HC Deb 19 January 2000 vol 342 cc870-92

  1. '. (1) The Secretary of State shall publish in draft any provisions he intends to make by regulations under paragraphs 10, 11 and 13 of Schedule 2 to the 1983 Act as amended by section 9 of this Act and shall consult such persons and bodies as appear to him to have an interest in the operation of those provisions.
  2. (2) No regulations making provisions under paragraphs 10, 11 and 13 of Schedule 2 to the 1983 Act shall be made by the Secretary of State until three months have elapsed from the date of the publication of the draft provisions referred to in subsection (1) above.'.—[Mr. Greenway.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

5.7 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

May I remind hon. Members, out of courtesy, of my interest in the Institute of Sales Promotion? The institute has no particular interest in the Bill, but I would not want any hon. Member to think that I had been in any way discourteous, even though aspects of this matter affect marketing in a way quite separate from my own interest.

As recently as last Thursday, a Committee of the whole House discussed in some detail the vexed issue of the inclusion of an opt-out box on electoral registration forms: how that would be achieved; how voters would be made aware of the effect of ticking such a box by a leaflet explaining what that would mean and, more important, of the availability of a full and an edited register to various organisations for various purposes, including uses that could best be described as commercial. We had a fruitful and constructive debate. Some progress was made and the Under-Secretary kindly informed us that he was persuaded of the case for including credit referencing as one of the legitimate purposes for which the full register should be available.

Less than a week—a brief period—has elapsed, but I make no criticism because that is the way in which our proceedings sometimes work, and given the pressures of business, one understands why. Nevertheless, we felt that it was pertinent and proper to revisit the issue on Report to test some things further with the Minister and—more to the point, for reasons that I shall explain—to include something further in the Bill.

As I have said, the Bill provides for the commercial sale of both the full and edited registers. Thanks to amendment No. 21, to which the Minister kindly agreed, there is a clear requirement to explain to voters on both registers the consequences of ticking any opt-out box. However, the Bill does not clarify or indicate in any way which organisations will and will not have access to either register—or, indeed, for what purposes they will have such access on payment of whatever fees and under whatever licensing arrangements are to be enshrined in regulations, none of which is in the Bill.

I should make it abundantly clear that, in moving the new clause, the Opposition are in no way suggesting that we are not prepared to take on trust the Minister's commitment to further consultation, which is welcome. We entirely accept that the hon. Gentleman is willing to consult, and will continue to consult. Our concerns are different: several very important questions remain to be answered.

First, ideally, consultation before the Report stage should have been more extensive and comprehensive. The working party on electoral reform, whose report the Government are seeking to implement, was published, following the recommendations in July, only in late October. Meaningful consultation on the effects and implications for many commercial organisations and our constituents took place only after the Government signalled their intention to have an opt-out box and published the Bill. The Minister's promise to consult, which we take at face value—it is entirely right—implies clear acknowledgement that consultation thus far has been less than adequate to resolve all the issues. This is a complex matter and such issues will take some time to resolve.

Secondly, we must ask whether the Minister's mind is fully made up on the question of access and use for commercial interests. Has he decided which organisations or types of organisation may have access to the full register, and for what purpose?

The Minister's response in letters and replies to some of my questions in Committee last week is not completely clear. In a letter to the chief executive of the Direct Marketing Association, Mr. Colin Lloyd, on 12 January— I pointed this out in an intervention on him in Committee—the Minister said: The full version will only be made available for electoral purposes, for law enforcement and crime prevention and in connection with applications for credit. However, in direct response to my question on whether the letter was the final, definitive statement on who will have access to the register, he said: we want to ensure that all interests are taken into account. He went on to say: It is our intention that the full register shall not be completely available to the direct marketing industry. 5.15 pm

I do not know whether the Under-Secretary or his officials had a chance to edit whatever he said or meant to say, but his statement is ambiguous. One interpretation is that the industry will not be allowed the full register, and another is that it will be allowed the full register but that that register will not be available for all kinds of commercial uses. So, there is a doubt.

Later in last week's proceedings in Committee, however, the Minister appeared to reaffirm the point made in his letter when he said: The full register will be available for law enforcement and crime prevention purposes, which include money laundering and fraud protection checks. We have invited the financial industry to consider the best way in which to facilitate that."—[Official Report, 13 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 460–3.]. That appears unambiguous.

Only two conclusions can be drawn from the Minister's responses: either he has made up his mind, in which case we must wonder what the promised consultation is for, or he remains open to change and further argument. Has he signed off his policy and come to a final position on the use to which the full register will be put for commercial purposes, so that further consultation will not change his mind? If that were the case, such consultation would be pointless, except to allow—this is what he may have meant—for continuing discussion on the use of the edited register, the leaflet and the fee and licensing arrangements for which the regulations will provide. All those things are extremely important, but none of the consultation would address the central issue of whether the full register should be commercially available to interests other than the four that he set out in his letter to the chief executive of the Direct Marketing Association.

If that is not so, might the Minister still be persuaded to widen the scope of the full register's use? We rather hope so, as do many commercial interests in both direct marketing and other organisations—including, still, many financial institutions.

Given that the Bill has reached such an advanced stage, the position is unsatisfactory. In agreeing Third Reading, we must consider whether the Bill is satisfactory—and whatever the Minister's reply, my comments suggest that it is not. If policy is settled, why are the provisions not more explicit? Alternatively, why do we not have draft regulations to consider?

In the Standing Committee considering the Freedom of Information Bill, we have been discussing constructively the fact that much of that legislation will be enacted through regulations. The Minister has confirmed the advanced state of drafting of those regulations, for which I commend him. Indeed, as he knows, in Standing Committee B yesterday, I expressed some surprise that the process was so advanced. That only fuels my argument that if the policy is settled we should have had the opportunity to consider draft regulations in conjunction with Third Reading.

We can only conclude that this Bill has been rushed. We said that on Second Reading, as recently as 30 November. To be charitable, we understand the urgency with which the Government want to hold trials of different ways of conducting elections and their desire to be ready by the spring. We understand that that was the purpose of the working party and we appreciate the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, whose interest in the Bill we commend—we are glad to see him here—has put in a great deal of work.

