HC Deb 26 March 1970 vol 798 cc1700-19

2.20 p.m.

Mr. James Dickens (Lewisham, West)

In a parliamentary democracy the electoral register is a public document of crucial significance which we take particular care in compiling. Section 7 of the Representation of the People Act, 1969, says: It shall be the general duty of a registration officer to prepare and publish registers of electors in conformity with the Representation of the People Act 1949, and (without prejudice to any specific requirement of the Act or regulations under it) to take reasonable steps to obtain information required by him for the purpose. In pursuance of that obligation, the electoral registration officer and his staff each year seek to obtain information from electors for the preparation of the register. Householders are invited to complete Form A, which is sent through the post or distributed by the staff of the local electoral registration officer. Thus, persons are asked to enter, on 10th October, 1969, particulars regarding every British subject—and for this purpose Commonwealth citizens or citizens of the Republic of Ireland are included—who are over 18, or who will be 18 by 16th February, 1970, or who will be 18 after 16th February, 1970, but on or before 15th February 1971. That is the particular requirement for the current year.

Form A is divided into four parts. The person completing the form is required to give in Part I the full address of the premises. He is required in Part II to give the surname and the full Christian names of all residents eligible to be included in the form. He is also required to give particulars about the age of persons, whether they are over 18 or will be 18 by 16th February in a given year, or whether they are 18 after 16th February in a given year and before 15th February in the immediately following year.

The form also requires particulars of occupiers if they are under 21 or over 60, for the purpose of jury service, and also information about merchant seamen.

Part III concerns persons in separately occupied parts of the house. Finally, the person completing the return has to make an accurate return under penalty of a fine of up to £50 for making an incorrect return or for making no return.

As I say, we take great care in the compilation of the register, and it costs the taxpayer a considerable sum. In the London Borough of Lewisham, with four parliamentary constituencies involved, the cost of compiling the 1970 register was £16,308, and that figure included all fees, staff payments and printing charges. If the cost for Lewisham can be taken broadly as an average for a parliamentary constituency of roughly £4,000, this means that the cost to the taxpayer of compiling the electoral register is about £2½ million a year.

The register is compiled on 10th October each year from 16th February in one year to 15th February in the immediately succeeding year. The citizen provides the information in good faith because he expects that the information will be used only to enable him and members of his household to exercise their righ to the franchise, their right to vote. No one tells him then, or at any other stage, that the information may be passed on to a wide variety of other persons, frequently for private commercial gain.

I asked my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on 12th February last how many registers were sold in the country. The reply was that the number of copies sold varied between constituencies. The total receipts from the sale of registers in the financial year 1968–69, the latest period for which figures were available, were equivalent to an average sale of 34 copies per constituency. This means that about 20,000 copies of the electoral registers are sold every year.

The requirements relating to the electoral registration officer are set out in Statutory Instrument No. 904 of 1969, the Representation of the People Regulations, 1969. Free copies of the register are made available in accordance with the requirements of Regulation 21, which is as follows: The registration officer shall on request supply without fee— (a) four copies of the register for the constituency (which may be printed on one side only) and four copies of Lists B and C of the electors lists therefore, or, in the case of electors lists to which Regulation 10(5) applies, of the draft register therefor, so long as the lists are kept published, to any person who satisfies the registration officer that he requires them for use in connection with his own or some other person's prospective candidature at a parliamentary election for that constituency: Provided that not more than one person in respect of the same candidature shall be so supplied; Two copies of the register for the constituency are supplied free of charge to each candidate in the parliamentary election for the constituency or to the election agent.

Under Regulation 21(c) one copy of the register of any electoral area is supplied to each candidate in a local government election for that area or his election agent. These seem to be the requirements, broadly speaking, of party political organisations.

Regulation 22 deals with the sale of the register, as follows: The registration officer shall supply to any person copies of any part or parts of the register in force or of any electors lists therefor so long as there are sufficient copies available allowing for the number which may be required for the purposes of any election (including the purposes of Regulation 21) on payment—

  1. (a) in the case of a person who has been supplied in pursuance of Regulation 21 with a copy of the register or the electors lists or who is a returning officer or a local authority, of a fee at the rate of one shilling for each one thousand or part of one thousand names in such copies.
  2. (b) in the case of any other person, of a fee at the rate of five shillings for each one thousand (or part of one thousand) names in such copy."
What is the effect of this? Again, I take my example from the London Borough of Lewisham, of which I have the honour to represent an important part in this House. In recent years sales of the register to persons in the categories mentioned in Regulation 22 have shown a steep upward trend. In 1965, 13 whole registers were sold and 46 parts of registers—a total of 59. By 1969 the figures had risen to 35 whole registers and 102 parts of registers: a total of 137.

