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Throughout the whole of that Parliament, my telephone number and home address were in the directory. We had people on the doorstep, but not usually at three oclock in the morning, and not always pig farmers. Throughout the period when Iraq was a big issueI voted against the invasion of Iraq, which was not popular at the timemy telephone number and address were in the book. I take very seriously the fact that we who enter public life take on that responsibility, that risk; in no way do I step back from that, and I think that my wife would take the same view. At the time when the pig farmer rang, my children were quite smallone child was on the way, if I remember rightlybut by the time Iraq came along, they were well and truly grown-up and had sensibly left the parental home, so there was not the same sort of risk.
Do we honestly think that Saddam HusseinI do not think that he was very efficient in these matterswould have gone around the electoral registration offices to look up the addresses given by parliamentary candidates at the previous election? Of course not. As several of my noble friends have said, there are much easier ways to obtain the private addresses of individuals. I come back to the point that that would be as true of a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly as someone who standing for the Westminster Parliament. It is a red herring, and the security issue is a non-starter. If it really is thought to be so important, why have we not had a brief from the security services, as my noble friend Lord Maclennan said? No one has provided any evidence that this is a necessary protection for parliamentary candidates. There are obviously much more important issues and much more important ways in which this can be obtained.
Lord Tyler: I endorse that, which is why if Members, their families, parliamentary candidates or anyone at any level clearly needs protection, we will be advised by the police. In the past, I was advised to look very carefully under my car every time I took it out. That is part of the risk we take as public representatives, which would be true of your Lordships House. Are we going to suggest that Members of your Lordships House should not give their home address in any circumstances? We do so every time we claim for allowances. Will it be said now that that is protected information which should not be obtainable under the Freedom of Information Act? To advance the argument on security is to miss the point that there are many easier ways in which to obtain home addresses.
I do not intend to keep your Lordships much longer. I emphasise that if this debate is to take place where it should take placein the other Housethis House has to make sure that the clause is voted down on Report. I shall leave it at that.
Lord Bates: Will the noble Lord clarify something? Effectively, his problem is that this matter was not debated. Taking that point, does he accept that the other place has expressed a view, none the less, through a vote? Presumably, those honourable Members knew what they were doing when they went into the Division Lobby. They may not have had the debate that he seeks, but they have certainly expressed a view.
Lord Tyler: They expressed a view. I do not want to sound patronising, but I am not quite sure for how long the noble Lord, Lord Bates, was a Member of the House of Commons. I was a Member for some years and I was Chief Whip for some years. Just occasionally, even on a free vote, not all Members of the House of Commons are absolutely cognisant of all the arguments for or against a proposition.
Lord Tyler: Let me finish. All I am saying is that for this issue to go back to the House of Commons for the sort of debate that it would seem everyone here thinks is necessary, we have to make sure that it is excluded from the Bill on Report.
Lord Bates: As a former Chief Whip, the noble Lord will recognise that there will be limited debate with Members of the Liberal Democrats who trooped into the Lobby on a three-line whip. But there was very careful consideration perhaps given by those who were offered a free vote and therefore chose to express their vote in one way or the other.
Lord Tyler: Since it was not anticipated that that vote would take place at allit was not in the grouping under discussion and had not been movedthe key issue addressed by the noble Lord is encapsulated in the word perhaps. Perhaps they all took a very careful view on this, but I do not think that that is likely to have been the case. The evidence from all sides of the House, including some of the noble Lords colleagues and very senior MembersI have Hansard hereon the Back Benches of the Conservative Party, also expressed considerable reservations about the way in which this was handled. It was not in the group under discussion. It had not been moved and it had not been debated. I should leave it there because we have other important issues to come to in Committee.
Lord Tunnicliffe: We have been going for two hours. In accordance with our new convention, I propose that we take a break for 10 minutes. In the very real possibility that there may be a Division during that break, I propose that we merge the two conventions and resume 10 minutes after the Division is called.
(2) The edited register shall include the names and address of any elector whose details are included in the full register only if a request has been expressly made in the form referred to in section 10(4) of the 1983 Act or in accordance with Regulation 26 above by or on behalf of that elector for his or her name and address to be included in the edited register.
Lord Norton of Louth: I will speak also to Amendment 124. The two amendments complement one another. It is logical to start with the argument for Amendment 124 and then lead in to Amendment 122. When we discussed the electoral register during the passage of the Representation of the People Act 2000, I argued that completing the electoral registration form was an essential exercise in civic duty, and one imposed by statute. The electoral register is core to our parliamentary democracy. It is essential that it is as full and accurate as possible. It should not be affected by incidental activities that have no bearing on compiling an accurate register. I made the case in 2001 for not permitting the electoral register to be sold to commercial and other bodies not connected to the electoral process. The Government failed to accept that argument, instead making provision for the edited register in due time, enabling electors to opt out of having their names included on the register that is sold to anybody who wishes to purchase it.
