Skip to main content

Electoral Registration Data Schemes Order 2012

Volume 738: debated on Monday 25 June 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Electoral Registration Data Schemes Order 2012.

Relevant document: 2nd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, the order will provide the legal basis for a second electoral registration data-matching trial by enabling the sharing of specified data between the DWP and local authority electoral registration officers. An initial round of data-matching schemes took place in 2011 and, in the Government’s response to pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation on individual electoral registration and amendment to electoral registration law under Command Paper 8245 of February 2012, the Government announced that they were minded to use data matching to simplify the transition to individual registration for the majority of electors, subject to further testing this year.

Before I set out what the order does, perhaps I may provide the Committee with some background, with which I think most noble Lords present will already be familiar. All sides of the House agree that we need to improve our electoral registration system. We need to make the register both more accurate and more complete than it is at the moment. We need to ensure that it is not vulnerable to fraud but that people find it as easy as possible to register and are encouraged to register.

The Committee will recall that an initial round of data-matching schemes took place last year. The initial trials involved comparing the electoral register against other public databases in order to identify people who were missing from the register, which would then give an electoral registration officer the chance to contact them and find out whether they wished to be added to the register. The 2011 data-matching schemes were also aimed at identifying potentially inaccurate and/or fraudulent entries on the register. The electoral registration officer would then be able to take the necessary steps to remove them.

The evaluation of these schemes told us that further piloting work was required, and I shall say more about that in a few minutes. An unexpected benefit of last year’s pilot schemes was the discovery that it might be possible for a significant majority of existing electors to be confirmed as accurate to an acceptable standard by matching the electoral register against data held by the DWP. We hope that this will address one of the criticisms of some of our individual registration proposals, but there may be a risk of a reduction in the number of registered eligible voters. In the transition to individual registration, those electors whose details were confirmed through data matching would therefore be automatically placed on the new individual electoral registration register without having to make a new application.

We want to test this proposition in the pilots run under the order, but with a larger sample so that we have good, robust evidence. The instrument before us now will enable us to test the capability of the data-matching process to confirm existing electors on the register. It will involve a range of areas in England, Wales and Scotland. The results of the trial will be evaluated by the Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission and will enable us to confirm that this matching process will assist the transition to 2014 and enable us to find a process for carrying it out. I should add that the reason for not including Northern Ireland in this pilot scheme is that Northern Ireland already has moved to individual electoral registration.

The order enables the DWP to provide electoral registration officers with the data necessary for the data-matching schemes. The 14 local authorities planning to take part in the trial are listed in the schedule to the order. I should express my thanks and appreciation to them, and to the Department for Work and Pensions, for their constructive work to date.

The Committee may notice that there are 17 local authority areas in the schedule. Guildford and South Ribble are included not to take part in the confirmation testing but to pilot online electoral registration. It will not be piloted end to end, including the final verification process, as that would trespass on the House’s forthcoming deliberation on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, but we will look at front-end data collection. That will enable us to get some idea of how many electors might wish to take up an online method of electoral registration. We will also be able to see whether there are particular segments of the population for whom that method of registration would be most attractive. That will enable local authorities to gain a better idea of the different channels that people will use to register, and it will help some segments of the population that are currently not as well registered as they might be. This includes young people, who we suspect are much the most likely to wish to register online.

Since the draft order was laid, Colchester council has, unfortunately, had to withdraw from the pilot schemes. That does not affect the validity of the order, because inclusion in the schedule does not compel authorities to take part. Nor will it affect the validity of the eventual results of the pilot schemes, because there are enough local authorities taking part in the pilots for the results to be robust from a research perspective.

The draft order stipulates that before any data can be transferred, a written agreement must be in place between the ERO and the DWP setting out the requirements as to the processing, transfer, storage, destruction and security of the data concerned. It also sets 30 June 2013 as the date by which each of the schemes must have been evaluated by the Electoral Commission. After the pilots have ended and the evaluation has been completed, the personal information and data created and held for the purposes of the pilot schemes will be securely destroyed.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has been consulted on the draft order and has commented that if the schemes carried out under it confirm the results of the previous pilots, the transition to individual registration will be simplified and many individuals will not be required to provide additional personal information.

As mentioned earlier, the evaluations of last year’s pilot schemes also concluded that further trials were needed to ascertain the potential of data-matching to identify potential electors who are missing from the register. The order will also enable such schemes to be carried out in some areas, but if it is decided to extend the schemes to include further areas or datasets, a separate order will be laid before your Lordships at a later date.

With regard to the order before us today, I hope that Committee Members see the merits of this second trial and the benefits that it will have for strengthening our electoral registration system and ensuring that it is complete as well as accurate. I hope that the Committee will approve the order.

