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Mr. Grieve: I want to make it clear to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) that I broadly support what he is trying to achieve. The purpose of the questions that I posed in my intervention was not to destroy his basic premise, but to raise a number of issues. My understanding is--it is clearly his view, too--that as matters stand there is some discretion. Various ideas have been worked out by electoral registration officers to deal with this problem informally, in the absence of anything specific on the statute. The worrying thing about the amendment is that, by clarifying what is allowed and what is not, it may fetter the discretion of electoral registration officers, so we must get it right.

I am concerned that if we had a system that put the names of known people at the bottom of an electoral register covering what in cities can be quite small wards, nothing would be better calculated to alert people to the fact that those people live in a small, circumscribed area. If a person were sufficiently unpleasant to want to unearth someone's address, such a system might provide the very pointers that the hon. Gentleman is trying to remove.

That is why I am concerned about the amendment, although I suspect that it has been tabled so that this matter can be aired. If it were passed and included in the Bill, it might be counterproductive. I favour the system under which people can use pseudonyms, which ensures that addresses are filled in. I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) made,

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that blanks on the electoral register have never been a source of great consternation to those looking at it, but I see no reason why pseudonyms cannot be used in exceptional circumstances. They provide the anonymity that people are seeking, while ensuring that the register shows both the number of people and who is living in the area that it covers. I suggest to the Minister that that may be a better way forward, but I await with interest to hear what he has to say on this topic.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Like other hon. Members, I understand the position that the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) has adopted. The Select Committee on Home Affairs and the electoral registration officers have asked us to look into this matter, so we must properly consider it. We need to go down this road very carefully. I want to flag up several problems that could arise if people are allowed to go off the electoral register.

First, if we are to have such a system, it must apply common standards, be carefully adjudicated and monitored and not allow too much discretion. In our constituencies--we all know our own best--many people may want to avail themselves of this provision. I regularly get people in my surgery who justifiably complain that they are being harassed for racial or other reasons. They may want to come off the electoral register. Some people may make a similar application for family reasons, because of past or present domestic violence. People summoned to serve in a jury trial may be vulnerable from the moment they are identified as a juror in a serious armed robbery, murder or drugs case.

Witnesses in criminal cases, or those believed to be witnesses, might want to be taken off the register. The same might apply to those who, without any real evidence, believed themselves to be the subject of revenge attacks: the families of people convicted of offences might well be thought to have it in for those who were party to the process. Those of us who live in or represent inner cities are accustomed to revenge attacks. This morning, I talked to a constituent whose husband is missing. She and the family believe that he may be dead as a result of a violent attack; no one quite knows. Such events lead to similar circumstances in a number of cases.

Judges, magistrates, policemen and doctors might want to be removed from the register. The list is very long, and I fear that, once the door was opened, it would be opened to, potentially, a great many people, and the concept of the register as the place where citizenship is recorded for the purpose of participation in the electoral process would become a very different concept.

My second point is technical. All politicians know that, especially in these days of computers and database-held electoral registers, it is not difficult to track people down. If I could not find Martin Linton of Battersea on this year's register, it would not be difficult for me to consult last year's register, or the register for the year before. The fact that Martin Linton is not on this year's register will not stop me from tracking him down if I am determined to do so. If someone leaves a message in my constituency office and I have no address for that person, we can track him down pretty quickly, and it is not difficult to do that in a wider context.

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Thirdly, the test proposed by the amendment is whether an individual would be prejudiced. It suggests that a person's name should not be included on the register if

That should be considered in the contexts of terrorism and of freedom of information. What is prejudice--substantial prejudice, or some prejudice? A range of issues are involved.

Mr. Linton: Most of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman are answered by the simple fact that the electoral registration officer, rather than the individual, would make the decision. The amendment is primarily intended for, and would be of use mainly to, battered wives who moved and wanted to ensure that their husbands could not trace them. Someone who has lived in the same house for 30 years can be traced through earlier registers. I can be traced through the telephone directory. Most of the jurors mentioned by the hon. Gentleman would also be easily traceable, because they would not have known in the past that a threat would be posed to them, and therefore would not have taken precautions. I am thinking of people who try to move away from danger and find that the inclusion of their names on the electoral register gives their pursuers a chance to track them down.

Mr. Hughes: I entirely understand what the hon. Gentleman says. My point is that in the case of a potentially large category, the issue is for how long a person might want to claim that his or her safety was at risk, looking both backward and ahead.

A huge number of my constituents, if asked whether they felt vulnerable and harassed, might well say that they did. I understand the hon. Gentleman's proposition: they would need to consult the electoral registration officer, who would make the decision. However, the perception of what constitutes a risk to safety in my constituency and that of the hon. Gentleman might be very different from the perception in other constituencies, where there might be few applicants in comparison with the number in multiracial, multicultural communities where attitudes are much less tolerant and there has been a tradition of attacks.

10.30 pm

I come to my final point. I do not want to make a great deal of it; I want simply to state the facts. There about 20 Members, of whom I am one, who have special protection because of such threats. I hope that we will never allow anyone who wants to stand for election to avail themselves of the opportunity not to be included on the register. To be allowed not to reveal where one lives cannot be consistent with seeking office as a councillor, Greater London Authority member or Member of Parliament.

I say all that in the light of the fact that colleagues from Northern Ireland have far more experience than the rest of us of such circumstances. They have kept a public presence in the face of huge risks. Some colleagues have suffered personally from those risks. We need to be careful that, in seeking to deal with a specific and proper concern when people move to a hostel or other address,

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we do not suddenly open the floodgates--with the electoral register no longer substantially comprising those who are eligible to vote, and with many people not on that register but, perhaps, without protection from discovery by those who are keen to track down where they are.

Mr. William Ross: I find myself in general agreement with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), to some extent for the reasons that he mentioned in relation to Northern Ireland Members. I have at one time or another received all sorts of weird and wonderful information on how to protect myself and to conceal where I live. Everyone knows where I live. For heaven's sake, I could not hide it because I live in a fairly republican area. The IRA already knows where I live. One has only to ask someone in the village, town or county. The idea that we can hide ourselves away in a little corner in this country for ever and no one will find us is sheer nonsense. It just cannot be done.

I appreciate what the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) is trying to do and what the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has said about crime and its dangers, but the only way to protect citizens from such behaviour is by having an efficient police force, so that those who indulge in attacks on people for vengeance, or for whatever reason, are nearly 100 per cent. certain of getting caught and suffering severely for it. That is the way to stop the criminal elements imposing their will on people.

In Northern Ireland generally, many thousands of men and women served part-time in the security forces, and in situations incomparably more dangerous than anything on this side of the Irish sea. The idea that those people could hide either their identity or place of residence was nonsense; it was known. We cannot allow our society to get into a situation where everyone wants to hide from the violent and the criminal--that way lies nothing but domination by the violent and the criminal.

We should keep that in mind. We should be prepared to allow our names to go on to the electoral register. We should expect society to protect us from evil doers whenever we give evidence against them. There is no running away from a citizen's responsibility, and we should not do anything that would encourage people even to try that.

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