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Representation of the People (Supply of Information) Regulations 2014

Volume 754: debated on Monday 16 June 2014

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Representation of the People (Supply of Information) Regulations 2014.

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

My Lords, this is another of a long series of statutory instruments as we move from household electoral registration to individual registration. I emphasise that throughout this process our overriding aim is to make sure that as many people as possible are included on the register by as many different groups as possible.

I am happy to tell noble Lords that the implementation of individual electoral registration started successfully on 10 June in England and Wales and will start as planned in Scotland in September. For the first time ever, people can apply online to register to vote; and all 348 English and Welsh local authorities are connected to the IER digital service. Work continues and we are on track to connect Scottish authorities for the September start in Scotland. I am told that in the first five days, by last Friday, some 10,000 had registered online to vote. For the first week, that seems to be a good start. I am sure that the Committee will be pleased that this draft instrument is before it today.

During discussions with political parties to outline plans for the implementation of IER, political parties asked that at the end of the 2014 canvass they be given a specific new list of those electors on the register who have been carried forward and those who are not yet confirmed or registered under IER. I again remind noble Lords that we hope to reach some 70% to 75% confirmation through data sharing. We are now at between 80% and 85%—80% with national data sharing and 85% with local data sharing—so we are doing better than we initially thought, although we of course want to make sure that as many as we humanly can reach are included in the new list.

The full electoral register, which is available to certain people and organisations, such as political parties, will remain as it is now. It will not indicate whether an entry is as a result of a person making a new IER application, having been confirmed or being carried forward—hence the need for these regulations. They will allow registered political parties, or a person nominated by them, to request IER-related information about which entries on the electoral register are IER entries and therefore by implication which ones are not. Such applications can be made once, from 1 January to 27 February 2015 in England and Wales, and from 2 March to 10 April 2015 in Scotland. Electors who have an anonymous entry, a declaration of local connection, a service declaration or an overseas elector’s declaration will not be included in this information, as generally they do not live where they are registered. Anonymous electors are also excluded, for security reasons.

This information will allow political parties to assist in promoting individual registration among those existing electors who will eventually come off the register if they do not make an IER application. In addition to the parties themselves, the Electoral Commission has recognised that there is significant potential for the work of political canvassers to have a positive impact on the register during the transition to IER. As befits any instrument dealing with personal data, the Information Commissioner has also been consulted on these regulations. The Information Commissioner did not consider that they raised any new or significant data protection or privacy issues.

The instrument will allow a registered political party—other than a minor party as defined in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—or a person nominated by it access to information about electors’ IER status in a particular constituency area when also requesting a copy of the full electoral register. The request for the information must be given in writing. A political party may make the request only once during the specified time period in each local authority area. If the electoral registration officer holds the information in data form—which they will—they must supply it to the party or nominated person in that form, free of charge, within 14 days of receiving the written request, provided the request falls within the specified time period. The information can be used only for purposes relating to electoral registration, or for the purposes of any civil or criminal proceedings, and only until the 7 May 2015.

These regulations, if approved, come into force on 1 January 2015 and will, in effect, expire at the end of 7 May 2015. They do not extend to Northern Ireland. We are, of course, not making any assumptions about when the transition to IER will end, which will be a matter for the next Government and the Minister of the day. However, it would be possible after 7 May 2015 to make a further instrument making the information available again were the transition to continue into 2016.

This instrument is intended to assist political parties to ensure that electors in constituencies about which they are most concerned are included. It may be that very few will be found, but at least we will have done our best to ensure that everyone is caught. I know your Lordships are all passionate about maximising registration. So am I. The political parties can play a significant part in maximising registration as we make the transition to IER in Great Britain. I therefore commend these enabling regulations for that key activity to the Committee.

My Lords, the Minister would be surprised if I did not make some comment, but I shall be very brief. All of this would be totally unnecessary if the Government had not got rid of identity cards—what would now be called smart cards—at the beginning of this Parliament. If they had not done that, none of this would be necessary. We would have moved to compulsory ID cards and compulsory registration. All registration would have been based on the ID cards and that would have solved an awful lot of problems.

My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend as I missed the first few sentences of his introduction. I am moved to make a contribution only by the remarks of the noble Lord opposite. I wish to congratulate the Government on what I think has been an extraordinarily successful exercise. They have made huge progress. Many of us who have attended debates in this very Room over the past seven or eight years on this issue have been filled with foreboding that such an important but nevertheless rather dramatic change to our electoral registration system might have some major problems. It would seem that, on the whole, those problems have been dealt with most effectively. I think that it is only right that your Lordships’ House should express its appreciation and congratulations to the team within the department, which has worked so hard to make this a success, together with those in other parts of the administrative system, notably the Electoral Commission.

I have just one question for my noble friend. He made brief reference to paragraph 8.10 of the draft Explanatory Memorandum, which includes the question of whether the transition period might be extended. I think that I understood him to say just now that that decision can be taken only after the general election by whatever new Administration come to power. I would be grateful if he could just clarify that because, if there is any change in the transition programme, it is important that we know in good time, well in advance, that any such change might take place. However, I think that I understood him to say just now that that could take place only after the general election in May 2015.

My Lords, I have only a very few comments to make on these regulations. As they stand, we support them because they will allow political parties to assist in promoting IER. One general point that I make every time that I stand at the Dispatch Box in the main Chamber is my concern about the people who are not registered to vote—at least 6 million people. Nothing I see coming from the Government ever deals with that. The Minister gave a figure of 85%, up from 75%. Is that 85% of the people who are presently registered, so that even more than 6 million people will not be registered? I want to hear more from the Government about what they will do about those people, because I do not see much for them at all.

