New Clause 14 — Repeal of Personal Identifier Provisions

Orders of the Day — Electoral Administration Bill – in the House of Commons at 1:38 pm on 11th January 2006.

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'(1) This section applies if—

(a) an order under section 15 has had effect in relation to one or more local authority areas,

(b) the Electoral Commission has made a report about the operation of the order, and

(c) no order has been made under section 71(2) for the purposes of any of the personal identifier provisions.

(2) The Secretary of State may, by order, repeal sections 13 to 17 and this section.

(3) The power to make an order under subsection (2) is exercisable by statutory instrument, but no such order may be made unless a draft of the instrument containing the order has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.

(4) The reference to the personal identifier provisions must be construed in accordance with section 15(13).'. —[Ms Harman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 1—Personal identifiers (absent voters)—

'(1) In schedule 1 of the 1983 Act (parliamentary elections rules) in rule 24, at end insert—

"(2) The prescribed form shall include provision for the form to be signed and, in the case of an elector, for stating his date of birth.".

(2) In schedule 4 of the 2000 Act (absent voting in Great Britain), paragraph 3 is amended as follows—

(a) after subparagraph (1)(a) insert—

"( ) the applicant has provided personal identifiers in accordance with section 13E of the 1983 Act (personal identifiers), and";

(b) after subparagraph (2)(b) insert—

"( ) the applicant has provided personal identifiers in accordance with section 13E of the 1983 Act (personal identifiers), and".

(3) In schedule 4 of that Act (absent voting in Great Britain), paragraph 4 is amended as follows—

(a) after subparagraph (1)(a) insert—

"( ) the applicant has provided personal identifiers in accordance with section 13E of the 1983 Act (personal identifiers), and";

(b) after subparagraph (2)(b) insert—

"( ) the applicant has provided personal identifiers in accordance with section 13E of the 1983 Act (personal identifiers), and".'.

Amendment No. 1, in page 11, line 15 [Clause 13], at end insert

'and to whom section 13E (2A)(a) applies.'.

Amendment No. 6, in page 11, line 25 [Clause 13], at end insert

'and to whom section 13E (2A)(a) applies.'.

Amendment No. 7, in page 11, line 32 [Clause 13], at end insert

'and to whom section 13E (2A)(a) applies.'.

Amendment No. 8, in page 11, line 32 [Clause 13], at end insert—

'(2AA) An application for alteration of registers may be made by any person already included in a register at an address who wishes to provide personal identifiers in accordance with section 13E.'.

Amendment No. 9, in page 11, line 34 [Clause 13], at end insert 'and (2AA).'.

Amendment No. 16, in page 12, line 35 [Clause 14], at end insert—

'(ba) his national insurance number or a statement that he does not have one;'.

Amendment No. 10, in page 12, line 36 [Clause 14], at end insert—

'(2A) In relation to England and Wales and Scotland

(a) in respect of any person wishing to be included in an absent voters list, personal identifiers in accordance with subsection (2) must be provided to the registration officer.

(b) in respect of any person wishing to vote in person, personal identifiers in accordance with subsection (2) may be provided to a registration officer, but will not be required to be provided unless the Secretary of State by order so prescribes.'.

Amendment No. 11, in page 14, line 16, leave out Clause 15.

Amendment No. 12, in page 15, line 25, leave out Clause 16.

Amendment No. 13, in page 16, line 10, leave out Clause 17.

Amendment No. 14, in page 72 [Clause 71], leave out line 37 and insert—

'( ) section 13;

( ) section 14;'.

Government amendment No. 67

Amendment No. 17, in page 99, line 28 [Schedule 1], at end insert—

'(3A) In paragraph 3—

(a) after sub-paragraph (1)(a) insert—

"(aa) the application includes a copy of the applicant's signature, date of birth and national insurance number (or a statement that he does not have one)".

(b) after sub-paragraph (2)(b) insert—

"(ba) the application includes a copy of the applicant's signature, date of birth and national insurance number (or a statement that he does not have one)".

(3B) In paragraph 4—

(a) after sub-paragraph (1)(a) insert—

"(aa) the application includes a copy of the applicant's signature, date of birth and national insurance number (or a statement that he does not have one)".

(b) after sub-paragraph (2)(b) insert—

"(ba) the application includes a copy of the applicant's signature, date of birth and national insurance number (or a statement that he does not have one)".

(c) in sub-paragraph (4) before paragraph (a) insert—

"(za) (in the case of any application) it includes a copy of the applicant's signature, date of birth and national insurance number (or a statement that he does not have one)".'.

Government amendment No. 76.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The new clause and amendments that I have tabled fill a gap in the Bill as originally drafted. As we said, it is our intention to hold pilots of the collection and use of personal identifiers in registration. If the pilots are successful, the Bill includes the power to roll out identifiers on a permanent and nationwide basis by order. As drafted, however, the Bill includes no provision for circumstances in which pilots are not successful. At present, if that were to occur, clauses 13 to 17 would remain in limbo—approved by Parliament, but not commenced. We do not believe that that would be desirable.

The new clause and amendments provide for an order-making power to allow the personal identifier provisions to be repealed if pilots show that they should not be rolled out. The order will be subject to the affirmative procedure and could not be made until the Electoral Commission had reported on a pilot scheme. In that way, the commission will have the opportunity to contribute its views and Parliament will be able to make a decision. It might be useful at this point if I provide some more details about where we are with the planning of personal identifier pilots.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Is it right to assume any sort of sense of the Government's attitude to the pilots from new clause 14, or is it just good drafting practice that it is wrong to set up pilots without a provision to deal with a situation in which they do not proceed nationally? Are the Government rather half-hearted about the pilots?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

It is not a matter of the new clause expressing a change in attitude. It simply tidies up the Bill so that we have what was originally intended, which is that if the pilots are successful, we do not have to return to the House with primary legislation because the arrangements will be implemented by order, and if they are not successful, the power will not be left on the statute book and will be repealed in the same way as we are enabling the pilots to be rolled out. We want to make the Bill right.

The hon. Gentleman again queries whether we are half-hearted about the pilots. Personal identifiers were not my idea. It came from the Electoral Commission and Opposition Members. We accepted the suggestion that we should pilot them, but we are not doing that as a way of kicking them into the long grass. We accept the argument that they are worth testing. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House accept my good faith on that. We expect the pilots to be a reality and for them to help us to understand more about the way in which the system will work if it is changed. They are not a ruse, a device or a way of fobbing people off. They ensure that if we are to go ahead with the change, we pilot it and test it first.

