HL Deb 22 February 2005 vol 669 cc1127-36

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

In moving this Motion, may I say a word about procedure? Report stage will take place at the end of the Second Reading of the Gambling Bill. I understand that the Public Bill Office has asked that any amendments be tabled as soon as possible and at least within two hours of the end of this Committee stage. Third Reading will follow at the end of the day.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Amos.)

On Question, Motion agreed to. House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Viscount Allenby of Megiddo) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Restoration to electoral register of names previously removed]:

Lord Smith of Clifton

moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1. line 18, leave out from "Officer" to end of line 19 and insert "shall conduct an additional canvass in respect of such former electors

The noble Lord said: The amendment would allow the chief electoral officer to carry out an additional canvass of those 83,000 people who were on the register in 2003 and did not re-register during the autumn canvass of 2004. The canvass would have to be completed by 18 March to allow time for an updated register to be produced for 1 April. That would concentrate the effort of encouraging people to register to those 83,000 whom the Bill affects. We hope to see a very vigorous campaign from the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to achieve this, including sending individual canvassers to call at the homes of each of these electors to persuade them to complete and return their forms. By stipulating a date of 18 March by which the process has to be completed, we anticipate that the register could be updated and published on 1 April. I beg to move.

Baroness Amos

The amendment would fundamentally change the nature of the Bill by requiring the chief electoral officer, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, indicated, to conduct a canvass of the 83,000 former electors before adding them on to the register. Currently, the Bill permits reinstatement on the register of individuals who were on the register prior to the publication of the register on 1 December 2004 but did not re-register during the annual canvass in 2004, provided the chief electoral officer has no information to suggest that they are no longer eligible to be on the register. The effect of having a canvass would be to require the chief electoral officer to send forms to all those people asking confirmation of their name, address, date of birth, national insurance number and signature. Only upon receiving satisfactory answers to those questions would they be added back on to the register.

It would be impractical to conduct an additional canvass on those electors before the deadline for publication of the register, 1 April 2005. As I think I said to the noble Lord in our discussions on Second Reading yesterday, we are confident that the anti-fraud measures we have put in place have been working well. Those are people who were already registered and have gone through that process.

We do not believe that the amendment is necessary. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw it.

Lord Smith of Clifton

If all the stops were pulled out, I believe that it would be possible to do this. However, I accept that within the bureaucracy there is no inclination to pull out all the stops and it is, therefore, probably impractical. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

moved Amendment No. 3: Insert the following new clause— "ROLLING REGISTRATION

  1. (1) For purposes of this Act, the last day for an elector to register under the rolling registration process shall be the day on which nominations for election close.
  2. (2) An updated register shall be published no later than one week after the relevant date in subsection (1)."

The noble Lord said: Noble Lords will recall that yesterday I alluded to the fact that there was potentially another way forward in terms of the rolling register. At present, the deadline to get on the 1 April register is 10 March. The amendment would move forward that deadline. I very much regret that yesterday I misled the House by indicating that the nomination date for local government in England was 11 April. However, the date is 7 April. Therefore, I hope that no one who reads Hansard and relies on that date—I cannot blame the Hansard writers; the date was in my notes—misses his or her nomination in England. If there were to be a general election, the date may be later.

The amendment would give people more time to register. The register is published a week later; and there may be an amendment sheet to the register. The provision would apply to anyone in Northern Ireland who believes that he or she is not on the register. It would be important for young people—for first timers. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said yesterday he believed that only 25 per cent of young people had registered. If the date were moved forward, I believe that in the fervour of a potential election—we know that there will be a local government election—and with the work of the electoral commissioner, that longer period could well energise people to register.

The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, spoke to me yesterday and then wrote to me stating, first, that the date cannot be changed because of the UK-wide position and the 1 April date used in the May elections; that Northern Ireland would be out of step with the United Kingdom. Secondly, she says that the parties would not want this change. I should be surprised if the parties in Northern Ireland were to deny more young people in particular the opportunity to register.

What is the other side of the argument? One argument is that the position would be different from the remainder of the UK. But in three kinds of elections out of four Northern Ireland has an entirely different electoral system. There is PR under STV. I do not think that the noble Baroness suggests that local elections are under the STV system in England. The systems are very different. The register has been compiled on a very different basis. One of the reasons for the lack of youngsters on the registers in Northern Ireland is that parents do not have a duty, as we do in England, to place their adult children on the register.

Another argument relates to the workload of the returning officer. However, as I reminded the House yesterday, the postal vote deadline is not until 26 April. If about 15 per cent of the electorate were to seek a postal vote, consider all the work that that would involve.

