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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

Eighth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 17 July 2002

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Draft Representation of the People
(Northern Ireland) (Amendment)
Regulations 2002

The Chairman: Before we commence, let me say that hon. Members may remove their jackets, if they so wish.

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2002.

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship in Committee again, Mr. Gale? I look forward to a fruitful and speedy discussion.

The regulations were laid before the House on 26 June, and are in two parts. First, they amend the 2001 regulations for Northern Ireland and prescribe the annual canvass form so as to comply with the registration requirements of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. For the benefit of members of the Committee, I have had copies of the draft form placed on the Table. The form requires each individual to provide their date of birth, their signature and their national insurance number, or a statement saying that they do not have one.

Secondly, the remainder of the regulations implement section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 in respect of the sale of the electoral register. They are broadly the Northern Ireland application of the orders debated in the Twelfth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation last week. They mirror the regulations for England and Wales and Scotland, where there is no difference in principle. They differ only for organisational reasons by referring, for example, to the chief electoral officer, a position particular to Northern Ireland.

Hon. Members will be aware that section 9 provides for two versions of the electoral registers to be compiled. One will be a full register containing, as now, the name and address of every elector. The second will be an edited version containing the details of only those electors who have not requested that they be excluded from the version of the register that is available for commercial purposes. The regulations seek to strike a balance between the privacy of individual electors and the wider need of some organisations to have access to personal information when that may clearly be in the public interest. They are compliant with the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Data Protection Act 1998.

I do not intend to speak on each of the regulations, hon. Members will be pleased to hear, but I shall say something about the major provisions.

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Lady Hermon (North Down): On a specific point that is particularly relevant to the hon. Lady as the Minister responsible for security in Northern Ireland, there is a concern among police officers that their details—their names and addresses—could be obtained from the electoral register, whether from the edited or the full version. What guarantee can she give that their details will not be extracted for non-electoral purposes?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Lady raises a valuable point. I may be able to answer her more precisely later, but I would expect that, like everyone else, police officers would be required to register on the full register. I appreciate the hon. Lady's concern that that register will then be available to political parties. That is clearly a matter of concern, and if I cannot give her an answer in Committee, I shall write to her.

Regulation 4 prescribes the annual canvass form, taking into account the requirements of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. Regulation 9 amends the parliamentary elections rules by adding the senior SmartPass, which is issued under the Northern Ireland concessionary fares scheme, to the list of documents that may be presented in order to receive a ballot paper.

Regulation 8 provides for the description of those who may apply for an electoral identity card, and regulation 11 provides for the disclosure of national insurance numbers to the chief electoral officer by the Department for Work and Pensions. Regulation 21 inserts changes to part VI of the 2001 regulations, ''Supply of Register Etc.'' The new regulations deal with conditions for the free supply and sale of the register of electors.

The new regulations mirror the equivalent provisions for England and Wales and Scotland. Under the new regulations, the edited version of the register is available for sale without restriction. However, the new regulations introduce restrictions on the sale of the full version of the register and also on its use, consequent on its supply free of charge. A copy of the full version of the register may not be supplied by the registration officer—the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland—other than as laid down in the order. No copy may be sold other than to those bodies falling within the new regulations. Such bodies are subject to general restrictions contained in new regulation 105. New regulation 89 restricts the supply of the full register and the disclosure of information from it by the chief electoral officer and his staff. New regulation 90 places general restrictions on the supply of the full register.

New regulations 91 to 95 require the registration officer to supply, free of charge and on publication, a copy of the full register to a range of organisations, such as the British Library and the Electoral Commission, to which those regulations apply. They also place restrictions on the use of the register.

New regulations 96 to 102 require the registration officer to supply free of charge and on request copies of the full register to elected representatives and to the police. They also set out restrictions on the use of the

Column Number: 005

register. New regulation 107 provides for the supply of the full register to credit reference agencies.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): The Minister did not mention new regulation 106 on the sale of the full register to Government Departments. I dealt with that matter last week in respect of England and Wales and Scotland, and I asked a question to which I did not receive a convincing answer. Can the Minister explain why there would be any requirement for the sale of a full register to a Government Department? It seems odd.

Jane Kennedy: I cannot add to the answer that the hon. Gentleman received from the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). I have read the Hansard report of that Committee debate, and while I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman did not like the reply that he got, I feel that my hon. Friend was clear in her response. She argued that, as local authorities in England and Wales produce the register and so incur an administrative charge, they are justified in recovering that charge. Her argument seems logical. Indeed, the charging structure is laid down in the regulations, as she pointed out.

New regulation 107 provides for the supply of the full register to credit reference agencies. The regulations are compatible with the European convention on human rights and are being made in exercise of the powers conferred by the provisions specified in schedule 1 to the regulations.

In concluding, I hope that the Committee can agree that the regulations, in conjunction with the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, will play an important part in combating fraud in Northern Ireland, and that the provisions for the sale of the register strike the right balance between public and private interests. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

4.38 pm

Mr. Cash: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. As I had the pleasure, if that is the right word, of dealing with the regulations for England and Wales and Scotland last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) asked me whether I would be good enough to deal with this matter today, and I was happy to oblige.

A serious question arises in relation to the regulations. Each statutory instrument has to be taken on its merits, otherwise there would not be a separate one for Northern Ireland. In particular, there is the question of electoral purposes. The Minister, who has diligently read the report of our discussions last week, may have observed that the regulation entitled

    ''Supply of full register etc to local constituency parties and restrictions on use''


    ''No person to whom this regulation applies who has been supplied with a copy of the register may . . . supply a copy of the full register to any person, disclose any information contained in it . . . or make use of any such information, otherwise than for electoral purposes or the purposes of electoral registration.''

