HL Deb 31 January 2000 vol 609 cc12-57

3.7 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

It gives me great pleasure to bring forward this Bill for your Lordships' approval. Its provisions will allow for an important step to be taken towards democratic renewal, by modernising electoral procedures.

Before I go any further, perhaps I may say how much I am looking forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. He comes to this House with a formidable reputation as an election campaigner and is well qualified to speak about election procedures. He joins other such speakers as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, who has a similarly formidable reputation in the same field.

The Bill will update electoral procedures to bring them out of the 19th and into the 21st century. The beginning of the new millennium has been much celebrated as the beginning of a new era. It is certainly an era of constitutional reform. Electoral procedure plays a fundamental role in the democratic process and it is important that legislation is kept up to date in order to meet the needs of the people of this new century.

The Bill will give effect to the recommendations made by the working party on electoral procedures, which were published at the end of October last year. The working party, chaired by George Howarth (then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office), started work at the beginning of 1998. Its terms of reference required it to consider changes to electoral practice that would contribute to democratic renewal in the United Kingdom.

The Howarth working party included representatives of the three main political parties, representatives of the local authority organisations, responsible central government departments, returning officers and electoral administrators. I am pleased to say that it was able to proceed by consensus.

The Howarth working party recommended legislative changes which cover four main areas: electoral registration, absent voting, pilot schemes and disabled access to the democratic process. I should like, if I may, to deal with each of these areas in turn.

First, following the working party's recommendation, this Bill will introduce a system of a rolling electoral register, to replace the current system of registration which is carried out by reference to an annual qualifying date.

As the law stands at present, anyone who moves to a new address just after the annual qualifying date of 10th October cannot vote in respect of his or her new address for 16 months. Although this might have been defensible 100 years ago, it is clearly unsatisfactory at a time when we have a very mobile population. A rolling register will allow people to register very soon after they change address. I hope that all your Lordships will welcome this change.

The Howarth working party also recommended that it should be easier for certain groups of people, some of whom are effectively disfranchised by current arrangements, to register, and therefore to vote. These groups of people are the homeless, those who are resident in mental institutions, and those on remand.

The issue of residence is a problem for those people when trying to register. The Bill creates a new concept known as a "declaration of local connection" which helps to overcome this problem. A declaration of local connection will allow homeless people to register in respect of an address with which they have a connection. Remand prisoners and mental patients (other than those who have been detained as a consequence of criminal activity) will have a choice. They will be able to register either at the address where they would otherwise be resident, or in respect of the institution at which they are resident, or by means of a declaration of local connection.

The requirement that service personnel must register by means of a service declaration will also be removed. That option will still be open to them but they will be able to register in respect of their home addresses if they wish to do so.

The last area of change as regards electoral registration is in relation to the sale of the electoral register. At present, anyone who wishes to may buy a copy of the electoral register to use for any purpose. The Home Office and electoral administrators get more complaints about this issue than any other. Many people do not want to receive junk mail. Others simply want to safeguard their privacy. More importantly, new technology means it is easy to produce and obtain CD-ROMs containing every name on the register. It is therefore easy to trace people, which causes particular concerns for victims of domestic violence. There is also growing concern about the problem of stalking.

Having considered this issue very carefully, the Howarth working party unanimously recommended that the full register should not be available for general sale. As a basic matter of principle, it considered that people should not be under a statutory requirement to provide information for one purpose and then have no say about it being used for completely different purposes.

What we therefore propose is that there should in future be two versions of the electoral register—a full one and an edited one. The full one will contain the names of all electors. However, people will be given the choice as to whether they want their names to appear on the edited version.

My ministerial colleagues have already given an undertaking in another place that we shall ensure that the electorate are given sufficient information to enable them to make an informed decision as to whether they want to exercise their right to opt out.

The edited version of the register will be freely available for sale and those who decide to buy will be able, as now, to use it for any purpose. However, access to the full electoral register will be limited. It will, of course, be used for electoral purposes and will be available for inspection in public libraries. We also believe that it should be available to police forces and HM Customs and Excise for law enforcement and crime prevention purposes.

However, we are very conscious that many companies and industries currently make use of the electoral register. We do not want to do anything which will do undue damage to them, while at the same time being mindful of the privacy and data protection concerns which the working party identified.

Accordingly, we take the view that banks and other credit institutions should have access to the full register for the purpose of establishing identity in connection with credit applications and money-laundering checks. This should help to prevent fraud and to ensure that those who decide to opt out of inclusion in the edited electoral register do not find it more difficult to obtain credit. We are advised by the Data Protection Registrar that this will not run counter to the EU Data Protection Directive.

We are currently in discussion with the credit industry to work out the precise form that the new arrangements should take. These will ultimately be set out in regulations made under Clause 9 of the Bill and I can assure your Lordships that those regulations, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, will be accompanied by a full regulatory impact assessment.

I ought also to mention the issue of direct marketing or "junk mail", as it is more commonly known. Many people resent this intrusion. More importantly, the EU Data Protection Directive specifically refers to direct marketing. We do not believe that allowing direct marketers and charities continued access to the full register for mailing purposes would be compatible with the directive.

Overall, we believe that our proposals strike the right balance and will represent a major step forward. On the one hand, they will safeguard and enhance the rights of electors and, on the other hand, they should ensure that no one is fearful of, or discouraged from, registering as an elector.

The second main area of electoral procedure where the working party recommended changes was postal voting. As the law stands, there are a number of restrictions on who may have a postal vote. The Bill therefore makes it easier for people to obtain and cast postal votes.

Your Lordships may have noticed that I refer only to postal votes and not proxy votes. The working party was conscious that there are a number of ongoing investigations relating to allegations of proxy vote fraud and concluded that this was not the right time to relax the rules governing proxy votes. We have accepted that advice.

The Bill provides for postal votes on demand. In other words, anyone who wants a postal vote will be able to obtain one without having to satisfy any particular criteria. We are also relaxing some of the unnecessarily bureaucratic rules governing the return of postal votes, including making it possible to return postal votes to a polling station.

In another place there was some discussion on the deadlines for applying for absent votes. The general feeling was that the deadlines should be brought closer to polling day and, although this was not a recommendation of the working party, we can see merit in it.

Currently, absent vote applications, other than emergency ones, have to be made by the 11th working day prior to polling day. Following discussions with electoral administrators, we believe that it will be possible to change the regulations to allow for applications to be made up to the sixth working day before polling day, although returning officers will be able to send out the papers before then so that those who apply in plenty of time will not be penalised.

The third main area on which the working party made recommendations was pilot schemes. The working party was very conscious that the only guaranteed way of seeing which of the possible changes to our electoral procedures might be effective was physically to try them out.

It therefore recommended that local authorities should be enabled to run pilot schemes to try out innovative electoral procedures. Clause 10 of the Bill provides for this, while Clause 11 allows for innovations that have been the subject of successful pilot schemes to be rolled out nationally.

Among the new procedures which local authorities may want to try out are ideas such as electronic voting, all-postal ballots, voting on days other than Thursday, and mobile polling stations, together with early voting.

I am pleased to be able to tell your Lordships that local authorities have enthusiastically backed this idea. Of the approximately 150 local authorities which will be holding elections this coming May, 44 of them, including both metropolitan and district councils, have applied to run pilot schemes at those elections (assuming that this Bill receives Royal Assent in time). All told, they have submitted 64 applications covering a very wide range of innovations.

All proposals will be carefully considered before being given the go-ahead. Obviously, local authorities whose pilot scheme applications are successful will be required to provide evaluations of their particular schemes. An obvious measure of how successful a pilot scheme has been will be an increase in turn-out.

An evaluation must also contain a number of other pieces of information which can help to determine the practicality of applying the new voting arrangements nation-wide; for example, the electorate's experience of the new voting arrangement.

Finally, the Howarth working party studied the problems faced by disabled voters and made a number of recommendations in this area to which the Bill gives effect. There will be a requirement for a large-print version of the ballot paper to be displayed in polling stations. This will be particularly useful for partially sighted voters. Blind and partially sighted voters will also be able to use a template. We have in mind something like a cardboard sleeve with holes cut out into which the ballot paper can be slotted so the boxes for marking a vote are accessible. The voter, having decided that the candidate for whom he wants to vote is the fourth one down—perhaps with the aid of the large-print ballot paper on display—will be able to feel where to put the cross.

At the moment, blind voters may be assisted in voting by a companion. This provision will be extended to those with physical disabilities and difficulty in reading. The Government are very conscious of the needs of disabled electors and have taken steps in this area above and beyond those in this Bill. Prior to last year's European parliamentary elections, we issued to every single returning officer guidance on access standards at polling stations. We are working with organisations that represent disabled electors to produce new comprehensive and consolidated guidance to cover all aspects of the electoral process. We also provide grants to local authorities for the purchase of temporary ramps at polling stations and suitably adapted polling booths.

The Bill contains one provision which does not result from the working party's recommendations but is designed to overcome a problem which received quite a lot of coverage during the European parliamentary elections last year, when allegations were made that a number of candidates had given false addresses on nomination forms. This is a clear abuse of the system but, as the law currently stands, it is not an offence. The Bill will make it an offence for a candidate to provide false particulars on a nomination form.

The Government recognise, as did the Howarth working party, that simply to modernise electoral procedure is no; enough to combat the problem of voter apathy. The electorate will vote only if they are interested in the body being elected. All of us, particularly those who regard themselves primarily as politicians, have a responsibility to seek to generate interest among the electorate. However, if we can make it easier at d more convenient for people to vote and to exercise their democratic right, perhaps a greater number of people will feel inclined to engage in the democratic process. The changes to be brought about by this Bill will reflect modern lifestyle and behaviour and are essential if we are to attract the interest of the young electorate and the participation of everybody in the democratic process. We hope that this will encourage people to exercise their right to vote and elect representatives to government.

The Bill gives effect to the agreed recommendations of a working party which comprised representatives of the main political parties. I am pleased to say that, for the most part, it enjoyed a smooth passage through another place and that there was a genuine and constructive desire to ensure that our electoral procedures were as up to date and effective as possible. The Government are committed to reforming and updating our constitution and this Bill is an important part of that process. I am happy to be able to commend the Bill to your Lordships.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits clown, can he say whether the working party recommended the provisions in Clause 11 which permit the Minister to make an order, subject to the affirmative procedure, that a scheme put forward by a district council, for example, should apply right across the country? A district council may, for example, put forward a scheme which, under the procedure in Clause 11, may by order apply right across the country for parliamentary elections. Did the working party make that recommendation? Even if it did not do so, is not the ability of a Minister to amend primary legislation by order an extraordinary accretion of power?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, my understanding is that the working party favoured that approach. Although I understand the concerns of the noble and learned Lord in this area, I believe that this is an important mechanism to ensure that we give effect to the proposals of the working party and make progress in an area where there is a high degree of political consensus on the need to modernise the electoral machinery. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

3.26 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, at the very end of the Minister's speech he said that this was one of a number of constitutional Bills. It is true that a number of constitutional Bills have gone through Parliament since this Government took office. Frankly, one of the problems with all of these measures is that there seems little sign of any grand design; more often, it is change for change's sake, with no attempt to ensure consistency between the various changes. In your Lordships' House we have ended up with a first-stage interim Chamber and the Government have no idea where they wish to end up with the second stage. We had piecemeal legislation on referendums at the beginning of this Parliament, still without any effort to produce a general framework to ensure that referendums were a fair reflection of the public mind and not one manipulated by government.

As to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there has been no effort to create a logical, coherent structure with symmetrical powers and a uniform relationship between the parliament, the assemblies and Westminster. Only last week this fatal flaw was clearly illustrated by the shambles into which the Government and Scottish Executive had descended on the question of students' fees and grants. The Government have not given proper thought even to the consequences of this Bill for the devolution Acts. In this Bill they propose that experiments conducted entirely in England by English local authorities can be rolled out over the whole of the United Kingdom, including Scotland where no experiments at all may have been carried out.

