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

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Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): I shall attempt to be brief.

The first thing that struck me on looking at the two sets of regulations was the difference between their presentation and binding. The England and Wales document is nicely bound between covers, but the Scottish version is a much more makeshift effort, held together with one staple. The first copy that I had lacked the staple and was falling apart. Is that evidence of the Barnett squeeze or of the Government's taking a lesser interest in Scottish elections? I hope that it is not a slight on the Scottish electoral system.

More seriously, I should like to make a point about the lack of explanatory notes to guide us through the regulations. Such notes would be helpful, even if they merely explained how the regulations differ from the previous regulations. They are always available when we debate Scottish statutory instruments in the Scottish Parliament. Although we are beginning to do many things differently in the Scottish Parliament—

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is an assiduous contributor to the proceedings of the House, and I am a bit worried about him because—to be fair to the Government, although it sticks in my gullet to do so—there are explanatory notes on pages 50 to 51 of the regulations. It beggars belief that the hon. Gentleman, with his record of assiduity, did not reach pages 50 and 51. Can he reassure me to the contrary?

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark) rose—

The Chairman: Order. The intervention was on Mr. Morgan.

Dr. Clark: I was trying to assist the Committee by pointing out that in the Scottish regulations the explanatory notes are to be found on pages 54 to 55.

Mr. Morgan: I revert therefore to my previous criticism, that the copy of the regulations that I had until I came into the Room fell apart when I got it from the Vote Office. As the explanatory notes are on the last pages, they did not catch my eye. Although brevity is to be commended, they seem rather too brief, given the size of the instrument.

Mr. Bercow: Size is not everything.

Mr. Morgan: I must take the hon. Gentleman's word for that, but it would be useful if the notes could be expanded.

I welcome the automatic early provision of the electoral roll to political parties. Parties that are not awash with money, unlike those that can count on receiving seven-figure donations, will especially welcome the innovation. I also welcome rolling registration and the non-necessity to justify postal votes. Those of us who are worried about recent low turnouts welcome any measures intended to increase them, especially at elections held near the date on which the annual register used to be published.

What publicity will be given to the new features? Many people who have come up against the current lack of flexibility may be unaware of them. A publicity campaign would be very useful.

I echo the query by the hon. Member for Taunton about whether political parties will be notified electronically of updates in the register. As I know from experience in my own party and constituency, updating a database annually is one thing, but regularly moving information from the electoral registration officer's database to that of a party is another, and it might cause a software problem. How often will there be such updates?

My final point has been triggered—unusually for me—by the hon. Member for Buckingham. It relates to regulation 34, which concerns the removal of entries from the electoral register. I have been toiling with the double negatives in it, especially in regulation 34(2)(b). Does it mean that people can be removed from the register only if the registration officer has reason to believe that they are no longer resident at the address given? If so, could failure to respond to the canvass be taken as evidence of such non-residence? If a local authority is canvassing by post—I apologise if this is elsewhere in the regulations—would it be compelled to include a post-paid return envelope in the canvass? As many local authorities are hard pressed for cash, they may wish to make cuts in such an area.

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The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): The Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001 are also made under powers contained in the Representation of the People Act 2000. They are similar to those relating to England and Wales.

The description that my hon. Friend the Minister gave of the background, detail and purpose of the regulations for England and Wales applies equally to the regulations for Scotland, but I am delighted to be here to consider some of the points of difference, so that there can be no suggestion that we are not giving sufficient attention to the Scottish aspect.

I advise the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) that in Scotland, throughout the drafting, we have consulted an advisory group composed of representatives of the Scottish Assessors Association, the Scottish branch of the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for confirming that. Has the advice been tendered in writing—that is, have formal submissions been made? If so, have they been published? Despite the general consensus, has any of those bodies made a particular request that the Government have decided not to follow?

The Advocate-General for Scotland: It is not normal practice to go into the representations made by specific bodies or individuals, and I do not have that information to hand. I regret that I do not have the brevity of the hon. Member for Buckingham but, as far as the differences in the regulations are concerned, I can make eight points that may be of some assistance.

Under regulation 12, the description of the device for blind or partially sighted voters is slightly different. That is to allow for a device of the same description to be used in elections to the Scottish Parliament, for which ballot papers are substantially different from those used in United Kingdom parliamentary elections.

Under regulation 46(2) of the Scottish regulations, a copy of the electoral register is to be issued free of charge to local authorities as well as to returning officers. I welcome the comments in support of that from the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale.

Regulation 51(5) requires an absent vote application to apply in more than one election if polls are combined, rather than requiring an application to be completed for each election unless a contrary intention appears in the application.

Under regulation 77(1), a postal voter is not required to return envelopes when a ballot paper is spoilt. That was considered unnecessary by the advisory group.

Regulation 78(1) allows a postal voter who has not received a ballot paper to apply for a replacement by the third, rather than the fourth, day before the poll, as in England and Wales. That difference is to take account of rural postal delivery. It was specifically requested by the advisory group, whose experience was that many voters who report non-receipt of postal ballot papers receive them by the following postal delivery. That change will reduce the likelihood of the original ballot paper's being received after a replacement has been issued.

In regulation 78(4)(b) of the Scottish regulations, the list of lost postal ballot papers is extended to include the number of the replacement ballot paper as well as that of the original. I should point out a small printing error, which the hon. Member for Buckingham seems to have missed. There is a reference to the ``last'' rather than the ``lost'' ballot paper. I assure the Committee that that will be quickly rectified.

Under regulation 85, a witness who signs a form is not required to print his or her name on the form. That has often been omitted. The requirement has been removed in response to a recommendation of the working party on electoral procedures.

Mr. Bercow: I thank the hon. and learned Lady for confirming that the error will be made good. She is right that I had not detected it. When it is and, in the event that the Committee gives its approval, the regulations are published, can she—with respect to the comments of the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale—confirm that they will be published in a better quality form than has been the case hitherto?

The Advocate-General for Scotland: They will be published in the usual form, as would be expected, and will certainly contain the correction.

Mr. Bercow: Will that be the same as the English form? My question is not vexatious but perfectly sensible. Will the form of the publication of the Scottish statutory instrument be the same as that which applies to England and Wales?

The Advocate-General for Scotland: The form is the same, as is always the case with Scottish regulations issued from the UK Parliament. There may be some minor differences, as in the past, but, in general, the form will not be different from the one that we are used to.

Forms G, H and J have been amended to reflect changes made in regulation 85 and form K has been reworded to reflect the changes made in regulation 77(1). There are also minor textual differences, which I shall not go into in detail, that take account of comments from the Scottish advisory group.

I understand that there are plans for the Scotland Office to advertise and publicise the changes, and I hope that that will reassure the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. I do not share his difficulty with the wording of regulation 34. It is clear that the registration officer has the discretion to carry out his statutory duties in the proper manner, and that he must take a decision after considering the information that he receives. If he takes the wrong decision or proceeds on the wrong basis, a person who was unhappy with that could make normal legal challenges.

I commend the regulations to the Committee.

5.36 pm

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