HL Deb 25 May 1995 vol 564 cc1097-116

2.47 p.m.

Lord Monkswell rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any plans to improve the level of electoral registration and to make all aspects of the electoral system more easily accessible.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, every British Commonwealth and Irish citizen resident in this country has a right to vote in our elections; but there are a number of ways in which that right is denied to some of those people.

I want to ask the Government what plans they have to deal with those problems, and in particular to deal with the financial, bureaucratic and physical barriers which prevent some people from exercising their rights. I intend to explain what I mean about those barriers and suggest ways to bring them down; but before doing so I want to highlight the broad problem and explain why I believe that we need to take action. Overall in this country between 5 per cent. and 9 per cent., or between 2 million and 3.5 million people, may be denied their right to vote. This masks some quite startling local variations which mean that up to 30 per cent. of people in some areas may be disenfranchised.

I am proud that in 1832 one of my ancestors, the father of the first Lord Monkswell, was elected as one of the first MPs for the City of Plymouth. For six generations my family has endeavoured to serve the people. In the past 160 years we have seen a steady enlargement of the electoral franchise. Initially it was available just to men of property, then to all men, then to women, and finally to all those over 18 years of age. We might ask why that has happened and what are the benefits that derive from it. It happened because people demanded their right to vote, their enfranchisement. The benefits have been the cohesiveness and the unity of our society.

Because everyone is involved in drawing up the rules of our society, by and large they accept those rules. However, at the end of the 1980s that changed and for the first time we had the poll tax. Effectively to be a member of society one had to pay a price. Statistics now confirm the anecdotal evidence, and the experience of those of us involved in the election process, that some people took themselves off the electoral register in the hope of escaping the imposition of the poll tax. Of course the poll tax has now been abolished and replaced by the council tax. However, the working of the council tax, and specifically the 25 per cent. discount for single adult households, still provides, unfortunately, a financial incentive not to be registered on the electoral roll. The first detailed supplementary that I have—if I can put it like that—is: will the Government look at this problem and do something to prevent that perceived financial disincentive to be registered on the electoral roll?

I now turn to the bureaucratic barrier to voting. The register is compiled in October and comes into effect in the following February. When the system was set up most people did not move house frequently. They might only move house once in a lifetime. But now society is much more fluid and people move house much more frequently. In fact, the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys reports that in the year up to the 1991 census, 9 per cent. of the population moved home. In some areas there is more movement than in others. It is estimated that in some areas the electoral register may be up to 30 per cent. inaccurate by the end of the year in which it is in force.

My second supplementary is: what plans do the Government have to modernise our electoral registration system? In this context, I commend two ideas: first, a computerised rolling register, as suggested by Harry Barnes MP in his Private Member's Bill, the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, which he introduced in another place in 1994; and, secondly, the system that operates in some states in the United States of America where a resident can go to a polling station on polling day and register and vote at the same time.

The third barrier to the human rights of voting is the physical barrier to disabled people. Due to changes in our society and medical science we now have many more disabled people wanting to play their full part in society. They have every right to do so. However, SCOPE, previously the Spastics Society, carried out a survey in 1992 which showed that 88 per cent. of polling stations were inaccessible to disabled people.

The third supplementary question that I ask is: what plans do the Government have to make polling stations more accessible? I point out that postal voting and proxy voting are no real substitute for the ability of people to vote in person. Also, making polling stations more accessible will help disabled people at other times than on polling day because most polling stations are in schools or other public buildings which should be accessible in their own right during normal use.

I should like to thank all those who are taking part in this little debate today. I thank the Minister in advance for her reply which will, I am sure, be studied with great interest. I pay tribute to Harry Barnes, M.P., for his activity on the subject and for the help he has provided to me with statistics and in other ways. I wish to thank Full Franchise, a non-party campaign to maximise involvement in the electoral process, for its work in the field.

In my remarks I must pay tribute to the electoral registration officers in town halls throughout the land for the contribution they make to ensuring that our electoral system works as well as it does, with limited resources and even less recognition.

Finally, I wish to give three case studies of the problems which I am talking about this afternoon. The first is of a single mother with an 18 year-old son who does not register him for the elections because she cannot afford to pay what is effectively an extra 30 per cent. on her council tax. Secondly, there is the little old lady who, when she arrives at the polling station, is told "No, I am afraid you cannot vote". Why not? Either because she did not receive the form or because she filled it out wrongly. That lady may not have moved house, she may have voted in virtually every previous election. That happens in election after election and it is palpably unfair. Thirdly, I cite the case of the disabled man in a wheelchair who could not get into the polling station. He was only able to cast his vote because the election officers at that polling station, acting totally illegally, brought the ballot paper and ballot box out of the polling station to him, to enable him to cast his vote. It is surely wrong that people can only vote illegally.

The problems that I have highlighted this afternoon and the solutions that I have proposed will, I hope, not be considered as party political in any way. I hope that the Government will address the issues, to the benefit of the whole of society, with the recognition that every human being in our society is equal and should be treated as equal and have equal human rights when it comes to the electoral system. I thank all noble Lords.

2.58 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, has initiated the debate to discover the Government's thinking on ways not only of improving the level of electoral registration but also of making all aspects of the electoral system more accessible. We should be grateful to him for raising some important problems and suggesting practical solutions to make the electoral system work better.

