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Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2014

Volume 757: debated on Wednesday 19 November 2014

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2014.

Relevant document: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, I will speak also to the Electoral Registration Pilot Scheme Order 2014 and the Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2014.

The Committee will be aware that individual electoral registration was successfully introduced on 10 June in England and Wales and on 19 September in Scotland. For the first time ever, people in Great Britain can apply online to register to vote. To date, some 67% of the 3 million people who have applied under IER have done so online. The draft instruments before the Committee today will make some further refinements designed to improve the operation of IER.

As noble Lords will remember, this is one of a long series of statutory instruments in this process. The process is being taken through with considerable care. Our aim is to ensure that the largest possible number are registered as we make the transition and that the integrity of the register is maintained as we do so. So far, the process has gone well. The matching process has been more successful than we expected, but we are concerned to maximise the number all the way through and we will be maintaining our efforts until the next election and beyond.

The Electoral Registration Pilot Scheme Order 2014 will establish a pilot scheme, enabling information about entries in electoral registers in 24 areas in England, Wales and Scotland to be compared with information held by the Secretary of State for Transport about individuals’ driving records and vehicle registration documents. The current IER system involves matching data against DWP records, and we are keen to see if there are other public data sets that could be used as well to increase the completeness of the electoral register. The order will require participating EROs to disclose their registers to be matched, including the use of the IER digital service, against name, address and, where held, date of birth information to be provided by the Department for Transport and the Department for Work and Pensions.

The Committee may recall noble Lords’ support for using DVLA data during the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act, and will be pleased to see this practical scheme to pilot the use of this data. In 2011 a small-scale pilot indicated that using DVLA data, in addition to the match with DWP data, might increase the confirmation rate by a further 10%. The pilot scheme established by this order will test whether DVLA data will indeed add significantly to the confirmation match rate. The scheme will also allow for the piloting of data matching using DVLA data to identify potentially eligible individuals who are not currently registered. The pilot scheme will end on 30 June 2015.

I have heard, anecdotally, that people—particularly young men—who move very frequently do not on the whole bother to inform the state agencies with which they interact of their new address, including not reregistering with doctors. However, we are told that they do ensure that their driving licence is up to date and the right address is on it, so the DVLA data may help us in teasing out one of the under-registered groups in the population: young, unmarried men living in rented accommodation.

The Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2014 and the Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment No.2) Regulations 2014 will enable Crown servants and British Council employees living abroad to register online. The current electoral registration process for Crown servants and British Council employees relies on a paper-based declaration sent via the individual’s organisation, as well as an application to register. This means that these individuals cannot currently apply wholly online. The changes set out in the draft regulations enable them to do so. The figures that I have already given showing the high percentage of people who have registered online in recent months suggest that it would be very advantageous to enable them to do so. The regulations also replace the requirement to send the declaration via the employer, with a requirement for people, as part of their declaration, to supply their staff number or payroll number. The electoral registration officer will then be able to check with the employer that the applicant is entitled to register by virtue of a declaration.

In addition, EROs will be required where necessary to send a second reminder to people, such as overseas electors or service voters who are registered by virtue of a declaration, that their declaration is about to expire. Noble Lords may recall that in May the House approved regulations that disapplied the follow-up process for overseas and service voters, and may wonder why we are now being asked to apply it again. The answer is that we are not proposing to reinstate the previous process that would have required EROs, after the expiry of the declaration, to send an invitation to register to special category electors, followed up by two reminder letters and, theoretically, a visit by a canvasser. That process would have been expensive and impractical in the case of many special category electors, and it is right that it is no longer a mandatory requirement. Instead we are introducing a requirement for EROs to send just one further reminder to those special category electors whose declaration has not yet expired but which is about to do so. I am told that in a large number of cases, online addresses are available and it will be possible to do this online. This is a relatively simple step to take, without the need for the more protracted subsequent process that we rightly removed earlier in the year. The regulations also make minor updates to statutory references to registration appeals.

