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11.15 pm

Finally, there is the important point that electoral registration officers around the country are not currently electronically linked to one another, which is an important prerequisite of a fast-moving rolling registration system. Some 30 different, not necessarily compatible, software systems are being used by electoral registration departments. That sounds trivial. In the modern world one might think that the problem is easy to overcome, but most local authority electoral registration departments use computer systems that are offshoots of the main local authority computer system, so it is a much larger problem.

I hope that I have shown my hon. Friend that the scheme that his amendments seek to introduce, although in many ways very valid and ideal, is at present too ambitious, but I hope that it is something that we can aspire to in the years to come, as our technology improves.

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Let me say a few words about amendment No. 46. Although we always say that we currently have a fixed register that is compiled annually and cannot be changed during the year, that is not quite true. Currently, anyone who can show that they were qualified on the qualifying date can have their name added to the register at any time of the year. The only exception is that no additions may be made to a register to be used at an election after the closing date for nominations at that election. It has always been felt that parties and candidates--to say nothing of the returning officer--need fixed goalposts during an election campaign and need to know exactly which, and how many, electors they are dealing with. We think that the principle must be preserved. However, amendment No. 46 would breach it.

I hope that on the basis of what I have said, my hon. Friend will feel able to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Finally, I shall say a few words about the two Government amendments. Amendment No. 59 is a simple amendment--although it may not look like it--to tidy up the provisions of the Bill relating to rolling electoral registration.

Under the new system, electoral registration officers will be required to carry out an annual canvass and to publish a revised version of the electoral register on 1 December each year. They will also be required to publish monthly lists of alterations, showing the additions and deletions made in the previous month. However, the working party received very strong advice from electoral administrators that it would not be practical for them to publish monthly alteration lists in October and November, as they would be in the midst of carrying out their annual canvass. The amendment makes that clear.

Amendment No. 60 is a simple drafting amendment. It simply makes it clear that, for reasons that I have explained in connection with amendment No. 46, changes to the register arising from monthly alterations cannot take effect after the last day for nominations in an election.

Mr. Barnes: I appreciate the importance of establishing a principle through Parliament. In the Bill we are establishing the principle of the rolling register. Because we have broken the mould and established that area, some of the further measures that I am seeking will have an opportunity to come into play in future.

The amendments that I have tabled are not quite as difficult as the Minister has suggested. The Association of Electoral Administrators, which has always strongly supported the idea of rolling registers, has taken the lead on this matter, and I am sure that it would be happy to take on board some of my amendments.

However, it would be very churlish of me not to seek to withdraw the amendment after being called the father of the rolling register, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Amendments made: No. 59, in page 22, line 2, leave out from "in" to end of line 17 and insert

"a case where (apart from this subsection) that subsection would require the notice to be issued--
(a) at the beginning of the month containing the date on which a revised version of the register is next due to be published in accordance with section 13(1) or (3) above, or
(b) at the beginning of either of the two months preceding that containing the date on which a revised version of the register is next due to be published in accordance with section 13(1) above,
and in such a case the alteration in question shall be made in that revised version of the register.".

No. 60, in page 22, line 19, after "effect", insert "under subsection (2) above".

No. 61, in page 22, line 25, leave out from "section" to end of line 26.

No. 62, in page 22, line 40, leave out first "any" and insert "another".

No. 63, in page 22, line 41, leave out "otherwise than" and insert ", whether or not".

No. 64, in page 24, line 13, after "appeal)", insert--

"(a) after 'the registration officer shall' insert ', in accordance with section 13A above,'; and

No. 65, in page 24, line 13, at end insert--

"(4) In subsection (4A) (effect of alterations in register), for 'is made under subsection (4) above' substitute 'made in pursuance of subsection (4) above takes effect under section 13(5) or 13A(2) above.".--[Mr. Mike O'Brien.]

Mr. Barnes: I beg to move amendment No. 55, in page 26, line 20, leave out "authorising" and insert "requiring".

The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 27, in page 26, line 25, at end insert--

"(4A) Provisions authorising a registration officer to inspect, for the purpose of his registration duties, records kept (in whatever form) by categories of persons or bodies, to be specified by the Secretary of State, having information about any person's actual or proposed place of residence or change of place of residence, and to make copies of information contained in such records.".