I was reinforced in my view that the evidence-based approach is the right way for the Government and the House to be going about this when we had a round-table discussion this morning, helpfully convened by the Electoral Commission, on service voters, many of whom are not registered and who are disfranchised. The House made a change in 2001 on the basis of all-party agreement, which everyone now accepts had unintended consequences. Before we made the national change, we should have piloted it first. Perhaps then we would have seen the unintended consequences and had a different scheme for servicemen and women. I am trying to have a better approach to another change in registration. This is a process issue.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Does the Minister agree that her comments are a good illustration of why matters that are subject to all-party agreement are invariably a disastrous flop? Does she also agree that what we need is robust debate and robust opposition to ensure that we do not walk blindfold and hand in hand in agreement into an arrangement that turns out not to work? I am grateful to her because she has reinforced my long-held view that Parliament works best on the basis of robust opposition and robust debate.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I do not think that all-party agreement is always a disastrous trap. Although we must have vigorous debate on constitutional affairs that deal with the rules in relation to democracy, it should not be divided between the Government and the Opposition. It is unhealthy if we present to the public a Bill that has been the subject of party political footballing. I agree that we should have robust debate, but I would expect that critique to come as much from the Labour Back Benches as from the Opposition, and that is what happened to the Bill. It is right that it is subjected to rigorous critiques, as it was in Committee. Indeed, we had to chuck out many policies because they did not stand up to scrutiny. We did not do that on the basis of Opposition and Government, but on the basis of good, rigorous debate within the House.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Does the right hon. and learned Lady accept that with the exception, perhaps, of the issue that we are about to discuss, she has been co-operative, has listened and has been prepared to take on board the comments of hon. Members on both sides of the House? Indeed, she has tabled a series of amendments that we very much welcome.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Gentleman is right. Many of the Government amendments and new clauses emanated from the Opposition and Labour Back Benchers. They have the Government tag on them, but they are not our idea. I have taken a sceptical approach. When an hon. Member has said, "This won't work", I have immediately presumed that the idea will not work and it has had to be reproved. I have not taken the position that because our Department produced it, it is right. My starting point is that it is right. If anyone has said it is wrong, I have swapped sides and have needed it to be proved. That is why the Bill is a bit lighter than when it started out.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps we can proceed with the debate on the amendments.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Let me explain how the pilots will take place. If the Bill receives Royal Assent within the next few months, we intend to commence piloting at the 2006 canvass. A prospectus seeking applications from local authorities is being drawn up and will be issued within the next few weeks. We intend to select areas with an appropriate variety of socio-demographic profiles.

We intend that the pilots will last for no more than two years and will be evaluated by the Electoral Commission. We are discussing evaluation criteria and methodology with the commission and will do so with Opposition Front Bench spokesmen as well. However, we expect the two key issues that will need to be assessed during the course of the pilot to be the impact of personal identifiers on the completeness and accuracy of the register and the impact of the pilots on the security of the process.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Do we not already have a pilot in Northern Ireland? Why do we need additional pilots for the purposes of the Bill?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I will answer that when I deal with the relevant amendments tabled by the Conservative Front Bench.

Following the pilots, we hope to be in a position to return to Parliament for a decision on national roll-out in early summer 2008.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour, Edmonton

I urge my right hon. and learned Friend in the strongest possible terms to ensure that a broad range of pilots is undertaken and, in particular, that they are undertaken in London areas because of the acute difficulties that exist there.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

We will have to ensure that we understand the effect of the change in all places, so we will need representative areas. London is a key issue. It is close to my hon. Friend's heart as a London Member, and he has spoken about under-registration in London a great deal, with great force and effect. It is close to my heart. As the Electoral Commission showed, London has the worst register in the country in terms of incompleteness. Something like 550,000 Londoners are not on the electoral register. Any unintended consequence of exacerbating under-registration will be a particular issue for London.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The right hon. and learned Lady knows of the problems that we have experienced in Bradford with our electoral arrangements, because I have mentioned them to her on a number of occasions. I therefore urge her to make Bradford a special case. She said that the Electoral Commission will look at the results of the pilots. Will she abide by its recommendations after it has done so, or will she not?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 2:00 pm, 11th January 2006

The commission's task is to evaluate the pilots and to report to us. It is for the Government to decide what it brings to the House, but it is for the House to decide whether, on the basis of the evidence of the pilots, as evaluated by the commission, it wishes to keep the status quo or whether it wishes to make a change and introduce a national roll-out. It will be for the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to make that decision on the advice of the Electoral Commission. However, we will not sub-contract the decision to the commission. The question of the law on the entitlement conditions rests with the House, and we will not sub-contract it to the commission. It plays an invaluable role, and it will be involved in the pilots, but we will make the decision on the law on registration in the House.

The hon. Gentleman raised the problems experienced in Bradford. I always say that there are three issues in relation to democracy. Everyone has the right to vote, which is why registration is important; the security of vote means that no one should fiddle it; and everyone should turn out to vote. The hon. Gentleman has expressed concern about the security of the vote in Bradford. Certain parts of the country feel vulnerable to fraud. That lack of confidence is an issue for the whole country, but it is of particular concern to people in the affected areas, who are entitled to cast their vote and have it counted with exactly the same level of integrity as anyone in other parts of the country. We will therefore work with areas that think that they are vulnerable to fraud, to make sure that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, electoral registration officers and everyone else have the Government's full support so that they can assure people in the area that there will be clean, honest elections. The next test, of course, will take place in May 2006.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Will the Minister make sure that some pilots use people's national insurance number as the personal identifier as well as their date of birth and signature, so that we can test the difficulties and the increased effectiveness that that may provide?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The Bill, as the hon. Gentleman will know, allows us to pilot the use of national insurance numbers as a condition for registration. It is not our intention to proceed with such a piloting. We will commence with a pilot making someone's signature and date of birth a condition of registration, but it is possible, under the law in the Bill, to pilot national insurance numbers. As for national insurance numbers and Northern Ireland, may I deal with those matters by responding to amendments Nos. 16 and 17, which were tabled by Mr. Heald? They would require all electors to provide their national insurance number when registering to vote. Postal and proxy voters, too, would need to provide their national insurance number when applying for an absent vote. Our position on the amendments has not changed since we discussed the issue in the Committee of the whole House. We understand the arguments about the Northern Ireland precedent on both data sharing and security. However, hon. Members will appreciate that Northern Ireland has only just over a million electors and one electoral register. The rest of the UK has about 43 million electors and over 400 electoral registers.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The answer to that is that it does not follow that an idea that is practical for one system is necessarily practical for another. Community structure, mobility and many other issues affecting the communities and demography of Northern Ireland are very different from the issues affecting communities in this country. Access to the register and security are important considerations. We have highly mobile populations, including many people who are newly arrived in this country, so we have a different community and demographic structure. As a result, we cannot simply say that because something has worked in Northern Ireland, we will introduce it here.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I will do so, but I expect the right hon. Gentleman to concede that we cannot simply implant Northern Ireland arrangements in this country without further testing and piloting.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am most grateful to the Minister not only for giving way but for answering the question that I have not yet asked. She is standing logic on its head. If something can be achieved by one electoral authority with a population of 1 million, how much more easily can it be achieved by much smaller registration authorities among the 400 that she mentioned? I would expect locally based electoral authorities, knowing the circumstances in their area, to have the ability to be more nimble on their feet and to monitor elections as well, if not better than the large authority in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman heard my point that Northern Ireland's society is not necessarily representative of other communities in Great Britain. He will have heard what was said by my hon. Friend Mr. Love, who represents a constituency in London. Should we assume that, because something works in Northern Ireland it will work in London, against a very different background with a very different set of problems? The right hon. Gentleman may think that that is possible and that we should legislate and roll the programme out nationally. However, we want to take a more forensic and evidence-based approach. We have looked closely at what happened in Northern Ireland, but we will undertake evidence-based policy making. We will proceed expeditiously with pilots in different parts of the country so that we have a good evidence base.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Is not the Minister's basic point that no one knows their national insurance number? The truth of the matter is that the Government tried such an arrangement in Ulster, where 92 per cent. of people registered to vote. That figure is far higher than registration in all the places about which hon. Members have complained.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

In future, we can pilot a condition requiring people to give their national insurance number before they are entitled to vote. However, it is not right to say, as the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend Mr. Forth have done, that because something has worked as a condition of registration in Northern Ireland, it will work in exactly the same way in the rest of the country where there are different communities with different levels of population mobility and different demographies.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley

We have covered this ground on many occasions, but may I remind my right hon. and learned Friend that when the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs discussed the issue, Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, talked about the tension between participation and security? On behalf of the commission, he said that

"we do not feel national insurance numbers are something we should be asking people to provide at registration".