If the amendment were agreed, there could be an increase of those on the register of 2 or 3 per cent. The returning officer should be able to cope with such an increase bearing in mind that he copes with all the work involved with postal votes at a later stage. For local government the date would be 7 April. A general election might push it to a different date.

In response to the amendment, the noble Baroness may say that we do not have the wording right and that it can be improved. Alternatively, she may respond that she understands the point of the amendment and that the Government could give until 1 April. The register would then be made up to 1 April even if it were published a few days later.

I give these opportunities. This is Committee stage. I know that we are all in a hurry. But there are about 20 speakers at Second Reading on gambling and within that period there will be time to come forward with another amendment if the Minister does not like the wording of this amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Glentoran

I was not going to speak but the Front Bench opposite may guess as to why I am on my feet in the interests of the continuation of the business of the Committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has moved an interesting amendment. I have particular interest in and care about young people coming on to the register. I spoke on that subject this morning to one of the Ministers. I believe that every effort should be made by the Government and the powers that be to facilitate at least the first-time entry of young people on to the register. I would go so far as to suggest that consideration be given to some form of mandatory requirement for first-time voters coming on to the register. Therefore, I have some sympathy with the amendment. Whether the noble Lord's amendment helps in that regard, I am not sure.

As the noble Lord says, we have two hours before debate on another amendment on Report. Perhaps the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will have an opportunity to debate again in the corridors with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. That is probably all that I should say at present.

5 p.m.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

In my brief comments at Second Reading I indicated that the Bill was less than helpful to the conduct of elections in Northern Ireland and to the integrity of the electoral process. I have some sympathy with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland. I can see that he is endeavouring at least to bring forward proposals to help reduce the lack of registration. However, what he proposes would not succeed.

The reality is that we have an electoral office and a chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland who must have advised the Government in respect of the Bill—indeed, I have tabled a question on this issue—and yet I can see no evidence that the chief electoral officer has embarked on any pilot scheme to try to ascertain exactly why there is a deficit in the number of people who register. I indicated yesterday, and I reinforce that view today, that because of the situation in Northern Ireland—and we have just heard a Statement from the Lord President about the way in which Sinn Fein abused the electoral process, but I shall not go down that road—young people are fed up and are saying, "Until we get something sorted out we are not going to bother. We have no tradition of voting; we are new voters. When we have something worth voting for, we will register. Until then, we will not do so because we are not prepared to allow Sinn Fein and parties like it to steal our votes".

There is still that fear in our society but the electoral office and the chief electoral officer have done nothing to alleviate it. They have had canvassers on the ground who have gone out, returned and done nothing to encourage people to use the system as it was intended to be used when we brought forward the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act in February 2002. So, while I have a great deal of sympathy and respect for the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, I believe that the amendment will not achieve what he hopes it would do.

Lord Fitt

Yesterday, when I first noticed that 83,000 people had failed to register to vote, I thought that was a very high and inflated figure. Northern Ireland has only a small electorate overall and 83,000 people who registered the previous year have refused to register this year.

Did the electoral officer go down any road to ascertain why those 83,000 people did not register or did not want to register? If I had the register of electors in Northern Ireland now, I would be able to tell by looking at it the possible outcome of an inquiry into the absence of those electors from the register.

When the electoral officer sent out his enumerators, as we used to call them in my day when we were fighting elections, did they go around the various homes and speak to the individuals involved? Did they give any information about why they were not prepared to vote or were they left a form? The district in which those people live could tell a story and give the reason why they did not vote.

It used to be that the electoral officers—or, at that time, officials of the rates department of the Belfast Corporation so far as concerned the Belfast constituencies—were employed all the year round visiting different households to inquire about the number of people who lived there, their names and whether they were qualified to vote. If those people then gave the wrong information or, in the case of an individual who was absent, did not fill in the requisite form, they would be excluding themselves. Is it possible that a majority of those 83,000 people did not want to vote; that they excluded themselves by not filling in the registration?

Has there now come a time when there will be compulsion in Northern Ireland as there is in Australia and other areas? Are we going to tell those people, "Whether you like it or not, whether you vote or not, you are going on this register"? That is compulsion, but so far in this country we have not gone down that road.

I still find 83,000 a very high figure. Is it possible, in line with the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, even at this time, that a number of people in Northern Ireland, who can read and write and who are unemployed at the moment, could visit the addresses of those who have excluded themselves from the register? They would not have to go to 83,000 different addresses because many of the people who have excluded themselves live in the same households. Given the knowledge that I have of Belfast, I am quite certain that if the electoral officer was determined to ascertain the reasons for such exclusions and why people want to keep themselves off the register, it could be done within the time limits illustrated today by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt.

