our existing criteria might be looking somewhat dated in the light of the mobility of modern life. For example, where people consider their homes to be, where they consider they would normally be, and where they actually lay their heads on the night of 15 October are concepts which, in a settled and less mobile society—

Mr. Dunn

Or September when the forms come out.

Mr. Stern

Or September when the forms come out, as my hon. Friend says.

Those aspects might be appropriate to a settled society in which people move infrequently, but they are increasingly difficult for electoral registration officers to enforce, when, again particularly in urban areas, people move more frequently. What is the position, for example, in relation to people who are moving house at about the time of electoral registration and are genuinely between two houses? They could be living in a hotel or temporarily in a third house. Those problems can be resolved, but they cause difficulty for an electoral registration officer. The Bill, by providing for a rolling list, would increase the difficulty of that officer's work.

My final concern about the Bill relates to the almost draconian provisions for the obtaining of information by the returning officer and the sources of that information. It seems that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East is giving greatly increased powers under penalty to the returning officer. Such powers are given to almost no other department of local government and the Labour party was critical when similar powers were given to community charge registration officers.

The hon. Gentleman is relying on confidentiality within local authorities. With the best will in the world, and having the highest regard for electoral registration officers, ordinary citizens would be concerned if the information for which returning officers were entitled to ask was readily available to those returning officers. We have all had recent examples of how easy it is for information that we all consider to be private to be leaked into the public domain and made much of by the media. The House has not yet found an answer to increasing the privacy of such information. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's measures would contribute greatly to the privacy of individuals. I think that they would detract from such privacy for purposes that the individual might resent.

In addition, I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has appreciated the extent to which it would be necessary for the electoral registration officer fully to enforce the powers given under the Bill to the officer. I shall give an example from my constituency. I represent two thirds of a new town called Bradley Stoke, which was being built in the years up to and including the last general election, and is still being built. With a fixed date for the register, the electoral registration officer still had the greatest difficulty in establishing who was entitled to be on the register at a specific date. Streets were appearing where they had never appeared before and people were moving into empty houses in a steady stream around the night specified for electoral registration.

Many streets were discovered only a few months after 15 October. The electoral registration officer had to decide whether the streets existed on 15 October and whether people were living there. To get that information, he had to go not simply to the people who wished to go on the register and to those who had taken no action to go on the register because it did not concern them that much, but to the individual developers—about 20 different ones were involved—and to individual estate agents to find out when houses had been sold. In many cases, he approached local solicitors to find out when completions had taken place. At a time of rapid development in a constituency, one can imagine the additional work if it had to be done not simply once a year but continually and then have to be challenged continually. It would mean that, in the case of a developing new town such as Bradley Stoke, the electoral registration officer would need a line to almost every solicitor in the country to find out whether a completion had taken place on or around the day of entitlement so that he could check any incomplete information that was given to him.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)


Mr. Stern

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. Frankly, the proposals of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East would be incapable of producing a reliable register in any major development.

Mr. Corbyn

I am sorry that I did not hear the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman's speech. I think that the electoral registration officer in his constituency is a remarkably assiduous person and tribute should be paid to him for doing that sort of work. I cannot imagine many other electoral registration officers who would go to that degree of detailed investigation without a lot of pressure being put on them to do it.

Parts of the constituency that I represent have an annual turnover of population of up to 25 per cent., so a register compiled in October is out of date by the time it comes into force in February. If there is an October election, the register is often as much as 20 per cent. inaccurate in some places. A rolling register would certainly help us.

Clearly, electoral registration officers would need much more resources than they have at present to do the work. I recognise that there is a cost involved, but it is a cost well worth paying to enable people to have the right to cast their votes.

Mr. Stern

The hon. Gentleman is right. He underlined a number of points that I made earlier. There is a cost involved. Like him, I represent some areas of high mobility where the electoral registration officer has some difficulty. The hon. Gentleman underlined my point that the task is difficult enough when it has to be done on the basis of an annual register. It would be much more difficult on the basis of a rolling register.

Since the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East referred to the report from Warwick university, I must make one final comment. He said that the justification for his Bill—or at least part of it—was that increasing the accuracy of the register might be favoured more by the Labour party than the Conservative party. He called in evidence the report by Warwick university, "The UK Poll Tax and the Declining Electoral Roll", which refers to my constituency, among others. It is an example of academic research, through a lack of knowledge of the terrain, coming to a totally incorrect conclusion. Studies in my constituency during the last election campaign showed that the inaccuracies in the register were largely in the faster-developing areas such as Bradley Stoke, where a local town council election at the start of the election campaign proved that the vote was almost entirely divided between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats with the Labour party coming nowhere. If that area of my constituency had a more accurate register at the time, it certainly would not have benefited the Labour party and would undoubtedly have increased by majority.

Mr. Barnes

In the end, the question of who benefits should not matter. I have a transcript of a television interview with the Minister. When this matter was raised, the Minister said: I don't think Labour had any disadvantage over the registers in the last general election. Quite the reverse. It was the sort of Conservative voter areas that were underrepresented, because the constituency boundaries there were based on electoral registers many years ago, and in those times the inner-cities were much more highly populated,". The Minister has an argument about why the Conservatives suffered from under-registration. Whether it is the Conservatives or Labour, we should get the registration right.

Mr. Stern

On that point of agreement, I am happy to conclude my remarks.

11.28 pm
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I wish to support the Bill. Fortunately, the week in which my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) introduces his Bill is the time of the year when the new register is published. We all know that in a few days the electoral registers published in our constituencies will already be four months out of date, because the qualifying date was in October 1992.

The register that is now being published will have to run for 12 months. We all know that there are already a number of errors in the register, for a number of reasons. A number of people will have died or moved, which will make the register out of date on the first day on which it can possibly be used. That will eliminate the ability of certain people to exercise their right to vote.

As the year passes, the margin of error increases. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East referred to an average error of 16 per cent., but we all know that the error in some constituencies is much greater than that. My hon. Friend was referring to the error at the end of a register's life. In many constituencies—for example, those in inner London, and inner city constituencies generally—the error increases to 30 or 35 per cent. when the life of the registers comes to an end. That will be the position in 1993–94. It is an extremely wide margin of error.

I was a full-time agent and a voluntary agent for over 20 years before I became a Member. I know that the register that we use now is nowhere near as accurate as the registers that were used in the 1950s and the early 1960s. Financial pressures on local government have become greater and, regrettably, local authorities have sought to save money in undertaking their responsibility to ensure that registers are as full and accurate as possible.

We have all seen changes in the method of registration. When I was a local government candidate in the early 1960s—I was an agent at the time—there could be only one change to the register each year. The Y voters, as they used to be, were able to exercise their vote on a date halfway through the life of the register. Dates of birth are now shown on registers, which means that when a person becomes 18 years of age—it used to be the 21st birthday, of course—he or she immediately becomes qualified to vote. People can claim that their names should be added to a register if there has been an official error or because they fail to register. That facility is not much used and it relates to the place where they would have been qualified to vote in October of the previous year. People are not allowed to put their names on the registers that are being used in the places to which they have moved. They can claim only that their names should be added to the register at the place where they were in residence, in the previous October.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East proposes that we should have a moving and changing register. He has said that the provisions that are set out in the Bill need to be debated fully in Committee, and he is right. Conservative Members have highlighted some flaws. However, the Bill focuses our attention on faults with the present system. If we have a democracy, we have a duty to ensure that the maximum number of people are able to exercise their right to vote at local elections, county council elections, borough elections, regional elections—I hope—in the years to come, parliamentary elections and elections to the European Parliament. The key, of course, to the exercise of that right is registration. If the register is inaccurate, the present system prevents people from expressing their voice in a democracy.

I often criticise the percentage of the poll in local elections. I am sure that we should all like to see much higher percentages. Sadly, there has been a slight downward drift of the percentage poll in general elections over the past 40 years or so. It must be said, however, that the percentage of polls here is higher than that which caused the Americans to express delight after the presidential campaign, which was one of the highest polls that they have seen.

We are in an age of computers and we should recognise that it is now more feasible to update registers regularly. I recognise, of course, that there are problems and that there could be abuse. Those are the issues which should be debated in Committee. We have a responsibility, however, to examine the system and ask ourselves whether we should change it and ensure that we have registers that enable the maximum number of people possible living in a constituency to have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote for the party of the candidate of their choice in an election. The Bill gives us the opportunity to discuss some of these opportunities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East has said that there are other issues that he believes should be debated. He rightly said that the arrangements for overseas voters need to be examined.

There is also the issue of postal votes. He told us that he deliberately excluded such matters from the Bill, although he believes that they should be examined in the long run. He has deliberately confined the Bill to two fairly simple issues—registers and disabled voters—because he wants to see progress made on those fronts.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively and say that the Government, especially the Home Office, are prepared to examine changes that will meet the objectives of my hon. Friend. I believe that the time has come to move in that direction. The present system is wrong. I am sure that during the general election campaign there were people in every constituency who complained to every candidate that they had not received voting papers or that their names had not been included on the register. For whatever reason, they were unable to exercise their vote on 9 April. In a democracy, that must be wrong. The Bill highlights the defects in the system that is now operated. I accept that details need to be considered in Committee, but we must move a long way in the direction that has been signposted by my hon. Friend to ensure that people have a voice in our democracy, which is an essential part of the democratic process.

I have always believed in democracy. At local government level and in Parliament, the role of the opposition—all those who are against the party in power—is important. If there is no opposition, we shall move rapidly towards dictatorship. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have a responsibility to ensure that the key to democracy is preserved, and I believe that that is the register.

I think that it is generally accepted that the postal vote system needs to be analysed. Further development of it is needed. I support the idea that more publicity should be given to the availability of postal votes. My hon. Friend was right, however, when he said that there are many disabled people and many elderly people who, by choice, do not have a postal vote. They regard it as important that they are able to get to the polling station to express their voice in a democratic way for the candidate of the party of their choice, and to be seen to be doing that. That is vital. the disabled often find it offensive to have to go to the back doors of buildings to gain access—to use a second-class entrance—and to be considered as not having the same rights as non-disabled voters.

Those of us fortunate enough not to be disabled tend to overlook the stigma and difficulties that often attach to someone who is disabled. My hon. Friend, in a modest way, is trying to make the point that we should look positively at polling stations and question whether they are accessible to the disabled and the elderly and, if not, to consider more suitable premises.

That is not to say that I oppose the extension of the postal vote and encouraging people to make use of that facility, because it offers considerable advantages. However, many elderly and disabled people regard going to vote at a polling station as an important part of their democratic rights.

My hon. Friend admits that his Bill has some defects, but it focuses attention on two issues of great importance in a democracy. We have a duty to ensure that people have the right to use their vote, which means ensuring that the register is correct. We are also obliged to ensure that everyone can use polling stations.

If the Bill receives a Second Reading today, I hope that it will be positively improved in Committee. If the Home Office accepts the spirit and the concept of my hon. Friend's Bill, and takes a positive attitude to the aspects I mention, it could improve the Bill in a way that is acceptable to my hon. Friend and meets his objectives, and meets the provisions of our democratic society in ensuring that all have the right to vote—whichever way they choose.

11.42 am
Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) on his good fortune in the ballot and on providing the House with an opportunity to debate a matter of considerable interest to all right hon. and hon. Members and their constituents. I am pleased to participate because, as the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) pointed out, there cannot he any right hon. and hon. Member who, during the last election, was not approached by a constituent asking, ?Why am I not on the register? Why didn't you put me on the register?? They all think that Members of Parliament are responsible, when we all know that is the duty of registration officers.

I represent the 61,744 constituents of the Uxbridge parliamentary constituency. That number has been broadly constant since 1979, but it dropped by about 1,400 in the last general election. It is important to consider the reduction in electorates that prompted the hon. Gentleman's Bill.

