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Lord Bassam of Brighton: This is a useful amendment in a number of senses, in that it focuses on how the opt-out box will work. I hope my comments cover the concerns raised in this short debate and I will just run through the points we wish to make on this issue.

It is a long-standing feature of our electoral registration arrangements that the electoral registration form is completed by the head of the household. Though that may sound more than a touch paternalistic and old-fashioned, there are good reasons for continuing with this arrangement. First, it significantly reduces the burdens of bureaucracy and the amount of paperwork which electoral registration officers have to process. Secondly, registration officers have no way of knowing when new people move into a household or when children reach voting age. The present arrangement makes the head of the household (who may in practice be any member of it) responsible for ensuring that all eligible people are on the electoral register.

More importantly, without this arrangement very few of our young people would appear on the electoral register. It is regrettable that so few young people would be bothered to take the initiative to register as electors if left to their own devices but it is certainly not a fact we can ignore. It is, rather, a fact of life. So I hope the Committee will understand why we must preserve the present arrangement under which the electoral registration form is completed by the head of the household.

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However, in future there will be an additional element to the registration form. Next to the name of each elector will be a box that will need to be ticked if that person wishes to opt out of inclusion in the edited register. That is a significant development. We consulted the Data Protection Registrar on the scheme we envisage. She supports it and sees no ECHR implication in it which would cause us any distress. Once there is an opt-out box, the head of a household will need to take reasonable steps to ascertain the preferences of the other members of the household. In the overwhelming majority of cases that would simply involve asking them. But we recognise that there will be cases where that is not possible. What we envisage, for example, in a student hall of residence is that the warden might put up a notice saying that he or she intends to send back the electoral registration form in three weeks' time and that any resident who wished to exercise the right to opt-out should make contact within that period.

Any head of household who deliberately recorded the preferences of another member of the household falsely would be guilty of the offence of providing false information on the electoral registration form. Quite simply, I cannot see how this can be made to work in any other way without introducing a system of individual registration, which, for the reasons I have already given, would be unsatisfactory.

I am not sure how the first part of Amendment No. 84 would work without introducing either individual legislation or creating a whole new layer of paperwork and bureaucracy. Also, we believe that the second part of Amendment No. 84 is unnecessary. If noble Lords look at line 30 on page 10, they will see that there is already provision for explaining to the electorate the uses for which the full and edited register can be put. We want the electorate to be able to make an informed choice as to whether to exercise the right to opt out and we want to ensure that they have all the necessary information to enable them to make that choice.

We have already said that we are happy to work with the industries that currently make use of the electoral register to try to help to settle the content of the explanatory material that is made available to electors. We shall, of course, continue to consult them and to discuss such matters with them.

As regards Amendment No. 85, we believe that this would probably be superfluous. It will be open to anyone in respect of whom the box was wrongly ticked, or for whom the box was not ticked although he may have wanted it to be, to apply to the registration officer for a correction to be made. That is a very simple procedure in itself. We believe that that negates the need for Amendment No. 85, as drafted. In the light of those fairly clear explanations, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Goodhart: On the basis of what the Minister said, I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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[Amendment No. 85 not moved.]

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 86:


    Page 10, line 41, after ("copies") insert ("(or copies on disk or in electronic format)").

The noble Lord said: I believe that I can deal with this amendment very quickly. I mentioned earlier that the Government are very keen to change us all on to the airwaves--e-mail, Webs and goodness knows what else. Indeed, we are shortly to have a Bill on e-commerce to help us on our merry way into this new world. As I understand it, the electoral roll is already supplied in electronic and computer-oriented forms. Many political parties find that most useful. However, we want to be sure that that practice will continue and that, in addition, the addendum--the rolling register--is also supplied in that form. That is my question both fairly and simply put. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply, although not by e-mail! I beg to move.

Lord Rennard: Amendment No. 90 has been grouped with the noble Lord's amendment. Like Amendment No. 86, it is an important amendment. If I may say so, this is a rather more important debate than the one we had earlier about whether or not to remove the words "for example" from the Bill. The amendment deals with a very practical situation regarding the format of the provision of the electoral register and, in particular, making it free to the parties where it is provided in electronic format.

