Monday 23 March 2020
Arrangement of Business
Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay (Consequential Amendments to Subordinate Legislation) Regulations 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay (Consequential Amendments to Subordinate Legislation) Regulations 2020, which were laid before the House on 10 March 2020, be approved.
This statutory instrument supports the implementation of a new entitlement to paid leave for employees who lose a child under the age of 18 or whose baby is stillborn. The main regulations, which contain the main provisions of the policy, were approved by resolution of both Houses on 5 March, and are set to apply to child deaths and stillbirths on or after 6 April. Together, the package of Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay Regulations will ensure that there is a statutory minimum provision in place which all working parents can rely on in the event of a child death or stillbirth. They will also establish a clear baseline of support for employers when managing bereavement in the workplace.
Specifically, the Parental Bereavement Leave Regulations 2020 give all employees a right to a minimum of two weeks off work in the event of their child’s death or stillbirth, regardless of how long they have worked for that employer. The Statutory Parental Bereavement Pay (General) Regulations 2020 implement a new statutory payment for parents taking time away from work following their bereavement, subject to the same eligibility criteria as all other statutory family leave payments. The SI under consideration today plays an important role in supporting the implementation of this policy, and ensuring that it achieves its objectives.
The draft Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay (Consequential Amendments to Subordinate Legislation) Regulations 2020 amend other pieces of secondary legislation to take account of the introduction of the new entitlement to parental bereavement leave and pay. This SI makes it clear how certain other rights or benefits should be calculated when an employee takes parental bereavement leave or statutory parental bereavement pay. The Government’s intention is that parental bereavement leave and pay are treated consistently with other family-related statutory leave and pay entitlements when calculating entitlement to certain other rights or benefits. This is beneficial to employers who are expecting this new entitlement to align with the existing framework of family-related leave and pay entitlements.
The SI also sends a clear message that parental bereavement is to be afforded the same status and importance as other types of leave typically associated with the birth or adoption of a child. This supports the policy objective to encourage employers to acknowledge the importance and value of recognising bereavement in the workplace and providing adequate support for parents in those sad circumstances. Without this SI, we would be calling into question the status of this new entitlement when compared with other existing entitlements to statutory leave and pay, and we would create confusion for employers and their employees.
As I have said before, while the purpose of the parental bereavement leave and pay policy is to set a statutory minimum, this should in no way stop employers from going further where they can. The Government encourage all employers to support their employees in whatever way they are able to. It is my hope that this new statutory provision will act as a catalyst for improving workplace bereavement support across the board.
Before I finish, I again pay tribute to all noble Lords who have lent their support to this legislation throughout its course, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, for his integral role in getting this on the statute book.
In conclusion, this SI supports an important package of legislation to give bereaved parents a right to take time away from work to grieve in the tragic event that their child dies or their baby is stillborn. It plays an important role in ensuring that the policy as a whole can achieve its objectives by ensuring consistency between parental bereavement leave and pay, and other entitlements to family-related leave and pay, in the calculation of other rights and benefits. This is a fair and helpful outcome for employees and their employers, and I commend these regulations to the Committee.
I thank the Minister for that introduction. I am not sure whether I am the understudy or the understudy’s understudy, but it has been instructive reading a number of SIs over the weekend and doing my homework. I admit I was shocked to learn that, from government estimates, only two-thirds of businesses provide parental bereavement leave currently, particularly when the last figures I saw, from 2017, were that 7,600 babies and children under 18 died. This is not insignificant. The Minister rightly paid tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, but this also derived from a Private Member’s Bill by Kevin Hollinrake MP and noble Lords should credit him for that.
I very much welcome what the Minister has said and recognise that this is the third of the three statutory instruments needed to put this in place, but I ask the Minister why it has taken two years from passing the original Bill to get this much-needed help. The Minister hoped that this would lead to certain consequences; I hope there will be a communications exercise with business, particularly small businesses, about this duty. I also hope that there will be a full review, not overengineered, of how this is being put in place, after a period—I do not know how long that should be, but maybe a year or shorter—to see whether businesses are really complying. Otherwise, this hard-fought new right, which we very much welcome, will not be worth as much as has been hoped.
My Lords, I echo and share the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, especially in thanking both the MP and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for their work to get this on the statute book. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, touched on the numbers affected. Before I continue, I declare a non-financial interest as a patron of the children’s charity, Jigsaw4u, which supports the flip of this—children whose parents have died. It is within the same area, so I note that.
This side also supports the intention and wording of this SI. It is good to see legislation or rights being brought in from day one, something we were able to do starting with the Employment Rights Act in the 1990s. Most issues have been touched on, so there is no need to repeat them. This is just to say that we welcome and support both the intention and language of this SI.
I thank both the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, for their contributions to this brief debate. This is not a matter of controversy, but I thank them for supporting its introduction, nevertheless. When we debated the main regulations to implement parental bereavement leave and pay a few weeks ago, the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, who played such a crucial role in this—together with Members from the other place, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—remarked that this legislation is an example of where the democratic and parliamentary process has worked well to effect a change in the law.
For noble Lords who do not know, this legislation is a result of a tireless campaign by Lucy Herd, whose son, Jack, died 10 years ago. This explains why it has been given the title “Jack’s law”, which has been used interchangeably with the much more complex formal title “parental bereavement leave and pay” in the media.
