HC Deb 19 January 2000 vol 342 cc929-37
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I beg to move amendment No. 30, in page 8, line 43, at end insert— '(5A) Where the declarant falls into the category of person mentioned in subsection 2(c) above, the declaration of local connection must state that the declarant has spent a substantial part of his time (whether during the day or at night) in the parliamentary constituency (or, if the declaration is made for the purpose of local government elections only under the provisions of subsection (6) below, the local government electoral area) during the whole of the period of three months ending on the date of the declaration.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 9, in page 9, line 20, at end insert— '(10) When an address given in a declaration of local connection is owned or occupied by a person, persons, business or organisation, permission must be obtained from such person, persons, business or organisation for that address to be used in the declaration.'. No. 31, in page 9, line 20, at end insert— '(10) When a declaration of local connection is received by the registration officer, he shall make enquiries in order to satisfy himself that the declarant falls within the categories of person listed in subsection (2) above, and no declarant shall be entered on the register until the registration officer is so satisfied.'. No. 27, in schedule 1, page 20, line 35, at end insert— '(5A) It shall be the responsibility of the registration officer to take whatever measures he deems necessary and reasonable to verify a declaration of local connection made under section 7B of this Act.'.

Mr. Evans

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak at such an early stage. Amendments Nos. 30 and 31 deal with those seeking to declare a local connection because they are homeless. That is a small group of people, consisting mainly of rough sleepers. I stress to the Minister that we are looking for flexibility and do not want to be dogmatic. We shall put forward common-sense suggestions, which we hope that he will adopt.

As it stands, the Bill is pretty thin in respect of requirements to prove that the elector or would-be elector is who he or she claims to be. The Bill is also not sufficiently prescriptive to bar would-be travelling voters from making tactical decisions about where they will register for voting purposes.

Once the election is called or is about to be called, tactical seats might be earmarked, and registration could take place with the aim of achieving a certain result. The amendments do not aim to be a barrier to legitimate registration, but they aim to be a barrier to protest tactical registration, which I have previously described as the Swampy aspect of the Bill. We must be aware that that could be a problem.

There are sufficient loopholes in the Bill to lead to an increase in fraudulent registration. The amendments will not cut out the fraud entirely, but they will give electoral registration officers powers to satisfy themselves that the declaration is genuine. Amendment No. 30 stipulates that the person making the declaration of local connection has lived in the area for a substantial part of the time during the three-month period. That is not an unsurpassable obstacle to people stating to the electoral registration officer that they have a local connection, have lived in the area and are not just passing through. They must state that they have such a local connection. I do not believe that the rough sleepers whom I pass on my way up Victoria street in the evening would have difficulty in making a local declaration. Many of them are familiar faces, who have local connections for much longer than three months, more is the pity. They would experience no problem with the amendment.

The amendment would make the same provision for England and Wales as clause 6 makes for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Fabricant

I wonder whether my hon. Friend has by-elections in mind. Many by-elections are held within three months of their declaration. To use his Swampy analogy, does he fear that homeless people or others may move into an area where there is a by-election to try to change its usual result?

Mr. Evans

The whole Bill, not only the provisions for by-elections, worries me because it provides for the ability to make that sort of protest at general elections and by-elections. General elections are important and people will be able to use the measure to try to affect the result in a seat that has been earmarked as marginal. Seats tend to be more marginal in general elections than they are in by-elections. Local declarations could be made under the Bill with the aim of unseating a specific person—for example, a Minister who made an unpopular decision. If the measure is not amended, such a Minister could be at risk.

Voters often use by-elections to make a statement about how the Government are faring. I know that, because I have been the victim of two by-elections. If people agree with most of the Government's actions, they will vote for them in a general election. However, in a by-election, people who disagree strongly with only one policy have the luxury of voting against the Government without bringing them down. An amendment that we tabled earlier dealt specifically with by-elections; amendment No. 30 would affect the whole measure by trying to remove loopholes.

Amendment No. 30 would do nothing more for England and Wales than proposed new section 7B(5) of the 1983 Act, for which clause 6 provides, does for Northern Ireland. That provision states that people who register a declaration of local connection in Northern Ireland must declare that they have lived there for three months. That is sensible, and we want only to extend the provision to all relevant parts of the United Kingdom.

The argument that we discriminate against homeless people as against those who have houses will be prominent in hon. Members' minds because it was mentioned when we tabled an amendment about registration for by-elections. The amendment does not aim to discriminate, but we discern a difference in the means of registering. It would be incredibly expensive to buy a house to influence a vote. I do not believe that anyone would be prepared to do that.

