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Barbara Keeley: How does the hon. Gentleman believe that local authorities would check national insurance numbers? Conservative Members appear to be running away with that idea. There is no existing mechanism whereby they can do that.
Mr. Heald: In Northern Ireland, it is done by computer and data matching the two sources. When I was a Social Security Minister years ago, the Minister suggested, in a different context, that we should data match local authority records against the national insurance computer. As far as I know, there is no reason why that should not happen. It might be complicated and the Minister might have a better answer. However, there is no electronic reason for not being able to make that comparison, as is done in Northern Ireland.
Philip Davies: Does my hon. Friend accept that it is not simply a matter of getting a result in which people can believe? He knows that, in Bradford, the police have investigated more than 250 cases of alleged electoral fraud since the general election. People in my part of the world would prefer to have a robust system of voting and registering so that the police can concentrate on catching thugs, muggers and those who damage society. People in Bradford would regard my hon. Friend's proposal of using national insurance numbers as a common-sense way of allowing the police to do the job that they want them to do rather than investigating electoral fraud.
Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend has made his worries about what happened in Bradford clear to the House, and rightly so. It is easy for us to get so involved in the detail of these matterswhich we should do, of coursethat we forget the deep shock and outrage that the public felt when all those allegations of fraud in the system, particularly postal vote fraud, first came to light. People were deeply shocked that such a level of fraud could exist in our democracy. Indeed, the judge in the Birmingham case was outraged at what he saw as the complacency of Ministers. It is easy to get into the Whitehall way of thinking, without realising that people want to feel that we have a top-class democracy, a democracy to be proud of. After all, we go round lecturing other countries about it
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con):
It seems variously and rather curiously to have been suggested that the use
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of national insurance numbers in these circumstances would be either obstructive, intrusive or impractical. My hon. Friend is right to question that assumption. As he has been talking about the need for joined-up government, does he agree that the Government have adopted a rather inconsistent mode of operation, given that they want to introduce identity cards at a cost that they will not calculate, for a benefit that they cannot quantify, and at a risk to personal liberty that they dare not admit?
Mr. Heald: As usual, my hon. Friend gets right to the nub of the issue. This is totally inconsistent. The document about the central online register of electors to which the Minister referred raises the possibility of ID cards being used as a database to check these very matters. There is obviously a great deal of inconsistency here.
The Electoral Commission has not accepted my full proposal involving national insurance numbers, dates of birth and signatures, but it has said that it would be right to use a signature and a date of birth. Ministers have said no to that, however. They can assess the mood in the country on the issue, and they are saying that it needs to be tackled as matter of urgency with a national solution. They have therefore come up with a transitional scheme, which would provide for voluntary registration using a signature and a date of birth. If people wished to apply for a postal vote, they would have to make the same information available. That does not go as far as we would wish. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has tabled a new clause on this matter and will explain his proposals in more detail. It seems wrong that the Minister is not even prepared to go so far as to accept our fairly anodyne compromise measure.
The Electoral Commission criticises the Government's proposals for introducing piloting in a bottom-up fashion, explaining that the wrong sort of authorities will apply to take part. It also says that such pilot schemes will do nothing to counter fraud or increase participation, although everyone agrees that those things are necessary. It also adds that the schemes would add little value, considering the evidence already available from Northern Ireland, which is essentially a bigger pilot in a more problematic area than any local authority would be able to provide. It says that an important lesson from Northern Ireland relates to the importance of introducing individual registration, together with a very active package of measures to increase the number of people registering to vote. We will support not only our own amendments but the compromise suggested by the Electoral Commission, assuming that that option is provided to us.
I want to talk about the system of individual voter registration more generally. Surely it is old fashioned to have household registration these days. The time of the idea of having a head of the household has passed. Many of the households that we are considering are shared homes in which a group of friends live together or in which some other relationship exists. The idea that we should return to the patriarchal system of the head of the household[Interruption.] I know that the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs does not like me to describe the system as
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"patriarchal". She prefers "matriarchal", and I must give her credit for that. Surely, however, the days in which this old-fashioned idea could exist are gone.
Ms Harman: There is a serious point to be made here, which I have been provoked into making. One of the critiques of household registration forms is that they are filled in by the head of the household. However, the forms can be filled in by anyone in the household, and the practical reality is that, even where the man is still regarded as the head of the household, it is usually the woman who fills in the household registration form. It is not filled in by Dad, it is filled in by Mum. If I support household registration, it is not because I have defaulted to supporting patriarchyperish the thoughtbut because I recognise that this is one of the very many things that mums do for the whole family.
John Bercow: I hope so, too, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am trying to be constructive. In April 1992, when I stood as the Conservative candidate against the Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), I encountered three households, two of whose doors were opened by a man, and one by a woman, at which I was told that the person answering the door had filled in the form for the whole household. However, I do not think that my cause would have been advanced in any case, because all three had decided en masse to vote Labour, and, sadly, I lost by 8,919 votes.
Mr. Heald: The serious point is that many households do not have what could be described as a nuclear family. For example, groups of friends share houses or flats. A document addressed to only one of them often ends up in the bin. These days, we need to take an individual approach. After all, we have one man, or one woman, per vote, and everyone is entitled to that proper attention. If we tackle this issue on an individual basis, registration will rise. That is what people have found in Northern Ireland, now that there is an honest register there.
I welcome the attitude of the Minister and her colleagues in the Department towards our consideration of the Bill. We have made progress in all sorts of ways, sometimes in surprising areas, given the initial response that we received in Committee. Common sense obviously prevailed at a later stage, for which I am grateful. I must say that it contrasts markedly with the attitude displayed by a previous incarnation when we discussed the Bill that became the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999. At that time, no attempt was made to reach a consensus; indeed, a very partisan view was taken.
The amendments, and this part of the Bill, highlight a key aspect of parliamentary drafting. As I tried to translate the Electoral Commission's proposal into amendments I was struck by the extraordinary complexity of our statutory electoral arrangements, although in this context clarity is essential. I do not know how on earth any electoral returning officer can find his or her way through the thickets of the statutes that they must implement, let alone someone lacking expert advice.
I think that in future we should consider electoral arrangements as candidates for consolidation. When we amend them by statute we should start with a clean sheet, almost ab initio, and absorb the earlier statute into a new Bill dealing with all the rules, rather than expecting returning officers to consult the Representation of the People Acts 1983, 1985 and 2000, and all the other relevant Acts. They cross-reference in a bewildering way, and even skilled draftsmen and lawyers find it difficult to manoeuvre their way around them.
Throughout the debate there has been a degree of good will between Front Benchers, and indeed between Back Benchers who spoke in Committee and on the Floor of the House. However, we have been presented with a false dichotomy of approach, as though one side was saying, "Never mind the quality, feel the width" and the other side was saying, "Never mind the width, feel the quality"as if some can think only in terms of increasing the number of people who are properly registered, and others can think only in terms of potential abuse of the system and the need to deal with fraud. I do not believe that those are alternatives. I believe that we can have both a properly representative register, and one that prevents fraud wherever possible.
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