Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, in moving the Electoral Registration (Disclosure of Electoral Registers) Regulations 2013, I wish to speak also to the Electoral Registration (Postponement of 2013 Annual Canvass) Order 2013. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 received Royal Assent on 31 January. It marks the first legislative step towards fulfilment of the coalition Government’s commitment to speed up the implementation of individual electoral registration (IER) so that it takes place in 2014-15, a commitment reaffirmed recently in the Government’s mid-term review.
The principle of IER has won cross-party support. Indeed, the change to individual registration was introduced into the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 in your Lordships’ House with cross-party support. In passing the ERA Act earlier this year, Parliament showed its intention to see the implementation done using a different plan and a different timetable. The transition to IER will begin in the summer of 2014 and the Government are planning that it will end with the publication of the first IER-only register in December 2015. I know that this is familiar to all those present as we spent a great deal of time debating all these issues. The legislation was altered in your Lordships’ House so that the end may come in either 2015 or 2016, with an order laid by the Secretary of State of the day required to conclude transition. I reaffirm the Government’s commitment to concluding the transition in 2015 in accordance with the implementation plan already published.
The two statutory instruments before the Committee today are key components of the transition to IER in preparing for the confirmation data-matching process. It is one of the important changes from the transition envisaged by the PPE Act 2009.
In their official response to pre-legislative scrutiny on IER, the Government announced that part of the transition would be a data-matching stage whereby all electoral registers in Britain would be matched against trusted public datasets. Where a positive match is made between an entry on the register and information in the dataset, that person may be “confirmed” as having an IER entry on the register because the electoral registration officer can have confidence that they exist and reside at that address. These people will not have to supply their personal identifiers—their national insurance number and date of birth—unless they move house and apply to register at their new address.
Preliminary findings from pilots of this data-matching system have been published on the gov.uk website, and suggest that approximately 70% of existing electors will be confirmed on the register through data-matching. This is slightly higher than the results of previous pilots, with results suggesting that we can be confident in the accuracy of the matching, both of which auger well for the success of data-matching in the transition to IER. Both instruments being considered today support that data-matching element of the transition in very important and practical ways.
Regulation 2 of the draft Electoral Registration (Disclosure of Electoral Registers) Regulations 2013, if approved, will allow EROs, working with the Government, to carry out a dry run of confirmation data-matching, so that we can be even more confident that the new system will work when it goes live in the summer of 2014. The regulations would enable the Lord President of the Council to require electoral registration officers to disclose the information on their electoral registers to him through a conduit specified in writing for the purposes set out in paragraph 1A of Schedule 2 to the Representation of the People Act 1983.
The conduit will be the IER digital service, which is currently being developed and will be able to carry out the secure transfers of data required for IER, including the confirmation data match. The service is not identified specifically in the regulations in order to allow for flexibility to handle risks around this data transfer, whereby any problem that arose in using the digital service could be dealt with by using a different conduit for data transfer without the need for changes to the regulations. The Information Commissioner’s Office has advised us that this is the best way to legislate for this kind of digital data-transfer system.
Regulation 2 also provides for the sharing of the information on the registers with the Department for Work and Pensions, where it may be compared against certain data held there and matched against the names, addresses and dates of birth. Date of birth is included because this is held by EROs in relation to attainers—those under 18 who will become electors during the life of the current register.
The personal identifiers that will be used as part of the verification process for IER—the national insurance number and date of birth—will not be disclosed under these regulations because they do not appear on the electoral register, with the exception of attainers’ dates of birth. This is also true of the full confirmation process in 2014, meaning that considerably fewer items of sensitive personal information will be transferred through the IER digital service and matched with DWP data than would be the case if confirmation data-matching was not being used as part of the transition to IER. Once the information has been matched at DWP, a match result will be sent back to the ERO. In the full confirmation process in 2014, this result will assist the ERO in deciding whether the person can be confirmed on the register, or if they should be invited to make an IER application.
In the dry run later this year, however, there will be no contact with electors. Instead, the EROs will have an indication of what their overall match rate for their local authority area will be in 2014, and therefore the extent to which they are likely to need to invite and process IER applications. They may also find that certain areas in their zone have lower match rates than elsewhere. In this case, they may, for example, feel that they can focus resources in areas with low match scores during the canvass period to ensure that the information on the register for those areas is up to date for the 2014 confirmation data match.
In order that this dry run and the 2014 confirmation data match can take place, these regulations would also allow local authorities to build up their IT resources and connect to the secure IER digital service in order that they can disclose their registers in the format and through the conduit specified by the Lord President, as they will be required to do Regulation 2(3). By setting up this IT infrastructure and having a dry run of the process this year, we can be confident that all the component parts are in place and all EROs are securely connected to it before the transition to IER and the full confirmation data-match in summer 2014.
