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Representation Of The People (England And Wales) Regulations 2001

Volume 621: debated on Wednesday 7 February 2001

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8.20 p.m.

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 17th January be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001. It may be convenient if I speak at the same time to the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001. Both are made under powers conferred by the Representation of the People Act 2000. Although they differ in some points of detail, they will have the same effect in their respective parts of the United Kingdom. They are similar to the regulations moved in respect of Northern Ireland by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton. In fact, he has stolen most of my script!

They put into effect the major parts of the provisions of the 2000 Act and deal with detailed arrangements for the registration of electors and the conduct of elections. The regulations implement the provision in the Act which relates to what we now refer to as "rolling" registration of electors. They ease the requirements for absent voting; they allow the registration of homeless people, remand prisoners and mental patients; they make better provision for disabled voters; and they make a number of other changes in order to make it easier to register to vote. The overall intention is to begin a process not only of modernisation of our electoral arrangements but of greater involvement and participation.

Part 1 of the regulations deals with various interpretational and miscellaneous points, including the provision for communication by electronic means. That means that inquiries can be e-mailed, application forms can be downloaded from the Internet for filling in and returning, and information will be available on websites. The intention is to bring the registration process up to date in order to meet the needs of modern lifestyles.

My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer made comments about Part 1 of the regulations with which he dealt. That part is designed to provide a device to assist blind voters. I shall not go through that again. The provisions for England, Wales and Scotland are exactly the same.

Part 2 of the regulations deals with the details involved in applying for registration as a service voter or as an overseas elector. Again, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer described those details perfectly well and I do not need to repeat them. Similarly, he covered matters relating to registration.

It is perhaps worth saying that the regulations set out in detail how electoral registration officers will make the system work. Primarily, they give electoral registration officers the power to delete names from the register, such as in relation to deceased persons—this is an important point—or those who have registered elsewhere, as well as powers to seek further information to confirm eligibility. All that will ensure that we have a more accurate and more flexible electoral register and one which is more user-friendly.

Part 4 of the regulations concerns the provisions for absent voters. From 16th February, when the regulations come into force, there will no longer be a need for confirmation by a medical practitioner or employer that a voter cannot reasonably he expected to attend the polling station. In fact, voters will not be asked to give a reason for requesting a postal vote; they will be able to seek one for whatever reason

In line with the recommendation of the Working Party on Electoral Procedures, no change has been made to the proxy voting arrangements, save in one regard—time limits for applications. For both proxy and postal votes, the time limit for applications to be received by EROs will be up to six days before polling day. That contrasts with the previous limit of 11 days. Again, all those arrangements make the system more accessible and it will be easier and more convenient for people to cast their vote in whichever way suits them best.

Part 5 of the regulations goes on to describe in detail the procedures involved in the issue and receipt of postal ballot papers where minor changes have taken place to enable greater flexibility.

These regulations have the broad support of electoral administrators, although understandably they are a little anxious about how they will apply them.

We have already said that the regulations are in place because some unfinished business remains in relation to the 2000 Act. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer made reference to Section 9 of the Act. That section concerns the sale and supply of the register and provides for voters to opt out of having their names included on the register, which will be available for sale. Because we wanted to concentrate on the regulations which have an electoral impact, we have not yet drafted regulations in respect of the sale of the register. Those will be made under Section 9 of the Act. However, we shall turn to them immediately and we hope to have a draft available for consultation before Easter. I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 17th January be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committed.]

My Lords, we welcome the regulations. I want to make one or two small points. The whole thrust of the regulations—as, indeed, was the thrust of the Act—was to make it easier for people to vote. That is most welcome.

One worrying aspect of the Florida election, to which the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, referred, is that it has made new technology—or at least middle-aged technology—in elections fall into some disrepute. That is a pity. Although we want to avoid butterfly ballots and hanging chads, I believe that there is much to be said for using the newest of technologies both in composing the electoral register and in voting. We certainly welcome the idea of using electronic communications for registering votes and for keeping the register up to date.

The question with regard to Section 9 is slightly worrying. As the Minister will recall, when we debated the Bill in this House concerns were expressed about the sale of the register. We are perhaps getting close to a general election. We are told that the new orders will be in place before Easter. However, I hope that Ministers recall the concerns that were expressed in Committee about how widely the register could be used for commercial reasons and about what rights people had to omit themselves from it. I am sure that we shall want to examine the Section 9 orders very carefully. We do not want to deal with them "on the bounce" on the last day before the Easter recess or anything so unworthy as that.

My Lords, we must congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, on not allowing his thunder to be stolen entirely by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. I wish to point out that the procedure for objecting to registration and appeals depends very much on the skill of the election officials. I am sure that our confidence in that respect will not be misplaced, and we support the order.

My Lords, I forgot to mention that the noble Lord should be very happy about the similarity of the two briefs. I believe that that is called "joined-up government".

My Lords, noble Lords would be amazed at just how much effort is required to ensure that we are joined up.

I want to mention two issues in order to reassure the noble Lord, Lord McNally. With regard to the presidential elections, I suppose that, on reflection, the Florida election was marred by the counting process and procedure. In the United Kingdom we have sought to introduce new technology in compiling the register and increasing its accuracy and timeliness.

I believe that preparation is important. If the register is well prepared, I am sure that it will be accurate and that there will be far fewer disputes. I consider that we are using new technology sensibly. However, I believe that we are probably stuck with the Thursday version of the stubby pencil in the cubicle for some while yet, but that may be overtaken in due course.

The noble Lord also raised the issue of the Section 9 orders. I can only reaffirm the reassurance which I believe I gave in my initial comments. Of course, it is an important matter. If the noble Lord is genuinely concerned, as I am sure he is, and if he wishes to rehearse his concerns, I shall be more than happy to set up meetings between now and when the orders are brought forward. I make that offer more generally to other noble Lords of both Opposition parties who may also have concerns.

I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman that I think that we have got some of the best election administrators in the world. They are highly trained and specialised, and they are very proud of their profession. I know that their professional organisation is very highly thought of by people in political parties. It goes without saying that they are highly skilled. They have welcomed the proposals. They believe that the proposals will simplify matters and make the administration of elections generally much easier for them and, more importantly, for electors. We all want a high turnout when the general election comes, whenever that is.

On Question, Motion agreed to.