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Representation of the People Bill

3.7 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

It gives me great pleasure to bring forward this Bill for your Lordships' approval. Its provisions will allow for an important step to be taken towards democratic renewal, by modernising electoral procedures.

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Before I go any further, perhaps I may say how much I am looking forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. He comes to this House with a formidable reputation as an election campaigner and is well qualified to speak about election procedures. He joins other such speakers as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, who has a similarly formidable reputation in the same field.

The Bill will update electoral procedures to bring them out of the 19th and into the 21st century. The beginning of the new millennium has been much celebrated as the beginning of a new era. It is certainly an era of constitutional reform. Electoral procedure plays a fundamental role in the democratic process and it is important that legislation is kept up to date in order to meet the needs of the people of this new century.

The Bill will give effect to the recommendations made by the working party on electoral procedures, which were published at the end of October last year. The working party, chaired by George Howarth (then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office), started work at the beginning of 1998. Its terms of reference required it to consider changes to electoral practice that would contribute to democratic renewal in the United Kingdom.

The Howarth working party included representatives of the three main political parties, representatives of the local authority organisations, responsible central government departments, returning officers and electoral administrators. I am pleased to say that it was able to proceed by consensus.

The Howarth working party recommended legislative changes which cover four main areas: electoral registration, absent voting, pilot schemes and disabled access to the democratic process. I should like, if I may, to deal with each of these areas in turn.

First, following the working party's recommendation, this Bill will introduce a system of a rolling electoral register, to replace the current system of registration which is carried out by reference to an annual qualifying date.

As the law stands at present, anyone who moves to a new address just after the annual qualifying date of 10th October cannot vote in respect of his or her new address for 16 months. Although this might have been defensible 100 years ago, it is clearly unsatisfactory at a time when we have a very mobile population. A rolling register will allow people to register very soon after they change address. I hope that all your Lordships will welcome this change.

The Howarth working party also recommended that it should be easier for certain groups of people, some of whom are effectively disfranchised by current arrangements, to register, and therefore to vote. These groups of people are the homeless, those who are resident in mental institutions, and those on remand.

The issue of residence is a problem for those people when trying to register. The Bill creates a new concept known as a "declaration of local connection" which helps to overcome this problem. A declaration of local connection will allow homeless people to register in

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respect of an address with which they have a connection. Remand prisoners and mental patients (other than those who have been detained as a consequence of criminal activity) will have a choice. They will be able to register either at the address where they would otherwise be resident, or in respect of the institution at which they are resident, or by means of a declaration of local connection.

The requirement that service personnel must register by means of a service declaration will also be removed. That option will still be open to them but they will be able to register in respect of their home addresses if they wish to do so.

The last area of change as regards electoral registration is in relation to the sale of the electoral register. At present, anyone who wishes to may buy a copy of the electoral register to use for any purpose. The Home Office and electoral administrators get more complaints about this issue than any other. Many people do not want to receive junk mail. Others simply want to safeguard their privacy. More importantly, new technology means it is easy to produce and obtain CD-ROMs containing every name on the register. It is therefore easy to trace people, which causes particular concerns for victims of domestic violence. There is also growing concern about the problem of stalking.

Having considered this issue very carefully, the Howarth working party unanimously recommended that the full register should not be available for general sale. As a basic matter of principle, it considered that people should not be under a statutory requirement to provide information for one purpose and then have no say about it being used for completely different purposes.

What we therefore propose is that there should in future be two versions of the electoral register--a full one and an edited one. The full one will contain the names of all electors. However, people will be given the choice as to whether they want their names to appear on the edited version.

My ministerial colleagues have already given an undertaking in another place that we shall ensure that the electorate are given sufficient information to enable them to make an informed decision as to whether they want to exercise their right to opt out.

The edited version of the register will be freely available for sale and those who decide to buy it will be able, as now, to use it for any purpose. However, access to the full electoral register will be limited. It will, of course, be used for electoral purposes and will be available for inspection in public libraries. We also believe that it should be available to police forces and HM Customs and Excise for law enforcement and crime prevention purposes.

However, we are very conscious that many companies and industries currently make use of the electoral register. We do not want to do anything which will do undue damage to them, while at the same time being mindful of the privacy and data protection concerns which the working party identified.

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Accordingly, we take the view that banks and other credit institutions should have access to the full register for the purpose of establishing identity in connection with credit applications and money-laundering checks. This should help to prevent fraud and to ensure that those who decide to opt out of inclusion in the edited electoral register do not find it more difficult to obtain credit. We are advised by the Data Protection Registrar that this will not run counter to the EU Data Protection Directive.

We are currently in discussion with the credit industry to work out the precise form that the new arrangements should take. These will ultimately be set out in regulations made under Clause 9 of the Bill and I can assure your Lordships that those regulations, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, will be accompanied by a full regulatory impact assessment.

I ought also to mention the issue of direct marketing or "junk mail", as it is more commonly known. Many people resent this intrusion. More importantly, the EU Data Protection Directive specifically refers to direct marketing. We do not believe that allowing direct marketers and charities continued access to the full register for mailing purposes would be compatible with the directive.