The breakdown of those to whom these registers were sold is very revealing. Copies were sold to various statutory bodies and Government offices. In 1969, they accounted for 29 whole or part registers. Political parties bought an additional two part-registers. The Churches bought 12 part-registers, indicating some initiative on the part of local vicars.

But the most interesting figures are those concerning persons buying the registers for commercial purposes. In 1965, this group bought 10 whole registers and 30 part-registers. In 1969, they bought 15 whole registers and 79 part-registers. I am told by the town clerk, wearing his other hat as the electoral registration officer, that the persons concerned were football pools promoters, commercial businesses and a variety of clubs and societies.

In recent months I have received a growing volume of strong complaints from my constituents who find that they are being circulated in a completely unsolicited and indiscriminate way with a variety of advertising material offering products and services of all types.

This has become a matter of national interest. Hon. Members in various parts of the country have received complaints from constituents about the circulation of a number of books dealing with sex. I make no comment about their content, but I draw attention to the fact that constituents who have written to me have drawn my attention to the extreme distress that this sort of advertising has caused.

In some cases persons who have recently suffered the loss of a husband or wife have received literature about these books. In other cases it has caused a certain amount of marital discord, where relations were previously not satisfactory—and reference has already been made in the House to old-age pensioners living in blocks of flats being inundated with this so-called literature.

That, in itself, might be regarded as bad enough, but the position has recently taken a decisive turn for the worse. With the lowering of the voting age to 18, and with the date of birth being given against the names of the 18-year-olds on the register, it is quite easy for persons who wish to use the registers for the purpose of commercial advertising to identify what, for many of them, is an extremely attractive market.

Persons of 18 years of age do not normally have family responsibilities and have, fortunately—increasingly under this Government—a high and rising level of money wages. At that age they are very susceptible to approaches made through the post offering them a wide range of goods and services. Since 15th February, in my constituency persons have received literature congratulating them on attaining the age of 18 with an accompanying invitation for them to take out accounts with gambling clubs or similar institutions. Other hon. Members who saw that I was raising this matter this afternoon have told me that in their constituencies young persons of 18 are being sent similar letters and are being encouraged to open hire-purchase or credit accounts for various goods.

In my submission this is at once a gross abuse of the electoral register and a serious intrusion into the privacy of the person. When I raised this matter on 18th December last, at Question Time, I asked my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will introduce amending legislation prohibiting the sale of the electoral register for commercial advertising. My hon. Friend replied: I appreciate that this is a matter for legitimate public concern, but I do not think that legislation is the right remedy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th December, 1969; Vol. 793, c. 371–2.] Experience in the intervening months has shown me that we are on the verge of an explosion in the use of the register for commercial exploitation. It is self-evident that with this large captive market of young people who axe easily identifiable we shall find, in the months ahead, a steady and steep upward movement in the number of people using the register for these purposes.

I submit that the time for action is now, as the evidence is beginning to accumulate. I urge my hon. Friend to announce that the Government will take action forthwith, by introducing legislation, to amend especially Regulation 22 of S.I. 904 of 1969—to confine the sale of the electoral register either to public bodies, or, in the case of additional copies, to political or Church organisations, and to place an absolute prohibition upon the sale of the register to any other persons—especially to those who want to use it for private gain.

It may be objected that as the register is a public document it must be readily available. I entirely accept that. My suggestion would in no way diminish the rôle of the register in this respect. It would continue to be freely available for inspection at town halls, post offices, public libraries and other public buildings. Again, it may be said that a person could go to such a public building and use the register for the purposes for which some persons are using it now, namely, commercial advertising. I submit that that would be an exceedingly laborious process, in contrast with the extreme ease, convenience and cheapness of using the register as it is currently being used.

Again, I cite the example of Lewisham in this respect.