Finally, one had the European Parliamentary Elections Act which changed the voting system to the most centralist method of PR that the Government could find. That was totally inconsistent with the form of PR used in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. That Bill failed to persuade your Lordships of its merits and subsequently failed to persuade the electorate. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, echoing speeches made from the Liberal Democrat Benches in favour of the Bill—one heard very few such speeches from the Government Benches—said: The forthcoming elections to the European Parliament will be among the most exciting and relevant". —[Official Report, 12/10/98; col. 725.] They were so exciting that the turn-out reached the dizzy heights of 23.3 per cent. That was markedly lower than any previous European parliamentary election; and it was low even by local government standards. In calling for a proper assessment of the European poll—I have not seen one yet—I said: it may well be that those who advocate this new system will be vindicated in their view and that the percentage poll will dramatically increase. However, it may well be the case that those of us who are less persuaded by the new systems will be vindicated and we shall see the percentage poll decline, again".—[Official Report, 25/6/98; col. 355.] Those of us who were sceptical about the Government's proposals saw our scepticism absolutely proved in the decline in the poll. I look at this Bill with great scepticism, not so much because of the detail but because of the pious hopes behind it. The pious hopes behind the European Parliamentary Elections Act, as in the case of this Bill, were that more people would vote. I am not sure that that necessarily follows. Following our experience in the European elections, we can be allowed to treat this Bill with a good deal of critical analysis. Perhaps all of us should judge the Bill, not against the pious hopes of the Minister—we all agree that we should persuade more people to participate—but with a logical appreciation of the likely outcomes. As with the European election, the proof was in the eating of that particular pudding.

The first part of the Bill deals with registration: those who are entitled to register and the uses to which the register may be put. I say immediately that we agree with the concept of a rolling register. Given population movements, registers go out of date very quickly. I once saw a figure which indicated that about 25 per cent of a register was inaccurate by the time the next one came into being. Indeed, it is difficult to know whether a 70 per cent turn-out at elections is a good turn-out because of the people available to vote. The figure of 70 per cent may be high. We do not know exactly what will happen on polling day.

There is a good current example in the by-election in Wales to be held this Thursday. I have seen various estimates. It is estimated that something like 10 to 12 per cent of the voters will not be able to vote; but they would have been able to do so had the by-election been delayed for a fortnight. I have seen even higher figures than 10 to 12 per cent. But no one seems to argue that a considerable number of people will be denied the vote because the by-election will be fought on a residence qualification which is now a year and four to five months' old. With a delay of a fortnight, there could have been a new register. Perhaps I know why Plaid Cymru made that decision. So a rolling register is important.

However, I worry a little—we shall explore the issue—as to whether it is a rolling register or more of a lurching register. People may roll on to the register. They may roll from one register to another, but it will not be so easy to roll off a register. Registrars do not seem to be given enough authority to remove those people from the register who are no longer at that address because they have not returned the form. It seems simple to expect people to return the form, but if I read the legislation correctly, if the forms are not returned the suggestion is that the electoral registration officer assumes the people are still there and carries on registering them. I do not think that that is right. I believe that the registrar can speak to the registrar of deaths from time to time. I do not see that provision in the Bill, although it was a recommendation in the working party's report.

Recommendation 4 states that registration officers should be entitled to request information from local authority data sources and other public agencies in order to allow them properly to carry out their duty of maintaining an accurate and up-to-date register. We shall want to explore the relationship between the electoral returning officer and the registrar of births, deaths and marriages. Keeping an accurate and up-to-date register is not only a matter of ensuring that people are on it who should be on it but also that people are not on it who should not be on it. Therefore, we shall consider that issue carefully.

Reading the legislation—much of it is not new; there are minor alterations to previous Acts—I note with interest that nowhere in Clause 1 is there any mention of the simple qualification that one should be a UK citizen in order to vote. I wonder why not. Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Irish Republic have a mention; but not UK citizens. Why not? Can the Government tell me of a single Commonwealth country which reciprocates this right? If I go to Australia and remain a British citizen, for example, can I immediately have myself put on the electoral register in Australia? I understand that if I moved to the Irish Republic I should be able to do so. That is encouraging because the salmon fishing is better there and I occasionally wonder whether I should not move to the Irish Republic in order to improve my catch year on year. Perhaps some noble Lords opposite would be happy to pay my fare! However, I might resist. Alternatively, I might take other noble Lords with me who might be interested in the same pursuit—so long as their fares are paid! But can the Minister confirm that we have reciprocal arrangements with the Irish Republic?

Why are we having a related Bill, the Disqualifications Bill, rushed through the Commons to give Members of the Dail the right to stand and to be elected to sit in our Parliament? No explanation has been given in another place for that new policy or for the unseemly rush. Speaking for myself, I shall wish to hear a good explanation when the Bill comes to this House. I note that the three months' residence qualification remains in force for Northern Ireland but it is not to be used in Britain. I must ask the Minister why not. The dangers of fraudulent registration are as great on this side of the Irish Sea as on the other side. If he does not believe me, he should ask anyone involved in elections, especially in our cities where people are more anonymous than they are in the smaller towns and villages where people are known either directly or indirectly to many other people.

I have no problem with patients in mental hospitals who are not detained offenders or remand prisoners having the right to register and to vote. We shall have to guard against undue pressure being applied to vulnerable people in mental hospitals especially with regard to how they actually cast their vote. That is a matter upon which we shall have to reflect.

Nor do I have any difficulty with the homeless being granted the right to vote. However, I cannot help but note that this is a government who promised to do away with homelessness. They now seem to be accepting that they will fail and that homelessness will continue in significant numbers; otherwise why suggest that this group should be given the vote? That seems to be one of the pledges that the Government themselves admit has gone by the board.

However, we shall want to consider some problems when we look at the detail of the homeless provision. The declaration of local connection will need some scrutiny in order to ensure that it does not become a loophole for tactical moving in order to suit, say, a by-election in a marginal seat or an election like that for London mayor. I am not sure how many people could say, "I'm in London for a little time. I don't have a full time residence in London but I want to register a declaration of local connection".

Up to that point, I go along, with some reservations and questions, with what the Government are doing. But I have difficulty with Clause 9 When is a public document not a public document? When will legitimate businesses be allowed to use the electoral register as the most complete record of who lives where? A range of businesses and charitable interests are deeply concerned about this part of the Bill. I shall cite only one. I do not wish to weary your Lordships. It asserts in the words of the CBI's briefing paper that: The CBI does not support any limitation on the general availability of the Electoral Register. The proposed limitations will adversely affect many businesses across a variety of sectors, including direct marketing companies, charities, manufacturers and retailers who undertake marketing activities, utility companies, mail order organisations, banks and other financial institutions". Perhaps I may add to that, charitable organisations.

In the Commons, the Government began to make some concessions. Indeed, the Minister repeated some of them today. I had thought that the Government had made some concessions in another place for charities. However, if I heard the Minister aright today, they have not done that. One of the reasons that charities want access to our names and addresses is in order to send us appeals for money for their good cause. I wondered whether I heard the Minister correctly, that charities would not be able to have access to the full register. It seems to me that we had more concessions from another place; and the more concessions we have, the more untidy the situation becomes. It is not good enough to be told that it will all be dealt with in regulations—even affirmative regulations. I shall expect to see draft regulations before we discuss these matters in Committee so that we have some idea when we debate primary legislation exactly which organisations will be allowed access to the full register and which will be banned.

Restricting the use of the register seems to fly in the face of the Government's desire to increase the amount of business and commerce on the Internet. Commerce on the Internet needs the ability to check that someone is who they say they are; and the register is an important source for that. I suggest that people who are on the register, which is not available, may well find that they are left out of the new e-commerce world—contrary to the Government's fine words about the expansion of e-commerce. They will have no way of proving to the person with whom they wish to conduct e-commerce that they are who they say they are. They will not be on the electoral register.

As regards who decides who will be left off the full register, the Minister said that the Government had carried out the recommendations of the working party. I do not think that they did so in this regard. The head of the household, the person who receives the form, has to fill in—as we probably have all had to do—those who live in the household and are, or are about to become, 18 years old. The Bill states that that person will tick the box to declare that everyone in the household will be excluded from the register. Therefore, people will be excluded without having their say about it.

The working party clearly stated: We recommend that the electors should he allowed to decide whether or not their personal details as provided for registration purposes should he included in the register made commercially available. We consider that this requires that the registration form. Form A. should be amended to include information about the purposes to which such information may he put and to allow an opt out box for each person included on the form and for all commercial activities". As I read the Bill, it is not for each person. The head of household will decide for everyone in the household. Therefore, we shall have to examine that provision because I do not believe that it can be right.

I want to make three brief points before turning to Part II. None of us will quibble about the increase in help for disabled people to vote. We may want to be sure that their ballot papers cannot be identified subsequently at the count, but that is another matter. I am also pleased to see the provision for overseas voters in Schedule 2 remaining without any attempt to reduce the rights of those of our fellow citizens who live and work overseas. Many of them are doing so in the interests of this country and it is right that they should retain their ability and right to vote here.

I also believe that the Government are right to ease the conditions for postal voting. However, in Committee we must look carefully at the protections against impersonation. That will be a serious problem as the number of people with postal votes increases.

I turn to Part II. I have no great objection to experimenting at local elections in order to see whether we can increase the turn-out, but, frankly, I am pretty unconvinced that many of the proposals will have the desired effect.

Perhaps I may say to the Government that I should have been much more impressed by their desire to increase turn-out if it were not for the fact that they are preventing candidates for the mayor of London and members of the London assembly from having a free post for delivering leaflets. That right is used by the other place, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It seems that an electorate which is bigger than the biggest of those—namely, Scotland—has the right to a free post for the candidates who wish to stand.

When we deal with the affirmative orders on these issues the Minister will have to give me a convincing answer to prevent me taking steps to ensure that the Government consider the issue again. I do not know why they have done it. I can assume only that it is a fallback position against Ken winning. If when he wins he says to those at Millbank, "Right, I am the candidate. Let's talk about the campaign budget and the money I'll need to post my election address in the absence of a free post", the answer will come back, "Sorry, sunshine"—or greetings to that effect—"we have a general election to fight and we need all our own money. You go out and find your own".

So poor Ken will be crippled and with a bit of luck his campaign, totally underfinanced, will fail and someone else—anyone else, I am sure St Tony prays— will be elected mayor of London. Are my suspicions right or is there another better reason why mayoral candidates in London are not to be allowed access to the free post?

The Minister told us that a number of local authorities have applied to make changes to this year's local elections. I hope he can share some of those with us in Committee. I have a few brief points to make. First, very comprehensive information of any change will need to be given to the electorate. Special care will be required if any polling takes place on days other than the traditional Thursday. Indeed, I suggest that if we poll over a number of days, initially Thursday must always be included. We in this country are so used and conditioned to the fact that Thursday is polling day that it will be hard to wean us away from that.

Thirdly, the Government should remember the footsoldiers of democracy; the party supporters who man the polling stations, knock people up and, through leaflets and loudspeaking, encourage people to come out and vote. It is difficult enough for them to give up a day to do that—and it is a long day—but when asking them to do it over two or three days one has to consider them.

If polling takes place over more than one day, we cannot have exit polls. We certainly cannot have official ones conducted by the media, but we cannot even have unofficial ones. That may mean that political parties may not be able to ask people how they voted. I can imagine a political party issuing a leaflet on the second day stating, "Our exit poll, which is usually accurate, yesterday showed that X party is nowhere in this game, so give us your vote in order to beat Y party". I have been very careful not to mention the political party which might do that, but I am pretty sure it is sitting to my right in your Lordships' House!

