Clause 1 - CORE schemes: establishment

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:30 am ar 15 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland 10:30, 15 Tachwedd 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 35, in clause 1, page 1, line 4, after 'may', insert

', pursuant to consultation with all affected political parties,'.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 36, in clause 1, page 1, line 11, leave out 'may' and insert 'must'.

No. 37, in clause 1, page 2, line 5, at end insert

', and

(c) require the CORE keeper to maintain the information securely to protect the integrity of the information from non-specified third parties.'.

No. 43, in clause 6, page 5, line 42, at end insert

'; and

(e) affected political parties.'.

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

Part 1 concerns the co-ordinated online record of electors—the CORE scheme. In principle it is a good idea, but we have concerns about it. Amendment No. 35 would alter clause 1 so that it would read, ''The Secretary of State may, pursuant to consultation with all affected political parties, by order make provision for the establishment of one or more   schemes (CORE schemes) in connection with the keeping and use of specified electoral registration information by a person designated by a scheme (the CORE keeper).''

The consultation process is important; those who administer the schemes will learn from them as time goes on. Indeed, it is hard to imagine why there should not be consultation on such a matter. The whole point of the Bill is to achieve consensus on how we deal with electoral administration. As the Minister has said previously, as the matter affects all relevant political parties, and we should therefore achieve some sort of consensus, a consultation process would be a good first step. Without consultation, how can it be known whether there is consensus?

Amendment No. 36 would strengthen the clause. Clause 1(3) refers to a scheme that ''may'' require an electoral registration officer to provide the CORE keeper with the information and to update the information. It is hard to understand why the Bill should leave that as an optional extra. If we consider that the electoral registration officer should do certain things, why should the Bill say that the scheme ''may'' require it? Surely the scheme must require it. Whether it is required should not be left open to discussion. That is why we consider that the word ''must'' should replace the word ''may''.

Likewise, amendment No. 37 refers to subsection (6). We suggest that an additional paragraph (c) be inserted to

''require the CORE keeper to maintain the information securely to protect the integrity of the information from non-specified third parties.''

We do not mean to challenge what the Government propose; the amendment is intended to enhance the Bill. It is surely necessary that the information garnered be maintained securely—the electoral register contains sensitive information—and the integrity of the information should be protected from non-specified third parties.

Amendment No. 42 refers to—

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

Order. Amendment No. 42 is to be taken under clause 2.

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

I beg your pardon, Mr. O'Hara; I meant to say amendment No. 43, which is included in the group, although it refers to clause 6. It is similar to amendment No. 35 in that it refers to ''affected political parties''. I presume that is why they are grouped together. Having made the point on amendment No. 35, I need not repeat myself.

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

Order. Amendments with a similar purport that refer to later clauses but are included in an earlier debate are taken as read when we come to those later clauses. I sympathise with the hon. Lady, because the CORE scheme is dealt with in a number of clauses; it is therefore difficult not to stray. Indeed, when the Minister responds to the debate, she may wish to stray across the whole group of amendments—and I may allow her some discretion, as that may be easier than having repetitious debates on later clauses. We may as a result be able to shorten debate on stand part, but we do still have that opportunity for debate.  

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

I am allowed to pontificate.

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

Pontification is a very important part of the Chairman's role.

I welcome the establishment of a co-ordinated online record of electors. Providing a degree of consistency in the provision of information, and enabling that information to be co-ordinated, will be of considerable benefit to political parties. It is a significant step forward. It will also allow for future experimentation in electoral administration practices if we have consistent arrangements across the country; for that reason, too, I welcome what is proposed.

I hope that the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) will all prove to be otiose.

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

I apologise if the word was too long for the hon. Gentleman; I thought that it was fairly short. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the Committee that many of the matters covered by the amendments are axiomatic—another long word—within the Bill.

