Clause 3 - CORE scheme grants

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:15 am ar 15 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Why, given that the clause is concerned with, effectively, a governmental structure—one necessary for the proper administration of the electoral system—is there a need for subsection (4), which provides for

''conditions as to the circumstances in which the . . . grant is to be repaid''?

Presumably, in this instance, it would be repaid by the Electoral Commission, if it was the commissioning agent, or by individual returning officers, further down the track. I can understand that the issue might arise if criminal fraud were involved, but I believe that that is taken care of in other ways. Why does the Minister think that there is a need for conditions for the repayment of the grant necessary for setting up the CORE provisions?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Probably there will not be a need for it, but I am confident that if we had not included it the hon. Gentleman would have tabled an amendment to investigate what would happen if, after having been given all the relevant money, the keeper were to be dissolved, or became unable to perform its functions, and it was desirable to appoint another keeper. The subsection is just a matter of thinking of all eventualities. We do not expect it to be needed. We expect that the arrangements, as with all the Government's computer programmes, will go swimmingly. It is sensible, in using substantial amounts of public money, to make sure that if those to whom a grant is made cannot perform the duty in   question, or if circumstances change, the money can be retrieved.

I assure hon. Members once again that the matter will be subject to consultation through the consultation document. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his probing question, which we shall discuss further when we come to consider regulations.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am not absolutely sure that I should necessarily table an amendment on the effect of the subsection, because the CORE keeper is, by definition, a public body. It is set up by statute and is entirely within the control of the Government. Therefore, any circumstances in which it could go bust or otherwise fail to perform its functions would seem to amount to an indictment of the Department and the Government, rather than anyone else. Does a similar arrangement exist between the Department for Constitutional Affairs or the Treasury? Is it a condition that the Department for Constitutional Affairs should repay its Treasury grant if it fails to meet expectations?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 11:30, 15 Tachwedd 2005

I would not want to stray into answering that question, for many reasons. I can give the Committee some more science on the point; the provision for grant repayment is a reminder that we have to cover for every eventuality.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

The Minister would not expect me to pass over the fact that this part of the Bill authorises the expenditure of taxpayers' money without questioning her on how and to what extent that money is to be spent. I have several questions.

First, the Secretary of State ''may pay grant'' to a CORE keeper. Will that grant replace other Government money now being spent in that area of administration, or is it new expenditure? I ask as I genuinely do not know the answer.

Secondly, will the money that the Government spend on behalf of the taxpayer for that purpose no longer be spent, or will that pot of money be added to the additional funding being made available under clause 3(3)(1)? In other words, is it new money or replacement money? It is the essential duty of the Opposition to safeguard taxpayers' money from a Government who like too much to spend it. On the other hand, it is certainly not wrong or a misuse of funds to spend taxpayers' money on the further enhancement of our electoral system and the workings of our democracy. Nevertheless, the Committee deserves further explanation.

Thirdly, the grant is to be paid by the Secretary of State to a CORE keeper, so it could be paid to the Electoral Commission. If so, will the commission be given more taxpayers' money to do the work that it already does, or are we authorising the Government to increase the amount being given to the commission because it is to be given further powers and duties; or does it represent a change to the way in which the commission works, and will it receive the same funding?

My concern, as ever, is that we pass legislation in all innocence, believing the Government's assurances that it is necessary whatever the purpose might be. We   unanimously agree that the general purpose of the Bill is good, because it will enhance the way in which elections will be undertaken and therefore enhance and protect the democratic process. That is all very worthy. However, we so often find that we, as representatives of the taxpayer, have somehow, wittingly or unwittingly, authorised the expenditure of taxpayers' money where it is not absolutely necessary. Given that the Treasury holds one pot of money for all purposes, we should always remember that if taxpayers' money is spent on such purposes, it cannot be spent on hospitals, schools, social services departments and so on.

