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Mr. Blunt: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause, as new clause 8, was withdrawn in Committee, following the Minister's welcome statement that he had been influenced by our debate and wanted to give the matter further thought. He said:

He went on to say:

If there was consultation with the official Opposition, it did not include me. I waited with hope until Monday evening, the deadline for tabling amendments, to see whether a Government amendment on the matter would appear. Sadly, none did, which is why I retabled the new clause.

I speak with a slight sense of foreboding, because I fear that the Government have not decided to accept the argument. Multiple registration is an extremely important issue. I draw the attention of the House to the Select

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Committee report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland, which has been the origin of many of the proposals in the Bill. Paragraph 23 says:

The Minister will be enormously familiar with that, as he was a member of the Committee and signed up to its report, as did all the other members.

In addition to the Committee's statement, and no doubt influenced by it, there is the experience of the party of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady), which undertook an exercise to identify pairs of people with the same name. The largest concentration found in Britain was 6,000, yet in a constituency in Northern Ireland—presumably Belfast, West—there were 18,000 people with the same name as somebody else. That is a serious ground for suspicion that there may be considerable multiple registration and illegal multiple voting.

There has been no evidence to challenge the Select Committee's conclusion in 1998:

We had that debate in Committee, and that was our conclusion, although the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) took a different view and thought that any form of multiple registration should be against the law. The Select Committee continued:

In our previous debate, the hon. Members for South Down and for Belfast, East expressed reservations, but on this issue there is cross-community support. I hope that I am not prejudging the issue, but the remarks of the hon. Member for South Down in Committee and the fact that the hon. Members for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) and for Belfast, East have put their names to new clause 2 make it clear that there is such support. I hope that I have correctly interpreted the remarks of the hon. Member for South Down in Committee at column 122.

The Government have an opportunity to reinforce an area in which there is welcome cross-community agreement. Our proposal gained the support of all the parties in Committee other than the Government. As he took the same view in 1998, I hope that the Minister, too, will offer us his support, as he suggested in Committee that he might. I look forward to his response.

If national insurance numbers were used on the register, which is the subject of our next debate, the new clause would not be needed, as we would then have a method whereby the register could be properly tested, but if the Government intend to resist the inclusion of national insurance numbers—which our Committee debate clearly

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suggested that they would—it becomes extremely important to address the issue by obliging voters to notify if they are registered in more than one place.

Mr. McGrady: Again, we are liable to repeat the arguments made in Committee, where the Minister said:

The Minister added that, as the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said:

that is, tonight. He continued:

I hope that he will be, as we say in Northern Ireland, even more more persuaded after tonight's debate.

I believe that in response to some of my questions in Committee, the Minister suggested that it was a simple administrative matter to pose such a question on either the household or the individual registration form, whichever one we decide to have, and find out whether the person registering has registered at another address or addresses. I went on to suggest for the Minister's consideration that if that were the case, the would-be elector could simply say on the form which of the addresses he proposed to use in the election to which the new register would be germane. That is a simple administrative consideration, concerning the layout of the form. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has been further persuaded since our debate in the fourth sitting of Standing Committee D.

Lembit Öpik: I would oppose the new clause if it took away people's right to choose where to vote, but as it is formulated, it can be regarded only as a matter of common sense. After an election, it would help to work out much more quickly who is who and who has done what. We have already heard the strong rationale for making sure that we can "de-duplicate" potential multiple voters who have used different addresses. I, too, was encouraged that the Minister seemed to share this concern and, as the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) said, gave a strong indication in Committee that he saw the sense of what is now being proposed in new clause 2.

We know that the Minister is passionate, as we all are, about getting rid of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. I also know that he, with his commitment to cross- community relations, will accept a good thing when he sees it, even if it originates from the Conservative party. [Interruption.] I could not resist saying that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is especially true if the idea has the support not only of Opposition Members but also of those who sit on the Government Benches. On the assumption that he will accept the amendment as a sensible and not very onerous addition to what we require of voters when they register, I thank him in advance for his good sense.

Mr. Peter Robinson: I join those who have confirmed that there was a consensus within the Committee that

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requiring people who register to supply that further piece of information was not an onerous hardship to place on anybody. I do not think that it would do any violence to the Bill, or to the Minister, to insert it.

The Minister certainly did not consult me, as has been suggested. I can only assume that that means that he does not require any legislative force—

Mr. Browne: I myself signed letters to the leaders of all parties in Northern Ireland, so although I did not consult the hon. Gentleman himself, I wrote to the leader of his party. I know that the post was delivered, because the leader of the Alliance party responded to my letter. That is the only response that I have had.

6.45 pm

Lembit Öpik rose

Mr. Browne: I shall come to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, if he can contain himself.

My position has not changed from the position that I stated in Committee; it is not conditional on parties in Northern Ireland signing up to it. None the less, I wrote to all the parties in Northern Ireland at the same time.

Mr. Robinson: The House will judge whether that lives up to the expectation of the consultation that we were promised. I am surprised that the Minister could determine who the leader of the Alliance party was in order to send him the letter, so he must be congratulated on that.

The requirement would put little pressure on anybody filling out their registration form, and would supply information that would be useful in the electoral office for determining on the foot of the marked register whether people had voted illegally during an election. That information could also be used for the same purpose as some of us have suggested the national insurance number be used, if it were included as a further mechanism. It would allow us to look into multiple registration and multiple voting with a lot more information to hand.

It is right to say that in Committee I opposed both multiple registration and multiple voting. I did not express the same opposition in the Select Committee, for a reason that I explained in the Standing Committee. I said that I felt that in our proceedings on the Bill we had done much to overcome a number of the existing weaknesses in the system, but that as soon as we strengthened those parts of the system, we could be certain that the purposeful fraudsters would look to see where the new weaknesses were. If they do that, they will be thinking about multiple registration and multiple voting.

If that is the case, the Minister should, at the very least, identify those with multiple registration, because it would be an offence in itself not to fill in the form fully and properly. If the Minister is saying that he is not prepared to include the question on the registration form, I regret that. Is he saying that he is still looking at the issue, and has not ruled it out? He needs to satisfy the House on that issue.

I believe that the registration form should include the question, and I hope that the Minister can go further than he did in his intervention in meeting what seems a legitimate point of concern. It would not drive a coach and horses through the legislation.

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