Motion to Consider
That the Grand Committee do consider the Representation of the People (Electronic Communications and Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2016.
My Lords, I beg to move that the draft regulations laid before the House on 2 November 2016 now be considered. This statutory instrument amends the existing legislative framework for elections in Northern Ireland to allow for people there to register online. The regulations make a number of other amendments to existing electoral law, but I will focus here on the most substantive provisions.
Increasingly, we are all used to banking, shopping and accessing a range of public services online. In Great Britain, people have been able to use the online Register to Vote system since 2014. The online digital service offers a quick and easy alternative to the more traditional option of paper application forms. It is clearly right that people in Northern Ireland should be offered that same choice, and I make it clear at the outset that it is a choice. There is no suggestion that the move to introduce online registration will replace the existing paper registration system. Applying to register on a paper application form will remain an option for any individual who does not want to register online. But for those individuals in Northern Ireland who want to take advantage of this new service, the draft regulations allow the extension of the already successful digital service operating in Great Britain to cover Northern Ireland.
We know that the online Register to Vote service has been very successful in the rest of the UK. Figures suggest that around 90% of those registering in Great Britain this year outside the canvass period did so using the online service. Customer satisfaction with the service consistently measures more than 90%. I am sure that we all want to see increased political participation in politics among young people, including in Northern Ireland. I am pleased to report that since the introduction of online registration in Great Britain, a record 4.2 million applications to register have been made by people aged 16 to 24.
The application pages developed for Northern Ireland have been user-tested throughout their development to ensure that the system provides an excellent standard of service. Under these draft provisions, a Northern Ireland online application will work in essentially the same way as for the rest of the UK. It will require the same personal data as for the existing paper form. I have had a demonstration of the system and can confirm that the service is excellent. Northern Ireland Members from the other place have also been offered a demonstration of the system; I am happy to extend that offer to noble Lords.
The system is quick and easy, taking no more than five minutes to complete. It will not allow anyone inadvertently to miss out information, which might delay their application at a later stage. This will mean more complete applications, less follow-up correspondence from the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland and more people being placed faster on the register. In designing this system, our primary concern has been to ensure that we retain the confidence of users that the electoral system remains secure. In Northern Ireland, the usual requirement for those applying to register is to provide a handwritten signature. In an online application through the digital service, the act of submitting the application form along with the declaration at the end of the application will constitute an electronic signature.
Your Lordships will also be aware that there are strict rules on absent voting in Northern Ireland, which will continue to be enforced. Every successful digital registrant in Northern Ireland will be issued with a digital registration number, which will fulfil the same function as a signature for digital registrants if they wish to apply for a postal or proxy vote. It will ensure that postal vote applications can continue to be scrutinised appropriately. The number will be unique to the individual, last for their lifetime and remain unaltered no matter how many times the individual moves or changes their name. We have consulted the Electoral Commission. It agrees that the provision of an identifier to replace the signature check in the postal vote process is necessary. It raised the possibility of some individuals losing their numbers. To address this possibility, we have put in place a system allowing for numbers to be reissued quickly where they have been lost.
Officials will work closely with the chief electoral officer to monitor the successful operation of the digital registration number procedures. We have also changed the wording of the declaration at the end of the registration form for all applicants, both digital and paper. Applicants will be required to declare that they are the person named in the application and that the information they have provided is true.
There will also be special provision for people with a disability. The declaration makes it clear that the application and declaration can be submitted on behalf of someone unable due to disability to do so themselves, as long as it is done in their presence. The draft regulations also make comprehensive provisions for the exchange of data. This exchange is necessary to facilitate digital registration and allow applications to be verified against the DWP database. I assure your Lordships that these data-sharing provisions are necessary and include all the appropriate safeguards. The provisions have been modelled on the existing provisions in place for Great Britain and have been scrutinised and approved by the Information Commissioner for Northern Ireland.
These regulations do not yet cover the digital registration of overseas electors wishing to register in Northern Ireland. The Government are committed to implementing votes for life, so it makes sense to await the implementation of this wider electoral provision for overseas electors before designing the online system for overseas electors registering in Northern Ireland.
In addition to digital registration provisions, the draft regulations make a number of other more minor or technical amendments. These make improvements and ensure, where appropriate, consistency of administrative approach with the rest of the UK. For example, the regulations bring Northern Ireland into line with the data protections in place in Great Britain for individuals on the list of applicants to be placed on the register. Those wishing to inspect an entry on the list will still be able to see the name, address and nationality of the applicant, but not the other personal details contained in the application. The regulations also provide for removal of overseas attestation to bring Northern Ireland requirements into line with the rest of the UK. Further, they remove the outdated requirement for Crown servants and British Council employees to have their forms submitted by their employer.
