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Grand Committee

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2009

Grand Committee

Wednesday, 4 March 2009.

Arrangement of Business


Before the Minister moves that the first statutory instrument be considered, I remind noble Lords that in the case of each statutory instrument the Motion before the Committee will be that the Committee do consider the statutory instrument in question. I should make it clear that the Motion to approve the statutory instrument will be moved in the Chamber in the usual way.

Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Registration of Regulated Activities) Regulations 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Registration of Regulated Activities) Regulations 2009.

Relevant Document: 3rd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

Last October we brought into force the legislation to set up the Care Quality Commission—the new single regulator for health and adult social care. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, has given us a daily countdown to CQC kick-off. The draft regulations before us now are part of a package of secondary legislation which will enable the commission to take on its functions from 1 April this year.

Part 1 of the Health and Social Care Act 2008 provides for a new registration system for the regulation of health and adult social care. These regulations are the first step in bringing the NHS into a system of registration for the first time, alongside the independent and voluntary sector and social care providers. At present NHS providers are required to comply with the code of practice for the prevention and control of healthcare-associated infections issued under the Health Act 2006. The regulations before us carry forward the essential requirements of the existing code and place them into the new legislative framework. Regulations 3 and 5 require NHS providers of healthcare to be registered with the commission and to meet a single registration requirement on the protection of persons against identifiable risks of healthcare-associated infections. The regulations cover the same providers that are obliged to comply with the existing code. In January we laid an order enabling the registration process to begin.

Alongside the regulations there is a revised code of practice which sets out the nine compliance criteria and guidance that the commission will use to judge whether registered NHS providers of healthcare are complying with the regulation on HCAI. It will be an offence to fail to comply with the regulation and registered providers may be prosecuted. On summary conviction, this could result in a fine of up to £50,000 for each offence, as set out in these regulations. The Act also gave the commission a range of other enforcement powers to use where providers are not complying with requirements. These include: the power to suspend or cancel registration, the power to issue a warning notice or a fixed-penalty notice, and the power to attach conditions to a provider’s registration. The greater range of enforcement powers enables the regulator to take a more flexible and proportionate approach to breaches of registration requirements. This will benefit patients by encouraging quicker progress in tackling infections. These regulations set out further details in relation to fixed-penalty notices and set the penalties at between £1,250 and £4,000 depending on the offence. A number of administrative matters are also set out, such as the timescale for payment.

Until 2010 the new Care Quality Commission will continue to regulate private and voluntary healthcare providers and adult social care providers under the Care Standards Act 2000. These providers will continue to have to comply with the regulations and national minimum standards under the 2000 Act, which include requirements on infection control. In 2010 the registration system under the 2008 Act will be widened from covering just NHS providers to cover private and voluntary health and adult social care, and with a wider set of safety and quality requirements.

If the registration system is to operate effectively and transparently it is important that the public and commissioners have access to information about services and service providers. These regulations make a number of provisions to ensure that information about the commission’s regulatory action is available and they require the commission to keep a register of persons registered as service providers. The regulations also make a number of provisions requiring the commission to make public information relating to certain enforcement action it has taken. The commission is authorised to make certain other information available.

The Act requires the commission to notify PCTs, local authorities, strategic health authorities, Monitor and anyone else it considers appropriate when it issues certain notices, such as a notice proposing cancellation of registration. However, to ensure that these requirements are not overly burdensome, Regulation 9 sets out certain exemptions from this requirement, such as where notices relate to certain administrative matters such as the process of considering and granting initial applications for registration. Regulation 10 sets out further details about who must be notified.

In carrying out its functions the commission will need to look at documents and information as well as talk to providers and those using the services. The commission will need in the course of carrying out its functions to question people for explanations of any relevant matters. These regulations set out the people who must provide an explanation to the commission if requested to do so. The Act makes it an offence for these persons to fail to comply with a requirement from the commission for an explanation of a matter. The regulations will give the commission a stronger role in relation to the provision of healthcare by NHS bodies and in tackling HCAIs. These are the first in a series of regulations that will be brought before the House to widen the registration system across providers of health and social care services. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

First, perhaps I may apologise to the Minister for being slightly late. I shall of course read the opening sentences of her speech, those that I missed, in Hansard. I thank her for introducing these regulations, but because of the helpful briefing session that she was kind enough to organise a couple of weeks ago, I have only a very few comments and questions.

