HL Deb 14 February 2000 vol 609 cc955-89

(". After section 7A of the 1983 Act (as inserted by section 5 above) there shall be inserted—

"Registration and voting rights of asylum seekers.

7AA. A person who claims political asylum in the United Kingdom but has not been given leave to remain shall not be entitled to register to vote, or vote, until and unless he is granted such leave."").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 21, tabled in my name, seeks to insert a new clause into the Bill. The purpose of the amendment is to try to clarify the position with regard to asylum seekers and whether or not they have the right to vote in this country. Indeed, in some ways this relates back to the first group of amendments debated today. Asylum seekers can be divided into two groups: those from a non-Commonwealth country and those from a Commonwealth country.

I have little doubt that those coming from a non-Commonwealth country do not have the right to vote in this country, nor will any provision in the Bill give them the right so to vote. However, I should like confirmation of that.

I am not so certain of the position as regards asylum seekers from Commonwealth countries. If one refers back to the first debate we had this afternoon, one must assume that such people will have the right to vote while they are here claiming asylum and before their cases are decided. As Members of the Committee will know, that can sometimes take a long time.

I imagine that when legislation began on rights to vote, this was not much of a problem. Indeed, in 1983 and 1985 when changes were made to the Representation of the People Acts it was probably not much of a problem either. But the position has worsened, if by that one means the number of people who arrive here asking for asylum and the length of time they wait until that decision is made. The Committee will know from previous exchanges in this Chamber that the position is now much worse than it has probably ever been. My figures date only from 1994, and the situation is certainly worse than it has been in the past decade or so.

The last government, thanks to some measures I piloted through your Lordships' Chamber, got the figures down to 29,640 applicants in 1996 and during the course of 1997 they went up to 32,500. That is probably not terribly significant, but they then went to 46,000 in 1998 and, as we know, in 1999 the figures exceeded 71,000. Many of those people have to stay in this country for a considerable time before a final decision is made on their application, one of the problems being that the appeals procedure is extraordinarily lengthy.

I had experience of the procedure as a Minister and find it hard to believe that Mr Jack Straw will be able to deal expeditiously with the Afghan asylum applicants who arrived at Stansted. While the Home Office may deal with them swiftly—a change from the way it deals with the usual applicant—if they get into the legal system of appeals and counter appeals it will take a considerable time before a final decision is taken. In fact, I wager that most of those people will be here for so long that they will eventually be granted exceptional leave to remain.

But that is beside the point. The number of asylum seekers who come to this country—a measure of the way Britain is perceived thanks to what this Government have said—is a problem. Of course, the Afghan asylum seekers are not eligible to vote while they are asylum seekers. They would be eligible to vote only if they were granted asylum. I am not sure what happens if they are given exceptional leave to remain and perhaps the Minister can help. Is someone from a non-Commonwealth country who is granted exceptional leave to remain allowed to register and vote in this country?

The important point is what happens when asylum seekers come into this country from Commonwealth countries. Are they allowed to vote while they remain asylum seekers? If so, we are literally facing two different ways. We have not come to a conclusion whether they should be allowed to stay in this country, yet we allow them to vote in this country. We must try to bring some logic—I believe it is called "joined-up government"—between one piece of legislation and another.

The other problem is, if asylum seekers are allowed to vote, does it mean that there will be a concentration of them voting, for example, in a constituency like Dover, which has been badly hit by the number of asylum seekers who end up there? I cannot quite understand how they get there without going through another member state of the European Union, but we can leave that to one side.

The question is that, if it had not been an Afghan plane at Stansted, but instead, for instance, the Indian hijacked plane of a few weeks ago which ended up on the tarmac at Stansted, and people on that plane had applied for asylum and been removed to Moreton-in-the-Marsh, would they have been allowed to register to vote as Common wealth citizens? I have to be clear about this and at the risk of being accused by the Liberal Democrats of being hard-hearted, I do not feel that asylum seekers should have the right to vote in this country. That right should come to those who are eventually granted asylum. I am open to argument in relation to exceptional leave to remain and will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in that regard.

This Bill gives us an opportunity to clarify the situation with regard to the legal positions on the right to register and vote in this country, and if we feel like tidying them up, there is nothing wrong with doing that; after all, the Government will claim—and rightly in the case of the clause on people in mental institutions, on remand prisoners and on the homeless— that that is exactly what they are doing. We are entitled to look at other issues surrounding the right to vote and to ask the questions I have just asked. I look forward to clarification from the Minister, and on that basis, I beg to move.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, may be a little surprised that I believe he raises an important issue which certainly needs clarification. I have a good deal of sympathy with what he says.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

We will no doubt be in a happy condition after this discussion. This will be a rarity, if not an unknown situation.

It seems only fair to answer the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, for starters. In relation to asylum seekers, the situation is pretty much as he said. Non-Commonwealth asylum seekers do not have the right to vote and this Bill will not confer any such rights—let us be absolutely clear about that. With regard to those granted exceptional leave to remain, they will not be able to vote unless and until they are granted citizenship. So the answer is clear on that issue also.

I can be brief in responding to the further points made by the noble Lord. I shall not go into endless reams of statistics on the asylum issue; that is not a debate for today, though it would, I am sure, be interesting. We have already discussed the Commonwealth citizens in this country and the fact that they are allowed to vote in our elections. That is just as it should be and we have no plans to change the situation. I accept that the position of people whose status is uncertain is rather different and I clarified the two points there. Accordingly, I should like to explore the possibility of drafting an amendment to the Bill which will achieve the same effect as Amendment No. 21 and explore with electoral administrators whether or not it will be enforceable in practice. That is an important question and we will need to consult with them as to how the effect of the amendment may be best achieved.

We have considerable sympathy with the amendment. It is going in the right direction and I hope that, with my undertaking, all corners of the Chamber will be satisfied and the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment this afternoon.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am not sure that this is going to do my reputation any good at all. Not only is the Minister saying he has sympathy with the proposal, but also the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has some sympathy. One must accept these things with good grace, and I do. I am pleased to hear the Minister's assurance that he will look at this and I am sure he accepts that it is an unusual amalgam No doubt 20 or 30 years ago nobody bothered too much about it because it was not an issue. But I am grateful to him for saying that he will take it away and look at it, and I look forward to hearing from him either by letter or by an amendment at Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 [Notional residence: declarations of local connection]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 22: Page 7, line 39, after ("not") insert (", for the purposes of section 4 above,").

The noble Lord said: This group contains technical amendments and I shall endeavour to provide a brief explanation of them and not detain the Committee too long.

Amendments Nos. 22 and 23 clarify the point that residence needs to be construed in accordance with Section 4. Amendment No. 39 reflects the fact that under rolling legislation an electoral register lasts indefinitely rather than for a year, as is presently the case, which means that removal of names from the register becomes necessary. Amendment No. 40 excludes prisoners on remand who are detained other than at a penal institution or mental hospital from the need to conduct a canvass.

Amendment No. 42 is a drafting amendment designed to give greater emphasis to the point that the power to alter the electoral register derives from the new Section 10A.

I turn now to Amendment No. 44, which is tabled under two names on the Marshalled List. That combination may have raised some eyebrows during noble Lords' deliberations. As we have demonstrated this afternoon, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and I are perhaps something of an "odd couple". I suspect that our motives in seeking to remove the words on page 19 of the Bill may be a little different. I should like to explain why the Government seek to do so, before explaining why what I believe to be the noble Lord's reasons for so doing are wrong.

Our reason for wanting to delete the power in new Section 10(7) of the 1983 Act is that the power reappears as new subsection (7) of new Section 10A, which is to be inserted by Amendment No. 46. The power of removal will appear as new Section 10A(6), and new Section 10A(7) qualifies that power. I hope that noble Lords managed to follow that explanation. The power in question is the one to make regulations enabling registration officers to keep names on the electoral register for a year in cases where the electoral registration form has not been returned.

It is an unfortunate fact that every year a large number of households fail to return their electoral registration form. As we know, electoral registration officers are assiduous creatures who chase missing forms, often paying several visits to the properties concerned. But, even then, there are some properties from which no information is forthcoming. A practice has evolved in such circumstances of keeping existing names on the register for a year, and sometimes longer, in the absence of any evidence that the people concerned have moved away.

