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Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for her amiable reply, which was very good to hear at this early stage. It might be helpful to the Committee if the noble Baroness could indicate exactly what the CORE scheme will do. As I understood it initially, I thought that it was the registration scheme, but in fact it is not. It is an overarching scheme into which the electoral registration officers will pile the information on the various registers. I am not quite sure of the purpose of that if the registers are to be held at local level anyway. It might be helpful at this early stage if the Minister could outline what will happen, as I think that other amendments will pick up on some of these issues.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I will certainly try to do that. We were primarily looking to address concernsraised by the political parties, among othersabout the need to access 400-plus different schemes in order to get the information that they needed, and the desire to have one overarching record. Critically, the register remains locally based; people
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will register locally, as they have done before. We are simply describing a way to pull all that information together.
The ambitionit is an ambition because we have to test and ensure that we can do thiswill ultimately be to have the opportunity to help with, perhaps, anti-fraud measures by seeing where people are registered twice; to enable political parties to access required information more readilynot, as we will discuss in future amendments, individual EROs, but political parties, nationally; and to have this record of the register at a national level. It is no more than that. Although it is a critical part of the Bill, it is, in a sense, not meant to detract from the value and importance of the local register; rather, it is an opportunity to keep the register up to speed and up to date in a national framework with a national record. There are, perhaps, opportunities for us to look at how people might be able to get hold of and amend their own records, if that is appropriatesecurity and safeguards will be critical for that. There may also be opportunities to use the scheme as political parties want to and to see it as an extra tool and asset for understanding our electorate better. But it is no more than that; it is not meant to be used for other purposes.
The noble Lord said: This is a straightforward drafting amendment. This part of the Bill makes provisions for schemes for the co-ordinated online record of electors. They will be known as CORE schemes and, throughout the part, the acronym "CORE" is employed. Clause 1 introduces it, but does not actually spell out what it stands for. I realise that Part 1 of the Bill is headed "Co-ordinated on-line record of electors", but the headings do not formally constitute part of the Bill. Given that acronyms are normally spelt out, as with EROselectoral registration officersin subsection (2), I think that we should embody in the Bill the words that give rise to the acronym. I beg to move.
Baroness Hanham: I speak to Amendments Nos. 3 and 6, which are associated with Amendment No. 2. These two amendments are grouped, as they do virtually the same thing, and are drafting as well as probing amendments. They aim to find out who exactly is going to run the CORE schemes.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I have a short note on this, because I can see exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is seeking to do. We went back to parliamentary counsel about this, and they say that what he suggests is not necessary and would go beyond the usual drafting style. But that does not stop me saying that, if the noble Lord feels strongly about it, I am quite happy to take it away and come back. In other pieces of legislation, I have been pushing the line that it is important that legislation is as clear and as simply written as possible. Indeed, I am equally happy to go back to parliamentary counsel on the drafting amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. In terms of drafting, regardless of the probing element, I can again see exactly what is being sought, so I am happy to do that as well.
I am in danger of pre-empting what may come later, but, as the noble Baroness will know, we have sought to make it possible for the Electoral Commission to play the role that she mentions. We have a clause stand part debate on that issue later. The reason why that provision is on the face of the Bill without it being a certainty is because legislation is needed to change what the commission could do if we went down that route. It was right to have that option on the face of the Bill. That does not mean that it will happen, but it is the position in other countries that we have looked at and the commission would be the obvious body to take the matter forward. It will be for the Government to appoint the Electoral Commission, if that organisation was given the task. Perhaps we can explore that, too, further down the line; I may be able to add more when I reach my notes on that issue. For now, I certainly shall take away the drafting amendments and look at them.
Lord Norton of Louth: I am grateful to the noble Baroness. This is a drafting amendment, although it embodies an important principle in respect of drafting. I am grateful that we may explore that, although not a great deal rests on it. Recognising that my later contributions might not be as succinct, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment I shall speak also to the other amendments in the group. This is the first of a series that I have tabled to try to tease out exactly how the CORE, the central database, will work and what its relationship with the local electoral registers will be.
