MP welcomes moves to introduce individual electoral registration
Eleanor Laing welcomes the long overdue changes to electoral registration which will make every individual voter responsible for registering themselves to vote and not have to rely on their ‘head of household’.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): It is a genuine pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), because I totally disagree with everything that he has just said, so perhaps we can have a real debate about the amendment and the party political difference on the matter.
The Bill will improve the electoral register’s comprehensiveness and accuracy. It is long overdue. It is absurd that, in the 21st century, a person’s right to vote depends on the head of household filling in a form. Each individual member of our society should be responsible for registering themselves to vote and should have the vote that they deserve. I have never understood why the Labour party—it is in opposition now, but the situation was the same when it was in government—has been so reluctant for the last two Parliaments to go ahead with that obvious modernisation of our electoral administration system.
Labour Members now want that modernisation to be delayed. I understand their objection a little better having listened to the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras, but the arguments of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) simply do not hold water. The Government are not, as he said, rushing pell-mell. The proposals have been discussed in the Chamber and other places for seven years, and this Government have taken two years and two weeks to introduce the Bill. That is not “breakneck speed”.
The Opposition amendment is ridiculous. They state that
“the proposals would mean the young, the poor, ethnic minorities and disabled people would face an increased risk of being unregistered and thus excluded from a range of social and civic functions”.
I entirely take the point that measures must be in place to help people who are disabled or elderly, and there is a duty on local authorities to provide such help. The Government are as concerned as the previous one, and Government Back Benchers are as concerned as Opposition Back Benchers to ensure that people who are elderly or disabled get help to register to vote if they need it.
How many hon. Members as candidates in elections or as election managers knock on somebody’s door, find that they are not registered, get them a form and ensure that they register? How many of us knock on a door and find an elderly person who might find it difficult to get to the polling station and offer to arrange them a lift? All Members on both sides of the House do that. We sometimes help if we think the person might vote for our candidate rather than someone else’s, which is fair enough, but there is every likelihood that someone from all political parties will knock on that door. Somebody will help that person to get to the polling station or have
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a form sent to someone by the local authority to ensure they are registered to vote. We all do it because it is in our interests.
However, I am amazed that the Opposition say ethnic minorities will be less likely to register to vote under the Bill, because the opposite is the case. I am thinking particularly about women in certain ethnic minorities who have their right to vote, or indeed to participate in wider public life, restricted by a head of household who exercises the power of a head of household. In this Bill we are giving greater rights to women in those ethnic minorities.
My greatest concern is the idea that young people will not register to vote if their mother or father does not fill in the form for them. What absolute nonsense! I shall go further: if a young person cannot organise the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they do not deserve the right to vote—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I thought that might be controversial, but I do not mind.
Chris Ruane: That argument smacks of the Conservative’s attitude towards the poor in general—the undeserving poor and the deserving poor, the undeserving voters and the deserving voters. In whose political interest is it? It is in the Tory party’s political interest to keep those poor voters off the register.
Mrs Laing: Not in my constituency, it is not, where a large majority of them vote Tory. I want them on the register. This is simply not a reasonable argument. If someone is responsible enough to exercise their right to vote to decide the Government of this country, or at any level of local government, they should be responsible enough to register to vote.
Mr Stewart Jackson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Labour party should have learnt its lesson from the Bradford West by-election result? It relied on community voting and this kind of backward-looking, pernicious and frankly slightly sleazy and corrupt approach to registration and campaigning. It bit Labour on the backside and it lost by 10,000 votes. It is over.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I think there was a question in there somewhere.
Mrs Laing: Yes, of course I agree with my hon. Friend. His example is a very good one.
We are getting to the bottom of this, because the Opposition, not I, raised the issue of party political advantage.
Mr Harper: Members who do not think that young people will register are being overly pessimistic. When I visited Northern Ireland, I noted that, with IER, electoral registration officers could interact directly with young people. They go to schools and get more young people registered to vote than we do in Great Britain. Members have a huge opportunity to engage with young people in our schools. We know that often young people are more engaged in politics than their parents.
Mrs Laing: I agree entirely with the Minister. Of course, it is relatively easy for electoral registration officers to find young people, because up until 16 they are at school or college, and at that point can be approached, educated, given a form and encouraged to register to vote when they reach their 18th birthday.
The Opposition’s argument simply does not hold water. The Bill will give more individual power to every person in this country, particularly the 3 million—I am glad the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras agreed the figure was not 9 million—who should be on the register but are not. It will be far, far easier for them to register on their own behalf, rather than having to do so through a head of household.
Siobhain McDonagh: Will the hon. Lady give way?
Mrs Laing: Sadly, I do not have time. I am sorry.
Government Members are pleased that the Minister has listened to the consultation. Speaking on behalf of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I am particularly pleased that he has taken account of some of the points raised during the pre-legislative scrutiny. Once again, the Bill is a good example of how pre-legislative scrutiny works to the advantage of Parliament and the democratic system. In particular, I think of the data matching with the Department for Work and Pensions, keeping people on the register during the transition, and recognising that registering is a civic duty and maintaining a penalty for not doing so. In those areas, the Government deserve to be congratulated on having amended the draft Bill. I also welcome the funding formula for local authorities under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003, and I am glad that the Minister will be consulting on accountability.
That brings me to the second half of the Bill, which we have not really debated yet, concerning the powers of electoral registration officers and returning officers. At present, returning officers are accountable to no one. We need a structure whereby they can be ordered to carry out instructions, possibly by the Electoral Commission. We saw during the 2010 general election that the Electoral Commission had no power to direct. On the matter of counting votes at the close of poll, I tabled an amendment, which was supported by the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and subsequently became law. Returning officers had to be directed by an amendment to primary legislation to count the votes at the close of poll. That is not the right way to do it; there should be a much better structure, and I therefore welcome clause 17.
I suggest, however, that the Minister might wish to go further. Something else happened in 2010 that has not been addressed in the Bill. It involved people who were waiting to vote at the close of poll. Eligible electors who are present at a polling station at that time should be allowed to vote if they are within the precincts of the polling station. I appreciate that this matter needs to be carefully defined, but I suggest that the Bill gives the Government an opportunity to introduce rules that would give the presiding officer at a polling station the authority to designate the end of a queue, for example, or the area—not necessarily in the polling station itself—in which people must be present before 10 o’clock in order to vote at 10 o’clock. On the night of the 2010 general election, there was unfair criticism of the Electoral Commission, which did not have the power that the media thought it had to tell electoral registration officers what to do. I hope that the Minister will consider amending the Bill in this respect.
Gavin Shuker: The hon. Lady’s argument seems to be that young people who cannot be bothered to fill in the form should lose the right to vote, but that people who cannot get to the polling station by 10 pm should gain that opportunity—
Mrs Laing: No—that is completely wrong. My point is that if someone is just outside the polling station—in the school playground, perhaps, or the car park of the village hall—but there is not sufficient space for them to get in through the door, the presiding officer should have the power to designate the end of the queue, so that those people can move forward and vote.
Mr Harper: The Government did listen, and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee agreed with our view that
“careful planning and allocation of resources are likely to be more effective in ensuring all those who are eligible can access their vote without resorting to legislation.”
That was our view, the Committee agreed with us, and that is the position at which I think we will remai.
Mrs Laing: I appreciate the Minister’s position, but perhaps that is something we can look at as the Bill passes through the House.
There is nothing in the Bill that will give party political advantage to any political party. It is a simple, straightforward modernisation of electoral administration. It is vastly overdue, and it will give more rights, not fewer, to the electors of this country. The amendment before us is based on nonsense, and it should be rejected. The House should support the Bill.