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

[back to previous text]

Mr. Osborne: The Finance and Leasing Association has pointed out to us that the regulations allow access to the full register for only quite limited matters, such as the application for credit and the enforcement of the money laundering regulations. However, it has said that not all financial crime prevention activity falls within the categories, unfortunately, so use of the electoral roll information for fraud protection and other financial crises will be curtailed. We clearly would not want to see that.

Yvette Cooper: The honest truth is that a difficult balance has to be struck. We want to define matters on which there is clear public interest in the continuing use of the electoral register, and to recognise the legitimate desire for privacy on the part of people who have not consented to be included on the edited electoral register. We must consider the uses to which the full electoral register can legitimately be put. There are no simple answers.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): Has the Parliamentary Secretary received representations from the Consumer Credit Trade Association on the precise point of public interest that she raised? It argues that if a fraud or financial crime occurs, the initial investigations are most frequently made by the bank, building society or finance house involved because the police do not have the resources. By preventing access to the full electoral register, inquires by such bodies may be delayed, hampered or aborted. What is her response to that?

Yvette Cooper: A series of representations has been made on both sides of the regulations. At the same time as some have argued for wider access to different financial organisations, others have argued for less access than the regulations set out on the basis of privacy and consent issues. The territory is difficult.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): Does the Parliamentary Secretary have any concerns about wider access to the electoral register being a major disincentive for people to register with it? We face great apathy about politics and politicians, and

Column Number: 11

increased use of the register by credit card companies may be a further disincentive.

Yvette Cooper: That is one of the other issues that must be weighed in the balance. We should be honest with ourselves that this is a balancing act. We must ensure that there is no disincentive for people to register and that their right to vote is not in any way conditional on other concerns. There will not always be a consensus on this issue among the organisations that have a stake in it. The matter was consulted on quite extensively and the question of where the balance should be struck was reflected upon considerably.

The issue is about recognising individuals' human rights. The right to a private life and the right to participate in free and fair elections are considerations. Those rights under the convention are qualified, and can be interfered with in the pursuit of a legitimate objective of the state, but the extent and nature of any such interference must be proportionate to the importance of and benefits to be obtained from the interference. In the end, that is what this debate is about; under what circumstances it is proportionate to allow the further use of the full and unedited electoral roll. It is right to consider money laundering and credit reference issues, which relate to points raised by hon. Members.

In striking that balance, the Government have introduced regulations that permit the sale of the full register to credit reference agencies, first, to enable financial institutions to meet their statutory obligations to prevent money laundering, and secondly, to enable credit checks to be undertaken.

To tackle money laundering, the credit reference agencies will be permitted to provide information, from a full register that they have obtained, to banks and financial institutions so that those bodies can meet their statutory obligations. It is clear that the strong public interest in enforcing the laws against money laundering and the relatively limited purposes for which access is permitted, results in the balance favouring access for those purposes.

The second category of cases where the Government have concluded that there should be continued access to the full register is for credit reference agencies when vetting applications for credit. Without access to the full register it would be more difficult for lenders to verify an applicant's identity and hence assess their credit risk. They would have to rely upon less complete and accurate data sources, which would increase the cost and difficulty of making such assessments and reduce the quality of the decisions.

That would have a number of adverse consequences that would conflict with the public interest. There would be more fraud, as the inability to properly verify identity and address would mean that more fraudulent applications for credit were authorised. The overall cost of credit would increase both because of the increased fraud losses and because the alternative and less effective methods of assessing credit worthiness

Column Number: 12

are more expensive. Those extra losses and costs would be passed back to borrowers generally.

Less credit would be provided to people who lacked other documentary means of establishing their identity, increasing the problems of financial exclusion. The Government are keen to ensure that all sections of the community have access to financial services, including, where appropriate, credit facilities. Withholding the full register from credit reference agencies will reduce access to credit for people in those circumstances.

Pete Wishart: Is it not the case that people with credit difficulties simply will not register?

Yvette Cooper: No, I am not sure that that will be the outcome. If they are not registered, they will have even more difficulty in getting credit. Credit reference agencies use the electoral roll to verify identity and so on, so a person's absence from the electoral register creates a big difficulty for them in getting access to credit.

If there were no access to the full register, a lot more people might find it difficult to get access to credit, unless they had chosen to place themselves on the edited roll, in which case they would be exposing themselves to their personal information being made use of for all kinds of other commercial purposes, which they might not want. The provisions will enable people to have some further proof of their identity, which will be especially useful for those who do not have bank accounts of other forms or identity proof. The electoral register provides the additional source of crucial identity, which might make it easier for people to gain access to credit that they should not rightly be denied. People have different views on financial exclusion, but it is right to strike a balance.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): Contrary to what was said earlier, this might encourage more people to register than registered before, and that would make a fuller register. I am reminded of the period of the poll tax. When the Conservative Government introduced that tax in the 1990s, people were escaping in droves from the register.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point. One hopes that it will be to people's advantage to be on the full electoral roll for credit purposes. Because of the consequences—increased fraud, increased cost of credit and reduced availability, especially to those at risk of financial exclusion—of denying credit reference agencies access to the full register, there is a strong public interest case for continued full access.

When an application for credit is the first transaction between any individual and a financial institution, a statutory obligation already exists to verify identity under the money laundering regulations. The credit reference agencies will already have access to the electoral register for money laundering checks, so it is a proportionate additional step to allow them access for credit reference purposes. Again it is in the public interest to have credit made available, efficiently and prudently, to all sectors of the economy with no one sector being particularly disadvantaged.

Column Number: 13

Given that strong public interest, the overlap between the use of the full register for money laundering and credit assessment checks, and the fact that people have to consent to those checks, the Government believe that the right balance between individual privacy and public benefit has been struck. We have concluded that it is appropriate for the full register to be available to credit provider organisations. However, the information must be used only for those purposes. The regulations will prevent information from being sold or handed on by recipients such as credit reference agencies for other purposes.

This limited commercial access represents an important public service and a legitimate public aim. It is proportionate to the intrusion into individual privacy and therefore compliant with the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights.

Mr. Cash: I have been waiting patiently to hear what the Minister has to say about regulation 113—

    ''Sale of full register to government departments''.

I confess to being puzzled, particularly as to how much Government Departments are expected to pay. No doubt the Minister will come on to fees in a moment.

Yvette Cooper: I thought I had covered those points already. Regulations 110 and 111 set out the fees for selling copies of the full or edited versions of the register. I have already referred to regulation 113, which provides for the sale of the full register to Government Departments, but restricts its use to

    ''the prevention and detection of crime and the enforcement of criminal law . . . the vetting of employees and applicants for employment, where such vetting is required pursuant to any enactment; and . . . supply and disclosure''

of information to ''an authorised person'' who may not disclose it except to other authorised persons and only

    ''for the purposes for which such a person could obtain a register under the regulation concerned.''

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 11 July 2002