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House of Lords Hansard
Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2015
23 November 2015
Volume 767

Motion to Consider

Moved by

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That the Grand Committee do consider the Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2015

Relevant document: 6th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

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If there is a Division in the Chamber, the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes.

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My Lords, the instruments before us today will enhance the operation of individual electoral registration, which was successfully introduced last year. In Great Britain, more than 12 million people applied to register under IER, with three quarters of those applying online.

The Minister for Constitutional Reform has spoken about the future vision for electoral registration: maximising opportunities for a complete and accurate register, and making sure that as many of our citizens as possible can participate in our democracy. We know that people rightly expect digital services to be built around them. The Government want to do this while making the system as efficient as possible and driving down costs. These instruments make a modest contribution towards that.

First the instruments remove the requirement for IER applicants to provide their previous name if it has changed in the previous 12 months. Instead, they allow an applicant to provide their most recent previous name if they wish, but provision of this information is not mandatory. The application form will explain that, where previous name details are not provided, additional personal information may be required to verify the application.

Secondly, the instruments make changes to the correspondence required to be sent by electoral registration officers to electors and applicants for electoral registration. Thirdly, the regulations update the electoral registration application form and the annual canvass form to bring them in line with changes made by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 to the jury-summoning age in England and Wales. This will ensure that the correct information for jury summoning is collected on the electoral register. They will also authorise EROs in England and Wales to inspect marriage records in order to improve the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. Finally, they make a minor consequential amendment relating to the provision of personal identifiers for postal voting.

The Scottish instrument does not make provisions consequent on the change to the jury age because the changes do not apply in Scotland; nor on the change to access to marriage records, as EROs in Scotland are already authorised to inspect these records.

The previous Government originally intended to make the giving of the most recent previous name mandatory in draft regulations last year. Following concerns raised by users, including from the transgender community, that provision was removed so that further consultation could take place. It emerged that a more acceptable solution would be for IER applications to require the applicant’s most recent name on a voluntary basis. The regulations before your Lordships effect such a change.

The changes to correspondence are designed to help reduce the administrative burden on EROs and the potential for confusion among members of the public by avoiding multiple pieces of correspondence. The regulations will amend the way in which EROs send confirmation of registration to successful applicants and the information that that confirmation must contain. When EROs have conducted a review of an individual’s entitlement to registration, they will require the ERO to notify that individual in writing of the outcome, and provide information about the appeal process. They also require the ERO to send the individual notice in writing of the outcome of a hearing of a review, and provide information about any appeal process. They will amend the categories of cases in which the ERO does not need to send a letter to any person affected by an alteration in the electoral register.

On the provisions related to the upper age limit for jury service, the register is used as the basis on which people are called for jury service in England and Wales, and EROs have a statutory duty to supply this information. The age limit will change from 70 to 75 in early 2016, and the regulations will require an applicant who is unable to provide their date of birth to specify if they are 76 or over. EROs also issue canvass forms pre-populated with details of electors, including whether they have indicated that they are over 70. These regulations will require the form to specify whether an elector is 76 or over.

Finally, giving authorisation for EROs in England and Wales to inspect marriage records could alert EROs to electors who may wish to change their name on the electoral register, and could also be used to verify the identity of an applicant whose identity cannot be verified using DWP data-matching. That is because proof of name, surname and date of birth is now required in order to marry in the UK. This would reduce the number of applicants who have to provide documentary evidence to establish their identity.

There has been considerable consultation on these provisions. On the previous name and correspondence provisions, the Electoral Commission, while content overall, said that there was some uncertainty about the likely impact on electors and the electoral administration process and that the Cabinet Office should therefore consider how best to assess the impact of the change. The Cabinet Office has responded that it will, together with the commission, continue to monitor completeness and accuracy of the register. It has also given assurances to the commission that the online registration website will be amended to ensure consistency with amendments to the paper application form, and that there is no change to the requirement that, when individuals apply to register by telephone or in person, the ERO must record the required information in writing and submit the completed form for verification. The Cabinet Office also confirmed that it intended to make the regulations in December 2015, subject to parliamentary approval, and would continue to consult with the commission over form design.

The Information Commissioner’s Office—the ICO—while welcoming the intended explanation to applicants that provision of previous name information was not mandatory, suggested including further clarification that, when previous name information was not supplied, additional personal information might be required to verify an application. This suggestion has been adopted in the draft regulations. The Association of Electoral Administrators and other electoral administrator organisations consulted responded that making provision of the most recent previous name voluntary would probably have a negative impact, since people may not provide the information, and applicants should be asked to give all previous names. The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives considered that it would lead to more time spent resolving queries. The Government have carefully considered these issues but have decided not to change their policy on previous names. The extra words of clarification suggested by the ICO will give a stronger message about the consequences of not providing previous name information.

