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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (England and Wales) Regulations 2001

Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 16 July 2001

[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]

Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (England and Wales) Regulations 2001

4.30 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (England and Wales) Regulations 2001.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (Scotland) Regulations 2001.

Mr. Raynsford: I start, Mr. Hurst, by congratulating you on your appointment to the Panel of Chairmen and your inaugural chairmanship of our proceedings this afternoon. I hope that it will lead on to many more exciting and stimulating occasions in the Chair.

We are considering two sets of regulations: one for England and Wales and the other for Scotland. They are relatively simple and should not detain us long. Although their purpose is perfectly plain, I should like to explain as a background why we are discussing these regulations and not other rather more comprehensive regulations about the sale and supply of the electoral register.

The regulations are made under section 10(4) and sections 201(1) and (3) of the Representation of the People Act 1983. They specify a form to be used for the annual canvass of electors that each electoral registration officer is obliged by section 10 to conduct in his area. Electoral registration officers can use this form, or ones to the same effect, to carry out the canvass that takes place each year by reference to the date of 15 October. The form specified is the same as the form that was previously prescribed for this purpose, except for one or two minor modifications that make it clearer or effect changes in the law.

We need to prescribe a form this year because the previous form was repealed. That form was prescribed in the Representation of the People regulations 1986, most of which were repealed when new regulations were introduced in February this year. Those 2001 regulations implemented a large part of the Representation of the People Act 2000, but there were some outstanding regulations still to be made to bring section 9 of the Act into force. We had intended to introduce those regulations now, but for reasons that I shall explain in a moment, we do not now intend to do so. The regulations would have contained a new registration form allowing electors to tick an opt-out box, which would mean that their details would not appear on an edited register, the only one available for unrestricted sale under the proposed new regulations. The background to this lies with the data protection legislation, specifically the European data protection directive and our own Data Protection Acts.

One of the fundamental data protection principles is that data collected for one purpose should not be used for another purpose without the consent of the data subject. Section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 gives effect to that principle by providing for an opt-out box on the registration form and for two registers, an edited one and a full one so that electors can say whether they are content for their details to be used for purposes other than electoral ones. Regulations are needed to bring that section into force.

Since the Act was passed in March 2000 officials and Home Office Ministers, who until now have been responsible for these regulations, have been engaged in extensive consultations. The aim has been to find a way to make regulations that protect the personal data contained in the register while at the same time preserving the ability of law enforcers, commerce and Government to carry on their legitimate and vital business. That is not an easy balance to strike. There are conflicting interests and strong differences of opinion on these issues.

When we published our draft regulations earlier this year we received comments from a wide range of interests. The consultation showed that there remained fundamental divisions and widespread concerns about the regulations. In the light of those responses and after receiving advice from the Electoral Commission, I decided not to proceed with the draft regulations. Instead, we intend to consult further to resolve some of the difficulties and introduce a further draft in autumn or winter. That will mean that the introduction of the opt-out box on the registration form and the publication of the register in the two forms—full and edited—will be delayed until next year. That is regrettable but preferable, because it ensures that we will introduce the new arrangements in an orderly and well planned way.

I know that some hon. Members had concerns about the timing of the regulations and felt that the plans were rushed. I hope that the decision meets their concerns, but I should stress that we have not given up on our commitment to introduce measures to protect the personal data collected from electors for electoral purposes. Further draft regulations will be produced in due course. In the mean time, we are obliged to give electoral registration officers the means to carry out their annual canvass by prescribing a form for their use, and the regulations do that. They restore the status quo so that the annual canvass of electors will proceed as usual this autumn.

4.35 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I begin, Mr. Hurst, by echoing the Minister's welcome to you on your maiden voyage and congratulate you warmly on your appointment to the Panel of Chairmen. I do not know how common it is for someone to be appointed to the panel at the beginning of only his or her second term in Parliament. It is a prestigious appointment, and hon. Members from all parties congratulate you and look forward to appearing under your chairmanship on many future occasions.

