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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Mike Hancock
Buck, Ms Karen (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)
Byers, Mr. Stephen (North Tyneside) (Lab)
Featherstone, Lynne (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD)
Heppell, Mr. John (Nottingham, East) (Lab)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Khan, Mr. Sadiq (Tooting) (Lab)
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor (Epping Forest) (Con)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
Raynsford, Mr. Nick (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)
Reed, Mr. Jamie (Copeland) (Lab)
Scott, Mr. Lee (Ilford, North) (Con)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Yeo, Mr. Tim (South Suffolk) (Con)
Young, Sir George (North-West Hampshire) (Con)
Mike Clark, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Ninth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 2 July 2008

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Draft Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2008

2.30 pm
The Chairman: Before we start, I apologise to Members for the problems resulting from my sore throat. I hope that this will be an harmonious and quick meeting for that reason. I hope that all Members got a copy of the consultation that I put on the board for them last night, after the Minister was good enough to send it to me.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2008.
First, Mr. Hancock, on behalf of all members of the Committee, I offer commiserations for your sore throat. I am sure that we will be especially well behaved and not force you to strain your voice any further.
The purpose of the amending regulations is to allow a new fee to be payable by those who are authorised to be supplied with copies of the marked register of electors and the lists of postal voters, proxy voters and proxy postal voters that are produced at elections. Copies of those marked registers may be supplied after an election to allow certain authorised persons, such as candidates and the political parties, to use them for electoral purposes. The regulations set out a new fee for the supply of registers produced at parliamentary elections in England, Scotland and Wales, local government elections in England and Wales and the National Assembly elections in Wales.
There is obviously no need to tell hon. Members of the importance of such registers to political parties and elected representatives. Ideally, I wanted the regulations to be in place before the May elections, but that was simply not possible because of the number of steps that had to be taken to get the new fees in place, so I apologise for that. We have given careful consideration to assessing the costs to local authorities and have been able to produce a balance between those costs and what is affordable to the candidates and political parties, but that took longer than I originally hoped. I assure members of the Committee that the new fee will apply to all requests for copies of the marked register that are made after the regulations have come into force, including copies of the registers produced at the May 2008 elections. I have written to all hon. Members to advise them of the new structure and hope that they can pass on to their colleagues in their constituencies and on the ground who might be planning to purchase copies of the register that my best advice is to wait until the regulations come into force before making an application.
I received many representations from political parties and hon. Members expressing concern about the impact of the fees. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) tabled an early-day motion, which was supported by a large number of our colleagues. As a result of those concerns, I issued a consultation paper in July last year setting out proposals on the fees for marked registers. It was aimed at political parties, local authorities, local electoral officers and the Electoral Commission. It set out a number of possible options: that there would be no fee, that fees would be set at a lower level, or that no change would be made to the 2007 levels. We received 97 responses by the close of the consultation in October last year.
The response paper to which you referred, Mr. Hancock, outlines what the responses were. Just over half the respondents said that the current fees were too high. Not surprisingly, candidates, elected representatives, political parties and agents described the impact of the fee charges as significant. Interestingly, the electoral administrators noticed that there had been a considerable drop in the take-up of the purchase of registers.
There was no consensus on what the fee level should be. Perhaps we should not be too surprised, but the views of political parties and agents and the local authorities were quite polarised. The consultation showed up the significant variation in the costs that local authorities said they incurred in producing the document. We conducted further work, looking at a sample of local authorities to try to understand in more detail what the cost drivers were, which resulted in some useful information. I was mindful that we needed to strike a balance between the costs incurred by the local authorities in producing copies of the register and their importance to the political parties in campaigning and maximising turnout. I hope that we have reached the correct balance.
Under regulation 2 there is a transitional provision so that the new fee will not apply to requests for copies of the marked register or list made before the regulations come into force, hence my earlier advice. It will apply to new requests, including those in reference to May’s elections, and to the registers produced at the elections for the National Assembly for Wales. Regulations 6 to 8 make equivalent amendments to the regulations for Scotland. The fee will now also apply to UK parliamentary elections in Scotland.
Using the new formula, depending on the mixture of paper and electronic data that is provided in response to any request, the formula will produce a fee for a ward of 10,000 electors of between £20 and £30. The lower figure is the cost of an entirely electronic set of data and the higher is for the information on paper. The fee for a constituency of 70,000 electors will be between £80 and £150. That is a significant reduction in the level of fees. The cost of a copy of marked registers at the top end of the current fee regime would be £60 for a ward of 10,000 electors and £360 for a constituency of 70,000.
