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Mr. Peter Robinson:
May I help the hon. Gentleman by clearing up the reason for the fall in registration in
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Northern Ireland? It is fairly well established that, in the first instance, there was a significant reduction because some people should not have been on the register in the first place. In subsequent years, there was a lesser reduction because of annual registration.
Chris Ruane: If the hon. Gentleman is holding up Northern Ireland as a paragon to be copied regarding the security of the vote, may I remind him that, initially, the electoral registration rate there went down to about 84 or 85 per cent? After a sustained campaign to reinstate people on the register it is now 92 per cent. If that were translated to the mainland, we would have to accept a loss of 3.5 million to 4 million registered voters.
Jeremy Wright: The hon. Gentleman must decide whether people would not remain on the register if they were invited to provide their national insurance number. That is profoundly unlikely. I agree entirely that there are serious problems in this country concerning people who are not on the register but should be. If their national insurance number were an additional requirement, I do not think that that would put them off. There are far more fundamental problems that we must address, but the national insurance number is not one of them.
Finally, I want to touch on one other pointpilot schemes, rather than a national roll-out scheme. I put this as charitably as I can: we all know that Government timetables tend to slip from what they hope to achieve. It is highly likely that if the Government were to roll out a pilot scheme, followed potentially by a national roll-out, that would not occur before the next general election. I come back to the point with which I began.
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The House has an obligation to all those who require the register to have integrity to give them confidence to use the electoral system. We owe it to them to provide for improvements to the system to be made soon.
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): Surely the problem is not the integrity of the register. In all my years in politics, I have not found evidence of widespread fraud and large numbers of people on the register who should not be on it. What I have found is many people who wanted to vote but who could not do so because they were not on the register. Surely we must address that issue first, and give local authorities more resources to get people on the register and to carry out the checks to make sure they should be there.
Jeremy Wright: I agree with the hon. Lady that that is a problem, as I agree with the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, but two wrongs do not make a right. The fact that there are insufficient numbers of people on the register is one problem. There is a problemthis is where I disagree with herof people on the register who should not be there, and there is certainly a problem of perception among those who are properly on the register
There is a problem that people who perceive a great deal of fraud in the voting systemI am thinking particularly of those who use the postal voting systemare discouraged from voting because they do not feel that the system has integrity. The House has a responsibility to deal with that.
On national roll-outs and pilot programmes, that is a national problem and requires a national solution. It is also an urgent problem and requires an urgent solution. The solutions proposed by the Government in the Bill unamended do neither of those things.
Ms Harman: Much of the ground covered today was covered on Second Reading and in Committee. There was one offer, which came from the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), to use his experience of securing the banking system against fraud in the UK and Africa. I should like to take him up on that offer and use his expertise. We are concerned about fraud, as I said at the outset.
There are three legs to the stool on which the legitimacy of our democracy dependsfirst, that everybody who is entitled to vote is registered; secondly, that everybody turns out to vote so that it is democracy in practice, not just in theory; and thirdly, that no one fiddles the vote. We are concerned about fraud and we have been taking action to tackle it. In the Bill, aside from the provision to roll out personal identifiers, there are a number of tougher measures on fraud, including criminal sanctions. We have taken primary legislative action to back up our commitment and concern to ensure that the electoral system is fraud-free.
We are also proposing to bring before the House a number of secondary legislative measures which will help to tighten up the system against fraud, particularly
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in respect of postal voting. I have an opportunity to discuss that with Richard Mawrey QC, who conducted the Birmingham investigation. The House will hear further about secondary legislative measures to tighten up postal voting.
As I mentioned, we are taking operational action at national level, which includes my meeting the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. After the Bill has gone through, the Electoral Commission will be able to set performance standards on tackling fraud for local electoral registration officers, so that for the first time there will be national standards for fraud prevention with which local electoral registration officers will be required to comply. Those will be backed up by extra funding that will come with the Bill to local electoral registration officers.
In addition to national measures, we know that fraud is a problem in particular local areas. Some areas feel much more threatened by electoral fraud than others, and we will therefore provide active support at a local level to those who feel under pressure. I ask the House to reject the amendments that would provide a national roll-out for personal identifiers. The Bill states that personal identifiers will be piloted before they are rolled out nationally, and those pilots will show whether personal identifiers assist with security without undermining the completeness of the register.
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