At present, someone who satisfies an electoral registration officer that he requires a copy of the electoral register in connection with someone's parliamentary candidature is entitled to free printed copies of it. However, if that copy of the register is required on disk or tape, a charge is made for the supply. I believe that to be something of an anomaly; it also represents a tax on democracy. Moreover, it is bad practice when we consider the environmental consequences.

Four paper copies of the register are generally supplied free to a political party when it is first published in February. In addition, a Member serving in another place is entitled to a free paper copy and each local councillor is entitled to a free paper copy for the ward that he or she represents. Local election candidates are also entitled to a free paper copy and a parliamentary candidate is entitled, once nominated, to two further free paper copies. This may mean that a political party can effectively claim at least six paper copies of the register in any one year, and sometimes many more.

A typical constituency register on paper may be printed on about 1,500 sheets of paper. So supplying one party with six copies of it may mean 9,000 sheets of paper, or about six kilograms in weight. That is a huge amount of paper, which is printed and sometimes packaged and posted at considerable expense. We heard much in more controversial debates this evening about the costs to the public purse. This is a way in

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which I believe that savings to the public purse could be made. All of these paper copies are provided free of charge to each of the political parties.

However, the supply of the register in computer format attracts a charge to the party, even though it could be provided on a computer disk for as little as, say, 50p or by e-mail at virtually no cost. The charge to political parties for the register in computer format is currently £1.80 per 1,000 names, or about £120 per constituency. Once supplied, however, in electronic format, a party will not generally demand so many paper copies. Perhaps only one is required in order to check the electronic version. Therefore the tax on the provision of the register in electronic format is, I think, unfair if the principle of making the paper lists of voters free to the political parties or potential candidates is accepted. It is, of course, a tax on democracy. In my short time in this Chamber I have heard much from noble Lords about our commitment to democratic principles.

I believe that there is also growing concern about the environment. Changes elsewhere in this Bill may mean that many more paper copies of the register have to be printed in future. Presumably entitlement to printed copies of a rolling register, regularly updated, will be broadly similar to the present rules. A register updated every month would have to be available in printed format, as is the present annual register. It would not, I think, be satisfactory simply to publish a list of additions and deletions each month. So the amount of paper produced, copying or printing costs and clerical work involved could increase considerably.

Alternatively, an updated disk could be supplied free to those entitled to free paper copies. The parties should be given the register in suitable computer format free of charge in return for expecting no more than one copy of the printed register. This would not cost much, if it costs anything at all. Indeed, it may well even result in savings when all the costs of producing and distributing paper copies are taken into account, and it would be welcomed by those concerned with the environmental impact of the present system.

11.15 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I can confirm that this is a green Government in the environmental sense at least. I shall deal briefly with the amendments, not least because I am extremely sympathetic to them. As Members of the Committee have said, MPs, councillors and local political parties are entitled to receive paper copies of the register free of charge, but they must pay if they want it in electronic form. This distinction apparently derives from a time when not every register was produced on computer and when provision of data in electronic format was significantly more expensive than provision in paper form. Fortunately technology has moved forward apace and that is no longer the case.

We believe that a computer disk will be even cheaper in the future. We see no reason why those entitled to a free copy of the electoral register should not receive it in the form which is most convenient to them. This is

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sad for me as I like reading pieces of paper. I have spent many happy hours reading an electoral register. For some that may be a sad experience, but for me it has often been a great thrill to check it annually to see whether old friends are still in place and so on.

Therefore we are keen to take this matter forward in discussion with both political parties and electoral administrators. We believe that much progress can be made. We do not believe that an amendment to the Bill is needed for this purpose, as the existing regulation-making powers are, in our view, sufficiently flexible. I believe that that is probably a more efficient way for us to make progress. We are happy to have more discussion. We invite parties to offer their views on this matter. However, we believe that there should be free access to the register in an electronic form.

As regards the points made about the need constantly to update the rolling register, these are well understood. There is no doubt that we can also include ways of making that accessible in electronic form. I trust that with those assurances noble Lords opposite in both parties will feel able to withdraw their amendments.


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