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Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2018

Volume 789: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2018

Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2018

Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2018

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2018, the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2018, and the Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2018.

The purpose of the draft regulations is to make registering to vote anonymously more accessible for those who need it most. They will also strengthen the integrity of the electoral register and improve the registration system for electors. The changes affect both the parliamentary and local government registers across the UK, with the exception of the local government register in Scotland. As local government electoral registers are a devolved matter in Scotland, the Scottish Government have brought forward similar legislation in the Scottish Parliament.

This year we celebrate 100 years since legislation was passed to give some women the right to vote in the UK. This was the first step to equal franchise in the UK, but the journey to maximise electoral registration still continues. For some, the fear of having their name and address appear on the electoral register is a barrier to registering to vote and engaging in democracy.

Anonymous registration was first introduced in Great Britain by the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and provided for the overall structure of the scheme. It was extended to Northern Ireland in 2014. The scheme protects those whose safety would be at risk if their name or address appeared on the electoral register: for example, victims of harassment or stalking, as well as some witnesses in criminal court cases.

An applicant must provide evidence to their local electoral registration officer which demonstrates that their safety would be at risk. The evidence accepted is prescribed in legislation as either a live court order or injunction from a set list of orders and injunctions or an attestation. An attestation is a signed statement certifying that the applicant’s safety would be at risk if the register contained their name or address. It can be made only by professions listed in the legislation as qualifying officers, such as a police superintendent or a director of social services.

About two years ago, Mehala Osborne, with the support of Women’s Aid, started a petition to make anonymous registration more accessible for those who need it most. After consultation, the Government proposed changes that make the scheme more accessible to those who need it.

The draft regulations update the list of court orders and injunctions which can be provided to an electoral registration officer as evidence to demonstrate that an individual’s safety would be at risk if their name or address appeared on the register. As evidence, applicants would be able to use domestic violence protection orders made under the Crime and Security Act 2010 or the Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, once that is in force. They would also be able to use female genital mutilation protection orders made under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. These are new and relevant orders that have been created since the anonymous registration scheme came into force.

The draft regulations will also broaden those who can provide attestations that an individual’s safety would be at risk. The seniority required for an attestation from a police officer would be lowered from the rank of superintendent to inspector. Medical and health practitioners registered with the General Medical Council or the Nursing and Midwifery Council and refuge managers would also be able to act as attesters. Including these professionals will make it easier for applicants to obtain an attestation, as they are frequently in contact with survivors and are qualified to assess the level of risk to an individual’s safety. These changes make the evidence required to register to vote anonymously more reflective of the experiences of survivors of domestic abuse.

The Government have consulted widely with stakeholders and there is general agreement that the changes being brought forward are desirable to ensure that those whose safety would be at risk if their name or address appeared on the electoral register are able to engage in our democratic system. Women’s Aid strongly welcomed the changes made by this statutory instrument, saying:

“The proposed new measures send out a clear message to all survivors of domestic abuse: that their voices matter, and their participation in politics matters ”.

I turn briefly to the changes to the wider registration system, which relate only to Great Britain. The first two changes address recommendations 12 and 14 in Sir Eric Pickles’s review into electoral fraud. The others have been identified through extensive consultation with the electoral community. The first proposed change adds a statement to the application form which states that persons who are not eligible electors are ineligible to register to vote and that in relation to nationality, applicants may be required to provide additional information or checks may be carried out by the electoral registration officer against government records. This change seeks to enhance the deterrent against applicants providing false information in respect of their nationality.

The second proposed change adds another statement to the application form which informs applicants that their application may be delayed if they do not provide the previous addresses at which they have ceased to reside within 12 months of the date of their application. This statement aims to minimise the number of incomplete applications being submitted on paper forms to ensure that electoral registration officers can remove redundant entries from the register, thus maintaining accuracy.

The third proposed change brings England and Wales into line with Scotland by ensuring all the publicly published monthly changes to the register will be taken into account when an electoral registration officer is checking the eligibility of an attester. This change is being made only in the regulations that cover England and Wales and ensures consistency across the registration system.

