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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): The hon. Gentleman began his remarks by suggesting that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) was too forceful and tough in pressing for more honest registration, which I fully support. He now seems to be saying that we do indeed need more honest registration. Does he not agree that the scheme that he has laid before the House, which builds on the Electoral Commission's findings, is still very inadequate and could be wide open to abuse?
Mr. Heath: I do accept that and so does the commissionit calls it a transitional scheme. It is an attempt to win the support of a Government who do not want to move at all. I do not think that I said that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire was being too tough. On Second Reading, in Committee of the whole House and in Committee Upstairswe had a shared objective in terms of what we want the Government to implement. I happen to disagree with his view that national insurance numbers are the personal identifier to use, but that disagreement is minimal compared with the difference between having personal identifiers and not having them. I am simply suggesting that this scheme, inadequate though it may be, is an improvement on the status quo. It would help to restore confidence in the postal voting system.
I am grateful for Conservative Front Benchers' support for my amendments and if I have the opportunity to do so I should like to test the House's opinion. I am not persuaded that the pilot schemes that the right hon. and learned Lady proposes will have anything like the same efficacy in dealing with the perceived problem.
"Everyone who wanted to vote by post or proxy would be required to register their signature and date of birth, so that their identity could be checked when they applied for or cast their absent vote."
In other words, those two stages, which include the opportunity to check such information, provide an element of security, although we would of course like to go further. Will the hon. Gentleman also comment on the following point? The last time we debated this transitional proposal, Ministers said that it would make the annual registration form very complicated. However, I believe that the commission has produced a draft form, which they have supplied to Ministers, showing how easy the process would be.
Precisely, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for both of those points. He is absolutely right. It is no good having a lock without a key, or a key
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without a lock. It is no good asking people to sign an absent vote form if there is no way to check their signatures, or if there is no other information with which to identify them. The Minister is worried about that simple barrier, whereas we are looking for both the key and lock that will ensure the integrity of the voting system. I hope that the proposal commends itself to the House.
Mr. Forth: I am not convinced that the Government are serious about this matter. In her usual rather charming manner, the Minister gave the game away when she said that none of this was her idea. She has come to the House and said, "I never really believed in this at all but I've had my arm twisted so, a bit reluctantly, I've brought forward this half-baked scheme that I do not really want and am not sure will really work."
That suggests to me that the Government are not remotely serious about the substance of the proposalsa fact that emerged several times in the Minister's opening speech. She has tried to make us believe that the Government want these proposals to be adopted, but the Bill, the Government's new clauses and amendments, and the Minister's contribution all give the lie to that. The Government do not really want to make the electoral system at all robust. All too easily, even a half-determined person could circumvent or evade what the Government propose.
The Billand the new clauses and amendmentstalks about dates of birth and signatures, but how robust can they possibly be when it comes to assessing whether a person is entitled to vote, or whether the person originally registered is the same as the one casting a vote? The use of the national insurance number has been mentioned repeatedly in the debate, and that would make the system significantly more robust than would the use of a date of birth or a signature.
The Bill suggests that people who want to play a part in deciding the Government of this country need not be bothered, or able, to find their national insurance numbers. That strikes me as more than a little bizarre. I confess that I believe that making registering to vote a little difficult is a good thing. If we expect people to have sufficient judgment to decide who should represent them in Parliament and govern the country, it is not asking too much of them to take the minimal step involved in establishing their identity with the registration authorities.
Mr. Redwood: My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Has he thought about the following anomalythat this same Government think that people should be able to supply all sorts of extremely complicated and difficult information in tax declarations? That is what the law requires them to do.
That is correct. On numerous occasions in everyday lifesuch as when we apply for passports, driving licences, benefits and so onwe are asked to provide a lot of information and proof of identity. Casting a vote overrides all those activities, as it
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determines representation in this House and which party will make up the Government of the day, but the suggestion seems to be that it is too much to ask for something beyond a name and an unverified signature. That is completely the wrong way round.
The responsibility to register rests with the individual, and rightly so. The more individual that responsibility is, the better. Most people claim these days that individualism is good and that decisions are best made as close as possible to the individual.
Mr. Forth: Very simply, a person in such circumstances should be able to nominate someone who can help them with the process, although both parties must be properly identified. I see no difficulty about making such provision for what will be, happily, a minority of cases. However, this debate has clearly identified the risk, to which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred, of widespread fraud in the electoral system. Preventing that fraud must be the thrust of our endeavours with this part of the Bill.
Chris Ruane: The right hon. Gentleman mentions a minority of cases. The functional illiteracy rate across the UK is said to be between 10 and 15 per cent. In poorer areas, it is a lot higher. How do we get over the problem of very low registration rates in poorer areas. In parts of my own constituency, for example, it is as low as 76 per cent., and in parts of Aberystwyth it is 52 per cent.
Mr. Forth: That is an amazing indictment of the education system that the hon. Gentleman's Government have presided over for more than eight years. For him to admit that illiteracy is rampant in his part of the world says a lot about what is happening in the education system there. Surely, if someone is incapable of reading and has not sought or been offered remedial action of the kind that the Government constantly boast about but are obviously failing to provide in his constituency, and indeed throughout Wales, his remarks must be noted and repeated often, not least by me. It is certainly not beyond the wit of the electoral registration authorities to provide proper and verifiable assistance to someone who claims to be incapable either of reading or of understanding what is required to register for a vote.
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