HL Deb 02 July 2004 vol 663 cc456-61

12.9 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16 June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].

My Lords, with the permission of your Lordships, it will be convenient to consider along with the regulations for England and Wales, the corresponding regulations which relate to Scotland. The two sets of regulations are very similar and their effect is the same. The small differences between them arise because of the slight variation in Scottish and English law and reflect those variations.

The purpose of the regulations is to prescribe the form which electoral registration officers should use for the annual canvass of electors which takes place each autumn. The form will be sent to all householders for completion by them in respect of persons living in their property on 15 October 2004. The form is designed to record the name and address of the persons who are eligible to register to vote. The regulations do not deal with the way the canvass is conducted, but simply with the contents of the form which electoral registration officers send out.

The regulations are necessary because the existing form, which was used for the 2003 canvass of electors, contains special provisions concerning the registration of citizens of the 10 accession states that were expected to join the European Union on 1 May 2004. As noble Lords will know, as a result of provisions in the Maastricht Treaty, nationals of EU countries living in the U K are able to register to vote in local government and European parliamentary elections in the UK. The 2003 canvass form allowed citizens of accession states to register prior to 1 May 2004, in advance of the elections in June. The accession states, however, became full members of the EU on 1 May and a new canvass form is required to reflect that. The new canvass form makes no distinction between citizens of the accession states and citizens of any other member states of the European Union. In the notes accompanying the new form, the 10 new accession states have been added to the list of EU countries. Further, to update the form, all references to the 2004 European parliamentary elections have been removed.

Since a new form was necessary, we have taken this opportunity to review the contents and structure of the canvass form. I will go into a little detail on the changes that we have made to the existing form as a result of that, once I have explained the purpose of the individual regulations and schedule that make up the Statutory Instrument.

The House will note that the preamble to the regulations indicates that the Electoral Commission has been consulted on the regulations. The commission made a number of helpful comments which have been incorporated. In developing the new canvass form, we have also consulted the Association of Electoral Administrators and taken account of its views.

In addition, and for the record, I should add that the Government consider that the regulations are fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Regulation 1 covers citation, commencement, interpretation and the extent of the regulations. They will come into force to apply to the canvass of electors this autumn. Regulation 2 revokes the existing regulation that prescribes the form of canvass which the new regulations will replace. Regulation 3 simply states that the form attached is prescribed for use for the canvass of electors. Regulation 4 concerns the form of words for the two versions of the electoral register which are prescribed for use in applications for registration other than at the annual canvass.

There is a full version of the electoral register and an edited version. The full one is available for three main purposes: for elections and referendums; for the prevention and detection of crime; and for checking a person's identity when he is applying for credit. The edited register omits the particulars of electors who have requested that their details be removed and is available for sale to anyone for any purpose. The notes that accompany the canvass form now clarify that each elector must choose each year whether he wants his details to be excluded from the edited register. We hope that this will be helpful for persons completing the canvass form. Part 1 of the schedule sets out the new form of canvass and Part 2 prescribes the form of words for the two versions of the electoral register that registration officers should use in applications for registration.

I shall now comment on the main changes that we have made to the form. The canvass form is based largely on the existing form and I hope that it is self-explanatory. I have explained that we have taken this opportunity to review the contents and structure of the form. Our aim is to make the form more user-friendly and to address certain issues in relation to the form.

We have made a number of changes to simplify the form and to make it less cluttered. We have removed the column on the form for the title of electors—Mr, Mrs, etc—as we understand that those details are not necessary for electoral registration officers.

The form for England and Wales is used to identify those over the age of 70 who are no longer eligible for jury service. By statute, this information must be passed to the Court Service and will be used for jury-summoning purposes. We have, however, removed from the existing canvass form the column that sought information about electors who are not aged 70 at the time of the canvass, but who would reach 70 during the course of the year. We have done that because the Court Service no longer requires that information and there is no statutory requirement for electoral registration officers to supply it. Again, this change helps to simplify the form.

We have considered ways in which the form may help to achieve a more accurate register. The form has been amended so that the column which previously asked for citizens of EU states to state their nationality has been altered so that in future all persons are asked to state their nationality. That will help EROs to identify any persons who may inadvertently apply to register when they are not eligible to do so on nationality grounds. The information will not, however, be made available on any publicly accessible register.

