Draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) and (Scotland) Regulations 2001

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Mr. O'Brien: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that such a person would have voted twice—making use of the new registration and the previous one? As happens now, a person who was still registered at a previous address would have the right to vote in that area, provided he or she did not vote twice.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister. I was not suggesting that, but the Minister has remarkable—sometimes deliberate and sometimes accidental— prescience. I suspect that it is accidental in this case. I might well move on to that subject later, but it was not what I had in mind. Also, of course I know that until now it has been possible for people to be included on the register for different addresses, provided they do not exercise a vote for each of them.

It is obviously important to ensure that the register is up to date. What mechanism will guarantee that?

Question No. 16 is about regulation 37, which requires a registration officer who receives a new application to notify the old area of the fact of the change of address ``as soon as practicable''. I suspect that the Minister will have anticipated me. How will that be monitored? Is it enforceable? What penalties will there be for non-compliance? Alternatively, is there any incentive for a busy, fully committed and dedicated electoral registration officer to inform the officer for another area of the fact that someone has moved? That would not seem to be high on the priorities of an officer with current constituents to cater for. How will that laudable aspiration be made good?

Question No. 17 is whether the regulations have been the subject of extensive consultations with the Local Government Association and registration or returning officers, as well as all political parties, including minority parties. I do not know who, beyond the parties represented in this House, has been consulted. Minority parties—including some very unattractive ones—exist that have no representation here, but which have the right to be consulted.

Mr. Hendrick indicated assent.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Member for Preston agrees from a sedentary position. Of course we should probably all unite in deploring some of the parties that are not represented here, on both extremes of the political spectrum. However, they still have rights. Simply because they do not respect anyone else's rights, it does not mean that we should not rigorously apply the higher standards to which we are accustomed.

Question No. 18 is about whether the Minister is satisfied that the changes being introduced will not lead to an increase in fraud and/or misrepresentation. Does he believe that they will lead to increased turnout? The evidence of changes already made has not been positive. I stopped myself saying that it had been negative, as that would probably be unfair.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) indicated assent.

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend agrees. To say that the evidence was negative would assert a causal link between existing changes to the procedures and the poor turnout for the European and local elections, but the two events may not be related. There may be other reasons for the low turnout, such as the fact that we are mid-term. I have heard the Minister talk of his concern to increase turnout and voter participation. Beyond mere hope and natural optimism, what leads him to believe that there would be an increase in turnout, and does he have an idea of the scale of that expected increase?

Question No. 19 is about how the Government intend to review the regulations. When will they do so? Will the matter be debated in the House? Does the Minister have it in mind to consider the regulations again after a period of two years or after the full term of a Parliament, which is ordinarily five years, but could be anything after four years if a Government are cutting and running?

Some other issues need to be considered. I think that I am coming on to question No. 22, so we are making substantial progress.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I got to question No. 19, but the hon. Gentleman has jumped to question No. 22 without identifying questions Nos. 20 and 21. I was looking forward to questions Nos. 20 and 21. I had geared myself up to answer them, but he seemed simply to pass them by.

Mr. Bercow: I was engaged in what might be described as inadvertent trickery and accidental sleight of hand. I was engaged in what Mr. Frank Allaun, a former Member for Salford, East, famously described as ``compositing''. I distilled three questions into one, or rather one question was actually three. The Minister is waiting with baited breath and beads of sweat on his brow, so I shall let him speak.

Mr. O'Brien: I am familiar with compositing from the old traditions of the Labour party, and the hon. Gentleman will be too, as he is a student of politics. However, my officials have to keep in touch with what he is talking about as well. Some people outside may pay some passing interest in what he has said—I cannot imagine why—and may want to be kept informed about where he is going with all his questions.

Mr. Bercow: The questions are rather important. The Minister has been in good humour so far, so I hope that he will not become irritable. He knows that I do not take kindly to irritable Ministers. When Ministers are good natured, I am good natured, because I am naturally a very nice chap. However, if Ministers become ratty because they have pre-prandial drinks planned or other commitments in their very full diaries, I start to get rather truculent with them.

The Chairman: Order. Can we get back to the regulations?

Mr. Bercow: I will immediately follow your exhortation, Mr. Illsley. The answer is simply stated. Question No. 19 is about how the Government intend to review the regulations. Question No. 20, as the perspicacious hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) will readily have discerned, is about when they will do so. Question No. 21 is about whether the matter will be debated in the House.

