Motion to Consider
My Lords, I shall speak also to the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 and the draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2015.
The first draft instrument before the Committee today, the European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 2015, amends the rules for the conduct of elections to the European Parliament to make two consequential changes concerning electoral registration and proxy voting that arise from the move to individual electoral registration—IER.
The instrument also provides for notices containing information about the completion of postal ballot papers to be sent, ahead of the general election in May, to postal voters whose postal voting statement was rejected at the European Parliament election in May 2014 due to an error made by the voter. I will set out the two consequential changes arising from the move to IER which was successfully introduced last year and which, for the first time, enables people in Great Britain to apply online to register to vote. More than 5 million people have now applied under IER, and two-thirds of them have applied online.
The instrument includes provisions which relate to the date relevant to assessing certain grounds for excluding electors from voting at European Parliament elections, including removing references to “15 October” as a relevant date for registration purposes. The instrument also requires proxies at a European Parliament election in Great Britain to be already registered to vote under IER at that election. This is intended to enhance the security of the voting process. These changes mirror provisions that have been applied already for other polls.
Electoral registration officers—EROs—are already required to inform electors after a poll where their postal vote has been rejected because the signature or date of birth used as a “postal vote identifier” that they have supplied on the postal voting statement failed to match that held on record—or because it had simply been left blank. This is to help ensure that these electors can participate effectively in future elections and not have their ballot papers rejected at successive polls because of a signature degradation or because they are making an inadvertent error.
These postal vote provisions applied for the first time at the European Parliament election in May 2014. Although over time we would expect the number of rejected postal votes to fall, because the provision has only recently been introduced we considered that it would be beneficial for those postal voters whose postal voting statement was rejected in May 2014 to be sent information about the completion of postal ballot papers ahead of the general election. EROs will be required to send this during a 10-day period beginning on 19 March 2015. This period has been set as an appropriate time for notices to go out ahead of the general election, and before postal votes could first be received at that poll.
The notice will set out information on the requirements for completion of postal voting statements to help ensure postal voters correctly complete them at future polls. I think that I am right in saying that roughly one in 40 postal votes was rejected at the European Parliament elections—and, clearly, that is a proportion that we very much want to reduce as far as we can. The notice will be for information only, and follow-up action will not be required from the voter, though it will be possible for voters to contact the ERO to resolve the issue that caused the postal vote to be rejected: for example, to correct the date of birth record for the elector held by the ERO.
I am aware that the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators have raised concerns about the proposal on the grounds that there is potential for voters to get confused if they have already made changes to their postal vote provisions following the initial notification, or if they have successfully voted by post in an intervening poll. We have listened carefully to these concerns, but we consider that the second notification will add value. For example, it will be helpful to postal voters who may have forgotten that they received the earlier communication or did not take action at the time they received it to update their personal identifiers. That is part of our answer to the communication from the Electoral Commission issued at lunchtime today.
Our objective is to enhance understanding among postal voters of the postal voting process, which will be timely ahead of the general election. It is simply telling those who have made an error in the past how to get it right, helping to ensure their future participation. I emphasise yet again that the Government’s intention for the forthcoming general election is to maximise the number of people registered, and then to maximise the number of those registered voters who vote successfully.
I turn to the other instruments before the Committee today: the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 and the draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2015. These instruments will make refinements designed to improve the processes for making and verifying IER applications: first, by amending requirements as to the documentary evidence to be provided to the ERO when applying for the alteration of an elector’s name on the register; and, secondly, by making it possible for annual canvass returns to be made in a range of formats.
Under the existing regulations, an elector wishing to change their name on the electoral register has to submit a form to their ERO along with a marriage or civil partnership certificate, an overseas marriage or civil partnership certificate deposited with the General Register Office—the GRO—or a deed poll or amended birth certificate. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office discontinued its service of depositing overseas marriage or civil partnership documents with the GRO last year. The draft regulations remove the references to the specific documents and replace them with a reference to “documentary evidence”. It will be up to EROs to decide what evidence they deem to be acceptable in supporting a change. However, ministerial guidance will be available when the regulations come into force, which will set out examples of acceptable documents.