I should like to focus on one notorious way in which the existing electoral system is inaccessible to the unwary voter. It is, namely, that parliamentary candidates can use deliberately confusing and misleading party political labels so as to pass themselves off, confuse voters and produce results which are not truly representative of the people's wishes.

The United Kingdom is obliged by Article 3 of the first protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature. We are also bound by Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to guarantee the free expression of the will of the electors. Most unfortunately, our existing election law enables a candidate to describe himself or herself in such a way as to confuse and mislead the electorate and to distort the free expression of the people and the electors' will.

A recent and blatant example of this mischief occurred during the European parliamentary election for the Devon and East Plymouth constituency on 9th June 1994. That constituency consists of seven parliamentary constituencies and an electorate of some 527,000. A certain Mr. Huggett delivered to the returning officer his nomination paper describing himself as—I must enunciate clearly—a "Literal Democrat" (with a "t"). The returning officer held his nomination paper to be valid because it was in good form and complied with the narrow rules of the present electoral game.

The official Liberal Democrat candidate sought unsuccessfully to apply for judicial review of the returning officer's decision that Mr. Huggett's nomination paper was valid. The court held that it had no jurisdiction to deal with the case. So the election went ahead with eight candidates on the ballot paper, including Mr. Huggett, described as a Literal Democrat, and Mr. Sanders described as a Liberal Democrat.

The election was keenly contested and the result was very close. The Conservative Party candidate received almost 75,000 votes, narrowly defeating the Liberal Democrat by only some 700 votes. Mr. Huggett, the Literal Democrat received some 10,203 votes—quite an impressive result for an unknown, recently arrived schoolmaster describing himself as a student of "perceptual psychology". Mr. Huggett had not campaigned at all, but he enjoyed the great advantage of preceding Mr. Sanders on the ballot paper, and of having a party label which must have misled many supporters of the Liberal Democrat candidate.

Complaints poured in from understandably indignant voters, and the Liberal Democrats pursued a parliamentary election petition—the first European parliamentary petition, and the first election petition of any kind presented since 1962.

The Divisional Court decided that, under the law as it stands, the political party description on the ballot paper is optional, and that it is unnecessary to include such a description to qualify as a candidate. The court also found that there is no requirement at present that the description be true, fair or not confusing. The fact that some voters may be confused by a candidate's chosen words of description is irrelevant for the purposes of existing law, unless those words have obscured the identification given to the candidate by his or her full name and address.

During the debate in another place on 18th December 1968 on the Representation of the People Bill, there was much discussion on the subject of political descriptions of candidates. Mr. Quintin Hogg, as he then was, very sensibly proposed a rule entitling a duly nominated candidate to object to the description of another candidate on the ground that his description was misleading and did not accurately describe him. The Home Secretary, Mr. Callaghan, as he then was, opposed this on the basis that it was unlikely that candidates advancing themselves for selection by their fellow citizens would misuse the procedure so as to deceive electors about themselves. Sadly, subsequent political history has shown that on this issue the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, was the better prophet.

With the leave of the House I should like to quote the words of Mr. Justice Dyson in the Divisional Court in the Literal Democrat case. He said: It is … clear that the Rules do not prohibit candidates (whether out of spite or a wicked sense of fun), from describing themselves in a confusing way or indulging in spoiling tactics … Parliament considered these very matters at length and in detail during the debates on the Representation of the People Bill in December 1968. Parliament was so anxious to avoid Returning Officers becoming involved in what might be called 'political controversy' that, as the Home Secretary said, it was prepared to take a risk that occasionally there would be misleading and confusing descriptions. It is not for us to say whether that political judgment of Parliament was wise. In other jurisdictions, such as New Zealand, the Commonwealth of Australia, the State of Queensland and the Republic of South Africa, a wholly different course has been adopted involving electoral commissions, a system of registration and political parties in the statutory provision, limiting the ability of candidates to use the name of a political party". Mr. Justice Dyson concluded: It may be in the light of the present case that Parliament will wish to consider again whether a similar regime should be adopted for the conduct of elections in the United Kingdom".

I gave notice this morning to the noble Baroness the Minister that I wished to raise this issue during the debate. I very much hope that the Government have considered the judgment given some six months ago and the suggestion made by the Divisional Court that a similar legal framework might be adopted for the conduct of elections in this country to that which exists in other Commonwealth countries.

In case noble Lords believe that this is a problem exclusively for Liberal Democrats and their supporters in Devon and East Plymouth who were cheated of a result which reflected the true wishes of the majority of voters, I should mention that the problem has also afflicted the other parties as well. It seems from newspaper reports that in the recent local government elections, Mr. Ashton, a staunch Conservative from the village of Bloxham, stood for the Conservative controlled Cherwell District Council in Oxfordshire. On discovering that Labour (spelt in the normal way) had chosen not to fight the seat for Bloxham, he decided to stand and described himself as a candidate for the Labor Party (spelt without a "u"). The local Labour Party was reported to have accused the Conservatives of a crude attempt to split the anti-Conservative vote to assist their candidate, as local Conservatives were reported as saying, "We need every vote we can get."

Fortunately, that particular incident had a happy ending for the good people of Bloxham. The Liberal Democrat candidate won the seat and Mr. Ashton managed to gain only 65 votes. But the opportunity to mislead and deceive voters was once again exploited.