The fourth proposed change expands the number of sources of information which an electoral registration officer can use to remove deceased electors from the electoral register. Where electoral registration officers have not been able to obtain a death certificate or a registrar’s notice, they will be permitted to use four further sources of evidence to support their decision to remove a deceased elector. They are: information from a close relative; a canvass form; a care home manager; or other local records. I am sure that noble Lords would agree that using this information is an appropriate response to avoid unnecessary distress for the relatives of any deceased elector. It balances the need for evidence with the sensitivity of providing a service to the citizen that they would expect. It also helps effectively to maintain the accuracy of the register.

The final proposed change to the registration system streamlines correspondence that electoral registration officers are required to send to electors. These changes are designed to reduce the cost of the registration system and provide greater discretion to electoral registration officers to tailor their approach based on the needs of local electors.

The draft regulations make sensible and proportionate changes to the wider registration system. Making it easier to register to vote without a name and address appearing on the electoral register may be a small thing, but it makes a big difference. It means the freedom to live your life, cast your vote and make your choice. As Mehala Osborne said:

“Survivors in the future will not be denied their voice and democratic right to vote”.

I commend the draft regulations to the Committee and beg to move.

My Lords, I welcome these regulations. I understand the fear of somebody who has been a victim of harassment and domestic violence, and not wanting to see their name and address appear on a public document. For people who have been subjected to that sort of treatment, anonymous registration is an excellent idea. The point I want to make is that the men—we must remember that one in three victims of domestic violence is a man—are very often the good guys, who want to leave the family in the domestic home and move on to get somewhere where they can be away from the family. It is very important that that offer is open to men and is known to be open, because all the blurb refers to women, women’s refuges and so on. In this year of 100 years of women having the vote, we must not forget that families are made of male and female. Long may it be so.

My Lords, I too support these regulations, but I will probe my noble friend Lord Young on them and their position in the reform of electoral law that we are proposing to undertake, or have been talking about for some time.

First, on the change to the anonymous registration scheme, I of course absolutely support the widening of this gate. The fear of being bullied, threatened or attacked is very real. Therefore, people should be provided with the appropriate anonymity to protect their democratic right. But, of course, there is a balance to be struck because the transparency of the electoral roll is a very important part of our democratic system. Therefore, we need to bear in mind the extent to which the gate is being widened and the appropriateness of it being widened.

As my noble friend explained, the attestation procedure has now been widened quite a lot. While I absolutely understand about the police and the reduction of the rank to inspector, where it is quite an impersonal relationship, the other two categories move to a much more difficult and much closer relationship in the sense that a registered healthcare professional, as listed in the regulations, will be under a lot of moral pressure, come what may, to look after their patient. They will perhaps find it difficult to make a completely dispassionate judgment about whether anonymity should be granted in a particular case. That is referred to in paragraph 7.7 of the Explanatory Memorandum.

Paragraph 7.8 concerns refuge managers. That is an even wider category of individuals. It is clear from reading the Explanatory Memorandum that the Electoral Commission was concerned about this. Paragraph 8.2 says that it was concerned about,

“how widely the definition of a refuge manager may apply”.

The Government’s response is that its concerns were addressed,

“through a tightening of this definition”.

It would be helpful if my noble friend could give us a little bit of information about what took place in that regard. The problem is that it is not really clear how controlled that category may be. Obviously, refuge managers have a particular position and role to play, but we need to know that they are being properly watched over. There is a mention in paragraph 7.8 of the register of refuge managers. It says:

“The Electoral Registration Officer can then confirm that the refuge is registered on the ‘Routes to Support’ directory, a UK-wide online database”.

Do they have to be on that database to be permissible or is it at the discretion of the local electoral returning officers? My concern is that the gate is being widened. I understand why—my noble friend Lord Young made a powerful case for it, which I understand—but I hope that the Government will perhaps take a look at the situation in a couple of years and see to what extent it is being used properly in achieving the balance between this very proper area and the need to have a properly transparent electoral roll.

Turning to the changes to the wider registration system, I understand the need to simplify it and tighten it up against misrepresentation and fraudulent behaviour. It was not entirely clear to me why individuals should not be allowed to be told. This relates to paragraph 7.16: the Government have decided that they should not be told whether they are to be included on or excluded from the register, and that paragraph says:

“There is no added benefit to the elector of this letter”.

