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General Committees

Debated on Tuesday 24 October 2023

Delegated Legislation Committee

Draft Representation of the People (Franchise Amendment and Eligibility Review) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Sir Robert Syms

Abrahams, Debbie (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)

† Anderson, Fleur (Putney) (Lab)

† Bacon, Mr Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)

† Baker, Mr Steve (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)

† Baron, Mr John (Basildon and Billericay) (Con)

Blake, Olivia (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)

† Cruddas, Jon (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab)

† Dixon, Samantha (City of Chester) (Lab)

† Gideon, Jo (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Con)

† Graham, Richard (Gloucester) (Con)

† Green, Damian (Ashford) (Con)

Hunt, Tom (Ipswich) (Con)

Jones, Mr Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)

† Kawczynski, Daniel (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)

† Largan, Robert (High Peak) (Con)

† Sobel, Alex (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)

† Watling, Giles (Clacton) (Con)

Dominic Stockbridge, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 24 October 2023

[Sir Robert Syms in the Chair]

Draft Representation of the People (Franchise Amendment and Eligibility Review) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the people (Franchise Amendment and Eligibility Review) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Robert. I am most grateful to members of the Committee for being here. This Government are committed to protecting the integrity of our democratic process, and we have delivered on that commitment. Last year, Parliament passed the Elections Act 2022, which includes changes to ensure that UK elections remain secure, fair and modern. I am glad to introduce today a statutory instrument that flows directly from that Act. This debate follows the passing by Parliament of an equivalent instrument for Great Britain. The regulations were approved last week in the other place. Taken together, this instrument and the instrument for GB provide a single package of measures covering non-devolved local elections in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That means that, in practice, these measures will apply to both local council elections and Assembly elections in Northern Ireland.

The Elections Act amended the franchise to reflect the UK’s new relationship with the EU and to protect the rights of UK citizens living in EU countries. That moved us to the principle of a mutual grant of rights through agreement with individual EU member states. Before I address the detail of the provisions, I will make it clear that the long-standing voting rights of Irish citizens remain unchanged. Likewise, the voting rights of Maltese and Cypriot citizens, as Commonwealth citizens, are not affected by these changes.

The Elections Act provides that two groups of citizens from other EU countries will be entitled to vote. Qualifying EU citizens from EU member states that have bilateral agreements with the UK will have the right to vote and stand in relevant elections. We also preserve the existing rights of all EU citizens who chose to make the UK their home prior to the end of the implementation period. As such, EU citizens with retained rights will continue to have the right to vote and stand.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment on Friday. One understands the situation and what this delegated legislation does, but I wish to raise the issue of reciprocal rights. The explanatory memorandum explains that British citizens living in France and Germany, for example, where we do not have reciprocal rights, will not be allowed to vote in their local elections. On the continent, in those countries where we do have reciprocal rights—I think those countries are Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland—that does not exist. What efforts is my hon. Friend making to ensure that there is—how can I put it?—a level playing field when it comes to local elections?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. In the first place, I am grateful that our country has decided that we are on the moral high ground in giving those retained rights to EU citizens. I will certainly take up what he said in his intervention with my colleagues in the Foreign Office. He will understand that it is for them first and foremost to talk with European nations. He makes a good point; I will take that matter up with Foreign Office Ministers and write to him.

The impact assessment makes it clear that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay mentioned, the bilateral treaties at the moment are with four EU states—Poland, Spain, Luxembourg and Portugal. The line there is that the UK

“remains open to negotiating treaties with other EU Member States”.

Can my hon. Friend the Minister clarify whether we are proactively seeking that by approaching other EU states to see if they are interested in that reciprocity; whether we are open to approaches from them; or whether we have done our bit, got agreements from four of those countries and that is it?

Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The best thing that I can do is ask Foreign Office Ministers to write to him setting out their plans. After all, it is their responsibility first and foremost; my responsibility is Northern Ireland. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not trespass on their responsibilities and commit. He makes a good point, and I think that Foreign Office Ministers will wish to assure him that they are reaching out.