We also understand the Government's desire for consensus, but my central point on the opt-out box is that the issue is in no way ready for Parliament to approve. Even if the rest of the Bill is satisfactory—and we have other concerns that we will raise later—clause 9, in our judgment, is not. That is why we have begun our debate on Report with this issue.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

My hon. Friend was taking me with him until he said that he understood the reason for the urgency and seemed to offer his support for it. For the life of me, I cannot see what is urgent about this. I suggest the opposite: there can never be anything urgent about making radical, experimental changes to electoral law. I hope that my hon. Friend was not suggesting that he endorsed any spurious urgency that the Government have attached to the measure.

Mr. Greenway

My right hon. Friend puts me in some difficulty, so I will pour myself a glass of water and pause for thought.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Whisky, John.

Mr. Greenway

Alcoholic beverages are reserved for the Chancellor, I think, and his day is coming soon.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) must understand that our party, to which we are absolutely committed, had a representative on a working party that made recommendations about changes in electoral arrangements. We have considered whether it is sensible to accept the recommendation that there should be pilot schemes in respect of different ways of voting, on different days and with different procedures. [Interruption.] I hope that my right hon. Friend is listening, because what I have to say is important to him, given his constituency.

The Greater London Authority Act 1999 allows for changes in voting in the Greater London Assembly elections. Parliament has already approved that. If this Bill is enacted, it will allow similar experiments to take place in other parts of the country. I do not happen to have local elections in my constituency this spring, but many others do.

I do not want my right hon. Friend to think that we do not have concerns about other elements of the Bill. The fact that we have tabled amendments on issues such as the local connection declaration—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has allowed himself to be tempted away from the new clause. Perhaps he can return to it.

Mr. Greenway

I was about to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I was simply going to say that we have concerns about other aspects of the Bill and have tabled amendments accordingly, and I am sure that hon. Members will seek to catch your eye to express their views on them.

We have tabled the new clause because we believe that the opt-out box provision is the most unsatisfactory part of the Bill, and that it has nothing to do with the main thrust of the recommendations on the introduction of rolling registers or changes in the conduct of elections, which is what the working party was really about.

We have all been sent on a wild goose chase that has nothing to do with the central requirement of the working party to examine our electoral procedures. Had the provision been put in any other Bill, it would not have been rushed as it has been; there would have been much more time for consultation with industry; and we would have had a much more settled position for Parliament to consider on Report and Third Reading than is the case tonight.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I want to add to the interesting comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). My hon. Friend is keen to co-operate, but just because some of us do not approve of the way in which the elections for the mayor of London are to be conducted, there is no reason why we should have two lots of elections carried out in the wrong way. An equivalent argument is that, if I beat my wife, that is no reason for my Front-Bench colleague to beat his.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) responds, he should be aware that that intervention, too, was well wide of the new clause. I would be grateful if he would deal with that.

Mr. Greenway

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I would simply remind my hon. Friend that there was an experiment on proportional representation in elections last June in which the Government got a bloody nose, as a result of which their excitement over, and enthusiasm for, PR has been greatly diminished. I ask my hon. Friend not to anticipate the outcome of the pilots, which may not be—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have no wish to keep interrupting the hon. Gentleman's flow, but I will do so increasingly firmly unless he returns to the new clause.

Mr. Greenway

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We think that clause 9 is not satisfactory, but the provisions are not central to what the Government are trying to do in the Bill. But for the urgency of the provisions, it is doubtful whether the Minister would be seeking approval for the clause, given the uncertain outcome of so many key interests of importance to our constituents. He has already acknowledged—at column 458 on Thursday—that the House should debate the matter again.

The Minister also says that he wants further consultation, and we do not doubt his word, but we think that it is not unreasonable in all the circumstances to reflect the incomplete nature of clause 9 by including in the Bill both the case for, and a commitment to, further meaningful consultation. That, in a nutshell, is what new clause 1 would do. We also want adequate time to be provided for these matters to be considered—and for representations to be made by those affected, both in industry and as individuals—before Parliament is asked to approve the regulations giving effect to the final outcome of those consultations.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will my hon. Friend confirm what is not in the new clause but may be implicit in his thinking behind it—namely, that the minimum three-month period would apply only to periods during which Parliament was sitting? Secondly—and, I think, importantly—in view of Lord Falkland's wise adage that that which it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change, does he agree that the consultation that he seeks through new clause 1 should be wide, detailed, academic and, preferably, protracted?

Mr. Greenway

Even on his birthday, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is razor sharp. I am sure that we wish him many happy returns. We are all the better for having him here. He makes his own point extremely well, but I want to reflect a little further on what he said. Part of the problem is that the consultations often take place over four or five weeks during the holiday period. I am not entirely sure that Parliament needs to be sitting when consultations take place with industry, as we have a lengthy recess in the summer and autumn.

In drafting the new clause, we initially thought that the consultation period might be six months, but that would be unprecedented. Three months is normal for draft regulations and arrangements to be consulted on with interested parties. Three months would give ample time to bring the matter to the attention of even those hon. Members who take the longest holidays during the recess—this does not apply to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, who attends to all his duties with considerable care—and would allow for proper consultation.

5.30 pm

Before concluding, let me draw the attention of the House to three other issues related to this matter that remain outstanding from Thursday's debate. First, I ask the Minister again to consider the use of the full register for debt recovery. We understand that the effect of what the hon. Gentleman has thus far agreed is that credit referencing agencies will have access to the full register to assist them in advising financial institutions on whether to grant credit. That is an important agreement because it in part tackles the concerns of many hon. Members on both sides of the House about the risk and danger of social exclusion that would arise from the opt-out box and the creation of an edited register. It seems extraordinary that the Minister can conclude that the use of the full register for such credit referencing would be legitimate while its use to assist with debt recovery would not. I want the hon. Gentleman to revisit that issue in his reply.

