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The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said that the fraudsters, balked at one point, would move on to other areas, and he thought that multiple registration was one of those. The fraudsters also move on to entirely false registrationsregistering the names of people who do not exist. The next set of amendments contain measures that try to cope with that problem.
Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): I am pleased to be able to contribute to this vital debate, and to underline many of the points made by other hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). I thank you, too, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to take part tonight.
I want to give my broad support to the Bill, but I have a number of specific concerns. After listening to the discussion so far, my greatest worry is the apparent weaknesses in the Bill. In so many areas, there appear to be loopholes and issues that are not being addressed in the way in which I believe most Members in the Chamber this evening would like them to be addressed.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I hesitate to stop the hon. Gentleman, but I wonder if he is making a Third Reading speech on the Bill in general. Is he speaking specifically to new clause 2?
Mr. Rosindell: Yes, if I may continue, Mr. Deputy Speaker. One of the most significant deficiencies of the Bill is the failure to compel those registering to vote at more than one address to declare that information at the point of registration. The Government are right not to prevent individuals from registering at more than one address. Indeed, in many cases, doing so is necessary. For example, Members of Parliament probably register at their addresses in London and in their constituencies, which is a reasonable thing to do. However, the situation in Northern Ireland needs to be addressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate mentioned that some 18,000 names are registered twice on the same electoral register in the constituency of Belfast, West. That arouses many suspicions and therefore I hope that the Minister will consider supporting new clause 2.
The situation in Northern Ireland needs tightening up for many reasons, some of which have already been outlined. There is no evidence that simple monitoring alone will solve the problem. The system currently operates on trust and while that is acceptable for the majority of decent, law-abiding citizens who would not dream of trying to defraud the system, it allows for widespread abuse. A declaration from those registering to
Some may argue that the system would not work, because declarations would be signed only by honest people, and those who sought to pervert the course of democracy would evade making them. Nevertheless, with the right level of efficient and competent administration and a good use of technology, declarations would provide clarity for those who are genuine multiple-address electors, leaving the chief electoral officer and his staff free to monitor and catch offenders. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the situation. The Bill has many holes, but I hope that he will address this specific problem.
Mr. Browne: I looked forward to the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) revealing his thoughts on the many holes in the Bill, and he is welcome to the debate at this stage. One or two issues were considered in Committee and on Second Reading and, with respect, it is a gross misrepresentation of the Bill to describe it as the hon. Gentleman did.
In Committee, I gave an undertaking to discuss this issue with my officials and the chief electoral officer, to consult the political parties in Northern Ireland and to come back with a clear position on Report. I have not, in the short time since the Committee stage, been able to ascertain the views of all the Northern Ireland political parties, and it is important that I do so. As I said earlier, I wrote to the leaders of all Northern Ireland political parties, as far as I could ascertain them. Whether all those letters have been delivered is not my responsibility, but they were certainly sent and I have received one reply. It is incumbent on me to give the other leaders a reasonable time to respond, and we have not had much time between Committee and Report.
The hon. Members for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) are owed an apology. The circulation list for the letter was based on my contribution to the Committee on 18 October, recorded at column 126. Column 127, as the hon. Member for Reigate pointed out, includes a reference to the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats. They were not included, due to an administrative error, and for that I apologise. The error will be corrected tomorrow. Thanks to this debate, of course, I know what the Opposition's position is, but I will consult them as I agreed to do.
I am minded to agree with the chief electoral officer that a mandatory question on application to the electoral register, as suggested in new clause 2, would prove a useful tool in tracking multiple registration. However, I will resist the new clause as I do not believe that the penalty is proportionate to the failure to answer the question properly.
Furthermore, on advice, I believe that a question such as, "Have you registered at another address or do you intend to register at another address?" could be put to electors on application to the electoral register by regulation rather than by an amendment to the Bill. Under paragraph 1 of schedule 2 to the Representation of the People Act 1983, regulations may authorise the chief
Therefore, it is possibleI am happy to give an undertaking to do so, subject to the consultation with the political parties in Northern Ireland and with the official Opposition and the Liberal Democratsto give the chief electoral officer the power by regulation to ask people if they are registered at another address on their application for electoral registration. Any person knowingly giving false information would be subject to a fine not exceeding £1,000, which is consistent with the penalty that applies to giving false information on other forms.
Mr. Blunt: The Minister gives an undertaking subject to consultation with the political parties. Five of those parties are represented tonight, and hon. Members from three of them represent constituencies in Northern Irelandand those are the three largest parties wholly committed to democracy in Northern Ireland, which is the subject of the debate. The Minister knows the views of those parties so why cannot he give the assurance in terms now?
Mr. Browne: Because there are other parties that are not represented in the House. If we are to change the electoral system, we should consult those parties. The hon. Gentleman knows who those parties are and he may not wish to consult one of them but, as a Minister, I have to consult them all. There are at least five other parties. I have written to their leaders, but I have not yet had a reply. Indeed, I have written to the leaders of the political parties represented in the House tonight and I have not had a reply.
Mr. Browne: The right hon. Gentleman earlier called into question my desire to see this matter through and is now, by implication, calling into question my honesty about the letters I have written. I have evidence that one of the letters received a reply, and that all the letters went out in the same post.
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): We must clear this matter up, as hon. Members may have to decide how to vote on the amendment. No one has impugned the Minister's honesty, or the good faith in which he gave that assurance. We accept the apology that he has given to the House, but we are perhaps impugning the efficiency of his Department. We leave it to him to sort that out.
However, we have to draw the conclusion that the Minister is much more conscientious about consulting parties outside the Housea need that he has laboured at lengththan about consulting parties in the House. I am sure that he would not want to take up such a perverse position.
If the Minister has not completed consultation with the parties that he has mentioned by the time that the Bill reaches another place, will he assure the House that the Government will not seek to block this amendment, or its equivalent, in the other place? I do not know on what date the Bill will be considered there, but will the Minister assure us that there will be no further obstacle to his issuing a regulation in accordance with the procedure that he has outlined?