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I listened to the noble Earl with care, as I always do, and I am little puzzled by the example he gave of the battered wife. All that my noble friend's Amendment No. 24 seeks is that the lady, when she asks for a registration at a new address, tells the electoral registration officer where was her previous address and where she was previously registered. Unless I am misreading my noble friend's amendment, I do not see necessarily that that information will get out. It will not be news to the husband if the lady's name is removed from the electoral register; after all, she has left him and he knows that. The question is how he would get to know where she now was simply by her telling the ERO that she had come from another address. Perhaps the noble Earl can help me.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I accept that point, but I find it hard to understand how the ERO could possibly release information about the wife to the pursuing husband--if I may call him that. I see the problem, but I would have to be persuaded that it was a real one in respect of telling the ERO the whereabouts of the woman's last address. My noble friend has a general and fairly good point in suggesting that people should say, when applying for a new registration, whether or not they have had a registration previously and, if so, where it was. I actually believe that everyone should be asked to do so, but those in this group in particular should be because obviously it is not as easy to register them as someone with a residence. I have great sympathy with that aspect of my noble friend's amendment.
I should like also to say a few words about Amendment No. 33. My noble friend suggests that the person concerned should go to the registration officer's office to make the application. I shall come to the phrase,
As to proof of identity, I am more inclined to listen to my noble friend than to the noble Earl, although I appreciate his point about fire, flood and fleeing in the night. The fact is that anyone going through fire, flood and fleeing in the night will have to obtain some form of identification rather quickly. I was about to say that for most of us that might be a bank account or something of that nature, but we are talking about homeless people. For a homeless person it might well be the social security documents which entitle him to continue to claim social security. I suspect that a battered wife in the situation described earlier would be looking for social security documents. There will be some documents around that the registration office could check. My amendment is perhaps more acceptable to the Government--dare I say, having had a small success a little while ago--in that I do not specify what it should be. All I say is that the registration officer should have the responsibility to take whatever measures he deems necessary and reasonable to verify a declaration of local connection.
In addition to my support for my noble friend's amendment, I suggest that my amendment would make it clear that the ERO has the power and the responsibility to make checks. If the Minister tells me that he already has such powers and that he would make checks, I shall be quite content. I suggest that my amendment would go at least some way to relieve the concerns of my noble friend Lord Jopling without perhaps getting into the difficult territory of the noble Earl, Lord Russell.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: This has been a useful discussion. I want us to try to concentrate our minds a little on the benefits of the Bill and why it is drafted in this way. The whole purpose behind the Bill is surely to make it easier for the homeless, remand prisoners and mental health patients to be registered as electors. That is what we are trying to achieve. We are trying to be more inclusive and to encourage people to participate in democracy. While I understand the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, to ensure that we root out any abuse and fraudulent intent within the system, we stick to that fundamental principle. Trying to achieve greater participation is one of the purposes behind the legislation. The electoral system in this country bears comparison with all others. Our system is remarkably free from corruption and abuse. I believe that most of us would subscribe to that point of view.
In general, the provisions have been welcomed by all parties and that is as it should be. But having decided that those categories of people--the homeless, remand prisoners and mental health patients--should be allowed to register, it would be quite wrong if we were then to try to treat their registrations as different from
Ordinary electors do not have to be issued with identification certificates or have to produce such documents when seeking to vote, so why should we place an additional requirement on those who register by means of a declaration of local connection? I shall try to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. A person who wants to register by means of a declaration of local connection will need to complete a form. He will have to do some form-filling in the same way as everyone else; such as a person who registers normally and wants to change his registration mid-year. A person may fill in the form and return it directly, or by post. That is how the procedure will work.
Although I imagine that most homeless people will go to the town hall in person to register--which seems a logical consequence and a sensible way to behave--there is no reason to require them to do so when a similar requirement is not imposed on anyone else. I therefore cannot invite the Committee to accept Amendments Nos. 32 and 33.
In that context, while the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is phrased in perhaps slightly friendlier and looser terms, I cannot invite the Committee to support it either. Imagine for a moment what happens in the case of those who register in the normal way. If the annual canvass form comes back with an extra name of a person who was not registered the previous year, or if an extra person applies to be registered during the course of the year, the registration officer takes that on trust. He does not call round to check that the new person really lives at the address in question. There is no justification for treating in a different way those who wish to register by means of a declaration of local connection. There is no reason to believe that such people are more prone to fraud or dishonesty, although I should point out that paragraph 17 of Schedule 1 to the Bill makes it quite clear that submitting a fraudulent declaration of local connection is an offence.
Whenever any name appears on the electoral register, whether in the normal way or through a declaration of local connection, there is a proper procedure for objecting to it. Another safeguard is therefore built in. That seems a much better approach than singling out those registering by means of a declaration of local connection and imposing an additional and heavy burden on already busy registration officers.
Finally, I turn to Amendment No. 24, about which I can perhaps be a little kinder. A feature of rolling electoral registration is that people will be able to change their registration during the course of the year. They will be able to register in respect of their new address and be removed from the register in respect of their old address. For that system to work, the registration form will need to ask them for details of their previous registration. Exactly the same question will need to appear on the form for registering by means of a declaration of local connection. The Bill as drafted will allow for that to happen.
Before I sit down, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for his contribution. He made a valuable point about domestic violence. We too want to ensure that the system we are putting in place protects those who are victims of aggression in any shape or form; in particular, those who are victims of racist attacks. There would be some equally telling vulnerability if we were to adopt the course recommended in the amendments.
In the light of what I have said, and bearing in mind the reasonable points made by some of our colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, I hope that the noble Lord will decide that at this stage the amendments are not worth pursuing, although, as I said earlier, I recognise that we must be vigilant in tackling fraud and ensuring that there is no abuse of the system.
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