Can the Minister indicate to the House why those people excluded themselves? Did they give any reason for doing so? How did the returning officer get the names and addresses of the individuals? I have a feeling—again it is a feeling that I have had over many years of political life in Northern Ireland—that, whether or not they have excluded themselves, many of those 83,000 people will have someone voting for them at the next election purely illegally.

Lord Kilclooney

I can offer the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, a couple of reasons why people have not registered. Among young people there is total dismay and lack of interest in the political process in Northern Ireland because of the Government's continual demand that there must he inclusivity for devolution to be brought about in Northern Ireland. They know that that is no longer possible; they have lost interest in the political process and they are not interested in voting.

The other reason is more serious from a terrorist point of view. In recent years we have introduced what is called the "marked register" in Northern Ireland. This register shows to the terrorist organisations and their political supporters those who did not vote. It used to be that you never knew who did or did not vote; now you know exactly who did not vote in your republican or loyalist area and you become the subject of intimidation. That is another reason why people are dissuaded from putting their names on the electoral register.

Baroness Amos

I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, but, despite the different possibilities he has presented to me, the amendment is not required.

Concerns have been expressed about why a number of people have not put themselves forward on to the register. Let me deal with those first and, in particular, with the questions asked by the noble Lords, Lord Maginnis, Lord Fitt and Lord Kilclooney, who referred to the dismay and lack of interest of some people.

I begin by saying that in our view the introduction of individual registration reduced the inflationary factors that had been created by the old household registration system. So there are other factors at work that have led to this further removal of names from the register. We believe that voter apathy is an element of that. The Electoral Commission is undertaking research to find out why people are not registering but we should also remember that the chief electoral officer's powers and duties are prescribed by legislation, and the legislation is strict regarding what questions may be asked of electors. However, the chief electoral officer wrote to all those who did not return a completed registration form and encouraged them to do so.

An Electoral Commission report commented that while the register is accurate and robust, individual registration has tended to have an adverse impact on the disadvantaged, the marginalised and those in hard to reach groups, including young people. It has taken action in a number of areas to try to address that, including a wider distribution of registration forms focusing on the young and other under-represented groups and a high level publicity programme. That should have a positive effect and cancel out the negative gap. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, talked about a growth in the register of more than 5 per cent. If these initiatives have the impact we want, we estimate that the register will grow by more than 5 per cent with a carry-forward facility reinstated.

I turn to the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. The power conferred by subsection (1) states that the individuals to be put back on to the register must be reinstated by 1 April 2005. Therefore, it would be possible to put them back before that date. However, following advice from the chief electoral officer, we believe that the most effective way to complete this task is to ensure that the names are put back in time for the publication of the register on 1 April 2005. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, raised the issue of postal votes. The postal vote deadline of 26 April applies only to those who suddenly become indisposed; it does not apply to ordinary postal votes, as I understand it.

Since the chief electoral officer will so far as possible check that the details remain accurate, shortening the deadline for the task gives less time for the checks. Despite the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and the valiant effort of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, it is my view that this amendment is not required and I ask the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, to withdraw it.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass

Before the noble Baroness the Lord President sits down, will she expand on what she said about the chief electoral officer having carried out research? We are not aware of that and it would be helpful if we knew what that research comprised.

Baroness Amos

I said that research is currently being carried out. However, I also said that we have speculated on a number of reasons for the 83,000 people not reregistering. Undoubtedly, individual registration raises difficulties as regards the disadvantaged, the marginalised and those in so-called hard to reach groups. The chief electoral officer has put in place a range of measures to try to address that issue. Research is being conducted as part of that. I shall, of course, write to the noble Lord with details of that research if that would be helpful.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

I thank Members of the Committee who have spoken on this amendment for the various views that they have expressed, which have by and large been supportive. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that although there may well be 100 categories of people, in my view there are two categories in particular. I refer to those who have written themselves off the register. They have been written to, canvassed and everything else, but their names are not on the register. As this Bill has not yet been amended, they will be put back anyway. This amendment would assist those who were never on the register in the first place. That includes young people in particular. Many of those young people may not understand that there is such a thing as an electoral register. They consider that when they are 18 they ought to be able to vote. They may go to a polling station and ask why they cannot vote as they have reached the age of 18. This amendment constitutes an opportunity to address that situation.

I appreciate that there will be a rush, but all elections are a rush. Think of the leaflets that will have to be drafted and published with regard to all the candidates who will take part in the local government elections, and possibly in a general election, in May. We know that the whole thing is a great rush but I think we are quite good at managing those rushes.

I am disappointed as there is a problem with regard to this rushed Bill. In other circumstances there would be more time to discuss the possibility of amending it, but more time does not seem to be on offer. There is a principle at stake here and I should like to test the opinion of the Committee.

