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Mr. Mike O'Brien: The position in Northern Ireland is, in many respects, similar to that in the rest of the United Kingdom, but in other respects it is different. The situation in Northern Ireland has been difficult for some decades, and in the past it has been alleged that problems have arisen in its electoral system that have been less evident elsewhere in the UK.

I do not think that the amendment is necessary. It would make those wishing to register as electors in Northern Ireland sign a declaration of local connection, a requirement that would not apply to those seeking to register in other parts of the United Kingdom. If we are to impose extra requirements, we need substantial evidence that a problem is likely to arise.

I do not deny that, given the history of Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) may have valid reasons for expressing his concerns, but, as he said, a special requirement already

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applies in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland--but not in other parts of the United Kingdom--a person cannot be registered unless he has resided in the Province for the previous three months. The proposed new section 4(2) of the Representation of the People Act 1983--which clause 1(2) of this Bill will insert--replicates that requirement by providing that no one may register in Northern Ireland unless he has been resident there for the entire period of three months before the date of registration on the rolling register. Clause 6(4)(b) makes equivalent provision for homeless persons seeking to register in respect of a declaration of local connection.

I see no reason to impose any additional requirements at this stage. I certainly do not see why people in Northern Ireland who register by means of declarations of local connection should be required to provide information over and above that provided by other electors. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman, however. The Government do not want the system to be opened up to widespread fraud. They are aware that there may well be concerns in Northern Ireland, and are anxious not to seem unduly complacent. After every election--including general elections--the way in which the election was conducted will be monitored, and the electoral rules will be reviewed to ensure that they are not being abused.

We will certainly listen to the views of the hon. Gentleman and his party--and others in Northern Ireland--if, once the Bill has been enacted, evidence is submitted that an abuse has occurred. We shall then be prepared to consider ways of dealing with the problem.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman may have some concerns, given the history of Northern Ireland. We do not think that the arrangements there need to be exactly the same as those in other parts of the United Kingdom, but we do not want to impose unnecessary burdens on those seeking to vote in Northern Ireland. It is a question of getting the balance right. I think that we have got the balance right in the Bill and that we do not need the amendment. However, if evidence were subsequently produced suggesting that problems were starting to occur, we would examine it and consider how to deal with the problems.

I hope that, following my reassurance, the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Ross: I am willing to withdraw the amendment, but I still have a sneaking concern. If there is fraud and some people lose their seats at an election, it will not be much comfort to them to say that we will correct the problem before the next election, especially if the complexion of the council has changed. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind. We have deep concerns--and there are real reasons for them because we have a land frontier.

As the Minister knows, I have often, or at least on a number of occasions, taken part in the post mortem in the Home Office after elections. The reality is that it is almost impossible to catch people who practise deceit in electoral matters, or are involved in personation, and prove it.

Mr. O'Brien: Let me perhaps give the hon. Gentleman a little more reassurance. We need not necessarily wait for an election. If it became clear--remember, the provision is to do with homeless persons--that suddenly a large number of people were claiming to be homeless,

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to have a local connection, and to have been there for three months, and many of those so-called homeless people were not known in the area, the returning officer would undoubtedly become suspicious in an area such as Northern Ireland because homeless people tend to become known. Therefore, the returning officer could at that point alert the authorities of that potential problem before the election took place.

Mr. Ross: I am grateful for that explanation. One of the ways in which the returning officers, or electoral officers as we call them in Northern Ireland, could increase their knowledge would be by asking the Housing Executive how many homeless people were applying for homes. People will start to look for a house if they are genuinely homeless. If they are not genuine, they will not be looking for such dwellings. Bearing that in mind--I hope that the Minister will bear it in mind--I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Evans: I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 9, line 14, at end insert--

"(7A) If a person knowingly makes a declaration of local connection at a time when there is in existence another declaration of local connection which he has made and which has not been cancelled or rendered void, he is guilty of an offence.
(7B) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (7A) of this section is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding Level 5 on the Standard Scale".

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin): With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 56, 57, 62 and 63.

Mr. Evans: As we can see from some of the Government amendments, the Government have come a long way in recognising some of the problems that we have detected in the Bill. It is only fair to say that we welcome that. We have gone a little further in making it an offence to register local connection in more than one place.

We are of the view that as many homeless people as possible should be encouraged to take the opportunity to register to vote. For some of them, it may be the first time that they have ever registered to vote. Just because they do not have the dignity of a roof over their heads does not mean that they should not be allowed to put a vote to their voice. Therefore, we welcome the thrust of the measure.

We have heard about some close constituency results and overseas electors. Some seats were decided by a small group of people; the majority was small. The 1992 Vale of Glamorgan election has been mentioned--I think that the majority was 19, a small number. As we know, some elections have been decided by even less, such as the Winchester election, which was decided by two votes. There have been other elections where the majority was in single figures.

Therefore, personation in relation to local connection could be a real problem. It could decide elections. We have to accept that that is true. We are trying--I hope that the Government accept that it is exactly what we are trying to do--to encourage homeless people to register

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to vote, but, at the same time, ensure that we do not activate people who are not homeless, but who might use the flexibility in the Bill to start to register and to make more than one local connection. That is the last thing that we want to happen.

9.15 pm

We know that constituencies differ--my constituency, for example, is large. As we heard from the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham), in some areas it is enormously difficult for some people to register and vote. Accordingly, provisions in the Bill will make it easier for people to vote by post. I have enormous reservations, however, about the potential for fraud that we shall be building into the system, and believe that an offence of local declaration might prove to be useful.

The potential for fraud will be bad enough in general elections, but it might also be a problem in by-elections--with which I shall deal specifically when I speak to a subsequent clause. In general elections, there could be an enormous impact if local connections are declared in more than one area. Although I concede entirely that the number of homeless people who would try to abuse the system that we are establishing is small, those who might be considered as part of the Swampy factor--those who usually protest in other ways--might abuse both the system and the flexibility for homeless people that we are including in the Bill.

I believe that, in some constituencies, the ability to make a local declaration will cause problems with those who are not homeless, but who may register under the novel provisions of clause 6. Moreover, as things stand, it would not be an offence for them to make such a declaration. I therefore ask the Minister to ensure that we plug the legislative loophole to ensure that those who make local declarations are allowed to do so only once and that we do not open the floodgates to a protest movement of those who will suddenly be able to make local declarations.

Currently, electoral registers across the country are not correlated. In 10 years, the situation may change and local registration officers may be able to check with one another. Today, I spoke to my electoral registration officer and asked her what would happen if I not only remained registered at the house that I left last year, but also registered in my new village. She said that their computer software would show my name appearing twice, and that they would investigate the double registration and remove one of the entries.

The duplication of my name would have occurred in a single constituency. I think that it is very unlikely that anyone would make more than one local declaration in the same constituency, as electoral officers would get wise to such attempts and identify possible problems. If such attempts--or even concerted campaigns--were made over a much wider area, however, I am not sure that they would be detected. We should therefore include in the Bill a provision to ensure that if such declarations are made and detected--detection is a separate issue--they will constitute an offence, possibly a criminal offence, for which people are liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.

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We should like the Minister carefully to consider amendment No. 16. We realise that the Government's amendments in this group go some way in tightening the legislation, but we ask him to go one stage further.

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