Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Chris Ruane: I have in my hand responses from EROs throughout the country, and it may surprise my hon. Friend to learn that not all take advantage of their current ability to consult local government databases, so a duty needs to be imposed on them to pursue such information. Many of them have said that they would welcome access to central Government databases, in order to improve their registers.

Mr. Betts: The point that my hon. Friend makes is   absolutely right. In Australia, for example, driving licence information is used, along with information from private companies, utilities and organisations in the public domain such as the post office. All those bodies have information about people changing their addresses. That is the fundamental basis on which electoral registration officers work, to ensure that the registers are as accurate as possible.

The amendments are not intended to be too prescriptive about precisely which information should be used; I am merely saying that we should broaden it beyond the information available to councils. I want to make it clear that registration officers should have the ability to use information from such individuals and organisations as the Secretary of State designates for that purpose.

My amendment No. 29 attempts to turn the position round by saying that it is not merely for electoral registration officers to have to seek the information; rather, certain organisations that have information about people's change of address—institutions such as universities, for example, which have information about individuals becoming 18 or moving to a particular area—should be required to notify the ERO. In the past, the two universities in Sheffield have adopted different approaches to supplying information about halls of residence. It is wrong if one set of students is more likely to be on the register than another, simply because of a particular decision of an individual officer within a   university.

My amendments incorporate the various issues that I   have mentioned. My Front-Bench colleagues may point to deficiencies in the wording, but I believe that there is a great deal of support for what the amendments are intended to achieve. We need to recognise that we have a serious problem of under-registration and that much data within councils, other public bodies, utilities and the private sector are readily available—all of which would make EROs' job much better and lead to a more accurate register. Many people not currently on the register could be on it in the future. I hope that Ministers are minded to accept, if not the precise wording, the intention behind the amendments.

Mr. Heath : I rise to speak to the group of amendments and, in particular, to the amendments standing in my name and that of my hon. Friends. I shall deal with the generality of the group of amendments first.
8 Nov 2005 : Column 194

I am concerned that the Committee seems already to be getting into an either/or position: either we have to   prioritise the integrity of the registration process and the ballot, or we have to maximise the number of people available. I have to say—not just because I am a Liberal—that there is a Goldilocks solution here. We do not want under-registration or over-registration; we want it to be just right. What we need, therefore, are provisions to maximise the integrity of the registration process, while at the same time ensuring that as many people as are eligible to vote are actually on the register and able to vote. I made that point on Second Reading.

Mr. Love : That is not a controversial statement, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we introduce too many security measures, it may well have an adverse impact on the number of people prepared to climb the hurdles in order to register to vote?

Mr. Heath: I do, actually. If the hon. Gentleman listened to what I said on Second Reading, he would know that I disagreed with Conservative proposals relating to national insurance numbers. Not everyone in the country knows that number instantly, so it could prove an obstacle to registration, but that does not rule out the possibility of using other identifiers with which people are more familiar, particularly if they are more easily accessed. That could help to maintain confidence in the system.

I listened to what the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) said about amendment No. 14. I am afraid that it has changed the context in which we read the Bill. It is absolutely right that electoral registration officers should

Of course that should be a duty. However, making that the first duty, even before there is a duty to create the register, is not sensible. The first duty should not be to remove people from a register that is not yet created. The amendment certainly overstates the case a little.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): That is not what the amendment says.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman says that that is not what the amendment says, but it is. The clause deals with the duty of registration officers to take necessary steps. The amendment suggests at the end of line 15 that the first duty should be "to remove individuals".

Mr. Heald: It would be all right further down.

Mr. Heath: It would be all right further down. That would be the right place, as it would suggest that the register's integrity was an important factor, but not one that outweighed any other consideration.

5.30 pm

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) was right, when speaking to his amendment No. 30, to stress the need to maximise the number of people entitled to register. I hope that the Bill contains a clear expression of that intention. I understand the objectives
8 Nov 2005 : Column 195
of his other amendments, and I admit that I am being pedantic, but the proposal in amendment No. 28 to give EROs not just a power but a duty to inspect

might involve them in rather more work than they had anticipated. We need access to any record, and EROs, as part of their duty to maximise the number of people on the register, should use the information available in a   sensible way. Although the amendment is not worded quite right, my criticism is minor and I do not want to take anything away from the hon. Gentleman's intention.

My difficulty with amendment No. 29 is similar. I   think that organisations should have a duty to provide information on request, but bureaucratic meltdown might result if the duty were to provide any bit of information that might ever be of value to an ERO whenever a database somewhere in the country was changed. I think that the job that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe wants done would be achieved by inserting into the Bill a duty to provide information on request and by giving EROs the power of inspection, provided that that was in the context of an overall and overriding duty to maximise the numbers of people on the register who are entitled to vote, and to remove those who are not so entitled.

Dr. Pugh : When we collect data, does my hon. Friend agree that we must ensure that things do not happen that we do not want to happen? For example, the names of people registered anonymously will not appear on the published register. If they move house, or if the details of their driving licences change, must not EROs be obliged to check out the facts, for reasons of personal security, before a name appears on the electoral register that should not appear there?

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend is right. Multiple entries sometimes appear on the register that one would expect the ERO to notice. I have great respect for the EROs in my constituency, but my opponent in the general election did not register as a voter in my constituency until three months before the election. When he did, he appeared on the register at three different addresses in the same village. That surprised me a little.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I am especially concerned about how databases are gathered. My business is the creation of databases, and I can tell the House that most of them are almost useless. Accurate information is vital to the election process, so I want to offer a word of warning that EROs should be wary about how it is collected.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point—although I must say that my business is being a Member of Parliament. He is right to say that a lot of databases are corrupted and that when one puts rubbish into a database one gets rubbish out. The register is too important to have rubbish put into it, and I accept the point that he makes.

We have to get through many groups of amendments in the next couple of hours, so I shall not speak at length. I shall briefly introduce amendment No. 1, which
8 Nov 2005 : Column 196
I   tabled. As the hon. Member for Huntingdon said, it has a typographical error and should read "2005", not "2001". I think that that is what the original text said. All I seek from the Minister is clear guidance for registration officers that it is important to look after people with disabilities in the registration process as well as in the voting process. We are getting it right more and more in the voting process, but I am less convinced about the registration process.

Communication with people with disabilities needs to be appropriate, and that is not always the case. Canvass officers need the appropriate skills to communicate with people with disabilities and registration officers may need to use means of communication that are not the obvious ones. Instead of advertisements in newspapers, they might need to be placed in specialised forms of media that will reach those who would otherwise not be reached. The whole question of household registration as opposed to individual registration also needs to be considered. If one or two people in a house have disabilities, they may need specific and separate treatment to enable them to register correctly.

The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 will—I   think—impose a duty on registration officers as of December 2006, and that general duty may cover all the issues that I have mentioned. However, this is an opportunity to be explicit before that date and ensure that a sector of the community is not effectively disbarred from taking part in the democratic process. That is the purpose of my amendment. I do not intend to press it to a Division, but I hope that the Minister will respond positively to it.

Next Section IndexHome Page