Secondly, I asked the Minister what research his Department had undertaken into the use of the raw data in the electoral register as the sole source of names and addresses for sending unsolicited mail. He says that such mail is the main source of complaint to electoral registration offices—I think that the working party made some comment to that effect. Our understanding is that the data on the electoral register are seldom used in such a way—they are seldom the only source of names and addresses of persons to whom literature may be sent. They are more widely used as a source to verify data obtained by some other means. It follows that if the register is not to be available in any way to the direct marketing industry and those commercial organisations, they will not be able to verify and up-date their data. The consequence will be that the volume of junk mail will rise.

If electoral registration officers are already receiving complaints about the volume of unsolicited mail because people perceive that the senders obtained their names and addresses from the register—we think that that is a false perception, but it is none the less a valid one—the Minister must consider what will happen if the amount of junk mail increases. The complaints will rise and the position will get worse.

Also, if the letter to Colin Lloyd, the chief executive of the Direct Marketing Association, is a settled policy, can the Minister tell us why no new regulatory impact assessment has been carried out? There has been no such assessment of those aspects of the provisions.

Thirdly, and finally, the Minister said that direct marketing firms would not have access to the full register, as that would conflict with the European Union data protection directive. How can the directive allow credit referencing, but not screening for unsolicited mail, or indeed, use of the register by charities? Also, it appears that only Home Office officials and the Data Protection Registrar gave evidence to the working party on data protection. Before the Minister closes his mind on the subject, would he be willing to receive a paper from the Direct Marketing Association and the CBI as they have a contrary view?

I have looked in detail at the submission of the Data Protection Registrar to the working party, and it is hardly conclusive. On the contrary, the registrar's advice appears to confirm that, provided that voters are advised of the fact, their data could be used for other purposes. In her submission, the registrar states: Even if such a case can be made in relation to some purposes individuals should still have a choice over the sale of their data for other purposes particularly the compilation of direct marketing lists". Far from the registrar confirming that direct marketing use of the full register was incompatible with the data protection directive, which is enshrined in the Data Protection Act 1998, in the summary of her advice to the working party, she clearly sets out the circumstances in which it would be compatible. That is another reason for us to conclude that much of this provision has not been thought through.

I do not want to detain the House further, and must reassure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I did not intend to speak at length. I have taken interruptions that have led us to stray from the key point of the new clause. I hope that what I have said demonstrates that there are far too many unresolved issues in relation to clause 9 for the House to be satisfied with how matters stand. Yes, let there be consultation—we welcome the Minister's comments on that and I suspect he will further reassure us later on his willingness to consult—but Parliament must continue to have a role. New clause 1 makes that role and our interest in and attention to the matter more likely than if we leave the Bill as it stands. I commend the new clause to the House.

Mr. Forth

I am sure that you will advise me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is not the occasion for me to tell the House that the fact that a colleague of mine apparently served on some obscure working party commits me in any way. I am sure that you would advise me that Third Reading would be the time for me to tell the House why I feel in no way bound by a colleague who, unbeknown to me, conspires with the Government in a working party to give this measure a spurious urgency that I do not understand and that has not yet been explained to me. Those points will come later and I cannot wait for Third Reading to make them. I hope that it will not be too long before we reach Third Reading because I am dying to make that speech.

This is the occasion for us to concentrate our thoughts narrowly on clause 9 and the new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway).

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

The right hon. Gentleman says that, according to the Government, he seems to have been committed to the measure by a member of the Conservative party. The Ulster Unionist party was not committed to it by anyone because we were not represented on the working party. Furthermore, I should think that we are the party in the House that knows most about fraud.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said that he could not wait for Third Reading. I am afraid that he will have to do so.

Mr. Forth

As ever, you are right, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I make it clear from the start that I welcome the new clause. It gives me pleasure to say that I welcome it—

Mr. Bercow

Unalloyed pleasure.

Mr. Forth

Certainly. In his usual analytical but forceful way, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale has illustrated all too well the weakness that regrettably still exists in clause 9. He has done us a great service in that respect, because doing so usefully puts in context the sense of urgency that he inexplicably introduced into the proceedings. It gives us the occasion to pause and reconsider whether we are wise to allow clause 9 to proceed in its present form.

The new clause therefore gives us the opportunity to find out from the Minister, if we can, not only the answers to the many questions my hon. Friend rightly posed but whether it would be helpful to include new clauses for the reasons that he gave and one or two others that I could modestly add. The more I read clause 9, the more delphic I find it. That would be worrying enough in any Bill, but it is more worrying in a Bill proposing radical changes to our electoral procedures. I hope to catch your eye on Third Reading, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I will want to expatiate on why the Bill is unnecessary and dangerous. However, I will leave that until later.

In the meantime, I want to concentrate on clause 9 and try to get from the Minister a clearer idea of what its provisions mean. The clause is tantalisingly long, but almost equally opaque. It does not reveal—as it should—either the intention or the effect of the proposals. The House has already spent considerable time on Second Reading and in Committee speculating on why we are to have this bifurcated register, and to what purposes it might be put. The fact that we are still speculating illustrates the difficulties in which the House may find itself.

Clause 9, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale is seeking to strengthen with the new clause, says that "provisions" should be made. That is a generous but vague word, which allows any amount of latitude to the Secretary of State of the day. The clause states that provisions will be made specifying a form of words". That means that almost anything can be written into the provisions. It goes on to state that the provisions specifying the form of words will explain to those registered or applying to be registered the purposes for which the edited register might be used". If that is not a circular argument, I do not know what is.

The form of words in the Bill is completely without meaning or substance. The Bill says that something will happen in the future which will give rise to an explanation of the purposes of something that we do not yet understand. That is what the House is being asked to accept in this important Bill, and it is not good enough.

The clause goes on, with impudence of the highest order, to say that the provisions will ascertain what is requested by or on behalf of such persons. We have the ultimate in legislative nonsense, with the Bill using a form of words which tells us nothing and leads us nowhere.

Mr. Bercow

I endorse my right hon. Friend's enthusiasm for the new clause. Is not it absolutely typical that the clause that the Government are defending has been drawn up by a Department which, according to my immediate calculation, contains four Ministers—the Home Secretary, two Ministers of State and an Under-Secretary—who are lawyers?