There are several reasons why electorates throughout the country have fallen by various amounts during the past few years. One is that, because of the current recession and difficulties in the housing market, those who inherit empty property after the death of its previous occupant have encountered considerable difficulty selling it. When I canvassed in the last general election, I frequently came across properties on the register identified as having no elector. I began to investigate and canvassed such houses. In almost every case, the properties were shut up, empty, and gave the appearance that the occupants had left for one reason or another.

Another small but significant factor is that many people in this country have homes elsewhere in Europe. With the tendency to take early retirement, there is an increasing propensity to buy homes abroad and for people to spend part of their retirement living in France, Spain or another country. That means that on 10 October each year, many are not at home to fill up form A, so their names do not appear on the register. Another factor is the deliberate avoidance of registration, to evade liability for the community charge. There may be other reasons, and no doubt other right hon. and hon. Members will refer to them.

Waiting to be called to speak, I took the opportunity to research the constituency of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), who represents only 30,905 electors, compared with my 61,000. That hon. Gentleman represents a large and beautiful constituency, which I have had the pleasure of visiting—but even there, 1 per cent. of the electorate was lost between the last two general elections.

We all know that it is never left solely to the individual to register his or her interest in voting—unlike in the United States, where the turnout for presidential elections is substantially lower than for general elections in our country. Our Government and Parliament impose a duty on citizens to provide information requested by electoral registration officers. In effect, registration is compulsory. Those who receive a copy of the annual canvassing document that we know as form A have a duty to return it with accurate information, and they can be fined for not complying with that request. When my hon. Friend the Minister replies, I shall be interested to know how many prosecutions there have been in recent years for failing to comply with the form A request.

Mr. Corbyn

I bet that there has been none.

Mr. Shersby

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) gives the impression that the number of prosecutions is zero. I am interested to know whether that is the case. If it is, what is Home Office policy in that regard?

There is a statutory duty on electoral registration officers to maximise registration and to publish an annual register of all those who appear to them to be eligible to vote. I shall concentrate for a few moments on that statutory duty. Having exercised that duty, the officer must take account of the facilities available to the general public to check that the register is accurate each year and that their names are included. It is possible, for example, for electors to check that information at their local public library, and many political parties—certainly the Conservative party and the principal Opposition party—have offices in or near constituencies where their supporters can also check that their names are on the register. That has always been a valuable part of the work done by the political parties locally, as it complements the statutory duties of the electoral registration officers.

I have made inquiries about the level of registration, and understand from Government estimates that it is about 95 per cent. of the potential electorate. Every year, about £40 million is spent in England and Wales on the process of electoral registration. As we all know, there is an annual nationwide advertising campaign that encourages people to register, and complete and return their electoral registration forms. In 1992, a total of £617,000 was spent on that advertising campaign.

Under the Representation of the People Act 1983, electoral registration officers are required to have a house to house or other sufficient inquiry made as to the persons entitled to be registered as electors. The 1983 Act has one deficiency to which the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East may care to turn his attention if his Bill is given a Second Reading.

Unfortunately, the 1983 Act does not define "sufficient inquiry". Therefore, electoral registration officers are free to the method of conducting the canvass return according to local circumstances and the finances available to them. That is different from what used to happen in the 1950s and 1960s when, to my certain knowledge, electoral registration officers—certainly in London—made sure that households were canvassed by local government staff if an individual or household failed to return form A. I understand that that does not always happen today. If a return has not been made to the electoral registration officer, the most likely step is to send the household more forms. I believe that it is not uncommon for some electoral registration officers to make two or three attempts to attain the names of people living in a household by sending more forms.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East made an important point when he said that the forms were in addition to the already large amounts of mail that come through our letter boxes every week, and that people probably do not pay sufficient regard to them and throw them away with much of the other unsolicited mail. The definition of "sufficient inquiry" is loose and should be tightened up. We should return to the former position, whereby the electoral registration officers made sure that households were called on and did not simply rely on written methods of canvassing and sending other forms.

We have talked today about the way in which the rolling register would work. The present registration procedure relies on the system whereby, in August or September each year, the electoral registration officers send or deliver an electoral registration form to each household in the district. We know that it is an offence not to complete the form or to give false information. I think that most of us would agree that people who commit an offence by not sending in the form are unlikely to be penalised. However, people who submit false information should perhaps be chased up more vigorously than they have been.

Under the present procedure, a draft register is compiled from the electoral forms returned by householders and is published on 28 November each year. It contains the names of all those resident in the district on the qualifying date of 10 October who appear to the electoral registration officer to be eligible for inclusion. What sort of inquiry is made by electoral registration officers when the draft register is published about the absence of people who have previously been on the register for a considerable period?

During last year's general election, I was approached by people who said, "Mr. Shersby, I have lived here for about 20 years and have always been on the electoral register. Why has my name disappeared?" The probably explanation is that the individual did not fill the form A and was away when the subsequent forms arrived. Should not electoral registration officers make inquiries when they find that an established name has disappeared from the register for no good reason? I think that they should, and I hope that we shall act to deal with that problem.

There is a claims procedure—both the draft register and the final register, published on 15 February, are open to inspection by the public. The claims procedure enables people who are eligible, but not included on the register, to apply to have their names added. However, there is no procedure for adding to the register the names of people who move into the district after the qualifying date. The Bill gives careful consideration to that matter.

I think that the claims procedure is lengthy. For example, it includes a procedure for objecting to proposed entries in the register. Should that facility to object be removed? I do not think so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) said, there are occasionally circumstances in which people should not be registered—for example, when a deliberate attempt has been made to move people into a specific district to register them for a forthcoming election. Therefore, it is important for the objection procedure to remain, so that political parties, which make a point of studying such matters, can object if they believe that registrations are false. However, there may be other ways in which the claims procedure can be speeded up. The Bill contains one such method.

One of the problems to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention is that it is impossible for names to be added to the register after nominations have closed. He suggested a sensible arrangement whereby people can register up to a date shortly before an election. It would be unwise for the date to be too close to the election, for the obvious reason that electoral registration officers would be busy at that time and would find it difficult to handle that extra responsibility.

Some people only become aware for the first time during an election that their names are missing from the register. They usually become aware of that because they have not received any election material from the candidates; all of a sudden, it dawns on them that something is wrong and that they are likely to lose their right to vote.

What are the reasons for the loss of electors? If you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, study "The Times Guide to the House of Commons"—as I am sure you do in your leisure hours, so that you know the faces of all hon. Members, whom you call with tremendous accuracy—you will be aware of the changing levels of electoral registration between the past two general elections.

I believe that the reasons for those changing levels—in addition to those that I have already given—are as follows. The first involves the change in the administrative practice of electoral registration officers over the past decade and the lack of canvassing. Secondly, there tends to be a blip in the electoral registration figures when a general election is known to be on the horizon; people have a greater incentive to register at that time. Thirdly, there are changes in people's propensity to register when they move to another district.

Some people say that the introduction of the community charge had an effect on electoral registration, but that is difficult to prove or quantify. All that Members of Parliament can do is to go by their gut feelings. They use their judgment when dealing with constituency cases and may arrive at the conclusion that some people have failed to register because they wish to avoid the charge.

One of the points that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-West made which particularly interests me concerns the sale of registers. There is evidence, I believe, that the sale of registers is objectionable to many people. Some people have asked me why they cannot be registered anonymously, as they can be for community charge purposes, if there is good reason.

The problem is that copies of the electoral register are provided free of charge not only to Members of Parliament, local councillors, election candidates and local political parties, all of whom have an absolute right to that information, but to others who wish to have access to a comprehensive list of local residents. Among those who make use of electoral registers are mail order companies, credit reference agencies, market research organisations and charities. The electoral register can be purchased on a computer tape or disc from electoral registration officers who are data users. The current fee for non-electoral users is £2.50 per 1,000 names on the register for printed copies and £18 per 1,000 names on the register in data form. Since the sale of electoral registers is unpopular with the public, that matter should be looked into again.

Mr. Barnes

The sale of electoral registers is also very unpopular with electoral registration officers. I had a meeting with the London electoral registration officers, at which I outlined my ideas for the Bill. They wanted the Bill to include a provision regarding the non-commercial sale of registers, for the reasons that have just been outlined by the hon. Gentleman. I did not include such a provision in the Bill, because there is considerable support on the Conservative Benches for the sale of registers. That would more readily and easily have led to the defeat of the Bill. The measure would, however, make more sense if it included a provision regarding the sale of electoral registers. The powers that electoral registration officers have to collect information would then be less of a blight on civil liberties. I hope that the Minister is listening carefully to the points that are being made by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby).

Mr. Shersby

I am glad to be in agreement with the hon. Gentleman on those points. It is valuable for the House to know that he has taken the trouble, as is so evident from everything else that he has said about the Bill, to consult electoral registration officers. If it is Government policy to encourage the sale of electoral registers to mail order companies and market research organisations, I have to tell the Minister that I disagree with the Government. All hon. Members receive many complaints from constituents about junk mail and about canvassing. There is a general worry about security.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

It is important to point out that the electoral register is a public document. It would be difficult to conduct elections if political parties and various other organisations did not have access to it. It is impossible, therefore, to keep it out of the hands of anybody who wants to see it. It would be wrong to try to do so. Therefore, it makes very much more sense for electoral registration officers to charge for the document, except political parties and one or two other organisations that have a particular need for it, as that helps to defray some of the cost. It is not just commercial firms that find electoral registers useful. Charities do as well.

Mr. Shersby

Friday is a marvellous day in the House of Commons for Back Benchers. They have the great pleasure and privilege of being able to disagree with the Treasury Bench on matters such as this without there being undue recrimination afterwards. This is a somewhat questionable matter. The principal purpose of the electoral register is to register people's entitlement to vote at elections. As far as I am aware, it was never introduced to enable mail order companies, credit reference agencies and market research organisations to pester people with their attentions. There may be a case for making electoral registers available to charities. They are in a different category.

I agree with my hon. Friend that if electoral registers are to be made available, there should be a charge for that service and that that charge should be realistic, for it would help to defray the cost of compiling and publishing the registers. However, it is rather like the curate?s egg—good in parts.

The electoral register can also be used either to trace or identify elderly people, particularly women living alone. Among those who consider themselves to be at risk are elderly people. There are others at risk, including some Members of Parliament in a sensitive situation; members of the judiciary; police officers; prison officers; scientists engaged in research using animals; even battered wives. I mention those categories of people because they are sensitive to the fact that the name that they have registered on the electoral register for the purpose of exercising their democratic rights is being sold to people who want to use it for quite different purposes.

Mr. Corbyn

The hon. Gentleman has made a fair point about the harassment of individuals by the use of the electoral register. He must surely accept that it is not possible and proper for the register to be kept private, but he might care to consider the point that local authorities are being increasingly encouraged by the Department of the Environment and others to maximise their income and to sell electoral registers to all sorts of companies. Although they are quite expensive to buy, their value to mail order companies is very considerable.

Does the hon. Gentleman not think there is a case for making electoral registers freely available to be checked in libraries, post offices and so on and also for making them freely available to political parties, councillors, Members of Parliament and so on, but not selling them to mail order companies?

Mr. Shersby

The hon. Gentleman has made a valuable suggestion which ought to be considered. I am grateful to him for making it.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East proposes that Parliament should approve a code of practice for electoral registration officers to follow when compiling their registers. I do not believe that that code should be unduly rigid. Some discretion should be given to electoral registration officers so to arrange matters as to be able to deliver the best possible service to the people of this country in a way that fits local circumstances.

Mr. Barnes

The hon. Gentleman referred earlier to the fact that canvassing does not always take place and that something less than that is accepted as a sufficient search. A minimum level of search could be provided by the code.