We believe that that is right. In cases of uncertainty, the decision should always be to keep people on the register rather than disfranchising them. We believe that to be an important democratic principle. The Bill will simply put existing practice on a statutory footing and, at the same time, make it clear that names should be kept on the register for only a single year. I am sorry that the Opposition want to remove this provision, as to do so could result in denying people the right to vote.

Amendment No. 45 allows for someone who has changed address in the same area, and who is not on the register in respect of his or her new address, to be added to the register in respect of that address, as a result of the annual canvass.

Amendment No. 46 adds a new subsection to Section 10A, which concerns preparation of electoral registers. New subsection (5) makes provision as to the time at which an entitlement to be registered ceases. New subsection (6) requires the registration officer to remove a person falling within subsection (5). New subsection (7) qualifies that power. New subsection (8) disapplies these provisions in respect of those whose entitlement to be registered lasts for only 12 months. Amendment No. 48 is consequential on Amendment No. 46.

Amendment No. 51 simplifies new Section 13A(1)(a) because Amendment No. 46 defines the word "determines" as, determines in accordance with regulations". Amendment No. 52 combines paragraphs (b) and (c) of new Section 13A(1) to deal with removal of names from the register generally. This will cover not only removal under new Section 10A(6), but also removal when a 12-month period of entitlement expires.

Amendments Nos. 64 and 141 reflect the fact that under new Section 1(1)(a) entitlement to vote depends on being registered in the constituency concerned. Amendments Nos. 65 and 66 are consequential on those amendments. Amendment No. 72 provides for the evidential effect of a registration officer's certificate that a person was—or was not—registered at a particular time. Amendment No. 74 is necessary because provisions relating to the registration of overseas electors are now contained solely in the 1985 Act. Amendments No. 75 and 76 are consequential on Amendment No. 64. They remove provisions relating to the effect of Section 49 from new Sections 2 and 3 of the 1985 Act. Amendment No. 79 applies Amendment No. 72 for the purposes of local elections in Northern Ireland.

I am sorry to have spoken at such length, but this group contains a large number of amendments. I beg to move.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I suppose that, initially, some Members of the Committee thought that the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and I were absolutely on the same wave-length when they noticed our names attached to the same amendment. However, as the noble Lord very fairly pointed out, we are probably approaching the matter from entirely different directions. Indeed, we have probably ended up in quite different places. The noble Lord seeks to remove subsection (7) and to replace it with some alternative words; I have also sought to remove that subsection, but do not propose to replace it with any alternative words.

We are in a new situation with regard to the register. It is now not just a once-a-year exercise; it is a rolling register, which means that the electoral position will not be frozen for a whole year—indeed, for more than a year, as is really the case—but will roll on month to month. There will be a bit of a freeze in October and November, but that is all. Therefore, the question of removing names from the register becomes even more important. Moreover, it is also important if one is to judge the success of all the changes that we are now considering.

To put it simply, if an electoral register contains 100 names and 60 people vote, it is very obvious that a 60 per cent turn-out has been achieved. However, if 10 of those 100 names could not vote even if they wanted to—perhaps because they were dead or because they had moved away—but, nevertheless, remained on the register, the turn-out would look a staggering 66.66 per cent, which, on the face of it, might be claimed by the Government to be a great success as regards some other experiment being conducted. In fact, it would not be anything of the kind; it would simply be a reflection that we should not determine turn-out based just on the electoral register because it is not wholly accurate.

It may seem odd if I pray in aid some words of the party opposite, the Liberal Democrat Party and the Scottish National Party over the 20 years after 1979. Those noble Lords who remember these events will recall that there was a hurdle in the Welsh and Scottish referendums in 1979 (imposed by a Labour MP in the other place) of 40 per cent of those registered to vote. There was much argument beforehand, much argument at the time and there has been much argument since about the unfairness involved because, many people on the register on which that 40 per cent was based were either dead or had moved away to such an extent that they could not possibly vote there.

Therefore, the number on the register—the denominator—is a very important factor, not just for ensuring that everyone who can vote is on the register; but also for ensuring that everyone who can no longer vote is removed from the register at the first available opportunity.

Although my next piece of information is fairly "old hat", I do not believe that the situation will have changed. In fact, I suspect that it may possibly have got worse because the mobility of population, and so on, has actually increased over the past 20 years, or so, since the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs inquired into the Representation of the People Act in 1982 and 1983. At that time, the annual survey of the methods of compiling the electoral register carried out by the Office of Population Censuses & Surveys included data to the extent on which EROs (electoral registration officers) carry forward names from one register to the next.

The 1990 survey showed that 6 per cent of all EROs do not carry forward at all; 50 per cent carry forward only if there is good supporting evidence—and, of those, 7 per cent believe that "carried forward with good evidence" is, in effect, a policy of not carrying forward at all; 18 per cent carry forward for one year only; 6 per cent carry forward for two years only; and 20 per cent carry forward for three years or more. That really means that 44 per cent of all EROs carry forward most or all of the names in the absence of any good supporting evidence to the contrary. That is a fairly staggering number of names being carried forward. It is now time to ask whether that is sensible. Later in the Committee stage I shall propose that the electoral registration officer uses some of the tools that I believe are to hand in order to make sure that the register is up to date. I shall speak about those proposals when we reach them.

The point at issue here is that the Government, in seeking to remove subsection (7) that we have discussed and reinstating it in another form, are not dealing with the problem of carrying names forward when there is no justification for that. If we want the register to be an accurate, rolling reflection of who is entitled to vote, we must take all possible steps to ensure that people's names are not carried forward year after year when they have made no attempt—perhaps because they are no longer able to make such an attempt—to fill in the form and send it back. They may simply not be there any more. It is slipshod to allow that situation to continue in the future when our objective is to try to make the register as accurate as possible to ensure that as many people as possible vote and to ensure that we know exactly what the turn-out is. It should not be measured against a register which may be in part fictional, but should be measured against a register which is as accurate as possible.

While, initially, I was pleased to note that the noble Lord had added his name to my amendment. I rapidly detected that he was not going as far as I would have wished. I regret that the Government have not taken more vigorous steps in this regard. However. I shall reserve most of my fire for later when I shall make some helpful suggestions as to how they may be able to improve the clearing of the register.

Baroness Hanham

I support the comments of my noble friend on this matter. I live in a central London borough. Many London boroughs have an annual population turnover of about 33 to 34 per cent. In some wards in my borough the figure is as high as 40 per cent. It is therefore extremely important that those who have left are taken off the register as soon as possible; otherwise, the register is meaningless. I support the amendment.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

We are certainly an odd couple. However, I am warming to this odd couple. It is a relationship that could go far.

I return to the subject in hand. On balance we have tried to recognise in part the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. It cannot be right that names remain on the register year after year after year. We believe that there is a balance to be struck here. We believe that a period of a year is about right. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, makes a good point in this regard. She will probably recall that I was the leader of Brighton and Hove Council. As in the noble Baroness's own good borough, we have wards in Brighton and Hove which have phenomenal population turnovers in the course of a year. I believe that one of those wards had a turnover of 60 per cent. In those circumstances it is hard to keep track of people's movements. Often they shift simply to the flat next door or to another street.

However, I believe that it is right to enable registration officers to keep names on the list for a further year. That is in part what our amendments seek to achieve. I believe that by clarifying the matter and providing a cut-off—a cap, if you like—we have struck the right balance. However, I understand the point that both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, have made. Although our opinions may diverge with regard to what should happen to the amendment that stands in both our names, we share a concern to make the register accurate. In his usual entertaining manner the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, made some good points on the need for an accurate register. However, I trust that with those comments he will feel happy with what we are trying to do.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 23 not moved.]

Lord Jopling moved Amendment No. 24: Page 8, line 23, at end insert— ("( ) the nature of previous registration and the address at which he was previously registered").

The noble Lord said: This amendment is an example of my desire to find ways to extend the opportunity for people to register and to vote, but at the same time to try to avoid as far as possible unnecessary abuses. That is what Amendments Nos. 24, 32 and 33, which stand in my name, are designed to achieve.

Clause 6 deals with the thorny matter of local connection. As my noble friend on the Front Bench has said, he has no objection to extending the opportunity to vote to homeless people. I do not object to the concept of local connection. However, it is an important new feature of our electoral law which we ought to consider extremely carefully as the creation of this concept of local connection gives rise to wide opportunities for abuse. I am sorry that the Minister has not been a little more understanding about the anxieties that I and others have had with regard to the danger of abuse in this area. When he replies to the amendment I hope that he will recognise that there are opportunities for abuse in this area. I hope that he will agree with me that it is essential to do everything possible to try to avoid that.

