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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The hon. Gentleman knows that my colleagues and I agree with him about voter registration but not about the use of the national insurance number. He gave the House to understand that the Electoral Commission supported that, but I do not believe that it did. It supported individual registration, but not the use of the national insurance number as an identifier.
Mr. Heald: The Electoral Commission and international observers support individual voter registration. It is true that the Electoral Commission has said that as a minimum it would want signatures and dates of birth, and has not specified national insurance numbers. I am arguing for that, passionately and effectively, I hope. If we do not have some independent way of verifying that such people exist we will fall short as regards security.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there are substantially more national insurance cards in circulation than there are people who exist for employment purposes?
Mr. Heald: One could make two specific points about national insurance numbers. First, a small number of people do not have one. Secondly, when people die, they remain flagged up on the national insurance computer so that their widows can continue to receive pensions. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right to suggest that the system would not be perfect, but what is perfect in this world? However, it would take matters a good deal further. It has been tried in Northern Ireland and the people who administer it there say that it works well. Given the extent to which public confidence has been damaged by what has happened in this country, surely we should introduce a system that everybody agrees meets the challenge. That is where the Minister fails.
Over-registration is a serious matter. Although it is regrettable when a person does not take up the right to votesome people choose not to do so but we would all like people to take up the rightwe can tackle the problem and I would like us to do that. However, over-registration is a warning sign of the scope for
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corruption and electoral malpractice. When the Government give powers to electoral registration officers to do more, I hope that they will clearly include the duty to ensure that people who are not entitled to vote come off the register. A democracy desert is a place not only where not everybody votes but where people who should not be able to vote do so. There is no democracy in those circumstances.
I heard the Minister's comments about service voters. She is clearly examining the matter, but I stress that it is urgent. It is wrong and unacceptable that people who are serving their country cannot vote. Nothing in the Bill will improve the position. Is it possible for the Minister to find some way of tackling the problem during the Bill's passage? It is a failing in the measure if nothing is done to provide a mechanism whereby our service personnel are assured of their vote. I would also like a provision to encourage overseas voters because they are entitled to vote and there appears to be nothing for them in the measure.
The Government may suggest that the reasoned amendment is an attempt to act against the anti-fraud provisions. I do not believe that they go far enough. The Bill makes an offence of providing false information when applying for a postal vote. That is a tiny tightening of the law. Let us not forget that the Representation of the People Act 1983 already makes it an offence to vote fraudulently by post or to attempt to do that. The Bill extends time limits for prosecutions but we should not forget the comments of the election court in Birmingham:
"No sanctions are of any real value, however, unless elections can be policed. As became very apparent in the trial of these Petitions, in real terms the policing of electoral fraud is minimal to the point of being almost non-existent."
Other changes are worth whilefor example, the requirement of a signature at the polling station and the provision for creating a marked register for postal votes. One would not argue with those provisions. However, the genuine alternatives are individual registration with national insurance numbers and scrapping postal voting.
Lembit Öpik : The hon. Gentleman listed the groups and individuals whom he believed had the right to vote. What is the Conservative party's position on giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote? Organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society and the highly effective UK Youth Parliament have a cast-iron case on the basis that, if people are old enough to pay tax and do the many other things that they can do at 16 and 17, it is a basic human right to allow them to vote.
I am a great supporter of the Youth Parliament but the polls that I have seen suggest that young people are not asking for the lowering of the voting age. We do not therefore support that. It is right to have younger candidatesif people can vote at 18, why should not they stand for Parliament? However, the case for lowering the voting age needs to be proven. The Liberal Democrats have some odd ideas about ages.
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I understand that they want to introduce drinking at 16. That beggars belief when we have such a problem with binge drinking.
The polling station and the traditional ballot box should remain the foundation of our democracy, and citizens must always have the choice to vote in that way. Let us have an assurance from the Minister today that compulsory all-postal voting will end.