Surely, hon. Members should accept that advice.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley

We have discussed this on a number of occasions, and that is the advice of the Electoral Commission. I agree, however, that it is wise to be cautious.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My hon. Friend has made a helpful intervention. However, I repeat that it does not follow that an idea that is practical for Northern Ireland is necessarily practical for England and will not have unintended consequences.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

May I remind hon. Members that the registration rate for Belfast seats after the changes was 72 per cent.? Would hon. Members like such a registration rate in their own constituencies?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My hon. Friends have revealed a level of doubt about arrangements in Northern Ireland that shows that we are right to proceed expeditiously with pilots before we embark on a national roll-out. I hope that hon. Members agree that what we are discussing is not an issue of principle. We all agree that we should have high levels of security. We all agree that no one should fiddle the vote, and that the system should be proofed against that. We all agree that there should be full entitlement to registration. We are discussing how we go about implementing an improvement to the operation in that respect, and our argument is that we should proceed on the basis of evidence and that we should conduct a pilot. The Opposition's argument is that we should go straight ahead and do it. That should be a narrow gap between us. We will proceed expeditiously with the pilots. [Hon. Members: "Pilot the scheme now."] We intend to run the pilots now. The Department has already drawn up the prospectus for the pilots on signatures and dates of birth.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami PPS (Rt Hon Dawn Primarolo, Paymaster General), HM Treasury

Is not the truth that the Opposition want to put as many obstacles as possible in the way of people registering?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Mr. Heald, who leads for the Opposition, said that that is not his position. He agreed, as we all do, that a full register where everybody is entitled to vote is essential for democracy. We must all be concerned when large and growing numbers of people are not on the register. He said that he agrees with us on that, so we are proceeding on that basis.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the Minister agree that requiring the additional information raises awareness among electors and places a responsibility on them to ensure that their names are on the electoral register? Like all colleagues, no doubt, in the run-up to an election, I have been approached by constituents complaining that they have not received their polling cards. They have assumed, quite wrongly, that because they are paying council tax, they are automatically on the electoral register, and they need to understand that they are not.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Lady makes a good point. All hon. Members share the experience of our constituents assuming that they are on the electoral register and being aggrieved when they find that they are not and cannot exercise their democratic right. The data-sharing provisions that we have included in the Bill will require electoral registration officers for the first time to review the data that they hold. If there is someone paying council tax who is not on the register, the electoral registration officer is required to go out, find that person, draw the matter to their attention and put them on the register. A number of provisions in the Bill will, we hope, ensure that the register is more complete.

As we set out in Committee, when the co-ordinated online register of electors—CORE—creates national access to local registers, data sharing systems such as that in Northern Ireland might be practical for the rest of the UK. The national insurance computer can relate straight to the single body of information of the single register of electors in Northern Ireland. Under the Opposition's proposal, the national insurance contributions system would relate to 400 different electoral registration officers, some of whom have their registers online and some who do not, some who compile their register by address and some who do so by alphabet. We will be in a better position to consider whether the Northern Ireland system can be implemented more widely when we have put in place the co-ordinated online register of electors, whereby all electoral registration officers have to put the information online and feed it into a central register.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

What is the time scale for the introduction of a central Government database able to communicate with local government electoral registration officers, and what sanctions would be applied to electoral registration officers or chief executives of recalcitrant county councils who refuse to comply with the guidelines and cannot be bothered to ensure a complete register?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Under the provisions of the Bill, strengthened by an Opposition amendment, the Electoral Commission must issue guidance which must be accepted by electoral registration officers, who must put their electoral register online and feed through the data in a certain way to go on to the co-ordinated online register of electors. The system is not voluntary. We expect it to proceed as laid down in the Bill. We regard it as not just desirable, but necessary.

We recently published a consultation paper on CORE which provides more information on this, for Members who are interested. If the proposal goes forward, a national insurance number or other personal identifier may be of use. That is why we have included order-making powers in clauses 14 and 15 to allow for the possibility of other identifiers being piloted and rolled out in the future. However, at present we do not see a use for national insurance numbers in electoral registration outside Northern Ireland, and believe that collecting them would discourage people from registering to vote. The personal identifiers that we propose collecting in the pilots—signatures and dates of birth—are simple and easily memorable. A national insurance number is more complicated and we believe that at this stage its use would be disproportionate.

New clause 1 and amendments Nos. 1 and 6 to 14 tabled by Mr. Heath seek to give effect to a system of voluntary personal identifiers, as mooted by the Electoral Commission. I am afraid colleagues will have to concentrate extremely hard. Once they have worked out the differences between the Opposition and the Government on personal identifiers, they will have to deal with a third issue: what is the difference between us, the Opposition and the Electoral Commission proposal, which is put forward in his amendment by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome? Under the system that he proposes, all electors would be able to supply their signature and date of birth on the annual canvass form—there would be a space for that—but they would not be compelled to do so.

In my view, this lack of compulsion, instead of the pilots for compulsion, is a real weakness. It means that security will be enhanced only if people voluntarily choose to collect signatures for everybody in their household on the canvass form and list everybody's date of birth. There appears to be no benefit from that. It is supposedly helping security, but it is voluntary. Even people who do not do it can go on the register. What benefit is there for security if the system is only voluntary?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The right hon. and learned Lady is being uncharacteristically unhelpful to the House in her description of the Electoral Commission proposal. It is clear that although the scheme is voluntary in respect of people who vote in person, it would not be voluntary for those who wish to vote as absent voters—those who wish to exercise a postal vote. It thereby at a stroke reduces the perceived lack of integrity in the postal voting system, while hopefully not engendering the disadvantages that she identifies but which I do not necessarily share in terms of compulsory personal identifiers for all voters. By suggesting that there would be no improvement in the integrity of the system, she is being a little unfair to the Electoral Commission and therefore to me as I advance its proposal.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I do not seek to be unfair to the Electoral Commission or to the hon. Gentleman. I am trying to explain the facts to the House. Although the signature would be voluntary, the hon. Gentleman is right. The question that arises under the Electoral Commission scheme is what if somebody wanted to exercise a postal vote. They would not be debarred from exercising a postal vote if they had not signed the canvass form. They would have a fresh opportunity to sign. But that is a requirement anyway, if people want a postal vote under the present system. There is no difference under the Electoral Commission's proposal as regards eligibility for postal voting. Electors would be on the register without having signed, because signing is voluntary, but when it came to postal voting, they would not be debarred. They would have to provide a signature.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am seriously concerned that the Minister does not understand the point of the Electoral Commission's proposals. Such a person would be debarred from exercising a postal vote if they had not previously provided personal identifiers in the form of a signature and date of birth to the registration officer, in which case the check would be automatic. The check would be more than a signature on an application for a postal vote, because there would be a way of checking identity against pre-existing information on the register in order to maintain the integrity of the postal voting system. The position is odd, because I have not had the opportunity to move my new clause, but the Minister is already providing a commentary, which is based on wrong information.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My commentary is not based on wrong information. The Electoral Commission's proposal, which I shall attempt to explain once again, would not change the condition—one householder provides a signature on the canvass form—for getting on the register. Every other individual in that household would not have to sign or give their date of birth as a condition of getting on the register. The householder could fill in those details, which would place other householders on the register and entitle them to vote, and the addition of a signature or date of birth would be optional.

