Skip to main content

Representation of the People (Electronic Communications and Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020

Volume 802: debated on Monday 23 March 2020

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Representation of the People (Electronic Communications and Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020.

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft order laid before the House on 3 March now be considered. I am not a lawyer but reassure noble Lords that the terms “canvass” and “the canvass”, used interchangeably in my remarks, have the same meaning.

This statutory instrument would amend the existing legislative framework for canvass in Northern Ireland to allow electors to respond to the canvass digitally. In practice, this will be achieved using the same digital system and application already in place for voter registration. Registration applications and canvass returns require substantially the same information. However, because online registration is a relatively new development in Northern Ireland, our existing canvass regulations do not allow the use of electronic returns.

It is worth noting that online registration has proved hugely successful and popular in Northern Ireland. The option to register online was extended to Northern Ireland in 2018 and since then, approximately, more than 80% of people registering have chosen to register using the digital service. This compares very favourably with the United Kingdom, where the most recent figures were that around 75% of applicants were using the online service. However, I stress that nothing in this legislation will remove the paper-based canvass regime that we have always used. That system will remain for those who wish to use it. Nevertheless, the growing majority of people now expect to be able to interact with public services online. These regulations will facilitate this, using the highly successful online registration service as an alternative to posting a paper form.

Canvass in Northern Ireland is different from that in Great Britain, where the canvass is an annual event and with a much lighter touch. In Northern Ireland, canvass does not happen annually, so when a full canvass is conducted, it is not sufficient to note that your registration details have not changed. Responding to canvass requires each individual to complete a full registration application or canvass form.

The register for Northern Ireland currently stands at 1.3 million people and without these regulations, which allow people to use the online service to register, 1.3 million paper forms would need to be posted, with return-post envelopes. The Committee will respect that this is a huge undertaking. Reducing the number of forms issued will save money, streamline the administrative process and save a good deal of wasted paper. Most importantly, these changes will make it easier for people to register as part of the canvass process, enabling them to fully engage with the democratic life of our country. I hope we can all agree that these changes, which will make it easier for people to register, allied to increased efficiency, will be very welcome.

In response to the developing Covid-19 situation, there are provisions in the coronavirus Bill now before the House that provide for the canvass that had been planned for this year to be postponed until 2021. This delay makes sense. In the current circumstances, it is far from clear whether canvass forms could be printed and delivered. In addition, it would be unreasonable—if not impossible—for the Chief Electoral Officer to recruit, train and employ the large number of processing staff required. This is not work that can be done remotely, so it would run directly counter to all the public health advice we have issued concerning social distancing.

The changes in these regulations will, if the clauses in the coronavirus Bill pass, apply to the 2021 canvass. That does not mean that the Northern Ireland register will fall into disrepair. In Northern Ireland, we hold a canvass periodically—at least every 10 years—and the last canvass was in 2013. Very importantly, in between canvasses the register is maintained by a process of continuous registration and active data-matching. Despite not having a canvass, in 2019 alone, the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland made 250,000 modifications to the Northern Ireland register, as a result of their usual continuous verification of it. This process will ensure the register is fit for purpose until the 2021 canvass.

These draft regulations make provision for a slight amendment to the stages to be undertaken by the Chief Electoral Officer as part of the next canvass. Under current provision, the Chief Electoral Officer issues paper copies of the prescribed canvass form to all individuals on the register, to make people aware of the canvass process and the need to register. Under these new provisions, a new first step will apply to the canvass process. No earlier than 1 July in a canvass year, the CEO will send a leaflet to all homes explaining canvass and asking people to register online. It will explain that forms will be posted shortly for those who want to apply on paper. In this way, we hope to encourage a good deal of the public to register online.

Following that first leaflet, the usual chasing cycle of canvass will proceed in the usual way. Addressed forms will be sent to every individual who has not already responded. Chasing letters will be issued and finally canvassers will be sent door-to-door to non-responders. I should also say that current legislation allows the CEO to retain on the register for up to three years individuals who fail to respond to canvass, where she is content that data-matching shows that their details have not changed. This provision was originally for a two-year retention after the 2013 canvass, but was extended to three years to cover the Assembly election in 2016. These regulations move the retention period back to the original period of two years.