The Scottish regulations will also extend to Scotland one of the provisions on data sharing by local authorities for electoral registration purposes that were introduced for England and Wales in May. These allowed for the disclosure to an ERO of information contained in records held by the authority by which he or she was appointed, provided that a written agreement was in place between the authority and the ERO as to the processing of the information.

The different local government structure in Scotland rendered a provision for two-tier area data sharing, as set out in the legislation introduced for England and Wales, unnecessary. At quite a late stage in the drafting of the England and Wales legislation it was decided to provide additionally that the ERO’s own local authority may disclose its data to the ERO, provided that a written agreement was in place covering the use of the data. It appeared that such a change might also be relevant to Scotland but we undertook to consult EROs and local government organisations in Scotland about that before we sought to legislate. That has now been done. Here, therefore, is the regulation.

The Electoral Commission is content with the provisions of these instruments and the Information Commissioner did not consider that they raised any new or significant data protection or privacy issues. The three statutory instruments before the Committee will each play a part in the continued successful implementation of individual electoral registration in Great Britain, and I commend them to the Committee.

My Lords, I want to speak particularly to the second statutory instrument in the group, which relates to the pilot scheme to which my noble friend referred in the early part of his remarks. He quite rightly—and I welcome this—spoke of the whole context of this transition to IER. Those of us with the battle scars of a number of debates in Grand Committee over many years, going back to the previous Government—IER was a previous Administration’s initiative—will recall that this context has caused quite a bit of controversy, and rightly so because, as he emphasised, the register is a critical foundation stone of our whole representative democracy. The present Government, the coalition Government, have not changed the transition in any substantial way but accelerated the process. So my noble friend has rightly referred to the extent to which the Government are determined—I think the phrase he used was that they intend to take “considerable care” in how this transition proceeds. It is in that context that these orders are so important.

There are three elements in the way the Government have sought to make sure that the process is considered in a careful way. The first is that a timetable check has been built in, which I will come back to. Secondly, extensive data mining and data matching has taken place, which is where we are again this afternoon. Thirdly, there has been extremely important monitoring of progress right through the operation. Not only do I warmly endorse the trouble that has been taken by my noble friend and his colleagues in the Cabinet Office, but also the extensive work that has been undertaken by the Electoral Commission. At this stage perhaps I should remind the Committee that I am a member of the informal cross-party advisory group, but I do not in any way speak on behalf of the Electoral Commission. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, also has extensive experience in the field. A number of us are well informed about these processes.

On the latter point about monitoring, which is absolutely critical to the measures before the Committee, I had a Question answered by my noble friend just last week. It was as follows:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are making preparations to publish data on how many electors on the new electoral register due to be published in December are registered by virtue of (1) filling in a form online, (2) filling in a paper form, (3) responding to a doorstep canvass, (4) confirmation through the data-matching process, and (5) carry-over from the household electoral registration system”.

My noble friend responded by saying that:

“The Electoral Commission (EC) will assess progress in the transition to Individual Electoral Registration in England and Wales based on the Electoral Register as of 1 December 2014 and plans to publish their evaluation in February 2015. The Office for National Statistics will also publish statistics on the December register. Scotland will publish their registers in March and the EC plans to publish a separate assessment of these in April 2015. The Government intends to make their own assessment of the transition. An assessment of the confirmation live run in England and Wales was published in October 2014 and can be found here”.—[Official Report, 11/11/14; cols. WA 23-4.]

I have a copy of that assessment and I shall return to it shortly. This is the essential background to the measures before us because, as my noble friend referred to briefly both here in Grand Committee and, from memory, in the Chamber, I and my noble friend Lord Rennard have pressed on a number of occasions that we should extend the data matching process to the DVLA for the very reasons my noble friend has just advanced: in order to get to particular groups of otherwise rather inaccessible potential electors; namely, young males. These may perhaps be difficult times for them and it is equally difficult for the authorities to ensure that they are on the register.