My Lords, I wonder at the outset whether the Minister might be prepared to make a short statement of principle about the purpose behind the orders. What I want to hear particularly is that the underlying purpose is at least as much about the completeness of the electoral register as it is its accuracy. That will be crucial in approving the direction in which the Government are travelling.

Perhaps I may ask him specifically about the decision not to provide a full regulatory impact assessment of the orders. The Government state that there should be no impact on the private sector, but potentially reducing significantly the completeness of the electoral register could have a big impact there. I know that the credit reference agencies have made a number of representations to the Government on this issue. We think nowadays about the way in which many businesses do business. They do it online over the internet; they provide goods and services to people to addresses that people fill in online. If they are unable to check the accuracy of those addresses, as they generally do on the electoral register, there could be a detrimental impact on business if we fail on the key issue of completeness of the electoral register.

It seems to me that the success of the transition to individual electoral registration will be hugely important for elections post the general election due in May 2015. It will be less important for the election of May 2015 because of the carry-forward provisions, but will be hugely important for elections in future. It will be hugely important to the boundary review process for future boundary reviews—not the present one, based on the current registration process—but for those due to begin on 1 December 2015. Will the Minister confirm that it is crucial to have independent verification of the success of the move towards independent electoral registration, of which these instruments are a part, before it is considered safe to proceed either with elections under the new system or with future boundary reviews?

I have a question on a detail that emerged from the previous pilots which the Minister now suggests will be addressed in future pilots. It was discovered in the initial pilots that quite a few people were eligible to be on the electoral register. The DWP database showed clearly beyond any reasonable doubt that these people were entitled to be on the electoral register, but they were not on it. I understand from the order that in future pilots, if people are entitled to be on the electoral register and it is clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that they should be on it, they will be chased to get them on to it. That would seem to be commendable, but if we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone should be on the register, why should we chase them to get them on to it?

I can see that if we followed models that I have advocated in the past that require a signature as part of the registration process, you could chase these people for a signature. However, if the DWP database has their national insurance number, name and address, and all satisfactory methods show that they should be on the electoral register, why chase them? If they are to be chased, how do we know that they will be chased effectively and consistently? It would be a great shame if, in chasing these people, some individual electoral registration officers sent a very cursory letter and left it at that, while others used best practice and perhaps sent a series of repeat letters or e-mails pointing out the likely future sanctions if people failed to comply with what will be a legal requirement. In making sure that this works effectively, there will probably be a requirement for ring-fenced funding for local authorities to make sure that they do their job in relation to this. I very much look forward to the Government’s and the Electoral Commission’s evaluation of these pilots.

My Lords, I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak in this Grand Committee debate on the Electoral Registration Data Schemes Order 2012. I say at the outset that I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.

I advise the Committee that I am a member of the Electoral Commission, which commented on this order earlier this year and which will evaluate the pilot schemes when they come to an end. I hope that the Government are in listening mode today. It is fair to say that they did not listen very much last time, which is part of the reason why we are back here today with a second set of orders. The last set of pilots was unclear. The pilots did not have a common methodological framework, which made it difficult to evaluate their effectiveness as a data-matching tool to prove complete accuracy of the register.

As has been said, the Government decided to speed up the IER process. Let us be clear, IER is already on the statute book. It was brought in by the previous Labour Government. The Minister needs to provide the Committee with proper assurances that everything is being done to make the register more accurate and complete. These powers will assist the process and action can be taken following the process. My concern is that these proposals may well improve the accuracy of the register but that completeness will suffer, with the register being less complete. As has been said, accuracy and completeness are different things.

I ask the noble Lord to clarify a few things in his reply. Can he explain the methodology behind the pilots? Will they test the processes that will be made available to local authorities if they are rolled out nationally? Can the Minister comment on the management of the pilots, as well as on the staff and budget provisions? What are the proposals for communication between the pilots, data holders and the Cabinet Office? Perhaps I may also ask him to comment on how he sees the data-matching process being used to confirm the identity of existing electors and how he sees the confirmation process working.

I would not say that the Government have wrapped themselves in much credit on these matters so far. These are serious issues and I hope that the noble Lord will give a commitment to write to me in detail on the points I have raised today. I do not want to have to raise them again when the order reaches the Floor of the House, but I give him notice that I will do so if necessary. With that caveat, I look forward to his response.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the order. I guess that if I have one word of advice for him, it is, “Listen to the last two speakers”. I know that my noble friend Lord Kennedy was an agent and could get votes where no others were found. Sadly, to our detriment, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, also had a great ability for doing that—something for which I have never quite forgiven him. However, both noble Lords have a lot of wisdom and experience behind them in these matters.