Mr. Shersby

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I accept that that is a valid point.

As for the post-electoral review on electoral law and procedure that was established after the last election, I have looked into the matter and I understand that that review is under way and that it is considering various questions, including the availability of absent votes for those who cannot go to the polling station, methods of counting, including automated counting, and the design of the electoral forms. On that question, I hope that the commission will get it right this time. All of us have had reason to complain about the electoral forms and certainly about other matters—for example, the complicated nature of the forms used to apply for an absent vote, which many people find difficult to understand.

One working group—which should report, I understand, in the summer—is examining electoral registration and, in particular, the question of a rolling register. It seems, therefore, that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East has considerable support for his proposals not only on both sides of the House but from the commission.

I have no doubt that the commission will attend to other matters, such as the resource implications of rolling registration, the frequency with which alterations should be made, the criteria for registration and sources of information from which to make amendments. It would be unwise to pre-empt the commission's work, but I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East for raising the matter today.

I completely support the provisions in part II of the Bill. Disabled people should be able to go to polling stations and should not be confined to voting by post from their homes. They should be able to exercise their democratic voting rights in the same way as able-bodied people.

I cannot help wondering whether, if the House is debating how we vote in one hundred years' time, Members of Parliament will worry about electoral registers, canvassing and all the other aspects of compiling the list that is so familiar to us today. Perhaps we shall then vote by pressing a button. With interactive television, I imagine that one will give a pin number which will enable one to vote in an election and the results could be determined in about an hour. None of us will be here to see that.

Reform and improvement continue from year to year and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East for stimulating this discussion, which I hope will result in further improvements to our system.

12.11 pm
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I shall try to make my comments brief because I wish the Bill well and I want it to receive a Second Reading today and not to be talked out. Some Conservative Members seem intent on talking it out and the measure is too serious and sensible to receive that fate.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) commented on the sale of registers and objected to the publicity given to them. I disagree with his approach, as there is a too great a passion for secrecy in some matters. Next week a Bill on the right to know will be introduced. I believe that that right extends to registers. There can be no serious objections to the publication of electoral registers. If one does not like junk mail, one can use a bin. All hon. Members are familiar with tremendous volumes of junk mail and use our bins regularly, so I do not understand why anyone else should have valid grounds for complaint on the subject.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge also referred to the post-electoral review that is under way. I hope that the review and the study groups to which he referred will be completed quickly and that we shall get the results. I know that the register and the forms are being considered—expecially the multiplicity of forms for absent voting, which is one area where reform is very necessary.

I support the general principle of the Bill because registration is important and it is desirable that everyone who is entitled to vote is given the opportunity to cast their vote. That principle is important and the Bill should be welcomed for that reason, even if it contains some flaws.

Hon. Members have drawn attention to the fact that, for some years, the percentage of persons included on the register has steadily declined and is now down to between 95 and 97 per cent. in Great Britain. Until the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) receives his written answer, we shall not have equivalent figures for Northern Ireland.

A post-election review regularly takes place in Great Britain, to which representatives of political parties are invited. That is a sensible procedure, but it has not hitherto been followed in Northern Ireland, although this year the Minister, who is apparently responsible for elections there, decided to invite political parties to give him their views for the first time. During that meeting, which took place a few months ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland claimed that the equivalent registration figure for Northern Ireland was 98 per cent. He was not in a position to give the basis for that figure and although he promised to communicate with us in writing he has regrettably failed to do so.

Mr. Barnes

I received the following answer on 5 February, which compares the figure for the percentage of population eligible to vote on 30 June 1991 with the figure on the subsequent register, which shows that 99.6 per cent. of those eligible to vote in Upper Bann are registered. Nearly all the figures for Northern Ireland are in the 98 to 100 per cent. range, which emphasises my argument that Northern Ireland does not have the same problem because it did not have the poll tax, although it still has the problem of people who are on the register, but should not be, masking others who are not on the register.

Mr. Trimble

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am not entirely satisfied that the registers are as accurate as they could be. Until that written answer, there were no published studies for Northern Ireland. Consequently I must express some concern about the accuracy of the register because we do not know the basis of any claims made for its accuracy.

The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) said that the new register, which will be published during the next few days, will be four months out of date as soon as it is published. The Northern Ireland register will be five months out of date because the relevant date is 15 September. The hon. Member for Uxbridge commented on people having second homes on the continent who might well be out of the country on 10 October. I think that it is more likely that they will be out of the country on 15 September, and I wonder why there is such a variation.

Clause 2 of the Bill states: The rolling registers of parliamentary and local government electors or, in Northern Ireland, of parliamentary electors, shall be published". That reflects the confusion which exists in the legislation, as European and local government elections are handled differently in Northern Ireland and are subject to different legislation.

I have a general observation which I hope that the Minister will consider. Legislation on elections and the right to vote is complex and spread over many Acts of Parliament, but in Northern Ireland the confusion is even greater and the legislation is spread over even more Acts. Consolidation of the legislation is necessary, especially in Northern Ireland. That would greatly assist anyone working in the area. We need an enormous bundle of legislation to find out about electoral law. Some time ago the general secretary of our party decided to get up to date on the subject and asked the Government bookshop in Belfast for all the legislation on elections. The person on the other side of the counter said, ?You?re mad.? There are scores of Acts that deal with elections in Northern Ireland and we need consolidation. Then people might read the legislation.

An election petition is under way and it has been made clear that one of the election agents did not even bother to read the legislation. I have some sympathy for him in view of the state of the statute book, but that matter gives rise to genuine concern although it is slightly off the subject of the Bill.

As I have said, I welcome the principle behind the Bill, but there are several problems. One problem that several hon. Members have mentioned is the cut-off date and how close it should be to the election. I believe that the Bill brings the cut-off date too close to the election. We should perhaps have a procedure under which the register is frozen on the announcement of an election so that there would be no change from then until polling day.

It is important for political parties to know exactly who is on the register. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East might say that only a handful of people will be added in the last few days up to the seven days before the election, but I believe that the register should be frozen.

In addition to the general arguments for freezing the register on the announcement of an election, I draw attention to the problem of personation, which was mentioned by one Conservative Member. To have a register and to know that it is accurate is very important from the point of view of checking personation. I do not want to discuss the issue at length, but there are some general observations to be made.

Many people assume that personation is a problem only in Northern Ireland, but that is not true. There is probably a greater problem with personation on this side of the Irish sea than people generally recognise. Tammany hall type politics exist in parts of Great Britain, and personation is very much a feature of such politics.

Many people assume—the telling of funny stories perpetuates the belief—that personation is widespread in Northern Ireland and that everyone is at it. That is not so. Whatever may have happened before my time, during 20 years of electioneering in Northern Ireland I can say with my hand on my heart that I have not been aware of any significant level of personation being committed by any of the Unionist parties or by the major nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party. However, I am aware of extensive personation committed by some of the smaller parties. There was a time when the Workers party was very much into personation, but that party has changed its shape and is a new party, although I am not sure that I can accurately give the name that it is using now.

The main problem with personation in Northern Ireland comes from Sinn Fein, which organises personation on a substantial scale. Special measures have been adopted to try to restrain personation with the use of identity requirements, but it does not work because there are half a dozen different identity documents that might be used, one of which is a medical card which is extremely easy to forge.

Electoral officers know that during a recent election in West Belfast—the main scene of personation by Sinn Fein because it is a seat which it has won in the past—Sinn Fein forged medical cards. The officers discovered a fault in the forgeries and were able to check the personation. Sinn Fein realised the mistake and printed a new set of forged cards during the election itself. Therefore, Sinn Fein printed two sets of forged medical cards—it changed its print run twice. We do not know how many votes were stolen in that way, whether it was hundreds or thousands, but it seems that it was in the thousands.

After the recent general election, the defeated Sinn Fein candidate, Mr. Adams, accused the SDLP of stealing the seat from him. In fact, Mr. Adams had stolen the seat every time he had been elected with personated votes. To enable people to combat the serious problem of personation we must freeze the register earlier.

Personation is not only a matter of masquerading as a real person on the register. It also takes the form of putting persons on the register who do not exist—in other words, persuading registration officers to include persons who do not live in a specific place. There have been stories in Northern Ireland of little country lanes where there are many people on the register although in fact no one lives there. I do not know how widespread the problem is, but it needs to be checked. However, I do not think that the Bill offers an effective measure to do so.

We need a requirement for registration officers to serve notice or publish their intention to include persons on the register some weeks before the person is actually included on it. That would enable interested parties to have a look. When draft registers are published, political parties in Northern Ireland are fairly active in checking to ensure that no phantom voters have been included, as well as ensuring that people have not been left off. We need an equivalent procedure under rolling registration when the registration officer is putting someone on the register. If the Bill goes into Committee, that idea could be considered there.

Another aspect of the Bill with which I am not very happy is clause 13, which proposes to amend section 7 of the principal Act. It affects voluntary mental patients. Voluntary mental patients are required to make a declaration so that their capacity to vote can be checked. As I understand the proposed amendments, the requirement to make a declaration will be operative only if a patient has been a voluntary mental patient for two years or less". Is two years the right length of time? Is it not too long? I can understand the thinking behind the provision, but a shorter period of months rather than years might be appropriate.

Another problem with which the Bill does not deal is the analogous situation of nursing and residential homes. There may be problems involving the capacity of persons in them to vote, and the Minister may be familiar with them. Before the previous general election in Northern Ireland, the chief electoral officer took it on himself to exclude from the register persons in nursing and residential homes who did not have some requisite mental capacity. There is no legislative basis for doing that. Even if a person is senile, he or she is entitled to be on the register. Such a person may or may not be entitled to vote, but as the law stands that is a decision to be taken by the presiding officer at the polling station.

Not only was the chief electoral officer of Northern Ireland operating without a legislative basis, but the form that he sent out asked persons in residential nursing homes—including, possibly, secretaries and other people without medical knowledge—to state whether someone in the home had the requisite mental capacity. That was an improper practice. We had the difficulty that before the election the chief electoral officer decided to introduce a practice which excluded a substantial number of persons from the register.

We complained, of course, both at the time and subsequently. During the post-electoral review we were told that the Home Office, in association with the Northern Ireland Office, was drawing up guidelines and would issue a circular or some other form of guidance. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge that guidance has not yet been issued. Apparently it is still in preparation. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an idea of when it will be published, because it needs to be hurried on.

I see that the Bill provides for a code of practice to be drawn up. That is good. To a certain extent the Home Office does that at the moment, in that it has issued circulars, guidance practice notes or whatever they are called. Those are useful and I wish that there was an equivalent in Northern Ireland, but there is none. The chief electoral officer does not publish material. Technically, under the legislation, he is the only registration officer. He issues letters to his deputies in the constituencies, as he did with regard to nursing and residential homes. Some of the deputies observed his instructions and others, because they were aware that the instructions were unlawful, did not. I should like to see that matter settled as soon as possible.

I have been critical of the chief electoral officer, but I admit that he had a reason for adopting that practice. He was concerned about the potential for abuse involving absent voting, in which the votes of infirm elderly people in nursing and residential homes could have been stolen through postal voting. Such potential for abuse is a problem. I believe that the chief electoral officer adopted the wrong means of dealing with the problem, but the problem exists and it needs to be checked by the introduction of some safeguard covering absent voting.

Because of our experience of the behaviour of the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland in that respect, I am glad that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East has not adopted the Hansard Society report's recommendation that an electoral commission independent of local or central government should be created. That is the curse of the chief electoral officer's post in Northern Ireland: it was established as independent of government, so there is no accountability and no way of getting the chief electoral officer to change when he has adopted the wrong approach.

