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Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Do we not already have a pilot in Northern Ireland? Why do we need additional pilots for the purposes of the Bill?

Ms Harman: I will answer that when I deal with the relevant amendments tabled by the Conservative Front Bench.

Following the pilots, we hope to be in a position to return to Parliament for a decision on national roll-out in early summer 2008.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I urge my right hon. and learned Friend in the strongest possible terms to ensure that a broad range of pilots is undertaken and, in particular, that they are undertaken in London areas because of the acute difficulties that exist there.

Ms Harman: We will have to ensure that we understand the effect of the change in all places, so we will need representative areas. London is a key issue. It is close to my hon. Friend's heart as a London Member, and he has spoken about under-registration in London a great deal, with great force and effect. It is close to my heart. As the Electoral Commission showed, London has the worst register in the country in terms of incompleteness. Something like 550,000 Londoners are    not on the electoral register. Any unintended consequence of exacerbating under-registration will be a particular issue for London.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The right hon. and learned Lady knows of the problems that we have
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experienced in Bradford with our electoral arrangements, because I have mentioned them to her on a number of occasions. I therefore urge her to make Bradford a special case. She said that the Electoral Commission will look at the results of the pilots. Will she abide by its recommendations after it has done so, or will she not?

2 pm

Ms Harman: The commission's task is to evaluate the pilots and to report to us. It is for the Government to decide what it brings to the House, but it is for the House to decide whether, on the basis of the evidence of the pilots, as evaluated by the commission, it wishes to keep the status quo or whether it wishes to make a change and introduce a national roll-out. It will be for the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to make that decision on the advice of the Electoral Commission. However, we will not sub-contract the decision to the commission. The question of the law on the entitlement conditions rests with the House, and we will not sub-contract it to the commission. It plays an invaluable role, and it will be involved in the pilots, but we will make the decision on the law on registration in the House.

The hon. Gentleman raised the problems experienced in Bradford. I always say that there are three issues in relation to democracy. Everyone has the right to vote, which is why registration is important; the security of vote means that no one should fiddle it; and everyone should turn out to vote. The hon. Gentleman has expressed concern about the security of the vote in Bradford. Certain parts of the country feel vulnerable to fraud. That lack of confidence is an issue for the whole country, but it is of particular concern to people in the affected areas, who are entitled to cast their vote and have it counted with exactly the same level of integrity as anyone in other parts of the country. We will therefore work with areas that think that they are vulnerable to fraud, to make sure that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, electoral registration officers and everyone else have the Government's full support so that they can assure people in the area that there will be clean, honest elections. The next test, of course, will take place in May 2006.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Will the Minister make sure that some pilots use people's national insurance number as the personal identifier as well as their date of birth and signature, so that we can test the difficulties and the increased effectiveness that that may provide?

Ms Harman: The Bill, as the hon. Gentleman will know, allows us to pilot the use of national insurance numbers as a condition for registration. It is not our intention to proceed with such a piloting. We will commence with a pilot making someone's signature and date of birth a condition of registration, but it is possible, under the law in the Bill, to pilot national insurance numbers. As for national insurance numbers and Northern Ireland, may I deal with those matters by responding to amendments Nos. 16 and 17, which were tabled by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald)? They would require all electors to provide their national insurance number
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when registering to vote. Postal and proxy voters, too, would need to provide their national insurance number when applying for an absent vote. Our position on the amendments has not changed since we discussed the issue in the Committee of the whole House. We understand the arguments about the Northern Ireland precedent on both data sharing and security. However, hon. Members will appreciate that Northern Ireland has only just over a million electors and one electoral register. The rest of the UK has about 43 million electors and over 400 electoral registers.

Mr. Forth: So what?

Ms Harman: The answer to that is that it does not follow that an idea that is practical for one system is necessarily practical for another. Community structure, mobility and many other issues affecting the communities and demography of Northern Ireland are very different from the issues affecting communities in this country. Access to the register and security are important considerations. We have highly mobile populations, including many people who are newly arrived in this country, so we have a different community and demographic structure. As a result, we cannot simply say that because something has worked in Northern Ireland, we will introduce it here.

Mr. Forth: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Harman: I will do so, but I expect the right hon. Gentleman to concede that we cannot simply implant Northern Ireland arrangements in this country without further testing and piloting.

Mr. Forth: I am most grateful to the Minister not only for giving way but for answering the question that I have not yet asked. She is standing logic on its head. If something can be achieved by one electoral authority with a population of 1 million, how much more easily can it be achieved by much smaller registration authorities among the 400 that she mentioned? I would expect locally based electoral authorities, knowing the circumstances in their area, to have the ability to be more nimble on their feet and to monitor elections as well, if not better than the large authority in Northern Ireland.

Ms Harman: I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman heard my point that Northern Ireland's society is not necessarily representative of other communities in Great Britain. He will have heard what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), who represents a constituency in London. Should we assume that, because something works in Northern Ireland it will work in London, against a very different background with a very different set of problems? The right hon. Gentleman may think that that is possible and that we should legislate and roll the programme out nationally. However, we want to take a more forensic and evidence-based approach. We have looked closely at what happened in Northern Ireland, but we will undertake evidence-based policy making. We will proceed expeditiously with pilots in different parts of the country so that we have a good evidence base.

Mr. Heald: Is not the Minister's basic point that no one knows their national insurance number? The truth
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of the matter is that the Government tried such an arrangement in Ulster, where 92 per cent. of people registered to vote. That figure is far higher than registration in all the places about which hon. Members have complained.

Ms Harman: In future, we can pilot a condition requiring people to give their national insurance number before they are entitled to vote. However, it is not right to say, as the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) have done, that because something has worked as a condition of registration in Northern Ireland, it will work in exactly the same way in the rest of the country where there are different communities with different levels of population mobility and different demographies.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): We have covered this ground on many occasions, but may I remind my right hon. and learned Friend that when the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs discussed the issue, Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, talked about the tension between participation and security? On behalf of the commission, he said that

Surely, hon. Members should accept that advice.

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