Much has been made recently in the press of the formation of a "Conversative Party"—which is no doubt dedicated to promoting the art of good conversation. It remains to be seen whether or not that new party will indeed put up a candidate at a parliamentary by-election or any other election. The fact is that any candidate, quite extraordinarily, may now put himself (or herself) forward as the Conversative Party candidate, or even as the official Conservative Party candidate, whether he (or she) is or is not. There is nothing that a returning officer can do about it.

I believe that what happened in Devon and East Plymouth and what might have happened in Cherwell will come to haunt the Conservatives very much more than it will haunt the Liberal Democrats. The time is surely ripe—I would say over-ripe—to change the rules of the electoral system so that further flagrant abuse of that kind cannot take place. Some suggest that people vote for the individual person and not for a party. But that is clearly undermined by the wealth of party-related advertising and broadcasting at election time, especially in the context of European parliamentary elections, where constituencies sometimes exceed even the boundaries of a whole shire county. When there is an electorate of over 500,000, it is impossible to expect that all, or even most, voters will know the name of their candidate and will vote for him or her by choice.

We pride ourselves—we tell ourselves again and again in this country—on being the Mother of Parliaments. Surely the time has come to ensure that our elections remain free and fair, so that candidates can no longer sail under false party political colours. We already protect consumers against the misleading passing off of trade names. Surely we should do the same for the misleading passing off of the names of political parties by the mischievous, the unscrupulous and the deceitful.

3.10 p.m.

Lord Tope

My Lords, it is a particular personal pleasure for me to follow immediately after my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, who raised an important point and, as he rightly says, a point of considerable concern to all political parties, not just the Liberal Democrats. The event in Devon is not the first time this has occurred, but it was probably the event that gained the greatest publicity. Therefore the danger of it happening again and again is that much greater, and I hope that in her reply the Minister will have something encouraging to say to us on how the Government propose to tackle what I believe will be a growing problem in elections to come.

I want to return to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, in his opening speech and to thank him for raising those points so timely and so well. Indeed, I shall repeat some of them in my comments. All of us who are involved in elections meet all too often on the doorsteps people who cannot be bothered to vote. When we remember, as the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell did, the fight to get the vote in the first place, and more recently the pictures of those people in South Africa queuing for hours to place the vote they had fought so hard to achieve, understandably we feel a little frustration with those who say they cannot be bothered. On the other hand, some of the answer to that problem lies with us politicians, encouraging people to feel that it is worthwhile to vote.

This debate is not so much about those who cannot be bothered to vote, but those who cannot vote for a variety of reasons. One of the first reasons is that when the election comes along they find that they are not on the electoral register and often that is the first time that they discover that they are not on the register. There are a range of reasons for that and they are perhaps only a minority. As the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, said, registration in this country is still relatively high. In my borough we have managed to get registration up over 97 per cent. in all our wards; but, as the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, said also, commendable though that is, it serves to disguise much lower registration levels in other parts of the country, for obvious reasons.

The trend is downwards; it is in the wrong direction. A survey carried out after the censuses of 1966 and 1981 showed that non-registration in Great Britain had risen from 4 per cent. of the eligible population in 1966 to 6.5 per cent. in 1981. The 1991 census showed that it had again risen to over 7 per cent. Research carried out by the OPCS as part of the 1991 Census Validation Survey, found that non-registration was—perhaps not surprisingly—highest among young people, people from ethnic minorities, people living in private rented accommodation and people who had recently moved. But other people, outside of those groups, who would have wished to be included on the register have also been excluded.

In the 1992 general election, and indeed in many other elections, people found that they were not eligible to vote, some because they had failed to return their forms or were ineligible to register on the qualifying date, others because they had recently returned from abroad or become British citizens since the qualification date for registration and those who did not register due to lack of accommodation on the qualifying date. Many of those people did not realise that they were not on the register until the poll cards had been issued and they had not received one, by which time it was too late to apply for inclusion onto the register even if they were eligible to do so, and still be able to vote at the forthcoming election.

We need to make registration as easily accessible as possible. We need to make the registers as accurate as possible. I hope that when the Minister replies she will tell us what the Government are proposing to do in response to the many recommendations of the report of the working group on electoral registration, published by the Home Office in February last year. But one specific measure mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, and which I strongly support, is a rolling or continuous register. As is known, the qualifying date of 10th October means that by the time the register is put into operation, it is already four months out of date. By the time it ceases to be in operation, it is as much as 16 months out of date. People have moved.

In a general election, one can use the argument that people are electing a national government, and that it perhaps matters less where they actually vote. I spend a lot of my time in local elections. To call on people who want to take part in a community to which they have moved to tell them that they have no vote there but that they have to go back to the place where they used to live to help elect a council in which they have only a nostalgic interest is just not good enough. In these days of information technology, when it is possible, although difficult, to have a poll tax register on a daily basis, we should be moving to an electoral register that is updated on a daily or at least a weekly basis, and certainly more frequently than on an annual basis. That would do something to help improve registration, but not enough in itself.

There are other factors that contribute towards a disinclination both to register and to vote. The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, mentioned the poll tax, which undoubtedly had a very serious effect on electoral registration, particularly in certain areas, from which we are now only beginning to recover. There are other reasons why people do not register. One that I have come across many times is that they simply do not want to have their names and addresses sold to the many commercial organisations which use the electoral register for junk mailing. I regret that those authorities, like mine, which decided not to sell the electoral register on a commercial basis are now required to do so. I hope that the Government might consider returning to at least allowing local authorities the freedom to decide on that for themselves.