In setting the new fees, I hope that we have struck the correct balance. Local authorities will be covered for the reasonable costs of providing copies and data, and the cost of purchasing the marked register will not be prohibitive to candidates, elected representatives and political parties. The changes will create a more level playing field for candidates, elected representatives and political parties on the funds that they can make available to carry out the important democratic function of encouraging participation and turnout. The new fees take into account the information that we have obtained from local authorities on the costs of producing copies incurred by them. We do not believe that the regulations will result in a new burden on local authorities. They restore the fees for the marked register to a level that will be affordable to candidates and political parties, while still providing for the recovery of costs. On that basis, I commend the regulations to the Committee.
The Chairman: Mr. Khan, you lost the Whip of the week title very rapidly.
2.41 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Hancock. I am glad that you have already pointed out that the Government Whip has lost his Whip of the week challenge. It will not be my fault if the Committee sits for more than three hours—sorry, I meant to say three minutes and 40 seconds. I know that we cannot sit for more than three hours but I had thought that this was the sort of Committee that might take about an hour and 20 minutes. In deference to the health of your voice and throat, Mr. Hancock, I will endeavour to be as quick as I possibly can—not for the sake of pleasing the Government Whip, which is not my business at all.
In her very thorough explanation of the reasons behind the regulations, the Minister answered most of the questions that I would have asked. I looked at what we said during the passage of the Electoral Administration Act 2006. I had thought, correctly, that Conservative Members had expressed concern about access to the register under the core provisions introduced by that Act, and I remain concerned. Those who, for good reasons, need access to the register should have access to both the marked and the unmarked register. So, for all the reasons that the Minister mentioned, I am pleased that the Government have made these proposals today.
We have to recognise that somebody has to pay for administrative work. If the local authority does not charge properly and fairly, it will have to bear the cost, and we all know that that means that those who are paying for the local authority—taxpayers in our constituencies—will have to pay for the work. In all reasonableness, the Minister has put forward a very well balanced argument for going ahead with the proposals.
I am grateful that we were all properly consulted on the new structure. In debates similar to this one, I have found myself asking the Minister or her colleagues to explain the consultation process and to explain why there was no proper consultation. On this occasion, however, we were all consulted, just for once. The people most affected are elected representatives and those standing for election, so consulting Members of Parliament was absolutely correct. I am convinced that that was done properly and I have no argument with the Minister on that score.
We are the people with experience and the consultation has produced the compromise that the Minister has brought before us today. I hope that when the regulations come into force, they will improve access to the register for good democratic reasons, about which I have been concerned since the matter was first raised in 2005. I totally support what the Minister has proposed.
2.44 pm
Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hancock. I believe that it is the first time that I have done so.
The Liberal Democrats welcome the new charging rates for the marked register, particularly the cost reductions that they represent. We have always believed that a greater proportion of the cost should be borne by the state, because of the benefits from access that accrue to the political process and inclusion in democracy. Some financial barriers in elections, such as candidates’ deposits, exist to deter some of the more frivolous uses of the electoral system, but excessive fees for items that are absolutely essential to the political process and its function can be viewed as a hindrance to democracy. Against—as the Minister said—a backdrop of falling voter participation and the concerning increased apathy to the electoral process, it is important that political parties be allowed to focus their resources on directly engaging with voters.
Not only that, but we must think beyond the established political parties. A system that facilitates and encourages new entrants to the political arena is an attribute of a healthy and vibrant democracy, and we should not forget that independent and single-issue candidates across the country play an important part in delivering local democracy and challenging the sometimes stale orthodoxy of local politics—obviously, that does not apply to us. High electoral fees represent a significant cost to those candidates and can be a complete bar to their participation, in terms of contacting voters who have voted in previous elections. We welcome the reduction in cost.
2.46 pm
Bridget Prentice: I thank both hon. Ladies, and welcome the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green to the Committee and to her post. I am grateful for the comments they made, which, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest said, show that those of us who are at the coal face understand what is needed on these matters.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Will the hon. Lady say on which date people should apply to get the benefit of the new fees?
Bridget Prentice: Certainly not today, but as soon as the new structure is in place. I would like to see it in place before the recess, if possible. I will ensure that the Committee and all Members of Parliament are informed as soon as the regulations have been properly made. At that time, I expect to see a surge in photocopying or data processing in local authorities up and down the country.
The Chairman: For the Minister’s benefit, let me say that there was a nodding of heads on my right as you spoke. So, Minister, you have not committed your officials to something that they were not expecting. For once, you are on safe ground.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at twelve minutes to Three o’clock.

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