Motion to Consider
My Lords, I have been asked by others involved in the ERA process how many more electoral statutory instruments there might be to consider. I am pleased to report that in the case of individual electoral registration the preparations for implementation in June are well advanced and it is anticipated that there will only be a handful of additional SIs during the remainder of this year.
The two short instruments before the Committee today will enable some fine-tuning, getting IER off to the very best possible start, which I am sure noble Lords will all welcome. Perhaps I should say, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, will convey this to his colleagues on the Labour Benches, that some of them still seem to be very sceptical about the transition to IER, but so far this has been a remarkable success story, as the matching has been more complete than we had expected. That is part of the reason why we are continuing to adjust as we take this process along.
The draft order makes a small change to allow the start of confirmation matching to begin nearly a week earlier, from 16 June to 10 June. We hope and expect this to increase, from 64% to 83%, the proportion of unconfirmed electors receiving these invitations to register during July, rather than in the holiday month of August, which we expect to deliver a significantly better response rate. This is surely a common-sense piece of fine-tuning and well worth doing.
The second instrument, the draft regulations, will enable the testing of the IER digital service to continue for as long as may be necessary before it goes live, ensuring that the system will be able to do everything required of it once IER begins.
The Grand Committee will have observed that the order and regulations amend existing instruments, some of which were made only quite recently. Given that these are two more instruments, why do we need to make these now and add to the rather large ensemble that we seem to be creating?
To explain, the changes that we propose build on work carried out over the past year. The regulations now being amended to extend the testing period were made in March 2013 so that we could conduct the dry run of the process for confirming existing electors. In planning this, we had regard to the principle that the use of personal data for testing should be limited to a defined period. Last year’s regulations therefore provided for exchange of data to end around now.
In addition, not having a crystal ball, when those regulations were made we could not have known exactly what the testing schedule for 2014 would be, partly because the contracts with electoral management systems suppliers were yet to be concluded. However, a simple change to the dates in last year’s order will ensure thorough testing before we go live. When the dry run took place across Great Britain last summer, we got much better results than we had expected, indicating that at the transition to IER it should be possible to confirm an average of at least 78% of the electorate.
We were able to discuss with electoral administrators and the Electoral Commission options for making best use of the results of the live confirmation run. The solution emerged to allow the start of the transition to be brought forward a week from 16 to 10 June. The 2013 transitional provisions order was already before Parliament and to have withdrawn it to amend that one date would have caused uncertainty about all the other aspects of IER covered by the order, impacting everyone working on electoral administration across Britain.
In conclusion, these two short statutory instruments before the Grand Committee today will each, in their own way, play a further constructive part in the successful implementation of individual electoral registration in Britain. I hope that all parties will welcome this and I commend them to the Committee.
My Lords, it is good to be back here again to discuss these instruments with the noble Lord. To start off, the noble Lord made the point about some of my colleagues having worries about this, some of which I share. I worry about the speed of the transition and about what will happen if things go wrong. The Government have quite rightly put a lot of emphasis on voter fraud and on accuracy, but sometimes I feel that we put less emphasis on completeness.
As I have said many times to the noble Lord here and in the Chamber, on estimate around 6 million people live in our country who are not on the register but are eligible to be on it. I do not see much evidence that much is going on to get them on to the register. The Government should address that, and quickly. It is of equal priority to anything else that we are doing.
In general I support IER. Many noble Lords will be aware that I am a former member of the Electoral Commission, so I know about the work that has gone on in the Government and in the commission to get this right. However, I will keep pressing the noble Lord on the question of completeness, because it is important that all citizens are able to take part in our electoral process.
As the noble Lord says, the two instruments before us today bring forward minor changes, bringing IER into effect. The first order amends a previous order and brings forward the earliest date for the matching of existing electoral registers with data held by the DWP from 16 to 10 June. That is fine as far as it goes and I hope that the process will go smoothly.
I note in the order that publicity is to be undertaken by the Electoral Commission, which is welcome. I have some knowledge of the work that the commission is doing on that. However, I am not convinced that that is going to be enough. The Government will have to look at what else can be done. This is an enormous change that is taking place. I do not know what they can do; maybe the noble Lord can tell the Committee what other plans the Government have, or look at more plans. I certainly think that we should look at things such as specific funding to local authorities to do extra work. Noble Lords will know that EROs employed by local authorities do lots of the extra work, such as going door to door, and it may well be that additional funding is needed beyond what they normally receive. If at the end of this process there are fewer people on the register than there are now, it will be matter of much regret—in fact, we should aim to get many more people on the register. Perhaps the Minister could look at that.
