Clause 2 - Use of CORE information

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:00 am ar 15 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland 11:00, 15 Tachwedd 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 40, in clause 2, page 3, line 19, at end insert 'in an individual constituency;'.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 42, in clause 5, page 5, line 40, at end insert—

'(11) A CORE scheme shall make provision to allow registered political parites full access, without charge, to information controlled by the CORE keeper. Access to information shall be governed by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (c.41).'.

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

The Minister has already outlined the intention behind clause 2. The amendments are probing. Amendment No. 40 relates to clause 2(6), which states:

''These are the circumstances . . . the same person acts as proxy for more than two electors''.

The amendment suggests adding the words ''in an individual constituency'' at the end. Perhaps the Minister can explain the matter further, because there is a difference between a person acting as a proxy for two electors in one constituency and for more than two electors in several constituencies. If the amendment is not accepted, there could be a loophole in the legislation, and the amendment is intended to close that loophole before it even opens. Acting as a proxy is a serious matter, because if someone who worked for or represented a political party was allowed to be proxy for large numbers of people in different constituencies, which is quite possible, they would hold an awful lot of power over voting.

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

It seems to me that the hon. Lady's amendment would do the reverse of what she is saying: it would create the possibility of a peripatetic proxy wandering around the country. Under the wording in the Bill, however, that would be reported as part of the CORE procedures.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point, but, as I said, this is a probing amendment. It is necessary to explore the issue a little further, and I thank him for assisting in that exploration.

Amendment No. 42 deals with a similar situation. We suggest including a further condition in the procedure for CORE schemes under clause 6(4), which states that the Secretary of State must consult

''the ERO who acts for each area proposed to be specified in the scheme''.

The amendment therefore states:

''A CORE scheme shall make provision to allow registered political parites full access, without charger, to information controlled by the CORE keeper. Access to information shall be governed by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (c.41).''

It is important that registered political parties have access to the information held by the ERO, no matter how that information is held. We tabled the amendment to explore the issue further, and I am sure that the Minister will be delighted to assist in that exploration.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport)

First, I submit a grovelling apology for having turned up a little late. My colleagues and I were puzzled by amendment No. 40 and the concept of the peripatetic proxy, and we still are, to some extent. The amendment would not be helpful in reducing fraud, and would not achieve very much.

However, we welcome amendment No. 42 as it stands and as it sounds, although we are bit puzzled by the reference to ''parites''. I do not know whether those are a cross between parties and parasites, but there certainly needs to be some textual tidying up.

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

Obviously, there is a typing error: the word ''parites'' is clearly meant to be ''parties''. Can we take that as read, Mr. O'Hara?

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful for that clarification. To some extent, amendment No. 42 embodies what we all recognise to be good practice these days. Most of us have harmonious relationships with EROs. One or two of them can, at times, be curmudgeonly and unhelpful, but by and large they are helpful. The amendment seems, to some extent, simply to exemplify what we take to be good practice. The difficulty in putting it on the statute book is that it needs a certain amount of tidying up and clarification, because it raises the possibility—God forbid—of political parties making unreasonable demands from time to time.

The amendment uses the general word ''information''. Presumably, some of the information held by EROs includes the reasons why some people do not feature on the electoral register at all, which may be to do with personal circumstances, criminal factors and other such considerations. However, in terms of the spirit of the amendment, I do not think that it could do much harm. Indeed, it might well do some good for seasoned operators such as those assembled here.

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

Amendment No. 40 seeks to bring the clause more into line with the existing restrictions on proxy voting set out in paragraph 6(6) of schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000, which states that the same individual may not vote as a proxy for more than two electors in the same constituency at a parliamentary election, or the same electoral area at a local election. Exception is made where the proxy and electors in question are close family members. The amendment refers only to the circumstances in a constituency, whereas the 2000 Act restriction also   applies to local elections. The amendment would therefore inappropriately limit the information that a CORE keeper should send to an ERO, although I am sure that that was not the intention.

The intention is that a CORE will serve, in the first instance, as an early warning device to identify where proxies have been appointed and are at risk of infringing the restriction on voting in that capacity. As we propose in the forthcoming consultation paper on CORE national access arrangements, the CORE record could use information from absent voters lists, which are maintained under schedule 4 to the 2000 Act, to identify where individuals who are appointed as proxies have the potential to infringe the restriction were an election to occur.