The provision for local declaration makes it much easier to register in order to affect a vote. The only expense incurred is that of getting to a specific place. It is argued that it is easier for people to rent a property to influence a vote. It is easier than buying a house, but finding a rentable property involves expense, commitment and difficulty. Local declarations do not involve such difficulties. People can simply go the local town hall, approach the electoral registration officer and state that they have a local declaration. That requires no commitment or proof of having lived in a place. Under the Bill, someone could get off a local bus at Brighton, take a whiff of the sea air and, all of a sudden, become a local.

9.30 pm

Such a person could register—that would be down to the town hall—so I hope that the Minister is prepared to look carefully at amendments Nos. 30 and 31. Amendment No. 31 would place the onus on the electoral registration officer, who would have to be proactive in ensuring that people who make local declarations do so truthfully. In previous debates on the Bill, it has been said that the ERO and his or her staff would be aware that there was a particular problem and could perhaps take action if a number of people who did not live in the area went there to make fraudulent local declarations. We want to place on the ERO the obligation to verify declarations made by people who say that they have been in a certain place for at least three months and so rightfully have a local, rather than a passing, connection.

The Minister may object, saying that the amendment would place a burden on EROS. We already know that they are strapped for cash, and it may add a disproportionate cost, as I understand that no extra cash will be made available, but we are talking about a relatively small number of people. I asked the chief executive of the local authority in the Ribble Valley area how many homeless people would use the Bill and register with a local declaration. He said none, and I agree.

The same will be true for a lot of rural areas as key urban areas attract the homeless. Property is costly these days and illness is a problem for a lot of homeless people, who are attracted to major cities such as London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Bristol. I do not believe that EROs are inundated to the extent that they would be unable to send a member of staff to make sure that a person who makes a local declaration lives locally.

Mr. Fabricant

Again, I am listening to my hon. Friend's arguments with considerable interest. He will know that Shelter is saying that the number of homeless people is sadly increasing. What assessment has he made of the number of inquiries that might have to be made before an election by an ERO to establish whether someone is resident in a certain area?

Mr. Evans

There may be problems if a number of people are sleeping rough in a given area and an election is called. Once that happens, there is nothing to prevent people from registering a local declaration. We might find that a number of people in certain areas try to register at the town hall, although that would depend on where they are concentrated. I have referred to Victoria street time and again, because that is the area that I know. My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) also walks along Victoria street and he, too, will know how many people are sleeping rough there. There will be problems if people wait until the last moment to register their declaration of local connection, particularly as the ERO and his staff will be extremely busy. I hope that local authorities will ensure that they have staff available. Those staff could perhaps come off certain other duties, but not electoral registration, as that would be vital in the run-up to a local election or a general election, should the Home Secretary decide to extend the measure throughout the country. EROs should be able to take some staff off other duties, such as car parking, in order to verify that the person who has declared a local connection has done so correctly.

In places such as Westminster, to which I referred earlier, as many as 100 people may be sleeping rough—perhaps even more. That number would put pressure on the authority. I do not believe that there would be any such pressure on my local authority, and I suspect that my hon. Friend would not encounter too many problems in Lichfield either. The main problem would arise as a result of the Swampy factor.

A number of people may tactically move around the country in order to pick on one large urban constituency. We know that groups of people who live in different parts of the country are now able easily to communicate very quickly on the internet. People who have the same interest and belong to chat groups communicate freely and constantly. Such communication has been used in preparation for demonstrations in London, and we have seen the problems that the police have faced as a result.

Disparate groups of people could easily use the internet. I am referring not to homeless people but to those who will fraudulently claim that they are homeless in order to pick on one or two constituencies in which to register. The ERO and his personnel will have problems checking each application.

Mr. Fabricant

My hon. Friend touches on something that is bothering me considerably: the question of multiple voting. As there will not be a national register, does he believe that there are sufficient safeguards to ensure that a homeless person does not make a declaration of residence in more than one area?

Mr. Evans

Clearly not. There are sufficient loopholes that not only allow people to do so but, in certain circumstances, may encourage it.

I return to the argument that, if somebody is prepared to dig a hole and stay down it for several days or climb a tree and stay up it for several days as a form of protest, making a local declaration of connection in several local authority areas will be a piece of cake. We must therefore be cautious.

I hope that, if very many people make a declaration once an election is called to try to unseat one Member of Parliament, we shall be able to give the ERO sufficient power to verify whether such claims are legitimate. If proof is given, there should be no problem. The problem will arise when the ERO and his staff find that people are obviously not living in the area and have no local connection. I ask the Minister to take due regard of the abuse that could result from the way in which the clause is drafted.

Mr. Forth

I shall try to be short in my comments on this occasion—

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

I will time the right hon. Gentleman. —

Mr. Forth

If the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene, I would be delighted to give way, although he would only be prolonging my remarks. I should hope that he would not want to provoke me at this stage in our proceedings. I want to allow as many people as possible to contribute to this part of our debate.

This is the weakest and most vulnerable part of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has ably outlined his worries, which I share. The concept of the declaration of local connection is wide open to abuse and it is incumbent on us to minimise that abuse, or eliminate it if we can.