We welcome this second set of pilots. Their aim is to ensure both the accuracy and, we hope, the completeness of the register, as both the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and my noble friend Lord Kennedy have said. I think that we all rather bemoan low turnouts in elections, but of course the true level of participation would be lower if we took into account the votes of those who would be eligible to vote if only we could catch them all. Clearly the Government have a responsibility to act to ensure that we find and register all those for whom our predecessors, particularly of my gender, fought so hard for the right to vote. Just a few days ago, we heard of the great yearning of the people of Burma for the right to vote, and that puts an onus on all of us to make sure that those who have won that right have the ability to cast their vote and to do so easily.

The order is part of the process of checking on the proposed way of building up individually compiled electoral lists so that everyone, with the minimum of difficulty, is able to cast a vote, and we welcome that. I do not have 20 questions for the Minister but I am afraid that I do have a dozen.

First, and most importantly, is the fact that we will not have the evaluation of these pilots until after the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill becomes law. Therefore, what happens if the pilots demonstrate real concerns over the process used, such that we doubt whether the 2015 register will really be complete and accurate? What happens if they suggest that there are still adjustments to be made so that, although the system could eventually work, it will not be robust in time for that election or indeed for the boundary review that comes just after it, to which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred?

Secondly, the evaluation will be held by both the Electoral Commission and the Cabinet Office, but what if their assessments vary? What discussion will take place in this House or the other place before individual registration continues, regardless of the outcome of the pilots?

Thirdly, there is still scope for additional pilots, but who would authorise them and would they be done in time?

Fourthly, what if the pilots were to indicate that extra resources were needed, either in particular localities or among particular age or other groups, to increase completeness? Will the Government respond to such an indicated need or will the pilots simply demonstrate the problem but not lead to solutions?

Fifthly, is the Minister satisfied that the spread of authorities is sufficiently varied to produce robust findings? The one that pulled out would obviously have had many students in its area, so some assurance about the student population in the others would be useful. Are there any provisions for any sort of understudy in case one of the remaining 14 was to pull out?

Sixthly, when this was debated in the other place, the question of a register for a Scottish referendum was raised—needless to say, by a Scottish Member of Parliament. Being equally parochial, on Friday I had been planning to ask the Minister whether the new register would be available in time for a referendum on the reform of the Lords, especially one on the electoral system to be used in selecting the new senators, given that the Government gave us a referendum on the election system for the House of Commons. However, having heard over the weekend that there is, I gather, going to be no referendum, either on the electoral system or on this major, significant constitutional change, I have a more minor question to ask instead. Will the Members of your Lordships’ House be able to vote for the elected one-third of the House in May 2015 and, if so, will we be caught by the data-matching pilots?

Seventhly, the impact assessment for the individual electoral registration Bill suggests that the,

“accuracy of the register … in the long run”,

should increase to 95% and its completeness to 85%. Are the Government content with 85%?

Eighthly, what do the Government estimate that the 2015 figure will be, in the light of likely results from these pilots? The worst-case scenario in that impact assessment is for the register to be less complete in the short term, with accuracy falling in 2014-15.

Ninthly, is this order the limit of the work going on to improve individual registration or are the Government also looking at Royal Mail, schools or other data which may be far more complete? Maybe the Government are now regretting pulling out of ID cards; I am sure that the Minister will not want to comment on that.

Tenthly, the Minister may well be aware that the Electoral Commission has continuing concerns about the current round of pilots, as was partly outlined by my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and whether those pilots will be robust enough for the commission to undertake its statutory role of evaluation so that it can inform policy and practice on electoral registration. As has been mentioned, this is particularly about methodology. Can the Minister assure the Committee that the pilots will be delivered to an agreed methodology?

Eleventhly, are the pilots sufficiently and appropriately staffed to undertake, report on and analyse the exercise? I know that the commission is also concerned about whether the schemes will allow for a definitive assessment of the confirmation of lists of DWP data, given the complexity of the task. Can the Minister give some assurances that further work will be undertaken if needed as a result of the pilots?

Finally, should anything like the worst-case scenario occur and the register become less complete, what steps would the Government take to mitigate this fall, whether by ongoing data matching or by other means? I hope that the Minister, or people close behind him, will be able to respond to most of those questions.

My Lords, I am tempted to start by saying that I now have writer’s cramp from attempting to write down all those questions as they were thrown at me. I remind the Committee that we all share an interest in this and I hope that it is very much an all-party concern that we should have as accurate and complete a register as possible. I think that we also all share an awareness that our electoral register has been becoming less accurate and complete, for a number of reasons. Young people have been moving around more and, in particular, I fear that a number of them are not actively interested in getting themselves on to the register. It has also been rather more difficult, particularly in some inner-city areas where people are in multiple accommodation and moving relatively quickly, to keep up with people as they move.

I think that we also all share an awareness that the issues about which people hold what data are moving very fast. The Government now collect a great deal of data that were not available for collection before. Private sources, from Experian to Google to Tesco, also collect a great amount of data, and there are some very large issues that we will have to deal with over the next few years about how that is handled and what privacy guarantees are introduced to hold on to the individual’s rights against what I see from one of my notes is regarded as the data-collecting state. In revising the register, we have to take all these different issues into account.