The cost of buying the register for four parliamentary constituencies in a major London borough is approximately £50. This is the increased price, after 15th February. Before then it was £12 10s.—for 203,000 names and addresses. It is obviously an extremely cheap and effective way to carry out market research. This practice has to cease. If it does not come to an early end we shall be faced with the prospect, in October of this year, of householders refusing to complete Form A, saying to the electoral registra- tion officer that they have given such information in good faith previously, and that no one had told them it would be sold off to anyone for whatever purpose.

They will say that the consequence of this in some cases has been the intrusion of literature on sexual matters which has caused distress, that there have been invitations sent to younger members of the household to open gambling accounts. This may have led to debts which could have been avoided. Such householders will point out that all this information was provided without their knowledge or consent.

This House must protect the rights of the citizen. At a time when we should be seeking to do our utmost to raise the standing of parliamentary democracy, to find one of its basic instruments being employed in such a way approaches a contempt of the House and its functions in the eyes of many electors. Finally, I hope that my hon. Friend will not consider this to be a matter which should be referred solely to the Committee on Privacy which will be sitting under Mr. Younger to consider some of the implications on the Bill dealing with privacy, introduced into the House on 23rd January. I hope that we can take much more positive action on this intrusion of privacy than that.

2.44 p.m.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington) rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Does the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock), addressing the House either nostalgically or prophetically from the Opposition Front Bench, wish to speak on this subject?

Mr. Lubbock

Yes. I feel that a contribution from the Opposition is called for on this subject and that as there is no other hon. Member in the Chamber representing the Opposition it is incumbent upon me to reply to the important subject which has been raised by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dickens). I have taken an interest in this subject in my capacity as Chairman of the Parliamentary Civil Liberties Group, which is much concerned with the subject of privacy and which has had the matter under consideration on a number of occasions.

I confess that so far we have not looked into the point raised by the hon. Member, but when I saw that he had put it down for discussion I took the opportunity of having a word with him. What he has said is extremely important, deserving the close attention of the House. It surprises me that there has not been more interest taken by the Opposition in such an important subject.

The hon. Gentleman has explained clearly the reasons why the House should take a fresh look at the problem. In particular, he has referred to young voters appearing on the register for the first time. I take this point very seriously, having been a member, Mr. Speaker, of your Conference on Electoral Reform, when we evolved the rather ingenious solution, as I thought, of putting the birthdays of young persons due to reach the age of 18 during the currency of the register against their names. That meant that we did not have the problem of young persons reaching the age of majority but not being entitled to vote because they had to be divided into two halves of the year.

We have enabled young persons to exercise their right to the vote the minute they reach the age of majority, but this involves placing the date of birth on the register, enabling everyone to know the age of that person. Commercial organisations have exploited this new information. It is a sizeable market of young persons with high purchasing power who may be interested and misled into taking out hire-purchase agreements, going in for football pools and various other matters. This has created a new situation. While we, as adults, have always been capable of looking after ourselves, or we hope we have, young persons, who are below the age of majority and appear on the register because they are due to reach the age of 18 during the currency of the register, are not so easily able to look after themselves.

The Latey Committee decided that it was appropriate for the House to legislate for an age of majority for all purposes such as contracts, entering into marriage, and so on, but it did not decide that young persons only 16 years and 8 months of age, and now appearing on the register because they will be due to reach their 18th birthday during the currency of the register, are capable of making these decisions for themselves. Those young persons are just as vulnerable to the receipt of these circulars as the persons deemed to be of the age of majority.

I hope that the Minister will take this matter seriously. What concerns me more than anything is the distribution of sexual literature by various publishers. I make no apology for naming some. There is the Running Man Press. I say no more about that, because I understand it is due to be prosecuted, not under the Trade Descriptions Act, as has been suggested to me by one hon. Member who said that its circular is very misleading when compared with the book subsequently published.

The Julian Press has undertaken very widespread distribution among electors, no doubt using the electoral roll in the manner described by the hon. Gentleman. This cannot be proved and while the Minister may have some doubts, it must be obvious that a publisher wishing to attract large numbers of people can make use of the register in this way.