The pilot schemes are becoming something of an abuse. When they were originally proposed in 2000, it seemed right to try out some of these ideas, and we were prepared to accept the schemes. However, Ministers are setting up pilot schemes year after year. We have reached the point, particularly as the schemes are not monitored by this place, at which this has become an abuse. If Ministers want to undertake pilot schemes, they should at the very least announce them to the House. They do not do so at present. I suggest that they should go further, and that we should have a right to approve those schemes. Otherwise, this could go on for ever, with Ministers choosing the battlefield and deciding how an election is to be conducted in a particular place. That is dangerous.
If the Minister wants to increase the turnout at an election, she must recognise the role of political parties, rather than merely tinkering with the electoral system. The Bill sends out some wrong signals. The long-delayed creation of an electronic electoral register is welcome, but we need solid assurances that the information that political parties currently receive from local authorities, and the additional information that will become available through the central data stream, will be made fully available to political parties, without reservation.
The Government are going to allow independent candidates to use almost whatever description they choose about themselves. However, it would be wrong to allow that while restricting the descriptions that political parties can use. Someone could stand as the Sedgefield independent candidate but not as the Sedgefield Labour candidate, and that would be wrong. Will the Minister look again at that proposal?
The rules governing candidates' expenses are also to be changed. A four-month rule will be introduced, replacing the start of poll as the beginning point for election expenses. That will take us back to prospective parliamentary candidates and parliamentary spokesmen circumventing the rules, which we really cannot have. There is also to be a measure to reduce the percentage of votes that a candidate must poll in order not to forfeit
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their deposit, from 5 per cent. to 2 per cent. I have great worries about that, because it will help extremists such as the British National party.
Philip Davies : Is my hon. Friend aware that, if that rule had been introduced before the last election, the BNP would have saved its deposit in Shipley, whereas in fact it lost it? In cities such as Bradford, support for the BNP is a scourge, fuelled by the political correctness that we have seen throughout the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that this measure will succeed only in giving money back to the BNP so that it can peddle its filth in places such as Bradford?
Mr. Heald: That is a serious worry. If this proposal were agreed, the BNP would probably be able to stand in about 73 more constituencies for the same amount of money. The freepost mailing is worth about £15,000, so it does not require rocket science to work out that the measure would be giving a benefit worth about £1 million to the BNP. Surely there should be some checks and balances in place to prevent candidates who do not have substantial public support from gaining such an advantage at the expense of the hard-pressed taxpayer. This measure is a change too far, and I hope that the Minister will think again. It beggars belief that the Labour party would want to support a proposal that would help such extreme individuals.
That said, I ought to mention two or three proposals that we do support, apart from those of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire. It is right that victims of domestic violence and members of the armed forces who are under threat should be able to register anonymously. We also like the idea of lowering the age for candidates; that was something that we suggested. There is a spirit of co-operation to that extent.[Interruption.] I mentioned a few others along the way.
Finally, may I say something about the issue of prisoners voting? This should be debated in Parliament, and the recent European Court of Human Rights ruling is an affront to the House. The Court argued that the fact that Parliament had not divided on the issue was a justification for foreign judges overruling British law.
The prohibition on convicted burglars, muggers, rapists and murderers having the right to vote reflects, I believe, our political, social and cultural values in the United Kingdom. We believe that a jail sentenceby definition, a serious punishmentinvolves the temporary loss of freedom, including the right to vote. In fact, the last time this matter was discussed here, in 1999, it was not divided on because it was thought that we all agreed about it. I hope that Parliament will be given the opportunity to make that point clear to our friends overseas, because this Parliament should be able to decide such matters.
The Government have an opportunity with the Bill to restore the cross-party consensus on electoral law. They can restore the trust, integrity and confidence in the British electoral system, but the Bill is a wasted opportunity. We need bold action. In the 21st century, we perhaps need even a new politics, but we do not need
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a return to the older politics of corrupt elections, which we put behind us a century ago. That must not be allowed to happen; we deserve a better Bill than this.
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