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Mr. Greenway: I beg to move amendment No. 87, in page 10, line 22, leave out

"a registration officer to prepare"

and insert "the preparation of".

The Temporary Chairman (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody): With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 88, in page 10, line 23, after "which", leave out "he" and insert "the registration officer".

Mr. Greenway: It is our understanding, following discussions with some departmental officials, that both banks and financial institutions and the direct marketing industry have advanced the concept that it may well be advantageous to provide for a third party to prepare edited versions of the full register, rather than electoral registration officers. Depending on the outcome of the discussions and the position eventually taken by the Government, there could be quite a big work load for electoral registration officers in the preparation of edited registers and in supervising access to them.

3.30 pm

We understand that some encouragement to the concept in the amendments has been given in the discussions. However, the Bill will not allow for a third party to prepare the edited register or to have any role in preparing either the full or the edited register. So amendment No. 87 would at least provide for that eventuality. The register would not have to be prepared by the electoral registration officer, but could be prepared by a third party. Amendment No. 88 would have a similar effect.

To an extent, these are technical amendments, but they would be crucial to the involvement of a third party. However, they would not require the involvement of a

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third party if, at the end of the negotiations and discussions, Ministers were not satisfied that anyone other than electoral registration officers should prepare the registers. The change of wording would not commit the Government to accepting the involvement of a third party, but it would provide the opportunity for a third party to prepare the full or the edited register, or both.

I hope that I am in order if I say that amendment No. 89, which has not been selected for debate, would also be important to such a scheme. It would ensure that the Bill fully meets the requirement for the third-party preparation of registers.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what is an interesting idea. I do not think that the amendment is necessary, but I now see where he is coming from. I have sympathy with his aim of ensuring flexibility. However, I do not think that we need the amendment because the Bill already provides such flexibility.

Preparation of the electoral register is an important function, which is why it has the status of a statutory function and why every relevant local authority must appoint an electoral registration officer. The registration officer may, of course, employ other people to assist him in his duties, although the final responsibility must always rest with him.

The Bill contains provisions that will enable an electoral registration officer to employ another organisation or other individuals to assist him with the preparation of parts of the register. The Bill's wording already provides that flexibility. However, I will consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestion to see whether a change of wording might be useful. I should be able to do that within the next few days and we may be able return to the matter, if not on Report, then in another place. The hon. Gentleman has made a useful proposition and I will give further thought to it. However, at present, I do not think that the amendment is necessary.

Mr. Greenway: Can we be clear what the Minister is saying? Has he received advice that the preparation of the register does not preclude electoral registration officers sub-contracting work to someone else?

Mr. O'Brien: That is correct, providing that the final responsibility for what is done and how it is done remains with the electoral registration officer. That is my understanding, but I will take further advice to ensure that that is the position. I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman if anything changes.

Mr. Greenway: I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful response. I take it from what he said that we are correct in our assumption that the idea is being considered and that it is a question of whether the Bill allows for it. I am grateful for his promise to reconsider the issue. I hope that on Report next Wednesday we can reach a conclusion. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Greenway: I beg to move amendment No. 22, in page 10, line 26, leave out "or on behalf of".

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The Temporary Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 73, in page 10, line 32, leave out ", and".

No. 90, in page 10, leave out lines 33 to 35 and insert

"explaining to persons registered or applying to be registered, or persons acting on behalf of such persons, the means by which they may secure the exclusion of their names and addresses from the edited register".

No. 74, in page 10, line 35, at end insert--

"(c) confirming that personal approval has been given for the exclusion of their names and addresses from the register;
"(d) explaining fully the consequences of exclusion of their names and addresses from that register.".

No. 75, in page 10, line 35, at end insert--

"(3) Provisions requiring that the excluded names and addresses be reinstated on the register in the event of the person registered so requesting.".

Mr. Greenway: The amendments deal with an important issue. When a householder completes the electoral registration form that he will be sent each year or which he requests when moving house so that he can be placed on the new rolling register, we understand that the householder alone will be responsible for ticking the opt-out box on the registration form. He will do so on behalf not only of himself, but of all the other voters at that address.

We are encouraged by what the Minister said earlier about the importance of the leaflet and of the explanation given to electors about the consequences of ticking the opt-out box. However, it is not acceptable for a householder to take responsibility for other adults, so that they do not receive mail or so that their names and addresses are not available to credit reference agencies.

I shall describe the best example that has been provided by industry. Dad fills in a form, but one, two or three of his children of voting age may be at university or college. Quite properly, they will be on the register for their home address, but dad might tick the opt-out box so that all the registered voters in that household go on the edited register. His daughter who, let us say, is at university in Durham--which is where one of my three children went--may go to a shop to buy a television on credit, but may suddenly discover that she cannot receive credit because dad ticked the opt-out box. Her name and address will not be on the list to which the supplier has access.

I know that you, Mrs. Dunwoody, are greatly interested in media matters and that is an interest that we share. However, I was astounded, when I went to the Comet store in Old Kent road to get an ONdigital package, to find that I was able to take it away because the young lady at the counter was able to tap into her computer and discover my address in Gilbert road, Kennington, owing to my being on the electoral register. I suspect that if I had not been on the electoral register, I would not have been allowed to take the item away, regardless of the fact that I am a Member of Parliament and the holder of God knows how many credit cards.

The point that we are stressing in the amendment is that it cannot be right for the householder alone to have responsibility for opting out of access to a whole range of services on behalf of other adults. Unless the Minister is going to give us cause for another cheer, we are not asking him to accept the amendment today, but we hope that on

13 Jan 2000 : Column 470

Report on Wednesday he will state whether the leaflet will make clear the consequences of opting out for all members of the household.

If possible, the leaflet, as well as the electoral registration form, should provide the opt-out box. Any member of the household who wanted to opt out could then do so by using the leaflet, rather than ticking the registration form, which of course most of us want to fill in and send off as quickly as possible, rather than leaving it lying around, particularly as it always comes with a prepaid envelope. Inadvertently, the householder may create a problem by simply ticking the opt-out box on the form.

We covered amendment No. 90 in an earlier debate. It would add to the Bill because it would make it clear that the leaflet provided for in clause 9 would have a specific task of explaining to persons registered or applying to be registered the means by which they may secure the exclusion of their name from the edited register. That would provide more opportunity precisely to spell out the consequences of ticking the opt-out box, which the Minister has acknowledged is important. Our earlier debate made clear those consequences, which every member of the Committee understands could be far reaching, so they should be properly explained.

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