One can imagine that it is not impossible that people could appear apparently from nowhere and register multiple local connections in marginal constituencies at the time of by-elections or general elections. That is certainly what I am afraid of and what we need to safeguard against. I have drafted these amendments with a view to meeting that situation. I hope that the amendments achieve a variety of constructive objectives with regard to reducing the temptation to abuse the system.

I turn to Amendment No. 33. In my view, a potential elector should declare a local connection personally at the registration officer's office. The applicant should be required at that stage to produce proof of his identity. I am most anxious to be fair to potential voters. I have asked myself whether it is unreasonable to insist on that condition of personal appearance at the registration officer's office and proof of identity. However, I do not honestly believe that it is. I do not think that it should prove to be a problem. One of the conditions of a homeless person registering a local connection is to give an undertaking that he will be able to go to that office to pick up electoral documents. Therefore a homeless person who declares a local connection may well have to go to that office in the circumstances of an election. If he is prepared to collect that correspondence from that office—he has to say so—I do not think it is unreasonable that he should be invited to go there to register.

Nor, I believe, can it be unreasonable to suggest that homeless people, or anyone else trying to produce a local connection, should be asked to produce some form of identification. I cannot believe that people who wanted to vote could not provide some kind of identification, whether it be a pension book, unemployment document or something of that nature. I do not think that that is unreasonable.

In cases where they cannot identify themselves at all as to who they are and what their names are, it is difficult to understand why they should be allowed to register to vote. It is difficult to justify cases where people who are unable to identify themselves should be allowed to vote; clearly that would be a potential source of electoral abuse.

Turning to Amendment No. 24, I believe that potential voters declaring a local connection should say when they register where and when they were previously registered. That would help. I shall come on to this point shortly when I move to my next group of amendments. It may be that a homeless person seeking to establish a local connection would say "I was never previously registered". While that should not be a bar to people going on the register, they should be asked where and when they were previously registered. If they say that they have never been registered, I am not for a moment saying that they should not be put on the register, but at least the registration officer would be making some effort to find out the background of potential voters to ensure that there were not multiple applications. That would be some guard against abuses.

Amendment No. 32 seeks to require that at the point of registration persons wishing to establish a local connection should, when they go to register, be given a certificate by the registration officer. Such a certificate would verify their registration. Potential voters would be required to prescribe their signatures on the certificate in order that it could be presented at a polling station to verify that the person claiming the local connection was properly who he said he was.

I know that this lays conditions additional to those in the Bill on people seeking to establish a local connection. As I said earlier, I have asked myself repeatedly whether they are unreasonable conditions. I do not think that they are. There are justifiable suspicions that abuses of the electoral system could arise. That a person seeking to establish a local connection should be asked to identify himself or herself with a certificate from the registration officer, which is signed by himself or herself, would be a safeguard against some such abuses.

I hope that the Government are able to accept the amendments. I believe that they are helpful; they are not onerous; and they would give confidence to those who look at the electoral system that it is not easy to skirt around and to cheat. I beg to move.

Lord Rennard

I have sympathy with my noble friend's amendments; there is a potential for abuse.

I am particularly keen on the availability of the new declaration of local connections in order to ensure the right to vote of homeless people. It seems to hit the right balance between how we prevent abuse and how we allow homeless people the right to vote. However, I have concerns with these specific amendments, in particular with the one in regard to obliging people to say where they came from previously. I am concerned, for example, about the problems that this would cause battered wives. They may have become homeless as a result of being battered wives, and it would be a considerable problem for them if they had to declare their previous registration in this process. We must be concerned about that.

I sympathise particularly with the amendment in regard to parliamentary by-elections. There may be a considerable period of time between a parliamentary by-election becoming known and the date by which one may wish to be registered. That is a sensible consideration.

My main concern is about the necessary proof of identity for those who do not have a red-and-white striped badge. It is difficult for homeless people to prove their identity beyond doubt. Satisfactory evidence of identity to the registration officer would be a sensible provision.

Earl Russell

I support what my noble friend Lord Rennard said about proof of identity. A similar provision to the one envisaged by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, was introduced in relation to benefits in the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997. It is causing considerable problems. The House to some extent foresaw this, but not in sufficient numbers to prevent the measure going through.

To take my noble friend's example, if it is applied to battered wives, very often they have perhaps had to leave the house in the middle of the night, in their night-dress, as fast as they could possibly go. They do not have time in that situation to pick up their passports, credit cards and all the other identification documents. The same applies to people who have to leave their houses because of fire, which continues to happen even in the most well ordered society.

In its report Still Running, the Children's Society has drawn attention to the difficulties encountered by 15 and 16 year-olds who have been thrown out by their parents in being able to produce proofs of identity. They cannot go back to ask the parents who threw them out for their birth certificates. If we all lived such well-ordered lives as the amendment envisages, it would be a reasonable and perhaps a necessary provision. But as it is, it may do a good deal of harm.

I accept the point of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, about the accuracy of the register, but people are in such a continual state of flux that it is inevitable that any register is going to be inaccurate. The question is whether one would rather have it inaccurate by including people who should not have been included or by excluding people who should not have been excluded. We have a simple choice: not of getting it right but of which mistake we would rather make.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

The amendments of my noble friend Lord Jopling are very interesting. Amendment No. 47, which stands in my name, is grouped with them.

I listened to the noble Earl with care, as I always do, and I am little puzzled by the example he gave of the battered wife. All that my noble friend's Amendment No. 24 seeks is that the lady, when she asks for a registration at a new address, tells the electoral registration officer where was her previous address and where she was previously registered. Unless I am misreading my noble friend's amendment, I do not see necessarily that that information will get out. It will not be news to the husband if the lady's name is removed from the electoral register; after all, she has left him and he knows that. The question is how he would get to know where she now was simply by her telling the ERO that she had come from another address. Perhaps the noble Earl can help me.

Earl Russell

There are cases where the name has got out from even such an elementary thing as the local police station being informed. Some such cases have ended in murder. There is a need for care.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I accept that point, but I find it hard to understand how the ERO could possibly release information about the wife to the pursuing husband—if I may call him that. I see the problem, but I would have to be persuaded that it was a real one in respect of telling the ERO the whereabouts of the woman's last address. My noble friend has a general and fairly good point in suggesting that people should say, when applying for a new registration, whether or not they have had a registration previously and, if so, where it was. I actually believe that everyone should be asked to do so, but those in this group in particular should be because obviously it is not as easy to register them as someone with a residence. I have great sympathy with that aspect of my noble friend's amendment.

I should like also to say a few words about Amendment No. 33. My noble friend suggests that the person concerned should go to the registration officer's office to make the application. I shall come to the phrase, accompanied by proof of identity", in a moment. Perhaps the Minister will help us by telling us how the Government envisage that such a person may make an application. It is quite different from the current arrangement where once per year canvassing forms come in through our front doors which we fill in and return. People who move address are among the people whom the ERO must identify when they ask to be registered at their new address. That is done through a form. I wonder how the individual is going to accomplish his registration. I do not believe that going to the registration officer's office is a particularly onerous thing to do. I notice that in new Section 7B(3)(a)(ii) one of the options given to such a homeless person is, that he is willing to collect such correspondence periodically from the registration officer's office". The Government themselves therefore envisage that at least some homeless people will make their point of contact the registration officer's office, although I accept that some others may make it the homeless hostel where they tend to reside or the hostel with which they have the greatest amount of contact. I understand that point, but it does not seem any great problem to make the registration officer's office the important point of contact.

As to proof of identity, I am more inclined to listen to my noble friend than to the noble Earl, although I appreciate his point about fire, flood and fleeing in the night. The fact is that anyone going through fire, flood and fleeing in the night will have to obtain some form of identification rather quickly. I was about to say that for most of us that might be a bank account or something of that nature, but we are talking about homeless people. For a homeless person it might well be the social security documents which entitle him to continue to claim social security. I suspect that a battered wife in the situation described earlier would be looking for social security documents. There will be some documents around that the registration office could check. My amendment is perhaps more acceptable to the Government—dare I say, having had a small success a little while ago—in that I do not specify what it should be. All I say is that the registration officer should have the responsibility to take whatever measures he deems necessary and reasonable to verify a declaration of local connection.

