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Mr. Allan: I rise to speak to amendments Nos. 73 to 75, in the names of my colleagues. Amendment No. 74 covers some of the same ground as the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). It is important that we consider who should be able to authorise the opt-out and the exclusion of someone's name from the edited register. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's speech will have persuaded masses of people not to opt out of the main register when they learn that they will be excluded from the delights of ONdigital if they do so.

There is a fundamental issue of principle here. Earlier the Minister was talking about the individual's choice, and if choice is a principle, to have someone deciding, on behalf of others, to opt out of the register, would be incompatible with the arguments advanced by the Minister. I was attracted by the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Ryedale--that the opt-out should be included in the leaflet and be separate from the registration form. That would be a sensible way to ensure that we have a clear procedure for sending back the registration form and a second procedure for dealing with opt-out requests. That could be extended to enable people to opt in or out at various times of the year.

The second part of amendment No. 74, which relates to explaining the consequences of exclusion from the register, is to some extent covered by the Minister's arguments about preparing a leaflet. However, the Bill should include provision for explaining the consequences of opting out. Clause 9 makes provision for explaining what the edited register will be used for, but the Bill does not require the regulations to describe the consequences of opting out.

3.45 pm

Amendment No. 75 is important because it would allow people to opt back into the register. The Minister touched on that earlier, but we need clarification about the

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procedures for opting in. We also need a procedure for people to obtain their electoral register data, even though they have not been on the public register.

Problems frequently occur when people who have no credit status seek credit, because a credit company will want to know how many years they have been at their address. The current register is not enough; the company will want three or four years' history. I fear that people who are socially and financially excluded and who have opted out for a number of years will want to get hold of their data to prove to somebody that they were resident at an address for several years.

The Minister should consider whether there should be a procedure whereby a fee is paid, not for instant credit, but for people who want proof of residence at an address. They should be able to go to the electoral registration office and get a statement to prove that they have been on the register for certain years. It is important that somebody who has secretly been on the register for several years should be able to prove that, if it is to their advantage. There is no provision in the Bill for people to do so.

I hope that the Minister will accept that the amendments have been tabled in a positive spirit to try to ensure that we make the most of the Government's plan to have two registers. Both amendments deal with provisions that we should like tightened up before the Report stage.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: Amendment No. 22 is a deceptive little amendment. It appears harmless, but its effect could well be to damage electoral registration rates, particularly among young people.

It is a long-standing feature of our electoral registration arrangements that the registration form is completed by the head of the household. That may sound a little old-fashioned, but there are good reasons for continuing with that arrangement. Certainly that is the view of electoral registration officers. First, it significantly reduces the number of forms that officers have to process. Secondly, officers have no other way of knowing when new people move into a household or when children reach voting age. The present arrangement makes the head of the household, who may in practice be any member of it, responsible for ensuring that all eligible people are on the electoral register.

Most importantly, without that arrangement very few of our young people would appear on the electoral register. It is regrettable that so few young people would be bothered to take the initiative to register as electors if left to their own devices, but it is certainly not a fact that we can ignore.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Is the Minister suggesting that people deserve the vote if they cannot even be bothered to take the steps necessary to register? It seems a rather odd argument that we should allow people the great privilege and responsibility of voting but rely on someone else to initiate that process. Surely the first test of eligibility to vote should be simply to ask someone to take the initiative to register, whether they are young or not.

Mr. O'Brien: I know that the right hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues are in favour of putting tests

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and obstructions in the way of people who wish to vote, but I suggest that we should seek to encourage people to register. The traditional method of registration, which the right hon. Gentleman's party and mine have supported in the past, is that the head of the household takes responsibility for ensuring that those who are under 18 are included on the electoral register so that when they reach 18, they can vote.

That is a good approach. It ensures the registration of many young people who, for life style and other reasons, may not think that they need to register before they turn 18 so that they can vote if an election occurs shortly after their 18th birthday. We ought to make the procedure easier for them and ensure that the head of the household is able to take on that task.

I hope therefore that the Committee will understand why we must preserve the present arrangement under which the electoral registration form is completed by the head of the household. The amendment would strike at the heart of that principle. The head of a household would never be able to complete a form with an opt-out request on behalf of another member of the household. Anyone who wanted to opt out would need to complete his own form. We would rapidly be moving into a system of individual registration which, for the reasons I have advanced, would be a most undesirable step.

Under the scheme that we envisage, once there is an opt-out box the head of a household will be able to take reasonable steps to ascertain the preferences of other members of the household. In the overwhelming majority of cases that would simply involve asking them.

We recognise, however, that there will be cases where that process is simply not possible. In a student hall of residence, for example, we envisage that the warden might put up a notice saying that he intends to send back the electoral registration form in three weeks' time, and that any resident who wishes to exercise the right to opt out should contact him within that period. There are already provisions in the Bill to the effect that if someone deliberately filled in the form incorrectly, he or she would be committing an offence. There is protection for people who might fear some form of mendacity.

That brings me to amendments Nos. 73 and 74, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). Under the terms of the first part of amendment No. 74, anyone who wanted to opt out of inclusion on the edited register would need to give his personal approval. So either each individual would need to complete his own form, with all the disadvantages that I have already outlined, or everybody concerned who wanted to opt out would have to sign the same form.

Let us consider the situation of a couple who always decide to exercise their right to opt out. If in one particular year one of the couple happened to be away from home at the time when the electoral registration form was to be completed, that person's partner would not be able to complete the opt-out box on his or her behalf even though he or she was well aware of the preferences of the person concerned. That would be the effect of the amendment, and that does not seem to me to be right.

The second part of amendment No. 74 is unnecessary. As I have already explained, we fully intend to put out a leaflet, to accompany the introduction of the new system,

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which will explain the consequences of exercising the right to opt out of inclusion in the edited register. That decision is of importance to all members of a household. Anyone who is head of a household and filling in the form should ensure that he properly consults other members of the household, who may have a view as a result of consequences that may fall on them if the wrong decision is made.

I shall deal briefly with amendment No. 75. I believe that it is unnecessary. It will be open to anyone in respect of whom the box was wrongly ticked, or for whom the box was not ticked although he would have liked it to be, to apply to the registration officer for a correction to be made. We have a rolling register programme, and that is the whole purpose of it.

Amendment No. 90 would delete a provision which allows regulations to be made specifying a form of words for registration officers to use in determining whether people wish their names to be included in the edited register. If there are to be two versions of the register, clearly the electoral registration form needs to explain how people can go about deciding whether they wish to exercise their right to be included in the edited register. We think that a uniform approach to this is needed, which is why the provision which the amendments seeks to delete was included in the Bill. Indeed, the amendment would insert a provision allowing for a form of words to be specified for the purpose of explaining to people how to go about getting their names excluded from the edited register. I cannot see what advantages that offers over and above the provisions that are set out in the Bill.

I do not believe that any of the amendments would improve the Bill and I hope that, given the reasons that I have advanced, hon. Members will decide to withdraw them.

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