Finally, proof of identity will be needed if polling takes place in different places and at different times. Some effort will be needed on identity.

I have left my most serious reservations about the Bill until last. First, the Bill is almost completely silent on the evaluation of these experiments. I suggest that the only body capable of making such an evaluation is a properly constituted electoral commission. Indeed, such a body should have been in place before we embarked on any of this and its views should have been paramount.

Secondly, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew pointed out, Clause 11 gives powers to the Home Secretary by order to make changes in the way parliamentary elections are run on the basis of his opinion of the results of these local government experiments. I hate to question the Minister about what he said, but I do not read the report of the working party in the same way as he does. The working party does not recommend that these things should be rolled out from local elections to parliamentary elections. However, in the lead-up it states that it believes the time is now right to test alternatives to the present voting arrangements in pilot schemes at local elections. Recommendation 18 states: the Secretary of State should be authorised to amend electoral legislation to approve pilot schemes … Pilot schemes would encourage innovation and diversity and offer a real opportunity to see exactly how different approaches can be effective in re-engaging the electorate. Evaluation of such schemes will allow informed judgments to be made as to the effectiveness and security of each new process before a decision is taken to roll it out more widely". Reading those two together, I read that as local government elections. Nowhere does it say that it should be rolled out more widely to parliamentary elections. Therefore, I do not believe that the Minister can pray in aid the working party when defending Clause 11.

It may be that some of these innovations will prove successful and it may be we should then consider introducing them at parliamentary elections. But that should not be done by secondary legislation, not even of the affirmative kind. Yes, of course we can vote down secondary legislation either here or in the other place, but we cannot scrutinise it in detail and we cannot amend it. Frankly, compared with primary legislation, we cannot give it proper scrutiny.

Changes to our methods of electing the other place are changes to the very foundation stone of our democracy. That spells out primary legislation to me, and I must warn the Government that they will require far, far better arguments than they used in the Commons to persuade me not to take drastic action with regard to Clause 11. In this clause, Henry VIII still lives, alive and well, in the person of Mr Jack Straw. We may need to protect Mr Straw from an action which I believe if proposed by a Conservative government would have him protesting vehemently and doing so rightly, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew said.

I give two cheers for the Bill, but we shall need to look carefully at the detail. And as to the third cheer, we shall have to wait until Henry VIII is back in the portrait gallery and not in Clause 11.

3.49 p.m.

Lord McNally

My Lords, the term, "representation of the people" is one of the most sombre and emotional in our political lexicon. It forms an unbroken chain which begins in this Chamber with the pomp and ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament and ends with a leaflet through a door or a constituency surgery. Without moving away from the thrust of the Bill, I should like to say that last Friday in Cheltenham, my party colleague, County Councillor Andrew Pennington, gave his life in the cause of representation of the people.

It was a pleasure to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, take 23 minutes to give two cheers to the Bill. Goodness knows how long it would have taken for him to give it three cheers. As always, the noble Lord did not allow himself to be restricted to the Bill itself. We received a grand tour around all his prejudices.

Over the past year a great deal of time has been spent debating the political legitimacy of this House because we lack the direct mandate which the ballot box alone can give. It goes without saying that the House of Commons and local authorities receive their power and legitimacy from the will of the people expressed through the ballot box. The aphorism attributed to Burke (that it is only necessary for good men to do nothing for evil to triumph) remains a constant warning that we must keep the workings of our democracy in good repair. It is certainly true that there is more likelihood of Parliament and local government becoming distorted and unrepresentative of the will of the majority if the. majority do not participate.

In an article written in Parliamentary Affairs, even before the disastrously low turn-out in the European elections to which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, referred—although I must point out that I found the fivefold increase in Liberal Democrat representation in the European Parliament very exciting—Professor David Wilson of de Montfort University wrote: In the 1997 General Election only 71.4 per cent of the electorate voted, a post war low. In 1998 turn-out in local elections reached an all-time low with. on average, only 29 per cent of the electorate voting". He went on to quote a survey relating to all levels of government which concluded: British people have clearly become less trusting of their politicians and political institutions in the last two decades. They are also more sceptical about the ability of the system to respond to the demands of de citizenry". It is that realisation which has brought the Government and the Liberal Democrats to bring forward in Parliament a number of interlocking reforms to try to refresh our democracy. I make no party political point that the disillusionment referred to by Professor Wilson took place while a Conservative government were in power. I believe that this is a worry for all democrats. Any one who has been involved in politics knows that there is a level of cynicism out there and that we need to experiment and to attempt to try and re-engage the people.

Both politicians and commentators have worried about the lower turn-out and lower participation. I look forward to the observations of my noble friend Lord Rennard in his maiden speech. He is a recognised practitioner in the black arts of getting out the vote, as both Conservative and Labour have found to their cost at by-elections.

Not all is doom and gloom, however. The 20 years which have seen a growth in disenchantment with the political parties have also seen a growth in single issue campaigning by pressure groups. The distinguished political commentator, Peter Kellner, has pointed out that at least some of the disparity in turn-out between today and the immediate post-war period can be explained by greater mobility, to which both the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and the Minister referred, and by the lowering of the voting age to 18. As the Bill recognises, the old registers simply have not been able to keep up with our more mobile population.

As regards the attitudes of young voters, my eyes were caught by an article in the Saturday edition of the Daily Telegraph, which stated: Research cited by the British Youth Council shows that in the 1997 election only 68 per cent of registered 18–24 year olds voted and, of the whole potential electorate, only 59 per cent of the 18–24 age group voted. Those under 26 make up about 10 per cent of Labour's membership and 5 per cent of Liberal Democrats. There were half a million Young Conservatives in 1951—now there are fewer than 10.000". I can already see some misty eyes on the Conservative Benches at memories of Young Conservative functions in the 1950s. I am not sure how much politics came into the popularity of the Young Conservatives at that time. As I recall, many of my contemporaries used to join the Conservative Club because it had the best snooker tables and go to Young Conservative dances because they had the most young ladies present.

However, whatever our collective memory, there is, I believe, a collective gratitude to the Howarth committee for a job well done. The Bill seeks to give effect to the working party's recommendations and as such is welcome as a constructive attempt to revitalise our politics.

Obviously, there are areas where in Committee we shall probe deeply. I shall leave it to my noble friend Lord Goodhart to raise a number of those issues in his speech later in the debate. However, Clause 9 has already been mentioned on a number of occasions. I understand that tomorrow the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, will sponsor a meeting of concerned organisations to allow them to put their views. These points will need more thorough examination in Committee.

As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has said, representations have been received from the CBI, the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, the Direct Marketing Association, and others about the availability of the electoral register. The Minister called in aid fears of stalking and domestic violence. Certainly these are serious matters and should be looked at.

However, I am not so convinced on the question of junk mail. I think to offer to people, "Come off the register and you won't get junk mail", is too much of a soft option. Frankly, the various points made by the Minister to reassure the House made me fear that we might end up with a mishmash as regards the electoral register. That would take away the integrity of the full register. I think that we must return to this matter in Committee. We shall listen to representations from outside bodies and bring forward amendments to discover how effective this proposal will be.

As I have already said, my noble friend Lord Rennard was a distinguished member of the Howarth committee and I look forward to his maiden speech shortly. My noble friend Lord Goodhart will indicate other areas of the Bill in which we shall seek to probe further, not least the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, on Clause 11.

I conclude by making three general0points. The Bill concerns the mechanics of representation of the people and does some technical things which may—I concede the word "may" to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay— help turn-out and encourage voting. I disagree with the Minister that the Bill will take us from the 19th century to the 21st century. I believe that it probably takes us only from the 19th to the 20th century. Technology is already galloping ahead. I noticed an article in The Times concerning electioneering in the United States. It stated: This year's US presidential election is increasingly being fought on the Internet, with more than half the nation logging on to the candidates' ferocious and competitive websites. Millions of campaign dollars have been raised via the Net, and in some states it will be possible to vote online". I believe that technology is already racing ahead of us even as we legislate. However, I am encouraged by today's Evening Standard which says that the Conservative Party is now on the Internet with "tory.org". Indeed, Mr Tim Richardson has already registered on the Internet the name "sleaze@tory.org". One can see that some progress has been made at Central Office.

However, the Bill is still about old politics in that it barely recognises the impact that the digital revolution and the Internet will have on our politics and democracy. Of course, it ignores the obvious advance in representation of the people which could be furthered by a system of fair voting at local government. My colleagues and I shall consider later whether or not we shall help the House by tabling an amendment to suggest that. There is no doubt that many of our council chambers would benefit from proportional representation.

As I said, in many ways this is a small Bill, but it is a welcome attempt to improve the representation of the people. However, much more needs to be done. I end by again quoting Professor Wilson in his article in Parliamentary Affairs: The Blair Government is keen that councils actively promote public participation; the same government is encouraging local executive leadership and has retained extensive powers for itself at the centre, especially in the financial sphere. In this context it is possible to argue that advocacy of more participation is simply an exercise in chasing shadows". That may be an over-pessimistic view both of the intentions of the Government and of this legislation. In any event, we shall do our best in Committee to diminish the shadows and to add to the substance of the Bill so that, as the Minister said, it prepares our democracy for the century ahead.

4.1 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, I welcome the Bill, which deals with the nitty-gritty and mechanics of elections—something that we do not often talk about in this Chamber. However, I particularly welcome the Bill because in 1991 in my previous existence as a member of the Plant Commission—I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Plant is participating in the Bill—I was a major participant in the writing of Part II of the commission's report, entitled Voter Participation. The small group that drew up that section of the report was chaired by my late friend Lord Underhill. I regret that he is not here to take his share of the credit for proposing what were seen at the time as almost revolutionary changes to our electoral practices.

The majority of the 37 proposals which we made are, at least in principle, if not in detail, included in the Bill or in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, currently being considered in the other place. Those 37 proposals—remember that this was in 1991—covered a rolling register, absent voting, access to polling stations, timing of the poll (including early voting), weekend voting—I say to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, that I appreciate that it was necessary to have weekend voting—mobile polling stations, a maximum on national election expenses and the establishment of an electoral commission.

Even then, there had been a developing consensus, of which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard—whose maiden speech I look forward to—was a part, that there needed to be change. That consensus, which included all the representatives of the major parties, is reflected in this Bill. It was unfortunate that the last government did not listen to their representatives; for example, in a debate on electoral registration on 25 May 1995 I received a negative response to requests for such a review of electoral procedures.

Therefore, I welcome the speed of introduction of this Bill, which goes some way to removing obstacles and barriers to voting and changing many of our outdated Victorian rules and procedures. That is not to decry the past. We were one of the first countries to provide a free electoral system and secret ballots, and we removed bribery and limited election expenses at constituency level. However, if we are to widen democratic participation—certainly, I do not believe that it is pious to try—we must develop not only new forms of electioneering, which all the political parties are doing, but be more open and fair, make access to voting easier and use processes that are not rooted in the pre-computer age.

When new initiatives were considered in the past, one of the problems was that the ideas were purely theoretical. The concept of using pilots overcomes that problem. Only by using real elections and by real voting can the initiatives be tested. However, it means that our plans must be foolproof and workable and that the integrity of the poll is not compromised.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, on the question of exit polls. In 1992 when postal voters were questioned about how they were going to vote, the findings were declared before the election day. Therefore, I believe that the issue of exit polls is terribly important. Equally, I believe that, if we are going to change the dates of voting, it is important that we have voting both on Saturday and Sunday so that we do not prevent anyone voting for religious reasons.

With regard to electronic voting, which without doubt is the way forward, we must ensure the resilience and effectiveness of the technology. A mechanical failure would be a disaster. Similarly, there must be safeguards against impersonation and hackers and, more importantly, there must be equality of access.

