Schedule 2: Sharing and checking information etc
1: Schedule 2, page 18, line 15, at end insert—
“(1A) Provision under sub-paragraph (1) must authorise or require institutions providing secondary education (as defined by section 2A of the Education Act 1996), the Student Loans Company Limited, the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency, tenancy deposit schemes (as defined by section 212 of the Housing Act 2004), and credit referencing agencies (as defined by section 145(8) of the Consumer Credit Act 1974), to disclose information to another person for the purpose of assisting a registration officer in Great Britain.”
My Lords, Amendment 1 stands in my name and in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton. In preparation for the move to individual electoral registration, the Government have been running some data-matching pilots, which we welcome. These pilots show a success rate of about 70% of existing electors—that is, from the household register—being confirmed through data matching with DWP data. However, looked at in more detail, the success rate in the 14 pilot areas varies markedly, with a low of 55%—that is, just over a half —of those in Tower Hamlets being matched between the data-matching scheme from DWP and the existing household register.
Having evaluated the pilots, the Electoral Commission said that it,
“found that there was significant variation across the pilot areas. Extra resources will be required by electoral registration officers in these areas where more of the electorate will need to be contacted directly … to encourage them to register individually”.
The commission also noted:
“It was also not possible to test the actual system that Electoral Registration Officers will use under IER”—
individual electoral registration—
“due to delays in the development of the IT system”.
We need to know from the Minister today whether the resources will be made available to electoral registration officers, whether the Government are confident that the IT will be on time and appropriate and whether there are back-up plans if future evaluation indicates ongoing problems.
What we know from these data-matching pilots, which use DWP and similar data, from the Electoral Commission and from the experience of Northern Ireland is how very difficult it is to capture and maintain certain groups of our citizens on the existing household register, never mind the new individual register that this Bill will introduce. If those groups already most likely to be disenfranchised—those in private rented property, the young, students and the mobile—are to be included in the democratic process, it will be essential that every possible effort is made to find those people and invite them to join the electoral register.
This amendment seeks to add some key authorised, official and secure databases to the existing, publicly produced lists that will be checked to find people so that local electoral officers will be able to write to those on such lists to encourage them to register. The groups listed in the amendment—the DVLC, the Student Loans Company, secondary schools, tenancy deposit schemes, and credit reference agencies—are all defined and thus regulated in some way in legislation. They are also covered by good data-protection protocols and have quality governance systems. This amendment would authorise them to provide relevant information to election officers, who can then write inviting those not on the register to sign up.
We know from every bit of research that those who are not, in fact, on the electoral register often assume that they are. This may be because they have other dealings with the state. They may have been issued with a driving licence or even an endorsement. They may be receiving or paying back a student loan. They may have money held by a tenancy deposit scheme or be at school. Given the move to individual registration, there is surely a right for all such people, many of whom think that they are on the register, to be invited to register, with it being clear that being on all those other lists does not make them a voter. All of this might appear obvious: that such sources of data will be key to finding those millions missing from our existing registers, let alone from the new system. However, without this requirement in the Bill, we fear that such data will not be shared in a timely manner and that many of our fellow citizens will never receive a personalised invitation to register to vote.
Northern Ireland moved ahead of us to individual electoral registration and found that its work with schools was very good at getting pupils to register. However, as soon as those pupils left home, registration fell away. As the Electoral Commission’s report shows:
“The majority of inaccuracies are related to entries for people who were no longer resident at the address”.
It also noted that there has been,
“a significant and worrying decline in the accuracy and completeness of Northern Ireland’s electoral register, largely as a result of an approach to maintaining the register which has not been able to keep pace with population movement”.
It is vital that we do not have a similar significant and worrying decline in our register, which is already perhaps 6 million short of what it should be. This amendment will help; perhaps only in a small way, but it will help. I beg to move.
My Lords, it may not surprise the House that I have very considerable sympathy with the arguments just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, and with the amendment tabled in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, as it is remarkably similar to the amendment that I moved in Committee. I made my points in support of it at col. 473 of Hansard for 29 October, and I shall not detain the House by rehearsing all them. However, I emphasise that we on these Benches feel very strongly that it is very important to make a success of what we are setting out to do through this Bill and that the widest possible range of data sources are used to encourage more people who are missing from the electoral register to be on it.
Of the organisations in the amendment, the Government have so far said publicly that they will move substantially on the Student Loans Company database only. There are very important issues still to be addressed, which could be addressed in further regulations, so it should not be necessary to vote at this stage. At some point, the House would like to know that the very good practice used in Northern Ireland of returning officers visiting schools as part of a civics lesson and registering 16 and 17 year-olds to make sure that they can vote when they are 18 and suggestions put forward in Committee about using things such as the tenancy deposit protection scheme and credit reference agencies’ information will be taken forward.
In particular, we would like to know from the Minister, if possible before the end of this debate, that action will be taken to try to ensure that the DVLA database is used in the same way as the DWP database, if not in exactly the same way for any legitimate reason. In the debates we have teased out the fact that very many people are missing from the electoral register because they move house. If we were simply to use the database of those people who notify the DVLA that they have moved house to then notify electoral registration officers that they should contact those individuals and invite them to be on the electoral register, that could ensure that many of the people missing from the voter registers were included.
These things could all be done relatively easily. I am hoping that it will not be necessary for us to vote at any point here, or on regulations on these issues at a later stage, but it is important that we receive some assurance from the Minister that the Government will take these points seriously if they are to assure us that they are sincere about improving the completeness of the electoral register as well as its accuracy.
My Lords, we have come a long way in discussing this issue since the Bill was subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny, and the character of the Bill has changed quite a lot as it has gone through both Houses. We have also learnt as the various data matching and data mining exercises have been piloted, and that continues to be the case. We had an interesting and informative debate on this subject in Committee and, as I said then, the Government are sympathetic to the spirit of the amendment, which seeks to ensure that the best possible use is made of data matching to identify people not on the register who may be entitled to be. The outcome of the second round of data pilots showed that some 70% of voters could be confirmed through the DWP database. As the noble Baroness said, this varies from local authority to local authority, but it enables us to focus on the 30% who are not confirmed.
We are all aware that it is the frequent movers and young people—above all, young men—who are the hardest to identify. In the various pilots under way, we are experimenting with using other databases. I remind noble Lords that, in last year’s data matching pilots, data were matched with organisations such as the DWP, HMRC, the Royal Mail—which was particularly useful for people who had given their changes of address—the Department for Education, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Transport, the Student Loans Company, the Ministry of Defence and, for Scotland, the Improvement Service company. In early 2013, we are currently planning to undertake pilots of data mining using databases held by the DWP, the Department for Education, HEFCE, the Welsh Government, the Royal Mail, the Student Loans Company and a small number of county councils.
Some data sets are held locally and some centrally, some are public and, as far as the credit reference agencies are concerned, some are private. The Bill enables us to remove any barriers to the usage of private sector data, and we have not ruled out the possibility of working with credit reference agencies to see what value their data sets can add to data matching for individual electoral registration.
I repeat: this is an area in which the Government are already very actively engaged. The amendment is not necessary. This schedule gives us the power to remove barriers to data sharing. Working through regulations enables us to discover new, useful data sets as we move forward. The Government are continuing to test which data sets are the most useful and effective in identifying potential electors.
Pre-empting such careful consideration of which may be the most appropriate data sets to use by specifying them in primary legislation could limit flexibility by requiring the unnecessary use of data sets that add no value to the work of EROs. The amendment would mean that the Government could not bring forward a data-matching order that did not include one of these agencies. That could potentially mean ruling out the future use of as-yet-unknown data sets or carrying out multiple data-matching exercises. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that we are in active discussion with the Department for Transport on the use of DVLA databases and others. It is likely that in 2013 we will be testing out other such databases.
The amendment is unnecessary and limits flexibility in an area where the Government are already engaged in intensive action to identify the best data sets to assist EROs in performance of their duties. I hope that I have said enough to reassure the noble Baroness and to enable her to withdraw the amendment. We all share the objective of coming out of this exercise with the maximum possible number of people on the register—and, as the noble Baroness has said, not just on the register first time around but staying on the register as they move.
I thank the Minister for that, and, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for his support. I am sorry that we pinched his words, but they were rather good words.
I disagree with the Minister on only one thing: when he said that the wording would make it compulsory and it might be difficult. If that really was the Government’s only opposition to it, we have Third Reading later tonight and we could have made it accurate. That was perhaps a slightly churlish bit of the response.
The rest of the response we found very heartening. There seems to be an attempt to look at most databases. It is particularly important to look at transport and the DVLA. The Minister mentioned that young men were some of those hardest to find. The last time I looked at it, young men had some of the highest records for both ownership of either cars or driving licences—or, sadly, for endorsements on them—so that is a particularly good way of finding them.
The Minister will not be surprised that we will continue to keep a watchful eye on this, to make sure that as much is done as possible. We will keep an eye out for any regulations that help. For the moment, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
2: After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—
“Representation of the People Act 1985 (Amendment)
(1) The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument amend the Representation of the People Act 1985 either—
(a) in section 1 (extension of parliamentary franchise), to omit subsections (3)(c) and 4(a) and in section 3 (extension of franchise for European Parliamentary elections), to omit subsections (3)(c) and (4)(a); or(b) to substitute for the period of 15 years provided for in each of those sections a longer period (“the relevant period”).(2) If the Secretary of State makes an order under subsection (1)(b) he may subsequently make further orders under subsection (1)(b) provided that any such subsequent order may only provide for a further increase in the relevant period.
(3) An instrument containing an order under subsection (1) shall be subject to approval by resolution of both Houses of Parliament.”
