House of Commons
|Session 2008 - 09|
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Public Bill Committee Debates
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Gosia McBride, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee
Third Delegated Legislation Committee
Wednesday 25 February 2009
[John Bercow in the Chair]Draft Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2009
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2009.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Franchise of Relevant Citizens of the Union) (Amendment) Regulations 2009.
Mr. Wills: It is a pleasure to be under your august chairmanship for these important statutory instruments, Mr. Bercow. Your wisdom will guide us.
I am grateful that the Committee has agreed that the statutory instruments can be taken together. One relates wholly to the European parliamentary elections to be held in the United Kingdom on 4 June this year and forms an important part of the Governments preparations for those elections. The other has a link to the elections but includes separate provisions relating to anonymous registration for eligible electors.
Both statutory instruments have been subject to consultation with the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders, and as a result of suggestions from the Scotland Office and the Northern Ireland Office the draft Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2009 have been revised and amended where appropriate. We were not required to consult the commission about the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Franchise of Relevant Citizens of the Union) (Amendment) Regulations 2009, but we sought its view in any event.
The draft Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2009 amend the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 and the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001. In summary, the amendments will make minor but important changes to applications for anonymous entries in the electoral register. They modify provisions relating to the registration of overseas peers for European parliamentary elections, primarily to ensure consistency with other changes in electoral registration, and provide for a free copy of the electoral register to be supplied to the Statistics Board, which carries out the statistical functions of the Office for National Statistics.
As Committee members are aware, anonymous registration of electors came into force on 1 June 2007 following Royal Assent of the Electoral Administration Act 2006. It allows an eligible person to register to vote without their name and address appearing on the electoral register. In essence, anonymous registration helps to
Applications for anonymous registration must, as Committee members are aware, be accompanied by evidence in the form of an attestation by a qualifying officer confirming that the safety of the applicant or another person in the applicants household would be at risk if the register contained the applicants name or address; or a relevant court order or injunction, as listed in the regulations.
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): Does the Minister have the figures for the percentage of individuals on the electoral roll who have sought anonymous listing?
Mr. Wills: I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman by giving an inaccurate figure now, but I am happy to write to him with the precise figures. We are clear that it is a moderate number and I will give him an up-to-date figure in due course.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am most grateful to my political neighbour for giving way. I am afraid that that answer is pretty poor. If we are bringing in a statutory instrument, surely we should know, roughly speaking, how many people have been using the provision so farany vague approximation will do, even a figure within a few hundred.
Mr. Wills: With all due respect to my political neighbour from North Wiltshire, I shall point out two things, and I welcome the intense interest that these statutory instruments are already exciting at this early stage in the proceedings. I am extremely grateful to hon. Members who have paid such close attention to what I am saying. I am sure that we all welcome the process of democratic scrutiny, but if I may be allowed to proceed, the hon. Gentleman will see that his point is not that relevant to the main purpose of what I am about to say, but I am happy to address it none the less.
The provisions came into effect relatively recently, are changing all the time and the numbers involved are quite small. I do not want to mislead members of the Committee by giving them a precise figure now, but given that this subject attracts such intense interest, I will write to everyone in due course with an accurate figure as of the moment of writing. I hope that they will accept that the figures are relatively moderate.
We are confident that the system is working and is not being abused, but we want to make some changes, which I will now outline, explaining why we want to make them. If no further interests are evinced at this point by members of the Committee, I will proceed.
Todays amendments will change what constitutes a qualifying officer and the types of court orders and injunctions that may be used in evidence to support an application. Given that so much interest has already been shown in the proceedings, I very much hope that the Committee will support the amendments. They are designed to help the efficiency of the process and to relieve hard-pressed public servants in the performance of their duties.
On qualifying officers, we are making changes to the level of police officer who is able to attest applications. The current regulations allow only a chief officer or chief constable to attest applications. In practice, that means that when a member of the public presents an application to their local police station for attestation, it has to be transmitted to the chief officer in the force for signing. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire knows that his constituencys police authority covers a very wide area, which puts a considerable administrative and logistical burden on the Wiltshire constabulary in some parts of the constituency. I am sure that he will join me in welcoming anything that relieves the burdens on the Wiltshire constabulary in performing its excellent task.
Mr. Wills: I am very happy to give way, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me on this occasion.
Mr. Gray: I do of course agree entirely that the Wiltshire police are absolutely outstanding, which is why I am wondering how much of their burden we are seeking to relieve. For example, how many anonymous registrations have borne down on the unfortunate chief constable of Wiltshire?
Mr. Wills: I will be extremely happy to take up the hon. Gentlemans request and incur further public expense by investigating the matter. I am sure that the Wiltshire constabulary will welcome the interest in the issue and the time and trouble that it will take it to find the answer. I will approach the constabulary on the hon. Gentlemans behalf and provide him with an answer. I hope that he will agree that, if we can remove any additional burden from the Wiltshire constabularywhether large or smallthat should be welcomed.