The CQC’s task of registering all providers of health and social care is a very considerable one, so it is not surprising that the Government have allowed it to be tackled in two stages. The regulations we are looking at provide only for the registration of NHS providers, and then only in relation to a single set of requirements, namely those covering healthcare-acquired infections. It is understood that further registration requirements will be introduced for these NHS bodies next year and that adult social care providers and the independent healthcare sector will also be brought within the scope of the new regime in 2010.

If we focus on this initial round of registrations, the first question that arises is whether there is a performance threshold below which the CQC will simply refuse to register a provider and, if so, what that threshold is. Those may sound like odd things to ask, but if these requirements are to mean anything, surely it is essential that every NHS body should have to demonstrate a minimum acceptable standard of cleanliness and hygiene and an acceptable recent track record in rates of healthcare-acquired infections if they are to qualify for a registration certificate. But what is that standard? The Healthcare Commission in general has done a good job in driving improvements in this area, but we know that a number of NHS trusts have been found seriously wanting in their recent performance on HCAIs. In those cases, what action has the CQC insisted be taken, or what improvements has it insisted on seeing before agreeing to issue a registration certificate? Rather like a game at a fairground where everyone is a winner, are we in practice looking at a 100 per cent success rate in the NHS bodies up for registration? Are any conditional registrations being agreed?

It is important to understand how strict and how stern the CQC is being with providers with a poor track record. We know from the Government’s own figures that MRSA affected around 6,000 people in 2006-07 and C. difficile about 56,000. The numbers may be falling, but they are still very high. Indeed, we would all say that they are unacceptable. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether the CQC is simply focusing on the existence of systems within provider trusts, or are they also looking at the quality of those systems in terms of the results actually being achieved?

The second question relates to an issue that is strictly outside the scope of the regulations but which bears closely on them. As I mentioned a moment ago, the registration process for independent sector healthcare providers is being tackled more gradually and the aim is to accomplish that by 2010, at which point those bodies would cease to be subject to regulation under the Care Standards Act 2000. What enforcement powers will the CQC have during that transition period in relation to independent sector healthcare providers and, for that matter, providers of adult social care? Legally speaking, is the CQC fully able to monitor and regulate those bodies during the next 12 months as tightly as we would wish it to do, and does it have the resources to do so?

The CQC has said that it will not hesitate to use the range of enforcement powers at its disposal if it needs to do so. Can the Minister assure the Committee that if in the last resort a provider of healthcare has its registration removed and thereby loses its right to be a provider, safeguards will be in place to protect the quality of patient care during the transition to a new provider? Although the power to issue fines as a penalty for poor service and poor infection control is undoubtedly a strong deterrent, there is in practice a downside to such fines. When NHS bodies are called on to pay fines, they will need to divert money from elsewhere in their budget to do so. In certain circumstances, one could imagine money being diverted from frontline patient care, which is the very opposite of what patients deserve in a situation where, if anything, they need enhanced protection. Will the Minister comment on that and will the CQC bear in mind that, in some situations, the imposition of a fine would run counter to the interests of the NHS organisation and of patients?

Finally, how often will the proposed register of persons providing services be updated and verified? Does the Minister agree that regular and thorough vetting of the list will be important?

I, too, thank the Minister for introducing the regulations and for the very helpful briefing that she and the relevant officials provided to us a couple of weeks ago. There is a degree of interest in this because these are the first of the regulations that will enable us to see just how the Health and Social Care Act 2008 will be implemented and how the CQC will assume responsibility for an area of work that all noble Lords would agree has been carried out extremely effectively by the predecessor bodies. Both the Healthcare Commission and CSCI have in the course of their work and by their reports driven up standards in this area.

I have many of the same questions as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, but I want to ask a few more. Can the noble Baroness define for us what is an offence? Is an offence the same thing as an incidence? Are different incidences of healthcare-acquired infection different offences? If they are, the potential penalties become of a different order. Potentially, they will become a large imposition on what in future will be a much broader range of much smaller providers. Although we tend to think of acute hospitals when we think about healthcare-associated infections, we should not forget that the infections that have been mentioned are prevalent in a lot of social care settings and, in particular, residential homes. If a small-scale provider of residential care ultimately becomes subject in 2010 to the same fine regime as a large acute hospital, that will have a disproportionate effect.

That is the first thing. The second is that I, too, have been thinking about the fact that in 2010 the independent sector will come under this regime. Has the department continued to think on in that vein about what happens if NHS patients exercise their right to seek treatment abroad if they have not been able to receive treatment in the United Kingdom? How do these orders relate to that? Looking to the future, what happens if individual budgets and direct payments bring in a whole tranche of small-scale healthcare providers? Who will regulate them?

