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European Parliamentary Elections (Franchise of Relevant Citizens of the Union) (Amendment) Regulations 2009

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Parliamentary Elections (Franchise of Relevant Citizens of the Union) (Amendment) Regulations 2009.

Relevant Document: 5th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

I shall refer to the regulations as the 2009 franchise regulations. They relate wholly to the European parliamentary elections to be held in the United Kingdom on the 4 June this year and form an important part of the Government’s preparations for these elections. There was no requirement for us to consult with the Electoral Commission on this statutory instrument but we did so. It was content with the necessary changes and had no substantial comments to make.

These regulations amend the European Parliamentary Elections (Franchise of Relevant Citizens of the Union) Regulations 2001, which provide for the registration of relevant citizens of the EU who are resident in the United Kingdom as European parliamentary electors.

The 2001 franchise regulations gave effect to the requirements of a European Council directive concerning the arrangements in respect of the right to vote in elections to the European Parliament for citizens of the Union living in a member state of which they are not nationals. These regulations amend the 2001 regulations to incorporate recent changes that have been made to the system of registration of parliamentary and local government electors following the implementation of provisions inserted into the Representation of the People Act 1983 by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. The amendments ensure consistency between the registration systems for parliamentary and local government elections and European parliamentary elections, and ensure that relevant citizens of the Union are afforded the same protections as other voters.

In summary, the amendments will apply new provisions on late registration, new provisions on anonymous registration in England, Wales and Scotland, and changes to the procedure for determining applications for and objections to registrations.

First, as noble Lords will recall, late registration came into force on 1 January 2007 and allows eligible electors to register up to 11 days before a poll, whereas previously the period was between six and eight weeks. The Government want this power extended to include relevant citizens of the Union who vote at European parliamentary elections so that registration officers apply late registration rules consistently in respect of all elections, particularly as they are being combined on 4 June.

Secondly, anonymous registration came into force on 1 June 2007 and allows for eligible persons to register to vote without their names and addresses appearing on the electoral register. Its aim is to protect vulnerable people in society whose safety may be at risk if their details were to be made public. The amendment we are bringing forward in this statutory instrument will allow relevant citizens of the Union who apply to register in the European parliamentary elections to apply to register under an anonymous entry. Noble Lords may be pleased to hear that where relevant citizens of the Union already have an anonymous entry on the local government electoral register, the amendment will automatically grant that person an anonymous entry for the European parliamentary elections. In fact, the use of anonymous entries on the register has been very low indeed, involving some 500 out of about 40 million voters so far. There is, indeed, a hard test to get on to that list.

Thirdly, on determinations and objections, a number of changes have been made to the procedure for registration officers to determine applications and objections to applications. For example, objections to a person’s registration can now be made both before and after that person’s registration. The amendments to the 2001 franchise regulations will ensure consistency so that, as far as possible, the same procedures apply to determinations in relation to registration by relevant citizens of the Union as for registration for parliamentary and local elections.

There is a minor amendment to Regulation 8 of the 2001 regulations so that upon registering a relevant citizen of the Union in the European parliamentary electoral register, the registration officer himself or herself will no longer be required to send a copy of the application and declaration to the representative of the state in respect of which the applicant is a national. Instead, the registration officer will have to send only the information contained within the application and declaration. This complies with the EU directive and removes a potential burden for administrators.

I am sorry that I have gone through the details but, in their minor way, these are important regulations. The point behind them is to ensure the successful running and proper conduct of the European parliamentary elections. I commend this draft statutory instrument to the Committee.

I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations and for speaking to the other two orders. I offer him my commiserations for his voice, which sounds as though it is beginning to go. I do not know whether he needs a rest. Perhaps the whole Government need a rest. Looking at the picture of Daniel in Babylon, one can see the writing on the wall. Possibly that is not a very good joke, but there it is. I offer my commiserations to the noble Lord for his health and I hope that his voice will get better in due course.

As my noble friend Mrs Laing made clear in the Commons, we support these regulations in principle. We all want to do what we can to improve the electoral system and to ensure the absolute integrity of the ballot box. All three parties must admit that we have had problems at the ballot box over the past few years and, recalling the newspaper reports that we have read about that, all three parties have suffered from a number of colleagues who treated matters in a manner that they should not have done. We hope that the appropriate ones have all been caught and dealt with by the courts in due course. It is very important that we get this right.

While on the subject, perhaps I may refer to individual voter registration. Although this goes wide of the regulations, the issue was raised by the Government towards the end of the Political Parties and Elections Bill in the Commons last night. Obviously that Bill will come to us in a couple of weeks’ time—I forget on which day Second Reading will take place—and it would therefore be useful if the Minister could expand on what the Government said last night about what they are proposing to do about individual voter registration. I welcome the fact that they say they can bring it forward but—this is where I suspect that both we and the Liberal Democrat Party will feel slightly suspicious—they have implied that they cannot bring it through until something like 2015 or 2016. One suspects that the Government could bring it forward a bit quicker if they really wanted to. We wait to hear what the Minister can say about that. I hope he will give an assurance that they can bring it forward earlier. If they cannot, I have a sneaking suspicion that when the Political Parties and Elections Bill goes through this House, my party and one or two others might want to bring forward some amendments that might hasten the introduction of individual data registration. We will listen very carefully to what the Minister has to say.

My second point concerns data sharing. As the noble Lord will know, my honourable friend Mrs Laing raised the question of data sharing again when these regulations went through the other place. She is very concerned about that subject and has raised it on a number of occasions. Mr Wills, speaking for the Government, said in response to her:

“On many occasions, I have heard the hon. Lady refer to the perils of data sharing—she has done so again today—but I have never heard her explain the advantages and benefits that it brings”.—[Official Report, Commons, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 25/2/09; col. 12.]

