First Standing Committee on
Monday 30 April 2001
[Mrs. Irene Adams in the Chair]
Draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2001
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2001.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2001 and the draft Scottish Parliament (Elections etc.) (Amendment) (No. 3) Order 2001.
Mr. O'Brien: What a pleasure it is to meet under your wise chairmanship, Mrs. Adams. I am sure that you will keep us in order andalthough I know that that is often a rash predictionI anticipate speedy progress.
The three statutory instruments have similar purposes. They deal with several issues that arose in discussions with electoral registration officers. They will correct minor defects in existing regulations that have been drawn to our attention, which we are endeavouring to put right at the earliest opportunity. I shall describe how the three statutory instruments interact before I explain how they address those defects.
Essentially, all the statutory instruments are intended to achieve the same purpose. The firstthe Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2001relates to parliamentary and local government elections in England and Wales. The secondthe Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2001relates to parliamentary and local government elections in Scotland. For the sake of completeness, I should tell the Committee that virtually identical regulations relating to parliamentary and local government elections in Northern Ireland are being considered in a separate Committee.
The main purpose of the three instruments relates to the supply of updates of the electoral register as a consequence of the introduction of rolling registration. Regulations 46 and 47 of both the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 and the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001 deal with the supply of free copies of the electoral register, either on request or automatically. Regulation 46 provides for the automatic supply of the register, together with monthly updates to it made under rolling registration, to bodies such as the Electoral Commission and the British Library, and to the Secretary of State. Regulation 47 provides for the supply of registers on request to political parties and candidates, Members of Parliament and councillors.
It was always intended that monthly updates would be supplied. That was clear at the time and everyone assumed that it would happen. However, some electoral administrators have taken the view that they will not provide monthly updates unless they are obliged to do so. We take the view that information available to candidates for public office should be up to date. It is unsatisfactory that some electoral administration officers are taking the view that we intended, while others are taking another. We are therefore putting an obligation into the proposed regulations and making it enforceable. All electoral administrators will have to supply updates of the new information on a monthly basis.
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister about the third order, which relates to the Scottish Parliament. Perhaps I ought to declare an interest, although I am sure that he knows what I am talking about.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that, in the provision of lists and registers, no distinction will be drawn between the 73 constituency Members of the Scottish Parliament and the 56 regional list MSPs? Councillor Charles Gordon, the leader of Glasgow city council, recently said that the list MSPs are underemployed, and I tend to agree with that comment. Can distinctions be drawn between genuine MSPs and list MSPs?
Mr. O'Brien: There are no distinctions in the way in which the order will affect MSPs; they will all be entitled to the same supply of information about those on the electoral register.
Regulation 3 of the two sets of regulations and paragraph 3 of the order deal with the definition of the term ``data''. Regulation 3(1) of the previous 2001 regulations defines ``data'' in the same way as section 1(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998, but that definition includes data other than that electronically held. In the previous 2001 regulations, the term ``data'' is meant to refer only to electronically held data, so regulation 3 substitutes a new definition that derives from paragraph (b) of the definition in the 1998 Act, and confines it to electronically held data alone.
The regulations before us contain a couple of other minor points. Regulations 5 and 7 of those relating to England and Wales are designed to introduce a measure of consistency. Under schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000, one may apply for an absent vote for an indefinite or particular period. However, in dealing with the same issue, the previous 2001 regulations referred to a definite or indefinite period and to a defined period. The regulations before us simply replace the terms ``definite'' and ``defined'' with ``particular'' in order to provide consistency with the original Act.
Finally, I turn to regulation 6 of the England and Wales regulations, which is the same as regulation 5 of the representation of the people regulations relating to Scotland. Regulation 56(5) of the previous 2001 regulations provides that an application for removal from the list of those granted absent votesin other words, in cases where someone wants to vote in personmust be received by 5 pm on the 11th day before the date of the poll if it is to have effect for that election. Once the deadline has passed, the returning officer is likely to send out postal ballot papers.
However, various other provisions concerning proxy votes have a deadline of 5 pm on the sixth day before the date of the poll. They relate, for example, to cases where the proxy no longer wishes to act in such a capacity. The problem is that, in a relatively small number of cases, those who act as proxies vote by post. In other words, a proxy could quite properly apply to cease to be one after a ballot paper has already been sent. Accordingly, regulations 6 and 5 amend regulation 56(5) of the previous 2001 regulations to introduce a common closing time, so that all such applications must be received by the registration officer by 5 pm on the 11th working day before the date of the poll.
I hope that members of the Committee will feel that these statutory instruments are sensible and straightforward clarifications of the law. They have been drawn up primarily at the request of electoral returning officers to ensure that they know precisely what Parliament intends. I am confident that they coincide with the views and aims of representatives of all political parties. They add consistency and an element of common sense, and ensure that those who stand for public office will have up-to-date information.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I join the Minister's welcome to you, Mrs. Adams, and I echo his comments about the brevity of this afternoon's proceedings. He was right to highlight the need for these statutory instruments, but he failed to mention that it was officials from my party who raised such concerns with those from his own. I see that he is nodding in acknowledgement, and I am grateful to him.
The Minister might also have mentioned that in a debate in another place, Viscount Bridgeman and Lord Cope tabled an amendment seeking the precise changes that he has introduced. Column 1039 onwards of the Official Report for 9 April make it clear that they mentioned the difficultieson which the Minister has touchedposed by different electoral registration officers interpreting the regulations in different ways. Where some officers adopt the more generous approach that the Minister says was always intended, others take a more restrictive line which makes life very difficult for candidates and canvassers. We all recognise that working from an out-of-date register would pose problems for anyone involved in an election. Not providing candidates and canvassers with updates of the new rolling register would lead to huge confusion and prove unhelpful to the electorate.
I echo what the Minister said: the matter needed to be put right, and I am delighted that the Government have done so in response to the representations that we have made to the Minister's officials and in formal debate in another place. It is helpful that the Government were able to respond so quickly. I pay tribute to the Minister and his officials for recognising a serious problem which needed correcting by statutory instrument, and for introducing those instruments quickly. Members of all political parties will be grateful for that. As the Attorney-General said in another place, the more restrictive interpretation was never intended to be allowed. The statutory instruments make it clear that the more generous interpretation must apply and that everyone will have regular updates under the rolling register. I greatly welcome that.
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I shall also be brief. We welcome the changes. Until we saw the regulations and the order, we were not fully aware that there was a problem to combat. Returning officers in the area where I operate do not appear to have taken the more restrictive view. Clearly, it is desirable that there should be no doubt in their minds about the need to make the data availablenot only for political parties, but for the electorate as a whole, so that they can see precisely who is entitled to vote at any time.
Introducing a common closing date for proxy and postal votes makes a great deal of sense, but will the Minister commentthis may not be strictly germane to this debateon the very tight timetable that returning officers now face owing to the much closer deadline that has been introduced for such votes? Bringing the two dates together tightens the timetable still further. That is desirable in order to increase flexibility and choice for members of the public in casting their votesperhaps in an election on a date that they were not previously anticipatingbut places a substantial load on returning officers to deliver votes and to do so in good time. I am concerned that the closing of the gap between the final date for submission and election day makes it likely that a considerable number of voters will return their postal votes after the cut-off point.
Liberal Democrat Members welcome the changes; it is appropriate and right that the Government have given such a quick and flexible response. The Minister has spent a lot of time trying to make this come right, and I hope that these statutory instruments represent the last minor adjustment that he needs to make.