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Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: Yes, but I will not give way repeatedly, because we need to deal with other important parts of the Bill and we are taking rather a long time over the first group of new clauses and amendments.

Jeremy Wright: Is there not a third dimension? I am thinking of the effect of a proper registration system that would command respect among the population generally, and particularly among those who vote by
 
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post or feel inclined to do so. It would help if we had a system of registration for postal voting that made those who might vote by post feel more confident that their votes would be counted properly. That would increase turnout and deal with registration.

Mr. Heath: I would like to think that the hon. Gentleman is right, although I cannot state categorically that I know that to be the case. It remains to be proven. I certainly think it important for people to feel a degree of confidence in the system, and my great worry—which is shared by many outside the Chamber, including the Electoral Commission—is that at present they do not. I believe that over the recent electoral period there was a catastrophic loss of confidence in, particularly, the efficacy of the anti-fraud measures applying to the postal vote. The Government are being thoroughly struthious in not recognising the urgency of the situation: they simply do not want to know what is going on around them. That is unfortunate, because, as I have said, I respect what the Minister is attempting to do, and many of the motivations behind the Bill.

As the Minister knows, I have argued—personally and on behalf of my party—in favour of individual registration and personal identifiers. I do not accept that national insurance numbers are the best solution, because I agree with others that they could pose an obstacle to people who are not familiar with their national insurance numbers. I was told by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that not knowing one's national insurance number was a middle-class affectation, but I believe that many people do not know theirs, and would be deterred from registering simply because they did not have them to hand—and by the time they had got around to thinking about finding them, the time to register would have passed. That is a genuine concern, of which we should at least be aware.

Mr. Forth: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that I should respect and take seriously the votes of those who cannot be bothered to find out their national insurance numbers so that they can register?

Mr. Heath: I am suggesting that we should take seriously and respect the vote of every person in the country who is eligible to vote. We do not yet apply an idleness test to the popular franchise; nor do we apply an intelligence test, or any other sort of test. We have a universal franchise in this country. I respect that principle, and I hoped that the Conservative party did as well.

John Bercow: That is different from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Mr. Forth: It is nowadays.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman suggests that the view of the Conservative party is different from that of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. That is transparently the case, but then it is so different from that of many Conservatives. But I must not allow myself to be diverted.
 
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As I have said, I am attracted to individual registration and personal identifiers, but I understand Labour Members' concerns about the potential deterrent effect, although I do not necessarily agree with them. We have been trying to reach a common view, so I am prepared to accept that there is at least a risk. I hope that we shall engage in a vigorous attempt to increase the number of people on the register, and I am heartened by proposals in the London boroughs to maximise the effectiveness of the drive for registration. I hope that that succeeds, because it is long overdue, and for numerous reasons London causes particular concern when it comes to registration. National insurance numbers may pose the risk of a deterrent, although I do not think that the same applies to signatures and dates of birth. I think that everyone can cope with those on their own behalf.

Let us go some way towards meeting the concerns of the public and the Electoral Commission. Let us for a moment park our concerns about individual registration and consider personal identifiers, and how they might be applied at least to the most urgent and crucial parts of the electoral process: the postal vote and the absent voters list.

The Electoral Commission came up with what it called a transitional arrangement. It said, "Okay, we will not require everyone to provide personal identifiers on registration yet. We will allow people to provide personal identifiers, but we will not demand it if they are to vote in person. However, we will certainly not send ballot papers through the post to people unknown without checking that they are who they say they are." Those who wish to be included in an absent voters list are required to have already added their signatures and dates of birth to the electoral register. A test can then be carried out—I accept that it is not the most rigorous test in the world—to establish that they are the people whose names were put on the register in the first instance. I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire that that is a minimal requirement if we are to maintain the integrity of the system and restore confidence in it. I do not believe that it is the perfect answer and neither does the Electoral Commission; indeed, it makes it plain that it sees it as a first step. It says in its briefing for this debate that it is a "transitional scheme" that would

That is the difference between the Electoral Commission's proposal and the Government's. First, the former proposal would have nationwide applicability; secondly, it would immediately improve the security of the postal voting arrangements; and, thirdly, it would not affect registration in its basic form or people's ability to vote in person at a polling station.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman said that I gave factually wrong information on the effect of the Electoral Commission's proposal and of his amendment No. 8, which seeks to give effect to that proposal. He says that, in his view, the commission's proposal is that
 
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those who do not provide their signature and date of birth on the annual canvass or subsequent registration should be debarred from a postal vote application. That is not its proposal and neither is it the effect of his amendment. In fact, his amendment would give effect to the commission's actual proposal, which it set out in writing. I went into this issue, via officials, with the commission because I wanted to establish whether there would be a security gain. The commission says the following of its third way scheme, which the hon. Gentleman is proposing:

we all agree on that—

we all agree on that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I know that the right hon. and learned Lady was trying to be helpful, but she really should not answer the debate on the basis of an intervention.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for her interpretation of the Electoral Commission's intention, but let me read out what it intends in its own words, rather than hers, because this is an important issue:

That is, I think, exactly what I said. The right hon. and learned Lady may well query the efficacy of my amendments in putting that proposal into effect, and she may well be right to do so—I do not know. I have done my best in dealing with an extraordinarily complex area of electoral law. But she surely cannot query the commission's intention, or mine, in tabling these amendments, which are quite clear. They provide the lock that we all want to see.

I do not believe that the pilot scheme will do what the right hon. and learned Lady says it will do. For a start, I doubt whether it will be completed to the time scale that she envisages. I do not believe that, under her proposals, we will go into the next general election with a more secure voting system than the current one. Nor do I believe that it will provide a proper test, given that the pilot schemes are to be based in volunteer local authorities that will opt into the scheme. The authorities that give rise to the most concern about the lack of registration are exactly those that will not volunteer. They will not enter into a scheme introducing personal identifiers of any kind, for precisely the reasons that she has already stated, so we will not have a proper reflection of the efficacy, or otherwise, of the scheme.

My worry is that a few already well-performing local authorities—probably those in the shire counties and the leafier suburbs—will enter into this arrangement and provide us with information that, frankly, is of very little value. We will not get such information from inner-city
 
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London, Manchester, Birmingham or Bradford; we will not get it from those places where it is recognised that such abuses happen, in the light of prosecutions that have already been made. Our great worry is that we will miss the opportunity to get a better system in place.

3.15 pm


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