Draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations and Draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Cash: I appreciate that that is what it says, but I am mystified as to why a Government Department should be expected to pay anything for this information.

Yvette Cooper: Administrative costs are incurred in compiling the regulations. One could take a different decision, but on account of the administrative costs, I see nothing wrong with it. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but the decision is justifiable.

Mr. Goodman: My hon. Friend the Member for Stone asked how much it would cost Government Departments, and I think that the Minister replied that she had covered the point already. My memory may be at fault, but I do not remember her dealing directly with costs. Will she answer the point now?

Yvette Cooper: The costs are set out in new regulation 111(5), including for notices in data form, for which

    ''the fee shall be at the rate of £20 plus £1.50 for each 1,000 entries'',

and so on. I am happy to read the other costs out for the record.

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Mr. Cash: We do not want know the costs, we want to know how they have been arrived at.

Yvette Cooper: We are setting the charges because it is the local authority that has to compile the register, administer requests and send it out to organisations. The fees reflect the need to cover administration costs because otherwise local authorities would have to bear them. That is not a huge issue, and the fees are reasonable.

If the limits imposed by the regulations on authorised recipients of the full register are breached, new regulation 115 will come into play. It creates a criminal offence of information in the full register being passed to an unauthorised person and of unauthorised persons using such data, however they come by them. The regulations put into effect the decision of Parliament to allow electors to decide, subject to some public interest exceptions, the limit to which their personal information may be used. They represent a legitimate balance between individual rights and the public interest, and I commend them to the Committee.

The Chairman: Order. There is a convention in the House that Members joining or leaving a Committee once it is sitting acknowledge the Chair. That has been discussed at the recent meeting of the Speaker's Panel, and there is evidence that it is being comprehensively ignored. The Chairman of Ways and Means has asked me to point out that Members who ignore the convention may in future find it difficult to catch the eye of the Chairman or Speaker.

10.38 am

Mr. Cash: It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Butterfill.

I have raised several points with the Minister as she has gone through her explanation of the regulations. When I first looked at the regulations, I saw that we were dealing with something that went far beyond a minor question that could be dealt with by a statutory instrument. This is effectively a Bill, which we are expected to consider in a relatively short space of time. That explains the intelligent interventions made by my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, which have been important. The Minister has referred continually to the public interest, but the regulations could be construed as a legislative sledgehammer used to crack a nut.

The real problem is the huge number of restrictions that are imposed on what we would see objectively as legitimate purposes and in democratic interest. Having heard the Minister's explanation on credit reference organisations, I reflected that Members of Parliament, councillors and others might feel that matters relating to electoral fraud or other questions directly germane to the electoral process are just as important—although not necessarily more important—as matters relating to money laundering.

The more that the Minister spoke about public interest, the more interested I became about from where that public interest stemmed. I hope not to trespass too much on your patience, Mr. Butterfill, but I have a suspicion that it might have been imposed by

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some alien jurisdictional requirement: perhaps European legislation or something along those lines. [Interruption.] I have absolutely no intention of going down that route. The important point is that the regulations are extremely weighty and, irrespective of the fact that they have already been passed in principle by virtue of section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 2000, I have some doubt whether they will work as far as the public is concerned. Even if they do work, it may only be erratically. They are predicated on the assumption that people will ask for their names to be taken off the register because they are concerned about junk mail. I am interested to see whether that happens in practice; I doubt whether it will.

I also mentioned the fact that the Electoral Commission had to be consulted. I am not criticising the Minister for this, but I asked her whether it was possible to know the outcomes of any written consultations and whether they could be placed in the Library of the House. I say that because the Electoral Commission has an enormously important role in this and other issues that will repeatedly come up in the context of our democratic processes and elections. As she will know, under section 7 of the relevant legislation, the word ''consult'' in law does not necessarily mean that one has to act on the replies that one receives, but one has to engage in a form of discourse. Did the Electoral Commission have any reservations about any of the provisions? No doubt the Minister will illuminate that later.

I will probably have to come back to this, and I do not want to appear unduly critical, but I have asked four times for a clear statement on whether ''electoral purposes'' will include funding for political parties. I have not yet had an answer. I regard the point as an important principle, which could determine the ultimate reaction from the Conservatives to the regulations.

