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Mr. Evans: I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 9, line 20, at end insert--

"(10) A declaration of local connection shall be of no effect if that declaration states an address which is an address within a constituency which is not represented by a Member of Parliament at the time when that declaration is received by the registration officer".

The amendment would offer further protection for the democratic process by ensuring that travelling voters could not target particular seats. I speak as one who bears the battle scars of two by-elections--in Pontypridd, where I came third, and in the safe Conservative seat of Ribble Valley, where I came second. The amendment would prevent groups of politically motivated people--who clearly would not belong to either the Conservative or the Labour parties--from inflicting the Swampy factor on elections.

Some protesters are prepared to stay underground or at the top of trees to make their point. It is naive to think that people motivated enough to do such things would not be motivated enough to travel around the country and make a local declaration in an area where a by-election was to be held.

I am rather disappointed that there are no representatives from Plaid Cymru in the Chamber tonight, as one of that party's seats has recently been vacated by the resignation of the hon. Member for Ceredigion. This important Bill tries to address the observed decline in voting by encouraging as many people as possible to vote. However, the Ceredigion by-election has been called for 3 February. It is doubly disappointing that about 3,800 young people--first-time voters, in the main--will not be able to vote on that date because they are registered on the new register that comes into force on 16 February.

The Ceredigion by-election will not be affected by the Bill, but other by-elections will be. When a seat is vacated because the Member of Parliament dies, several weeks normally pass before a by-election is held. That was what happened after the tragic death of Alan Clark, but, clearly, Plaid Cymru had its own reasons for acting quickly in the case of Ceredigion.

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The gap of several weeks that normally occurs gives ample opportunity for the Swampy factor to come into play. People can move around the country and make local declarations in the constituency involved. That may not be very important in constituencies where one party enjoys a large majority, but we must ensure that the Bill closes down any abuses that might exist, and that it opens no fresh possibilities for abuse. Where a majority runs into only three or four figures, politically motivated people could travel around the country to where by-elections are to be called and could actually decide the results.

We are trying to be realistic about abuses of the system. Because there will be a rolling register and because we are bending over backwards to enable people to register to vote as quickly as possible--more quickly than ever before--no one can say that we are closing the stable door to prevent genuine and legitimate voters from voting. However, the amendment would ensure that, once a seat was vacated, normally because of the death of a Member of Parliament, people could not turn up, make declarations of their location and try to abuse the system.

I hope that the Minister can assure all hon. Members that the Government are taking the situation seriously and that, if they are not prepared to accept our amendment, they will introduce one to close that loophole.

Mr. Simon Hughes: There is a danger that this might become a discussion between by-election groupies or people who have been through the by-election process. All I can say to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is that some of us have a better score than he has.

Mr. Evans: Everybody has.

Mr. Hughes: I was trying to be gentle, but as the hon. Gentleman has owned up so generously, I thank him very much.

We are sympathetic to the amendment. It is important not to allow a sudden influx of people into an area once a by-election has been called. The electorate should be fixed on the day that the by-election is called. We share the concern and disappointment expressed about the by-election in Ceredigion. It has an intelligent electorate and there is often a very high turn-out. Because of the politics in the area, contests are close, and the seat has changed parties often since the last war. Yet the next generation of people who want to vote will be deprived of the chance to do so. As someone with family in Ceredigion, who are on the electoral register and will--I assume and hope--be voting, I share that concern. Plaid Cymru has let those people down and let down the case for wider electoral reform.

I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the proposal. Our electoral systems must not allow elections to be rigged by people suddenly moving in and signing on. The amendment is one way of ensuring that. The wording may not be perfect, but I hope that some comfort will be given to the proposition, and that we can deal with the problem before the Bill ends its passage through Parliament.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The amendment presents some interesting questions and some difficulties. I would be reluctant to create a situation in which homeless people

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were treated differently from those who could use the rolling registration scheme. The rolling register will enable people to register to vote when a vacancy occurs if they are not homeless--if they are registering other than by means of a local connection.

The amendment would stop those who register by means of a declaration of local connection from doing so where a vacancy has arisen. They would therefore be treated differently from those who could otherwise register under the rolling registration scheme. I am reluctant to do that. However, I listened with care to the points made by the hon. Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). The reference to the Swampy factor can be overdone; I would not want to raise a spectre to haunt the whole idea. That would not be realistic. As the hon. Member for Ribble Valley said, getting homeless people to register will be difficult in any event. At the same time, we want to ensure that we provide every encouragement and do not seek to disfranchise people by reason of their homelessness.

9.45 pm

We need to ensure that proper systems are in place to deal with those who seek to register for improper reasons. However, we must strike a balance to ensure that there is a level playing field. I have heard what has been said and shall discuss the issue with officials to see whether there may be some way to deal with it. The amendment is not the way to do that. It would create discrimination against people who were homeless and who sought to register by way of a declaration of local connection. I do not like that proposal, but I do not deny that there is an outside possibility that people may seek to register for a by-election. I shall consider the matter with more care and write to the hon. Members for Ribble Valley and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, and will happily copy the correspondence to any other hon. Member who indicates an interest to me when the debate is over.

Mr. Evans: I am grateful for what the Minister has said and for the support of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. It is sad, as he said, that people who should vote for the first time in the Ceredigion by-election will be denied their opportunity for up to two years. They will remember well who denied them their vote in 2000.

I am grateful for the Minister's assurances. The Opposition do not want to set up some demarcation that picks on the homeless and no one else. However, when the Minister reconsiders the point, will he look into the possible problems with by-elections, particularly those that take place several weeks after a vacancy occurs? There is an opportunity for abuse of the system, but it could easily be prevented. Matters are different when people move house. People are not likely to go so far as to spend perhaps £60,000, £70,000 or £80,000 to try to abuse the system and get a vote, but a local declaration costs nothing. It would be far easier for people to abuse the system in that way than it would in any other. I am reassured by what the Minister said, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 56, in page 9, line 38, leave out first "any" and insert "another".

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No. 57, in page 9, line 39, leave out "otherwise than" and insert ", whether or not".--[Mr. Mike O'Brien.]

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Mr. David Heath: I do not want to detain the Committee for long. As the Minister gave his assurances on amendment No. 17, he said that the form of declaration would include a requirement that a person should declare whether he or she were already registered by virtue of a declaration of local connection elsewhere. Does he intend to table an amendment to clause 6 in order to amend section 7B(3) of the 1983 Act, where the contents of a declaration of local connection are specified? If a further mandatory requirement for information is to be placed on any person seeking to register, it seems extraordinary that it should not appear in legislation, and it would be more convenient if it did.

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