Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Norton of Louth: My noble friend's amendment goes to the heart of the reason for a published register. In considering the history of electoral registers in this country, he raises a fundamental point. We did not have an electoral register in this country before 1832; there was seen to be no need. It was only as a consequence of the 1832 Reform Act that the need arose because of the number of electors. Because of the inefficiency by which it was compiled and because the qualifications for the franchise were extremely complex, it was necessary to publish the register. Access was required so that people could challenge omissions from or entries in the register. That goes to the heart of the reason that we have an electoral register in this country.

I shall return later to a related point about why we continue to publish the register. It may be less necessary given the current method of data collection. However, so long as we continue to publish a register, the rationale for it must be access so that people can check and challenge. Therefore it is important that such a provision is on the face of the Bill, and I support my noble friend's amendment.

In responding, it would be useful if the Minister is able to give us figures of the extent to which challenges to the register have taken place. It is relevant in the

14 Feb 2000 : Column 980

context of my noble friend's amendment. It is also relevant to a point that I shall raise later. I have pleasure in supporting my noble friend's amendment.

Lord Goodhart: I, too, support the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, made some telling points as to why the provision should be on the face of the Bill. I await with interest the Minister's reply.

7 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I have listened with interest to the argument that the provision should be on the face of the Bill. I shall give that further consideration. I am not sure that I can answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, about the number of challenges. No doubt challenges take place, and rightly so. I shall have to write to him on that point after we have undertaken some research. We may need to carry out a survey with the registration officers. I am sure that he appreciates that that will take some time.

Our position on this is quite simple: we do not believe that this provision is entirely necessary. If your Lordships look at line 15 of page 20, you will see that it says:

    "A registration officer shall also determine all objections to a person's registration made in accordance with the prescribed requirements by another person whose name appears on the register in question".

It is therefore quite clear that any registered elector in the area concerned can object to any entry in the register. I am sure that in the vast majority of cases the registration officer will be able to resolve the matter locally. Should he be unable to do so, Section 56 allows for the matter to go before the courts. From time to time, people have used and will continue to use that facility. I hope that that is reasonably reassuring to the Committee, and I therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful for the support that I have received from the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I am presently trying quickly to read the paragraph to which the Minister has referred. As I see the words "15th October" above it, I presume that this is for more than the main update, the big bang, and that it is in fact for all the updates that take place throughout the year. The Minister has been helpful in this respect, and we shall have to study what he has said, relating it to Schedule 1, page 20, to ensure that it does not refer to the big bang but to the monthly updates. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 51 to 53:

    Page 21, line 29, leave out from ("made") to first ("that") in line 32 and insert ("by any person in accordance with the prescribed requirements, determines").

14 Feb 2000 : Column 981

    Page 21, leave out lines 34 to 39 and insert--

("( ) is required, by virtue of any provision of this Part of this Act, to remove a person's entry from the register;").

    Page 21, line 44, leave out ("becomes satisfied") and insert ("determines").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 54:

    Page 21, line 45, at end insert--

("( ) Each registration officer shall each month, or seven days before any poll, contact every registrar of births, marriages and deaths covering the area for which he is responsible in order to ascertain the names and addresses of those persons deceased within the previous month and the registration officer shall remove such deceased persons from the register within three working days of ascertaining this information.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 55. This takes us back to the issue of the accuracy of the register. Amendment No. 54 is not concerned with adding names to the register, but, I regret to say, with deleting them. Amendment No. 55 is a little different. It could deal either with people who are not on the register and who perhaps should be on it, or with people who are on the register and who the electoral registration officer has reason to believe should no longer be on it.

I am trying to standardise the principles of registration across the whole country. Although it is not a direct quotation, my recollection is that the Minister said in as many words that the ERO should use all the sources of information that he can make available to himself in order to ensure that the register is up to date. I do not believe that there is anything between us on that point. However, it seems to me that in the other place some doubt was cast on the registration officer contacting the Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths to keep up to date with the deaths that had occurred in that area. I submit that this is not just about making sure that the register is accurate or about the problem of the denominator, as I described it earlier. I believe that it is also about the fact that people who have passed on ought to be taken off the register as quickly as possible.

When I was involved in trying to be elected and then to keep a fairly marginal seat in the other place--it certainly turned out to be very marginal!--we had a small team of people making sure that we kept the register up to date with regard to people who had died, which is easy to do in a country area, where virtually all deaths are notified in the local newspapers. Our purpose in doing that was so that, come an election, we would not be sending communications to people who were dead. It is not a very pleasant matter for someone to have an election communication addressed to a late husband, a late wife or late parents. We all understand the problem and I am sure that all the political parties try not to do it. The last thing we want to do is to upset electors who may decide not to vote for us because they are annoyed about the fact that we have not been aware of a death.

14 Feb 2000 : Column 982

I am therefore trying to help all the political parties by suggesting that the registration officer should--I have provided a time--towards the end of each month be prepared at some stage to contact the registrar and ask for a list of the people who have died in the area over the past month, in which case he would be in a position to remove their names from the register and keep it very much up to date, prevent the political parties doing some work on registers and, perhaps more importantly, prevent us sending communications to people who have died in a way which would be fairly hurtful to the relatives who remain at their address. All of your Lordships who have been involved in elections will know exactly what I am seeking to do in this regard.

Amendment No. 55 would underline in legislation that the electoral registration officer should canvass a part or all of the register if he thinks that he ought to and if he thinks that in that way he will gain more accurate information. In this case, it could be additions and deletions. We have never previously faced the sort of problem (except in October/November) that might arise where, for example, a new housing development becomes occupied by new people in the spring of the year. It seems to me that the electoral registration officer ought to decide at that point to inquire who they are, add them to the register, and, one hopes, remove their previous registration.

We are in a whole new ball game with a rolling register. This is quite different from the situation that we have had in the past. In the sort of example that I have mentioned, it is often the case that over a few months in the spring and summer a lot of extra people can come into an area because of a new housing development. It seems to me sensible to give the electoral registration officer the power to take steps to ensure that those people are on the rolling register. I beg to move.

Baroness Fookes: I very warmly support my noble friend. These two amendments are very sensible. Quite apart from the issue of accuracy, I endorse what my noble friend has said about the hurt and distress that can be caused when party workers inadvertently make contact with relatives and appear not to know about the death of someone very much loved by them. It causes considerable upset. Furthermore, my previous experience as a Member of Parliament has been that, in towns, this is very hit and miss. It is unlikely that one would know of a death. Whether or not party workers know about a death depends very much on the thoroughness of their canvassing. I therefore believe that there is every reason to allow the electoral registration officer to make inquiries about whether anyone has been registered as dead. As I understand it, that information is public. The registration of a death is not a private matter. Therefore, I can see no objection whatever to inquiries being made by one official of another, if indeed it is correct that the propriety of this was questioned in the other place.

14 Feb 2000 : Column 983

The other point is less pleasant. We know that there is always a possibility of someone impersonating another. This will be less likely if the information is brought very much up to date. For that reason also, it is important that information should be made available as quickly as possible.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page