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The Chairman: Order. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for interrupting him, but for his clarification

12 Jan 2000 : Column 359

and that of other hon. Members, I point out that amendment No. 14 was selected and debated in a group headed by amendment No. 30 on 15 December.

Mr. Bermingham: I accept that. I was aware that the amendment had been debated, but I rather liked it. As always I hope that I pick my words with great care and accuracy. If my memory serves me correctly, the amendment was not put to the vote on 15 December.

Now that I finally have the Minister's ear, I emphasise that were he, in thinking of the overall breadth of the Bill, to think back to 15 December--I am grateful to you, Sir Alan, for aiding me in reminding him--he would see the wisdom of amendment No. 14 when coupled with amendment No. 15. Effectively, they would require people to state on their annual return at the beginning of October where else they had registered. Returning officers would then know whether people had more than one eligible address, and at an election it would be simple to check--to return to the previous debate--whether there had been multiple voting.

It is a simple little matter. Even if amendment No. 15 is not pressed to a vote, I hope that the Minister will take on board its spirit because it tidies up a loophole--provided that it is coupled with amendment No. 14, which was debated on 15 December. I am grateful for your assistance, Sir Alan, which I hope has helped the force of my case. Sometimes one gets an opportunity to tidy up a little, if one marries two things together. It is useful democracy, is it not?

Mr. Fabricant: I rise briefly to support amendment No.15--not to talk about the role of Members of Parliament and where they may or may not live, but to say that, as the amendment is particularly concerned that there should be no determination of the amount of time that someone might spend

it has a special relevance to the internet age in which we live.

More and more people find that they can work from several different locations--not only in their offices but from their homes, in hotel rooms or abroad--while maintaining direct contact with their companies by placing and fulfilling orders and completing reports through the internet. The amendment is particularly useful, recognising the changes in work patterns. The Government would be ill advised to ignore it.

We have already had some debate on whether one ought to be at a place of residence on the evening of 10 October to determine one's entitlement to vote. The amendment would ensure that people not resident at that time, but working elsewhere, wherever that might be, were still able to vote in a particular area.

The Government should take heed of the amendment; they would be unwise to ignore it. If they did so, they would be the party not of the 21st century but of the 20th century--although, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said much earlier, we are technically still in the 20th century. On that confusing note, I rest my case.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I, too, was confused--but about whether the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome

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(Mr. Heath) was about to introduce his views into the debate. As it appears he is not, and since he has not been listening for the past few minutes, perhaps we may proceed.

I believe that all hon. Members agree that homeless people have the same basic rights as us to register as electors and to vote. The fact that they are homeless does not mean that they should be excluded from the democratic process. The only point at issue is how we can make it as easy and proper as possible for homeless people to register, bearing in mind their particular circumstances, while, at the same time, doing nothing to make it easier to register fraudulently.

The solution that we have come up with is the declaration of local connection. The new section 7B of the Representation of the People Act 1983 will allow a homeless person to register in respect of a relevant address. That address will be a place where he commonly spends a substantial part of his time. We think that that is the right approach. A homeless person will be required to indicate where he spends much of his time, which is likely to be the place with which he has the closest connection. It may, for example, be a hostel or even a shop doorway where he sleeps. It may equally be the place where he spends the bulk of his waking hours. That could be a day centre for the homeless, but it could be a place where he is employed or where he routinely has a patch where he sells The Big Issue, for example. If such a place is the place with which the person concerned feels that he has the closest connection, we should not prevent it from being used for registration purposes, which is the purpose behind the amendment.

We are not talking about a place where a person goes to pick fruit or hops, or for his holidays. He or she needs to spend a substantial amount of time in the place. Seasonal workers are not generally considered to be homeless and they must register at their residence. The amendment applies only to the homeless.

I remind the Committee of the rules governing qualification for election as a local councillor. To be elected to a local authority, a person must live in or own property in the authority area, or must work there. The principle that one can establish a link with an area through employment is already well established and there is no reason why it should not apply to the homeless.

Mr. Fabricant: If someone is working for a company but is rarely based at the company--let us say that he is working for the company by using an internet link, which is frequently the case--would that qualify that person to stand for election to the local council in that area or, in the instance of the Bill, would it qualify him to have voting rights in that area?

