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Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has made a helpful intervention. However, I repeat that it does not follow that an idea that is practical for Northern Ireland is necessarily practical for England and will not have unintended consequences.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): May I remind hon. Members that the registration rate for Belfast seats after the changes was 72 per cent.? Would hon. Members like such a registration rate in their own constituencies?
My hon. Friends have revealed a level of doubt about arrangements in Northern Ireland that shows that we are right to proceed expeditiously with pilots before we embark on a national roll-out. I hope that hon. Members agree that what we are discussing is not an issue of principle. We all agree that we should have high levels of security. We all agree that no one should fiddle the vote, and that the system should be proofed against that. We all agree that there should be full entitlement to registration. We are discussing how we go about implementing an improvement to the operation in that respect, and our argument is that we
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should proceed on the basis of evidence and that we should conduct a pilot. The Opposition's argument is that we should go straight ahead and do it. That should be a narrow gap between us. We will proceed expeditiously with the pilots. [Hon. Members: "Pilot the scheme now."] We intend to run the pilots now. The Department has already drawn up the prospectus for the pilots on signatures and dates of birth.
Ms Harman: The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who leads for the Opposition, said that that is not his position. He agreed, as we all do, that a full register where everybody is entitled to vote is essential for democracy. We must all be concerned when large and growing numbers of people are not on the register. He said that he agrees with us on that, so we are proceeding on that basis.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does the Minister agree that requiring the additional information raises awareness among electors and places a responsibility on them to ensure that their names are on the electoral register? Like all colleagues, no doubt, in the run-up to an election, I have been approached by constituents complaining that they have not received their polling cards. They have assumed, quite wrongly, that because they are paying council tax, they are automatically on the electoral register, and they need to understand that they are not.
Ms Harman: The hon. Lady makes a good point. All hon. Members share the experience of our constituents assuming that they are on the electoral register and being aggrieved when they find that they are not and cannot exercise their democratic right. The data-sharing provisions that we have included in the Bill will require electoral registration officers for the first time to review the data that they hold. If there is someone paying council tax who is not on the register, the electoral registration officer is required to go out, find that person, draw the matter to their attention and put them on the register. A number of provisions in the Bill will, we hope, ensure that the register is more complete.
As we set out in Committee, when the co-ordinated online register of electorsCOREcreates national access to local registers, data sharing systems such as that in Northern Ireland might be practical for the rest of the UK. The national insurance computer can relate straight to the single body of information of the single register of electors in Northern Ireland. Under the Opposition's proposal, the national insurance contributions system would relate to 400 different electoral registration officers, some of whom have their registers online and some who do not, some who compile their register by address and some who do so by alphabet. We will be in a better position to consider whether the Northern Ireland system can be implemented more widely when we have put in place the
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co-ordinated online register of electors, whereby all electoral registration officers have to put the information online and feed it into a central register.
Chris Ruane: What is the time scale for the introduction of a central Government database able to communicate with local government electoral registration officers, and what sanctions would be applied to electoral registration officers or chief executives of recalcitrant county councils who refuse to comply with the guidelines and cannot be bothered to ensure a complete register?
Ms Harman: Under the provisions of the Bill, strengthened by an Opposition amendment, the Electoral Commission must issue guidance which must be accepted by electoral registration officers, who must put their electoral register online and feed through the data in a certain way to go on to the co-ordinated online register of electors. The system is not voluntary. We expect it to proceed as laid down in the Bill. We regard it as not just desirable, but necessary.
We recently published a consultation paper on CORE which provides more information on this, for Members who are interested. If the proposal goes forward, a national insurance number or other personal identifier may be of use. That is why we have included order-making powers in clauses 14 and 15 to allow for the possibility of other identifiers being piloted and rolled out in the future. However, at present we do not see a use for national insurance numbers in electoral registration outside Northern Ireland, and believe that collecting them would discourage people from registering to vote. The personal identifiers that we propose collecting in the pilotssignatures and dates of birthare simple and easily memorable. A national insurance number is more complicated and we believe that at this stage its use would be disproportionate.
New clause 1 and amendments Nos. 1 and 6 to 14 tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) seek to give effect to a system of voluntary personal identifiers, as mooted by the Electoral Commission. I am afraid colleagues will have to concentrate extremely hard. Once they have worked out the differences between the Opposition and the Government on personal identifiers, they will have to deal with a third issue: what is the difference between us, the Opposition and the Electoral Commission proposal, which is put forward in his amendment by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome? Under the system that he proposes, all electors would be able to supply their signature and date of birth on the annual canvass formthere would be a space for thatbut they would not be compelled to do so.
In my view, this lack of compulsion, instead of the pilots for compulsion, is a real weakness. It means that security will be enhanced only if people voluntarily choose to collect signatures for everybody in their household on the canvass form and list everybody's date of birth. There appears to be no benefit from that. It is supposedly helping security, but it is voluntary. Even people who do not do it can go on the register. What benefit is there for security if the system is only voluntary?
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Mr. Heath: The right hon. and learned Lady is being uncharacteristically unhelpful to the House in her description of the Electoral Commission proposal. It is clear that although the scheme is voluntary in respect of people who vote in person, it would not be voluntary for those who wish to vote as absent votersthose who wish to exercise a postal vote. It thereby at a stroke reduces the perceived lack of integrity in the postal voting system, while hopefully not engendering the disadvantages that she identifies but which I do not necessarily share in terms of compulsory personal identifiers for all voters. By suggesting that there would be no improvement in the integrity of the system, she is being a little unfair to the Electoral Commission and therefore to me as I advance its proposal.
Ms Harman: I do not seek to be unfair to the Electoral Commission or to the hon. Gentleman. I am trying to explain the facts to the House. Although the signature would be voluntary, the hon. Gentleman is right. The question that arises under the Electoral Commission scheme is what if somebody wanted to exercise a postal vote. They would not be debarred from exercising a postal vote if they had not signed the canvass form. They would have a fresh opportunity to sign. But that is a requirement anyway, if people want a postal vote under the present system. There is no difference under the Electoral Commission's proposal as regards eligibility for postal voting. Electors would be on the register without having signed, because signing is voluntary, but when it came to postal voting, they would not be debarred. They would have to provide a signature.
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