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Elections (Fresh Signatures for Absent Voters) Regulations 2013

Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Elections (Fresh Signatures for Absent Voters) Regulations 2013.

Relevant document: 1st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

I congratulate the Lord Chairman on his optimism in estimating the timing. In moving the Elections (Fresh Signatures for Absent Voters) Regulations 2013, I shall speak also to the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) (Fresh Signatures for Absent Voters) Order 2013. These measures arise from consultation with electoral registration officers and others on timing and the most convenient way to handle the transition from the current system to individual electoral registration.

The fresh signatures regulations amend provisions concerning the requirement for absent voters to provide a fresh signature at five-yearly intervals for the purposes of UK parliamentary, local government and European parliamentary elections in England, Wales and Scotland. The order concerning the National Assembly for Wales makes similar provision in relation to elections to the National Assembly for Wales. The purpose of the instruments is to move the timing of the absent voter signature refresh due in January 2014 in Great Britain, and that due in Scotland in January 2015, so that both are held in August 2013. This will avoid the refreshes that are scheduled to take place during the transition to individual electoral registration taking place at the same time as canvass activity by electoral registration officers, which could result in confusion for electors.

The Electoral Administration Act 2006 provided for the use of personal identifiers by absent voters to strengthen the security of absent voting. Under the Act, applicants for a postal or proxy vote must provide personal identifiers—their date of birth and signature—which are retained by EROs. Postal voters are required to provide these personal identifiers when voting by post at subsequent elections. Returning officers will carry out checks on the personal identifiers provided at elections, and if they do not match with those originally given the postal vote is deemed invalid.

Under electoral law, electoral registration officers are required by 31 January every year to write to absent voters whose signature is more than five years old—in other words, long-term absent voters—to request a fresh signature to ensure that up-to-date signatures for absent voters are kept by EROs. Long-term absent voters, I suspect, include a number of people in this Room, certainly me, as I am never quite sure whether I will be in Yorkshire or London when it comes to voting. Many of us will be affected by this. This is important, given that a person’s signature may change over time and a postal vote cast at an election may be declared invalid if the signature on the postal voting statement does not match that held by the ERO on the personal identifiers record. Dates of birth do not change or degrade, so those are not required to be refreshed.

The Government have discussed with electoral stakeholders the timing of absent voter signature refreshes in Great Britain in 2014 and 2015 during the transition to IER. As noble Lords will know, we have provided that the 2013 annual household canvass period, which would otherwise have taken place between July and December 2013, will now run from 1 October 2013 and result in a revised register being published by 17 February 2014 in England and by 10 March 2014 in Scotland and Wales. Noble Lords will remember that we discussed this previously. Thereafter, the Government’s plan is for the transition to IER to begin in the summer of 2014 in England and Wales, with the first transitional canvass published at the usual time for revised registers—by 1 December 2014. Following confirmation that the referendum in Scotland will be held on 18 September 2014, the Government intend that the transition to IER there will take place after that poll. The 2014 canvass period in Scotland will be postponed to begin on or around 1 October 2014 and finish with the publication of the first transitional canvass there early in 2015.

There was a general concern among electoral stakeholders that combining an absent vote signature refresh with canvass activity during this period could be confusing for electors. Electors, for example, could receive from their ERO a letter that confirms their registration and explains that no action is needed to remain registered and to retain their absent vote but at the same time be asked to provide a fresh signature for absent voting purposes, where failure to respond means the loss of the absent vote. Therefore, having the refresh before these letters go out will provide a more logical and understandable sequence. The Government have listened to the views expressed by the EROs and agree that the interests of voters would be better served by moving the signature refresh scheduled for January 2014 in Great Britain to take place before the 2013-14 household canvass.

After discussions with the Scottish Assessors Association, we propose that the signature refresh scheduled for January 2015 in Scotland should also be moved to 2013 to avoid the possibility of it occurring at the same time as IER activity by EROs there in January 2015. The signature refresh in January 2015 in England and Wales is to be left unchanged as this issue only arises only for Scotland. The instruments we are considering today make the necessary amendments to electoral law to provide for the signature refreshes to be moved as I have outlined above. It may be helpful if I briefly explain the changes made by the regulations.

Regulation 2 amends the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 to provide that absent voters for UK parliamentary and local elections in England and Wales who would otherwise be requested by the electoral registration officer to provide a fresh signature in January 2014 will instead be requested to do so between 1 and 19 August 2013. Regulation 3 similarly amends the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001 in relation to absent voters for UK parliamentary and local elections in Scotland, although it applies to such absent voters who are due a signature refresh in 2014 or 2015. Regulation 4 makes provision for these changes in relation to absent voters in Great Britain and Gibraltar by amending the European Parliamentary Elections Regulations 2004.