The Minister has explained that the regulations implement section 9 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, that we will now have not only a full register but an edited version, and that many of the issues are tied up with problems relating to data protection and privacy. In the absence of a national identity card scheme, the electoral register is probably the only accurate UK national database, a point that we should consider. Under the terms of the regulations, permitted uses of the full register will include access for the police for law enforcement and crime prevention—the Minister dealt with that in regulation 109—and Government Departments for law enforcement and similar purposes under regulation 113.

The Minister also dealt with credit reference agencies. Other uses of the full electoral register that were permitted until now, including for direct marketing, are to be prohibited. The Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 are a fairly recent set of regulations that were brought into effect on 16 February 2001. All they say about copies of documents is:

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    ''Where a document is made available for inspection under these Regulations, any person may make a copy (whether hand-written or by other means) of the whole or any part of it.''

That just meant ''open sesame''. Many people may think that that was a healthy state of affairs and in the interests of democracy. None the less, the matter was debated, Parliament decided that the register should be divided into two parts, and the Act was passed. I will not engage in challenging that proposition in this Committee. Many people believe that that is a good idea, but I want to put on record that there are significant disadvantages to it. I do not like the sort of secrecy to which this could lead, or the rather draconian way in which the regulations are devised. Their restrictions include substantial fines of up to standard level 5. Again, that was conceded in the Act, but none the less, we are talking about fines of up to £5,000. The more I think about this, the more I would like to know what the Electoral Commission had to say about it. It may have thought that this was a wonderful idea, but I have my reservations.

It is true that a wide range of organisations, including Liberty, have supported the proposals. In an article in The Independent on 7 May 2002, Roger Bingham was said to have stated that the Government's position strikes a good balance between protecting individual privacy and allowing bona fide organisations access to important information. That is something of an endorsement from Liberty. Other organisations, some of which have already been mentioned, include the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the British Bankers Association, and the National Consumer Council. I would prefer more openness and transparency but, despite my personal reservations, those organisations have made it clear that they are in favour of the regulations. We need an answer to my concern about the definition of ''electoral purposes'', and how the Electoral Commission or the courts will interpret it.

The newly inserted regulations 104 and 106 give rise to another concern. Holders of elected office and registered political parties may use the electoral register for electoral purposes. They may also use it to comply with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 when deciding whether to accept a donation. Under regulation 105, the use of the register by associations does not fit into the general framework. Associations do, of course, receive donations, and I would be grateful if she could also clarify that point.

I have other concerns. The Direct Marketing Association, with the support of various charitable groups and the Consumers Association, believes that it should have been possible for the full register to be used indirectly for marketing purposes by allowing the addresses of people on existing mailing lists to be checked against the register. The Minister may have heard that before from other sources, but I should be grateful if she would comment on it during the debate.

On the other side of the equation, the Electoral Commission, so I am informed, has argued that there should be no access to the electoral register by anyone outside the Government for any purpose other than electoral purposes, and no edited register. That is an

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important point, which bears on what I said about electoral purposes, and a substantial issue on which I should be grateful for the Minister's comments. What is the Government's view about what the Electoral Commission is said to have argued in that context?

Many commercial organisations support the thrust of the regulations but they believe that access to the electoral register by registered credit reference agencies and banks should be allowed for the prevention of fraud and financial crime, as was stated in the initial version of regulation 113. It is an ongoing process; I think the Minister will recognise that what I am saying applies not only to the money laundering regulations of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. I should be grateful if she would explain why there was a shift in the arrangements expressed in the initial version of the regulations—especially regulation 113—published by the Government in April 2001.

In about a year's time, the Government are due to review section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 2000. I did not participate in the parliamentary debates on that Act, at any rate from the Front Bench. I might have made one or two comments if I had had the opportunity to do so. Apparently, the review is primarily to consider the question of new provisions—[Interruption.] I beg your pardon, Mr. Butterfill. It must have been my reference to electronic voting that triggered that unexpected interruption. Would that not be a good opportunity to review the manner in which the regulations operate, because there are continuing concerns about it?

Many organisations that have considered the regulations over an extended period are in wide agreement that there is merit in these arrangements. I have expressed my concern; time will tell whether it was justified. I want an answer to the question relating to electoral purposes and their relationship to political funding. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

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Prepared 11 July 2002