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Standing Committee Debates

Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (England and Wales) Regulations 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Peter Atkinson
Brown, Mr. Nicholas (Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend) (Lab)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
Buck, Ms Karen (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs. Claire (Crosby) (Lab)
Devine, Mr. Jim (Livingston) (Lab)
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay (Chorley) (Lab)
Hughes, Simon (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Mundell, David (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs)
Roy, Mr. Frank (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Swinson, Jo (East Dunbartonshire) (LD)
Taylor, Mr. Ian (Esher and Walton) (Con)
Vaizey, Mr. Edward (Wantage) (Con)
Vara, Mr. Shailesh (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Wright, Mr. Anthony (Great Yarmouth) (Lab)
Nerys Welfoot, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Eighth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 21 June 2006

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (England and Wales) Regulations 2006

2.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (England and Wales) Regulations 2006.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (Scotland) Regulations 2006.
Bridget Prentice: May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Atkinson? I do not think that I have served under your chairmanship before and I look forward to doing so today.
As an introduction to these regulations it is important that we establish that an accurate electoral register is fundamental to our electoral system. Inaccuracies in the register can prevent individuals from voting, can create opportunities for malpractice and can skew the map of representation. The primary source of information for the electoral register is the annual canvass, which is conducted at a local level by electoral registration officers. The annual canvass form is prescribed in law and these two sets of regulations provide a new form for use in England and Wales, and a separate, though broadly similar, new form for Scotland.
Before the development of these regulations, the Government’s approach to the design of the canvass form had been to prescribe the basic requirements in law and to allow local authorities to create amended versions for their local area. That was intended to allow forms to be altered to meet individual local needs, and it has been successful in doing so. However, this flexibility has also led to significant variations in the quality of the forms in use. Many are clear and well designed, but others are not, with very small text and cramped layouts. As it is the results of the canvass that provide the bulk of the information on the electoral register, this situation is not good enough.
These regulations provide a different approach. Local authorities will still be able to make alterations to the form, provided it remains to the same effect, but for the first time the prescribed form will be clear, well designed and usable. The new form will make registering to vote more straightforward and less confusing. In turn, that should help make electoral registers more accurate and more comprehensive.
There will be a clearer definition of the “full” and “edited” registers, helping people to make an informed choice about opting out. There will be clearer information about who can register to vote, including a more accurate definition of which Commonwealth citizens are eligible to register. Finally, there will be contact information and details about alternative formats in a prominent position and in large print. I hope that copies of the new form are available to the Committee and I also have a copy of the old form so that Members can see the difference.
The new form is a result of a collaborative process involving the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and other key stakeholders. Their input has been vital and the Government are grateful to them. An independent “usability” expert has also reviewed the form. Her comments have been extremely valuable in ensuring that the form is focused on the needs of those who will be asked to complete it. Feedback has been positive. Electoral administrators have told us that they are keen on many of the new features, and the Electoral Commission said that
“the new form represents a considerable improvement in terms of clarity and accessibility.”
If Parliament accepts these draft regulations and approves the new form we will evaluate its impact at the coming annual canvass. This evaluation will inform any further changes which may need to be made in future years.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I was a little bit lost at the end when the Minister suggested that this was a trial. Is it a permanent form that will be used by different local authorities? If it is a trial, is it across the country or will local authorities volunteer for the new form?
Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. It is not a trial. It is the form that all local authorities will use, but as it is a new form we will obviously look carefully at what happens after the canvass in October and if any little changes need to be made we will make them. On that basis, I recommend the regulations to the Committee.
2.35 pm
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): First, Mr. Atkinson, I am grateful that my brief airing on the Front Bench for my party is under your chairmanship. I am honoured by that. I should tell the Committee that we are unlikely to detain it for long on this instrument.
Although it is not directly related to the regulations, which concern something that is being introduced and will hopefully be continued, could I nevertheless ask the Minister to address the concerns, which I know are also being raised in proceedings on the Electoral Administration Bill currently going through Parliament, about personal identifiers in relation not only to the canvass in the autumn but ultimately to voting in person or by post? These are important matters that need to be clarified at this stage. A signature is required on this form, but I am not clear about how it would be used to ensure that the person who then elected to vote by post or by turning up at the polling station could prove their identity.
We know that there is a great question about electoral fraud. This is not a party political issue. There are issues in Coventry at the moment which might affect my party. There were issues in Birmingham and there are issues in Tower Hamlets. But there is widespread concern that because we do not register individually—sometimes it is done as a household—there can be a perpetuation of fraud. It is important for the Minister to reassure us. We share a desire to get as many people registered as possible but I do not see that that objective conflicts with the need to try to reduce electoral fraud. Other than that, I am content with the measure.