My hon. Friends and I have often said that in Northern Ireland we have electoral law and Bradley law—that is, the practice of the chief electoral officer, which sometimes varies from electoral law. People are not always willing or able to go to court to deal with the examples of what we call Bradley law.

I welcome clause 11, which deals with the notification of boundary changes. I mention that because, purely by coincidence, I received a telephone call this morning from one of our councillors who was involved in a nice situation over boundary change. He has found that a small rural estate of 11 houses which he believes should be in his area has suddenly appeared in somebody else's area—although the roads that serve the estate are still in his area. There appears to have been confusion between two Tullymurrays, one of which is a townland and the other of which is the postal address of the estate. As a result, the 11 houses have gone into the wrong area. Such things happen as a result of the registration process being overcentralised. The persons who recently carried out the boundary revision did not have the requisite local knowledge. We shall pursue that matter in a different context.

I welcome the principle behind the Bill, subject to the reservations that I have mentioned. A number of its provisions simply legislate for existing best practice. I am thinking especially of the provision for registrars of births, marriages and deaths to inform registration officers about persons who have died. Several other provisions also put the present practice of the better registration officers on a statutory basis. That is good.

I also welcome the provisions for access to polling stations for physically disabled persons. Those are very desirable. I may add that we should like there to be easy access to polling stations for all persons. In Northern Ireland, we suffer from not having enough polling stations. The excuse given is security considerations. I was rather amused when listening to discussions at the Home Office post-electoral review to hear someone suggest having guidelines, such as not having to walk more than 10 minutes to get to a polling station—would that we had such a situation in Northern Ireland.

The villagers of one small village in my constituency have to go two miles to another village to vote, and no bus runs between them. That is ridiculous. The ward is too large and has only one polling station. The authorities will not locate a second polling station in the village in question, allegedly for security reasons, although there is no serious security problem in that village. By all means, let us have easy access to polling stations for the disabled, but let us also have easy access for everyone else.

Some provisions in the Bill involve expenditure. I very much hope that the Minister will not use money as an argument for sidelining the Bill. I am sure that other hon. Members will comment on the noticeable difference between the level of expenditure involved in maintaining the poll tax registers and the level of expenditure involved in maintaining the electoral registers. If the amount that the Government laid out for the poll tax generally—and for the poll tax registers in particular, were made available for electoral registration, we could carry out all the provisions in the Bill and still have a lot of money to spare, so I hope that we shall not hear that money is the problem. Money should be made available, because voting is a basic right. Everyone who is entitled to vote should be enabled to do so by being placed on the register. A system that will improve the register is welcome in principle, whatever minor criticisms one may have.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) on winning a high place in the ballot and on using it to further his long-standing interest in electoral registration. The hon. Gentleman has tabled many parliamentary questions on the matter, many of which have been for me. He has tabled early-day motions on the subject and has raised it in other ways as well. I understand that the question for oral answer that he tabled yesterday was his 25th in recent times. It is an issue which he and the Government take equally seriously.

The Bill in its final form was published only yesterday and I have not had the opportunity to study every detail in it. However, I had an informative meeting with the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East when he visited me at the Home Office recently. I say again to him here what I said to him then. The Government do not disagree with his basic objectives, although I am afraid that I cannot give Government support to the Bill at this time. My position is not a result of the passionate oratory of my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) who has, no doubt, gone to recover in the Tea Room with a cup of tea. I shall explain again to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East some of the reasons for my position.

In case I forget later, it is sensible to answer now a specific question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby). He made some good points and one point with which I disagreed. He asked how many prosecutions there had been for not returning form A. No figures are available generally. However, I agree with the tenor of the intervention by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) who said that there were very few or none. I think that the answer is none or very few. The working group on electoral registration is trying to obtain figures that will show the position more clearly.

I intervened in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and misled him, the House and myself on one point. I said that political parties were entitled to free registers. They are not; it is their candidates. That makes a difference, because it means that independent candidates with no party are entitled to free registers. That opens the loophole—and could give rise to the problems—referred to by my hon. Friend, who expressed concern that a lot of independent candidates employed by various organisations would stand in order to get the register. That is why I explained that, whatever the merits or otherwise of the case, the proposals for keeping this public document in limited circulation are quite impracticable.

I understand my hon. Friend's worry—and I note from the sympathetic response that his remarks received that it is shared by other hon. Members—about the amount of unwanted mail that people receive through their doors. I suspect, however, that even if no electoral register ever fell into the hands of any mail order company, such companies would find a way to get mail through people's front doors. There is no doubt about that.

I should add, however, that reputable mailing services will refrain from sending mail to people who specifically ask not to receive it. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge said that his constituents complain to him. I hope that he will mention to them the Mailing Preference Service, which can be written to at Freepost 22, London W1. Because I have said that clearly, I have no doubt that the address will appear in Hansard. A letter to the mailing preference service from an individual asking not to receive through the post circulars addressed to him will have a beneficial effect—although my own experience is that most of what comes through my door is not specifically addressed to me but is clearly put round on spec by the Post Office or other companies.

The Bill falls into two parts. The first deals with electoral registration and the second with improving access to polling stations for voters suffering from a physical disability. Those are worthy and meritorious aims, and they are aims which the Government share.

The overall objectives of our electoral registration procedures are to have as accurate a list of electors as possible; to ensure that those who wish to vote can do so with minimum inconvenience; and to ensure that the votes cast are accurately counted as quickly as possible. It has, therefore, been the practice in recent times to conduct a review of electoral law and procedures after every general election, in order to see what, if any, changes might be required. We established such a review after the 1992 general election and it is under way at present.

Let me pause for a moment to describe to the House the wide-ranging nature of that review. After the last general election, Home Office officials canvassed all the political parties and the representative groups of the local authorities, asking them for proposals to improve any aspects of the electoral system that they felt were capable of improvement. We received more than 250 separate suggestions. We then met the political parties and the local authorities and established how to handle the work that arose from these suggestions. We set up five working groups to examine the broad subjects into which most of the suggestions could be grouped. The working groups consist of Home Office officials and a small number of experienced electoral registration officers. Their remit is to make recommendations, if possible by the summer of this year, for changes in the system, which will be considered by the original organsiations we consulted—the political parties and local authorities. At that point, we shall be ready to consider which changes we can make by administrative actions and which will need legislation.

One working group is examining the question of absent voting, which has been mentioned several times this morning, including the criteria for qualification for an absent vote, either for an indefinite period or for a particular election—the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) mentioned that very point—and the closing date for applications and how near to an election it can reasonably fall. All of us who have fought elections know only too well how aggrieved people feel when they are unable to vote in an election in which they thought they would be able to vote because they missed the application deadline for an absent vote.

Mr. Pike

When those aspects are considered, will the Minister ensure that any changes will remove the anomaly whereby there are different qualifiations for local and parliamentary elections? Would it not be better to have a standard qualification so that everyone is aware of the position?

Mr. Lloyd

Of course it would be better to have a standard qualification. So long as there are no other reasons in particular cases why there should be a difference, that is what I would expect to emerge from the consultations. There are difficult technical points to be overcome. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) that the more we can simplify the rules and make them the same, the better.

Another working group is examining all aspects of the forms that are used in electoral registration for absent voting and for other electoral matters. We are considering whether there is anything more that we can do to simplify the procedures and make the rules much clearer and less forbidding for the people who wish to use an absent vote on a particular occasion or permanently. That is precisely the point that the hon. Member for Burnley just made.

A third working group is considering whether the current level of fees and allowances for returning officers is adequate and whether any changes are required in current categories of expenditure. The remaining two working groups are particularly relevant to the Bill and form one of the principal reasons why, alas, I cannot support the Bill today.

One working group is dedicated to questions relating to electoral registration. It is covering matters such as the definition of residence used in determining eligibility, the role of the residence qualifying date and the procedures for claims and objections—that is, claims to be added to the register or objections to names included in it. Most of those questions lead into examining the desirability of a rolling register. I should like to return to that subject, which is central to the Bill, a little later.

The Government want people to be registered to vote. That is the objective of the system and the expenditure. As several hon. Members have said, it is fundamental for the health of our democracy that all eligible voters should be permitted and, indeed, encouraged to exercise their right. That requires two things to happen: first, they need to be recognised as eligible voters by being included in the official lists drawn up by electoral registration officers. Secondly, they need to be able to cast their votes with the minimum of physical and bureaucratic difficulty. The Bill addresses both those problems.

Successive Governments have taken very seriously the need to maximise participation. We have never left it solely to the individual to register his or her interest in voting. In that, we share the assumption of most other western democracies. I hesitate to criticise the practices of the United States of America, but, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East rightly noted, the United States leaves the question of registering for a vote solely to the individual. That may give some kind of subliminal message to the citizens. Perhaps it means that they need officialdom to make it easier and provide encouragement. However, registration in the United States is low and the turnout in elections matches that correspondingly.

I believe that it is unhealthy for a democracy not to bring home to all voters the vital importance of registering for a vote. I do not doubt that all hon. Members would deplore a less rigorous approach being allowed to develop here.

Mr. Allen

Given the Minister's remarks about what is called positive registration in the United States, whereby people must go out to register instead of having the assistance of local or national government, will he take this opportunity to condemn the Conservative-controlled London borough of Brent which introduced precisely that system in Brent which led to a shortfall of 15,000 people on its register?

Mr. Lloyd

The register in Brent has dropped for some years. Whether that is due to a reduction in population or a diminishing enthusiasm to register, I do not know. Certainly, the electoral registration officer and the authorities in Brent have sought to provide the encouragement to vote that they are required to provide under the law and under guidance from the Home Office. There are plenty of other areas—the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East will be able to quote them—in which there have been sharp reductions in the number of people on the register. The reasons for that are not clear.

One of the major points of the exercise that is being undertaken, using the skills and knowledge of electoral registration officers, is to try to draw together the most helpful programme that can be adapted to suit the particular needs of certain areas. I am sure that we shall have some surprises when the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys report is published. As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East said, the census in 1981 revealed disparities between registers and actual populations. We shall again hear the charge that electoral registration has been inefficient or has been misplaced in some districts, and that in other districts there has been a disparity where nobody suspected it. Over 10 years, with vast moves in population, it is difficult to tell where the mismatches are. I accept the suggestion that there are considerable mismatches.

Mr. Dunn

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has twice intervened to make a rather petty party political point about the borough of Brent. If 15,000 persons in the London borough of Brent failed to register or to supply the information that has led them not to be registered, and if there is a penalty under the law that can be applied to those persons who failed to supply information that would have enabled them to register, would the Labour party care to invite the Government to prosecute those 15,000 people for not supplying information that would have been registered had it been supplied in the first place?

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend makes a good point. At law, it is an offence not to register. As the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East said, that is an offence for which prosecution should be used sparingly. There will be appropriate cases. One of the study groups is considering that point. I regret that Brent is held up as a particular party political example. There are plenty of places where there is a suggestion that registration is not high. There has been a decline in the register in Brent. The party political control in Brent changed recently, but, as I said, the decline straddles that change. To make an issue out of that does not help the debate to move forward and it certainly does not indicate the realities of the situation in that borough, either.

Mr. Thomason

Does my hon. Friend concede that, according to a report in October 1991, there has been a reduction of 7,500 people from the electoral registers of the constituencies of Vauxhall, Streatham and Norwood, which together make up the London borough of Lambeth?

Mr. Lloyd

Most of the debate has been non-partisan. Electoral registration is a real issue. It is a matter of real concern that we get the highest possible registration. Registration differs from place to place. How much it differs is not known on the information that we have. Electoral registration officers use a variety of techniques, and some will undoubtedly be more effective than others. The important thing is that we have working groups examining the issue thoroughly to deduce where the problems are and the best ways of tackling them.

