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Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): I applaud the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) over consistency, as well as his support for registration officers, and the inclusion of children in his amendment, but I am worried that victims of domestic violence who are moving to a new place, and a new life, might be concerned as to whether their anonymity was adequately safeguarded. Madam Speaker, the police and local authorities at their new location should not be privy to their distressing past. The involvement of the police at their original home, for example, might have involved litigation that the person had fled that home to avoid. I am also worried, Madam Speaker, that, despite the location of such vulnerable people being kept strictly anonymous by the registration officer, if they should lose their right to appear on the register, that location could be revealed in a way that does not happen at the moment.
There are many reasons why a person would want to stay on the electoral register. In my constituency of Hove and Portslade, for example, it is impossible to get a parking permit without being on the register. I am also worried about some of the wider issues involved.
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Article 8 of the European convention on human rights states that a person's right to privacy should not be interfered with unless it
"is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."
Also, if I understand the proposal correctly, if a person failed to provide evidence involving the local authority or the police, their name could be revealed on the register that can be purchased. In other words, such people's protection would be reduced rather than increased. Some of my hon. Friends might disagree with the present situation in which we do not have compulsory voting, but article 8 of the ECHR allows for that privacy to be maintained, and takes precedence over a rule that does not insist that a person should vote. I also fail to understand how it would be in the interest of these vulnerable people to force them to give written evidence in support of their claim for privacy. I hope that the hon. Member for Huntingdon will withdraw his amendment.
I commend the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) for tabling the amendment, because it probes the intentions of the Government, and it is of value to understand them. I was slightly worried that, at one point, the hon. Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) was going to demolish the whole principle of the electoral register on human rights grounds. I hope that that is not a path that we shall go down, although I know that she was doing it for the best of purposes.
We have compulsory registration in this country, so the proposal is welcome in providing for the safety of individuals. The Minister might like to consider whether it would be appropriate for a court to make an order under domestic violence legislation that a person not be added to the electoral register, or that they be allowed to make an anonymous registration. I also agree that this matter should not be trivialised, and that we should not allow considerations of celebrity to be equated with risk. That could be an all too likely consequence of the Bill unless its intentions are made very clear.
Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 deal with a slightly different matter. I am genuinely confused, because proposed new section 9B(6) seems to say that, if someone applies for an anonymous registration and fails, they should be removed from the register altogether. That does not seem consistent with the general terms of registration or with the expectation in the Bill that we should maximise voter registration. It would seem appropriate that, if someone
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were not entitled to anonymous registration, their application should be put into the register in the normal way. Of course, it might be expedient to put it into the part of the register that is not distributed; as we know, the register is now produced in two versions. It seems very odd that someone who has applied for anonymous registration, and who presumably does live at the stated address and has been checked out and found to be someone who should be properly registered, should, by statute, not be registered because they have failed to convince a registration officer that they were entitled to anonymous registration.
Similarly, proposed new section 9C(3) states that, when someone ceases to be registered anonymously, they are required to be removed from the register unless they make a further application, rather than simply being added to the register as an ordinary registration, which logic would suggest is what ought to happen. Perhaps there is some cunning intent on the part of the Government here, or perhaps the drafting of the Bill leaves something to be desired. I would be grateful to find out from the Minister which it is.
Ms Harman: I do not think that there is any cunning intent. We are just trying to be sensible here, and to ensure that everyone gets registered to vote, and that those who have fled domestic violence are not deterred from registering to vote because they fear that they will appear on an electoral register. However, we do not want to introduce a blanket provision under which everyone could sign themselves off the register. We have therefore sought to introduce a special provision that allows for an application for an anonymous registration.
However, if the default position, after an application for an anonymous registration runs out or fails ab initio, is that the person goes straight on to the register, our concern is that they will never apply in the first place because they will not have control of the situation. So, this is not perfect; one just has to round the edges one way or another. However, having consulted with organisations such as Refuge and those involved in the field, we think that this is the most sensible way to proceed.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) asked what will happen if the electoral registration officer refuses to accept an application for anonymous registration. It is possible to appeal to the county court. I hope that that will bear down on electoral registration officers and make them feel accountable, but we all know that the reality is that the last thing someone fleeing domestic violence and building themselves a new life wants to do is take their electoral registration officer to court to secure their place on the register, but anonymously. It is right, obviously, that there should be an appeal system.
The hon. Gentleman made a good point about the safety of children. My hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Ms Barlow) also talked about the effect of violence on children. The Bill talks about the electoral registration officer determining the question of "the person's safety". The hon. Member for Huntingdon said, "What about the children's safety?" This is a good
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and sensible suggestion, and we will look at it. It might be that we need to add something there. It looks like he has a point.
Mr. Heath: I think that the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) has made a sensible point, but it occurs to me that there is an ancillary point involving those who are given anonymous protection under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, where that protection extends to other persons who are not the individual in question. The Minister might like to cross-reference that enactment to see whether another amendment needs to be made.
If I may, I shall deal quickly and in detail with the question of the effect of the amendments and why we suggest that they should not be pressed. Amendments Nos. 15, 2 and 3 would vary the provisions of anonymous registration. As I have said, those provisions will set up a scheme through which a person may register to vote without their name and address appearing on the electoral register. Anonymous registration is designed to protect vulnerable people in society, whose safety might be at risk if their address were made public. It is also designed to be limited to those who genuinely need it; there will be no question of simply opting out. In Australia and New Zealand, where such systems operate, about 0.15 per cent. of the electorate avail themselves of such provisions.
Amendment No. 15 would set out in the Bill the evidence required from a person wishing to register anonymously. While we agree that evidence must be required, and that a simple desire for privacy must not be grounds for anonymity, we cannot accept the amendment because, in our view, the appropriate place for a list of evidence is in regulations made by affirmative order. That allows for parliamentary scrutiny and a degree of flexibility. Setting out a definitive list of evidence in the Bill would risk excluding groups of people that perhaps ought properly to be covered.
We have consulted and gained the support of groups, including Victim Support, and the Network for Surviving Stalking and Refuge. We will continue to consult them as we implement these measures, and indeed on the question of children, on which we will also consult the hon. Member for Huntingdon.
From consultation so far, we envisage that the evidence needed to show a threat to safety will include injunctions and court orders, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has already mentioned, as well as restraining orders, participation in a witness protection scheme or a letter from a police officer confirming a specific threat.
Amendment No. 2 would require a registration officer to register a person in the usual way if their anonymous registration application failed. For the reasons I gave to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, that would reverse our policy on failed applications for anonymous registration. That is why we do not want to accept that amendment. It would, in effect, work against the purpose of anonymous registration.
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Another reason for rejecting the amendment is that applying for anonymous registration will be voluntary. It will not be part of the annual canvass; instead, it will be more akin to rolling registration. As with rolling registration, therefore, a person should not be entered on the electoral register unless they have expressly applied to be so.
There is already a process for ensuring that people register to votethe annual canvass. If a person's application for anonymous registration fails, they will be sent an annual canvass form in the normal way in due course. Through that existing processnot through a change of policy that could discourage vulnerable people from applying to be franchised safelywe should seek to ensure that all eligible people are registered.
Amendment No. 3 would mean that when a person's anonymous registration was terminated, that person would have an ordinary entry on the register if they were to make a rolling registration application. We believe that it is unnecessary. Although it is not explicitly stated, a person retains the ability to register through rolling registration when their anonymous entry expires. Specific provision as it would be inserted by the amendment is therefore not required.
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