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Mr. Linton: I shall not detain the Committee for more than a couple of minutes, but I cannot let this moment pass without pointing out the official Opposition's inconsistency. Before Christmas, Opposition Front Benchers very strenuously opposed amendments to stop dual registration that were tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and me. The hon. Gentleman is now opposing dual registration for homeless people, after defending dual registration for rich people who are registered both at a country house and a town house. He raises the principle of dual registration in a way that applies not only to the homeless, but to everybody. The other categories who enjoy it are people with second homes, Members of Parliament and students. That gives many Members personal experience of--if not interest in--the subject.

The amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield and myself were almost exactly the same as those being moved now by the hon. Gentleman, if one substituted the word "declaration" of local interest for "registration".

Mr. Evans: We have asked for some form of identification to be made for local declarations, but that has not been accepted fully. It will be easier to register than ever before. When a campaign starts, it will be so much harder to detect where this is happening and close it down. It will still be an offence to vote in a general election in more than one constituency but, in respect of registration and a campaign by a group--I am not picking on the homeless, who I do not think will do this--people may abuse the system.

Mr. Linton: The point is that we want a registration system that is unlikely to be abused. The hon. Gentleman referred to moving within his constituency, but problems arise because there is no correlation between moving from one place and moving to another. We have advocated a system where there was no dual registration, and that would not stop Members of Parliament or students having a choice about where they voted. They could say that they were resident in one constituency or the other. However, it would stop them being registered in both places at the same time. That has the enormous benefit that when one moves one's registration for parliamentary purposes--this would not apply to local election registration--one moves away from one constituency to another. One transfers the registration, rather than simply starting a new one while probably forgetting to cancel the old one.

That is the enormous advantage of an end to dual registration. It would not be against the interests of those who reside in two places, who would always have a choice. It would ensure that the electoral registration process is one of registering in one place and transferring to another. That means that many of the 4 million people who are on the register but should not be, and the 7 million who should be but are not, would be eliminated by a basic reform to the system to prevent dual registration for parliamentary elections--not only for the homeless, but for everybody.

Mr. William Ross: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we are serious about stopping dual registration,

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every elector in the country should have a unique number attached to his name, whether it is his national insurance number or, even better, his medical card number, which the computers could then throw up if someone registered in more than one place?

Mr. Linton: I hope to come to that point in the debate on the next amendment.

Mr. David Heath: Clearly, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is expressing a point of interest to the Committee. I have some sympathy with his point, as I have with the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), with whom I agree about single rather than dual registration. As far as possible, I believe that the same rules should apply to every class of elector, rather than having distinctive arrangements.

I do not believe that the amendment would cover what is needed, nor do I think that the Government have yet got it right. The criticism in both cases may be to do with the mechanism. The current proposition is that there should be a duty on the person registering to cancel any previous registration. We do not know exactly what cancellation means, and the duty could be very light or very onerous; we must discover that from the Minister.

The Minister clearly recognises that the wording was not right before, by virtue of the Government amendments, and especially No. 57, which would ensure that the same requirement applied to a declaration of local connection as to a normal registration.

Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it will be difficult enough to get homeless people to register in the first place, let alone getting them to de-register when they move? That is why we must make absolutely certain that when they re-register they are asked specifically to declare whether they have registered anywhere else, so that their name can be removed from the other location.

Mr. Heath: That underlines my concerns about the arrangements proposed in the amendment. It seems to be an onerous duty that will be difficult for people to fulfil. One of the problems is the synchronicity: if the amendment were made, cancellation of the previous registration would have to occur before the declaration of local connection was made. That double process cannot be what the hon. Gentleman intended and I hope that it would not be implemented in that way.

Surely a cancellation is not what we need. The Government amendments make it clear that a previous registration by declaration of local connection falls when the person is re-registered in any way. We need a system that places a duty on the person not to cancel with the previous registration officer but simply to make the new registration officer aware that he or she was previously registered. The officer would then have the responsibility of ensuring that the other officer is made aware of the change. If we have that mechanism, we do not need to get too excited about the problem.

The hon. Gentleman has detected the fact that there is no clear duty or sanction to ensure that the applicant makes a previous registration known when re-registering, but the amendment does not quite answer the case.

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Mr. Evans: The Minister referred to the problem in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) of 16 December. He said:

Mr. Heath: That is very helpful. If we have a form designed in that way and there is a penalty for knowingly giving false information, the matter is dealt with. If the Minister can assure me that that is the case, even though it is not in the Bill, there is no longer a problem of dual registration and the amendment is unnecessary.

9.30 pm

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is right. He quoted the letter that I sent and I hope that that provides him with sufficient reassurance. I can confirm that what I said in the letter was right, which it is always a pleasure to do.

As the Bill is currently drafted it does nothing to prevent a person from registering more than once as an elector using declarations of local connection. Because declarations of local connection are designed for use by those such as the homeless, mental patients and remand prisoners who are unable to establish residence in the normal way, that seems wrong and amendments Nos. 56 and 57 will prevent that.

I note the comments of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley earlier, but overall, Members of Parliament receive an excellent service from the officers of the House and we have too little opportunity to pay tribute to them. Perhaps I should mention that the loophole that we seek to close was originally spotted by the eagle-eyed Oonagh Gay of the Library when she was preparing her excellent research paper on the Bill. I am sure that all hon. Members are grateful to her for referring to the matter in her research paper so that we could deal with it.

Amendments Nos. 62 and 63 will make a similar change in respect of those who register by means of a service declaration. Those who register in the normal way and legitimately have more than one residence--I know that that includes many hon. Members--will not be prevented from registering in respect of each of them. I shall not revisit the debate that we had about dual registration, but I hope that, in the light of that reassurance and the indications I have given about how we intend to deal with the issue, the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his amendment. I invite the Committee to support amendments Nos. 56, 57, 62 and 63.

I do not go all the way with the hon. Gentleman on what he calls the Swampy factor, although it is something that we will wish to consider. I will discuss it with my officials and consider whether we will be able to deal with it in the other place if that turns out to be necessary. I am not convinced that it is as big a problem as the hon. Gentleman fears, but I will consider his constructive comments.

Mr. Evans: We have had another useful debate and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) for his contribution to it. I accept much of what he said about double registration. We have made a start in closing loopholes and, if clear abuses are taking place, we will

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need to reconsider. I understand that students form the bulk of those who register twice--there are only 659 Members of Parliament--but it is an offence to vote more than once in a general election. I also understand that some people wish to vote in local elections that take place at different times in different areas. We may need to revisit the issue in five years' time, given the pace at which new technology is advancing.

I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. The Government's amendments will do much to close the loophole. I am also grateful that he has undertaken to reconsider what I have called the Swampy factor--the fact that a politically motivated group of people may use the legislation to enfranchise people who currently cannot vote. It would be wrong for such people to be able to abuse the system for their own ends. If Home Office Ministers and officials study that matter and detect a problem, I hope that they will act, in another place, to close that loophole.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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