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

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The Chairman: Order. May I point out that the Committee is time limited? Our deliberations are due to finish at 11.25 am. There will obviously be a lot of questions for the Minister to respond to, so although this is an important subject, it would be helpful if hon. Members would keep their contributions relatively brief.

10.54 am

Mr. Heath: This is an important set of regulations and the time allotted to it hardly does justice to the complexities of the issues raised. Its genesis has been somewhat protracted; it has been through at least three Government Departments—the Home Department via the Department for Transport, Local Government, and the Regions and the Lord Chancellor's Department. It has been something of a hot potato, if a potato can remain hot over such a long period. It is a rather tepid tuber by now. Nevertheless, it is important that we get it right and, as the Minister said, the need to do so has been exacerbated by the Robertson v. City of Wakefield MDC and the Home Department case. We have made it clear that even if nothing had been brought forward in the previous

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legislation a new interpretation of the regulations would have been needed.

In broad terms, I welcome the proposals. Although it is difficult, they manage to strike a balance. However, a number of important questions still need to be asked. Much will depend on interpretation. That is where I entirely concur with the hon. Member for Stone; we need some guidance from the Minister, in particular on the use of the registers by political parties, candidates and those in elected office. On a Pepper v. Hart basis, such guidance could be of extreme value to the Electoral Commission in doing its job. It appears to come to the issue with a degree of preconception, which could make life difficult if those preconceptions are consolidated by what the Minister has to say. I would prefer a more liberal approach—[Interruption.] I hope that I can use the English language in a sensible way in this Committee. I would hope for a more liberal interpretation of what is proposed for political parties because otherwise there could be unforeseen and quite unnecessary difficulties.

Mr. Osborne: There may be a problem with independent candidates. My predecessor in Parliament was an independent. As such candidates only declare themselves close to the time of the election and would not have a local party, by definition, they will have access to the register only a matter of weeks before the election, whereas their opponents have access many months in advance; not that it helped the Conservatives much in my constituency.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right. That is the penalty that a candidate would pay for being independent of a political party. They could purchase an edited copy of the register so that they would have at least partial information. But until such time as they were a declared candidate, as I understand the regulation, they would not have access.

I also have some concerns about the duty that the regulations place on members of political parties in carrying out canvassing activities elsewhere. It is only too easy to envisage the canvass card that is dropped accidentally, creating a criminal offence if it disclosed part of the full register to a person who was not qualified to receive that information. We might have all sorts of difficulties in that respect. Will the provisions within these regulations become extinct as the register becomes extinct? In other words, when a new register is used, is the old register still protected in its entirety on the same basis, until the end of time, or does it then become public property?

My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) raised a serious issue about Scotland. I cannot for the life of me understand how, during the long gestation of these regulations, it has not been possible to draw up regulations that cover MSPs, or for the Scotland Office to produce parallel regulations to amend section 12 of the Scotland Act 1998 to make appropriate regulations. As the section deals exclusively with electoral arrangements and not with the use of the register in pursuit of the normal democratic processes that is allowed for Members of this House, Members of the European Parliament and councillors, it may be an unexpected and unfortunate

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restriction on the use by MSPs. Unless the Parliamentary Secretary can come up with a satisfactory response, I shall be less inclined to support the Scottish part of the regulations.

Mr. Reid: I agree with my hon. Friend's comments about access by MSPs. The other point is that lay people or amateurs have traditionally fought elections in Britain. We do not want elections to be fought purely by legal experts; we want electoral law to be simple. As my hon. Friend has said, it would make much more sense to list in one place all the office-holders who were allowed to receive copies of the full register, rather than having to go to the Scotland Act to find out in relation to MSPs. As far as elections are concerned, the Scotland Act should consist only of statutes where Scottish elections are different. Where things are common to all elections, they should be in one place; the Representation of the People Act.

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. Heaven forbid that all our elected representatives should be lawyers. The mood of the debate has generally been in favour of consolidating legislation, but now we are talking about an active pursuit of non-consolidation in putting different parts of the electoral law—the most basic part of our constitutional law—in different places and having to interrelate one to another. That seems rather foolish.

I come now to the wording of the opt-out—the application to be removed from the edited list—which is set out in the schedule to the regulations. I have no difficulty with the two versions of the register section of the schedule and the form of words that is to be used, but are these the only words that may be used, or are electoral registration officers permitted to put a gloss on them? That would have a considerable effect on the likelihood or otherwise of people wishing to remove their names from the edited register. They may be advised not to have their name on the register, because they would be sent a lot of direct marketing mail. Alternatively, they may be told that it is to their advantage to be on the register, because it may help them in credit, leasing or hire purchase applications. That would make a great difference to the way in which people perceive the option, so I should be grateful for the Parliamentary Secretary's guidance.

The hon. Member for Stone dealt to a degree with the basic question of whether the provision of the full register to financial organisations should be on the narrow basis of the provisions in the regulations or on a wider basis that would allow a rather fuller pursuit of those who may be engaged in fraud.