If somebody were on a household canvass form and on the register without including their signature on the canvass form, would they be debarred from postal voting? The answer is that they would be debarred from postal voting unless they gave another signature. Currently, one must provide a signature to obtain a postal vote application, which is not provided automatically. In practice, the Electoral Commission proposal would not make any difference, which is why it would be the worst of all worlds. It would not improve security, because people would still be able to get on the register without a signature.

The Electoral Commission's proposal might deter some people from getting on the register. Security would be enhanced only if people were voluntarily to sign their canvass forms and give their dates of birth. It is true that absent voters would have to provide identifiers, but if they did not provide a signature at the canvass stage, they could subsequently provide it when applying for their absent vote. If the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome checks, he will find that that is the proposal, and since absent voters must already provide a signature, it would not change the situation.

Our pilot schemes will involve compulsory personal identifiers. Whether they take place in Bradford or London, if people do not include the signature of each individual and their date of birth on the form, then those individuals will not get on the register. Let us not shilly-shally around with a halfway house by which a system of voluntary signatures is rolled out nationally. Let us pilot compulsory signatures, which will allow us to assess security and understand the effect on registration. A national roll-out of compulsory identifiers would be wrong, because we would not understand its consequences. The halfway house of voluntary personal identifiers will not help us, because it would not give us security, which will form part of the pilot of compulsory identifiers. Compulsory personal identifiers as a condition of registration are the way forward.

I am grateful to the Electoral Commission for introducing the proposal. It was trying to find a solution to the problem that we could not obtain all-party agreement on pilots versus national roll-out. Its intention was helpful, and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome backs its proposal. In my view, the Electoral Commission's proposal would not provide us with anything better than the current system, but it would provide us with some things that would be much worse than the effect of pilots. Bearing in mind that I have adopted individual personal identifiers, which was not my proposal, and said that we will pilot them, I urge hon. Members to accept the pilot, which will allow us to try out the proposal that I have adopted in practice. The third way, which falls through all the gaps, does not provide any advantages. I am happy to debate it until the cows come home, but I will not recommend it to the House.

The final problem with the Electoral Commission's proposal concerns advertising the voluntary signature scheme. When the advertising states, "Please include a signature", will it include the line, "but you do not have to"? If the advertising states that the inclusion of signatures is voluntary, the proposal will make no difference. If the advertising uses mood music to encourage people to include signatures, it might have a deterrent effect on people who put the document on the mantelpiece until their child returns from holiday, college or university and signs it, by which time it might have been lost or thrown away. The proposal could depress the register without increasing security, which would be the worst of all worlds. We want higher security and improved access to the register.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

What is the value of a signature? How can one verify that it is the signature of the person whose name is written on the piece of paper? It would be simple for one person in a household to write the names of everyone else who lives there. In houses in multiple occupation, the scope for writing other people's names is obvious, whereas a national insurance number is accurate and cannot be forged in that way.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

If someone knew somebody else's national insurance number or date of birth, they would be able fraudulently to add the signature. The point concerns what the rules should be, and how they should be enforced. We want not only the right rules, but effective operational enforcement. Whether we stick with the current system whereby one person signs on behalf of a whole household, whether we move to one person signing for themselves and adding their date of birth as a result of successful pilots or whether we include national insurance numbers in addition to individual signatures and dates of birth, we must be sure that fraud does not occur.

I have started to meet the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives on a monthly basis. We are discussing how to provide effective fraud enforcement for whatever system the House chooses in its wisdom and after lengthy debate.

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

What advice has the Minister taken from perhaps the most expert body of people on fraud prevention and personal identifiers, the banking sector, which has moved away from signatures altogether?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

None, but I shall consider whether I should do so.

In conclusion, pilots are a sensible and practical mechanism for testing the collection and use of personal identifiers. The evidence provided by pilots will inform the decision, which will ultimately be taken by Parliament, whether personal identifiers should be rolled out nationally, so our approach is evidence based. Security and complete and accurate registers are essential, and the pilots will show us whether personal identifiers—signatures and dates of birth—increase security without undermining completeness. If that is the case, the Bill will allow us to roll out such a scheme nationally.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Let me preface my remarks by thanking the Minister and her colleagues for the courteous and constructive way in which they have looked at the proposals that we have made in other areas. It has been a good process. It is also right to thank the Electoral Commission for all its hard work. In later groups of amendments, we will find proposals dealing with the assurances that we requested about information being available through the co-ordinated online register of electors, fairness as between parties and independents over descriptions of candidates, clarity about election expenses, issues to do with reducing the threshold for loss of deposits, and having a better test for safety for those wishing to register anonymously and extending that to carers of children at risk. All those are very welcome and I would not want the grudging spirit in which I am going to continue to lead the Minister to think that I am not grateful.

I am grateful for the Minister's assurance that new clause 14 concerns good drafting. If the Government are setting up a pilot scheme with a provision that they can make it national, it is right that the Bill should contain a provision to enable them to deal with circumstances where they choose not to do that.

The nub of this group of amendments is the important issue of how we protect the electoral system from fraud. New clause 1, which was tabled by Mr. Heath, and which we support, is the minimalist position proposed as a compromise by the Electoral Commission. The commission is saying that tackling fraud is an urgent problem that needs an immediate national response. If the Government will not introduce immediately what the commission really wants, which I and other Opposition Members support, then for goodness' sake let us support new clause 1. I would go further than that. Amendments Nos. 16 and 17, which stand in my name and those of my hon. Friends, maintain our stated position in favour of personal identifiers, individual voter registration and the inclusion of national insurance numbers.

It is worth reflecting on why this is such an important problem. We were all prepared to agree with the introduction of postal voting on demand, but from a very early stage Opposition Members called for proper safeguards to prevent fraud. The Electoral Commission and electoral observers—even some from Ukraine and Serbia, who came to this country to observe our general election last year—pointed out the risk of fraud and said that we should move to independent, individual voter registration. The Government's proposals for a few local government pilots are not an adequate response. This is a proven, successful system that has been trialled in Northern Ireland, which, with 1 million people, is a pretty large pilot by anybody's standards. Already, 92 per cent. of people have provided their national insurance numbers, signatures and dates of birth—and that in a country that has areas with substantial deprivation and communities that have emigrated there. It is not a place of leafy suburbs—the sort of area that is likely to volunteer for the pilots. One of the criticisms made by the Electoral Commission is that, with a bottom-up system of pilots, the electoral registration officers who volunteer will be those in the easier areas. We need the Government to grasp the nettle and tackle the problem.

