Third Standing Committee on
Wednesday 31 January 2001
[Mrs. Irene Adams in the Chair]
Draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001
Draft Representation of the People (Scotland) 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) Regulations 2001.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001.
Mr. O'Brien: I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Adams. Rarely have so many people gathered for a Committee been so pleased to see you enter the Room.
[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]The regulations put into effect the major part of the Representation of the People Act 2000 and deal with detailed arrangements for registration of electors and the conduct of elections.
Part I of the regulations covers various interpretation and miscellaneous points, but I want to draw the Committee's attention to two important matters. The first is the provision for communication by electronic means. If an individual prefers, he can communicate with his electoral registration officer electronically and conduct transactions by modern methods. When signatures are required on documents, a hard copy of some sort--whether a traditional one or a fax--will be required. We envisage that inquiries will be made by e-mail, application forms to be completed and returned will be downloaded from the internet, and information will be available on websites. In general, the regulations assume that when copies of documents such as the electoral register are to be made available, they will be in data rather than on paper, unless the recipient prefers paper. The intention is to bring the registration process up to date to meet the needs of modern life styles.
The other provision that I want to mention refers to the device to assist blind voters, which is prescribed in regulation 12. The device has been tested by groups of blind and partially sighted voters and has received their support, as well as that of their representative organisations. A device will be available in each polling station for those who want to use it to enable for the first time blind or partially sighted voters to mark their ballot papers unaided, with the confidence that the mark is in the right place and against the candidate of their choice. It will allow voters to remove the ballot paper, fold it and place it in the ballot box without any assistance from a companion or the presiding officer; they will not have to reveal to anyone how they want to cast their vote. That is a major advance for blind people and I look forward to receiving feedback after the election on how well it works.
Part II covers details involved in applying for registration as a service voter or an overseas elector. Part III covers the new arrangements for registration. Put simply, there will no longer be a single qualifying date for registration as an elector or only one time in the year when that registration can be changed. From the publication of the new register in a couple of weeks, when the regulations come into force, voters will be able to change their registration--for example, when they move house--at any time of the year. Re-registering will take between two and six weeks, depending on when in the month an application is made. Voters will no longer have to wait until the next annual canvass to be put on a register in their new area.
The regulations set out in detail how electoral registration officers will make the new arrangements work, and give them the power to delete names from the register--for example, deceased persons and those who have registered elsewhere--and seek further information to confirm eligibility. That will add up to a more accurate and flexible electoral register that is more user-friendly. If voters can register easily, they will be more inclined to do so.
Part IV covers the provisions for absent voters. From 16 February, when the regulations come into force, attestation of postal votes will not be required and voters will not have to obtain confirmation by a medical practitioner or employer that they cannot reasonably be expected to attend the polling station. Voters will not be asked for a reason for requesting a postal vote, which will be available to anyone who asks for it, whatever the reason.
In line with the recommendation of the working party on electoral procedure, no change has been made to the proxy voting arrangements, except to the time limits for applications. For both proxy and postal votes, the limit for applications to be received by electoral registration officers will be up to six days before polling day. That contrasts with 11 days previously, enabling canvassers to identify those who want postal or proxy votes and to allow them to apply at a later date. Again, the arrangements will make it easier and more convenient for people to cast their votes in whatever way suits them best.
Part V describes in detail the procedures involved in the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers. Some minor changes have been made to allow more flexibility. For example, voters will be able to return postal ballot papers to a polling station in the relevant area instead of by post.
There are a number of similar, minor changes in the regulations that I do not have time to detail in this debate. They were fully debated when the Representation of the People Act came before the House a year ago. In the main, they follow as far as possible the recommendations of the working party on electoral procedure, and are backed by both Government and Opposition Members. They also enjoy the support of electoral administrators, who are understandably anxious, nevertheless, about the way in which they will be applied.
