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2.15 pm

I profoundly agreed with most of the remarks of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), which may come as more of a shock to him than to me, and believe that he was absolutely right to say that consumers will suffer if electoral information is not available. Consumers who go into Currys or a car dealership to buy something but are unable to obtain credit will wonder why that has happened. Consumers will not realise the risks that they run by using the proposed provisions and removing their name from the electoral register.

Consumers are the ones who will be embarrassed at the check-out desk and irritated when they are unable to buy a product that they had every intention of buying. Financial institutions are not necessarily the ones that will be disadvantaged by the proposals.

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It is no good encouraging prudent lending if we deny lenders some of the means by which they may exercise that prudence in lending. As most hon. Members who have spoken in the debate accept, the electoral register provides a very important basis for prudent lending.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) made the valid point that Britain does not operate a system of identity cards. I do not support the introduction of such a system in Britain. The Government also do not support introducing such a system, as the absence of one here provides one of the few bases on which we are able to argue with some of our European partners that we must maintain border controls. Regardless, I believe that it would be impossible to persuade Parliament to pass such a system, as, quite rightly, the British people would resist having to produce an Ausweis--as they are called in Germany--at the behest of a police officer or anyone else. We are somewhat truculent as a people about that sort of thing.

Mr. Fabricant: I remind my hon. Friend and the Committee that Belgium has just withdrawn from the Schengen agreement.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful for that information--which I, too, had spotted in the pages of The Daily Telegraph, the newspaper that one can trust. That act, with Belgian chocolates, is one of the few advantages of Belgium.

Another aspect of the electoral register's financial role is its impact on social exclusion, which has already been mentioned in the debate. Although obtaining credit is not that difficult for most of us--although, as Members of Parliament, we are perhaps not in the most financially sound condition--banks are increasingly unwilling to lend to people who do not score well on computer checks. For those people, availability of electoral register information is even more important. Therefore, the Government's proposals to provide for an edited electoral register will increase rather than decrease social exclusion.

I am a member of the Home Affairs Committee, which very carefully considered those issues. It is worth reminding the Committee that, at paragraph 50 of our report, the Committee took the view that

I know that the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire believes that those are the only purposes for which copies should be made available, but--as not only I but many other hon. Members have made clear--there are other good reasons why electors benefit from wider electoral register availability. If the electoral register is mutilated, electors are the ones who will suffer.

The Committee, in considering whether people should be able to opt out of the register, decided that they should be able to do so only in exceptional circumstances. In yesterday's debate, the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton)--I was not able to attend the debate, but I have read his remarks--listed those exceptional circumstances.

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I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman dealt with how to judge whether circumstances are exceptional, but the Committee drew attention to the fact that the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors has suggested that the decision might be made only on the recommendation of the chief constable for the area, a responsible person who would be able to check whether someone had a truly justifiable reason to opt out--such as in the case of Jill Dando, who was generally at risk, or of a battered woman being pursued by an ex-husband. I believe that a chief constable would be a good arbiter of who should be excluded.

I believe that the Government's proposals put us in grave danger of doing something for the best of reasons--to provide electors with a choice, and to allow people, for good reason, to exclude their name from the electoral register--that we should not do. As people see the impact of the new arrangements on their daily lives, those good reasons will lead to irritation and frustration that Parliament, having had the deficiencies drawn to its attention, failed to take them into account and steamrollered on to produce a system that does not benefit the electorate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield mentioned WWAV Rapp Collins, which, I am told, is not a pop group but the largest direct marketing mail company in Europe, accounting for 11 per cent. of the Royal Mail's business in the direct mail sector. The company puts 200 million items in the post every year on behalf of its clients, so it is a major player and a major contributor to the Royal Mail's coffers and is not to be trifled with. When I met representatives of the company yesterday, they expressed their disappointment that the business community was not well represented on the working party. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale made that point in his criticisms of the consultation process. I hope that the Minister will recognise that the commercial world is acting not only in its own interests, but in the interests of the wider electorate. Its views need to be listened to.

A mail order catalogue customer who is off the electoral register will find not just that their credit rating cannot be checked, but that the company will not be able to deliver the goods. If a customer comes from an area where fraud tends to be prevalent, the company will go to the register and ask, for example, "Does Mr. Pound live here in Ealing?"

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): That is what my wife wants to know.

Mr. Howarth: If the hon. Gentleman's wife has ordered a wonderful dress through a mail order catalogue to go to the Blairite ball of the millennium and her part of Ealing does not have a good reputation, the company will wish to verify her status. If she is not on the electoral register, the company will conclude that the order is fraudulent. That is a practical example of how the arrangement could impact on our constituents. As we all know, we will be the first to be criticised. People will write to their Member of Parliament to know what is going on and why they cannot get credit for their mail order products. We shall only be adding to our own mailbags. In the interests of the Minister's peace of mind and easing the pressure that I know he is under, I ask him not to add to his burdens or ours.

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Mail order companies try to target their mailshots. If the register is not comprehensive--that word was used by the hon. Member for Hallam, and I entirely agree--they will not be able to target their mailshots so well. I accept that the register can never be as comprehensive as we would like, as the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire pointed out, but it is the most comprehensive Bible that we have. If companies cannot target their mailshots so well, the result will be more junk mail, more irritated consumers and more irritated constituents for us. It is unfortunate that we are risking that.

When I was out of the House, I worked for a company called Prime Response in Brentford. It had a fantastic idea for dealing with junk mail, called OVS--occupation verification system. It was to deal with people who had gone away or were deceased, not people who did not want to be on the list. The company wanted to use the monthly records of the utilities, because when we move house the first thing that we do is stop the gas bills in one place and start them at the new place. That is instantaneous recognition of moving house. That information would be provided monthly by the utilities, and the company wanted to run it encrypted against its data lists. Anyone who had been on a list to receive direct marketing material but had moved house would have been removed and the new occupant would not have received the previous occupant's junk mail. That was monstrously stopped by the Data Protection Registrar, who stood in the way.

Mr. Pound: It is illegal.

Mr. Howarth: I know that it is illegal, but for goodness sake, we are in practical politics to try to help our constituents. The information would have been entirely encrypted. Instead, we continue to chop down trees and irritate people for no good purpose when computerisation could have prevented that.

Mr. Greenway: Does my hon. Friend think that the Data Protection Registrar would be a suitable person to oversee the provisions envisaged in the clause? That is central to our amendment No. 91.

Mr. Howarth: I listened carefully to my hon. Friend when he spoke to amendment No. 91. I agree with him, subject to my remarks about the Data Protection Registrar and the way in which she dealt with the issue that I am talking about. She needs to be practical. My hon. Friend's suggestion in amendment No. 91 would go some way to meeting problems that have been raised on both sides of the Committee. It would meet the problem raised by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire about only people registered with the Data Protection Registrar having access to the register.

I hope that I have persuaded the Committee that there are some practical problems with the Government's proposals. The electors and consumers of Britain will be more disadvantaged than the commercial world unless we take action to remedy the idea of having an edited register. We should not pursue that idea. I look forward to hearing what the Minister says, particularly about the concerns of the financial world.

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