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

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Mr. Bercow: I posed a number of questions to the Under-Secretary of State. Although he intervened once or twice to vouchsafe clarifying information, he has not yet replied to the 25 questions that I asked, and I should be grateful if he would.

5.36 pm

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I was giving other hon. Members the opportunity to intervene and that I am happy to deal with points that have been raised.

The hon. Member for Buckingham set out some of the background of the matter. It is true that the Representation of the People Act 2000 emerged from the deliberations of the working party on electoral procedures, which was set up after the last general election. The Government are committed to ensuring that modern electoral procedures exist to deal with changing circumstances, such as the availability of new electronic gadgetry. I confess that I do not have the facility of even the hon. Member for Buckingham with computers, although I bought one in April and find it invaluable. However, such facilities exist and many people are skilled in their use and want to be able to use them to register to vote.

The working party was multi-disciplinary and was set up under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). At that time, he was the Home Office Minister with responsibility for electoral matters. All political parties were represented on it, as were experts in the field such as electoral administrators and Government officials. I remember that one of the leading lights of the working party was David Monks, a senior chief executive and returning officer. He was the person who first declared me an MP and I know—because he made a good announcement that day—that his subsequent handling of affairs would have been of a high standard. I commend him for his announcement on that day and his subsequent work.

The working party reported in October 1999 and a Bill was introduced and enacted. The hon. Member for Buckingham referred to discussion on how the electoral system should be set up. That is not surprising because all members of the Committee, including you, Mr. Illsley, rely on fair procedures to ensure that people have the person of their choice elected. Many of my hon. Friends have found their way into the House as a result of good electoral procedures, as have some Opposition Members.

The Act came into effect on Royal Assent in March 2000 and it related initially to the Greater London Authority elections and allowed local authorities to pilot projects to test new voting arrangements. Those arrangements were used in the local elections last May and an assessment of their effectiveness has informed our deliberations in constructing the regulations. Indeed, before introducing any of the new approaches that were tested in the pilots, we want to do more work and to consult much further.

The regulations are the result of the work that we have done. They are designed primarily to implement provisions relating to what we now refer to as a rolling registration of electors; to ease requirements for absent voting; to allow registration of homelessness people, remand prisoners and mental health patients; to make better provision for disabled voters; and to make a number of other changes that make it easier to register to vote.

The hon. Member for Buckingham asked whether we believed that the regulations would encourage more people to vote. It is indeed our intention that they should do that, and we believe that, if we make it easier for people properly to exercise their democratic right, it will encourage them to register and to vote. Is there any guarantee that they will vote? That depends entirely on ensuring that we have a political climate in which people feel encouraged to participate, and we hope that the regulations will form part of that.

The hon. Member for Taunton asked how we intend to ensure that people will be able to get access to information through data. We certainly want that to happen, and free copies of the data will be available—we hope—from 16 February, when the regulations come into force. Updated versions will not be sent out automatically, but we could consider adding the right to receive notices amending the register.

The hon. Lady also asked why we had decided to move the registration deadline for postal votes from 11 days to six. If I remember rightly, that decision was the subject of considerable debate during the passage of the legislation. While canvassing, hon. Members had found that many people who wanted postal votes were unable to have one because they had not filled in and returned the form on time. As a result of the debate, I told the electoral registration officers that I wanted to reduce the time period. There was some concern initially but, having carefully examined the matter with the organisation that represents the electoral registration officers and with Home Office officials, we found that it was possible to reduce the period to six days. That will help people to vote and will help all political parties. I hope that it will end the problem that people found that they could not vote in the period between the six and 11 days. Everyone should welcome that.

The hon. Lady also asked about limits to the combination of polls. That depends on section 15 of the Representation of the People Act 1985, and the mandatory combination of two elections. If there are general and council elections on the same day, the electoral returning office must combine them. More elections can be combined at the officer's discretion.

The hon. Lady said that she was concerned that, owing to the way in which the Government have sought to devolve power to the people—much more than the previous Government did—there will be many more opportunities for people to be involved in the political process, and to vote. One might suppose that everyone would agree that that is a good thing, but if it leads to confusion we may have to examine how we can spread the elections over two or more days. EROs have the discretion to decide not to proceed with more than the two elections that they are obliged to combine, when a likelihood for confusion is perceived. However, it is not my experience that they exercise that discretion; probably, it will be used rarely, but we shall see.

In the devolved regions, elections for the United Kingdom Parliament, the devolved bodies, a borough or county council and a town or parish council could all fall on the same day. That would cause some concern because it could lead to American-style ballot papers.

Jackie Ballard: I want to set the Minister's mind at rest, as I detected some worry: I am not arguing against devolution or for removing powers from EROs in local government or in any of the devolved bodies.

Mr. O'Brien: I was not the least bit worried that the Liberal Democrats or the hon. Lady were against devolution. They have a proud tradition of support for the Government's efforts to bring it about. I have no doubt of her support on that issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Preston asked about the numbering on the register. I should like to set out with some care how that will be dealt with. The numbering under rolling registration is not fully covered in the regulations. There are good reasons for that: it is complex and better dealt with in the circular. Reference to the numbering of the register is contained in the Representation of the People Act 2000, which states that the numbers assigned to voters should be consecutive, as far as possible, and in address order. Any register on which voters are added and deleted throughout the year is not easy to achieve without some ingenuity. Happily, electoral administrators are creatures of great ingenuity, as hon. Members will know from their contacts with their local electoral registration officers.

Registration officers will continue to employ the current system, which is widely in use under current rules, for adding what are known as claims to the register throughout the year. For example, if the register has been published and, during the year, a family of four moves into a property that had previously been occupied by one person, that situation might be dealt with by simply adding the numbers of the new electors to the end of the list and deleting the old elector. However, that would become somewhat complicated.

Alternatively, a new elector could be inserted into the register and all the subsequent consecutive numbers altered. Hon. Members who use computers should be concerned about that. The hon. Member for Buckingham does not use one, so he does not realise the implications, but I suspect that many other hon. Members share my concern.

Mr. Bercow: For the avoidance of doubt, I confirm that I do use a computer, and I am willing to accept that it has many advantages, but I do so under protest, as I believe that communication via the quill pen is preferable.

Mr. O'Brien: We note that the hon. Gentleman's opinions are of a past era.

The aim of electoral registration officers is to create a workable electoral register. If they inserted a series of new names into the register and then added consecutive numbers, they would have to change all the numbers on the register. A political party that collects names by canvassing and holds them on a numbered computer list would find that its list had become inaccurate.

We have held discussions with electoral registration officers and devised a system whereby the claims will be inserted in a different way. We intend to insert suffixes after the initial number. To return to my previous example, if an electoral registration officer were informed that a family of four had moved into a house that had previously been occupied by one person, he would insert the names of the new electors into the register in the appropriate order. However, the numbering would be different: if the old elector was No. 34, the first new elector would also be No. 34 and the other three would be inserted as follows: 34/1, 34/2 and 34/3. The subsequent consecutive numbers would, therefore, remain the same, as would any records held on computer during that year.

When the following year's register was published, the numbers would probably change. The list would have to be downloaded again and the computer would then be able to record the new electoral register and the information would have to be transferred via the usual computer mechanisms—as, indeed, it has to be now. However, our proposal to introduce a suffix in certain cases will be helpful.

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