Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Greenway: I have a few comments in response to the Minister's remarks. Anyone who has been watching our proceedings during the past two hours could only conclude that the Committee of the Whole House has been displayed at its best in this debate. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made strong and convincing arguments to which the Minister has responded in considerable detail.

However, we can only offer the Minister one and a half cheers for his response.

Mr. O'Brien: Why not two cheers?

Mr. Greenway: No, I think it should be one and a half. We are grateful to the Minister for suggesting that he would accept amendment No. 21. I hope to catch your eye, Mrs. Dunwoody, when we come to the next-but-one group of amendments, so that the Committee can briefly discuss leaflets. I am grateful for the Minister's acceptance of the fact that the leaflet explaining to households the consequences of ticking an opt-out box is still a matter for debate, and for his recognition of the importance of such a leaflet in enabling voters to understand the matter. That is the reason for the one and a half cheers.

However, the Minister has not convinced the Committee that the full register should not be available more widely than it would be under his proposals. It is completely illogical that the data protection directive permits the full register to be used for credit referencing--we are grateful for the Minister's confirmation that the Government agree with that--but not for debt recovery. Similarly, the full register will not be made available, through whatever limited, licensed and regulated means--all yet to be determined--for the direct market industry and many other companies that have a legitimate use for it.

Clause 9 will provide for regulations, which are yet to be laid--I appreciate that they will be subject to further discussion--but the effect will be to supply copies of the full register only to prescribed people. However, we are not 100 per cent. sure who those people will be and, more important, about the mechanism whereby they will be included in the list for the full register, or not put on the list and told that they cannot have the register.

3.15 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth: In relation to the credit industry, is my hon. Friend clear as to whether the Government intend to make the full register available only to the major credit reference agencies, or to the wider credit industry--the banks and other finance houses?

Mr. Greenway: My interpretation of the Minister's remarks is that the register would be available to the credit reference industry, but not to the banks--hence my point as to the illogicality of the measure. There is no way that the data protection directive can grant consent to give the

13 Jan 2000 : Column 465

list to one and not to the other. Perhaps, we shall have the opportunity to debate the matter again on Report next week.

I hear what the Minister says about amendment No. 91, but the fact is--

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I hope that I can clarify the point. Certainly, the full register will be available to political parties, but it would not be available, in an uncontrolled way, to everyone in the direct marketing or the various credit industries. However, we are discussing with the industries whether we might devise with them properly controlled and safeguarded mechanisms so that individual privacy would be protected, while allowing for some checking.

Mr. Greenway: Perhaps that gets us to two cheers, but we are still missing one. We are still not satisfied that the Committee has a sufficient idea of how prescription under these new regulations will differentiate between one organisation and another. The real reason that we tabled amendment No. 91 and that we ask the Committee to support it--despite the fact that the Minister has given way on some points--is because it is the only measure that gives us a clue as to whom the full register might be made available: organisations registered under the Data Protection Acts. Those will all be bona fide organisations. The Minister's point as regards continuing discussion relates to the way in which organisations use the full register. That is valid; we understand that those regulations will be equally important.

However, I ask the Committee to reflect on the fact that we are talking about two quite separate stages of the process. The first is the prescription of those to whom the full register will be available--to which organisations. The second is the prescription of what those organisations can do with the full register. Before Report, the Minister needs to do a little more work on the first stage. For that reason, I ask the Committee to support amendment No. 91 in a Division, not because the amendment is perfect, but to show the Minister that we are still dissatisfied about the availability of the full register to bona fide organisations.

Mr. Barnes: The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) apologised for missing my speech moving the amendment. He is now missing the great opportunity to hear my second speech on the matter. I am not sure whether it is a criticism of the hon. Gentleman, or of me. He wanted the register to be available widely for commercial use and by charities. I am in favour of charities having addresses for collections of jumble and so on, which is why I support amendment No. 77. I am trying also to block the commercial usage of electoral registers.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) described me as old Labour, yet if he looks at many of my amendments, he will see that I am an arch-moderniser. In fact, I am such a moderniser that I am ahead of Government Front Benchers on these matters. Modernisation is supposed to be the main element of the third way philosophy, which has gripped the Labour party, so it is not easy to define my position as old or new Labour.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) referred to the register as if it were accurate

13 Jan 2000 : Column 466

and reasonable. My hon. Friend waxed lyrical about the register, which he regarded as a sign of citizenship upon which everybody was established. It is not because masses of people are missing from it, and there are some whom we do not allow to register.

In earlier amendments, I proposed to enfranchise 680,000 overseas residents in this country who are not entitled to be on a register and are not part of our civic list. How will they get credit facilities in this country if the electoral register is used for this key service for our citizens? I bet that many of those 680,000 will manage well the arrangements within society in terms of credit and other companies.

The hon. Members for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and for Hallam are cherry-picking my amendments. There is nothing wrong with that--I am a cherry-picker in terms of the Patten report on Northern Ireland. However, their cherry-picking is wrong, and the Opposition are attempting to turn my amendments into the exact opposite of what I propose by latching on to a particular amendment.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Would the hon. Gentleman prefer the Opposition to agree with him some of the time, or never?

Mr. Barnes: I prefer hon. Members to listen to what I have to say, understand it and support absolutely everything that I say.

The hon. Member for Hallam argued for the need for a national register containing everyone's address. If there is a case for that, it would seem to be a matter for an entirely different Bill. To try to subvert the electoral register and to make it a second best national list of names and addresses is inadequate.

I have sympathy for the notion that there should be a national register, tightly controlled by the data protection and other provisions. If there was such a register, it would be a marvellous device to ensure that the electoral register was a proper one, containing everyone's name. However, we do not have that. Neither do we have identity cards, for which the hon. Member for Ryedale argued. I support identity cards but, again, I do so because I see them as a marvellous means of assisting full electoral registration.

Full electoral registration is of overwhelming importance. We are discussing the basic building block of a democracy--the vote. Many other important matters flow from that, such as people's rights in society, their right to organise and so on--but having the vote is the first element. That is why we should ensure that everyone in society is on a register, which is what my amendments are about.

I believe that there is a deterrent effect, of which I have become aware through constituents who have not put their names on registers or are reluctant to have their names on them as they believe that they will be used for other purposes. If people want to engage in general mail shots, registers are not needed. They can use the Post Office to deliver to every house in an area.

One thing that worries me about the Government's position--what I see as the second-best position--is the opt-out box to be ticked if one does not want to be placed on the registers for commercial sale. This will be a great surprise to many of the electorate when they discover that the electoral register is already being used on such a wide

13 Jan 2000 : Column 467

basis. They will be astonished to discover that the register is used for more than just electoral purposes. They will be astonished to discover that it is available in libraries and post offices. When they discover that, they will be unhappy about the arrangements. They will be worried about their neighbours and others being able to check up those matters.

There is also to be a leaflet to alert people to the fact that that has been taking place all along, which will be quite a shock. People may tear up the registration form when they see all of the complexity involved.

My hon. Friend the Minister adopted a balanced position--it reminds me of the Erasmus principle; not too little, not too much, but just right. On one extreme, there is my proposal. On the other, there is the Conservative proposal--to give the register to everyone with money. Then we have the third way between the two extremes to try to get some balance.

The prime argument is the sanctity of the electoral register. If people want some of the other measures that are being talked about, they should turn to legislation in those areas. However, on the principle that I do not believe in banging my head against a brick wall, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Next Section

IndexHome Page