I can see no other way in which the Julian Press and similar organisations can have obtained these names. Certainly, this is the impression given to me by my constituents, many of whom have complained because they find these circulars offensive. I accept that, as the Attorney-General has explained, these circulars do not in all cases contravene the Obscene Publications Acts and that, therefore, the publishers cannot be prosecuted under those Acts. At the same time, the recipients find them extremely offensive. I do not believe that I am exaggerating here. Old people receive these circulars in an indiscriminate manner as do such people as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, those who have been recently separated or divorced. There is no doubt, disregarding whether these circulars are within the law, that they cause widespread and grave offence.

At the time that this matter was first drawn to my attention, I wrote to the Home Secretary asking whether he would consider an amendment to the Obscene Publications Acts to provide that the circulars could be made legal. The right hon. Gentleman said that he could not distinguish between circulars and any other kind of material, and that it was impossible from a legal and statutory point of view to do as I requested.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must come to the issue we are debating. He must link what he is saying with the debate, which is about the sale of electoral registers. I am not without sympathy for what he is saying.

Mr. Lubbock

This is why I am suggesting that the method which the hon. Gentleman has suggested to the House is a much better way of dealing with the problem.

I shall not go back over old ground, and I have been convinced by what the Attorney-General and Home Secretary have said on the legal question of the circulars, but it seems to me that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, West has proposed a much simpler solution, that we simply ban the sale of these registers to commercial organisations. They would not then so easily be able to obtain the names of persons to whom the offending literature might be distributed. They could still go to the telephone directory of course, but that would not always be complete; and it certainly would not enable them to fasten like leeches on the young people who are very much the victims of this conduct.

I urge the Under-Secretary of State to do as is suggested and not refer this matter to the Committee on Privacy. I have no doubt that that committee has a useful rôle to play and that, under Mr. Younger's chairmanship, it will come up with suggestions which will be treated seriously by the House and be the subject of future legislation. The present problem, however, is more urgent. We already have the first of the new-style registers containing the names of young people. The commercial organisations, publishers in particular, have started to cotton on to it, and I have no doubt that there will be an even bigger flood of complaints during 1970–71 than we have had so far.

We have the opportunity now to take a first step. If the Under-Secretary of State will give an assurance that legislation, or a Statutory Instrument, will be introduced along the lines proposed, a great blow will have been struck for privacy—on which I am extremely concerned—and he will avoid the great deal of trouble which will otherwise arise from both sides of the House—this is entirely a non-party matter—when the next register comes to be published. I hope, therefore, that he will be able to tell us that we shall have legislation in the near future.

2.52 p.m.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson (The High Peak)

I am happy to support my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dickens), and congratulate him on the able way in which he argued his case. I endorse, also, what has been said by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock). As a fellow member of the Parliamentary Civil Liberties Group, I regard what is now happening as a serious invasion of privacy.

I, along with many other hon. Members, have received representations from aggrieved and angry constituents, not so much about the circulars from such publishers as Running Man Press and the Julian Press, but about the distribution of colourful and persuasive letters addressed to younger voters by various mail order houses.

Here is a typical letter from an aggrieved parent protesting against the sending of material of this kind to her daughter: The enclosed blurb was addressed to my daughter. She did not contact this mail order company or any other company, so I presume that her address was taken from the new electoral roll. Catalogues,"— particularly colour catalogues— are hard to resist by mature people, but to 18-year-olds they are a menace, particularly as it is all on the never-never. The material sent out—by the Burlington Company, of Oldham—offers the young person a free £2 voucher. She is told that she has a free opportunity too good to miss: no cost—no obligation, tear off and post today. That is only one letter, but I have received several such letters from constituents. It seems that this particular company has gone in for an almost blanket circulation throughout The High Peak. The case is well made that this is a serious and widespread intrusion on privacy. There is a growing protest, not only in The High Peak but in Lewisham and elsewhere.

I come now to the question of the cost of this information to those who request it. I was surprised to learn, when I wrote to the Clerk of the Derbyshire County Council, that, following Home Office regulations, the cost of supplying information has gone down, not up. I am told that until this current year the cost of 100 names was 1s., but now, following the new regulation, it is 5s. per 1,000. Thus, there has been a reduction and the commercial interests concerned find it even cheaper to purchase the information which they require.

The clerk has kindly produced for me a list showing the requests made from 1965 to March, 1970, by various interests for information from the register. In the first year, April, 1965, to March, 1966, there were 94 requests. In subsequent years—this bears out what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West—there has been an increase.