This Government are committed to supporting working parents and making this country the best place both to work and to grow a business. Jack’s law is an important step towards achieving this. Together with the other regulations that have already been debated, this SI will provide bereaved parents with the space to grieve following the death or stillbirth of their child, and will send the right signal to employers and colleagues about the value of compassion and support at such a tragic time.
I reiterate that these regulations represent a statutory baseline, which should be considered the bare minimum that an employee who has suffered this tragic loss should expect from their employer. As always, the Government encourage all employers to go further than statutory minima, where they are able to, and to act compassionately and considerately towards their staff. Most employers already provide exemplary bereavement support to their staff. However, some still do not, so I hope this new legislation not only ensures minimum protection for all employees, but also leads to better workplace support for bereavement across the board.
Turning to the contributions, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked me why this has taken two years. It has been complex to get the policy right. There have been a number of challenges to departmental resources, not to mention the incredible amount of work preparing for something that did not happen, which was a no-deal Brexit. It was always the intention to get the regulations in place to apply from April 2020.
Judicial Pensions and Fee-Paid Judges’ Pension Schemes (Contributions) (Amendment) Regulations 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, I am speaking on behalf of my noble and learned friend Lord Keen of Elie.
The draft regulations before us today relate to judicial pension schemes’ member contribution rates. The purpose of these draft regulations is to amend the current member contribution rates and earning thresholds in two different judicial pensions schemes for subsequent financial years. These schemes are: the Judicial Pension Scheme 2015, which was established by the Judicial Pensions Regulations 2015, following wider public service pension reforms; and the Fee-Paid Judicial Pension Scheme 2017, which was established by the Judicial Pensions (Fee-Paid Judges) Regulations 2017, following the Supreme Court decision in 2013 in the case of O’Brien, in order to provide fee-paid judges with a pension.
Both the 2015 and 2017 regulations made provision for contributions payable by members, and they set a different rate of contribution dependent on the salaries or fees earned by a judge in a year. The regulations being debated today maintain the existing member contribution rates in both schemes for the financial year 2020-21 and each year thereafter, until such time as alternative provisions are made.
The regulations also uprate the earning thresholds, under £150,001 per annum, of the member contribution rate structure for both schemes on 1 April 2020 in line with the consumer prices index. Additionally, the regulations provide that the related earning thresholds will be uprated each year automatically in April in line with the consumer prices index rate of the previous September.
These regulations amend judicial pension schemes that are UK-wide. The Ministry of Justice has ensured that all devolved Administrations have been informed of progress, and they support our proposed approach. The Northern Ireland Department of Justice has its own Northern Ireland Judicial Pension Scheme 2015. It therefore proceeded with its own regulations in January 2020, which followed the ministry’s policy approach.
The reason for making these amendment regulations is that the current provisions for member contribution rates will expire on 31 March 2020. The draft regulations are needed to specify the member contribution rates that will apply from 1 April 2020 onwards. These regulations will enable the Ministry of Justice to ensure the continuing operation of the schemes by deducting the appropriate member contributions from judicial salaries and fees.
Given the ongoing uncertainty about the value of public service pensions after April 2015—due to recent litigation, the McCloud litigation, and the consequential decision to pause one element of the actuarial valuation of the schemes—the Government propose to maintain existing contribution rates from 1 April 2020 onwards.
Having referred to the impact of the actuarial valuation and the McCloud litigation on these regulations, it might be helpful if I recapitulate some brief background details. Following the 2015 reform of public service pension schemes and under the current legislative framework, government departments are required to undertake valuations of public service pension schemes, including the judicial pension scheme, every four years. The valuation does two things. First, it informs the employer contribution rates. Secondly, it tests whether the value of the schemes to current members has moved from target levels and needs to be adjusted to bring them back to that point, which is known as the cost control mechanism.
Work was undertaken from March 2016 on the first such valuation of public service pension schemes to analyse the provisional results of the valuation for each affected scheme. This work was affected by the age discrimination cases brought by members of the judicial and firefighters’ pension schemes—the McCloud litigation. As your Lordships will no doubt recall, this litigation concerned the transitional protection policy that was applied by the Government in implementing the 2015 public service pension scheme reforms. The courts found that the transitional protection policy amounted to unlawful age discrimination, and in June 2019 the Government’s application for permission to appeal was refused by the Supreme Court.
In January 2019, the Government took the decision to pause the cost control element of the valuation. It was prudent to do so, because the effect of the McCloud litigation on public service pension schemes was unclear. While the outcome of that litigation is now known, addressing the discrimination, including settling the details of tax treatment, is a complicated process, involving decisions across a number of government departments, and will take some time to deliver. The pause of the cost control mechanism will therefore continue until there is more clarity about the shape of the McCloud remedy.
To avoid the need to make further interim regulations, the regulations propose that the existing rates will continue to apply with no specific expiry date. This is a pragmatic measure reflecting the fact that the timeline for resolving the issues arising from the McCloud case is uncertain. Once this work is complete, and the outcome of the cost control element of the valuation is known, the Government will reconsider whether further changes to member contribution rates for these schemes are required.
No changes were made to the earning thresholds for member contribution rates as part of the measures put in place for 2019-20. However, the Government are mindful that it would not be desirable for the earning thresholds to fall significantly out of step with salary or fee rates. That is why the regulations provide that all earning thresholds below the top £150,001 threshold are uprated each year in line with CPI. This approach is consistent with various other aspects of public service pensions. In recent years, increases to public service pensions in payment have been in line with the September-to-September increase in CPI. CPI is already used to annually uprate the earning thresholds in other public service pension schemes, such as the Local Government Pension Scheme and the Teachers’ Pension Scheme.