It seems to me that people should be told whether they have been successful or unsuccessful, as opposed to just finding out from examining the electoral roll themselves. There are some issues about how the local returning officer and the Electoral Commission work together.

Before I conclude, I want to draw my noble friend’s attention to two further points. I do not ask him to respond to them today but, as he pointed out in his opening remarks, we are all agreed that we need to maximise voter registration and participation. There is a strange anomaly where if you seek to register to vote in person, you can use a pretty wide range of identity documents, such as your passport or driving licence. But if you choose to register online, you have to use your national insurance number and no other document will do. I do not know about other noble Lords but my knowledge of my national insurance number and my accessibility to it is a great deal less than for my driving licence, which is probably in my wallet, or my passport, which will be to hand. So I wonder why we have that strange anomaly where online registration, which we are trying to encourage people to use, can be done only if you have your national insurance number to hand. I suspect that many people do not have it to hand and have some difficulty finding it out. As I say, I am not asking my noble friend to reply to that today but perhaps he could write to the Members of the Committee about it.

My very last point relates to where this fits into the situation for the reform of our electoral law. These are some welcome and important bits of sticking plaster but there is a large Law Commission Bill on electoral law, which it says is shovel-ready. You have only to consider the headings of the chapters in that important document to see how it goes to the heart of our electoral system. Those headings include: “Management and Oversight”, “The Registration of Electors”, “Manner of Voting”, “Absent Voting”, “Notice of Election and Nominations”, “The Polling Process”, “The Count and Declaration of the Result”, “Electoral Offences”—that includes the important issue about bribery and treating which we debated in this Room not so long ago, and where we are working from a Victorian statute which is now not really fit for purpose—and “Regulation of Campaign Expenditure”. Those are some serious issues, raised by an apolitical body which has a chance to bring our system up to date and in line with modern practice. At a time when people have concerns about the way our system is working, we should make every effort to make it as clear, transparent and modern as possible.

My noble friend will forgive me if I refer to an Answer he gave to a Question I tabled just before Christmas on whether the Government planned to introduce any Bills in the current Session using the Law Commission procedure. On 8 January, he very kindly responded, saying that the Government work closely with the Law Commission and support its work to improve the statute book, and that the introduction of new Bills would be announced “in the usual manner”. I am sure my noble friend will forgive me if I say that I do not find that an entirely satisfactory Answer.

My Lords, in our various debates on electoral registration issues our usual mantra is about the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. The measures before us may be of some marginal help in improving the completeness of the register and its accuracy, but in very small ways. They may mean that some of the victims of domestic abuse, or people who are vulnerable as a result of other serious criminal activity, will now register to vote when they may not be able to do so otherwise. There is certainly evidence that some of these people may have feared the consequences of registering and this may have deterred them from complying with their obligation to co-operate with the electoral registration process. We need to safeguard the interests of such people and guarantee their democratic rights.

My only concern about the new rules for anonymous registration is that some people may feel that they have to pay a charge to a GP as part of the process. If someone is a victim of domestic violence, or under any threat of violence which means that they should be registered to vote without publication of their address, I cannot think that it would be right for them to be charged by anyone in return for certifying their status and enabling them to register anonymously. It would effectively be a charge to register to vote.

Of course, GPs are very hard pressed and there may be better routes for people to secure a statement confirming that anonymous registration is necessary. I cannot believe that many GPs would feel it necessary to make a charge for confirming the status of a victim of domestic violence, or of someone living in fear of violence, if their address can be identified from the electoral register. The evidence submitted by the Cabinet Office suggests that 90% of GPs will not make a charge, but that of the 10% who might, their charges might range from £30 to £63. It seems potentially misleading for that evidence to suggest, therefore, that the average charge may be around £4, based, I assume, on the estimate that 90% of GPs will not make such a charge and the charges made by 10% of GPs is averaged out across all of them. It would be equally true to say that of those GPs who might make a charge, the average could be over £45.

There are, of course, many other health professionals, refuge managers or police inspectors able to attest to the need for anonymous registration without someone going to their GP. However, going to a GP to secure anonymous electoral registration may also help identify significant health issues that need to be addressed, so there could therefore be many benefits in going to the GP to discuss these issues. The suggestion that such vulnerable people might be expected to pay to secure anonymous registration via a GP seems utterly wrong to me. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will comment on this issue and say what guidance may be issued to GPs on informing some of their patients that anonymous registration may be necessary for them, and on how the GP can attest to their status, if appropriate, without such people being expected to pay for it.