Column Number: 006

During the proceedings last week, I had to ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, four or five times whether she would be good enough to let me know what the words ''electoral purposes'' meant in that context. Although she confirmed that the term will include fundraising purposes, which is a matter of grave importance to all political parties—I would like a reconfirmation of that specifically in regard to Northern Ireland—she did not agree with me about the need for a full definition. There may be different opinions about the value of definitions, but in this context, I should have thought that ''electoral purposes'' could, with advantage, have been properly defined.

There is a further point about the scale of the proposals in the statutory instrument. I am not suggesting that this is a unique occurrence, but the regulations are almost a Bill in themselves. As I said last week,

    ''the regulations could be construed as a legislative sledgehammer to crack a nut.''

As a matter of interest, Conservative Members agree with the changes to the canvass form. I defer on that issue to those who are more expert on Northern Ireland affairs, and I have no doubt that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) will raise many questions about the canvass form when she speaks.

The real problem with such regulations is that a huge number of restrictions are imposed on what we would regard objectively as legitimate purposes and democratic interest. The Minister did not deal with the issues relating to credit reference organisations—I had hoped that she would do so, as she has read the proceedings on last week's regulations. Those issues need to be considered, especially given the fact that the Electoral Commission had to be consulted. I also asked the Minister about the outcome of those consultations, but I have not received a satisfactory response. We all know that consultation means listening to what people have to say; it does not mean acting on it. Therefore, I should be interested to know whether the Electoral Commission had any reservations. If it did, will the Government make them a matter of public record and put them in the Library of the House?

From her reading of last week's debate, the Minister will remember what I said on that occasion, but I shall repeat it because we are considering a separate statutory instrument. I said:

    ''In the absence of a national identity card scheme, the electoral register is probably the only accurate UK national database . . . Under the terms of the regulations, permitted uses of the full register will include access for the police for law enforcement and crime prevention''—

which the Minister mentioned—

    ''and Government Departments for law enforcement and similar purposes.''—[Official Report, Twelfth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 11 July 2002; c. 14–15.]

She also dealt with credit reference agencies, but only in passing. Other uses of the full electoral register that were permitted until now, including for direct marketing, are to be prohibited. The Representation

Column Number: 007

of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2001, which these regulations amend, state:

    ''Where a document is made available for inspection under these Regulations, any person may make a copy (whether hand-written or by other means) of the whole or any part of it.''

People may think that that is a healthy state of affairs and democratic. However, it has to be conceded that under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 the register should be divided into two parts. There are certain reservations about having two versions, but I shall not go down that route because the principle was decided by the Act.

We must also consider the restrictions, which include substantial fines of up to standard level 5 when an offence is committed. I think that that will take the level of fines up to £5,000. I would be interested to know whether the Electoral Commission expressed any views on the level of fines, although the 2000 Act may have prescribed the level as up to standard level 5. If so, it is obviously permissible for the regulations to include that provision. However, the question is whether the Electoral Commission thought level 5 appropriate, so far as the regulations were concerned.

There has been a wide range of support for the proposals, including from Liberty. In an article in The Independent on 7 May, Roger Bingham of Liberty was said to have stated that the Government's position struck a good balance between protecting individual privacy and allowing bona fide organisations access to important information. Other organisations that supported the proposals—the Minister did not mention them, but they were mentioned on the previous occasion—include the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the British Bankers Association and the National Consumer Council. However, I still want the Minister to let me know—from her lips rather than those of another Minister, as we are dealing with two separate jurisdictions—how she would define as a matter of public statement ''electoral purposes'', and how the Electoral Commission and the courts are liable to interpret it.

Another concern is that, under the regulations, the holders of elected office and registered political parties may use the electoral register for electoral purposes. They may also use it to comply with the 2000 Act when deciding whether to accept a donation. As was mentioned last week, the use of registers by associations does not fit into the general framework, because associations receive donations. I should be grateful if the Minister would be good enough to clarify that when she replies to the debate.

The Direct Marketing Association, with the support of various charitable groups and the Consumers Association, believes that it should have been possible for the full register to be used indirectly for marketing purposes by allowing the addresses of people on existing mailing lists to be checked against the register. I would be grateful if the Minister would also comment on that.

Column Number: 008

On the other side of the equation, the Electoral Commission argued, believe it or not, that there should be no access to the electoral register by anyone outside the Government for any purpose other than electoral purposes, hence my concern about that expression. That suggests that there should be no edited register. Will the Minister confirm that, as it is an important point? Does she know why the commission came to that view?

Many commercial organisations support the regulations, but that is not necessarily the only test, or an entirely relevant test. It may help to know that they do, but the real test is whether the regulations will contribute to the democratic process. The organisations believe, however, that access to the electoral register by registered credit reference agencies and banks should be allowed for the prevention of fraud and financial crime. The process is ongoing, and I hope that the Minister will recognise that what I am saying does not apply only to the money laundering regulations. I should be grateful if she would explain why there was a shift in the arrangements expressed in the original version of the regulations that were published earlier.

In a year's time, the Government are due to review section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 in its application to England, Wales, Scotland and—I think I am right in saying—Northern Ireland. I do not know whether she has a view on that; she looks as if she is not absolutely certain. Certainly that is the case for the United Kingdom, and I do not hold it against the Minister if she has not been fully briefed on that point. I have made several observations, and if the regulations are not working as well as we would hope, that review may be an opportunity to reconsider them. If problems arise on the question of electoral purposes, or on questions raised by some commercial organisations, the regulations may need to be revised again. I trust that the Minister will assure us that the Government will take account of the fact that there is a case to be answered. Of course, I am more than happy to wait for the event.

4.51 pm


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Prepared 17 July 2002