In addition to the introduction of a continuous register, a number of other measures can be taken to tackle the decline in registration and to encourage people to vote. One of those measures is to change the day on which we vote. I have never understood why it has to be a Thursday or whether it does have to be a Thursday. But it always is. Thursday is a working day for those fortunate enough still to be working. In many areas it is also a late shopping day. In my area the shops close at the same time as the polling stations for local elections close. For some reason completely beyond me, some people seem to prefer to go shopping than to go to vote. Sunday is widely used as a polling day in Europe and has proved very popular. In countries which vote on Sundays, registration—and more particularly turn out—are usually much higher than in this country. There are other reasons for that, but I suspect that the convenience of being able to vote is one factor.

The noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, mentioned accessibility to polling stations. That is particularly important. As he rightly said, improving access has benefits beyond just those enjoyed on polling day. There is another form of access in terms of voting which was mentioned in the other place in a Written Answer last week. I was most disappointed to see that the Minister at the Home Office said in a Written Answer on 18th May that he had no plans to introduce ballot papers in Braille for local, general or European elections. I would ask the Minister and the Government to reconsider that. In a reply given to another question on the same day the Government said that those with vision difficulties wanting to vote in person could ask someone else to help them vote. That is a direct negation of a secret ballot. Why should people who have vision difficulties be any more disadvantaged than they already are? 'Why cannot we produce ballot papers in Braille?

Another means of accessibility is the forms produced by the Home Office. I hope that the Home Office will look seriously at improving the design of those forms and using plain English on those forms. Postal and proxy votes should be available on demand. It is a lot easier now to get a postal or proxy vote than it used to be, but it is still not easy enough. I also believe that there should be separate forms for a proxy vote and a postal vote. We know of cases where people have signed a form believing that they are applying for a postal vote—perhaps because many of them are elderly and not so aware—but do not get their postal vote because someone else has completed the section in respect of a proxy vote and taken their vote from them. We know that that has happened in a number of cases. I am quite certain that it has happened in many more cases that we do not actually know about. There is no reason for it having to be done on the same form. To have separate forms would tackle that abuse straight away.

Similarly, I believe there should be a later date for registration for postal and proxy voting. By the time people realise that they need a postal vote—or indeed that they are entitled to have one—it is often too late for that election. There is no reason for such an early deadline.

Another measure considered by the working group to which I referred earlier was the need for anonymous registration for those who believe themselves to be at risk in some way. We should have the opportunity for anonymous registration either under the list of other electors at the end of the register or, as I would personally prefer, using an agreed pseudonym.

I cannot end a speech on this subject from these Benches without a call for what I believe would have the greatest effect on our electoral system and on voter turn-out. That is a call for the reform of our voting system as part of a much wider package of constitutional reform. That in itself is a subject for debate on its own. I believe that a fair voting system would do more than any other single measure to encourage voter registration and turn-out. A fair voting system would end the frustration of a wasted vote which serves only to increase a majority or, perhaps even worse, to elect nobody. It would mean that people were voting for what they wanted rather than, as is so often the case, against what they do not want. It would bring about in time a positive approach to voting and not a negative one. I suspect that in a few minutes we shall not be hearing from the Minister that the Government propose to adopt such a system; but until and unless such a system is adopted in this country, we shall be tinkering at the edges.

Dire predictions have been made that, as things continue, we could soon achieve the level of voter apathy seen in the United States of America. I do not believe that it is likely to be that bad, but it would surely add to alienation from the democratic process and disinterest in elected government which is evidenced in America today. As politicians we should be taking every measure to ensure that not only does that never happen in this country, but that it ceases to be predicted and that as a nation we achieve levels of registration and electoral participation that are the envy of every democratic country. In that way we shall have a healthy democracy for which all of us strive.

3.22 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, perhaps I may also begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Monkswell for introducing this brief but extremely important debate. It is important because, as has been said, it deals with people's fundamental democratic rights to register as an elector and to have the ability to vote. Often people do not realise that electoral registration is the key to voting. If one does not register one does not vote: not everyone is aware of that position. There is no doubt that an examination of the state of electoral registration in this country clearly identifies a largely unnoticed but serious democratic deficit.

As other noble Lords have said, the right to vote is absolutely fundamental. It should not be denied anybody either by administrative or even, may I say, for cost reasons. It is for most people the only opportunity to express a view on the performance of their public representatives or on their hopes or aspirations for the future.

I am sure that other noble Lords along with myself have had to deal with people who have not registered and who have suddenly recognised, close to polling day, that they cannot vote. The frustration and disillusion of those electors is heartbreaking on many occasions. It is very often because of ignorance or because they were in the wrong place on the qualifying date. We have to look at ways of making the system much simpler. We have to make sure that such people have the basic civil right to vote. I should only add in passing that, having voted in 11 general elections, not being able to vote in the next one is already causing me some anxiety. But I understand the reason for that; many people do not.

Earlier this year, I asked the Minister in a Written Question whether she accepted that 3 million eligible voters are missing from the electoral register and what efforts were being made to rectify that position. I did not pursue it at the time but I did not find her answer satisfactory. There was a disagreement over the figures. Furthermore, there was no suggestion that the procedures for encouraging people to vote would be improved. I shall not go into the dispute over the figures in detail—suffice it to say that after discussion in the OPCS, the Director of Statistics stated in November last year that the estimate of 3.4 million people currently missing from the electoral register in Britain was broadly correct. That means that, for many reasons, 5 per cent. of eligible voters have simply vanished from the register.

