HC Deb 29 June 2004 vol 423 cc149-50
21. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

What assessment the Department has made of the integrity of the electoral roll following the postal ballots in the recent elections. [180755]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

The new powers given to electoral registration officers in 2001 have helped to safeguard the accuracy of the electoral register. Further security improvements, including individual rather than household registration, are being actively considered as part of an ongoing review, but not specifically related to one election.

Mr. Swayne

Does the Minister accept that the robustness of the register is vital to minimising fraud? Does he agree that confidence in our electoral system is not so much determined by a relatively low number of proven cases of fraud as by the perception that our systems largely exclude the possibility for it?

Mr. Leslie

I agree with the hon. Gentleman in respect of the electoral roll. The accuracy of the register is vital as the foundation of our democratic system. We have made improvements by giving new powers to electoral registration officers to demand information and to be able to ask for specified evidence of age, nationality and so forth. Of course, they also have the power not to include people on the electoral roll. In this country, we largely operate on the basis of trust and believe that citizens will fill in their forms correctly, but we have to ensure that we always improve security whenever possible.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con)

As the Minister said, the electoral roll is the foundation of any smoothly functioning democratic process. If that is distorted, everything that follows risks becoming polluted as well. Suggestions have been made that some electoral rolls are overstated with ineligible names, particularly in urban areas, to the tune of 10 or even 15 per cent. That has serious implications for all-postal voting and for the setting of boundaries for seats in the House. Will the Minister confirm that he will accelerate the introduction of individual voter registration and that, when it is introduced, it will require the person's name, address, date of birth, national insurance number and signature to authenticate genuine voters and remove the ineligible ones?

Mr. Leslie

That is something that we are discussing, not least with the Electoral Commission, which has proposed individual registration for some time. One problem that needs to be overcome is the extra burden that individual registration would place on citizens. Instead of each household filling in a form, each individual would have to fill in an extra form. That may be necessary and it may have merit, but a possible consequence is that people might fall off the electoral roll, and we would not want that to happen. We must make sure that individual registration is accurate, and that it legitimately enfranchises as many people as possible. I think that we can get that balance right. We are trying to solve the problem and we will bring forward proposals in due course.