Overall, we believe that our proposals strike the right balance and will represent a major step forward. On the one hand, they will safeguard and enhance the rights of electors and, on the other hand, they should ensure that no one is fearful of, or discouraged from, registering as an elector.

The second main area of electoral procedure where the working party recommended changes was postal voting. As the law stands, there are a number of restrictions on who may have a postal vote. The Bill therefore makes it easier for people to obtain and cast postal votes.

Your Lordships may have noticed that I refer only to postal votes and not proxy votes. The working party was conscious that there are a number of ongoing investigations relating to allegations of proxy vote fraud and concluded that this was not the right time to relax the rules governing proxy votes. We have accepted that advice.

The Bill provides for postal votes on demand. In other words, anyone who wants a postal vote will be able to obtain one without having to satisfy any particular criteria. We are also relaxing some of the unnecessarily bureaucratic rules governing the return of postal votes, including making it possible to return postal votes to a polling station.

In another place there was some discussion on the deadlines for applying for absent votes. The general feeling was that the deadlines should be brought closer to polling day and, although this was not a recommendation of the working party, we can see merit in it.

Currently, absent vote applications, other than emergency ones, have to be made by the 11th working day prior to polling day. Following discussions with

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electoral administrators, we believe that it will be possible to change the regulations to allow for applications to be made up to the sixth working day before polling day, although returning officers will be able to send out the papers before then so that those who apply in plenty of time will not be penalised.

The third main area on which the working party made recommendations was pilot schemes. The working party was very conscious that the only guaranteed way of seeing which of the possible changes to our electoral procedures might be effective was physically to try them out.

It therefore recommended that local authorities should be enabled to run pilot schemes to try out innovative electoral procedures. Clause 10 of the Bill provides for this, while Clause 11 allows for innovations that have been the subject of successful pilot schemes to be rolled out nationally.

Among the new procedures which local authorities may want to try out are ideas such as electronic voting, all-postal ballots, voting on days other than Thursday, and mobile polling stations, together with early voting.

I am pleased to be able to tell your Lordships that local authorities have enthusiastically backed this idea. Of the approximately 150 local authorities which will be holding elections this coming May, 44 of them, including both metropolitan and district councils, have applied to run pilot schemes at those elections (assuming that this Bill receives Royal Assent in time). All told, they have submitted 64 applications covering a very wide range of innovations.

All proposals will be carefully considered before being given the go-ahead. Obviously, local authorities whose pilot scheme applications are successful will be required to provide evaluations of their particular schemes. An obvious measure of how successful a pilot scheme has been will be an increase in turn-out.

An evaluation must also contain a number of other pieces of information which can help to determine the practicality of applying the new voting arrangements nation-wide; for example, the electorate's experience of the new voting arrangement.

Finally, the Howarth working party studied the problems faced by disabled voters and made a number of recommendations in this area to which the Bill gives effect. There will be a requirement for a large-print version of the ballot paper to be displayed in polling stations. This will be particularly useful for partially sighted voters. Blind and partially sighted voters will also be able to use a template. We have in mind something like a cardboard sleeve with holes cut out into which the ballot paper can be slotted so the boxes for marking a vote are accessible. The voter, having decided that the candidate for whom he wants to vote is the fourth one down--perhaps with the aid of the large-print ballot paper on display--will be able to feel where to put the cross.

At the moment, blind voters may be assisted in voting by a companion. This provision will be extended to those with physical disabilities and difficulty in reading. The Government are very conscious of the needs of disabled electors and have

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taken steps in this area above and beyond those in this Bill. Prior to last year's European parliamentary elections, we issued to every single returning officer guidance on access standards at polling stations. We are working with organisations that represent disabled electors to produce new comprehensive and consolidated guidance to cover all aspects of the electoral process. We also provide grants to local authorities for the purchase of temporary ramps at polling stations and suitably adapted polling booths.

The Bill contains one provision which does not result from the working party's recommendations but is designed to overcome a problem which received quite a lot of coverage during the European parliamentary elections last year, when allegations were made that a number of candidates had given false addresses on nomination forms. This is a clear abuse of the system but, as the law currently stands, it is not an offence. The Bill will make it an offence for a candidate to provide false particulars on a nomination form.

The Government recognise, as did the Howarth working party, that simply to modernise electoral procedure is not enough to combat the problem of voter apathy. The electorate will vote only if they are interested in the body being elected. All of us, particularly those who regard themselves primarily as politicians, have a responsibility to seek to generate interest among the electorate. However, if we can make it easier and more convenient for people to vote and to exercise their democratic right, perhaps a greater number of people will feel inclined to engage in the democratic process. The changes to be brought about by this Bill will reflect modern lifestyle and behaviour and are essential if we are to attract the interest of the young electorate and the participation of everybody in the democratic process. We hope that this will encourage people to exercise their right to vote and elect representatives to government.

The Bill gives effect to the agreed recommendations of a working party which comprised representatives of the main political parties. I am pleased to say that, for the most part, it enjoyed a smooth passage through another place and that there was a genuine and constructive desire to ensure that our electoral procedures were as up to date and effective as possible. The Government are committed to reforming and updating our constitution and this Bill is an important part of that process. I am happy to be able to commend the Bill to your Lordships.

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