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Representation of the People (National Assembly for Wales) (Access to Election Documents) Regulations 2007

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2007

rose to move, that the draft regulations laid before the House on 7 March be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, since the National Assembly for Wales was established in 1999, it has been the practice for all election documents, after the completion of the count and the declaration of results, to be forwarded to the Assembly. This was in line with the practice at parliamentary elections, where documents were forwarded to the Clerk of the Crown. In future, documents relating both to parliamentary and Assembly elections will be stored by the local electoral registration officer, which will be more convenient for those who have a valid interest in inspecting them. However, because they contain personal information, it is important that access is limited to cases that can be justified on the grounds of democratic accountability and openness.

Last December, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs made regulations that insert a new Part 7 into the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, setting out rules for the inspection, supply and sale of the marked electoral register, the marked postal voters list, and other election documents that are open to public inspection after a parliamentary election. As a matter of principle, we intend similar rules to apply to Assembly election documents, so the purpose of the regulations before us is to apply those rules, with appropriate modifications, to Assembly documents. The main objective is to allow registered parties and candidates to request marked copies of the electoral register, the postal voters list, and the lists of proxies and proxy postal voters used at elections in which they have taken part. Those and other election documents will be open to public inspection. This will not extend to ballot papers or completed corresponding number lists, which could be used to establish how an individual has voted, or to certificates of employment of police officers or election staff.

Inspection will be subject to strict conditions. Requests must be made in writing, specifying the documents to be inspected and the reasons for doing so. Inspection can be made only under supervision, and the information obtained can be used only for purposes specified in the regulations, which can be broadly summarised as law enforcement, research, and electoral purposes. Presenting the regulations in this way is the best way of applying similar rules to parliamentary and Assembly elections in a clear and open manner. I commend the draft regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 7 March be approved. 12th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Baroness Morgan of Drefelin.)

My Lords, we are very grateful to the Minister for her exposition of the regulations. I believe that they have their roots in the Electoral Administration Act 2006, and appear to be uncontroversial and generally welcome. As we have heard already, the regulations bring the arrangements for the availability of documents following elections to the National Assembly for Wales into line with Westminster parliamentary elections. Local electoral administration officers will be required to hold and make available a range of documents relating to the Assembly elections, rather than sending them to be held by the Assembly itself. This is a sensible measure that makes local documents available locally, provided of course that one or two important points are clarified.

First, given that some of the documents will, by their very nature, be somewhat sensitive, is the Minister satisfied that security arrangements will be sufficiently robust in each of the locations where the documents will be stored? I am not suggesting that Fort Knox-like protection will be necessary, but it would be comforting to know that important electoral documents and information will be securely stored across Wales and will not go missing. Secondly, I would like to press the Minister a little on the conditions in which the documents can be supplied and inspected. What do the Government have in mind for such conditions? Will the conditions be uniform and apply similarly and equally to all holding authorities? Why are there no provisions in the regulations for the supply and inspection of the documents? Are further regulations anticipated?

Finally, will the Minister expand a little on the charging regime that local authorities will put in place for access to the documents? As David Jones, my honourable friend the Member for Clwyd West, made clear when the regulations were considered in another place, it must be clarified whether the charges that authorities can make will be set centrally, capped, or left to local discretion. Given the importance of these documents both to political parties and other organisations, there should be some limitation on charges that may be levied. Will the Minister set out her views on this issue? Other than these minor clarifications, we on these Benches are content to see the regulations passed.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for her exposition of the regulations, which was very clear and to the point. We regard the regulations very much as good housekeeping, inasmuch as they lay down the same standards for Assembly elections as there are for parliamentary elections, and quite right too. The fact that they will be made available under certain conditions is also welcome, and I mirror what the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, said about security. It is particularly important that these documents can now be located at a local level where registration officers will have responsibility.

Perhaps I may lighten this debate slightly: I have a particular interest in some of these documents because, if I had been a football team, I would have had seven contests, lost two deposits, gained a third and a second place, and would have had three wins. Possibly more importantly, I have had eight recounts, which includes almost every possible type; namely, recounts as to whether I should lose my deposit, whether I was third or second, and whether or not I had won the election. They add up to eight recounts, which can be checked on the record.

I note that the Explanatory Memorandum refers to:

“Statements of rejected ballot papers”,

some of which of course are spoilt. When I was working in Scotland for a brief period, I contested my first election for Perth and East Perthshire when 62 ballot papers were spoilt because people wrote on them that they wanted to vote for Enoch Powell. When the returning officer asked Ian MacArthur, the elected Conservative Member, what should be done with the rejected ballot papers, he said, “Send them down to Wolverhampton” where Enoch Powell was the MP. It is right that they should be kept in secure places and be available because their historical content is very interesting.

My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords for their support for this set of good-housekeeping regulations. It is more than fair to say that they are not contentious. None the less, they are necessary to ensure the proper management of access to election documents, especially now that they are to be stored locally, which I am glad is to be welcomed. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, asked about the security arrangements under which documents will be stored, which are extremely important. He rightly pointed out that these documents are sensitive and that voters have a right to expect reassurance that they will not go astray. I hope I can reassure the noble Lord that local electoral administrators already store documents from local authority and European parliamentary elections, so this will not be a new function for them. They are using tried and tested administrative procedures, and will have appropriate and secure facilities which can be used for documents from the Assembly and parliamentary elections. Unless a court orders otherwise, registration officers are required to store documents in this way for one year, after which they are to be destroyed. So systems are in place.

The noble Lord asked whether the same conditions will apply to supply an inspection of documents held by all relevant registration officers. The answer is yes. Following amendments made towards the end of last year, the conditions for access to parliamentary election documents are set out in Part 7 of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001. These regulations insert a new part into the 2001 regulations, which applies those rules with relatively small modifications to reflect differences in the way in which Assembly elections are conducted. We felt that that was the best way to avoid confusion and to ensure a consistent approach to all elections.

The final point made by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, related to charges for access to documents. There is no provision for any charge to be made where a person is granted access to inspect documents, but the fee to be paid for a copy of the marked register or list is prescribed in Regulation 120 of the amended 2001 regulations. It is the same as the fee charged for the full register. In data form, the current rate is £20 plus £1.50 per 1,000 entries, or part thereof and, in printed form, £10 plus £5 per 1,000 entries, or part thereof.

I am afraid that I cannot match the election stories of the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, but I am pleased that at least one of the eight recounts resulted in a win for him. The noble Lord referred to these as good-housekeeping amendments and, on that basis, I am sure that with the support of noble Lords here today I can commend these regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.