My Lords, I have tabled Amendment 2 in order to return to an issue that I raised in Committee last week. I return to it, and underline some of the points that I made last week, because the issue is one of great importance: the complete disenfranchisement at the parliamentary level—I stress at parliamentary level only—of the vast majority of our fellow countrymen and women who have lived outside the United Kingdom for more than 15 years, retaining their British citizenship, in which so many of them take the deepest pride. Apart from a very limited number living in nine small Commonwealth nations, they cannot vote in the national parliamentary elections that take place in the countries where they reside. The world over, the parliamentary franchise rests on nationality, not on residence and not, it should be emphasised, on the payment of taxes. As the noble Lord, Lord Wills, stated in Committee last week,
“taxation has never been a criterion for voting in this country and it is not now”.—[Official Report, 14/1/13; col. 484.]
Under our current legislation, the overwhelming majority of British subjects living overseas cannot vote in our parliamentary or European elections after 15 years’ absence. They are therefore deprived of the most fundamental of all democratic rights, which so many great British men and women of all parties strove so hard over long years to secure for all British adults.
Their disenfranchisement is thrown into sharp relief by the superior wisdom shown by so many other countries, which extend to their citizens living abroad a lifetime’s right to vote in their parliamentary elections. The overwhelming majority of our EU partners make such provision and so do other countries elsewhere in the world, including, in particular, the United States. We have failed to keep abreast of a prominent and continuing international trend. It is high time that we caught up.
Our disenfranchised fellow British subjects living overseas are large in number. Perhaps I may remind the House of the key figures. Some 5.6 million British subjects are estimated to reside beyond our shores, of whom some 4.4 million are of voting age. A not inconsiderable proportion have of course been abroad for less than 15 years and so are eligible to vote here, although there is no way of establishing the total number of those who fall into this category. Even estimates of the number by the Electoral Commission or other authoritative bodies are, as far as I know, lacking.
However, there is no doubt that at the moment many of them are not taking up their democratic right. No more than 23,388 people living overseas are on our electoral rolls today. It is important to be clear. That does not mean that only a mere 0.5% of those eligible to register have done so, as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, suggested last week. No one can tell what the percentage is since we do not know the number of people who have been abroad for less than 15 years. Even so, it is true that many who could register have not done so.
There are some who say that this shows the indifference with which many British subjects overseas regard the democratic right that they possess, and use this as an argument against removing or extending the existing 15-year limit. I believe that that is a profoundly mistaken conclusion. Many who have been abroad for less than 15 years are deterred by the complex and time-consuming registration procedures to which they are now subject. That problem should be tackled by simplifying the procedures through the introduction, as rapidly as possible and in line with developments in Britain itself, of online arrangements, as I suggested in Committee, using a British passport as the key means of establishing identity.
Moreover, many expatriates see little point in claiming for a season a right that will be summarily withdrawn at the end of it. There is a natural human tendency to place less value on what is provisional than on what is permanent and assured. Others feel that the sense of affection and attachment with which they regard their country is insufficiently reciprocated by Parliament and by some politicians. That impression tends to be reinforced by speeches that are sometimes made attributing to British subjects rather ignoble motives, such as a delight in cheap alcohol, for leaving our shores. It is sad that the benefits that our country derives from our expatriates are not always properly celebrated.
There also seems to be a reluctance to accept that, in today’s world, distance is no longer a barrier to an expatriate’s participation in their country’s affairs. However, as my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill said,
“if there was any rationale in the pre-internet age for the 15-year cut-off, to do with knowledge of what is going on in the United Kingdom, it has long since disappeared”.—[Official Report, 2/3/11; col. 1123.]
The day after our Committee debate last week, French state television featured a group of French citizens who had lived in Australia for more than 30 years. The tenor of the broadcast reflected France’s longstanding view that those who live abroad long-term should be thought of as great informal ambassadors for France in a wider world. That is a tradition that we should emulate. It can be no coincidence that half of all French citizens living overseas are registered to vote in their country.
I believe that we need to breathe new life and warmth into the relationship between our country and its expatriates. They should be made to feel truly welcome as participants in our affairs. The best way to do that would be by placing them all on the same basis with regard to parliamentary voting rights, which provide such a profound affirmation of national identity. Principle points to no other conclusion.
My noble friend Lord McNally has said that,
“early in this Parliament we should have a really radical look at voting for our overseas residents”.—[Official Report, 2/3/11; col. 1133.]
Since then, it has been stated from time to time that the Government have the issue under review, a formula that I trust is not a euphemism for evading action. Indeed, I hope that it is the not inconsiderable practical and administrative implications of change that are under review, in preparation for action.
If we are to reach out successfully to our valued expatriates, the process of dismantling the 15-year rule needs at the very least to begin. My amendment would give the Government flexibility in determining the pace of change by enabling them to extend the time limit beyond 15 years in stages through secondary legislation. My noble friend Lord Norton said last week that this would provide time to reflect and build a consensus in order to extend the period.
The proposal does not involve the creation of a new right but the extension of an existing one. For that, secondary legislation would not be inappropriate. However, if such a route to change were followed, it would be important to keep the final aim firmly in view—the complete removal of all discrimination against our fellow British subjects living overseas. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will not detain the House long as I made our position clear in Committee and it has not changed. As I said then, we believe that my noble friend Lord Lexden has hit on a very interesting and important issue about nationality and representation. There is clearly a strong case for some rationalisation and, indeed, for a careful look at the way in which our EU partners handle this issue, as was again said today. At the same time, we must note that the majority of them have a very different electoral system from our own. Here in the UK, we have a system of single-Member constituencies with a special link between an MP and his or her constituents. It is irrational to have people who used to live in my old constituency in north Cornwall, for example, still on the electoral roll 15 years or more after they have left for possibly sunnier climes.
Let me clear up any misunderstanding: every UK election, with the notable exception of European parliamentary elections, is in a sense a local election. Voters in a particular locality decide which local representative would in their judgment best represent their interests and those of that specific locality. It is also true that many local issues, from development threats in that locality to the level of council tax more generally, can be major factors even in a UK parliamentary election. For those who have left that locality 15 or more years ago to have a potentially decisive voice in such an election is illogical. I still remember the occasion when I was elected with a majority of nine. For all I know, that majority of nine came from many thousands of miles away and had no direct interest in that locality and that local parliamentary election.
Last week my noble friend Lord Deben, who is not in his usual place this afternoon, attacked me on this issue in a splendidly enjoyable diatribe. I make it clear: I do not defend or, indeed, reject the single-Member constituency that we have at present in the UK, but it is a fact of political life. Therefore, anything we do on this issue has to take that into the reckoning. If he or anybody else is now expecting a change to a multi-Member or list electoral system for the House of Commons, I am as surprised as I am delighted. However, I do not think that he is.
In the absence of any such reform, we urge my noble friend Lord Lexden to think again about his strategy. If he is to address the anomalies that he has rightly identified, he must take up the issue of an additional constituency for overseas voters. Several contributors to last week’s debate in Committee, including my noble friend Lord Lexden, referred to the French arrangement for overseas voters. Indeed, again, he made very important reference to the experience of French overseas voters. However, the significant point is that they have a separate constituency; they do not interfere with the individual constituencies in mainland France. In those circumstances, we believe that this amendment puts the cart before the horse. We believe that the creation of a separate constituency on the French model—or, indeed, constituencies, if the numbers justify something beyond one constituency—would be a much more appropriate way to make this injustice less of a problem in future. Surely that is the right and only way for the interests of former UK residents to be represented without diluting those of the people who still live in this country.
My Lords, I support the amendment moved so ably by my noble friend Lord Lexden. It is a novel amendment but a modest one. In Committee, there were essentially two objections to the proposal to extend the 15-year limit on British nationals who live abroad having the vote. A third objection was to the mechanism proposed by my noble friend, which is again before us today.
One objection to extending the 15-year limit was that citizens who have retired to live abroad and enjoy the sunshine of foreign climes had effectively fled the United Kingdom and therefore should not be able to vote—certainly not for any great length of time. My noble friend Lord Tyler referred in Committee to the fact that some people may deem them to have deserted these shores. That is to misunderstand the situation of British nationals living abroad. Most emigrants from this country live abroad for work-related purposes. Some will be moving around the globe for their companies, which may well be UK companies. The fact of living abroad for some years is no proof of leaving the UK on a permanent basis.
My noble friend Lord Tyler raised a second objection, to which he referred again today. He argued that citizens living abroad do not have a clear constituency link, and he queried how an MP could represent,
“people who live perhaps thousands of miles away in a very different economic and social context”.—[Official Report, 14/1/13; col. 481.]
Well, I presume that they can do it in the same way in which they currently represent those who live abroad but have not yet done so for 15 years and are registered to vote. It is perhaps also worth reminding ourselves that the MEPs for the south-west of England also represent Gibraltar, where people live some way away in a different economic and social context.
The other objection was raised by my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble in respect of this particular amendment, on the grounds that it would be unusual to make such a change in secondary legislation. I note that he said “unusual” and not “unique”. In any event, what is involved here is not a new right but an extension of an existing right. Far greater changes affecting individuals are made through secondary legislation than is being envisaged here. What the amendment does is provide some flexibility. In Committee, my noble friend Lord Gardiner said that the question of extending the time limit,
“remains under consideration within government”.
The amendment provides the means to move forward, should that consideration result in recognition that the time limit should be extended.
The grounds for extending the time limit were made in Committee by my noble friend Lord Lexden. As I stressed in that debate, we need to recognise the contribution made to the United Kingdom by citizens living abroad. They are a major source of soft power for the United Kingdom. My noble friend Lord Gardiner acknowledged,
“the continuing loyalty to the United Kingdom of so many who have lived and worked overseas for many years”.—[Official Report, 14/1/13; col. 489.]