In addition to my support for my noble friend's amendment, I suggest that my amendment would make it clear that the ERO has the power and the responsibility to make checks. If the Minister tells me that he already has such powers and that he would make checks, I shall be quite content. I suggest that my amendment would go at least some way to relieve the concerns of my noble friend Lord Jopling without perhaps getting into the difficult territory of the noble Earl, Lord Russell.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

This has been a useful discussion. I want us to try to concentrate our minds a little on the benefits of the Bill and why it is drafted in this way. The whole purpose behind the Bill is surely to make it easier for the homeless, remand prisoners and mental health patients to be registered as electors. That is what we are trying to achieve. We are trying to be more inclusive and to encourage people to participate in democracy. While I understand the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, to ensure that we root out any abuse and fraudulent intent within the system, we stick to that fundamental principle. Trying to achieve greater participation is one of the purposes behind the legislation. The electoral system in this country bears comparison with all others. Our system is remarkably free from corruption and abuse. I believe that most of us would subscribe to that point of view.

In general, the provisions have been welcomed by all parties and that is as it should be. But having decided that those categories of people—the homeless, remand prisoners and mental health patients—should be allowed to register, it would be quite wrong if we were then to try to treat their registrations as different from everyone else's. Yet that is what these amendments seek to do: to discriminate between one set of electors and another.

Ordinary electors do not have to be issued with identification certificates or have to produce such documents when seeking to vote, so why should we place an additional requirement on those who register by means of a declaration of local connection? I shall try to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. A person who wants to register by means of a declaration of local connection will need to complete a form. He will have to do some form-filling in the same way as everyone else; such as a person who registers normally and wants to change his registration mid-year. A person may fill in the form and return it directly, or by post. That is how the procedure will work.

Although I imagine that most homeless people will go to the town hall in person to register—which seems a logical consequence and a sensible way to behave—there is no reason to require them to do so when a similar requirement is not imposed on anyone else. I therefore cannot invite the Committee to accept Amendments Nos. 32 and 33.

In that context, while the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is phrased in perhaps slightly friendlier and looser terms, I cannot invite the Committee to support it either. Imagine for a moment what happens in the case of those who register in the normal way. If the annual canvass form comes back with an extra name of a person who was not registered the previous year, or if an extra person applies to be registered during the course of the year, the registration officer takes that on trust. He does not call round to check that the new person really lives at the address in question. There is no justification for treating in a different way those who wish to register by means of a declaration of local connection. There is no reason to believe that such people are more prone to fraud or dishonesty, although I should point out that paragraph 17 of Schedule 1 to the Bill makes it quite clear that submitting a fraudulent declaration of local connection is an offence.

Whenever any name appears on the electoral register, whether in the normal way or through a declaration of local connection, there is a proper procedure for objecting to it. Another safeguard is therefore built in. That seems a much better approach than singling out those registering by means of a declaration of local connection and imposing an additional and heavy burden on already busy registration officers.

Finally, I turn to Amendment No. 24, about which I can perhaps be a little kinder. A feature of rolling electoral registration is that people will be able to change their registration during the course of the year. They will be able to register in respect of their new address and be removed from the register in respect of their old address. For that system to work, the registration form will need to ask them for details of their previous registration. Exactly the same question will need to appear on the form for registering by means of a declaration of local connection. The Bill as drafted will allow for that to happen.

Before I sit down, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for his contribution. He made a valuable point about domestic violence. We too want to ensure that the system we are putting in place protects those who are victims of aggression in any shape or form; in particular, those who are victims of racist attacks. There would be some equally telling vulnerability if we were to adopt the course recommended in the amendments.

In the light of what I have said, and bearing in mind the reasonable points made by some of our colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, I hope that the noble Lord will decide that at this stage the amendments are not worth pursuing, although, as I said earlier, I recognise that we must be vigilant in tackling fraud and ensuring that there is no abuse of the system.

Lord Jopling

I have listened carefully to the Minister's reply. I repeat what I said in my earlier remarks. I remain unsure about whether the Government are being sufficiently prudent in dealing with the dangers of abuse in the registration and voting of the electorate. We may be able to discuss that further as time goes on.

However, leaving the Minister's comments aside, I have to say that I was somewhat amused by the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Russell. He quoted the example of the battered wife who escapes in her nightdress in the middle of the night on to the frozen winter streets. The thought that he left in my mind was that the first thought of an unfortunate lady in that situation would be to ensure that she had registered her vote by demonstrating a local connection—no thought of going first to the hospital, if that was necessary; no thought of trying to find somewhere to live temporarily; no thought of trying to find some clothing; and no thought of trying to get assistance from the social services! He seemed to imply that that was the first thing, or very nearly the first thing, the lady would do. The noble Earl shakes his head. I am perhaps saying this rather flippantly and I do not want to be taken too seriously.

I was heartened by what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said. At Second Reading I had the enormous pleasure of congratulating him on his maiden speech. I detected a good deal more sympathy in his remarks than I detected in the remarks of the noble Earl. It occurs to me that there are the seeds of co-operation between the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and myself over this matter. Whether that would compare with the new relationship across the Front Benches about which we heard, I am not entirely sure. In the course of the next few days perhaps I may have a discussion with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, to see whether there is any way in which we can find a compromise amendment. I see that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, wishes to intervene. if once worked for the noble Lord many years ago. I am not sure what words he is breathing into the ear of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.

Lord McNally

I am advising my noble friend Lord Rennard that when mixing with a former Chief Whip he should take a good lawyer with him.

Lord Jopling

On that happy note, hoping that a warmer co-operation may emerge, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 25 to 27 not moved.]

Lord Jopling moved Amendment No. 28: Page 9. leave out lines 12 and 13.

The noble Lord said: I shall not delay the Committee for very long with this amendment. In new Section 7B(7)(b), it is enough to say that if a person makes more than one declaration of local connection, the declaration or declarations shall be void. I do not see the need for the words in lines 12 and 13. I do not want to argue in favour of my Amendment No. 30. which seeks to take out the words "or declarations". That is not necessary. But would it not make more sense if subsection (7)(b) stated merely that if a person makes more than one declaration of local connection, that declaration shall be void? I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My noble friend Lord Jopling has a good point. I can understand the Government not being keen to accept more than one declaration stating different addresses on the same day. However, if I read the provision correctly, someone could make a declaration on one day for one place and then make another declaration the next day for another place, in an adjacent ward or constituency. There should be some limit on the number of declarations someone can make. Therefore, I believe that my noble friend's amendment bears careful study by the Government.

I accept that someone may make a declaration today and that in three or four months' time he may have moved sufficiently far away to want to make another declaration, but he should not be able to run two declarations at the same time. That brings us back to the protection offered by my noble friend's previous amendment—if someone makes a declaration, he should be asked (as I think we should all be asked) whether he has made a previous declaration and whether he is voting anywhere else using a declaration. That may be a way to get round the problem.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

It is a long-established principle that a person may appear on the electoral register more than once. People who have two residences are entitled to be registered in respect of both of them. That is a facility of which many Members of another place take advantage and, for all I know, the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, may have been registered in both London and Cumbria during his distinguished service there. The Bill does nothing to change that position.

However, the Bill does introduce the new concept of a declaration of local connection. It will be used by mental patients, remand prisoners and the homeless who would have difficulty in establishing residence in the normal way. Given that such declarations will be used by those who are unable to register in the normal way, it would be quite wrong, as the noble Lord said in moving the amendment, if such people were allowed to register more than once. A person who has difficulty establishing a single residence can hardly claim two residences.

It was for precisely that reason that the Government brought forward an amendment in another place to ensure that nobody who is registered by means of a declaration of local connection may appear on the electoral register more than once. If Members of the Committee care to look at new Section 7C(2)(c), which appears towards the bottom of page 9 of the Bill, they will see that as soon as another entry appears in the register—whether an entry in the normal way or by means of a declaration of local connection—the person's existing entitlement to registration is deemed to have lapsed. The effect of that is exactly as I set out. It means that no one who is registered by means of a declaration of local connection can be registered twice.

I believe that that takes care of the problem which the noble Lord highlighted. With that assurance, I trust that that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Jopling

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation. For the record, I was for many years registered in three places, but of course I never voted in more than one. The noble Lord has gone some way to explain the background to this matter. It is a complicated business. We shall have to get used to the concept of local connections. I shall digest the words which the noble Lord was kind enough to utter. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 29 and 30 not moved.]

