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Mr. Heath: Before the hon. Gentleman starts giving us statistics, I hasten to say that I am talking about the potential for fraud in the system, and not the reality. The problem is especially severe in the context of postal voting, and there is an urgent need to address it.
That urgency is not lost on Ministers, who understand that something must be done. It is a great shame, therefore, that they have rejected the Electoral Commission's clear proposals in respect of individual registration and personal identifiers. We have gone down this road before: the Government have previously rejected the Electoral Commission's views, and rued it later when their alternatives have been shown to be unworkable. That is why I believe that we need to take the commission's opinions in this matter seriously.
I detect some confusion between individual registration and personal identifiers. The two are not identical, nor necessarily linked: we can have personal identifiers without individual registration, and individual registration without personal identifiers. I believe that both are constituent parts of an appropriate system for preventing false registration and voting, but it is still possible to separate one from the other. For the moment, I shall set aside the question of individual registration and deal with personal identifiers, which are central to amendment No. 18.
It has been accepted in the debate that we want to extend the franchise as far as possible. That means that we must get as many people to register as we can manage, but at the same time we have to prevent fraud. A spectrum of barriers and encouragements to registration has been considered, as has the Bill's place in that spectrum of potential solutions. Any personal identifier could be construed as a barrier of one sort or another. We have to determine whether a barrier could be surmounted easily and so would not reduce the registration level, or whether it would cause a significant reduction in the number of people wanting to register. I contend that a signature is not a difficult barrier to overcome. Most people, if asked, can contrive to provide a signature or identifying mark. If they cannot,
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it is unlikely that they will be able to complete a ballot paper successfully. So the requirement to provide a signature is not a barrier to registration, but it is a personal identifier that allows the registration officer or presiding officer to do his job.
Other personal details that are not difficult to provide could be used as identifiersfor example, date of birth. Some people may pretend not to know their date of birth, but I suspect that most people, if pushed, could come up with a consistent date of birth to use as a personal identifier.
Other possibilities for personal identifiers include the sort of thing that the average bank, building society or other financial institution ask people to provide before giving or receiving information over the telephone. Again, such information would not be difficult for most people to provide, but it would be a slightly higher barrier and might prove difficult for some individuals in some circumstances.
"a statement of whether or not he has been resident in the United Kingdom for . . . the three-month period . . . and . . . any other address in the United Kingdom in respect of which he is . . . registered".
Mr. Heath: I think that the hon. Gentleman heard what I said on Second Reading and knows that I think that it is too high a barrier. I am concerned about the amendment not because I do not share the view that we need a process of individual registration and personal identifiers, but because the personal identifiers that may have been appropriate for Northern Ireland are not necessarily those that we need in this country.
The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) suggested that it is a middle-class affectation not to know one's national insurance number. As an aspiring jobbing lawyer, he is of course not part of the middle classes and therefore does not have that problem. He knows his national insurance number because he sees it on his pay packet every week
The hon. Gentleman may well know his place, but many people cannot readily bring to mind their national insurance number. For example, many women in the ethnic minority community will never have used their national insurance number, are not familiar with it and would not be able to produce it. Given that they are a key part of the community that we
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seek to reach to increase registration, it would be perverse to put a barrier that they would find almost insurmountable in their way.
There are other problems with using national insurance numbers. For a start, they are not unique. They are supposed to be unique, but the same number is sometimes unfortunately issued to more than one person. They also persist after death. That may be a macabre way to put it, but national insurance numbers still exist for people who are sadly no longer with us. Therefore, they might provide an opportunity for electoral fraud that did not previously exist.
Nor are national insurance numbers entirely personal, because they are held in personnel departments or in employers' records. It would not be difficult for someone who wished to perpetrate a widespread fraud to collect a significant number of national insurance numbers by looking at employment records. For all those reasons, I do not think that national insurance numbers are the right personal identifiers to use, but we need to use something.
In a few moments, we shall debate pilot schemes. I am not convinced by them, but I do not want to pre-empt that debate. We need something to use now that goes a little further than the Government are presently prepared to accept, and we may wish to look closely at the transitional arrangements that the Electoral Commission put before the Committee so ably chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) as proposals around which we can coalesce. It is better to arrive at a consensus than to proceed on a partisan basis. That solution may commend itself to the Government in due course. I would prefer us to reach that consensus in this elected Chamber, especially on a matter that relates to the conduct of elections, than for it to be reached in the non-elected House with only limited opportunity for us to discuss it. I ask the Minister to consider seriously and give us at least a glimmer of an indication whether the proposal from the Electoral Commissionthe so-called transitional process, which was mentioned earliermight be acceptable. If so, by far the best solution would be for the Government to put it into their own words and bring it forward as an amendment on Report. I have no doubt that it would receive support from both sides of the House. Otherwise, we would have to keep on arguing the toss about something on which we should be able to reach a consensus, and that would be unfortunate.
Mr. Beith : As well as the merits of the case put forward by the Electoral Commission for the proposal it has made in the past few days, there is a further reason for accepting it. The authority of the Electoral Commission is not well served if the Government repeatedly reject its recommendations, especially as in this case they follow reconsideration of objections to its first proposals. Given that we press on other countries the need for an authoritative electoral commission, it is incumbent on the Government to attach some authority to the one that we have.
I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. The Electoral Commission does not arrive at its
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conclusions in a capricious way. It thinks carefully about these matters, as it was set up to do. It is not just another group lobbying us for a particular cause; it is the body that the Government set up to consider electoral arrangements and advise them and this House. We should take what the Electoral Commission says seriously and if the Government are minded not to agree with its proposals, they should have to provide extremely sound grounds for doing so. Nor should those grounds be partisan between the sides of the House.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) made several points that relate to the points that I made earlier about amendment No. 1. It is essential that we have proper arrangements for registering people with disabilities, in the same way as it is essential that we find ways for people to vote on the day or by post. Individual registration would assist that process. The Minister also needs to consider other issues, such as registration in nursing homes, which has not always been entirely appropriate. Those who run nursing homes have not always received the necessary encouragement to ensure that the people in their care are given the opportunity to register and vote. We need firmer guidelines on that aspect.
There are issues about capacity, and although they are probably outwith the amendment, they need to be dealt with at some stage during the passage of the Bill. The hon. Lady's basic contention is absolutely right: we must provide all sections of our community with opportunities to be registered properly, while maintaining the integrity of the electoral system. I think that is what the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is trying to achieve through his amendment, although I disagree with him about the precise details, as he knows. Nevertheless, I applaud his intention and I hope that the Minister will respond appropriately.
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