Mr. Forth

That frightening thought may go some way to explaining our difficulties. However, our job on Report is to get ourselves out of those difficulties, and recognising them is an important first step. My hon. Friend, who will have listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale's excellent introduction, may not have been reassured to be told that this nonsense is the outcome of a working party which produced a consensus and led to the urgency with which the Bill is being rushed through the House today.

5.45 pm

All of these words—"working parties", "consensus" and the spurious "urgency"—would make me suspicious about a Bill on any subject. However, this is where the new clause may come to our rescue. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale was persuasive, but it will take some considerable effort by the Minister to persuade me to support the Bill, although I do support the new clause. The doubts about the Bill, and its flaws, are evident.

The advantage of the new clause is that before we are led astray by the looseness of the drafting of the Bill—and before the peculiar provisions alluded to in clause 9 lead to a miasma of inexplicable verbiage—we will be rescued, in part, by the draft to be published and by the time that my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale, in his sagacity, has allowed for that process.

Mr. Greenway

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a draft of the regulations before us would be a considerable improvement on what we have now, which is nothing?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend is right. The irony is that the Government, who have told us so much about the virtues of pre-legislative activity and the strengthening of legislation by being open, have produced the antithesis of that—unless my hon. Friend believes that the working party, of which one of our colleagues was a member, did all the pre-legislative work.

Mr. Greenway


Mr. Forth

That reassures me. We have a degree of reassurance with the safety net in the new clause, which may help us to correct a fundamental weakness in clause 9.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

I have not taken a close interest in the progress of the Bill, but it so happens that the last time I attended such a debate, the House was discussing this very clause. I have never understood how many people will have the right to have the register, unrestricted. If that number is more than three, any suggestion of limiting its use is pie in the sky.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend is as perceptive as ever, and he may have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale asking a similar question. The fact that we still have to pose such a fundamental question illustrates the extent to which we have got ourselves into difficulties with the Bill. Notwithstanding the working party and the consensus—I am beginning to wonder how real that consensus was—the Minister has failed to answer that fundamental question. That leads me to the conclusion that unless we get a satisfactory answer, the House may not want the Bill to proceed and should find a way to send it back for further consideration.

I shall encapsulate my views by saying that I believe that the fundamental weaknesses and inadequacies of clause 9 can be partially corrected by new clause 1. On that basis, I am prepared to support the new clause, although I await the Minister's comments. I remain to be convinced of the necessity for, or viability and benefit of, the Bill.

Mr. Maclean

I was prompted to take an interest in clause 9 and new clause 1 because of the Minister's comments in the debate last week. I do not blame the Minister personally because he has to carry the departmental brief, and the Government as a whole are responsible for the extreme haste with which clause 9 was produced despite their not having thought through the consequences. The Minister answered concerns raised by Labour Members about direct marketing and credit checking. He said: We are discussing the detail of that with the industry. It is our intention that the full register shall not be completely available to the direct marketing industry. However, we are examining with the industry ways in which credit issues can be better resolved. We are about to reach Third Reading of an important Bill that deals with the registration of electors, and the House should not be faced with such a clause as clause 9 which is, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, completely inexplicable. It is so ambiguous that it could mean anything that any Minister wants it to mean, depending on what sort of regulations he wishes to produce or what sort of mood he is in.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

My right hon. Friend has mentioned an issue of grave concern to me. He will be aware that I have tabled several written questions exploring concerns about the use that might be made by the credit industry of the information made available under the proposals. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and I are both officers of the all-party group on insurance and financial services, and I find it extraordinary, in these days of pre-legislative scrutiny, that the Government are putting proposals before the House when they have not yet finished their consultations on the safeguards for the public.

Mr. Maclean

My hon. Friend is right, and the humbug we get from the Government on that point is amazing. I sat on a Committee considering the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which was also the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny, and the same Minister also served on the Committee. We heard from him a daily mantra of how wonderful the Government were for having conducted the pre-legislative scrutiny and that a range of complex issues had been discussed in advance. We are now considering a complex issue that will affect everyone on the electoral register, as well as all the direct marketing agencies, the banks and credit checking agencies and Members of Parliament, but the Government do not have a clue about the regulations they will draw up.

It gets worse. In the previous debate, the Minister was pressed on the subject of regulations and said: Once new regulations governing access to the full electoral register are in place, we can expect the public and any industries which are affected to make their views known about the impact of those regulations. He later continued: I have no doubt that hon. Members will continue to raise points of concern and, where appropriate, changes will be made to accommodate them." —[Official Report, 13 January 2000; Vol. 342, c. 461–621.] That is a new doctrine from new Labour now it is in government. The attitude is, "We are not going to consult about the regulations in advance. We are going to pass them and if you don't like them, you can complain about them and we may change them later." If Ministers in the previous Government had tried that on, the Labour Opposition would have demanded emergency statements PDQ. It is an outrageous thing for a Minister to say. We know how difficult it is to change regulations after the event.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)


Mr. Maclean

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is a lawyer.

Mr. Bermingham

I declare that interest. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many regulations have been sprung on the House at the last minute in the past 10 or 15 years, and it was only when objections were raised to them that changes were made? What has changed?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) answers that point, I think that we have dealt sufficiently with the timetable surrounding the Bill. I ask Members now to deal with the contents of new clause 1.

Mr. Maclean

Certainly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have covered the background to clause 9 and I shall now address the content—or what I believe should be the content—of the regulations.

I support new clause 1 because it attempts to make the diabolically vague clause 9 slightly better. New clause 1 would provide that The Secretary of State shall publish in draft any provisions he intends to make … and shall consult such persons and bodies as appear to him to have an interest in the operation of those provisions. We heard from Labour Members in earlier debates about their concerns about the effect on direct marketing organisations. Denouncing junk mail is a popular pastime, but some junk mail we like and some we dislike. I have no particular objection to junk mail from a direct marketing organisation that may have obtained my name from the electoral register. If I do not like the wine on offer from Bordeaux Direct, I do not have to buy it and I can put the leaflet in the bin. If I do not want the thermal slippers from Kaleidoscope, I do not have to buy them. However, I am forced to deal with the junk mail I get from Members of Parliament and national lobby groups trying to blackmail me into supporting one cause or another in the House. I wish I could remove myself from that list.