Other issues that have been set out may be considered relatively minor, in my view. Explaining on registration forms who may not be entitled to vote if they are not qualifying Commonwealth citizens, citizens of the Irish Republic, citizens of the UK, et cetera, is not something with which one can argue, but the need to explain this highlights the complexity of the franchise issues. As we prepare to extend the franchise to people who have moved abroad for longer than 15 years, it is high time that we looked again at the franchise issues, including extending the franchise to those who are legally entitled to live and work here permanently. I believe that that should include many of the 3 million EU citizens who currently enjoy the right to live and work here. Does the Minister agree that there should at least be a debate about such issues?

Making it easier for electoral registration officers to sensitively remove from the electoral rolls the names of people who have died should not require much debate, but in terms of preventing abuse of the electoral system, I believe that the impersonation of dead people is probably not very common in the UK. A much bigger problem remains the fact that about one in six people who are living and are entitled to be on the electoral register are not included on it. According to the Electoral Commission, most people believe that the process of electoral registration is automatic and they do not understand that they may need to act to ensure that they are registered and that failure to comply with the process may lead to fines or civil penalties. Will the Minister assure us that the Cabinet Office is working with the Electoral Commission to make sure that all relevant forms in the electoral registration process make this clear and follow standardised best practice to promote the completeness of the electoral register?

My Lords, I, too, welcome these provisions as far as they go. Clearly, it cannot be right that survivors who face a physical, emotional and psychological impact from abuse are then silenced from our democratic process because it is too dangerous for their names and addresses to be listed on the electoral register and too difficult for them to register anonymously under the current provisions.

I take this opportunity to thank Women’s Aid, which has been at the forefront of shaping and co-ordinating the responses to domestic violence and abuse for over 40 years, including the legislation before us. The question is whether these measures go far enough. One of my concerns is that survivors will have to re-register to vote anonymously year on year, and those who move home will have to repeat their applications. For many survivors, anonymity is a matter of life or death, and they will often be on the run from domestic abuse for the rest of their lives. I know that Women’s Aid has been calling on the Government to use the domestic violence and abuse Bill to pass legislative changes to make anonymous voter registration for survivors valid indefinitely so that they can vote in safety for life. What is the Minister’s position on that proposal?

I also want to raise a point that Mr Stephen Doughty raised in the other place about credit reference agencies. His concern was the interaction of individuals with credit reference agencies once they had registered anonymously. From examples in his constituency, he knew that individuals who had registered anonymously had then had significant difficulty in getting agencies such as Experian, Core Credit and others to acknowledge their anonymous registration without going through cumbersome processes. Many of the people we are talking about today are in a vulnerable situation; they need to be able to access credit and to do so without being disadvantaged. Will the Minister say a little more about whether the Government will work with the agencies to ensure that the process is as transparent and easy as possible? We know that in some cases agencies have refused to accept anonymous registration certificates, and clearly that is not right.

I would also like to pick up a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I welcome the proposals to remove entries from the register as a result of death—clearly that is a sensible measure. However, I would also have liked to see some provision for taking steps to increase voter registration and turnout. A question I put to the Government is this: why can they not examine the use of government data to automatically place eligible electors on the electoral roll, given that the integrity and accuracy of that roll is so important? In welcoming these provisions, I hope that we will hear a bit more about how the Government are going to increase the number of eligible people on the electoral register.

My Lords, I am very grateful for the general support for the measures before us and for all the contributions. I will try to respond to the points that have been raised, starting with that of my noble friend Lady Seccombe. She rightly pointed out that, if you look at the latest figures from the ONS, you will see that 1.9 million adults between the ages of 16 and 59 experienced domestic abuse in the past year—1.2 million women and 713,000 men—a statistic that many people will find surprising. When I first became involved in this issue, back in the 1970s, I was on a Select Committee dealing with violence in the family. That was in the era of Erin Pizzey and the first refuges. At that point, the focus was almost exclusively on women who had suffered physical violence. Over the past decades, the definition of domestic violence and abuse has broadened: it now includes psychological as well as physical abuse; sexual, financial and emotionally controlling behaviour; and coercive behaviour. That has broadened the range of people who might be susceptible to domestic violence. Men are victims, and the new provisions that we debate this evening cover both men and women—and rightly so.

