Mr. Heath: All sorts of things might lead to interesting results. However, I see no inconsistency between saying that I do not agree with a piloting approach but also that, if there is to be one, it needs to be on a quantum of local authorities that is sufficiently large to produce results, instead of the hotch-potch approach that has been used previously. Although we had some "interesting"to use the hon. Gentleman's wordexperiments on novel voting methods, what have we learned from them? We learned precious little because we had insufficient material to make a conclusive determination about the way in which we would like to progress. The end result was an election that inspired the least confidence of any in living memory. That is the environment in which we are addressing the issues in the Bill.
Mr. Betts: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. We had some interesting pilots in Sheffield on electronic voting, in which some wards had electronic voting and others did not. We learned that having electronic voting made virtually no difference to voter turnout, so the idea that it was going to provide some kind of panacea to get thousands more people to vote proved not to be the case. So pilots can prove that things will not work, as well as proving that they will. That is the idea of a pilot, and we should set out with an open mind as to what the result will be.
Mr. Heath: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We should set out with an open mind. We had a similar situation with electronic voting in south Somerset. It was not the preferred voting method of the people there; more were interested in personal voting. However, that is an aside, because we are not talking about a revolutionary change to what the Government are proposing. We are simply talking about providing a signature and a date of birth. I really cannot get my head around the idea that that is such a difficult thing for people to provide in order to ascertain that they are who they say they are for the purpose of electoral registration. People sign on the dotted line every day for things that they wish to receive. They might be asked to sign when the postman comes. They do not say, "Oh, no, Mr. Postman, I cannot sign to receive this package. It is too difficult." They say, "Of course I will." They sign, and they receive their package, or whatever.
This proposal involves a basic, elementary approach, and we are making far too much of an issue of it. We are making it an obstacle to registration, which it simply is not. It involves a basic precaution to ensure that, the next time we have an election, we do not have the sort of headlines that we had after the last one, with electoral courts in session and people being accused and convicted of electoral fraud, simply because our returning officers and registration officers do not have the mechanisms to prevent that fraud from happening.
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That is the responsibility of the House and of the Government, and that is why I have tabled these amendments today.
Mr. Heald: I should like to start by agreeing with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Not to tackle the public perception of postal voting fraud and the inaccuracy of the registers would be a recipe for disaster. We talk a good deal in the House about trying to connect with the public, and about public confidence in the voting system. We are right to do so, because there is a disconnection there, and to fail to tackle a problem of such importance to this place would be wrong. The serial piloting approach is a hopeless and pathetic response to it. This is an urgent problem and it needs urgent action.
Everyone will know by now that I support the tried and tested system in Northern Ireland. It has created security and there are still high levels of registration there. However, I am prepared to consider measures such as those proposed by the Electoral Commission for a transitional approach. The proposal that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has come up with in amendment No. 4 is worthy of support because it does not involve a potty pilot. It involves rolling out personal identifiers, which will provide real protection, and it involves doing so now.
Miss Begg: If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants to reach out and involve as many people as possible in voting, why on earth has he tabled amendment No. 23, which rules out all modern types of voting such as electronic voting, telephone voting and text message voting? Surely that amendment contradicts what he has just said.
Mr. Heald: I am sure you would be very tough on me, Mr. Conway, if I strayed too far down that road, because it relates to the next group of amendments, although I will refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts): when pilots involving electronic voting and the like were tried, they had no discernible effect on turnout. That has influenced me, as have my concerns about fraud, which I will refer to later, if I may.
The point I want to make is that it is right to be constructive when the problem is so important. I am prepared to be constructive, as is my party, so we will support amendment No. 4. I do not agree with the regional approach, because piloting is not the answer. A national approach is needed, and it is needed now.
Miss Begg: I sat through all the debate on Second Reading, and I have sat through a large chunk of the debate today. If any evidence were needed as to why we have to have a pilot, it has been provided by those debates. There has been a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing among Members on both sides of the Committee over whether one system will work and another will not; whether there should be household or individual registration; what the identifiers should befor example, national insurance numbers; and whether those identifiers will act as barriers.
That is exactly why we need a pilot. We need to find out what does and does not work, and whether it is possibleparticularly in terms of the personal
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identifiersto give a choice. Despite what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) says, some people find signing their name difficult, particularly in a consistent way. I give the example of my father, who has recently lost his eyesight. He is finding it extremely difficult to continue to sign his name in the way that he previously did with ease.
Mr. Heath: Provision for setting aside the personal identifier in such circumstances has already been made by the Government, who foresaw the problem. My amendment would not change that; it would simply introduce the provision across the country rather than in some parts of it.
Miss Begg: But earlier the hon. Gentleman described exactly what the barriers are. Which personal identifiers will be easiest? That is probably where we are looking to pilot. Should we use date of birth? I would go along with that; it is probably an easy identifier. Should we use a signature? Most certainly it would be easy for most people, but we might use the mother's maiden name or a range of other things that will be easier for an individual to remember than things that we might think are easy to remember. That is why I said in a previous intervention that using the national insurance number might be difficult. Remember, the purpose of this measure is to encourage more and more people to register. For people with a learning disability, for instance, something we have not thought of might be an easier personal identifier than the ones we have come up with.
I also referred earlier to the point made by Scope, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Royal National Institute of the Blind, as well as other disabled organisations: whether it would be more successful to have individual registration with identifiers or household registration, also with identifiers; whether distributing the forms by household would make them too complex, too difficult to read and too difficult to access; and whether using an individual form would lead to a huge drop in the number of people who register. Nothing I have heard during our debates makes me think that we have the answers to those questions, which is why we need a pilot.
On Second Reading, I also made a plea for consistency across the different electoral regions. I might seem to be contradicting myself, but I think that we need pilots to find out what is easy and what is accessible. Having been registered in more than one electoral districtindeed, for a short time I was registered in threeI know that the variety of information and the differences between information that one receives in different areas can make it either easier or more difficult to work out how to register and what the form says.
I have puzzled over the exact meaning of a number of forms, especially in relation to declaration of citizenship, as it is not always clear whether that is mandatory. In one electoral register, one must declare one's nationality, while in my home register in Aberdeen, one does not have to do so. There is still confusion about exactly what is needed, and that is why the Government are right to pursue pilots. I accept the
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point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that the pilots must ultimately come up with a final solution. I hope that, as a result of the pilots, we will find out what works, what does not work, what is easy, what is accessible, and above all, what leads to security of poll and cuts out fraud to make sure that everyone has confidence in the electoral system.