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Ms Harman: The new clause and amendments that I have tabled fill a gap in the Bill as originally drafted. As we said, it is our intention to hold pilots of the collection and use of personal identifiers in registration. If the pilots are successful, the Bill includes the power to roll out identifiers on a permanent and nationwide basis by order. As drafted, however, the Bill includes no provision for circumstances in which pilots are not successful. At present, if that were to occur, clauses 13 to 17 would remain in limboapproved by Parliament, but not commenced. We do not believe that that would be desirable.
The new clause and amendments provide for an order-making power to allow the personal identifier provisions to be repealed if pilots show that they should not be rolled out. The order will be subject to the affirmative procedure and could not be made until the Electoral Commission had reported on a pilot scheme. In that way, the commission will have the opportunity to contribute its views and Parliament will be able to make a decision. It might be useful at this point if I provide some more details about where we are with the planning of personal identifier pilots.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Is it right to assume any sort of sense of the Government's attitude to the pilots from new clause 14, or is it just good drafting practice that it is wrong to set up pilots without a provision to deal with a situation in which they do not proceed nationally? Are the Government rather half-hearted about the pilots?
Ms Harman: It is not a matter of the new clause expressing a change in attitude. It simply tidies up the Bill so that we have what was originally intended, which is that if the pilots are successful, we do not have to return to the House with primary legislation because the arrangements will be implemented by order, and if they are not successful, the power will not be left on the statute book and will be repealed in the same way as we are enabling the pilots to be rolled out. We want to make the Bill right.
The hon. Gentleman again queries whether we are half-hearted about the pilots. Personal identifiers were not my idea. It came from the Electoral Commission and Opposition Members. We accepted the suggestion
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that we should pilot them, but we are not doing that as a way of kicking them into the long grass. We accept the argument that they are worth testing. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House accept my good faith on that. We expect the pilots to be a reality and for them to help us to understand more about the way in which the system will work if it is changed. They are not a ruse, a device or a way of fobbing people off. They ensure that if we are to go ahead with the change, we pilot it and test it first.
I was reinforced in my view that the evidence-based approach is the right way for the Government and the House to be going about this when we had a round-table discussion this morning, helpfully convened by the Electoral Commission, on service voters, many of whom are not registered and who are disfranchised. The House made a change in 2001 on the basis of all-party agreement, which everyone now accepts had unintended consequences. Before we made the national change, we should have piloted it first. Perhaps then we would have seen the unintended consequences and had a different scheme for servicemen and women. I am trying to have a better approach to another change in registration. This is a process issue.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Does the Minister agree that her comments are a good illustration of why matters that are subject to all-party agreement are invariably a disastrous flop? Does she also agree that what we need is robust debate and robust opposition to ensure that we do not walk blindfold and hand in hand in agreement into an arrangement that turns out not to work? I am grateful to her because she has reinforced my long-held view that Parliament works best on the basis of robust opposition and robust debate.
Ms Harman: I do not think that all-party agreement is always a disastrous trap. Although we must have vigorous debate on constitutional affairs that deal with the rules in relation to democracy, it should not be divided between the Government and the Opposition. It is unhealthy if we present to the public a Bill that has been the subject of party political footballing. I agree that we should have robust debate, but I would expect that critique to come as much from the Labour Back Benches as from the Opposition, and that is what happened to the Bill. It is right that it is subjected to rigorous critiques, as it was in Committee. Indeed, we had to chuck out many policies because they did not stand up to scrutiny. We did not do that on the basis of Opposition and Government, but on the basis of good, rigorous debate within the House.
Mr. Heald: Does the right hon. and learned Lady accept that with the exception, perhaps, of the issue that we are about to discuss, she has been co-operative, has listened and has been prepared to take on board the comments of hon. Members on both sides of the House? Indeed, she has tabled a series of amendments that we very much welcome.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Many of the Government amendments and new clauses emanated from the Opposition and Labour Back Benchers. They have the Government tag on them, but
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they are not our idea. I have taken a sceptical approach. When an hon. Member has said, "This won't work", I have immediately presumed that the idea will not work and it has had to be reproved. I have not taken the position that because our Department produced it, it is right. My starting point is that it is right. If anyone has said it is wrong, I have swapped sides and have needed it to be proved. That is why the Bill is a bit lighter than when it started out.
Ms Harman: Let me explain how the pilots will take place. If the Bill receives Royal Assent within the next few months, we intend to commence piloting at the 2006 canvass. A prospectus seeking applications from local authorities is being drawn up and will be issued within the next few weeks. We intend to select areas with an appropriate variety of socio-demographic profiles.
We intend that the pilots will last for no more than two years and will be evaluated by the Electoral Commission. We are discussing evaluation criteria and methodology with the commission and will do so with Opposition Front Bench spokesmen as well. However, we expect the two key issues that will need to be assessed during the course of the pilot to be the impact of personal identifiers on the completeness and accuracy of the register and the impact of the pilots on the security of the process.
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