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Session 2000-01
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2001

Eighth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 30 April 2001

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2001

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2001.

First, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien, for proceedings that I hope will not detain the Committee too long. I know that you will be firm with us, especially if we stray too far from the correct path.

The regulations were laid before the House on 23 April. The draft instrument amends regulation 47 of the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2001, which provides for the supply of copies of the register of electors and the list of overseas voters free of charge on request to those involved in elections.

Concerns were expressed that the original regulations did not provide for revised versions of the register to be made available. The new regulations therefore add a definition of ``register'' to regulation 47 to ensure that that is the case. The opportunity has also been taken to amend a minor defect that has become apparent. In regulation 3(1) of the original regulations, the word ``data'' is interpreted as having the same meaning as in section 1(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998. However, as that section contains definitions including data other than those held electronically, regulation 3 of the instrument clarifies the issue.

As hon. Members may be aware, a commitment was made during the passage of what is now the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to make such amendments as quickly as possible. This draft instrument seeks to make good that undertaking. Similar provisions for England and Wales and for Scotland are being dealt with in another Committee elsewhere today.

I commend the regulations to the Committee.

4.34 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): I echo the Minister's sentiment and welcome you as the Chair of our proceedings, Mr. O'Brien. Our joy is tempered only by the realisation that they may not last long. I want to put only two questions to the Minister.

By way of prelude, I observe that our proceedings may represent something of a world record. The original regulations were made on 12 February and came into force on 16 February, but the Government have needed to reconvene the Committee to amend them a mere 11 weeks later. I do not know whether that is a world record, but it is remarkable that so few weeks have passed. In Committee in February, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) led for the Opposition and pointed out that the regulations were not a battleground. I echo that point of view. Nevertheless, I have two questions for the Minister.

The first substantive amendment relates to regulation 3(1) of the original regulations, which is on interpretation. The new regulations substitute a definition of ``data'' for that in section 1(1)(b) of the Data Protection Act 1998. More explanation is needed, as that would change the part of the regulations that accepted the definition of data in section 1(1) of the Data Protection Act 1998. If one closely examines that definition, one finds that data means

    ``information which—

    (a) is being processed by means of equipment operating automatically in response to instructions given for that purpose,

    (b) is recorded with the intention that it should be processed by means of such equipment''.

The draft regulation is virtually identical, but the words are in a slightly different order. The draft regulation states:

    ```data' means information which is recorded with the intention that it should be processed by means of equipment operating automatically in response to instructions given for that purpose''.

There is little difference, if any, between the words that are being deleted and those that the Government are inserting—with one exception. The draft regulation omits any reference to section 1(1)(c) of the Act, which asserts that data is information that

    ``is recorded as part of a relevant filing system or with the intention that it should form part of a relevant filing system''.

Will the Minister clarify why what was deemed so important during the passage of the 1998 Act is now regarded as worthy of rejection? By a happy coincidence, the Minister was an Under-Secretary at the Home Office in 1998 and took the 1998 Act through Committee. I invite him to recall that Committee's proceedings on 12 May 1998, when he emphasised three criteria that the legal definition of data must meet. Those were

    ``first, that it is processed automatically; secondly, that it is recorded with the intention that it should be processed automatically; and thirdly, that it is, in effect, part of a relevant filing system.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 12 May 1998; c. 13.]

Why is the reference to part of a relevant filing system deemed unnecessary for the definition of data?

My next question arises from the second substantive amendment before us, which is to regulation 47. The Minister alluded to the explanatory note that accompanies the draft regulations. He said that the amendment of regulation 47 was consequential on the introduction of the rolling register, and I do not challenge that. However, I am puzzled in one respect and invite the Minister to consider regulations 46 and 47. The draft regulations introduce regulations 46(1A) and (1B) into regulation 47. That is to ensure that the register means not only the February annual register, but any revisions made during the year. However, that begs the question why it is not necessary to define the register in paragraphs 38 to 49, where there is also a reference to it. I have in mind not only the annual February register—whatever the right date is—but the rolling register. My second question is why it has been thought necessary to amend the reference to a register in regulation 47 and not, for instance, such references in regulations 38 to 40 and 48.

