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

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Mr. Hendrick: I thank my hon. Friend for explaining that example. However, if there were two electors—electors 34 and 35—living at the same address, and they were replaced by four electors, how would the new electors be numbered? Would they be 34, 34/1, 34/2 and 34/3 or 34, 34/1, 35 and 35/1?

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As I understand it, it does not matter. As far as the computer is concerned, if the suffix is registered, there will be a unique number. The point is not whether the number is consecutive, but that it must be unique. Provided it is unique, the computer will register it and be able to identify whether the person is that person who has given information to the political party. Although this is not a major issue, we anticipate that elector No. 34 would be registered as 34, the next elector as 35 and we would run the suffixes after 35. Each would continue to have a unique number. It would not matter to the computer, which does not have a preference.

Mr. Hendrick: I asked the question because, although it does not matter to the computer, it matters to the person who is trying to find the information. If I searched for elector No. 35 using the previous method, there would be no No. 35 to find; there would be 34, 34/1, 34/2, 34/3 and then 36. What matters is the relationship between the number of people who have left the property and the number who have moved into it.

Mr. O'Brien: There is certainly an issue if fewer people move into the property than leave it. I shall deal with the instance where more people move in than have left. We have consulted on this in a limited way— I confess that my main source of advice is one of my hon. Friends, who has more experience with computers than I have—

Mr. Alasdair Morgan rose—

Mr. Bercow rose—

Mr. O'Brien: Just a moment. We want to ensure that there is no confusion. I have asked my officials to start drafting a circular, and I shall bear in mind the point that my hon. Friend made before approving it.

Mr. Morgan: My comment relates to the point that I made to the Advocate-General for Scotland about removing entries from the register. There would be no automatic removal of the details of previous occupants at an address simply because another person stated that he was now resident at that address, and asked to be added to the electoral register. The registration officer would be under no obligation at that stage to investigate everyone who was previously registered at that address and to assume that they had moved out and another person had moved in. Is that correct? It seems to be the implication.

Mr. O'Brien: No more than it is now. When someone registers a name, he will complete a form that says how many people are registered at the address and it will be delivered to the electoral registration officer, who will register what is on it. There is a signature on it, signifying the responsibility of the person regarded as the leading person in the household—I use the phrase with care—

Mr. Bercow rose—

Mr. O'Brien: I shall give way in a moment.

If a new person moves in and wishes to register, the electoral registration officer will ask how many people are registered in the house, and for the application to be signed by the leading person in the household. The leading person can vary from year to year. In a nuclear family, it might be the father on one occasion and the mother on another. That is not the issue, as long as someone takes responsibility for registering the people to vote.

Mr. Morgan: There is an interesting implication there, as I think that the Minister is saying that previous occupants will be automatically deregistered when a new one registers. If a new occupant fills in a form that lists the current occupants of a house, what happens to the previous entry for the house? Are the people on it automatically deregistered? If so, that must be publicised. A previous occupant who has moved elsewhere might think, ``I don't need to register until next October, because in any election that comes up in the interim I will be entitled to vote at my old address.'' Can the Minister clarify that point?

Mr. O'Brien: There is no assumption that the addition of a name means the removal of the old name. It might be that the hon. Gentleman moves to a new house, is on the register at his old house and has not yet registered at his new one. If someone else were to register at his old house, he would not be removed from the register. Could he vote in the event of an election? The answer is yes, but only at his old house. He could not vote twice.

Mr. Bercow: I am intrigued by the Minister's response to what might be called the 34-35 question. However, does he recall that he promised to answer my 25 questions? Is he aware that he now has six minutes in which to do that, so a productivity rate of four a minute would suffice?

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman must forgive me, because I have also agreed to answer other questions. I hope that there will be time to address his 25 questions.

6.2 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.12 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I was dealing with suffixes on electoral registers and seeking to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Preston about how they would operate. All electors, whether deleted from or added to the register, will continue to have a unique number to identify them and no numbers will be re-used. My hon. Friend has been in touch with me about this, and I am sure that he has talked with other colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), because it concerns many hon. Members. We want to ensure that guidance is available to electoral administrators to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston. That will be contained in a Representation of the People Act circular, which will be published roughly to coincide with the date that the regulations come into force.

The training that electoral administrators will receive from their professional body—the Association of Electoral Administrators—will cover the matter. They must be advised about the changes that we want to make and the way that we want the register to operate and be provided with basic training to pass on to their staff. I am confident that there will be no local difficulties, especially if the traditionally close working relationships that characterise contacts between EROs and political parties are maintained. I hope that my hon. Friends are reassured that we intend to provide a circular about the matter.

The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale asked about publicity and, in particular, whether there would be a television campaign, perhaps backed up with leaflets. I have examined proposals for such a campaign, to encourage people to register and alert them to the fact that there will be a rolling register that will enable them to register whenever they wish.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) will join me at the campaign launch, together with representatives of the Liberal Democrats and other parties. I signed off a letter on that to the right hon. Lady only yesterday. We should work on a cross-party basis to ensure that everyone knows their rights and to encourage people to vote. Certainly, Labour wants to do so and I hope that, whatever damage the Conservatives sustained in the last general election, they will join us in trying to get more people on to the electoral register.

We also intend to distribute leaflets that include an application form and we have examined the idea of a telephone helpline for those who wish to find out how the new regulations will operate.

Mr. Bercow: On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. Is it in order for the Minister deliberately to refuse to answer the questions that were posed to him by Her Majesty's official Opposition and thereby to demonstrate, on a matter relating to elections and propriety, the disdain, indifference and contempt for the rights of the House that are the habitual hallmarks of this Administration?

The Chairman: The Minister has so far been perfectly in order. The points raised by the hon. Gentleman are matters for debate.

Mr. O'Brien: I assure the hon. Member for Buckingham that I take his questions seriously and that I always try to deal with hon. Members courteously and with full regard for their questions. I am sure that he would not want to deter me from answering questions not only from Front Benchers, but from Back Benchers.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East) rose—

Mr. Alasdair Morgan rose—

Mr. Bercow rose—

Mr. O'Brien: I will not give way to anyone. Back Benchers have the right to have their questions answered by Ministers, in the same way as the Opposition Front Benchers do. I have always dealt with questions from the hon. Member for Buckingham with the greatest courtesy and I will continue to do so in the time remaining.

Ms Prentice: I am interested in what my hon. Friend said about the rolling register and advertising campaign, and working with other parties.

Mr. Bercow: On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. It is always a great pity to intervene on the hon. Lady in that way, but is it in order for me formally to place on the record a request that the Minister should provide me with a detailed written reply to each of the 25 questions that I have posed but that he has yet to answer?

The Chairman: Again, that is not a point of order. It is a request to the Minister that he can take on board if he wishes to do so.

Mr. O'Brien: Thank you, Mr. Illsley.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001.



    That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]

Committee rose at eighteen minutes past Six o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Adams, Mrs. Irene
Adams, Mrs. Irene

Illsley, Mr. Eric

Ballard, Jackie

Bercow, Mr.

Best, Mr.

Brazier, Mr.

Clark, Dr. Lyn

Cousins, Mr.

Crausby, Mr.

Dobson, Mr.

Hall, Mr. Mike

Hendrick, Mr.

Morgan, Mr. Alasdair

O'Brien, Mr. Mike

Prentice, Ms Bridget

Simpson, Mr. Keith

Smith, Mr. Llew

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