Mr. Maclennan

Is it within the remit of the working groups to consider the recommendations of the Hansard Society about central funding of the process?

Mr. Lloyd

I do not think that that falls directly to the working groups. The funding of the process is as it exists now. Elections are funded through the rate support grant in the normal way.

If there is a specific problem with the way in which the arrangements are funded, I am sure that the working groups will not be slow to point it out. I expect the working groups to show the cost of any changes that they recommend. Some of the recommendations will be a small matter of a different approach; others will be substantial. The value of the work to be done will diminished if we do not know what the changes involve administratively and in terms of financial resources.

Opposition Members asked about the fine for not sending in the form. The fine is £1,000. It increased when the whole system was changed in the Criminal Justice Act at the end of 1992. The duty is on electoral registration officers to maximise registration. We require them to publish an annual register of all those who appear to them to be eligible to vote. We establish elaborate facilities for the public to check and correct the register.

Another feature of the seriousness with which the question is regarded is that electoral registration officers are answerable not to the local authorities who appoint them or to the Home Office. Judging by what the hon. Member for Upper Bann said, that sort of independence causes him some unease. Electoral registration officers are answerable directly to the courts.

In accordance with the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1983, electoral registration officers are required to conduct house-to-house or other sufficient inquiries to satisfy themselves that their lists are accurate and as up to date as possible. There has been some suggestion in the debate that that is not done at all, or not done often. The OPCS research that we have suggests that a third of electoral registration officers use personal canvassing on the first reminder. By the third reminder stage, three quarters of them use personal canvassing. The hon. Member for Upper Bann may be concerned that 25 per cent. of electoral registration officers appear not to use personal canvassing, but the majority certainly do. Personal canvassing is especially high in areas that have been of considerable concern during this debate and which are of concern to the Home Office and electoral registration officers—in metropolitan districts and in London where it seems, though it is not yet entirely demonstrated, that registration is well below the average. It would not be surprising if registration were well below average, given the transitory population who tend to live in central city areas.

Mr. Barnes

I should like to find out about the role of the Home Office. Earlier, the Minister said that electoral registration officers and returning officers were acting generally under the supervision of the courts. Nevertheless, the Home Office plays a considerable role because it publishes whole lists of circulars and of advice on occasions.

One disastrous circular linked electoral registration with poll tax registration. No forms had been returned over a period, no record of a registration was kept on the poll tax register and people's names were to be removed. That interlink was not justified. That example shows the significance and importance of the role that the Home Office plays in such matters.

Mr. Lloyd

The Home Office accepts that it has a central and crucial role in supplying advice, undertaking monitoring and ensuring with the working groups that best practice is distilled, recommended and followed. Everything depends, of course, on what is done at local level.

My remarks are designed to confirm how seriously the Government take the issue of electoral registration. I do not want to sound complacent, because, as I have said, there are some real problems that we need to tackle, but it is worth remembering that we have an estimated level of registration of about 95 per cent. of the potential electorate. About £40 million is spent each year in England and Wales on the process of electoral registration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern), in a thoughtful speech, was right to express concern about the resource implications for local authorities. I was not wholly comforted when the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East rose to reassure him and explained that he had designed the Bill so that any extra expense would fall on the Home Office. I do not take that with the sort of equanimity that was suggested in the hon. Gentleman's intervention and recommended to me by the hon. Member for Upper Bann.

I have no doubt that improvements to the system will be forthcoming, which will cost money. I hope that we shall be able to find ways other than those suggested of making the system more efficient and more effective by saving some resources to balance things out.

As well as continuing a high level of expenditure in maintaining the registration system, we launch each year a nationwide advertising campaign. It is designed to encourage people to complete and return the electoral registration form. In 1992, we spent £617,000 on the campaign. We are now considering the format of a campaign—we shall launch it in August or September— when form A will start to be distributed.

Mr. Barnes

Expenditure on publicising the need to return forms is extremely limited given the range of Government expenditure. Abbey National held a ballot to determine whether it should become a plc. It spent £7.5 million on advertising the campaign, which was directed only towards the members of the society. Expenditure of £617,000 is a minor provision. It falls short of the sums that were spent to encourage expatriate votes—purely voluntary votes. There is a strange mixture when that is set alongside the compulsory provision that exists in the United Kingdom. Money needs to be spent and there also needs to be more imaginative advertising so that people in Plymouth, for example, and other areas do not have to engage in their own activities. Perhaps the Home Office can learn from Plymouth.

Mr. Lloyd

The campaign for overseas voters was a one-off. It was launched immediately after Parliament had decided to extend the right to vote to British citizens overseas. The campaign has not been repeated and we have no plans to repeat it. Annually, however, we have advertising expenditure to encourage people to complete and return the electoral registration form. I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman's assumptions. I sympathised with Lord Lever when he said that he knew that half of the money that he was spending on advertising was an absolute waste, but that he did not know which half. I am not certain that the money that is spent on advertising the form each year could not be better spent by providing local authorities with that much more resources for canvassing. I suspect that people are not unaware that there is a registration process, but that they need an active reminder. Perhaps increasing the resources of local authorities in that way would be a more effective way of doing that. I would expect observations to come from the professionals on the working parties. I do not think that the problems can be dealt with simply by advertising expenditure.

Mr. Maclennan

The Minister's point about local authorities touches a central issue—whether the right to register should depend on the efficiency and effectiveness of local government. Even if one tops up the resources available to local authorities, they do not have an obligation in law to undertake such activities—and I do not suggest that they should. Is it not for national Government to ensure that the register is up to date and complete?

Mr. Lloyd

The onus must be on the individual—that is quite sufficient. However, machinery must be available to enable the elector to register easily, and that provides a reminder. I do not see how that could be done nationally—it must be undertaken at local level. I do not follow the hon. Gentleman's point. If he is suggesting that the Home Office, as the central Department having an overseeing responsibility, has a duty to remind, cajole, promote best practice and provide information, I agree. We are in train of doing that.

Mr. Trimble

Am I right in thinking that the number of persons on the register is expressed simply as a percentage of those estimated to live in an area? Am I also correct in thinking that that percentage does not link the total number of residents with the number on the register? Have any studies been made, or are any likely to be made, of the accuracy of the register—rather than relying on a purely statistical exercise that may or may not show anything?

Mr. Lloyd

The hon. Gentleman is right—it is a statistical exercise, based on out-of-date figures from the last census. The more time that elapses since the previous census, the more the percentage is a calculation based on an assumption about a figure which, however accurate it may have been initially, has come to be an approximation. That is because assumptions must be made about population growth and movement.

As to whether studies have been made to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of registration, as I said earlier, various assumptions are made about particular boroughs and constituencies—but they can only be assumptions. I shall return to that aspect later.

The Bill seeks to establish the rolling register and, as I commented earlier, there is nothing in the principles of the proposals that the Government would rule out. I am sorry to be so lukewarm, but, as we have not received the results of the study, it would be wrong to say that we favour a change in the direction that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East suggests, because we do not. I should be quite glad if it turns out to be an efficient and practicable way of ensuring that registers are fuller and more up to date.

At present, the electoral register is compiled on an annual basis. That causes a number of difficulties, particularly in relation to people who move from one electoral district to another and who may take months to find their way on to the register for the area to which they moved. A number of electoral registration officers are in favour of moving to a system of rolling registration, and I believe that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East has spoken to number of them. Those officers say that system would enable them to publish updated registers more frequently.

The system of having just one annual register dates from 1949 and is itself part of a traditional system of electoral administration dating back to the 19th century. Clearly, there have been significant technological changes since then.

Most EROs now have access to computerised databases, but I accept that the impact of new technology has not so far been as great in the electoral process as it has in other spheres. I readily concede that we need to look carefully at what changes might be introduced in the compilation and publication of the register by means of new technology. Such technology appears to make a rolling register simple as well as desirable, but there has not so far been any rigorous examination of exactly what it would entail. We have very little hard data on the costs and benefits involved. The Government must maintain an open mind on the issue, and there are likely to be a number of problems that must be addressed.

One working group of our post-election review is dedicated to examining the issue of electoral registration, and a rolling register is one of the detailed subjects that it is considering. I hope that that working group will report in the summer. We do not have clear evidence of what a rolling register would require in terms of resources, what its implications would be for registration criteria—for example, how we would handle a qualifying date—and whether it would result in more people registering. Therefore, I shall be interested to see the working group's conclusions. That is one reason why I cannot today offer Government support for the Bill. It is too early to say whether a rolling register is as enticing a proposition as it is sometimes described—as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East did so well this morning.

Another aspect of timing difficulties stems from the fact that the Government are still digesting much of the information gleaned from the 1991 census. Returning to the point raised by the hon. Member for Upper Bann, I can state that 10 years ago we obtained valuable data on the accuracy of the electoral register and many other electoral matters by means of follow-up studies conducted for us by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. We are currently receiving the same sort of information from the 1991 census, which will give us an excellent set of comparative data. We hope and expect that they will yield valuable information on under-registration and the effectiveness of the various canvass methods to inform our future work.

The hon. Members for Derbyshire, North-East and for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) rightly said that there seemed to be different levels of registration in different constituencies and districts. We need to discover how far, where and why that is true before we start to prescribe a legislative cure. The hon. Member for Burnley suggested that registration levels were becoming steadily worse. The position seems to have improved last year, but that is only an estimate. I hope that it will continue to do so. We cannot be sure about those matters until we have the results of the OPCS study.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West spoke of the risks of impersonation and deceit, which should not be ignored in any new attempt to devise a register that it is more up to date. We must keep alive to such problems. The hon. Member for Upper Bann asked about the guidelines due to be issued on the registration of the mentally ill. We are still working on them and are waiting to hear from the Law Society and the National Association for Mental Health. We sought the opinions of both those organisations and should like to receive them before we produce our circular.

Supporting the electoral registration part of the Bill today could, unfortunately, mean prejudicing much of the strategy can evolve effectively only later in the year when more of the basic information is to hand.

Mr. Barnes

If the Bill is given a Second Reading, it will go to Committee and there will be a time delay. If reports relating to a rolling register start to be produced, they could easily be dealt with in Committee and would provide a ready-made vehicle to advance the proposals; that would avoid having to wait for the Queen's Speech and other procedures.

Mr. Lloyd

I understand the hon. Gentleman's determination, but I do not think that we shall have these reports before the summer. When we receive them we shall have to examine and consider them. We may want to ask the working groups other questions. We have undertaken to go back to the political parties and to the local authority organisations. I do not expect that they will be able to reply without thinking again and consulting. I should be very surprised if the Government were able to reach even provisional conclusions before the autumn after that wholly proper consultation.

The provision for consideration of private Member's Bills is insufficent to enable consideration of this Bill to be completed and for it to reach the statute book before the summer recess. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman introduced his Bill a year too early. If he does well in the ballot next year, he may find that the position is very different. I understand how frustrating it is for him, but we must go through the due processes if we are to get the matter right. As the hon. Gentleman said, many complex question must be sorted out. We cannot do that before we receive the working groups' responses.

The second part of the Bill deals with a different matter —improving the physical access to polling stations for disabled persons.

Mr. Barnes

Am I right in thinking that not one of the five reviews that the Home Office has engaged upon since the last election deals with this matter? Although it may be under consideration by the Home Office, it does not appear to fall foul of the problem posed by the need for full consideration of all these reviews, which will take time. If there are difficulties over the first part of the Bill, might it not be possible to go forward with the second part?

Mr. Lloyd

The hon. Gentleman is both determined and ingenious. In a way, I shall have to disappoint him. One of the groups does cover this question. I have no quarrel in principle with the general objective. I am not convinced that the legislative route is the right one to follow, but the hon. Gentleman's objective—that every polling station should provide easy access for the disabled—is one with which I entirely agree.