I have no complaints about the order before us, but why has it taken so long? As he himself said, and as set out in the Explanatory Memorandum, the original small-scale study which was carried out in one ERO area in 2011, which is a long time ago now, indicated that using DVLA data in addition to matching with DWP data might increase the confirmation rate by on average a further 10%. I do not know which area the study was undertaken in, but in an inner-city area with a large number of mobile young people, particularly young males, the percentage could be a great deal higher. The explanatory note states that:

“The pilot scheme established by this Order will test whether DVLA data will add significantly to the confirmation match rate that may be achieved by matching electoral registers against DWP data in the transition to IER. The scheme will also allow for piloting of data matching using DVLA data to identify potentially eligible individuals who are not currently registered. These pilots are essential for ensuring a strong evidence base in order to make decisions about the costs and benefits of the wider-scale use of this data”.

In no way do I want to suggest that the IER process is in major overall difficulty; I do not think that there are substantial defects. However, I think that my noble friend will accept that there are geographical areas and demographic groups which are not yet fully passported—that is the verb I think we have to use—from the existing registers to the new IER registers. This was seen three years ago as a critical way to get to these difficult-to-access groups.

The timetable for this pilot scheme is extremely important. I do not know how long it is going to take, but we must ensure that it happens at speed and in substantial areas of the country. I think that my noble friend said that 24 EROs were going to take part in the pilot scheme. In the Explanatory Memorandum the number is 21 in England, Wales and Scotland. I wish to know where they are. It would be all too easy to go for the lower-hanging fruit, I think the expression is—that is, to areas where we are already confident that the new register is fairly comprehensive.

I notice from the document referred to in my noble friend’s Answer to me last week that there is a very wide variation in the success so far of passporting from the old register to the new. For example, London is way behind most other parts of the country. That is unsurprising because it is where a large number of the people we are concerned about tend to be. The EROs seem to be volunteering for this; they are not being selected in any maintained way by either the Electoral Commission or indeed by anyone else such as the Cabinet Office or my noble friend. I hope that he can assure us that London is going to form a very important part of this pilot scheme. That brings us back to the issue of the timetable. Unless this happens very quickly, I cannot see how it is going to feed in substantially to the critical questions that still have to be adjudicated upon by government, on the advice of the Electoral Commission, as to whether we proceed fast on the final decision for the completion of the transition to IER.

I hope that my noble friend can assure me on one other point. I understand that the Government are currently considering—again, with advice from the Electoral Commission—whether an extra annual door-to-door survey in spring 2015 would be appropriate. Again, my noble friend might recall that I and my colleagues were anxious not to dispense with the annual survey during this process. It has a very important role to play, or at least it has done in the recent past, in reinforcing the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. It would be very unfortunate if all these efforts— either the pilot study to which the order refers or indeed the decision on whether or not to have an annual survey—take so long that they cannot properly inform the vital decision about the final completion of the process from the old register to the new.

I think that my noble friend will concede that the Government have been able to proceed with the accelerated process for the transition to IER because Parliament was reassured successively and continuously by Ministers that the process was being very carefully managed. It would be monitored and reported, and there would be a careful assessment of the appropriate decision-making process so that we could make the final vital decision as to whether IER was firmly in place on the basis of the best possible evidence. On that note, I support what my noble friend and the Government are doing, but with some reservations about the extraordinary importance of the timescale in this process.

My Lords, I have no issues with the orders or regulations before us today. They are part of a series that have been coming to Grand Committee for consideration as we move towards individual electoral registration. I do, though, have concerns that I have raised many times before in Grand Committee regarding the speed at which we are moving—the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred to this—and the risk of people dropping off the register. I do not believe that the Government have given sufficient weight to this as part of their preparation for the switchover. I have never understood what the rush was about on the part of the Government and why they would risk the system being brought into disrepute, all for the sake of a bit more time and planning. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, this was originally an idea of the Labour Government. I am a big supporter of IER but the Government’s speedy approach to it worries me.

We have never had an over-registration problem in the UK; rather, we have an under-registration problem. Much academic research states that 6 million or up to 9 million people are not registered to vote. The Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2014 and the Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2014 are sensible moves enabling the declaration made by overseas Crown servants and British Council employees to be made online, along with a requirement that EROs must, where necessary, send a second reminder to people who are registered by virtue of a declaration when their declaration is about to expire. It is also sensible that Crown servants and British Council employees are able to use the online service in the same way as overseas electors and service voters.

