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Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) 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 Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2013.

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

My Lords, the regulations were laid before the House on 8 May and make changes in four areas. They prescribe a canvass form, allow the names of those who have not returned their canvass form to be retained on the register for a period of two years following a canvass in certain circumstances, allow the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to share certain data with the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, and permit the chief electoral officer to require information from the Northern Ireland Office in relation to registration activity.

Noble Lords may be aware that the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 abolished the annual canvass in Northern Ireland. That Act introduced instead a process of continuous registration, under which the chief electoral officer uses information from other public bodies to identify those individuals who need to be registered on the electoral register or who need to amend their existing entry on it.

Following a report by the Electoral Commission highlighting a fall in the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register, the chief electoral officer has recommended that a canvass be held in 2013. This will ensure that the electoral register is in the best possible shape in advance of elections in 2014 and 2015. These regulations prescribe a canvass form, which is required in order for the canvass to be conducted in 2013.

The regulations also introduce changes which will improve the way the canvass operates, in line with recommendations in the Electoral Commission’s report. The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland will be able to retain existing entries on the electoral register where those persons have not returned the canvass form, as long as the circumstances make it likely that they are still resident at the address and their information is still accurate. For example, where a person has made an application to be registered in the previous 12 months, the chief electoral officer might be satisfied that it is likely that the person’s information has not changed since then.

The regulations also make two changes in relation to information sharing. First, they put the passing of information about new British citizens in Northern Ireland from the Northern Ireland Office to the chief electoral officer on a statutory footing. Previously that information was passed using common law powers. Secondly, the regulations permit certain information about electors that is collected by the chief electoral officer to be passed to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, both to assist the chief electoral officer in meeting his registration objectives and for statistical purposes.

Noble Lords may be aware that further changes to the canvass form have been brought forward in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which has recently had its First Reading in the other place. Those changes will provide more flexibility in setting the canvass form in future, as well as the possibility of giving the Electoral Commission responsibility for designing the form, in line with the position in Great Britain.

The Electoral Commission, the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, the Department of Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency and the Information Commissioner’s Office were all consulted on the detail of these regulations. A letter was also sent to all Northern Ireland parties represented in Parliament and the Assembly setting out the Government’s proposed changes to registration activity.

Recommendations for amending the regulations made by the Chief Electoral Officer and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency have been included. The Electoral Commission recommended a number of drafting amendments to the regulations, as well as changes to the prescribed canvass form. Where possible these recommendations have been incorporated.

I hope noble Lords can agree this piece of legislation which improves the electoral registration process in Northern Ireland and enables a canvass of electors to take place in Northern Ireland later this year. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

My Lords, I have a number of issues that I would like to raise with the Minister. She refers to the high number of inaccurate entries on the current register. In her wind up can she give the Committee some up-to-date figures as to what in her opinion the accuracy level of the register is at present? It is a continuous process but people perhaps become less exercised by it and do not follow through; if they move house and move around and so on, it is definitely an issue.

With regards to the reference that you are going to support research by NISRA into alternatives to the 2021 census, I think many people felt that the census was an extremely costly process. The information also decays very rapidly with time. Ten years is a long time in public policy and needs change. If it is possible to have a more accurate and running figure when one is making public policy and spending decisions, there is merit in that. Quite frequently we had to make decisions on the basis of previous censuses which obviously were very inaccurate by the time we got to them.

The Northern Ireland Electoral Commission also recommended changes to the way the canvass form is set, which would require primary legislation. The Government are considering this recommendation. Can the noble Baroness tell us where that thought process is at and whether the Government have decided to accept this recommendation? Will a law come forward?

The one issue to which I want to draw the Committee’s attention is that of confidentiality. We all know about the Census (Confidentiality)(Northern Ireland) Order 1991 but I have to tell noble Lords that there is considerable anxiety among many people that the spread of information—the number of agencies from which the information is both drawn from and goes to—means that a very large number of people have access to it. No matter what is said, given that lip service is always paid to confidentiality, I am not clear about what is actually being done about this, so I would be grateful for an indication of what processes and decisions to implement it are in place. The fact is that people are still being targeted and, sadly, we have seen evidence of that over the past six months. A number of people are nervous about having their names appear on the electoral register, and yet they are under a legal obligation to provide information for electoral purposes. That information will be spread around a large number of public bodies whether they want it or not. In the past, I have listened to Ministers say that it is an issue and they are looking at it but I am unclear as what has ever been done about it. It is an extremely difficult problem to solve. Once information is passed to public bodies, it is in the system where loads of people have access to it, and it is not clear to me how that information is controlled.

I would be grateful if the noble Baroness could address these issues in her response to the Committee.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her clear outline of the regulations. It is extremely important, particularly in Northern Ireland, that there is a continual process of encouraging people to register, despite the obvious difficulties quite rightly mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Empey. The issue of confidentiality is the only point I wish to raise.

Paragraph 8.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum explains that the Information Commissioner’s office made,

“recommendations in relation to the contents of the data arrangements between”,

various organisations and bodies in Northern Ireland. Is the noble Baroness able to share with us what those recommendations were, or at the very least at this stage say what the issues were that led the Government to further consider these recommendations? If she cannot do so today, perhaps she will write to me and the noble Lord, Lord Empey.

The Opposition Front Bench supports what the Government are doing here and would encourage them to make sure as best they can that people register and take part in the democratic process in Northern Ireland. I know that I have sprung a question on her, but if the information regarding the Information Commissioner’s Office is available and it is possible share it, I would be grateful.

I thank both noble Lords who have spoken for their contributions and those noble Lords who have attended and shown interest in this debate. I will do my best to answer the questions posed and, as ever, I will review the record afterwards and write to noble Lords who are here if I have any further information to add.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, asked about the completeness of the register and its accuracy. The parliamentary register is considered to be 73% complete and the local government register is considered to be 71% complete. The accuracy for both registers is considered to be 78%. That gives us 22% inaccuracy. It is in the interests of democracy that we make the register as accurate as possible because inaccurate names will not increase the turnout; in fact, they would probably do the reverse. Therefore, it is important that we have a very accurate register in Northern Ireland.

I am pleased that the noble Lord welcomed using NISRA for the census and approaching the census information in a different way. The recommended changes to the canvass form that he referred to are in the primary legislation currently before the other place: the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. They will allow very broad parameters to be set by government. The form will be designed by the Electoral Commission. In my view and that of the Government, that is very much more satisfactory because, after all, the Electoral Commission has a wealth of experience and its approach has been honed in other parts of Britain.

I shall go back to the census and the issue about confidentiality raised by both noble Lords. Part of the benefit of information sharing with NISRA is improving its ability to obtain information relevant to the census. Confidentiality is a difficult issue, as the Northern Ireland Office is very aware. There was a public consultation on anonymous registration, and provisions on it are currently being considered. It is important to bear in mind that people do not have to have their address advertised on the register in order to have the right to vote. They have a legal obligation to register to vote but do not have to have their address advertised. I emphasise that NISRA deals with census material under conditions of secrecy and confidentiality. Its staff are trained to a very high standard in this and are under considerable regulation in the way in which they handle that data, for the reasons that noble Lords outlined in their concern about confidentiality. The concern about sharing data is not new. It has existed for some time and therefore is not associated with these regulations.

Finally, I shall correct a slip that I made when talking about the Electoral Commission designing the form. It may design the form but will not necessarily do so. The legislation before the other place would permit it to do so.

I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Motion agreed.