6.30 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 31: Page 9. line 20, at end insert— ("( ) A declaration of local connection shall be of no effect if that declaration states an address within a constituency which is not represented by a Member of Parliament at the time when that declaration is received by the registration officer.").

The noble Lord said: I am concerned about people moving into a constituency when they know that a by-election is pending. The difference between by-elections and general elections is that the Prime Minister normally gives four or five weeks' notice that a general election will be held and the matter is tightly controlled. A by-election is different. A Member may resign or, unfortunately, from time to time, a Member may die, and the by-election is possibly not held for three months after that event. Between the time when the by-election is first announced and the time when it takes place, three different dates might pass when the rolling register could be updated.

A good example is the by-election for the Scottish Parliament which is to take place in the borough of Ayr. It will be held on 16th March, if memory serves me correctly. It has come about in rather mysterious circumstances: the sitting Member resigned in December—basically, so far as I can see, because he was not given a job by the First Minister, Mr Dewar. If that were a basis for resignation, quite a lot of Members of the other place would resign every so often!

Knowing that the by-election will occur, people could roll on to that register on 1st January, 1st February and 1st March. People who have a house somewhere else are unlikely to move to Ayr deliberately to vote in the by-election—although, given the size of the majority, I imagine that the political parties are looking carefully at who is registering. Indeed, given the narrowness of the majority—a mere 25—the MSP's decision to resign the seat looks even more peculiar.

It is the local connection problem that causes me the greatest concern. Ayr is not far from Glasgow, and people could move there in an attempt to bring enough votes to bear to make a major difference in the seat. Earlier, I mentioned those who are resident at the so-called "peace camp" at Faslane, in the Gareloch, who have a bee in their bonnets about nuclear weapons and who are protesting today. They might all decide to decamp to Ayr, register their local connection and try to influence the by-election. Their problem nowadays, of course, is that they cannot even go there to vote for the Labour Party, as Labour no longer believes in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—although it is interesting that some Labour MSPs and MPs still do. I am pleased to say that my noble friend Lady Thatcher led us to victory in that general battle in the 1980s and the issue has by and large gone from the political debate.

The point is that people could move during the three-month period. If it were the right three-month period, they could possibly obtain three updates. That cannot be right. The amendment seeks to ensure that the moment a constituency becomes vacant and a by-election is to take place, no more declarations of local connection will be taken.

If I have read his previous replies correctly, I suspect that the Minister will say that we must treat the homeless vote in the same way as the resident vote. I understand the logic in that, but it might well lead us to say that in regard to a by-election the register should be frozen at the date of the Member's resignation or death. I should not like to go that far because people have genuine reasons for moving. However, we should watch out for those who might abuse the electoral system in a marginal constituency and migrate for the purposes of voting in what can often be a key by-election for the political parties—as the by-election at Ayr will be for the Labour Party and the Scottish Executive. I beg to move.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, may be surprised to learn that I have some sympathy with his amendment. At Second Reading, I said that in this regard I felt that it was possible for there to be tactical voting in a very real sense, and that we needed to examine the provision carefully. I am convinced that this is the one area of the Bill—probably the only one—under which registration could be abused. In a by-election such as the one that will take place at Ayr, where there is narrowness in the voting and the seat is keenly fought, people become terribly excited. I can see why they might want to move into the area to vote in the by-election.

I have discussed the matter with electoral registration officers who believe that our concern is somewhat over-exaggerated. Nevertheless, it remains. The Minister, Mike O'Brien, said in the Commons that he would look again at the matter. My question to my noble friend is: have the Government looked again, and what is their conclusion?

Lord Bach

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, may be doubly surprised after I have finished my brief remarks on his amendment. We can offer the noble Lord some comfort on this matter. The Government feel that the fears that he outlined may be exaggerated. We do not believe that the homeless have either the means or the inclination to travel around the country trying to influence the results of by-elections. However, real concern has been expressed both in this Chamber and in another place.

The Committee will not be surprised to hear that, right from the start of the Bill's passage through Parliament, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said that he was willing to listen to the views of other parties to see whether it could be improved. So I hope that the noble Lord will be satisfied when I say that we shall bring forward an amendment or amendments on Report, no doubt based on his amendment as drafted, to achieve the same purpose. In those circumstances, I ask the noble Lord to consider withdrawing the amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I thank the noble Lord for that reply. I knew that I was probably on to a reasonable thing when I was backed by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, who knows a thing or two, or 10, about elections. Indeed, we agree on some other matters. If my memory serves me rightly, the noble Baroness was a member of the commission that looked into referendums. I have quoted its recommendations extensively and approvingly, and shall probably do so again in relation to the next Bill on electoral matters to come before this House.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. I am glad that we both agree. Although this may be a long-shot problem, it could be serious in a marginal seat. I look forward to the noble Lord's amendment, which I am sure will be different from mine. It will certainly cost more. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 32 to 36 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Strabolgi)

Before calling Amendment No. 37, I should point out that it relates to Clause 6, not Clause 7. There is a misprint on the Marshalled List.

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 37: Page 9, line 42. leave out from ("Where") to ("to") in line 44 and insert ("the entitlement of such a person").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 6, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 7 and 8 agreed to.

Schedule 1 [Registration: amendments of 1983 Act]:

[Amendment No. 38 not moved.]

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 39: Page 19, line 17. at end insert (". or to remain,").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Dholakia moved Amendment No. 39A: Page 19, line 23, leave out ("or mental hospitals (within the meaning of section 7 above)").

The noble Lord said: I hope that I shall have as much success with Amendment No. 39A as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, had with the previous one. Paragraph 4(3) of Schedule 1 is concerned with the preparation of electoral registers. It replaces Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and creates a new Section 10A. Under that new section, subsections (1) and (2) require the registration officer to carry out an annual canvass by reference to residence on 15th October to establish who in his area is entitled to be registered.

My problem is that the canvass would not include mental hospitals, penal institutions or those registered by means of a declaration of a local connection. For that reason, I propose the deletion from subsection (3)(a) of the words, or mental hospitals (within the meaning of section 7 above)". This Bill removes the current bar on the use of a psychiatric hospital address for registration purposes and enables both voluntary and detained civil patients to register either at that address or another address outside the hospital with which they have a local connection. I welcome that as a major step forward in ensuring that people in psychiatric hospitals are able to exercise their right to vote. However, these rights will be meaningful only if those in hospitals are fully advised of their rights and steps are taken to ensure their proper inclusion on the register.

As it stands, paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 to the Bill excludes psychiatric hospitals from the duty on electoral registration officers to carry out an annual canvass of electors in their areas. Evidence of the operation of the current law indicates that without such a duty many of those in psychiatric hospitals who are entitled to register are likely to remain unregistered. The Representation of the People Act 1983 enables informal patients in psychiatric hospitals to register either at their home address or by means of a patient's declaration, for which an address outside the hospital is also required. Guidance on this matter was issued to health service staff.

However, there is a problem. Between 1987 and 1990 MIND carried out a survey of patients in psychiatric hospitals in the north-west which demonstrated that those who completed electoral registration forms were few and far between. The survey found both low numbers of patients registering to vote and significant variations between hospitals. In 1990 only 8.3 per cent of patients in the region were registered to vote. This varied between 3.1 per cent at the lowest to 16 per cent at the highest. These variations could not be explained by differences in hospital populations: they reflected stark differences in staff practices.

The survey found great variation in the way in which hospitals distributed the relevant forms to patients. In one hospital staff visited every ward and explained the implications of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to each patient. Other hospitals, however, did not distribute any forms on the grounds that, the initiative should be taken by the patient".

In those hospitals patients were effectively disenfranchised despite having the right in law to register. Patients received differing levels of support from staff in completing the different forms. Some made sure that patients understood the forms and helped those who were not literate to complete them; others felt that patients should complete them unaided.