We should look upon our citizens around the globe as a continuing asset and not as a body of people to be cast aside and treated as having deserted these shores. If they wish to demonstrate a continuing commitment to the United Kingdom, they should be enabled to do so.
My noble friend’s amendment provides the means for doing so but, at this stage, without commitment. It enables the Government to complete their consideration of the issue. I therefore commend the amendment to the House.
My Lords, I intervene only briefly to ask a question, because the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, quite rightly drew the House’s attention to the sensitivity in very marginal seats to votes coming in from abroad. I want to know what happens in conditions of fraud. We have an individual registration system and the suggestion is that we should extend the right to vote to those who have been overseas for more than 15 years. What happens if a fraud takes place? Where are those involved to be prosecuted? Can they be prosecuted? Are they to be extradited? Does this not raise all kinds of problems in terms of prosecution? Perhaps the Minister can give the answer.
I am toying with supporting my noble friend’s amendment but I just wish to seek clarification on a couple of things. The areas that I find totally persuasive are those raised by my noble friend in moving the amendment and those referred to by my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, particularly when he talked about soft power. That soft power extends in a network world increasingly to include economic power. These people are overseas on business—they are economically active. There is a global network of 4.4 million or more people who can speak up for and promote Britain, as well as provide information on and connections to the commercial arms of the respective embassies and consulates overseas.
My only difficulty is this. My noble friend Lord Lexden pointed out that currently 4.4 million people are of voting age but only 23,500 or thereabouts are registered to vote, although I do not know what proportion actually voted at the last election. First, does my noble friend agree that it would be useful for the Electoral Commission to undertake extensive research into the reasons why people do not register overseas for this right to vote, which is extremely important to them? Secondly—perhaps this is better addressed to my noble friend on the Front Bench—does he agree that the time has come for the Government to appoint someone to champion the voice of overseas residents who have the vote here? In that regard, I cannot think of a better person to head that up than my noble friend Lord Lexden.
I support the amendment. I got a very dusty answer in Committee, and I do not really agree with most of the arguments against the amendment. If you start from first principles and the idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, in my view this does no harm. Moreover, it is only an enabling measure; it does not change anything. It creates a power to change things, which, to me, makes it seem rather modest. Having a single constituency or two constituencies for expatriates is an extremely good idea in my view, but I suspect that it might be found to be not relevant to this Bill, which would be shocking.
I feel that I have not yet heard a compelling argument against this power. I am encouraged that it is supported not only by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, but by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who is a great expert in these matters.
On the question of electoral fraud, where it would be prosecuted and how the miscreant would be brought to justice, I agree that that might be quite difficult to do if we were rash enough to opt out from justice and home affairs and the European arrest warrant.
I hope that the noble Lord did not hear what I just said to my noble friend, which was, “He’s wicked”.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for bringing the amendment to the House. His commitment to this is clear. Having worked abroad, I can say that it is always very nice to have someone speaking for us, as it were.
As we made clear in Committee, the Opposition do not support the amendment. We remain unconvinced that those who left these shores 20, 30 or more years ago should continue to vote for a Government under whom the rest of us pay our taxes and live with the consequences of our vote. Those people will not live with the consequence of theirs.
However, I want to stress another consideration which I raised in Committee. Should this extension go forward, such non-residents would then also be able to continue to make unlimited donations to UK political parties. By being on the electoral register, they are also categorised as permissible donors to a political party. The previous Government, in the light of ongoing concerns about overseas funding of our politics, passed the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009. Section 10 of the Act prohibits a registered party from accepting a donation of more than £7,500 in any year from a UK national living abroad and on the electoral register, unless they become resident in the UK and pay UK income tax. Sadly, however—and I think wrongly—this section of the Act has not yet come into force and the coalition Government have indicated that they have no intention of bringing it into force. Perhaps the Government would like to take a moment to announce a change in their view on this, in which case we would be up and ready to welcome it immediately.
However, as that provision has not been brought in, it means that all those UK nationals permanently living abroad would be allowed to give donations to our political parties, because the test of whether an individual is a permissible donor is whether they are on the electoral register. Therefore, if overseas electors were able to stay on the register for longer than 15 years, they would remain permissible donors for as long as their wealth held out. For this reason—if for no other—we could not support the amendment.
My Lords, I start by declaring an interest: I have two sisters, two nephews and one son who are British citizens living abroad at the moment. At least three of them, I think, are dual nationals; this is, of course, one of the many complications in addressing this. I said at an earlier stage that I knew a British civil servant who had gone to visit his cousins in Vermont so that he could vote in the US presidential election—on the right side, I am happy to say. This is one of the many complications in addressing this large area. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for ensuring that the Government will take a more active approach to this consideration from now on. I should criticise my noble friend Lord Tyler for suggesting that there could be, possibly, sunnier climes than Cornwall. I thought, when I was a boy and saw the Cornish Riviera Express go by, that it was called that because Cornwall was very warm. Among the messages that I, and probably others, have received from voters abroad—in particular from a group in the Var, Provence—have been some rather abusive messages suggesting that any attempt to take away the winter fuel allowance from people living in Provence would encourage them all to register en masse.
This is a complex area, and the short debate we have had suggests the many complexities that exist. The Government’s view remains that the franchise for UK elections is set out in primary legislation, and that it should be changed by primary legislation and not by regulation. It was pointed out earlier that, of our 4.5 million potential overseas voters, only 30,000 were registered at the peak in 2010. That is weak evidence that there is a pent-up demand that we are failing to satisfy.
The French have a great many more overseas residents registered, but the French approach to registration of citizens abroad is very different from the British one. Certainly, the Foreign Office would have to consider the consular resources available for much more active registration of British citizens abroad. I think the right figure at the moment is that some 50,000 British citizens abroad are currently registered with consulates, which suggests that if we were to follow the French model, we would be going through a whole sea-change in our relations with our overseas citizens. We do not know how many of our estimated 5.6 million overseas citizens are dual citizens; we do not know how many of them were born in Britain or born abroad. We have some interesting questions about how this would work: for example, in which constituency would British citizens born overseas be registered when they wished to vote? There are a very large number of questions even before we get to the question of special constituencies for them, and I would suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, should pursue the question of an all-party inquiry into this rather neglected area, not leaving everything to the Government here.
The choice of constituency, after all, is a contentious one. I recall many arguments in the past between the two coalition parties about the way in which people who have second homes in Devon and Cornwall might be registered, and about the constituency in which they should vote. In marginal seats, the addition of a very substantial number of overseas voters could alter the whole political balance. I will criticise the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, for pinching my joke, and say that of course, if we are prosecuting someone for fraud, the European Arrest Warrant is appropriate for use against people in Spain and Cyprus.
Having said that, I encourage the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, to withdraw his amendment. We recognise that he has made his mark on the Government. There is a delicate issue here. I note that the Irish simply do not give the right to vote to their overseas citizens. I suspect they think that there are simply too many of them and that they would outweigh the domestic constituency. There are large questions here about what rights we might grant, for how long and for how many people we might grant them, and whether we should grant them for people who were born abroad. We might appropriately consider these questions, but, I suggest, not in the context of the Bill. Now that the noble Lord has registered his point with considerable vigour, I encourage him to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for suggesting that I undertake the considerable duty of giving consideration to the establishment of an all-party inquiry. I am extremely interested in that suggestion. If I may, I will seek a meeting with him about how that might proceed. On the face of it, an all-party inquiry is extremely attractive.
The Bill has now provided the House with two major opportunities to consider the current seriously flawed and inadequate electoral arrangements for our fellow British subjects living overseas. I hope that our discussions have created a better understanding in Parliament of the issues, and at least challenged some of the misconceptions that have long been rife. I hope, too, that they have given at least a measure of encouragement to British expatriates. Large numbers of them will have watched our proceedings today and last week with keen interest. Many in this House will share my strong hope that many more expatriates eligible to register under the existing 15-year rule will exercise their right, as consideration continues to be given to the removal of that rule.
As my noble friend the Minister emphasised, the issues are firmly on the political agenda. They need to be pursued, in detail, with vigour and care. In these circumstances, it would be inappropriate to divide the House. In the knowledge that efforts to secure progress will continue, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Clause 7 : Power to amend or abolish the annual canvass
3: Clause 7, page 5, line 40, leave out paragraph (b)
My Lords, Amendment 3 stands in my name and that of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton. The amendment is simple. Its purpose is to maintain the annual canvass. Clause 7(2)(b), which we seek to delete, would authorise the Minister to abolish the annual canvass. This long-standing canvass is a critical tool in compiling the register, and is the only way of judging whether the other systems that take information from a variety of data sources are working. Without the canvass there will be no check on the completeness of the register. All those experienced in this area are adamant that the old-fashioned canvass remains a crucial tool in locating citizens domiciled in Great Britain. Houses do not move. Ensuring that eligible residents are on the list is best done via the canvass. Nothing else competes.
Furthermore, we are concerned about the impact of the removal of the annual canvass in Northern Ireland, which the Electoral Commission considers contributed to the dip in registration there. Jenny Watson, head of the Electoral Commission, stated in her covering letter to the commission’s report on Northern Ireland that,
“the processes … employed by the Chief Electoral Officer … are unable to keep pace with either people moving home or people becoming newly eligible to … register. … We need robust process to respond to people moving … or becoming … eligible to… register … Any decision to remove the annual canvass in Great Britain … must be seriously thought through to ensure that any change would not lead to a drop in registration”.
Anna Carragher, the Electoral Commissioner for Northern Ireland, described how its Chief Electoral Officer,
“was no longer required to conduct a fresh canvass of electors every year”.
She commented that,
“data matching techniques … insufficient for maintaining an accurate and complete register”.
