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Lord Bach: My Lords, in replying to the amendments, perhaps I may first of all give the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, some comfort. Yes, we shall be giving guidance to all households on the consequences of opting in or opting out. I can give him some satisfaction so far as that is concerned. I understand that this is a probing amendment and that there will be further discussion. Therefore I do not need to go into what the effect of his amendment would be, and I move on from that.

I think that it is accepted on all sides of the House that, although it may seem slightly old-fashioned these days, it is a good idea to have an electoral registration form completed by the head of a household. There are good practical reasons for that. I put them shortly. It significantly reduces the number of forms that electoral registration officers have to process. That in itself is not a clinching argument, but to it is added the fact that registration officers have no way of knowing when new people move into a household or when people reach voting age. The present arrangements make one person, the head of the household--who, of course, in practice may be any member of the household--responsiblethat is the crucial word--for ensuring that all eligible people are on the electoral register.

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We are concerned that without this arrangement many fewer young people will appear on the electoral register. That is a real and regrettable risk. We believe that a considerable number of young people may not be bothered to take the initiative to register as electors if it is left to them to do so. We do not say that lightly. It does not apply, of course, to the many young people who are very interested and involved and want their full democratic rights. But there are some young people who may not take advantage of that. We, of course, want the highest level of registration possible. It is not something that we can easily ignore. I hope that I carry the House with the line that we must preserve the present arrangements.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I am obliged to the Minister. I have a very short question. I may have got it wrong, but what happens if the head of a household wants a lot of junk mail and no one else in the household does--and he ticks the box?

Lord Bach: My Lords, if I may, I shall come back to that question when I have worked it out--although I am not sure that the noble Lord really expects me to.

As your Lordships are aware, in future there will be this additional guidance 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.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. He referred earlier to "opting in" and "opting out". Does that mean that we will have a system where one actually wants junk mail as opposed to not wanting it? Would it not be much better that we should say "Yes, we accept having junk mail" as opposed to saying "Oh no, we do not want it". I may have got it all wrong.

Lord Bach: My Lords, in this particular case, one opts out.

The Earl of Onslow: Not opt in?

Lord Bach: No, my Lords. One opts out. There is an opt-out box. The head of the household will need to take reasonable steps to ascertain the preferences of the other members of the household. That would involve asking them what they wanted to do. That will not always be possible. We envisage that in a student hall of residence, for example, the warden might put up a notice saying that he intends to send back the electoral registration form in three weeks' time and that any resident who wished to opt out, and therefore not be on the edited register, should contact the warden within that period.

Any head of household--and this is important--who deliberately recorded the preferences of another member of the household falsely would be guilty of an offence of providing false information on the electoral registration form. That is the way we envisage it

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working. Of course, the noble Lord is quite right to have drawn these amendments to the attention of the House because this is an important matter.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, the head of the household ticks a box and opts out. What about the Article 8 rights of the members of the household who want to opt in? This is a total invasion of their rights in that regard.

Lord Bach: My Lords, by each potential voter's name there is a box. The head of the household goes through the form and ticks the boxes of those who have said to him that they want to opt out, or whom he reasonably believes want to opt out, and thus want to go on to the edited register. He ticks his own box and then their box. There is a requirement that what he does is reasonable. If he does something which he knows to be false, then he is liable for having committed an offence.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, with respect, it will not work with Article 8. It cannot. Let us suppose he is unreasonable or drunk or something--anything--and he ticks the box. There are people in the house who have rights. Their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights have been disregarded.

