Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) on his excellent maiden speech. He is a welcome addition to this place and I look forward to working with him.
I rise to support the Bill, the necessity for which has recently become clear to me. As a first-time parliamentary candidate at the May election, I was concerned that I encountered so many people who were totally disenfranchised. Those people were not illegally resident in the UK, criminals or attempting to opt out of society. Indeed, many of them were not particularly apathetic about the political process. Many of those people had been disenfranchised almost by accident. Many of them believed that they were already registered; some had recently moved and found that they had missed the deadline to sign up; and others had simply mislaid the letter from the registration officer and let the whole prospect of an election slip from their minds.
In the same way as we have a problem persuading people to save for a pension, we also find it difficult to persuade people to register to vote. Although turnout at the previous election was particularly low at 61 per cent., that hides a much harder statistic. A survey by the British Election Study team found that turnout among those who earned less than £15,000 a year, which I accept is an arbitrary figure, was as low as 49 per cent., compared with 68 per cent. among those who earned more than £15,000 a year. The difference is roughly 20 percentage points, which is unacceptable.
I am not naive enough to believe that any of the provisions in the Bill will actually increase the number of people who want to vote, which is a job for politicians rather than for this type of legislation. The need to inspire the population into wanting to vote is a debate for a different time and place, but it is clear that we should not place barriers in the way of people who may want to vote.
The Bill will go some way to addressing the problems that I encountered while campaigning in Dundee, West. It begins with the establishment of the co-ordinated on-line record of electors, which is commonly known as CORE. If we were to mention to our constituents that there is no central record of the electoral register or that the various different registers are almost entirely incompatible, many of them would find it hard to believe. It is sensible to co-ordinate the different systems, especially in the light of the lack of coterminosity between constituencies in Scotland. It may seem simple to conduct such co-ordination, but the process is rather complicated, so I am grateful that the CORE scheme has a long history.
In 2004, the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs said that it was disappointed by the progress of the CORE scheme, despite its long existence as an idea, but reaffirmed that it had widespread support. I believe that to be true; it is the scheme best suited to address these problems. Standardised electoral registers will benefit political parties, people who move around often, and electoral officers who need to use the system.
It is believed that the system will lead to individual registration. All that I can say to that is, "The sooner the better." An ideal situation would be one in which someone is able to enrol on the electoral register when they are 18 and their enrolment is kept active throughout their life, so that their only responsibility is to inform the CORE keeper—a term that reminds me somewhat of a science fiction movie—of their change of address. That would enable people to be on the register even if they forget to re-register in new places, and would make the system much more sustainable.
I am also of the opinion that this form of registration will hopefully lead to, or at least encourage, large-scale registration among the group who are most disenfranchised under the current situation: recent attainers. It is worrying that so many 18 to 24-year-olds are not registered. Evidence suggests that recent attainers are less likely to be registered if the head of household is not registered. Many recent attainers are being disenfranchised not so much because they lack a desire to be involved in democracy as because of a system that bases one's vote on the head of a household filling in a form. I hope that that will eventually be sorted out. I see the CORE scheme as a first step to achieving some form of individual registration, and welcome it as such.
I understand the need for the scheme to be suitably piloted first, but I would welcome some guidance from the Minister as to how long the pilot schemes will last. I would be more comfortable with a defined period of piloting to be laid down in the Bill. It need not be set in stone, but it would at least provide some form of guarantee that the scheme is to be implemented as soon as practically possible. If the pilots are successful, we should implement them immediately.
Registration is a critical factor. The amount of people who are not registered to vote is distressing to any democrat on either side of the House. In Scotland, there is a long history of that and it is a more serious problem. Ever since the poll tax was introduced a year earlier in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, there has been a mini-flight from being registered on the local electoral register. Although the people who left the register do not have the same political issue to protest about, the idea of being unregistered has festered with a small, but not insignificant, minority in Scotland. Most people want to be registered to vote, so we need to give them every opportunity to participate in the registration process. If we then fail to inspire them to vote, it is entirely our fault and cannot be blamed on any administrative problems.
I welcome the registration provisions in the Bill. I recently wrote to my electoral registration officer raising my concerns about the level of registration that I had experienced during the election campaign. Although I welcome the reply that I got and the effort made by council staff in trying to register the whole community, I was a little concerned about the paucity of the response that we expect from our councils. The Representation of the People Act 1983 requires that the electoral registration officer sends out a letter to every address in the city and that that is then followed by a letter to every address that does not respond. I welcome that, but feel that it does not go far enough. The response rate in Dundee is about 87 per cent., which leaves a large number of people still languishing in the aforementioned democracy desert.
The proposals in the Bill bulk up that provision, and I hope that they will lead to more people being registered. Rolling registration has helped the situation and I hope that the provision will strengthen it further. The responsibility for the council to take part in house-to-house inquiries to back up the initial canvass is welcome. I sincerely hope that this will pick up more of the disenfranchised and help to provide everyone with an opportunity to vote.
Also welcome is the provision to allow people to register much closer to the date of the election. The new deadline is to be within 11 working days of the election. That is vital. Evidence from the Electoral Commission suggests that people who are directly contacted during an election campaign have a 77 per cent. voting record. That is outstanding and shows the importance of us all as local representatives getting out and meeting the people we represent. It is not much of a jump for us then to surmise that people are more likely to register when they meet candidates; and as we all know, people see much more of the candidates during the election period.
I imagine that many Members will discuss the Bill negatively because of the Government's refusal to jettison postal voting. I take the alternative view and welcome that decision warmly. Although many may feel that those who are unable to vote are the sort of people who are so lazy that they do not deserve the vote, I take a different position.
According to recent studies, 40 per cent. of young people who did not vote in the most recent election intended to do so but did not get around to it. I accept that there may be some hubris in the responses and that some people feel bad about owning up to apathy, but the figure proves a point. If we accept that our society is becoming increasingly post consumerist and that the urge to vote is perceived as being equal to the urge to protest or discuss political issues in pubs and clubs throughout the country, we should make it as easy as possible to vote.
Many people commute to work and thus, if they work late, they miss the polling station. Many others want to vote but would prefer not to go to the polling station. Others have legitimate reasons that make it unreasonable to expect them to go to a polling station. Postal voting has a positive effect on our democracy. As long it proves to be safe, we should continue with it.
I would like to consider the provision that relates to allowing people who have not received a postal vote to vote in person on the day. That is vital. On 5 May, I met two young women who had been turned away from their polling station because the clerk had registered them as postal voters. The fact that they did not consider themselves to be postal voters is a slightly different issue that should not be tackled here. However, their total disfranchisement because of a mistake or deception perpetuated elsewhere is categorically unfair. I therefore welcome the change and I am glad that the Government have acted on that.
The Bill's role is not to inspire people to vote. However, it will ensure that fewer obstacles lie in the way of anyone who has even the slightest inclination to participate in the democratic process. The measure will not do our job for us and it is incumbent on us all to engage with people as much as possible and encourage everyone to participate in a vital process.