The report on Northern Ireland is clear. It states:
“Data matching initiatives have not been able to compensate for a full canvass of all households”.
Despite this, and after that report, Chloe Smith, Parliamentary Secretary of the Cabinet Office, in a debate in the other place last week, continued to place her faith in data matching, claiming it would open up a whole new world of possibilities for how we might annually register people to vote. She said:
“I do not think a situation in which the annual canvass is less effective than new methods is beyond our lifetimes. I do not suggest that I know what these methods might be”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/1/13; col. 234WH]
She does not know but, nevertheless, she wants the power in a Minister’s hands to abolish the annual canvass. This is not reason enough to keep the power in the Bill as a kind of “Just in case”, “Well, perhaps” or “Here’s hoping we have a better method”. Does the Minister accept that Ms Smith’s faith in data matching directly contradicts the evidence of those in charge of and evaluating the Northern Ireland experience? We need evidence that the Government are learning from Northern Ireland and have recognised the centrality of the annual canvass.
While the Government have said they currently have no plans to abolish the annual canvass if there is nothing superior with which to replace it, they still want to legislate in this Bill to allow the change in the future. We remain deeply unconvinced by their argument. The continuing presence in the Bill of the power for a government Minister to abolish the annual canvass is potentially damaging to our democracy. The House, I am sure, will be concerned about giving an elected politician, in government, the power to dispense with this crucial democratic tool. I hope the Minister will therefore accept this important amendment and agree to remove the power from the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the noble Baroness. Many of us in this Chamber who have been involved in canvassing for by-elections, general elections and local government elections will know that, while it is an enjoyable experience, not every place you go to is a semi-detached or detached dwelling. Sometimes you find yourself on commercial premises and are surprised that someone is resident above a garage or a haulage company. Sometimes you are greeted by a friendly doberman or a territorial rottweiler when you approach to do a canvass.
Canvassing is no easy task—it is by no means a light job—and the men and women who take it on are the unsung heroes of the people within the democratic process who try to get a decent register together. Albeit that they are paid, they do it on a voluntary basis. Once the task is finished, they are paid a sum of money and they are gone. It would be very sad if we did away with this system of gathering votes because, as has been said before, including by me, every time there is a boundary change there is always a complaint that the electoral roll is inaccurate. These men and women go about the business of ensuring that there is great accuracy and, as I say, that is not an easy task.
The Minister might say that it would go through only with a parliamentary order that could be debated in both Houses. However, we all know that a Minister, quite unintentionally, could put the order through on a day when the work of the House is light or perhaps during the wash-up period when there is a lot of other activity. I think that the amendment is worth supporting.
My Lords, the annual door-to-door household canvass is an extremely important part of the current registration system and has been shown to be very effective. Recent evidence from Northern Ireland shows that it was clearly a mistake to remove the annual canvass from the registration process there when individual electoral registration systems were introduced. However, some are arguing that for the data-mining and data-matching exercises to be successful, the Government may want to signal that at some point in the future it may be possible to remove the annual canvass. Personally, I cannot envisage it in the foreseeable future, but I accept that if all the other methods being tried to register voters prove as successful as some of us hope, there may be a case for doing so in the future. However, it would be unwise for the Government to proceed with removing the annual canvass without considerable consensus and the advice of the Electoral Commission that it was safe to do so, and without the new electoral registration systems being put forward in this Bill having been in place and embedded for a very considerable period.
I accept that we have made extensive changes and effected substantial improvements to this Bill, but I am unhappy about this power remaining in the Bill unless we know that positive parliamentary approval would be required for any Secretary of State to cancel the power for the annual canvass. However, as I say, I do not think that the power should be exercised at any point in the foreseeable future.
My Lords, I start by stressing again that we all share the goal of getting as complete and accurate a register as possible and, indeed, of maintaining it over the years. I am looking at the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, whom I was about to call my noble friend because I have learnt a lot from him during the consideration of this Bill, as I have on previous occasions.
Over the next 10 years we will move more towards online and digital registration by default and we will find that communication between the citizen and the state becomes much easier. That is one of the large, indeed revolutionary, changes that we expect to go through. I would also remind noble Lords of what I said in Committee, which is that in certain parts of the country new housing in particular is making it increasingly difficult to carry out a full canvass. I visited the electoral registration office for Wandsworth. The figures there show that currently some 50,000 housing units are sited in gated communities or apartment blocks with entry phones, while the proposed development of the Battersea Power Station site will add a further 16,000 such units.
We all recognise that the annual canvass is useful and important. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Martin, that there are areas in Bradford where some houses are back to back and others are not; some houses where people use only the front entrance and others where they use only the back, so many of us are well aware of the difficulty of finding out who lives where. Nevertheless, the extent to which we find it easy to catch people when they are in and get them to answer their doors, and thus to rely primarily on the annual canvass, is itself changing. This provision has been put into the Bill to remove the necessity of coming back to the House with primary legislation for a change when we are confident that other methods—in particular, online methods—provide more efficient and cost-effective ways of ensuring that we have a complete and accurate register.
I also stress that, under the Bill as drafted, there is a statutory role for the Electoral Commission in any changes. This does not create a power that is simply in the hands of the Government. In addition to the changes requiring the approval of Parliament, the Electoral Commission must be consulted and give its approval. The commission itself considers that Clause 7 and the other clauses relating to piloting and implementing changes to the annual canvass are appropriate. It stated that,
“it is sensible to include these provisions in this Bill to allow the findings from pilots and the early years of IER to inform the future role of the canvass. The Government has already made changes to this part of the legislation to reflect comments made by the Commission during pre-legislative scrutiny”.
The commission’s report is also required for any specific changes that the Government make under the powers in Clause 7. Under Clause 8, the Minister bringing forward the order must ask the Electoral Commission to,
“prepare a report assessing … the extent to which the objective in subsection (2)”—
the registration objective—
“is met … and … the merits of alternative ways of achieving the objective”.
The Electoral Commission would be required to publish its report within three months, and the Minister would then be required to present that report to Parliament alongside the draft order—which is subject to affirmative resolution of both Houses—that would make the changes.
Our aim with this provision, and the associated provisions I have outlined, is to create a system that is flexible and able to respond to advances in technology but also one that is transparent and has the right amount of scrutiny and safeguards built into it. Having given those assurances, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel sufficiently confident to withdraw her amendment.
The Electoral Commission has to provide a report assessing the extent to which the registration objectives have been met. That report has to be presented to Parliament, and the Minister has to respond. Both Houses of Parliament then vote on whether they accept the Minister’s approval. It is a fairly strong set of safeguards.
My Lords, they are not strong enough. We are coming, later on, to an amendment on the 10 pm closing, where the Electoral Commission has also given its advice and the Government are seeking to overrule it. I think that reflects the question just asked: it is about advice and not approval, and a report coming here and to the other place that the Government could then override. It will basically be a government decision. They always have a majority, as we know, in the other place, while in this place we have a custom and practice not to vote against regulations. That basically means it is in the hands of a Government, who do not have to take the advice—although they have to listen to it—of the Electoral Commission.
I am afraid that I am not sufficiently assured that this power, which allows an elected Government to abolish the annual canvass, is one that should remain in the Bill. The Minister talked about it being 10 years before online registration will really be there. That seems a long time to leave the power to abolish it in the hands of the Government. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Martin, for his support and want to test the opinion of the House.
Clause 11 : Orders under Part 1
4: Clause 11, page 8, line 5, at end insert “(but paragraph 27A of Schedule 5 contains an exception to this)”
My Lords, this amendment is part of a group tabled in my name along with Amendments 5, 8, 10, 14 and 15. Together, they provide for an extended carry-forward of non-individually registered electors unless this is deemed unnecessary.
This group of amendments is one that I hope noble Lords on all sides of this House will welcome—indeed, names from the Labour Front Bench are attached to one of them. The amendments aim to give reassurance that the electoral register following the implementation of individual electoral registration will be as complete and accurate as possible.
My noble friends and I have set out the steps incorporated into the plan for implementation of individual electoral registration under the Bill that will help to achieve this outcome. These include: the confirmation of around 70% of existing electors through data matching; a transition period that includes the general election, when non-canvass-period registrations are likely to peak; and the numerous steps to encourage registration that are built into electoral registration officers’ duties.
However, having listened to arguments in this House and elsewhere, we can see that there is a desire for a further safeguard such as that proposed in the amendments. Their effect is to postpone to December 2016 the final date for the transition to a register made up entirely of individually registered electors following a third canvass under the new system.
The Secretary of State will, however, have a power to take that final step in 2015—in keeping with existing plans for implementation of IER—if he is satisfied that the transition to IER can be concluded at that point. Perhaps I might stress, mischievously, that this will be after the election, and the question as to who the Secretary of State will be and which party or parties he represents is of course a matter which none of us at this point knows. Let me be clear that it is this Government’s intention to continue to work towards concluding implementation in 2015, but we will review that position ahead of making a decision.
If the decision is made to conclude the transition to IER in 2015, an order subject to the negative procedure will be made by the then Secretary of State in the three months after 1 June 2015. When the annual canvass period concludes that autumn, those entries carried forward from the pre-transition register published in spring 2014, where the elector has not been confirmed through data matching or successfully applied under IER, will be removed from the register. The revised register published on 1 December 2015 will then be made up only of individually registered electors, as under the current plans for the implementation of IER.
If the order is not made, this process will be delayed by a year and will take place following the 2016 canvass, with the December 2016 register containing only individually registered electors.
I have mentioned some of the factors built into the transition to IER which the Government feel will support the maintenance of the current level of completeness. I remind noble Lords that we intend, with the encouragement of the Electoral Commission, to move through the transition and complete it as rapidly as possible, subject to confidence being built that we have successfully managed to capture the maximum possible number of individual electors.
