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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): We have had a good debate, and I welcome you, Mrs. Dunwoody, to the Chair. Important points were made by all the hon. Members who participated, mostly in non-partisan fashion. Despite sterling efforts, the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) failed to be partisan and, in fact, sounded very reasonable and balanced.

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In many ways, the debate followed yesterday's interesting and important debate on the way in which modern technology, especially the search facilities that CD-ROM provides, enables people to identify the address of anyone who is registered to vote within a short time by pressing a few computer keys. That could enable someone searching for a battered spouse--or a stalker searching for his victim--to use the electoral register to find the person, a purpose for which it was never intended. We discussed the possibility of having what I called secret voters and others called anonymous voters. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) made some important points and touched on that proposal. The House considered that yesterday and took the view that the proposal would cause so many difficulties that it should not be adopted at this stage.

The essence of the Government's position--and that of the working party--is that people should not be obliged by law to register to vote and then have their whereabouts passed, without consent, to someone else who may intend to use the information for purely commercial purposes, requests for charitable donations or more sinister reasons. At the moment, it is possible for someone to obtain the information without the consent of the person who is registered, but that person is obliged by law to register and must pay a penalty if he or she does not. That raises a serious issue about the right to privacy and begs the question of what we are using the sanction of the law, including the ability to fine people, to achieve, when they may have reasons for wishing not to disclose their whereabouts.

The ability of commercial companies to use the register for sending junk mail is one of the main sources of complaints to returning officers and the Home Office. People are sick of junk mail and they want something to be done. Individuals have a right to privacy and should be able to consent to the release of information about them. The current position may also trespass on some areas covered by the European convention on human rights, but that may be an issue for the courts at a later stage. We have also touched on issues of data protection and the way in which information is used. I assure the Committee that the Data Protection Registrar was consulted throughout the formulation of our policy.

2.45 pm

Mr. Allan: I agree that the debate raises data protection issues. Did the Government consider the other option of trying to ensure that the compilation of the register complied with data protection principles while still allowing its use for wider purposes? Was that considered or was the only response to try to limit the use of electoral register?

Mr. O'Brien: The working party formulated the strategy that we have sought to implement. That working party included a representative from both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party, and they united behind the view that has been put forward. The Data Protection Registrar was also fully involved in considering the issues.

If the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) were to be accepted, there would continue to be only a single version of the electoral register listing the names of all

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electors in the relevant area, but its availability would be severely limited. Only those people who had been prescribed in regulations would be able to obtain it and they could use it only for certain prescribed purposes. There would be no edited version that could be bought freely and used for wider purposes.

I am aware that my hon. Friend is not alone in believing that much tighter controls should be placed on the availability of the electoral register. It was because of this that the working party on electoral procedures devoted considerable time to the issue. Its conclusion, which was supported by all of its members--including Liberal Democrat and Conservative--was that:

Nevertheless, the working party recommended that people should be able to opt out of being included in the register that was made available for sale. The working party suggested that there should be two versions of the register--a full one that could be used for electoral and law enforcement purposes and an edited version, which would be freely available for sale, containing only the names of those who have not exercised their right to be excluded from it. Clause 9 allows for regulations to that effect to be made. As we explained on Second Reading, we are still considering exactly what form those regulations should take.

I assure the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) that we will fully consult the various industries involved, the charities and others, as part of the process of bringing forward regulations. Indeed, no doubt the House will wish to discuss in due course the impact that the regulations would have.

Few things in life are simple and few things are more difficult than trying to balance competing interests. This is a classic case where different interests are pulling in different ways. On the one hand, the working party on electoral procedures was very clear that, as a matter of principle, information that individuals are required by law to provide for one purpose should not be available for use for other purposes without their consent.

We must also take very careful consideration of the European convention on human rights and data protection principles, as well as the more general notion of a right to privacy. We know that the public resent the delivery of junk mail, some of which they receive as a result of their names appearing on the electoral register. More worryingly, we know of cases where abusive spouses have traced their former partners through the register.

Mr. Greenway: What research has the Department undertaken into how often the electoral register is used as the raw data and sole source for the sending out of unsolicited mail?

Mr. O'Brien: I shall come to the question of unsolicited mail in a moment. However, for the companies who send out such mail, the register is only one of a number of sources of raw data. The factors that arouse concern in all members of the Committee need to be balanced by recognition that this country has flourishing credit and direct marketing industries. They make extensive use of the electoral register, and we would like to avoid doing undue harm to them--or to the charities that also use the register. We are considering how best to achieve that balance.

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I can assure the Committee that we are in touch with the industries concerned. Home Office officials held a meeting with representatives of the credit industry just before Christmas to see whether a way could be found to accommodate the industry's needs within the constraints imposed by the EU data protection directive and the European convention on human rights.

Those discussions will inform any regulations that we introduce. Such regulations--which I assure the Committee will be accompanied by a full regulatory impact assessment--will be fully debated in the House. I can also tell the Committee that those regulations will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. That answers one of the points raised in amendment No. 79.

Amendment No. 23 is unnecessary and, because it would tilt the scales firmly in one direction, prejudicial.

I can deal briefly with amendment No. 21, as I do not object to it.

It might be helpful to the Committee if I were to say a little about the arrangements for introducing the new system with two versions of the electoral register. The public will obviously be unfamiliar with the new opt-out box on the electoral registration form and will need to be given an explanation of its purpose and effect. We propose that the form should be accompanied by an explanatory leaflet. We have already discussed this with the credit and marketing industries, as the hon. Member for Ryedale noted, and we believe that they will want to play their part in helping to settle the content of the leaflet. They have already indicated that they would be willing to pay some or all of the costs involved, as the leaflet would clearly bring some direct benefit to them.

The leaflet would need to explain the uses to which the edited register may be put. The key point is that people will be able to make an informed decision about exercising their right to opt out. They will have that choice, and it will be up to them to make it.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: In his consultations with the credit industry, has the Minister accepted that the paramount need is that the leaflet points out--in words of one syllable and in the boldest possible fashion--the risk to electors, as consumers, if their names are removed from the main register?

Mr. O'Brien: There would be no point in having a leaflet if it did not say in clear terms what the impact of opting out would be. We believe that people considering opting out should be clear about what the effect would be. We want the leaflet to tell people that opting out might affect their ability to get credit or other services that they might want. If they were to decide to opt out of the edited register, they should know what the consequences would be. No doubt, some people will choose to opt out, and that will be their right.

However, I point out that opting out is a physical action: people who do it will have to tick a box. It may not be much, but it would require a positive decision. After reading the leaflet, many people will make an informed decision not to tick the box. In that way, for most practical purposes, the register will remain much as

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it is now. Some people, however, will decide--for their own, very good, reasons, such as personal safety--that it is right to opt out.

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