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2 Mar 2009 : Column 651

(b) at the time when the gift is received there is no entry in the register in respect of that unincorporated association.

(2) The Commission shall not include in the register any information that would or might identify a person as someone by or through whom the gift was made unless—

(a) they have given to the person a notice stating that they propose to include such information, and inviting representations on the matter, and

(b) they decide, having considered any representations made by the person, that it is reasonable to include such information in the register.

(3) The Commission shall make reasonable efforts to give a notice under sub-paragraph (2)(a) in any case where, if a notice is not given, sub-paragraph (2) prevents information from being included in the register.

(4) The Commission shall not make a decision on the matter referred to in sub-paragraph (2)(b) until after the period of 45 days beginning with the date on which they gave the notice under sub-paragraph (2)(a), unless representations from the person concerned are received before the end of that period.

(5) Once they have made a decision on that matter the Commission shall give notification of it to the person concerned.

Meaning of “gift”, etc

9 (1) In this Schedule “gift” includes bequest.

(2) Anything given or transferred to any officer, member, trustee or agent of an unincorporated association in that person’s capacity as such (and not for the person’s own use or benefit) is to be regarded for the purposes of this Schedule as given or transferred to the association (and references to gifts received by an unincorporated association are to be read accordingly).

(3) Regulations made by the Secretary of State may—

(a) make provision as to things that are, or are not, to be regarded as gifts to unincorporated associations for the purposes of this Schedule;

(b) make provision as to how the value of a gift to an unincorporated association is to be calculated for the purposes of this Schedule.

(4) Provision made under sub-paragraph (3)(a) may, in particular, provide for a person to be treated as making a gift where that person—

(a) pays expenses incurred by another;

(b) provides any property, services or facilities for the use or benefit of another otherwise than on commercial terms;

(c) transfers any money or other property for a consideration that is worth less than what is transferred (or for no consideration).”’.— (Mark Tami.)

Brought up, and added to the Bill.

Clause 8

Declaration as to source of donation

Amendment made: 115, page 7, line 18, leave out from ‘must’ to ‘either’ in line 20.— (Mark Tami.)

Schedule 3

Declaration as to source of donation

Amendments made: 116, page 39, line 44, leave out

Amendment 117, page 39, line 46, leave out

Amendment 118, page 41, line 21, leave out from ‘must’ to ‘either’ in line 23.

Amendment 119, page 43, line 5, leave out from ‘must’ to ‘either’ in line 7.— (Mark Tami.)

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New Clause 21

Schemes for provision of data to registration officers

‘(1) The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument make provision (referred to below as a “scheme”) authorising or requiring specified persons to provide to a specified registration officer, for the purpose mentioned in subsection (2), information contained in records kept by those persons.

(2) The purpose is assisting the registration officer to secure, so far as reasonably practicable—

(a) that persons who are entitled to be registered in a register are registered in it,

(b) that persons who are not entitled to be registered in a register are not registered in it, and

(c) that none of the information relating to a registered person that appears in a register or other record kept by the officer is false,

and, in particular, assisting the officer to ascertain to what extent the objectives referred to in paragraphs (a) to (c) are being met and to determine what steps should be taken for meeting them.

(3) A scheme may authorise or require information to be provided at specified times or in specified circumstances.

(4) A scheme may not authorise or require information to be provided by a person other than—

(a) a local or public authority, or

(b) a person providing services to, or authorised to exercise any function of, a local or public authority.

(5) An order under this section may include more than one scheme.

(6) An order under this section has effect despite any statutory or other restriction on the disclosure of information (but may not permit disclosure in breach of subsection (7)).

(7) Information provided to a registration officer under an order under this section may not be disclosed to a person other than one to whom the officer may delegate his or her functions, except—

(a) for the purpose mentioned in subsection (2), or

(b) for the purposes of any criminal or civil proceedings.

A person who discloses information in breach of this subsection is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.

(8) An order under this section may contain incidental, supplemental, transitional or saving provision.

(9) An order under this section must not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing it has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.