In addition, these regulations also make a number of more minor technical amendments in relation to canvass. In Northern Ireland, every individual successfully registering online is issued with a digital registration number. That number acts in place of a signature for digital registrants to ensure that postal vote applications can continue to be scrutinised appropriately. These regulations ensure that this important number is issued, or reissued as appropriate, to people registering for the purpose of canvass. The regulations also make provision in relation to the retention of data, providing that the CEO can continue to retain that information until it is no longer required for, or in connection with, the exercise of electoral functions.

Finally, the regulations make a small technical amendment in relation to recall provisions. During the recall petition held in Northern Ireland in 2018, it became clear that there was an inconsistency in provisions concerning the marked register and how it could be accessed. These draft provisions enable the chief electoral officer to allow access to the marked register, a provision that mirrors the position for parliamentary elections.

Registration and canvass are a critical part of our democratic system, and I am happy to tell the Committee that the implementation of digital registration for canvass is fully supported and welcomed by the Electoral Commission and Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. Importantly, these changes will make canvass more efficient and will allow the chief electoral officer and her staff more time to focus on encouraging under-registered groups to engage with canvass. I should also say that the regulations have been approved by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Allowing people to register online for canvass will make it easier for people to engage with the process as well as saving time and money and, as I said earlier, reducing paper waste. I hope that your Lordships will agree that the introduction of digital electoral registration for canvass is another step towards modernising the delivery of elections in Northern Ireland. I hope the Committee will support these regulations today. I commend them to the Committee and beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister and all those involved for a very thorough and helpful briefing about these regulations, which I think should not attract any great controversy. It has often been said in the Chamber by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, that we run our elections in an analogue fashion in a digital era, so these regulations are catching up. The changes being made are environmentally friendly, a sensible modernisation and a more efficient and cheaper way of conducting the democratic processes, but I have a number of questions for the Minister.

First, if we are running something that is cheaper and more efficient and that saves resources, will at least some of those resources in Northern Ireland be engaged in a process of encouraging registration, particularly among the groups which tend to be under-registered? It seems to me that where you make a saving in the registration process, you should invest at least some of it—I suggest a high proportion of it—in trying to make sure that everybody who should legally be on the register is included on the register.

Secondly, digital registration numbers are new to our electoral registration system but I assume that, as they are in the regulations, the Government have no fundamental objection to the principle of digital registration numbers. I would be grateful for confirmation of that, because extending the principle of having digital registration numbers could benefit the system very greatly in a number of ways.

First, when people are not sure whether they are on the electoral registration system, they often apply again, wasting the time of electoral registration officers. They are unsure whether to spend time filling in the form online again. If they had a digital registration number, it would be much easier for them to check online whether they are already registered. It would save them and office staff time in completing the registration process.

Secondly, a digital registration number would be helpful in checking whether there is a problem or an offence in double voting inappropriately in the same election. Many people in this country, quite legitimately, are on the electoral register in two different places. They can vote in different council elections, but should vote once only in a parliamentary election. It is potentially too easy for someone to vote in two places in a general election. Allegations fly around about whether perhaps student or second-home owners are doing this. If there were a national digital registration number, it would be possible for bodies such as the Electoral Commission to check whether double voting were taking place. At the moment, there are just manual systems in which 400 local authorities all maintain their own marked registers. It is not practical to do that, so there would be advantages to rolling out this system.

Thirdly, I ask whether it will be made clear to people, within the digital information sent out, that there is a legal requirement to comply with the registration process. This is probably more important in Great Britain than in Northern Ireland but, since Parliament has continued to approve the principle that it should be a legal requirement to comply with the registration process, subject to fine, if we want high rates of registration, we must make this plain in all documentation, paper or electronic.

Finally, I have another technical question on the recall legislation. In many ways, the recall legislation, passed wholly in 2015, seems flawed. What happened in Northern Ireland in 2018 highlighted some of those flaws. If the chief electoral officer will have access to the marked register in future, will that be in real time during the six-week process? One of the issues of controversy is that people will not know how many signatures have been collected during those six weeks. There have been three recall petitions since that legislation was approved. In two cases, well over 10% of the electorate signed, triggering a recall. But in one case, that in Northern Ireland, the number was just under 10%. I have the strong belief that, if people had known that there were just a few hundred signatures below the 10% level, more people would have signed that recall petition. Will the chief electoral officer have the power to, at some point—perhaps weekly intervals—disclose how many people have signed the recall petition? I would be grateful for the Minister’s help with those issues.

