Clause 67 - Financial Provision

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:45 am ar 22 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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

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

I will not take up too much of the Committee’s time, but I want to reinforce a few points. I will not go over the statistics that I have gleaned from the National Assembly for Wales on the amounts spent on registration and on electoral administration. However, finance is key. The figures from Wales show that the local authorities that spent the most on registration had the best results. That should inform our debate.

We should look at best practice around the country, and band the areas. For example, we should look at how much is spent by local authorities in inner-city areas, and say, “This registration department got good results spending a certain amount of money and we recommend that as a benchmark for other inner-city local authorities to aim for.” We should recognise that there are differences in registration rates in different local authority areas.

We know the profile of those who are under-registered. They are young, low-paid and unemployed, and are associated with large black and ethnic populations. Central Government should recognise that if local authorities have large numbers of unemployed people and young people, and large black and ethnic populations, their electoral registration departments will have difficulty registering those people. Additional resources should be allocated from the centre in recognition of those difficulties. That money, if it is allocated, should be ring-fenced for registration, not for any other electoral purpose. If   such areas are having difficulty with registration and money is given from central Government for that purpose, that is what it should be spent on.

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

Again, the Committee is tremendously grateful to my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). He has done a great service to the House by beavering away and collecting the statistics and information that is not centrally collected or provided. Of course, the Bill will allow us for the first time to get an accurate picture of what is spent on the provision of electoral administration and electoral expenses throughout the country. In the absence of that information, all we have to go on is the work done by my hon. Friend, so I am grateful to him for drawing our attention to it.

The Bill lays down high-level principles for electoral registration officers and the steps that they should take to raise registration levels. The performance standards, which we will see in due course, will obviously add to that. Of course, if a local authority starts with a 98 per cent. registration level and 97 per cent. of people return the form as soon as they receive it, the authority will not need to take the additional measures to drive up its registration level. In other areas, however, the authority will have to send the letter out more than once, and will have to send people round knocking on doors. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that doing more things requires more money. A local authority that does not have to do any of those things will not have to spend that money. His point is therefore valid, but it will probably be addressed in practice.

I have a couple of other quick points to make. We are talking about an estimate—about what we think will be required. Obviously these matters need to be kept under review as we move forward, but we think that this is a reasonable way of setting aside an amount of money for the duties.

I am a former local councillor, and there are a number of people with experience as local councillors on the Committee. We will all have had cuts put before us in a budget round: there has to be a cut or a saving from the electoral administration budget, and a saving from social services or elsewhere. It is easy to cut the budget for electoral administration because, wrongly, we do not perceive it as a front-line service and, in the absence of the national standards, the framework and the reporting that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) highlighted the other day, local councils have very little purchase on what electoral registration officers do. That situation is exacerbated in Scotland, where local authorities do not have their own EROs but share them.

When all these measures bed in and there is much greater transparency, there will be more—“pressure” is the wrong word, but there will be more understanding among local authorities of what EROs are doing and how important and valid that is. They will see EROs as a front-line service that they want to fund from elsewhere in their budget, from their administration budget. All these measures mean that   the tide is moving in one direction, towards greater funding for precisely the services that my hon. Friend highlighted.

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

I listened with interest to the Minister’s reply. Last night I attended a dinner held by the H. S. Chapman Society, whose membership includes many electoral administrators, and those with expertise in this area forcefully made the point to me—it is a constitutional point rather than anything else—that the degree of latitude afforded to local authorities in this respect is not what they perceive. The responsibility lies with the electoral registration officer to spend what is required to do the job, and the Bill confers a stronger duty on the electoral registration officer to perform certain tasks to satisfy the guidelines set out by the Electoral Commission. In a way, however much the electoral registration officer requires to do that forms, in effect, a precept on the local authority.

That situation is analogous, in a way, to the position of the coroner, which I recall from my days as a county council leader. The coroner was funded from the county council precept, but there was no suggestion whatever that we had any control over the amount that the coroner required to do his or her job.

If we can make it sufficiently clear in the context of the Bill that electoral registration officers have a higher duty than the responsibility to the local authority—a duty to ensure the integrity of the electoral process—and that that requires expenditure that is made available, admittedly, through the local authority budgetary process, but is outside the local determination of the local authority, that will put electoral registration officers in a much stronger position to do their job effectively. That will be the case even in the circumstances described by the Minister, of budgetary constraints and people feeling that electoral administration is a budget head that can be safely reduced. We will then achieve the objectives that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd wishes to achieve, and I think that we all share that wish.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 67 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 68 ordered to stand part of the Bill.