I raise my eyebrows slightly at the idea of an ''affected political party''. I hope that we always eschew affectation. Indeed, I wonder whether we should concentrate on ''all registered political parties'' or none. It is hard to see which parties will be affected by electoral registration and which will not. I suggest that the amendment could be better worded.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland 10:45, 15 Tachwedd 2005

I entirely take the hon. Gentleman's point, but he is creating a synonym. If all political parties are affected, as he suggests, that is perfectly consistent with the amendment, which says, ''all affected political parties.'' If he suggests that that means all political parties, so be it. That is perfectly consistent.

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

I do not want to enter into an etymological debate, because it is not worth spending that much time on the amendment. As I said, I simply seek assurance from the Minister that the content of the amendment is a matter of course.

Amendment No. 36 is the perennial ''may'' to ''shall'', or ''may'' to ''must'' debate. The Government's intention behind the clause is very clear. Indeed, it would be remarkable if they set up the scheme but then decided not to take the necessary steps to enable the electoral registration officer to carry out the work involved.

I am not absolutely clear how amendment No. 37 would affect the provision in subsection (6)(b), which already provides for a specification of how information is to be recorded and stored. It is implicit that the subsection provides for security of storage to prevent unauthorised use, but if the Minister assures the Committee in that respect, we will have done our duty in bringing it to the   Committee's attention and we need not pursue the matter further.

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

Before I discuss the amendments, it would be helpful if I gave a very brief overview of the structure of part 1, which contains clauses 1 to 8. These are eight clauses of primary legislation, and I assure the Committee that there will be detailed consultation thereafter, followed by regulations. We are really discussing only the overall framework at the moment. There will be very detailed discussions at consultation, followed by regulations.

Part 1 is designed to provide the powers necessary for the Government to establish a CORE scheme, which is intended to be an arrangement whereby a record of the information currently held only by several locally based electoral registration officers can be consolidated at one central point. Several benefits are to be gained from having a central register of electoral registration data. In particular, a consolidated record allows data to be matched across otherwise separate electoral registers, which can help to identify where individuals are registered wrongly, in more than one place.

Clause 1 provides the key set of enabling powers that allow the Secretary of State to provide by order for the detail of how a CORE scheme should work, particularly in relation to the types of information that local electoral registration officers will be required to send to the CORE infrastructure, the timing and the manner in which such information must be sent, and the manner in which the body responsible for operating the central CORE infrastructure, who will be called the keeper, must hold the information.

Clause 2 lays the foundations for the rules, which will have to be detailed, on how the personal data that CORE will hold can be used. They include the rule governing the persons to whom access to the information is to be provided, and under what circumstances. Clause 3 allows the Secretary of State to make the grants to the CORE keeper necessary to meet the cost of running the scheme. Clause 4 allows the Electoral Commission to be appointed as the CORE keeper, if that is what is decided.

Clause 5 makes a range of supplemental provisions for what issues may be covered in the detail of a CORE scheme, such as handling payments between a CORE keeper and an electoral registration officer, and the ability to provide an alternative personal identifier in place of a signature if the latter would otherwise be required for electoral registration purposes.

Clause 6 sets out the procedure for making a scheme order. Clause 7 allows an electoral registration officer to make use of information received from a CORE keeper in the performance of his or her duty. Clause 8 is merely an interpretation clause.

This part of the Bill does not seek to establish the details of how a CORE scheme will work. We do not believe that primary legislation is the appropriate vehicle for that. We intend to consult shortly. I would like to be able to produce the consultation paper before Report. I do not want to do the dance of the   seven veils in this Committee, so I apologise that we do not have the consultation document ready. It would have been helpful for hon. Members if they could have seen the extent of the detail and the wide range of issues that will be included in it.

I apologise, but because that document has not been signed off, I cannot yet share it with the Opposition. It is detailed and has many exciting organograms—which I am holding up now to show to hon. Members. Nothing will not have a picture attached. The issues are technical, but they will be fully consulted on. I have the consultation document with me; no doubt before it is issued it will grow, but this is how much it weighs at the moment.

We will consult shortly on our detailed proposals, and I hope that the consultation document will be in hon. Members' hands before Report. The debate on the amendments will allow us to be absolutely sure that we have included in the consultation paper all the issues flagged up by hon. Members.