I looked at the consultation list and would welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, saying a bit more about it, particularly who the members of the Cabinet Office panel of experts in electoral administration are, how someone is appointed to this body, who chairs it, and what its remit is. I think that a wider policy community could be consulted on matters of electoral policy. I note that the Government consulted the Electoral Commission as part of bringing this order to your Lordships’ House, as required by Section 7 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. I am talking generally rather than specifically about this order, but if the Government are not going to consult the political parties directly, I suggest it would be good practice for officials to ask the Electoral Commission whether this issue has been brought to the attention of the Parliamentary Parties Panel set up under the Act, which is formally required to be consulted. I was a member of that body for many years before I became an electoral commissioner and I do not believe for one minute that its full potential has ever been reached. The panel has election experts from all the parties who can give a very practical and down-to-earth view of what things are like on the ground. I think that is sometimes missing from our discussions here.

The Electoral Registration Pilot Scheme Order 2014 is a sensible move and I am happy to support it. However, will the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, tell the Grand Committee what work is going on to identify other departments and agencies that could be brought into scope to assist in getting eligible citizens on to the electoral register? As I said, at least 6 million people are not on it. The noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Tyler, referred to the fact that young males do not always go on the register. That is an important point, but the same could be said of people living in social housing and the private rented sector, and of ethnic minorities. Whole groups of people are not registered to vote. If we get to the point where fewer people are registered to vote when the measure comes fully into operation than was the case previously, that would be a terrible position to be in and a matter of much regret. It would be bad for democracy in this country and for our reputation both nationally and internationally, so we must avoid that.

Have the Government thought about speaking to large organisations such as Experian which hold vast quantities of data on everybody—Experian has more data than anyone else—and have the whole unedited electoral register, so they know where everyone is? I am sure that those organisations could very easily give every ERO in the country a list of everybody in an area who is not on the register. That would be a fantastic way to identify these people and get them on to the register. I think that it would be a very positive move. The data exist and these organisations could provide it. In addition to getting more people on to the register, which is good for democracy, some relevant people would dramatically improve their credit rating because that is affected by not being on the electoral register. Perhaps the Government could look at this issue. I would welcome the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, commenting on that point, perhaps not today but in the future.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their helpful and intelligent comments. I start by reminding them that in another area of the Cabinet Office, we are much concerned with data sharing, digital privacy and the whole question of public and private data. Concerns about data privacy have been one of our inhibitions about moving in this area. Unfortunately we have not managed so far to bring forward a Bill to harmonise and update the laws which apply to different government departments on their collection and maintenance of data, many of which were put into effect long before cloud computing and two or three generations back in terms of the use of computers. The terms under which some government departments hold data are significantly different from those of other departments. I am sure I do not need to tell noble Lords that the sensitivities of the privacy organisations are such that we move with care in data matching, certainly in disclosure, both between different central government departments and between local authorities and central government departments. This is one reason why we have moved with all deliberate speed on this, using, first of all, the DWP database and moving on from there to the DVLA database. When we started out on this process there was some hesitation within the Department for Transport as to the terms under which the DVLA database ought to be made available for these purposes. We are in a very sensitive area in terms of data privacy and data sharing.

Before my noble friend leaves that point, is he saying that there was actually some legislative, statutory problem with the DVLA which did not apply to the DWP? If so, I totally understand the delay, but three years of delay because of some administrative, bureaucratic decision making within the Department for Transport is more depressing. I accept that good progress has been made and I hope my noble friend has not taken my contribution as being in any way negative about the overall process. However, this particular episode is not a very happy one since we were raising these issues more than three years ago.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, makes a very fair point. We are all looking back with care: we understand that we have to be right and proper, but it comes with a bit of a spring in your step at the same time. There is a question of care and there is also just not moving very quickly. I think we need to get on with it.