Chris Ruane has been something of a problem in this regard. [Hon. Members: "And in others."] I am sure. He is in a constituency where the electoral register has collapsed over recent years, where people are not registering and where he admits that large numbers who should register have not done so. What is his solution? He wants to continue with the failed system that we have now. To be honest, that is unacceptable. I understand from his previous speech on the subject that he has been saying to his colleagues, "It'll be bad for us come the boundary commission." That is not the answer. We need a system whereby the people who are entitled to vote are on the register, and the people who are not entitled to vote are not on it. He and I should be able to make common cause on that, because that is what anybody who cares about our democracy would want.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office 2:30 pm, 11th January 2006

I have made constructive proposals. In Committee, I gave specific examples of funding by the 22 local authorities in Wales and produced a league table of those that funded well and those that did not. Of the 11 in the lower half of the table, seven had poor registration rates. Funding is a key point. It needs to be increased and monitored carefully. If a county council does not put proper funding in place, its registration should be hived off to a neighbouring county council with a better success rate.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there has not been active canvassing and data matching and other methods that are needed if we want to capture the true electorate on the register? We should be able to make common cause about that. He will remember that, last time we discussed this, I gave the House all sorts of examples of people with the most unlikely names on the electoral register, including anagrams of "a bogus voter". Surely he cannot want that to continue. Does he recognise that the only way to tackle this properly is to have an objective register against which one tests the names as they come in, and that the national insurance numbers register is the best thing that we have for that purpose? People know their national insurance numbers. In Northern Ireland, 92 per cent. of people know them. The people who know their national insurance numbers best are often those who are the most vulnerable, because they are in need of the state's help to access health care and claim benefits. Their national insurance numbers are a passport to those benefits.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

There are examples of consensus between the hon. Gentleman and me. He mentioned the importance of data sharing in local authorities. I entirely concur. I have written to 360 Labour Members with a letter from the Lord Chancellor saying that local authorities now have the right to consult databases. I have received replies from about 150. Many electoral registration officers are not implementing the new rules whereby they can cross-reference data. This is a key area on which we can agree and make progress. EROs must consult all the databases that they are responsible for to ensure that we have a full register.

Is putting further blocks on registration a politically inspired position? How many Conservative MPs would like people in council houses, black and ethnic minorities, or low-paid and minimum wage people to be on the register—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. This is very lengthy for an intervention.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

If the hon. Gentleman did me credit, he would accept that, throughout these proceedings, I have made it clear that all that we are interested in is ensuring that the people who are entitled to be on the register are on it. As a party, we have campaigned for that for some years now. Our former hon. Friend, Marion Roe, had a well-informed debate about it in Westminster Hall in May 2004, in which she set out the information that she had gained about just how inaccurate registers were. She gave examples of cases where literally thousands of people who should not have been on the register were on it and of EROs who had undertaken clean-up exercises and had to remove 6,000 people from the register who were not entitled to be on it. Judges have said that our system is wide open to fraud like that of a banana republic and that the Government have their head in the sand. In those circumstances, Parliament cannot ignore the problem, especially as we have always taken great pride in our democracy.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Perhaps my hon. Friend will explain the matter later in his remarks, but I am puzzled by amendment No. 17, which he tabled. It would provide for the application to include

"a copy of the applicant's signature, date of birth and national insurance number (or a statement that he does not have one)".

What assurance can we have of the system's safety if someone could provide a signature, presumably without much verification, a date of birth—I do not know how we verify that—and then had the gall to say, "I don't have a national insurance number"? What kind of assurance does that give me as a citizen that that person is entitled to vote?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

No. My right hon. Friend makes the fair point that we must have arrangements to deal with individuals without national insurance numbers, because there are some in our society. We propose that, in those circumstances, a statement should be made that the person does not have a national insurance number—that is what happens in Northern Ireland—but we also support clauses and amendments that give the electoral registration officer an active duty to ensure that the people on the register are those who are entitled to vote. I would therefore expect further checks to be made. To be fair to the Minister, some of the provisions that are already in the Bill strengthen the electoral registration officer's powers to make such inquiries. My right hon. Friend, as usual, makes a fair point, but I believe that it is addressed by a combination of the Bill, our amendments and the new clauses, which we shall consider later.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Does my hon. Friend agree that the arguments that Labour Members have presented against using a national insurance number are largely unfounded? There is no stigma when one gives one's national insurance number. It is not like, for example, being asked to give fingerprints, which is normally associated with criminal activity.

Will my hon. Friend address my anxiety about a point that a Labour Member raised earlier? Some electoral registration officers behave in an autocratic and high-handed manner. If an officer decides that it has always been done his way in the past and will always be done his way in the future, what sanctions will apply if he does not follow the guidance in the Bill?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

On the second issue, the Government have tabled amendments to require EROs to provide the necessary information to the proposed central online register of electors. That was previously only a discretionary power in the Bill, so the measure has been strengthened. My right hon. Friend is right that EROs need proper performance standards and to behave according to the highest standards that can be achieved. Again, the Bill overall will improve the position, but we should not be complacent.

Government is supposed to be joined up and seamless and we hear endless remarks to that effect. Yet the Northern Ireland Office has said that the use of national insurance numbers is essential to enhancing the accuracy of and confidence in the electoral register. Would a Minister care to reflect on that? Is it successful government for one Department to say, "Oh no. National insurance numbers—surely not", when another Department claims that they are central to enhancing the accuracy of and confidence in the electoral register? The two viewpoints are opposed.

The Government should join themselves up and the Department should reach the same conclusion as the Northern Ireland Office because it began with the same ill-conceived argument as the Minister. It claimed that national insurance numbers would be a barrier to registration and that such a system would not work. Only constant pressing and probing and the persuasive powers of my noble Friend Lord Glentoran meant that the proposals were accepted. Lord Glentoran persuaded Lord Williams of Mostyn, who was then the relevant Minister, that national insurance numbers were the only practical way of providing an objective database against which one could check the names. That is now law and it has worked. Ministers should learn from that experience rather than reinventing the wheel.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:45 pm, 11th January 2006

Does my hon. Friend agree that using national insurance numbers and data sharing between local authorities would help to overcome not only the problem of people who are entitled to vote not being on the electoral register but of those who live in more than one place voting twice in general elections? The latter is especially applicable to students who are registered in their university town where they live temporarily and in their home town where they have been brought up. There is an opportunity to vote twice in general elections and no easy way of tracking that and ensuring that it does not happen.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We support the central online register of electors. It will make it much easier to ensure that there is no duplication or the possibility or risk of it, and enable checking to occur.

Both dates of birth and signatures have flaws as personal identifiers. There is no central electronic database against which one can check a person's date of birth. Perhaps the Minister will say that one is planned or imminent but, as far as I know, it is not possible to check a date of birth and it is difficult to check the accuracy of signatures. In Northern Ireland, people are trying to check signatures by electronic means. However, the national insurance number has an objective, separate database against which information can be checked.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley

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.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

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.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

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.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

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 matters—which we should do, of course—that 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—

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Certainly, my right hon. Friend always has not. We ought to be able to feel that we have a democracy that is free of fraud.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

It seems variously and rather curiously to have been suggested that the use 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?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

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 "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.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

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 patriarchy—perish the thought—but because I recognise that this is one of the very many things that mums do for the whole family.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

I well remember reading the right hon. and learned Lady's book on this subject, and it was most illuminating. I consider myself a new man as a result.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I hesitate to intervene, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman's point is going to be relevant to the debate and to the new clause that we are discussing.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

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, 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.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Since then, however, my hon. Friend has managed to build himself a majority of 18,000—

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

My hon. Friend has obviously learned from his experience.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Let us not have a dispute over the size of individual majorities. May we now have a debate on the new clause?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

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.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Mr. Heald sat down rather abruptly and caught me by surprise.

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.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

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.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

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 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.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

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 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.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

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?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

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.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

That is different from my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

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.