I draw attention to some of the organisations seeking this information: British Market Research Bureau, Television Audience Measurement Limited, Little-woods Pools, British Market Research again, National Opinion. Polls, Credit Investigations, Television Audience Measurement Limited again, Market Research Centre, Status Enquiry Bureau, Sheffield Trade Protection Society, Notts and Derbyshire Traders Association, Night Security Services, U.A. Protection of Trade Limited, Mail Advertising Services.

All this suggests that information provided in good faith by electors when they fill in the form, as they are obliged to do by Statute, is being used by what I regard as somewhat dubious commercial interests, such as Littlewoods Pools, an adjunct of the gambling business which I and many others deplore. It is used by Tracing Services and other debt collecting agencies. I am certain that, when constituents give this information, the last thing they suspect is that it will be used by organisations of that kind.

I press my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to give us certain assurances. I am particularly concerned that information may be given to such inquirers from the absent voters' list, and I should like a comment directly on that.

The cost of compiling the register is considerable. In Derbyshire, it is about £44,000. I am told that annual receipts vary from year to year, but run between £250 and £300. The principal purpose in compiling the electoral register is to fulfil an electoral requirement, yet it appears that many requests are made for this information, to such an extent that it is becoming an adjunct of—or service to—various commercial interests who are getting it on the cheap.

I am happy to support my hon. Friend's insistence that this information should in future be supplied only to bona fide organisations such as political parties, perhaps charitable organisations and churches, and other categories which are found acceptable by the Home Office.

2.58 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

For a few minutes, we welcomed the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) to the Dispatch Box opposite. For a moment or two, the heady bubbles of Orpington some years ago returned to the political scene, but they have now receded again and we are back to normal order.

I find myself in sympathy with much of what has been said today. As I have said before, I recognise that this is a matter of widespread public concern, particularly the growing practice of pushing through the door unsolicited documents of a sexual nature. This is an offensive practice which has a bearing on the whole subject with which we are dealing today, but it is only one aspect. I do not underrate the feeling both inside and outside the House, but we should not underrate the difficulties of proceeding as my hon. Friend suggests.

The trouble is that no action which the Government could properly take in connection with the electoral register would have the effect which hon. Members on both sides of the House desire. As I have said before—and my hon. Friend quoted a Parliamentary Answer—I do not think that legislation is the right remedy. I welcome this opportunity to expand a little on the reply which I then gave. The electoral register is an essential public document, and there would be no point in it if it were not a public document.

Mr. Bernard Braine (Essex, South-West)

Could the Joint Under-Secretary of State tell the House whether any reference has been made to the Director of Public Prosecutions concerning some of the literature which has been put through the doors of my constituents and in other parts of the country?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Member for Orpington pre-empted this and explained what had happened. This has been dealt with properly and I should be prepared to go into it in greater detail afterwards. But it has been done.

As I was saying, the electoral register is a public document. It is essential to our democratic system that it should be on public display. This means that it can be copied, and one cannot stand over a man and ask why he is copying names from a public document. The very fact that it is on display means that the details can be ascertained by anyone interested enough to go along to the council offices or to the public library, or the post office, or, as I understand it, in many parts of the country, in the porches of churches where these documents are displayed. In this way certain information which some people would like to keep private is unavoidably made public.

Candidates and their agents need copies of the register, and so do prospective candidates at parliamentary elections. As has been said, all these people get a limited number of copies free and can buy extra copies for 1s. for every 1,000 names. Local authorities can also buy them at this rate for their own purposes. Anyone else has to pay 5s. for every 1,000 names. My hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson) was wrong. The previous fee was 1d. a 100 or 10d. a thousand. It has gone up to 5s. per 1,000. It is worth noting that arrangements for the register being sold to anyone who wants a copy are not new. They go back at least to an Act of Parliament of 1843.

The register is used for a variety of harmless purposes. We can get some idea of the total revenue from the sales. The figure for the last financial year was £46,000, which is equivalent to an average sale of 34 copies of the whole register for each constituency.

Mr. Lubbock

This is a very interesting figure—£46,000 compared with £2½ million which is the cost of preparing the register. Is this not so minute a sum in comparison that we can afford to forgo it?

Mr. Rees

The figure is £3 million and not £2½ million, although that was a pretty good estimate. It is not the aim to make the register too expensive.

