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Chris Ruane: Will the use of local government databases be monitored on a national scale? Can we be specific about which ones we would like electoral registration officers to see, and can they be specific about which ones they use?
Will the Minister considerI have pushed her about this in the pastintroducing secondary legislation to give EROs access to central Government databases as soon as possible, and not leave it until two or three years down the road, so that we can move forward at the same time at local and central Government level?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that we will do that as well as ensuring that electoral registration
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officers use the information that is already available to them for cross-referencing. They can already examine council tax records, housing benefit registers, council rent records, and the records of the planning, education and social services departments. No primary or secondary legislation is needed for that. They can also examine Royal Mail records, because they are allowed to do that by custom and practice.
We will consider the records that existing powers do not cover but which could be covered by secondary legislation, and whether such legislation is a good idea. That is, therefore, already on our agenda. Such information includes records held by other local authorities, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, TV Licensing, the Inland Revenue, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Land Registry. Indeed, a woman whose daughter had just become 18 but was not on the electoral register asked, "How come my daughter's not on the register? You know she's 18 because you've just written to tell me that her housing benefit's being stopped." People do not understand that.
I believe however that data sharing is important not only to get people on the register and fill the gaps in it but to tackle fraud. Proper data sharing should have solved the problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) identified. The records should have been checked to work out who was there and the appropriate action should then have been taken. Data sharing is for preventing fraud as well as ensuring full registration.
I accept the spirit of the amendment that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) tabled on disability. Electoral registration officers are already covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 2001, which will be fully implemented, as he said, by December next year. The amendment is therefore unnecessary for changing the law, but he was right to table it. We are not simply considering one's right to participate on the day, but electoral registration officers going the extra mile to ensure that people with disabilities that might impede their registration are registered.
and so on. That already happens. Electoral registration officers' responsibility is not simply to have loads of people on the register but to ensure that it is complete and accurate. That is implicit and explicit in their duties.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe asks us to make it a duty for electoral registration officers to "maximise" the number of people entitled to vote who do so. I believe that our approach of requesting a complete and accurate register and setting out on the face of the Bill the extensive steps that must be taken to achieve that, including sending more than one form, knocking on the door more than once, inspecting the records, and training officials to find hard-to-reach voters, will mean a culture change. That will be effected by the Bill and the performance standards, which will be keenly examined by hon. Members of all parties. For the first time, we shall be able to see what is happening because of the greater transparency. I therefore believe that the spirit of the amendment will be enacted.
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The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked about extending the provision to Northern Ireland. My colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office are considering the matter, but I shall draw his remarks to their attention.
Mr. Betts: Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider that including the word "maximise" in the Bill might make it absolutely clear that we are intent on that aim? I acknowledge that all the steps that have been taken lead in that direction, but I believe that there is a general feeling in the Committee that specifying "maximise" might be helpful.
I take it that my right hon. and learned Friend will not accept my specific amendments on data sharing and is considering introducing secondary legislation. Will she give me an assurance that she will examine the range of possibilities that has been mentioned today? I am especially concerned about cases of, for example, one local authority having access to its council housing records when another does notthat means different approachesand, as happens in Sheffield, of electoral registration officers having access to information from a sixth form in a school but not in a college.
Ms Harman: We shall consider both the information that electoral registration officers use and information that they might not currently have the power to use but which, we believe, they need. Those points are already well understood. We are determined to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote is on the register. Whether we call it "maximising" the register or having a complete register is simply a matter of words, but I agree with the spirit of my hon. Friend's amendments, which is embodied in the Bill, that no one who is eligible should be denied the right to vote. Everyone who is eligible should be able to vote by being on the electoral register.
Mr. Djanogly: I shall be brief. If there is no integrity in the register, there is little on which to base a democratic system. Hon. Members have agreed with that point today. The Minister implied that our amendment was exclusive from the Government's proposal, but that is not what I said. We believe that the amendment is complementary. We support the Bill but believe that it does not contain the balance, which all hon. Members have discussed. We want that to be addressed. However, given that we will cover the matter again when we consider individual registration, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in page 7, line 29, leave out from 'address' to end of line 30 and insert
Mr. Djanogly: The clause has wide-ranging support, not only from us, but from bodies such as the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior ManagersSOLACE. We even called for such a provision during the passage of the Representation of the People Act 2000.
Establishing a system of anonymous registration for people whose safety could be compromised if their addresses were known represents a helpful step forward. The amendment would prevent overuse and abuse of the protection of anonymity. It also includes risk to children. There is clearly a need to protect children living in the same household whose safety may be at risk if details of the parent are included on the public register. I should be grateful if the Minister dealt with that.
Non-registration prevents an individual not only from voting, but, under the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, from donating to a political party or referendum campaign. Given that parties must check that a donor is on the register, clear processes need to be in place so that they can verify and accept donations from electors who are "anonymous". Will the Minister confirm that parties can verify and accept donations from "anonymous" electors?
There is a need for clear criteria for anonymity, rather than leaving it up to the personal opinion of the electoral registration officers, which could change from place to place and lead to inconsistency of application. The amendment would require written evidence from a Government or local authority body or the police to show that a risk exists. The bodies would confirm the existence of the risk. That would prevent anonymity being granted to people whose safety is not genuinely at risk.
An interesting comparison is with the confidentiality orders in relation to company directors pursuant to section 723B(1) of the Companies Act 1985. An individual who is or proposes to become a director or secretary of a company and who considers that the availability for inspection by members of the public of particulars of his usual residential address creates, or is likely to create, a serious risk that he or a person who lives with him will be subjected to violence or intimidation, may make an application to the Secretary of State for a confidentiality order. Is it envisaged that the granting of anonymity under this clause will operate in a similar way, but with applications being made to the
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relevant registration officer rather than to the Secretary of State? Is the Minister not concerned about the inconsistency of application that might arise from this differing application? What exactly will be the threshold for the granting of anonymity?
It seems an unfair expectation to place on registration officers that they should be able, alone, to determine safety risks associated with public registration. Perhaps giving electors the right to appeal the local registration officer's decision to the Secretary of State would be a way forward. This, along with wider powers of consultation, would allow for consistency of application, while at the same time allowing appropriate determination on a case-by-case basis. Will the Minister look into this and provide reassurances that the clause will be tightened to ensure that it is not open to abuse, that registration officers will have sufficient support in making a decision on anonymity, and that application of this clause will be consistent between electoral registration officers?
I understand that, once the electoral canvass has been received, the Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2001 place a duty on the head of a household to return the form with the names of those in the household, whether or not they are eligible to vote. Perhaps the Minister will clarify this point. In other words, there is a duty to register, albeit a duty involving the out-of-date notion of a head of household. However, this seems to be contradicted by proposed new section 9B(6) to the Representation of the People Act 1983, which is dealt with in clause 10, and which seems to contain a loophole whereby the duty to register could be avoided in the event of an unsuccessful application for anonymity. Might that not encourage spurious applications to be made in order to avoid being placed on the electoral roll? That is a loophole that our amendment would close, although subject, I would hope, to an appeal to the Secretary of State.
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