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Mr. Fabricant: Following on from the remarks of the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham)--no longer in his place--how can the Minister be sure that there is not much fraud? What research does the Home Office do? If fraud had been committed by personation and had not been detected, surely the Home Office would not know of it.

Mr. Howarth: I do not want to be drawn into examples arising from the general election or any other recent election. The Home Office can conduct a review after every general election. If there is any evidence, it is generally, for obvious reasons, political parties that uncover it before passing it on to the Home Office. I do not suggest that the system is wholly free of fraud.

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There have been cases, and some, I think, are under investigation by the police in certain parts of the country at present. However, a pattern to fraud would tend to be noticed by presiding officers or the political parties. In one or two recent cases, a political party has complained about the activities of another, throwing some light on what has been happening. We cannot be absolutely certain that there is no fraud, and we must be vigilant. We must consider all proposals, but must also examine whether they would compromise the integrity of the ballot.

It is a fundamental principle that everyone has an equal right to vote. Since the adoption of universal suffrage, everyone, irrespective of wealth or status, has been concerned to know that that principle is being upheld. I fear that the amendment might send the wrong message to a section of the community. I know that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) does not want that to happen. If we agree that the right to vote applies to everyone, we must also agree that everyone must have the same right to register. We cannot have one without the other. We must be careful, therefore, before erecting any obstacle that would affect one section of the electorate and not another.

That, inadvertently, is what the amendment would do. Registration would become harder for those who wish to register by means of a local connection than it would be for other electors. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who tried to take a balanced view, referred to that danger in his short speech. It would be inappropriate to ask homeless people or mental patients to produce bank statements or passports. Meanwhile, a head of a household who registers in the normal way may, when filling in the annual form, add a new name that was not on the form in the previous year. The registration officer would accept that without any requirement for documentary evidence establishing that the new person was alive and resident at the address in question. It would be taken on trust.

Mr. William Ross: Am I mistaken, or is it the case in Great Britain and Northern Ireland that any elector can challenge a name on the electoral register?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman anticipates me. Normally, a head of household fills in a form. There is no reason why the same rule should not apply to those who register by means of a declaration of local connection. Anyone who doubts the validity of a person registered in that way will be able to object to registration, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. One of the Bill's purposes, however, is to make it easier for people to register, particularly those people disadvantaged by existing rules. To impose an additional and difficult burden that other electors would not have to face would run totally counter to that principle.

Mr. Evans: Will the Minister concede that someone who knowingly filled in a registration form incorrectly and falsely would be committing an offence and could be fined?

Mr. Howarth: As I understand it, that is the case.

Mr. Ross: Will the Minister give way?

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Mr. Howarth: I was about to deal with the points made by the hon. Gentleman, but I am more than happy to accept his intervention.

Mr. Ross: The measure introduces the principle of rolling registration, thus the time scale before an election might make it impossible for someone to object to a name on the register. Could the Minister deal with that point?

Mr. Howarth: Certainly. The register would be more up to date and people would have a longer time in which to register, so the difficulty described by the hon. Gentleman could arise. However, we have to judge whether inserting an obstacle for certain groups is justified by giving other groups longer in which to object to a particular entry. We should all want to be convinced that the problem was important enough to be catered for in that way before we took that course.

8.30 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes: Like me and other Members, the Minister probably receives a regular update of the electoral register. I receive one every month from my electoral services department. That gives one a means of checking and assimilating information. What is the plan for providing information about the rolling register to parties, councillors and Members of Parliament? Without such a plan, throughout the country, the problem of spotting someone who is registered at two addresses will grow rather than diminish.

Mr. Howarth: I must be honest. The hon. Gentleman and other Members will be aware that I am on a no fee loan to the Home Office for the purposes of the Bill. That came about because I chaired the working party, although no one felt it necessary to explain to me why my presence was required. I am thus not wholly up to date with developments in the Home Office. The point raised by the hon. Gentleman needs to be dealt with and I shall ensure that the appropriate Minister responds to him.

The list of documents in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for East Londonderry is slightly wider than those listed in amendment No. 13, for reasons that the Committee may understand. However, the amendment would have an impact on homeless people. Furthermore, it would place on such people a burden that would not apply to other voters who would not have to satisfy those conditions. In that sense, it would be unfair to homeless people.

As the hon. Gentleman's set of concerns is more particular to Northern Ireland than it is common in Great Britain, it might be helpful if, in his capacity as a Member of Parliament for a Northern Ireland constituency and in my capacity as a Northern Ireland Office Minister, we were to hold further discussions on the matter. If necessary, I shall make representations to the Home Office subsequently. I hope that he will accept my invitation to hold those discussions.

However, I can provide the hon. Gentleman with some reassurance. Mr. Pat Bradley, who will be known to him and is well respected as the electoral officer for Northern Ireland, was a member of the working party. Mr. Bradley's views were listened to with great attention, and when there were concerns about the situation in Northern Ireland, we listened even more carefully.

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We benefited from his experience, which we took very seriously indeed. I shall, of course, listen to the hon. Gentleman's concerns and make any representations that I consider to be necessary.

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if, in the context of clause 6 and his amendment, I do not enter into a debate on identity cards. Vexed issues arise from that matter, and the Government have taken the view that there are no plans on it at present. I cannot rule that out for ever, but I shall not promote a debate on that vexatious subject this evening. However, I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. His experience in Northern Ireland means that he has special reasons for the position that he takes on the matter.

The hon. Members for Ribble Valley and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) took a reasonable approach--and I do not exclude the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) from that statement. Indeed, during his contribution, I was pondering the fact that if anyone tried to impersonate him at the ballot box, they would quickly be rumbled. That would certainly not be a problem for him.

However, his hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley and for Beaconsfield suggested that their enthusiasm for the amendment was not such that they would necessarily push it to a vote. I believe that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley was looking for an assurance that the issues raised during the debate would be considered further. He is well aware that, on these issues, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary listens very carefully to the views of the House. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and I will ensure that the issues that have been raised in the debate are drawn to his attention, and I am certain that he will give them proper consideration. On that basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider whether it would be possible to--

Mr. Fabricant rose--

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Member for Lichfield seeks to intervene.

Mr. Fabricant: I am glad that the Minister recognised me. Will he give the assurance, asked for by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and re-emphasised by myself, that the Government will regularly review the effectiveness of the clause to ensure that there is no increase in personation or multiple voting?

Mr. Howarth: Yes. I believe that I said earlier that the Home Office regularly reviews elections. It receives representations from political parties and elsewhere, and it will, as a matter of course, keep the effect of the clause and other parts of the Bill under review.

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