In 1985, we made it a statutory duty for local authorities to choose polling stations that offer facilities for the disabled over those which do not, where there is a choice. However, we have to recognise that in some areas choice will—for the present, anyway—be limited. Where the only building available does not provide good access for disabled voters, we provide a grant of about 50 per cent. towards the cost of a temporary ramp. Grants from election funds towards permanent adaptations to buildings could not be justified, because elections are held only infrequently.

The buildings that are used for polling stations are, however, usually ones to which the public have access on other occasions. I should have thought that it would be a priority for local authorities to make access for the disabled to those buildings at least fairly convenient. In some of the reports, difficult access is described as almost no access at all. There are two problems—first, where there is no access and, secondly, where access is possible but needs, by the use of more imagination, to be made much easier.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I apologise for having missed the earlier part of the debate, through no fault of my own.

The all-party disablement group has been campaigning hard on the deficiencies of the existing legislation. The 1985 changes have not borne the fruit that we expected. In my constituency, rooms have been used to which people in wheelchairs cannot gain access, even though other parts of the same building would have been accessible. The existing legislation is not good enough. If the rest of the Bill is not acceptable, for the reasons that the Minister has given, it must surely be possible to use or to amend this part of the Bill so that progress on this narrow point can be made.

Mr. Lloyd

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's remarks. If I have heard him aright he said that the part of the building used as a polling station did not have access for the disabled, but other parts of the building did. That seems extraordinarily remiss of those in charge, and I should have thought that local pressure would be the most effective way to deal with it. No doubt, as a result of the hon. Gentleman's noticing the problem, such pressure has been effective.

Polling stations are a national requirement, but also a local service provided by the local authority for a local event—the election in that constituency—and the problem needs a little more foresight, imagination and pressure from local people if it is to be solved. I shall return to the subject in my concluding remarks.

I know that ramps are necessary, as long as the slope is reasonable for people in wheelchairs. For people who are disabled and find walking difficult, but who are determined not to use a wheelchair, even a ramp with a low incline is difficult and steps are often easier to use. That is why I said that thought and imagination are required because the problems are not easily solved and different people have different requirements. The problem can only be solved with common sense and determination at a local level, although grants are available from the Home Office. An 80 per cent. grant is available for special polling booths, which are designed for use by disabled people within the polling station.

The engine of any change must come from sensible local decisions, based on imagination and foresight. Our aim is that all polling stations should be accessible to disabled people. For that reason, our working group, which is considering counting and other aspects of the voting process, has invited the Royal National Institute for the Blind to talk about its concerns. It is important to take into account the views of those who are able to offer practical advice about disabled people's problems. The RNIB last year drew up valuable guidance on polling station lay-out and equipment, which we circulated to returning officers before the election.

After the Spastics Society drew up its report, we invited it to provide similar guidance. We have had talks with Mencap about helping people with learning difficulties to register to vote; that answers a question from the hon. Member for Upper Bann. When we receive guidance we bring it to the attention of the people who need it, but considerably more needs to be done, through continued dialogue with specialist groups that serve the interests of the disabled. I assure the House that we shall continue that dialogue and will take careful note of the working group's recommendations.

The Government have much sympathy with the aims of the Bill. As I said, timing is its unfortunate aspect. I welcome this informed and concerned debate on Second Reading and can undertake to the House that issues raised in the debate will be studied carefully by the Home Office working groups—and no doubt by the political parties —with which we are committed to discuss the findings before taking further legislative or administrative action that seems right and practical in the light of what they say.

I cannot give Government support for the Bill at this time. I regret that I must say that, because I share the objectives of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East, and know that he has taken an enormous amount of trouble with the Bill. Even if it does not get on to the statute book this year, he will have brought his goals much closer than they were before he embarked on the endeavour, and I congratulate him on that.

1.24 pm
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

It used to be a little easier to be heroic in creating democracy in this country, as I know from my local history, because the best part of 200 years ago three of my fellow citizens in Nottingham were executed on the steps of Shire hall for having had the temerity to demonstrate to secure the vote for ordinary people. No doubt the hangman was a guffawing ancient relative of he hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans). These days, however, it is much tougher.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) for tackling the unglamorous and difficult thicket of legislation surrounding electoral registration. He has done his job remarkably well and I am sure that his hard work will be rewarded, certainly in the future, if not today. I link his name to that of Councillor Peggy Quirke whom we mentioned earlier. Almost single-handedly she managed to get about 15,000 additional people on the register in the London borough of Brent. The Conservative-controlled council opted for so-called "positive registration", which means letting people register themselves without any assistance.

I am a little saddened that the Minister did not take the opportunity to condemn the actions of the Conservative-controlled council in Brent, which initially denied about 26,000 people the opportunity to vote in just that one borough. It means that the fight to secure the vote is by no means over; it continues to this day, although perhaps less glamorously than in the past.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Will my hon. Friend comment on the lackadaisical way in which the Government threw away more than 20,000 votes in Brent but assiduously pursued votes in South Africa before the previous election?

Mr. Allen

As usual, my hon. Friend anticipates some of my remarks; I shall return to that topic shortly.

Perhaps part of the reason for the Government's inactivity and complacency is that there has been a one-party state for about 17 years. The Home Office response to under-registration may be described as at best complacent and at worst cynical. The Government have allowed a system to continue which delivered the goods to the Conservative party. From their point of view, "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" Electoral registration is too important to be left in a party political context.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), who has now left the Chamber. He said that there was no place, at least in Northern Ireland, for an independent electoral commission. I believe that we need to consider seriously not just an independent electoral commission but an independent commission for democracy to make steady, carefully considered proposals about the nuts and bolts of our democracy. Such issues should not be dealt with through the lengthy, protracted procedure of a private Member's Bill, having to depend on the good fortune of one hon. Member and the acquiesence of a Government who feel that they will not benefit from such proposals. There must be a better way.

My view and that of my party is that we need to establish, or to consider establishing, an independent commission to make proposals when they are required, rather than having to wait for the good fortune of a private Member's ballot.

Mr. Maclennan

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of establishing an electoral commission. He will no doubt have read and had his argument strengthened by the 1991 report of the Hansard Society, an all-party—or no-party—commission of great authority and weight.

Mr. Allen

Indeed, I support that proposal from the Hansard Society and many of its other proposals. We constantly come up against the great difficulty that we cannot put matters before the House for a decision. If there were an independent commission of some sort it could do the valuable background work, produce considered proposals—which would, of course, have to command the agreement of all parties—and put them before the House in the form of a report would could be legislated upon. No doubt those matters will come before us at some time in the future.

The debate has been helpful, too, because it has allowed us to think afresh about some of the measures that we should consider in order to make the detail of our democracy work. Hon. Members may wish to consider whether we need registration at all. Of course, that question cannot be answered today. There are difficulties about how people are to make themselves known on polling day if they are not registered, but one state in the United States, for example, has already done away with electoral registration: provided that someone can prove who he is on the day, he is entitled to vote. I do not suggest that we deal with that idea today at any great length, but we need to think afresh about the ways in which we can make our system work.

Our current electoral system is decrepit and ancient. It survives only because of the good will and hard work of electoral registration officers and political activists, who fill in the gaps in lieu of the job being done properly by means of a modern technologically efficient system.

Every elector should have the right to vote and the Government have a responsibility to assist that process. Their failure to do so effectively meant that in April 1992 nearly 2 million Britons, having failed to register, could not vote in the general election. Many of those people were from already marginalised areas of society; many were young people and residents of inner cities. Two million people have no stake in our democratic system. Let us think on that when we talk about the young people on Meadowell or people who turn to crime and are alienated from our society. Somehow, we must give those people back their stake in our society and in the government at local and national level for which they are now avoiding responsibility.

No doubt some people deliberately left the register, thinking to avoid poll tax bills which they could ill afford. Others registered for the tax and assumed that they were also registered to vote. I am sure that my local party was not alone in having to deal with scores of potential voters who had not realised that they were not on the electoral register until election day, when they wondered why their ballot cards had not arrived. I expect that the Minister's local party had the same experience.

Many others will have failed to register because of problems of literacy or because their disability meant that they were unable to fill in the forms. Some will have failed to register due to apathy and alienation—feelings which can only be reinforced by inability to participate in the democratic process. Such under-representation of sections of the community seriously weakens our democratic system.

The boundary commission is due to report in the near future and its recommendations will be based partly on the size of local electorates, as recorded in the electoral registers. Large-scale under-registration will significantly affect the results of its deliberations. Some areas will be over-represented and others under-represented. The registers for Greater London, with only 90.3 per cent. registration, miss out more than 500,000 voters—the equivalent of almost seven constituencies of 80,000 people each.

The under-representation is worse in some areas, such as here in the City of Westminster, where one person in three is missed off the register. In one borough that has received a lot of attention this morning—the Conservative-controlled borough of Brent—only the threat of High Court action drove the council to undertake a canvass of households of the kind that the rest of us take for granted. As a result, at least 15,000 people were put back on to the register out of the 26,000 whom the borough had failed to put on in the first place.

Mr. Wigley

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument and I agree sustantially with it. Does he agree—I suspect that he will with enthusiasm—that, apart from individuals having lost out, the outcome of the election could have been determined by the numbers missing from the register? There were 11 constituencies in which the Conservative winner had a majority smaller than the reduction in the electoral register. If the results had been different, we would not have the present Government.

Mr. Allen

I know that the hon. Gentleman feels much the same as I do. All Members of Parliament, no matter what their party, should represent every person in their constituencies. I know that the hon. Gentleman also agrees that the voting intentions of those who are not registered are not a matter for us here. Voting intentions are entirely a matter for the individual, who can vote as he or she wishes in the secrecy of the polling booth. Every individual, regardless of political leaning, is entitled to that vote. Part of our duty and, above all, the duty of the Home Office is to ensure that everyone votes. The hon. Gentleman has no better information than I have on how those missing from the register would have voted. Who can say?

How can Parliament be said to represent the British public if so many people do not have the chance to vote? Whether they have withdrawn deliberately from the democratic process or not, they no longer possess even the ability to vote. The Government have dodged their responsibilities. I am appalled that they spend only 1.2p per elector on promoting registration. If that is the extent to which the Government value our electoral system, it is no surprise that so many people do not bother to take part. Any party truly committed to the ideals of democracy—I am sure that Conservative Members claim to have that commitment—should be willing to pay for the responsibilities that that belief entails.

Lady Olga Maitland

What budget does the hon. Gentleman reckon to be appropriate for advertising?

Mr. Allen

Initially, an appropriate sum might be the amount that the Government spent on recruiting overseas voters from South Africa and Spain. I understand that 30,000 individuals were recruited in that campaign. A spokesperson for Conservative central office said that the Conservatives expected that 70 per cent. of those registered would be their supporters. For the hon. Lady's information, that budget was £750,000. I should go for that figure for a start. No doubt the hon. Lady will outbid me because she is keen to register even more people.

Mr. Barnes

A parliamentary answer I received a couple of years ago showed that out of the total Government expenditure on publicity, including publicity for selling off industries and encouraging people to go on to fancy employment schemes, the expenditure on encouraging electoral registration was 0.132 per cent. In a democracy, we must be willing to spend considerably more than that.

Mr. Allen

My hon. Friend puts his finger on the point. If we are serious about registering electors rather than registering people likely to vote for a particular party, money should be made available. Money has been made available for the latter and it should be made available for the former.