We have just heard the nightmare possibility of people making multiple registrations in different constituencies under the banner of the extremely loose process of declaration of local connection. Amendments Nos. 9 and 27 are designed to reduce the weaknesses and close the loopholes. Amendment No. 9 would require permission to be obtained from the owner or occupier of the address given, be it an individual or a business, the better to verify the use of that address.

The Bill merely requires the person registering to give the address in the United Kingdom where he would be residing or, in the case of a homeless person, the address that he "is nearest to". That is open to multiple abuse and we must deal with it properly.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Is there not a slight danger that a political party could go around collecting proxies from 10, 15 or 20 homeless people in a ward and use its political address as the registered address for a postal proxy vote, and thereby skew an election?

Mr. Forth

Yes. Regrettably, there are many such possibilities within the procedure. Amendment No. 9 would not deal with that problem, but amendment No. 27 could or would, because it would lay on the electoral registration officer a duty to verify the local connection. Should the provisions ever reach the statute book, EROS, with their great experience, would want to concentrate on this area, to reassure us that the horrors that we are envisaging will not occur.

The Minister may be able to reassure us in some other way that I cannot yet imagine. I hope that he can. I hope that he will either accept the amendments or give us a guarantee that something of the kind will be introduced, perhaps in another place. I hope that he will do us the courtesy of acknowledging those apparent weaknesses in the Bill, and that he will correct them.

I do not want the briefness of my remarks to detract from the seriousness with which I view the matter, but I want to give others a chance to contribute. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

We will not support the amendment if it is pressed to a vote. I do not doubt the genuine concern of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) about the possible fraudulent exercise of the right to register and to vote, but I wonder whether he has been as concerned in the past about possible fraud by people who have more than one residence and could equally do the things that he is concerned that the homeless might do.

I suspect that someone who is literally roofless would not be as able to take concerted action to register in constituencies that may be vulnerable as someone who owns about five residences. In the past, the homeless have been discriminated against and have not been able to exercise the right to vote. It would be very wrong for us to add more discrimination in very welcome legislation that gives them that right for the first time. The difficulty is going to be persuading people who literally have not got a roof that they want to take part in the democratic process at all.

9.45 pm
Mr. Evans

I agree with all that the hon. Lady is saying. We want the franchise to be extended to homeless people. They have been discriminated against once and we do not want them to be doubly so. Our problem is that, for the first time, legislation is making it easier for people to claim a local connection at the town hall. We want to ensure that safeguards are put in place so that the system is not abused by others—not by the genuine homeless, but by other people who want to make protests.

Jackie Ballard

I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but, in putting that sledgehammer in place, he will be discriminating against the very people to whom he wanted to give a right.

As I said, the difficulty will be to persuade people who are roofless that they want to reconnect with the democratic process. That will be a real challenge for all of us and, if the amendment is pressed to a vote, we will oppose it.

Mr. Fabricant

I welcome the provision that will enable the homeless, as well as prisoners on remand and those who live in psychiatric residential centres, to vote. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, that provision will mean that the legislation will be open to abuse, which means that democracy itself will be open to abuse.

The Minister said that he is not too concerned if a group of Ulster Unionists moves to north Warwickshire, but we must all be slightly concerned about people who are homeless, or indeed those who are not, registering a local connection in an area when they do not have one. Shelter has said that, sadly, more and more homeless people are living on our streets. One does not have to be homeless to make a declaration of local connection.

As we do not have a national register as such, how will the Minister ensure that people do not make multiple declarations? In Committee, one Labour Member told me that homeless people cannot get to a number of areas to vote. That is patently not so. If one is on the cusp of a number of adjoining constituencies, it is easy to walk into each to vote during a day. What if one is not homeless and is using the internet, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) described? That makes it even more probable that there will be major abuses of democracy.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) mentioned Newbury, where tree-houses and tunnels were designated as places of residence. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley mentioned the Swampy syndrome. There is a real probability that we will be inviting abuse if tight clauses are not added to the Bill as my right hon. and hon. Friends have suggested. It is pleasant to see that the amendments in the group are not mutually exclusive. They could all be accepted to ensure that there is no abuse.

There is no question but that there is abuse. Earlier in the passage of the Bill I asked the Minister how many abuses occur. He was unable to tell me. Clearly, they have not been detected. If the Bill is not amended to ensure that owners of properties must say that the individual who makes the declaration of local connection lives there, we shall be inviting the sort of abuse that my right hon. and hon. Friends have described.

We have discussed the question of verifying a number of issues, and we had a long debate about the word "verifiable". Amendment No. 9 is an important amendment. Making a person who owns or occupies a property agree that the declaration of local connection is viable and correct will be a small step towards ensuring that abuses do not happen in the future. If these amendments are not adopted, we will be inviting abuse. Surely that is not what the Minister wants.