The £150,001 band will not be increased. In the 2015 scheme, the rates have been designed to align with the top rate of income tax such that the net-of-tax contribution rates are broadly the same above and below the £150,001 threshold. In the case of the fee-paid 2017 scheme, the total contribution rates are broadly the same, when the member and dependant contribution rates are taken together. Additionally, the Government consider it desirable to maintain broad parity between the Judicial Pensions and Retirement Act 1993 and the two sets of judicial pension regulations being amended, as the £150,001 threshold is common across all judicial schemes.
As the regulations provide that the lower earning thresholds will be uprated each year automatically, similar provisions will not be needed next year. However, the Government will revisit the question of appropriate levels of contribution rates and thresholds once wider pension issues have been resolved.
The relevant legislation—Section 22 of the Public Service Pensions Act 2013—requires the Government to fulfil a number of procedural requirements before making changes to features of the scheme under the 2015 regulations which are classed as protected elements. Member contribution rates are one such protected element, and as such cannot be altered without the Government first consulting the persons or representatives of those persons affected with a view to reaching agreement. I can confirm that the Ministry of Justice issued a four-week consultation, which ran from 25 October to 22 November 2019. The Ministry of Justice consulted representative judicial organisations with a view to reaching agreement. An additional statutory requirement for changes to protected elements is that an accompanying report must be laid before Parliament setting out the rationale for the amendment. I can confirm that such a report has been laid. Separately, the Government also satisfied the requirement to consult the Secretary of State for Scotland in relation to judicial offices with Scottish jurisdiction, and he was content with the proposal.
Under this further interim measure, the cost of accruing pension scheme benefits will remain the same for most members but will be reduced for some members, as they will pay contributions at a lower rate than they would have done if no changes were made to the earning thresholds.
I conclude by reinforcing the point that the existing arrangements for member contribution rates will expire on 31 March 2020, in relation to both the 2015 and the 2017 judicial pension schemes. Therefore, these draft regulations are a necessary further interim measure to continue the effective operation of these pension schemes, until a long-term solution is put in place. I hope that noble Lords will agree that these regulations are a necessary interim measure to continue the arrangements for member contribution rates and for the effective operation of the judicial pension scheme. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comprehensive introduction. We are all understudies now—I had a crash course on judicial pensions over the weekend. Learning up on O’Brien, McCloud and Miller has not been a happy experience for me or, I suspect, for the Ministry of Justice over a period of years. Being very familiar with higher education pensions, I understand that there are a lot of bear traps in the whole area of pensions and that people feel very strongly about them because they secure their future.
I do not need to pick over the individual details of the instrument—these regulations are very clear and they do the right thing—but this is an opportunity to kick the tyres slightly on the matter of policy. Following the Miller case, the Ministry of Justice is clearly going to have to set aside a certain sum to make sure that the pensions are funded and are non-discriminatory. There have been a lot of estimates, ranging from £300 million to £1 billion, and it would be useful to know whether the noble Lord is possessed of any idea of how much this is going to cost as a consequence of that case.
My second question is about the policy on judicial diversity. The Miller case was all about discrimination, but we are trying to create greater judicial diversity and that goes to the key issue of how pensions operate so that they do not discriminate against people who are part-time or those who enter the scheme late and so on. The July 2019 figures show that just 7% of court judges are BAME and 32% are women. Is it not time that we set clear targets for better gender balance and BAME balance and gave those targets real teeth?
I echo the thanks to the Minister for his detailed explanation, and I support and share the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. We understand the need for these regulations to be passed and we will not oppose them.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, touched on the Miller case; I am going to consider the McCloud judgment. Can the Minister confirm when the McCloud judgment will be implemented? We understand that it is a complicated matter, but the court passed the judgment years ago and the Ministry needs to work to resolve this long-standing issue.
In the judgment, the judiciary were able to hold that the particular legislation was unlawful because the tribunal found that the provisions were discriminatory on the grounds that younger judges are more often women and members of the BAME community. Although those groups are still underrepresented, it did reflect more heavily on them.
The Government need to address this issue because we have a significant shortage of judges, and especially High Court judges. A number of senior lawyers and members of the judiciary are not applying for those High Court judge jobs, and part of that is because of the changes to the pensions regulations. We are seeing more of an effect there than on other judicial positions. One of the reasons holding people back from applying is that, until there is full clarity, they do not know what the full implications on their pensions will be. I am looking for a little clarity on that.
The Minister also mentioned the consultation. From the Explanatory Memorandum, I was not clear how many individuals or organisations had responded to that consultation. Again, a bit of detail on that would be appreciated.