This is an interesting order, and I will be interested in the Minister’s response. It is a fair reflection of the legislation that this House passed last year.

I shall tackle the different points raised by the noble Earl and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. I thank both noble Lords, who have been helpful in the discussions we have had, which I, too, found very useful.

The noble Earl raised the issue of the threshold. The regulations are underpinned by the revised code of practice for the NHS, which I referred to in my speech, on the control of healthcare-associated infections and the related guidance, which was published alongside the draft regulations under the powers given to the Secretary of State by Section 21 of the 2008 Act. This new code sets out the criteria that the Care Quality Commission will use to check that the NHS organisations are complying with the requirements on the prevention and control of HCAIs. As the noble Earl will appreciate, we take that issue seriously. We are not complacent; we are pleased that the numbers of MRSA and C. difficile cases are down, but I agree that the situation will not be satisfactory until they have all gone.

The noble Earl raised the issue of how the CQC will act in assessing providers’ compliance and make decisions. It is doing so right now; it is making decisions on whether it will attach conditions to registration. I imagine that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has her people hard at work on that right this minute.

On the issue of safeguarding, the enforcement powers will remain those under the Care Standards Act until providers are transferred to the new registration system under the 2008 Act. On the powers to close down healthcare facilities and wards, that is one of the range of interventional powers. The commission will need to consider the risk to patients and others using services of stopping a service against leaving a substandard service open, and it can do that only by liaising with the relevant PCTs and authorities. That is what we would expect it to do.

As I recall, the issue of what would happen to the fines was raised several times during the passage of the Bill. Where fines and penalties are incurred by NHS bodies as a result of a breach of safety requirements, we are working with HM Treasury to find a sensible way of returning the money collected to the local area where it can be reinvested into improving services.

The noble Earl asked how often the register will be updated. The Act allows for it to be live and to be done on an ongoing basis. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about an offence being a breach of the registration requirements. Of course, issuing a penalty notice is only one of the CQC’s enforcement powers, so it would be for the CQC to choose the most appropriate action in any given situation. As for the independent sector coming under this in 2010 and what will happen if people decide to seek treatment abroad, the CQC’s remit applies only to care in England.

I hope that I have covered all the points raised by noble Lords, but I shall look at what they have said and write to them if I need to provide a more satisfactory or full answer. I thank noble Lords for their comments on these regulations.

Motion agreed.

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

Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2009.

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

These regulations, which from now on I will refer to as the Representation of the People Regulations 2009, have a link to the European parliamentary elections this year in respect of the registration of overseas Peers, but also include separate provisions relating to anonymous registration for eligible electors in any relevant election.

This statutory instrument has been subject to consultation with the Electoral Commission. The commission has advised us that it supports all of these changes and, in relation to anonymous registration, has stated that it will ensure that vulnerable people will have better and more consistent access to the attestation process, while ensuring that the evidence required in support of applications remains sufficiently stringent. What I have to say may be part of an answer to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, in the previous debate.

These regulations amend the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 and the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001. In summary, they will make minor yet important changes in respect of applications for anonymous entries in the electoral register; make modifications to provisions relating to the registration of overseas Peers for European parliamentary elections, primarily to ensure consistency with other changes in electoral legislation; and thirdly, as I mentioned earlier, make provision for a free copy of the electoral register to be supplied to the Statistics Board, which now carries out the statistical functions of the Office for National Statistics.

As mentioned earlier, the anonymous registration of electors came into force nearly two years ago. Applications for anonymous registration have to be accompanied by evidence in the form of, first, an attestation by a qualifying officer confirming that the safety of the applicant or another person in the applicant’s household would be at risk if the register contained the applicant’s name or address; or, secondly, that there is a relevant court order or injunction as listed in the regulations.

The amendments in these regulations make changes in respect of who constitutes a qualifying officer and the types of court orders and injunctions that may be used in evidence to support an application. First, in respect of qualifying officers, we are making changes to the level of police officer able to attest applications. At the moment, only a chief officer or chief constable can do so, which means that all applications presented at a police station have to be transmitted to headquarters for signing. This statutory instrument allows police officers of the rank of superintendent and above to attest applications. This means that applicants will, in most circumstances, be able to have the attestation undertaken at their local police station.

Secondly, the statutory instrument makes minor amendments to provide that an attestation signed by any director of adult social services or childrens services in England or the equivalent in Wales can be submitted in support of an application in either England or Wales. The amendments also include any chief social work officer in Scotland within the meaning of qualifying officer. Therefore, in these respects, the amendments make the 2001 England and Wales regulations consistent with the current 2001 Scotland regulations.