Perhaps I can make an offer at this point. When the Bill was published, we held a meeting in Portcullis House to give hon. Members the opportunity to discuss it with officials, because a lot of it is quite technical, and there is no reason why Members should not have direct access to officials. The meeting was useful because as a result of Members asking the officials questions and clarifying their understanding they did not take issue on points simply because they did not understand them rather than because they disagreed with them.

I am wondering whether I should make an offer on the consultation document—that when we produce it, which will, I hope, be before Report, we should convene again in Portcullis House, at a meeting open to all Members of the House, with a team of the extraordinarily expert officials that we have in the DCA, at which people can go through the document. Where there are points of substance, they will have the opportunity to raise them in the debate on the regulations, but where the points are not of substance, they will know that they are not. If points of substance that we did not consider are raised at that point, we may be able to cover them in the regulations.

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

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for that extremely helpful offer, which we shall certainly take up.

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

I, too, thank the Minister for that offer. It is an extremely good idea, as there will be both points of substance and misunderstandings, and it is important that we should clarify the difference between them, argue the former and discard the latter. Such a meeting with officials would be both welcome and valuable.

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

I shall take that forward, then.

The idea is that the CORE would provide an early warning via the absent voter list. That would serve as a trigger to EROs to contact such proxies—and the electors by whom they were appointed—directly, in order to improve their awareness of the proxy voting restrictions, and to ensure that they knew what they were not supposed to be doing, or to check that they were members of the same family.

Post-election, there could be a more focused local check, using marked registers showing whether such proxies had breached the statutory restrictions. Generally speaking, we believe that prevention by   early detection of risk on the basis of absent voter entitlement lists is desirable.

The purpose of Amendment No. 42 is to ensure that a CORE scheme includes provision to allow registered political parties free access to the information controlled by the CORE keeper. We agree with the general principle that political parties should not have any lesser access to electoral registration information from CORE in future than they currently have in relation to electoral registration officers. However, we believe that the effect of the amendment would go beyond merely replicating the access that the parties have to the information held by an ERO. Additionally, the Bill contains provision for a CORE scheme to specify to whom information held in CORE may be provided and on what basis, and in our view the scheme is the more appropriate place in which to specify such details.

The existence in future of two potential sources of the same information—the ERO and CORE—makes it reasonable to consider whether data users should be able to approach either or both for that information. For example, it might be appropriate to prescribe that big national users, such as large political party headquarters, should be able to obtain the information only from CORE, while small local bodies—for example, local branches of parties and candidates—should be able to obtain the information only from a local ERO. Similarly, the technology likely to be employed for CORE could allow much more efficient access for data users, including potentially active electronic access directly to CORE rather than passive receipt of copies of information.

Access to the information held by CORE, in particular for large users of the data, is addressed specifically in the consultation paper, which we will discuss with hon. Members. The amendment would negate any such detailed consideration of those issues, as it would instantly require the provision of access to CORE information for all registered political parties, some of which are very small.

We are also concerned that the wording of the proposed amendment—particularly ''full access''—would extend the access beyond that which parties have in relation to an ERO. While the proposed amendment purports to cross-reference this to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, we do not believe that such a reference would be sufficient to contain it. Instead, we propose to use provisions already in the Bill to specify in a CORE scheme the details of how access to information for political parties should operate with regard to the data held by a CORE keeper, or the marked registers that might in due course be held by CORE on behalf of EROs. We believe that secondary legislation is the most appropriate place in which to address detailed rules that properly specify the extent and nature of such access.

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

I appreciate the Minister's long explanation. However, once again it is difficult for the Committee to discuss the full effect of what is before it without access to the consultation paper. I understand and appreciate the Minister's offer of a consultation meeting between officials and not only   members of this Committee but any Member of the House. However, it is difficult for us to do the work that we are here to do now—to consider this part of the Bill in detail.

I appreciate, too, what the Minister has said about who the CORE keeper should be, and in what circumstances. Will she explain further the thinking behind the difference in the access to the information allowed to a national political party and that afforded to a smaller organ of that party, such as a constituency party? Access to the electoral register is an important tool in political campaigning, and I agree with the Minister that it has to be carefully guarded.

Will the Minister explain further how the Government envisage the role of electoral registration officers developing given the new duties that the Bill places on them? Will she also explain further how access will be offered and regulated? The way in which information is held on CORE is also important. It must be secure but at the same time available to those to whom it ought to be available, and not available to those to whom it ought not. That may be stating the obvious, but I would be grateful if the Minister explained further.