The National Assembly for Wales order follows very similar purposes. I hope that noble Lords will accept that it may not be necessary to go into similar detail on the National Assembly for Wales. I fear that on one or two occasions I did not check in my notes when I should refer to England, England and Wales or Great Britain and Scotland. From my notes, I think there is at least one occasion when I referred to Great Britain when I should have referred to England or England and Wales, for which I apologise. Nevertheless, I hope that noble Lords have followed me through the intricacy of these regulations.

These instruments make sensible and appropriate changes to avoid any potential confusion for absent voters in the transition to individual electoral registration, and to ensure that signatures are updated for absent voters ahead of the polls in 2014 and 2015 across the whole of Great Britain—and in this case, it does mean the whole of Great Britain. I beg to move.

My Lords, I rise to talk briefly about this order and then I will ask my noble friend one or two questions. The Electoral Commission has asked us to ask for certain assurances from the Government. The explanation given by my noble friend covers what it has said but others may refer to that. The proposals as set out seem entirely sensible as a practical way of getting to grips with the very complex and quite large number of processes that local electoral registration officers have to carry out to introduce individual registration. Moving the date of the five-yearly renewal of postal voters’ signatures seems sensible.

While we are talking about postal voters and signatures, it seems a reasonable opportunity to ask my noble friend where the Government stand on a number of related issues. I hope that he will bear with me on this. First, what was the result of the first round of getting fresh signatures after five years, which I think started earlier this year, in January, and took place in the spring before this year’s local elections? I am interested in the proportion of people throughout the country who have postal votes. My noble friend can define “country” as he wishes. I am interested in England but also in knowing what happens in other parts of the United Kingdom. What proportion of the people who previously had postal votes submitted new signatures, and so maintained their registration, and what proportion fell out for whatever reason? I am interested in whether that information is available at the level of electoral registration authorities—that is, local authorities and district councils.

Secondly, to what use are the signatures put when people send in their postal votes? Is the information available, or will it be available, on how many postal votes are not counted due to the information on the postal vote statements, which are submitted with the postal votes, not matching? That is, if the signatures on the application for postal votes, whether it is the original application or the refresher we are talking about today, do not match the signature that is submitted with the postal vote; or, indeed, if the dates of birth or the electoral numbers do not match, which is quite possible. Is that information known? In other words, do we know for each election that takes place how many postal votes are not rejected or even counted but are put to one side and not put into the count? Clearly, that is an indication of people losing their vote, either because they have made a mistake or because of electoral fraud. Given that this is the basic reason why signatures were introduced for postal votes, it seems to me that having that information would be very useful.

Thirdly, if the returning officer in an election is concerned that discrepancies of the kind I have just been talking about could be a result of electoral fraud, is the Government’s advice to him to investigate those further, to refer them to the police or just to put them to one side and ignore them?

One of the things that I have been going on about in your Lordships’ House for some time is the need for a system to inform electors if, for any of the reasons we have been talking about, particularly discrepancies regarding signatures, their vote is not being counted. If an elector does not know this is happening—for example, if there is fraud they may not know that they are being defrauded, or if there has simply been a mistake—they are being deprived of their vote for reasons that might technically be their fault but are certainly not deliberate on their part. That does not seem very fair. I understand that the Government intend to give advice to returning officers on this matter. Can my noble friend tell me when that might be done?

To put this in context, in the county council elections this year in my own borough of Pendle, which is part of Lancashire where there are six county council seats, the operation of the elections and the counting of the votes took place at borough level. In total, 302 postal votes were returned but not counted because either the signatures or the dates of birth did not match. My noble friend said that dates of birth do not degrade or change. I am not sure what “degrade” means in this context, but it is a nice word. However, it is not entirely true because people born in third-world countries, including Pakistan, may not know their date of birth, so what they put down may be a bit arbitrary. Often they write 1 January of the year in which they think they were born, but they might not even give that date. Dates of birth may not be known and people do not get them right all the time.

There can be a mismatch of signature, a mismatch of the date of birth, or both, or the ballot paper may have been returned in an envelope whose number did not match. As noble Lords will know, it is a complicated system. There is a little envelope and a big envelope and they must both have the same number on them. No fewer than 61 postal votes were rejected because they were wrong. In fact, quite a lot of votes come back in the wrong envelope because, for example, an elderly couple might mix up the envelopes and ballot papers. People on the ground will keep those to one side and try to match them up as best they can. Even so, some are not counted. It worked out at around 4% of all the postal votes that came in. That was the position in just one recent election.

