Clause 5 - CORE schemes: supplemental

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:00 pm ar 15 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

We are making progress, and I am grateful to the Minister for answering so many intricate and difficult questions this morning. In doing so, she gives us more confidence in our understanding of how the proposed schemes will work. As I said, it is important to reach some kind of consensus. The Bill is not like other political matters. If we do not have consensus about how our democracy works, and, as a result, we do not have confidence in the electoral system, that undermines the validity of elections. I do not suggest that we are at that stage now; most Members of the House have confidence in the electoral system, and we have debated it at length many times over the years. However, it is important that we investigate the matters in intricate detail.

I still believe that the system in Britain is one of the best in the world. I felt almost personally insulted when, as happened a few months ago, some of the ways in which our electoral system was administered were referred to very critically as akin to those of a banana republic. Such remarks are not good for democracy in Britain. That remark was made perfectly reasonably, and many of us agreed with it. We cannot have such occurrences, because confidence in the workings of our democracy is basic to the working of our society and country.

Clause 5(1) provides that a CORE scheme

''may make provision as to circumstances in which a payment is to be made—

(a) by the CORE keeper to an ERO whose area is specified in the scheme;

(b) by such an ERO to the CORE keeper.''

I wonder why. I should like to know specifically what the Minister of State envisages—[Interruption.] This is the crux of the question. I entirely understand if the Minister of State is not paying absolute attention to every word of my preamble—

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

Order. I am absolutely confident that the Minister of State is seeking confirmation of the answer that she is going to give.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

Of course. My preamble was entirely intended to compliment the Minister of State on her answers to our intricate questions this morning, but I must not repeat that point. I am fully aware that I must not be repetitive, so I thought it important to seek my moment to ask my question. Why would it be necessary for the CORE keeper to pay the ERO, and for the ERO to make payment to the CORE keeper? There is probably a simple answer to that question, but I would like to have it.

Clause 5(2) states that  

''A CORE scheme may make provision

(a) as to circumstances in which the CORE keeper and such an ERO may agree that functions of one of them may be exercised by the other;

(b) for functions of the CORE keeper to be exercised by such an ERO;

(c) for functions of such an ERO to be exercised by the CORE keeper.''

In what circumstances does the Minister of State envisage that those functions would be exercised either by the ERO or by the CORE keeper and vice versa? Similarly, clause 5(3) states:

''A CORE scheme may make provision as to—

(a) the circumstances in which the CORE keeper may make a charge for the provision of services or information to any person;

(b) the level of any such charge.''

That is an important provision because, quite rightly, the electoral register is used by many organisations. We all get junk mail, which is relevant to this point. I get sacks full of junk mail every week, which is partly due to the fact that I sometimes buy things and give my address in order for those things to be delivered. Therefore, one's name, address, postcode and so on, and apparently one's tastes in everything from kitchen equipment to baby clothes, are recorded in a database somewhere so that one can be bombarded with more junk mail enticing one to buy more goods.

It is sometimes difficult to imagine how a mail order company gets the name, address and details of a particular person. Often, it has been able to do so because it can buy the electoral register. There is nothing wrong with that because it is public information; I am not criticising that. However, the provisions envisage circumstances in which the CORE keeper may make a charge for the provision of services or information to any person.

Referring back to our previous discussion on clause 3 about the way in which taxpayers' money is spent in the administration of the electoral system, can taxpayers' money be recouped if the information held either by the ERO or the CORE keeper is used by an outside body for commercial purposes? I am only asking this question, not stating a preference or principle, but is there a possibility that a CORE keeper, an ERO, the Electoral Commission, the Department for Constitutional Affairs or any other spender of public money might recoup that money from those that use the information thus gathered for commercial purposes?

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

The Minister is aware that the clause deals with the relationship between the CORE keeper—I still see him in a pointed hat—and the electoral registration officer. It suggests a sizeable change in the command structure and independence of the electoral registration officer. I am not arguing that that is necessarily a bad thing. The differences in performance and ability of our electoral registration officers is one of the problems that we must deal with quickly. However, I want an explanation of how the relationship between the CORE keeper and the electoral registration officer will work, whether there are any authoritative channels that impact on local decision making and whether the CORE keeper will   again have an input on scrutiny. As the Minister knows, I believe that scrutiny, particularly local scrutiny, is an important way of keeping the electoral register as shining white as possible. It is one of those matters that we have given way on and forgotten in recent years.

I should be most grateful if the Minister could explain more about the relationship between the CORE keeper and the electoral registration officer, tell us whether there will be direct managerial responsibilities and explain how that might help local scrutiny of the electoral register.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Opposition Whip (Commons)

I should like the Minister to elaborate a little. Clause 5(6)(a) refers to

''section 10, 10A or 13A of the 1983 Act (maintenance of registers)'' and paragraph (b) refers to

''Schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act''.

How do the two inter-relate and how will the information that will be required fit in?

Clause 5(8) states:

''The Secretary of State may provide to a CORE keeper such facilities and equipment as he thinks are necessary or expedient''.