If the Government continue to rely on those in charge of the institutions to ensure that those entitled to register do so, a similar situation is likely to arise again. The amendment will ensure that all those who are entitled to register using the hospital address can do so. It will also ensure that there is consistent implementation of the Act across different institutions. Unless a clear legal duty is placed on someone to ensure that there is registration that will not happen. There is no reason to believe that the present situation of non-registration will not continue. To place responsibility on the EROs to see to it that patients who are eligible to register do so will ensure that the intentions of the Bill, which we welcome, are realised in practice. I beg to move.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

One of the most important purposes of this Bill is to make it easier for those who have traditionally been put at a disadvantage to register as electors. This includes the homeless, remand prisoners and mental patients. I know that these provisions have generally been widely welcomed. We understand the noble Lord's concern that the annual canvass which electoral registration officers are required to carry out will not include psychiatric hospitals, but we do not believe that this will result in those affected being under-registered, and I shall go on to explain why.

Most electors are able to register only in respect of their residence, and it is therefore important that an annual canvass is carried out to ensure maximum registration levels. By contrast, mental patients will be able to register in one of three ways. They will be able to register at the address where they would otherwise be living (which will be covered by the appropriate canvass); they will be able to register by means of a declaration of local connection; or they will be able to register in respect of the institution where they are resident. The availability of the first two options means that relatively few patients are likely to register in respect of the hospitals. The local electoral registration officer is unlikely to know which patients have registered using the first two options. Therefore, if he were to carry out a canvass in the normal way it could lead to a great deal of double registration.

The Department of Health intends to issue guidance to those in charge of mental institutions to make sure that they are aware of the new rules that govern electoral registration and that they can advise those resident in the institutions of their rights accordingly. I hope that, with those assurances, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Dholakia

I thank the Minister for that response. However, that explanation still does not explain the kinds of discrepancies found in the survey. Perhaps it is possible for the Minister to consult mental health bodies in order to relay the concern and see whether something can be done. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 40: age 19. line 25, after ("above)") insert ("or other places at which persons to whom section 7A above applies may be detained").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 41 not moved.]

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 42 and 43: Page 19. line 41. leave out from ("shall") to second ("as") in line 43 and insert ("make such alterations in his registers as fall to be made in accordance with section 10A below"). Page 19. line 44. at end insert— ("( ) In this section "residence" means residence for the purposes of section 4 above.").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 44: Page 19, leave out lines 45 to 50.

The noble Lord said: Although the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, intends to substitute other words for this amendment, it is probably for the convenience of both myself and the Government if I formally move Amendment No. 44. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

We dealt with the issue in an earlier debate. I believe that we were the odd couple on this, and I hope that we continue to be so. The words are much the same.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 45 and 46: Page 20, line 14, at end insert ("in respect of that address"). Page 20, leave out lines 28 to 35 and insert— ("(5 ) Where the name of a person ("the elector") is duly entered in a register in respect of any address, the elector is entitled to remain registered in the register in respect of that address until such time as the registration officer concerned—

  1. (a) determines, on the conclusion of a canvass under section 10 above, that the elector was not resident at that address on the 15th October in question, or that because—
    1. (i) the form mentioned in section 10(4) above was not returned in respect of that address, or
    2. (ii) for any other reason, insufficient information was obtained as to whether the elector was resident at that address on that date,
  2. (b) determines, in any prescribed circumstances, that the elector has ceased to be resident at that address or has otherwise ceased to satisfy the conditions for registration set out in section 4 above.
(6) Where the entitlement of a person to remain registered in a register in respect of any address terminates by virtue of subsection (5) above, the registration officer concerned shall remove that person's entry from the register once the officer has satisfied any prescribed requirements applying in relation to the removal of that entry. (7) Subsection (6) above does not apply if, or to the extent that, regulations so provide in relation to any prescribed circumstances; and regulations may, in particular, authorise a registration officer to retain entries in his registers for the prescribed period if he thinks tit in cases where the form mentioned in section 10(4) above has not been returned in respect of any address. (8) Nothing in subsection (5) or (6) applies in relation to the registration of persons in pursuance of—
  1. (a) applications for registration made by virtue of section 7(2) or 7A(2) above; or
  2. (b) declarations falling within section 10(3)(b) above.
(9) In this section—

On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendment No. 47 not moved.]

Lord Bach moved Amendment No, 48: Page 20, line 47, leave out ("(subject to any regulations under section 10(7) above)").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 49: Page 21, line 20. after ("13A") insert ("or 13B").

The noble Lord said: On behalf of my noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton, in moving the amendment I speak also to the other amendments in the grouping.

This group of amendments relates to the correcting of clerical errors which may have been made in the electoral register after the close of nominations at an election. This is an issue which was debated in the other place and these amendments respond to concerns that were expressed there. They also follow discussions which Home Office officials have had with officers of the Association of Electoral Administrators and SOLACE.

We believe strongly that candidates and political parties need certainty about the electoral register that is to be used at an election. They need to know how many and which electors will be eligible to vote. Accordingly, in line with the existing practice, the Bill provides that no changes to an electoral register to be used at an election can take place after the closing date for nominations. The Government believe that Members of the Committee would agree that that is right.

However, it does not seem right that a person should be denied the right to vote as a result of a clerical error made by electoral registration staff. Such errors are likely to come to light only in the course of the election probably because the voter realises that he has not received a poll card. There can be no one in the Committee today who has not experienced such an eventuality during the course of canvassing during an election, and the upset it causes to the voter when he realises that he is not registered. We therefore think it would be right to make an exception to the general rule.

These amendments make it possible for an alteration to an electoral register to be made after the closing date for nominations at an election where the registration officer is satisfied—those are important words—that this is for the purpose of correcting a clerical error in the register. They also allow alteration to a register to be made during an election period following a decision of the courts. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart

I have no objection in principle to the amendment, but I have one query.

In a number of places new Section 13B refers to something happening before the date of the poll. Under Clauses 10 and 11 it will be possible to have polls over more than one day. Should not the provision refer to "the date of the poll", or "the first day of the poll" if it takes place over more than one day?

Lord Bach

That may be a good point. I shall consider it and, if necessary, answer the noble Lord's point on Report.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 50: Page 21, line 20, at end insert— ("( ) On publication or alteration to the register, any person registered within a borough or district shall have the right to make a challenge to any inclusion, alteration or omission to the said register; and regulations shall apply the provisions of section 56 in respect of any such challenge.").

The noble Lord said: The objective of the amendment is to make clear on the face of the Bill that the present method of challenging the electoral register is to continue in the way currently carried out on the publication of draft registers. Members of the Committee will remember that I explained that one of the major differences between the old and the new systems will be that we shall not have draft registers. We shall have a register on 1st December. That will be "the big bang". Then monthly (except for one or two months) a supplementary register will show the names added to or deleted from the register.

Members of the Committee who have been involved with elections will know that the only point at which challenges can be made to the inclusion of a name on a register is when the draft register is published. However, with a rolling register the position changes dramatically. I believe that with a rolling register we should ensure that we keep the existing system for challenges. That provision should be on the face of the Bill. My amendment would mean that someone could challenge the inclusion, alteration or omission of someone from the register on 1st January, 1st February and so on. When the supplementary roll is published, political parties and individuals could check whether they are included in or omitted from the list.

It would be useful to have clarification on how the Government envisage challenges to work under the new arrangement. While my amendment may not contain the exact words required, the Government may consider it sensible to put on the face of the Bill or in a schedule provision for challenges as the register rolls on. I beg to move.

Lord Norton of Louth

My noble friend's amendment goes to the heart of the reason for a published register. In considering the history of electoral registers in this country, he raises a fundamental point. We did not have an electoral register in this country before 1832; there was seen to be no need. It was only as a consequence of the 1832 Reform Act that the need arose because of the number of electors. Because of the inefficiency by which it was compiled and because the qualifications for the franchise were extremely complex, it was necessary to publish the register. Access was required so that people could challenge omissions from or entries in the register. That goes to the heart of the reason that we have an electoral register in this country.

I shall return later to a related point about why we continue to publish the register. It may be less necessary given the current method of data collection. However, so long as we continue to publish a register, the rationale for it must be access so that people can check and challenge. Therefore it is important that such a provision is on the face of the Bill, and I support my noble friend's amendment.

In responding, it would be useful if the Minister is able to give us figures of the extent to which challenges to the register have taken place. It is relevant in the context of my noble friend's amendment. It is also relevant to a point that I shall raise later. I have pleasure in supporting my noble friend's amendment.

Lord Goodhart

I, too, support the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, made some telling points as to why the provision should be on the face of the Bill. I await with interest the Minister's reply.

