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Mr. Pound: I shall speak briefly, because I have already made many of my points. I should like to follow up some of the comments of the hon. Member for

13 Jan 2000 : Column 454

Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who referred to a sophisticated screening system for dealing with junk mail. In my part of west London, we have a cruder, if not more earthy method of screening junk mail. I have in my garden a piece of equipment called the little rotter, which is a home composter that produces an excellent tilth to spread on the garden.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) as the authentic voice of old Labour and said that few such Members were prepared to put their heads above the parapet. Although I see myself as new old Labour, or even old new Labour--maybe even past-it Labour--I am normally only too proud and pleased to associate myself with my hon. Friend's comments, because his analyses and views are always comprehensive and well researched and usually worthy of support. Sadly, on this occasion I find myself in the unusual position of disagreeing with my hon. Friend and, even more worryingly, having considerable sympathy with the arguments expressed by the hon. Members for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), for Aldershot and, sad to say, for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan).

The hon. Member for Aldershot has spent a fair amount of time in Dartmoor prison with me. We had many conversations and I have come to have almost a grudging respect for him. I have to say that when one is locked up with a Conservative Member for any length of time, there is not much else one can do. They would not allow anything else--of course, Mr. Aitken had his poetry.

2.30 pm

Hon. Members have made a range of points around a central nexus. None of them implied anything other than that the Government's intentions in this matter, as in all matters, are good. This is not a partisan Bill. Indeed, the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) apologised, as he often does, for bringing in crude party politics. There is wide recognition that something needs to be done; I hope that the Bill is worthy of amendment and will be far better for it.

We talked about the accuracy of the electoral register. There are two strands of argument. Many people consider that the existing electoral register is one of the most accurate databases of its type. There are obvious problems as it is updated in November and published in February. I moved into a property in the mid-1970s and found that the previous occupant had subscribed to a large number of esoteric gentleman's publications.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): From the Conservative Association.

Mr. Pound: Conservative Newsline was by far the most offensive of them. For several months they arrived on my doorstep in plain brown envelopes. It is often difficult to get credit for the first year after one moves. Although the electoral register is not totally accurate, it is certainly more than 90 per cent. accurate. Local authorities that I have known--as a citizen and as an elected representative--put a great deal of effort into it. It is as accurate as it can be. If the hon. Member for Hallam manages to get 20 names on the electoral register where there should be only four, that only confirms all my prejudices about Liberal Democrats--or most of them, anyway.

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The two major credit reference companies--Experion and Equifax--were mentioned. Like a number of hon. Members, I have spoken to them, particularly to Equifax. Equifax is not a charity; it is a business seeking to perform a service in exchange for recompense. Making a profit is certainly not illegal and is likely to become even less illegal, and those companies provide an important service.

We have to recognise that we live in an imperfect world and a society in which many people are denied access to credit by the mechanisms that give most of us access to credit although we are on short-term contracts--except the hon. Member for Aldershot who seems to come back no matter what the electors do. There will always be an informal mechanism for gaining credit, or at least cash to spend. We all know from working people in our constituencies about Christmas clubs and other savings schemes. Those mechanisms are immensely expensive to people with no access to credit and normal methods of saving and all the advantages of deferred payments and interest-free payments, but they have to use something. Surely it is better if they are included in the financial mainstream. If the springboard into that mainstream is having their name on the electoral register, so be it. If nothing else is around, let us keep it that way.

More important, the electoral register is almost a membership list of civic society. If one is on the electoral register, one is part of the civitas--one is a member of society. One can take one's part in society and one can vote. Some people on the electoral register do not have the right to vote. For example, citizens of non-European countries cannot vote in European elections. Some people on the electoral register cannot vote in local authority elections. Peers cannot vote, but they are on the electoral register. However, the fact that they are on the electoral register means that they are part of the community. They are on the membership list. It may seem an almost intangible point, but it is important to be recognised as part of society.

The point has been made about people who wish to avoid being traced. When we discussed the issue previously, the Minister said quite rightly that in a world where one can buy a round piece of plastic for a few pounds and get the names of everyone in the country, and some woman fleeing from her husband can be in fear of being relocated by technological advances, clearly something must be done. Surely the right not to have one's address shown--one's name can appear without an address--should be retained. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, let us try not to damage people unintentionally while seeking to do good to people who deserve it.

I shall conclude as the point has been made. I shall resist the temptation succumbed to by the hon. Member for Lichfield who read out his daily correspondence. I have received most of the letters. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire made an important point about charities. We cannot and must not discourage charities, particularly in view of the statement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week about further Government support for the charitable world.

Like everyone who has spoken today, I have every confidence in my hon. Friend the Minister. I am sure that we can cut this Gordian knot and achieve a resolution. I

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fervently hope that it will not disadvantage some of the weakest, poorest and most excluded people in society whom we have an absolute duty to represent. I hope that we can show that we are worthy of their trust in us.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I should like to put a different angle on the matter. Broadly speaking, I understand exactly why clause 9 was introduced; I can see the thrust behind it and the desire to provide a measure of protection to those who do not wish the electoral register to serve as a way of publicising their details so that they receive a lot of information that they do not want.

I turn to the matter not so much as an issue of principle, but with a lawyer's eye. What strikes me about clause 9 is that lawyers will make a lot of money out of it. It is an enormously complex clause. While I fully understand that the Government cannot provide the detailed provisions that will subsequently be made in regulations, there is quite enough here to make me think that it will all be unworkable. Are we not simply adopting the tactics of King Canute? The material will be in the public domain. Whether or not we seek to regulate it in the way that clause 9 suggests, people will undoubtedly make use of it. I am sure that they will be sufficiently creative to deny that the information comes from the electoral register.

I have a niggling feeling that, despite our having gone through all this paraphernalia, people will still make use of the full register while denying that the information comes from that register, and very little will be able to be done about it.

The debate--which has been very interesting--has gone through various possible permutations about how the system should be regulated. It may be the chief constable who says that certain people can be excluded from the edited and the main register. A little bell rings in my mind saying that there will be lawyers' fees on judicial review. Let us face it: countless people will want to challenge it and disagree with the verdict. Unless the Minister produces provisions that are so remarkable that I shall stand up and admit that I have got it all wrong, I think that we are making a rod for our backs when there has always been widespread acceptance that the electoral register is a public document and people may make use of it. It is one of the burdens of citizenship that we were discussing yesterday.

In supporting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), I see it not as the be-all and end-all of the matter, but as just possibly a step in the right direction. Generally speaking, I am troubled by clause 9. That is not because it is ill-intended--the Government clearly have proper intentions--but because it is unworkable. It is a great merit in legislation to keep things simple. Anybody reading clause 9 would know at once that it was complex and difficult. We may regret what we have done when the consequences start to seep through, although members of my profession will probably be delighted.

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