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Lord McNally: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I suggest that if the discussions do not prove fruitful the noble Lord tables the amendment again? Perhaps at that point we could test the opinion of the House. I suspect that he would have widespread support. In the mean time, let us wish him well in fruitful discussions.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I warmly appreciate that intervention. I had expected to say that I warmly appreciate the Minister's response, but I cannot do that. Frankly, if the votes were available tonight, I would have sought to divide the House because the Minister's response is unacceptable. However, my noble friend has been helpful in offering discussions. I accept the offer in the spirit in which it was made. I reluctantly beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 16 [Citation, construction, commencement and extent]:

[Amendment No. 24 not moved.]

Schedule 1 [Registration: amendments of 1983 Act]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 25:

("( ) Subsection (6) above does not apply to the extent that regulations so provide; and regulations may in particular authorise a registration officer to retain entries in his register for up to one year, if he thinks fit, in cases where the form in subsection (4) above has not been returned in respect of any address.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this matter was debated at Committee stage, when the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and I were involved in the same amendment. I sought to delete this part of the Bill and not replace it; the noble Lord sought to delete it and

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replace it. In the result, it was deleted and the noble Lord got his replacement. I now return to the issue because I believe that it is worth addressing once more.

This amendment is concerned with the removal from the electoral register of the names of people who do not respond to the form and nobody knows whether or not they are still at the qualifying addresses. One can look at the 19 London boroughs to illustrate the problem. Of those boroughs, three have no carry-forward policy at all. Therefore, I am not entirely sure whether they carry forward people who do not return the form in the autumn of every year. They do not appear to have a proper policy. Twelve boroughs carry forward for one year only; two boroughs carry forward for two years; one carries forward for three years; and one carries forward indefinitely. Therefore, in the last case if the form is never returned someone remains on the register until perhaps one of the political parties notices it and makes an objection. I am not sure what is the position across the rest of the country, but I suspect that the pattern is somewhat similar. Perhaps the Minister can assist me in this matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, who replied to the debate in Committee, was reasonably sympathetic to the problem that I then raised but was not prepared to go the final furlong (if I may use racing terminology). I hope that this evening the noble Lord, Lord Bach, will do so. If different authorities throughout the country take different views about carry-forward policy it leads to a fairly arbitrary position. I do not suggest for a minute that an authority decides for political reasons to carry forward for one year, two years, three years or not at all. It would be quite hard to identify who would gain advantage from that.

However, carry-forward continues to make false the denominator of the calculation of turnout. If we seek to judge turnout it is important to know not only the number of people who vote but the denominator; that is, the number who are entitled to vote. If we do not get the denominator as accurate as possible the percentage turnout will always be a fairly false figure. I am advised that, following the 1997 election, 11,000 names were deleted from the register in Hackney. That was one-sixth of the total electoral register. Clearly, the figure for the turnout in Hackney in that election was a nonsense because it bore no relation to the number of people who could turn out.

I believe that I have made my case. Perhaps this evening the Minister can be a little more helpful, even if all authorities are told by circular that they should have one policy, which I suggest should be a one-year carry-forward. I beg to move.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Bach: My Lords, with the passion of a democrat and--if I may say so--a mathematician, the noble Lord has more or less persuaded us. There is little difference between the position of the Government and that of the noble Lord. It is very unfortunate that every year there are a number of

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instances in which the electoral registration form is not returned despite the best efforts of registration officers. In such cases, unless the registration officer has some other evidence to suggest that the people who are registered at the addresses in question have moved away, he will normally retain the entries on the register, and that must be right. In cases of doubt the registration officer should always err on the side of enfranchising rather than disenfranchising people, but that has the effect of making the turnout figure a false one in itself.

The noble Lord referred, fascinatingly, to the 19 London boroughs. Perhaps I may quote some figures to him which are of equal interest. The University of Plymouth conducted a study last year which showed that 37 per cent of authorities carried over names for one year in cases where the form was not returned. Twenty-four per cent of those surveyed carried over names for two years. Other authorities carried over names for even longer, including 15 per cent--I believe that to be a high figure--which said that names were carried forward indefinitely.

We believe that this situation should and must be regularised and a consistent approach adopted around the country. That is why new Section 10A(7) allows for regulations to be made for names to be kept on the register for a prescribed period which, like the noble Lord, we believe should be one year. It seems hard to justify a longer period which may put out the figures and lead to potential abuse.

How does one achieve the end which the House seeks? We believe that a regulation-making power is sufficient for that purpose. I repeat that the prescribed period will be one year. The advantage of regulation rather than primary legislation is that if, say, we are all proved to be wrong in this matter and the period should be longer, or perhaps no period should be allowed at all, it will be easier to deal with the matter in this way than by primary legislation. On that basis I hope that, with goodwill breaking out all over, the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am delighted to withdraw my amendment. I have no problem with the Government dealing with this matter by regulation. I am delighted that they accept the argument and see the force of allowing carry-forward for only one year. If this afternoon proves anything it is the success of your Lordships' House as a revising Chamber. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 26:

    Page 21, line 13, leave out ("in accordance with the prescribed requirements").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 26 is a probing amendment which is concerned with the prescribed requirements. Essentially, the amendment relates to challenges by members of the public to someone who is registered. I wonder what changes, if any, the Government propose to make in moving from

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the old to the new method. Some changes must be made because we are moving to a rolling register, which is quite different from the old method. Under the old system, challenges against the draft register were allowed over 21 days.

Will there be a 21-day challenge available against the monthly register? If somebody goes on to the register on, say, 1st February but nobody notices it until June, will a challenge be mountable? I should like to hear the view of the Government about challenges to rolling registers. Can challenges be made to the monthly register or only to the major change in the autumn on 1st December? Are there to be any other changes to the way in which challenges have been accepted to date?

I hope that I have made my point briefly. I do not want to string out the amendment, which I believe is fairly self-explanatory. I hope that the Minister can give a satisfactory reply.

Lord Bach: My Lords, we understand that the intention behind this amendment is to give those who wish to object to the inclusion of a particular person on an electoral register greater freedom as to the form in which to make the objection. We rather support the existing requirements for making objections because they are simple and straightforward, which in this field are two great virtues.

An objection must be made in writing. It must be signed and dated, and must give the name and qualifying address--that is the one on the register in question--of the objector plus, if appropriate, an address for correspondence. It must state the name and address of the person against whom the objection is being made and the grounds of the objection. We believe that that is the very minimum of information that the electoral registration officer requires. I doubt whether he would be able to determine the objection if he did not have that material. We can see nothing wrong with prescribing it in regulations.

As the noble Lord said, the challenge was made in respect of the draft register. Under the new system, the challenge will be subsequent to the entry being included in the register. We have no plans to introduce different or additional requirements in this area. I hope that that short reply is acceptable to the noble Lord.

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