If the Government are not prepared to do the job themselves, they and their working parties should try to facilitate the task of others. They should assist political parties in registering electors, perhaps by means of free postcards which could be returned to the local electoral registration officers. I would not normally wish to associate too closely with a company as free with its writs as McDonald's is, but I pay tribute to McDonald's in the United States—a very rare tribute indeed—for its keenness on promoting electoral registration. Those of us from the United Kingdom who were around for the presidential election campaign were surprised to see that, for example, post offices and McDonald's hamburger joints were keen to promote electoral registration and were making registration cards freely available. That may be worth considering in the United Kingdom.

Ultimately, we may be able to develop a system where registration technology is such that we can allow electors to register on election day itself, as happens elsewhere in the world. I hope that such ideas will not be ruled out in the Home Office working parties' review.

The absence of a person's name on the electoral register affects not only his or her right to vote; it debars him or her from jury service, which should be a matter of particular concern to us. Juries are meant to represent local populations; if large numbers of people, particularly from the inner city, are unable to serve on them, the social spread that our system is meant to contain and represent will be seriously distorted. It is debatable whether electoral registers represent the best way of selecting jurors for service, but while the present system remains in place it is important for that reason alone that registration is as full as possible.

We should consider not only the problem of low voter registration but that of turnout. In the last general election only 77.7 per cent. of the electorate voted; 9 million people who were eligible to vote failed to do so. In the 1992 metropolitan borough elections, only 32.5 per cent. of the electorate voted. In 1990—not a year characterised by election fatigue—the figure was only 46.3 per cent. Such figures are symptomatic of the electorate's disillusionment with the democratic process and represent an indictment of our present system of government. If we cannot persuade those registered to vote to do so, how can we expect to convince those not registered of the wisdom of registering?

The Bill addresses many of the concerns about our electoral process and I applaud the sentiments behind it. But until the British public regard their elected representatives as their voice in government, be it local or national, and not merely as emasculated administrators or simply lobby fodder, it will be hard to ensure popular participation in our democracy. Such participation requires not just changes in the powers and responsibilities of electoral registration officers, but a sea change in the way in which government at all levels views itself in relation to the public and their representatives.

The Labour party's Plant committee has been considering the British electoral system. Nationwide, local Labour parties are participating in the largest consultation exercise on constitutional reform ever been embarked upon. The Labour party is the only party genuinely willing to debate issues of democracy with an open mind rather than a fixed agenda. The next Labour Government will examine the possibility of instituting a commission on democracy, which I know has the support of other Opposition parties, along the lines of the Commission for Racial Equality. The commission would be charged with reporting both to Parliament and to the country. Its task would be to ensure freedom and fairness in all aspects of our electoral system and constantly to review and tune the nuts and bolts of our democracy and electoral process.

Similarly, the Labour party is now examining a Bill of Rights. It is inconceivable that the worst excesses and abuses of the electoral system—such as that in the Conservative-controlled London borough of Brent to which I referred—would survive a challenge under Bill of Rights provisions fairly adjudicated on by a modernised judiciary.

Other aspects of the current electoral process certainly need examination. The first is postal voting.

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Allen

Of course.

Mr. Powell

Before my hon. Friend develops that point, I should like to draw his attention to the fact that I recently changed my address. My constituency was reorganised in 1983 as a result of the reorganisation of parliamentary boundaries. I tried to find accommodation in my new constituency for 10 years. I received a letter dated 2 February from the returning officer in which he informs me that I cannot possibly be registered on the electoral register in my constituency until next October. I cannot get on to the rolling programme suggested in the Bill. As the Member of Parliament for Ogmore, I am not allowed to register until next October. I shall not be allowed to vote for myself and, with the small majority that I have, I shall have great difficulty being returned to the House. That is a very important point.

Mr. Allen

When hon. Members are in the very tenuous electoral position of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), every vote counts. No doubt he will try to push his Bill more speedily through Standing Committee so that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East can get his Bill into Committee and therefore allow my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore the electoral registration that he so richly deserves.

With regard to absentee voting, the entire system of postal and proxy voting is in dire need of reassessment. In general, ignorance of procedure and of the availability of such facilities must be remedied. In the United States of America, which undoubtedly has its own electoral problems, no notes from doctors or employers are necessary for absentee ballots. Such a reform would be widely welcomed in this country. In California recently, one in five of the votes cast in presidential and other elections was cast as an absentee ballot. We shall examine the possibility of postal voting in this country for every individual who needs one, requires one and requests one. Certainly, everyone over retirement age should have an automatic right to apply for a postal or proxy vote on the ground of ill health.

The timing of elections is also an issue. Hon. Members will know that the Labour party remains committed to fixed-term Parliaments. Many people in the electorate believe that it is an outrage that an incumbent Prime Minister can choose to go to the country to suit his or her—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that his contribution has nothing to do with the Bill. It would help the debate if the hon. Gentleman could return to the Bill.

Mr. Allen

Access to polling stations is referred to in the Bill and is another vital issue. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East has drawn attention to that matter. We have always been committed to ensuring equality of access to the democratic process. That will not occur while there is still inequality of access to the voting booth. I therefore welcome the proposals in the Bill about accessibility audits.

In July 1992, the Spastics Society reported that only one in eight polling stations surveyed was considered adequately accessible. Although each constituency has an average of 6,000 housebound people, the Government spent just £14,500 in 1991 publicising the rights of the elderly and disabled to obtain long-term postal and proxy votes.

Accessibility audits suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East will not be enough on their own. Unless central Government take full financial responsibility for ensuring access for the disabled, there will be no way of effectively ensuring adequate standards of access countrywide. In the face of increased financial pressure from the Government, the current requirement for local authorities to find 50 per cent. of the cost of improving polling station access means that a disabled person's right to vote depends effectively on the spending priorities of the local authority.

I welcome the Bill's attempt to widen and standardise provisions for disabled persons' access to democracy. I urge the House to support the Bill. It contains many positive proposals. It is vital for the health of our democracy that we do not allow our electoral process to stagnate. We must not sit back and watch our inner cities become Americanised, populated by a class of people who are outside our conventional democratic structures. If that is not to happen, we need to act fast. The cycle of disillusionment and disfranchisement is vicious and it needs to be stopped early. The Labour party is fully committed to working towards reversing the growth of that invisible electoral population.

Opposition Members will not stop there. When the Labour party comes to power, it will create a culture of citizenship in which every Briton will take part. We shall have responsive and open government, an end to the dictatorship of the Executive, an elected second Chamber, a Bill of Rights, a reformed and accountable judiciary, Scottish and Welsh Assemblies and independent local government. All will be part of a new democracy for the United Kingdom—a democracy in which people will have pride, one in which they will participate and one which they will feel that they own.

The Bill is a worthy and valiant attempt by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East. It is a good start on the road that beckons us on to more fundamental reform which can come only with a change of Government.

1.50 pm
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

Having been present throughout the debate, I expected that it would be an important debate, bearing in mind the topic of the Bill, but I am surprised at how lively and how wide ranging it became. The Bill begins with the laudable objective of improving the democratic process, and I welcome that, but from then on it goes into a rather severe decline. At times, even the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) appeared somewhat confused about the details in his Bill. He certainly proposed measures which are impractical and in some cases are based on an exaggerated analysis of the problem.

I do not deny the hon. Gentleman's sincerity in pursuing that objective, but I regret the late availability of the Bill. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not to blame for that, but on a matter of such importance to everyone in this country it is most important that all elements are most carefully scrutinised and debated at length.

Mr. Barnes

One problem with a private Member's Bill is that, in going to the wire, it is produced as well as it can be. If it is produced earlier, there might be more defects in it. There is the problem of that trade-off. Many other Bills have strong pressure groups behind them, and they do much of the legal and other work. Although I had great support and people were offering ideas, I had to do much of the work myself. Unfortunately, that pushed us to the wire. I agree that the issue is of such importance that we could have done with two months in which to look at the Bill before we debated it.

Mr. Merchant

I appreciate that, but I am bound to say that if there are not many pressure groups trying to exert influence on the topic, the problem is perhaps not perceived by the population to be so great as the hon. Gentleman has portrayed it.

The hon. Gentleman concedes that matters need to be thoroughly discussed and investigated before a Bill is presented and the law is changed. That is why the main fault in the Bill is that it is premature. My hon. Friend the Minister has said that his Department is looking in detail at all aspects covered by the Bill and, indeed, others as well. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East has said that, given another few months, he would have been able to present a better Bill. Surely the answer is to wait until the Home Office review is complete, when all such matters have been investigated and all the ramifications, practicalities and so on are examined before such a Bill is laid before the House.

Apart from the issues incorporated in the Bill, there are two other matters that should rightly be examined at the same time and, if necessary, included in legislation.

There are wider issues such as the question whether double registration should continue to be allowed and whether it is a good thing, the extension of the absent vote, which my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned, the various implications of European agreements on EC nationals and their voting rights at some stage in the future, and electoral counting methods and the possible use of electronics or machine methods to count votes. All those issues need to be examined at length.

The United Kingdom has a precious democratic system. It is important to examine the implication of suggestions about a rolling register or access for the disabled to ensure that any changes that take place will be for the better and benefit the population in terms of ease of voting.

While some of the suggestions in the Bill at first appear attractive—they are ones with which I generally agree—the practicalities need to be taken fully into account. For example, with regard to the clauses dealing with voting for the disabled, one needs to ask whether, by imposing a requirement to have one polling station in a constituency fully equipped and designated for the disabled, one is not making the situation worse by discouraging electoral returning officers from providing adequate facilities at other polling stations, especially in a constituency that may cover a large geographical area. Such matters need to be fully weighed up before any final decision is taken.

The idea of a rolling register is quite attractive. It has many merits and has become much more feasible with the availability of new technology to speed up the process of adding or subtracting names then publishing them, certainly in an electronic form. The difficulties relate to standardisation and finding systems that work and are reliable.

We have all seen numerous examples of the hiccups —often they are more than hiccups—that occur when electronic methods are introduced. A criticism in the early days of the community charge was the difficulty that borough and district treasurers had in getting their machinery to work properly. If we introduce a system that is heavily based on a new electronic process, all the ramifications of it will need to be examined. We need to come to a conclusion on a system that will work and which can be standardised across the country.

The sale of the electoral register was mentioned at various times in the debate. I shall refer to that matter briefly, as I have some previous experience, not directly in the direct mail business but in dealing with some of the problems thrown up by the direct mail industry and the public on direct mail matters. I should add that I no longer have a connection with the industry.

I am convinced that, on balance, the sale of the electoral register is a good thing. Apart from the arguments against it being limited by practical factors, I am not sure whether we can prevent the electoral register from becoming available one way or another. Given that availability, we may as well charge for it.

In no case that I can think of is the electoral register used by direct mail houses to blanket an area and deliver junk mail—it would indeed be junk mail as it would be entirely untargeted—which they would not otherwise be able to do. That would be bad direct mailing and of no interest to direct mail houses. Direct mail houses use the electoral register for an entirely benign process—to clean up and check their existing records. People benefit from the system, because it ensures that the names and addresses used are much more accurate than they would be if they were not cleaned up by that process. Preventing direct mail houses from using the electoral register might lead to a deterioration in the targeting quality of direct mail and create many more public complaints than exist at present.

Non-registration is the ill which the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East is trying to correct by means of the Bill. There are non-registration problems, of course, but some of the figures that he quoted exaggerate the problem. Everyone accepts that no one can know accurately, without carrying out an extremely detailed exercise, how many people are unregistered. Many of the figures produced tend to suggest that it is nearer 5 or 6 per cent., not 10 per cent. as the hon. Gentleman suggested. A document produced by the Library tells us that the estimated percentage of people registered when set against the population has increased during the past year over the previous year in Scotland, England and Wales.

The decline measured in previous years was not that great. There were only marginal changes. Most interesting of all, the percentage of the younger age groups—the attainers—estimated to be registered is higher now than a decade ago and has been slowly increasing over that period. There is no suggestion that the community charge or anything else has produced a declining registration among attainers.

