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Lord Borrie: I should like to comment on the amendment. I have tabled an amendment myself, which stands also in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, and Lord Naseby. It may be convenient if I follow the example of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, in giving broad views on Clause 9. I should start by saying that, although I do
I was unable to take part in the Second Reading debate, but I read it in Hansard with particular interest because I was struck by what appeared to be a degree of discrepancy between the objectives of the clause as stated by the Minister and the actual proposal in the clause to restrict the availability of the register. For example, at col. 14 of the Official Report of 31st January, the Minister said that there was particular concern for victims of domestic violence and about the problem of stalking. Yet, as the noble Lord, who is, I hope, departing only for a moment, himself said a little further on in the same column, the full register will be available for inspection in public libraries. I could not see anything in the Government's proposals that would thwart the determined stalker or former husband desirous of seeking out his ex-wife from checking up on her in the public library.
I then thought about the Government's objective of ensuring that the maximum number of eligible people should register to vote. It was said that restricting the availability of the full register would encourage people to register, yet the Government produced no evidence to show that the present wide availability of the full register--not only present but over many years in recent times--is a factor deterring individuals from seeking registration.
Coming more closely to the matter of direct mail, it was said that people are fed up with junk mail and that the tiresome receipt of junk mail would be significantly reduced if traders no longer had access to the full electoral register. There are several answers to that point. Few direct marketers use the electoral register to draw up their marketing lists. What they do is draw up, or purchase from those who commercially draw them up, purchase lists, often carefully targeted at people with known interests and likely purchasing intentions, but they use the electoral register to verify and to validate people's addresses. In other words, they use the electoral register to validate their own database, not to create it. That is surely in the public interest. It reduces the likelihood of people receiving unintended and unwanted mail and, for example, mail being sent to people who are no longer alive. In any case, it is reasonably well known--Members of the Committee will have seen this in post offices up and down the country--that people who do not want junk mail, either of a general or a particular kind which they find a nuisance, can use the mail preference service, which is a self-regulatory organisation, to get rid of that material which they do not want. There is also a telephone preference service and even a fax preference service.
The Direct Marketing Association, which is the trade association to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, referred, has been in touch with the Home Office over a long period about its concerns regarding Clause 9 as it stands. The association believes that the clause could put severe restraints on a form of trading which is competitive, well regulated and, most important of all, is found to be extremely convenient and helpful to millions of our fellow citizens. The industry has an annual revenue of some £30 billion.
Lord Borrie: The noble Lord is correct. I was about to come to the specific point of his amendment. If I was speaking more broadly, it was because I was following the precedent set by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, which seemed to be a good precedent. The rather more technical amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, if may call it that without disrespect, happened to come before the more substantive amendments as to whether Clause 9 is good or should be changed. I imagined that those who sent briefing had taken as read the certificate referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, that the Human Rights Act, and therefore the European Convention on Human Rights, including Article 8, are being adhered to and that there is nothing in this clause or the rest of the Bill to go against it.
The point to which I was referring when the noble Lord intervened was that to deprive industry of the facility of validating its lists of prospective customers would appear to be damaging not only to the industry--that may not matter--but also to the public who benefit from the checks on names against addresses which the electoral register provides.
It would be helpful to have an indication from the Government, bearing in mind the concession referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, during the passage of the Bill in the House of Commons, that the full register would be available to check credit. It will be available to credit reference agencies, banks and so on. I should have thought that that would be very helpful to customers, because if those checks cannot be made, a decision may be made which is adverse to a customer, who would not receive the credit that he or she might otherwise. Surely the Government and Members of the Committee would disapprove of that because it would give rise to the possibility of social exclusion. So I am glad that the Government have made that change.
I am interested to know whether they will make other concessions. For example, it is of interest to millions of customers who purchase via direct mailing throughout the country that their names can be validated by an examination of the full register. It seems to me that that is in no way damaging to anyone's privacy. It seems to be most helpful to customers if that can be done. I shall refer to the specific purposes of my amendment when we reach that.
Lord Norton of Louth: My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway made some telling points in relation to Clause 9, as did the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I agree with a great deal of what was said. At Second Reading, I outlined my concerns about the provisions of the clause. Like other speakers, I shall combine my comments on my noble friend's amendment with comments on the clause generally. The two come together quite well.
At Second Reading, I indicated that I had a principled objection to the sale of the register, and that remains. I am completely unconvinced by the briefing that we have received, and I am afraid that I remain totally unconvinced by the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, which do not address the objection on principle.
Registration is required by Act of Parliament. It is a fundamental requirement of our democracy. There is no provision for opting out. Voting is not compulsory, but registration is. The statutory requirement to register must be balanced against the right to privacy. When I register, I do so in order to qualify to vote. My name appears on the register for that purpose alone.
A case can be made for political parties to have access to the register, under licence, for the purpose of campaigning. That flows from the nature of the electoral process. It is related to the exercise of the vote. That is fine. I also accept that the register may be used on a confidential basis, according to clear guidance, for the purpose of combating crime. I can see that electors may authorise other bodies to check the names on the register.
However, that is probably as far as I would go. When I register to vote, I do not register for the purpose of allowing anyone who obtains access to the register to solicit me for commercial, or indeed any non-electoral, purposes. I concede that purchasing the register may be invaluable to commercial firms and charities. But the usefulness of access does not establish a right of access. I have a fundamental principled objection to the sale of the register--full-stop.
The Government recognise the problem and have sought to address it by drawing a distinction between an edited register and a full one. I object to the sale of any register. Although the issue is a difficult one, the way forward must be based on very limited access to the register. At a later stage I may raise fundamental issues about the publication of and access to the register. We must look at the register in terms of limited access if we are to address some of the fundamental problems of privacy. It is not just a case of having an opt-out for commercial firms; one must protect one's privacy from other dangers as well. The distinction between an edited and a full register does not deal with those dangers.
I have great sympathy with the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway. While it is an improvement on what exists now, and to that extent I support it, I should like it to go further. Therefore, I believe that this clause should be withdrawn and we should return to the matter later.
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