I suspect that all the 35 million people on the electoral register have different views about the junk mail that they would not like to receive. However, I do not know how many organisations would consider it vital to have access to the full register but would be prohibited from doing so under the Bill. If those organisations were to be consulted before the regulations were drafted, the Government would have a chance to get them right. That is not a political point, because if any Government planned to make regulations that introduced two types of register—one with all the names on and one without some names—I know from my Home Office experience that a dozen organisations could stake a legitimate claim to one version of the list and another dozen would feel as strongly that the first lot should not get that version.

6 pm

In addition, what about the charities, some of which have been mentioned? I and other hon. Members received some very worrying correspondence from St. Dunstan's, the marvellous charity that helps people blinded, or partially blinded, as a result of military service. Every year that organisation, like other charities, sends out about 3 million letters and circulars to targeted people. Some would call that junk mail. I do not know where the mailing list comes from, or whether the charity buys it, or from whom. However, I think that the electoral register plays a key role as no charity would want to spend a fortune on the expensive lists available commercially.

I made a special trip to talk to the charity's organisers. Their sense that they were not getting proper support from the Government or the national lottery is not relevant to the debate, but they emphasised that their charity needed mailing lists for the millions of letters sent out. There are many other charities, of course.

Will the Minister say what position charities involved in direct mail operations will occupy in the future? What effect will the Bill have on other, commercial direct operations?

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

I am struck by what my right hon. Friend has said about charities. Is he not worried that the Bill will prevent charities from targeting their fund-raising activities on middle-class or prosperous households, with the result that they will get less than at present?

Mr. Maclean

I agree that that is a worry. Charities use the electoral register, Yellow Pages, postcode data and other data that they buy from other organisations. Target markets depend on what they want to sell or the funding that they want to raise: their target audience need not be middle class but could be any social group. The Bill could prohibit that activity. The new clause would at least give charities a chance to bring that difficulty to the Government's attention.

I have never won the Reader's Digest prize draw but I do not mind putting that magazine's circular in the bin, yet that advertising is precisely what the Government seem to want to stop. If that is their prejudice, so be it, but clause 9 and the Government's reluctance to consult about the regulations mean that other, legitimate operations—such as charities—would suffer.

Mr. Rowe

If hundreds of people are entitled to have access to the unrestricted register, is not it almost certain that some of them will engage in illegal practices? The demand for the register is great, and its availability vast. Will we not be creating a jungle of potential crime?

Mr. Maclean

My hon. Friend prompts me to bring forward the point with which I intended to conclude my contribution. In my little computer case in my office I have a compact disc entitled "Info UK". It contains more than 49 million names and addresses.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Maclean

Some telephone contact numbers are also included, although I do not use them. I acquired the CD—for about £49.50—because I was told that it existed. I did not believe that it could contain so many names and addresses, but it does. I could enter the name of almost any hon. Member, and acquire the relevant address.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the right hon. Gentleman have so much time to waste that he can check 49 million names?

Mr. Forth

He will read them out in a moment.

Mr. Maclean

I shall not go down that route, but there are various ways to waste time. Some would say that it is more interesting to read 49 million names and addresses than to read the speeches or court case reports of the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham).

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is true that there are many different ways of wasting time, and the right hon. Gentleman is verging on one.

Mr. Maclean

That is why I shall not be tempted out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The CD that I have described is already in wide circulation and is constantly updated. A different worry stems from the forthcoming CD containing aerial photographs of every house in the country. When the two discs are amalgamated, there could be serious security breaches involving senior police and military officers, politicians and others.

A large industry exists with access to the electoral register, but that comprises only a small part of a comprehensive database that can be easily searched and which is easily available. I suspect that most of the information on that database is bought from other companies. Every time we subscribe to an organisation or a Christmas catalogue, we have to tick a box to prevent our names being passed on to other companies.

Huge resources are devoted to the compilation of information. All the telephone directories and full lists of internet and e-mail addresses are available on computer. The Government can try to restrict access to the full register as much as they like, but the one copy that may be made available to a credit card checking company may well be sufficient to act as authentication for the almost total picture already compiled about the 56 million people in the country.

Hypothetically, we could abolish the electoral register completely. However, I suspect that it would remain possible to garner enough information from telephone directories, the internet and other sources to provide a pretty accurate register.

Mr. Forth

I just want to capture the moment and ask whether my right hon. Friend considers that the sources to which he has referred could, in an ironic sort of way, serve as an invaluable source of cross-checking and verification of the electoral register? Might not the downside of what he has suggested become an advantage? That matter is covered by a later amendment, but I wanted to ask the question as my right hon. Friend was on the topic.

Mr. Maclean

Yes, and one can use the House of Commons address checker facility to check whether a letter comes from a constituent. That facility can determine on which side of a constituency boundary an address may lie. Hon. Members can use the House of Commons system for that, and I am sure that outsiders can tap into it too. A later amendment would make it possible for electoral registration officers to check on commercial systems to verify whether the names supplied to them are legitimate and valid.

Because of the intervention of the hon. Member for St. Helens, South, the Minister may have thought my point about the huge amount of information that there is on compact disc a cause for humour. It is not—it is a cause for concern. It is therefore vital that the Government consult before they draw up the regulations.

I was alerted to Info UK by the police service. The police were legitimately concerned that, having taken vigorous steps to keep the names of certain officers off the electoral register for security purposes, their names were still on a CD that has sold about 1.5 million copies in the United Kingdom. The Government should consult the police service and other organisations with an interest in these matters, such as charities and direct marketing firms. I am absolutely certain that in a minefield such as this, with the best will in the world, no Government and no Minister can get it right in advance.

The Minister may live to regret saying last week that the Government will make the regulations governing access first, and that, once they were in place, they would wait for complaints on where they had got them wrong, and might then be minded to change them. That approach will cause enormous difficulty.