We understand that but I stress that there are other major issues. I happen to have been involved in some of the discussions about changing the system of legal protection for government collection and sharing of data. Noble Lords may remember that there were discussions early in the coalition Government’s period of office about whether or not we could do without the census next time round because all the material collected in the census is actually collected by the Government in the process of normal procedures, year by year. Some of the data are collected by local authorities, such as those about children going to primary school, which is one of the best indicators of the changing social and ethnic basis of a local community. If we were able to put all the data together, much of what we get from the 10-yearly census would be provided. However, if we put all of that material together—including health records and NHS data—we would be in an area in which ordinary citizens and those concerned with data privacy begin to be extremely upset. This is part of the reason why the good progress we made with the DWP data gave us a feeling that we could move along in that way. We are now extending this by looking at the DVLA data. I am told that the pilot will start in December or early January and should be completed by 31 March. It will not be too late for late registration for some of these people. As I said in my opening speech, I stress that access to the DVLA database is not merely a matter of matching but also of discovering people who are entitled to be on the register but who are not registered. The unmarried young men category in particular, which we are all familiar with as a weak area, would enable us to make the electoral register more complete.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that Experian has a symbiotic relationship with the electoral register because it uses it for a great many things. If you are not on the electoral register, you are often not on the Experian database. Another area we are concerned about is the overlap between public and private databases. When discussing the issue with various people who are concerned about it, I have explained that there is no clear boundary between some public and private databases. For example, when I renew my car tax online, the first thing the DVLA does is check the private insurance database to ensure that my car is insured. That is an example of the public going to the private and coming back. These are all part of what is changing as public and private databases become much easier. The Government—whichever Government they may be—hope that an enormous amount of time, effort and money will be saved by moving more and more of these kinds of data online.

The problem is that this has huge implications for individual privacy and we have to be concerned about it. When talking in Bradford nearly two years ago about why so many people are not on the register, I was told vigorously by local councillors and officials that those people do not want to be registered. They do not want the state to know who they are and where they are. That is part of the issue here.

The noble Lord is absolutely right on the point about the merging of public and private databases, and indeed it is the point I was trying to make. So much information about people is now being held by Experian and a host of other bodies that I cannot believe it is beyond the Government to talk to Experian and others, saying, “We are not looking for people’s medical records or driving licences. What we are after is the data matching that is taking place for you being provided to local authorities. They can then see that in a certain street there are three people who are not on the register but they do actually exist. We know that because we have their bank details and driving licence particulars and we know where they shop”. All we would ask for is that Experian should give the council the name and address; it is as simple as that. I get the privacy point, but my worry is that we will end up with fewer people on the register than we have ever had before, and that is a terrible place to be. I think that the Government should do everything possible to make sure that that does not happen.

I would mark that after the next election, we will have a major debate and a draft Bill on the question of data sharing. If we were to access the Google and Amazon databases, I am sure that that would go a good deal further to identifying those who are not on the register, but the Government do not have the legal right to do so, and again, it raises huge questions of privacy.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who raised the question of an additional door-to-door canvass in the spring of 2015. When I visited the ERO for Wandsworth a couple of years ago—I should mention that the Wandsworth ERO is a member of the Government’s consultative panel—he told me that given the mix of sheltered social housing and new apartment blocks at the top end of the market, the borough of Wandsworth now has some 25,000 homes that are behind locked doors. The problem of gated accommodation, which all of us who deliver leaflets are painfully aware of, is making it more and more difficult to conduct the door-to-door canvass that we used to think was such an important part of the exercise. That is why we have to do all these supplementary things as far as we can. We intend to complete a door-to-door canvass as far as possible, but that is becoming much more difficult as we go on.

I will have to write to the noble Lord about precisely who was on the advisory panel of EROs. I have met a number of EROs during the last three years of the process, and have much enjoyed talking to them about the particular issues with which they are concerned. I will happily write on that.

