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Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Has my hon. Friend, like me, received the letter from Help the Aged, which came up with a relatively simple solution? It suggested that the word "information" should be changed to "names and addresses".

Mr. Greenway: I have received many letters from charities, including from Help the Aged. We are not entirely clear that its suggestion meets the requirements, and I shall explain in a moment that we have another scheme that would allow the opt-out box to continue. At the moment, I am simply exploring what would occur if the opt-out box were stopped altogether, which would be one of the amendment's consequences.

Under the industry's alternative scheme the leaflet would be paid for by industry and distributed by local authorities at a cost to be borne by industry. The scheme would include a freepost system for individuals who wanted an element of privacy or restriction on the use of the electoral register, particularly to prevent its use as raw data, which would involve the register being used as the sole source of information that an organisation would act upon.

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Turning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), the scheme would enable charities to verify how many people live in a particular street so that they could plan their house- to-house collections accordingly. It would enable charities that write to individuals, as direct marketing and direct mail organisations do, to use the list to clean their data and to save unnecessary cost and expense. It cannot be sensible for charities to have to spend money on postage and printing to write to people who are no longer at an address. The use of the electoral register is very valuable to such charities.

I can tell that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department acknowledges that the scheme has considerable merit, and we hope that his mind is still receptive to it.

I turn now to another perspective on the matter. The Conservative party recognises that the Government are unlikely to be persuaded of the working party's recommendation that there should not be an opt-out box, which we understand has the support of the Data Protection Registrar, and that they fully intend to proceed with an opt-out box. With that in mind, and despite all that I have said about what might have been a preferred option, we have tried hard to produce amendments that would allow the Government to continue with an opt-out box and avoid damaging the interests of voters and those of industry, financial organisations and charities.

On the interests of constituents, there is no question but that restricted availability of the list would be damaging for credit reference purposes. It appears that the Government acknowledge that, but they seem unpersuaded that there is a legitimate use for the register in debt recovery. That seems to us an illogical distinction. It will have the same consequence for credit availability because if organisations such as banks are not able to use the electoral register to trace the whereabouts of people to whom credit has been extended, they will be reluctant to extend credit to those people in the first place. If the efficiency of debt recovery is impeded, that will have a clear consequence not only for credit availability but, in the long run, for the cost of credit.

On debt recovery, I should like the Minister to consider what happens to people who have not, for example, paid the television licence fee or vehicle excise duty. Presumably the BBC and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency currently chase up people who have not paid by checking on the electoral register. Whether or not the effect is intended, some organisations are considered to have a legitimate use because they may in some respects be seen as part of the public sector, whereas commercial organisations and banks would have that legitimate use restricted.

We do not have as yet any form of identity card system. As a result, over many years the electoral register has become the chief source of information as to where people may or may not be found. We are entirely at one with those who say that it should not be used against the interests or preferences of individuals. However, we urge the Minister to consider the matter completely in the round and to recognise that there is not a one-way street. All of us benefit in some way from the fact that organisations have access to the register and use it properly. We accept that its commercial use needs to be supervised, licensed and controlled in a more sensible way.

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Amendment No. 21 asks the Government to recognise that there are legitimate purposes for the use of the full register, but that these should be explained properly to voters. The amendment comes with amendment No. 22, which we are likely to discuss when dealing with a subsequent group of amendments. Amendment No. 23 is of much greater importance. If accepted, it would have the effect of placing an obligation on the Secretary of State to have regard to certain interests and to consult before making any regulations under paragraph 10B. Those interests are those of electors and constituents as well as the interests of business. I have already detained the Committee long enough on what those interests are.

Amendment No. 23 is crucial. As drafted, the Bill gives far too much discretion to the Secretary of State in the making of regulations under the new provisions. If the Minister intends making soothing noises in response to the barrage of criticism that he has already received-- I suspect it will be articulated further during the debate--we think that the best response would be for him to accept the amendment or to indicate that on Report, which will be on Wednesday of next week, the House will be asked to consider a further amendment. Through amendment No. 23, we are asking that a provision be put into the Bill requiring the Secretary of State to have regard to the interests of electors and businesses, and to consult before he makes any regulations under the new provisions contained in paragraph 10B.

There is an alternative. Amendments Nos. 91, 87, 88--unfortunately, No. 89 was not selected--and 90 are consequential. However, amendment No. 23 would provide for any organisation registered with the Data Protection Registrar, under licence and on payment of a proper fee, to have full access to the commercial register. Banks and large sections of the direct marketing industry have always envisaged that there would need to be a licensing system to underpin any opt-out box arrangements. I understand that discussion about licensing has taken place between those organisations and officials in the Under-Secretary of State's Department.

The Bill sets out a requirement for provisions to which I have already referred. However, we have had no sign thus far of what form the provisions will take. How will they be structured? Who will be responsible for supervising them? What fees will be charged? How will the person responsible for supervision prescribe who can or cannot have the register? How will it be possible to stop the unofficial use of the register by spurious organisations?

As matters stand, the system is open to abuse and anomaly. At one extreme, banks and major international companies in the direct marketing sector will be denied the bona fide use of the register. I have already referred to the absurd fact that the Government remain unpersuaded that there should be no use of the full register for debt recovery.

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At the other extreme, as at present, anyone will be able to go down to the library and copy the full register. That may be illegal, but what is to stop people doing it? In that way, a spurious organisation could make full use of the register without anyone knowing. Doubtless such an

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organisation would not be registered with the Data Protection Registrar, so presumably the organisation would be committing offences under the Data Protection Acts in any event.

That adds further to the argument that to provide a role for the Data Protection Registrar or Commissioner in supervising the use of the register only for those organisations registered with the registrar would be a sensible and practical way of progressing the issue.

Mr. Fabricant: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Greenway: Before I give way to my hon. Friend, I shall make another telling point.

The local Labour party, or the Liberal Democrats, or the Conservative party--I am happy to admit this--or any fringe party yet to be established could use the register, ostensibly to canvass voters, and having canvassed voters, to recruit members, sell them raffle tickets and generally raise money.

Whatever the intention may be, that is the practical effect, yet every major charity in the land, all of which have expressed anger and frustration at the Government's proposal, will be denied the same legitimate use of the register, by virtue of the opt-out box. They will be denied the legitimate use of what is and has always been regarded as a public document.

We say that the arrangements set out in clause 9 are unsatisfactory and should not be acceptable to the Committee in their current form. Reassurances from the Minister will not be sufficient. We need something more written into the Bill.

Amendment No. 91 and the supporting amendments would provide a means of ensuring that dialogue with industry and charities continues after the Bill receives Royal Assent. We entirely understand the Minister's anxiety to get the Bill on the statute book quickly, which is why we have co-operated in the progress of the Bill and why, even last night, I said that I was prepared for Report stage to take place on Monday, if necessary. We know now that it will take place on Wednesday.

We understand the sense of urgency, but we need to know that there is some guarantee that dialogue will continue. Even in the letter that the Minister kindly sent me by fax yesterday, he mentioned continuing to consult industry about the regulatory framework. That suggests to me that there should be no difficulty in his accepting that safeguards should be written into the Bill.

Accepting amendment No. 91 would leave everything in play and provide the prospect of a sensible and practical implementation of the changes in clause 9 by an independent body that was recognised by and answerable to Parliament. We believe that that is a responsible approach. We urge the Minister to accept the amendment.

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