I thank both noble Lords for their contributions to this debate and their support for the regulations. There are a number of complex and interwoven cases to look through. It might be more helpful if I write to the noble Lord about the Miller case, rather than pontificate on it.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked important questions about judicial diversity, which the Government are very keen to encourage. The Ministry of Justice is working very closely with the Lord Chief Justice, the chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission and other members of the Judicial Diversity Forum to consider all the practical actions that we can take to have a positive impact on judicial diversity. In the five years from 2014 to 2019, there have been some small but important improvements. The number of women increased from 24% to 32% in the courts and from 43% to 46% in tribunals, as well as from 18% to 27% in the High Court and to 23% in the Court of Appeal. There has also been a small increase in the number of black and minority ethnic judges from 6% to 7% in the courts and from 9% to 11% in tribunals, although the proportion of BAME judges has fallen in the High Court. So that is some progress, but there is clearly still more to do.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, also asked why we do not therefore introduce targets to accelerate the process. That is not something that the Government are considering. It is important for the quality, independence and impartiality of our judges that the Ministry of Justice always appoints, and is always seen to appoint, the most talented candidates on merit. While the Ministry of Justice can certainly do more to improve judicial diversity, we do not think that targets are the right approach. It is also important that we improve the diversity of those working across our justice system, including the diversity of entrants into the legal profession in the first place and making sure that they have the support they need to progress through their careers.
The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, asked when the McCloud judgment might be remedied. The case is now with the employment tribunal to determine an appropriate remedy. The next hearings in the employment tribunal are on injury to feelings, scheduled for June this year, and then on financial losses, in October this year. Those hearings should settle the detail of how past discrimination will be rectified. MoJ officials are working hard on engaging with the employment tribunal on this process, but meanwhile, and more generally, the Treasury is developing a central remedy to address the discrimination for both claimants and non-claimants for the wider public service schemes, on which it aims to consult in the late spring of this year. The Ministry of Justice is aiming to mirror the Treasury timetable, with a consultation also planned for this spring.
The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, also asked who took part in the consultation. The Ministry of Justice received 10 responses to the consultation from representative judicial organisations and individual salaried and fee-paid court and tribunal judges.
Other than the point about the Miller case, I think I have addressed all the issues that were raised by noble Lords, but if not I am very happy to write on those points as well. I hope that noble Lords will agree that these regulations are a necessary interim measure to prevent a lapse in arrangements for member contribution rates and to ensure the continuing effective operation of the judicial pension scheme. I therefore commend this draft to the Committee.
Justices of the Peace and Authorised Court and Tribunal Staff (Costs) Regulations 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, these regulations form part of the Government's implementation of the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Act 2018. In accordance with the requirements of that Act, the Lord Chief Justice and Senior President of Tribunals have been consulted, and both have indicated approval of the regulations. The regulations have also been discussed and debated in the other place and passed.
The regulations are rather technical, but they have the important purpose of underpinning the protection which the Act gives to authorised court and tribunal officers, so that they can work effectively. That protection takes the form of indemnity against liability for actions carried out in good faith in the performance of judicial functions. These regulations ensure that, where legal proceedings are brought against an authorised officer in respect of any such action, there is a functioning and regulated procedure for costs to be paid to the litigant, without the individual authorised officer being liable to pay them.
I will briefly draw out the main points of the instrument. The Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Act 2018 provides for staff in the courts and tribunals to be authorised by the Lord Chief Justice or the Senior President of Tribunals, or somebody nominated by them, to exercise judicial functions. The specific functions that these staff may exercise, and any qualifications they must have in order to be authorised to exercise them, will be set out in procedure rules. The Act also grants these officers protections akin to those that are currently in place for justices of the peace, justices’ clerks and legal advisers, to ensure that they have the necessary independence to carry out these functions.
The Act protects the independence of authorised officers by indemnifying them against liability for anything that they do, or omit to do, when carrying out judicial functions in good faith. It also protects such officers from costs arising from any proceedings brought against them in respect of acts or omissions made in the course of exercising judicial functions in good faith. These protections mirror those which are currently afforded to justices of the peace—whose role and protections are unaffected by the Act except in a rather technical way which I will explain in due course—and to justices’ clerks, whose office is abolished by the Act and replaced by the role of authorised officers.
If legal proceedings are brought against an authorised officer in respect of action taken by that officer in the exercise of judicial functions, and those proceedings are successful, costs may still need to be paid to the successful litigant. The 2018 Act provides that the Lord Chancellor, and not an individual authorised officer, would be ordered to make that payment. These regulations outline the procedure to be followed when an order for costs is sought, and the scope of such an order. They specify the circumstances in which a court may order the Lord Chancellor to pay costs in proceedings, when such an order can or cannot be made, and how the amount to be paid will be determined. The regulations maintain the protection that the Act gives to authorised officers from having to pay costs, while at the same time ensuring there is a mechanism by which the legal costs of a successful litigant may be paid.
There are long-established provisions in relation to costs in any court proceedings brought against justices’ clerks and legal advisers, or against justices of the peace, which have been working effectively over the past 18 years.
The 2018 Act abolishes the offices of justices’ clerk and justices’ clerk’s assistant and replaces them with provision for appropriately qualified court or tribunal staff to be authorised to perform certain judicial functions. Because the provisions now cover staff in tribunals, they also extend to staff authorised to exercise judicial functions in reserved tribunals in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The existing regulations, which apply to justices’ clerks, therefore need to be replaced with regulations that instead cover all staff who may be authorised to exercise judicial functions.
The regulations therefore have three parts, with different extent. The first part extends to the whole United Kingdom, but is merely introductory. The second part, which extends to England and Wales only, makes provision covering costs in proceedings in relation to actions of justices of the peace and authorised court staff. The third part, which extends to the whole United Kingdom, makes provision covering costs in proceedings in relation to actions of authorised tribunal staff. The second part of the regulations is to all intents and purposes identical to the provision for justices of the peace and justices’ clerks which it replaces. The third part of the regulations differs slightly, because it has to make different provision for the way that any costs paid by the Lord Chancellor are assessed for Northern Ireland and for Scotland, corresponding to the way costs—or, in Scotland, expenses—are assessed.