On the jury age provisions, the Electoral Commission was content with the proposed timetable for the instrument. The commission pointed out that, if the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union were held in autumn 2016, it could have an impact on the timing of the publication of the register after the 2016 canvass and the consequent availability of information about jurors. The Government responded that, in the event of the timing of such a referendum impacting on the 2016 canvass, this would be considered alongside any other pertinent issues relevant to the conduct of the 2016 canvass. The commission will also make reference to inspection of marriage records in its guidance for EROs.

The ICO was also consulted on the jury age and marriage records regulations, and did not consider that they raised any new or significant data protection or privacy issues. On jury age, SOLACE raised the point that information about over 75 year-olds would not be available until after the 2016 canvass. The Government responded that this is why the measure will not come into force until after 1 December 2015. The Government Equalities Office raised some concerns regarding EROs inspecting marriage registers and how this might potentially affect transgender people. The Government informed the GEO that guidance on the use of this information would be a matter for the commission, and ensured that there was a discussion between the GEO and the commission on the production of guidance.

In conclusion, the Government believe that the instruments before the Committee today will enhance IER, and I commend them to the Committee.

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My Lords, these regulations make a number of changes to the information that needs to be supplied to EROs when applying to register to vote under IER, along with changes to jury summoning in England and Wales, and to correspondence and postal voting. On this issue the Government have on far too many occasions got the balance wrong between completeness and accuracy. They have continued, as they did in the last Parliament, to fail to secure cross-party agreement on these matters, which is a matter of great regret. When my noble friend Lord Wills was in the other place, he had responsibility for these matters. He always sought to get cross-party agreement, which he took seriously. We are not doing that now and it is very regrettable.

I accept that these are relatively small matters, but I fail to see how they help to improve the completeness of the register. The noble Lord said that the Electoral Commission referred to the uncertainty of the impact on electors and on the electoral administration process. Furthermore, as the noble Lord mentioned, the Association of Electoral Administrators thought that this would have a negative impact, as we are moving from mandatory to voluntary previous name provision. SOLACE thought the same.

I find the comments in paragraph 7.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum extraordinary. You are saying that the provision of a previous name increases verification rates, whether it has changed after more or less than 12 months, so you then remove the 12-month mandatory rule and totally ignore the professionals who think that this could lead to fewer people giving the information, thereby increasing the cost and bureaucracy and making the register less complete. This is an example of the Government interfering where they are not wanted. They should have left well alone.

I did not see any reference to political parties in the consultation, which the noble Lord talked about in his remarks. It is not good enough for the Government to say that they will leave it to the Electoral Commission to talk to the political parties. To be clear, it does not do so on these matters. The Government need to consult with the political parties about elections as part of the process. Many experts in all the parties’ headquarters give advice on these things.

Will the noble Lord also provide me with a copy of the ministerial guidance referred to in paragraph 9.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum and explain further how the Cabinet Office will review the completeness and accuracy of the register as referred to in paragraph 12?

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I thank the noble Lord for his short but sweet intervention. I am sorry to say that we might disagree on some points. I do not believe that these provisions quite do what he says. I believe that they will enable us to create a more complete and more accurate register.

The noble Lord asked some detailed questions about how we made these decisions. I will review his questions and, if I may, write to him in due course. In particular, I am more than happy to pick up his point on consultation with political parties as we look ahead in the months to come. Even if we disagree on certain matters, we all certainly agree that we want to see more people engaged in our political system and registered to vote. That is an aim we all share, and I am more than happy to consider ways to work with him on that.

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I am very pleased to hear that. Before the noble Lord was in the House and had his present responsibilities, I was never convinced by that at all. We could do far, far more. As we all know, millions are not registered to vote in this country. That is an absolute disgrace for a democracy such as ours. We could do much more on this, but we are just not getting there at all at the moment.

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I am happy to talk to the noble Lord outside of the Room on that precise point. I do not want to rehearse all the arguments we had on the IER debate a few weeks back, but I believe that there has been some confusion over those who are not on the register and those who are entitled to vote. We need to get more people on the register and encourage greater engagement. I am more than happy to discuss that with the noble Lord. As I said, I will endeavour to write to him to address any of the other points.

Motion agreed.