The amendments enable the change to an IER-only register to be left until 2016, but we are confident that the Secretary of State of the day will feel able to make the order to take the final step of transition in 2015. However, we recognise the hesitations in the House and have thus provided that additional safeguard. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall be very brief, except to say that sometimes I sit here, as I have today, wondering what world it is that we think that we live in. The world around us is changing a lot faster than we are prepared to change the electoral system, apparently. As I have said before and will say only briefly again, what we really need is a national register based on every individual getting benefits, et cetera, only if they are on the register, backed up with an ID card—sorry, a smartcard. I had better not use the term ID card as I know that it sometimes causes frissons down people’s backs. Smartcard technology is now very advanced. Although I am grateful to the Minister for calling my name in aid in the previous debate, the fact is that 10 years is now a very long time in technological terms. If you look only at the two years since this Government came into power, when we abolished—wrongly, in my view—ID cards, the way in which smartcard technology has moved in those two years now makes it very feasible to have one register and to divide it up into the constituencies. Everybody who is on the national register and is a holder of an ID card will then be entitled to vote.
Personally, I think that we ought to be moving to a system whereby the actual voting is done electronically as well, using that smartcard. That will come, but, at the moment, it would appear that the last place in which we will be using a pencil will be to mark a cross on a ballot paper in some school, where people have to go out in the cold and wet to do it. I think that even golfers will give up the pencil before this Government are prepared to give up the pencil for ballots under the electoral system. Please, please, will the Government take this slight delay as an opportunity to look again at how we can introduce a national register to ensure that every citizen of this country is entitled to vote in the next general election?
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Tyler and I have both signed the amendments in this group. They clearly result from the lengthy discussions we had in Committee about the right time to end the carryover for electors from the household register to the individual register. The debate then centred on how confident we can be as to how good the transition to individual electoral registration will be seen to be by 1 December 2015. Some people may be very confident that it will all work well in terms of both completeness and accuracy; as your Lordships know, I am a bit less confident about that. None of us can be certain about which is the right assessment to make until the transition is actually under way and properly tested. As we know, we are piloting various things at the moment but with software which will not even be the final software for use when we are fully into individual electoral registration. It was for that reason that I was determined in Committee that there should be a mechanism by which we could extend the carryover if, for example, the Electoral Commission reported by 1 December 2015 that many people would unjustifiably be removed from the electoral register and that the register was at that point significantly less complete than at present.
The Electoral Commission will, of course, give advice on this issue, but I do not think that it is appropriate for the commission to decide on such an issue. The Electoral Commission should advise us, and Parliament itself must be able to decide on this issue. It would not be right for a Minister simply to decide that—in his opinion, or in the opinion of the Government—it was the right time to make such a fundamental change. These amendments are right to extend the period of carryover for voters on the existing household register to 2016 as a default legislative position, while permitting the Minister to propose to Parliament that the carryover be ended in 2015, with the proviso that either House can disagree.
The government amendments in this group provide an essential failsafe and are an important part of protecting our democratic system. If it appears that this transition has not worked effectively enough in 2015 but a Minister tries to press ahead in any event, Parliament can prevent that Minister doing so. I am therefore very grateful to all those who have contributed to debates on this subject, and for the discussions that I have had with Ministers and for the flexibility shown. We on these Benches will therefore support the government amendments unamended.
Finally, I have a brief word on Amendments 6 and 7, tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, which are about postal votes. I tested the logic of the Government’s position on this issue in Committee. We received considerable reassurances that postal voters will be given considerable assistance in ensuring that they can continue to have access to a postal vote, should they decide to do so. They are also, importantly, still able to vote in person should they wish to do so. They are not losing their right to vote if they are not registered under the IER system by the time of the relevant election. The Government have made a little concession on this issue. Perhaps it is something that we will still have to review but, for the moment, we on these Benches are satisfied by what the Government have said.
My Lords, these amendments in effect fall into two categories. First, on dealing with the carryover of the register up to 2016, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, will be aware that an amendment similar to the one that he has put down was moved in Committee. We of course welcome the fact that he has extended the carryover period to 1 December 2016. I welcome it for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, gave in his speech and the reasons given in the speeches heard before.
Given the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I am slightly worried that he is starting from the predilection that the Government will exercise their powers to stop the carryover at 1 December 2015. I would be anxious about that and would hope that the Government, whichever Government they were, looked at the matter with an open mind rather than saying, “We hope that we will be able to use the powers”. One thing that has emerged during these debates is that everybody expects there to be a real diminution in the number of people who are on the register, at least the first time around. I very much hope that it is looked at from an objective point of view rather than a biased one.
In connection with that, I should say that this is an incredibly important issue for our democracy, again as I think everybody accepts. It would be much better if Parliament definitely had to debate this issue, which would be the effect of our Amendment 9 to government Amendment 8. We achieve that by saying that there has to be a positive vote in Parliament before the carryover is moved back to 1 December 2015, rather than having the negative procedure, which would mean that somebody would have to object in either House.
It would be useful if the Minister could explain why something that goes right to the heart of our democracy can go through by default. I was deeply disappointed and injured by the fact that my new friend the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, did not feel able to support me on this, although I know that in his heart he really does—I should make it clear that he has not said that to me. Will the Minister explain why he thinks it is not appropriate that this be dealt with by, in a sense, a compulsory prescription to Parliament where the Government—whoever they may be—think they have to in relation to the level of coverage in the register? That seems an appropriate matter for a Government to report to this House on.
I have to be frank with the noble Lord: I do not expect to be in the role of Secretary of State. I have no idea who the Secretary of State will be. My anxiety was not what I know would be an open-minded and fair approach should it be a Labour Administration—indeed, a Liberal Democrat Administration as well. My anxiety was the coalition’s predilection, should it remain in power, to say, “We think the position is that we should try to bring it back to 1 December 2015”. That is all I was thinking of. That is our position on the carryover.
On proxy and postal votes, my understanding of the logic behind carrying over for one extra year is that you recognise that even though there will be much publicity and support for people to register themselves individually, it will not work with everybody. If that logic applies to individual registration, it is bound to apply to those whose proxy or postal vote you have to carry over. We are surely in a position where we wish to encourage people to vote. If you believe that you have a proxy or postal vote, and then you discover you have not, the likely effect is a reduction in the number of people who can vote.
To my immense disappointment, for reasons he did not adequately explain, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard—this is not a criticism of him—said that he was persuaded by the logic. He did not say why, and I was therefore unable to know why one should be persuaded by the logic. I would be grateful for an explanation from the Minister as to why the logic applies to extending registration to 1 December 2016, where there will be help, but it does not apply where there is a proxy or postal vote. This is an important matter that goes to the heart of our democracy.
However, I do not want to sound churlish, and I am very grateful that there has been extension for the other bit of the carryover to 1 December 2016.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for contributing to this short debate. The statement made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that everyone expects a diminution of registration in the process of transition is not one that I accept. As I have stressed throughout, we are facing a number of problems with electoral registration altogether. We have the difficulties of identifying potential electors; we have the difficulties of keeping, in particular, young voters on the register; and all the research that I have looked at in the past two years demonstrates that we have the problem of disillusionment with politics as such, which leaves a number of people positively to wish not to be on the register. As I take part in local politics in Bradford, I come across large swathes of people who have no interest in politics whatever and simply do not wish to be on the register. They are very often in Labour-held council wards.
I think we all recognise that what needs to accompany the process of transition is a range of activities by the Government, but not just the Government, to make sure that everyone understands what is going on, that people are alerted to the need to move through to a process of individual registration, and that we work with schools, colleges, universities and others to persuade people that it is part of their engagement with our civil society to register to vote. I hope that the Labour Party will play an active role in this. I recall discussing with a senior Labour figure the desirability of a Labour Party electoral registration drive, to which the answer was, “You know very well we can’t do that these days. We have too few members, and most of them are retired”. That is a problem, incidentally, which all political parties now face, of course. We have fewer members than we used to have. We are not so good at getting out and rounding up the marginal people. The Government certainly intend to be out there in schools, colleges and elsewhere, drawing attention to what is going on.
The reason for the Government’s position on Amendments 6 and 7 is that the largest area for electoral fraud in recent years has been postal vote fraud. We know that a certain amount of this has not proceeded through to prosecution. Talking to electoral registration officers, as I was last summer, I was told that a great deal is known that is not provable and, as such, is not prosecuted. However, we are clear that, particularly in local elections, postal vote fraud has been the largest area of electoral fraud.
If we are thinking about the accuracy as well as the completeness of the register, we wish to hold to ensuring that those who have existing absent-vote registration renew that registration as they go through this process. This will be accompanied by making sure that those who are in sheltered accommodation, and those in particular areas where absent-vote registration is concentrated, are aware of what is happening and are encouraged to renew their absent-vote registration. This is a question of the accuracy of the register, and not just the existence of voting fraud but the perception of a high level of voting fraud. For that reason, we resist Amendments 6 and 7.
On Amendment 9, the question is how confident one is that we will manage the transition with a degree of success. We all recognise that the completeness level of the register we have today has fallen and that, as we go through this process, we will have to work very hard to ensure that we improve on the levels of completeness. However, the safeguards that we have provided and the concessions that we have made in the government amendments in this group are sufficient to give the assurances that are needed. We therefore encourage the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to take confidence in the reassurances that I have offered and not to move his amendments.
Amendment 4 agreed.
Schedule 5 : Transitional provision to do with Part 1
5: Schedule 5, page 29, line 23, leave out “second new canvass” and insert “third new canvass”
Amendment 5 agreed.
Amendments 6 and 7 not moved.
