In the Opposition day Debate of Monday 16th January on Individual Electoral Registration, Stewart Jackson (MP for Peterborough) in the extract of his speech below, took issue with the under-registration over many years of military and overseas voters, who are legitimately allowed to vote in elections.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): This is probably the first Opposition day debate that I have attended in which the Opposition substantially agree with the Government. That is quite strange, but I am not responsible for the Opposition’s debate selection.
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The Minister is a talented, urbane and civilised chap, if I may say so, and he is far too polite to point out the confusion on the Labour Benches. Members will remember that not long ago we heard the comments of the deputy leader of the Labour party at the party conference. With her customary exaggeration and hyperbole, she said that the Government’s proposals would
“push people off the electoral register—deny them their vote, deny them their voice. The numbers are going to be huge”.
That was palpably nonsense, because that was never the point of the change.
The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) got to the nub of the issue by showing the Labour party’s proprietorial approach towards certain groups of voters—“We know what’s best for you. You’re our voters, and we think the proposals will unnecessarily affect your exercise of the franchise.” That is simply not the case. Today from some speakers we are hearing politics over principle. It ill behoves them to take that approach, given that when their party was in government it absolutely refused to anything about the under-registration of military personnel or overseas voters, for example, despite months and years of protestations from Conservative Members. Those are both groups of people who are legitimately entitled to vote in elections. Let us not, in our rush to a consensus, ignore the reality of the 13 years of the Labour Government and their record of under-registration. Hon. Members will know that in 2008 one national newspaper managed to register the name Gus Troobev, an anagram of “bogus voter”, on 31 different electoral rolls in one day.
In Peterborough, for reasons that Members may know, we have had a close acquaintance with electoral fraud, and I draw the Minister’s attention to the issue of personation. In one ward in Peterborough, we now have four separate CCTV cameras in four polling districts because of the threat of personation. In particular, I draw his attention to the Representation of the People Act 1983 and subsequent legislation, which prescribe the actions that presiding officers can take in polling stations if they fear a case of personation. That does not touch directly on the current change, but it is nevertheless a very important issue, and we have had serious problems with it.
The Minister will know that Operation Hooper, the investigation that took place into postal vote fraud at the June 2004 local elections, took four years to be resolved and resulted in the imprisonment of six individuals, three Labour and three Conservative. It cost Cambridgeshire constabulary a huge amount of money, and the cost to an ordinary voter of electoral fraud is another issue to consider.
If the proposals are some sort of wicked Tory plot, which they are to the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, who is rather excitable but passionate, it is a strange plot, because it involves substantial consensus among the academic community, including Dr Toby James of Swansea university, Stuart Wilks-Heeg of Liverpool university, who has been mentioned, and others. The proposals have involved much consultation; flexibility and pragmatism; the data-matching pilots, of which Peterborough city council is one example; transitional arrangements; an exhaustive and detailed Select Committee investigation; and the promise of funding. In addition,
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the Government have admitted that certain proposals needed to be nuanced, such as the opt-in, opt-out proposals.
Let us remember that in 2008 the Council of Europe stated:
“It does not take an experienced election observer, or election fraudster, to see that the combination of the household registration system without personal identifiers and the postal vote on demand arrangements make the election system in Great Britain very vulnerable to electoral fraud.”
At the time of the 2009 legislation, even Peter Facey, of Unlock Democracy, said:
“We still have 19th-century regulations for a 21st-century situation.”
It is vital that we have eventually reached a consensus, despite references in the debate to the boundary changes. Those references were erroneous because effectively all that matters in respect of the boundary changes is the electorate on the enumeration date of 1 December 2010. Those changes are irrelevant to the substance of this debate.
There is a consensus on voter registration. It should have been brought about many months if not years ago, but I am glad that Labour Front Benchers have had a damascene conversion and understand that the Government’s proposals are about clarity and integrity and, to be fair, the fact that people can choose not to vote, which we must respect. The Government have listened and are going in the right direction, and I look forward to the details of the legislation.