In the United States, a pilot scheme is being conducted for the presidential elections to allow service voters to cast their vote via the Internet. The outcome will be interesting. Voting on the Internet is certainly one possible option for the future, as might be digital voting or even using National Lottery terminals. Somehow it seems a little farcical that it is easier to buy a lottery ticket and to have that recorded than it is to register a vote. A group within the Electoral Reform Society is currently looking at the consequences of electronic voting. We shall await its findings with interest.

I sincerely hope that the pilots will be successful and that many of the new techniques can be rolled out nationally' for parliamentary elections, as proposed in Clause 11. However, before that happens, I should like the Minister to guarantee that there will be an opportunity for debate and scrutiny, not only in both Houses but also among the political parties and particularly among the practitioners.

In the report on voter participation, which I mentioned earlier, it was suggested tentatively that postal voting should be available for all. I do not believe that we ever imagined that it would really happen. We also called for necessary, and now accepted, simplification of the process. The proportion of postal votes currently rejected is too high at about 3.5 per cent. compared with 1 per cent of spoiled papers cast in the polling station. I am sure that that is due to the complexity of the current procedures. However, it was disappointing that the closing date for applications was to be too early—the eleventh working day before the election. Therefore, it is encouraging that the Government have listened to the views in the other place and have reduced that to the sixth working day before elections. With modern technology, and now that EROs no longer have to consider the criteria for application, surely it should be possible to meet that new deadline.

On proxy voting, I make only one point. History has shown how any extension is a potential for malpractice. I was pleased to hear that there would be no extension to proxy voting in the Bill.

All that is fine, but the key to increasing participation must be improved registration: no registration, no vote. For some time the state of the electoral register has shown a significant democratic deficit. It is estimated that approximately 2 million people fail to register, even though there is a legal obligation to do so. However, the official figure understates the true extent of the problem as it fails to take account of double registration or the estimation that 7 per cent of the electors are allocated wrongly to particular addresses.

The barriers to people claiming their vote are many. Levels are low in bedsitter-land, among black communities, young people, those who are mobile from choice and those who have to move home for personal or work reasons. The current lack of flexibility means that the register is out of date even before it is published.

That brings me to the proposal for a rolling register, something for which many of us have campaigned for a long time. That will undoubtedly end the absurd situation referred to by the Minister where at present people can wait up to 16 months after moving house before they can appear on the new register. It will be a considerable step forward if that really can, as has been suggested, be reduced to six weeks or less. However, while I believe that we are making a step forward, only time will tell whether further refinements are required to ensure maximum registration.

As the debate has already shown, the most contentious issue in this Bill must be the decision to produce two forms of the electoral register and to give electors the choice as to which one they go on. That provision is contained in Clause 9. But that will be an extremely difficult circle to square: how to balance the requirements of business and charities, which use the electoral register as an integral part of their marketing armoury, with the privacy and security of individuals.

The consultation by the Howarth working group showed that all business sectors considered that any limiting of access to the full register would have adverse implications for their business. Charities also reported that they would find it more difficult to focus fund-raising and membership. The CBI calls on the Government to have only one register, as now, but makes no suggestion at all as to how to overcome the fact that new interactive search software means that more and more people are becoming vulnerable to the unwanted publication of their details. Abused spouses and those escaping from domestic violence must be protected. Surely it must be wrong also for people to be legally obliged to register to vote and then have their whereabouts passed, without consent, to a third party.

Account must be taken also of the new data protection requirements for greater control of personal information and customer choice.

In its briefing ISBA suggests that it has a workable scheme which satisfies all, and I look forward to hearing how it has squared that circle. It suggests also that consumers will receive more unsolicited mail by opting out. I am afraid that I do not understand that at all and I look forward to hearing how that will work. But my concern has been for the position of an elector who has ticked the relevant box—and every elector should have that right—but whose circumstances have changed and who requires credit. So I was pleased to hear the Minister's remarks on that point. As has been said, I am sure that we shall return to that matter in Committee.

Crucially important is the extension of the franchise to the homeless, remand prisoners and mental patients. It corrects the anomaly which disenfranchises about 10,000 people, people who are not barred from voting under the Mental Health Act 1983 but who cannot register while in hospital.

I believe also that the Government should be congratulated on finding a way of enabling homeless people to exercise their democratic right. However, there are concerns that the declaration of local connections will encourage double voting, particularly in by-elections. Having talked to many EROs, I am sure that those concerns are over-exaggerated. But I believe that the Minister, Mr O'Brien, was right to indicate that he will look further at the position in relation to by-elections and the question of tactical voting.

Clearly, extending the franchise and changing the ways of registering will succeed only if local authorities and national government carry out their full mandatory duty to ensure maximum registration by full canvassing of the electors and providing effective local and national publicity.

In conclusion, in spite of the guidance referred to by the Minister, there are still too many polling stations with poor access; which are badly situated; and where no account is taken of the needs of the disabled. While I understand the difficulties in making standards mandatory, it is necessary for minimum standards to be set and incorporated in new and consolidated guidelines which would clearly be in line with Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Assistance for the blind and partially sighted by the production of large-print posters and the provision of templates to assist voting is another important breakthrough. But all those changes should be accompanied by the training of all staff, from the ERO to the teller in the polling station and all those involved in the voting process, in awareness of the new rules and in the difficulties faced by older and disabled people and the assistance they can give.

There are many reasons why people do not vote. Lack of interest in the political process, voter apathy, deliberate abstention are reasons which cannot be solved by this Bill. But this Bill will ensure that many of the administrative obstacles will be removed; it will make it easier to vote; and it will bring our electoral law into line with modern lifestyles and behaviour.

4.14 p.m.

Lord Rennard

My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I rise to address your Lordships' House for the first time. On my introduction last summer, I was, for a brief period, the youngest-ever life Peer taking the Liberal Democrat Whip. However, my relative youth increases the sense of honour that I feel in joining your Lordships in this great and historic House.

The generosity of the welcome extended to me—and in this debate—has felt quite remarkable to someone who is much more experienced in the fierce rivalry between parties and candidates at election time. That is especially so given the role which I have played in enabling a number of your Lordships to enter this House at an earlier point in their career than they had intended. I hope that the comforts of the House will assist the noble Lords concerned in forgiving me my role. I refer, of course, to my responsibility for my party's general election campaigns in constituencies such as Harrogate and Northavon.

Even though I hope for a different and more democratic second Chamber in future, that does not detract from my appreciation of the distinction of many Members of your Lordships' House whose knowledge, experience and wisdom gives this House an effective and valued role.

I must acknowledge also that all of us here are well served by the excellent and efficient attendants and other staff, whom I also sincerely thank for their help and guidance. Whatever may happen to this House in future, I hope that the standards of courtesy, the willingness to listen to rational and reasonable debate, and the freedom to follow individual conscience will be preserved.

I am very proud indeed to come from the city of Liverpool. It is my home area of that city, Wavertree, that I included in my formal title. Wavertree was where I began my involvement with politics, delivering some of the first Focus leaflets produced by the then Liberal Party. As a small boy, I delivered to the houses once occupied by George Harrison and John Lennon. I also sang in the church choir down the road from where Paul McCartney sang in his church choir. At Holy Trinity, we were supposed to be a better choir so I suppose I could have been a better Beatle. But my career followed a different path.

Liverpool gave me a very political upbringing, but I cannot say that many of the issues in the Representation of the People Bill are those which drew me into politics. In my teens, I never imagined that my burning political concerns, such as the right of every person of whatever race to be able to vote in South Africa or for democratic principles to be established in eastern Europe, would lead to me arguing one day in this House for the right of people in Britain to be able to vote in a Tesco supermarket. However, my experience as a young party agent, including a time when I was responsible for the election to another place of my good friend the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, taught me much about the importance of safeguards to democracy.

Election laws must protect the democratic process from any party or individual seeking to abuse it. The rules for the conduct of elections must be fair to all parties and individuals, making it easy for voters to participate. They should be based on as much consensus as is possible. Most of the provisions in the Bill are based on agreement reached by the Howarth working party, on which my friend and colleague, David Loxton, served. It included representatives of all the main parties, and local authority electoral administration experts. It was concerned that in Great Britain we have the lowest turn-outs for local elections of any country in the European Union. So measures to make it easier to vote while ensuring safeguards against fraud are to be welcomed. Whether or not they address the real reasons for such a low turn-out is, however, another matter.

I believe that disillusionment with the political process, the inability of local authorities to make real improvements to many neighbourhoods, and the lack of connection between a vote and the representation which results, are all likely to be more significant factors.

Nevertheless, it must be particularly welcome that some measures in this Bill will make it easier for disabled people to vote. Some years before I was old enough to vote, I used to take my late mother to vote in her wheelchair. Although she would have been entitled to vote by post, she wanted to be able to vote on the same day and in the same way as everybody else. Once in the polling station, she was able to cast her vote unaided, but there are many sighted disabled people who are not able to vote without the assistance of a friend. It is right, therefore, that they will be able to call on such assistance in future, just as blind people are already able to do so.

For all voters, the time has now come when they should be entitled to choose to vole by post. Postal vote entitlement was once very restrictive and based on health or employment grounds. Application forms had to be witnessed by doctors, magistrates or employers. Applications to vote by post in a particular election can now be made on the basis of being away on polling day or working late, and no element of certification is required.It seems logical, therefore, to acknowledge that people can vote by post if they want to do so.

It also makes sense to allow applications to be made by letter or fax without the cumbersome process of obtaining the correct official form and returning it in the very tight timetable allowed for a parliamentary election or a council by-election. I remain to be convinced, however, that enabling people to vote in supermarkets for some days prior to polling day will make much difference to turn-out. I witnessed an experiment of that nature in Texas during the last United States presidential election. Subsequent turnout was only one or two per cent higher despite the fact that the polling station, in a large shopping mall, was open for a fortnight prior to polling day.

That process added greatly to the cost of conducting the election but it is, nevertheless, something which I think should be tried in more places here. However, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, is really hoping that there will be a boost to sales of his groceries if polling stations are opened in his supermarkets; experiments will show.

Of more significance to boosting turn-out in elections are the proposals for improving the accuracy of the electoral register. The inaccuracy of the register has been a growing concern for a number of years and has been raised a number of times by Mr Harry Barnes in another place. He has rightly pointed to the inadequacy of the efforts of many local authorities to canvass properly in order to ensure that the register is accurate. A proper canvass to collate information for the register is much more likely to include those people for whom English is not their first language.

The rolling register is another important principle.It cannot be right that somebody who moves house in October or November is unable to vote from that address at any election for the next 15 or 16 months until a new register takes effect. Similarly, people who die or move away should be removed from the register. That will reduce risks of personation.

There may, of course, be other ways of increasing voter turn-out. Last summer I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I was asked my attitude towards compulsory voting. I replied simply that my view was that politicians are unpopular enough without fining people who do not vote for them.

I am grateful for the opportunity which this debate has given to me and I look forward to being an active Member of your Lordships' House.

4.23 p.m.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, in this building over a good many years it has been my pleasure to congratulate a number of Members on making their maiden speeches. However, today is the first time I have had the pleasure of doing so in your Lordships' House. I have particular pleasure in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, on a distinguished maiden speech.

The noble Lord has a distinguished record as a Liberal Party agent and later as an organiser of by-elections. He reminded us—perhaps for some of us rather regretfully—of some of his past successes. Certainly, some of the innovations he has helped to develop have become more and more standard practice in all parties. He did not tell us whether he was engaged in the Richmond, Yorkshire, by-election in the late 1980s. I see that the noble Lord nods. I am glad for that indication as that was the only by-election in which I have been involved for the past 15 years. I am glad to say that it was a Conservative victory. I was the candidate's "minder" during that by-election. However, I have always made clear that the success of the Conservative Party was due more to the candidate, one William Hague, than to the "minder" who played a minor part in that success.

