HC Deb 20 January 2000 vol 342 cc1016-8

Amendment proposed [19 January]: 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. Evans.]

2.39 pm

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

I remind the House that with this we are discussing 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.".

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

Yesterday, I was concluding my remarks on the amendments. My objection to amendment No. 9 was that it would require homeless persons, who, for example, wanted to use the address of the shop in whose doorway they normally spent the night, to obtain the shopkeeper's permission before doing so. If the shopkeeper refused permission, the homeless person would be disfranchised. I could see no justification for that. The shopkeeper is not affected by the measure; it is not a claim to a right to use the doorway. Indeed, arguably, the shopkeeper would be consenting to the use of the doorway by permitting the homeless person to sleep there, although I think it would take a good lawyer to argue that. The shopkeeper might be in a worse position if he consented than if he did not.

Amendment No. 31 would impose an unnecessary additional responsibility on electoral registration officers. They would be required to check whether people making a declaration of local connection fell into one of three categories eligible to register in that way. That should not be too difficult in the case of mental patients and remand prisoners, but it is not clear what the registration officer would be expected to do to satisfy himself that a declarant was homeless.

Moreover, the amendment would move away from the general principle that the registration officer would normally accept registration applications at face value unless and until objections were raised to the inclusion of a particular name on the register or the omission of another name from it. We do not want to make that move.

The same objection applies equally to amendment No. 27. Why should the registration officer be required to take special steps for people registering by a declaration of local connection which he does not have to take for any other electors? Again, he should be expected to accept the information that he is given unless objections are raised.

I invite the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I offer apologies on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who is in the Standing Committee on the Freedom of Information Bill. I appreciate that the Minister is torn between two places. I hope that he recognises that we did not divide the House on the allocation of time motion so that we could move on to this debate. Indeed, as I have said before, we had only two Divisions during the entire Committee stage of the Bill.

Last night, the Minister gave a rather petulant response on amendments Nos. 30 and 31, and I suspect that it may have been because of the changed circumstances and the fact that he had suddenly acquired an audience. The Minister missed the point completely, and I hope that he did so deliberately.

Mr. O'Brien

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that, whatever the size of the audience in the Chamber, there are many people who watch the parliamentary channel and ensure that they keep an eye on what hon. Members in the Chamber are doing, and so they should.

Mr. Evans

I am grateful for that contribution. Those people would have watched aghast at the Government's antics last night in curtailing discussion of this Bill.

Our amendments are not too onerous. We said last night that we were asking only that people making a declaration of local connection should say that they have had a connection for at least three months. That is not onerous, and it would help to plug some of the holes that unfortunately are appearing in the Bill.

The Minister scoffed at my remarks last night and made a joke about homeless people getting access to the internet so that they could scour the country and make a declaration of local connection in parliamentary constituencies where there was a small majority. The Bill is open to abuse, and although I do not believe that homeless people would do as the Minister suggested, others may make declarations of local connection.

I mentioned the internet because, as the Minister knows, the internet is widely used by groups who want to protest about many things, including the World Trade Organisation meeting in the USA last year. On that occasion, many demonstrators turned up at Euston station, not because they were responding to an advertisement in The Guardian or another newspaper, but because they had talked to one another in chat groups and passed information via the internet.

If protest groups want to abuse the Bill, they can use the internet, and groups from all over the country will turn up not just in Euston to protest, as they did last year, but in the seats of certain Members of Parliament. Those protesters will be able to make a declaration of local connection, and there will be no check and no onus of proof on them.

2.45 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Is not my hon. Friend concerned also about the activities of new age travellers? Last week, I visited the gypsy encampment at Middlezoy in Somerset, where over 1,000 people are camped. They could well abuse the provisions of the Bill if they wished to change the outcome of an election in a marginal seat.

Mr. Evans

Indeed, one can envisage people making a protest in just one seat—I believe that a number of new age travellers turned up in Brighton—and, if a general election were called, they could easily decide to move into a particular seat and make a declaration of local connection. They could choose a Minister's seat; for example, in my region they could choose the Home Secretary's constituency of Blackburn.

We are asking not only for a three-month test to demonstrate that someone has a genuine local connection, past and possibly future, but for the electoral registration officer to be obliged to check that connection. I repeat that it is not an onerous duty. The Minister wondered how the ERO would be able to check that. He or a member of his staff would simply have to go to the area where the person has said that he spends most of the night or most of the day—Victoria street has been used as an example when we are discussing homeless people—and check whether the person is staying there.

If the ERO takes those precautions, that will help to prevent the Bill being open to abuse by people who will have in their minds not the extension of democratic rights and the enfranchisement of homeless people but the perversion of democracy by an attempt to unseat Members of Parliament—perhaps even Ministers.

I hope that Ministers will reconsider the amendment when the Bill goes to another place and that the Government will perhaps table their own amendment, which we would consider carefully when the Bill returns here. Meanwhile, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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