The implementation of digital registration is fully supported and welcomed by the Electoral Commission and the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, and the regulations have been approved by the Information Commissioner’s Office for Northern Ireland. If your Lordships approve these regulations, the precise timing of the introduction of digital registration will be determined by the successful testing of the electoral office computer system. I hope that all the necessary checks will be passed by the end of February. The regulations will be signed when the digital platform is ready to be launched and will come into force the following day.
I hope your Lordships will agree that the introduction of digital electoral registration is a major step towards modernising the delivery of elections in Northern Ireland. It is an excellent service that will offer people in Northern Ireland the level of choice and service that we all expect in these modern times. We hope that this change will lead to an increase in political participation among a range of groups, particularly young people. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the regulations and I for one hope to take up the offer of seeing a demonstration, which I understand will take place on Wednesday this week. First, I do not see this as a case of Northern Ireland catching up with the rest of the UK because our electoral registration participation rates are already very good. In fact, in respect of young people they are better than those in the rest of Great Britain. The last figures I saw showed that around 83% of young people were registered, but there is a reason for that.
There is a fundamental conflict in the Government’s position on this. If you were arguing that online registration is an attempt to encourage young people to register, which it might in some cases, another part of the Government’s policy with regard to electoral office matters is going in the opposite direction; namely, the closure of a number of electoral offices in Northern Ireland. That issue is in conflict with the Government’s stated policies. The local offices have a policy of direct engagement with schools, and that is why they have been able to raise the level of participation by young people. Simply making online registration available is no use unless people are motivated to participate. We already have a system that is working well and achieving very acceptable results.
I am not a Luddite in these matters—I use all sorts of online services—but we should not fool ourselves that all the necessary checks are done. The fact of the matter is that if you are connected to the internet, whatever the service, somebody can get at your information. Whether records are found on a roundabout on the M5 or something like that, people have a healthy scepticism about these matters. Nothing is absolutely foolproof. Indeed, if we are to believe our American cousins who are about to set up a Congressional inquiry to look into how President Putin was able to interfere in their recent elections, I should imagine that it is not beyond a possibility that somebody could figure out a way to interfere with our processes. That in itself is not of course a reason not to proceed. There is no question that being online can be very convenient for people. However, there are a number of downsides that we need to watch. As the Minister said, a lot of people do not have access to these facilities. In some parts of Northern Ireland in particular, broadband is so poor that it is highly likely that they will not be able to utilise fully the availability of the new system.
I want to make another couple of points. We have very tight regulations with regard to postal voting. I would not want to see circumstances in which people could cheat. It is already clearly obvious that participation in postal voting in Great Britain is very flawed. We saw in a recent mayoral election, not far from this place, that the courts had to overturn the result because of abuse of the system. Our system requires photographic ID. One form of photographic identification is the electoral identity card, which is unique to Northern Ireland. The availability of local electoral offices is one of the main sources of the increase in the number of people who have those cards. For lots of people, if they do not have a passport or a driving licence, an electoral identity card is proof that they are entitled to vote. It is in legislation as one of the forms of identification that an electoral office official at a polling station is allowed to accept.
We have to be careful that the system cannot be abused. For instance, if a third party is voting on behalf of someone who is unable to, we have already for postal voting a system of attestation where an individual on the electoral register has to attest that a particular individual has filled out an application in their presence. That does not apply simply to somebody who has a disability; it could apply to anybody. That is a safeguard to ensure that our system is less open to abuse. I would argue that our system is already effective and that an excellent service is being delivered.
There is of course another dimension to this, which is money. As I understand it, having recently met two Parliamentary Undersecretaries in the NIO to discuss this matter, they are under an obligation to try to cut their costs by 15%. If costs can be cut in a sensible and efficient way, I have no difficulty with that. What I would have difficulty with is the fact that, bearing in mind our history, the one thing we have at this point in time is universal acceptance of the impartiality and professionalism of the electoral office system in Northern Ireland. After a very difficult past, everyone accepts that we have an excellent system. What I do not want to see is us doing anything that would undermine that system in a drive to save £300,000 a year, which is roughly 15%. I believe that the contradiction in the Government’s policy is on the one hand wanting to bring out a new system which hopefully will encourage more people to register, but on the other hand start removing local electoral offices in the counties, making them less accessible to people, so there is a fundamental conflict. If the offices are not there, the engagement with schools is threatened, and that is the most successful thing that we have done to increase the number of young people who are registered.