This statutory instrument also amends the 2001 England and Wales and 2001 Scotland regulations to include within the meaning of qualifying officer any director of social services of a Northern Ireland health and social services board, and any executive director of social work of a Northern Ireland health and social services trust, as these office holders were previously not included.

Finally, the draft SI amends the list of court orders and injunctions that may be presented as evidence in support of an application for anonymous registration to include those made under relevant Northern Ireland legislation. This will ensure that no matter where a specified order or injunction is granted in the UK, it can be submitted in support of an application for anonymous registration.

Turning to other amendments within the Representation of the People regulations, the Representation of the People Act 1985 enables Peers who are resident overseas to vote at European parliamentary elections. The current regulations apply with modifications to certain legislative provisions for the purpose of registration of this category of elector. There are not many of them. As part of our preparation work for the European parliamentary elections this year, we identified the need to update these regulations, primarily to reflect recent changes to the system of registration for parliamentary and local government electors. In particular, the effect of an amendment to the Representation of the People Act 1985 made by the Electoral Administration Act 2006 is that an overseas Peer who has an anonymous entry in the register of local government elections will not be able to satisfy the conditions of entitlement to vote at European parliamentary elections. Consistent with this, the draft SI amends the current regulations to reflect that anonymous registration does not apply to overseas Peers for the purpose of European parliamentary elections.

Minor amendments are also made to ensure that the legislative framework for the registration of overseas Peers is workable and internally consistent. We understand that the number of Peers likely to be affected by these amendments is very small. The ONS registration figures for 2008 reveal that only four Peers were registered as European parliamentary overseas electors. I do not know whether any of those have applied to be anonymous on the register but they could only have been so since 1 June 2007. Their entitlement to vote was conditional on their having been on a register in the United Kingdom in the course of the past 15 years, so I think that four probably comes down to a much smaller number.

Finally, as regards the Office for National Statistics, we are making a minor amendment to the 2001 England and Wales regulations and the 2001 Scotland regulations to provide for a free copy of the electoral register to be supplied to the Statistics Board. The regulations currently provide for a free copy of the register to be supplied to the Office for National Statistics. However, as the office’s statistical functions are now carried out by the Statistics Board, it is appropriate that the board should receive the register instead.

I thank noble Lords for allowing me the time to go into perhaps a little too much detail on this statutory instrument, but it is important that these matters are on the record. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for the very kind remarks he made about my voice in the earlier debate. However, I warn him not to be too overconfident or to think that my voice, odd though it may sound at the moment, presages anything other than triumph whenever the general election comes.

I admire the noble Lord’s resilience in these matters. I offer an apology in that I had assumed that we were debating all three statutory instruments together. That is why I made my remarks about data sharing, which are possibly more appropriate to these regulations than to the preceding ones. I have nothing further to add other than that I am interested in his estimates of the number of Peers who might be affected by this measure. I think he said originally that four Peers might be affected, and then suggested that the figure was coming down to a much smaller one. I remember that a Secretary of State in the Department for Education for whom I worked said that she thought three exam boards were too many and that one was too few. However, she was not prepared to speculate on what she considered was the right figure. I wonder whether the noble Lord will speculate on what the appropriate figure—if it is much smaller than four—is likely to be. He probably cannot answer that question and I do not particularly expect one. However, if he can, I will listen to it with interest.

I will speak briefly as I hope to preserve the Minister’s voice for the final order, which I regard as rather more important. I do not think this House could ever be accused of not looking after the interests of minorities. If we are seeking to preserve the interests of four Peers who are resident in the European Union for this electoral purpose, we really are looking at the minority of minorities. Unless, of course, the Minister anticipates a large flow of Peers disappearing from this House and this country for economic or legislative reasons. If we are seeking to preserve the rights of one Peer, who presumably may have triggered this whole exercise by seeking to preserve the anonymity of his or her registration, that seems to me a great accolade that we should celebrate in this Parliament; namely, that we are prepared to look after the interests of one Peer. If that is the case, perhaps the Minister may like to comment on it. Having made that point, this is obviously just a simple tidying-up operation and I hope that we will not have to ask the Minister to use his voice at great length to explain the origin of this change.

I thank both noble Lords for their firm support for this statutory instrument. I really do not want to go into the details. I am afraid that we are not preserving the right of any Peer; to make the law consistent we are saying that a Peer who found himself in the extremely unlikely position of having been on the anonymous list for local elections from 1 June 2007 would not have the right to vote in European parliamentary elections. The noble Lord tempts me to give a figure of less than four. I will: nought.