8: Schedule 5, page 36, line 33, at end insert—
“Power to bring forward effect of paragraph 627A (1) The Minister may by order provide for paragraph 6 to have effect as if the reference to the third new canvass were a reference to the second new canvass.
(2) An order under sub-paragraph (1) may be made only in the period of 3months beginning with 1 June in the year in which the second new canvass begins.
(3) A statutory instrument containing provision under sub-paragraph (1) only is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament (and section 11(2) does not apply to it).”
Amendment 9 (to Amendment 8) not moved.
Amendment 8 agreed.
10: Schedule 5, page 37, line 2, at end insert—
““the third new canvass” means the third canvass under section 9D of the Representation of the People Act 1983.”
Amendment 10 agreed.
11: After Clause 18, insert the following new Clause—
(1) Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 (parliamentary elections rules) is amended as follows.
(2) In paragraph 37 (voting procedure) after sub-paragraph (6) insert—
“(7) A voter who is in the polling station or in a queue outside the polling station for the purpose of voting at the time specified for the close of poll shall be entitled to apply for a ballot paper under sub-paragraph (1) above and a ballot paper shall be delivered and the voter entitled to vote in accordance with this paragraph.””
My Lords, this amendment stands in my name and in the names of three other members of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee—the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, chairman of the committee, and the noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Lang of Monkton. As I explained in Committee, the amendment seeks to address a problem which occurred at the 2010 general election and which may recur at the 2015 general election unless we address it now. The mischief is that voters who arrive at the polling station before 10 pm but are not issued with a ballot paper before 10 pm are unable to vote.
Your Lordships’ Constitution Committee and the Electoral Commission have considered this problem. They have both arrived at the clear conclusion that if an eligible voter arrives at the polling station and presents himself before it closes at 10 pm, he should not be denied a vote because of circumstances beyond his control which mean that he does not receive a ballot paper before 10 pm. This amendment would address that problem. The Electoral Commission has communicated to your Lordships that:
“We strongly support this amendment”.
It has advised that the wording of the amendment is appropriate and correct.
Last week, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and I had a very useful meeting with the Minister in the other place, Chloe Smith, and I am very grateful to her and to members of the Bill team for the care, attention and time that they have given to this issue both last week and during the course of this week. I understand that the Government now accept the principle of the amendment and that the Minister will tell the House that he proposes to table an amendment for Third Reading later today.
In the light of that, I will say nothing more at this stage, save that I beg to move.
Amendment 12 (to Amendment 11)
12: After Clause 18, line 10, at end insert—
“(3) Section 66A of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (prohibition on publication of exit polls) is amended as follows.
(4) In subsection (1), after “before” insert “a time 30 minutes after”.”
I owe the House an explanation, whichever way things go tonight, for moving an amendment which I believe to be otiose. Perhaps I may briefly explain. The matter at stake is whether there would be a problem in accepting the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, because voters queuing at a polling station would be able to hear the result of an exit poll and could change their vote. An exit poll cannot be published before 10 pm but it could be published at 10 pm and the result could become known to those people queuing at polling stations.
That may seem a bizarre hypothesis but it was advanced at some length on 14 January by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, when he replied for the Government to an amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. He must have meant it because he said it with some conviction, although it would be fair to say that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, had not previously had responsibility for the Bill. At the time, the Government had the problem that the Minister who knew about the Bill did not believe in it as it then was. Therefore, they had to find someone to take his place. But let us leave that aside because the noble Lord said it and, therefore, it must have been the policy.
How sensible is this argument? There is no evidence—I repeat, no evidence—that an exit poll has ever affected the vote of any voter. John Curtice, the leading psephologist at the University of Strathclyde, who kindly researched this for me, said:
“I have not uncovered any pieces on exit polls having an impact on voter choice”.
It does not happen.
It is true that exit polls can in certain circumstances affect elections. The effect is on turnout. There is no British evidence on this. There is American evidence, although it dates from the 1980s, referring to a Reagan election. In the event, people on the east coast voted. The exit polls were reported and voters in California who were going to vote for Reagan did not bother to vote because they had heard that on the east coast he was winning easily and so why bother. The turnout could have been affected by between 1% and 5%. If you try to apply this to the hypothesis in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, you have the situation of a person who comes rushing back from work thinking that he can just get his vote in. He rushes to the polling station and finds to his consternation that there is a queue. However, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, he can have a ballot paper anyway. Provided that he is in the polling station by 10 pm, he gets a ballot paper. Then he switches on his telephone and learns that the exit poll is showing that the Tories are going to win. The man then says to himself, “I have rushed back home, rushed to the polling station and been prepared to stand around while they finally produce a ballot paper for me but, having heard what the exit poll is showing, I am going back home without voting”. It really is a most absurd hypothesis. Even if in some extraordinary case it was true, what is the chance of it affecting the election result?
The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, might result in a few hundred extra voters picking up ballot papers, even if we mess up things again as badly as we did last time. They will not be all of one party, of course. Let us suppose that a few of these voters did walk out and went home, most of the seats in places where this occurred would have been safe or quite safe. The chances of those voters not being there and not casting their vote making any difference to the result are practically zero.
When I was in Whitehall, we used to play a game late at night as to who could get a Minister to make the most ludicrous argument in either House of Parliament. It was a fantasy game, of course. This measure would have been a strong qualifier to win the gold medal in that game. However, just in case anybody believes this argument, I have provided a belt-and-braces amendment so that the exit polls cannot be published until 10.30 pm and, as a result, all those watching the 10 o’clock news will not know the result of an election. At least, thank goodness, the danger of the Pannick amendment affecting in any way the result in a single seat will be averted. Is that a price worth paying? Your Lordships will decide.
My Lords, as a member of the Constitution Committee and a signatory to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, I rise to support not only what he has said but what I hope the Minister is about to say. Indeed, I have cast my notes aside because their tone was such that, had I proceeded, he might have withdrawn what he was about to say.
I am delighted to hear that common sense seems to have prevailed because a vote is a fundamental right in a parliamentary democracy. That is something of which we should never lose sight. Heaven knows, not enough of the electorate cast the votes that they are entitled to cast. For guidance we need look no further than the procedures in this House where, because of rising population, the increasingly awkward structure and access to where we vote and the time limit that we are up against, the doorkeepers have very sensibly developed their own process whereby, after eight minutes, they move in behind those who are present and waiting to go through the Lobbies, and nobody else can vote. If that can happen here in this rowdy House, I suspect that it can happen in the polling stations up and down the land if proper, sensible legislation is enacted. I will say no more and, in the interests of the cause, I will now resume my seat, supporting what I hope I am going to hear.
I, too, want to speak briefly to Amendment 11 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Lang, and their colleagues. It is tempting to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who always entertains the House, because he demonstrated not only the ludicrous nature of some of the objections that we had from the Front Bench last week but a rather ludicrous solution to those objections, if I may put it like that.
I wish to follow the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. We, too, have benefited from some very useful discussions with Chloe Smith, her ministerial colleagues in the Cabinet Office and the Bill team. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will indicate that those discussions have brought forth a fruitful conclusion. I hope that that will be dealt with tonight. I do not think that it can be left any later in the passage of the Bill.
There was a time when it was suggested that this concern arose simply from some inadequacy or administrative incompetence in a few polling stations and the anticipation of the outcome in a few constituencies in 2010, and that there was therefore no need for any statutory change. We on these Benches felt that that was not sufficient and, for the important reasons advanced in Committee last week and briefly touched on this evening, we should make it absolutely clear that an elector who has gone to all the trouble of going to the polling station and is there before the allotted time has elapsed should be given every assistance to cast their vote. If the citizen is inside the polling station or in a queue before the deadline, that situation is similar to when someone is in a shop and wishes to make a purchase, the shop is open for business and closing time has not happened. Surely, in a polling station, the citizen should transact the business of democracy in exactly the same way and be permitted to vote.
We quoted in Committee last week the practical example in Scotland where this attitude was assisted by an acceptance of that principle. The Electoral Commission has strongly supported us again on the amendment. It is a failsafe amendment. We assume that there will not be great crowds turning up at the very last minute because of a change—a very small change—in the legislative framework of elections. It is surely the right thing to do and I am grateful for all the indications that there have been from Ministers that they now are listening, not just to the mood in this House on this issue but to the careful, considerable advice of the Electoral Commission, which is, after all, Parliament’s adviser on an issue of this sort.
My Lords, I welcome the fact that the noble Lord is going to do something on Report. As has been mentioned, the procedure in such circumstances in Scotland is that a member of staff goes out and marks the end of the queue. However, we should not overlook the fact that most polling stations we are talking about are schools that have a yard, where at least a janitor can close the gates and have some control. Sometimes, if the polling station is a church or portakabin, those queues could be out on the street. When someone is arguing that they are entitled to be in the queue, the safety and health of the staff concerned must also be considered.
Although I welcome the amendment, a major responsibility remains with the returning officers in every city and constituency. After all, the labourer is worthy of his hire but, none the less, every returning officer is given a one-off payment, over and above their local authority salary. I looked at the figures for Sheffield Hallam where, in that constituency alone, 340 people lost out. It is a disgrace that that happened, because I have rubbed shoulders with colleagues with majorities of less than 340.
Perhaps I may put it in simple terms: if we were running a fund-raising function, dance, sale of work or whatever, and we got the catering wrong on one occasion, we would make sure that we got it right the next time. There is a responsibility on returning officers, if they got it wrong in Sheffield Hallam, to get it right the next time. The amendment should not allow them to sit back and forget that they have a responsibility. By the way, there were Scottish local government elections last year and only three people among the whole of the local authority areas in Scotland were concerned about whether they would get their votes. If a large queue formed outside a large school in one year, in the next year in which there is an approaching election, the returning officer should go about the business of creating another polling station—perhaps in a nursery or church around the corner. Also, the returning officer should make sure that communications are good within the city or the constituency, whichever applies. The staff at a polling station who see queues forming should be able to phone up and say, “We need extra help here and you must get that help right away”.