As I was saying, in practice, when a member of the public goes to a police station, attestation has to be transmitted to the chief officer in the force for signing. We need to make that process simpler for both the applicant and the police, and the draft statutory instrument allows for police officers of the rank of superintendent and above to attest applications. In most circumstances, applicants will now be able to have the attestation undertaken at their local police station. That is surely to the advantage of the applicant and is certainly of benefit to the police.
Secondly, we are also making changes to qualifying officers in relation to directors of social services. As it stands under the current regulations in England and Wales, an attestation signed by a director of adult social services or childrens services in England can only be used in support of an application for anonymous registration in England, and an attestation signed by a director of social services in Wales can only be used in support of an application made in Wales. Furthermore, equivalent office holders in Scotland and Northern Ireland are not included as qualifying officers.
The amendments made by the draft statutory instrument will ensure that an attestation signed by a director of social services in England or Wales can be submitted in support of an application for anonymous registration anywhere in England or Wales. It also includes any chief social work officer in Scotland within the meaning of qualifying officer. The amendments will make the 2001 England and Wales regulations consistent with the current 2001 Scotland regulations in that respect. The draft statutory instrument also amends the 2001 England and Wales regulations and the 2001 Scotland regulations to include within the meaning of qualifying officer any director of social services of a Northern Ireland health and social services board and any executive director of social work for a Northern Ireland health and social services trust.
We are also making amendments to the types of court orders and injunctions that may be presented as evidence in support of an application for anonymous registration to include those issued under Northern Ireland legislation. Currently, an applicant for anonymous registration who has, for example, attained a restraining order in Northern Ireland could not use that order as evidence for an application for anonymous registration in England, Wales or Scotland. The amendments will ensure that, no matter where a specified order or injunction is granted in the UK, it can be submitted in support of an application for anonymous registration.
Moving on to other amendments within the Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2009, the Representation of the People Act 1985 enables peers who are resident overseas to vote at European parliamentary elections. The current regulations apply, with modifications, certain legislative provisions for the purpose of registration for this category of elector. As part of our preparation work for the European parliamentary elections in June 2009 we identified the need to update these regulations, primarily to reflect recent changes to the system of registration for parliamentary and local government electors. In particular, the effect of an amendment to the 1985 Act made by the Electoral Administration Act 2006 is that an overseas peer who has an anonymous entry in the register of local government electors will not be able to satisfy the conditions of entitlement to vote at European parliamentary elections. Consistent with this, the draft statutory instrument amends the current regulations to reflect the fact that anonymous registration does not apply to overseas peers for purposes of European parliamentary elections.
Minor amendments are also made to ensure that the legislative framework for the registration of overseas peers is workable and internally consistent. We understand that the number of peers likely to be affected by these amendments is smallONS registration figures for 2007 reveal that only five peers were registered as European parliamentary overseas electors.
Finally in respect of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations 2009, we are making a minor amendment to the 2001 England and Wales regulations and the 2001 Scotland regulations to provide for a free copy of the electoral register to be supplied to the Statistics Board. This change is made as a consequence of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, which vests the Office for National Statistics functions of producing statistics in the Statistics Board, so we are tidying up this provision in line with that.
I will now deal with the European Parliamentary Elections (Franchise of Relevant Citizens of the Union) (Amendment) Regulations 2009. These amend the European Parliamentary Elections (Franchise of Relevant Citizens of the Union) Regulations 2001, which provide for the registration of relevant citizens of the European Union who are resident in the UK as European parliamentary electors. These amendments are necessary as they relate to the European parliamentary elections scheduled for 4 June. The 2001 regulations give effect to the requirements of the European Council directive 93/109/EC, which concerns the arrangements in respect of the right to vote in elections of the European Parliament for citizens of the Union living in a member state of which they are not nationals. The 2009 regulations amend the 2001 regulations to incorporate recent changes made to the system of registration for parliamentary and local government electors, following the implementation of provisions inserted into the Representation of the People Act 1983 by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. The amendments made by the 2009 regulations ensure consistency between the registration systems for parliamentary and local government elections and European parliamentary elections, and they ensure that relevant citizens of the Union are afforded the same protections as other voters.
In summary, the amendments will apply new provisions on late registration; they will apply new provisions on anonymous registration in England, Wales and Scotland; and they will apply changes to the procedure for determining applications for, and objections to, registrations.
As members of the Committee will recall, late registration came into force on 1 January 2007 and it allows eligible voters to register up to 11 days before the poll. Before this provision was introduced, the cut-off point was approximately six to eight weeks before the poll, which meant that many eligible people were unable to register to vote when they realised that an election was scheduled. The Government want this provision extended to include relevant citizens of the Union who vote at European parliamentary elections, which is the reason why we have amended the 2001 regulations.
As I mentioned earlier, anonymous registration came into force on 1 June 2007. The amendment that we are bringing forward in this statutory instrument will allow relevant citizens of the Union who apply to register in the European parliamentary elections to also apply to register under an anonymous entry.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2009||Prepared 26 February 2009|