7 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I have listened with interest to the argument that the provision should be on the face of the Bill. I shall give that further consideration. I am not sure that I can answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, about the number of challenges. No doubt challenges take place, and rightly so. I shall have to write to him on that point after we have undertaken some research. We may need to carry out a survey with the registration officers. I am sure that he appreciates that that will take some time.

Our position on this is quite simple: we do not believe that this provision is entirely necessary. If your Lordships look at line 15 of page 20, you will see that it says: A registration officer shall also determine all objections to a person's registration made in accordance with the prescribed requirements by another person whose name appears on the register in question". It is therefore quite clear that any registered elector in the area concerned can object to any entry in the register. I am sure that in the vast majority of cases the registration officer will be able to resolve the matter locally. Should he be unable to do so, Section 56 allows for the matter to go before the courts. From time to time, people have used and will continue to use that facility. I hope that that is reasonably reassuring to the Committee, and I therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am grateful for the support that I have received from the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I am presently trying quickly to read the paragraph to which the Minister has referred. As I see the words "15th October" above it, I presume that this is for more than the main update, the big bang, and that it is in fact for all the updates that take place throughout the year. The Minister has been helpful in this respect, and we shall have to study what he has said, relating it to Schedule 1, page 20, to ensure that it does not refer to the big bang but to the monthly updates. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 51 to 53: Page 21, line 29, leave out from ("made") to first ("that") in line 32 and insert ("by any person in accordance with the prescribed requirements, determines"). Page 21, leave out lines 34 to 39 and insert—

Page 21, line 44, leave out ("becomes satisfied") and insert ("determines").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 54: Page 21, line 45, at end insert— ("( )Each registration officer shall each month, or seven days before any poll, contact every registrar of births, marriages and deaths covering the area for which he is responsible in order to ascertain the names and addresses of those persons deceased within the previous month and the registration officer shall remove such deceased persons from the register within three working days of ascertaining this information.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 55. This takes us back to the issue of the accuracy of the register. Amendment No. 54 is not concerned with adding names to the register, but, I regret to say, with deleting them. Amendment No. 55 is a little different. It could deal either with people who are not on the register and who perhaps should be on it, or with people who are on the register and who the electoral registration officer has reason to believe should no longer be on it.

I am trying to standardise the principles of registration across the whole country. Although it is not a direct quotation, my recollection is that the Minister said in as many words that the ERO should use all the sources of information that he can make available to himself in order to ensure that the register is up to date. I do not believe that there is anything between us on that point. However, it seems to me that in the other place some doubt was cast on the registration officer contacting the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths to keep up to date with the deaths that had occurred in that area. I submit that this is not just about making sure that the register is accurate or about the problem of the denominator, as I described it earlier. I believe that it is also about the fact that people who have passed on ought to be taken off the register as quickly as possible.

When I was involved in trying to be elected and then to keep a fairly marginal seat in the other place—it certainly turned out to be very marginal!—we had a small team of people making sure that we kept the register up to date with regard to people who had died, which is easy to do in a country area, where virtually all deaths are notified in the local newspapers. Our purpose in doing that was so that, come an election, we would not be sending communications to people who were dead. It is not a very pleasant matter for someone to have an election communication addressed to a late husband, a late wife or late parents. We all understand the problem and I am sure that all the political parties try not to do it. The last thing we want to do is to upset electors who may decide not to vote for us because they are annoyed about the fact that we have not been aware of a death.

I am therefore trying to help all the political parties by suggesting that the registration officer should—I have provided a time—towards the end of each month be prepared at some stage to contact the registrar and ask for a list of the people who have died in the area over the past month, in which case he would be in a position to remove their names from the register and keep it very much up to date, prevent the political parties doing some work on registers and, perhaps more importantly, prevent us sending communications to people who have died in a way which would be fairly hurtful to the relatives who remain at their address. All of your Lordships who have been involved in elections will know exactly what I am seeking to do in this regard.

Amendment No. 55 would underline in legislation that the electoral registration officer should canvass a part or all of the register if he thinks that he ought to and if he thinks that in that way he will gain more accurate information. In this case, it could be additions and deletions. We have never previously faced the sort of problem (except in October/November) that might arise where, for example, a new housing development becomes occupied by new people in the spring of the year. It seems to me that the electoral registration officer ought to decide at that point to inquire who they are, add them to the register, and, one hopes, remove their previous registration.

We are in a whole new ball game with a rolling register. This is quite different from the situation that we have had in the past. In the sort of example that I have mentioned, it is often the case that over a few months in the spring and summer a lot of extra people can come into an area because of a new housing development. It seems to me sensible to give the electoral registration officer the power to take steps to ensure that those people are on the rolling register. I beg to move.

Baroness Fookes

I very warmly support my noble friend. These two amendments are very sensible. Quite apart from the issue of accuracy, I endorse what my noble friend has said about the hurt and distress that can be caused when party workers inadvertently make contact with relatives and appear not to know about the death of someone very much loved by them. It causes considerable upset. Furthermore, my previous experience as a Member of Parliament has been that, in towns, this is very hit and miss. It is unlikely that one would know of a death. Whether or not party workers know about a death depends very much on the thoroughness of their canvassing. I therefore believe that there is every reason to allow the electoral registration officer to make inquiries about whether anyone has been registered as dead. As I understand it. that information is public. The registration of a death is not a private matter. Therefore, I can see no objection whatever to inquiries being made by one official of another, if indeed it is correct that the propriety of this was questioned in the other place.

The other point is less pleasant. We know that there is always a possibility of someone impersonating another. This will be less likely if the information is brought very much up to date. For that reason also, it is important that information should be made available as quickly as possible.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I should like to make a very short point in favour of this amendment. In the case of a rolling register, we have a new situation. It is not the old situation as it was. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will look at it in that light, without a backward glance to the previous position.

Lord Goodhart

I, too, support the amendment. Anyone who has canvassed as extensively as I have—and many have canvassed a good deal more so—know that it is embarrassing to the canvasser to knock on a door, meet an elderly woman and ask about her husband, only to be told that he died six months ago. Whether or not such incidents and the sending of leaflets lead to a loss of votes, they are painful for both the resident voters and the canvassers. Therefore, we support any reasonable steps that can be taken to ensure that people who have died are taken off the register as soon as possible.

Lord Jopling

I, too, am anxious to support the amendment for a reason that has not yet been mentioned. I was much taken with what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, about the problem of impersonation and by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, about the distress that is often caused during an election campaign. I am sure that many Members of the Committee have experienced the problem of knocking on a door and being told that the person's spouse had recently died. It is most distressing to meet a widow or widower or a son or daughter who is clearly upset by having to explain that grandpa is no longer alive.

However, the deceased may have been registered for a postal vote. I do not believe that I fought a general election—and I fought 10 in my time—without knocking on a door and being told, "Grandpa died some time ago, but we have got his postal vote behind the clock on the mantelpiece". You then have to tell them that there is no way that that vote can be used. However, I have often wondered whether people might be inclined to think that if they fill in the form no one will know. I have no evidence whatever that that happens, but it could. I imagine that it is almost impossible to trace and therefore it is important to keep the register as up to date as possible. The gist of my noble friend's proposal is therefore sensible. It will cause a little more trouble, but not much, and it is in everyone's interest to have an up-to-date register.

Lord McNally

My wife has stopped me eating strong cheese at night because it gives me bad dreams. There was a point today when I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, had eaten the political equivalent of that strong cheese because he seemed to be summoning up all kinds of hobgoblins to frighten us. We heard about New Age travellers moving into marginal seats; jet-setting hijackers carefully landing at the appropriate time to be put on the register; the standard Irish tinkers; and the nefarious students. They were all distorting the vote presumably in an anti-Conservative fashion. It is not paranoia; it is just that they have a lot of enemies!

Interspersed with all the hobgoblins, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, jumped on every one of his hobbyhorses. At one stage I was thinking of going into the Prince's Chamber and opening a book on how many he would ride today. We had the euro; student fees in Scotland; the competence of the Greenock sheriff; the Faslane nuclear debates; the European Convention on Human Rights; and CND. And the list is still open if someone wants to place a bet. We also had the statutory genuflexion to the wonders and glories of the Thatcher years.