When we argue that cuts have been made in one area or another, we have used taxpayers' money for another purpose. I will not stray into a general consideration of such matters, but restrict myself to considering whether this is necessary expenditure.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

As I mentioned on the Floor of the House, statistics on how much is spent by local authorities are not collected centrally. I have some figures for Wales, which illustrate how little is being spent on registration and electoral matters. For a council such as Swansea, the figure was 52p in 2001, 55p in 2002 and 70p in 2003. Those are piffling amounts—[Hon. Members: ''Per elector.''] Yes, per elector. If money is to be spent centrally or locally, I believe as a democrat that this is a wise and just way of spending taxpayers' money.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important information. We discovered that those in Wales are frugal in their expenditure on electoral matters, and rightly so. It is hard to work out—I cannot immediately do the arithmetic in my head—what those figures mean. I could do it if I had the numbers, but I do not know how many electors there are in Wales.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

Fifty eight thousand, nine hundred and seventy six.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I will happily give way to the Minister, if he wants. However many there are, I am sure that it is a bargain that the registration of each elector in Wales costs only that.

The real point is that, if the Committee gives the Secretary of State the power to

''pay grant to a CORE keeper towards expenditure incurred or to be incurred by him in connection with the exercise of his functions under the scheme'', is that new money or a replacement for old money? It is important to keep track of where public expenditure is growing. This is a part of public expenditure. I accept what the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said about the ''piffling'' amount. It certainly is not a large amount of money, but that is not my point. Whoever it was who said that if one looks after the pennies the pounds take care of themselves—I am sure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would agree—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

My hon. Friend says it was the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr.   Kennedy). I am sure that it was somebody with far greater wisdom in such matters and a long time ago. I remember my grandmother saying it, and I do not think that she made it up.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

Harry Lauder did say most things. For the benefit of those members of the Committee who do not know of Harry Lauder, he was a great celebrity in Scotland whose poetry and songs encompassed most matters.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

Order. The hon. Lady is straying beyond the terms of reference and, dare I say it, has been repetitious in her remarks since the intervention.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I beg your pardon, Mr. O'Hara. You are quite right to halt me in my tracks as I try to keep right on to the end of the road. It is difficult to see how we could discuss the songs of Harry Lauder in the context of the Bill.

It has been said—by whoever it was—that if we look after the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves. I accept that this may be a small public expenditure, but many small amounts add up to large amounts.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

The hon. Lady says that these amounts are small. What amount per elector does she think it would be reasonable to spend on registration for electoral purposes?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

That is a reasonable question, but people who know me would never ask me such a question. This is not my subject. I always manage to spend far more money than is reasonable in any area. However, in all seriousness, if some 60p per elector is spent at present, and if that produces a good, efficient, safe and workable system, that amount is probably about right. I question the need to spend more if the amount that is spent now produces a good system. However, if our deliberations were to show that the current system is not good enough and does not produce safe election results—by that I mean results in which everyone concerned can have confidence—it would be necessary to spend more.

Chris Ruane rose—

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

Order. I have the highest regard for the hon. Lady, but, before she takes another intervention, I should tell her that she has made her point at least three, if not four, times.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

The hon. Lady says that if the money that is being spent at present is producing results, that should be good enough. I analysed Welsh expenditure in the 22 authorities and coupled it with registration rates. The analysis shows that those authorities that spend less on registration—I listed the figures in descending order—have lower registration results. The figures are available for the hon. Lady to study. There are no figures for England, and I do not know about Scotland. However, there are figures for Wales,   and, if they are the only data available, we should consider them seriously.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. He suggests that more people will be on the electoral register, and that more of our citizens will have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights at the ballot box, if we spend more money. I am sure that the Minister will respond to that point.

I simply wish to know whether this is new money—extra money—and to be absolutely certain that the Committee will not allow taxpayers' money to be spent unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

I too wish to speak about money. One reason why electors send us to this place is so that we can ensure that care is taken in the spending of their money and that expenditure is properly scrutinised.

I preface my remarks by saying that I am a local councillor. As I understand it, this is the only part of the Bill that deals with costs. I say this with some trepidation on the basis that you might rule me out of order, Mr. O'Hara—I hope that you will forgive me—but it is always made clear in my county council that any proposal that involves the spending of money must be introduced along with some concept of the cost. I therefore assume that the same happens in this place. The Minister might be kind and tell us, in round figures, how much the creation of a CORE register will cost.