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We understood the Minister to say just now that the register, critically, remains a local register. That is important. There will be a centrally co-ordinated record, bringing together the local registers. But I am not sure that much of Part 1 of the Bill is written in those terms. A number of the questions that have been issued for consultationwe have all no doubt avidly devoured the consultation document while trying to get to sleep at nightare genuinely relevant and proper for secondary legislation, because they are about how the principles of the CORE will be put into effect.
However, some of the questions are more fundamental. I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, in that there is not enough detail on the face of the Bill for something as important as this. Some principles should be there. It is clear from the consultationif it is a genuine consultationthat the Government have not made up their mind on important issues of principle, so it is odd that we have reached this stage in the passage of the legislation. At least we have seen the consultation document, however. When the House of Commons discussed the Bill in Committee there were strong complaints that Members had not even seen the document at that stage, so they did not know what issues they should have been talking about.
We are talking about a large and complex new database that will bring together many local databases. That introduces complexity. There are issues of cost, reliability, security and, simply, practicality. Will it work? I suppose that there will be a fallback, because if it does not work the local electoral registers will still be there and the system of electoral registration and elections will not fall down. Even so, there are important questions. More details about the relationship between the local registers and the national record, the CORE, still need to be teased out. At least we have the consultation document, which gives us some ideas of the questions that we should be asking herewe can use it as a crib, which is helpful.
There are three fairly simple amendments here and one which relates to an important issue of principle. It would be helpful to have some reassurance on that from the Minister. The first relates to the wording of Clause 1(3)(b), which states:
That means, "send updated information to the central register". There is a hint in that as to where the responsibility lies. It seems that updating information on the register will be a local activity and need; then it will be a matter of sending the changes to the national database. That may be nitpicking, but it was the first instance when I was not sure of the primary level for collection of information.
Amendment No. 14, which refers to subsection (11)(d), is about the definition of specified electoral registration information. Specified electoral registration information is central to the whole concept, because it is the information that the electoral registration officers will have to send to the national database and the keeper of the CORE. The first three definitions that are set out
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in the Bill are fairly obvious: the register of electors for any election; any list or other record relating to such a register which the ERO is required or authorised to keep; and any other information relating to a person who has an entry on such a register which is required for electoral purposes. Those are all matters which clearly relate to the elections. Paragraph (d) refers to,
That seems to be the sort of catch-all phrase which ought to be questioned whenever it comes in legislation before this House. I do not know what it means. I have read the explanations which have been sent out and I still do not know what it means. It could mean anything and everything. Will the Minister explain exactly what it intimates? She has just referred to the need for legislation to be clear and understandable, but this is not.
Amendment No. 7 relates to subsection (6)(b), which also refers to information which is not specified electoral information. The rest of the subsection refers to specified electoral registration information, but this paragraph states that a scheme may,
What is that information? I do not understand what information is referred to in that paragraph. It seems to be a catch-all provision which allows almost anything under the sun to be put on the database. If we are setting up big new databases, we need to be clear about what will go on them and to what use they will be put.
The final amendment in the group, Amendment No. 15, is more substantive. It comes down to the question of which is the definitive register. Is it the local register or is it the national register? I hope that the amendment will give the Minister the opportunity to make it clear that it is the local register. The amendment suggests that the following new subsection be added to the clause:
I think that we can all think of instances where there might be differences. We are talking about complex computer systems which might go wrong. It is no good saying that they will not. They might go wrong at local level; they might go wrong at national level. There might be problems in the transmission of the information; there might be a breakdown in the transmission of the information.
It was suggested during the consultation that information will be sent daily, but that may not be possible or it may not happen. Even if it is sent daily, a delay could have an effect. One can think of other
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purposes for which the register might be used; for example, for running elections, or legal challenges and other investigations. There is the question of access by the elector. The elector might find discrepancies between the information about him that is held locally and that which is held nationally. Clearly, he would complain about that. Which register is definitive at any given time? That is a critical question. I think that the Minister has already said that it is the local one, but the purpose of tabling this amendment is to enable her to state clearly that, if there is a discrepancy, in all circumstances the local register prevails. I beg to move.
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