I said that I would briefly explain how the regulations apply to justices of the peace. Although the Act does not affect the role of justices of the peace, the way the powers to make regulations are structured means that the existing regulations cease to have effect. It is therefore necessary to re-enact the provisions of the existing regulations as they apply to justices of the peace, as well as making the new provision, mirroring the existing provision, for authorised court and tribunal staff. I reiterate that the new regulations largely maintain the status quo and simply extend to all authorised officers the same provisions that currently apply to just justices’ clerks and assistant clerks and reproduce those provisions for justices of the peace.
These regulations will ensure consistency on how courts approach costs in these rare cases and guard against excessive, or indeed insufficient, orders being made in courts across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The regulations have no impact in terms of cost to the public sector because they substantially replicate what is provided for currently.
The purpose of these regulations is simply to provide certainty, to ensure there is a functioning and regulated procedure for the payment of costs to litigants in proceedings against authorised officers, and to provide clarity for the courts and tribunals on how costs should be managed in such cases. I commend this instrument to the House and beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for again introducing the SI so comprehensively. It just shows how remote lawyers in other fields sometimes are that I did not notice that the justices’ clerk had been abolished; I confess that it was only when I read this SI that I realised that this very long-standing, almost Dickensian pedigree was no longer with us.
Obviously it is extremely desirable that authorised courts or tribunal staff are supported in this way. My only question is about the use of the word “mirroring”, a word that occurs all the way through the Explanatory Notes. Does that mean effectively that the right to costs is identical between the previous justices’ clerks and the current appropriately qualified court or tribunal staff who are authorised to perform certain judicial functions, or has some difference crept in that is either more or less generous?
I echo the thanks of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, to the Minister for his detailed introduction. As he said, these are technical rules. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Clement Jones, because in reading through the SI over the weekend I was struggling to find a question within it. I welcome the intent to indemnify the authorised officers against any actions that they carry out in good faith.
I have a question about numbers. I noticed that the impact assessment said there was no change from the previous impact assessment carried out in 2018. Does the Minister know how many individuals had to be indemnified and had cases brought against them? Again, if he does not have that information to hand, I am more than happy for him to drop me a note.
In the interests of speed and accuracy, it might be more helpful if I write to the noble Lords to provide that information. The noble Lord, Lord Clement Jones, is right that this is a moment for us to pay tribute to the soon-to-disappear office of justices’ clerk, though their work will continue in this new form and broadly contribute to the efficiency of our courts and tribunals.
The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, asked about “mirroring”. I confirm that the content of the new regulation is identical; it is mirrored exactly.
I said in my opening comments that the regulations will do what we consider they must to implement the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Act 2018. They supplement the protections that authorised officers need and ensure that there is a functioning and regulated procedure for any payment of costs to litigants in proceedings against such officers. I hope I have been clear that the Government have done what we can in these regulations to retain clarity by replicating the protections currently afforded to justices’ clerks to ensure that we cause minimum disruption to courts’ business in maintaining the status quo by mirroring what are already well-established procedures.
The Government’s aim is to set out how costs should be treated in any proceedings that may be brought against authorised staff in future. I believe these regulations provide clarity, certainty and consistency for courts managing payments of these costs in future, so I commend this instrument to the House.
Automatic Enrolment (Earnings Trigger and Qualifying Earnings Band) Order 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, I am pleased to introduce this instrument, which was laid before the House on 2 March 2020. Subject to approval, the Automatic Enrolment (Earnings Trigger and Qualifying Earnings Band) Order 2020 reflects the conclusions of this year’s annual review of the automatic enrolment earnings thresholds required by the Pensions Act 2008. The review considered the earnings trigger and the qualifying earnings band for the tax year 2020-2021.
The earnings trigger determines the point at which a qualifying worker becomes eligible to be automatically enrolled into a qualifying workplace pension. The qualifying earnings band determines the earnings upon which workers and employers pay contributions into a workplace pension. This order sets a new lower limit for the qualifying earnings band and is effective from 6 April 2020.
The earnings trigger is not changed within this order and remains at the level set in the automatic enrolment threshold review order of 2014-15, so no further provision is required. Similarly, the upper earnings limit is not changed within the order and remains at the level set in the automatic enrolment threshold review order of 2019-20, so no further provision is required. I am satisfied that the Automatic Enrolment (Earnings Trigger and Qualifying Earnings Band) Order 2020 is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Today’s debate relates to a technical element of the automatic enrolment framework, which as a legal necessity we need to have in place for 6 April 2020. However, we are all too aware of the wider environment at this time impacting on automatic enrolment. There may be questions and concerns about the current and future position of automatic enrolment and pensions saving more generally, but noble Lords will understand that there is little I can tell them at this point on some of these matters.
As noble Lords will know, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made it clear that the Government will do whatever it takes to support people affected by Covid-19. We have been clear in our intention that no one should be penalised for doing the right thing. These are rapidly developing circumstances; we continue to keep the situation under review and will keep Parliament updated accordingly.