The noble Lord approached the debate with greater background knowledge than almost any of your Lordships sitting in the House today when they made their maiden speeches. He is clearly a great expert in this subject. Although he must have been tempted to be otherwise, I am glad to say that he was both brief and uncontroversial. We look forward to hearing from him frequently in the future.

In thinking of the background of the noble Lord as a party organiser, perhaps I may say that in all our minds today are the tragic events in Cheltenham over the weekend. I am sure that on all sides of the House we want to express our sympathy to the Liberal Party and to the individuals and families who grieve at this time.

I turn to the Bill. My guess is that all of your Lordships and Members of the other place will be united in our objectives over the issue of representation of the people; namely, first, to enable the electorate to both register and cast their votes; and, secondly, to take all possible steps to eliminate abuse.

Registering has already been mentioned, in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. It is extremely important that people register. Not enough people realise that it is an offence not to do so. As I understand it, a maximum fine of £1,000 can be imposed. One can perhaps understand how in the past people thought they could escape the poll tax or jury service by not registering. However, there are few incentives now for not doing so.

In the past I have been somewhat irritated when confronted by boarding schools, both private and state, in which management was, frankly, too idle to register pupils who would become 18 during the subsequent year. I always found that a reminder that failing to do so is illegal and that parents would not be keen to have a fine of up to £1,000 imposed for not registering quickly resulted in a change of attitude.

However, in order to persuade more people to register, I would personally welcome a few more highly publicised prosecutions of people who have not done so. The problem is that efforts to make registration and voting easier often go hand-in-hand with opportunities for abuse. I am concerned about the Bill as it stands with regard to votes for homeless people. I do not think that noble Lords would begrudge votes for homeless people; they are perfectly entitled to vote. However, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Mackay, the proposals open the door for abuse. How can one know whether or not a name on the register without a fixed address and merely showing a local connection is genuine? Being able to register a name with just a local connection could lead to massive abuse. How could we know that people are who they say they are or that they have local connections when they say that they inhabit squats or shop doorways?

I hope that the matter can be addressed when we come to the Committee stage. I should like to see homeless people being required under the Bill to provide documentary evidence of their identity when they vote. The Bill should also incorporate a ban on multiple registrations by people with no address. Those making such registrations should have to declare at the same time all the areas in which they intend to make such registrations. That may overcome the serious anxieties held by many people in relation to the abuses that may arise if we open the door to allowing people with no address to vote.

I have anxieties also about some aspects of the proposed pilot schemes. I may not command a majority of your Lordships in my view that extending the voting period over several days is ridiculous. I have always wondered whether it was necessary for polling stations to stay open until nine or 10 o'clock in the evening. Relatively little voting takes place at that time and those who do vote could probably vote earlier. Bearing in mind that the votes are counted throughout the night, it would help—I cannot see that it would do any damage and I am sure that there would be just as good a turnout—if polling stations closed at nine.

I was pleased when the Minister said that it may be possible to reduce from 11 to six working days the period in which applications may be made for postal votes. I have fought 10 general elections in my life. I always felt it was wrong that people could not apply for postal votes at the beginning of the campaign. I am sure that all those with experience of another place will have experienced being told during campaigns, "I shall vote for you, but I shall have to apply for a postal vote". We then have to say, "I am sorry, but the last day for applications was last Tuesday".

We are to have rolling registers. It seems to me that that can only come about through the use of computers and information technology. The same is true if people are to be able to vote at any polling station in the constituency. I hope it will be possible, therefore, to reduce the six days. Many people miss their vote because they do not realise how early they have to apply for a postal vote if they are to be away on business or whatever. Also, it may be helpful, when somebody applies to be put on the register, if it is to be done electronically, for them to say where they previously registered. That could then be cancelled at the same time as the new information appears.

Finally, I share the anxieties voiced abut the possibility of selling the register to commercial firms and the difficulty that that causes with people opting out. When I came into your Lordships' Chamber I saw for the first time a letter from ISBA—the voice of British advertisers, an organisation of which I have little knowledge—one section of which talks about that difficulty. Many of your Lordships may have seen it. It says: Significantly even those people who have registered with the Mailing Preference Service to avoid receiving direct marketing mail shots will get more unwanted mail of the blanket mailing variety. Advertisers are sure we can help with a workable scheme, which answers the Home Office concerns as well as our practical objections". I hope the Minister will take that to heart and undertake on behalf of the Government that they will take the matter seriously and see whether these disagreements can be met.

4.37 p.m.

Lord Rix

My Lords, unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, whose maiden speech was much appreciated—particularly his backward glance at Beatlemania—I do not have a formidable reputation in relation to voting at elections. Nevertheless, I am delighted to have the opportunity to make a few comments in relation to the Representation of the People Bill before the House today.

My comments will be brief; in fact they are confined to Clause 13, which addresses the issue of assistance with voting for people with learning disabilities. In spite of my vested interest, I do not propose to comment on whether or not the full register should be available to charities. As the president of Mencap I should support that move, but as a long-suffering householder I should be pleased to see the diminution of my daily junk mail, generally incorrectly addressed; for example, Air Vice-Marshal Rix; Lord CBE DL; Mr B Lord and, only last Saturday, Mr Trix. I fear that that diminution will not occur because charities and direct mail houses will merely step up their sale of lists to one another and the flood will continue.

Reforms to the electoral system unsurprisingly generate much interest among parliamentarians in another place, though Members of your Lordships' House may have a more direct interest in the matter following the recent ballots and speculation about the shape of things to come. It may be a trite point to make, but voting does matter, not only to those who want to express their views within our parliamentary democracy. In politics itself we are—as I am sure your Lordships agree—failing disabled people. The charity Scope is leading the way in research in this field. Its Polls Apart surveys revealed that 88 per cent of polling stations were inaccessible to disabled people. This denies disabled people one of the most fundamental expressions of citizenship within a democracy. So I am delighted that this Bill will offer assistance with voting for people with disabilities.

It is often assumed that people with learning disabilities cannot make informed choices and that they would not want to get involved in voting, but that assumption is clearly incorrect. People with learning disabilities are increasingly playing a full role in community life, whether that is through employment, through representation on local committees and public bodies—for example, someone with a learning disability on the Disability Rights Commission—or through leisure activities. There is a strong and powerful self-advocacy movement in this country which should be 'harnessed and developed. People are increasingly having a say and demanding more of a say in the way in which services are run which impact upon their lives. Democracy is important to everyone.

Another common assumption is that people with learning disabilities are not allowed on the electoral roll. Again, this is untrue. But what often is true is that people with learning disabilities require the assistance of another person for support in understanding electoral procedure, or in helping to read the ballot paper. This is not to tell the person which way to vote, but to provide impartial support to enable the individual to exercise his choice. I shall be delighted if the Minister is able to assure me that the provisions in Clause 13, which relate to support for people who are unable to read, will apply to people who are unable to read on account of a learning disability. I would also welcome assurance that, where people are unable to secure appropriate support for themselves, the services of an advocate will be offered.

Under the new proposals it is the presiding officer who determines whether a person is incapable of voting without assistance. I would urge government to issue clear guidance to presiding officers in exercising this judgment. I believe that all presiding officers should undertake thorough disability equality training. Perhaps I may also stress the importance of accessible voter education, so that people are empowered to exercise their civil rights whenever possible. Mencap regularly publishes information on "how to vote" in general and in local elections, but more could be done on a national scale.

Mencap has undertaken a large amount of developmental work in this area following our recent National Assembly elections in which people with learning disabilities have had an equal vote in determining Mencap's constitution. One of the key challenges in that process was how to communicate relatively complex information about the election process to voters with a wide range of intellectual capabilities. One issue was whether to produce two election packs—one in a simplified form—or whether to produce one version, which everyone would understand. Mencap chose the latter, supplemented by information on audio tape. The pack was produced in an accessible form in plain English with illustrations, so that those with a poor standard of literacy could understand the basic concepts. Perhaps the Home Office would consider a similar approach so that no one is denied an opportunity to vote through lack of information. Mencap would be pleased to discuss with the department all its findings in this particular matter.

I shall not detain the House any further on the issue today, but look forward to hearing the Minister's remarks when he replies. If needs be, I will return to Clause 13 in Committee to resolve any outstanding matters. However, I am hopeful that I shall hear all the right words from the Dispatch Box in about an hour's time.

4.43 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rix, because he hails from Hull. I now teach at the University of Hull and I note that I shall be followed today by the noble Lord, Lord Plant, who took his PhD at that university. However, I believe that I should be out of order if I drew attention to other Hull graduates whom I see in the vicinity.

I rise to reiterate and develop some of the points that have already been made by my noble friends. As is clear from the Long Title of the Bill, this is essentially a Bill with two principal purposes. The first is to ensure a more effective electoral register, ensuring that more people register to vote, and the second is to ensure that, once registered, people exercise their right to vote.

As we have heard, the problem of non-registration and of low turn-out, especially in local elections, is well established. I do not propose to repeat the figures in that respect. But anything that addresses those problems is to be welcomed.

This is a serious Bill in seeking to address those problems. I welcome many of the provisions. However, like some of my noble friends, I want to raise a note of caution about the procedure to be adopted for pilot schemes. I know that concerns have already been raised in another place. I should also like to raise a note of caution, as mentioned by some noble Lords, about what we may expect from changes to voting procedures. There is the danger of focusing too much on process and not enough on voters' motivations for voting.

As we have already heard, the Bill provides the Secretary of State with the power to approve proposals from local authorities for pilot schemes. If the Secretary of State believes that such schemes should then be implemented on a national basis, he can lay a statutory instrument to give effect to it. The Bill is silent in terms of substance. By that, I mean that we know the process to be employed, but we do not know what schemes will be involved. We know from the White Paper the sort of schemes that are likely to be tried: mobile polling, early voting, voting anywhere in the electoral area, changing the day of voting, and electronic voting. However, none of these schemes appears on the face of the Bill, so the only time that Parliament will be guaranteed an opportunity to consider them is when a statutory instrument is brought forward under the affirmative resolution procedure.

This is not the occasion to dwell on the limitations of our procedures for considering delegated legislation; indeed, we considered them recently. However, like my noble friend Lord Mackay, I think that there is a case for requiring approval through primary legislation. As my noble friend mentioned, the reasons are twofold. The first is the greater opportunity for discussion but the other, which is particularly important, is the fact that primary legislation allows the opportunity for amendment, which we do not have with statutory instruments. That is particularly important in the context of what may be proposed here.

So much for how we should consider such schemes. I turn now to the intended effect of the pilot schemes. The motivation is admirable. It is to enable people to vote. The White Paper noted that there were high levels of support for some new initiatives. However, asking people whether they believe that a scheme is a good idea is not the same as asking them whether it will affect their own behaviour. The Minister will be aware of the MORI poll carried out in 1998 for the Local Government Association. It asked respondents whether particular schemes would make them more or less likely to vote in local elections. It found that some schemes—but only some—would engender a greater propensity to vote among certain sections of the population. Interestingly, voting by telephone would have a greater effect than voting on the Internet. Moving the polling day to a Sunday would, on the basis of the poll, have a neutral effect.

Two things emerge from the poll. First, that some pilot schemes are worth trying—I am not arguing against them—and, secondly, that one should not raise one's expectations too high. Some schemes may make a difference. In some cases, the difference may be marked, but there is a danger of putting too much weight on their potential to deliver a high turn-out in elections.

Indeed, I believe that there is the danger of ignoring the real problem. The Green Paper, Modernising Local Government, noted that changes to the voting system were not a panacea for current weaknesses in local government. People do not usually stay at home in local elections because of problems with the process of voting. The MORI poll in 1998 asked about voting in local elections. The percentage of respondents saying that they did not know where local elections were held or where the polling station was, or saying that the location of the polling station was inconvenient, was extraordinarily small. We are talking about less than 4 per cent in each case. People were more likely to say that they did not believe that voting made a difference. If people do not believe that voting makes a difference, there is little incentive to vote, regardless of how convenient or efficient the method of voting.