The Minister was right that Conservative Members expressed concerns that some procedures introduced by recent Government changes were rushed or in danger of being rushed. I understand his comments that, although it is regrettable that there will be some delays, that is better than any undue haste that could lead to further confusion. We have no objection to the new procedures and hope that the complicated timetable that was described by the Minister will work properly.

As the Minister is aware, many Conservative Members have expressed concerns in the Chamber about procedural matters relating to the Electoral Commission and various effects of the Government's changes. Nevertheless, all parties have an interest in ensuring much higher turn-outs than we saw in the recent general and county council elections, which is why we welcome the move towards rolling registers. However, some of the more fervent enthusiasts for change on the Government Benches—I do not necessarily include the Minister—have pressed too hard for changes such as introducing electronic voting or voting in the same way as ``Big Brother''. I hope that we will never go down that route.

I do not want to prolong the debate. We can see eminent sense in restoring the status quo and having proper forms, and there is no argument between the Government and the official Opposition on the regulations. Although there may have been some confusion before, the Government are simply restoring the status quo, and we have no difficulty with that.

4.39 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): Mr. Hurst, this is your inaugural sitting as a Chairman and my inaugural speech in Committee.

As the Minister said that regulations will be introduced later in the year, I wish to ask him some questions. Is there a way of simplifying the form so that we can encourage more people to complete it? From my electioneering experience, I know that the more doors that we knock on, the more houses we come to where people are not on the register despite having clearly lived there for a long time. Has the form been put to the plain English test? Is it readily readable by all our electors? Does it contain more or fewer words than the previous version? Could the number be further reduced, if it is reconsidered in August?

The form makes no reference to the great bonus of the rolling register. People who receive the form will not necessarily appreciate that it is easy to register at a later date, and a simplified statement of that fact could be included. The boxes on the form are needlessly complicated and they could also be simplified. Part 4 relates to 16 and 17-year-olds present in the house and part 5 relates to those over 70, in regard to jury service. Would it not be simpler to have a box simply asking for a person's date of birth? The electoral registers in all our council offices are now on computer, which could be used to sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of relevant data. That would further simplify the form. Part 6 refers to merchant seamen and requests that the box be ticked if

    ``any of the people named in section 2 is a merchant seaman within the meaning of section 6 of the Representation of the People Act 1983''.

I am not sure how many electors will know what the definition is under that Act. Do we need to simplify that box or explain what that definition means? Obviously, ownership of a yacht on the local pond would not qualify someone for inclusion under that category.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): The form is to be distributed in England and Wales. Presumably there will be a Welsh language version. That version is not before us; how can we support it unless we examine its clarity?

4.42pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I shall not attempt to follow the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) because I do not speak Welsh—indeed, I do not fully understand Cornish.

I have a couple of questions. The Minister has referred to the wider issues that are involved. As I understand it, the intended opt-out provision derives from UK and EU legislation. If that is so, surely we should at least be told, in the consultation period before the additional revision, what other EU states are doing about that. Like hon. Members of all parties, I have major misgivings about a provision that appears to assist the Government, as the Minister says it does, and the law enforcement agencies but does not take into account the natural process of democracy. All political parties—indeed, every candidate—should know who is eligible to vote; in this country we have always insisted on that. An edited version of the register that is available only to government and not the candidate standing at an election represents a major constitutional change. Has the Minister examined that issue? What are the other 14 member states doing about it?

The other issue that I wish to raise is slightly wider but relates to the 1983 and 2000 Acts. There is a continuing discrepancy between the electoral rights of citizens in different member states. I welcome the fact that the Minister's Department has taken on that responsibility, away from the clutches of the Home Office—which I believe has always been a retrospective, rearguard action on behalf of bureaucracy, as against democracy. We have in the Minister a great advocate of greater democracy. I hope that he will assure the Committee that he will examine the reciprocity of electoral rights in the forthcoming review.

4.43pm

 
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Prepared 16 July 2001