In terms of the substance of this order, as signalled by the Minister’s Written Statement of 13 February 2020, this order will, as previously, align the lower and upper limits of the qualifying earnings band with the national insurance lower and upper earnings limits for the 2020-2021 tax year. The lower and upper limits are £6,240 and £50,000 respectively.
By continuing to align the qualifying earnings band limits with the national insurance thresholds, the changes relating to payroll systems are kept to a minimum. The purpose of this framework is to balance the need to encourage individuals to take personal responsibility for pensions saving with a sustainable compulsory minimum contribution level for all employers, mindful of the economic environment within which these changes are taking place. Setting the thresholds at these levels will also ensure that contribution levels continue to be meaningful for savers.
The order does not change the earnings trigger, which remains at £10,000 this year, in order to strike a balance between bringing in those for whom it makes economic sense to be saving into a pension with affordability for employers on the one hand and workers on the other. Individuals earning below the £10,000 earnings trigger but above the lower earnings threshold will still have the option to opt into a workplace pension and benefit from employer contributions, should they wish. Those earning below the lower earnings limit also have the option of being enrolled by their employers in a pension scheme.
The decisions to maintain the earnings trigger at £10,000 and maintain the alignment of the qualifying earnings band with those for national insurance contributions maintain simplicity and consistency. I commend this instrument to the Committee and beg to move.
My Lords, I have always admired the versatility of the Deputy Chief Whip, and today is no exception. I thank him for his introduction. This is a rather important statutory instrument and there are a number of policy issues surrounding it. My heart sank when the Minister said that there is little he will be able tell us, I assume partly because he has no support from officials. I would be very happy for him to write in due course. The other thing he said that made my heart sink was that this is all about technical elements, which, as an understudy, I am not in a position to contest with him in any event.
The real essence of this is what the ABI has raised, because all of us support the scheme but want to see it go further. Both the ABI and the Women’s Budget Group said that we should look at the Wealth in Great Britain 2019 figures produced by the ONS, which show that among 65 to 70 year-olds, median private pension wealth is £164,700 for men and £17,300 for women. That is just over 10% of the private pension wealth of men. There is a considerable imbalance, to which I will return.
The success of auto-enrolment is clear, as the ABI points out, and the number of participating employees continues to increase. However, according to the ABI, if the lower age limit were reduced to 18 and the lower earnings limit removed, people could save another £2.6 billion annually. The change would demonstrate the importance of starting a savings habit early, given the powerful impact that early career contributions can have on the size of retirement savings. It points out that the Government committed to implementing these recommendations by the mid-2020s in the 2017 automatic enrolment review.
Furthermore, extending the coverage of auto-enrolment by reducing the earnings threshold to the NI primary would bring 480,000 people, mostly women, into pension saving, helping improve the gender pensions gap. As I have explained, the ONS figures on that gap are pretty dramatic. All else being equal, this deficit is set to continue, closing by only 3% by 2060. The suggestion of bringing forward that undertaking in the automatic enrolment review seems entirely apposite. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to give that commitment in the letter I know he will have to write after this debate.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction and echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. Again, I will raise a number of issues so if the Minister would like to write a letter following this debate I would be more than happy to receive one.
The success of auto-enrolment is testament to the previous Labour Government, with tens of millions of workers saving for a pension under the scheme. In a recent report, the Pensions Regulator found that the overall proportion of eligible staff saving into a workplace pension was 87% in 2018. This has massively increased over recent years and decades. It also found that the largest increase in participation was from the youngest age groups. In the private sector, the largest increase was seen among 22 to 29 year-olds, increasing from 24% in 2012 to 84% in 2018.
We welcome the Government’s continued commitment to auto-enrolment but acknowledge that it is not perfect. Average contributions remain too low and, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, the threshold too high. Department for Work and Pensions statistics show that, as a result of pensions inequality, 37% of female workers and 28% of black and minority ethnic workers are still not eligible for the scheme.
The exclusion of the self-employed from auto-enrolment also needs to be addressed. Some 15% of the workforce is now self-employed, but the numbers of such workers saving into a personal pension fell by a third between 2014 and 2018. With the current coronavirus crisis, the pressure on the self-employed will only increase, as we are seeing. I know that discussions are taking place around a number of possible changes to the Bill in the other place to try to protect the self-employed.
Today’s statutory instrument keeps the current earnings trigger of £10,000, and that is to remain into 2020-21. However, The People’s Pension found that, by reducing the trigger to £6,240, an additional 1.2 million people would be helped to save for their retirement. Why have the Government decided to keep the trigger at £10,000, given that it excludes some of the most vulnerable from saving into a pension scheme? The Explanatory Memorandum states:
“The Secretary of State decided not to consult on the amounts of the qualifying earnings band and earnings trigger for 2020/21”.
I understand that the Minister will need to write to me, but I ask: why not? Did the Secretary of State not want to take on board the concerns that the unions and others involved in this area were raising?
The Government have said that they will address issues with auto-enrolment, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, by the mid-2020s, once it has bedded down. We would prefer that to be brought forward, especially given the many issues that will arise out of the current crisis. We see no reason for delay.
It is impossible to ignore the current national crisis of coronavirus. Are the Government looking into support for people who will be affected by a drop in their income over the coming months and years? That drop in income will have an effect on their pension. Are the Government also looking to develop long-term support for the defined benefit schemes, which will be massively affected by the market turmoil?
My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their contributions. I will cover as many of the points raised as possible and will of course provide both with more detail in writing.
The noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord McNicol, talked about the impact of automatic enrolment on young people. Automatic enrolment has been a quiet revolution, getting employees into the habit of pensions saving. It has reversed the previous decline in workplace pension participation that we saw in the decade before the reforms. As the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, said, since 2012, the workplace pension participation rates for eligible employees in the private sector aged 22 to 29 has increased from 24% to 84% in 2018.
Both noble Lords concentrated their remarks on the effect on women. Automatic enrolment has helped millions more women save into a pension, many for the first time. Workplace pension participation among eligible women working in the private sector rose from 40% in 2012 to 85% in 2018. Women are more likely to face financial instability later in life as a result of their experiences in the labour market. That is why this Government are committed to tackling the structural inequalities in the labour market that lead to the private pensions gap.
The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, asked why we have set the earnings trigger at £10,000. Our aim is that automatic enrolment should be of benefit to those who are put into pensions saving. The trigger is currently set at £10,000 to ensure consistency and stability for employers and individuals. For anything more on that issue, I will write to the noble Lord.
Both noble Lords rightly drew attention to the situation relating to automatic enrolment and Covid-19, asking about the impact on employers, individuals and the economy. As my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made clear, the Government will do whatever it takes to support people affected by Covid-19. We have been clear in our intention that no one should be penalised for doing the right thing. These are rapidly developing circumstances and we continue to keep the situation under review. We will keep Parliament updated accordingly. We welcome the statement released by the Pensions Regulator on Friday, explaining its approach to employers’ compliance with their pensions duty in the light of Covid-19. The regulator said that it would take a proportionate, risk-based approach towards enforcement decisions in the light of these challenging times and with the aim of helping to get employers back on track, supporting both employers and savers.
With the leave of the Committee, I will make a few more points that have been made available to me. On imbalance, a full analysis of the review was published on 27 February, covering the detail of impacts. I will write to noble Lords with further details on that. Our ambition remains the same in relation to the 2017 review, but there is a need to reflect economic circumstances. Auto-enrolment has been a huge success and it is important that we build on it. It is also important that we have consensus to do so, so we welcome the support of both noble Lords today. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, mentioned the thresholds. We keep the thresholds under review annually, including the impacts on women and minority groups. The details are in the published analysis, with which we can provide the noble Lord.
To confirm, this order increases the automatic enrolment lower qualifying earnings limit to £6,240 and freezes the upper qualifying earnings limit at £50,000, thereby ensuring that the automatic enrolment qualifying earnings band remains aligned with the earnings limits for national insurance contributions. As I said, the earnings trigger will also remain at the existing level of £10,000. That all results in an estimated overall increase in total pensions savings year on year. I commend the order to the Committee.
Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, this statutory instrument would amend the existing legislative framework for local elections in Northern Ireland so that it will no longer be a requirement that a candidate’s home address must be disclosed and published during the election process.
It used to be an accepted part of local elections that candidates standing for election would disclose their home address and that that address would be printed on the ballot paper. The provision was designed to demonstrate the local connection of the candidate. This local connection is undeniably an important aspect of our local government system. However, times change. It is sadly the case that intimidation and threats are now a part of many elected representatives’ lives. The death of Jo Cox MP stands as a particularly stark reminder of that fact. We fully accept that it is no longer proportionate to require candidates to make public their home addresses in order to stand for public office.
There is no requirement to disclose home addresses publicly at parliamentary or Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. This draft order will provide consistency across all electoral events in Northern Ireland and most other elections across the UK, by removing this requirement for Northern Ireland local elections. The order brings local elections into line with other elections in Northern Ireland by removing the requirement for all candidates’ home addresses to be included on nomination papers and consent to nomination forms and then printed on the ballot paper. Candidates will instead be able to choose whether they wish their home address to be included on these public documents.
Nevertheless, when voting for candidates in local elections, electors have a right to know that each candidate has a tie to the local area. To balance that right with the aim to provide protection for candidates, this draft order will ensure that candidates will be required to provide their home address on a separate form. This home address form, which will not be made public, will be used by the Chief Electoral Officer to confirm that a candidate has a local tie.
It is worth noting that these provisions do not alter the requirements for a local connection. As has always been the case, anyone wanting to stand as a councillor in Northern Ireland must be on the electoral register for that council area, or, broadly speaking, have owned or rented land, or have lived in or worked in the area, for the preceding year. If a candidate indicates on the home address form that they do not wish the address to become public, it will not appear on any public documents, which include the statement of persons nominated and the ballot paper. In such cases, the area that the candidate’s address is in—instead of the candidate’s home address—will appear. I am pleased to be bringing this order forward. It is important that as many barriers as possible are removed from stopping individuals engaging in the public and democratic life of our country.
In addition to removing home addresses from ballot papers, the order makes provision to remove the current legislative requirement that candidates’ surnames are printed all in capital letters on ballot papers. This will ensure that a candidate’s name can appear on the ballot paper as the candidate would normally spell it. For example, where a capital letter is not usually at the beginning of the name, as is sometimes the case with Irish names, that can be accurately reflected on the ballot paper.
Finally, the order will remove the requirement that local councils are described as “district councils” on the ballot paper. The order will provide instead that a council can print its official name and describe itself as, for example, a “borough” or “city” council as appropriate.