I also understand that at the last general election some polling stations had as many as 3,000 electors to one polling station. That is ridiculous. It should be somewhere in the region of 1,000 electors. For the sake of clarity, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that in Scotland the building or classrooms where voting takes place are known as the polling place and the designated streets are known as the polling station. That is a small matter but perhaps the Minister can consider it for Third Reading.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, had noted in previous debates on this issue, the sentiment behind the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, on behalf of the Constitution Committee, with the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, and my noble friends Lord Lexden and Lord Lang, is fully appreciated.
Having heard the view of the House and seen the cross-party support for this change, the Government are content to accept the principle of the amendment. Our resistance to it in its current form has been based on a concern about unexpected and unforeseen consequences flowing from the change, and we still have that concern. We have identified some of those consequences in debate and, in looking at them more closely since, have concluded that they need to be addressed.
The amendment as it stands brings ambiguity and uncertainty to the impact of other legislative provisions upon the broadcasting of exit polls and other matters pertaining to secrecy within electoral law that are subject to criminal penalties of fines or up to six months in prison. There are other impacts on legislation that refers to the close of poll.
The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has brought forward a further amendment to seek to address the issue of exit polls. Unfortunately, while deferring their publication until 30 minutes after close of play might deal with some potential instances of delay, it would not catch all such instances—for example, if there were a very considerable queue. In that sense, it would defer the problem to a later time.
It is also necessary to make some drafting changes to the amendment to ensure that it applies consistently. The amendment, as a consequence of the intricacies of the current law, does not apply to Northern Ireland. It would be most regrettable if we were to accept it and have a position where voters in a queue at 10 pm could receive ballot papers and vote after that time in Great Britain but not in Northern Ireland.
On that basis, and recognising the will of the House and the laudable principle behind the proposed change, the Government propose to bring forward at Third Reading an amendment that makes the change being sought in terms of electors voting at close of poll but which also contains a provision, through a proportionately limited power, to make further amendments on commencement to deal with all the potential consequences that it has on other elements of electoral legislation.
On the basis of the Government’s commitment to bring forward a clause at Third Reading that achieves the aim of the amendment in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, on behalf of the Constitution Committee and which deals with these further issues, I trust that the noble Lords will feel able to withdraw their amendments.
Amendment 12 (to Amendment 11) withdrawn.
I am very grateful indeed to the Minister and to the Minister in another place, Chloe Smith. I am also very grateful to the Bill team for the considerable efforts that they have shown in addressing the substance of this amendment. I entirely accept that the amendment as put forward at this Report stage could be improved; I entirely accept that it is necessary to deal with Northern Ireland; I entirely accept that it is necessary to say expressly in the amendment that close of poll is still at 10 pm, with the consequence that that has for the publication of exit polls thereafter; and I entirely accept that it is appropriate for Ministers to have a power on commencement to introduce consequential amendments. Again, I am very grateful for the care and attention that the Government have given this matter. There is widespread agreement around the House that the principle of the amendment is correct. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
13: After Clause 22, insert the following new Clause—
“Opt-in to the edited version of the electoral register
(1) From 1 December 2013, the inclusion of the name of an elector on the edited version of the electoral register shall only take place when the elector has given permission for his name to be included.
(2) For the purpose of subsection (1), permission shall be deemed to have been given when the elector ticks a box on the electoral registration form indicating that he wishes to be so included.”
My Lords, in Committee I raised the issue of the edited version of the electoral register. I return to it in this amendment because of the Government’s unsatisfactory response. The edited version of the electoral register engages important principles regarding personal data. The edited version is generated as a by-product—essentially a commercial by-product—of a citizen’s duty to supply personal data in order to be registered to vote.
I made the case in Committee for the edited register to be abolished. I had argued the case before and, in making the case in Committee, I was able to pray in aid the Electoral Commission, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons and the Association of Electoral Administrators. Each has argued the case for abolition. In Committee, I quoted an editorial of the Guardian in December 2011, which argued that the edited register,
“lingers on, a travesty of the democratic process that sullies the relationship between voters and state, and illustrates just how casually politicians think about democracy”.
In its briefing for Committee stage, the Electoral Commission contended that prohibiting the publishing of the edited version was,
“particularly important, given the need to maintain people’s confidence in the security of their personal details”.
In responding, my noble friend the Minister said that, on balance, the Government had decided to retain the edited register because of what was seen as a greater principle—that of commercial gain. There was no engagement with the argument beyond that. The Government’s stance would presumably justify reverting to the sale of the full register to any organisation that wished to purchase it.
However, given that the Government have decided in favour of retaining the edited register—and we will doubtless return to that issue in the future—I have decided to pursue the issue of the opt-out. In Committee, I argued the case for electors to opt in to the edited version of the register, rather than—as now—opt out. This is, to my mind, crucial in the use of personal data. If electors are to have their personal data sold to third parties, then they should have to give their consent to it being sold in this way. As I said in Committee, consent must be given rather than assumed. That need for consent is reinforced by the Minister’s reminder in Committee that under individual electoral registration, an individual’s choice—or rather, in many cases, assumptions made about an individual’s choice—will automatically be carried forward.
The Electoral Commission, in its briefing on today’s amendments, has made clear that it supports this amendment. It states:
“We believe that, if individuals are required by law to provide personal information for the purpose of electoral administration, they should be asked clearly if they also want their personal information to be sold. Their personal information should only be sold if they have explicitly given their consent”.
In Committee, the Minister’s line of argument was essentially that the situation had improved since the days when the full register could be sold—rather ignoring the circumstances leading to the creation of an edited register—and that the existing situation provided appropriate protection and control. That was asserted rather than justified. Where personal data are concerned, we need to apply a higher threshold than that which is being applied. The present arrangements rest on assumptions about electors’ wishes rather than their explicit consent and what appears to be implicitly the view that changing to an opt-in provision would be too much trouble. Perhaps in reply my noble friend will explain what precisely the obstacle is to moving to an opt-in provision. Surely the principle of consent must outweigh the claim of convenience.
I will raise a general point deriving from this amendment and from others moved in Committee, not only by me but by other noble Lords. The Government appeared unwilling to engage with points of principle relating to the franchise and to the protection of personal data. Their response was couched essentially in terms of convenience and practicality. This bears out the concern expressed by the Constitution Committee in its report of the previous Session on the process of constitutional change. More than a decade ago, when I chaired it, the committee expressed concern at the lack of a culture within government of dealing with constitutional issues. As the committee noted in its report of last Session:
“The evidence we have received points to this lack of coherence remaining a serious problem”.
The Government need to demonstrate that they are able to engage in debate about the principles underpinning our constitution and the way in which we conduct elections. My amendment raises important questions that take us beyond matters of administrative convenience. If the Government are not willing to accept the amendment, they must give a compelling argument for their stance. We need to do whatever is necessary to protect personal data and the integrity of the registration process. I beg to move.
My Lords, as always, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, made a compelling case. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the current situation is in place not because of a very long, very careful, very extensive and very thoughtful process. The edited register is the result not just of some quick legal judgment but of a long political process, started by the previous Labour Administration.
The electoral register has been available for sale in one form or another since 1832. In 1999, Labour rightly recognised—before the register was challenged in the courts—that there was a case for changing the Victorian arrangements. In 1999 a Home Office working group recommended, first, that electors should be allowed to decide whether their personal details should be included in a register that was made commercially available and, secondly, that the full register should continue to be available to electoral users, while a licensing arrangement should be agreed to ensure that its use was restricted to electoral purposes only.
As far as I am aware, that recommendation was by broad agreement across the parties. The situation resulted in Section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which created the so-called “edited register”. It was only when the Government consulted on how to implement the new principle that they were challenged in court about the old system. In 2001, Brian Robertson from Pontefract won his case when the judge concluded that the compulsory disclosure to commercial organisations of data given for electoral purposes was in breach of the Data Protection Act and of the newly passed Human Rights Act. He won the legal point in court, but it appears that the political and moral point had already been acknowledged by the Labour Government in 1999, and here in Parliament in 2000. The edited register was finally implemented in regulations in 2002. The problem that the amendment before your Lordships seeks to solve is one that has already been dealt with in the 2000 Act and the 2002 regulations.
Your Lordships’ House is always rightly concerned about the unintended consequences of legislation that we scrutinise. We should be particularly alert to the unintended consequences of this amendment. The edited register does not just have a commercial purpose; it is also used by a great many charitable organisations. The suggestion from my noble friend that it was only commercial reasons that the government Front Bench advanced last week may or may not be true, but those reasons certainly are not my concern. My concern is that a large number of highly reputable, very public-spirited actions by very public-spirited organisations could be impeded by the removal of the edited register, or by it becoming ineffective. For example, the Salvation Army is a particular advocate for its retention. Each year it finds and reunites some 3,000 families by using the edited register. That is as much an issue of principle as of practice. The edited register underpins efforts to locate and connect organ donors—which, again, is very important—and even bone marrow donors.
Local government uses it for purposes for which, even as the compiler of the register, it cannot use the full register. In particular, councils use it for debt recovery. That function in local government draws attention to another wider cause—its use by credit reference agencies to find people who have abandoned their debts. It would be odd for us to be pressing hard for the banks and other lenders to increase the flow of credit and, at the same time, say to them, “If people don’t pay back, we’ll hinder your efforts to find them”.
I recognise that the Select Committee in the other place has made recommendations but it also said that the opt-in version of the edited register, which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, seems to be advocating,
“might well make the edited register too incomplete to be of much use”.
