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Schedule 1

Registration: Amendments of 1983 Act

Mr. Linton: I beg to move amendment No. 85, in page 18, line 24, at end insert--

"(2A) The requirement at subsection (2)(a) above for the inclusion of the name of the person to be registered shall not apply where, in the opinion of the registration officer, inclusion would be prejudicial to the safety of that person.".

The amendment would allow electoral registration officers to register certain voters anonymously if it is considered that publication of their addresses would render them liable to danger. For the avoidance of doubt, let me make it clear that this is not the junk-mail amendment whereby people can opt to keep their names off the edited version of the register so that they are not inundated with junk mail. This might be better described as the battered wife or Jill Dando amendment. It would allow the names of vulnerable voters to be left off the register so that they could not be traced by a stalker, a violent ex-spouse or a vengeful ex-prisoner, but would retain their entitlement to vote.

Mr. Fabricant: I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks and can see some force behind his argument, but who would determine whether someone is at risk? Would it be the voter concerned, the police, or someone else?

Mr. Linton: I thought that it was becoming clear that with this amendment, the electoral registration officer could decide to register certain voters anonymously. It is quite different from the amendment to clause 9 under which the voter could opt to be excluded from an edited version of the register. I do not want to anticipate the debate on clause 9, but that amendment concerns the balance of convenience between avoiding the junk mail that people receive if they are on the register and the credit that they may not be able to get if they are not on it.

This amendment is about much more than a balance of convenience; it may be a matter of life or death. It embodies one of the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee report in September 1998. I urge the Minister and the Committee to give it serious consideration.

Mr. Grieve: I do not know how much detail the hon. Gentleman can go into about how the system would work. If the system would leave blanks on the register so that it would be noticeable that certain properties were not registered, would not that in itself alert people who consult the register to the fact that there is an anomaly? How would the system work in respect of the person concerned voting on polling day?

Mr. Linton: During our evidence sessions, the Home Affairs Committee heard that there are several categories of people whose safety can be put at risk if their name appears on the electoral register. That certainly includes battered wives, but also people in occupations that make them vulnerable to attack. Prison warders and police officers are two examples. Not everybody in those categories would need anonymity, but there may be individual cases in which it is required. Another example

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is people who have been victims of stalking or other forms of obsessional behaviour, particularly where there has been police surveillance or protection.

We do not recommend that the voter should be able to opt to go ex-register in the same way that one can go ex-directory in the telephone system because we want this provision to be used only in exceptional circumstances. We do not want it to be used for the wrong reasons, such as to avoid tax or jury service.

At the moment, a few vulnerable people keep their name off the electoral register. That is technically an offence and can attract a £1,000 fine, but as we heard earlier, nobody is ever prosecuted. We heard evidence from the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives that some electoral registration officers use devices to give anonymity to people who have good reason to avoid being identified.

One device that we know is used is allowing married women to use their maiden names to make it more difficult for people to trace them. Another is to allow them to use false names so that their husbands or ex-husbands cannot find them. Registration officers acknowledge that they may be at risk of challenge in using such devices; in other words, they do not know whether they are legal.

The Local Government Association suggested in its evidence to the Committee that people could be registered with names but no addresses under the "other voters" listed in every ward. That answers the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).

Another suggestion came from the Association of Electoral Administrators. It argued that to put the names in the list of other voters that appears at the end of every ward register might in some circumstances give too much of a clue about where someone lives. A determined ex-husband might, especially in small wards, be able to trace a person once they know roughly where that person lives. Electoral administrators therefore argued that there should be a constituency-wide list of anonymous electors, which would make it much more difficult to track people down.

All organisations that represent registration officers ask for an explicit ability to register voters anonymously. They point out that that right existed under the community charge register. It was used by very few people, but it existed so that registers could not be used as a way of tracing people who might be in danger.

I suggest that registration officers should have the power both to list vulnerable voters in a list of anonymous voters at the end of the register if their addresses need protection, and to list them under a permanent polling number if their names need protection. Clearly, something must appear on the register, but the mere existence of a polling number rather than a name would not give anyone a clue to an address.