Even if we accept the 2 million figure cited by the Minister, that still shows an extremely disturbing trend. As my noble friend Lord Monkswell and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, we should be even more concerned if we break down those blanket figures. In greater London, it is estimated that 11.6 per cent. of eligible voters are missing from the register. Throughout the country, nearly 20 per cent. of ethnic minority electors are not on the register. The figure is 28 per cent. for those in private rented accommodation. Perhaps of most concern is the fact that an estimated 18 per cent. of 18 to 24 year-olds are not registering.

Along with other opposition parties, the Labour Party has been putting its concerns to the Home Office for some considerable time. In its report Agenda for Change, the Hansard Society reinforced that view when it stated: There is indeed considerable cause for anxiety". It defines its concern not only from the figures but because of the widely differing efforts that are made when compiling the register. It concluded that there is a case for increasing the resources devoted to canvassing and advertising for registration, preferably through a system of central funding. I should like to know whether any central funding will be forthcoming.

Those differing efforts were highlighted by two successful court cases taken by the Labour Party against Brent and Milton Keynes councils which, we felt, were not carrying out their statutory duty. The judge said that there was an obligation on returning officers to, make sufficient house to house enquiries and not merely the basic one visit a year.

There is no doubt that the electoral administration service is under funded and that too little is being spent on national promotional campaigns. I should like to ask the Government how they can justify spending more in 1992 on encouraging those residing overseas to register than on encouraging UK voters to register. However one looks at that—even if only numerically—there must be something wrong with that.

The legislative framework for establishing the electoral register was devised for a static population, not the moving population outlined by my noble friend Lord Monkswell. It is rooted in the pre-computer age. In the words of the Home Office Working Group report on Electoral Registration, to which other noble Lords have referred, the system for registering electors in the U.K. has remained largely unchanged since 1918". The report identifies the key problem, illustrated by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, of the register being out of date by the time it is published and of it becoming progressively more inaccurate during the course of the year. Surely such a statement by officials required action. Unfortunately, the conclusions of the report do not go any way towards resolving the position.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and my noble friend Lord Monkswell referred to the question of the "rolling register". Although the working group discussed that in some detail, it felt that it could not be introduced because of the cost, which it estimated to be between £4 million and £12 million. In 1993–94, the Home Office campaign to encourage registration cost approximately £0.5 million. Over that period, £1.6 million was spent on the Citizen's Charter and £2 million on printing and updating the Parent's Charter. As it was clear that money was rightly available to ensure that people were informed of the public services that they should expect, I asked the Minister for a Citizen's Charter on electoral rights, but no such plans are afoot. I cannot imagine what greater public service there could be than ensuring that people have the right to vote. I hope that that decision can be reconsidered.

The working party calls for more detailed discussions on the rolling register. I ask the Minister whether that work has commenced some 15 months after the report was concluded. Another recommendation was that the cut-off point should be closer to election day. Again, I ask the Minister what action has been taken to progress that important recommendation. Having a date six and a half weeks before polling day, as we did at the last election, is far too restrictive. I ask also whether there will be changes in the procedures by which EU citizens can register, and whether that position has been re-examined in the light of the UK only achieving 0.72 per cent. of take-up in the Euro-elections, the lowest of all EU countries.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, mentioned the subject of absent voting. The working group report on absent voting opens with the words that, at the last general election there was considerable public dissatisfaction with the current provision for postal and proxy voting not least in respect of the number of absent voting irregularities, and notably the question of people not knowing whether they were voting by post or by proxy. While I appreciate that the group had to balance the need to simplify the system versus the importance of making fraud more difficult, it was disappointing that the simplification of the procedures and forms was not forthcoming and that changes in attestation were rejected.

I think also that the working group did not examine in detail—perhaps it did and the Minister will tell us—the causes of the fraud. There should be an examination of whether there is a correlation between the extension in proxy voting and the ability to commit fraud. The report came up with many suggestions. Again, I wonder how many of them have been followed through.

I have been involved, as I am sure have many other noble Lords, in helping the new democracies in east and central Europe and South Africa to develop their electoral roles and procedures. That experience, and the detailed process needed to ensure free and fair elections, confirmed to me the need for a radical overhaul of our own electoral practices. I would not suggest that in the main our elections are not free and fairly conducted, nor that, in principle, every citizen has not the right to vote. But there is a growing awareness that there are, for a number, barriers and obstacles that have to be overcome before they can exercise that right in practice.

There is growing unease among electors, politicians and electoral practitioners that modern election techniques are governed by outdated rules without proper regulation—laws that have become more complex as they have been tinkered with rather than substantial changes having been made. I firmly believe that it is time for there to be a review of our electoral system by a standing conference or some other means—a review not based on whether we can afford the changes, but on clear, democratic criteria. I hope that the Minister will give some indication that such a review is possible.

The Labour Party started that process four years ago when it set up a committee to look at electoral systems under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Plant, with a procedures group chaired by the late Lord Underhill. That section of the report made 37 recommendations, covering all aspects of election procedure, including things such as fixed Parliaments, dates and times of poll, and so on, not necessarily relevant to today's debate, but which I hope we can debate at some point in the future.