There were a number of other questions. Why has it taken us so long to get round to data matching? I have explained that DWP records actually took us a very long way, and we are now seeing what we can do to gain further completeness. I was asked whether it was a cross-section of 24 areas—incidentally, it is 24 areas but 21 electoral registration officers, because in Scotland the electoral registration system covers several local authority areas. The areas range from Harrow, Southwark and Trafford to the City of Edinburgh, Bournemouth, Coventry and Newport—a fairly good mixture. I have marked one or two areas which have a high concentration of students and several inner-city areas. It includes the City of Edinburgh, for example, as well as Stratford-on-Avon. It is a pretty good cross-section of the country.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, rightly keeps pressing us—as I hope he will continue to—on how confident we are that we will come out with a higher rate of registration than before. I can say only that we are continuing to work towards that objective. We have made some extra funds available to local authorities for this and we are now considering whether further additional funds would be helpful. From what has happened in the last two or three elections, we all know that late registration produces a great boon. We will not know how successful we have been probably until the middle of April 2015, because a lot of the target groups will not have got round to filling in their online forms until the campaign is upon them.

The Government will continue to stress the importance of registering and of people being involved. We are working with a number of non-governmental organisations. I spoke at a Bite the Ballot conference a couple of months ago. Bite the Ballot is working very hard, as are a number of other organisations, with particular vulnerable groups—in its case, young people. However, it is a matter for all of us, in all political parties and beyond, to keep up the momentum as we approach the election of saying that it is very important that you register to vote and that you do vote. That is the final dimension of trying to capture the maximum number of people.

I have two other things to add about the overseas dimension.

I am sure, from the long experience that my noble friend will acknowledge, that the best possible way to get people to register and to vote is to have a very close election, as was demonstrated in Scotland, of course. When I got a majority of nine, I managed a turnout of 83% on a very wet and cold night in Cornwall. When my majority went up, the turnout went down. I do not know how he can achieve a close result in every constituency in the country, but that is the ideal way to get a good turnout next May.

I will not have to organise the next election. Many of us fear that it will be very disorganised in this respect and that the competition among four or five parties nationally, which will quite often be a competition between different pairs of parties in different constituencies, may make for an extremely confusing election campaign. I spoke at an annual general meeting in Yorkshire and said that I thought we were going to have what would feel much more like a series of by-elections across the entire country. It will be very different constituency by constituency when it comes to it, but let us hope that it does raise the interest.

On the question of overseas voters—

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again. I know one or two local authorities. One of them is Manchester, where there has been a catastrophic drop-off in some areas in terms of registration, and that needs addressing. I also know of a local chief executive who was embarrassed to tell us that he sent letters out saying, “You haven’t been matched”, only to get one himself. He lives in the borough that he is the ERO for, and he himself had not been matched. He is not someone who has moved around very often; he has lived in the borough for many years and I assume that he has a bank account and stuff, but he did not match at all. There are one or two places where there has been a catastrophic drop-off. That is really bad. Perhaps the Minister could get his officials to talk to some of these local authorities. In certain pockets there are problems bubbling away.

We are well aware that one of the reasons why the electoral registration business is a local one is that the pattern varies so much from one place to another. The debate now going on about whether additional funds should be made available would of course be concentrated in those areas that have found the greatest difficulties. Again, we are well aware of that.

I will just pick the noble Lord up on one of the things he said. He said that we have never had an overrepresentation problem in the UK. I think I would agree with him that we have never had an overrepresentation problem in Great Britain, but those of us who know something about Ulster politics know that there have been interesting issues in Ulster over the past 50 years.

We are exploring further measures to increase student registration ahead of the general election. We are, for example, looking at emerging evidence from pilots undertaken in Sheffield and Manchester that tested the scope for integrating electoral registration with university enrolment. A lot of these things are under way but we do not quite know where we are.

On the question of overseas voters, we will be having a debate on this next week so we will return to it then. Overseas registration, as I think noble Lords will know, is an extreme example of the extent to which the number of voters registered more than doubles in the run-up to a general election and then falls off afterwards, so again we may anticipate that. The extent to which we can encourage more overseas voters on to the register will be assisted by this measure because the easier it is to register online, the more that overseas voters are likely to do so. I hope that I have answered all the questions and points that have been made, and I beg to move.

Motion agreed.