Long-awaited voting reforms to stamp out the type of fraud that saw Birmingham compared to a banana republic have been delayed yet again – because of a coalition row.
Ministers have suspended debate about new laws obliging voters to register individually, and ending the current practice which allows one person to fill in a form for everyone in their household.
The proposed change follows an electoral court ruling in 2005 that there had been widespread voting fraud in local elections in Birmingham.
Richard Mawrey, the judge in the case, condemned “electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic” and the independent Electoral Commission called for a series of reforms, including the introduction of individual voter registration.
The measure was finally set to become law seven years later, after it was included in the Government’s Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which was due to be debated in the House of Lords this week.
But it has fallen victim to a row between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over plans to cut the number of MPs in the Commons from 650 to 600, and to change the constituency boundaries used for general elections.
The row goes back to July this year, when backbench Conservative MPs rebelled against plans to create a directly-elected House of Lords – a policy which is supported by the Lib Dems.
Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, retaliated by announcing his party will oppose the boundary changes, which are backed by the Tories.
And Lib Dem peers joined forces with Labour in the House of Lords to propose an amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill which would have scrapped the boundary review.
As it stands, the Bill has nothing to do with boundary changes, nor with House of Lords reform.
But to make certain the amendment could not be added, the Government simply announced it was suspending any further discussion of the Bill indefinitely.
The Bill will not now be debated until Mr Clegg and David Cameron, the Prime Minister, have had a chance to meet and sort out their differences.
Conservative Cabinet Minister Lord Stratchlyde, the Leader of the House of Lords, told Peers: “All those involved need further time to reflect before the House is invited to take a decision either on the admissibility of the amendment or on its merits.
“It will not surprise the House that those involved include senior members of the Government and, until their discussions are concluded, the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill will not proceed further.”
The announcement was condemned by Labour spokeswoman Baroness Royall, who said: “It is transparently clear where the disorder is on this matter. It is on the Conservative benches opposite.
“Within the coalition, it is clear that the Liberal Democrats are standing by their declared position that they will oppose the Government’s proposed changes to Commons parliamentary constituency boundaries, and the boundary reviews that would put them into effect.”
Asking why the Government had suspended debate of the Bill, she said: “I hear that the actual reason is that time could not be found for the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to meet to consider the issues ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit to the Gulf.”
And she added: “In what it is doing in relation to this Bill, the Conservative Party is seeking to subvert democracy. It should simply stop trying to do so now.”
Lord Stratchlyde also said that House of Lords officials had advised the Government that the proposed amendment was inadmissible because the Bill had nothing to do with the boundary review. However, a number of Peers said the role of officials was to advise and that the Lords should decide for itself whether to discuss the Bill.
Comment: Page 24