I would also be grateful if the Minister explained another issue further, but she cannot. I really want her to explain how the regulations in relation to this part of the Bill will work when they are implemented, but I appreciate that she cannot give me a positive answer because the regulations cannot be discussed this morning. I do not want to be repetitive and take up the Committee's time, but that makes it difficult to discuss the matter with any real meaning.

I appreciate that it is not the Minister's fault that the regulations are not available, but why are they not? If it is taking longer than the Government expected to compile them, why did we not simply postpone the Committee stage? It would have been perfectly possible for us to hold this sitting next week or the week after, at which point we would have had and considered the regulations and could have had a constructive discussion. I appreciate that I am asking questions that the Minister cannot answer, but the situation is frustrating.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South 11:15, 15 Tachwedd 2005

I express my concern at the points my hon. Friend has made about the consultation document. I recognise how difficult it is for the Minister not to have the document, which is a vital piece of information that would have cleared up a number of the issues that we have started discussing. Sadly, we cannot clear those issues up, because we do not know what is in the document.

I am concerned that there may be some hint of what is in the document in the Minister's comments, but we are unable to confirm that. Her comments therefore present us with questions, which we will duly ask, and I have no doubt that we will be told that the points are dealt with in the document and that we will have to wait for it. That makes this whole process difficult.

I have two concerns. The first relates to the Minister's comments on segregating the distribution   of information, which seems quite a fraught point. She suggested that national political organisations would be able to gain information from CORE, but that local political organisations should get information from the electoral registration officer. However, some of the questions that will pose themselves will be inter-constituency, inter-area questions, and we will have real difficulty dealing with those questions if information distribution takes the strata form suggested by the Minister.

My second cause for concern relates to my general point that scrutiny of the electoral register is vital to the whole process of good election conduct and to assuring the voters of this country that the electoral administration undertaken on their behalf is good. I was particularly concerned about the concept that the question of anonymity could be denied scrutiny.

I understand the Minister's perfectly fair reason for including the clause on anonymity. Of course we need to protect as far as possible people who are open to danger and abuse, but I see no reason why recognised, credible people should not be able to see the information held by CORE under some legal prefix that forbids them from disseminating it further. That would make the situation more open. There is no doubt that the anonymity clause gives rise to concern.

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

Order. I seem to remember the hon. Gentleman referring to the anonymity clause on the Floor of the House.

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

It is undesirable—indeed, out of order—to refer to it again in Committee.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

I take your guidance, Mr. O'Hara.

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

I return to the framework. In essence, the Bill is asking the House to decide whether it wants a CORE. I assume that we all believe the answer to be yes. The question is how we determine its operation. Do we want to do so under primary legislation, or is it better suited to regulations? I believe that this is a classic case of the need to take powers, to consult in detail and to return the matter to the House in regulations.

At the start of this part of our discussion, I thought that it would probably have been a very bad idea to have got the consultation paper ready, because we would have discussed all the issues raised by the consultation paper, even though we are not here to discuss the regulations. I ask hon. Members to consider the concept that this is not a late consultation paper on primary powers. We are not consulting on the primary powers. The powers are simply a framework. They are as they are. This is an early consultation paper on secondary powers.

We need to consult on whether we want everyone to have access to the information held by the ERO and that held by CORE, because the question relates to access that should be governed by detailed regulations about how the CORE scheme will work.

Again, I recommend the overall framework. We are going the right way about this, and I have decided that   it would not have been a good idea to have got the consultation paper ready. Even with your iron chairmanship, Mr. O'Hara, it would have been very difficult not to get into a detailed discussion of all the questions and answers in the consultation document.

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

The Minister may be right, but do we have her undertaking that at the appropriate time the regulations resulting from the consultation will be laid before the House in the usual way, in a delegated legislation Committee, and that we shall then have the opportunity to discuss them in great detail?

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

I can give that assurance, and do better. We shall have detailed consultations when the consultation paper is published. We shall have two further bites of the cherry on the matter of the detail. We shall welcome the proposals that the consultation paper will give rise to. We have no hidden agenda. We just want to get things right, and we appreciate that we will be helped in that by as much input as possible from hon. Members. That is what we shall arrange.

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

I accept the Minister's assurances and look forward to further discussion in different forums in future. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.