Under the Electoral Registration Data Schemes (No. 2) Order 2012, this connectivity is already being set up in 22 local authorities in which pilots are being conducted. That work, under that order, will cease at the end of 31 March this year, though, and these regulations will enable it to continue in those authorities and to be rolled out to the rest of Great Britain. It is vital that this work is continued uninterrupted in the pilot areas and begins as soon as possible elsewhere, with these regulations in force from 1 April 2013.
Having described the context for the draft regulations at length, I now turn to the draft Electoral Registration (Postponement of 2013 Annual Canvass) Order 2013. The postponement of the annual canvass was also outlined in the Government’s response to pre-legislative scrutiny in February 2012. The purpose is to ensure that confirmation data-matching in summer 2014 is done using registers that are as complete and accurate as possible. We know that the completeness and accuracy of registers deteriorates over time at a rate of around 1% per month, so reducing the gap between the compilation of the register and the point at which the data are matched should improve match rates.
We announced that the canvass due to take place in autumn 2013 would be postponed so that the revised register would be published in early 2014, rather than December 2013. The draft order sets out the specific dates for the canvass and the publication, with canvass activity beginning from 1 October 2013 and the revised register being published on 17 February 2014 in England and on 10 March 2014 in Scotland and Wales. These publication dates represent the best balance between the benefits of delaying the canvass to improve the match scores and the need for electoral administrators and political parties to have the revised register published prior to local elections and European Parliamentary elections, due to take place in 2014.
The different dates for England and for Scotland and Wales reflect this point. As there are local elections due to take place in England on 1 May, the register will be published earlier there, whereas there are no such elections in Scotland and Wales so the register can be published later, as long as they are available in time to prepare for the European Parliament elections.
It is worth noting that, while 1 October is given as the date from which canvass activity may begin, this does not mean that registration officers must begin on that date. Indeed, many may feel that a shorter period, beginning in late October or early November would be more suitable for their district. By setting 1 October as the date after which canvass activity may take place, we are allowing EROs to be flexible in planning for their district. The October to February and March time frame is akin to the longest period in which we are aware of EROs carrying out canvass activity at present, from July to late November.
As set out in the Explanatory Memoranda for these instruments, formal consultation has been conducted with the Electoral Commission on both instruments, and with the Information Commissioner’s Office on the regulations. This is in addition to informal and ongoing consultation on these instruments and other delegated legislation with these organisations, as well as with the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Scottish Assessors’ Association, and the major political parties and other stakeholders.
These two statutory instruments, if approved, will play an integral part in preparing for the transition to individual electoral registration in 2014. Between them, they would set up the IT infrastructure for confirmation data-matching in summer 2014, enable a dry run of the process to be conducted in advance, and ensure that the registers used for the 2014 data-match are as complete and accurate as possible.
We have been through much of this in previous debates and, while passing, working through the ERA Act. I hope that Members of the Committee will recognise that the Government are continuing to work as well as possible, and as actively as possible, to make sure that we end up with as complete and as accurate an individual electoral register as possible, as we move through this transition.
My Lords, I have only a very small contribution to make, but with one practical improvement, which I hope the Minister will take back to those responsible, my contribution might be even more succinct and brief.
I am a member of the informal cross-party group of parliamentarians which advises the Electoral Commission and therefore very aware of the concerns the commission has had during this process. The Minister may know that both here, in Grand Committee, and in the Chamber I have been living with IER even longer than he has and it is beginning to wear me down. I hope that we are not going to have too many more of these splendidly erudite occasions.
My problem is the way in which consultation is undertaken. The Minister referred to the consultation with the Electoral Commission and this is referred to in the explanatory notes on the statutory instrument referring to disclosure of electoral registers in paragraph 8(1), where it reads:
“The Commission has recommended that it should be under an express duty to evaluate the confirmation trials, with a power to require those concerned to provide relevant information. The Cabinet Office and the Commission have discussed this point and have subsequently agreed that the general power to require a report, set out in primary legislation, is sufficient”.
Neither the explanatory note nor the document to which I am about to refer from the commission itself is dated; we do not know which comes before which. If that was the conclusion of the consultation with the Electoral Commission, it is therefore surprising that in the last few days those of us who are interested in these matters received directly from the Electoral Commission a document saying the following:
“We have asked the Government to confirm that it will request the Electoral Commission to evaluate the confirmation trials … in the debate on this Order in the House of Commons on 11 March, the Government did not give such assurances. The Commission cannot undertake the necessary evaluation without a direction from the Government. The Government should confirm that it intends to require the Commission to prepare a report under Section 53(6) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 on the operation of the confirmation process trials under these Regulations”.