These are important and interesting issues that need to be tackled if the exercise we are considering in these regulations is to work as efficiently as it might. I look forward to what the Minister has to say. He may not have all the information to answer all these questions today, although I did submit them to him earlier. However, I would be grateful for a letter and for him to place a copy in the Library of the House.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction. His speech provided dignity, if not poetry, to the bureaucratic vocabulary and procedure. Refreshing signatures means that we wish to avoid fraud. I would say to the Minister that if we put Wales into a statutory instrument, would we not expect, for the sake of accountability, to be given the full details concerning Wales in the debate in this Committee? The Minister attempted to gain an alibi of the best kind in what he said. I picked that up and I make my protest as gently, honourably and courteously as I can, knowing that he always brings nobility and dignity to our procedures.

I want to raise a point of detail concerning the refreshment and checking of signatures. What is the process here? Does an employee of a local authority literally match the signatures, or is it done by mechanical means? Is it possible for us to be given an explanation of how the signatures are handled? After all, that is the basis of what the Minister has brought before the Committee. I am sure that his department will have spotted such a question coming from noble Lords, and I think it is a reasonable request. In order to make progress, I shall sit down.

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the indulgence of the Committee in order to congratulate the Minister not only on having sung at the Queen’s Coronation 60 years ago, but on his role in the Abbey today to commemorate that occasion. I am sorry that we are not seeing him in all his glory this afternoon. When I was a student, we used to move that the minister “do now sing”; maybe I should not do that.

On the two statutory instruments, including the one for Wales, one of the questions is quite similar to one raised by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves: how many absent votes does the Minister estimate are covered by each of these two SIs? In other words, how many that would normally be written out in Wales and England are covered by this?

Related to that, what is the Government’s assessment of the number of likely renewals, particularly given that these are going out in the August holiday period? That has been a worry for the Electoral Commission, and is a worry as, not only is your Lordships’ House on holiday during the first two weeks of August, but so are many other people.

Although the word “stakeholders” was used by the Minister, what is the view of the political parties of this proposal? As I mentioned before in Committee, they are rather expert on all of this, as has been evidenced by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, this afternoon.

In the form that will go out on the mere matter of the refreshment of the signatures, will there be any advance notice about the move to individual electoral registration? In other words, is it part of the preparation that is being made? I know that the Electoral Commission still has some concerns over the October 2013 annual canvass date and what impact it might have on absent voters. We would be interested to know what the Government’s response to the issue raised by the Electoral Commission has been. In general, however, we support the regulations and the order.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her compliment, although the compliment I have really liked over the past two or three weeks has been from those who have said that they find it difficult to believe that I could have sung at the coronation because I look far too young. I am sorry that she missed that one.

These regulations are important because we are all concerned to get the transition to individual electoral registration right. We will in time bring some further regulations back to the Committee. While many of them seem incredibly technical and complex, it is important that we manage to end up with a new register that is as complete and as accurate as possible. The integrity of the electoral register is also an important matter.

I remember many years ago my noble friend Lord Greaves raising in the House the question of postal vote fraud in open elections and getting a very dusty response from almost all Benches on the grounds that this was not considered a serious problem. It is now a good deal better understood that this has, in a number of highly localised areas, been quite a serious problem that was not fully picked up and has not attracted the level of prosecution that one really ought to have seen. However, it is one that these identifiers are intended to pick up.

I will try to answer some of these difficult questions. On dates, and when one does the write-around and the canvass, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, will recall that we had a discussion as to when it was most useful to do the house-to-house canvass, and I wrote to her in the spring to point out that I had in some ways misled the Committee by suggesting that March was a good time to go around house by house, because there was deep snow in Saltaire past Easter Day. Whatever we do, there is never a perfect answer, but we are trying to do our best on all of this.

I will try to answer some of my noble friend Lord Greaves’s questions, and then promise that I will write to him on others. He will of course know that many of these statistics are not collected centrally. Electoral registration officers are local appointees and the administration of voting is still a local authority matter.

I am told by my local electoral registration officer that there is something called a Form K, which I have never seen, which is submitted after an election. She is in the process of doing it now for the county elections, I think, and it does include a lot of this information. I presume it goes to the Electoral Commission.

I hope that it does. I will do my best to investigate and come back to the noble Lord on that.

I am told that approximately 150,000 postal votes have been rejected at each recent national poll across Great Britain—I hope that does mean across Great Britain—because one or more of the personal identifiers on the postal voting statement did not match those originally submitted or because one or more of the identifier fields had been left blank. Statistics on rejection rates are recorded by returning officers and are submitted, perhaps on Form K, to the Electoral Commission for collation. Although figures for the May 2013 local elections are not yet available, I understand that the Electoral Commission plans to publish information on turnout once all these data have been received and collated.

