Draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) and (Scotland) Regulations 2001

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Mr. O'Brien: An e-mail.

Mr. Bercow: The Minister is hinting that an e-mail will be sent. How will that be assured? Thirdly, in the case of a duplicate, is proof of despatch valid as a guarantee of inclusion? That is a related point.

Fourthly, under regulation 6(1)(a), what is the difference between an electronic signature being ``incorporated into'' a particular electronic communication and being ``logically associated'' with it? How is the latter defined? I am fascinated to know how an electronic signature can be ``logically associated'' with a communication. A technical definition may be involved. I forget whether the Minister is a whiz on matters of computers and technology, unlike the Prime Minister. I am rather like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) in that I would not recognise a website if it jumped out of my breakfast cereal. Will the Minister advise me?

Fifthly, regulation 6(1)(b)—as the Minister can see, I am skipping on at a speedy rate—refers to

    ``the certification by any person of such a signature.''

I assume that self-certification is unacceptable. If I am right in that supposition, will the Minister elaborate on the rather vague term ``any person''? Who is that ``any person'', and into which category should he or she fall? Is that person formally authorised? To whom is he or she accountable?

We now move to the important issue of objections to registration. One of the purposes of the procedures is to facilitate registration by people who have not been aware of their rights or have found it difficult to exercise them. Anything that legitimately and credibly helps people to register should be welcomed by people of all political parties who share a concern about low turnouts and general political apathy. I am not cavilling at the principle, but, in taking the matter forward, we must be clear that procedures are robust, fair and practicable.

On objections to registration, regulation 27—which I am sure is imprinted on the memory of all Committee members—on pages 13 and 14 leads me to question No. 6. Is a person whose registration is objected to absolutely entitled, even if the matter does not proceed to a hearing, or before the matter has reached such a hearing, to know the identity of the objector? I have looked a number of times at the regulations, which are fairly copious, but it is not clear whether one is entitled to know who is objecting to one's intended registration.

Seventhly, what is the rationale behind regulation 29(4), which states:

    ``The registration officer may allow an application without a hearing provided that no objection is made within five days of the entry of the application in the list of applications''?

The Minister is a lawyer and, despite his normal self-effacing modesty, probably a distinguished lawyer, so I hope that he can tell me what the precedent is. Is that not a slightly risky procedure? Has the Minister studied the experience of other countries and can he guide the Committee on that experience?

My eighth question focuses on regulation 29(5), which, as many members will know, allows the registration officer to disallow an objection—it is an interesting and potentially important point—

    ``if he is of opinion that the objector is not entitled to object''.

My brow furrowed at that point, an experience that I am sure afflicted several Committee members. I suspect that that is not intended to be a subjective evaluation or biased judgment. Presumably, there is some legal basis for that assessment. I should be grateful if the Minister told me who came into that category. If a person is judged to come into that category, will he or she be told that the objection is being rejected not on account of its intrinsic merit or demerit, but on account of the fact that he or she does not enjoy the necessary status required to qualify as an objector? Will he be told that his message will not be heard or heeded because he is unsuitable?

If the individual is told—I should have thought that issues of the rights of the objector are entailed here—can the individual appeal against that assessment? If I have not sufficiently studied the regulations and I am mistaken because there is reference to that, I apologise in advance to the Minister. However, I have looked through the regulations in some detail and there appears to be no reference to it. His clarification would be appreciated.

Ninthly—you can see, Mr. Illsley, that I am moving at a fair rate of knots, so the Minister's concern that we might take too long does not arise—I want to focus on the important issue of the hearing of applications and objections, and the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) is encouraging me to do so. Can written representations provided for in regulation 31 be submitted on the day of the hearing? Can people table further and better particulars, as they see them, on the day?

One reason for my question is that some new information may come to light, which it was not possible for the person objected to or the objector to provide. I do not want to raise the issue of vexatious campaigning, but it is possible for someone involved in a dispute to withhold certain information and bring it along only on the day, with no opportunity for the person on the other side of the argument to have seen it in advance.