My noble friend Lord Hodgson was worried that broadening the range of people who can attest might open the scheme to some abuse. It is important to keep this in perspective. At the moment, 2,300 people are anonymously registered—an infinitely small proportion of the total voting population. The estimate we have made is that, as a result of the changes we debate this evening, that figure might triple to 6,900. If one puts that in the perspective of the millions of people who are entitled to vote, one will see that the possibility of abuse is relatively small.

We consulted the Electoral Commission about the process. My noble friend asked whether refuge managers have to be in the directory. The answer is that they do not. However, the definition was restricted by being narrowed to managers of refuges, in direct response to the Electoral Commission’s concerns.

On the issue of telling people whether they have been removed from the register, the statutory instrument gives the electoral registration officer the discretion to include in the first communication information that they will not get a further one later on. It is discretionary and it is open to the electoral registration officer whether to follow it up, and there will be guidance from the Electoral Commission on how that discretion should best be used.

My noble friend asked also why one had to provide a national insurance number, given that, if one registered online, one did not have to. My noble friend is certainly different from me in having his driving licence and his passport information as accessible as his national insurance number. As far as I am concerned, all three have to be looked at in some database. I will write to him, if I may, about why there is that discrepancy between the information you have to provide if you register in person and the information you have to provide if you register online.

My noble friend raised some broader issues, which were touched on also by others who contributed to the debate, about the progress that the Government are making in their review of electoral law. I am not sure that my reply this evening will take my noble friend much further than the reply that I gave him but a few weeks ago, but we are working closely with the Law Commission in bringing forward a programme of reform using secondary legislation. It is hoped that the work can lead to the consolidation of 10 statutory instruments and 25 amending instruments into two, an affirmative and negative SI respectively. These will cover local, PCC and mayoral elections as well as local planning and council tax referendums. The Law Commission will then utilise its in-house parliamentary counsel to oversee the drafting process. On top of that, Cabinet Office staff will form part of an inner circle alongside representatives from the Electoral Commission, Solace and AEA—the Association of Electoral Administrators—to oversee the drafting process and participate in necessary policy decisions. So work is under way on broader reforms.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked about GPs and whether they would charge those who want the attestation form signed. I entirely agree with him that those in a vulnerable position should not have to pay. The Electoral Commission will provide revised guidance in the light of the changes we debate. We hope that GPs will choose not to charge for attestations but, as the noble Lord said, other avenues will remain open for electors to seek attestations. It strikes me that somebody who perhaps has just moved into a new refuge will have to go and see a GP anyway to register. That is the point at which the patient could provide the attestation form and just ask the GP to sign it. If it was in that context, I honestly do not see that the GP would need to charge.

On automatic registration, I think that this was looked at some time ago; it may even have been when there was a coalition. The Government did not introduce automatic registration, as it went against the underlying principle of IER—namely, that individuals should take ownership of registering to vote and deciding where they want to register. I shall come in a moment to what we are doing to improve take-up. There are no plans to introduce a system of compulsory registration; that has been looked at before. It is up to all of us to explain to people the importance of registering to vote.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, raised a question asked in the other place about why those who register anonymously have to re-register each year. It is a valid question. The provisions on yearly renewal are in primary legislation and could not be addressed through the SIs before us today. The intention of Parliament when the scheme was introduced in 2006 was to enable individuals with a current risk to register anonymously. If one had it automatically carrying forward year after year then, by definition, the risk might not be “current”. However, I think that the principal reason was that you simply cannot do it by secondary legislation; you need primary legislation.

The noble Lord then raised the valid point that, if you are not on the register, credit reference agencies cannot check that you are who you say you are. There is a certificate of anonymous registration, which can be used as evidence to overcome some of the restrictions to which the noble Lord referred. He implied that this was bureaucratic and not always acceptable to the credit reference agencies, and that again is something that I would like to take away and reflect on.

I have tried to answer all the points that were raised. If I have not answered all of them, I shall write to noble Lords.

Motions agreed.