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Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): A homeless tramp registered to vote in the constituencies of, for example, St. Helens, South, St. Helens, North and Makerfield would have to rush around on polling day to vote for all the Labour candidates in those areas. On his income, how could he afford to do it? That is a rather farcical example, but is not the reality that the homeless do not register or vote because they are homeless?

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point about the practicality of voting. I shall give him an example of what might happen in practice.

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Many homeless people have moved to the area of Brighton and Hove in recent years, and many residents of that area feel that their town has been taken advantage of. It is very easy to walk through three constituencies--Hove, Brighton, Pavilion and Brighton, Kemptown--in 15 minutes. It is possible for someone to be able to vote in three constituencies--it does not require money to do so. I emphasise that I am not suggesting that people will do this, but it is possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield gave an example of someone who did not have voting rights who could pick up a slip of paper, walk into a constituency and vote. That would be personation.

We agree with the clause in general, but it will be important to monitor its practical effects.

Mr. Bermingham: I am thinking back over my practical experience, and declaring an interest as a practising lawyer. I can remember only one case of double voting and repeat voting in the past 30-odd years. I have asked many of my colleagues if they can remember any, and they cannot. Repeat voting does not seem to be an English habit.

Mr. Fabricant: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, but it surprises me, given that he is a very experienced lawyer. He will be aware of the difference between a crime being detected and a crime being committed. Multiple voting and personation were discussed when we debated this issue last year, and we just do not know how much it happens. I suspect that it is not material; I suspect that Governments have not fallen as a result of such practices. But for heaven's sake, when we introduce legislation, we try to ensure that crimes are not committed.

I welcome an extension of the franchise, but we must be sure that it will not be abused. Just because the hon. Gentleman cannot remember such a crime being committed, it does not mean that it does not happen. It can be argued that the influx into hostels of people who have the franchise has changed local election voting patterns slightly. We cannot be so sure that these practices might not occur. I am simply asking that the legislation is good legislation and that it is regularly reviewed. Will the Minister give an assurance that the practical effects of the legislation be monitored and reported to Parliament from time to time, as is applicable, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome requested?

I also welcome the comments of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) on identity cards. Although it would not be appropriate to discuss the benefits or otherwise of identity cards now, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that the majority of people in the country would not object to the issue of identity cards. The only objection, perhaps, should be to the compulsory carrying of identity cards at all times. All Members of Parliament have identity cards, but if we carried out a straw poll in the Chamber tonight on how many of us were carrying them, I suspect that the result would not be 100 per cent.

With those reservations, I support not only the amendment but the clause.

Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster): I oppose the amendment. I understand what Conservative Members have been saying, but their proposals would upset the balance.

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Clause 6 is to be welcomed; it is an innovation, and will extend the franchise. However, the amendments would create hurdles that those making a declaration would find difficult to overcome. Homeless people wishing to take advantage of the extension might not have any of the documents listed in the amendment in their possession. If I could be convinced, however, that using either information technology or some other form of identification would be simple and would not prevent those wishing to make a declaration from doing so, I might be more in favour of the amendments. Otherwise, I urge the Committee not to accept them.

8.15 pm

Mr. Grieve: I have a number of brief points to make. First, I welcome the thrust of the Bill. It is very desirable that the franchise should be extended to all those who are entitled to it and that they should be able to avail themselves of it easily. It is clear, therefore, that homeless people are a category that should be addressed.

As was said earlier, there is anxiety about the growth of personation at elections. I spent a lot of time in an inner-city constituency, where that anxiety centred on the tendency to encourage those leading a more transient existence, particularly in hostels, to register and the problem of what happened to the polling cards on polling day when those people had moved to other addresses. Personation can in general be detected only if the person being impersonated turns up to vote. If they do not, there is an opportunity under the existing identification rules for that person to be impersonated and for someone else to exercise, quite wrongfully, their right to vote.

My anxiety about the extension of registration rights is not about the peripatetic tramp. I have every confidence that if he decides to be registered, he will exercise his right to vote properly if he chooses to do so. I am concerned that someone, taking advantage of the fact that such a person is unlikely to exercise his right to vote, will impersonate him.

Mr. Bermingham: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman's experience is the same as mine in that, by and large, year in, year out, at both local and national elections, polling stations are manned by the same polling clerks, who get to know the voters. I know all the clerks in my area, and they get to know the electors. Polling clerks are our best defence against the wandering multiple voter. That is why I said earlier that if anyone had evidence of such a practice, would they please give it to me.

Mr. Grieve: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about that. In an urban environment, such as the one in which I was a councillor, I do not think that polling station staff are in a position to carry out that kind of detective work.

So how do we address this problem? I accept that this may not be the best place to do it. We need to consider the problem in the round. It might also be unfortunate to do it precisely when we are concentrating on trying to encourage certain categories of people to register and to vote. However, the point requires attention.

I have never been in favour of identity cards, so I accept that there is a catch-22 surrounding my argument in deciding how to deal with this thorny problem.

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I cannot say for certain whether the problem is growing.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I support the proposition of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) against that of the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham). In more than 17 years as a Member of Parliament, I know of various occasions in my constituency when people have turned up to vote to find that someone has voted in their place. I have a 25 per cent. turnover of electors a year, and the electoral staff, who are very competent, do not even begin to think that they can monitor electors, even if they work in the same polling station from one year to the next, which is rare. As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, it is a question of finding a way to deal with the problem.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was drawing to a close, but shall give way once more.

Mr. William Ross: Two points have been raised. First, it is not the role of electoral staff to identify electors. That role has always been taken in Northern Ireland by party representatives who can challenge those who try to personate. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman is dealing with an amateurish personation. It is a very different ball game in West Belfast.

Mr. Grieve: I do not feel qualified to comment on circumstances in Northern Ireland, although I know from anecdotal evidence and otherwise that there appears to have been a particular problem of personation there. That is why separate rules have been devised. I look forward to hearing from the Minister. The amendment has been tabled in good faith to ensure that the issue is discussed. The point will not go away, and I believe that we shall have to reconsider it later.

Mr. George Howarth: I entirely accept that the Opposition's motive in tabling the amendment is honourable and reasonable. They are trying to achieve the laudable objective of preventing electoral fraud. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has pointed out that I chaired the working party that considered the proposals when I was a Home Office Minister. It was one of our rules that every proposal should be treated with care so that no suggestion that we made would compromise the integrity of the ballot in any way. Although there are problems in some parts of the United Kingdom, to which I shall refer later, our electoral system is, if not entirely free of fraud, well respected, and it has a lot of integrity.

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