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Mr. David Heath: I am grateful to the Minister for explaining, but he has confused me still further. What he has described is specifically referred to in the Representation of the People Act 1983, which deals with people who work away from their principal residence. I have to ask him the question that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) raised with me: if he and I are resident in both places, are we committing an offence by not completing the register of electors for a flat in London--which so far I have not completed?

Mr. Howarth: The courts have made it clear that the hon. Gentleman is entitled, if he so wishes, to register in both places, but it does not necessarily follow that, by not registering in both, he is committing an offence.

Mr. Hogg: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth: I will, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman will let me finish my point.

I stand to be corrected, but I am not aware of any case law that supports the point that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is making--that, by not registering in both residences, he would be in breach of the law. The courts have made it clear that he would be eligible to register in both places of residence.

9.15 pm

Mr. Hogg: Although it is possible that the Minister's response to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is correct, is it not true that the hon. Gentleman, as occupier, is under an obligation to complete the form that is delivered to him, if only because other people may live in the residence occupied by him and because, if he did not complete the form, those third parties would be deprived of their rights? Although the hon. Gentleman must fill out the form, whether or not he puts himself on it is a more debatable matter.

Mr. Linton: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Howarth: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall let him intervene later, after I have responded to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg).

The right hon. and learned Gentleman tempts me into areas into which I would be unwise to stray. His point that there is an obligation to fill in the form is a good one, but I fear that, if I were to go into the detail of the domestic arrangements enjoyed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome in his constituency and in London,

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the Chairman would say that I was straying from the point. I shall therefore not develop those arguments further.

Double registration, which the amendment would outlaw, is a sensitive issue. On the one hand, the principle of one person, one vote, which lies at the heart of our democratic system, suggests that no one should appear on the electoral register more than once. Therein lies the strength of the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire in support of his amendment. However, on the other hand, there are many people--notably but not exclusively students--who genuinely divide their time between two places.

Perhaps because the issue is so sensitive, it has been thoroughly discussed and considered more than once in recent years. In its report "Electoral Law and Administration", published last year and mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton), the Home Affairs Committee considered the question of double registration. Although it made one practical suggestion relating to those who have dual registrations, it deliberately did not recommend that the practice of double registration should be prohibited.

The working party on electoral procedures, which I chaired, went further. After considering the issue, we concluded that

So the choice is theirs. Even though I have lived in two local authority areas for 13 years, I have made it my practice to vote only in my own constituency. However, that is my choice. I do not believe that I, as a legislator, should deprive anyone else of the ability to make that choice.

Mr. Simon Hughes: I understand the Minister's argument. Will he tell the Committee his working party's conclusions in respect of parliamentary elections? That is more clearly an issue, and his working party's guidance would be welcome.

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman draws my attention to an issue on which I intend to comment later.

The working party restated the principle that nobody should be able to vote twice in the same election. We recommended the retention of the prohibitions on double voting that amendments Nos. 30 and 32 would remove. Both the Home Affairs Committee, whose work my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea prayed in aid, and the working party proceeded on the basis of all-party consensus, and it would be wrong if we were to depart from that important principle.

It has been argued that legislators--Members of Parliament--should be extremely cautious about changing the basis on which people are eligible to vote, for the simple and proper reason that we might be the beneficiaries of such changes, depending on the way in which we make them. That is why as often as is possible it is important that we proceed on the basis of consensus. I worked hard as chairman of the working party to preserve that consensus and to make it an integral part of the proposals that we brought forward. For that main reason, I cannot invite the Committee to support the amendments.

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I mentioned that the Home Affairs Committee had made one practical recommendation. It suggested that all those who appear on more than one electoral register should be required to specify at the time of registration which their main residence was and, accordingly, where they intended to vote in a general election.

I should perhaps explain why we have decided on balance not to go down that route. In large part--

Mr. Linton: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Howarth: I promised to give way to my hon. Friend, but I would like to finish my sentence before I do so.

The working party considered the suggestion carefully. Its conclusion was that a requirement for people to make an advance of declaration as to which constituency they intended to vote in would be

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea quoted precisely that passage. Obviously it is incumbent upon me to hear how he wants briefly to develop that argument.

Mr. Linton: Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an issue on which there was cross-party consensus, in that the representatives of all three major parties gave evidence precisely to the same effect to the Home Affairs Committee, and that all members of the Select Committee, of all three parties, came to the conclusion that there should be an end to dual registration? I know that the smaller parties that are represented in the House of Commons concurred with that view. I do not understand why at the last minute of the final hurdle the Opposition should have departed from the consensus. However, the consensus was already established both at the level of chairmen and general secretaries of parties--

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. That is far too long an intervention.

Mr. Howarth: When I gave way to my hon. Friend, for whom I harbour great affection, I said that I would do so briefly. I should have realised that my hon. Friend's definition of brevity is probably different from mine. However, he makes the point that I am arguing in favour of maximum consensus. He says that when the Home Affairs Committee considered this matter there was consensus. He referred to the then chairman of the Conservative party, Lord Parkinson, in that context. Subsequently, there was no such consensus on the working party which I chaired, and there is no such consensus in the Chamber tonight.

If my hon. Friend accepts the point that I made earlier, it would be wrong of the House of Commons to legislate on that basis. It would call our motives into question. Surely the last thing that we want is for the general public to view the proposed changes, which after all are designed to make voting easier, with suspicion. I know that my hon. Friend and others hold their views in a strong and

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principled way, but I hope that it will be recognised that there is a counter-balancing principle, which is that we should proceed with the maximum possible consensus.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Was the Minister's working party given evidence as to roughly the number of people who are registered in two places for parliamentary elections? What is the procedure for random checking or any other process to ensure that there is no abuse of that system?

Mr. Howarth: I cannot recall whether the detailed statistics that the hon. Gentleman requests were made available to us, but the principle was considered. As I understand it, no systematic checks are carried out to establish the incidence of double voting. The responsibility lies with each returning officer and electoral registration officer to make such checks as they consider appropriate. In practice, I imagine that such checks are carried out only when there is reason for suspicion. That is probably appropriate.

I do not believe that there is evidence of widespread systematic abuse. We would not want to suggest that the integrity of our electoral system was such that random checks were warranted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said, with the introduction of further technology, such checks may become simple to perform, but at present they are not.

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