We need to explore more fundamentally the reasons for non-voting. I think that there is the danger of embarking on changes—not only to the election process but also to the structure of local government— without having considered whether they are really addressing the nub of the problem. Should we not be looking, for example, at how to strengthen political parties in local elections? There is evidence that electioneering by competing parties pushes up turnout. Should we be seeking ways, then, of revitalising parties? I do not believe that this is the occasion to go into great detail on this. However, I think that it is important to stress that we should be looking beyond voting methods—and, indeed, beyond the structure of local government—in order to tackle the problem of low turn-out.

I turn to two other issues that concern me. Under the provisions for a pilot scheme, the authority undertaking the scheme is required to make a report that states whether in its opinion, the procedures provided for by the scheme led to any increase in personation or other electoral offences". That is fine but what about personation or other electoral offences under the existing arrangements? The Bill, I think, is something of a lost opportunity in not strengthening the integrity of the electoral process. The present method of registration requires only the signature of the head of the household on the annual registration form. There is no requirement to provide evidence of identity at a polling booth. The clerk has to accept that you are who you say you are. If you are registered in more than one constituency, there is no effective or systematic way of checking that you have not voted in more than one place.

At Committee stage of the Bill in another place, the Minister, George Howarth, conceded that no systematic checks are carried out to establish the incidence of double voting. He said that he did not believe that there was evidence of widespread systematic abuse. There may not be widespread systematic abuse, but we do not know that, since, as the Minister said, no systematic study had been carried out. It is, I must confess, a somewhat circular argument to say, as the Minister appeared to be saying, that we have not looked and, amazingly, we have not found anything.

The Minister said that with improvements in technology it would be possible to improve the means of checking. However, what about introducing mechanisms to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process now? Why not require every elector to sign the electoral registration form each year and require each elector to sign against their name in the electoral register when they go to the polling booth? It would help to provide some protection against both personation and double voting. It would not be foolproof but it would ensure greater integrity than exists at present.

My other concern has been touched on, but I suspect that I shall take a. slightly different line from what has been said so far. I refer to the sale of the electoral register for commercial purposes. I am uneasy about allowing the register to be available for sale. I know that it is a well-established practice. I know the arguments in favour of making it available. The working party considered the issue at some length, concluding that, In the wider economic interest of the United Kingdom, it would be wrong wholly to withdraw electoral registration data from use commercially". I appreciate the economic arguments for maintaining the present arrangement. I recognise the objection raised by the CBI to Clause 9. The CBI says that it does not support any limitation on the general availability of the electoral register. Well, I am afraid that I do. As I say, I appreciate that there is an economic case for allowing the sale of the register. However, I have a principled objection to personal data, required by Act of Parliament, being sold to third parties, with electors who supply the data having no control over its use. I appreciate that there is a case for some organisations having access to it for purposes of l aw enforcement, and for political parties to have access to it for election purposes, but I treat such access as distinct from access derived from the sale of the register to bodies that seek to make financial profit from having such access.

The Bill seeks to address the problem and to bring the position into line with modern data protection practice and with Council of Europe recommendation R(91)10 concerning personal data held by public bodies. I acknowledge that the Bill constitutes a serious attempt to address a difficult problem. As the working party noted, there is no simple solution that is likely to be accept able to everyone. However, I am not sure that Clause 9 is quite the right way to tackle the problem. My initial thought—that is all it is—is that there should be limited access to the full register rather than a full and an edited register, with the latter being available for commercial purchase.

The working party noted some anecdotal evidence that the sale of the register may discourage some people from registering to vote but said that such research as there is indicates that the overall impact on registration levels may not be significant. I am sure that at the moment it is not significant. One should not be surprised by that. I am fairly sure that most people are completely unaware that the electoral register is available for sale. Now, under the provisions of the Bill, electors will be made aware of that fact. I suspect that it will come as a shock to many. We need to be aware of that.

I end with an objection to the commencement provisions in Clause 6. I think that there is a case for reviewing commencement clauses. I have touched on the general point before in your Lordships' House. If Parliament passes legislation, it should be brought into force immediately on Royal Assent or else on a date specified by Parliament. Too often, too much power is given to Ministers to decide when a particular provision approved by Parliament should take effect. Clause 6(3) is a good example of what I object to. I shall look forward to the Minister providing a compelling explanation for the provisions of the commencement clause. No explanation is provided in the Explanatory Notes which simply state that this is the commencement clause.

The Bill attempts to address serious problems. I welcome that. However, we need to look wider than the provisions of the Bill to address fully some of those problems, especially non-voting. I think that there may be a case for strengthening, or taking further, some of the provisions. On the whole, I welcome what is in the Bill. What concerns me is what it omits.

4.56 p.m.

Lord Plant of Highfield

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to take part in this debate and to have heard the striking maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. Speaking from these Benches, given his compelling record as a deliverer of the Liberal Democrat vote in by-elections, we can only hope that his party keeps him well occupied in your Lordships' House, which may constrain his activities outside to some extent! It would be in the interests of a number of parties in the House if that were to happen.

It is also a great pleasure to follow my friend and intermittent colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. I follow him also in his point, which has been made by a number of noble Lords; namely, that this is a useful Bill but we should not claim too much for it. It concerns procedures. Those procedures are important. There is nothing more important in a democracy than elections. It is important that we make our procedures right and make them appropriate for the time in which they are operated. However, I do not think that we should expect an enormous amount to follow from them, important though they are.

There are many worrying features about democratic politics in modern British society. There are low turnouts at all levels in by-elections for Parliament, in European elections and in local elections under both first-past-the-post in by-elections and PR systems for the European elections. Therefore, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, there are some general worries about the motivation of electors and so forth. There is also the rise of pressure groups, single issue pressure groups, focus groups and so forth, as ways of displacing primary concern with representative democracy. Therefore it is important that we take seriously a whole range of matters in this area and election procedures are part of that. As I said, we should certainly make sure that they are right. It seems to me that part of that process of making them right means first of all ensuring that people are able to claim their democratic rights easily; secondly, that as many people as possible are enfranchised by electoral arrangements; thirdly, the need to facilitate voting for those with difficulties, particularly those who are disabled or have learning difficulties and so forth, as the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has eloquently mentioned; and the need to make the procedures of voting as user friendly as possible.

Obviously central to all this is the electoral register as it is the necessary condition of being able to exercise one's right to vote. I agree strongly with the proposed rolling register. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and the late Lord Underhill deserve enormous credit for bringing the Labour Party round to an interest in electoral procedures of this kind and for getting the issue of the rolling register on the agenda. This will perhaps turn out to be the most significant issue in the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, had it more or less right when he spoke about the purchase of the register. I can see the obvious commercial value of the register and, as president of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, I can see its value to charities and voluntary groups. On the other hand, it is one of the few documents under our constitutional system which gives an individual a sense of being a citizen, of belonging to a political community and of having rights derived from being on the register. It is a basic democratic document.

It is right that the document should be used, for example, in the prosecution and prevention of criminal activity—such as fraud and so on—because such activities undermine citizenship rights. However, it should not be a marketing tool, as the CBI states that it is in its paper, which noble Lords have received over the past few days. If there are major disadvantages in not being on the register which will be available to commercial firms, those disadvantages should be spelt out on the form which electors will have to fill in when they decide whether they want to be a part of the full register or a part of the edited register. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, is right; the information required by statute should be basic to citizenship—and one of the rights of citizenship is privacy. The register should not be seen as a commercial document to be bought and sold. All its disadvantages can be dealt with in other ways.

Against that background of not having over-optimistic expectations but none the less seeing the electoral register issues as being absolutely fundamental, I certainly support the other proposals in the Bill. I welcome the proposals that will make registration easier for members of the Armed Forces, for remand prisoners and for the homeless. I have some worries about the homeless category—not so much for the reasons raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, although they are important and will have to be looked at in Committee, but I wonder how vigorously local authorities will seek to ensure that homeless people are registered. That issue will need attention. So that is my first point; registration will be made easier for people in those categories.

Voting will be made easier for the disabled and other people through postal votes and so on. In his opening speech the Minister mentioned the question of disabled access to polling stations. It is true that provision is very patchy. When I went to vote in the European elections the polling station was rather inaccessible, not only geographically but, once one arrived there, it was extremely inaccessible for anyone in a wheelchair. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said, we need to think about the possibility of some kinds of minimum standards. I strongly support the idea of enfranchising those in mental institutions who have not committed criminal offences.

There is a great deal to be said for Part II of the Bill and the pilot schemes. It is possible to pontificate endlessly about both electoral procedures and electoral systems—I know because I have done a great deal of it myself—and it is therefore important to have evidence. Most of the proposals are quite modest—as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, said, they will not change the world—but I think that they will be useful. They will provide evidence by which we can see whether or not they have been successful and we will be able to reflect on that.

However, I have some concerns—as do other noble Lords—about the procedure for getting from the pilot schemes to further rolling out of the proposals. First, it is very important that the reports made by local authorities embody a high degree of consultation and reflection with citizen bodies, as it were. It would be very unfortunate if the reports were compiled by taking only the views of the local political and bureaucratic elite. They must have a bit more substance and legitimacy than that. I do not quite know how that can be done, but it cannot be a case of asking the views of councillors, electoral registration returning officers and so on. There must be a broader consultation in order that we get a report which we can take seriously and by which we will want to be influenced.

There remains the major question of how we get from there to the rolling-out process. A part of the report of the committee that I chaired—in which the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, was the prime mover— argued strongly in favour of an electoral commission.

I still believe that there is a very strong case for that. Obviously, if there were to be an electoral commission, that would be the ideal body for adjudicating whether the reports on the pilot schemes justified a kind of national development along those lines. So I support that idea.

I am in favour of pilot schemes in other areas, particularly in local government elections. It is no secret that I favour pilot schemes in relation to alternative voting systems—whether majoritarian or proportional—because, again, we need evidence to see how they work, how people respond to them and what are their consequences. However, the issue of extending pilot schemes to such areas is probably for another day and another Bill, despite the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to the contrary.

I welcome the Bill. Obviously there is a lot of potential devil in the detail but, with good will on all sides, as reflected in the Howarth report, we can make a useful modernisation of electoral procedures through this mechanism.

5.7 p.m.

Baroness Fookes

My Lords, while I am happy to give a general welcome to the Bill, I have two objections to state at the outset. First, the format of the Bill superimposes new clauses—or sections, as they will be—on top of the Representation of the People Acts 1983 and 1985. I know it is convenient for all governments to do this—it probably enables them to take earlier action, than might otherwise be the case—but it means that it is virtually impossible, on any subject that one cares to mention, to pick up one Act of Parliament and say, "This is the law on this subject". I hope that in future more attention will be given to providing Bills which we, as it were, consolidate as we go along rather than waiting to consolidate by a lengthy process some years later.

My second objection is more serious. It was touched on by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, during the Minister's opening speech. It concerns the question of using secondary legislation orders to roll out a pilot scheme which the Minister has thought successful. I should say in passing that "rolling out a scheme" is a rather curious expression. It sounds as though one is making pastry and rolling it out on a piece of marble. That is by the by—I do not know where the expression comes from—but I am very concerned about such use of secondary legislation. Frankly, I would go so far as to describe it as an abuse and misuse of secondary legislation. In my view, orders should be used in only two circumstances. The first is where the subject matter has been the subject of a policy decision but where many technical arrangements are to be made. I take an example close to my heart: that of animal welfare. I quite see that having decided that the welfare of animals kept on farms is a concern, it should be left to experts to work out regulations specifying what kind of bedding should be used, what size of pen the animals should be kept in, and so forth. In the second instance, where circumstances are changing so fast, it is virtually impossible for Parliament to keep up.

