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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I wish I could agree with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that the Government have got it about right. I am not entirely sure what the Government have got; whether it is right or not.
When I was reflecting on this difficult clause I recalled that at Second Reading I said to the Government that we would expect to see the draft regulations before we discussed this clause in Committee. We did not see them before we discussed it in Committee and have not seen them yet as far as I am aware, unless they are lurking somewhere in the Library and have not been brought to my attention. I suspect that, as we are in the middle of the Bill, they would have been brought to my attention. Those regulations are at the centre of our understanding of whether we should agree with this clause.
The Government probably started with the full register being available only to political parties, to candidates, elected Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament, councillors and nobody else. The edited version which would come about when people decided whether they wanted to be in the edited version would be available for commercial purposes and for charities; they would be able to use the names and addresses in that register.
The Government were probably then approached by various companies who told them how difficult it was. In my e-mail today a company was telling me how difficult the situation was becoming. Its view was that, without the full register, it may be in breach of the fourth principle of the Data Protection Act; that is, that personal data shall be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date. Without access to the full electoral register, the company believes that it will not actually be able to keep its mailing list up to date.
We discussed the question of how people receive mail when they have moved house in relation to the rolling register. I have in mind the problem of new owners or tenants receiving mail for the old owners or tenants for many months. Even worse and upsetting is the mail that is sent to those who are dead. We actually discussed that in terms of political parties sending out their leaflets, but the same must be true of mail order.
There is also the question of credit control and checking for credit and money laundering. The Government started to move back from saying that the register could not be used by anyone else. The net result is that some other people will be able to use the register for purposes other than those intended. We should know who those other people will be. In his reply, I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a very clear idea of what these regulations might contain and tell us where we are as regards the companies or bodies that will receive the full register. That information will have to be passed on to each and every one of us when we come to fill in our annual return specifying that we should be on the electoral register. We will have to know who will continue to receive our full details, even if we have ticked that box--and we shall deal with the box a little later. By ticking the box, many people may think that their details will not be given to anyone. But they will have to be told that that will not be the case.
As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway said, if people are not told clearly about this, the Government may be in breach of the European convention. Once we have decided to go down the road of allowing some people to have access to the full register, it may well be very difficult to get out of being in breach of that convention. We are discussing a very difficult clause. Having started off with the best intentions, I think that the Government are beginning
In Committee I mentioned one company that thought all its rivals were going to receive a full copy of the register, but it would not. I wonder whether any progress has been made in that respect. We are moving in rather difficult territory. It would certainly help me to understand this clause better if I could hear from the Government exactly who was going to get the full register, apart from those whom we know ought to be able to do so; namely, those who will use it for electoral purposes. Moreover, in response to the point made by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway that any commercial use of the register may be in breach of the convention rights of individuals, we need some kind of definitive statement from the Government.
Therefore, I hope that we shall receive some further information on these matters from the Government today so that we are very clear before we leave the Report stage as to exactly what will be the outcome as a result of Clause 9.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I was pleased when I saw this amendment on the Marshalled List. I thought that it might give us the opportunity to discuss again, and clarify, some of the issues that were usefully raised in Committee. On that occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, made a very learned and erudite speech; indeed, we had a most useful debate. If I cannot clarify all the issues that were raised then--and, again, helpfully this afternoon--I apologise. However, I shall try to make some progress.
Perhaps I may begin by dealing with a few points that were made in the contributions today of the noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Alloway and Lord Mackay, in order to try to give some assurance. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, asked whether we had taken any further advice. We have gone back and checked our advice, although perhaps not as widely as the noble Lord would have liked, especially as regards Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Nevertheless, we have taken advice in that respect. As the noble Lord will know, I have signed the ECHR compatibility certificate. We believe that we are on the right side of the law here. We are happy that we have got it right in regard to Section 19 of the Human Rights Act.
We also received advice from the Data Protection Registrar. That was clear before the Committee stage and remains so now. I should be happy to make available to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, copies of the correspondence that has taken place between my officials and the office of the Data Protection Registrar. I do not know whether that will help the noble Lord entirely with his line of inquiry, but I hope that it helps him in some way.