The Minister knows my preoccupation with the affirmative procedure. I do not suggest that the election will turn on that issue, but it is important to several of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself. If there were to be a review of the regulations at some unspecified date in future, and if changes were proposed to the regulations as a result, would the Government intend that they be subject to affirmative procedure, or would they try, unlike today, to slip them through under the negative procedure? I have now neatly rolled up questions Nos. 19, 20 and 21.

Question No. 22 relates to regulation 25; it deals with the declaration of local connection and it therefore affects those who have no fixed address. How will the registration officer contact electors in that category? For example, they might reasonably have given a hostel address. Indeed, a shop doorway was mooted as a possible address in the debate on the Representation of the People Act 2000. Such addresses are a serious prospect for people in that unfortunate position. In what circumstances should those people be removed from the register? I would be interested to hear the Minister's reply and the views of other hon. Members on that point, because the rights and obligations of those people are important.

Question No. 23 is whether, consistent with the spirit of the regulations and of the Act, the Minister accepts that the rights and obligations of people with no fixed address should be on a par with those of other people? That is presumably so, which is why we are giving them a greater entitlement or a superior opportunity to vote. If the Minister agrees that their rights and obligations should be no greater but no less than everyone else's, how, given the difficult problem of identification, will that equality be assured?

Question No. 24 is what discussions the Minister has had with representatives of Scottish local government? In fact, it is unfair of me to put that question to the Minister. I should address instead it to the Advocate-General for Scotland, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Dr. Clark). What discussions has she had with representatives of Scottish local government—not only with elected members but with returning officers, electoral registration officers and others?

Finally, I ask the Minister about the basis on which decisions are made under regulation 56 on the facility for absent votes. It is presumably meant to maximise the chance of electoral participation, but is it based on a particular model?

For the time being, that concludes my questions. I realise that it is a rather short list of questions, and I apologise for not having asked more, but they are important issues. When the Minister is ready and when other hon. Members have contributed to the debate, I would genuinely appreciate his response.

5.17 pm

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): My diary is not as empty as that of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) so I shall be genuinely brief. I shall not apologise for asking only four questions, but I will apologise if the answers are in the regulations and I have not been sufficiently diligent in reading them.

I welcome the regulations, particularly the one to which the Minister drew attention that would allow blind people to vote with the same privacy that is afforded sighted people. That is a particularly good step. My first question is about the free copies of the register that are given to Members of Parliament, among others. Until now, all authorities have given out free copies of the printed register, but some charge for the data in electronic form. Under the regulations, data in electronic format is to be free, just as the paper register is free to specified groups. When will the change take effect? In other words, will the electronic copy of the register be free to those who will be standing for election at some time during the next few months?

Secondly, is it anticipated that updated versions of the register in electronic format will automatically be sent to those specified people. We would obviously need a rolling register that allowed new names to be added every month and the names of those who had died to be removed. It will be important for those who use the electronic register to have a constantly updated copy. I would particularly welcome it if returning officers removed from the register the names of those who had died; it would benefit canvassers and those who send out targeted mail shots. Some people are upset at receiving any political communication, but such mail addressed to a person who has died is even worse.

My third question is about regulation 56, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Buckingham. He has probably compared the new regulations with the existing regulations, and therefore knows the current deadline by which one has to apply for a postal vote. I am afraid that I have not done that piece of homework. If it is different, on what basis were 11 days and six days used? I appreciate that there must be enough time before polling day to allow for postal votes to be issued and returned in time. Our system is not like that in the United States, where they can be sent back up to two weeks later. Over the years, many people have complained that they have to know the date on which the election is announced if they plan to go on holiday and want to apply for postal votes.

My fourth and final question relates to regulation 65, which mentions combined polls. Do the regulations limit the number of polls that can be held on one day? When I was elected in 1997, in one ward three different elections were held on the same day. One might think that people would find it much more convenient to vote simultaneously in a parliamentary election, a local government election and a by-election, but I was dismayed to discover that many people said at the polling station, ``I'll just do the parliamentary one; I won't bother with the other two.'' We may think that it looks easier, but it is not necessarily so.

5.21 pm

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Prepared 31 January 2001