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Electoral Registration

17. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What her policy is on the use of national insurance numbers as an identifier in electoral registration. [9185]

Ms Harman: Outside of Northern Ireland, we have no plans to require national insurance numbers as a condition of going on the electoral register.

Mr. Dunne: Does the Minister agree that restoring faith in the security of electoral registration and in postal voting is vital for increasing voter participation? Does she also agree that relying on signatures and dates of birth is not sufficient to eradicate fraud, and that we should consider using national insurance numbers, as they do in Northern Ireland?

Ms Harman: I agree that it is vital to tighten security. I also agree that it is vital that people believe that the voting system is secure and that their votes are properly and fairly counted. However, I invite the hon. Gentleman to recognise, as the Constitutional Affairs Committee, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee and the Electoral Commission have recognised, that there is, I am afraid, a trade-off between access to the register and full enfranchisement of all our fellow citizens on the one hand and security on the other. If, for example, we required everyone to come to the town hall with their passports and further proof of identification, we would have 100 per cent. certainty that there was no fraud—or at least a much better level of certainty than we have now. However, that would disfranchise loads of people from voting. We have to strike the right balance between access to the ballot box and security.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): May I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's answer and urge her to be cautious about the use of national insurance numbers? There are alleged to be 5 million false national insurance numbers in circulation. Three years ago, my nephew, Brett, got a national insurance number. Two years ago, his younger sister got one with only one character different. A constituent and his two brothers similarly have national insurance numbers that are almost identical. So we should be wary of using national insurance numbers in the circumstances.

Ms Harman: We can tighten up the system to reassure people that it is more fraud-proof without resorting to national insurance numbers as a condition of going on
 
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the register. We want to make it easy and straightforward for people to register, but we also want to make it easy and straightforward to detect fraud.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Surely the point about national insurance numbers is that it is possible to crosscheck the information against the independent database of national insurance numbers and therefore check that the person exists, whereas there is no such way of checking the accuracy of other identifiers that the Government talk about, such as date of birth and signatures.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about crosschecking information. We have all had experience of people who were turned away from the polling station and therefore unable to vote who say, "They won't let me vote and yet last week they sent me a demand for my council tax." That was raised by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, which said that there ought to be more cross-checking of data. Such checks afford an opportunity not only to tackle fraud and catch people out if they give wrong information, but to make sure that the woefully inadequate registers that disfranchise many of our poor, young, black fellow citizens are tackled.

Juries

18. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): If she will conduct research on the ability of juries to understand complex trials. [9186]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): My Department has no plans to conduct research into juries' ability to understand complex trials. In January this year, the Department published a consultation paper, "Jury Research and Impropriety", and the relevant consultation period finished on 15 April. The responses are currently being analysed.

Mr. Jackson: I am grateful for the hon. Lady's reply, but is she content that the chairman of the Bar Council, Guy Mansfield, QC, described the current proposals as a "retrograde" step that will create a two-tier judicial system, with one system for white-collar criminals and another one for everyone else? Does she agree with her party's former shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who said in opposition:

Bridget Prentice: I have no problem whatsoever agreeing with what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said as shadow Home Secretary. It is important that justice be seen to be done, and that it be swift and fair, which is one reason why we will ensure that jury trial and possible non-jury trial are fair both for the juror and for society as a whole.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Which Ministers from the Department were present at the famous seminar earlier this year, when the decision was made to
 
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change the Government's policy? Will the Government make any further proposals to remove juries from other parts of the British judicial system?

Bridget Prentice: I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government do not have any plans to withdraw the jury system in any other sphere. I remind him and the rest of the House, however, that 95 per cent. of trials take place without sight of a jury, because they are held in magistrates courts.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Why is it assumed that British juries are incapable of doing what American juries can do perfectly well?

Bridget Prentice: No such assumption is made at all. We have every faith in juries. We believe that they do an excellent job, and we intend that that should continue.

Judicial Appointments

19. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): What her policy is on the minimum legal qualifications necessary for a judicial appointment. [9187]

Bridget Prentice: The eligibility requirements for judicial appointment are contained in various statutes and differ according to the post concerned. In general, however, they require an individual to have possessed rights of audience before the courts for a specified length of time. The requirements are currently under review, and an announcement will be made shortly.

Mr. Lancaster: Is the Minister aware of reports that Mr. Justice Laddie recently resigned as a High Court judge because he was bored? Apparently, he disliked the isolation of the bench, and he missed the fun of working as part of a team. Given the controversy that that has caused, is the Minister still considering proposals to restructure the pattern of work for judges and to allow them to return to practice?

Bridget Prentice: I cannot comment on individual cases, but the characteristics needed to be a judge are many and varied, and they obviously include the ability to remain independent and to continue to work on one's own. However, we are looking at how best to help judges develop their careers, and we want to work with them in order to do so.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): As my hon. Friend will know, there are many highly qualified women lawyers who have never had the opportunity to become bored by a judicial appointment, because historically they have not been appointed to such posts. She will also know that entry to the legal professions is about 50:50 male/female. How confident is she that the judicial appointment commission will achieve a matching 50:50 split in the judiciary, and by when?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. and learned Friend is right. It is important that the judiciary show as much diversity as the rest of society. I hope the judicial appointment commission will take that on board. We should be proud of the fact that this Government appointed the
 
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first woman Law Lord, the first black woman High Court judge and the first Asian judge, who works part time. Today I agreed to meet the legal services consultative panel, among others, to see how we can further address the need for judicial diversity.

Electoral Systems

20. Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the different voting systems in operation in the UK. [9188]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): The review that my officials are conducting into different voting systems is at an early stage.

Miss Begg: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her answer to that and to earlier questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). In her reply to my hon. Friend, she said there was not necessarily a link between turnout and the voting system. Our experience in Scotland suggests that there is a link. Where new voting systems have been introduced, turnout did not increase—it decreased. There are at present in Scotland three different types of voting system, soon to be four, and there is huge confusion among the electorate about what they are doing at each election. The number of spoiled ballot papers has also increased, which may disguise the level of turnout. What do the Government intend to do about that?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. I am a London Member of Parliament and a London resident. On one and the same day we had the European elections on one voting system, the Greater London assembly elections on another voting system, and the mayoral elections on a third voting system. I readily admit that we were responsible for introducing all these voting systems. However, that justifies our sense that we need to take stock and understand how people are taking to these systems or not, before we accept the invitation from other hon. Members to rush forth for more constitutional reform.


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