Motion agreed.

Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Amendment) Order 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Amendment) Order 2009.

Relevant Document: 6th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

The purpose of this draft order is to implement without modification the recommendations of the Boundary Commission for England to make alterations to the boundaries between the parliamentary constituencies of Daventry and South Northamptonshire in Northamptonshire; and Somerton and Frome, and Wells in Somerset. I hope that the Committee will consider that this is an uncontroversial draft order, but I have a feeling that my hope may not be realised completely.

The Boundary Commission for England has observed its customary rigorous and non-partisan procedures in producing its report, including wide consultation. Although there has been some opposition to the proposals in Somerset, everyone concerned has had an opportunity to put their arguments, which have, I understand, been carefully considered by the commission.

I appreciate that there may be some interest from those affected—the electors concerned as well as Members of this Committee and of the other place who represent these areas. However, I hope we can all agree that the commission has, as usual, done its work very thoroughly and that we can approve this draft order.

I shall provide some background to the commission’s report and the order. Thanks are due to the Boundary Commission for England and its secretariat for its assiduous work in carrying out this review. As always, it has carried out its duties thoroughly and conscientiously. I take this opportunity to thank the deputy chair of the commission at the time, the honourable Mr Justice Sullivan, for overseeing this work. He is no longer the deputy chair, having been elevated to the Court of Appeal, so he is now Lord Justice Sullivan. I am grateful, as I am sure are all Members, for his work with the commission over many years.

The Boundary Commission is a body appointed by statute to review parliamentary constituency boundaries in England. As well as carrying out regular reviews on all parliamentary constituencies approximately every 10 years or so, if it thinks it necessary between those reviews, the commission can carry out interim reviews of boundaries in a particular area. These might be necessary as a result of other changes, for instance to local authority boundaries or perhaps if there are major population changes in an area. The report and the draft order are the result of local authority boundary changes.

The previous regular periodical review in England was completed by the commission in October 2006. Its report was implemented without modification in the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 2007, which sets out the parliamentary constituencies into which England is divided. The parliamentary constituencies are described by reference to local government areas as they existed on 12 April 2005 and, of course, the new parliamentary constituencies will come into effect at the next general election.

After the commission’s report was submitted, the Electoral Commission made orders in 2006 and 2007 which altered the local government ward boundaries in the district of South Northamptonshire and in the district of Mendip in Somerset. Because those orders came into effect some months after the commission had submitted its previous periodical report to the Secretary of State, the boundary changes were not reflected in the 2007 order. As a result, the boundaries between the parliamentary constituencies of Daventry and South Northamptonshire, and those between Somerton and Frome, and Wells do not follow the new local authority ward boundaries.

The Boundary Commission for England, therefore, considered whether it should carry out another interim review of the relevant areas and other areas in a similar situation. It concluded that it should carry out a review, but decided to postpone its reviews of the other areas because of local government reorganisations. No doubt the commission will return to those areas in due course.

The commission began the process in the usual way, announcing the commencement of the review in June 2007, collecting data and considering the evidence. It produced provisional recommendations in July 2007, published them widely and invited representations from interested parties. It made the recommendations available for inspection locally and on its website. The provisional recommendations propose that only the minimum changes necessary should be made to bring the boundaries between the parliamentary constituencies of Daventry and South Northamptonshire and those of Somerton and Frome, and Wells back into alignment with the new local authority ward boundaries. That will involve a relatively small change on the map and relatively few electors.

Sixteen written representations were received in respect of proposals for the Northamptonshire constituencies, of which 13 were objections; and five in respect of the Somerset constituencies, of which four were objections. The commission therefore decided to hold local public inquiries in both areas to allow those making representations, and others, an opportunity to make their case in person.

As a result of those public inquiries, the commission made revised proposals in both areas. Further written representations were received in respect of both areas, but after considering those and all the other evidence, I understand that the commission decided to make no further changes to its proposals. It made its report to the Secretary of State on 25 July 2008. The Secretary of State is required by statute to lay the commission's report before Parliament, along with the draft order implementing the recommendations,

“as soon as may be”,

after receiving the report. After arranging for publication of the report and preparing to seek legal approval of the instrument implementing the report's recommendations, the report and the draft order were laid in January this year.