That is the weakness of the amendment: it neither abolishes the edited register nor leaves it as a useful resource for the proper purposes that I have described.
The balance is about right already as the result of a long, consequential and careful consideration by the previous Administration and the present Government of not only its immediate purpose but its unintended consequences if there were a major change. If someone wants to avoid contact by commercial or charitable organisations, they can opt out on the electoral registration form. When individual registration is fully introduced, every individual will get that opportunity; they will no longer have to rely on sub-contracting it to another member of their household.
I would welcome assurances from the Minister that we can look, for example, at how the edited register is described. I do not believe that “edited register” is an especially transparent description, and clearly we could change it.
However, for most who do not mind the simple fact of their name and address being registered locally, there remains a compelling case for retaining an edited register. It assists charities, it assists in the flow of credit, it can reunite families, it can even bring about organ donations and, in a modern market economy, it can provide a useful way for people to market their products to consumers. I find it difficult to understand why that is such an objectionable objective.
The previous Government got the regulations broadly right. As such, my noble friend Lord Rennard and I will oppose the amendment this evening if it is taken to a Division.
My Lords, this is not a subject on which I would often speak, but I have thought a great deal about the inconsistencies in our practice: having data protection legislation and yet an electoral register where you can opt-out of the publication of your address.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is right—there are too many people who have an interest in having access to this information for good purposes, by and large. If this were on an opt-in basis, have the Government done anything to obtain a picture of how many people would be likely to opt in. I imagine that the value of the register would be wholly destroyed. We know how many people have learnt in the age of the internet never to tick any of the boxes that state that you are willing to receive any further information for any purpose, even a worthy purpose.
I have a feeling that we are on the cusp between information that has to be public and information that our clunky data protection legislation regards as private. It is incoherent. We have ended up regarding home addresses in some contexts as personal information that is not to be transmitted or disclosed to others without express permission, and regarding them in other cases as public information that is non-personal and that may be published. It is not so much the purposes that concern me, whether they are commercial or not; it is that ultimately the opt-in register might be radically incomplete and not useful for many purposes.
My Lords, a change in public policy on this issue is long overdue, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton, on his persistence in returning to it on Report. I associate myself with everything he said in support of his amendment. In the past, Ministers have talked about the register being used as an aid for business and commerce, and we have heard in this debate about its uses for charities and other organisations. However, in my view, so far Ministers have advanced no good arguments, either practical or principled, about why such a public subsidy—because that is what these uses of the electoral register represent—to particular business sectors should take precedence over all the arguments for the other side that have been put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Norton: weakened protection of personal data, the likely damage to registration rates caused under the present system, and the introduction of a commercial element into a relationship that should be founded on fundamental democratic principles.
When I was the Minister responsible for this issue in the last Government, I was minded to adopt an approach very similar to that put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, both in Committee and today. Predictably, perhaps, I was vigorously lobbied by representatives of credit agencies who made fearsome claims about the potential detriment to businesses that would arise from any changes. Clearly there are arguments on both sides of the issue, so I asked those who had lobbied me to come back with detailed evidence of the potential damage: their analysis of what might be done to replace the electoral register as a source of data for them, how much the alternatives might cost, and a detailed principled case for public subsidy rather than their being put into the same position as other private sector firms that produce goods and services and fund their businesses from their own resources. I felt that when these people came back with the information, a proper assessment could be made of the advantages and disadvantages of different policy approaches.
I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, that the same arguments apply to charities and other non-governmental organisations that use the electoral register for wholly commendable objectives. The argument is not so much about the usefulness of the electoral register, because that is clear and I think we all agree on it. The argument I would put is whether this is the best use of public money. What principled case is there for using public subsidy in this way, and could the sums involved perhaps be deployed more effectively in other ways? I have never seen any evidence to that effect, either as a Minister or subsequently. If there were any compelling evidence I might be prepared to change my mind, but in the absence of detailed analysis and evidence it seems that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has made a compelling case for change. I hope that the Government, even at this late stage, might think again.
My Lords, the last Government did consult on the future of the edited register and received some 7,600 responses, of which 7,450 were in favour of its retention. Last year, Ministers carefully considered the future of the edited register again and took further detailed representations from both sides of the debate. They concluded, as had their predecessor, that the edited register should be retained. We saw no evidence that people are put off registering and agreed with those who highlighted the wider social and economic benefits that it provides.
We have heard from the participants in this debate a different balance of views on whether the register is being sold for commercial gain or is providing a public subsidy to commercial firms. That is actually a rather contradictory impression, because my understanding is that the money charged by councils is intended to cover the costs of providing it, so it is maintained neither for commercial gain nor to provide a public subsidy.
As on many other things, I consulted my wife about the question of the edited register, and she gave me an extremely sharp response. She reminded me that at one stage she had actually opted the family out but had then run into difficulties when my son tried to rent a flat during his fourth year at university; she did not have the credit reference that was required for the credit reference agencies. There are real public benefits of different sorts in providing the register. We talked previously about using the credit reference agencies as a form of assistance in making sure that we have as complete an electoral register as possible, and we have to recognise that the growing interdependence between private and public databases is something from which we all benefit. We should not try to hold them at arm’s length.
I have to say that, on the balance between privacy and transparency, I am increasingly a Maxtonite. I believe that we are heading towards a society that will benefit from greater transparency and in which a sense that every bit of privacy we give away is a threat to our individual existence will not be acceptable. Incidentally, some months ago the Swedish ambassador told me that in the Nordic states, transparency extends to publishing citizens’ salaries and the taxes they pay on those salaries. I am sure that that would currently be regarded as a deep intrusion into the privacy of the citizen here in Britain, but it is the sort of thing with which I suspect the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, might agree. Moreover, I find some aspects of this issue rather attractive. The trade-offs between transparency and privacy are complex; they are not simply all one way.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, asked how much research has been undertaken into opt-ins. I am advised that it is believed in government that an opt-in would be extremely confusing. It is not clear whether people would believe immediately that an opt-in was in fact an opt-out. The resulting register might be so incomplete that it would not be worth maintaining.
Some 10 years ago we moved from a compulsory register to an edited register. People are used to the system—
My Lords, I intervene only to make a rather mundane point. The register is a great historical document as well as being useful for electoral purposes. Perhaps my question is for the noble Lord, Lord Norton, rather than for the Minister, but is there a timescale for this? Is there a point at which the full register would become available to those who wish to study this particular period in history?
That is an excellent question to which I cannot give an immediate answer, but I promise to write to the noble Lord. However, that in turn raises the question about the future of the census, another historical document that we will have to come back to. We are beginning to move away from a paper register that is maintained locally and therefore not easily accessible, to online registration, which in the future will make it much easier for those interested in family history to access.
The Government take the handling of personal information seriously and are keen to ensure, in the context of the move to individual electoral registration, that electors are able to make a fully informed choice on the edited register. There should be sufficient balanced and impartial information on electoral registration forms to ensure that electors understand what the different versions of the registers are and the purposes for which their data may be used.
As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, remarked, the edited register serves a variety of purposes, some of which are commercial and some of which are very clearly valuable in social terms. To this end, the Government have therefore proposed, in the draft secondary IER legislation, that application forms will include a clear statement on the processing of data supplied by the individual and are looking at the language used to describe the uses of the registers. The Government will be working closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure that the forms will be user-friendly, clear and straightforward.
The Government believe that providing electors with a choice of an opt-out, alongside sufficient information to allow the individual to make an informed choice, provides electors with appropriate protection and control. So long as electors have an informed choice and can alter their preferences, there is little practical difference between an opt-out and an opt-in. We are not aware of any large-scale demand for change in the current situation.
In view of all these important safeguards, I can see no reason for removing the current opt-out arrangements. I therefore thank the noble Lord for the debate but ask him to accept the Government’s assurances and to withdraw this amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to those who have contributed, and especially to the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for his support on this amendment. I do not regard the responses that I have heard as particularly satisfactory. The Minister’s objection appears to be that electors are not bright enough to understand the difference between an opt-in and an opt-out. However, we do not know whether citizens are making an informed decision because they are not making that opt-in choice. It is notable, as happened in Committee, that neither my noble friend Lord Tyler nor the Minister addressed the core issue of principle that I raised. The objection was really practical—who benefits from the edited register—rather than on the core point about the use of personal data, how they are protected and whether people make an informed choice. In many respects, the points made by my noble friend Lord Tyler bore out the point I was making.
The fundamental point is that we place stress on the protection of personal data. As my noble friend Lord Tyler said, we had long discussions leading up to the Act in 2000. I took part in those discussions and made the case that what we did then did not go far enough in terms of the protection of personal data. It is definitely something we need to pursue and return to. As far as I am concerned, the Government need to think again. As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, and the noble Lord, Lord Wills, have said, the Government need to engage in serious research on this. It is not something that is going to go away. It is something we will doubtless come back to; indeed, we will come back to it.
On this occasion, we are clearly not making much progress but at least we have put down a marker. We will return to it because the protection of personal data is extraordinarily important. There is a core principle: people must give their consent. If the edited version is going to collapse because they do not give their consent, then I am sorry, but they must give it. In my view, electors are sufficiently intelligent to understand clear instructions on the point of an opt-in and opt-out. If the benefits are clearly explained then at least they can make an informed choice. However, it really must be up to electors rather than the Government making assumptions on their behalf. As I say, we will return to this, but in the mean time I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 13 withdrawn.
Clause 26 : Commencement
Amendments 14 and 15
14: Clause 26, page 15, line 2, at beginning insert “Subject as follows,”
15: Clause 26, page 15, line 3, at end insert—
“(1A) Paragraph 27A of Schedule 5 comes into force at the end of the period of 2 months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”
Amendments 14 and 15 agreed.