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Mr. Barnes: Can it be said that the register has any use commercially at present? It is notoriously inefficient and inaccurate for such purposes, and commercial bodies attempting to use it presumably find themselves in a hopeless position. The Bill may improve things, but my amendments would improve them further.

Mr. Allan: The electoral register, unlike other sources, is checked annually, and a reasonable amount of canvassing goes into it. We politicians bemoan inaccuracy because we do not want to lose a single vote, and we do not like to find that a household is not properly registered. In my constituency, 20 people may be registered as living in a certain property, but when we knock on the door we find that only four people are living there, and that none of them are those whose names are on the register.

Mr. Barnes: Millions of people are missing from electoral registers. Some are registered to vote in the

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wrong area, and some are dead. I know that the Bill deals with some of the problems by suggesting change, but this argument seems to be based on the desirability of continuing the present situation.

Mr. Allan: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the inaccuracies, but I think that the register is more accurate than many other sources of data.

Mr. Greenway: The intervention of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) was timely, but I think that the opposite of what he said is the case. As I understand it, he wants to restrict the commercial sale of the electoral register because he believes that it discourages people from registering. However, a great many people who are not currently registered are seriously disadvantaged for that reason. That is why it is crucial for them to understand the importance of any opt-out provisions, or, better still, to be given an explanatory leaflet.

Mr. Allan: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire is right about the disincentive to register, and I think that there are many others. I agree that the poll tax was one, and that mistake should not be repeated, but I am not sure that the proposals that we are discussing constitute a positive discouragement.

The working group had anecdotal evidence in the form of complaints sent to the Home Office, and to individual Members of Parliament. I am not persuaded. I have seen no evidence to suggest that there is a large-scale failure to register for the reasons that I have mentioned. I can see that the poll tax, or a similar move to link tax or similar burdens to electoral rights, might constitute a discouragement, but I do not think that this proposal, as it stands, constitutes such a discouragement. Nevertheless, I think that people will be misled in other respects: in particular, I think they will assume that the issue is connected with direct marketing. People who try to obtain credit on the telephone--perhaps to buy the car to which I referred earlier--will be told that they cannot have credit because they are not on the system, and that that is because they did not register with a credit reference agency via the electoral register. Only then will they discover where the problem originated.

Amendment No. 79 seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State examines the matter again to verify for his purposes and those of the House that any proposals that he makes are in the public interest. The aim is to return the issue of public interest to the debate about data protection principles. We have moved quite a long way, without necessarily considering all the public interest implications. The amendment is intended to enable the Secretary of State to ensure that any changes are subject to affirmative resolution of both Houses. We think that that is a positive move, and I am sure that the Minister will accept it, as I know from earlier debates that he is the kind of Minister who likes to say yes if he possibly can. We are offering him an opportunity to say yes to both Houses of Parliament. I am sure that he would look forward to that. It is an important point.

I hope that the Minister will say how he originally envisaged introducing the regulations and that, given the argument that it is a significant change with wide impact,

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he is now persuaded that he should take a belt-and-braces approach to ensure that parliamentarians get a good chance to scrutinise the regulations in detail.

Mr. Fabricant: I apologise to the Committee for not being here at the beginning of the debate. I was at an Engineering Council meeting, from which I could not get away.

Members of Parliament have probably received more letters on this clause than on any other aspect of the Bill. The letters come from a wide range of interested parties, ranging from the Consumer Credit Trade Association to the National Blind Childrens Society, all of which will be affected by clause 9.

As I was not here at the beginning to hear the speech of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who always makes worthwhile contributions, I will not speak at length on the amendment, but I should like to describe the sort of people who wrote to me and what they said. I mentioned in an intervention that Help the Aged had contacted me and suggested that "information" be substituted by "names and addresses". However, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) has pointed out that that would not have the effect that Help the Aged wants.

Interestingly, the National Blind Childrens Society points out that clause 9 will be costly. May I put in a little politics? It has highlighted another stealth tax. It says:

by the Government--

    "through the telephone preference system."

Sadly, it is one of the most awful of the stealth taxes in that it directly affects charities such as the NBCS.

Marie Curie Cancer Care has written to criticise aspects of clause 9. Barclays bank has said that it will create real difficulty as it

That is a problem that the Government have to address in any event.

As we have seen on programmes such as "Watchdog", some people suddenly find that they are unable to borrow money because it turns out that they have a bad credit reference. When they try to find out why, they are unable to do so. The position will not be helped by clause 9 as it stands. A similar letter has been received from the British Bankers Association. I have already mentioned the Consumer Credit Trade Association.

We have also heard from the Direct Marketing Association. One individual--let me give him a plug--Trevor Oxborrow, wrote an interesting letter from Campbeltown, Argyll. Mrs. Jefkins from Croydon, Surrey feels strongly about the issue, as does John Lovell. The WWAV Rapp Collins Group have written.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Name a constituent.

Mr. Fabricant: Sadly, of all the representations that I have received from all parts of the country, none has come from Lichfield. That is untypical of my constituents, who follow in the footsteps of one Lichfield's great sons, Dr. Samuel Johnson, a great letter writer.

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I have also heard from Andy Watkins of Willingdon, Eastbourne--which is near where I was born--and from Prostaff Funding Ltd., in Chester-le-Street, in County Durham.

Clearly, there is dissatisfaction with clause 9. I hope that the Minister--like Lloyds TSB, which also is unhappy with the Bill's provisions--is in listening mode. If he wants to buy himself a larger house, I am sure that, in the tradition of one of his very senior colleagues, he will want to borrow not from a friend, but from a building society, and to know that his credit rating will enable him to borrow the necessary sum. It is therefore in his interests, and those of all hon. Members, that clause 9 be amended. Most importantly, however, it is in the interests of charities and our constituents that it be amended as they require.

Mr. Howarth: Like my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), who has the privilege of representing a part of the country that I once represented, I have to own up and apologise for not being in the Chamber for the beginning of the debate. Unlike him, however, I have taken advantage of technology and was able to see the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) on my television screen and to follow some of the points that he made.

I should first declare an interest, as I am a parliamentary consultant to the Consumer Credit Association, which--like the many other financial organisations mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield; I shall not repeat them all--has a very clear interest in the Government's proposals. The Consumer Credit Association represents the home credit industry, which has about 4 million customers. The point, however, is that the entire credit industry will be affected by the Government's proposals, and my hon. Friend has described only some of those who are greatly concerned about them.

In moving the amendment, the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire--who is the authentic voice of old Labour, not many of whom, unlike him, put their head above the parapet nowadays--said that electoral register availability was part of a ghastly plot to enable commercial interests to flourish, make profits and take money from people. However, I think that the boot is very much on the other foot, as availability of such information is at least of mutual interest to both consumers and lenders. I submit, moreover, that availability is principally in consumers' interest.

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