We are entering new territory. We are departing from a familiar system, the ins and outs of which we know well. However, with good will and co-operation, I am sure that the new system will not take long to bed in, and will be fully operational by the next electionwhenever that may be.
I should draw the Committee's attention to one further point. After the regulations are in place, there will remain a major piece of unfinished business relating to the 2000 Act. Section 9 concerns the sale and supply of the register and enables voters to opt out of having their names included on the register that will be available for sale. Because we wanted to concentrate on regulations that have an electoral impact, we have yet to draft regulations on the sale of the register, which will be made under section 9 of the 2000 Act. We shall turn to them immediately, and I hope that a draft will be available for consultation
Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): Does my hon. Friend agree that electoral registration officers would be best advised not to make any changes to the numbering system before examining the Home Office guidance? Will he issue a circular to that effect in the next few days?
Mr. O'Brien: It is certainly my intention that such a circular be issued to electoral registration officers before 16 February, advising them on how to deal with numbering. It is clearly important that numbering be reasonable and straightforward, causing the least inconvenience for political parties and those who administer and use the register.
The aim is to ensure a modern electoral system. The regulations deal with the changes that have taken place in our society in recent years. They are a step on that journey and I commend them to the Committee. I understand that my hon. and learned Friend the Advocate-General for Scotland will set out some details relating to the Scottish regulations.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I know that you had a frantic rush to get here, Mr. Illsley, but it is good to see you. Your eventual arrival is no bad thing, given that we anticipated it for some minutes.
Although the Minister did not say as much, it is fairly clear to all members of the Committee that the proposed regulations replace representation of the people regulations in statutory instrument 1986/1081, as amended. It is important to emphasise two points. First, as the Minister said, there was cross-party assent to the provisions of the Representation of the People Bill, notwithstanding our doubts about procedures that the Government recommended in relation to a number of issues. Secondly, a number of provisions in the revised regulations are new. I do not intend to detain the Committee by discussing them all, but it is worth emphasising that their purpose is principally to give effect to the recommendations of the Howarth working party report. There are four key changes.
First, the annual register will be replaced with a system of rolling registration, which was much debated during proceedings on the Representation of the People Bill. Secondly, there will be a new right for electors to decide whether their details should appear on the commercially available register. Thirdly, postal voting will be extended according to the principle that it should be available on demand. Fourthlyand importantlyelectors with disabilities will be assisted with voting to increase the likelihood of their doing so if they so wish. The voting process will be made much less hazardous and more comfortable for such electors than it has hitherto been at many polling stations.
Although there is general agreement about the principles of the Representation of the People Act 2000 and, I suspect, about a good deal, if not most, and perhaps all, of the detail of the regulations, it is important to scrutinise them properly. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I do not intend to make a speech of any length on the subject, but on behalf of the Opposition I want to ask some questions. I do not have a great many questionsonly about 25so asking them will probably not take long, but they are important. In many cases they relate not to principles but to detail, and I would appreciate the Minister's usual dexterity and courtesy in his responses.
First, on electronic communications, the Minister will be awareas will the Advocate-General for Scotland, in the case of Scotlandthat regulations 5 and 6 are intended to facilitate the use of electronic communications for aspects such as applications for registration, objections to the inclusion of names on the register and in relation to various notices. The first question prompted by my assessment and study of the regulations relates to regulation 5(c), which provides for signatures. I should like the Minister to comment on the reference to signatures being deemed to be
``capable of being used for subsequent reference.''
I do not object to that, but it is slightly unclear. It did not immediately impress itself on me, but exactly how is that defined, and what would it mean in practical terms?
Secondly, will confirmation of receipt of an electronic application be required? Will that be done electronically or in writing? Is the simple fact of the despatch of the e-mail, and the knowledge by the person despatching it that it has been sent, sufficient notification for that elector, given that his application is in order, that it is accepted? Is formal notification, either via a return e-mail or in writing from the electoral registration officer, required?