As I was saying, this is equivalent to an average sale of 34 copies for each constituency. The proportion of these sales to advertisers must be quite small, although I accept that it is growing, and the figures given by my hon. Friend illustrate this. Most copies are sold for local purposes; for example, in the last few days I have had complaints from a schoolmaster and from a country parson about the increase in the fee charged for copies of the register, and they stated that they used them for perfectly proper purposes and that they are now having to pay more money for them. I have to take account the perfectly proper use which is made of the register in this sort of case.

Mr. Dickens

Would my hon. Friend tell the House what evidence he has to support his assertion that the sale of the register for private commercial purposes is comparatively small. This seems to be astonishing, particularly in view of the figures I gave from Lewisham which show a very steep upward trend.

Mr. Rees

I agree that the trend for Lewisham is very disturbing, and I say that quite categorically. But for the country as a whole, the sales were not, I understand, high to advertisers, although I expect they are growing and this is an important matter to be taken into account.

That is the background, and this has been going on for 100 years. Only now have people discovered that the register is being used for undersirable purposes. We have had repeated again the all too familiar activities of the notorious Julian Press. My hon. Friend has referred to the activities of credit companies directed at young people. Here I make it clear that the register does not identify all youngsters. It is only those who become 18 during the year when the register is in force, which is a new factor one has to take into account.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson

This is a problem which I think will grow in future, because I am informed by the town clerk that in future the register is to be kept on punch cards and it will be possible for an advertiser to ask for a list of 18-year olds, which can be abstracted from the register straight away.

Mr. Rees

I shall come to that other undesirable aspect. I do not know whether I am sorry or glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned it, because there is a certain amount of advertising involved in such a possibility existing.

If we are to regard these activities as undesirable, what is the remedy? It has been suggested that the register should be provided only to those who get copies free or at the reduced rate. But this would bear hardly on all the local users to whom I have referred. A somewhat different suggestion is that copies should be sold only to political parties and organisations, but this would raise the additional problem of defining a political party. Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that during the debate on the Representation of the People Bill when it was before Parliament in 1968, the idea of registering political parties before they could be used on ballot papers was not proceeded with, and one of the reasons for this was the practical problem of defining a party. I understand that it was easier for some than others. Any person or group can say they are a political party—as the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) will confirm. Someone could say that he was going to stand in a local election and we would be asking that a local government official should have to make an arbitrary decision as to whether he was going to make the register available or not. I support in full some of what my hon. Friend has said, but the more I look into the problem the more I find there are difficulties.

Even if the sale of copies was restricted in any of these ways, could we ensure that no copies fell into the hands of advertisers? If the register is as valuable to them as it seems to be, we may be creating a black market. It would not make much sense to have a public document with a restricted circulation kept under lock and key to prevent unauthorised disclosure. It does not fit together. We really cannot legislate for a document which must be displayed in public but which is obtainable by some members of the public and not others. Either a document is public or it is not, and it is in the public interest that the electoral register should remain a public document and that access to it should be unrestricted.

One could take this matter further. It would make the document suspect to some degree if it were public and yet some people were not allowed to get at it.

Mr. Dickens indicated dissent.

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend shakes his head, but it is a public document, and the proposal is that it should be given only to certain people. If it is given only to certain people the next step in my argument is to ask: how can we make sure that it would not be misused?

The next step, I would think, is to suggest that it should be an offence to use the electoral register for commercial advertising or any purposes other than electoral purposes. I am not sure that this would be right in principle, but it is perhaps more practicable than an attempt to restrict the sale of the register. It would raise very great problems of enforcement.

Where would the offence begin and where would it end? Would it be an offence for a copy of the register to be found on commercial premises or in the possession of an advertising agent? What if the man claimed that he was considering standing for election? What about an address list prepared from the register? Once the list was finished and the register destroyed, how could it be proved that the names came from the register? I understand that some electoral registration officers use existing commercial lists which are available to help them compile their public register. To what extent this is done I do not know because these officers are not employees of the Home Office. There are people who compile lists of addresses and have their own canvassers. This deals with only one part, though I accept that it is the most important part, of the question.

Should we let the onus be on the advertiser to show that he had not used the register? Would this not be an unreasonable burden on him? Would it not oblige him to disclose details of his commercial practice every time information was laid against him? Who would lay the information? So one goes on. What machinery would we have at the Home Office to deal inspectorially with this problem? Therefore, the question of enforcement is really great, having started with much more simple and black and white arguments with which we all agree.

