Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2001

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The Chairman: Order. We are straying from the subject.

4.49 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The regulations set out small changes, and I hope that the debate will be relatively brief. First, I endorse the questions that have been put; I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with the matter of the data definition amendment, which was raised by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). The proposed definition of data is weak and not quite what is intended. It should cover data that can be read electronically. Data is now defined as

    ``information which is recorded with the intention that it should be processed by means of equipment''.

It seems that the information can be processed in one of two ways. It normally comes on disk, but I understand that electoral registration officers sometimes do a manual search as well as printing a copy of the file. Is it sufficient to say that the intention is that it should be read electronically, and does that definition cover other means?

I have raised with Ministers—not in an overly critical way—the need to redraft legislation. The Home Office seems regularly to be returning to various bits of legislation that went through the House of Commons in parallel. The originating legislation for the regulations was, as far as possible, introduced with all-party agreement, but it clearly slipped through without being double-checked. I hope that the lesson has been learned.

A practical question arises in relation to Northern Ireland, and to England, Scotland and Wales, which is that the subject of the regulations before us is being debated at this very moment along the Corridor. It touches upon a point raised by the hon. Member for Spelthorne. The regulations provide that copies of the register given to the authorities should include revisions of copies. May I clarify whether the definition includes elected representatives? I assume that it does not; if I am right, will the Minister give an undertaking that it will include elected representatives and political parties in Northern Ireland?

I am not bothered whether it is a matter of policy or law; but as a matter of practice, those in Northern Ireland now in office in the Assembly, in local government or in Parliament and their equivalents in the rest of the United Kingdom should be able to obtain not only the updated list, which I assume we all receive regularly, but the consolidated version? In this day and age, when we all have easy access to word processors, it would be daft if we could not receive an update. The new names on the draft register are entered into the final register in the monthly up-date. Northern Ireland local elections will happen soon, and national elections are probable; one easy-to-read package would be useful.

The point made by the hon. Member for Spelthorne is halfway to the truth; people have to pay for the update, and then every district council in Northern Ireland, every political party, every candidate's office and many other organisations have to do their own assimilation of the updated rolling register and the old register. It is a practical matter of saving costs and effort. It would be far better if the electoral registration authorities produced the one consolidated register, marked to show new entries since it was last produced.

I think that I am right in saying that, in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK, only one updated list has been printed—the additional 1 April list—and we are expecting a second. I think that only one more update is likely before the revised date for the Northern Ireland elections. I would like either to be reassured that that is what the law means, or to know what practice will be followed to ensure that people can have a consolidated register as well as separate ones if they want them.

4.54 pm

Mr. George Howarth: First, I thank those hon. Members who have taken part in the debate for their mostly constructive approach.

I shall deal first with the queries raised by the hon. Member for Basingstoke. His first point was on part I of the original regulations. The other definitions of data that he refers to are not relevant. We are using the definitions in section 1(1)(a) and (b) of the Data Protection Act 1998. We do not reject the other definitions—they will stand in other contexts—but they are not relevant to the process.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about amendments to other references to the register, referring to regulations 38 to 40 of the original regulations and saying that the alterations did not seem to be consistent throughout. That is because we are dealing with the revised register. Some references are to the normal register, which is a truncated version of that used until recently. They will be subject to further regulations, which will be published later this year. The full and edited registers that are planned for later in the year are still work in progress. The important point made by the hon. Gentleman may need to be accommodated.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne implied that the broader definitions in the Data Protection Act 1998 have been rejected but, as I said, they have not. The question is whether they are relevant. Another subject that he raised was the cost of the register and the need to update it for those who are entitled to a revised copy. It would not be appropriate for me to deal with that. The other issues surrounding the register will have to be subject to further regulations at some point. His question about cost is relevant not only to Northern Ireland, but to all other registers, so I undertake to draw it to the attention of the Home Office, which will substantially deal with the issue. I do not want to commit absolutely that it will think his remarks appropriate, as I am in no position to speak on its behalf.

Mr. Wilshire: I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he will draw my remarks to the attention of the Home Office. I hope that I used similar words to those that I used on other occasions when I wanted it to see the point, but I appreciate the offer. I did not expect an undertaking from him in the least.

I did not disagree on the data issue, but was asking about data being processed manually. Rather than being an objection to the regulations, that would broaden them further. Will the Minister think further on processing manually?

Mr. Howarth: Many people other than me have thought about processing manually a great deal. As the hon. Member for Basingstoke pointed out, the splendid fellow who used to be the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office took through the data protection legislation that formed the Data Protection Act 1998. At the time, there was considerable discussion about the difference between electronically held data and manual files of any description. The key difference involved whether manual files were structured so that one could read them almost sequentially as a continuous narrative, or whether they were less clear than that. I suspect that the Committee would not want to get into that detailed, technical debate. However, as the person responsible for the Data Protection Act 1998, I often feel—not to give myself exalted status—like Palmerston when he was asked many years after to comment on the Schleswig-Holstein affair. He recalled that only three people had ever understood it: the first was Prince Albert, who was dead by then; the second was Bismarck, who had gone mad by then; and the third was Palmerston himself, but he had forgotten the details. When I am reminded of the 1998 Act, I know that I fit into at least one of those categories, although I shall leave it to others to decide which one. The issue before us is technical, but it is fair to say that it has been given great thought, and I think that the concerns of the hon. Member for Spelthorne will prove unfounded.

The hon. Members for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and for Basingstoke—and possibly the hon. Member for Spelthorne—advanced the sensible principle that one should not legislate in a hurry.

Mr. Simon Hughes: At leisure.

Mr. Howarth: As the hon. Gentleman says, we should legislate at leisure, but Lord Williams of Mostyn gave an undertaking in another place that we would return to the matter as speedily as possible. There we have the ultimate dilemma in politics and legislation: if one resolves matters speedily, one is criticised for acting in record time; if one drags one's feet a little, one is criticised for not putting matters right speedily. I think that we have responded appropriately, and I hope that the Committee will approve the draft regulations.

Mr. Hunter: I will not push the matter much further. However, I want to put on record my surprise at the Minister's reply to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne about the cost of the rolling register. Perhaps I am guilty of being remarkably naive, but my reading of the regulations is that they deal with free copies of the register. If free means what I think that it does, the issue of cost simply will not arise.

Mr. Howarth: As I understood the point made by the hon. Member for Spelthorne, he was referring not to the initial copy, but to copies that he might subsequently want to acquire to update his data, which will change regularly under rolling registration.

Mr. Hunter: I think that, on further reflection, the Minister will agree that that is dealt with in regulation 47, which refers to the free supply of updated rolling registers.

On my point about the amended definition of data as information that is recorded as part of a relevant filing system, I accept the Minister's assurances, although I remain confused. I should have thought that nothing constituted a filing system more than a list of the names and addresses of the electorate. However, if the Minister assures us that the relevant part of the definition from the Data Protection Act 1998 is not required, we will accept that for the time being at least.

As to the need for a definition of the register in some, but not all, of regulations 38 to 49, I note that the register is defined in regulations 43 to 46. The Government are now arguing that a draft regulation is needed to include a definition in regulation 47. I remain perplexed as to why we should therefore not need to be consistent and put the definition in regulations 30, 39, 40 and 48. However, I have made my point and I will leave it at that.

 
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