My noble friend has laid great stress on the importance of these confirmation trials; I entirely agree with him and endorse everything he said. Who though will judge the validity of those trials if it is not the commission? As I understand it, from this brief from the commission, which as I say is not dated either, I do not know which comes before which. Was there a happy and successful conclusion to the discussions between my noble friend’s colleagues and the commission or was there not?
I am afraid the same problem arises under the other draft statutory instrument that we have before us, although perhaps on a more minor point. This is the very important question of what flexibility is given to the EROs to decide the gap between making their canvass in the autumn of 2013 and the new register in February 2014. The undated Explanatory Memorandum from my noble friend’s department says:
“The Commission recommended … the Order should be amended to specify that canvass activity should not begin before 1st November 2013, so reducing the period between the start of the canvass and the July 2014 confirmation exercise while still allowing meaningful canvass activity to start before Christmas 2013”.
That is at variance, again, with the advice given in the undated advice from the Electoral Commission in the last few days, where it still sticks to the point that it thinks the gap may well be too long and that giving flexibility to the ERO may actually cause the eventual result statistically to be less accurate and less effective.
My speech could have been cut into a quarter if these two documents had been properly dated. We are always asking for documents put before your Lordships’ House to be properly dated. It would seem to be the most basic and simple administrative convenience for Members of your Lordships’ House to know which document comes before which. I make that plea again and I hope that my noble friend, who is amazingly effective in getting civil servants to do what we expect of them—to be as efficient and effective as they usually are—will be more successful on this occasion than previously.
My Lords, I have to say that if the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has really been worn down by all these debates on IER, he is showing no sign of it whatever.
I thank the Minister for introducing these measures. I turn first to the disclosure regulations. The Committee will recall that we welcomed all the efforts made to locate and contact eligible voters absent from the register, and to confirm those already on the household list. We therefore fully support this dry run, which will assist EROs to compare their data against datasets kept by DWP and to test the confirmation exercises.
Noble Lords will not be surprised that I have a number of questions. I had hoped that if the exercise had revealed the names and addresses of people not on the current list, the ERO would then be able to write and invite them to register. The Minister said that there would be no contact, but I do not know whether that means that even if an ERO finds from DWP material someone who is not on the register, the ERO will be unable to approach that person. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that.
We know that the Minister in another place confirmed the Government’s confidence that everything, including the resources, is sufficiently in place for this work to happen within the required timescale. Perhaps he can repeat that assurance for the benefit of the Committee, together with any comfort that he has received from the Electoral Commission.
The other issue that I had intended to raise was that mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler—to ask Minister to confirm that the Electoral Commission will be required to evaluate these pilots and therefore to report back to the House.
Will the Minister also confirm that the regulations will give the necessary authority for all the relevant parties to release the data necessary for this work? Perhaps he can also assure the Committee that all the relevant parties involved will be clear about their duties and responsibilities under the Data Protection Act before any data-sharing begins. Perhaps he can set out what safeguards are in place to protect individuals’ data security. We noted in previous discussions on individual registration that some people, including those in your Lordships’ House, tend to register their vote at one address but use another address for correspondence. That will clearly be a major issue when using the DWP material. Perhaps the Minister can outline how this is to be dealt with in the pilots.
I turn to the second measure, on the postponement of the 2013 household canvass, which is now to be published in England in February 2014, and in March in Scotland and Wales. The Minister will recall my sadly unsuccessful attempt to remove from the then ERA Bill the ability of the Secretary of State to abolish the canvass. That is an indication of how important we see this tool in seeking out and registering all citizens with an entitlement to vote. Clearly, this will be even more important in the move to IER, which will fully replace the household register only in 2016. I ask the Minister to confirm that he is confident that the Government’s plans will ensure that by 2016 we will have a better register than we have at present, and that the Government remain clear that there will be no dropping of the household register before 2016.
We are very content that the Government push ahead with locating non-registered but eligible electors, so that by 2016 we have the maximum possible number of individually registered electors by a variety of means and no one is inadvertently denied their vote in 2016. But we seek assurance that any such work is not with the idea of bringing forward sole reliance on the individual rather than household-registered electorate. In the mean time, however, while we remain with household lists, as the Minister has said that registers decline in accuracy by about 1% a month, we are content with the canvass taking place slightly later—provided that the information is then made available to political parties as soon as possible thereafter, so that their work on the lists can begin, as he mentioned. This is key. The Committee knows that much of the business of alerting voters to the fact that they are or are not on the electoral roll is done by political parties, as the voting cards tend to go out only a short time before an election. It will be more and more important, with the gradual shift to IER, for parties to have early and easy access to the new registers so that they can undertake their canvass work and so that anyone left off can be identified in time to rectify that absence. We also need, as early as possible after the delayed canvass, publication, perhaps monthly, of a rolling register, showing IER flags.