It has been vintage Mackay today and I must say that when I saw the amendment I thought, "Oh, my God, we are now going to get the voting dead!", presumably all the deceased being firmly anti-Conservative. Therefore, I was reasonably surprised when I heard the reasoning behind the amendment and was sympathetic towards it. Anything that could prevent unnecessary upset to the recently bereaved is to be welcomed. However, can the Minister confirm that the Home Office and the study group which examined these matters found little evidence of the abuses from which the Conservative Front Bench have tried to save us from this afternoon? Will he confirm that he, like Members on these Benches, remains committed to a Bill which will try to encourage people to register and to vote rather than to find as many obstacles to that as possible?

7.15 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his intervention. It was timely and brought a little lightheartedness to our considerations. I, too, had wondered how many more demons would emerge!

I have sympathy with the amendments and believe that they were honourably expressed. It would be strange if it were otherwise, because I was last elected for a ward which had about 8,000 voters, three cemeteries and two crematoria—so there were more deceased former voters than live voters. However, the live voters were always charitable and always returned me to the council and leadership of that great authority. I was very grateful to them.

The points which Members of the Committee made are well intentioned. Nothing can be worse than knocking on a door and asking for someone only to find that there has been a recent bereavement and having to offer instant casework in their terrible loss and sad tragedy. Everyone has great sympathy for such situations. Amendment No. 54 would require electoral registration officers to consult the local registrar of births, marriages and deaths with a view to removing the names of the deceased. Apart from the fact that people do not always conveniently die in the area in which they are registered, the amendment is unnecessary. Perhaps your Lordships will turn to paragraph 23(3) of Schedule 1—it is at line 20 on page 26. You will see that registration officers will in any event be able to inspect records kept by, any local or public authority". That encompasses not just records which are publicly available, such as the local register of births, marriages and deaths, but also those to which they would not otherwise have access. For that reason, we believe that this issue is already covered. However, if any point has been missed here, I shall be happy to listen to further proposals to cover any other eventuality.

Lord Norton of Louth

I understand the distinction made by the Minister here. However, the Bill as drafted states that the registration officer "may" consult, whereas the amendment tabled by my noble friend states that he "shall" do so. That would ensure consistency where, in the Bill as it stands, inconsistencies could arise. Registration officers may not use the powers available to them.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, has made a useful intervention. The clear intention behind the drafting of the Bill is that it is the Government's expectation that electoral registration officers would regularly access the relevant data. Indeed, I believe that is already done in all authorities where good practice is evident. Most local authorities are extremely good. about carrying out these functions.

I shall now turn to Amendment No. 55. It addresses the issue of the accuracy of the register and returns us to an important issue. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, wishes to insert a provision allowing registration officers to carry out an enquiry or canvass at any time of the year. In principle, I feel that that would be unobjectionable. However, I question how realistic that might be in practice. Registration officers already find it difficult, costly and labour intensive to carry out even a single whole-town, whole-community or whole-area registration in any given year. I doubt very much whether they would have the resources or even the inclination to undertake a second canvass of the kind envisaged by the noble Lord, desirable though that may be.

Perhaps Members of the Opposition can tell the Committee whether, if they were in government, they would increase the grants provided to local authorities to pay for such exercises. I believe that considerable costs would attach to this proposal. On balance, the Government believe that the registration provisions in the Bill are about right and I hope that the noble Lord will see the wisdom of that opinion. We think that the system works well as it is and I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Finally, I should like to respond to a point made a little earlier by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Throughout our considerations and deliberations in this field, we have not detected any significant amount of abuse or fraud. I made that point earlier and I feel that I should repeat it now. When the working party examined these matters, the issue of fraud hardly arose. By and large, registers are well put together; generally the dead do not vote—though perhaps some would have liked to have done so. I believe that the balance of these provisions is right and does not overly burden local services. I hope that noble Lords will feel able to support the provision as it stands.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response and I thank all other noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. In particular, I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, kept count of the number of issues I could get in during my contribution. Perhaps we could come to an arrangement over the book he is running; I could then give him a suitable number.

Perhaps I can say to the noble Lord that I had not thought about dead people voting, although I understand that that was a traditional problem in the north of Ireland until steps were taken to prevent it. I encountered the problem with a constituent—a supporter—who tended to telephone me on a Sunday evening to give me a list of all those who had died in the previous week. He was totally convinced that they were all Conservatives. Occasionally I had to point out to him that some others who had died during the previous week were most certainly not Conservatives. That is my experience of the issue.

Perhaps I may turn first to Amendment No. 55. I take the point made by the Minister about expense. However, with respect, he could have given a little more information on the question of modern housing developments where an influx of people can make significant alterations to the register. There is a difference between that kind of circumstance and merely tidying up the register for no apparent reason.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I return to the point I made about good practice. It is the Government's expectation that—as in my own local authority area—when a new housing development is built, electoral registration officers will conduct a canvass to see whether those new residents are entitled to be included on the register. With the new rolling register that will of course be extremely important. Perhaps this is a point that might best be dealt with in guidance. I hope that satisfies the noble Lord.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

That would satisfy me and I am pleased to hear the noble Lord make the point. If an appropriate form of words could he devised for guidance and for inclusion in Home Office circulars, then that would be a step forward.

As regards Amendment No. 54, it was interesting that the Minister drew the attention of the Committee to the schedule set out on page 26 of the Bill which provides that the registration officer "may" consult with local or public authorities. Obviously that would include the registrar of births, deaths and marriages. However, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth referred to a problem here; namely, that "may" means that some EROs will consult and some will not. My amendment seeks to standardise the procedure throughout the country and I still feel that that would be a useful step.

Perhaps, in the spirit of conciliation, co-operation and agreement that we have enjoyed over the past few minutes, the noble Lord and the department could consider putting in a form of words to cover use of the registry of births, deaths and marriages in guidance or circulars sent out to electoral registration officers. In that way, we would avoid the position where, in one area the exercise is carried out perfectly adequately while in another area it is not done at all.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The noble Lord has made a reasonable point, following on the comments of his noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. It costs me nothing to take this matter away to see whether, by perfecting the wording, we might come up with a form of words that would satisfy all sides.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that assurance. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 55 not moved.]

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendments Nos. 56 to 60: Page 22, line 1, leave out ("subsection (4)") and insert ("section 13B(1)"). Page 22, leave out lines 18 to 22 and insert— ("( ) Subsection (2) above also does not require a registration officer to issue a notice under that subsection in a case where section 13B(3) below requires him to issue a notice under that provision."). Page 22, line 25, at end insert ("and section 13B below"). Page 22, line 26, at beginning insert ("For the purposes of means subsection (1) above "determines" determines in accordance with regulations; and"). Page 22, line 28, at end insert—

(""Alteration of registers: pending elections.

13B.—(1) An alteration in a published version of a register of electors which takes effect under section 13A(2) above after the final nomination day in the case of an election to which this section applies shall not have effect for the purposes of that election unless the alteration—

  1. (a) is made in consequence of a decision or determination falling within section 13A(1)(d) or (e) above; and
  2. (b) takes effect on or before the fifth day before the date of the poll.

(2) Subsection (3) below applies where—

  1. (a) at any time before the appropriate publication date in the case of an election to which this section applies, section 13A above applies to a registration officer, by virtue of subsection (1) of that section, in connection with a decision or determination—
    1. (i) falling within subsection (1)(d) or (e) of that section, and
    2. 988
    3. (ii) in consequence of which a person's name falls to be entered in (or removed from) the register in respect of an address in the relevant election area; and
  2. (b) no alteration made in consequence of that decision or determination—
    1. (i) has already taken effect. or
    2. (ii) is due to take effect,

(3) In such a case the registration officer shall issue, in the prescribed manner, a notice specifying the appropriate alteration in the register; and—

  1. (a) the notice shall be so issued by him on the appropriate publication date; and
  2. (b) the alteration shall take effect as from the beginning of that day.

(4) This section applies to the following elections—

  1. (a) parliamentary elections,
  2. (b) elections to the European Parliament,
  3. (c) elections to the Scottish Parliament,
  4. (d) elections to the National Assembly for Wales,
  5. (e) elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and
  6. (f) local government elections in England, Wales or Scotland.

(5) In this section—

(6) Section 119 below shall apply for the purposes of this section as if—

  1. (a) it were contained in Part II of this Act; and
  2. (b) each of the days referred to in this section were the day on which anything is required or permitted to be done by or in pursuance of that Part of this Act." ").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 61: Page 22, line 28, at end insert——