I believe that those are the only two sets of circumstances where secondary legislation is feasible. That is not the case here. We should be dealing with making policy about various pilot schemes. I believe strongly that that should be a subject for primary legislation.

As to the details of the Bill, I give a warm welcome to the rolling register. I cannot quite match the record of my noble friend Lord Jopling, who has now left the Chamber; however, I fought seven general elections and eight local government elections. I have seen it all from the point of view of the candidate rather than that of the agent, described in the notable maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. It is certainly true that the greatest nightmare is trying to find out who has the right to vote from a register which will already be out of date when it comes into force on 16 February. The position becomes worse as time passes. If one has to fight an election in, say, January or February of next year, the register is by then woefully out of date. Using modern technology to bring it up to date is one of the best ways in which we can encourage people who want to vote to do so.

Coupled with that, I greatly welcome the absent voting procedures which in effect do away with all the criteria. Somehow, individual people never fitted into them, so either one had to forgo the right to vote or massage the criteria in order to fit in. The change is sensible. I suspect that the rolling register and absent voting procedures may make some of the other suggestions mooted less important than they otherwise would be.

On the question of whether the register should be open to other organisations and whether it should be edited, I personally have found no way of squaring the circle. I suspect that if, as my noble friend Lord Norton suggested, one sought not to allow it to be sold at all, there would be unfortunate repercussions. The register is, after all, a public document. It will be circulating publicly for perfectly good and acceptable reasons. If, however, organisations are forbidden to buy it at all, I am sure that they will seek to obtain it in other ways. Therefore, much though I dislike the idea, some kind of sensible compromise must be reached. I cannot offer any complete solution to the problem; no doubt, if I could, I should be sitting on the Front Bench rather than a Back Bench.

I turn to the various pilot schemes suggested. I am all for pilot schemes taking place. It is simply the method by which they may be rolled out to which I take objection. One of the most sensible schemes would be to enable someone to vote at any polling station within his constituency. That seems eminently sensible. In the case of a commuter returning tired from a long journey, perhaps rather late, the polling station which would appear the most suitable for him may not be; it may be easier for him to go to the one immediately outside the station where he arrives.

I take the case of the elderly lady—I have certainly seen such cases as a candidate—who does not want to vote by post but in person, but who may be infirm and whose polling station is about the most difficult imaginable for her for all sorts of reasons. For example, she may have difficulty climbing up and down the steps or it may be an extraordinarily windy day. If she could be taken to a polling station that was easily accessible, anywhere at all within the constituency, that would make life much easier for her. That may be a sensible approach, far more sensible than placing the polling booth in the middle of a supermarket where a number of difficulties could arise. That would be particularly so if it was felt that placing it in supermarket A—I mention no names— might give that store an added advantage over supermarket B or C.

All in all, I welcome pilot schemes taking place provided that, if they are considered reasonable, they are the subject of primary, not secondary, legislation. I am sure my noble friend Lord Norton is right. Whatever we do to make life easier for those voting, it will not make much difference to those who have no interest in voting. I cannot think of any legislative action that we might take which would bring that about—save one which might appear rather drastic to your Lordships; namely, "use it or lose it". In other words, if someone failed to vote at an election, his name would be struck off and he would not vote again. If one takes rights away from people, that is usually the surest way of making them clamour for them. Short of that solution, we must look to non-legislative measures to encourage people to vote where they are failing to do so.

I welcome the Bill with the important reservations that I have outlined. I hope that at Committee stage we shall be able to make improvements.

5.16 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, the ground is well trodden; I shall be brief. The thrust of my criticism against the Bill is against Clauses 9 and 11. I have not discussed the matter with any of my noble friends, in particular, my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, but I agree wholeheartedly with what he said, which is what I was going to say.

I take the view that the Bill has missed an opportunity to curb misuse of the right to inspect the public register, so that it is used for commercial purposes for which it was never originally designed, contrary to the wishes of the person registered. I wholly agree that Clause 11 simply cannot stand part as drafted and that such proposals go to the root of democracy and are a matter for Parliament.

I do not need to detain your Lordships for more than 30 seconds to look at Clause 11, which states that he—that is, the Secretary of State—may order "elections of any description" for, the whole of the United Kingdom … approved by a resolution of. each House of Parliament", for—if one looks over the page—elections of any kind. If that needs to be done—and for all I know it may need to be done—it must be done by primary legislation; through a Bill properly debated through both Houses of Parliament.

One can surely look at Clause 9 in this way: one may accept that the full register compiled for electoral purposes must be open to public inspection. However, it is not considered that the right of inspection should be used for commercial purposes, such as direct mail marketing, without the previous consent of the person registered to be canvassed by letter, fax, e-mail or on the doorstep. It is considered that current trading practices in that regard have reached the proportions of an unacceptable abuse of individual privacy. They are a security hazard not only to persons but to property; they are a hazard to credit references; they are an intolerable waste of time, money and materials and they are a nuisance to those who do not wish to be canvassed. The situation is in no way alleviated by the edited register, as there is public access to the electoral register. The question is not effectively addressed by the Bill and that is why I have respectfully suggested that this is a missed opportunity.

The order of this abuse has been augmented by the advances of technology and will be so augmented by future advances. The workings of these processes are beyond my personal comprehension and no doubt shall always remain so. At the Committee stage I would not be able to table a truly effective amendment on that issue, for the effect of such an amendment would be to prohibit by the imposition of a substantial penalty such canvassing without the written prior consent of the person registered. On that principle, with respect to my noble friend Lady Fookes, I would not be able to compromise.

It is idle to suggest that such a prohibition is beyond the scope of the Bill, even if beyond the intended scope of the Bill when drafted. It is within the scope of the Bill to provide for access to the electoral register and the uses to which it is put. It is, of course, accepted that the register should be available for charities to use for fund-raising and membership purposes.

The other matters arising from the Bill are, as I see them, of relatively minor importance. Clause 6, which creates the declaration of local connection, is acceptable in principle: to be made available to patients in mental hospitals—all right; to remand prisoners—all right. But as to the homeless, one needs a safeguard along the lines suggested by my noble friend Lord Jopling. However, it is not understood why people having two properties which are registered in two places should not have the right to vote in both places; to elect a candidate to represent their interests. If that were to happen, the question of unsupervised abuse and so on would not arise. It appears to be a perfectly reasonable suggestion that someone who has an interest in the property has an interest in being able to vote.

Clause 12 makes new provision about voting. It is a great improvement on the current system. The advance of facilitating postal and proxy voting for those unable to attend to vote is admirable. But surely that process must completed before the poll is open and should not be operative during the currency of the poll.

Lastly, Clause 13 is, broadly speaking, most acceptable. It is one of the more attractive parts of this Bill, the passage of which through this House will, as I see it, cause very severe difficulties with regard to Clause 9, and Clause 11 in particular.

5.25 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I believe that this is a good Bill. I also believe that it is an important Bill. Democracy in this country is under threat—not an imminent threat but a long-term one—because of the lack of interest in, and respect for, politicians and the political process. That has been reflected in the low turn-outs in many elections. Low turn-outs lead to a vicious circle. If voters do not feel any responsibility for having elected a candidate, they are less interested in how the council or the House of Commons works and therefore they are even less likely to vote in the following election.

There are some understandable and even welcome reasons for lower turn-outs in national elections. There is the decline of ideology. Democracy in the United Kingdom does not face anything remotely like the internal threats that it faced in the 1930s from fascism and communism. Indeed, it does not even face the conflict between socialist and capitalist economic systems that divided the parties for a large part of the previous century. Politics have become less dramatic. They are—again, this is to be welcomed—less based on class loyalties. But the fall in voting is undoubtedly damaging. We have seen it in the elections for the European Parliament and we have seen it in local elections. In some recent local by-elections the turnout was as low as 8 per cent, which is an appalling figure. Therefore, anything which encourages more people to vote is welcome. This must be a matter of encouragement; compulsory voting should be utterly rejected.

I am disappointed by the number of noble Lords who have put down their names to speak. There are understandable reasons for not doing so. In spite of the best efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, to prove otherwise, this is not a controversial debate. Few Members of your Lordships' House expect in future to contest any form of public election. Nevertheless, the quality of the speeches has been high. All speakers have made serious contributions, many of them either as academic experts on the subject or from personal experience of fighting elections. I hope that the others will forgive me if I refer in particular to my noble friend Lord Rennard, whose experience in running campaigns certainly has no equal on these Benches— and I suspect no equal on any other Benches in this House either. My noble friend mentioned voting in Tesco. It would perhaps be more appropriate to vote in Sainsbury's, given that one member of the family sits as a member of the Government, another sits on the Conservative Benches and the late Lord Sainsbury sat on these Benches, which makes it a suitably all-party venue for holding an election.

I join the consensus of support for many features of the Bill. The rolling register is a great step forward. Campaigners from all parties have gnashed their teeth in election after election because of the inaccuracy and outdatedness of the register. It is plainly right that mental patients, remand prisoners and the homeless should be placed on the register. Remand prisoners have not been convicted and should not, therefore, be deprived of civil rights except to the extent that it is absolutely necessary. There is no reason why they should not be allowed to vote. The homeless should certainly not be disfranchised by their homelessness, although I recognise the problems raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling.

Experiments in new times, places and methods of voting may lead to a better turn-out. I welcome the enthusiastic way in which they are being taken up, as we are told, by local authorities. Measures to make it easier to obtain postal votes are good, as are measures which will assist disabled persons.

There are, however, some points that need more detailed examination. Perhaps I may begin with a few of the more minor ones. The first is the question of postal voting. On the whole, it is my experience that anyone who applies in due time and submits a properly completed application form will be given a postal vote, and that refusal on grounds other than time and formality are rare. But the present problem is one of timing. The application has to be made in the first few days after an election has been called. Any of us who have canvassed to any substantial extent will be al I too familiar with cases in which we call on people who say they will support us—they are frequently party members. They then say that they will be on holiday or away on business on election day and that they need a postal vote. One has to tell them, sadly, even two weeks before an election, that it is already too late. That reflects no credit on our democracy. For that reason I was glad that an amendment was tabled in the other place seeking the shortening of the interval between the closing date for application and the election. The Government said in the other place that it was impracticable to do that. I am very glad indeed that the Government have had second thoughts. I very much welcome the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that it is the Government's intention to shorten the closing date from 11 working days before the election to six.

Another minor problem that is not dealt with in the Bill is the question of candidates standing in misleading names. All parties have suffered from that. There is no excuse for allowing someone to stand in an election with a name that has been recently adopted in order to cause confusion with other candidates. I remember the occasion, in the by-election at Hillhead in 1982—when my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead was in fact elected—when my wife had to stand outside the polling booth wearing a sandwich board stating, "The real Roy Jenkins is Number 5 on the ballot form"!

Under provisions in the Registration of Political Parties Act, the Government have stopped people standing in an election under misleading party names.

In this Bill, they have taken another step forward in proposing a penalty for giving false addresses on nomination forms. Why, therefore, do they not go forward to take the seemingly simple further step of forbidding people to stand under names which have been recently adopted and are calculated to cause confusion with other candidates?

A third minor point is that, if voting takes place on more than one day, there is a strong argument for saying that there should be restrictions on exit polls. Indeed, it goes further than that. Where elections take place on different days and in different parts of the same election area, whether it is a local government election or an election throughout the United Kingdom for Westminster, the votes should not be counted until the final close of the polls. That is what happens in European elections; in this country we vote on Thursday, but in most member states the vote takes place on the following Sunday and the count is not carried out in this country until the Sunday. The practice should be similar when votes in different parts of the same election area are cast on different days.

One controversial issue, mentioned by many speakers, is the commercial use of the registers. Should there be an edited list for commercial users? There are arguments on both sides. We shall no doubt hear them in considerably greater detail in Committee. One point that occurs to me is the question of whether, if there is no right to opt out, the commercial use of the list would be a breach of the right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Noble Lords will need to consider all those issues carefully.

