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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): 2005.

Mr. Djanogly: I thank the hon. Gentleman. We support the intention of the amendment and would appreciate it if the Minister looked further into the matters facing those with disabilities. The Bill should ensure that the voting process is accessible, from registration to the casting of the ballots, to all those with disabilities. We should certainly do all we can to ensure that the Bill complies with the disability equality duty contained in section 3 of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe tabled amendments Nos. 28 and 29, and we support the general intention behind them, particularly in relation to how   they could facilitate the better implementation of individual registration. On individual registration, we recognise that some form of roll-over measures may be needed, based on the experience of Northern Ireland. We concur with the views put to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee that we should move swiftly to individual registration with vigorous data swapping between electoral registration officers and utilities, the Post Office, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and others.

5.15 pm

Amendment No. 28 places a welcome duty on registration officers to use the records and resources available to them to ensure an accurate register. As I   have said, we believe that that should be the foundation of the electoral process. We also believe, however, that access to information should not be unfettered. While we support the intention of the amendment, it might be better to specify the type of information available for data sharing in this primary legislation. It may also be necessary to consider safeguards beyond the Data Protection Act 1998 to prevent unfettered access and possible abuse of information. I should be interested to hear the Minister's views.

We have similar worries about amendment No. 29. Effective and unencumbered data sharing would clearly make for an accurate register, but adequate safeguards would again be necessary. We support the use of data matching against other public registers to enable potentially eligible electors who are not yet registered to   be identified and targeted more effectively. The
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implications of sharing information between local authorities, Departments and other agencies require detailed consideration by the expert agencies.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I was interested by the Opposition's approach. I was more heartened at the end of the speech by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) than I was at the beginning, once he had made it clear that he broadly supported measures aimed at improving the level of electoral registration. The wording of amendment No.   14 suggests that the Opposition's remit is to get people off the register rather than on to it. That was the major problem that I, along with many other Members, raised on Second Reading.

Currently, electoral registration is not fair. It is biased, and discriminates against people in inner-city areas, people in housing with multiple occupation, people who are young, people who are black and people from the Asian community. We must therefore find a better system to achieve fairer registration that more accurately reflects people's entitlement to register. I accept that people who have no entitlement should not be on the register—that goes without saying—but we must address this major problem as well.

I have a view on the moves we should be making and the long-term objective of completely revised electoral registration, and my amendments conform with that view. The annual canvass with a bit of information coming from one or two databases—such as council tax information—is a pretty inefficient way of compiling an electoral register. Over two or three months, a great deal of effort is put into going around and offering people the   opportunity to provide information that is already available to electoral registration officers because the form was filled in a year earlier and nothing much has changed.

The joint report of the Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Committee drew on evidence that we had seen in Australia, where electoral registration information is obtained from various databases and used to follow up   individuals whose circumstances have changed. By doing that, rather than conducting an annual canvass of everyone, the authorities managed to produce a register which they told us they considered to be 98 per cent. accurate.

Chris Ruane : Yesterday I spoke to Sam Younger, head of the Electoral Commission. He shares my hon. Friend's view that filling in a form every year is not necessary, believing that once per parliamentary term or once every four years would be acceptable. Would my hon. Friend support that?

Mr. Betts: Yes, I would be content to move in that general direction. I also feel that the whole House should thank my hon. Friend for all the work that he has done, and for gathering information and statistics about the extent of under-registration.

If we adopted a system under which data from a variety of organisations provided the basis on which electoral registration was carried out, we could, if we
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wished, also conduct an audit check by means of a canvass, say every three years. Electoral registration officers could then use their resources more effectively and spread out the check over a period, rather than trying to target everyone, irrespective of whether their circumstances had changed, within three months. That   is very inefficient. I am seeking, through my amendments, to strengthen the current arrangements with a view to moving gradually towards the situation that I have just outlined.

One issue that emerged strongly during our Select Committee's deliberations was electoral registration officers' concern about whether they have the right—let alone a responsibility—to encourage people to get their name on the register. Their worry was that they might at some stage face a legal challenge, and might be getting into the political arena. Amendment No. 30 seeks to make it absolutely clear that we are not merely encouraging but requiring them

That would remove any doubt, making it clear that EROs will not face a legal challenge in encouraging people to register. When we consider later clauses, I   shall make it clear that I want a duty to be imposed on EROs to produce for the Electoral Commission an annual report on the extent to which they have achieved that objective. Indeed, I want the requirement to maximise registration to be imposed on the commission, as well. The commission does a lot of good in giving advice, but it would be worth while imposing on it the duty positively to achieve that objective.

Chris Ruane: That excellent suggestion has my full support. However, local EROs should produce such reports not only for the commission but for their local electorates, to let them know how they are performing. That should be done on a national scale, and should perhaps involve a league table.

Mr. Betts: Perhaps, and if this House does not require that a league table be drawn up, someone doubtless soon will; perhaps my hon. Friend will have another job to do in that regard. Local council committees can scrutinise such reports annually, and it might not be a bad idea for the commission—should it be given this responsibility—to produce an annual report for Parliament, so that we can scrutinise how well it has performed overall.

On safeguards and scrutiny, our Select Committee hearing examined the idea of using a variety of databases. In general, data protection experts had no problem with that, so long as it is made clear that the information collected can be used for this purpose.

I am certainly prepared to listen to what my colleagues on the Government Front Bench have to say. The wording of my amendment may not be perfect, but I hope that they at least accept the thrust of the idea that we should make it clear that EROs have the right to   access not merely information held by a council—it is clear that they already access council tax and benefits information, for example—but wider information. Let us consider a classic case. Local authorities used to have housing departments, whose information could be used by EROs. Housing departments as we traditionally understand them no longer exist, because stock transfers have taken place or arm's length management
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organisations have been created, as in the case of my Sheffield authority. It is not clear whether EROs have the right to seek information outside the council from arm's length, or completely separate and independent, bodies. It would clearly be wrong if the information historically used by EROs were suddenly removed as the result of a housing stock transfer.

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