The Minister is getting itchy, so I give way.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman refers to ``the day''. Does he mean the election day? What day is he talking about?

Mr. Bercow: I did not mean the election day; I meant the day of the hearing. Can written representations be made on the day? If so, what right does the other party to the dispute have to study them before applying? The regulations are helpful in that they make it clear that the objector, the person objected to or both can bring another person with them. Provision should probably be made for each of them to bring only one such person with them to the hearing. However, there is clearly scope for legal assistance or representation. Even if there are experienced legal representatives, time will still be required to study new material that might be submitted. The Minister's guidance on that would be helpful.

Tenthly, is there a right of cross-examination between the objector and the person to whose registration he or she objects? If there is, what form will that take? Is there a time limit on the proceedings? Within whose purview does it fall to determine exactly when the hearing will end?

Eleventhly, does the right of appeal, provided for in regulation 32, apply equally to both parties? That is important because of the obvious principle that both sides should feel that they have an equal chance of success. I presume that the regulations contain no assumption that objections will tend to be vexatious; I hope that there is no such assumption. The procedure is generally fairly robust—electoral registration officers will have gone about their business fairly carefully—so we need to be clear as to whether the hearing takes place on the basis that each side has equal rights in the matter.

Twelfthly, I move to the subject of postal votes. It is an important provision, about which there was a substantial debate during the passage of the Bill that became the Representation of the People Act 2000. Provision for that is contained in part V, regulations 64 to 91.

I do not want to make a big issue of the withdrawal of candidates' and agents' entitlement to attend the issuing of postal votes, but it is reasonable to flag up the matter. The Minister will tell me if his experience is otherwise, but my experience is that, in most cases, candidates and agents tend not to exercise their right to attend the issuing of postal votes. It may be that the right is thought to have fallen into disuse, or to be no longer worth while. I am not sure why the provision, which flies in the face of the general commitment to inclusiveness and, dare I say, openness, has been inserted into the regulations.

Question No. 13 relates, symmetrically enough, to regulation 13. That regulation sets out new rules to assist people with disabilities. On behalf of the Opposition, I emphasise that we applaud that. I believe that I am right in saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), at the time of the passage of the legislation, made it clear that the official Opposition supported the provision.

Rule 29(3A) in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 states that a returning officer must display large-print versions of the ballot paper in each polling station. I welcome that provision. However, I am concerned to avoid dependence on self-regulation. In many respects, I am an enthusiast for self-regulation, as the Minister knows, but no man or woman can judge his or her own cause where the upholding of the rights of others is entailed. To the end of ensuring that those people are held accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities, will the Minister tell me what sanction there will be if they do not do so? When elections are conducted, what check will be made by a third party to ensure that they do so? That is the essence of the matter. We have an opportunity to check the extent to which returning officers and those acting on their behalf are fully briefed about, aware of and properly determined to give effect to the new regulations.

I move to the important and meaty subject of rolling registration. That brings me to question No. 14. Under regulation 34 of the provisions, where no form has been returned for people in the annual canvass, or where insufficient information has been provided, I believe that it is possible for those people to remain on the register for a further year. The regulation does not use quite that wording, but that is its purport and intention. Is that entitlement to remain on the register for a further year absolute or discretionary? I ask that question for the obvious reason that circumstances might vary. A good argument might arise for the exercise of discretion, but we would not want a national regulation to lead to great disparity between practice in different areas, so that a fairly open and inclusive approach could be adopted in one constituency and a much stricter one elsewhere. That would be undesirable and undemocratic.

On the assumption that the benefit of the doubt is given when someone remains on the register, what would happen if it were subsequently to be demonstrated that the individual who voted was not entitled to do so, having changed his or her address? After that person had somehow obtained a place on the register and voted, it might emerge that that should not have happened. Clearly, the vote could not be reversed. I do not suggest that the election should be declared null and void, except in the most extraordinary and unpredictable circumstances, but would there be any sanction against an individual who turned out knowingly or recklessly to have voted without such a right?

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Prepared 31 January 2001