We know that the ERA allows for transfer to IER to be completed by the end of December 2016, which is a sensible date. The Committee will understand that we remain a little nervous. The Act retains a power to hurry it through earlier than that, but we hope that the Government are not trying to do that, given the risk of losing eligible voters. We would also query—and this was another point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler—whether there is a satisfactory way in which to judge whether the 2016 date is appropriate to complete the transition. We would like to know what criteria would be applied and what would be the role of the Electoral Commission in such a process. Under the Labour Government’s legislation on IER, the Electoral Commission had a pivotal role in deciding whether progress had been sufficient to create safe conditions for the final move to be made. This Government removed that role, but surely the commission must have a duty to press the “Go” button, if that decision is to clearly non-political and based on solid data.
Perhaps I could use this opportunity to ask the Minister two questions.
Yes, but I once asked the noble Lord 16.
First, are the Government committed to the December 2016 timetable? Secondly, will they await a commission pronouncement on whether the conditions are right before making the final transition to IER? We assume that a core criterion for assessing those conditions is whether, as the Minister says, the electoral register is at least as accurate as the current register, but we need that to be judged by an independent body, which surely can only be the Electoral Commission.
Finally, we return to the point of which we were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that the Electoral Commission remains concerned about an October rather than November start date. I noticed that, in introducing this, the Minister seemed to say that a later date might be more suitable. Perhaps he could clarify whether that reflects discussions with the Electoral Commission.
I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their contributions. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that this may not be the last SI on this subject and it is important, since this is such a key element, that we make sure that we have all-party confidence in the process as we go through. We are dealing with data-sharing in some sensitive areas, so we need to make sure that everyone is carried along.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, some of the questions raised are familiar to us from previous debates and will no doubt be repeated in further debates. Let me summarise: of course we want to ensure that, as we go through this important transition, we carry all parties and stakeholders with us, that confidentiality of data in terms of data-sharing is maintained, and that the Electoral Commission is fully engaged throughout the process.
On the flexibility of electoral registration officers in deciding on the canvass, as I said in my speech, some will decide not to start until November. I am tempted to say to those who live in the lush south, such as my noble friend Lord Tyler, that “it’s grim up north”. Canvassing in north Yorkshire in January and February is not always easy. My mother-in-law, when she lived in Upper Wharfedale, was usually snowed in for at least six weeks during that period. It will differ from area to area and this is why we are allowing EROs a certain amount of flexibility.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that this is a dry run. It is not intended to involve contact with electors. It is a confirmation test of how far we can get matching data with the DWP database and others so that we have a better indication of the scale of the remaining chunk of the electorate who need to be visited or contacted one way or another. That is the whole purpose of this activity. I repeat the assurance that we are on track. We are confident that we will be able to carry through this process by our preferred date of December 2015 rather than delaying until 2016. However, as the noble Baroness is well aware, we will be monitoring this as we carry it through. If we discover that there are delays along the way, there is the potential in the Act for that delay.
I have confidence in the Government’s digital service in terms of data sharing. I have spoken to staff in that service on a number of occasions and am very impressed by what they are doing. There are some larger questions here about data privacy, data sharing and data use. The Cabinet Office is in the process of setting up a briefing for Peers on the digital revolution. One of the issues that we will cover for that will be precisely data privacy and data protection. I hope that we will get a good audience for that because there are some much broader issues here than simply this Act which I think it will be useful to explore.
I was asked whether the new register will be better than the present one. Given everything I have seen about the long-term deterioration of the current register’s accuracy, I say cautiously that our aim is that the new register will be at least as good as the one we have now, and we will end the long-term process of deterioration from which the register has been suffering. The Government are thus confident that we will come through this process with as accurate and complete a register as possible.
The suggestion of flagging the status of the register on a monthly update is one that we will take away and consider further. On the question of annual canvasses, I reassure the noble Baroness that we have no plans to abolish the annual register to identify potentially eligible electors and invite them to register. However, as we have discussed on previous occasions, the process of doing the annual canvass is becoming more difficult over a long-term period. It is also getting more difficult to recruit people to do the annual canvass. That is something we need to bear in mind as part of a much longer-term transition of how we manage a process which was, after all, set up in the early 20th century and may not be entirely suited to the sort of built environment which we have in many areas of Britain. The resources are in place. The Government are committed to concluding the transition by the end of 2015, if all is in place. That will, of course, be subject to everyone with a stake in the process having confidence that this has been completed, certainly including the Electoral Commission, which has been closely involved so far and will rightly continue to monitor and comment as we carry through the process. I hope that I have answered all the questions. I will write to those who have contributed if there are any further questions that I have not answered. I commend the regulations.