The draft order is uncomplicated and, as I said, includes without modification the recommendations contained in the Boundary Commission’s report by amending the 2007 order to realign the parliamentary constituency boundaries with the altered ward boundaries. That means that the parliamentary constituencies will reflect the new local authority ward boundaries introduced in the Electoral Commission orders made in 2006 and 2007.

If the House should see fit to approve the draft order and those in the other place do the same, it will be submitted in the normal way to the Privy Council for approval before it comes into force. I remind the Committee that should the draft order be approved, it will have no practical effect until the next general parliamentary election. Any parliamentary by-elections that may occur in the areas affected before then will of course take place on the existing boundaries.

I trust that that explains in sufficient depth what the order is about and why the draft order should be approved.

I was not going to speak to the orders, but I think I should, purely to declare a very obscure interest. I do not know whether it is declarable or not. With regard to the first two constituencies concerned, Daventry and South Northamptonshire, the peerage under which I sit in this House is different from the one under which I call myself. I sit under a United Kingdom peerage, which is Lord Henley of Watford in the county of Northamptonshire. I think that the Watford in the county of Northamptonshire is in one of the wards mentioned in the district of Daventry. Therefore, I ought to declare my interest there. Other than that, I have nothing to say.

I certainly do not have such a distinguished interest as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, but I have an interest in knowing quite a bit about a part of the country to which the order refers: Somerset, which contains both the Somerton and Frome and the Wells constituencies. Having, I confess, been fully briefed only today, I am alarmed to the extent that I believe that the Boundary Commission for England may have misdirected itself with regard to the changes to those two constituency boundaries. I must substantiate that by trying to explain why I have expressed that very serious concern.

As I understand it, a substantial review with considerable and comprehensive consultation was undertaken in the constituencies concerned. But, as has been implied by the Minister, before it was completed and the process brought to fruition, changes were made to the district council ward boundaries. It was at that point that the commission decided that it should review the proposals that it had already consulted upon. I understand that no complaint had been made in either constituency by either of the Members, who are representatives of the two opposition parties, about the earlier process of consultation. The concern arose about the then change in the recommendations that resulted from the changes made to the Mendip district wards. I emphasise that it was simply the district wards that were changed, not the county wards, and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who knows a lot about county politics, will agree that county wards are a great deal more significant when it comes to the identification of communities and the rural areas that have a relationship with local towns. It is true that although the changes are not that dramatic, as a result of the recommended redistribution, some very interesting divisions have arisen in the rural areas that form part of the catchment areas, if you like, of some of the small towns of Somerset.

I think that we are owed a better explanation of why the Boundary Commission exercise decided to review proposals that had already attracted quite a lot of public support. The Minister has said that only five representations were made, but four of those were in opposition to the changes. It is clearly the case, as I know from contacts in Somerset, that many people thought that the original proposals would go through and were not aware of the second phase of consultation. Even more substantially in this building, I also understand that neither of the constituency Members of Parliament—Conservative and Liberal Democrat—feels that the consultation for the second stage of this exercise was anything like as adequate as for the first.

The Minister may now be able to explain why this particular order has come to this House first. That is curious since it deals with parliamentary constituencies, which are of very considerable interest to Members of the other place. Indeed, I do not think that hitherto there has been a formal occasion for Members of the other place to express anxieties on this score.

Having appeared before the Boundary Commission in the past, I have to say that its inquiries are usually meticulous. Up to this point, I have not heard of another example where it has gone back and, as it were, started the exercise again, having been triggered by a simple change to second-tier ward boundaries. That seems to be unusual as well. I find the whole process very extraordinary and I hope that the Minister will take note that I and my noble friends, when the report is made to the House, will seek the withdrawal of this order and a review. We do not believe that it meets the normal criteria that the Boundary Commission follows for England. Although it has a very good reputation, I fear that on this occasion it has not met the expectations we all have of it.

I thank both noble Lords for their contributions. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, need worry too much about a conflict of interest; indeed, I can reassure him on that.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for setting out so clearly his objections to part of the order. However, the Government’s view is that this is very much a matter for the Boundary Commission itself. Having considered it and having also held a public inquiry, when I understand a minor change was made, the commission came to a view, and it is that view which makes up this draft order. As the noble Lord generously conceded, the commission went through its normal procedures and the inquiries were conducted properly. The recommendations following the commission’s inquiries were accepted and we do not see it as our role in government to second-guess on matters of this kind. If we were to do so, it would represent a fairly dangerous precedent in terms of government power. The noble Lord will understand why I say that. I regret that he will take this matter further, but he is of course entitled to do so.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 4.56 pm.