(10) In this section—

“false”, in relation to a signature, means that the signature is not the usual signature of, or was written by a person other than, the person whose signature it purports to be;

“specified” means specified in an order under this section;

“register”, in relation to a registration officer, means a register maintained by that officer under section 9 of the 1983 Act;

“registered person” means a person registered in such a register;

“registration officer” has the same meaning as in the 1983 Act (see section 8 of that Act) except that it does not include the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland.’.— (Mr. Wills.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

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Mr. Wills: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this it will be convenient to discuss Government new clause 22— Schemes under section [Schemes for provision of data to registration officers]: proposals, consultation and evaluation.

Mr. Wills: These new clauses form an important part of our plans to transform electoral administration. It is significant and complex, so I hope the House will bear with me as I set out first the context of the new clauses, which I hope will assist the House in forming a judgment, before turning to deal with the details. In Committee, we discussed—and, it is fair to say, we all agreed—that democracy is undermined when significant numbers of people are not able to participate in elections because they are not registered to do so. Registration is the source from which democratic participation flows. Those who are not registered are denied that participation, so we must all be concerned that it has been estimated that more than 3 million eligible people are not able to vote in this country because they are not registered.

That is not acceptable—I hope we can all agree on that—and I hope we can agree that particular effort needs to be directed at registering voters in those groups who appear to be most at risk of not being registered. I hope that we can also all agree that the steps taken to tackle that problem must be on the basis of a level playing field for all democratic political parties. Anything that undermines that principle is partisan and risks illegitimacy. We must constantly strive to ensure that the register is as comprehensive as is reasonably possible, on the basis of a level playing field. That is one fundamental principle of electoral registration. The other such fundamental principle is that the register must be as accurate as possible.

I am going to assume that if I say anything about these fundamental principles with which Opposition Members disagree, they will intervene to tell me. Otherwise, I shall assume that they agree with the fundamental principles that I am setting out. Indeed, I would be surprised if they did not.

7.30 pm

David Howarth: The only fundamental principles that I would raise at this point are those of data protection. Will the Minister explain why new clause 21 seems to allow an order to be made that completely ignores those principles?

Mr. Wills: Of course data protection is a fundamental principle as well. It does not apply specifically to electoral registration in general in the terms that I am discussing right now, but I have registered the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and I will come to them in due course, when I deal with the detail of the new clauses. They are important concerns—I understand that—and I am happy to address them.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Does the Minister agree that another fundamental principle is that the registration should be accurate, bearing it in mind that this is a gateway to, for example, absent voting? These things must be done in such a way as to provide good identifiers that stand in the way of fraud.

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Mr. Wills: I absolutely agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and that is precisely what I said. It is one of the two fundamental principles of electoral registration that the register should be as accurate as is reasonably possible. Electoral registration should be comprehensive and accurate—those are the principles.

On that basis, therefore, the Government are introducing measures that will transform the system of electoral registration. We agree with those who have argued that a system of individual registration in Great Britain would represent a significant step forward in improving the integrity of the electoral register. We also believe that there are other principled, important arguments in favour of individual registration, but our concern has been that, in pursuing the realisation of one fundamental principle of electoral registration, we should not jeopardise the achievement of the other. The simple fact that many individuals, currently registered under the system of household registration, would under a system of individual registration be required to provide personal information for the first time in order to register is very likely to deter some—perhaps many—from registering unless we take important remedial action.

The Northern Ireland experience is often cited in debates of this nature, and it is right that we should learn the lessons, both positive and negative, from that experience. At least some of the drop in the numbers registered in Northern Ireland in 2002 was due to the removal of the so-called carry forward, but as the Electoral Commission noted in its report on the implementation of individual registration in Northern Ireland:

Chris Ruane: Does the report that my right hon. Friend is quoting from make any reference to illiteracy? What is the effect of low functional literacy on registration rates?

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The passage from which I am quoting does not make any specific reference to illiteracy, but it is another problem, a barrier and something that we must address if we are to fulfil and deliver on both the fundamental principles that I have suggested.

The Electoral Commission report continues:

We believe that the way forward is to combine the implementation of individual registration—on a careful but fixed timetable—with significant new measures to increase registration, so that we do not jeopardise the reach of the register in seeking properly to improve its integrity.

