Draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations and Draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Reid: Section 12 of the Scotland Act simply gives the power to make provision about elections. Elected Members of this House and councillors are allowed to have copies of the registers by virtue of their office. The Minister referred to situations when Members would want to do that, but the power in the Scotland Act is a power only to make regulations about elections, and has nothing to do with what MSPs can do by virtue of their office between elections.

Yvette Cooper: The advice that I have been given is that the measure to which I referred is the right vehicle for setting out access for MSPs in that area. There is no difference in principle. Everyone accepts that MSPs should have access to the electoral role, like other elected representatives, in order to be able to fulfil their duties. It is a point of legal drafting, given the legislative framework that we have to deal with, that it needs to be done with a separate order under section 12 of the Scotland Act. The principle is exactly the same.

New regulation 108 provides for the supply of the full register to candidates at parliamentary, European parliamentary or local government elections for electoral purposes, which answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Stone. That allows candidates to know precisely who the electors are so that they can carry out their canvassing in the traditional way. Provision for copies of the full register for electoral purposes or to holders of elected offices in terms of the Scottish Parliament are not made under these regulations. They will be provided for in a new order to be made under section 12 of the Scotland Act later in the year.

New regulation 104 similarly allows all MPs, MEPs, members of the devolved Parliament and Assemblies, local councillors and so on also to have free copies of all the full registers to enable them to comply with the statutory controls on political donations contained in schedule 7 to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 or

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schedule 2A to the Representation of the People Act 1983.

Mr. Cash: I wonder whether fundraising by political parties and elected representatives will be deemed to be included in the definition of ''electoral purposes''. One of our concerns is that the Electoral Commission or the courts might turn out to be somewhat legalistic about the question. The admitted vagueness in terms of the lack of definition is something on which we need some clear indicators, because it could be extremely important in relation to the activities not just of the Conservative party but of the Labour party and, indeed, of any other party.

Yvette Cooper: We would expect ''electoral purposes'' to be interpreted broadly to cover everything connected with the electoral process. That would include allowing political parties and organisations to use the full registers for canvassing or any other activities connected with the electoral process. It would not be permitted, however, to pass on the register to charities for use in fundraising, as may have been done previously

Mr. Cash: The Parliamentary Secretary defines the phrase ''electoral purposes'' by reference to canvassing and then says that there would be a restriction on charities using the register for fundraising. However, she has not told us the answer to my question, on which she might like to take advice because we must get it straight. I am concerned that the words ''electoral purposes'' should not be construed as preventing the register from being used for the purposes of fundraising by political parties for general elections and other elections, including a referendum or whatever else.

Yvette Cooper: I thought that we might come to the subject of referendums sooner or later. I shall seek clarification on that matter before I wind up because I do not want to give an answer that would make difficult the important electoral work that should be done in a democracy.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The Parliamentary Secretary would do well to try to define ''electoral purposes'', as well as the purposes of the democratic process, because it is a potential minefield in terms of interpretation. Use of the register to communicate with voters between election periods by those who are not yet elected is a case in point. Similarly, there may be a problem in the case of a hybrid publication, which has some electoral purpose but other purposes, too. How such cases are interpreted by the Electoral Commission could be of considerable importance to the day-to-day work of political parties.

Yvette Cooper: That is why it would be unwise for us to pin down in the regulations what ''electoral purposes'' means. Given that the way in which we communicate with voters is changing over time, it would be a mistake to set out a restrictive list in statute, which might make the legitimate purpose of communicating with voters about electoral issues difficult. I shall take further interventions, although I

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am aware that I have not entirely answered the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I shall be very nice to the Minister because she is going to save my Crown court.

Will she clarify whether the register will be available to all political parties? If so, it would be available to a minority party, such as the British National Party, who could discover from it who lives in Oldham, in spite of the fact that some people in Oldham may not want the BNP to have their names and addresses.

Yvette Cooper: The honest truth is that the electoral roll will be available to anyone engaged in the electoral process who wants to use the register for electoral purposes. That is the nature of the democracy in which we live; we must win the arguments against the BNP, as I believe we can.

