Lords amendment: No. 12, in page 8, line 43, at end insert—
("( ) Where a declaration of local connection made by a homeless person is delivered to the registration officer concerned during the period—
We are pleased that the Government have at least listened to us a little, because we raised the issue several times during the proceedings on the Bill, and it was raised several times in the other place.
We would have preferred the Government to go further with the amendment, so we have gone into great detail about why we feel that the system needed more checks to deal with what we referred to colloquially as the Swampy factor. I am sure that it has been called many other things. We did not want the Swampy factor to take hold. I echo my earlier remark that we must consider how this legislation will work at bad times as well as good. Giving it the benefit of the doubt will not prove to be effective when things start to go wrong.
Once a vacancy occurs through a by-election, whether because someone dies or stands down, a local declaration of connection provision might be abused. The Government's amendment will probably put a quarter of a check on that possibility. It will allow a homeless person to state that he or she has lived in an area for three months or more. It was suggested several times in the other place that there should be proof of that.
There are no identification cards, but someone making a declaration of local connection should be able to come forward with some documentation. We were flexible in our suggestions about particular documents. We appreciate that many homeless people simply will not have a driver's licence or passport, but the Minister might have looked more generously on a more flexible arrangement such as a letter from the police, a social worker or someone involved in a charity to say that the person concerned was known to them. As it is, homeless people simply have to make the declaration that they have been in the area for three months or more, and that may have to be accepted.
I do not want to interrupt my hon. Friend's flow but, in suggesting that the matter is considered again, will he pay particular attention to the difference between travelling and homeless people? Homeless people might be "resident" in an area, have a legitimate and proper interest in its affairs and wish to participate in elections, whereas people travelling through for whatever reason—legitimately or otherwise—may have a much less profound reason and legitimacy in taking part in an election. That is an important distinction, which needs to be drawn out.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We all want—this is why we have supported the local declaration of connection—to ensure that homeless people, who normally do not, like others, have a voice in Westminster through an elected Member, are not denied the opportunity to vote in elections. We are considering people legitimately making local declarations. We want to ensure the integrity of the system; we do not want it debased in any shape or form.
I hear what my hon. Friend says about people travelling through an area, although, if a vacancy occurs, someone who is doing so could not go to the town or city hall to claim a connection for three months or more. That is covered; I believe that that is the Minister's quarter check. The problem arises when someone who is travelling through an area makes a declaration, but no proof of its truth is needed. They may merely state that they have been resident for three months or more, and that is that.
I turn to something a little more sinister: the Swampy factor. We have an example of where the provisions might go cruelly wrong if we do not ensure that proper checks are made: a by-election in a marginal seat, where protesters want to make their feelings known. We are talking about people who feel equipped to go out to sea in rough conditions when they want to board a ship to make a protest, who climb trees to make a protest and live there for weeks, if not months, and who dig holes in the ground to stop developments—direct action. My goodness, it is a doddle for such people to turn up at a town or city hall to claim a local connection once a vacancy has occurred. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said, what proof will electoral registration officers look for?
We need look no further than the Scottish Parliament by-election in Ayr, where the previous majority was 25. If everybody voted in the same way again, only a small group of people would have to make the declaration. All sorts of people might be interested in doing so to sway the election.
Therefore, I ask the Minister to consider the matter again. He has obviously felt that there has been a problem, otherwise the amendment would not be before us. If he does not address the problem now, how would he do so after the Bill's enactment? A small group of people moving into the area could make a difference in a general election as well.
Will the Minister comment on whether the amendment addresses local as well as parliamentary elections? I ask that because, at times, including in 1997, a general election and local elections have been held on the same day. If the amendments deal with only one type of election, could people be enfranchised for one type of election, but not another, once the vacancies have been announced?
I shall speak briefly. As the Minister knows, we support the declaration of local connection as a suitable vehicle.
I do not entirely buy some of the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). For example, I do not accept the notion of a peripatetic platoon of homeless people who are prepared to make a nuisance of themselves in any by-election; nor do I accept the generalisation that those who are involved in environmental protests are prospective perjurers.
Does the hon. Gentleman not believe that we should introduce legislation that contains as few loopholes as possible? He is talking about protesters who feel free to break the law in pursuit of direct action, so why does he believe that they would not break the law in another respect?
If the hon. Gentleman had waited for me to finish my remarks, he would have heard me say that I agree that there is a basic problem that needs to be addressed. However, I do not accept the generalisation that people who care passionately about environmental issues are necessarily likely to perjure themselves.
There is a weakness in the Bill relating to the period when a vacancy has arisen. People might make declarations and affect the result of an election. As a Member of Parliament with a majority of 130, I am conscious of the effect that a relatively small number of people moving from place to place might have. The amendment contains almost the weakest possible safeguard against that eventuality, so I wonder whether serious consideration was given to a prohibition on addition during the period of a vacancy. That might have been a safer course to adopt.
I accept that the amendment represents a move in the direction of those who have expressed concern. We must monitor the operation of the provision carefully—indeed, we must constantly review our electoral arrangements to identify what does and does not work.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has expressed his fears about the Swampy factor. I do not object to people voting because they want to protest about an environmental issue, such as a road or other development that causes them concern. If they can establish lawfully and properly a local connection, they should be able to vote and express their view. That is democracy and we accept that people have a right to disagree with us. The fact that we may passionately disagree with their views does not mean that they should not have the right to vote.
The hon. Gentleman suggests, however, that the provisions allowing registration by means of a declaration of local connection could be abused by those who might travel to an area during a by-election solely for the purpose of voting in that by-election and in the absence of any local connection. I think that he overstates the fears, but we acknowledge that they have a basis, so we have considered the notion of a group of politically motivated protesters who, on hearing of a by-election in an area in which they are not resident, travel to that area and become residents by way of a declaration of local connection. We believe that that is an unlikely scenario, but the potential for abuse exists, so we have sought a way in which to close off the possibility.
The amendment would overcome the potential problem by requiring those who register by means of a declaration of local connection during a period when a by-election is pending to confirm that they have had that connection with the address that they have supplied for registration purposes for the three months prior to the date on which the declaration is signed.
A homeless person who has been living in the area concerned for the requisite time, but who has not got round to registering, will be able to register, as he should indeed be able to do. Carpetbaggers, if I may so describe them—the term has already been used—will not be able to make the required declaration. To take the point made by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), they are just passing through, so they would not comply with the conditions.
It is usually obvious that a convoy of new age travellers has moved into the area. The electoral registration officer would become aware that they had arrived. If that occurred in the course of a by-election, it may well raise suspicions in his mind and he may take extra steps to ensure that those people had complied properly with the law. Paragraph 17 of schedule 1 makes it clear that making a false statement in a declaration of local connection is a criminal offence that can be punished with a fine of up to £5,000.
We have safeguards in place. I do not believe that the concerns are as great as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but we have covered the serious issues that he presented to the House.
I thank the Minister. Our suggestion still holds good. We do not want to stop anyone who has a legitimate right to vote. However, the Minister conceded that there was some basis for our fear, particularly in seats such as Ayr, where the majority is 25.
Once the vacancy is announced, no one should be allowed to register to vote. With rolling registers, people can register at any time. That is the beauty of the system. Although there may be a possibility of one or two people being prevented from voting legitimately, many other people who would try to vote illegitimately would be prevented from doing so.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. The point that he raised—the Swampy factor, as he called it—is a possibility, but it is unlikely. Because it is a possibility, we have closed it off and dealt with the hon. Gentleman's concern.