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Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I shall speak only briefly. My respect for my noble friend is almost unlimited but I cannot understand the amendment and the reason for it. As I understand it, my noble friend is suggesting that political parties would find it inconvenient to have this information merely in printed form and that they ought therefore, on demand, to have it free. But someone has to pay. If my understanding of my noble friend's purpose is correct, I would with great reluctance beg to differ.
Before I sit down, I should just like to say that over the past hour or so we have had some particularly thrilling debates. The obvious destination for them is to be well and attractively bound and presented to suitable people as bedside reading. Some of what we have been listening to would be, as a cure for insomnia, almost without rival. I hate to irritate--I am sure that I have not seriously irritated--my noble friend, whose patience is legendary, but I should like to ask him whether my understanding of what he has proposed is seriously adrift. I hope that it is. If my understanding is correct, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I did not intend to intervene on this amendment but my noble friend, whose amendment I support, has aroused my curiosity. All the time that I was in the other place my cupboards seemed to be filled with copies of registers, which were sent at great expense and no doubt
If the Government really are committed to e-commerce, why does not the Internet feature in their proposals in this respect? It would certainly save a great deal of printing and it would mean that the register could be maintained more effectively.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, the amendment seems to have produced an interesting debate. I am sorry that we will cause my noble friend Lord Peyton to go to sleep even quicker if we continue with the subject. What my noble friend Lord Forsyth has just said is completely right. Equally, if electoral rolls are on the Internet and are available to everyone, civil liberties considerations may be involved. This issue should be talked about. But it must be better to have the information on the Internet rather than on sheaves of paper, which are out of date every February when the roll is produced. The amendment has produced an interesting debate and it is worth pursuing.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, producing an electronic copy of the register is a great deal cheaper than producing a printed copy. It is immensely simple to do on whatever computer system one has. One can produce it in a standard comma separated variable form so that people know what they have and can pick it up. There is no justification in terms of cost for charging more for the electronic register than for the printed register. Indeed, the electronic register should be cheaper. But what one gets with an electronic version is an ability to use it much more conveniently. It is of much more value.
Do I understand that it is proposed that if I buy a copy of the register it is mine free to use? In other words, could I put the information on the Internet? The noble Lord may know that a company has bought up every hamlet's name as a domain name in this country. Presumably, if it were to add the electoral register information to that, it might make itself even more interesting as a place to visit. There is a good deal of local information around which would be very nice for those who wanted to look for people over the United Kingdom. It would be an easily searchable resource. There are all kinds of reasons why people might want to do that. Is the proposal that this will be there for us all to use freely and publish ourselves in any form that we choose? If that is the case, I should be
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am glad that we have helped a few insomniacs in our debates today. I am sure that, as the debate wears on, we will help a few more. I have been grateful in this debate for the number of interventions. That has certainly sparked up the issue. The debate started with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, wanting some assurances. Perhaps that is as it will finish. Along the way I shall try to answer some of the points that have been raised.
I shall try to explain the amendment. It would serve two purposes. The first is that anyone entitled to a copy of the register would be able to have it in whatever format was most convenient to him. We discussed this issue in Committee. I said then that the Government did not believe that there was any longer a justification for the situation in which political parties and elected representatives could receive paper copies of the electoral register free of charge but were required to pay if they wanted to have it in electronic format. I said that we considered that those entitled to a free copy of the register should be able to receive it in whichever format was most suitable to them and that we wanted to initiate discussions with political parties and the electoral administrators, who after all have to try to deal with the problems associated with the register, so that we could take the matter forward. I am happy to repeat that undertaking. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, was kind enough to say at that stage that he considered my reply to be entirely satisfactory and that these matters could be dealt with in regulations, which is why we have not brought forward a government amendment for this purpose. That is the right way to proceed.
Perhaps I may deal with the second effect of the amendment. It would mean that every person who received a copy of the full register would get it free of charge. I hope that I can set the noble Lord's mind at rest. We have no plans to levy a charge on those electoral users who are currently entitled to a free copy of the electoral register. However, as I have explained, credit reference agencies will be given access to the full register for the purposes of checking identity in connection with credit applications. As they are commercial organisations, that seems to be right. It should be the case that they pay for their copies of the register. The fees for the register date from 1990. As a result of the restructuring of our electoral arrangements, we will have to update those fees to take account of the new arrangements.
We cannot dictate to local authorities the systems that they use. That point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. That is part of the problem. Authorities have to go out into the market-place and secure best value in the tendering process for the system that they use to collate data and put it into electronic format. That creates other problems for us, but that is how it is, and it is understandable.
I could well understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, about publishing the information on the Internet, but the legislation will make provision for opting out. To make the electoral register available on the Internet would simply defeat the object of that part of our legislative proposal. For that reason, it would not be appropriate.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister, but I do not follow his point. If people are able to opt out, presumably those names will not appear on the register. It seems extraordinary that credit rating agencies will be able to obtain a copy of the full register but ordinary electors will not have access. I thought that the Government were committed to the idea of freedom of information. Why, therefore, should people not readily be able to see who is entitled to vote in a constituency, and at low cost--indeed, judging by recent announcements by British Telecom, at no cost in the evening? Why should people be precluded from access to that information when they can obtain it by obtaining a copy of the register? Are the Government slightly confused between the commitment to e-commerce on behalf of the department and local authorities and a commitment to freedom of information? I should have thought that the new technology provided an opportunity to widen access for all.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we are not confused. This a complex area. Copies of the register will be publicly available--certainly in printed form and no doubt in public places in electronic form. Access is available, and will continue to be available.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I must make it clear that this is Report stage. Only the mover of an amendment speaks after the Minister on Report, save for short questions for elucidation. So the noble Lord is absolutely entitled to ask a short question for elucidation; otherwise, we really must move on.
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