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

"act as the first step towards full individual registration . . . a household form would continue to be used for the canvass, and no additional information would be required from an elector in order to vote in the ordinary way at a polling station . . . unlike geographically based pilot schemes, postal votes across Great Britain would immediately benefit from improved security while requiring no change to the registration process for the majority who wish to vote in a polling station".

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.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

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 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:

"However, it would be mandatory for those wishing to vote by post or proxy to provide their signature and date of birth when they register—whether on the annual canvass form"— we all agree on that—

"individual rolling registration form"— we all agree on that—

"or application to vote by post or proxy."

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

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.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

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:

"The intention of this new clause and amendments is to remove clauses for the piloting of the collection of personal identifiers and instead provide a requirement for all absent voters at local and UK parliamentary elections to include in their applications for an absent vote details of their date of birth and a signature, which must have been previously registered in respect of that person. Only those who have provided these personal identifiers are to be included on absent voter lists."

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 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.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 3:15 pm, 11th January 2006

The hon. Gentleman began his remarks by suggesting that my hon. Friend 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?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I do accept that and so does the commission—it 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 Upstairs—we 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.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Of course, there would be two stages in the process: registering the signature and date of birth, and the ability to check that information. The Electoral Commission states in its letter:

"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.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

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 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.

As I said, it is my intention at some stage to seek the House's opinion on what the Electoral Commission has proposed, if possible.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

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 proposals—a 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 Bill—and the new clauses and amendments—talks 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.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Has he thought about the following anomaly—that 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.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

That is correct. On numerous occasions in everyday life—such as when we apply for passports, driving licences, benefits and so on—we are asked to provide a lot of information and proof of identity. Casting a vote overrides all those activities, as it 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.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

The right hon. Gentleman says that filling in the form is up to individuals, but what happens if people cannot read the form?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Reasonable provision for dealing with that should be made right across Government. Proper assistance should be given, in a proper way.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

What assistance does the right hon. Gentleman think should be given?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

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 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.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

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.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

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.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the majority of people who are 18 plus were educated under a Conservative Government.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

The hon. Gentleman should probably stop digging at this stage and allow the debate to move on.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

What sort of councils does Wales have? It has Labour councils.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

My hon. Friend reminds me that the overwhelming majority of councils in Wales are run by Labour, and they are the local education authorities. The hon. Gentleman ought to be somewhat careful. Of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will not want me—however tempted I am, and however much I should enjoy it—to be diverted from the thrust of my remarks and into a subsidiary debate about the appalling quality of education in Wales, delivered by appalling Labour councils. You would not want me to do that, and I shall not submit to the temptation.

The point I was making before Chris Ruane was so very helpful to me was that whereas it is a matter for an individual to have and to take responsibility for registering to vote, the opposite side of the coin is that it is the responsibility of the electoral registration authorities to do all they can and should do to verify that persons are who they say they are and are entitled to vote. I am not yet convinced that any of the mechanisms in the Bill, or indeed in the new clauses and amendments, go far enough in that direction. I should have thought that the national insurance number was probably the very least we could ask for. I should rather like some photographic identification to be given, such as the horrible new-style driving licences or the horrible European Community passports we are now all obliged to carry. There are a whole number of ways in which this could be pushed forward to send out the message that we want to ensure that someone who is claiming to be eligible to vote in elections in this country is who he or she says and is entitled to cast a vote. I see none of that, sadly, in the Bill.

We shall, I suppose, have to support the new clauses and amendments that take us a small way in that direction. Such is the nature of things. I did ask my hon. Friend Mr. Heald earlier, when looking at amendment No. 17, what reassurance we have when someone applies and provides a signature and date of birth but says they do not have a national insurance number. I am not entirely sure he gave me an answer, so I shall give him the chance to have another go if he wants. Is there to be nothing else? Presumably in that case we are going simply to trust the date of birth and the signature, and not require any alternative to the national insurance number. That strikes me as taking us not very much further forward. My hon. Friend seemed to think that that provided some sort of assurance, but it almost writes a loophole into the amendment.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I shall give way first to my right hon. Friend.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

If my right hon. Friend looks again at amendment No. 17, he will see it appears to make it incumbent on the person who claims not to have a national insurance number to make a statement in those terms. Would that person not therefore be committing an offence by making a false statement with the sole purpose of securing a vote?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

My right hon. Friend is an eminent lawyer, so he must be right on that point, but I am not sure about the follow-up. We have to try to provide mechanisms that at least make it relatively easy and secure for the electoral registration authorities to provide the follow-up to which my right hon. Friend refers. I cannot see that that would necessarily be the case as matters stand. The mere statement that one does not have a national insurance number is not robust enough to allow the authorities to follow up in the way that he and I would like.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

It was common ground in our earlier exchanges that relatively few people do not have national insurance numbers, so surely—on the balance of probability—in many cases when people say that they do not have such a number they really mean that they do not have it with them or they cannot remember it. Should it not be incumbent on that individual—as opposed to being incumbent merely on the authority—to check the veracity of that statement?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 3:30 pm, 11th January 2006

My hon. Friend is correct. We need to make a distinction between the point at which an application is made to be included in the register and the point at which the voter turns up to vote at the polling station or seeks to use a postal vote, which is now all too freely and readily available. In either case, it is not asking too much for someone to provide their national insurance number. If people are employees, if they pay tax or if they claim benefits, their national insurance numbers are readily and freely available to them. I cannot believe that a significant number of people would find it difficult or impossible to produce that number.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Oh, he is going to try again—[Interruption.]

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

I have no wish to know the right hon. Gentleman's national insurance number. I hope that he will get the problem in perspective. The response to a question that I tabled about the number of offences at parliamentary and local government elections in the past 10 years revealed that there had been no parliamentary election postal ballot fraud offences and only one or two in local government elections. While every case of postal ballot fraud is serious, the greater crime is the 3.5 million to 4 million people missing from the electoral register.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

The hon. Gentleman gives the answer to his own question, however inadvertently. The fact that we do not have prosecutions reveals the fact that the present system is so porous, so full of loopholes, so weak and so vulnerable that the authorities do not have the ability, the power or the mechanisms to discover where the fraud is occurring or who is on the register who should not be.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

My right hon. Friend may wish to comment on the remarks by the electoral commissioner in Birmingham, who said last year that

"no serious independent investigation was ever carried out into postal vote fraud. In short, there is likely to be no evidence of fraud if you do not look for it."

Is not the problem that insufficient attention has been paid to a serious risk to our system?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Indeed, and one can only guess why that is the case and what the motivation is at Government or local authority level. There is now widespread recognition that postal ballot fraud is a serious problem and that it has to be gripped. Labour Members, and even Ministers, who say that we would far rather have lots of people on the register who should not be there just in case the odd person has been incapable of ensuring—or too idle to ensure—that their vote is registered have got things completely the wrong way round. In my view, we should welcome those on the register who really want to vote, but we should ensure that people are not on the register if they are not entitled to vote.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I apologise for not hearing the beginning of the right hon. Gentleman's speech, but I was at another meeting in the House. I come from a part of the United Kingdom that already uses national insurance numbers as part of the identification process and we have had no problem with it. We have higher unemployment rates in Northern Ireland and probably more people trying to hide their identities, but there has been no difficulty. Not one person has ever raised the issue with me.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was about to come on to Northern Ireland so his intervention is timely. The clue is probably that the quality of education in Northern Ireland is almost certainly much better than it is in the rest of the United Kingdom, which would go a long way to explain why the excellent citizens of Northern Ireland are not only capable of understanding what is required of them but are also willing to provide the information. They regard voting as important, and are well educated and able to use their vote responsibly.