On the question of getting fresh signatures after five years, we do not hold this information centrally. I hope it will be considered helpful that, according to my team, one ERO spoken to has told us that in his or her area in 2012, out of nearly 22,000 electors sent a postal vote refresh notification, some 1,800 did not respond and 565 said that they no longer wanted one. That gives noble Lords a level of the turnover in 2012, for which there are many reasons. In 2013, of 21,000 electors sent a postal vote refresh notification, some 4,355 did not respond and 934 said that they no longer wanted one.

That was very useful. However, the Minister said the first figure, 22,000, was from one ERO. He may not be able to tell us now, but is that from one whole constituency? I am trying to work out the percentage each January who would be likely to come up for signatures. The response rate is very useful but it would also be useful, if not now then later, to know what the 22,000 figure is as a proportion of the voters.

I understand that. The noble Baroness will know that the proportion of postal voters varies quite radically from one area to another. It is not a uniform pattern across the country. We will see what we can do to provide some more comparative statistics.

On the third of the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, it is for individual returning officers to judge whether a mismatched date of birth or signature gives them grounds to report the matter to the police. The Electoral Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers produce joint guidance for electoral administrators on electoral integrity, which includes such matters. Electoral administrators and the Electoral Commission have noted in recent years that the majority of mismatches appear to arise from inadvertent errors such as a deteriorated signature or the accidental completion of the date of birth field with today’s date.

The Government intend introduce a system to inform electors if ballot papers have not been counted. We introduced a provision in the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which will allow regulations to be made setting out the circumstances in which electoral registration officers must inform electors, after a poll, where their postal vote identifiers failed to match. EROs will have discretion not to write to individual electors where malpractice is suspected. This will not include situations where ballot paper numbers do not match those on the postal voting statement as electoral administrators already have the facility to unite ballot papers with the proper postal voting statements for them to be checked and counted where these are returned separately, for example where two people in a household inadvertently swap their ballot papers. We intend to introduce this provision for the polls in 2014.

I have just been advised that Form K includes various statistics but does not include refresh figures and goes to the Electoral Commission.

I hope I have managed to answer most of the questions. I am told that the area I cited was a whole local authority—thus several constituencies—so it is not an enormous proportion. The noble Baroness will be aware that, on the whole, postal votes account for about 15% of the electorate at the moment, so turning over every five years indicates that we are dealing with 3% to 4% a year on the whole.

The noble Lord, Lord Jones, asked about the process. It is IT-based. The original postal voter identifiers from the applications are scanned into a system designed for this. When a postal vote is sent in, the postal vote statement with it has space for a signature and a date of birth. It is scanned and the signature and date of birth are electronically matched or not matched. If they are not matched, a person then checks them manually to confirm whether there is a mismatch, and by “manually” I do not mean, as Peter Sellers once said, once a year.

The noble Lord’s speech is coming to a conclusion, but I mentioned Wales to him. Has he had any consultation with the Government in Cardiff about how they would respond to this debate?

My Lords, we have regular consultation with the authorities in Cardiff, and I am sure that we will continue to interact with them and, indeed, with the Scottish authorities in a rather different capacity. I discovered over the course of dealing with the Bill, and now the Act, that there is a very tight sub-community of electoral administrators who love talking to each other, who love talking to visitors at some length about the work they do and who work extremely hard, which means that interaction with them is very easy because they are very willing to help and explain.

I thank the noble Lord. There were a number of questions and some of the answers are coming at me from the Box faster than I can absorb them. I was asked whether it would be inconvenient for the signature refresh to be run during August. We recognise that it is not ideal, but it is essential that absent voter signatures are refreshed before the earliest time that EROs may start the 2013 annual canvass, which we have previously agreed will be from 1 October. For reasons that I have explained, the Electoral Commission has indicated that it is content with the policy objective and the drafting of the signature refresh regulations. We will, of course, monitor very carefully how this goes through, and if there is too much difficulty or too much failure to respond, we may have to adapt and try again. I rehearsed previously the reasons why we wish to start the household canvass earlier.

We are managing this transition very carefully and actively. I stress again that we see this as an all-party concern. We all want to achieve a new register that is as accurate and complete as possible in England, Scotland and Wales.

Will my noble friend confirm that if an elector gets a form before 19 August but returns it after 19 August because they have gone on holiday or for whatever other reason that will not debar them from continuing to have a postal vote and the form will be dealt with properly if they return it at the end of August or in September?

My Lords, under the instruments, EROs will have the flexibility to write out absent voters in the period from 1 to 19 August 2013. In line with the existing provisions for signature refreshes, EROs will give absent voters six weeks to respond from the date they are written to, with a reminder sent if necessary after three weeks. That seems to me to cover most of the people who are likely to be written to, although I have promised my wife that after the 2015 election I might take her on an eight-week cruise around the world.

Motion agreed.