4.40 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I, too, want to start by noting that it must be something of a record to be altering a measure so soon after agreeing it. That is a warning about the result of legislating in haste. I do not make that as a party political point, because my party, the Conservative party, has done similar things in the past. It is predictable that rushing at an issue of this sort will lead to a few Members in a Committee Room trying to rectify the consequences of undue haste. We should reflect on that when we consider the detail.

I hope that other hon. Members will, like me, welcome the extension to the Province of what are becoming the standard arrangements for holding elections in Great Britain. The part of the United Kingdom that is across the Irish sea is an integral part of that kingdom and should be treated exactly like the rest of it. That is how the majority of people in the Province want things. A measure such as the one that we are considering emphasises the Government's commitment to ensuring that not only electoral arrangements but all other relevant matters are the same throughout the kingdom. I am delighted to welcome the small step that is being made today in further strengthening the links between the Province and Great Britain. I hope that the Minister will do the same.

I am concerned about two matters. One arises from the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) set out, about the definition of data. I think that I can just about see why the reference to filing systems has gone. An electoral register is not a filing system in the same way as the filing systems on most of our computers. Perhaps that is how the change will be explained, but I should be grateful for a reply to my hon. Friend's question, to put me out of my misery. I was also interested in what, if I heard correctly, was the change in relation to the phrase

    ``processed by means of such''.

That brings me to an issue that troubles me slightly. I expect that we all agree that it is reasonable for data to mean information that is recorded for a reason. There is nothing wrong in saying that it

    ``should be processed by means of equipment operating automatically''.

The idea that information is held on computers and elsewhere and that equipment processes it automatically in response to instructions is not a problem. When I am not messing it up my computer operates automatically, give or take a bit, though sometimes it seems that I have been doing my level best to stop it. Similarly, often when I think that I have given my computer instructions I clearly have not, because it will not do as I tell it. Nevertheless, one overcomes that.

Sometimes I deal with matters in a way that the definition in question appears not to cover. There are occasions when I become so frustrated and incapable of giving instructions for data to be processed automatically that I end up doing it. I need to extract what I have put in, deal with it, move it about, alter it and obtain the information that I want manually. If I understand the present measure—I am not a lawyer—data is defined as something that can be processed only automatically in response to instructions. However, I can process my electoral register information manually. That definition does not cover the way in which I and, I suspect, others process data from our constituency registers. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell me that I need not worry; we can go on doing it the hard way if we cannot do it the proper way.

The other issue arises from regulation 4, which concerns the supply of copies. I realise that to discuss the cost of the original register is beyond our remit. However, this change suggests that there can be such a thing as a revised register. It is bad enough having, as a one-off, to get hold of the original register and pay for it—I shall come to the question of payment in a moment—but now it is being suggested that we might have to buy several in the course of a year. Even if the Government ignore the arguments about the current cost of a copy of a register because they believe that the present structure is reasonable, a change that might oblige people to buy more than one copy should be linked to a change in attitude. Previously, they were not prepared to bend on the question of the cost of a register, but now that several registers are involved, they should be willing to do so.

In previous years, once I had received my free copy of a register I wanted a second copy—so that I had one for the House of Commons and one for my constituency—and I bought it. I cannot remember exactly how much it set me back; it could have been £50. In February, I foolishly ordered a second copy of the Spelthorne register and received a bill for £300 and something. That is crazy; it is anti-democratic. It makes it impossible for some people to afford to do their job.

I have had this argument before, and I appreciate that it is not relevant to go back to the original debate. However, I believe that the Government should reconsider the charging structure now that people will be forced to buy more than one copy in a year—£50 times three is probably bearable, unless the Government know something about Members' allowances that I do not. Otherwise, to suggest to someone in Northern Ireland or anywhere else that it will cost £300 every time the register changes is a monstrous imposition on those who need the information in order to do the job for which he was elected.

I have no difficulty with people paying the commercial price if they are using the data for commercial applications, but I cannot believe that it costs that much to make a copy of a register. The information is valuable, and if it is being used to make money, that is fine. However, as a politician, far from making it work to my commercial advantage, I have not yet discovered how to use the register do anything but create work for myself. The Government should think again about the charges for registers for politicians of all sorts—not only Members of Parliament but others involved in the democratic process.

Finally, I read the regulations and hoped above all that they would contain one extra item. I vainly hoped that the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2001 might include a new regulation that simply stated that if one is the self-confessed second-in-command of a terrorist organisation one cannot be a Minister of the Crown.


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