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Mr. Fabricant: The whole Committee supports the principle of the amendment, but there is considerable doubt about its practicalities. I will come to my main criticism of the amendment shortly: the burden that it puts on electoral registration officers, who are already overburdened and under-resourced.

The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) gave several detailed examples. He talked about the use by battered wives of their maiden names. I do not think that that would prevent a husband from finding his wife. He said that exclusions would happen only in exceptional cases. That might mean exceptional blanks on the electoral register, but in practice someone could be found very easily. If the provision were used more generally, it would be more difficult to locate those who use it. However, I am not so sure that, in the democratic process, the provision should be used in cases that are less than exceptional.

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The amendment states that

I do not believe that a registration officer on his own would be qualified to make that type of decision.

If the Minister supports the general principle in the amendment, he must say whether he wants registration officers alone to make decisions on anonymity, based on a very tight code of conduct, or whether another agency--such as the police or local social services--should provide an input before he makes the decision.

Mr. Linton: Had the hon. Gentleman been a member of the Home Affairs Committee at the time--he has joined since--he would know that the Association of Electoral Authorities suggested that applications to electoral registration officers should come from either police officers or social workers, so that there would be input from professionals with first-hand knowledge of risk assessment. Nevertheless, the decision would still lie with the registration officer.

Mr. Fabricant: It is reassuring to know that, although I am a new member of the Home Affairs Committee, I have independently reached the same conclusion on the matter that it did. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

I do not agree with one of the arguments against the amendment made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), namely, that people who are planning to persecute or attack someone would examine previous registration documents. If that were a valid argument, we should never make such a change to the system. The point is that if there is to be change, it will have to be made at some point. Moreover, as the hon. Member for Battersea said in reply to the point, the change would at least stop someone pursuing the individual as he or she moves from place to place.

The Home Office should consider the issue seriously. Although I do not think that amendment No. 85 is practicable, I should like to know whether the Government plan to include in the Bill a provision to ensure that battered wives, witnesses and all the other people who are under threat and have been mentioned in the debate will be able to sleep safely and soundly in their beds.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: This has been a useful debate, as it has raised a very serious issue. The Home Affairs Committee took the view that there should be some form of anonymous registration--for those whom some people may describe as secret voters, as they would not be known to the political parties.

The working party on electoral procedures also examined the issue. It agreed that there was a problem, and was sympathetic to the need to resolve it. However, it felt that, even with its expertise--there was substantial expertise in the working party--it was not in a position to determine precisely how a secret voting system could be established and administered.

Therefore--although we all have much sympathy for those involved in such situations, and think that there is a problem that has to be dealt with--I think that the view of the Committee is that the subject requires more study

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than we have so far been able to give it, and I cannot provide any reassurance that I shall be able to support an amendment to the Bill to address the issue in the manner that we have been discussing today.

Clause 9, however, has some relevance to the issue. If we were to include in the Bill clause 9 as drafted, it would provide some protection, as there would be two registers, one of which--a full register, including all the relevant names--would be available to the political parties, and another of which would be available only to some organisations.

Mr. Fabricant: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I am anxious to proceed, as the Committee wishes to get on. I shall make my points and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene later, I will happily give way.

I accept that there is a genuine problem, but we now have interactive search software which makes it easier to trace people. Electoral registers can be on CD-Roms, which can be given away free with computer magazines. Therefore, searching for first names and surnames is remarkably easy. Clause 9 might provide some assistance in this area, and it remains to be seen what view the House takes. The Government have listened carefully to representations on the matter.

We need to see how we proceed with clause 9, but I accept that there is an issue here. There are some problems with the proposals that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) has made for the best of reasons. First, the parties will not know who is on the electoral register if some people are, in effect, secret voters. Those people will not be able to participate fully. They will not be able to receive the election address of the various candidates because the candidates will not know where these people are. It is possible to solve that problem, but we would have to work out a procedure to do so.

What would we do about the members of the family of the secret voter? Would they remain secret and off the register, known only to the electoral registration officer? That needs to be addressed.

I associate myself with the concerns of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) about battered spouses and the victims of stalkers. We can accept that, but what about police officers, prison officers, some Members of Parliament or Child Support Agency officials? We could go on and list those who, for all sorts of reasons, feel that they and their families may not wish to prejudice their safety.

The proposals would put the electoral registration officer in a difficult position in deciding who to exclude. The amendment states that it would be

that registration would be prejudicial to safety. That is not a clear test and, in many ways, is very subjective. The registration officer would be very much open to legal challenge, and we would probably have to set up an appeals system to deal with the issues. It would become very difficult for the registration officer to refuse secret registration in such situations.

I find myself in substantial agreement with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, in that we must approach this matter with a great deal more care.

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There are serious issues here, but I suggest that we take the approach of the working party on electoral procedures and study this matter more before we legislate in haste and repent at leisure.

Mr. Fabricant: Have any representations been made to the Home Office either by the police, who have long-term witnesses, or by people such as Salman Rushdie, who have been in hiding for a period of longer than a year--seeking to vote but unable to do so?

Mr. O'Brien: I have had some personal representations from people who feel that they would prefer not to have their names on the register. I am not aware that letters have been received at the Home Office, although there is a real issue here which deserves further study. I cannot guarantee that that study will be completed so that we can introduce something in the Bill.

Mr. Linton: I urge my hon. Friend to make a clear distinction between clause 9 and the amendment. People who want to avoid junk mail will not be in the least bit worried by the fact that people can look at the full register at their local library--no one is going to go through the whole register by hand, without being able to copy it, simply to send someone else junk mail--but a battered wife cannot live with the knowledge that a violent or vengeful husband can track her down simply by going to the local reference library. It is an entirely different issue.

However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10.45 pm

Mr. William Ross: I beg to move amendment No. 111, in page 19, line 20, leave out "October" and insert "September".

The import of the amendment is clear. In Northern Ireland, the date has been 15 September for as long as I can remember and probably longer; I do not know why, other than to give people more time to explore the possibilities of fraud in the Northern Ireland registers. There may be other reasons.

We have the opportunity to apply the same date throughout the United Kingdom for what will become the basic register on which the rolling procedure will operate. There are several advantages to 15 September. It would create uniformity throughout the United Kingdom and simplify the position of university students.

A member of my family is at a Scottish university, so I know that the year tends to start early there, in September, but lots of universities start somewhat later than that, and one of the bones of contention that I have found on this side of the Irish sea is that those who leave home before the October date on which they are to be registered are away from home at the qualifying date and could legitimately register either at their place of study or at home.

If we move the date to 15 September, most university students in the United Kingdom will be registered at their home address and it will be much easier to keep track of them when they change thereafter. There is a definite advantage in that.

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As the schedule says that the register must be published by 1 December, the 15 September date would give registration officers an extra month and people would have more time to check whether they were on the register. Elections rarely take place in December or January. I remember two, neither of which was very successful for some folk. One of them brought me here and the other, known as the snowman's election, was rather earlier in Northern Ireland.

There are advantages in having a uniform date throughout the United Kingdom. The Bill says that revised registers can be published if many changes are made. I suspect that that will not happen and that, despite all the high hopes that some have expressed, we will wind up producing one register for an electoral area and it will remain largely unchanged throughout the year. I suspect that people will not take as much advantage or notice of the rolling registration as the Bill's progenitors hope.

The amendment represents a straightforward change that would have certain advantages for the whole country and for the way in which the register is compiled. I invite the Minister to tell us why it should not be made.

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