The new clause may be imperfectly drafted, but at least it will give the Government a chance to amend the regulations before they bring them before the House. I challenge the Minister: when, in his two years in the Home Office, has he prepared draft regulations that have not needed amending because someone spotted something wrong and suggested improvements? That is not a weakness, nor a fault. There is nothing wrong in preparing regulations with the help of the best lawyers that the Home Office can get its hands on, consulting on those regulations and then discovering a flaw or an omission. Pre-legislative scrutiny, consultation and trusting the people are supposed to be new Labour strengths, but the Minister is saying that he will not do that.

If the Government reject the new clause, it will be a sign that they believe they know best. They will keep the provisions to themselves and rush them through quickly, and to blazes with those outside who may suffer. I do not think that that is the Minister's attitude. I am sorry that he is locked into this box; it has no doubt been forced on him by his colleagues and by the agreement that he reached in an alleged committee in Cabinet. We can also blame the working party. I hope that he can wangle out of it tonight by accepting the new clause.

Mr. Bermingham

I hope to be but brief. I think that there is some sense in the new clause. I know that the Government may not agree with me, but sometimes it pays to stand back, to look and to think.

I hope that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) did not think me facetious when I asked whether he had checked that there were 49 million names. I could not for a moment understand who the heck would want 49 million names on a compact disc. When I hear that 1.5 million have been sold, and that a CD will be issued showing an aerial photograph of everyone's house, I begin to wonder about the words "privacy" and "personal privacy", and it causes me some concern.

I came in here and, as I have done for years, glanced at the new clause. I listened to the comments and, when I heard the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) giving forth—no pun intended—I thought, "Here we go again. What's this load of rubbish?" Then I looked at the new clause again, and I thought very carefully. When in opposition, I said time and again about regulations, "If only people would stand back and think, we might cut down the number of challenges in the courts." That I have said not once but a thousand times in this House.

The regulations on the electoral register may not be perfect. It would be so nice to get them right, which is why I think that the new clause has some merit. It may need redrafting, but the thought behind it is not hostile. The new clause would effectively provide that, when the provisions have been drafted, they should be put out to consultation with a view to reaching agreement. It is better to agree something by consensus than to vote it through against opposition.

The second half of the new clause is also sensible. How many times do we get a raft of regulations and orders in July that most of us do not read? Then, some time in the fall, a constituent or someone connected with us says, "Did you see that regulation? What about X?"

6.15 pm
Mr. Bercow

Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that his support for the new clause is warmly appreciated by Conservative Members, even though it has already earned the obvious wrath and probably the undying enmity of the representative of the Patronage Secretary—the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt). Will the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) say, on the strength of what he has already told us, whether he has a preferred length of consultation and a preferred format?

Mr. Bermingham

May I correct the hon. Gentleman? My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) —my Whip—will not exercise his wrath on me. He, like me, is a civilised and dignified man; if we disagree, we will disagree head to head, as I would with my son. I have no fear in saying what I think, and I can now answer the hon. Gentleman's questions.

The Government should consult as widely as possible, and the period of that consultation should be realistic—a matter of months, not weeks or days. Indeed, if I may return to the point that I was making before the hon. Gentleman's intervention—I did not see the purpose of the intervention, but that does not matter—if the publication or the draft is published at the beginning of the summer, for example, there should be a realistic time for consultation. The period allowed for consultation should be parliamentary time, not calendar time. I have in the past railed and ranted against the previous Government for publishing in July draft proposals that had a closing date when Parliament was not sitting. That seems counter-productive. The object of the exercise when consulting is to consult.

If one is to be realistic, one consults in a way that enables those with whom one wishes to consult—or, if it is the public, to invite ideas—to have a realistic and practical opportunity to make their views known. Those views may or may not be of value—one does not know before one asks.

There may be considerable value in the new clause, just as there was in another Opposition amendment that I mentioned the other week—the one originally tabled in December. I am not sure about the wording or the drafting, but it has merit. It should be considered, and I hope that the Government will do so.

Mr. Wilshire

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham). I hope that all hon. Members listened to the key reason that he gave for supporting new clause 1. I believe that it is of the utmost significance when a barrister tells the House that he supports a proposal because it will mean less work for the courts. A barrister advancing the argument of less work for his profession means that his motives are of the purest. It means that the House is being given advice that, whatever our political party, we would be foolish to reject.

Mr. Greenway

It is free advice.

Mr. Wilshire

The advice may be free—time will tell.

It is also a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). I listened with much interest to his various definitions of junk mail, but I was deeply disappointed to learn that he does not extend his definition to my pet hate in the letter box—the invoice and the bill. On reflection, he might agree that they were dispensable. Indeed, perhaps we could legislate against sending bills to Members of Parliament.

It is always enjoyable to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). This evening, he treated the House to a speech of great brevity and clarity, with the result that I was completely confused. The point of the new clause is to deal with confusion. My right hon. Friend's clarity made it clear that we cannot allow the Bill to proceed in its current form because it will confuse all those who try to tackle the matter.

I have no difficulty in supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). I shall willingly vote for new clause 1, should he ask me to do so. As I said earlier, I have reservations about the haste with which the Bill has been introduced—that is one of the reasons for my intervention in the debate—but I wonder whether the new clause goes far enough.

However, my colleagues and I are grateful to the Government for accepting the amendment that was tabled in Committee. In opposition, one rapidly learns to be thankful for small mercies, so I am more than willing to thank the Government for that especially small mercy. The amendment makes a bad Bill slightly less bad—I would go no further than that. However, even that is something. We should not be grudging in our thanks to the Minister. Having heard those words of thanks, I hope that he will accept the points made by the hon. Member for St. Helens, South and will thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the new clause.

I am concerned about some of the detail in the new clause. Under subsection (1), it states: The Secretary of State shall publish in draft". I am worried about the words "shall publish". I am all in favour of the Secretary of State publishing draft provisions, but I should have preferred the new clause to specify that the Government should place them before Parliament. If the words are merely "shall publish", the Government will probably give a press briefing, which parliamentarians will not attend. If they do not do that, they will organise a press release and will slip the measure out late at night, when we shall not have an opportunity to discuss it as soon as it appears. Alternatively, to judge by past experience, they will leak it. They will claim that to be publication.