That leads us to a simple point that has been made several times, but which bears repetition: if the safeguards envisaged in the new clauses and amendments can be implemented in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Gentleman has just verified, why on earth do we think that we are so weak and incapable in the rest of the United Kingdom that we cannot do the same thing? That leads me right back to where I came in. I cannot help getting the feeling that the Minister is trying to hide behind the pilots to ensure that the whole system is protracted and excuses can be made to demonstrate how difficult it is. The process can be delayed, ideally, beyond the next election and—who knows?—beyond the one after that if Labour happens by some mischance still to be in government. We must try to move things on, demonstrate that we are taking the matter seriously and get something on to the statute book that challenges individuals to register and authorities to ensure that those who should be are on the register and that those who should not be are not. That should not be beyond the wit of man; it seems, sadly, to be beyond the wit of the Government.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I rise to support my hon. Friend Mr. Heald who has correctly drawn attention to the growing worries about the integrity of our electoral system. Like him, I was proud to grow up in a democratic country, with the mother of Parliaments, which in those days was sovereign over all matters relating to government in Britain and was elected on a universal franchise that had the confidence of the British people. It is a great sadness that we witness in election after election, to local and national government, growing fear and concern—from those who run the electoral system, the independent people, as well as from some politicians and political parties—about how accurate and complete the electoral register is.

Like the Government, I want everyone eligible to vote in my constituency to have the opportunity to register and when registered to have the opportunity to vote. No one on the Conservative Benches wants to deny bona fide British citizens their right to vote. We hold it as a great treasure and we want a system that allows us to continue to do so.

We do not think that our constituents are incapable of providing basic information to register to vote. We know that the Government expect them to provide an astonishing array of information to do practically everything else in our society, often under duress from the force of laws recently enacted by the Government. To comply with tax regulations, my constituents are expected to marshal huge amounts of information to return to the authorities on all their financial and savings transactions and their income. If I want to deposit a modest sum from my modest taxed income in a bank or building society, I have to take along my passport or driving licence, both of which contain a photograph of me, and a utility bill showing both who I am and where I live. If I do not have those bits of information, the bank or building society, under Government and European rules, can refuse to take my modest sum of money or can even say that I might be guilty of some offence because I may have come by the money through improper means. That is grossly over the top, but the Government who say that we must do that to deposit a small sum of money in a bank account that was legally set up with all the right information now tell the House that people need provide no additional information, apart from their name, to gain the extremely important privilege of voting.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

Would my right hon. Friend care to reflect on the form for claiming pension credit, which is 13 pages long and includes the request to give one's national insurance number?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

That is another extremely good example, because Mark Tami, who has been running down the Welsh education system under both Governments, seems to imply that a large minority of his constituents are quite incapable of reading or filling in any form at all. They must therefore need all sorts of additional help to get any of the basic benefits that are available under this and previous Governments, or to comply with any of the tax and other rules that the Government have laid down.

Presumably, the hon. Gentleman largely supports the Government and believes that they have found ways around that, so that people can get assistance if their literacy is stretched to fill in the tax credit or pension credit forms, their tax returns or whatever they need to do to gain benefits and to avoid paying the taxes that they do not need to pay. Yet he now says that they are incapable of getting the same assistance to do something that is much easier—providing a national insurance number.

I am sure that if my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire asks me to vote for an amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats in due course because it is slightly better than the Government's proposal, I will loyally support him, but I am glad that we had the admission from the Liberal Democrats that their amendment does not amount to very much and will do very little to prevent the fraud that we now think is all too obvious in our electoral system, particularly surrounding postal votes.

It would give me greater pleasure to support the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire—the only serious proposal that we have before us today—as it goes some way to tightening up the system. I am sure that he would agree that it would not be perfect, but it would be a lot better than the current system or than the very modest Liberal Democrat proposal. The need to supply a national insurance number will make people think twice. They would have to commit another fraud if they wished to carry on with a fraudulent request before voting. There also would be an opportunity to check against the national insurance number records and to check that, if they were lying, they were doing so consistently—that they had lied at both opportunities, when they first registered to vote and when they registered for a postal vote. That would be made more difficult, and making it more difficult in this connection gives us a little more security.

I hope that, if the proposal were to pass, the Government would understand that they also need to clean up their act not just on legal and illegal registration to vote, but on national insurance numbers. Many hundreds of thousands of such numbers have been issued over and above the number of legally settled workers that we believe are in the country, thus showing that the national insurance number system itself is far from perfect. To give even greater security, if the Government were to accept my hon. Friend's proposition, we would need not just to introduce it as a security device for electoral registration, but to ask the Treasury to go through the national insurance lists to try to get the number of legally issued national insurance numbers into line with the number of legally settled and working people in our country. That would give us a further precaution against fraud.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Another problem with national insurance numbers is that a small number of people in the United Kingdom are not entitled to such numbers at all because they have never worked and never received any form of benefit. No matter how hard they try, as I have done for a number of my constituents, they cannot be issued with a national insurance number, unless they have applied for a benefit at some stage in their lives or worked. Therefore, the use of NI numbers in the way that has been described would not be easy.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

My hon. Friend is quite right, but my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire has thought of that excellent point, which is why his proposal includes provision for the very small number of people who do not have a national insurance number and cannot legally claim one: they can make a declaration to that effect. However, I hope that the Government wake up to the serious problem that the country now faces. With the mother of Parliaments and the democracy that most of us prize very highly, we have a serious problem of illegal registration and deception or fraud in our voting system. That is disfiguring our country's democracy and is beginning to be commented on by people outside this country, and one wonders whether, soon, instead of our sending people to oversee other people's elections in emerging democracies, overseas people will have to come here to oversee our democracy because it is becoming a scandal.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami PPS (Rt Hon Dawn Primarolo, Paymaster General), HM Treasury

Does the right hon. Gentleman also accept that there is a serious problem of under-registration?

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

There might be in some places. I began my remarks by saying that I share the concern of the hon. Gentleman's party that everyone who is eligible to vote should have the opportunity to register and vote if they choose. I do not believe in compulsory voting, but we should say to people that we think that voting is most important and something that they should treasure. Of course, we want to make it straightforward for people to get their vote if they wish to use it. However, we do not wish to have a system that is so open to abuse that those who wish to manipulate it may do so easily. We know how difficult it is for prosecutions to be mounted, even by returning officers who have let the Electoral Commission and others know that they think that there has been serious abuse, yet cannot get evidence because the system is too loose and it is difficult to pin everything down.

I hope that the Government wake up. There could be cross-party agreement on the matter. For our part, we are keen to further the Government's aim of more full registration of all who are eligible to vote. We hope that they will be equally serious about wishing to get rid of fraud and impersonation.

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Conservative, Rochford and Southend East 3:45 pm, 11th January 2006

It is a great honour to follow my right hon. Friend Mr. Redwood, who touched on several points that I would like to extend by reflecting back on something that I said in an intervention on the Minister, especially regarding financial services and the lack of efficacy of signatures as personal identifiers. I realise that this is late in the day, given that the Minister said that the financial services industry was not consulted, but perhaps she will reflect on the debate and consider engaging some members of the industry during the pilots because they have a lot to offer.