Perhaps the most important recommendation and that of the Hansard Society in Agenda for Change was the proposal for a single body—an electoral commission— which would be directly and solely responsible for all aspects of electoral administration. That view was supported by all the political parties and, interestingly, by the Home Affairs Select Committee in the other place in its report on the funding of political parties. Not only does the committee recommend that; it suggests that it should be set up as soon as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, referred to the judgment given by Mr. Justice Dyson in the Literal Democrat case. He saw an electoral commission as being a means and a way of overcoming misrepresentation. Perhaps I may tell the Minister that if I dig deep into my memory I believe that there was a case in which the Conservative Party was also misrepresented. We must look at the whole question of the titles and ensure that people cannot put false names on their nomination papers and misrepresent people. Another fundamental issue is raised, which we do not have time to discuss today; it is the registration of political parties. If political parties were registered we should not have the difficulties that we have had to face over this misrepresentation.

I understand that such a proposition for an electoral commission has been rejected by the Home Office on the ground of cost. I should be delighted if the Minister told me that I am wrong about that. We must overcome the difficulties outlined today, the barriers for voting and the inadequacies in our system. Before the next election the Government have the opportunity, if not to deal with all aspects of procedure, at least to give a commitment of greater support to electoral registration officers in building their electoral registers and in providing considerably more funding for advertising and general publicity. In that way the upward trend of under-registration can be halted. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that such improvements are being progressed.

3.36 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, for initiating this important debate. The Government are by no means complacent about the electoral register. It is one of the most fundamental elements of our democracy that all, and only, those who are eligible to vote should be given every opportunity to do so.

Prime responsibility for effective registration lies with electoral registration officers. Although these officers are employed by local authorities they are not answerable to them for their performance. Nor are they answerable to the Home Office. They are answerable only to the courts for the efficient discharge of their duties. This independence is, I believe, crucial in ensuring that electoral registers are compiled in an impartial way.

I accept, of course, that the Home Office has a part to play as a facilitator in allowing electoral registration officers to achieve as comprehensive a register as possible. Before addressing the points which noble Lords have raised in this debate, I should first like to describe briefly what part the Government play in the process. Our three main contributions to that are publicity, research into best practice and the regular provision of guidance to electoral registration officers.

Each year the Government undertake a publicity campaign which is timed to coincide with the electoral registration canvass in the autumn. The annual budget for this campaign is about £600,000; indeed, last year nearly £700,000 was spent. We are keen to maximise the effect of this campaign and for the past two years we have undertaken television advertising which, research indicates, has proved to be a particularly effective means of communication.

As well as reminding the general public of the registration canvass, we have taken care to target the advertisement to reach special groups such as young people, inner-city dwellers and members of ethnic groups, for all of whom registration is too low. We did this by means of placing the advertisement in selected slots on the cable and satellite channels, which market research indicated were most likely to be watched by these groups, as well as screening it on the main channels.

Research which we undertook after the campaign showed a significant general increase in awareness of electoral registration publicity from 27 per cent. to 57 per cent. and a notable increase in the proportion of young people understanding that they needed to take action to register from 22 per cent. to 41 per cent. for the 16–24 age group. This was a much higher increase in awareness than was achieved by means of posters, which had for a number of years been our main advertising medium.

Based on this evidence of success, we intend to produce a new television commercial for this year's campaign in order to keep the message fresh; and, once again, we intend to broadcast it in ways which will maximise the chances of its message getting across to under-registered groups.

The second contribution which the Home Office makes is to commission research every year into the practical methods which electoral registration officers have used to compile their registers. That is conducted on our behalf by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, which sends a detailed questionnaire to all electoral registration officers. I am very pleased to say that the response rate to this questionnaire is very high—95 per cent. last year— showing that electoral registration officers are keen to contribute to the dissemination of best practice.

Much valuable information has emerged in the course of those annual research exercises, and the results are published in an annual booklet which is sent to all EROS. Research in previous years has demonstrated that there are several procedures which electoral registration officers can undertake in order to maximise the response they receive from households during the canvass. That knowledge was given to EROs as it became available, and there is growing evidence that increasing numbers of them are using those techniques. This year's questionnaire is now being prepared, and it will seek to refine further our knowledge of how those individual techniques may be combined, according to the particular circumstances of the local area, to increase still further a good response rate.

The third contribution from the Home Office which I mentioned was regular guidance. We have issued code of practice notes and advisory circulars of direct relevance to EROS, dealing with a wide variety of legal and practical matters. We continue to issue regular advisory circulars. Officials in the department are regularly telephoned by electoral registration staff for ad hoc advice.

That is, in broad terms, what the Home Office contributes directly to the system of electoral registration. Support is also given, of course, by the Department of the Environment in the form of the revenue support grant. Approximately £40 million is spent each year by local authorities on electoral registration, to which the non-hypothecated element of the revenue support grant contributes.

Perhaps I may say teasingly to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, that she has hinted that we do not spend enough on advertising or on electoral registration. I wonder whether the Labour Party has plans to spend more on both!

I now turn to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, who was kind enough to give me notice of the points that he would raise during the debate. I do not criticise the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, but she raised a large number of questions. If I do not answer them in the course of my speech and there is anything outstanding, I shall ensure that I give her a full reply in due course.

