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Mr. Heath: I am seriously concerned that the Minister does not understand the point of the Electoral Commission's proposals. Such a person would be debarred from exercising a postal vote if they had not previously provided personal identifiers in the form of a signature and date of birth to the registration officer, in which case the check would be automatic. The check would be more than a signature on an application for a postal vote, because there would be a way of checking identity against pre-existing information on the register in order to maintain the integrity of the postal voting system. The position is odd, because I have not had the opportunity to move my new clause, but the Minister is already providing a commentary, which is based on wrong information.
My commentary is not based on wrong information. The Electoral Commission's proposal, which I shall attempt to explain once again, would not change the conditionone householder provides a signature on the canvass formfor getting on the register. Every other individual in that household would not have to sign or give their date of birth as a condition of getting on the register. The householder could fill in those details, which would place other householders on the register and entitle them to vote, and the addition of a signature or date of birth would be optional.
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If somebody were on a household canvass form and on the register without including their signature on the canvass form, would they be debarred from postal voting? The answer is that they would be debarred from postal voting unless they gave another signature. Currently, one must provide a signature to obtain a postal vote application, which is not provided automatically. In practice, the Electoral Commission proposal would not make any difference, which is why it would be the worst of all worlds. It would not improve security, because people would still be able to get on the register without a signature.
The Electoral Commission's proposal might deter some people from getting on the register. Security would be enhanced only if people were voluntarily to sign their canvass forms and give their dates of birth. It is true that absent voters would have to provide identifiers, but if they did not provide a signature at the canvass stage, they could subsequently provide it when applying for their absent vote. If the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome checks, he will find that that is the proposal, and since absent voters must already provide a signature, it would not change the situation.
Our pilot schemes will involve compulsory personal identifiers. Whether they take place in Bradford or London, if people do not include the signature of each individual and their date of birth on the form, then those individuals will not get on the register. Let us not shilly-shally around with a halfway house by which a system of voluntary signatures is rolled out nationally. Let us pilot compulsory signatures, which will allow us to assess security and understand the effect on registration. A national roll-out of compulsory identifiers would be wrong, because we would not understand its consequences. The halfway house of voluntary personal identifiers will not help us, because it would not give us security, which will form part of the pilot of compulsory identifiers. Compulsory personal identifiers as a condition of registration are the way forward.
I am grateful to the Electoral Commission for introducing the proposal. It was trying to find a solution to the problem that we could not obtain all-party agreement on pilots versus national roll-out. Its intention was helpful, and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome backs its proposal. In my view, the Electoral Commission's proposal would not provide us with anything better than the current system, but it would provide us with some things that would be much worse than the effect of pilots. Bearing in mind that I have adopted individual personal identifiers, which was not my proposal, and said that we will pilot them, I urge hon. Members to accept the pilot, which will allow us to try out the proposal that I have adopted in practice. The third way, which falls through all the gaps, does not provide any advantages. I am happy to debate it until the cows come home, but I will not recommend it to the House.
The final problem with the Electoral Commission's proposal concerns advertising the voluntary signature scheme. When the advertising states, "Please include a signature", will it include the line, "but you do not have to"? If the advertising states that the inclusion of signatures is voluntary, the proposal will make no difference. If the advertising uses mood music to encourage people to include signatures, it might have a deterrent effect on people who put the document on the
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mantelpiece until their child returns from holiday, college or university and signs it, by which time it might have been lost or thrown away. The proposal could depress the register without increasing security, which would be the worst of all worlds. We want higher security and improved access to the register.
Angela Watkinson: What is the value of a signature? How can one verify that it is the signature of the person whose name is written on the piece of paper? It would be simple for one person in a household to write the names of everyone else who lives there. In houses in multiple occupation, the scope for writing other people's names is obvious, whereas a national insurance number is accurate and cannot be forged in that way.