I would say to the Minister, “Yes, there is a good case for it”, and I look forward to seeing the demonstration and I approach that with an open mind, but their policy as a whole towards electoral matters in Northern Ireland has a fundamental conflict in it—you cannot take one from the other in isolation. I urge the Minister to remember the history and remind him again that it was one of the areas that was always most contested. Twenty and 30 years or more years ago people felt that the system was being abused. We now have universal acceptance of the professionalism and impartiality of the service. I do not want to see anything happen to damage that. I urge the Minister and his colleagues to revisit the issue of closing these offices because part of the policy seems to be switching the matter and trying to encourage local councils to become involved. The history of bringing local councils into these matters has been that whenever a subject is devolved, the money does not seem to follow and the ratepayer ends up picking up the case. The bigger issue for us is that the electoral office officials are deemed to be impartial and professional, not under any political direction from anybody. That cannot be said if you have a local authority in a very difficult and contested constituency that is controlled by a particular party. That could give rise to pressure being brought to bear on officials. I would say to him that the impartiality of the service should be paramount, and while digital recognition and registration might be a perfectly acceptable part of that, provided that it is done properly, it is not the only part of the policy that has to be taken into account.
I am glad that the Minister said that he is looking at the issue of overseas electors, although not in the context of this particular regulation. I think that is right, because there is again the potential for abuse.
I say to the Minister that we have something that is very precious, is working and is universally accepted. I hope that we can improve on and modernise it, but at the same time we have to ensure that for a very small sum of money, if you are talking about a budget of £20 billion plus, £300,000 out of the Northern Ireland budget is not that much. I sincerely hope that while a drive for efficiency is always to be welcomed, no damage is done to the reputation or impartiality of the service.
I thank the noble Lord for his speech and the clear explanation of the draft regulations. We are happy to support these changes. Voters in Great Britain have been able to access online registration since 2014 and the Electoral Commission recommended last year that this should be extended to Northern Ireland. Online registration is a quick, easy and, so far, popular alternative to the paper form. We welcome that this choice will now be open to voters across the whole of the UK. This is particularly welcome with regards to encouraging young people to vote, as we know that online registration in Great Britain has been widely taken up by younger voters.
The Minister is of course aware of the specific concerns relating to electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. We have been assured that the plans are brought forward with the support of the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. What kind of monitoring and evaluation will be done following these changes to ensure that the system works as intended? I ask that specifically with the provisions for the introduction of digital registration numbers in mind, to ensure that the absent voting system is not left vulnerable to electoral fraud. With assurance that the right safeguards are in place, we are content to support the regulations.
The Minister will be aware of concerns over the closure of electoral offices in Northern Ireland and the effect that this will have on jobs and on people’s ability to access local services where they do not have access to the internet. I know that the Government are consulting on the future of electoral services in Northern Ireland, and will not ask the Minister to pre-empt the consultation. But can he assure the Committee that for those voters who wish to use a traditional paper form to register to vote, that excellent service will still be available alongside the welcome access to online registration? I repeat that we are happy to lend our support to the regulations, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions and their support for the fundamental measure that we are proposing, which is extending digital registration to Northern Ireland. I will take the points raised by my noble friend Lord Empey in order. I note that these regulations are about digital registration, and many of his comments related to other aspects of policy.
First, on access to broadband, one can register online without having broadband. A standard internet connection will be enough and one can even register using a mobile phone or tablet if it is internet enabled. The reality is that there are rural areas across the UK that do not yet have the internet service that we would like and Northern Ireland is not unique in that regard, but that is not a reason to delay the introduction of this service.
My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, both asked about overall staffing of the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. Staffing and the administrative implementation of digital registration are an operational matter for the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. On wider matters, there is an ongoing consultation into the future structure of delivery of electoral services in Northern Ireland, and I hope that all interested parties will take the opportunity to contribute. In particular, the consultation seeks views on an enhanced role for district councils, which, as we indicate in the consultation paper, could pave the way for an increase in the provision of local services. However, we will consider very carefully consultation responses before reaching any final decision.
In terms of a digital system being more open to electoral fraud, clearly we believe that we have put in place a robust system. Details of an applicant’s name, date of birth and national insurance number will be checked against the national DWP database to ensure state-of-the-art identity verification. Once the identity check has been conducted, the electoral office will still run further data matching to verify addresses. That is not an automatic system. Once the computerised checks are completed, it will be for the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland’s staff to determine whether an individual is placed on the register. If there are concerns, they can contact the individual for more information. The other safeguard is that the certificate of registration will be sent by post to the registered address as a final identity check.
In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, the cost of extending the digital service to Northern Ireland is £250,000, which will be met by the Cabinet Office. Finally, I assure the noble Lord, as I did in my opening remarks, that this is to provide people in Northern Ireland with a choice, and the paper-based system will continue to be available for those who wish to use it.
To go back to another point that my noble friend Lord Empey made, engagement with schools is, again, an operational matter for the chief electoral officer, but no doubt this will continue to be of high importance in the future.
As I said, I am grateful for noble Lords’ contributions. I think that in this modern day it is right to give people the option of digital registration, and it brings Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain, while reflecting the differences in electoral law between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We are designing the system in such a way as to retain voters’ confidence in its security. As I said at the outset, I hope that this will play an important part in increasing political participation in Northern Ireland.