Mr. Barnes: These amendments deal with the powers and duties of electoral returning officers in seeking to encourage people to register. I believe that electoral returning officers should play a much more proactive role than the Bill provides for.

In amendment No. 55, I would require, rather than just authorise, electoral returning officers to undertake a search for various records. Such duties should clearly be placed on electoral returning officers, although I agree that they should have the facilities and the resources to be able to carry them out.

In amendment No. 27, I would extend the records for which electoral returning officers could search beyond those that are held by local and public authorities. It would allow the Secretary of State to specify categories of people who have information about a person's actual or proposed place of residence or their change of residence. Estate agents, conveyancing solicitors, the former public utilities, such as gas, water, electricity and British Telecom, all have access to details of people's

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changed addresses. Consideration should be given to providing electoral returning officers with access to such information so that they can carry out their duties. Privatisation and public-private partnerships are the order of the day, so we are in danger of seeing continuously decreasing boundaries of local and public authorities. My amendment would ensure that there would be no cuts in the areas that electoral returning officers could turn to.

If my suggestions worry people because they perceive that they have big-brother implications for the work of electoral returning officers, we should be able to consider the future introduction of confidentiality clauses that would insist that such information would be collected by and would be for the use of electoral returning officers only when they decide whether to transfer, delete, alter or add registration arrangements.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for tabling the amendments because they allow me to pay tribute to one of the senior electoral officers who was on the working party on electoral procedures. Mr. David Monks, who is now the returning officer in Huntingdon, was formerly the returning officer in North Warwickshire, so he was able to declare that I was the elected Member for that constituency. I can guarantee that he is a very competent and careful electoral registration officer and that he has great experience of such matters.

The working party on electoral procedures of which David Monks was a member was very conscious of the difficulties that electoral registration officers have in compiling an accurate register. The great experience that he brought to bear enabled them to express the frustration that they feel in the knowledge that their councils often hold the requisite information, but electoral registration departments cannot get access to it. This issue becomes even more acute under a system of rolling registration when people can amend their electoral registration as soon as they move.

Accordingly the working party made the following recommendation:

That is an important recommendation and paragraph 23 of schedule 1 is our way of giving effect to it. That paragraph will allow for regulations to be made that will authorise electoral registration officers to consult records held by the local authority and by those who provide services to the authority. That might include the housing department's records or the council tax register.

Amendment No. 55 would require registration officers to consult such records rather than simply allowing them to do so. I have to tell my hon. Friend and the Committee that I think that such a change would not be welcome to electoral registration officers. They have said that they will need no extra encouragement to use a facility that will make their jobs easier.

I do not think that we need to teach electoral registration officers to suck eggs. They have every incentive to ensure that their registers are as accurate and up to date as possible, not least because they are on the

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receiving end of complaints from those who are left off the register. Experience and the sharing of good practice means that they are best equipped to know how to compile their registers and we should avoid being unduly prescriptive and making their job more difficult.

I have every confidence that once registration officers are given access to local authority records, they will develop techniques for making the most of that access, and we should leave them to get on with it rather than telling them what to do.

My hon. Friend's second amendment would go further. It would allow for regulations to be made enabling the registration officer to consult the records of any person or body who held information about a person's residence. It is hard to know who falls into that category. The obvious answer is the utility companies, and it is true that people will generally notify the electricity and gas boards and the phone company when they move. Equally importantly, they will notify the local authority council tax office to ensure that they do not end up paying council tax on two properties.

Utility companies invariably want a single name for each property to whom they can send bills. I am not sure therefore that utility companies and other organisations necessarily offer useful information above and beyond that held by council tax registers, which is already provided for in the Bill.

Other bodies that have information on people's residence are lawyers, estate agents and other private organisations such as banks. We would be getting into very dangerous privacy and data protection waters if we were to give electoral registration officers access to the records held by such bodies, as the amendment might inadvertently suggest. Indeed the working party warned:

I have every sympathy with the motives behind the amendments, but I hope from what I have said that my hon. Friend will realise that the Bill will make a major contribution to ensuring that electoral registration officers can compile accurate registers. I hope, therefore, that he will realise that his amendments are unnecessary and withdraw them.

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