I do not share the optimism expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about how it is all going so well. The situation has certainly improved but I am also very well aware that there were some serious problems at the start. I know that from my membership of the Electoral Commission and elsewhere, so things have improved. Whatever Government are in power after next year will have to think very carefully about how to introduce this. If it is not perfectly right, we will have to extend the period to allow people to come on to the register, because it is really important that we allow our citizens to get registered properly. If there is a risk of more people being left out, it is not good practice.

Could the Minister also tell us a little more about the thinking of the Electoral Commission on how we are getting on with this process? I am very pleased that the Government have involved political parties, as they are crucial to getting this right, but I would like to know a bit more about the attitude of the Electoral Commission to the role of political parties.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comments, but I am not sure that I can say with confidence what the attitude of the Electoral Commission is to political parties. They play a very obvious and important part in all of this. I am informed that a minor political party is something like the rate payers’ association in a local authority, the south Somerset independents, or whatever. Anything else that is nationwide is a national political party. Political parties have a very important role to play in democracy. One thing that I deeply regret about the current state of British democracy is that the membership of all major political parties has fallen. That worries all of us, and we all wish to turn it back.

We recognise that there are a number of people who are not on the register, and the Electoral Commission’s research demonstrates that the strongest reason for that is that people want nothing to do with politics and not much to do with the state if they can avoid it—apart from receiving benefits in a number of instances. We have a severe problem of political alienation. When I saw the latest audit of political engagement produced by the Hansard Society, which has only 24% of citizens between the ages of 18 and 25 thinking that politics has any useful connection with their own lives, that is a real problem for all of us. It suggests that we have to work particularly hard at getting young people to re-engage with politics.

Is not one of the reasons—I emphasise only one of the reasons—is that young people in particular see politics as somehow divorced from the trends and the movement of technology in our country? That is why they have switched off from it.

That is one of the reasons why we hope that online voting will make it more attractive to them. I also think there is a case for encouraging more activity by all parties and by all Members of both Houses of Parliament, on a cross-party basis, to make sure that as we approach the next election young people are re-energised to take part in politics because they are, on the whole, switched off. We have a very large problem here, but there are a number of things that we can do about it. I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, will be going out to many schools across his patch to energise them. I am told that the pick-up among 16 year-olds in schools in Scotland has been good and that registration is much higher than expected. That is partly because something is coming up which immediately involves them.

On ID cards, I look forward to many continuing conversations with the noble Lord, Lord Maxton. We had a Question this afternoon on digital information, digital sharing and digital privacy. The Government intend to publish a White Paper before the end of this year with clauses for a draft Bill on data sharing and data privacy. There are some very large issues here which all of us who remember the ID cards debate are scarred by. The intention of the White Paper will be precisely to try to float a more informed debate about the trade-offs between privacy and data sharing and how we address that. We have to change the legislation in this area because different departments have different legal frameworks for the collection, use and sharing of information. That is therefore a question to which we will return.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, the transition timetable does allow for the decision on whether to carry on or to delay has to be taken by the incoming Government and Parliament. These are all failsafes to make sure that we have the maximum amount of confidence by all concerned in the transition to individual electoral registration. I hope I have managed to answer all the questions.

I have become more and more committed to a successful transition. It was something that the previous Government set out on. We recognise that there are bound to be a number of problems, but so far the transition has gone much better than some of us were initially confident about, but nevertheless we have some way to go. I again flag the problems of making sure that attainers—the rising 18 year-olds—are fully on the register. We will be returning with further instruments as we go forward just to make sure that we utilise every single possibility to maximise registration.

We seem to be raising the same points again and again. One day I would like the Minister to say from the Dispatch Box that the Government are determined to have fewer people not registered under IER than were not registered before so we are going to bring in the AEA and council leaders and work with them to make sure that it happens because with all the investment and changes, if we end up with 7 million or 8 million people not registered to vote, that would be terrible. We must get to a situation where we have fewer people not registered to vote. While some people may not want to be registered, I do not believe for a moment that all of those 6 million people out there are saying that they do not want to be on the register. I think it is about how we engage with people at local authority level, at the government level and at all levels, and that includes the political parties. I hope that when the Minister brings the instruments to us over the next few weeks and months, he will be able to give us some good news on the lines that I have outlined.

I had hoped that I was bringing good news. Of course political parties have a significant contribution to make to this. We know who the vulnerable groups are. They are young people, people who move regularly, people in private rented accommodation and people who are out of a job. They are the groups who are least likely to be registered. People like me who have been living in the same house for a long time are almost always on the register. We have to concentrate on the vulnerable groups as well as we can. I am happy to say that evidence from the National Citizen Service courses—something which our Conservative colleagues in government are enormously enthusiastically about, but I must admit I was a little sceptical at the outset—appears to show that the 80,000 15, 16 and 17 year-olds who have taken part in NCS courses are much more enthused because they think they know how to participate in local communities and therefore also how to register to vote. It is a range of activities of that sort that we all have to be engaged in. I stress again that the Government cannot do it all and that civil society has to help. The Government have already provided some £4.2 million to various civil society groups for this effort. We all need to work together. I very much hope—as I know the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, does—that that the outcome is that some of those 6 million people who we are missing will register in the transition and that we will gain rather than lose as we make that transition.

Motion agreed.