If such a law could be enforced, I doubt whether it would have much effect. True, the register makes it easy for a firm to identify a group of 17 or 18-year-olds, but firms can get the names and addresses of a high proportion of people from telephone or street directories. I do not think many of my hon. Friends have put their minds to the existence of street directories. If the electoral register was not available, the information would still be available in a street directory.

Mr. Lubbock

The hon. Gentleman says that these people would be enabled to identify 17 or 18-year-olds. What, in fact, one is enabled to identify are persons between the ages of 16 years 8 months and 18 years, who I suggest constitute a very vulnerable section of the community.

Mr. Rees

Is it suggested that the ban on the use of directories would extend to other directories as well as to the electoral register? What about the practice of addressing material simply to "The Occupier"? Should that also be banned? I find this equally offensive in the two places where I live, where circulars are addressed to people. I accept that to address material to "The Occupier" is not so precise as addressing it to people of a certain age. But this is not just an isolated problem. We must ascertain whether the system is really being abused and, if so, what the abuse is. People are shocked that the electoral register is used to track down those who have just reached the age of 18. But is this a misuse of the register? Far more important, is it taking an unfair advantage of young people, or is it a natural and obvious consequence of Parliament's action in lowering the age of majority to 18 and saying that someone who has reached 18 is mature enough to vote and to make up his mind whether he takes notice of a piece of payer which has been put in his door.

Mr. Dickens

How will my hon. Friend deal with the position of the citizen who completes the form for in- clusion on the register, gives all the information in good faith, and then finds out that this has been sold to other people without his knowledge and consent?

Mr. Rees

I will come to that point. I am at the moment addressing myself to the question how one regards the situation of a public document which is used for non-public purposes. In my view, dealing with young people, the most important point is that Parliament has decided that a person aged 18-plus is adult and is able to make up his mind on the issues of the day. My own children are approaching that age. We have decided—rightly or wrongly—that we have to treat persons of that age as adults and that to cosset them is wrong.

I am equally concerned with dirty material coming through letterboxes for people of 25, 26 or 27 years of age as I am about that material being addressed to people of 18 or 19 years of age. That is one question which concerns me far more, although I take the point which has been made about the age being on the register.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dickens) referred to the question of banning the sale or the use of the register by advertisers. Much as I appreciate what he has in mind, I think this is the wrong way to go about it. When names and addresses are in a public document, the point is not how they are obtained but how far it is right to use them for a particular purpose. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said that the Home Office is concerned about this. I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend is extremely concerned about the sort of issue involving Julian Press, to which reference was made by the hon. Gentleman as well as by the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine). This concerns many of us. It is extremely worrying. We are dealing with this now in the context of the electoral register. In our view, such matters as the circulation of unsolicited material of an offensive sort, and of the intrusion on privacy, should be dealt with by the Committee on Privacy, because it is part of a much wider question. It does not arise just on this issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak referred to computer tapes. It is a fact that computer tapes are used for printing the electoral register. The use of these tapes would greatly facilitate the printing of labels for sending out advertising matter. They would be enormously helpful to anyone with access to a computer. Probably only the larger firms are in a position to use them as yet, but, as time goes on, more local authorities will have computer installations and I have no doubt that in some areas the political parties will be interested in obtaining tapes for sending out political material. We have not yet decided what should be the policy for the sale of these tapes. They are not copies of the register within the meaning of the Regulations; so the registration officer is not obliged to sell them.

The Home Office will issue guidance to registration officers on the response that they should give to requests for the sale of these tapes, and in deciding policy and preparing this guidance we shall take full account of the points made this afternoon. There is a very great problem here, and, in my view, my hon. Friend's proposal is not the right way to go about it.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson

Before he sits down, would my right hon. Friend reply to my question about the supplying of the absent voters list? I am very much concerned about the use of the register by Tracing Services Limited and other debt collection agencies. Is there any instruction given to returning officers about whether this information is to be supplied to enquirers?

Mr. Rees

I will check that point, but I think that the answer is that the absent voters list is in exactly the same position as the other documents. It is a public document. Perhaps I could have a word with my hon. Friend on the point. There could be a side issue of which I am not aware.

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