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

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Mr. Raynsford: We have had a short and interesting debate. I will do my best to respond to the separate points raised by the four hon. Members who have spoken.

First, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) welcomed our decision to allow more time to debate the implications. I thank him and we shall certainly use that time to ensure a sensible balance between the conflicting pressures of different interests. When I respond to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) I shall highlight the respective interests of those who require access to the register for electoral purposes and those who require it for other reasons. Conflicts exist and we must attempt to achieve a balance. The longer period of consultation will help us to do so.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) asked several questions about the simplification of the form, the need for plain English and the use of separate boxes for merchant seamen. It is all historic. We are merely putting the status quo in place; otherwise our electoral registration officers would have the unenviable task of canvassing in the coming autumn for the register based on the 15 October without having the power to do so. We are simply restoring the status quo.

As I explained earlier, the previous forms were repealed by earlier regulations with a view to carrying forward the recommendations for the separate edited full register. I referred in my response to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to the difficulty of reconciling different points of view. In response to the advice of the Electoral Commission we decided that it was right to allow more time for further consideration. As I said, we are simply putting in place the status quo.

The form may not be the best possible, but it is understood by electoral registration officers, many of whom are keen to have the go-ahead to use the forms again this year. That will not preclude us from examining the hon. Gentleman's important points about simplification and plain English when we consider the future forms to effect future recommendations for a split between an edited and a full register.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) asked about a Welsh language version. There will be a Welsh language form and an order to provide an official translation of the form into Welsh. I hope that my hon. Friend is satisfied that that will be provided for.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall asked several questions. First, he asked about European Union practice. I assure him that we are trying to ensure that our electoral regulations conform to the data protection directive, which is made under European legislation. We are attempting to ensure compliance with EU legislation. Different practices apply in different countries and I am not sure that we could exactly mirror arrangements in every other country, but we are working on the principles of data protection.

I hope that I can assure the hon. Member for North Cornwall that all those who need to access the register for electoral purposes will continue to have a right of access to the full register. That conforms to the principle that a set of data prepared for one purpose should be available for that purpose, but when it is used for other purposes, restrictions under data protection regulations may be appropriate. That is the distinction. I assure the hon. Gentleman that any candidate seeking access to the full register will continue to be able to access it under the new arrangements.

Mr. Tyler: I am partially reassured. When the issue was examined previously, the daunting prospect of a black market in the full electoral register was raised. A candidate having difficulties raising enough money to fight his campaign might be tempted to sell the full register to commercial interests. Has that prospect been examined in the review?

Mr. Raynsford: Yes, that would be an offence because it would be making use of material that is provided for one reason for another purpose. An attempt to seek commercial gain by selling a register provided for one purpose for another would be an offence and the person would be liable to prosecution. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks.

Mr. Hawkins: Is it not the case, however, that CD-Roms containing the electoral register are already available? As the Minister was replying to the hon. Member for North Cornwall I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) wisely saying that that was already the case. It is certainly my understanding and perhaps the Minister will elucidate further.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman alights on one of the reasons why the new arrangements are needed. In practice they will distinguish between the full and the edited register. Currently it is possible for people legitimately to have access to the full register and then to make it available to other parties. It can thus form part of a CD-Rom that will draw not only on the electoral register but on a number of other data sources to provide detailed information about individuals which, in turn, can cause anxiety about breaches of the principles of data protection. It is precisely to deal with that problem and with the legitimate concerns of members of the public that details of their circumstances are being made far more readily and widely available than they would like, that we seek to introduce the new arrangements.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall also made some unkind remarks about my colleagues in the Home Office that I will gently gloss over. I can assure him that we are serious about— [Interruption.] I do not invite him to repeat the remarks, as I might be less kind in my response. I can assure him that we will do our best to ensure that we get that balance to enable the election register to be compiled to give full information about all those involved in elections while at the same time responding to concerns about the misuse of data under the data protection legislation that have prompted the current proposals for change.

We do not pretend that this is an easy distinction. We do not pretend that there are not some complex borderline issues relating to law enforcement. Access to the full register for law enforcement purposes will continue to be necessary. That is some of the detail that we will examine as we come forward with the new regulations. We are proceeding on the principle that the main register compiled for electoral purposes should generally be used only for that purpose and that commercial interests that want to have access should have access to an edited version that will respect the right of individuals to exclude their details from it. We think that that is the right way forward.

I hope that I have satisfied the Committee that it is appropriate to agree not only the English and Welsh regulations but the exactly parallel Scottish regulations.

Question put and agreed to.


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



    That the Committee has considered the Representation of the people (Form of Canvass) (Scotland) Regulations 2001.

        Committee rose at seven minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Hurst, Mr. Alan (Chairman)
Coleman, Mr.
David, Mr.
Flynn, Paul
Hawkins, Mr.
Luke, Mr.
McKechin, Ann
McNulty, Mr.
Murphy, Mr. Jim
Prosser, Mr.
Raynsford, Mr.
Rosindell, Mr.
Selous, Mr.
Tyler, Mr.
Younger-Ross, Richard

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