The chief electoral officer has a legal duty to ensure that the electoral register remains accurate. The instrument requires the chief electoral officer, as registration officer for the whole of Northern Ireland, to conduct a one-time review to determine the eligibility of all registered EU citizens. That bespoke eligibility review is designed to be fair and transparent for review subjects, and to minimise burdens on the chief electoral officer. As far as possible, it has been based on and benchmarked against existing practice and processes. The processes for Northern Ireland contained in the instrument mirror those for Great Britain.

Initially, the chief electoral officer will use data already available to them to confirm an elector’s continued eligibility without the need for and elector to take any action. Where the chief electoral officer is unable to confirm eligibility using existing data, the instrument requires them to contact the elector to request the information necessary to determine eligibility. In the event of no response, the chief electoral officer must make at least three attempts to contact the elector in writing, and at least one attempt to contact the elector in person, before they determine them to be ineligible.

It is clearly important that EU citizens are aware whether they remain on the register. Consequently, the instrument prescribes that all those reviewed will be notified of the franchise change and the review outcome. In addition, the instrument prescribes the contents of all review communications to ensure clarity and consistency.

Where a person is deemed ineligible and removed from the register on the basis of non-response, they will be invited to reapply if they believe they are eligible to do so. We anticipate that the end-to-end review process will take up to three months to complete. The chief electoral officer, in common with registration officers in England, will have a nine-month implementation window, from 7 May 2024 to the 31 January 2025, to undertake the one-time review.

On completion of the review process, the Secretary of State will write to the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland to request data relating to the operation of the review process. That is slightly different from the position in England and Wales, where registration officers will report to the Electoral Commission. The franchise change will apply only to polls that are non-devolved, and, for Northern Ireland, will cover local and Assembly elections.

Some changes needed to reflect the candidacy changes and their implementation for Northern Ireland were made in the Elections Act. In practice, candidacy processes at local and Assembly elections will not change significantly. I hope that, having set out the details and having committed to write in response to interventions from my hon. Friends, we can ensure that colleagues are satisfied with our commitment to reach out to other European nations. I look forward to hearing from the hon. Member for Putney.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir Robert. I thank the Minister for setting out the process that will be implemented on the completion of the new regulation. The Labour party does not seek to reignite the arguments that took place over certain regulations during the passage of the Elections Act—I served on the Committee considering that legislation—so I know how much it was argued about.

I appreciate the need to update the law to comply with sections in the Elections Act on EU citizens’ voting rights. The new regulations are laid before us in the form of this statutory instrument, which would alter the existing franchise in elections across Northern Ireland so that they are in line with our exit from the European Union. It is a necessary step, and as a principle Labour believes that people who contribute to society, work hard and pay their taxes should have some sort of say in decisions being made for their community. It is about not just who can vote, but devolving power to communities so that they have a say over local decisions.

Current rights give EU citizens the power to vote and stand in local elections, regardless of immigration-based eligibility criteria. However, we recognise that the status quo around decision making cannot continue following our departure from the EU, and the Opposition will not oppose the regulation today. I ask the Minister, following interventions by the hon. Members for Gloucester and for Basildon and Billericay, what the Government are doing to increase the number of countries with which we have reciprocal rights. I also want to ask the Minister what work is being done in conjunction with local authorities across Northern Ireland to ensure that the EU citizens affected are given ample information about when and how to make sure they qualify, and how to maintain their right to vote.

I also want to know what additional support is being provided to the electoral registration officers who will now be asked to check on a case-by-case basis whether EU citizens currently registered to vote can remain so in future. Given the written and in-person contact process that the Minister outlined, their workload is likely to increase significantly and Government support must match that.

In relation to future bilateral treaties, as we have said, the UK remains open to negotiating fully reciprocal bilateral agreements where EU member states are interested in doing so. With the agreement of the Committee, I will write to the hon. Lady and place a copy of the letter in the Library, and ensure that it is drawn to the attention of all Members. Some EU countries already grant local voting and candidacy rights to third-country nationals, including UK nationals, unilaterally. In most cases, that is subject to minimum residency requirements.