It has been suggested that, in order to evade the community charge, people sought to evade registration as electors, assuming that that would guarantee absence from the community charges register. However, the register of electors, although important, was merely one among a number of sources available to the community charges registration officer in compiling the community charges register. In particular, canvassing arrangements for the registers were separate. In practice, therefore, staying off the register of electors was likely only to deprive the person concerned of his or her right to vote; he would remain liable to pay the community charge and, if he has refused to give the information required of him by his ERO, he would also be liable to prosecution.

Any system of local taxation will be claimed as a disincentive to register. The council tax is levied only on property and not individuals. But it must be accepted that the right to vote carries with it also a duty to help fund services. Therefore, we have no plans to take any further action in that respect.

It is, of course, true that there is a gap between the annual registration canvass and the publication of the electoral register. The canvass asks about residence on 10th October in Great Britain and the register comes into force the following February. But the publication of the draft register in November is widely publicised and members of the public are encouraged to scrutinise the draft in order to check for errors and omissions. Certainly in my own areas we encourage local councillors and especially parish councillors, who know their communities very well, to assist in that process.

Corrections are possible until 16th December. It is, therefore, possible for anyone moving just before the qualifying date to be entered in the electoral register of his new area by taking advantage of the claims process during the draft register stage. It is also important to remember that, even if electors have not been registered in their new constituency by that means, they are not disfranchised. They can still vote in their old constituency, by using the provisions which exist for absent voting. In the light of that fact, we have no plans to alter the system.

I turn now to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, as regards access for the disabled at polling stations. Again, that is a most important point. For the disabled voter, the issue of first importance is that he or she should be provided with the necessary facilities to enable a vote to be made with proper regard to the provisions for propriety and, indeed, for secrecy.

The Government take very seriously their responsibility towards disabled voters. We believe that the provisions that we have put in place to assist returning officers and councils to deliver their responsibilities are important and that they have been pretty effective in facilitating greater access to the electoral process for those citizens who have a physical or other disability.

Those arrangements include provision to assist councils with grants of up to 50 per cent. of the costs of providing temporary ramps to improve access to polling places where that would otherwise be difficult. The spending on that help has increased considerably since the last general election in 1992. More than £70,000 was given in grants in 1994, and the effect is, of course, cumulative. Ramps provided in 1992, 1993 and 1994 will continue to be available for subsequent elections. The Government are ready to meet any additional requests which may be made to them for these purposes by returning officers.

We accept, of course, that the responsibility to assist electors to register their vote does not stop there. A voter who has a disability, of whatever kind, may need some special arrangements or facilities in the polling station itself to help him or her.

The involvement of SCOPE and of the Royal National Institute for the Blind in the preparation of guidance material which is issued regularly to returning officers by the Home Office has, I know, helped considerably to improve facilities in many individual polling stations. The checklists provided in the guidance cover a wide range of factors which need to be taken into consideration when returning officers look at the arrangements in place. They have been instrumental in raising the awareness of administrators of the special needs of the disabled voter.

We recognise, however, that it has not proved possible to ensure that every polling place in every constituency offers the sort of access which we and the disabled would wish. It remains the Government's long-term objective that every polling place should be accessible to all voters. But it is important to remember that returning officers do not have access to their own dedicated buildings specifically designed for use at elections.

Councils must look for suitable premises which are already available and must look very closely at accessibility before designating a polling place. Indeed, I have to pay tribute to them, because I believe that they work very hard when looking for suitable places. They may not designate a place which is not accessible if there is a better alternative which would still meet the statutory test that it meets the reasonable requirements of all electors.

The Government believe that those are responsibilities which are properly placed at a local level on local representatives and administrators. It is at a local level that there is the best knowledge of local needs and of the measures which need to be taken and which can be taken to meet those needs. The Government will continue to support councils and local administrators with the necessary funds, advice and guidance to meet the needs of the disabled voter.

In one of his case studies, the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, referred to the possibility of allowing people to turn up, register and vote all in one go. I have to say that I think that that would be a administrative nightmare for the registration officer. However, I believe that the noble Lord would understand that it would require instantly acceptable, unambiguous and verifiable forms of identification that we do not have as yet. I wonder whether there is a read-across with identity cards here. Certainly there would be a problem in preventing abuse.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps I may advise her that the example I quoted concerned a state in America. It is my understanding that, if a resident went to the polling station with a neighbour who was on the register and could vouch for that person, that was an acceptable mechanism for registration and, on the basis of that registration, the resident could vote. I cannot believe that, with modern information technology that enables us to interrogate our bank accounts from some distance away and be paid money instantly, we cannot devise an electoral registration system that can do the necessary instantaneous checks.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall not be drawn to cite particular cases, but there are people who vouch for others who apply for inclusion on the electoral register when the application is not necessarily bona fide. Some cases are before the courts at this very moment.

In relation to the issue of absent voting and the timetable, I am aware that a number of people have expressed frustration at finding themselves unable to vote because they have missed the deadline for returning their applications for an absent vote. That point was made by a number of noble Lords. The current deadline is 13 working days before polling day. During the remaining time electoral staff must complete a great deal of work in checking and verifying claims and dispatching postal ballot papers. The Government have recently looked again to see whether there is scope for relaxing the timetable but we have not yet reached a firm view.