I too thank the Minister for introducing these regulations so ably. I completely agree with the many comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. On the point the Minister made about how these changes will enable us to focus on under-registered groups, I re-emphasise the point of the noble Lord: will that mean that the resources saved can be put into this vital task? The Minister suggests that this will enable greater time and focus, but will that be backed up by a transfer of resources, as the noble Lord suggested?

I have a couple of minor points. I do not want to be seen as pedantic—certainly not by the people behind the Minister—but the online statutory instrument tracker says that an instrument of the same name was tabled on 20 January, only to be withdrawn on 27 February. It appears to have been re-laid on 3 March. There is no mention of this in the Explanatory Memorandum.

I wonder what caused this. Was it an administrative change or a political one? I hope that the Minister can explain. I am a firm believer in the cock-up theory of history, and it may simply have been down to that. I noticed that, in the Explanatory Memorandum, the footer said it was drafted by the Department for Exiting the European Union. I assume that that is not the case and was just another little error.

Focusing on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, we are all in favour of making it easier and simpler for people to register. I hear what he said about the electoral officer retaining people on the register for three years and using data matching; that is really important. The noble Lord raised the ability of people simply to check whether they are registered online—that would certainly make life a lot easier. I hope that the Minister will be able to pick up that point.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their general support for this order. I will try to answer as many questions as I can, although I feel a letter coming their way. I acknowledge the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in this area. All four of his questions are pretty technical; I have some answers, but the main ones will come in a letter.

The noble Lord also made an extremely good and interesting point about the fact that the process will be cheaper and more efficient, and that the efficiency costs could therefore be used to improve the process, including looking at underrepresentation. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also picked up on that. I reassure both noble Lords that the CEO has new initiatives for underrepresented groups anyway and intends to focus on working with—to give a few examples—the Department for Education, care homes and the rental sector. I will take the points raised back to the department as interesting ideas.

As I mentioned, the tail end of the process is what I call the knock-up process. It is very important that people do register. If they have not registered online and the paper process also fails, the knock-up process is vital. It is important, legislatively, that people register. I will write to noble Lords to explain what the sanctions are. People should not get away with not registering.

The question of district registration numbers cropped up from both noble Lords. More work could—and, I am sure, will—be done to improve efficiency and to use the system more broadly and to better effect. I will find out whether the DRN can be used for individuals to go online and find out whether they are already registered, because time goes by and they may not remember.

Dealing with offences of double voting is an issue around the United Kingdom. I am sure this will be looked at but I will feed the comments to officials and see whether I can write with some more definitive views.

As I have said, it is a legal requirement to register and to comply, so the question of fines does crop up and I shall come back to that.

On recall, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, the legislation is clear that it is an offence to reveal the details of signature numbers and I am not aware of any proposal to change that. The noble Lord also raised a number of further points on recall relating in particular to the 2018 issue. Again, I will write with more detail on those.

I should like to come back to digital registration numbers. Would the noble Viscount be kind enough to formally approach the Electoral Commission to ask for its view, when it is able to look at the system of digital registration numbers in Northern Ireland. and to ask specifically what merit it might see in rolling out the system across the UK?

I will certainly take that back. Again, some interesting ideas have come from the noble Lord and I think that that one should be fed in as well.

On the withdrawal of the instrument and the change to the Representation of the People Act 1983, this had been made by devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales, which made the original SI inoperable. I should apologise that the SI footer is an error. I believe that it was drafted by No. 10.

I would also like to correct an earlier slip. When I said in my opening remarks that 75% of applicants in the UK use the digital service, I meant GB, so the NI figure that I mentioned earlier was over 80%.

I believe that I have covered the questions raised, although I am aware that I have not necessarily answered them. I am pleased that these technical questions have arisen because that is the whole point of having these debates. It is therefore important that I give noble Lords full answers to their questions, which I will endeavour to do. In the meantime, I beg to move.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 5.12 pm