We have added an additional column to the form to allow persons included on it to indicate whether they would like to be sent an application form for a postal vote. The Government believe that postal voting offers greater flexibility and convenience for electors and we are keen to extend the choice of postal voting to as many electors as possible. We consider that the change to the canvass form helps to do that and enables electors to decide whether they would like to apply for a postal vote at the same time as they register to vote. I should clarify that each elector will still need to complete and sign a postal voting application form before they can be added to the list of postal voters.

The regulations update the form to be used for the 2004 canvass of electors and make a number of changes to the form which we consider will simplify the form for electors and help to achieve a more accurate electoral register. I commend them to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 16 June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I have a number of questions about the regulations. First, the Scottish canvass form states in relation to local government electors: Those citizens registered as local government electors are able to vote in elections for the Scottish Parliament".

The form for England and Wales contains no similar statement; that is, electors who are resident in Wales are able to vote in elections for the National Assembly for Wales. Would that not have been a desirable feature? Could not some similar statement to that which is provided for Scotland be incorporated when the forms are next revised?

I turn to my second question. Both forms state: If you are a citizen of a Member State of the European Union, you may be able to vote in European Parliamentary Elections if you wish, but you will need to fill in another form to allow you to do so. Ask the electoral registration officer for more details".

Why is it necessary to have a separate form to enable citizens of European Union countries other than Ireland, Cyprus and Malta to vote in the European elections? The necessity to apply for a separate form is plainly a disincentive to registration. I cannot see any useful purpose being served by this requirement. The requirements for being placed on the register of local electors for EU citizens are the same as those for being placed on the register for European elections. Would it not therefore be preferable to make the same form the necessary form for registration of EU citizens to vote in both local and European elections?

Thirdly, I note that there is a provision that states that there is a need to consult each resident before completing the form to find out whether a resident wants his or her name to be deleted from the edited register. Would it not be simpler to move simply to individual registration and to get everyone, rather than one member of each household, to sign the necessary form?

There are clear advantages to doing that. First, the register would become much more accurate. In the past, it was the practice in a number of areas for the names of former occupiers to be kept on the register for a year or two on the assumption that they may simply have failed to fill in the register. Secondly, having individual registration would mean that it would be safe to dispense with a statement of identity by a third party—a requirement that was plainly desirable to reduce the scope for fraud but which led, in the election on 10 June, to a significant number of votes being rejected. In view of the uncertainty about the desirability of extending postal voting, it might have been better to omit the column that invites people to apply for a postal voting form until such time as we have moved from household to individual registration.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, if the title column is to be removed from this form, how will the electoral registration officers know who is likely to be a Member of this House and therefore not entitled to vote in parliamentary elections?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, asked three questions. The first related to an apparent inconsistency with Scotland and Wales. We find the point that he has made extremely helpful, and will consider what to do about it with the next canvass form.

The noble Lord also asked why EU citizens are asked to complete a further form if they wish to vote in European parliamentary elections in the UK. Citizens of an EU state living in the UK are all registered as local government electors. as they are able to vote in local government elections in the UK. However, citizens of an EU state resident here are not obliged to vote in European parliamentary elections in the UK, as they may wish to vote in the elections being held in their home state. It is not possible for a person to vote in European parliamentary elections in more than one state. The further form that a citizen of an EU state completes should he wish to vote in the UK records further details about the individual, which are needed to ensure that he does not vote in the European elections in his home state as well.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt before the Minister moves on. Is it not the position in this country that people can be registered in more than one constituency at the time of a general election, although they are of course only entitled to cast their vote in one? Would it not be perfectly legitimate therefore to treat EU citizens on the same basis and make it clear to them, if necessary, that registration in this country for the European elections would not entitle them to vote both here and in another EU state?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Lord about that point.

The noble Lord's third question was whether we were planning to introduce individual registration. We are currently considering the proposals contained in the Electoral Commission's Voting for Change report, published in 2003. That report covered various aspects of the electoral process and includes the proposal that we should move to a system of individual registration. We are in particular considering the experience in Northern Ireland, where individual registration has already been introduced and people wishing to vote must provide a number of identifiers, including date of birth, a signature and a national insurance number.

On the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, it is really up to Members of the House of Lords to make it plain whether they qualify to vote. If that is the only objection to leaving off Mr and Mrs, and so on, I hope that it answers his question.

On Question, Motion agreed to.