Such an argument of course implies that there should be yet another version of the electoral register. If clause 9 is agreed, there will be two versions: a full version of the register, which will be available for public inspection and to political parties, and an edited version, which will be sold commercially. The amendment implies a third version, which would be available only in the polling station to polling station officers for use in the election.

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The version that would be available for public inspection and to political parties would omit the names of vulnerable people or list them as anonymous names to protect their identity.

The provision of a full unpublished register would allow the inclusion of two further pieces of information that are sometimes necessary to prevent fraud. Some fathers give their sons their own names, down even to their middle names, and the only way in which to distinguish them is by date of birth. An unpublished register would enable the inclusion of dates of birth, making--one hopes--each person's electoral registration unique. Unusual first names also make it difficult to distinguish the gender of the voter. Gender could also be included on such a register. That is an incidental advantage that the amendment might bring.

I am not arguing for more information on the public register, but for less. Irrespective of what happens to clause 9, I hope that the Minister and the Committee will agree to give electoral registration officers the right for which they have asked to protect the identity of vulnerable voters.

Considering a Bill in Committee on the Floor of the House often provides a better platform but creates a more formal atmosphere in which sometimes it is more difficult to persuade Ministers to take on board the force of an argument. However, I hope that Ministers will seriously consider the amendment, which is supported by the entire Home Affairs Committee and all organisations that are intimately involved in electoral registration.

10.15 pm

Mr. Greenway: As the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) knows from Second Reading, I have a great deal of sympathy with the Home Affairs Committee recommendation. I am not entirely clear whether his amendment provides a complete solution. In particular, the fact that other members of a person's family may be on the register creates a difficulty.

Even if clause 9 is agreed to in its present form--we hope that it will not be for many reasons--that will not be a solution. The full register will still be available in libraries. Stalkers, or former boy friends or husbands of women who have suffered serious domestic violence, can if they wish, and if they are as deranged as I have described, use whatever means are necessary to check where those women may be living.

I am not entirely clear how many people would qualify to come into the category that we are discussing. I suspect that there would be only a few. Those facing a problem would clearly be on an electoral register in terms of their right to vote but would not appear on it either by name or address.

We are all used to campaigning and canvassing on electoral registers that show gaps. About a quarter of the people on a register move from one address to another during a complete year. The absence of an address, let alone a name, from a register would not of itself spark any prospect of people thinking, "Somebody important must live there." Many addresses are missing from registers.

Mr. Barnes: The Bill will introduce a rolling register and a monthly update will take place.

Mr. Greenway: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He may be right in some respects. However,

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I understand that the requirement to publish a register for public scrutiny is only an annual event and not something that would be done routinely each time there are changes in the register. The opportunity for someone to get hold of the register would be limited in using it to check which properties are not accompanied by a name and address.

I wish to send a message to the Minister that we support the concept of action being taken. The Select Committee's report pointed out that the issue had not yet been considered by the working party. Was the working party unable to consider the matter in any detail? If that is the position, perhaps we should ask the Minister to consider the matter and produce a proposal that we could all support. That would allow people who feel that they are vulnerable to physical assault as a result of others finding out where they are to make their position clear. As I said on Second Reading, there is still a general suspicion that the murderer of Jill Dando may have been a stalker. Her address may have been discovered through an entry in a register that was available for public scrutiny. That cannot be dismissed lightly as something of no significance. Indeed, it is extremely important.

An opt-out box was considered because of the potential threat of violence. However, there was no great body of evidence that that was a big issue for most people. It might have been for a few.

The fact that electoral registration officers are looking to the House and to the Government to find a solution should be the final encouragement to the Minister to do so. Given the likely date of Report, it may not be possible for the House to find a solution in the Bill. However, even with the short timetable that the Minister has in mind to get the Bill on the statute book so that the pilot schemes can go ahead, I urge him to try to find a mechanism that could be approved by the other place and that the House could then approve in a very short time.

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