We will work with councils in Northern Ireland to ensure that the requirements are adequately communicated. I set out earlier the need for the chief electoral officer to approach EU citizens three times if there is no response, and make one approach in person. That is a robust way of ensuring that people keep their right to vote if they are entitled to do so. On additional resources, I do not have immediately to hand the relevant note, so I will write to the hon. Lady. We think that what we are doing is reasonable and in line with present practice. I recognise that the one-time review will impose some burdens, but I will write to her.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.

Draft Public Charge Point Regulations 2023

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: James Gray

† Baillie, Siobhan (Stroud) (Con)

† Cox, Sir Geoffrey (Torridge and West Devon) (Con)

† Djanogly, Mr Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)

† Esterson, Bill (Sefton Central) (Lab)

† Fletcher, Nick (Don Valley) (Con)

† Foy, Mary Kelly (City of Durham) (Lab)

† Higginbotham, Antony (Burnley) (Con)

† Jenkinson, Mark (Workington) (Con)

† Jones, Fay (Brecon and Radnorshire) (Con)

† Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† Lewis, Clive (Norwich South) (Lab)

† Lopresti, Jack (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)

Newlands, Gavin (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP)

† Nici, Lia (Great Grimsby) (Con)

† Norman, Jesse (Minister of State, Department for Transport)

† Spellar, John (Warley) (Lab)

† Wakeford, Christian (Bury South) (Lab)

William Opposs, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 24 October 2023

[James Gray in the Chair]

Draft Public Charge Point Regulations 2023

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Public Charge Point Regulations 2023.

It is an absolute delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

A successful transition to zero-emission vehicles will require a reliable, accessible and affordable charging network across the country. More than 49,000 public charge points have already been installed. The Government and industry are continuing to work together to drive up those numbers, and members of ChargeUK, an industry organisation, has committed to doubling the number of charge points over the next 12 months and anticipates some £6 billion of investment in charging infrastructure over the next few years. The draft regulations will help to ensure that electric vehicle drivers can travel confidently, knowing that they can find a fully operational charge point suitable to their needs, and can more easily pay at any charge point. To develop the regulations, my Department engaged with consumer groups, vehicle manufacturers, technical experts and the charge point industry to understand better the barriers and proposed mitigations.

The statutory instrument introduces contactless payment at many new charge points. Within one year, all new public charge points with a power rating of 8 kW and above must provide contactless payment, and all existing charge points of 50 kW and above must be retrofitted. Within two years, all charge point operators must offer payment roaming at all their charge points through at least one third-party roaming provider. Consumers will be able to pay for a charge across multiple charge points through one app or radio frequency identity—RFID—card, similar to a fuel card for petrol and diesel cars. That element is important for fleet electrification, and will enable fleet operators to centralise the billing for the charging of electric vehicles.

Consumers will be able to understand how much they are paying to charge their vehicles, as pricing transparency is mandated. That will in turn empower them to find the best-value charge for their needs. The total price of a charging session must be displayed in pence per kilowatt-hour and should be clearly displayed either on the charge point or through a separate device, to make price comparison across different networks easier. Once the charging session has started, the price will not increase. Offers such as combining parking and charging fees will be permissible if the charging component is also displayed in pence per kilowatt-hour. Charge point operators must open and share their charge point data, make sure it is accurate and ensure it conforms to an open data standard—the open charge point interface protocol—within one of the draft regulations.

Opening up charge point data will drive industry innovation, drive the development of consumer-friendly apps, and put more detailed and reliable data at consumers’ fingertips, making it easier to locate available charge points. The draft regulations will also require reliability across the public rapid charge point network. Charge point operators must ensure that the network of public charge points of 50 kW and above is working 99% of the time, starting one year from the date that the regulations come into effect. That will be measured as an annual average. The measure will give the public far greater confidence in the public charge point network and make it easier for the public to find a working charge point.