My starting point is that the edited version of the register should be abolished. In arguing that case, I am in good company. The Association of Electoral Administrators wants to see it scrapped; so too does the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner. That was recommendation 19 of the Thomas-Walport report on data sharing published last year. Indeed, I can do no better than repeat the words of the report:
We feel that selling the edited register is an unsatisfactory way for local authorities to treat personal information. It sends a particularly poor message to the public that personal information collected for something as vital as participation in the democratic process can be sold to anyone for any purpose. And there is a belief that the sale of the electoral register deters some people from registering at all. We are sympathetic to the strong arguments made by the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Commission that the primary purpose of the electoral register is for electoral purposes.
There is no compelling case for retaining the edited version. I have not seen any such case. I have read an article arguing the case for retaining it, but it fell short of being compelling. One argument was that it would help people in tracing their family trees.
The edited version is sold to anyone who wishes to purchase it. It is sold at cost and there is no benefit to the local authority. It imposes a significant burden on
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I can anticipate the Ministers response to how the amendment is drafted. I suspect he will point out that the powers embodied in the new clause already exist. However, at this stage I am keen to get a statement of the Governments position on the future of the edited register. The Government propose to consult on the recommendation of the Thomas-Walport report. As far as I am aware, the consultation has not taken place. Given the passage of time since the report was published, this suggests that the Government are not treating it with any great urgency. In my view, there may be a case for taking action now to end publication of the edited register.
There is an important issue of principle which will not be affected by consultation, and Bills dealing with electoral law are relatively rare. It is clear that they do not have the status of criminal justice Bills, so it may be several years before we have a chance to return to the issue. Given that, I believe there is merit in getting a government commitment to scrapping the edited register or, failing that, making provision in this Bill to bring the edited register to an end.
My preferred option is to get rid of the edited register, ideally as soon as possible. However, so long as it remains, there needs to be a switch from providing for electors to opt out to providing for them to opt in to the edited register. The present provision means that one cannot demonstrate that electors have given informed consent to their names appearing in the edited register. When the edited version of the register was introduced, practice appeared to vary between local authorities as to how much publicity was given to the new register and the procedure for opting out. It is not clear that electors are well informed about what is entailed in allowing their names to appear on the edited register. Something like 40 per cent of electors opt out, but we do not know how many of the 60 per cent who do appear on the register are aware that they have given their consent to their names appearing on it.
I raised the issue of opting in some years ago with the Ministers predecessor. I was told in conversation that the department had looked at the idea, but that there were practical problems to moving from opting
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If there are practical difficulties, to my mind there are two options. The first is to overcome them and the second is simple: if the practical obstacles cannot be overcome, then get rid of the edited register. The present situation is simply not acceptable. The Government would have saved themselves a great deal of trouble had they accepted the argument eight years ago for prohibiting the sale of the electoral register. If they are to persevere with an edited register, it must be on the basis of electors giving their informed consent to the inclusion of their names. However, in my view, the existence of such a register is simply not compatible with the core stipulated purpose of the electoral registration form. The ideal situation is to get rid of the edited register. I beg to move.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I have a great deal of sympathy with this amendment. I do not have any sympathy with the concept of opting in because I think that it would be impractical, it will not happen and hardly anyone would take any notice of it. I say that because people do not understand what the opting-out process is. Opting in is even more difficult and therefore is not an option. I opposed the concept when we introduced it a long time ago. It is wrong to ask people to register and then sell the registers for commercial purposes. People have said to me that they are reluctant to put their names on the register, not knowing that they can opt out, because they do not believe that others should have access to it. It should be only for the purposes for which the electoral register has been established; that is, the purpose of elections. So I have sympathy with the amendment, but not with the opting in bit.
Lord Rennard: I shall be brief. I have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, speak on this subject before and I concur with his general principle on data managementthat the principle ought always to be opt-in rather than opt-out. I am sympathetic to the argument that who in their right mind would tick a box on the forms to opt in to receive unlimited junk mail? We receive representations from those engaged in the direct mail business and perhaps it seems a little hypocritical of political parties to say that they want to be able to mail people but they do not want commercial companies to do so. However, the purpose of the electoral register is democracy and the purpose of political parties is to promote their messages legitimately. It is not right that someone who registers to vote should then have to consider whether they should receive junk mail.
I do not always agree with the views expressed by the Association of Electoral Administrators and other bodies with which I have discussed election campaigns. I feel that they would prefer there to be no leaflets, posters, tellers at polling stations or canvassing because in their mind that gets in the way of elections, which they consider would be much simpler without those things. However, as regards the matter we are discussing
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Lord Bates: Electoral officers concur with the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. In a survey, 98 per cent indicated that they would like the law to be changed to abolish the edited register that councils have to sell to direct marketing companies. Eighty-eight per cent believe that the current system deters people from voting. On average, councils raise around £1,900 a year from selling the register, which does not go nearly far enough to recover the costs of producing the edited register. This matter needs to be looked at. Moreover, in July the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, and Mark Walport, director of medical charity the Wellcome Trust, examined this issue in their data sharing review. They said:
The edited register is available for sale to anyone for any purpose. Its main clients are direct marketing companies and companies compiling directories. Members of the public can choose to have their details omitted from the edited register by ticking a box on their electoral registration or annual canvass form. Currently around 40 per cent of those registered to vote across the UK opt out in this way. However, the language used on these forms can be confusing, and many people do not realise it is the edited register that is on public sale.