2.38 pm
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) said that he did not intend to detain the Committee long. As we came into the room he asked me whether I was very animated about this, and I replied that I always try to be animated, but perhaps not for very long today.
I appreciate the Minister’s setting out the motivation behind the changes in the form. I am sure that we all agree that it is important to have as many people on the electoral register as possible to have a healthy democracy. One of the things that saddens us all is that a turnout at the general election of around 60 per cent. is becoming the norm in the UK. Anything that makes it easier for people to register and therefore more likely to vote is a positive thing.
I have just a few questions for the Minister about the layout and text of the form of canvass before us today. It has already been discussed in the other place and I understand that the Government are prepared to look at some of the changes that their lordships have suggested. I would like to press the Government on a form of words in the opening sentence on the page 4 of both of the forms which would make sense to the reader. Currently the opening sentence reads:
“You are entitled to register to vote if you are a British, Irish, European or qualifying Commonwealth citizen.”
The sentence indicates a further change that might be worth flagging up. The word “qualifying” is used in respect of Commonwealth citizens. What is the Minister’s view on that? Obviously, there are a large number of Commonwealth countries, and now 25 European Union member states as well. Not everybody will necessarily know whether they are entitled to vote.
It is important to make something as significant as voter registration as clear and obvious as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwarkand Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)—unfortunately, he cannot be present—has proposed adding an asterisk next to the word “qualifying” and, somewhere else on the form, next to another asterisk, a list of the relevant countries and the entitlement of their nationals to vote in elections in the UK. That would make it crystal clear who is eligible to vote.
My other point is about the separate section for 16 and 17-year-olds, which is a welcome addition. The new form has a space for the names and nationalities of those in the house who are not eligible to vote. Before, somebody had to write only that no one else in the house was eligible to vote and the reason. However, now people have to list who in the house is not eligible.
Will the Government give an assurance that any information provided in that section of the form will be used only to check the eligibility of that resident to vote, and that it will not be passed on to any other Department—the Home Office, for example? Are any safeguards in place to prevent the Government from passing that information to another Department? I hope that the Minister will be able to answer my questions, apart from which I welcome the regulations and their changes.
2.41 pm
Bridget Prentice: I hope that I shall be able to respond to the many constructive points raised by both Opposition spokespeople.
In response to the hon. Member for Esher and Walton, I should say that we have not intended to prescribe a Welsh form as such, but we shall provide Welsh and bilingual versions for guidance. As I said, there is scope for local areas to tweak the form if that is appropriate.
There is an ongoing debate about personal identifiers, and it is not surprising that it has raised its head in this context; it will again during our discussions on the Electoral Administration Bill. Our position is that personal identifiers should be used for postal vote applications and return votes, not for collection at the canvass.
Bridget Prentice: The issue will not go away, so I shall certainly be thinking about it on many an occasion.
In response to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), I should say that the form is written as it is in response to guidance from the Plain English Campaign, which suggests that forms written in personal, everyday language are easier to understand than those written in a more bureaucratic or passive voice. I assume that all Committee members understand the phrase “passive voice”, and that grammar has not entirely gone for a Burton.
The hon. Lady also asked about including a list of Commonwealth and European countries. I am sympathetic to that suggestion, but there was a balance to be struck between providing fuller information and creating a usable form. There are more than 50 Commonwealth countries, plus the European Union countries. If they were all listed, the form could become a bit cumbersome, complex and cluttered. Experience generally shows that the longer the explanatory note, the less likely people are to read it.
Jo Swinson: I appreciate the Minister’s point, and it is true that that is a lot of information. Does she feel that there is any other way to clarify the situation, for example by directing people to other resources to find out whether there is any confusion about whether their eligibility to vote?
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Lady makes a fair point. One of the most obvious resources would be the registration officer—we could make it clear on the form that people can contact the officer to clarify any aspect of the form, including which Commonwealth and European Union countries mean people are eligible.
Finally, the hon. Lady was concerned about a privacy aspect on the section about whether residents are not entitled to vote due to their nationality. The form has always had that in place. In this case it just suggests some reasons as a kind of prompt for people as to why they might not be eligible to vote. I assure her, for example, that if a reply comes back saying that all residents are French, the electoral registration officer would return the form clarifying that French citizens can register. That is another way to respond to her earlier question: people will be assured that they can be registered. I also assure her that anything included in that box will not be passed on to any other agencies.
The Electoral Commission reckons that about 3.5 million people who should be on the register are not, and I am sure that all Committee members share the view that an accurate register is vital to our democratic system. On that basis, I hope that the regulations and this design of the form will make things easier and clearer, and will therefore help to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote is registered to do so. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (England and Wales) Regulations 2006.


That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Form of Canvass) (Scotland) Regulations 2006—[Bridget Prentice.]
Committee rose at thirteen minutes to Three o’clock.

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