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman asks me to interpret as a court or a returning officer the words that appear in the Bill. That interpretation is best left to a returning officer or to the court rather than to a Minister. Let me ensure that I duck the question obviously and definitely.

Electoral registration has been largely based on residence. In many ways, that is the best principle. It cannot apply in exactly the same form to the homeless, but by allowing them to register in respect of the place with which they have a close connection we are making the minimum necessary modification to the underlying

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principle. If that place happens to be one where the homeless person is employed or provides a service for reward, so be it. We should not force homeless persons to register in respect of some other place with which they have a less well-defined connection, or where they spend less of their time.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) made some important points about multiple registration. To some extent, his comments have been dealt with in previous debates. However, I listened with great interest to his arguments and I shall continue to bear them in mind as we progress with the Bill.

I hope that in the light of my response the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) will be able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Evans: I am grateful for the contributions of the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant). I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman can at least support the thrust of the amendment.

I am somewhat disappointed by the Minister's response. I know that we are talking about the homeless, and he may feel that there will be no abuse. We wanted him to say that the Bill was never intended to be used in a way that would lead to abuse. Our purpose was to close any loopholes that might possibly open up.

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman can accept that the Bill was never intended to be used in a way that would lead to abuse. In the nature of things, we would not intend that to be the case.

9 pm

Mr. Evans: I am sure that that was never the intention, but if we can improve the Bill--which is what Committee stages are all about--we should take every opportunity to do so, and that is what our amendment seeks. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the amendment when he reflects on the debate, particularly the contribution from the hon. Member for St. Helens, South. We should make it as easy as possible for the homeless to register to vote while ensuring that the system is not open to abuse. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. William Ross: I beg to move amendment No. 102, in page 8, line 43, at end insert--

"and the declarant's previous address".

This part of the clause deals with the situation in Northern Ireland, and it is for that reason that I have tabled this short amendment. I tabled another amendment which seems not to have been selected, but perhaps, like the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham), I have been caught flat-footed; it may have been discussed before the House rose for the Christmas recess.

This is a probing amendment to find out what efforts the Government are making to prevent fraud. Northern Ireland has a land frontier, and there is the danger of people floating across the frontier for electoral purposes into constituencies and local government areas where a

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dozen, 50 or 100 votes could make an enormous difference, such as changing a council's political complexion or making or breaking a Member of Parliament. Reference was made to that in the debates on the first group of amendments discussed earlier.

If the declarant has been in Northern Ireland for the previous three months, he probably has an address somewhere. If he has not had an address in the previous three months, he must have had an address just prior to that either in Northern Ireland, elsewhere in the United Kingdom or in the Irish Republic. I am trying to establish some method by which we can identify the individual, where he came from and whether he is genuine or part of a concerted effort deliberately to defraud or undermine the electoral system.

The Minister has made it perfectly clear that he is determined that electoral fraud shall not happen. I share that aim. My constituents and my colleagues in Northern Ireland have good reasons for sharing it. The present position in Northern Ireland is that a person must have lived in an electoral or council area or in a constituency for three months before 15 September, which is the qualifying date to prove that the individual has a genuine interest in the area, rather than October as in Great Britain.

We are now changing that and moving to a system of rolling registration. That has considerable implications in the Province which do not prevail elsewhere. I know that the Minister would not want to open the door to the possibility of widespread and carefully conceived electoral fraud, turning electoral takeover of certain areas from an illegal into a legal activity. The changes made in the Bill certainly make electoral fraud easy.

I have a fundamental problem with the Bill. It opens a barn door to fraud under certain circumstances. It makes it easy for people to allege that they are moving from one constituency to another. The Minister should consider this item carefully. I can see reasons why the words in the amendment should not be added to this subsection--make no mistake about that--but there are also good reasons for doing so. The amendment would provide a method of tracing an individual and determining whether he is engaged in fraud or is genuine and has a right to be on the electoral register. I am trying to close that loophole before it is too wide open. I should like the Minister to tell me why these words should not be added to the Bill and what the Government's objections to them are.

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