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Personal identifiers: piloting

Mr. Heath: I beg to move amendment No. 4, in clause 15, page 14, line 17, leave out subsection (1).

The Temporary Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 5, in page 14, line 26, leave out from 'to' to end of line and insert—

   'one or more electoral regions as defined for the purposes of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 (c.24)'.

Amendment No. 6, in page 15, line 1, leave out subsections (10) and (11).

Amendment No. 7, in clause 16, page 15, line 40, leave out

'local authority in response to whose proposal'

and insert

'local authorities within the region or regions in which'.

Amendment No. 8, in clause 16, page 15, line 43, leave out

'local authority in response to whose proposal'

and insert

'local authorities within the region or regions in which'.

Amendment No. 9, in clause 16, page 16, line 1, leave out first 'The' and insert 'Each'.

New clause 5—personal identifiers: supplemental provisions—

'Sections 13 and 14 shall not be brought into force otherwise than for the purposes of an order made under section 15.'.

Mr. Heath: We move on to the vexed question of pilots, which the Government have given rather a bad name. Pilots are the Government-speak equivalent of mañana: if one does not want to do something quickly, one runs pilots, pilots and more pilots, after which one can assess the pilots for a while, review the assessment and then run more pilots. However, the alternative is to roll out the whole scheme within a few weeks of installing the pilot scheme without any assessment of the evidence. Those are not appropriate ways of dealing with what many commentators have described as a matter of some urgency, particularly in the case of postal votes.
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I have already conceded the point that individual registration raises some issues, and we must examine the matter carefully. My preference is for an individual voter registration scheme, which is a view echoed by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who sees that as the direction in which we should be going, but also recognises the practical difficulties along the way.

I have given the Government credit for introducing new offences in the Bill in order to tighten up on fraud. If we are to make those offences bite, however, other than making threats that are never brought to court, we must provide the means by which returning officers and registration officers can detect fraud, otherwise we are simply rattling sabres without any expectation of success. That is particularly the case in terms of postal voting fraud, which we know has occurred because there have been successful court cases. We heard quoted on Second Reading what the learned judge in one such case said about the inadequacy of the current systems. If we accept the Government's proposed pilot scheme, we will not have these precautions in place by the time of the next general election. If that happens, we should hang our heads in shame, because this House will have failed in its primary duty of ensuring the integrity of our electoral system. We need an alternative to the Government's proposals.

8.45 pm

When he was responding to the previous group of amendments, the Minister suggested—although he recanted when I intervened on him—that I had said that a full system of individual registration and personal identifiers should be rolled out across the country at a single stroke. I have not said that. I have said that the Government's scheme, which they have identified as being appropriate in the pilot areas, is appropriate across the country because it is a minimal scheme with very little likelihood of having a significant effect. If it were to have a significant effect, we have a fall-back position, which has already been described by the Electoral Commission.

The Government were wrong to suggest pilots in the first instance. People in the Whitehall Departments should be taken away and given some elementary scientific training as to how to conduct a controlled experiment. Too often, we have pilots that tell us practically nothing, and this is a case in point. The Government propose that local authorities opt in by offering the opportunity to run pilots in their local authority area. That gives us a self-selecting group of local authorities, no control over the kinds of authorities that are being used because they are self-selecting, and, with no control authority, no ability to make proper comparisons of what is happening. What is observed in the experimental conditions might be entirely random instead of helpful in ascertaining any sort of trend.

If the Government are insistent about going ahead with pilots, the very least that we can expect is that they identify a region and run the registration experiment across it. That would mean, first, that they have a suitable size of response in order to get meaningful results; secondly, that they can compare one region with
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a similar region, thereby providing the control that I   suggest; and thirdly, that they have sufficient data to recommend changes in the future. None of that is accomplished by the Government's proposed pilot scheme.

There is a better solution. The Government do not propose to go as far as the Northern Ireland experiment because—I agree with them on this—they want not to use the Northern Ireland system of personal identifiers, which includes the national insurance number, but a basic version based on a signature and date of birth. That is not such a drastic step as suggesting a   catastrophic reduction in registration but it is the   minimum required to maintain the integrity of the voting system, especially for postal votes. Amendment No. 4 would set aside the concept of the pilot and go for a change in the law to provide basic protection.

Later amendments propose an alternative sort of pilot, which would be based on a larger area—an electoral region. Of course, we held such a pilot for the   European parliamentary elections because that was believed to be appropriate. It was not based on one region—we had to go much further and half of England was used for the experiment because the Department took a completely different view of what was appropriate then. We had the Dane law, which covered an experimental area rather than a few local authorities dotted around the country.

Let me consider the so-called transitional arrangement that the Electoral Commission proposed. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) is not in her place, because she so strongly advocated never disagreeing with the Electoral Commission's proposals. She suggested that it would be outrageous to disagree with them and I should therefore have liked her to be here to endorse my comments. The Electoral Commission has made it clear that it does not agree with the Government about the piloting approach. I have a letter from Sam Younger that outlines the Electoral Commission's reasons for that. I   received the letter at 6.15—the Minister obviously received it first, which is right and proper.

The Electoral Commission has proposed a transitional approach. It does not give me everything that I want—it is a compromise—but its great merit is that it does two things. It enables the Government to behave cautiously, as they say they want to do on the introduction of the overall arrangements and towards the normal voting procedure, but it ensures that minimum standards for postal votes are in place long   before the next general election. That meets the Government's objection to my position and my objection to theirs. That is a strong place to start. The Under-Secretary shakes his head. He obviously has a preconceived view that he will not find the approach acceptable. That is a shame because, on Report, it might form the basis on which we wish to proceed. If we cannot do that, the measure will, unfortunately, go to a non-elected House for arbitration.

Mr. Betts: I am struggling a little with the hon. Gentleman's fall-back position. It appears that he does   not object to the principle of pilots but simply to the areas in which they will take place. He argues that such an area should be a Government region, for example, the constituencies for European parliamentary
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elections. That would preclude the method that we use for conducting pilots on other matters such as electronic voting, whereby some wards in a local authority area are designated for the pilot and others are not. One can then compare what happened in the same local authority area. The hon. Gentleman would prevent such pilots from being conducted for those purposes, yet they might lead to some interesting results.

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