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Mr. Simon Hughes: I am not in a position to reflect the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland, but the amendment raises two issues. The first, which is on all fours with a point made by the hon. Member for East Londonderry, is that it would seem to be a great advantage to have a national date on which registration for voting occurs, as well as having the rolling register in the background. I have made the point before in relation to the build-up to the census that people do not feel that registering is important. A form comes through the letter box, and if one does not fill it in, one gets another letter. One does not have the sense that the form has to be completed by a certain date.

The second point is that the date cycle works on the basis that the forms are delivered in August and collected for a date in October for a register that comes into effect in February--normally for an electoral cycle in May. That means that people fill in the form in August or September and by the time the register comes into force, it is four months out of date. By the time the election arrives, it is eight months out of date. We need a cycle that minimises the time between the form being filled in, the registration becoming valid and people feeling part of the process.

The rolling register will alter the situation slightly, but I take the hon. Gentleman's point that we will need to encourage people annually to register. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us whether the working group reflected on that point. Even if we do not make a decision today, we should consider the cycle carefully to maximise the chance of people getting on the electoral register.

The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) has always made the point that we lose millions of people from the register, and everything we do must be geared to getting the maximum number of people on to the register. The Bill will try to do that, but I am not sure that the cycle of registration has yet achieved it.

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Mr. Mike O'Brien: I recognise that under current arrangements the qualifying date for registration in Northern Ireland is just under a month earlier than that for the rest of Britain--15 September compared with 10 October. In future there will not be a single annual qualifying date as people will be able to register at any point of the year. That is the effect of the rolling registration programme, but there will still be a requirement for electoral registration officers to carry out an annual canvass.

I see the benefits of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), but it would lengthen by a month the period between the date by reference to which the annual registration canvass is to be held and the date on which the register based on that canvass is published. It would also require the canvass to be held over what is for many parts of the United Kingdom--including whole towns in some areas--a major holiday period.

I understand that the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland has been consulted and is happy about the proposed changes. He does not anticipate any particular difficulty about moving to an October date for his canvass. I am therefore reluctant to accept the amendment.

The hon. Gentleman explained his concern about an October date and the fact that university students will be away from home on the date in question. Under the present law, students may register in respect of their home address even if they are not physically present there on the qualifying date. They may also register in respect of their university or college address. That will not be changed by the new provisions governing registration, so young people from Northern Ireland who are studying at institutions outside the Province will continue to be able to register in respect of their home addresses--as well as, if they wish, in respect of their university or college address. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment on that basis.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) mentioned the working party. I do not know whether it considered the issue, but I shall write to him on that point.

Mr. William Ross: I have listened to what I consider to be the weak case made by the Minister. He said that the date will be put back a month, but the publication date could be brought forward a month, if that is all that is worrying the Government. I still take the view that the canvass date is simply replacing the present qualifying date. In my view, there is no good reason why 15 September should not be chosen. The evenings are long at that time of year, so when the part-time workers go round collecting the household forms they do so in the light. The long winter nights that set in during October make the job more difficult and render people--especially those in rural areas--less willing to open the door to strangers.

The last major holiday in Northern Ireland is at the end of August. The household forms go out in the same month, and I assume that that is true too of Great Britain. I see no difficulty in what I propose, but there seems to be a prejudice on this side of the Irish sea against following the example of what is done in Northern Ireland. Electoral registration is, and always has been, much better there than on the mainland.

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I hope that the Minister will not ignore what I have said, and that he will consider the proposal further. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. William Ross: I beg to move amendment No. 112, in page 20, line 43, after "publish", insert

"in print and in electronic format".

This amendment is as straightforward as amendment No. 111. It proposes that the register should be made available on computer disk as well as on paper. At present, the register is available in that format, but it has to be sent away for transcription. I want people to be able to put the disk into their computers much more easily than is the case at present.

I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment. It proposes no more than what is already common practice, and should be put on the face of the Bill.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I cannot accept the amendment, as it is simply unnecessary. Registration officers are already required to make the electoral register available in paper form and, where it is produced electronically, in an electronic format. As all electoral registration officers now produce their registers on computer, the register can be obtained, on payment of the appropriate fee, in either format. Copies can even be reserved in advance.

We will shortly discuss the possibility that the full electoral register will be available in an electronic format. Although that is a separate matter, people entitled to the full electoral register will be able to get it on paper or in the electronic format. The edited register will also be for sale in both formats.

One problem in the past has been that the format used for the register was not always compatible with all computers, with the result that it had to be transcribed to another, more suitable, format. Requiring the electoral registration officer to undertake such a transcription for all personal computers would be onerous and unnecessary. In my experience, such problems in the United Kingdom have been overcome by the major political parties.

11 pm

Mr. Barnes: The Minister's point is that the electronic format was purchased; but should not political parties, in addition to being issued with the published version, be able to have access to the disk as well without being involved in massive expenditure? I hope that that will be considered.

Mr. O'Brien: I hear what my hon. Friend says. It is a valid point in many ways, but if extra expenditure will be occasioned for the taxpayer by reason of this proposal, it must be considered with care. It is not an invalid point because, as my hon. Friend would no doubt tell me were he not in a sedentary position, this is all about paying for democracy. The issue will have to be weighed in the balance, and I shall certainly consider what my hon. Friend has said. The electronically formatted register is already available, and although I agree with the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross), the amendment is unnecessary.

Mr. Ross: The point that was well made by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) was the

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very point that I was trying to bring to the attention of the Committee. The register is on tape, and transcribing it costs quite a lot of money. I believe that since the present systems were set up, technology has moved forward so fast and so far that there are now bound to be much cheaper methods of doing this. Compact disks can carry a huge amount of information, and I do not believe that it would cost all that much for electoral officers throughout the United Kingdom to have a system in which their tapes could be transcribed on to disks and made available at a much lower cost than at present.

Mr. O'Brien: Perhaps I can be of assistance to the hon. Gentleman. The best approach might be to consult the electoral registration officers and see what difficulties, or otherwise, might be occasioned by the proposal. I could then write to the hon. Gentleman and, if such an approach is feasible, we may be able to do something in another place. I cannot guarantee that, or undertake to do it, but we can certainly consult with the electoral registration officers.

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