Under the draft regulations, information as to name, date of birth and national insurance number relating to all applications for registration or change of name made otherwise than directly through the IER digital service must also be sent by the ERO for verification against DWP records. The instruments slightly amend the statement in the HEF annual canvass form that the information given in response to the form will be processed in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998 to replace an incorrect reference to the application form with a reference to the annual canvass form. The existing regulations require returned HEFs to include a “signed declaration of truth” to confirm the validity of the information provided. This requirement for a signature effectively limits HEF returns to being a paper-only transaction. Under the draft regulations, the person completing an HEF is required to make a declaration of truth and give their name, but that declaration does not need to be signed. This will allow for the information in HEFs to be provided online or over the phone.
The draft instruments also delete the regulation which allows for register entries to be carried forward from one year to another, which will no longer apply under IER, and make a consequential amendment in relation to notices of alteration to the register relating to removals from the register when people have died.
In the Scottish regulations, in addition to the provisions set out above, there is a technical provision to amend a regulation on cancelling postal ballot papers by omitting a reference to local government elections in Scotland. This is not needed as the Scottish Government have regulations which cover absent voting matters.
The Electoral Commission has been consulted on these two instruments and was satisfied overall, but raised a number of comments to which the Government have responded to the satisfaction of the commission. The Information Commissioner’s Office has also been consulted but did not consider that the instruments raised any new or significant data protection or privacy issues.
In conclusion, the three instruments before the Committee today will play a part in refining the processes underpinning applications to register to vote as we continue successfully to implement individual electoral registration across Great Britain, and help support effective participation by postal voters. I commend them to the Committee.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, explained to the Grand Committee, we have three orders before us today which are being debated together.
The first, which is the European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 2015, will enable and require EROs to write to everyone who had a postal vote at the European election last year and had that vote rejected due to discrepancies between the identifiers held by the ERO and what was completed and returned with the ballot paper.
All voters who had their postal vote rejected at that election will have been written to before, and this, in effect, is a reminder of the problem that led to their vote being discounted and gives them another period to correct the situation. I broadly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that that is a good thing to do, but I understand the concerns raised by the AEA and SOLACE in respect of voter confusion, if they have made changes following the previous communication from the ERO.
Does the Minister have the number of postal voters who will be written to—I know that he said one in 40, but how many is that? Is it millions or hundreds of thousands of people? Does he have a breakdown of how many postal voters per ERO? What assistance will the Cabinet Office give to EROs who have a particularly high number of people who need to be written to?
I see that the regulation applies only to Great Britain, so what are the provisions in respect of Northern Ireland? I also note that the political parties were not consulted on it. I think that that is very regrettable. There is considerable expertise in all the parties which could be valuable to the Cabinet Office and the Government. I know that the noble Lord will say that it is up to the Electoral Commission whether to consult with the political parties; I can tell him that it does not. It is a shame that the parties are not in some way involved in the process.
I, too, received the briefing from the commission at about 1 pm this afternoon, and I note that it is not very happy with the order. Will the noble Lord take back to the Electoral Commission that we expect to have its notes in a much more timely manner? No one could take them into account; they arrived literally an hour or two before the debate. It is a waste of time looking at them at this point. I do not agree with the point that it is making, but it is a waste of its time sending the briefing round so late.
The next two regulations amend the process for registered electors to change their name on the published register and for how information on the household inquiry form may be returned to electoral registration officers. I have no issues with these regulations, but I note again that no consultation with political parties has taken place, which is most regrettable.
The commission just does not consult parties on such matters, and the Cabinet Office is losing out on valuable feedback from people who can give a different perspective on these matters. Asking an organisation for its views does not mean that you have to agree with those views. It is a real failure that we do not involve parties much more in this stuff.