Lord Bach: My Lords, we do not think that will happen. Of course, if it does, then no doubt a case will be brought and will be decided. We believe that the arrangements we are proposing, in particular the continuation of electoral registration by household, are the right ones. I should add that this approach has been discussed with and endorsed by the Data Protection Registrar. I hope that that gives the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, who moved the amendment, more idea of our proposals. Of course, we have now had a second discussion on this issue.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I do not understand why we have to have opting out as opposed to opting in. Should it not be a conscious choice that you want junk mail--which most of us I think do not--rather than a conscious choice that you are going to get it unless you say no. What is the reasoning behind that?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the view has been taken that one would normally go on to the register if one were eligible to go on to the register. In order to come off the full register, it is necessary to opt out by the tick. We think that it should be that way around rather than the other.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his answers there. Perhaps I may assure him that it does not worry me that the head of the household is going to continue to be the person responsible. That is perfectly all right. But then I suppose I am quite old-fashioned in many of my views, so it would be all right for me. I do not think it will be a problem.

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As the debate progressed, it seemed to me to raise an interesting issue. If somebody ticks the box to opt out, thinking he has opted out of junk mail, the truth is that he will not have opted out of junk mail. All he would have done is to have opted out of junk mail originating from the electoral register. He will not have opted out of junk mail from what I understand are very extensive lists which are available and come from all sorts of sources. We went into that at Committee stage. I suspect that many people who tick this box thinking that that is an end to junk mail will be disappointed. The electoral registration officer may well have some irate customers on the telephone to him saying, "I ticked that box and I am still getting junk mail". The explanation which accompanies the electoral registration form will have to be carefully worded so that it does not give people the wrong impression of the consequences of ticking the box.

As we leave this issue, I look forward to seeing how it works in practice. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 8 not moved.]

4.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 9:

    Page 11, leave out lines 32 to 34 and insert--

("(a) to supply free of charge copies of the full register and other documents, or prescribed parts of them, in document, electronic or disk format, to those persons entitled;").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 9 relates to the provision of the electoral register in electronic form or disk format. Indeed I received an encouraging answer from the Minister at Committee stage. I just want to probe him further. I have little doubt that the officials have put into his folder a photocopy of a letter published in The Times of yesterday in the thought that it might come up. It is about e-commerce costs from a Mr Martin Steibelt. He said:

    "Encouraged by the Chancellor's attempts to lure us into the era of electronic commerce ... I decided to purchase our local voters' list on disk rather than as paper copy.

    "Our electoral registration officer was happy to oblige but explained apologetically that, whilst the paper list would cost me £5, the electronic equivalent was £36. She went on to explain that these rates are set by government order and have nothing to do with the comparative costs of the two".

As the correspondent said, if the Government are serious about e-commerce and moving us into the Internet society, they will have to look at this rather more carefully. I should like to probe the position with regard to supplying the full register to political parties and to candidates or to Members of Parliament and so on in electronic form. Increasingly people want these registers in electronic form. At present, paper copies, as the correspondence column of The Times pointed out, are free to the political parties, MPs, councillors and so on. But if they are supplied on disk they can cost between £120 and £140 per council. I gather that part of the reason is to cover the cost of conversion. I am

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not sure whether that is converting the paper form into electronic form or converting the electronic form as held by the ERO to the electronic form as held by the party or the MP.

I carried out some research on this issue and discovered that of the 19 London boroughs there are many different systems in which the electronic register is held. Therefore, there is a problem about conversion to the outside. I imagine that the same is true throughout the country. That raises the question of how EROs will exchange electronic information between themselves if in fact their systems are not compatible. It leads one to think that all EROs ought to ensure that the system on which they store the information is compatible with other systems and can talk to other systems without a great deal of trouble. In next to no time most political parties and most members of the other place will want the electoral register delivered to them in disk form. I have little doubt about that. It is important that we establish that the charges to political parties will not become oppressive and therefore discourage them from getting the information in disk form and not in paper form.

Paper form is expensive as well. It will cost the EROs a good deal of money to reproduce lots of paper registers, especially the one-sided versions which have to be made available at election time. Considerable costs are involved in the paper element. If we want to move people to an electronic system, we should not charge them any more than we charge currently for the paper method. I should be grateful to hear the Minister's view on the electronic form as opposed to the paper form. I beg to move.

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