The Parliamentary Secretary will know that that is of great concern because she will have had representations from the various organisations. She says that there is a balanced argument. Without wishing to intrude too much on the workings of her Department and others, I simply wonder whether the balance is between those outside, who want a slightly broader view to be taken, and civil servants and people at the Electoral Commission, who are arguing for a narrow interpretation. It would be unfortunate if that were so.

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I can see merit in the points that have been made to me that certain areas fall outside the precise terms of the money laundering legislation, and that using the information could be of value in fighting fraud. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) made the point that finance and leasing associations are not included in the description about credit for these purposes. Another point, which I do not think has been raised, concerns the duty of credit agencies under data protection legislation to allow interested people to inspect their own files. That poses a real problem, because they cannot use the electoral register to assure themselves that the person asking to inspect the file is the person who claims to be such a person. Complying with data protection legislation might perpetrate a disclosure that could be used for fraudulent purposes. That is a serious difficulty, which the Parliamentary Secretary should examine. It may need a change of interpretation or of regulation in due course.

I am conscious of time advancing and we want to ensure that the Parliamentary Secretary has ample opportunity to respond to the issues. My final comment returns us to the last point of the hon. Member for Stone. Section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 provides scope for review of the regulations. Other matters will inevitably have to be covered as we continue to adapt and modernise electoral law in this country. We have an appropriate vehicle for reviewing the regulations and attempting to improve them in the light of experience.

Broadly, the Liberal Democrats welcome the changes. I hope that they will go some way to redressing the balance and avoiding the mischief of using the electoral register for commercial purposes against people's wishes; a practice that has continued without interruption since 1832. It is hardly a new problem, but modern IT processes have exacerbated it. Some of the questions raised in the debate require specific answers, which I look forward to hearing later this morning.

11.6 am

Yvette Cooper: I shall try to respond to the various issues raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Stone wondered about the definition of public interest and asked whether credit reference agencies provisions had been imposed on us. I can assure him that that is not the case. The proposals emerged from discussions with different organisations about the likely impact on financial exclusion, access to credit and so forth.

The hon. Member for Stone also asked about the Electoral Commission's evidence. I understand that it is posted on its web site. The hon. Gentleman must have had sight of some aspects, because parts of his speech referred to them. The Electoral Commission argued that the register should not be made available for anything other than electoral purposes, but the Government disagreed on the public interest grounds that I have set out today. The hon. Gentleman said that he objected to the secrecy, but his viewpoint is different from the Electoral Commission's. However, it also suggested that the edited register should not be made available and asked the Government to reconsider. The register should be available if people

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have consented to their names appearing on it; that makes it a legitimate tool for commercial purposes.

I was asked about the balance between internal and external arguments. The views of external bodies varied widely. It was not the case that all the outside bodies urged one viewpoint and the Government took a different one; quite the reverse. The Electoral Commission took one view, credit reference organisations took another and financial organisations still another. We listened to all organisations and tried to strike the right balance.

I was asked about top-up Members. They will have access to all of the London registers. In terms of the change in comparison with last April's publication about money laundering legislation, that came in the light of the decision in the Robertson case, which led us to ensure that the provisions were fully compliant with the Human Rights Act 1998.

Electoral registration officers have discretion on the wording of the register as long as they provide words to the same effect. A strong recommendation to voters to act one way or another would not have the same effect as the wording in the schedule. Does it apply when the register is out of date? Yes, it does. I shall reflect further on the interesting points made about the Data Protection Act 1998, which the regulations do not cover.

Fundamental questions were asked about the nature of ''electoral purposes''. It is a broad concept and it is right to adopt a liberal interpretation of what it means. It should be defined as anything to do with the process of campaigning and getting elected. Fundraising for the purposes of winning elections is part of ''electoral purposes'' and the regulations cover the circumstances when political parties seek to raise funds. It would be different if money were being raised to buy equipment for a local hospital or other purpose, but fundraising for the core purpose of communicating with voters and campaigning to get elected clearly counts as ''electoral purposes''.

The regulations apply to the period between elections—we are not talking only about when the gun has been fired and the election campaign is under way—and equally to people who are not members of political parties. If they are standing for election, they should have access to the electoral register for electoral purposes. It would be inappropriate to disadvantage people on the basis of political background or the issues on which they wanted to campaign.

It is right not to pin down ''electoral purposes'' too narrowly. We do not want to omit anything that counts as an important part of what political parties and those seeking to represent the people in a democracy should be able to do to communicate with voters. Voters themselves should have their human right to participate in free and fair elections recognised. In a democracy, it is crucial to sustain those principles.

The hon. Member for Stone asked about regulations 104 and 105. Regulation 105 deals with local parties for electoral purposes, which is why it does not refer to donations. Regulation 106 deals with political parties' role in donations and covers using the

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electoral register to check political donations. Regulation 104 deals with the role of individuals in donations. He raised an important issue, but the regulations cover it.

 
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