Today, I am announcing the historic steps that we are taking to entrench those two fundamental principles of electoral registration, which underpin our democracy. The Government have already been taking significant steps to increase registration. The Electoral Administration
2 Mar 2009 : Column 655
Act 2006 placed a statutory duty on electoral registration officers to take all necessary steps to maintain the electoral register, including sending the annual canvass form more than once, making house-to-house visits and inspecting records that electoral registration officers are permitted to inspect. Much of that is common sense, and many electoral registration officers are doing excellent work in maintaining and expanding their registers.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I echo my right hon. Friend’s comment that many electoral registration officers are doing an excellent job, but the reality nationwide is that only 91 per cent. of those eligible to be registered are registered. Must not we prioritise getting a comprehensive register before we do anything else?

Mr. Wills: My hon. Friend is quite right. Those two things have to go in lockstep together, but 91 per cent. is not acceptable. As I will point out in a few moments, any of us can be satisfied only when we can be absolutely confident that the register is at 100 per cent. of those who are eligible to vote.

As I say, many electoral registration officers are doing an excellent job. Some, however, need to raise their game. The new duty has required them all to raise their game. Since its introduction for the 2006 annual canvass, registration rates have increased year on year. In the past three years, the registration figures for parliamentary elections have increased by 371,000 in 2006; 307,669 in 2007; and 111,595 in 2008. There are now 45,194,449 parliamentary electors registered in the UK.

Similarly, the registration figures for local government elections also increased by 513,054 in 2006; 463,000 in 2007; and 227,374 in 2008. There are now 46,147,877 local government electors registered in the UK. Those increases are a great achievement and they show what can be done, but that is a beginning, not the end. That end will come only when 100 per cent. of those eligible to vote are so registered to vote.

Estimates from 2005 suggest, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) has just said, that only about 91 per cent. are so registered, so we have a considerable way to go.

I am sure that the House will have registered the fact that the figures that I have been referring to are national figures, and there are significant differences in different parts of the country—again, as my hon. Friend has just said. Some parts of the country having fewer of their eligible voters registered to vote than others corrodes democracy in this country. We must do everything possible to tackle that problem.

Going forward, section 67 of the 2006 Act also empowered the Electoral Commission to set and monitor performance standards for electoral services. Electoral registration officers in Great Britain have recently self-assessed their performance against 12 individual performance standards, and the Electoral Commission will publish the results of that this month. After that, local authorities will be required to report annually on their performance. The commission will also shortly publish data on the financial resources devoted to registration by local authorities.

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The performance standards framework will be vital in driving up the numbers registered to vote. The standards will give the public much greater understanding of the effort being put into registering voters—good and bad, excellent and indifferent. Practice in individual areas throughout the country will quickly become apparent.

Mr. Love: Does my right hon. Friend accept that a great difficulty here is whether the council giving the funds for electoral registration prioritises that as an activity? In such circumstances, would it not be better for us to ring-fence funding for electoral registration to ensure that it is done properly?

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and I am aware of that strongly held point of view. There are measures that I want to announce today; there are further measures that I will announce shortly, just before the summer recess. I can absolutely assure him that everything possible that we can do, we will do in this respect.

Chris Ruane: When I have tabled parliamentary questions asking about the amount per elector in each local authority area, I have been told that the information is not collated in England, but it has been collated in Wales. The point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) about the importance of ring-fenced funding is crucial. In Wales it was found—lo and behold—that the authorities that spent more money on electoral registration had bigger, better registers, while those that spent less had worse registers. Funding is key. If the Ministry of Justice sends the money to local authorities for that purpose, it must be spent for that purpose.

Mr. Wills: As I have said, what I am announcing today is only the start of a process to increase the numbers on the register. As always, we will be driven by evidence, and I assure my hon. Friend that we will take every bit of it into account.

We believe that the performance standards will help to increase registration and participation rates across the country. It is important for that to happen, because it is crucial for every part of the country to be able to expect the highest possible levels of performance from the electoral registration officers. Disadvantage should not exist in electoral registration any more than it should in any other area of public life.

David Howarth: I fully support the sentiments that the Minister is expressing, but there is a problem with uniform national standards in the context of electoral registration. It has nothing to do with deprivation; it simply has to do with the demographic circumstances of different authorities. Cambridge has a massive turnover of population—not just the student population—and to hold such areas to the same standards as even neighbouring authorities such as South Cambridgeshire, which has a very stable population, would not be fair on the authorities in the city of Cambridge.

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