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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I want to make one particular point. The Opposition mentioned it, but that does not necessarily make it wrong. I am very concerned about the figure of 2 per cent. I see no justification for it and it will encourage every racist extremist. I hope that that provision will be amended in Committee without any trouble at all.

David Cairns: My hon. Friend has highlighted an issue that I wanted to deal with later, but I will do so now as he has raised it. Clearly, there was no consensus across the House in support of the move from a 5 per cent. to a 2 per cent. threshold at which the deposit is lost. The Electoral Commission made the recommendation, and along with many other such recommendations we incorporated it into the Bill. We would not want to ram the measure through if it did not enjoy support on both sides of the House, and we can revisit the issue in Committee.

Mr. Heald: The measure outstanding is therefore individual voter registration, which was recommended by international observers of our election, the Electoral Commission and Members on both sides of the House. Will the Government reconsider that?

David Cairns: The Bill allows for individual registration. I think that some Opposition Members are trying to have their cake and eat it. At one point, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) said that we must be careful about pushing ahead with measures that will unravel hundreds of years of history. However, when we said that the proposal would be a departure from the practice in Great Britain and that we therefore
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wanted to pilot it as it was important to proceed on an evidence base, Opposition Members said that we were not going far enough.

Mrs. Laing: Will the Minister give way?

David Cairns: No. I have only eight minutes, whereas the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) had 25 minutes.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister said in her opening speech, the issue is not one of principle. We are not in principle opposed to or in favour of individual identifiers. We are saying, "Let us pilot it and see what happens." First, we need to see whether the hoped-for security benefits materialise. Secondly, we need to find out whether there will be the feared reduction in numbers of people registered, as expressed in speech after speech—and which one Member referred to as a catastrophic drop. If we go ahead with the pilots, the Electoral Commission will assess those and bring its assessment back to the Secretary of State. We would not need new primary legislation to make those pilots apply across the UK, as one or two Members suggested. We feel that a proper evidence base is needed before we proceed. That was one of the two major themes mentioned by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire.

Given that I have gone some way towards meeting what the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire said, I appeal to him, even at this late hour, to reconsider his unwise decision to divide the House on the issue. There is a wide measure of cross-party support, and every other party represented in the speeches this evening will support the Government in the Lobby—not because they agree with every measure in the Bill, but because they understand that defeating the Bill at this stage does away with any chance in the near future to get the measures that we all want on to the statute book. Given the consensual approach to the matter, we could proceed with much greater cross-party co-operation in Committee if we did not divide at this stage, but that is a matter for him.

We were privileged this evening to hear an excellent maiden speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine). He was right that many tributes have been paid to Robin Cook as a parliamentarian and world statesman. He paid tribute to him as a constituency Member of Parliament, however, and as someone who spent quite a bit of time with my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston during the by-election I saw that reflected on doorstep after doorstep. I often think that MPs overstate the personal vote. In Livingston it was not overstated—Robin Cook had a very strong personal vote. During that by-election, my hon. Friend plied me with huge quantities of Fry's Turkish Delight on a daily basis, and as Members can see my efforts to refuse the temptation were hopeless. I formed the impression during the by-election that he was an outstanding candidate, and I have no doubt whatever that he will be an outstanding Member of Parliament.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) welcomed the Bill, said it was not perfect, but wanted a Second Reading so that he could raise some of the issues that we have been discussing in
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Committee. That is a sensible approach. He spoke of the tension between the integrity of the register and comprehensiveness, between the need to tackle fraud and the need to maximise the register. The Government do not believe that it is either/or; we believe that it is both/and. We tackle fraud and we maximise the register: we do both at the same time.The hon. Gentleman also made some interesting suggestions about the duplication of reporting, which we will certainly consider if he raises the issue in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) raised a couple of specific issues, one relating to postal vote provision and the other to a case in the constituency of our hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East (Rosemary McKenna). I assure her that the Bill takes steps to deal with both. My hon. Friend, however, devoted most of her speech to access issues. The Bill provides for four-yearly reviews of polling stations, but it is, of course, completely unacceptable that she could not gain access to a polling station in her constituency at the last election. That should not have happened, and it must not happen again. The review will focus on precisely those issues.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) spoke of the extraordinary situation in which he found himself. We should remember that at the heart of that was a personal tragedy—the death of a Liberal Democrat candidate, Jo Harrison. As we examine the political ramifications, it is important to think of the human dimensions and to send our sympathies to Jo Harrison's family for the tragedy that produced those circumstances. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government will be prepared to consider his amendment in Committee, and I look forward to working with him then.

It is often invidious to pick out one outstanding contribution, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) made it. He has tabled hundreds of questions and addressed the issue in depth. He repeatedly said that if we are to have individual registration schemes for the whole country, we need an evidence base. The evidence base simply is not there, he said. He also raised the issue of databases, which has become another important theme.

The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) spoke of his concern about postal voting. He said that the postal voting experiment had gone wrong, but, with respect, I do not agree. Where there are abuses, where there are frauds, we come down on those abuses and frauds like a ton of bricks; but I will not apologise for extending people's ability to engage in postal voting.

Mr. Tyrie: Will the Minister give way?

David Cairns: No, I am afraid I cannot.

People like postal voting and there is no way in which we can return to the days when people had to obtain a doctor's signature. Some constituents had to pay £5 or £10.

Mr. Tyrie: Will the Minister give way?
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David Cairns: I will not give way on this issue. [Hon. Members: "Give way!"] I will not give way because I want to extend an olive branch to the hon. Gentleman in relation to the service voters whom he mentioned. That theme emerged time and again. I do not have time to go into the details, but Members in all parts of the House feel that we still have not got it right in terms of registration and postal votes for service personnel. I give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that we will work with the Ministry of Defence, the Electoral Commission and Members in all parties to get it right. It is too important not to get right, and we will get it right. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising it.

My hon. Friends the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) mentioned what they described as catastrophic under-registration. That lies at the heart of what we are trying to do in the Bill. We are not tolerant of the fact that 3.5 million people are not on the electoral register. We will give electoral registration officers a duty to reduce that figure and to take whatever steps are necessary.

There were many other contributions, but unfortunately I do not have time to deal with them in depth. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked two specific questions—about late registration in Northern Ireland and about political party donations. I have been assured that the Northern Ireland Office is actively considering both issues and is organising a consultation in which he may wish to participate.

There was no agreement on the case for reducing the voting age from 18 to 16, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State rightly said that she would keep the issue under review.

I thank all Members for their contributions to a thoughtful and thorough debate and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 166, Noes 374.

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