This draft order is not controversial but nevertheless it is important. It is about helping to ensure that as many people as possible feel able to be part of the democratic process without feeling intimidated. It is about letting people standing as candidates have their name spelled as they would usually spell it, and about allowing councils to describe themselves on ballot papers by the name that they are commonly known by. I hope your Lordships will agree that, while technical, these are important provisions, and noble Lords will support this order. I commend it to the House, and I beg to move.
My Lords, this is the sort of order that I am sure will not attract any controversy. The provisions on how surnames appear on ballot papers are a simple matter of equal recognition for different traditions, and of fairness.
On the issue of the non-appearance of a home address on ballot papers, I do not think we can let the measure pass without at least expressing some regret, engaged as we are in the political process, that it has become necessary to remove candidates’ home addresses from ballot papers. For the reasons that the Minister gave, it is now sadly necessary to do that.
For those of us who have been involved in elections over many decades, as some of us clearly have, elections have sometimes revolved largely around the issue of the locality of one candidate versus the lack of locality of another. In my early years in Liverpool elections, the by-election was based largely on the fact that our candidate happened to live in the ward in Liverpool where the election was taking place, while the Labour Party candidate happened to live in Southport. No other issue seemed to be important. It is important that there is still some recognition of how local or otherwise a candidate is. Therefore, I have only one question for the Minister. Could he explain what is meant by “area” in the order? Clearly, something less specific than the road on which the candidate lives, but more specific than “Northern Ireland”, is appropriate. What sort of criteria will be applied in describing the area in which a candidate is based?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the order. I agree with him that this is not a controversial issue; I think we can all agree on that. Some of the comments about Liverpool might have prompted me to jump in and be perhaps a little more partisan than I should be, but I will resist the opportunity.
I do not normally cover these issues; I am standing in for my noble friend Lord Kennedy. He and I have worked together on elections over many years. Certainly, when I was general secretary, he was a senior officer supporting me on compliance and some of the legal issues.
One thing that struck me when reading the Explanatory Memorandum was that, as the Minister said, bearing in mind the circumstances in Northern Ireland, removing the requirement to disclose a candidate’s address is not a controversial step. In fact, there is a growing threat to elected representatives, not just in Northern Ireland but everywhere in the UK. Paragraph 7.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers to the 2017 report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life which recommended the change. From 2017 to 2020 seems an extremely long time for us to get our act together to address this, particularly as Northern Ireland has been a sensitive area in which security has been a fundamental issue. I can understand that, in the context of Brexit, there may have been other things to deal with, but surely that does not explain the amount of time this has taken. I hope the Minister can reassure us on that.
I totally agree with the measures regarding the use of capital letters and ensuring that everyone can meet the requirements of their own name and language; it a sensible move. However, it would be helpful to understand exactly how many people the Government think will be affected by this change, bearing in mind that the purpose of the original legislation was to ensure that everyone’s name appears in exactly the same format, so that there was no discriminatory impact in the way a name was presented.
The other thing that was mentioned is the question of district, borough and city councils. Again, the Explanatory Memorandum did not quite address this. How many councils are affected by this? It is non-controversial but, again, bearing in mind that the changes to the names of local authorities have been around for some time, it seems that it has taken a long time to address this issue.
I echo some of the comments that have already been made, but that is all I have to say at this moment.
My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their comments. I note the points the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made about home addresses on ballot papers. He made an important point about the argument that tends to run—this is a cross-party issue—as to whether a candidate is local, how that should be defined and how, when people are elected, they suddenly either have always lived in a particular area or make sure they are doing so right now by suddenly buying or renting. It is an issue that covers all parties. It is a good thing that there is a continuing desire in Northern Ireland for people to know that candidates are local.
On that note, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked about the definition of “area”. Usually—I say “usually” because it is obviously not definitive—a district electoral area is a grouping of four to five wards. I am happy to write to the noble Lord with further detail if I can tie it down a bit more, but that is the answer I have so far.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked a number of questions. I am delighted to see—I am not surprised, because I have seen it in the past—that the Opposition multitask as much as we do in the departments that we cover. It is very good to see him in his place covering very ably for the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. The first point he made—a fair point—was on the amount of time this has taken. As he will know, electoral law in Northern Ireland is separate in a number of aspects from that in the rest of the United Kingdom, so it is unfortunate that this was not able to be put before the House earlier. I take note of the point he made.
He also spoke about capital letters. That is an interesting discussion that I have had with officials. We did not really talk about particular names. I was interested to know how many capital letters were involved. The first thing to say is that, being a Scot, I know how different names are spelled in different ways. The Macpherson clan are Macphersons with a small “p”, but there are some MacPhersons with a big “P”—as the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, will know; I see him in his place. Translating that to Ireland, I am not quite so au fait with Irish names but, if you look at McIlroy and all these similar names, there is no question that there is quite rightly a desire that the names of candidates are spelled in the correct way, both for accuracy and for pride. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked how many people were affected by the change in the way the names were written. It is difficult to assess. It depends on who chooses to stand—that is a fair point. As for council names, the 2019 election was the first time that new names were used, so it affects relatively few councils. I will write one letter to both noble Lords to tie up the ends on this matter.
With that, I hope I have endeavoured to answer the questions but also to have a slightly more rounded debate. I thank the Committee for its attention to this matter and beg to move.
Representation of the People (Electronic Communications and Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020
Considered in Grand Committee
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.
Committee adjourned at 5.12 pm