Finally, the draft regulations will mandate that all charge point operators must run a 24/7 free-to-use telephone helpline for consumers within one year, and clearly display the details on charge points or through a separate device. Operators will be expected to resolve issues that are within their control. The draft regulations are essential to improving the consumer experience of charging and driving electric vehicles in the UK, and I commend them to the Committee.

I agree with much of what the Minister said. His points about the need to raise confidence among drivers and to address our net zero targets and obligations are set out well in section 7 of the explanatory notes. I welcome the fact that the price will be displayed on charge points and that the use of contactless will be obligatory. There is much to commend about the step forward taken by the draft regulations. However, a series of questions emerge from the regulations regarding how we improve on what has been set out.

On current trends—the Minister in the Lords confirmed this—there will be a 10-year delay in achieving the Government’s target of 300,000 set for 2030. At the moment, there are 30 cars per charge point and, on current trends, that will be 64 by 2030. Delaying the end of the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2035 will also mean that it will take longer before drivers have the cheaper option of using an electric car. At present, we have 14 northern cities with fewer charge points, combined, than the city of Westminster.

As things stand, there is a lot of progress to be made. I accept that these regulations will contribute to that, but do they go far enough? As the Minister alluded to in his figures, 81% of current chargers will not be covered by the regulations, certainly in the immediate period, and not all new chargers will either, although there is a rationale for that, which I am sure the Minister will pick up in response to my questions. However, does he share my concern that many charge points still will not necessarily have a contactless option or, importantly, show the price?

The Office for Product Safety and Standards will be responsible for enforcing the regulations, but what assurances can the Minister give that the OPSS will have sufficient capacity to enforce these regulations, to give that confidence and peace of mind to drivers? Incidentally, that peace of mind and confidence is important in creating the market demand and confidence for manufacturers and investors in domestic automotive production.

I also want to ask about payment cards for the various different networks that have emerged and the multiplicity of apps. I have now lost count of the number of apps on my phone for different charge points around the country. Does the Minister have any plans or thoughts around the ability to combine the different charge point owners and networks so that they can all be accessed through single payment cards or charge cards, and whether they can be brought together into single apps? It can be confusing at the moment and, as he quite rightly said, raising consumer confidence is key to people buying and using electric vehicles. That is very much linked to what he has set out in these regulations.

I would also ask the Minister about grid capacity and decision making in planning because improvement is needed in the speed in which grid connections, and often planning decisions, are made. He mentioned ChargeUK; I know that it is keenly concerned about this, and I am sure that it has raised that with him as it has with me. What plans does the Minister have to improve the speed at which new charge points can be connected to the grid? We have the absurd situation in which one can drive around the country and see new facilities that are unused for months on end because they cannot be connected to the grid.

Therefore, what is the Minister’s intention to improve grid connections and to speed up planning decisions? I am sure that he will agree that the lack of planning officers in local authorities up and down the country really does not help. Perhaps he could use his connections with colleagues in other Departments to address that particular problem. Labour has plans to back motorists, to set targets for charge points around the country, ensuring greater certainty for the network providers, and to support an increase in installations. We also have plans to improve decision making by speeding up the planning process.

Finally, three and a half years ago, the Government announced the £950 million rapid charging fund. When will that start to be allocated, and when will it be available to use in those areas of the country where it is harder for the networks to install charge points? It is a great frustration that that money is so far unused. In government, Labour intends to use that fund to ensure that we increase take-up and installation and thereby encourage the greater availability of charge points to support drivers up and down the country.

I welcome the hon. Member for Sefton Central to his shadow role and thank him for his cross-party support for the regulations. Let me engage with his important set of questions.

The hon. Member talked about a 10-year delay in achieving 300,000 charge points. It is important to be clear that there is no such delay. The goal is to reach 300,000 by 2030, and we are well advanced in relation to that goal even at this early stage. Of course, the level of investment that we anticipate, and that has been triggered by the laying of the zero-emission vehicle mandate, will provide an important private sector impetus.

I want to tease this point out. In the Lords, Baroness Vere said that 3,870 charge points were installed between April and July, and figures of 1,000 a month were also quoted in that debate. At that rate, only half of that 300,000 figure will be achieved by 2030. What does the Minister think will change between now and then, in respect of the draft regulations or more widely, to achieve that 300,000 figure?