Opposition Members have claimed that the Labour party would be helped by greater registration or, at least that the results of elections and opinion polls would be different, but there is no evidence on which to base that claim. Anyone who assumes that all those who are not registered would vote for a particular political party and thus make a dramatic difference to the results of elections in marginal seats is greatly mistaken. The majority of opinion polls are not carried out with reference to the electoral register; they are conducted by interviewers who stop others in the street to ask them for their views. That may account for opinion polls being inaccurate, but I doubt whether electoral registration has any impact on such polls.

A valid question is whether registration should be compulsory. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern), who unfortunately can no longer be in his place, suggested that registration should not be compulsory. I have some sympathy with that view because it strikes me as strange that in a democracy people should be forced to register. On balance, I think that the present system is for the best, even if at times I have some doubts about its ethical validity. In practical terms, however, I am prepared to accept it. To the extent that it is compulsory, I find it peculiar that it appears not to be enforced, given that there are penalties. It may interest my hon. Friend the Minister and his right hon. and hon. Friends at the Treasury that if all those who are estimated to be unregistered were prosecuted and fined, the Treasury would be able to raise about £2 billion, which would no doubt be of great help now. A degree of enforcement would help to increase registration by acting as an incentive. If that were complemented by more advertising and more thorough door-to-door canvassing, I believe that many of the problems stemming from lack of registration would be overcome.

What are the reasons for non-registration? It has been suggested that it is linked with deprived areas. I find that difficult to envisage, because deprivation existed in past years, and often at much worse levels. Yet the percentage of those reckoned to be registered was higher during those years. The community charge has been used as an excuse, but there is no clear evidence to suggest that it has had a significant effect on registration. There will, of course, always be marginal examples. If we are talking of a severe problem, I believe that deprivation and the community charge are not the causes. Some say that anonymity is a factor. Some people will always want to guard their privacy to a high degree, and I do not think that anything can overcome that wish.

A difference in administrative practice is probably a main reason, because there is a good deal of variety between electoral registration officers. That problem must be addressed.

There is also the question of dissenters. There are always those who decline to take part in any of the society's activities, including registering and voting. The effort required to overcome the resistance of that last 1 or 2 per cent. would be enormous and not worth it—particularly when one bears in mind that some dissension would be on valid ethical or religious grounds.

It worries me sometimes that once Opposition Members seize on an idea, they are tempted to go almost to totalitarian lengths to enforce it. I find objectionable the Bill's requirement that if one moves to a new address, one must inform the registration officer within three weeks. That is rather draconian, but at least it does not go so far as some Labour Members, such as the hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who have long campaigned for compulsory voting. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West gets very excited at that prospect. I sometimes wonder whether he will follow it up by requiring compulsory voting for the Labour party. That hon. Gentleman told the House: Already we consider certain activities in our society too important for the common good to be left as options."—[Official Report, 5 May 1987; Vol. 115, c. 589.] He includes voting among them. The hon. Member for Rother Valley went further. He said: I would not be prepared to make any detailed provision for the right to abstain of religious groups or of anyone else."—[Official Report, 14 February 1985; Vol. 73, c. 615.] That takes the argument to absurd lengths.

The House must allow the Home Office review to be completed, consider and debate its implications, and then carefully and thoroughly reach its conclusions and right the problems that exist—without altering practices that operate perfectly effectively.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

I call Mr. Ray Powell.

2.6 pm

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a great pleasure to be called by you, having risen in my place on this spot since last May. On odd occasions, I have been tempted—being so short—to jump on my seat, in the hope that I would catch your eye. I feel very privileged this afternoon to have caught your eye and I am grateful to be called.

I am grateful also to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) for presenting a Bill of great importance—in particular, to this country's democracy. Earlier, he told me that if there were to be compulsory voting, that should operate today. Perhaps all hon. Members will take due note. I hope that most are in the House today.

I regret that I was unable to be in the Chamber earlier, to hear the Minister and his suggestion for a Home Office review. I have grave doubts of its value, if it applies any previous Conservative legislation affecting the electoral register. I refer, for example, to the Representation of the People Act 1990 to permit British residents overseas to apply for registration, which became law prior to the last general election. I know for a fact that Labour lost one seat as a result of that legislation. Labour lost Vale of Glamorgan by 19 votes in an election in which 58 registered overseas electors cast their votes by proxy—undoubtedly for the Conservative candidate. Most of the votes were cast by overseas residents who could qualify for the electoral roll if they had at one time been resident in this country, even if they had not been resident here or on the electoral roll for as long as 20 years. Not only could they register, but they could identify the constituency in which they wanted to register, even if they had never lived in that constituency. Therefore, I would not rely on the Home Office review to resolve the problem.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

It is interesting to know that the hon. Gentleman is sure that any British resident overseas is bound to vote Conservative. That was not the view of the Labour Front-Bench team when it assented to the inclusion of the paragraph in the legislation. The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong to say that overseas British residents can register in the constituency of their choice. No overseas British resident can do that. They can register only in the constituency where it can be demonstrated that they were resident and on the register immediately before they left this country.

Mr. Powell

On the first part of the Minister's answer, I cannot be responsible for actions taken by other Labour Members, whether Front Benchers or Back Benchers. If they had 15 years experience as a parliamentary constituency agent. as I have, and had studied the Representation of the People Act 1990 to ensure who was entitled to vote in an election, their opinions would probably be different.

On the amending legislation, although the Minister suggested that not all overseas residents voted Conservative, when a television programme was shown in this country involving an organisation for those with properties abroad, its president asked the audience of 500 people at a dinner to take note of their rights to register. He said that he hoped that they would all vote for the Conservative party. Those people might have been misguided, as they had been out of this country for so long—some of them for as long as 14 or 15 years. They might have been unaware of what had happened in that period under the Conservative Government, but that progranne was shown in this country only a matter of weeks before the general election, and it undoubtedly had some impact.

Mr. Thomason

The hon. Gentleman appears to be saying that most overseas voters vote Conservative. Is he arguing that, therefore, they should not be allowed to vote? If so, what does that have to do with the Bill?

Mr. Powell

It has a lot to do with the Bill. It is unfair to extend rights to people who have not resided in this country for 20 years when those rights go beyond those held by residents and Members of Parliament in this country. Even as an elected Member of Parliament, when I moved I was denied the right to register on the electoral roll at my new address as my name was not on the roll before October. The register of electors is open to people who have not been residents in this country for periods of up to 20 years. That was the subject of the Home Office review when the amending legislation was introduced.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever the political opinions of the people, Conservative Members who went abroad made a concerted attempt to contact those people and get their names on the register? I do not think that those Conservative Members would have been making that effort if they did not believe that most of those people were Conservative voters.

Mr. Powell

I accept entirely what my hon. Friend suggests. That undoubtedly happened. It had a direct effect on a number of marginal seats. It should not have been allowed, but it was allowed, by agreement on both sides—

Lady Olga Maitland

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Powell

Let me deal with the point that has been made; then I shall gladly give way to the hon. Lady.

That should not have been allowed, because the amendment extended rights to citizens outside this country that are not afforded to citizens in this country.

Lady Olga Maitland

This strikes me as a case of sour grapes. What steps did the Labour party take to find their voters? I suspect they did not take any steps because there were no Labour voters.

Mr. Powell

The hon. Lady is making the very point that I made. The primary objective of both the Home Office and the Government was to extend this right to their own supporters.

Lady Olga Maitland

Will the hon. Gentleman give way again?

Mr. Powell

Yes, I will. If I do not do so, the hon. Lady will, I know, be up and down all day.

Lady Olga Maitland

The same opportunities can be given to Labour voters overseas. If they do not choose to vote, or if there are no Labour voters overseas, we cannot help the hon. Gentleman, can we?

Mr. Powell

No, but most of the people who live abroad and who have properties abroad are obviously those who benefited from opening shops on Sunday that they should not have opened.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now beginning to stray away from the Bill. I should be grateful if he would return to its contents.

Mr. Powell

The hon. Lady got me so excited that I was bound to go astray.

Reference was made earlier to opinion polls. Some years ago I introduced a ten-minute Bill that would have prevented opinion polls from being carried out five weeks before a general election or a by-election. One day, Members of Parliament in all parts of the House will come to their senses and realise that that is the right approach. It would save all political parties millions of pounds in carrying out opinion polls. In all probability, we should then have a true reflection of how the electorate intended to vote. I am surprised that the Conservatives are concentrating on opinion polls and the influence that they have, instead of wanting electors to vote in accordance with their political views.

Many changes occurred during the 15-year period that I was a political agent. At one time the register was collated in October, with a supplementary register being published by 16 February of the following year. If electors registered during that period they were allowed to vote. Therefore, the agents of all the political parties had the opportunity between October and February to ensure that their supporters were registered. That opportunity has been taken away from us. It is high time that the Government considered introducing a system under which there would be a rolling register and also the possibility, after the register had been compiled in October, of a cut-off date three months later so that people who were not on the register in October could be registered within that three-month period.

At the last election I was disturbed by the fact that between 400 and 500 of my constituents were not on the register. Since then, a survey has been conducted to find out the total.

On the day of the election, two residents of the Caerau area of Maesteg in my constituency went to vote. Apparently, one of them—I could not understand where he came from or his family background—went to vote Conservative, and we are conducting an investigation into that. Misguided though he was, he went to the polling station with his next-door neighbour, who had been a neighbour and a friend for years. They used to go to the Conservative club together—although the neighbour voted Labour he was an officer of the Conservative club in Caerau, which is typical of the valley people.

When that man went to the polling station he found that he was denied the right to vote because he was not on the electoral register, although he had lived at the same address and voted at the same polling station for the past 50 years—and he paid his poll tax. His neighbour aggravated the situation because he was voting for two non-residents of the Ogmore constituency, who had been recruited on to the register because of the iniquitous decision to allow voting rights to residents abroad. That highlights the problems created at the last election—the postal date of registration and the fact that people from abroad are allowed to register and to vote.

I hope that there will be a Division on whether the Bill should have a Second Reading. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East will succeed in that Division. I also hope that the Minister will concede that there is time for the Bill to be debated and will find time for early completion of the preceding Shops (Amendment) Bill, which I am promoting. I hope that the House will encourage the Minister to arrange an early Report stage for that Bill so that my hon. Friend can get his Bill into Committee.

Mr. Thomason

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Bill would not have helped the voter from his constituency who turned up on the day of the election to find that he was not on the register? The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East says that the Bill requires more than seven days' prior notice—in my opinion, as drafted, it requires 14 days—for a name to be put on the register. It is not a rolling register, but is fixed to two points in time—an election and the annual update. Does the hon. Gentleman concede that it will not deal with that problem?

Mr. Powell

It would be a big help if the draft register were published in October and if adjustments could be made until February, which is what used to happen. Of course, it would help if people were allowed to go on a rolling register and to ensure that their names were on it before the day of the election. As my constituent had been on the register for 50 years, it is surprising that he should find that he was not on it.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East will get support for the Bill. I and a number of other hon. Members will be in the Lobby to support him, and we are grateful that he has taken the time, effort and energy to promote the Bill, with the backing of a number of organisations, so that Parliament has the chance to rectify many mistakes, and to allow people to exercise their democratic right to be on the register and to vote for a Labour Government which, in all probability, is what will happen at the next election.

Mr. Barnes

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House divided: Ayes 78, Noes 0.

Tellers for the Noes:
Mr. Piers Merchant and
Mr. Roy Thomason.

Whereupon MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided in the affirmative, because it was not supported by majority prescribed by Standing Order No. 36 ( Majority for Closure or for Proposal of Question).

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Debate to be resumed what day? No day named.