The levels of electoral registration have not for a number of years kept pace with increase in the estimated eligible population. That trend pre-dates the introduction of the community charge in England or Wales. However, as the table to which I shall refer indicates, 1992 saw the first increase in the proportion of eligible people registered since 1987. The latest return shows the largest number of electors registered. The percentages of the eligible population who registered from 1976 were as follows: 1976, 97.1 per cent.; 1981, 97.4 per cent.; 1982, 97.6 per cent.; 1983, 97.7 per cent.; 1984, 97.7 per cent.; 1985, 97.3 per cent.; 1986, 97.3 per cent.; 1987, 97.2 per cent.; 1988, 96.8 per cent.; 1989, 96.1 per cent.; 1990, 95.7 per cent.; 1991, 95.2 per cent.; 1992, 95.3 per cent.; 1993, 95 per cent.; and 1994, 95 per cent.

Looking at those figures—and I have had some fun playing around with them—there appears to be a peak at general elections and then a dropping away after general elections, as opposed to any link with the taxation system.

A straight comparison between the total number of electors registered and the OPCS revised estimate of the total resident population cannot take account of a number of hidden factors. For example, the electorate total contains much dead wood and legitimate duplication of names. A study of electoral registration in 1991 by Stephen Smith of the social survey division of the OPCS estimated that between 7.4 per cent. and 9 per cent. of people in private households in England and Wales eligible to vote at the time of the 1991 census were not on the electoral register. However, a few of those people would still have been on the register at an earlier address elsewhere and not identified. Furthermore, the resident population includes people who are not British, Commonwealth or Irish citizens and are ineligible for inclusion on the register. We believe that there are possibly over a million such people over voting age in the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, referred to weekend voting. At present, the only restriction on polling day is that it must be a working day. It is merely convention that polling days are on Thursdays. Under the law as it stands it is not possible to hold a parliamentary election at a weekend. I am not convinced absolutely, nor are all the political parties, that polling on a Saturday or Sunday would necessarily improve the turn-out. Many people choose weekends to go away and they would need to obtain a postal or proxy vote in much larger numbers. There are also a number of groups who would refuse on the grounds of religion or conscience to vote on Saturdays or Sundays. It would be wrong to disfranchise them for that reason.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, referred to the celebrated case of the "Literal Democrat." It is an important issue which is receiving close attention. A meeting has been held recently between my officials and representatives of the main political parties to determine whether there was support for change to existing nomination procedures, and if so, whether there was consensus on any change which might be required. As the noble Lord may understand, it is difficult to get a consensus on such a difficult issue.

There is a consensus as regards dissatisfaction with the practice of wilfully misrepresenting a political party or another person. Three proposals received a degree of support at the meeting. First, a party logo could be introduced in addition to the candidate's name, address and description which are already included on the ballot paper. This would allow challenges to be made under existing copyright law. A second proposal was that existing legislation could be extended to make it an offence to make a false statement of description, as well as in relation to a candidate's personal character or conduct. Another proposal which received some support was the introduction of an additional stage in an election which would allow a draft statement of a candidate's nominations to be published and challenged. None of these proposals alone would be sufficient to prevent a recurrence of the Literal Democrat problem. However, my officials are currently preparing a paper examining the options in detail and a further meeting will be held with the political parties when that paper is published to discuss the options.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, I hope the noble Baroness will allow me to say that I am grateful for that answer. I take it that officials will be considering the laws in other jurisdictions referred to by the Divisional Court in the Literal Democrat case as a possible model for change.

Baroness Blotch

My Lords, I was going to say that it would be helpful, if people have ideas about what might work and what would eliminate this kind of wilful behaviour, to pass those on. We would of course be receptive to such ideas.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked about the response of the working group. Ministers are currently considering the findings and conclusions of the report and therefore I am not able to say any more at the moment. With regard to the design of forms, that is kept under continuing review. Officials constantly consult administrators and indeed political parties. The registration form "A" is not a compulsory format and registration officers can, and indeed do, modify it within limits. I must say that some do it rather better than others.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, also referred to selling the register. There are no plans to change current requirements on local authorities to sell the register. It is a public document and it would be impractical to restrict access by not selling it on. It is also worth recording that there is a mail preference scheme which allows people to opt out of receiving junk mail. We would encourage people to use that.

As regards the suggestion about ballot papers written in Braille, this has been advanced by a number of organisations representing visually handicapped voters. There are, of course, a number of difficulties. Braille ballot forms would inevitably need to be printed on different paper from that of the other ballot forms to accommodate both the Braille and the overprinting necessary for the counters to read them. In a small polling district the limited number of such votes would lead to an increased risk that the secrecy of the individual's vote could not be ensured. That is an important point to take into account.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, referred to the spending on overseas electors in 1992 being more than that spent on advertising in this country. Nothing was spent in 1992 on advertising for overseas electors. In fact, nothing at all has been spent since 1990 when money was spent on advertising the extended franchise from five to 20 years, but since that date nothing at all has been spent. The noble Baroness questioned central funding for registration. As I have already said, this exists through the revenue support grant and it is up to local authorities themselves to decide how much of that they wish to allocate to registration.

This has been an interesting and informative debate. I am sure that I have not covered every single point raised, but I can assure the House that the Government welcome the debate and the interest in the subject. I believe that we shall continue to have healthy and lively discussions with the political parties on such matters.

House adjourned for the Spring Bank Holiday at four o'clock.