Mr. Field: Further to that point on the BNP, it strikes me that those people who do not wish their names to appear on the register may be able to take advantage of regulation 8 to ensure that their details appear only on the edited version. Would there be an opportunity for people in especially sensitive areas to ensure that they were not on the register, so that they need not be subject to hate mail or exposed to the issues raised by the BNP? When I was canvassing before the last general election, I found that, even in my constituency, many people had chosen not to be on the electoral register. There is an ongoing concern about the issue of civil liberties. I do not suggest that we should follow the American model, but many people do not want to be on the register because they do not want to be inundated with all sorts of literature from political parties and commercial organisations.

Yvette Cooper: The honest truth is that we are striking a balance between different rights and interests. On one hand, people want privacy and to be free from direct marketing. On the other hand, one of the rights under the human rights convention is the right to participate in free and fair elections, which means that candidates must have adequate opportunity to communicate their views to the electorate, and not only in the last few weeks in the run-up to an election. The possibility must exist for continuous communication for electoral purposes. It is a fundamental issue in support of democracy that candidates from political parties should be able to communicate with those who are registered to vote on issues around the election. That is what the electoral roll is for.

Mr. Cash: I am sorry to have to pursue the matter, but I still have not received the answer to my question whether ''electoral purposes'' specifically includes fundraising. One should bear in mind that under the legislation in question, a requirement exists to consult the Electoral Commission before making the regulations. To what extent has the commission offered views on the subject? Do we have access to those views?

Yvette Cooper: I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's point. As I said to him, I would like to receive complete clarification on the matter before answering his question in my summing up. I have had advice on

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the fundraising issue but, as it is so important, I do not want to say something on the record that might be misinterpreted or inaccurate. I shall respond in full when summing up.

New regulation 106 provides for the supply of the full register to political parties. Uses are restricted to electoral purposes and comply with controls on donations under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. A permitted participant within the meaning of section 105(1) of the Act may also use it for purposes in connection with the campaign in respect of the referendum and the purposes of complying with controls on donations in schedule 15 to the Act.

New regulation 107 provides for the supply of the full register to the council that appointed the registration officer. The council may use the information contained in the full register only for the discharge of a statutory function relating to security, law enforcement or crime prevention, or for statistical purposes, in which case no information shall be disclosed that includes the name and address of any elector. The related regulation 106 in Scotland differs slightly in respect of the purpose to which a community council may use the full register.

New regulation 109 provides for the supply of the full register to police forces, crime squads and so on. The information on the register can be used only for the purpose of prevention and detection of crime and the enforcement of the criminal law in England and Wales, Scotland or elsewhere.

New regulations 110 and 111 set out the fees for selling copies of the full or edited versions of the registers in data or printed format. The full register may be sold to persons only as authorised by the regulations.

New regulation 113 provides for the sale of the full register to Government Departments and restricts its use to the prevention and detection of crime and the enforcement of the criminal law; the vetting of employees and applicants for employment, where such vetting is required pursuant to any legislation; and the supply and disclosure of information to an authorised person who may not disclose information contained in it except to other authorised persons, and only for use for the purposes for which such a person could obtain the full register directly under the regulations. The related regulation 112 in Scotland extends the use of the register to include ''the administration of justice''. That will enable the Scottish Courts Service to continue to purchase the full register for the selection of jurors.

The next section of the regulations that I want to talk about specifies what limited commercial use is to be permitted of the full registers. Many commercial companies have used information from the electoral registers for many years and for a variety of purposes, including direct marketing and credit reference checks. The court case to which I referred made it clear that electoral registration officers had been wrong to sell the registers for those purposes, without first giving electors the right to opt out of having their personal details sold in that way. The Government have

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carefully considered the situation and conducted lengthy discussions with bodies that represent commercial interests, including the British Bankers Association, the Finance and Leasing Association, the Direct Marketing Association and numerous others.

Banks and financial institutions have a statutory obligation under the money laundering regulations to verify the identity of their clients. The regulations do not specify in detail how identity is to be verified. In complying with those regulations, banks and financial institutions make extensive use of the electoral register to verify information about the identity and address of their customers, as it is the most complete publicly available database. They usually carry out the checks using credit reference agencies as their agents.

If institutions were denied access to the full register to make those checks and had to rely on lower quality information, there would be less compliance with the money laundering regulations. Therefore, there are clear public benefits in the use of the electoral roll in relation to those regulations.

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Prepared 11 July 2002