Wearing my second hat, I have said before that my business is building databases; I would not dare to say it now. A massive database is being built and the cost of such an exercise is immense, as the Government know, to the taxpayer's cost, with regard to other activities. What work has been done on the exercise, and does the Minister have any idea of its cost? I agree with the concept of CORE but we should make a decision on the basis of the cost to the taxpayer.

I acknowledge the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd's point about the cost per elector at ERO level. I appreciate that there is a differential between the efficiencies of one ERO and another and that is often related to the quality of grant and the expenditure control of a given local authority and I accept that we must try to eradicate it. But before we say yes to a particular concept, we should at least have some idea what it will cost the taxpayer and how it will be done. We must understand the difficulties involved in putting such a database together. I should be grateful if the Minister included a response to those thoughts in her reply.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 11:45, 15 Tachwedd 2005

Setting up a new system, for which we are asking the Committee's support, must be paid for. However thrifty the Electoral Commission is with its resources, we would be astonished if it already had enough in its budget to set up the system. Therefore, the initial implementation of CORE national access has been allocated £10 million from the capital modernisation fund, which is a Treasury grant. Thereafter the CORE scheme will require ongoing running costs to be met. The financial provision proposed in the Bill is necessary to allow appropriate   funds to be made available to CORE keepers to enable them to perform their statutory duties to maintain the CORE scheme efficiently and effectively. The point about grants in clause 3(4) is that if they can do the work for less money, they can repay part of the grant. It is part of the proposal's flexibility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd made a very important point. With respect to the hon. Member for Epping Forest, as my hon. Friend has information for Wales that we do not have for England, we do not know whether they are being frugal in Wales. My hon. Friend seems to have established that the more that is spent per elector the more secure the register is and the more it is proof against fraud, because money is spent ensuring that there are no multiple registrations. The more complete the register is, the fewer people are left off and not allowed to vote.

The Bill introduces transparency to enable us to consider the important value-for-money issues that Opposition Members raised. Previously, neither the House nor individual Members were able to know how much was being spent and to what effect.

This has been an important debate on what is being spent on democracy and what we are getting for that money.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

Given that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd eloquently proved that in Wales it has been possible to collect the information necessary to make a judgment on these matters and to work out the efficiency, should not that be done in the rest of the United Kingdom? Will the Minister undertake to do it?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

That is exactly what the Bill enables us to do, and we will discover that different amounts need to be spent in different areas. In areas such as my own in Camberwell and Peckham, there is a highly mobile population, with many young people, many people living in rented accommodation and many people from the new Commonwealth, particularly Africa. In such areas, we must invest quite a lot to ensure that the register is complete, accurate and up to date. On the other hand, in areas such as Somerton and Frome, where I imagine more people are owner-occupiers, fewer are from the new Commonwealth and fewer are under 50, it is probably not such a difficult exercise.

The CORE budget is £10 million initially. That money will be spent according to the way in which the House wants the project to be designed and approves in regulations.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

The Minister's point is fair and reasonable, but again the cost of ensuring that scrutiny can take place is higher in areas where there is more movement in the way that the Minister described. Will the Minister take that into account when we discuss grants for local government?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

We are dealing here with the grants to the CORE keeper. The CORE scheme may take some of the burden off individual electoral registration officers, because people can get the national picture from the national CORE scheme instead of having to   ask each registration officer. Therefore, responsibility for some actions may be shifted from local to national.

Elsewhere in the Bill, as the hon. Gentleman will know, other duties and responsibilities are laid down on electoral registration officers. For those general duties £17 million is made available, but for the CORE scheme the initial allocation from the Treasury's capital modernisation grant is £10 million.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

In my view, £10 million divided by 44 million or 46 million electors is money well spent. If the money is used to create an accurate central database whose information can then be disseminated, especially to the poorer local authorities that have difficulty in getting up-to-date register lists, it will be money well spent; £10 million to run a democracy.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.