My only other comments are in respect of IER in general terms. I still worry that we are not quite getting there. I mentioned in the House last week that to have 30% of our 18 to 24 year-olds not registered to vote is a terrible situation for a mature democracy such as ours. I also said in the Chamber last week that if that was true in any other country in the world, the noble Lord himself would be saying that the British Government expect it to get that sorted and get those young people onto the voting roll. The problem is that this is happening here in our country—our own back yard.
What will the noble Lord be saying to the UN or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights—all bodies to which we are signed up and whose initiatives we support—if they decide that what we are doing is not good enough? Is he ready for an inspection to take place by those organisations before or after the general election?
Having said that, I am content to support the orders before us today.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for his comments and I recognise his very considerable expertise in this area. I used to think that I understood something about electoral law but I learnt that there is a great deal more than I do not entirely understand.
My understanding is that we are talking about more than 100,000 postal voters being written to—some 114,000 is the figure that I have in mind—and the cost of this, which is thought to be somewhere above £100,000, will be reimbursed. I do not have to hand the exact figures for which areas will be most affected.
There are all sorts of reasons why people do not complete their postal ballots correctly. I am told that one of the commonest problems is that husbands and wives, completing their forms over the breakfast table, often put them in the wrong envelopes and thus the forms have the wrong signifiers on them. However, there is a range of other reasons, including that if people are ill—if they have had a stroke, for example—their signatures change radically.
Yes, certainly. The noble Lord regretted the lack of consultation with political parties. The view was taken that these amendments to the regulations were sufficiently technical that they would not be of great interest to the political parties. However, I take his point and we will do our best to keep the Parliamentary Parties Panel informed of planned changes and not just of planned legislative changes.
I get the point that these changes are fairly technical, but the Electoral Commission has a political parties panel, which it was required to set up under PPERA. Having been a member of that panel and a commissioner, I am not really convinced that it is officially involved in these issues. I think that there are other things on which you could go directly to parties and that that would be beneficial to the Government and the Cabinet Office.
I take the noble Lord’s point and I think that it is a good idea in principle for the commission to give too much information rather than too little. I entirely take his point, and it has no doubt been absorbed by the officials concerned. I also take his point about the Electoral Commission’s comments having come in almost so late that there is nothing we can do with them. I am sure that that point will be referred back to the commission.
On the question of name changes on the register, we are very conscious that there are occasions—particularly, for example, with someone who is transgender or whatever—when one does not necessarily want to have one’s previous name out in public. Therefore, there is a whole set of issues concerning the delicacies, in some cases, of including previous names.
The noble Lord also raised the question of IER in general terms. I will say two things on this. First, the initial feedback from the National Voter Registration Day last Thursday is that some 160,000 people registered in one day. That is way above what has previously been the case. That was online. We do not yet know what has come in on paper but that is good news and we are continuing to work on it.
I reinforce that by saying that I addressed more than 200 students at York University on Friday afternoon, together with a panel of people from other political parties. I found that fascinating for a whole set of reasons. First, it was a crowded lecture hall with more students wanting to come than we had expected. Secondly, after it had concluded, one or two students came up to me and said, “Well, I was thinking of not bothering to vote this time, but maybe I will”. That is the problem we all have, and it is why, every time I get up in the Chamber having been asked a question on this, I say that we all have to be out there talking to as many groups of young people as we can to explain, first, how vital it is that they register, and, secondly, how important it is that, having registered, they then vote. That message has not got out to many of them and it is the underlying problem that we all face. The National Union of Students is doing a lot in that respect and we are working also with universities.
As the noble Lord will recall, the Government have just announced a further set of funding for various voluntary organisations to work, in particular, with vulnerable groups. As I said to some of the students at the end of our discussions on Friday, I have no doubt that when we come to the last possible date for registration, we will discover that a large number of young male students in particular—young female students and others are often better organised—will register at the last minute, and I very much hope that that will take us towards the high level of registration that we need.