Oh dear. If the Government cannot see what the potential problems of data sharing within government are, they have a great deal to learn. We have problems with data sharing in these orders—they crop up again and again in a number of measures—and if the Government cannot see what the problem is, they will have to pull their socks up and move in some way. I await the Minister’s response, particularly on individual data registration.

Before I speak to these regulations, I should indicate a non-pecuniary interest: I have sat on an informal advisory committee of Peers and MPs at the Electoral Commission. Although I do not purport to represent the views of the commission, I have been involved in some of the discussions on some of the issues with which the Committee is concerned this afternoon. I, too, look forward with considerable interest to what the Minister will be able to tell us about individual registration. The Electoral Commission has been very forthright about this issue—it has not always been as forthright on others.

The Minister may recall that earlier in this Session I raised this issue on the Floor of the House. There is clearly a considerable loophole in the present law on registration in that we still have household registration which is, I fear, open to a great deal of sometimes inadvertent, but sometimes carefully planned, corruption. That is extremely unfortunate because it gives a bad impression of what is otherwise a very good system, of which we should be very proud.

There was, as the noble Lord said, some reference to this issue in the other place earlier this week. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to spell out exactly what is intended. It would be very helpful, in preparation for the Political Parties and Elections Bill coming to this House, if we had a clear idea of what was intended. If, as I read, the timescale is as leisurely as the noble Lord has just indicated, that is extremely unfortunate. After all, this issue has been around a long time; there must have been plenty of time to think through the practical implications. There is a false dilemma between trying to make sure that the register is as comprehensive as possible and discouraging illegal registration. The integrity of the register must surely be far more important than its simple quantity. Simply because a register has a lot of people on it does not necessarily mean that it is very effective or legitimate. I hope that the Minister will say something about that.

On the regulations, I believe that the Government are absolutely right to try to achieve greater consistency while at the same time ensuring that that consistency is on as simple a basis as possible. The integrity of the register relies on relative simplicity. If it gets extraordinarily complicated, we have a problem. In that respect it is right that we should go for individual registration, but in so doing we should not try to build in too much complexity because that will undermine the effective registration of our fellow citizens and therefore the integrity of the register.

In that regard, will the Minister say a little more about the issue of anonymous listing? I notice that on 25 February in the Third Delegated Legislation Committee in the other place my honourable friend Mr Mark Oaten raised the issue of just how many people are currently applying for anonymous registration. The Minister has been kind enough to tell us that he thinks it is about 500.

I have a supplementary question. Five hundred is a small number, which implies to me that perhaps the process is too rigorous. I can think of a lot of people who legitimately should be asking for anonymous listing. Maybe it is a problem of publication or there is not sufficient publicity about the way that this could happen, but the regulations before us, and the existing regime for those who are already eligible for anonymous listing, is a tortuous process. It is quite discouraging to those who may have a legitimate request to be listed anonymously on the register. I hope that the Minister may be able to tell us whether he thinks that the present regime is over-rigorous and is therefore discouraging people who have a legitimate reason for wanting this protection of their personal circumstances.

Apart from those quick questions, I do not have any other concerns. My noble friends in this House feel, as do my honourable friends in the other place, that this is a useful bit of tidying up, and we thank the Minister for bringing it forward.

I thank both noble Lords for their support for the regulations. I will be moving the second and third orders in due course, and I have been advised that I have to speak to both of them. That will happen in a minute or two.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked about anonymous registration. We think that the system is working fairly well and that people are not being discouraged. It is important that there is quite a high hurdle to get over. The order itself means that it does not have to be a police chief constable but a police superintendent, so it could be done in the local police station if anonymity is necessary. The figures were 310 on 1 December 2007 and 551 on 1 December 2008. I am grateful for the noble Lord’s support for this new development in the field of registration. He is right that we want to keep registration as simple as possible.

On the broader question of individual representation, I had a feeling that my right honourable friend’s intervention in the final stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill in another place on Monday night might attract some comment today; if I had not anticipated that, I should have done. If noble Lords will forgive me, I do not think we should indulge in a long session on that; we will have plenty of time to talk about it. I trust that both noble Lords, given their parties’ positions, welcome what was clearly an important Statement by the relevant Minister about this important matter.

At Report in another place my right honourable friend set out a clear timetable for moving towards individual electoral registration. That will initially involve a voluntary scheme running alongside the household scheme from 2010 to 2015. Before and during that period, major steps will be taken to continue to build on the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the electoral register to ensure that the public and the system are ready for the change. These measures will involve some amendments to the Bill in Committee in this House. I promise both noble Lords that we will share with them as quickly as we can the proposals we intend to put in the Bill regarding these matters, and I hope that we can discuss them before the Bill goes into Committee. The draft clauses may not be ready for a little while so I invite both noble Lords to be patient, but, as I say, we will certainly have a chance to talk about them before we go into Committee. I hope that the two noble Lords present today will be dealing with the Bill at the appropriate time.

I think that I expected a little more enthusiasm for the important move the Government have made this week. That is all I intend to say about individual registration, which has precisely nothing to do with the important statutory instrument we are debating today.

On data sharing, perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that once again it was a good try, but I do not think this is an issue that affects us today. We have introduced safeguards in the Political Parties and Elections Bill to ensure that the Information Commissioner is consulted before any orders are made to enable data matching to improve the electoral register. The proposals for data matching largely mirror the scheme already in place in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord’s honourable friend in another place, Mrs Laing, brought up this issue around the Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2009 which we will come to in a moment, but all I will say is that they make provision for the Statistics Board to receive the register and do not change substantively the provisions on data sharing. It is a consequential change following the transfer of the statistical functions of the Office for National Statistics to the Statistics Board.

We have had an enjoyable ride around the issues today.

Motion agreed.