I cannot say that I am an expert in fraud—

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I am delighted to hear it.

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I thank my hon. Friend for correcting my obvious mistake. I am not an expert on fraud prevention, but I was involved in the banking system in both the UK and Africa for several years, so I know that a lot of research has been done on personal indicators. We should bear in mind that the matter is in the financial interest of banks, especially as the House has legislated that banks, not the customer, must pay for mistakes. Banks have to make billions of decisions worldwide about whether or not to pay that are based on personal indicators and personal information. Millions of such decisions are taken in the United Kingdom.

The banking system has moved away from signatures. Dates of birth are useful and, interestingly, national insurance numbers are especially useful for complicated and expensive financial products for which risk is greater. I have not heard anyone mention mothers' maiden names—[Interruption.] I apologise; I did not hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham mention them. Mothers' maiden names are especially useful because although they are good personal indicators because they are known by everyone, they are not reproduced on many documents, so they are unlikely to be of much use to a fraudster.

We should consider when personal indicators are used. In the banking system, certain indicators are useful for different distribution channels. If the Bill is to stand the test of time in the longer term, we will need to examine different delivery channels for voting, be that postal voting, or using the internet, phones and so forth.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it be possible to clarify the name and constituency of the current speaker?

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I think that Chris Ruane has found the answer to his question with just a little glance around. Otherwise, there are excellent publications that repay close attention with which he may know every Member of the House.

Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I apologise for my personal failing of not being better known and not plugging my constituency multiple times in every debate.

Signatures are useful when people meet face to face, but photo ID could be more useful in the longer term as a personal identifier that would allow us to move away entirely from national insurance numbers and signatures. I hope that I am not broadening the debate too much, but many people have talked about fraud regarding information that is provided. National insurance numbers could be used in such a way. It would be of benefit to consider holding a pilot using some of the fraud prevention systems that the banks use to examine spurious information that is provided as a personal identifier. That would alleviate the problem of having anagrams of "I'm a made-up voter" and the ubiquitous Mickey Mouse-type submission on electoral forms and, as we see as Members of Parliament, on petitions. It could be useful, and I am mindful of the Minister's comments about a centralised web-based computer system that would facilitate a form of interaction at a national level to validate and spot trends.

I know that it is late in the debate to raise issues on personal identifiers, but there is an opportunity to consider some of the pilots. Although I am not bold enough to disagree entirely with my Front Bench[Interruption.] Perhaps I will do so just this once, to create a reputation so that my constituency of Rochford and Southend, East is known. We could flip things on the head and in one pilot severely reduce the amount of information that is needed to get on to the register while severely increasing the information we need, in banking terms, at the point of sale—the point of voting. That would be useful when people sign up remotely and by different methods, and it would increase overall registration, which I would welcome.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

I will happily support the new clause tabled by Mr. Heath. Indeed, I would much rather support the proposal by my hon. Friend Mr. Heald that we use national insurance numbers to ensure that the register has integrity. I am happy to do either or both of those things because I do not want, and I hope that no other hon. Member would want, to have the same experience that I, and I am sure many others, had during the last general election campaign of the unwillingness of those who had applied for postal votes to use them because they had insufficient faith that the postal vote would not be interfered with.

Although we are talking about registration, the integrity of the register and the voting system as a whole has a substantial effect on whether those people cast their vote. They do not have a choice between voting by post or voting in person at the ballot box. Their choice is between voting by post or not voting at all. If the House attempts to increase registration, which I fully accept is a desirable goal, but, in the course of doing so, damages turnout, that will be a strange and undesirable outcome. The House has an obligation, and we in this debate have an obligation, to find a way in which we can make a register as safe, reliable and complete as it can possibly be. The proposals that give us the most safe, reliable and complete register, from whichever side of the House they come, are the ones that should command the support of the whole House.

The objections by Labour Members that the national insurance number would do even greater damage to the level of registration do not hold water. It is improbable that the reason people do not register now is because of the obligations on them, by which I mean the obligation to give their name, signature or, in the future, national insurance number. The reasons for not registering are far more fundamental than that. I agree, as I am sure does pretty much every hon. Member, that something serious has to be done to address that level of disengagement, but adding the requirement to supply a signature or a national insurance number would not damage registration.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami PPS (Rt Hon Dawn Primarolo, Paymaster General), HM Treasury

If the hon. Gentleman believes that that is the case, how does he explain the collapse in registration in Northern Ireland, which was far beyond anything expected as a result of concerns about fraud?

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

We would have to look carefully at what other circumstances prevailed at that election.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

My hon. Friend will know from his work on the Committee that the Electoral Commission looked at the question of whether or not the 120,000 fall in the number of voters was a genuine reflection of an accurate register, and it found that it was. It was not a case of people who were entitled to vote being taken off the register.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

My hon. Friend has encapsulated the issue perfectly. We want to achieve the maximum registration of people who are entitled to vote. We do not simply want to increase the number—we want to ensure that people who are entitled to vote have the opportunity and are encouraged to do so. People who should not have the opportunity to vote, because they are not so entitled, should not be on the register in the first place. It is important to look at the circumstances that prevail in Northern Ireland and the reasons why turnout was not as great as it had been previously. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome expressed clear support for a system using national insurance numbers, as proposed by the Opposition.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley

The hon. Gentleman is talking about efforts to achieve the safest and most complete electoral system. First, to return to a point that I made earlier, he was present when the Constitutional Affairs Committee took evidence from the Electoral Commission. Its chairman, Sam Younger, talked about the tension between participation and security. We are juggling with a dilemma, as we cannot achieve the safest and most complete system at the same time. Sam Younger said:

"we do not feel national insurance numbers are something we should be asking people to provide at registration".

Secondly, I am surprised—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I think that the hon. Lady has taken the hint. An intervention is an intervention. If she has an argument to develop, she should seek to catch my eye.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

I accept what Barbara Keeley said. I was present at that hearing, and the Electoral Commission has indeed come to the conclusion that national insurance numbers are not the best way forward. I disagree. As I have said, it is vital that everyone who is on the register and who is entitled to vote should have absolute confidence that everyone with whom they share the register is entitled to be on it and that the system has integrity. We should therefore seek to make the system as safe as possible.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

May I help the hon. Gentleman by clearing up the reason for the fall in registration in 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.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Perhaps Jeremy Wright would like to indicate to whom he is giving way.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

I am giving way, first, to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and then to Chris Ruane.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Secretary of State

It has been suggested that the numbers in Northern Ireland fell for an improper reason, but that is not what the Electoral Commission said. It said:

"We do not agree with the assertion that 120,000 or so persons were disenfranchised as a result of the new legislation being introduced."

The evidence that we have just heard from Mr. Robinson confirms that that is the case.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

I agree, as the judges say, and I have nothing to add. It is entirely felicitous that I should be able to rise to make a speech and not have to do so.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

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.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

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 point—pilot 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. 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.

Photo of Geraldine Smith Geraldine Smith Labour, Morecambe and Lunesdale 4:00 pm, 11th January 2006

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.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

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 problem—this is where I disagree with her—of 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—

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

No, I will not give way again. I am about to conclude.

There is a problem that people who perceive a great deal of fraud in the voting system—I am thinking particularly of those who use the postal voting system—are 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.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Much of the ground covered today was covered on Second Reading and in Committee. There was one offer, which came from 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 depends—first, 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 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.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.