5.16 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 3) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 61; Not-Contents, 140.

Division No. 1
Addington, L. Harris of Richmond, B.
Avebury, L. Hooson, L.
Ballyedmond, L. Howie of Troon, L.
Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, B. Hylton, L.
Clement-Jones, L. Jopling, L.
Dholakia, L. Kilclooney, L.
Dykes, L. Livsey of Talgarth, L.
Eden of Winton, L. Lucas, L.
Erroll, E. Lyell, L.
Finlay of Llandaff, B. Maclennan of Rogart, L.
Fitt, L. McNally, L.
Forsyth of Drumlean, L. Maddock, B.
Fowler, L. Maginnis of Drumglass, L.
Garden, L. Methuen, L.
Glasgow, E. Michie of Gallanach, B.
Glentoran, L. [Teller] Monson, L.
Goodhart, L. Neuberger, B.
Greaves, L. Newby, L.
Northover, B. Smith of Clifton, L.
Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, L. Steinberg, L.
Park of Monmouth, B. Stewartby, L.
Phillips of Sudbury, L. Taverne, L.
Redesdale, L. Thomas of Gresford, L.
Roberts of Llandudno, L. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Roper, L. Tope, L.
Russell-Johnston, L. Tordoff, L.
Sandberg, L. Trefgarne, L.
Sandwich, E. Vallance of Tummel, L.
Sharp of Guildford, B. Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Shutt of Greetland, L.[Teller] Walmsley, B.
Watson of Richmond, L.
Acton, L. Hayman, B.
Ahmed, L. Henig, B.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Hogg of Cumbernauld, L.
Amos, B. (Lord President of the Hollis of Heigham, B.
Council) Howarth of Breckland, B.
Andrews, B. Howe of Idlicote, B.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Howells of St. Davids, B.
Ashton of Upholland, B. Hughes of Woodside, L.
Bach, L. Hunt of Chesterton, L.
Barnett, L. Hunt of Kings Heath, L.
Bernstein of Craigweil, L. Irvine of Lairg, L.
Bhattacharyya, L. Janner of Braunstone, L.
Blackstone, B. Judd, L.
Borrie, L. King of West Bromwich, L.
Bragg, L. Kirkhill, L.
Brennan, L. Layard, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L. Lea of Crondall, L.
Brookman, L. Leitch, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Lipsey, L.
Burlison, L. Lockwood, B.
Campbell-Savours, L. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Carter, L. McDonagh, B.
Chorley, L. Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
Christopher, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Clark of Windermere, L. McIntosh of Hudnall, B.
Clinton-Davis, L. MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
Colville of Culross, V. Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.
Corbett of Castle Vale, L. McKenzie of Luton, L.
Crawley, B. Mason of Barnsley, L.
David, B. Massey of Darwen, B.
Davies of Coity, L. Maxton, L.
Davies of Oldham, L. [Teller] Merlyn-Rees, L.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Mitchell, L.
Desai, L. Morgan, L.
Dixon, L. Morgan of Drefelin, B.
Drayson, L. Morris of Aberavon, L.
Dubs, L. Palmer, L.
Eatwell, L. Parekh, L.
Elder, L. Patel, L.
Evans of Parkside, L Patel of Blackburn, L.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L. Paul, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Pendry, L.
Faulkner of Worcester, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Filkin, L. Plant of Highfield, L.
Fyfe of Fairfield, L. Prosser, B.
Gale, B. Prys-Davies, L.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Giddens, L. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Golding, B. Richard, L.
Goldsmith, L. Rooker, L.
Gordon of Strathblane, L. Rosser, L.
Goudie, B. Rowlands, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B. St. John of Bletso, L.
Grantchester, L. Sawyer, L.
Grocott, L. [Teller] Scotland of Asthal, B.
Harris of Haringey. L. Sewel, L.
Harrison. L. Sheldon, L.
Hart of Chilton, L. Simon, V.
Haskel, L. Smith of Leigh, L.
Haworth, L. Snape, L.
Stone of Blackheath, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Symons of Vernham Dean, B. Wall of New Barnet, B.
Taylor of Blackburn, L. Walpole, L.
Tenby, V. Weatherill, L.
Thornton, B. Whitaker, B.
Tomlinson, L. Whitty, L.
Triesman, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Truscott, L. Williamson of Horton, L.
Tunnicliffe, L. Woolmer of Leeds, L.
Turnberg, L. Young of Hornsey, B.
Young of Norwood Green, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.27 p.m.

Clause 3 [Duration of Act]:

[Amendment No. 4 not moved.]

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.

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