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

I accept the Minister's apology, and I am sure that it is not her fault that the consultation paper is not available for the Committee to consider. However, I want to put it on the record that that makes the consideration of the Bill less relevant than it would have been had we had that paper in front of us. The Government are asking the Committee to agree to part 1, and the Minister has adequately explained its intentions, but the point of what she has just said is that there will be a consultation on the consultation paper. As she has graphically explained, that paper contains an awful lot of information. What we are discussing this morning simply gives life to the consultation, and is pretty meaningless without it, and so I would like it to be noted that the work of the Committee is incomplete.

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

What we are doing this morning is simply agreeing the principle of having a CORE. That is all we are doing, and I hope that this morning I can assure hon. Members that there will be detailed consultations, which will come back to the House. I assure hon. Members that we will ensure that any issue that they want to raise will be put in the consultation paper. Of course, I appreciate that hon. Members do not know what is in it, so raising what is not in it may be—perhaps I will move swiftly off that point. There will be an extraordinarily comprehensive consultation paper, and then regulations. The subject will return to the House. If, inadvertently, something that hon. Members want to include in the consultation document is not there, there is no reason why Members should not put forward their views at that point to be considered for inclusion in the regulations.

We are not pre-empting the regulations; it would not be right for this Committee to do so. The regulations will follow the consultation. We are simply agreeing the skeleton. I assure the Committee that we will have full consultation before we get to the regulations that will put the flesh on the bones of the skeleton. There will be another parliamentary opportunity, as I am about to explain.

Amendments Nos. 35 and 43 would require consultation with all affected political parties before   the Secretary of State could lay regulations. They are unnecessary, because the regulations containing the details of CORE schemes will be made by affirmative order. Hon. Members will debate the detail and locations of the schemes and they will go ahead only with parliamentary approval. That is the next stage.

As I have said, the Department is about to start a full formal consultation on the national access arrangements to be taken forward by CORE. That will, of course, provide all interested persons, including political parties, with the opportunity to participate in the putting forward of the detailed regulations in the design of CORE. Finally, amendment No. 35 is broadly worded, which might be problematic in practice when attempts are made to distinguish between an affected political party and something that is not an affected political party. I know that that is a minor point—probably just a drafting point.

Amendment No. 36 would make it a requirement, rather than a possibility, that a CORE scheme should specify the times at which and manner in which an ERO should provide information to a CORE keeper, and subsequently update it. The timing and manner of the provision of information between an ERO and a CORE keeper will be fundamental to the achievement of a properly functioning CORE system and the realisation of most of the key benefits. Therefore, it is difficult to envisage circumstances in which we should not want to specify such matters in a CORE scheme. That will happen under regulation. Accordingly, we are sympathetic to the purpose of amendment No. 36, and want to give it further consideration before Report. I therefore ask that it not be pressed to a vote for the time being.

Amendment No. 37 would provide specifically that a CORE scheme could require a CORE keeper to maintain the information securely, to prevent its being accessible to anyone but authorised third parties. Of course, we accept the principle behind the amendment, that personal data should be protected from unauthorised access by those responsible for holding the data. However, existing legislation dealing with data protection will already provide adequate safeguards, in relation to the responsibility that is given to the CORE keeper for protecting the data from inappropriate access.

In addition, part 1 of the Bill allows the Secretary of State to deal with detailed questions on the securing of data beyond the data protection issues. For example, clause 1(6)(a) allows the Secretary of State to specify an electronic form in which the CORE keeper must maintain the information. That power can be used to specify that the software must comply with a particular set of technical security standards or protocols. I hope that on that basis and with those assurances the hon. Lady will agree not to press the amendments.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

My mind is now a little clearer. I am one of those elderly people who hark back to the A, B and C lists, and the ability to scrutinise matters relating to the register. I think that the Minister has set my mind at rest about whether the consultation document and the regulations will allow us to go into such detail in   scrutiny. If an assurance is being given that that is so, I am more than happy, at this stage.

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

I accept the Minister's explanation, and do not want to take up the Committee's time further on this matter. It was important to explore the issues. Now that we have done so and heard the Minister's reasonable explanation I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.