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Representation Of The People (Amendment)

Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 12 November 1997

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3.34 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend electoral registration for homeless persons.

Within a nation, or any other political system, the right to vote is the fundamental building block of democracy. By itself it does not guarantee democratic arrangements, but given free, competitive political parties and competing individual candidates, it is the basis on which the rights of individuals and group interests are based.

When the mass franchise grew in Britain, from 1867, it was part of the dynamic that led us on to free education, old-age pensions and the high water mark of the welfare state. We tend to assume that the issues of the franchise were sorted out satisfactorily years ago. Apart from convicted persons in penal institutions; those who are seriously mentally impaired; residents from overseas—other than those from the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland—and peers in parliamentary elections, we assume that everyone else over 18 is catered for.

That is not so. Millions are missing from electoral registers; most disabled people cannot even get into polling stations; and homeless people face not only practical difficulties in registering to vote, but a major legal impediment.

Ever since we got rid of property and financial qualifications for voting, in 1918, we have insisted that a person has to be a "resident" to qualify for a vote. A resident needs a residence, and a homeless person, by definition, cannot meet that qualification. Those who qualify to vote are those who are held to have a permanent residence on the qualifying date for electoral registration.

I therefore propose some simple changes in the law, to allow for the registration of homeless people. First, if a homeless person takes temporary occupation of residential accommodation for homeless persons on the qualifying date, that would count. That would cover Salvation Army hostels and their equivalent.

Secondly, a "declaration of locality" properly made and attested to would also qualify a homeless person for registration. It would state the address or place where the person stays, or with which he or she is most closely connected. Homeless people can often be found in particular areas where they sleep rough.

Although the registration changes that 1 have in mind would work best with a proactive response from the Home Office and from electoral registration officers, organisations for homeless people would also play a key role in encouraging registration. These include The Big Issue, which operates not just in London but in many other cities; the National Homeless Alliance, which, in 1995, as CHAR, the housing campaign for single homeless people, produced an invaluable survey entitled "No Home, No Vote, No Voice"—its work shaped my proposed Bill—and Streetlife. Streetlife, the National Homeless Alliance and others have been involved in activities in support of my Bill earlier today outside the House.

Most localities have groups that work with the homeless. These would also act as recruiting agents for registration. Electoral returning officers would tend to be keen to act in line with the measures that I propose, as their association—the Association of Electoral Administrators—seeks to remove barriers to registration, including the removal of difficulties for people without permanent or conventional residential qualifications.

If someone asked me why we should bother about the rights of homeless people, I would feel sorry for the questioner. Homelessness is a major problem, which has grown with the free market and the attacks in the past 18 years on the welfare state and social housing. The homeless are our fellow citizens, who should be entitled, enabled and encouraged to vote, and to stand for elected bodies. The vote gives a voice, and if the voice of the homeless is not heard, the rest of us are less likely to respond to their concerns.

Ultimately, the vote is part of the process whereby the homeless themselves can set the wheels in motion to help to overcome their homeless status. If we think that that is a wild ideal—when it involves the benefits of democratic participation—we have no right to be in this place.

I hope that the Home Office will respond favourably to my Bill. I am bringing it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), in his capacity as Minister without Portfolio, as it is clearly an issue of social exclusion relevant to the unit about which he told us in his Fabian speech.

If the House gives me permission to bring in the Bill, hon. Members will discover that it was brought in by two Conservative Members, two Liberal Democrats, the leader of Plaid Cymru, the deputy leader of the Scottish National party, the only independent Member of Parliament and Labour Members representing Scotland, Wales and England. Only Northern Ireland Members are missing—but they come part of the way with me in a report published by the Northern Ireland Forum, where I gave evidence to an electoral body interested in electoral matters.

The members of that body said that they supported the measure as far as temporary accommodation was concerned—Salvation Army units and their equivalents—but they felt some anxiety, which I consider unfounded, about electoral fraud. That is a big problem in Northern Ireland, in comparison to what happens in other areas. I therefore propose initially that the Bill should apply to Britain; subsequently, Northern Ireland's specific considerations would need to be tackled.

I believe that hon. Members in all parties support the Bill, and I hope that the House will give me leave to introduce it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Barnes, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mr. Nigel Jones, Mr. Paul Burstow, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. Martin Bell, Mr. Tam Dalyell and Mr. Paul Flynn.

Representation Of The People (Amendment)

Mr. Harry Barnes accordingly presented a Bill to extend electoral registration for homeless persons: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 16 January, and to be printed [Bill 81].