The issue that causes me the most concern was first raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, in an intervention, and it has been raised by many other speakers. I refer to Clause 11 of the Bill. Under the clause, the Home Secretary will have the power to change election procedures by statutory instrument—admittedly, it will require the affirmative resolution procedure. But election procedures are of real constitutional importance, as was demonstrated, for example, by the fact that in the other place the whole of the Committee stage of the Bill was taken on the Floor of the House. Is it right that permanent changes should be made by secondary legislation; or should that be done by primary legislation? The Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation has not yet considered the Bill. Its views on this issue will be very important.

There is another point that has not so far been mentioned. Whether or not permanent changes are to be made by secondary legislation, it is plainly desirable that the election commission should be consulted on them. Indeed, it may well be desirable to make the consent of the election commission necessary to any statutory instrument of that kind, as is proposed with orders made under Clause 7 of what I shall refer to for short as the political parties Bill.

The problem is that the Bill now before the House is ahead of the political parties Bill on the legislative ladder. The Government therefore face two alternatives, and should take one or other of them. The first is to leave out Clause 11 of this Bill, so that it can be brought back as part of the political parties Bill and can, therefore, include the appropriate role for the electoral commission which will be set up under the political parties Bill. The second is for the Government to give an undertaking that the political parties Bill will be amended so as to provide for consultation with, and the consent of, the election commission on the proposed exercise of the Clause 11 powers, and an undertaking not to bring Clause 11 of this Bill into force until the relevant parts of the political parties Bill are also brought into force. That is the most important issue that remains to be discussed.

Finally, the Bill misses an opportunity; namely, it fails to change the voting system for local elections to one of proportional representation. On these Benches, we campaign for proportional representation at all levels. But its importance at local government level is clear. The absence of PR has meant permanent one-party government in a substantial number of our boroughs and districts. It leads at best to complacency, at worst to gross incompetence and corruption. I greatly regret that neither this Bill nor the Local Government Bill moves in the direction of PR, in particular PR by an open system.

The reason for the low turn-out in local government is, I am sure, in part due to the fact that the powers of local government seem to be altogether too restricted by control exercised from Whitehall. But I believe also that to some extent the voting turnout in local elections is low because of the belief—in many cases accurate— that nothing will lead to a change of control in that local election area. It is notable that the lowest turnouts in local elections tend to come from inner city wards, in Labour-controlled authorities, where access to polling stations is almost always no more than a short stroll away, but voting is seen to be pointless because control never changes. That may or may not be a matter which can be raised further on the Bill.

But, subject to that and the other comments I have made, I am happy to give more than two cheers, maybe two-and-a-half, even two-and-three-quarters to the Bill.

5.40 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, this has been a good and interesting debate with excellent contributions. Although it is always invidious to select excellent contributions, I greatly enjoyed that from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in his maiden speech. I fancy we shall hear a good deal more from him, and no doubt it will be interesting and wittily put. He has an enviable track record in by-elections and elections throughout the country. While I am never one to blow my own trumpet, down in good sunny old Brighton, we managed to keep the Liberals and Liberal Democrats out for more than a decade but I suspect the hand of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in their fightback last year in the local elections. I bet he was not a million miles away from giving them careful advice.

I also enjoyed the wise contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, who is expert in such matters. She has been busy trying to persuade the Labour Party and others of the wisdom of trying to modernise our rather antique electoral system.

I took particular pleasure in listening to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Norton. He made some extremely interesting points, not least those which were beyond the scope of today's debate, about the importance of strengthening local political parties, to add something to the way in which our local democracy works. As ever, we had a valuable contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Plant, with his breadth of knowledge and expertise—technical expertise particularly—in this field. They were all important contributions to a good debate.

What pleased me particularly about this afternoon's deliberations was the positive attitude evident in the speeches of all noble Lords. I even detected a few positive notes from the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. He spent 23 minutes on them, he tried to disguise it with some well-aimed barbs, but there were even some positive observations from him. They too were welcome. Perhaps in his heart of hearts he is a bit of a closet moderniser and believes that we ought to update our electoral procedures sometime, even though he is somewhat reluctant in making the arguments.

It should be a source of pride to all of us that elections in Britain have been remarkably free of corruption and fraud. Not only that, but they command public confidence. Put simply, the public believes that the result declared by the returning officer reflects the votes that have been cast. Not every country can make the same boast: it is a precious asset which we must safeguard. I believe that the Bill does precisely that, not least in allowing us to pilot new electoral procedures before deciding whether they would be suitable for wider application.

A number of noble Lords had reservations about particular parts of the Bill. No doubt we shall be in for a lively Committee stage. I hope and believe that our deliberations will be based on a genuine attempt on all sides to ascertain, whether the Bill can be improved. After all, that is one of the purposes of your Lordships' House.

That spirit of constructive consensus lay behind the working party's report, which was unanimous in every recommendation except one. It was also the spirit that was evident during most of the Bill's passage through another place, as I observed earlier. I would therefore be surprised to find any other kind of approach coming from noble Lords generally.

I wish to deal with some points raised in the debate this afternoon. If I miss any, I apologise in advance and I shall try to deal with them later.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, made some useful observations and raised good questions in regard to the detail. First, he raised the use of the term "Commonwealth citizen". It includes UK citizens; the term is used frequently in legislation. Indeed, it replicates existing legislation. No doubt he will find it in legislation to which he was party under the previous government.

The noble Lord asked about UK citizens living in Ireland. Such citizens have the right to vote in Irish elections. However, the practice varies in Commonwealth countries. It is true that UK citizens cannot automatically vote in elections in all Commonwealth countries. However, all Commonwealth citizens living here can vote in our elections, in recognition of the long and close ties between the UK and other members of the Commonwealth.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for attempting to answer the questions. I asked whether there was a Commonwealth country in which that reciprocity existed. Perhaps he can help.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am not sure I can help the noble Lord on that this afternoon, but I shall endeavour to carry out further research. The approach adopted in using the term is one that has been adopted generally by successive governments.

The noble Lord also asked about taking people off the register. It is currently not possible to do so at all, but the new Section 10A(5) enables registration officers to remove names from the register where they are satisfied that they are no longer entitled to be on the register. Registration officers will be able to consult local records held by public authorities, including the local register of births, marriages and deaths. The provision allowing registration officers to keep names on the register for a year where the electoral registration form has not been returned simply gives statutory effect to existing practice.

The noble Lord raised the question of the working party's recommendation that pilot schemes should be rolled out without further primary legislation. Many noble Lords raised the point in the debate: the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I refer the House to paragraph 3.1.14 of the working party's report, which states: Any legislation should in our view be framed to allow successful pilots to be rolled out more widely without the need for further primary legislation". I have heard what many noble Lords said on the matter. We shall have to take those comments on board and give them further consideration. At the heart of this is adopting a process using the affirmative procedure so that we may have flexibility. That is probably an important element in the issue.

The noble Lord raised the question of exit polls. We recognise that there are problems with such polls and that they could have an impact on elections if there is voting over more than one day. My ministerial colleagues in another place have already made a commitment to bring forward an amendment to the Bill to ensure that the result of exit polls cannot be made public before the final close of polling. That must be right and we hope to bring forward that amendment shortly.

My noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton asked about consultation on further aspects of the legislation. The working party was an all-party consultative body. We shall continue to consult. We are always happy to hear the views of political parties on ways to improve our electoral procedures. This is an indication that we shall always need to consult on important issues in the development of our democratic system. No doubt we shall consider improvements in future. This is the beginning, not perhaps the close, of an important chapter.

The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, asked whether I would take up the offer made by the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers to hold further consultation. In response, we are already in consultation with interested bodies in different parts of the industry. Only today, my ministerial colleague Mike O'Brien held a meeting with representatives of the direct marketing industry. I am more than happy to receive representations and meet any group which feels that it has not yet had an opportunity to make representations to us.

The noble Lord, Lord Rix, commented on the restrictions on the sale of the register and said that they would not work. We believe that the regulations under Clause 9 will restrict not only the people to whom the full register may be supplied or sold but also the purposes for which it may be used. Someone who has had access to the full register, for example for electoral or law enforcement purposes, commits a criminal offence under the legislation if he or she passes a copy of the register to a friend in the direct marketing industry or a charity. We believe that the measures will be effective. The noble Lord also asked whether the provisions allowed those unable to read to be assisted to vote and applied also to people who were unable to read because of a learning difficulty. The provisions will apply to anyone who is unable to read for whatever reason. A generous view will be taken of that particular new measure.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, asked about commencement dates. As noble Lords have recognised, detailed regulations will be required to give effect to the provisions on the sale of the register and the rolling registration process. For that reason, we do not believe that the Bill can in its entirety come into effect at Royal Assent. We hope that, since it will be possible to run the first pilot schemes in the local elections in May, Clause 10 will come into effect on Royal Assent, but other parts of the legislation may well be introduced later.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, suggested that the Bill should be consolidated rather than just amending parts of previous Acts of Parliament that deal with this area. The Representation of the People Act 1983 contains over 200 sections. If we included all that Act in this Bill rather than the parts to be amended, we would need to devote a great deal of additional parliamentary time to the legislation and the consequential changes that flowed from it. We believe that what the noble Baroness suggests is a rather cumbersome way to change and modernise our electoral system, and for that reason we prefer the approach that we have adopted.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, asked why people should not be allowed to vote twice. A person who is registered to vote in two separate local authority areas may vote in both in local elections. However, no one may vote more than once in a general election, and I doubt that many would sign up to that particular suggestion.

I turn to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. He asked why the Government did not prevent people from standing under recently adopted names. We take the view that because candidates can now describe themselves by use of registered party names and because party emblems appear on the ballot paper there is very little scope for confusion. However, new names may be adopted at any time and it would be very difficult for a returning officer to rule out their use because he or she was suspicious about the motive behind the change of name.

If I have not covered every point in my response I shall happily engage in correspondence to cover the outstanding matters. In summary, we believe that this is an important piece of modernising legislation. The Bill updates electoral processes and has the potential to bring into play modern technology—something on which many noble Lords have touched.

Lord McNally

My Lords, the Minister has performed a Herculean task in winding-up. However, does the noble Lord agree that, as to new technologies, this Bill provides an opportunity to get ahead of the game, particularly in view of experiments that are taking place in the United States? Is the Home Office making a study of the use of the Internet in elections and related matters?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we keep these matters under constant, active consideration. I had intended to develop the point. We fully acknowledge the importance of bringing new technology to bear on the electoral process. Some of the pilots that local authorities have offered to the Home Office are designed to look at electronic voting and counting systems. Eight of the potential pilots do one or other of those two things. We shall study those pilots with great interest because they may offer important lessons. Today, many political parties use electronic and telephonic voting systems that may well have broad application, and for that reason we encourage pilots and want them to be taken forward.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines "democracy" as "government by the people". Perhaps in the Greek city states that might have been literally possible, although those concerned tended to be men of a certain standing only. In the modern era that is achieved by people voting for and choosing those to represent them. Therefore, any Bill that is concerned with elections goes to the very heart of our democracy. If we can ensure that our electoral procedures are as open and effective as possible, and that it is as easy as possible for people to participate in the democratic process, we shall have made a significant improvement to our constitution. For that reason, we believe that this Bill will make a valuable contribution to improving the quality of democracy, whether locally or nationally.

The Bill will enable people to participate in the democratic process and will enfranchise those who perhaps have been prevented from playing a full part in it. We believe that the new measures to be used in taking forward that process will have a lasting impact on the quality of our democracy. In response to those noble Lords who have said that this Bill is perhaps too cautious, I believe that in future it will prove to be an ambitious beginning to the development of our democratic system. I commend the Bill to your Lordships' House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.