How will the Cabinet Office monitor the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register throughout the process and after transition to IER? The second statutory instrument deals with the IER digital service. We have no issues with that, but I return to the general point that I made at the start of my contribution: with such a major change taking place, are we doing everything possible to ensure that those citizens who are not on the register now will be on the register in future?
I thank the noble Lord for his comments. I was conscious when I answered a question on this matter the other week of how long we have all been involved in this. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield asked me whether I had thought about the problems in Kirklees and I realised that it was the summer before last that I had been in Holmfirth talking to the Kirklees electoral registration officer. We have been at this, preparing for it, with local electoral registration officers and others for quite some time now.
I shared a lot of the concerns that others had at the outset and I have to say that I am impressed by the thoroughness shown by people at both the local and the national levels in working through to make sure that the transition is a success. We have in some ways the advantage of being able to learn from the Northern Irish experience, where there was a certain drop as one moved from household to individual registration, and we are working on several different fronts to deal with that. As the noble Lord will be aware, the biggest single reason provided by surveys for why people do not register is that they are not interested in politics and do not want to vote. That means that all of us in politics have to be out there arguing that it is in their interests both to register and to vote. National Voter Registration Day the week before last was an autonomous voluntary initiative, with which the Government were very happy to co-operate, to push that issue further up the agenda. We are co-operating with a range of voluntary organisations to get at particularly difficult, vulnerable groups who are less likely to register. We will continue to do that. We expect everyone to keep us up to the mark on this. We have allowed in the legislation for a final parliamentary vote to approve the transition after the next election, but so far, so very good and so much better than I expected, and I do not see it failing.
It was suggested that we might be more concerned about accuracy than about completeness. We are of course very concerned about completeness, which is why we are so pleased with the success of the data-matching exercise so far. We are providing additional funding to maximise registration; we have just provided an additional £3.6 million to be distributed to every electoral registration officer according to levels of electoral under-registration to help them with the costs of local activities for maximising registration. I remind the noble Lord that the boroughs that come up with the largest amount of under-registration are not those that have the strongest Labour vote or the highest poverty index. Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster come high among them, partly because there is such a rapid turnover in the population and people do not get round to registering while they are there.
We are providing funds to EROs because we understand that they are best placed to determine what local activity is most effective in maximising registration levels. We are not mandating how they make use of this funding; a great deal depends on local circumstances. I was shocked to be told some 15 months ago that in Wandsworth, for example, some 20,000-plus properties are now behind locked access, so that doing a door-to-door canvass has become a great deal more difficult. Those are not just council flats but the new blocks of flats along the Thames that sell for far too much money. So yes, we still face some difficulties but we are working extremely hard and providing extra resources and we are working with voluntary organisations to maximise registration and to make it as complete as possible. We hope to co-operate as actively as we can with all those concerned, including, of course, those within the Labour Party.
I hope that the noble Lord accepts that we all have a responsibility for getting people on the register, but the Government have a very special responsibility. Secondly, he has made this point before and I am getting a bit irritated: I have never, ever suggested that it is about getting Labour voters on to the register. It is about getting voters on to the register—I do not care who they vote for. The fact is that there are 6 million people in this country not on the register to vote. I want to get them on. That is what I am all about, as a member of the commission and as a Member of this House. I do not care if they are in Kensington and Chelsea and all vote Tory. That is absolutely fine. They should be on the register.
I apologise. I may indeed have been casting that comment at some of the noble Lord’s colleagues who have made that point very strongly to me. We all share an interest in this and we want to get as many people to vote as possible. We have no idea what they will do when they vote—whether they will vote for one party or another or even spoil their ballot papers—but rebuilding public commitment to democratic participation is a wider issue that we all face. I hope that we will all work together to ensure that this transition is entirely a success.
I am reminded to repeat, as I announced in the House during Questions the other week, that we have just awarded five organisations nearly £250,000 of funding to promote registration in their areas. So we are working on this and the transition is not yet over. But the noble Lord will know, as I do, that unfortunately some parts of the British public are not particularly engaged in either local or national politics, which is a problem that we all face.