Ms Harman: If someone knew somebody else's national insurance number or date of birth, they would be able fraudulently to add the signature. The point concerns what the rules should be, and how they should be enforced. We want not only the right rules, but effective operational enforcement. Whether we stick with the current system whereby one person signs on behalf of a whole household, whether we move to one person signing for themselves and adding their date of birth as a result of successful pilots or whether we include national insurance numbers in addition to individual signatures and dates of birth, we must be sure that fraud does not occur.
I have started to meet the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives on a monthly basis. We are discussing how to provide effective fraud enforcement for whatever system the House chooses in its wisdom and after lengthy debate.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What advice has the Minister taken from perhaps the most expert body of people on fraud prevention and personal identifiers, the banking sector, which has moved away from signatures altogether?
In conclusion, pilots are a sensible and practical mechanism for testing the collection and use of personal identifiers. The evidence provided by pilots will inform the decision, which will ultimately be taken by Parliament, whether personal identifiers should be rolled out nationally, so our approach is evidence based. Security and complete and accurate registers are essential, and the pilots will show us whether personal identifierssignatures and dates of birthincrease security without undermining completeness. If that is the case, the Bill will allow us to roll out such a scheme nationally.
Let me preface my remarks by thanking the Minister and her colleagues for the courteous and constructive way in which they have looked at the
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proposals that we have made in other areas. It has been a good process. It is also right to thank the Electoral Commission for all its hard work. In later groups of amendments, we will find proposals dealing with the assurances that we requested about information being available through the co-ordinated online register of electors, fairness as between parties and independents over descriptions of candidates, clarity about election expenses, issues to do with reducing the threshold for loss of deposits, and having a better test for safety for those wishing to register anonymously and extending that to carers of children at risk. All those are very welcome and I would not want the grudging spirit in which I am going to continue to lead the Minister to think that I am not grateful.
I am grateful for the Minister's assurance that new clause 14 concerns good drafting. If the Government are setting up a pilot scheme with a provision that they can make it national, it is right that the Bill should contain a provision to enable them to deal with circumstances where they choose not to do that.
The nub of this group of amendments is the important issue of how we protect the electoral system from fraud. New clause 1, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), and which we support, is the minimalist position proposed as a compromise by the Electoral Commission. The commission is saying that tackling fraud is an urgent problem that needs an immediate national response. If the Government will not introduce immediately what the commission really wants, which I and other Opposition Members support, then for goodness' sake let us support new clause 1. I would go further than that. Amendments Nos. 16 and 17, which stand in my name and those of my hon. Friends, maintain our stated position in favour of personal identifiers, individual voter registration and the inclusion of national insurance numbers.
It is worth reflecting on why this is such an important problem. We were all prepared to agree with the introduction of postal voting on demand, but from a very early stage Opposition Members called for proper safeguards to prevent fraud. The Electoral Commission and electoral observerseven some from Ukraine and Serbia, who came to this country to observe our general election last yearpointed out the risk of fraud and said that we should move to independent, individual voter registration. The Government's proposals for a few local government pilots are not an adequate response. This is a proven, successful system that has been trialled in Northern Ireland, which, with 1 million people, is a pretty large pilot by anybody's standards. Already, 92 per cent. of people have provided their national insurance numbers, signatures and dates of birthand that in a country that has areas with substantial deprivation and communities that have emigrated there. It is not a place of leafy suburbsthe sort of area that is likely to volunteer for the pilots. One of the criticisms made by the Electoral Commission is that, with a bottom-up system of pilots, the electoral registration officers who volunteer will be those in the easier areas. We need the Government to grasp the nettle and tackle the problem.
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The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) has been something of a problem in this regard. [Hon. Members: "And in others."] I am sure. He is in a constituency where the electoral register has collapsed over recent years, where people are not registering and where he admits that large numbers who should register have not done so. What is his solution? He wants to continue with the failed system that we have now. To be honest, that is unacceptable. I understand from his previous speech on the subject that he has been saying to his colleagues, "It'll be bad for us come the boundary commission." That is not the answer. We need a system whereby the people who are entitled to vote are on the register, and the people who are not entitled to vote are not on it. He and I should be able to make common cause on that, because that is what anybody who cares about our democracy would want.
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