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Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 9 July 2003
Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
Draft Representation of the People
(Form of Canvass) (Scotland)
Draft Representation of the People
(Form of Canvass) (England and Wales)
The Chairman: Those hon. Members who have not already presumed upon my legendary concern for their comfort may remove their jackets, if they wish to do so. Is it the wish of the Committee that the regulations be debated together?
Hon. Members: Aye.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (Scotland) Regulations 2003.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (England and Wales) Regulations 2003.
Mr. Leslie: Good afternoon, Mr. Gale. It is a pleasure to serve under your legendary chairmanship, as you say. I am glad that we can conveniently deal with the two orders together.
The purpose of the regulations is to prescribe the form that electoral registration officers should use for the annual canvass of electors, which takes place each autumn. They do not deal with the way in which the canvass is conducted, but simply the contents of the form that electoral registration officers send out. Regulations are necessary and desirable to ensure that we fulfil our obligations in relation to the voting rights of citizens of member states of the European Union who are resident in this country. Those rights are set out in two European Council directives, which have already been implemented in the UK for nationals of existing EU member states resident here. The regulations also implement those directives for nationals of states that are expected to accede to the EU—that is, nationals of what we call accession states—on 1 May 2004.
Council directive 93/109/EC gives nationals of member states of the EU who are resident in another EU state the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in elections to the European Parliament held in their state of residence. Council Directive 94/80/EC provides the same right in relation to local elections. The directives were implemented in the UK under legislation passed in 1994 and 1995 respectively.
As a result of the treaty of Athens earlier this year, 10 new states are expected to join the EU on 1 May
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2004. The EU gave a commitment to the new states that they and their citizens could take part as full members in the elections to the European Parliament, which are to be held in June 2004. That means that we need to ensure that citizens of states expected to join the EU next year who are resident in the UK can benefit from the provisions flowing from the two directives in the way that I mentioned. In particular, we need to ensure that they can vote in the European parliamentary elections in this country, if they so wish, as well as in local elections, on the accession of their home state to the EU on 1 May 2004.
The regulations prescribe a new form of canvass for the annual canvass of electors this autumn. The new form allows nationals of states expected to join the EU next year who are resident in the UK to be included in the canvass and so to be added to the electoral register, which is a prerequisite to being able to vote in elections here. If the local elections are moved to 10 June 2004 and are thereby combined with the European parliamentary elections, as we propose, the latest possible date for registration as an elector for the European parliamentary and local elections in England will be 7 April 2004. That will also be the cut-off date for registration in Scotland. There are no ordinary local elections in Scotland next year, but there will be the European parliamentary elections.
For local elections in Wales, where there is no current proposal to combine local and European parliamentary elections, and where local elections are expected to take place on 6 May 2004, the last date for registration there will be 11 March 2004. There would therefore be no time under the current law to enable nationals of the 10 accession states to be registered as electors after they become entitled to vote as citizens of an EU state—that is, on 1 May 2004. Special provision is therefore needed to permit their names to be included on the register in advance of membership. We have already provided the legal framework to allow for that. The Local and European Parliamentary Elections (Registration of Citizens of Accession States) Regulations 2003 were made under negative resolution procedures by colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and were laid before Parliament on 13 June 2003 and came into force today. They apply for the whole of the United Kingdom and modify current legislation to enable nationals of the 10 accession states who are resident in this country to be registered as European parliamentary electors and local government electors before 1 May 2004. Under the regulations, they may be included on the register with a marker to indicate that they will be eligible to vote only from 1 May 2004 onwards; that is similar to the way in which 16 and 17-year-olds are registered by reference to the date on which they become 18. The regulations before the Committee concerning the form of canvass should therefore be read in conjunction with those other regulations.
As is the case for all other voters, nationals of member states of the EU can register either by replying to the annual canvass of electors carried out each autumn, or at other times under the ''rolling registration'' provisions that were introduced in 2001. Rolling registration is designed to catch people
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whose circumstances have changed during the course of the year, and nationals of accession states will be able to use that facility to register to vote, either if their circumstances have changed, or if for some reason they have missed the annual canvass process. However, the autumn canvass of electors is the main vehicle for ensuring that eligible persons are included on the register—in fact, householders are legally obliged to complete and return the canvass form.
The Committee will note that the preamble to both sets of regulations before us indicates that the Electoral Commission has been consulted. It made a few minor but helpful comments, which we have taken into account. For the record, I should add that the Government consider that the regulations are fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Part I of the schedule sets out the new form of canvass, and Part II sets out the form of words concerning the two versions of the electoral register that registration officers should use in applications for registration. The canvass form is based largely on the existing form, and I hope that it is self-explanatory. The principal change is to column 3, which now allows citizens of accession states—as well as citizens of existing member states—who live here to register by entering their nationality in the box.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): The form that is reproduced here might just be a photocopy for the purposes of helping the Committee, or it might be the size that is going to be used. If it is the size that is going to be used, and people cannot read it, if it contains an instruction, ''If you want a larger-print version, please apply,'' they will not be able to read that either. What steps are the Government going to take to make the form readable for a lot of people?
Mr. Leslie: That is a perfectly fair question. I understand that the annex to the regulation sets out the design imperatives for the form. This will not be the format used by local authorities, as they will design, publish and distribute their own forms. This copy details all the essentials that the local authority electoral registration offices will need to cover. It is fair to say that we need to make forms, whether for electoral registration or any other purpose, accessible by all sections of the population, including those who have visual impairment. I shall ask my officials to find out whether we can include in the guidance to registration officers suggestions about how improvements might be made so that reading is easier.
When the form is returned to registration officers it will help them to identify who the citizens of accession states are, and it will ensure that they are registered correctly. The instructions on the form remind persons completing it to include accession state citizens, and the declaration also includes reference to those states that are expected to join the European Union in 2004.
The explanatory notes that are included with the form are designed to help the person completing it. They are largely the same as those with the previous version of the form and are self-explanatory and clear. Some changes have been made to the previous wording to reflect the new arrangements. The section on citizens of member states of the European Union now includes reference to the 10 states that are
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expected to join on 1 May. Moreover, all the current and prospective EU states are listed. The states that are expected to join in May are marked with an asterisk to assist nationals of those countries to complete the form.
Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): In my constituency, I have a fairly sizeable number of asylum seekers. Some of them, particularly the Czech Roma, would be classified under the listed countries. Are any special considerations given to the registration of people who are asylum seekers, and would registration affect their asylum-seeking status?
Mr. Leslie: My understanding is that there is no crossover if someone is claiming a particular form of asylum but for the fact that their citizenship of an accession state is the qualifying criterion. We anticipate that the form of canvass will explain that the regulations allow a citizen to register in this country or in their own accession country for purposes of standing or voting in a European parliamentary election. Such people will not be affected in any way by virtue of any asylum seeking or other immigration criteria.
The regulations ensure that we fulfil our obligations to citizens of accession states who are resident here by allowing them to register so that they can vote after those countries accede on 1 May 2004. I commend the regulations to the Committee.