Mr. Syms

There are two sides to this question. The first is that people have an absolute right to vote, and the second is that there must be transparency and a right to challenge. The current electoral register is published, and people can check it and their right to be on it. Sometimes, people are open to challenge. If, within a year, somebody missing from the register wants to be added, his name is put up in a local council office or public place so that, in effect, people can challenge that right.

The real problem with homeless people is checking that they have a local connection. This is a problem not only for the returning officer, but for political parties. Many of us in the Chamber could look at several constituencies and say that we have a local connection. In that case, where one votes could be an elective point, rather than a point of residence. That could cause a real problem, and could raise the fears expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans).

The system could be open to abuse—not by the homeless, but by people taking advantage of their political position to scoop up a number of additional votes in a particularly marginal seat. All political parties try to take advantage of the electoral law as it stands to maximise their political performance in any seat. There are abuses in proxy or postal votes. Occasionally, agents of parties are accused of abuses because they have signed up people who may not know what day it is. There is scope for abuse by those who know what they are doing in taking advantage of those who are homeless and on the streets.

An address is a critical point for most of us. We register our address from the point of view of electoral registration, and if we purchase or do anything we are often asked where we live. Often, people check the electoral register. If one wants to join a video club, for example, people will ask for bills, or for some connection with a particular address to verify where one lives. If one does not have that, there is a problem. Political parties across the spectrum may look at an individual and measure whether the local connection is valid and whether that person should be on the electoral register. My fear is that the electoral registration officer will be put in a position whereby somebody wants to be registered and local political agents and parties will object because it cannot be proved that that person has a local connection.

In my constituency, the only people with a good idea of who lives on the streets are local police officers. The only way in which one could prove a local connection would be to get statements from local police officers who, in certain areas of Poole, know the people who are sleeping rough in those areas. I am not sure that those homeless people would want to go to the police for a statement that they are local residents, because there is sometimes an uneasy relationship between them.

I have concerns about this measure. It is well intentioned, but open to abuse. If we are not careful, unscrupulous people could take advantage of the homeless.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

We have had many lengthy speeches in this and other debates today. Some hon. Members have suggested that there has been some filibustering—heaven forfend—because the Opposition wish to prevent us reaching the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill. This is an important amendment, but I should point out that Conservative Front Benchers have not opposed the next business and it would be particularly hypocritical of them to continue to make long-winded speeches. Perhaps they are just naturally given to them; we will see.

Each of the amendments in this group is designed to place obstacles in the way of people wishing to register as electors by means of a declaration of local connection and, in particular, those people who wish to use that route because they are homeless. We will need to work hard to get the homeless to register to vote, let alone fulfil the concerns that have been expressed tonight. The Conservative party was represented on the working party on electoral procedures, but it now appears to be backtracking on what it agreed then.

Amendment No. 30 would, in effect, impose a three-month residency qualification on a homeless person seeking to register as provided in the Bill. That raises the question of why the homeless should be treated differently in that respect from all other electors in Great Britain. Does the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) really think that a rent-a-homeless-vote procession would arrive in a constituency having a by-election and make straight for the town hall to register to vote, having been alerted to the need to do so via the internet to which, as homeless people, they would hardly have ready access? The hon. Gentleman seems to have a name for that idiocy—I can call it nothing else—and he calls it the Swampy factor. It would provoke much comment if such a thing were to happen and would damage any party that sought to organise it. It is unlikely to happen and the hon. Gentleman has presented no evidence for it. If he has some evidence, I would be pleased to see it before he pursues his argument further.

My objection applies also to amendment No. 9, which would require the homeless person seeking to use, for example, the address of the shop in whose doorway he normally spends the night, to get the shopkeeper's permission before doing so. If the shopkeeper refused, that person would be disfranchised. I can see no justification for that. The shopkeeper would not be affected because the fact that the homeless person had registered under such an address would not give him any rights to remain in the doorway. Indeed, it could be argued that the shopkeeper was consenting to the homeless person sleeping in the doorway if he gave consent to registration. The shopkeeper would be placed in a worse position in that case.

Homeless people have enough problems with being homeless and registering to vote without the Conservative party trying to restrict their ability to vote. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) described the prospect of the homeless voting as a nightmare. I suspect that one of the worst nightmares of the homeless would be for him to be in government again. The Conservative party simply does not want the homeless to vote. That is what the Conservatives are frightened of and what the amendments are about. They are seeking to deny electors the right to express a view on their policies.

The Conservatives are frightened of the electorate. They were defeated at the general election and they do not want more people to vote because they, too, would vote against the Conservative party. The amendments would deny homeless people the right to vote. They would undermine the ability of people who should be able to exercise their democratic rights to do so.

It being Ten o'clock, further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned.

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