Could the Minister go into more detail about that? We have spoken about the cost of the CORE keeper, the necessary infrastructure and the inter-relationship with EROs and district borough councils, but could she go into more detail about the facilities and equipment? Conservative Members are concerned, as ever, that any new initiative should provide value for money and should not be an excuse simply to spend taxpayer's money unnecessarily. When creating a new organisation, commissioner, tsar or head of a new body there is always a tendency to introduce facilities that are not just effective and efficient but sometimes very much over the top in terms of manning, office equipment and other assets. Could the Minister elaborate on that point and answer my question on clause 5(6)?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

At the moment, for users who would normally be expected to pay for copies of the register, there is a charging structure. We expect that a charging structure will need to be established for on-line access. The reasons for the charge, and its level, are likely to be similar if not identical to the current arrangements for sale of the register by local EROs. However, a national electronic register is a different beast. One could read across the charging principles, but not the charging practicalities because one would be dealing with something different.

The question on which we must seek views is how such charging arrangements should operate; for example, whether there should be a general licence fee or a charge per access. People will need to think about the proposal that authorised bodies should be granted direct access and, if so, about what the charging structure might be and how it might work for those who would normally be expected to pay for copies of the register.

On payments from CORE to the ERO, there is a question about whether the proceeds from the sale—that will depend on the charging structure, which, as yet, has not been established at CORE, national   level—would need to go back to the electoral registration officer who collected the information. Again, there is simply a power to provide for that to happen; otherwise, we might have a situation in which electoral registration officers were collecting all the information and piping it up to CORE at national level, and CORE was selling it, but the electoral registration officers were not getting any of the benefit. The Bill simply provides the framework for an opportunity to decide those arrangements after consultation and by regulation.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Perhaps I could just finish this point, because I have to hang on to my chain of thought when I am talking about computers. The hon. Gentleman does not have that problem.

As hon. Members will know, it is envisaged that electoral registration officers at local level will collect the information and feed it through to CORE at national level. It will be possible for people not only to obtain that information nationally, but to check information about themselves online and ensure that it is right. In the future—I rather hesitate to mention this—it might be possible to have data-sharing between the national online register and, for example, the DVLA, if the House so decided. That is quite far into the future, but a national online scheme could do different things from local registration officers, and the point is to have the right relationship between the two.

Therefore, we are thinking about a charging regime that fits into an electronic context. I am told by my very expert officials—I am plunging from my area of expertise into that of the hon. Member for Northampton, South—that all we can say with absolute certainty is that a ''wet'' signature clearly will not work. On that point, perhaps I can conclude my comments.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

I am not sure what a wet signature is, quite frankly.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

Now I understand; the Minister is very kind.

The Minister talked about providing information online and I shall again interject a little background. Some time ago, I founded a company that does exactly that for the pharmaceuticals industry. The company, which is no longer mine, charges pharmaceutical companies a great deal to be online, and it is necessary to make such charges because the information is updated regularly. Nothing is more worthless than outdated information, and the Minister will know that information degrades quite quickly; perhaps by up to 15 per cent. a year compound, a sizeable change. In that respect, has she had any thoughts about online updating and about how we might carry it out?

Secondly, online access provides a sizeable opportunity for income streams, which should help the process of electoral registration. However, it also   presents sizeable dangers, because once we provide access to online information, we also provide the ability for that access to be used in ways for which the Minister might not care. I am sure that the consultation document will help us on this important point, but I wonder what thinking has been done on ensuring that online data are used for the purposes that the Minister prescribes, that data are not disseminated more widely than prescribed, and that the data are properly paid for. I am not arguing against the measure, but I ask the Minister whether she has thought about that and whether she can tell us a little more.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

In a way, we touched on that matter during debates on earlier clauses. The measure will be subject to the Data Protection Act. Additionally, through regulations, there will be provision for regimes on the software protocols that could create additional certainty. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that to have confidence in a national register, it must be kept up to date. No one believes that there will be a one-off creation of the register, and then it will be left untouched. There will be variations among areas; some areas have a very high turnover, and some have hardly any.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Further to the intervention of the hon. Member for Northampton, South, it does not appear that there is any offence of unauthorised access to the CORE register, nor of unauthorised tampering with it. Has that been considered and rejected, or simply not thought of? There ought to be a specific offence relating to the CORE register, rather than a reliance on the generality of election law to provide for the integrity of that register.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Some registers held by an electoral registration officer at local level are already online, although some are held on paper. We expect that, in running a procurement exercise—one would expect a project of this size to entail that—we shall be able to learn from initiatives that are advanced in states in the US that employ state-wide voter-registration databases. We can also learn from other countries that hold central electoral databases in assessing what facilities are necessary.

In relation to offences, clause 2(2) provides specifically for regulations, including offences, to apply to CORE data, just as they do to data held by electoral registration officers.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

It is a little unusual to introduce offences under regulation, rather than by primary legislation. I ask the Minister to consider whether it might be better to include that in the Bill. I do not wish to press the Minister unduly on that matter, but I am not sure that it is entirely satisfactory for offences to be brought in through secondary legislation.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

It is not the case that the offences would be brought in through secondary legislation. Rather, the scope of the offences would be extended. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point and I will look at the matter.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

Open access, albeit prescribed, is still at risk of corruption by people who wilfully wish to cause damage. Of course, there any many abilities to protect   against that, but people will get around those measures. Can the Minister provide some details on security in the consultation document so that we might pursue that matter more thoroughly? That is a matter of concern to all of us, which goes to the very heart of our democratic processes. We must scrutinise that area very carefully and perhaps employ some expert advice in doing so.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Confidence is important, so questions of security and privacy must be highlighted. We might assist hon. Members in finding their way through this with a couple of sheets of A4 showing all the provisions that will secure the integrity of the register and the privacy of individuals. It is worth putting the spotlight on that separately, and we undertake to do that.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.