The purpose of the pilots is to ensure that individual electoral registration is as complete as possible. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, the issue of the impact on business and credit checks is one that we are aware of, but it is not something that many young people are aware of. When the Bill comes before the House we will have to discuss that in detail, because a lot of young people do not understand that your credit registration and the way in which business can operate with you partly depend on whether you are on the register. That is part of what may need to be an information campaign on all this.

There certainly will be independent assessment of the effectiveness of these bilateral pilots. I liked the question about what happens if the Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission come to different conclusions on this; if they did, clearly they would have to discuss and reconcile their evaluations of the schemes. Actually, it is highly desirable that there should be two different forms of evaluation. I remember going to talk, when I worked at a think tank, to the new research director of a major international company and him asking his predecessor, who was introducing me, why they needed advice from a think tank when the company had its own research department. The former head of the research department said, “Because you might want a second opinion”, and the same is true in this case. Involving both the Electoral Commission and the Cabinet Office is a good way of making sure that there is a second opinion and, if the second opinion is different, that will have to be reconciled.

I think that I understood the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, as saying that we might even think about putting people on the register automatically if they were found on the DWP database or, alternatively, only if they responded to follow-up letters or visits. Again, that is something that we will be discussing when the electoral registration Bill hits the Lords. It is an important and difficult issue, because it raises questions about citizen involvement and responsibility as opposed to individual privacy when it comes to this public database—indeed, one of the most important public databases that we have.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, that local authorities manage registers, and electoral registration officers work for local authorities. With these pilots, we are very much concerned to look at the completeness dimension. Last year’s pilots looked rather more at accuracy and I assure the noble Lord that it is very much a concern of ours that this should be as complete as possible. Combining my answer to him with at least one of the dozen or so questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that I wish to answer, I remind noble Lords that electoral registration officers already make use of a number of data sets that are available to local authorities. These include the register of births and deaths, council tax records, registers of households in multiple occupation, local land and property gazetteers, housing benefit applications, lists of persons in residential and care homes and, when allowed, details of attainers—those aged 16 or 17—held by education departments.

In Northern Ireland, the move to individual electoral registration has led to an improvement in the completeness of 18 year-olds coming on to the register because authorities have worked actively with Northern Irish schools to encourage 16 and 17 year-olds to come on to the register and to check names as they arrive. There are problems in some English local authorities where there are district and council authorities and the ERO belongs to one authority and the schools belong to another. That, again, is a question we might wish to discuss further when the Bill comes to the House. However, in looking at completeness, we hope that the use of secondary schools and 16 and 17 year-olds will help to ensure completeness in one of the precise areas where we are worried about the number of people who put themselves on the register.

Are we confident that the methodology in place this time is sufficiently robust to deliver successful pilot schemes? We are confident. We have adopted a more prescriptive approach to the pilot methodology than was possible last year. There is clear guidance for each of the pilot areas, on the basis of which we hope to draw robust conclusions from the evidence. We have developed the methodology in liaison with the Electoral Commission and we have asked all the pilots to agree to the methodology before they start work. That means that we have started work on developing a more sophisticated algorithm to reduce the resource intensiveness of the process for electoral registration officers.

As to the purposes of these orders, the impact is limited to the pilots and not beyond. Again, we will return to many of these issues when we are discussing the Bill. Are more pilots needed? This is an on-going process in consultation with the Electoral Commission and if more pilots are needed—and the area of young people is one that we are particularly concerned about—we will continue to a further pilot. Are we satisfied with the spread of authorities? We are satisfied that we have a sufficiently robust spread of authorities. One or two extra rural authorities might have been more appropriate—in the other place, the question of Scottish rural authorities was raised—but this is a fairly good spread across all three countries and across a range of different authorities. We are confident that this will give us a fairly strong result.

I am afraid that I am unable to say at the moment whether Peers will be able to vote in 2015 for the third of this House that will be elected. I was happy to hear the noble Baroness say “will be elected in 2015”. I promise to buy her a drink after she and I have been to vote on that occasion—if and when we have been allowed to do so.

Are there any other questions that I should have answered? Will further work be undertaken? We have said yes, it will. On the question of whether the new register will be ready for the Scottish referendum, we are determined that the same basis for the register will be in place throughout the country for each election. The impact of the pilots will not be used for a different foundation for the electoral register from one local authority to another. The purpose of these pilots, which have been worked on with the Electoral Commission and others, is to ensure, as far as possible, that everyone in the country and in different political parties has the maximum confidence that the new register is both as accurate and as complete as possible. We shall return to this issue if we need more pilots—it would require another order—and when we discuss the individual Electoral Registration Bill in the House.

Motion agreed.