It is also my belief that the regulations relating to access to the electoral register that we propose to make under this Bill will comply fully with the ECHR. That must, of course, be the case. We are mindful of our obligations in terms of complying with the treaties and conventions to which the UK is a signatory. Indeed, the need to ensure that we are not in breach of the EU Data Protection Directive is an important consideration driving part of this policy. The simple fact is that it is a statutory requirement to complete the electoral registration form and to appear on the electoral register. As I am sure noble Lords are aware, a person who does not provide the necessary details may be prosecuted.
We do not consider that a situation in which one is obliged, on pain of prosecution, to submit personal information that can then be used for completely different purposes without one's consent is acceptable. More to the point, we do not believe that this state of affairs complies with the EU Data Protection Directive. We have taken advice from the Data Protection Registrar on this issue. Therefore, the status quo is not an option for us. We must bring forward something that works and put in place effective measures to strike what I believe most noble Lords will agree is a difficult balance; namely, trading off one thing against another. On the one hand there are the data protection and privacy concerns, which the Working Party on Electoral Procedures identified. However, on the other hand, a large number of commercial concerns currently make extensive use of the electoral register. If possible, we should avoid doing undue damage to their interests.
I believe that our debate in Committee reflected those competing concerns. At one end of the argument, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, suggested that the register should not be available for sale to anyone; but, at the other end of the argument, my noble friend Lord Borrie argued for a far wider availability of the register. Our proposals fall somewhere between the two exactly polar options. The Working Party on Electoral Procedures considered this issue in great detail and received a large amount of evidence. It concluded unanimously that there should continue to be a commercially available register. However, we are mindful that the same working party also recommended that people should have the choice as to whether their details are passed on to a commercial undertaking. That is why we intend that there should be two versions of the register in future: the full one, which will contain the name of all electors; and the edited highlights, so to speak, containing only the names of those who have not exercised their right to opt out of inclusion.
It is important for me to repeat an undertaking given by my ministerial colleagues in another place. We want the electorate to have sufficient information to make a fully informed choice as to whether or not to exercise the right to opt out. We have already said that we would be happy to hold discussions with the industries that currently use the register to help to settle the content of the explanatory material that is made available to voters.
The edited version of the register will be freely available for sale and people who buy it may, as now, use it for any purpose. However, access to the full electoral register and the uses to which it may be put will be limited. The full register will be available for electoral purposes to elected representatives, political parties and candidates. This is clearly sensible and, since the register is compiled for electoral purposes, this is entirely consistent with data protection principles.
I should also stress that the full register will continue to be available in town halls and libraries for public inspection, as is currently the case. We regard this as an important safeguard against electoral fraud. I am sure that many in your Lordships' House will agree with that point. We also propose that the full register should be made available to the police for the purposes of law enforcement and crime prevention. I am sure that none of your Lordships would object to that and, again, we believe that this would conform to the requirements of the EU Data Protection Directive.
As I have previously mentioned, we also intend that the full register should be available to credit reference agencies for the purpose of confirming identity in connection with credit applications. This should ensure that people who opt out of inclusion in the edited register do not end up suffering by being refused credit. That would be an unfortunate, unintended consequence. We have established with the Data Protection Registrar that she cannot see an objection to this proposal.
As I said earlier, we are currently in discussion with the credit industry on precisely how this would work in practice and to ensure that there will be proper safeguards in place which will mean that those who have access to the full register can use it only for the limited purpose for which it is supplied to them.
That brings me on to the question of direct mail or junk mail, as it is more commonly known. We do not believe that the full register should be made available to direct marketing companies. Those people who enjoy such mailings and wish to receive them can simply decide not to opt out. But there are other people who object to what they regard as an unwanted intrusion into their privacy and who see no reason why their personal details should be passed to direct mailing companies against their will. I am, of course, conscious that the electoral register is not the only, and perhaps not even the main, source of information for direct mailing companies, but the fact is that they make considerable use of it and we do not believe that they should be able to do this without the consent of the people concerned.
Equally importantly, the EU Data Protection Directive refers specifically to direct marketing. The advice we have received suggests that we could not continue to give direct marketers continued access to the full register without putting ourselves potentially in breach of the directive. That is an important consideration.
I apologise for having spoken at considerable length, but it is an important issue and I thought that your Lordships would find it helpful if I made a clear statement of the Government's position.
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