In any event, we feel that selling the edited register is an unsatisfactory way for local authorities to treat personal information. It sends a particularly poor message to the public that personal information collected for something as vital as participation in the democratic process can be sold to anyone for any purpose.
That extract links two elements in the Bill; namely, financing, campaigning and funding, which we debated energetically, and the integrity of, and participation in, the voting system. Some, for example the Local Government Association, believe that we should simply get rid of the edited electoral register. That view is probably also held by the Information Commissioner, although he has not explicitly stated it. That option is expressed in Amendment 124 in the name of my noble friend Lord Norton. The more measured Amendment 122, standing in my name and those of my noble friends Lord Henley and Lord Norton of Louth, simply says that people ought to be able to opt into the edited electoral register. We discussed that principle earlier in relation to other aspects of party financing. I shall be interested to hear the Ministers response to these reasonable amendments that have garnered cross-party support.
Lord Tunnicliffe: Amendment 122 introduces a new clause substituting a revised paragraph into Regulation 93(2) of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001. That regulation currently states that the edited version of the electoral register should omit those persons who have made a request to be excluded, commonly referred to as opting out.
The edited version of the register came into existence as a result of the Representation of the People Act Regulations 2000, which enacted the recommendations
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Amendment 124 allows for the Secretary of State to lay a statutory instrument before Parliament that will cease to allow the compilation and publication of the edited version of the electoral register. This instrument would require resolution by both Houses. Noble Lords may recall that in his speech to Liberty on 25 October 2007, the Prime Minister announced that he had asked Dr Mark Walport and Richard Thomas to undertake an independent review of the framework for the use of personal information in the public and private sectors. On 11 July 2008, Dr Walport and Mr Thomas published their final report, the Data Sharing Review, which makes a number of recommendations to the Government. Recommendation No. 19 of the report calls for the edited version of the register to be abolished.
The Government clearly understand the concerns around the sale of personal details through the supply of the edited register but, before deciding whether or not to take forward Recommendation 19, we need to establish how removing the provisions would impact on the UK economy, businesses, charities and the general public. We emphasise that this is particularly true at a time of economic difficulty, when the impact of such changes would need to be carefully considered in the light of all relevant factors. It would be most unfortunate if such amendments had a demonstrably negative impact on the activities of local small businesses, while not being thought to be necessary by the public. It is for this reason that in our response to the Recommendation 19 we announced that we would hold a public consultation. The consultation will enable us to build a firmer evidence base about the advantages and disadvantages of the edited register and consider the way forward on the basis of the responses received.
Lord Bates: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In the last passage of his speech, which I have listened to carefully, he commented that the Prime Minister asked Richard Thomas and Mark Walport to undertake an analysis of the effectiveness and appropriateness of the edited register. Recommendation 19 came back from them and they said that it should be abolished. Is he now saying that the answer to getting the answer that he did not want is simply just to recast the question to a wider audience?
Lord Tunnicliffe: We are merely going through the orderly process of making legislation, which is our custom. We have received a report; we have a particular
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The timing of the consultation has not been decided but we intend to launch it by the summer Recess. In the mean time, noble Lords may take comfort in the fact that electors may continue to opt out of the edited register under the current provisions. That is a real legislative safeguard that we moved quickly to put in place following a legal challenge on the point and demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that personal data are properly protected. That commitment is ongoing and serious and our desire to consult on Recommendation 19 is fully consistent with that.
In view of our intention to consult, and particularly in the light of the difficult economic climate, I believe that it would be more sensible to examine the results of the consultation before making any changes to the current regulations. We certainly cannot accept amendments in this Bill that could risk having a negative impact on the UKs recovery, without gauging the possible size of such an impact and considering the other advantages or disadvantages that removing the edited register might have.
Lord Bates: The Minister seems not to have taken account of the arguments that might actually dissuade people from putting their name on the electoral registerthe democratic argumentthat it is an abuse of peoples privacy, when people have given information for an electoral purpose. The only argument that the Government now have for keeping the electoral register is a commercial one. Would the Minister answer that specific point and, secondly, comment on the fact that many organisations assemble data for marketing purposes and the likelihood is that, if local authorities do not produce an edited register, new markets will open up for businesses to compile registers of people who wish to receive material in a legitimate and commercial way?
Lord Tunnicliffe: We are committed to taking steps to bolster registration rates wherever possible. The consultation will give us a clearer picture of the impact of the edited register on peoples willingness to register. At present, we do not have sufficient evidence to support the assertion that the existence of the edited register discourages people from voting.
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