We need a new clause and a new Bill that provides for such provisions to be placed before Parliament. If we cannot have that, I am most willing to support my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale. If the Minister does not accept my comments and the Bill goes to another place, I hope that he will try to strengthen the new clause and accept it.

I should be grateful if the Minister would tell the House—

Mr. Gray

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), who is responsible for the Bill, is leaving the Chamber. He told me, from a sedentary position, that he did not have time to listen to the debate. Is that not worrying?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am the Minister responsible for the Bill, and I am in the Chamber.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not a point of order; it is just a statement of the position.

Mr. Wilshire

I am most grateful that the Minister is in the Chamber. I assume that, when the Under-Secretary left the Chamber, it was to take instructions from Mr. Campbell as to whether he should accept—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would return to new clause 1.

Mr. Wilshire

Of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

When the Minister replies to my point about the distinction between placing before Parliament and publishing, will he tell us which draft publications he has in mind? Surely, we cannot have reached this stage of the Bill's progress without the Government having at least the beginnings of some ideas. Will the Minister throw some light on the matter? When the time comes to vote on the measure, that will guide us as to whether we need it.

My second concern relates to the words—also under subsection (1)— shall consult such persons and bodies as appear to him". I am not happy to leave it to a Minister to decide what "appears to him" to be correct, when we are dealing with the representation of the people. That is at the heart of our democracy. The new clause would be improved if the words were "as appears to Parliament". It is a parliamentary matter, and cannot safely be left to the Executive. Throughout the world, Executives have a nasty habit of playing fast and loose with democracy if they get half a chance. Parliament is the safeguard of our democracy. It should be for Parliament, not for Ministers, to decide whom it appears appropriate to consult at a given moment.

Mr. Bermingham

Would the hon. Gentleman agree that there has always been a list of the great and the good—the bodies to be consulted? That list rolls on from Government to Government. I cannot understand why he has such difficulty with the wording of that part of the new clause—it is the same format that has always been used.

Mr. Wilshire

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber when I intervened during the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border. I pointed out that, just because something has been done wrong for 100 years, there is no reason to continue to do it wrong. At least I am being consistent, because I am making the same points about the defence of the rights of Parliament that I made when we were in government. In dealing with matters that are at the heart of representative democracy, I have always believed that it should be for Parliament and not for the Executive to make the decisions. I suggest that the measure is one such matter.

I have some concerns about subsection (2) of the new clause, which includes the words until three months have elapsed". Reference has already been made to that matter. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale will not mind my saying that I should have preferred the words to be "six months".

The hon. Member for St. Helens, South is correct: the three-month period makes it possible that the consultation process could take place when the House is not sitting. That cannot be right. It doubly reinforces my point about representative democracy. The provision is one that must come before the House, yet it could be dealt with during our absence.

There are several other considerations. During the summer, the people who are consulted might find it difficult to hold proper consultations. I assume that the Minister proposes to list a range of representative organisations who will be consulted. They will have to ask the advice of their members before responding. If an organisation with a large number of members—such as some of those in the direct marketing profession—has to consult those members during three months in the summer, it might not be able to undertake realistic and effective consultations, so as to give the Government the advice that is needed, during that period.

6.30 pm

It is also the case, as I have observed and I am sure that the House has observed during the past few weeks, that the United Kingdom comes perilously close to a standstill for an ever-longer period over the Christmas break. If the three-month consultation period were to include the run-up to Christmas, Christmas, the gap between Christmas and the new year, the new year and the hangover after the new year, an awful length of time within that three-month period could well be used up, and again we would not be getting the advice that we so urgently need.

Another aspect of the new clause that causes me slight concern is that although, admirably, it calls for much more clarity in the consultation process, it does not address what I consider to be a further issue of great importance—the need to secure parliamentary approval for the guidelines and regulations after consultation has taken place. I hope that, when the Minister replies to the debate, he will reassure us that he will take on board the concept of returning to Parliament and allowing us the final say on the suitability of the entire consultation process.

I hope that the Government listened to the hon. Member for St. Helens, South, even if they did not listen with any great care and attention to what Opposition Members said, because I am convinced that the new clause strengthens the Bill and meets the concerns of hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am amazed that it takes an Opposition amendment to address such a concern.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

The new clause appears perfectly worthy, and worthy of Government support. I hope that the Government will be positive. I only add one PS. It comes to something when the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mistakes the Labour Whip, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), for the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt).

Mr. Mike O'Brien

The new clause was moved with characteristic vigour by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), but I cannot invite the House to support it as it does not add sufficiently to the Bill to justify its inclusion.

As the House is aware, we are carefully considering what form any regulations governing access to the full electoral register should take. We are examining carefully the representations that have been made to us, and my officials are holding regular meetings with representatives of the credit and finance industries to discuss those matters. Only two days ago they had a very helpful meeting with them. We have also received advice from the Data Protection Registrar. Obviously, we need to strike a balance between meeting privacy and data protection concerns and ensuring that we do not unduly harm the industries that now make use of the electoral register. We believe that we can strike that balance, and that the regulations that we draft will achieve that. Any such regulations will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in both Houses, so I can tell the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) that Parliament will have a full opportunity to debate them. I can also repeat a previous commitment: that the regulations will be accompanied by a full regulatory impact assessment.

Mr. Bermingham

My hon. Friend begins to reassure me, but I do not understand why the regulations cannot be published in draft, to allow representatives not only of the regulatory industries and the financial industries but of other bodies to comment on the proposals. Then, when the regulations come before the House for debate, they will at least have been seen by many other people who have been able to have an input, or offer advice on what will become the regulations drafted by the Department.

Mr. O'Brien

If my hon. Friend had borne with me a little longer, he would have discovered that the regulations will be published in draft and consulted on.

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said on Second Reading, we believe that the full register should be available to credit and finance companies for the purpose of establishing identity in connection with credit applications, and the Data Protection Registrar has confirmed that she would be happy with that. Such a step will ensure that those who opt out do not inadvertently suffer by finding it hard to obtain credit. Our discussions with the banking and finance industries are now concentrating on precisely how we would make such an arrangement work.

