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I am not recanting for a minute. Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that we only have this poor Bill because of the noise made from the Conservative Benches, and to be fair, from the Liberal Democrats, making clear just how appalling the levels of fraud and corruption, or the risk of those, were? Clearly, if the Bill is not good enough, of course we put down a reasoned amendment.
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Mr. Heath: I agree with the hon. Gentleman up to a point. Of course our debates on the earlier legislation highlighted the lack of rigour on the Government's part in ensuring that our voting system maintained the integrity for which we hoped. I disagree with him, however, about the reasoned amendment. A reasoned amendment simply is not the right way in which to deal with omissions in a Bill of which we approve in all other respects.
I still hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider, because we undoubtedly need to re-establish, as far as possible, consensusin the House and beyondon what we should do to make our voting system better. That is urgent. The hon. Member for Livingston mentioned the appallingI use the word advisedlyturnout in a key parliamentary by-election. In such circumstances there should not be such a low turnout, but we know that it is replicated in both parliamentary and local elections throughout the country time and again.
That puts our democratic system at risk. I am not being alarmist or apocalyptic. We need a process of democratic renewal across a wide front, including parliamentary as well as electoral reform. We must make a start. The Minister of State said that she wanted to listen to what Members had to say, andrightlythat it was for the elected House to deal with a Bill concerned with elections in the proper way. That is, I must say, a marked improvement on the Government's performance during the passage of the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Act 2004, which set a new nadir for Government conduct in such circumstances. Measures were forced through in the face of opposition not just from every other party represented in the House but from the Electoral Commission, which had been appointed as an independent voice to advise the Government. I hope that those days are over, and that the Government now intend to proceed much more constructively.
We should also recognise that there is, understandably, a tension between the integrity of the register and the wish for as many voters as possible to be included in it. We demand three things from a voting system. We want the register to be as comprehensive as possible, we want as many as possible of those registered to vote to be encouraged to exercise their right, and we want those who are not entitled to voteor those who wish to abuse their voteto be deterred effectively from doing so.
I do not think it is possible to deal with one of those requirements without dealing with the others. We need to establish a balance. That is why I welcome the work done not just by the Electoral Commission, to which I give credit, but by bodies such as the Electoral Reform Society and also my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), Chairman of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, who has temporarily left the Chamber. I hope that we can reduce fraud and increase registration and turnout without any part of the equation being detrimental to any other part.
The Government were right to try to increase turnout in the 2004 European elections by means of all-out postal votes, although obviously there were problems. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, though, that we cannot just walk away from absent
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votes? Should we not promote the availability and take-up of postal votes much more in constituencies? Constituencies with similar social and demographic profiles have very different rates of registration, which suggests that in some areas, at least, much more work needs to be done by the electoral registration authorities.
Mr. Heath: I agree with the last contention. I welcome a couple of suggestions made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about how we might increase registration and participation.
As for experiments of the kind that we saw at the time of the European elections, I have no problem with the use of novel forms of voting provided that measures to combat fraud are in place beforehand. The difficultywhich we pointed out repeatedly to the Government at the timewas that while they wanted to increase turnout, they were not prepared to establish measures to maintain the integrity of the ballot.
The Birmingham judgments, with which Members will be familiar, do not relate directly to those elections, but they are damning. A senior judge, Richard Mawrey, quoted the Government in his obiter dicta:
"There are no proposals to change the rules governing election procedures for the next election, including those for postal voting. The systems already in place to deal with the allegations of electoral fraud are clearly working."
"Anybody who has sat through the case I have just tried and listened to evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic would find this statement surprising. To assert that 'the systems already in place to deal with the allegations of electoral fraud are clearly working' indicates a state not simply of complacency but of denial."
I believe that, at that point, the Government were in denial, but I welcome the Minister of State's current view. She has clearly distanced herself from the earlier position, and we are making progress.
There are omissions from the Bill. The big one is the issue of personal identifiers and individual registrationin fact, two issues which, although not identical, are related. Here we come to the question of balance. What personal identifiers are appropriate to deter fraudsters, while not tipping the balance by reducing the incidence of registration or voting? That is the crucial equilibrium that we must achieve.
I believe that the Government have fallen on one side of that balance. We will seek to persuade them in Committee, but they have not yet been prepared to accept the wider palette of personal identifiers to reduce fraud. I believe that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire has fallen on the other side, because I do not believe that national insurance numbers constitute a good personal identifier. I think that such an arrangement would deter many people. I frankly admit that I do not know my national insurance number. If I were asked to give it, I would not be able to, and I think that many others are in the same position. I know of no bank or financial institution that uses national insurance numbers as a personal identifier. Moreover, we know that national insurance numbers are occasionally duplicated, thatas the hon. Member for North-East
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Hertfordshire acceptedthey are sometimes retained after a person is deceased, and that they are known by people other than those to whom they belong. Employers, for example, know the insurance numbers of their employeesalthough they probably do not know their mothers' maiden names, or other identifiers that are used on the telephone by people contacting their banks.
What I do accept is that we need to do better than we are doing now. I see the Government edging towards a conclusion that I consider inescapable: that we need personal identifiers, especially in the case of postal ballots when people do not present themselves at polling stations in person.
Mr. Heath: That would be one solution, but I would rather find a better way of maintaining the integrity of the postal vote. I do not want to reduce turnout, I do not want to reduce registration, and I do want to recognise that people lead vastly more complicated lives than they used to and are often away from their homes on the Thursdays that we choose to use as polling day. Another solution might be voting at weekends. There are a number of possible answers, but I think we should strive to find a better way of preventing fraud.
Mr. Love: The hon. Gentleman spoke of the need to strike a balance, and of the significant fall in registration in Northern Ireland. Does he accept that we should conduct pilots to establish just how that balance should operate? Does he also accept that before introducing individual registration, we should try to boost the overall level of registration?
Mr. Heath: We certainly ought to increase the overall level of registration, but I do not accept that we need pilots for what is a rather simple concept: whether people sign and provide a personal identifier before getting the vote. This is not a complicated issue on which we need to take a huge amount of evidence. Were we to opt for complex personal identifiers that people could not reasonably be expected to have in their mind, there would be an argument for trialling them.
I point out to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) that this is an urgent issue. If we pursue the Government's suggested pilot scheme, which will inevitably take time to evaluate, we will get to another general election without proper measures in place to prevent postal ballot fraud. To do that would be to serve democracy and the people of this country very ill indeed.
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