I thank the hon. Member. Of course, I think any sensible observer expects that the combined effect of the new regulations, technology and a massive amount of new investment will drive the rate of installation upwards. I cannot do any better than refer the hon. Member to the comments of the independent National Infrastructure Commission, which has said that it expects the Government to meet the target if installations continue to grow at the current rate of 30% a year, as they have in recent years.

In relation to the zero-emission vehicle mandate, the hon. Member suggested that it would somehow take longer to charge because of the removal of the ban from 2030. It is possible that there will be a very slight effect in that way, but it is also important to note that the substance of the mandate and its particular regulations for the provision of electric vehicles on the road have not changed. We would therefore expect that to drive the installation of electric vehicle chargers.

The hon. Member highlights that a relatively large percentage of current charge points are not covered in the regs. Of course, a decision has had to be made as to what is the cost-effective rate at which to require retrofitting. Having done a lot of consultation with the industry, and precisely based on a desire to incentivise the maximum speed of installation, which the hon. Member emphasised, the Government have decided to strike the balance so that 7 kW chargers and below are exempt from having to provide for contactless payments. Again, that is a trade-off that has to be made to achieve the faster rates of investment and installation that the hon. Member seeks.

The hon. Member is right to raise the question of enforcement, which is obviously important. Regulations are nothing without enforcement. The OPSS will enforce the regulations, as he says, and it has the capacity to apply financial penalties where necessary. It is actually a very good choice of enforcement agency, because it has a strong reputation and already enforces the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulations 2017 and the Electric Vehicles (Smart Charge Points) Regulations 2021, which contain provisions on charge point data and payments. It is therefore already familiar with enforcing data and payment requirements on electric vehicle charge points, and so is well placed.

My question was actually about the capacity of the office. Hopefully there will be hundreds of thousands of charge points in the near future. How will they achieve enforcement with current staffing levels? Are there plans to improve staffing levels? Has the Minister analysed whether current staffing levels are adequate to cover that enforcement?

On capacity, I was going to point out that far from being new to this area, the OPSS is already up to speed and enforcing it under other regulations. It has hit the ground running. However, it is recognised that this will be an improvement. The Government have therefore set up a technical working group so that Government agencies, industry members and technical experts can work together on this. The delay in the overall enforcement of the rules, as set out in the statutory instrument, allows an approach to enforcement that we think is suitable to the scale of the investment requirement and the enforcement challenge. Ministers will continue to monitor this with the OPSS to ensure that the capacity remains adequate to the target.

The hon. Member asked about confidence. He is absolutely right about the importance of confidence, and that is why the zero-emission vehicle mandate is such an important measure. It is not just a huge measure for decarbonisation; it is aimed at stimulating investment in the private infrastructure charge point industry, and that is what it is doing. He pointed to the multiplicity of apps, and he is right about that. There is always a point in the development of any market where it goes from being a series of attempted land grabs and moves for a particular position to one where there is interoperability and a level playing field. That is what these open data requirements are designed to do. I would expect there to be consolidation, as there has already been in the industry, as consumers increasingly focus on using the open data and the most effective apps for their needs.

The hon. Member mentioned grid capacity, which is an important issue. As I am sure that the industry will report, I have been vigorous in talking to colleagues and the district network operators about the importance of an adequate supply of charge to parts of the country that need it. Lots of work is under way in this area, and he is right to point out the need for cross-departmental co-ordination.

I share his frustration at the slow rate of progress on rapid charging points; I would prefer it to be much faster. There have been competition issues and complexities, because in rapid charging areas—many of them motorway service areas—there are significant complexities of ownership and control between the charge point operator, the motorway service area, the landlord and access. Those must be negotiated in each case. I am pleased to say that there are increasing levels of rapid charge in motorway service areas. It is useful and helpful that Tesla has opened up all its new charge points to all other manufacturers, so that the widest possible provision will be available there and elsewhere.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.