As I hope to show, there is no question of ill-thought-out regulations being slipped through. The regulations that emerge will be based on the outcome of full and proper consultation with the industries concerned, and I am sure that they will be properly scrutinised here and in another place.

Mr. Maclean

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I am anxious to make progress. We have a great deal of work before us today. There are many amendments further down the selection list on which I am sure hon. Members would like to make progress, so I am us to accept further interventions. However, I am happy to accept an intervention on this occasion from the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Maclean

I am grateful to the Minister; I hear his warnings. What he has just said is very welcome to all of us. We have obtained from him the huge concession that there will be proper consultation before the regulations are promulgated by his Department. Much as we welcome his conversion, what has changed since last Thursday when he made the opposite statement, as is recorded in Hansard?

Mr. O'Brien

I am not sure that anything has changed, nor that I made the opposite statement. We have always taken the view that, on this matter, we need properly to consult with the industry on regulations. I have maintained that view throughout, in letters to and meetings with various parts of the industry. We have never been in any doubt that the industry will be legitimately concerned with these matters and that we should ensure that we take on board their arguments.

The hon. Member for Ryedale asked whether we have a settled view on the direct marketing industry. We do have a settled view, but not a dogmatic view, about how we shall proceed. We are prepared to listen to representations from any organisation that may be prepared to make them and we shall happily consider them, but we shall need to be convinced by the strength of the argument. The Government have data protection and privacy obligations. The previous Government signed the data protection directive, with which we need to comply—I am sure that the hon Gentleman would want us to do so. It is our clear view that this legislation is necessary to comply with that.

The working party also consulted on all these issues. The hon. Gentleman said that he was not suggesting that we could not be taken on trust. Indeed, he said that he was satisfied that we were prepared to consult on these matters, and I am grateful to him for putting it in that way. He was worried that the consultation period may not have been very long because the full report of the working party came out in October, but I can tell him that the initial findings of the working party were known in July and that there was the opportunity to make representations, although I accept that it was over the summer period.

Some industries have been making representations and we have been continuing to listen to them. We do listen to the strength of the arguments. We have a settled view and a clear policy, but it is not dogmatic. The Direct Marketing Association and the Confederation of British Industry have sent us papers, and we shall continue to consider any representations that they are prepared to make.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said that the credit card industry and the finance industry could seek information from other sources—even the telephone directory. He is right. In fact, most other European countries have quite stringent restrictions. Many of them prohibit the selling on of an electoral register. In those countries, the credit card and the direct marketing industries find the other means that are available to them. They might have to create new industries to gather that information, and that might benefit the economy by creating new business opportunities. However, the credit card and the finance industries will have the opportunity to move forward.

I wish to deal with the issue of debt recovery that was raised by the hon. Member for Ryedale. We have consulted the Data Protection Registrar closely and the view taken was that the use of the register for debt recovery would be contrary to the spirit of the data protection directive. She took a different view to that about discovering the initial identity of individuals to decide whether credit could be granted to them. We could, no doubt, have a legalistic argument about the distinctions, but the registrar is there to advise and we have listened carefully to the advice that we have been given.

Mr. Greenway

Will the Minister consider whether the explanatory leaflet given to householders would touch on the effect of ticking the opt-out box on debt recovery and on the use of the register for direct marketing purposes, so that existing data can be verified to restrict the amount of junk mail? Is his mind open to those ideas so that, when people tick the box, they know that they are granting consent for the data to be used for those purposes? That would get round the problem of the directive.

Mr. O'Brien

As I understand it—the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong—he is asking whether, when a person considers whether to tick the opt-out box, he will know that the issues of debt recovery and direct marketing are before him. I see no reason why, on the face of it, such information should not appear in the leaflet that we shall circulate. Whether the debt recovery industry wants such information in the leaflet is a matter for consultation, but, in principle, I have an open mind. I am quite happy to consult the industry.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border asked whether we would consult the police. I am happy to inform him that we are doing that. My officials had a meeting with the National Criminal Intelligence Service only yesterday. Full and proper consultations will take place.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne asked how we will proceed. My officials are already consulting the industries and, once the Bill is enacted, we will produce a draft. That will be put on the internet, it will be circulated among those who have signalled their interest, and we will listen to their concerns. I do not want to place a three-month limit on the consultation because that would raise all sorts of issues, but we shall talk to the industry about the time that it needs for reasonable consultation.

I have given hon. Members as much reassurance as I can that we shall consult as much as is reasonable in all the circumstances. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for Ryedale will withdraw his motion.

Mr. Greenway

I am grateful to hon. Members for contributing to the debate and for making pertinent points in support of my case that the House should receive greater reassurance about the implications of clause 9 and the forthcoming regulations. There should be consultation and proper time should be given to interested parties to reflect on the regulations. The House should then have the opportunity to debate and approve them.

I am grateful to the Minister for responding in the way that he did. His answer confirms that this has been an extremely worthwhile debate. I understand his point that he does not think that the new clause adds sufficiently to the Bill to justify its inclusion. That encourages me to try to do a little better next time to ensure that my new clauses are slightly more wide ranging.

6.45 pm

In effect, the Minister said that, although he has come to a settled view about direct marketing, it is not a dogmatic one. I interpret that to mean that his mind is not yet fully made up and that both his door and his mind are not closed to further representations. I intervened on the Minister because the more I study the Data Protection Registrar's concerns, the more I am convinced that the problems can be got round through the information that is given to people about the implications of ticking the opt-out box. As the Bill allows, the information should explain to them the effect that ticking the box would have on a number of issues.

All we can do in our debates is to provide the industry with the opportunity to discuss the issues further with the Minister. We have achieved that aim, but it is up to the industry to decide whether it is worth taking that opportunity. As I confirmed to the Minister the other day, the industry is perfectly prepared to pay the cost of the production of the leaflet, which would then be distributed at local authorities' expense when they make their electoral registration canvass.

I think that we have made significant progress in the last couple of hours—we have made considerably more than on Thursday. The Minister should expect the matters to be further scrutinised if and when the Bill goes to the other place. However, in the spirit of the Minister's positive response to our concerns, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to